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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 65

June 2002

Contents

news

Wealthy early Roman graves near St Albans

Dig in West Midlands reveals empty landscape

Medieval enclosed garden found at Welsh border castle

Porcelain finds show changes in 18th century taste

Medieval parchment from site of Canterbury’s friary

In Brief

features

Fortress Britain
Simon Denison on Britain’s Second World War defences

Great Sites
Paul Bidwell on the Roman legionary baths at Exeter

Engines of Change
David Gwyn on the landscape archaeology of railways

Lord of the Hrungs
David Hinton on the influences behind Tolkien’s epic

letters

Armoured jacks, human sacrifice, and a ‘lost’ Roman town

issues

Stop demolishing Victorian terraces, by George Lambrick

Peter Ellis

Regular column

books

Mosaics of the Greek and Roman World by Katherine Dunbabin

Migrants and Invaders by Malcolm Todd

The Molecule Hunt by Martin Jones

Britons and Romans edited by Simon James & Martin Millett

The Archaeology of Shamanism edited by Neil Price

CBA update

favourite finds

John Lewis on realising the truth about the Stanwell cursus.

 

ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison

news

Wealthy early Roman graves near St Albans

Burials included silver jewellery, a fine antique bronze jug and importd German glass

A pair of immensely rich early Roman cremation burials found near Wheathampstead in Hertfordshire last month belonged to members of an aristocratic family 'one rung below native royalty', according to archaeologists from Verulamium Museum in St Albans.

The identity of the pair - and their relationship - remain a mystery. They may have been high-ranking Roman officials, but the Iron Age tribes in the area generally welcomed the Roman advance and the burials are thought more likely to be those of a native aristocrat, and perhaps his wife, allowed to keep control of their estates in the 1st century AD. Pottery found over the past few years on the site indicates that settlement begins there in the pre-Roman period.

The burials were found by a local metal detectorist, David Phillips, who reported his finds to Verulamium Museum. The excavation that followed, directed by Simon West, established that the graves lay about six metres apart, possibly each originally within its own separate enclosure. No other burials were found, and the surrounding network of small rectangular enclosures of Roman date suggests the site lay on a villa estate. The villa itself has not been traced.

The two burials were broadly contemporary, and contained grave goods of very similar design. They were dated to about 80-100 AD by the style of 'Samian' pottery (red-coloured fine tableware) found in the graves.

The richer of the two burials contained a pair of round silver brooches decorated with an abstract design - an exciting discovery as silver was extremely valuable and rarely buried in the early Roman period. A fine bronze jug, with animal and human-face decoration on its handle, is thought to have been an import from a leading Mediterranean workshop. It was about 100 years old at the time it was buried. A number of glass vessels had been made in the Rhineland.

Alongside the Samian dinner service there were several bronze platters, bowls and strainers. The cremated bones are thought to have originally lain in a locked wooden casket decorated with lion-headed studs and bronze rings. Also found were 24 hunting arrowheads, offering an insight into how their owner liked to pass his time. The second grave also contained a bronze and a glass jug, several Samian bowls, a bronze lampholder and a range of coarser pottery including a small beaker. The cremated bones were contained within a square, light-green glass jar.

The finds are being conserved at Verulamium Museum, which hopes to display them once their status has been determined under the Treasure Act by a coroner's inquest.

Dig in West Midlands reveals empty landscape

Large-scale excavations on the line of a new motorway in the West Midlands have produced that extremely rare finding in British archaeology - swathes of landscape with few signs of occupation before recent times.

Along the whole of the 27 mile (43km) route of the M6 toll motorway, which skirts the West Midlands conurbation to the north-east, archaeologists from Oxford and Wessex Archaeology have found only a few dozen sites. The majority were clustered around the Roman town of Wall (Letocetum) in Staffordshire, and most were of fairly low significance. 'If we had dug this road in Wessex or the South-East or East Anglia, there is no doubt we'd have found a heck of a lot more archaeology,' said joint excavation director Paul Booth.

Lack of survival might explain the blankness of some areas. Acidic soils could have destroyed any bone; and prehistoric tribes in the region made little use of ceramics. Yet the landscape may have been avoided over long periods because of the poverty of its soil. 'Some areas probably are genuinely empty,' Mr Booth said.

Among the sites excavated near Wall were a large, 2nd century timber aisled building, probably a barn; and evidence of what may be a villa estate including a possible domestic shrine - where finds include a ceramic lamp, the handle of a bronze vessel and the feet of a Gaulish 'Venus figurine'. A small Roman cemetery produced evidence of molten glass and unburnt ceramic, suggesting two phases of a cremation rite in which unguent bottles were thrown onto the burning pyre, while food in pots was placed later into the grave.

Near Sutton Coldfield, the base of a large oak post was found, buried pointing towards the centre of a possible Bronze Age barrow. Could it be a totem pole - or some other structure of symbolic importance? Unfortunately it is still undated. 'The nightmare is it turns out to be a 19th century gatepost,' Mr Booth said.

Medieval enclosed garden found at Welsh border castle

The complete design of a 14th century enclosed garden - including paths, beds, 'water features' and the earliest viewing platform yet seen in Britain - has been found preserved under turf in the outer bailey of ruined Whittington Castle near Oswestry in Shropshire.

Archaeologists using geophysical survey equipment discovered that the garden was uniquely well-preserved for its date. Pathways and plant beds were all orientated on a large mound, used as a viewing platform, which still survives to a height of more than five metres in the castle grounds. This suggested that the mound was an integral part of the garden design, although previously it was thought to date from the 16th or 17th centuries, like most other 'garden mounts' found so far.

A 'gloriette', or summer house, probably once stood on top of the mound, reached by a stairway. All around, water flowed in ditches that had been adapted to ornamental use from the castle's defences. The date of the garden is established by documentary records, which describe gardens, fruit and herbage at the castle by the 1330s.

The Norman fortress was built in the 12th century by the Fitz Warin family, and was regularly attacked during the Welsh wars of the 13th century. After the conquest of Wales in 1282, the castle lost its strategic importance on the border and became a peaceful retreat - although it was attacked again in the 15th century by Owain Glyndwr during his revolt against Henry IV.

The survey work, funded by English Heritage and directed by Peter Brown, also found a long platform attached as an annexe to the enclosed garden. Its shape suggests it could have been used for archery practice.

Contemporary manuscript illustrations and descriptions provide clues to what the Whittington garden, or 'herber', might have looked like. Formal beds, divided by paths, probably contained a mixture of fragrant herbs, flowers including honeysuckle and rose, and fruit trees such as mulberry and quince.

Porcelain finds show changes in 18th century taste

One of the largest collections of 18th century porcelain yet found in Britain has been excavated in Hounslow, West London. The deposit consists of many thousands of waste pieces from the Isleworth Pottery - one of London's four major potteries at the time - which had been dumped in a large quarry pit where the Pottery had been digging clay for many years.

The porcelain shards, both plain and decorated with blue-and-white Chinese-style designs and floral patterns, were thrown out either because of manufacturing defects or accidental breakage at the Pottery. Excavators from the Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) found a few ultra-thin pieces had slight tears, and some contained air-bubbles. Most, however, were very finely made. A few pieces can be reconstructed.

Among the more unusual pieces were plates and other items from a dinner service decorated with a coronet and the letter 'B'. They probably belonged to a set ordered by a nobleman such as the Marquis of Bath, according to Jacqui Pearce, a pottery expert at the Museum of London. Further research might establish the purchaser's true identity. A number of invalid feeding cups were also found - spouted porcelain cups with lug handles, similar in some respects to babies' plastic feeding cups today. Other items of high-quality tableware included plates, bowls, saucers, cups, teabowls, teapots, tureens, sauceboats, fish drainers and pickle dishes.

The Isleworth Pottery was founded in 1757 and made porcelain until about the end of the century. Many of the thousands of shards - now filling 55 large sacks at the MoLAS offices in London - are inscribed with a date, and span the full 40 years of production. When cleaned and sorted, they will provide an invaluable record of changing tastes in tableware during the second half of the 18th century.

Medieval parchment from site of Canterbury's friary

Excavations in the centre of Canterbury have revealed evidence of the city's 14th century Augustinian friary, including scraps of parchment and an attractive piece of medieval stained glass apparently thrown out after the friary was dissolved by Henry VIII and the buildings were demolished.

The parchment, dated by Canterbury Cathedral archivists to the 14th-15th centuries, was found in a shallow rubbish pit with pottery of the Dissolution period and a few fish bones. Presumably once part of a book, it contained Latin text with Roman numerals in red. Its subject matter has not yet been identified. But as valuable treasures, books were rarely thrown out, raising the possibility that this one may have been a proscribed text.

The survival of such fragile material in the ground astonished the excavators. 'Initially we thought it couldn't be older than the 19th century,' said Alison Hicks, one of the project managers from Canterbury Archaeological Trust

.

The stained glass was found in another shallow pit nearby. Decorated with faces and hands in a naturalistic portrait style, it appears to show one figure being fed by another. Structural remains from the friary include extensive clay floors probably belonging to workshops, parts of the kitchen range and refectory, and the 'warming room' - one of the few rooms in the building with a fireplace. Other medieval finds include a 'shatterling', a type of ornate keyring which would have hung from a woman's belt as a way of carrying tools and keys.

Remains from Roman Canterbury have also come to light, including walls standing two feet high, metalled roads, a number of tessellated floors, and a hoard of about 700 low-denomination coins spanning the 1st-4th centuries. They were probably collected as scrap to be melted down and reused.

A group of four unconventional Roman burials aroused particular interest. The group, buried within the town walls in separate pits close to one another, included a woman wearing bracelets and two teenagers (the sex of the fourth is unknown). One was face-down; another had one leg outstretched with the other leg against the chest. These were 'not reverent' burials, according to Ms Hicks.

'One suggestion is they could be evidence of a Roman serial killer, returning to bury his victims in the same spot,' she said. 'But of course we don't really know'.

In brief

Antiquities scheme

After months of uncertainty about the future of the portable antiquities scheme (BA, April), the Heritage Lottery Fund finally agreed in May to provide £2.5m to secure its survival for 3 years. This will be matched by a further £1.5m from a partnership of 63 museums, archaeological bodies and the dcms. The scheme currently employs 14 people, covering Wales and half of England. The new funding will allow it to be extended to the rest of England with a further 31 posts.

Since the scheme was established, over 100,000 objects found by members of the public have been recorded by its finds liaison officers, many of national and international importance. Details are published online at www.finds.org.uk

Gold and garnets

Spectacular finds made by metal detectorists over recent months include a Bronze Age gold cup in Kent and an Anglo-Saxon gold-and-garnet sword mount in Suffolk. The cup was found close to what turned out to be a round barrow of about 1600 BC. Beaten out of a solid lump of 20-carat gold and four-and-a-half inches high, it is only the second Bronze Age gold cup to be found in Britain. It had been struck by a plough. The site was later excavated by Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

The sword mount dates to about 600-650 AD and was possibly made in the same workshop that produced the Sutton Hoo treasure. Of exceptionally fine quality, it is pyramid-shaped and inset with beaded gold wiring in the shape of a serpent. Gold foil was placed behind the garnet to increase its sparkle, according to archaeologists from Suffolk County Council.

Stonehenge burial

One of the richest early Bronze Age burial sites known in Britain has been found three miles from Stonehenge. The grave contained the skeleton of a man aged between 35 and 50, and about 100 artefacts. They included a pair of gold earrings, three copper knives, five beakers, two sets of flint tools, two stone archer's wristguards and a number of arrowheads. The burial, thought to belong to a tribal leader, was excavated by Wessex Archaeology. It has been dated to about 2300 BC, at about the time when the bluestone circle was erected at Stonehenge.

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