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Cover of British Archaeology 72

Issue 72

September 2003



Shrine full of votive offerings at Roman town

Neolithic village and fortified hill excavated in Ulster

Roman fort suggests conquest of West Wales was no walk-over after all

Essex causewayed enclosure 'survived for over 2,000 years'

Roman and medieval inscriptions found in Norfolk

In Brief


Hunting for cave art
Paul Bahn on the first Ice Age cave art found in Britain

Great Sites
Peter Topping on the Neolithic flint mines, Grimes Graves

Archaeology of industry
James Symonds debunks some Industrial Revolution myths


Saxon Invasions, Welsh in rural dialects and Iron Age coins


Simon Denison on British archaeology since the mid-1990's

Peter Ellis

On why British prehistory is much better than the Romans


The Archaeology ofMedieval London by Christopher Thomas

The Tower Menagerie by Daniel Hahn

The British Settlement of Brittany by Pierre-Roland Giot, Philippe Guigon & Bernard Merdrignac

Water Technology in the Middle Ages by Roberta J Magnusson

The Sandbach Crosses by Jane Hawkes

CBA update

favourite finds

Alan Saville on a flint-knapper burial in a long barrow


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Shrine full of votive offerings at Roman town

Part of a previously-unknown small Roman town, containing at least one important shrine and huge quantities of well-preserved finds, has been excavated at Higham Ferrers in Northamptonshire.

Archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology found 18 stone buildings fronting a metalled road, with dating evidence - such as coins and pottery - ranging from the 1st to the 4th centuries AD. The Roman remains clearly extended beyond the excavation area, and the rest of the town is thought to lie underneath a modern housing estate.

Most of the finds came from a clearly-defined shrine area, with an inner and outer precinct bounded by a massive stone wall. Most of the objects were lying on the ground surface of the shrine, suggesting they may have been placed on perishable structures like wooden tables or suspended from the shrine ceiling.

Among the more intriguing finds were lead tablets containing writing - not yet deciphered - which probably represent invocations or curses of some kind; an ornate iron spearhead, thought to be the tip of a ceremonial standard or sceptre, which is without known parallel in Britain; and numerous personal and dress items such as buckles, brooches, bracelets, and cosmetic equipment such as nail cleaners, tweezers and fragments of mirrors.

Built into one of the shrine walls was a roughly-carved, relief sculpture of a male nude, interpreted as a possible practice carving made by an apprentice sculptor. According to Alex Smith, Oxford Archaeology's post-excavation manager, the carving was unweathered. 'It looks like it was made, then immediately placed face-down in the wall,' he said.

Elsewhere, the excavators found bits of slag, pointing to small-scale bronze working, and quantities of personal and domestic items such as bracelets, bone pins and pottery. One of the buildings - interpreted as possibly another shrine or temple - seems to have had columns and a tiled roof, and was set within its own precinct. But it contained few finds, so its function remains unclear.

Neolithic village and fortified hill excavated in Ulster

New excavations close to one of Northern Ireland's best-known Neolithic settlements have uncovered areas of sacred and industrial activity in the hinterland, adding greatly to our understanding of how the landscape was organised some 5,000 years ago.

In the 1990s, Prof Derek Simpson of Queen's University Belfast excavated a group of three Neolithic longhouses at Ballygalley near Larne in Co Antrim. Finds from the site demonstrated the community's remarkably wide trading links with the outside world, including pitchstone from Arran, stone axes from Cumbria and Cornwall, pumice possibly from Iceland and rock crystal from as far away as Brittany.

The new excavations, carried out in the adjacent field by the Belfast-based unit Archaeological Development Services (ads), have added to the story by revealing extensive flint-knapping surfaces with a few pottery-making pit kilns, and a sacred zone that includes at least two circular ditched structures interpreted as small palisaded henges. Numerous ritual deposits include cone-shaped pits crammed to the top with flints. The new site contains identical types of pottery to the earlier site, ranging in date from the early to the late Neolithic period.

According to Chris Farrimond of ads, the entrance to one of the 'henges' had been semi-blocked by a large post, recalling similar blocked henges in other parts of Ulster. 'It looks like you had to be right inside before you could see what was in the interior,' he said.

Finds included stone axes, arrow heads, one javelin head, flint tools such as blades and scrapers, and thousands of sherds of decorated pottery, many of them larger than a man's hand, with at least six complete smashed pots.

Elsewhere in Northern Ireland, excavations have taken place at a hilltop in Co Tyrone, until recently a fortified military and police station, which was once the castle headquarters of the O'Neill clan, great enemies of Elizabeth I in the 16th century.

The dig at Castle Hill, Dungannon, carried out by Robert Chapple of Northern Archaeological Consultancy, has shed light on fortifications through the ages. Defensive walls and ditches were found from the medieval castle, as well as arch and window mouldings and numerous rubbish pits full of food remains and pottery.

Also found was a cobble-floored servants' tunnel belonging to the mansion that stood on the site in the 18th century after the castle had been demolished. The door to a small cellar room was found which, according to local reports, was used as recently as the 1940s by 'courting' couples. In the 1950s, however, the tunnel roof was blocked in several places, as it was seen as a security threat to the newly established military base.

Roman fort suggests conquest of West Wales was no walk-over after all

New evidence from South-West Wales suggests that the Roman conquest of the area - contrary to received wisdom - was anything but a walk-over.

A massive military fort, the largest in Wales after the great legionary fortress of Caerleon, has now been discovered at Llandeilo. Covering about four hectares, it is far larger than the auxiliary forts normally found along Rome's campaign routes, and was large enough to accommodate about 2,000 men. Moreover, the fort was retained in active use long enough to be rebuilt at least once, although its replacement was a smaller auxiliary fort.

Until fairly recently, the absence of Roman military evidence from the region suggested that the local tribe, the Demetae, acquiesced in the Roman conquest without a fight. But the picture began to change with the discovery of a fort at Carmarthen, 15 miles west of Llandeilo, and a Roman military road as far as Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire (BA, July 1995).

The fort was detected during a geophysical survey on National Trust land at Dinefwr Park (pictured, above). According to Gwilym Hughes, Director of the Llandeilo-based unit, Cambria Archaeology, the 'superb' survey results were some of the clearest he had ever seen. 'The playing-card shape of the later, auxiliary fort was crystal clear,' he said.

Without excavation, the fort remains undated; but finds from elsewhere suggest the Roman campaign in the area may have taken place in the mid-70s AD, soon after Vespasian came to power. The second fort is likely to have been abandoned following the establishment of a civilian administrative centre at Carmarthen around 130 AD, when a military presence in the area was no longer required.

Essex causewayed enclosure 'survived for over 2,000 years'

A large, Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure has been excavated near Clacton in Essex. The 5,500-year-old enclosure seems to have survived as an important 'sacred' landscape feature for over 2,000 years until at least the Middle Bronze Age, but by the Middle Iron Age, a millennium later, it had been covered over by a large village.

The triple-ringed enclosure at St Osyth has not been fully excavated, but is thought to have originally covered about 12.5 hectares, making it among the largest causewayed enclosures in the country. A number of pits in the open central area of the enclosure were found to contain Early to Middle Neolithic pottery and quantities of worked flint, while one complete - and one almost-complete - pot were found in two of the enclosure ditches. The flint consisted of cores, chippings and unfinished tools, indicating that tools were made on site. Good-quality flint does not occur naturally in the area, so nodules were probably brought here from as much as 30 miles away.

Sherds of Late Neolithic pottery in the upper fills of the enclosure ditches suggest that some, at least, of the ditches remained open until around 2500-2000 BC. Then in the Early Bronze Age, a pond barrow was built at the centre of the enclosure, which seems to have been used as a site for pyres because it contained an irregular patch of scorched ground and a number of burned pits containing cremated bone and carbonised wood. Two cremations were found in large collared urns on either side of the barrow.

The site, excavated by Essex County Council's field archaeology unit with funding from English Heritage, also included a number of Middle Bronze Age ring ditches arranged on two sides of the pond barrow. In and around them were many cremations in bucket urns. Similar Bronze Age cemeteries consisting of many small barrows have been found elsewhere in Essex, for example at Ardleigh and Brightlingsea.

The Middle Iron Age village consisted of a typical mix of houses, granaries and enclosures. They were laid out in complete disregard of the causewayed enclosure and the ring-ditches, suggesting that, by then, these earlier features had disappeared.

Roman and medieval inscriptions found in Norfolk

Four rare and intriguing inscriptions - two Roman, two medieval - have been found by metal detectorists this year in Norfolk and reported to the county's archaeology service.

Norfolk's flourishing voluntary reporting scheme sees about 6,000 finds a year made by members of the public, but the new inscriptions are 'the cream of the crop' of recent discoveries - mainly on account of their rarity - according to Adrian Marsden, the county's finds liaison officer.

The earliest of the four is a fragment of a Roman military diploma, dated to AD 98 - one of only a very few known from Britain and the earliest yet found. Diplomas were issued to auxiliary soldiers on completion of their 25 years of service as pòoof of their grant of citizenship, making them the 'green cards' of the Roman empire. Diplomas were probably issued en masse every year to all soldiers reaching retirement age in a province. They consist of two inscribed bronze sheets threaded together, and are about the size of a greetings card.

The Norfolk example, found near Dereham, is incomplete but contains enough text to suggest its owner was recruited in Pannonia (the Balkans) in AD 73, but went on to spend the rest of his military career in Britain. It is dated by the name of the consul serving in Rome under Trajan in AD 98.

The other Roman inscription contains a prayer to a god - the eastern cockerel-headed deity Abrasax - written on a small sheet of gold, folded and buried at a temple or sanctuary. Dating from the 2nd century, this 'lamella' is only the fourth known from Britain. Two lines of Latin cursive script seem to give the dedicant's name as Similis, son of Marcellina, and Greek text indicates that Similis was seeking the god's protection - although for what exactly remains unclear. The object cannot, unfortunately, be associated with a known temple site as it was found in topsoil moved to the findspot from another location.

The third inscription is a later Anglo-Saxon lead plaque, possibly a grave marker, found by a detectorist at Bawburgh near Norwich. On one side the plaque is inscribed with a cross and a name, probably Saward; and on the other, it bears a record of his burial at an institution sacred to St John. The name is divided, with one element on either side of the cross - a device found on a number of 8th century name stones from the North-East. Three other inscribed lead plaques of this date have been found across England.

Finally, another lead plaque inscribed with 49 Norse runes of the late 10th or 11th century has been found at the abandoned monastic site of St Benet's near Horning in the Broads. The runes cannot yet be deciphered, but the monastery was refounded under Cnut in 1014 and the inscription is no doubt connected to the site in some way.

In brief

Change of Editor

After nine highly productive years as Editor of this magazine, Simon Denison has decided to seek fresh challenges in pursuing his parallel career as a fine-art photographer (writes George Lambrick).

Simon's professional journalism and his eye for interesting stories and arresting images, coupled more recently with his close collaboration with designer, Simon Esterson, have transformed British Archaeology into the highly-praised magazine for which he richly deserved last year's British Archaeological Award for journalism.

Francis Pryor, President of the CBA, said: 'Thanks to Simon's editorship, British Archaeology has become the best popular archaeological magazine in Britain. We now have a product that will be at home on the shelves of newsagents across the country.'

David Miles, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, commented: 'British Archaeology is not only essential reading for anyone interested archaeology, it is also a real pleasure to read - and to enjoy its superb images.'

David Hinton, Professor of Archaeology at Southampton University and Chairman of the CBA's Publications Committee, said: 'Simon has had a clear vision for British Archaeology, and has carried it through to make new research and fresh perspectives accessible to a general audience.'

Simon Denison's successor as Editor is Mike Pitts, a widely experienced archaeologist, author and journalist - and another writer with more than a passing interest in photography.

Simon Denison's observations on how archaeology in Britain has changed during his editorship can be found in Issues (see page 26).

Roman Landscape

An extensive Late Iron Age and Roman rural settlement has been excavated by Birmingham Archaeology in a quarry at Little Paxton, Cambridgeshire. The remains include farmsteads, field systems, a square barrow, and complex enclosures, underlining the importance of livestock farming in this period. The settlement was abandoned around the early 2nd century AD, but refounded about a century later. Some animals reared on site were perhaps intended for slaughter at a small shrine nearby.

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