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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 67

October 2002



Hopeful dead clutching their tickets to heaven

Long survival of York’s Roman fortress defences

Drinking den below streets of Edinburgh

All the emotions on display in Southwark Roman cemetery

Treasure Act brings in the gold and silver once again

In Brief


Roads from Rome
Hugh Davies discusses Roman roads as a transport system

Shipwreck to slavery
Mike Parker Pearson on the story of an 18th century sailor

Great sites
Rosamund Cleal on the Neolithic site on Windmill Hill


The origins of industry, Tolkien’s inspiration and museums


George Lambrick on the power of public support

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Viking Weapons and Warfare by J Kim Siddorn

Prehistoric Cooking by Jacqui Wood

European Landscapes of Rock Art edited by George Nash & Christopher Chippindale

The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland by John Waddell

Vikings and the Danelaw edited by James Graham-Campbell, Richard Hall, Judith Jesch & David Parsons

Image and Power in the Archaeology of Early Medieval Britain edited by Helena Hamerow & Arthur MacGregor

favourite finds

Rob Ixer on a lump of lead ore that made a nice paperweight


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Hopeful dead clutching thir tickets to heaven

Lead seals from papal indulgences found with burials from medieval cemetery

Archaeologists excavating a large medieval cemetery in London have found four individuals who were buried clutching papal indulgences in the coffin - packed off with their very own one-way ticket to heaven.

The four lead papal seals of the 14th century were found in graves from the former Hospital of St Mary Spital in Spitalfields. According to Geoff Egan, a medieval finds specialist at the Museum of London, the seals were most likely attached to papal indulgences, which could be corruptly bought from the Church as a pardon for a lifetime's sins.

'It seems these people took their indulgence into the grave so that they could wave it at the Almighty and say - I may have been a sinner, but look, I've got this,' Dr Egan said.

The seals date from the period of the Avignon papacy - when the popes decamped from Rome to Avignon in the south of France, and embarked on a period of unprecedented extravagence, paid for by high taxation and various corrupt means of raising funds. Three of the seals were found in an area of the cemetery notable for wealthy graves, and one of the burials has been tentatively identified (by matching documentary and archaeological evidence) as Johanna, wife of the rich mercer, William Eynsham, who founded the chantry chapel above the hospital's charnel house.

The size of the cemetery itself also reflects the commercial exploitation of death in the Middle Ages. In one of the largest cemetery excavations ever undertaken, a staggering 10,500 graves have been excavated, out of an estimated total of 18,000.

According to Chris Thomas, who directed the excavation for the Museum of London Archaeology Service, these numbers far exceed the possible total population of the hospital between the early 13th and early 16th centuries. Instead of serving just its own inmates, the hospital was presumably acting as an overflow burial ground for London. Several of the city's 108 parishes either had only very small graveyards, or no graveyards at all.

'There is no doubt the hospital would have been charging for it. It was big business. And St Mary Spital ended up as one of the wealthiest monastic houses in the country at the time of the Dissolution,' Mr Thomas said.

Another intriguing find from the cemetery was a group of seven gold coins from the reign of Henry VIII known as 'angels'. These coins were handed out as talismans by the monarch at a special ceremony to sufferers of the skin disease, scrofula (otherwise known as King's Evil). Coins were pierced, to be worn around the victim's neck. The ceremony originated under Edward IV and survived until the reign of Charles II. The Spitalfields coins, issued in 1509, carry an image of the archangel St Michael defeating a reptilian devil. They were found in a pit in the demolished remains of a house within the hospital grounds.

Long survival of York's Roman fortress defences

Intriguing new evidence from York suggests that the city's Roman fortress defences survived and were occupied - at least in part - through much of the post-Roman and medieval periods, until about 200 years after the Norman Conquest.

Excavations by the York Archaeological Trust on the site of the medieval St Leonard's Hospital, built within the Roman fortress walls, examined one of the 'interval towers' of the fortress. Lengths of Roman wall were found, faced with well-preserved limestone blocks, and a sequence of floors showing occupation from about 200 AD to about 1250, when the tower - the size of a Norman keep - was demolished to make way for an extension to the hospital.

Parts of the fortress defences still survive above ground in York's museum gardens. However, little was previously understood about the extent of survival and occupation of the fortress through the post-Roman period. According to excavation director Kurt Hunter-Mann, the new evidence shows that the Roman walls were not regarded as irritating obstacles by the city's Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian inhabitants but were actively reused. 'The fact that York was an important Anglo-Saxon royal and ecclesiastical centre probably explains why the defences were maintained,' he said.

Documentary evidence indicates that St Leonard's Hospital was founded by about 1080, but the remains surviving above ground in York date to about 1250. The excavation, however, has produced good evidence of the 11th and 12th century hospital, including a stone building with an undercroft incorporating the Roman interval tower and fortress wall.

The hospital was the largest in England before the Reformation, housing as many as 240 inmates in the 14th century, with 18 clergy and 30 choristers. The absence of finds of medical implements suggests that all healing work probably took place in the building's upper storeys, which were demolished after the Dissolution in the 16th century. Evidence has emerged, however, for a range of service activities, including metalworking, cooking and animal butchery.

The huge range of finds from the site include, from Roman levels, a rare button-and-loop fastener made of bone, painted glass, Samian pottery, coins and oyster shells. Medieval finds include buckles, buttons, pins, painted window glass, painted wall plaster, a perforated bone toggle or 'buzz bone' (a toy spun around on a cord to make a buzzing sound), an inlaid jet die, and a bone lucet, possibly used for twisting thread.

Drinking den below streets of Edinburgh

Several feet below street level in Gilmerton, a suburb of Edinburgh, archaeologists have been exploring an unusual network of caves and tunnels dug out of the rock and probably used as a drinking den in the 18th century.

The grotto, known as Gilmerton Cove, has carved and domed ceilings, and rock-cut benches and tables covered in graffiti - mostly initials. One table has a carved punch-bowl at one end with etched masonic symbols. Today, the caverns can be reached by a flight of steps underneath Ladbrookes betting shop on Gilmerton High Street, but in the 18th century it is thought that they belonged to Gilmerton Park, a long-since vanished country house that occupied the area.

Archaeologists from CFA Archaeology were called in this summer after Gilmerton Community Trust decided to open the site as a tourist attraction. Passageways have been cleared and a second, blocked entrance has been discovered. Limited excavations have opened up gutters and a sump pool used to drain the caverns of groundwater.

According to archaeologist Tim Neighbour, underground drinking societies were not uncommon in the 18th century. They included the notorious, orgiastic Hellfire Club which met in similar caves near High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. The Gilmerton caverns are reputed to have been built in about 1723 and were first described in 1792; but their original purpose remains a mystery.

All the emotions on display in Southwark Roman cemetery

Love for your family, affection for your pets, anger, fear, superstition - all of these emotions were vividly displayed by the remains of a late 2nd-4th century Roman burial ground excavated this year close to the River Thames in Southwark, South London.

In one grave, a man was found embracing a young woman to his chest. The small skeleton of an infant lay between them. This poignant family group - who presumably all died within a short time of one another - may have succumbed to an epidemic; but the remains themselves provide few clues to the cause of death.

In another grave, a man was buried with the head of an old horse carefully placed between his knees. The horse skull had lost its jawbone, suggesting that a favourite old nag had died before its owner, and its skull kept for a while - possibly on a stake, when the jaw could have fallen off - until both horse and owner could be buried in one grave.

More sinister was the burial of an adult male whose legs had been bound together, and a socketed iron spear point stabbed through both ankles. Was this a cruel punishment-killing? Or a strange post-mortem ritual? Again, the remains themselves provide too few answers. The rest of the skeleton had been destroyed by a later burial. In another grave, an adult skull displayed a healed knife wound.

A total of 166 burials were excavated by AOC Archaeology, led by Giles Dawkes - making this the largest Roman cemetery yet found in Southwark. Many common pathologies were observed including tooth cavities and osteoarthritis. One woman's broken thighbone had been badly set, leaving her left leg at least three inches shorter than her right.

Numerous grave goods included complete pottery and glass vessels, hob-nailed boots and jewellery. One individual was buried with an intaglio ring on the ring finger of the left hand. The ring contained a carved amber-coloured stone displaying a human head with wild hair. About a dozen graves contained black jet beads. Around 600 beads were recovered in total, including over 100 from a single grave. They would originally have been strung together in necklaces. Other jewellery included a shale bracelet, cut in the shape of a twisted metal torc; and a silver earring with a single blue stone.

One skeleton was found with a coin in its mouth, another with a coin in its hand - payment for Charon, ferryman of the underworld. Another grave contained a pot full of chicken bones. A skull pit was found with six carefully-placed skulls, marked by two post holes. A later pit contained a man's body that had been roughly thrown in, along with three disarticulated skulls and a child's leg. Why? Science may provide partial answers to some of these riddles - but the rest must be left to our imagination.

Treasure act brings in the gold and silver once again

Yet more evidence of the value of the metal detector for archaeology was revealed by the Government's latest Treasure Annual Report, covering the year 2000. Of the 233 discoveries of gold and silver artefacts (together with associated finds) made in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, 94 per cent were made by detectorists. Only 4 per cent were recovered by excavation.

The number of reported treasure finds has multiplied in recent years. In 1999, 236 finds were reported; 201 in 1998, and 79 in 1997 - the year in which the Treasure Act became law. On average about 20-25 finds a year were declared 'treasure trove' previously.

Among the important and beautiful prehistoric objects were a hoard of Bronze Age gold torcs and bracelets found in a pot at Milton Keynes; an Iron Age hoard from Winchester consisting of gold brooches, bracelets and necklaces made of interlinked rings of gold wire; and one of the finest examples of an Iron Age decorated bronze mirror found in recent years. The 1st century BC mirror was found with a silver brooch at Shillington in Bedfordshire.

The majority of the Roman finds were of finger-rings, many with carved intaglios or other engravings, used for stamping seals. One of the more remarkable intaglios depicts a satyr holding a bunch of grapes, in a silver ring from Weybourne in Norfolk. A silver ring from Horncastle in Lincolnshire was engraved with the letters TOT, thought to be an abbreviation of the Celtic god's name Toutatis. Other Roman finds include a gold phallic pendant or amulet from Braintree in Essex.

Remarkable among the early medieval finds was a 7th century gilded silver pendant in the form of a bearded man, from Carlton Colville in Suffolk. It is thought to be an amulet invoking the protection of the god Woden.

Among the numerous medieval finger-rings, two stand out. A gold ring from Gedney, Lincolnshire, was made in the shape of two buttoned, gloved hands terminating in a lovers' knot. An amatory inscription begins AMO . . . ('I love . . .'). At Pencaemawr, near Usk, a 15th century gold ring bears an engraving of the Virgin and Child. The image is worn, as if frequently touched.

A 15th century gold brooch, in the shape of a six-petalled rose, was found near Hackleton, Northamptonshire, inscribed with the words En Bone Temps ('in good time'). Also of great interest was a silver-gilt livery badge in the form of a boar, the symbol of Richard III (1483-85), from Chiddingly in East Sussex. Thousands of boar-badges were produced for Richard III's coronation, but the new find is the only known example made of precious metal.

In brief

Newport ship

A large medieval ship found in Newport in South Wales was saved in August by a last-minute promise of £3.5m from the Welsh Assembly, following a massive public outcry against its planned destruction in the basement of a new arts centre. Simon Rutherford, a CBA member and Chairman of Chepstow Archaeological Society, working with Charles Ferris, a local businessman, and others, orchestrated a hugely successful local Save Our Ship campaign. At a public meeting rallying support for the ship, CBA Director George Lambrick pledged the CBA's national backing in organising the campaign's official website and encouraging an email and letter writing campaign.

10,000 people signed a local petition delivered by boat to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff. The Assembly received too many emails and letters to count. The plan now is to lift the remains and place them on display in an enlarged basement to the arts centre. Currently, the stern and prow lie outside the development area, and negotiations have begun into the possibility of recovering the full ship. The 80ft ocean-going merchantman has been dated to 1465-6. Found on board were Portuguese pottery, oak barrels, textiles including the hem of a medieval robe, a stone cannonball and parts of original rigging and sails.

Bronze Age surgery

The top of a Bronze Age skull containing a large hole caused by trepanation surgery has been found on the Thames foreshore in Chelsea. The hole measured over 112 inches by about 1 inch, and was possibly intended to relieve migraine or epilepsy. The surgeon would have lifted a flap of skin and scraped away at the bone with a sharpened flint. Techniques such as scoring or punching a hole - often practised on the Continent - were more dangerous. Bone regrowth shows that 'Chelsea Man' survived his operation, but died six months later.

About 40 trepanned skulls have been found in Britain, from Neolithic to post-medieval times. The new skull has been dated to between about 1750-1610 BC, and will be displayed at the Museum of London's new prehistoric gallery, 'London before London', which opens this month.

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