First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
The chair of the man who became a Roman
Ros Niblett on the grave goods of a Briton who had been presuaded to adopt Roman ways
Roman burial in St Albans. The burial was on the edge of the famous 'King Harry Lane' cemetery - the largest late Iron Age/early Romano-British cemetery ever found in Britain - which had been excavated in the 1960s by Ian Stead in advance of a housing development.
It was 1989, and the developers were only now getting around to building houses on the site. The discovery came about when our local electricity board made a breach in a medieval hedgebank to lay some cables, and a metal detectorist moved in, found a bronze Roman bowl, took it to the British Museum - and they rang me. I was the field archaeologist at Verulamium Museum, and although I had been keeping an eye on the development, this was the first I heard of the detectorist's find.
So I went up to the site straightaway, had a good scrape round, and saw the outline of a big square grave-cut. It had only survived because it was under the hedgebank.
The next morning, I excavated the site with a member of our local archaeological society, a retired chap called Les Gray. We wanted to get on with the job quickly, because metal detectorists were swarming all over the place. The site wasn't protected. Once word got around that there was something there, anybody could have come and had a go at it.
It was summer, and because the soil was so hard you could see the exact imprint of where the bronze bowl had been in the ground. Arranged all around it was a complete dinner set in Samian ware - four plates, four cups and four dishes, and a Samian serving dish. There were also three magnificent glass jars, one of them holding the cremated ashes of the person, a whole set of gaming counters, four lamps, and a couple of iron 'strigils' - used for scraping oil and gunge from your body in a Roman bath. A large strigil and a small one had been wrapped in two different sorts of fabric, and I always tell people that these were the man's bath towel and flannel.
But there was also this enormous lump of iron at one end of the grave. We didn't have any idea what it was until it was x-rayed and cleaned up. When all the corrosion came off, you could see it was a three-legged thing with handles on the front, so it could be pulled open. It turned into a folding three-legged stool, rather like a fishing stool, and there were three knobs on top which could have been poked through a leather seat.
It was amazing that of all the several hundred feet of hedge, the electricity board picked the exact 15ft stretch where the burial happened to be. Later, we went along the rest of the hedge with a metal detector to see if there were any other burials there - but we didn't pick up anything at all.
What I particularly like about the find is that the stamps on the Samian give a fairly precise date of about 85 AD, and the cremated ashes suggest this was quite an elderly person - someone, I assume, who had lived in Verulamium and seen remarkable changes in his lifetime.
He would have remembered the Roman conquest in 43, and the magnificent burial nearby of the now-famous late Iron Age 'Folly Lane' chieftain in about 55; he'd remember the Boudiccan revolt in 60/61, then the building of the forum in Verulamium, and all the rest. And in the end he chose to be buried in this very Roman way.
He would have died during - or soon after - the time when Agricola was Governor; and Tacitus tells us that one of the things Agricola did was to persuade the native aristocracy to adopt Roman habits of elegant dinner parties, going to the baths and so on. The chair is particularly significant because it might be a 'curile chair', a chair that a Roman magistrate would sit on. They would originally have been camp chairs like this one. It would have been a definite 'Roman' status symbol, and - with everything else in the grave - a vivid illustration of Tacitus's words.
The other charming aspect of the find is the way it came about. It was a 'personal' excavation - not just a professional contracting unit coming in and digging the site up. Les, my colleague from the archaeological society, often says how much he looks back on that day and how much he enjoyed himself.
Ros Niblett is the District Archaeologist for St Albans District Council
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005