Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
A Roman silver cup and a lady in a basket
Tony Rook has fond memories of amphorae in a garage and getting muddy in Welwyn
The 1960s were a hectic time for me. I had a new wife, a full-time job, my children were born: and I started the excavation of the Roman villa at Dicket Mead, Welwyn as a training dig. The Welwyn area was ravaged by developments, and I had to create an entirely amateur rescue team, there being then no professional field archaeologists in Hertfordshire.
One morning in 1966 I was forwarded a postcard from a member of the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society. A man laying a gas pipe in the New Town of Welwyn Garden City, it said, had dug up a pot, which it illustrated. It was a Roman wine jar, a Dressel Ib amphora-a vessel associated with the so-called 'Celtic Chieftain Burials'.
The contractor, I found, had several amphorae in his garage, lying under sacking, like bombing-up time in my old squadron. 'If you want some', he said 'there's others still under the road that I didn't grub out', and he drew a map on a cigarette packet. I went straight to the site with some of my gang, and picked up, on the surface, a battered silver Neapolitan drinking cup, made about the beginning of the Christian era, an exciting, but awful, discovery. At that time only two similar cups had been found in Britain, exactly 60 years earlier, in the famous 'Chieftain Burials' at Welwyn.
I was very busy in my 'spare' time for the next few days. First the Coroner's officer to hand over the cup and make a statement. A telephone call to the Director of Verulamium Museum, then an interview with the Manager of the Development Corporation, then his Estate Manager. I obtained permission not only to mount a dig at Easter, but also to dig up part of the road. I located security fencing, and arranged for emergency finds conservation. I still get a thrill when I see the grave we eventually reconstructed in the British Museum. Which is my favourite find? The silver cup? The whole grave? Well, no. I had to hand the dig over to the Ministry of Works, and didn't see the cup again until it was on display.
My real favourite find is much more modest. Almost exactly one year after the find of the silver cup I was on my way home from an expedition with my team. The sun was setting as we drove past the site of a new road where I believed Welwyn's Roman cemetery must be. Trees were down, and a bulldozer had already begun stripping topsoil. We walked across the muddy desolation. There were sherds of pottery all over the place. In the gloom my eye was caught by a small white ring, like the neck of a bottle, flush with the mud. I called for a torch, expecting to find a flagon. It wasn't a pot: it was a pipe-clay figurine, with the head missing. I deduced from the smears in the mud which way the lost fragments might have been pushed.
That night, my wife tells me, I walked in late, covered in subsoil and looking utterly defeated. I had the figurine in one hand and, in the other, an envelope containing what might today be called an environmental sample. I put my offerings on the draining board, and my wife emptied the envelope into a kitchen sieve, and ran the tap through the contents. Bone-like sherds emerged. The head was all there! There was just one small chip missing from the neck, under the chin.
The restored figurine was about 15 cm high, a lady sitting in a basket chair with her feet on a footstool. Her plaited hair was piled high on her head. She had a baby at her breast.
She sat on my mantelpiece for a very long time. In one hand I could hold, not only the antithesis of the popular image of the Romans (they weren't all men, dressed in armour, reproducing, presumably, by cloning!) but also a reminder that archaeology isn't just about old bones, tiles and broken pots; that there were non-biodegradable things like basket chairs, clothing, people, and things that will never survive into the finds-tray, like maternal love.
Tony Rook is a former extramural teacher, still directing the Welwyn Archaeological Society and the Roman Building Trust.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005