When Burial Begins
Editor Simon Denison
Native village that dabbled in Roman culture
Evidence of the limited impact of the Roman occupation of Britain on remote rural settlements has been produced at North Cave, on the north bank of the Humber west of Hull.
Excavations at part of a large agricultural village of up to 20 small farms produced a few 'Roman'-style small finds - such as personal ornaments and coins - amid plentiful evidence of continuing native fashions in architecture, pottery and burial practice. Some five miles from the nearest Roman military base at Brough (Petuaria), and about two miles from the nearest Roman road, the marsh-edge village must have had occasional contact with the Roman culture of the towns while passing its life generally unaffected by the Roman presence.
The village, excavated by Humber Field Archaeology, consisted of two nucleated clusters of farmsteads linked by a trackway. Within the house-plots were native-style roundhouses and a number of burials placed in the traditional pre-Roman 'crouched' posture, as well as a few cremations. Hints of rectilinear buildings raise the possibility that the village may have switched to more Roman architectural styles in the latter part of the Roman period. Stack bases and corn driers - stone-lined channels with a stoke-hole and flues, which were used to dry grain before storage - indicate, along with the absence of animal bones, that the village subsisted mainly by arable farming.
More unusual were exceptionally large quantities of locally-made pottery, including several complete vessels, suggesting the village may have used the nearby River Humber to take part in trade. Several large pieces of iron slag suggest the village was self-sufficient for iron tools, perhaps using 'bog iron' as raw material - the hard concretion of iron and other substances often found in hollows in marshy areas.
The Roman-style finds include a solid glass bracelet, a long-handled perforated copper-alloy spoon for straining sauces, a few enamelled brooches and a small number of coins. A few pieces of high-quality imported 'Samian' tableware were found on site, and some of the local pottery was fashioned in Roman styles.
Roman mosaic found inches below ploughsoil
A large 4th century Roman mosaic has been found only about 8 inches (10 cm) below the surface of a potato field at Dinnington, near Ilminster in Somerset. The mosaic has been deeply scarred by a modern plough.
The landowner, Mike Holloway, realised he might have a mosaic underneath his field when a similar Roman pavement was discovered last autumn, with wide publicity, at the village of Lopen a few miles from his land. Small mosaic pieces had been appearing in the soil for some time.
The complete mosaic was revealed during a short excavation by Channel 4's Time Team earlier this summer. It has been dated by mosaic expert David Neal to about 350 AD. Geophysical survey of the site indicated that a large courtyard villa lies beneath the soil, and excavation produced glimpses of two further mosaics - of even finer quality, with figurative designs - buried deeper below the surface.
Somerset county archaeologist Bob Croft said he was 'amazed' to find the mosaic, relatively well preserved, so close to the surface. The discovery of two major Roman villa sites over recent months alongside the former Fosse Way had underlined the appeal of the area for wealthy retired people in the 4th century AD. Some things, perhaps, never change.
The discovery emphasises the risk to archaeological remains in ploughsoil. The Dinnington villa cannot be scheduled without the payment of large compensation for loss of income. Instead, archaeologists are seeking to persuade the farmer to convert the field to pasture in return for grants under the Government's Countryside Stewardship scheme.
Egyptian seal and a 'cave of jewels' at Scottish mansion
An ancient Egyptian seal of the 15th century BC, and a highly-decorated 18th century garden grotto are two of the major discoveries made by archaeologists at Newhailes, a 17th-18th century country house near Edinburgh.
The highly-polished cylindrical seal of blue-grey stone, with hieroglyphics denoting pharaoh Tuthmosis III (1483-29 BC), is thought to have been brought to Scotland by a traveller as a souvenir of the Grand Tour - perhaps by Sir William Dalrymple, owner of Newhailes, in the 1780s. The 2in (45mm) high cylinder seems to have been hollowed out to form the handle of a riding-crop or cane, before being thrown out and burnt near the stable block in the 1970s. It seems to have been inside a piece of furniture, so may have been discarded by accident.
The Shell Grotto, close to an ornamental pool, suffered partial collapse after a fire in the 1950s, but excavations on behalf of the National Trust for Scotland have revealed something of its spectacular original design. Its walls must have sparkled, as they were decorated with thousands of semi-precious stones, shells from around the world, shiny pieces of china and broken glass - including the stems of early-mid 18th century wine glasses and glass decanter stops.
Its floor of polished sandstone and black marble was found almost intact. A flue system seems to have been designed to blow a smoky mist into the building, making it seem even more mysterious and atmospheric, especially when seen from across the pool.
Newhailes was built in 1686 by the architect James Smith for himself and his 34 children. However, the house nearly bankrupted him and it was bought in 1707 by the Dalrymple family, who dominated Scottish law in the 18th century. East and west wings were added in the 1730s and 40s, including a series of ornate state rooms and a massive library, described by Samuel Johnson as 'the most learned room in Europe'.
The last of the Dalrymple line, Sir Mark, died in 1971. The house and 80 acres of grounds were given to the National Trust in 1996, and were opened to the public in June.
The 7,700-year-old woman who ate like a wolf
The thighbone of a woman who died about 7,700 years ago, found in a dried-up channel of the River Trent in Nottinghamshire, has undermined some of the cherished clichés of the Mesolithic era. The poor lady, it seems, never saw the sea, and never ate a shellfish or perhaps even a hazelnut in her life.
It is sometimes argued that Mesolithic people in Britain generally stuck to the coastlines, while the ubiquitous hazelnuts and shellfish shells found at campsites have produced a standard view of Mesolithic diet. The Lady of the Trent, by contrast, ate almost nothing but meat - and none of it came from the sea.
Stable isotope analysis - a laboratory technique for measuring the source of protein in bone - conducted by Mike Richards of Bradford University found that the woman's diet was virtually as meat-rich as that of a carnivorous wild animal. Nitrogen levels were measured as 9.3, on a scale running from herbivore cattle at 6 to carnivore wolves at about 10. Carbon levels showed that her diet had been purely terrestrial, involving no marine food.
The bone, radiocarbon dated to between about 5735-5630 BC, was excavated from a gravel quarry at Staythorpe near Newark by Glyn Davies of the Sheffield University-based unit, ARCUS. Mesolithic human bones are exceptionally rare in Britain, and its discovery in a former channel of the Trent may lend support to the theory that bodies were disposed of in 'sacred' rivers - either floated on rafts or thrown directly into the water. A collection of Neolithic skulls was found in the Trent a few years ago.
Close to the thigh bone, archaeologists found a group of butchered Mesolithic animal bones, including aurochs, roe deer and otter. Elsewhere, in a river channel dating to the Bronze Age, a cut-marked deer antler was found which had been used as raw material for tools.
Rare Iron Age temple excavated near Cambridge
A rare example of a Late Iron Age/early Roman native temple site has been excavated on top of a chalk knoll at Duxford near Cambridge. Only about half a dozen such sites have previously been excavated in Britain.
The site, ringed by a triple-ditch enclosure, contained wooden temple structures, numerous ritual deposits in pits, and burials containing 'Belgic' pottery of the 1st century AD. Many of these features are shared with other excavated 'Celtic' temple sites at Danebury hillfort and Hayling Island in Hampshire, Heathrow in West London and Stansted in Essex.
A few hundred years after the temple was built - when, presumably, it had fallen into a state of disrepair - the site was reused as a cemetery in the Anglo-Saxon period, and a dense early-mid Anglo-Saxon settlement was excavated a short distance down the hill.
Ritual deposits found in pits across the site by Cambridgeshire's Archaeological Field Unit include articulated bone, some human, off-cuts of metalwork and quern stones. A number of adult human bodies and a horse were found deep inside some pits - presumably ritual deposits in character as they differ clearly from the ordinary Iron Age inhumation burials in graves elsewhere on the site. A deep chalk-cut shaft has also been found but its contents have not yet been fully excavated.
According to contemporary writers such as Caesar, Iron Age religions were mostly celebrated in woodland glades and other natural places. They required few buildings. The special function of the 20-odd temples known in Britain (most of them unexcavated) remains, therefore, something of a mystery. The Duxford enclosure, however, stood at a significant point in the landscape, in a raised position overlooking the point where the Icknield Way - the major trackway from Wessex to East Anglia - crosses the River Cam. The area formed part of a border zone between the territories of the Trinovantes and the Catuvellauni tribes, and an important Iron Age settlement at Wandlebury hillfort lay a few miles to the north.
The excavated part of the Anglo-Saxon settlement downhill consisted of perhaps two large timber halls and three or four 'sunken-featured buildings', or lower status structures with floors below ground level. In the midst of these was a mortar-mixer - a hole cut in the chalk surrounded by a circular walkway, where lime mortar would be mixed up by human or donkey power.
This immensely rare discovery has only one known parallel, found in the 1970s in Northampton associated with a mid-Saxon Mercian royal palace. Assuming an Anglo-Saxon date, its presence at Duxford strongly suggests that a substantial Saxon building lies undiscovered nearby - either a 'palatial' hall or a major church. Duxford is known to have been a wealthy royal holding in the Saxon period.
Interestingly, among the Anglo-Saxon graves at the former Iron Age temple site on the knoll, a well-preserved lime kiln was excavated containing a few shards of late Roman pottery. It seems likely that the kiln and the mortar-mixer were used together.
Ice Age Butchery
The best-preserved Neanderthal butchery site yet found in Britain has been excavated in a quarry in Norfolk. Eight bout coupé-style handaxes, datable to 59-40,000 years ago, were found with the remains of three or possibly four mammoths, including a number of huge teeth and 2m-long tusks.
Over 120 pieces of flint waste show that Neanderthals had made butchery tools on site to carve up the mammoths. Environmental evidence suggests the site was once a series of ponds used as a watering place, although it is unclear whether the mammoths died of natural causes and were later scavenged, or were killed by Neanderthal hunters. One of the mammoths was a juvenile. Teeth from a woolly rhino were also found, with a reindeer antler and a deer bone that had been split to extract the marrow. The work is being funded by English Heritage from the Aggregates Levy, a new tax on aggregate extraction (see BA, June).
Parts of London's Roman amphitheatre were put on public display in situ for the first time in June, in a basement some 20ft below Guildhall Yard in the centre of the City.
Scant remains survive of the arena's ground surface and curved inner perimeter walls - which stand only a few feet high and lack their original facing stonework - but the site retains some of the atmosphere of the past with computer-generated images of seating around the walls. Visitors enter the site by the route taken by gladiators, condemned prisoners and wild animals from AD 70 until the 4th century.
The remains of an Anglo-Saxon water mill have been excavated at Ebbsfleet, near Gravesend in Kent, during work on a station for the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology found two large timber chutes, which directed water onto the wheel. The mill is thought to date from about 700 AD, making it the earliest horizontal watermill yet found in England. The timbers were lifted out of the ground intact and taken to conservation facilities at Chatham Historic Dockyard.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005