First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
From Mr Edward Biddulph
Sir: In her article 'Burial with the Romans' (March), Alison Taylor provides some convincing explanations for abnormal burials in Roman Britain. I am a little troubled, though, by the implication that the case is closed on normal practices.
The idea that mourners supplied the deceased with all necessary supplies for the spirit world, such as food, drink, light and money, is very attractive, but its validity is certainly overstated. Unfortunately archaeologists insist on retaining a tenacious grip on this interpretation with all the determination of a jack russell grappling with a postman's trouser leg. The effect is to cloud our thinking about funerary assemblages.
For a start, we know next to nothing about what ceramic vessels contained. Food and drink are only two among a number of possibilities. Comparison between domestic and funerary assemblages reveals that pots were deliberately selected for burial, and there appears to be no direct representation of cooking or dining in the grave. Even within a single burial, pottery was often treated in different ways - inverted, smashed, chipped or perforated - and we must allow the possibility that different motivations governed each one.
Of the other material categories, footwear is as likely to be absent as present - although without hobnails and suitable conditions for preservation, we cannot be certain about frequency. Coins are rare, and lamps are practically non-existent. So, if the deceased were expecting mourners to provide a suitable travelling kit, they were usually disappointed.
Decapitations, sacrifice and punishment burials are undoubtedly fascinating, but there is still plenty of work to do on what is typical in Roman Britain.
From Mr Tim Sutherland
Sir: I would like to congratulate you on an excellent magazine. However, I notice that you have introduced a pastime, possibly for our added enjoyment, which is becoming increasingly common in today's archaeologically-rich media. In the caption to the opening image in your feature on Roman burials, you write that 'the man's hands seem to have been tied behind his back.'
Not only do we as archaeologists have the thrill of excavating the physical evidence at first hand, but we now have the added bonus of deciphering the secretly-installed red herrings in our archaeological literature. But I think you will have to be more inventive in order to make the pastime more difficult, as the 'man's hands' are clearly not behind his back.
I suggest you seek inspiration from experts who have this down to a fine art. You might, for example, look at Michael Wood's book 'In search of the Dark Ages', where very similar photographs of the same place are used to illustrate two completely different sites. Another excellent example can be seen in the recent book 'Two men in a Trench' by Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver, which follows the tv series. Here we see two photographs containing a large lead ball. These are allegedly from different battlefields, Flodden and Culloden. Is it therefore a coincidence that they look like the same artefact?
I therefore highly recommend the inclusion of this pastime as it helps to remind us all that we should be, in the words of Elvis Costello,'watching the detectives'.
From Mr James Gerrard
Sir: I agree with many of Martin Henig's comments on the 5th and 6th centuries ('Roman Britons after AD 410', December), but I'm afraid I must take issue with his discussion of the Late Roman archaeology at Bath. He writes: 'Cow bones from very late Roman layers at the temple ... show that worshippers were still sacrificing to the goddess Sulis after coins had ceased circulating.'
This interpretation of the faunal remains from the temple was first suggested by Peter Davenport of the Bath Archaeological Trust in 1991. The argument is basically that female cattle bones are associated with sacrifice to a female deity.
However, in the excavation report published in 1985, the faunal specialist Annie Grant saw the Late Roman faunal remains as 'domestic rubbish'. The absence of 'odd' deposits, such as animal burials, strongly suggests that this is not a sacrificial assemblage. Indeed the destruction of the altar by sometime after 350 would suggest that the ritual focus for such activities no longer existed. Thus our sacrificial cows become a dairy herd slaughtered at the end of their useful lives.
This is not to say there is no evidence of ritual activity at Bath. Coins were deposited in the spring up to the cessation of coin importation into Britain about 402. A whole pot, which Peter Davenport also drew attention to, was deposited in front of the 'quadrifons' monument.
Perhaps the conclusion we should draw is not that ritual activity continued unchanged or ceased in Bath about 400, but rather that its nature was transformed.
From Prof John Collis
Sir: SM Stirling argues against Martin Henig's thesis of large-scale continuity of populations in post-Roman Britain on grounds of linguistics and genetics (Letters, March). In Gaul, there was considerable continuity between pre-Roman and post-Roman populations, yet French contains only about 120 words with Gallic origins. The same may be true in Ireland, where few Irish words survive in local English dialects. The fact of little transfer of words from one language to another does not mean there cannot have been long-term symbiosis of speakers of different languages.
With genetics, most theories are based on dna studies of modern populations. We do not have sufficiently large samples to describe ancient populations, let alone to say there was a change at the end of the Roman period. Genetic studies can demonstrate similarities between modern populations, but cannot tell us how or when the similarities came about. If there are similarities between eastern England and neighbouring parts of the Continent, they may have arisen at almost any time in prehistory. And like Martin Henig, I expect the situation could be different from one region to another.
I do not dismiss migration as a source of change. Indeed in recent years we have discovered that populations were much more mobile than was once assumed. But until we have better data and methodologies, we need to keep an open mind.
From Mr Doug Tankard
Sir: May I suggest that everyone is partly right on the question of the smoothness or violence of the Anglo-Saxon invasions (Letters, March)? That is, there would certainly be incidents of violence, particularly as incoming aristocrats dispossessed native aristocrats - just the people who were in control of history writing. This does not disprove smoothness most of the time, particularly with the peasantry who may not have noticed any change (nor did they employ poets).
The dna work done for the tv programme 'Blood of the Vikings', which Mr Stirling cites in support of mass-invasion, could not distinguish English from Scots. Is it suggested that the natives of Caledonia were also driven out by Anglo-Saxons? It seems plausible that the whole eastern half of the British Isles was colonised in late prehistory by people resembling those now in Frisia, but that these colonists did not reach the western half. This would suggest the Frisians, English and Scots are similar; but that they differ from the Welsh and Irish.
The suggestion that the native British adopted English because their leaders did, not because they were physically supplanted, is supported by events in medieval Scotland.
From Mr Thomas Braun
Sir: Your December issue was as fascinating and well-presented as ever. In Hannah O'Regan's article, 'From bear pit to zoo', I liked the word 'mammalogist' - it has a satisfying roll to it - and won't even try to insist on 'mastophorozoologist' which would be a purer coinage.
But I venture to point out that it is not Alexander the Great who is depicted on coins as wearing an elephant scalp headdress, but Demetrius I of the remote Greek kingdom of Bactria (c 190-170 BC), who invaded Northern India. One is tempted to comment that he must either have had a preternaturally enormous head or have worn the scalp of an unusually diminutive elephant.
We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005