Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
Dish Fit for the Gods
Shortly after we go to press, the discovery of a unique bronze vessel will be announced. Hailed as the most significant Roman find yet made under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, it is of great artistic, technological and historical importance. Mike Pitts and Sally Worrell, with exclusive photographs by Stuart Laidlaw, provide British Archaeology with the first inside report on this very special object.
Earlier this year, a group of friends on one of their regular metal detecting weekends found a small bronze bowl. Elaborately decorated with coloured inlaid enamels in a Celtic style, the bowl is inscribed beneath its rim with the names of four forts on Hadrian's Wall, a man of Greek origin and a word that may, perhaps, be his home town or that of the manufacturer.
Two similar bowls, one from southern England and one from France, found more than 50 years ago, bear some of the same fort names on their rims, but their decoration is quite different. Known as the Staffordshire Moorlands Patera, the new find has astonished experts, who are only beginning to unravel the meanings of the script and the decoration.
For Kevin Blackburn and Julian Lee the last Sunday in June had been a good day, a lovely place on the moors with stunning views. They had been attracted to the site by an old footpath: people loose things out walking. Scanning stony grassland with their metal detectors, in the event they had found little. It was a nice day, but the ground was dry, difficult for detecting. It was, however, as Blackburn puts it, a day outside in the sun: 'very pleasant whether you find anything or not'.
They were packing their gear when a colleague's detector emitted a large signal. It was too big, a Coke can or something, and he left it. Blackburn ('I dig everything up') was unable to resist, and a foot down he came across a metal rim protruding from beneath a block of limestone.
'It was fantastic the moment we saw Kevin pulling it out of the ground', says Lee. The bowl is so well preserved, they were able to wipe off the dirt without risk of damage. They knew at once it was a 2nd century Roman bowl. For them collecting is less a matter of possession than of knowledge, of saving objects from destruction. They are experts in artefact identification.
The next morning Lee emailed Jane Stewart, their local Finds Liaison Officer under the Portable Antiquities Scheme. He headed it 'Awesome Roman artefact'.
Stewart had spent much time gaining the confidence of collectors like Blackburn and Lee. The Treasure Act offers legal control over certain objects, items of gold and silver and groups of prehistoric bronzes, but most fall outside its scope. 'Ninety nine per cent of our finds are garbage', says Lee.
Truly spectacular finds, the ones they almost never make, they would always have taken to their museum. Before the Portable Antiquities Scheme, however, they never reported objects like coins or brooches, the stuff that now pours into Liaison identification sessions, that is helping to re-write the stories of the people of ancient and historic Britain. Blackburn and Lee had been meeting Stewart monthly, working through their backlog of everyday discoveries.
Sally Worrell, Prehistoric and Roman Finds Adviser at the Portable Antiquities Scheme and based at University College, London, brought in specialists Ralph Jackson (Curator of Romano-British Collections, British Museum) and Roger Tomlin (Wolfson College, Oxford University).
Jackson describes the vessel as a patera , 'a handled pan rather like a small saucepan'. Its base and handle were made separately and soldered on; both are now missing. 'To judge from other finds', says Jackson, 'the handle would have been flat and bow-tie shaped and also inlaid with coloured enamel. These ostentatiously colourful pans had varied decorative designs but the present example is unusual in its curvilinear scrollwork - a balanced design of eight roundels enclosing swirling six-armed whirligigs. It is also notable for the fine preservation of so much of its enamel inlay and for the large number of colours used - blue, red, turquoise, yellow and, possibly, purple.'
The most exciting feature of the patera is the inscription. It lists four forts at the western end of Hadrian's Wall: Bowness (MAIS), Drumburgh (COGGABATA), Stanwix (UXELODUNUM) and Castlesteads (CAMMOGLANNA). Previously only two other vessels were known naming wall forts. Together the three list seven forts, but the Staffordshire patera is the first to include Drumburgh.
'The bowl confirms the ancient names of four forts in sequence from the western end of the Wall', says Tomlin, 'and for the first time suggests what is likely to be the correct ancient form for the name for Drumburgh. There are further important differences from the other examples: it incorporates the name of an individual, AELIUS DRACO and a further place-name, RIGOREVALI which may refer to the place in which Aelius Draco had the pan made.'
Aelius Draco was perhaps a wall garrison veteran who had the vessel made on his retirement. 'Draco' is Greek, pointing to an origin in the eastern Roman Empire. 'Aelius' is Hadrian's family name, adopted by tradition by anyone obtaining Roman citizenship under his rule. So the bowl's probable owner, or a near male ancestor, had been born in Greece, become a Roman citizen during the time of emperor Hadrian, and Aelius himself had served on Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain. To add to this multicultural story, the bowl combines Roman and native design.
It is the patera's decoration that sets it apart from its companions, the 'Rudge cup', found in Wiltshire in 1725, and the 'Amiens patera', in France in 1949. The three are remarkably alike in shape and size, about 45 mm high and 90 mm in diameter. Rudge and Amiens are both inscribed with the names of five forts: Bowness, Burgh by Sands, Stanwix, Castlesteads and Birdoswald; Amiens also has Great Chesters. Unlike the Staffordshire pan, however, these two carry a stylised representation of the wall itself, with crenellated stone turrets. They were enamelled in three colours, blue, green and red.
Martin Henig, a specialist in Roman art at Oxford University, believes these cups were made near the wall, by craftsmen working for a largely military clientele. The decoration on the Rudge and Amiens vessels exhibits a move away from realistic Roman convention. The Staffordshire Moorlands patera, however, takes this much further, with its exuberant, multicoloured swirls that draw directly on long-established British traditions.
Shift in values
In the past, some archaeologists saw this 'Celticisation' of Roman art as a dilution of classic style. However Henig argues it reflects an empire-wide shift in taste to abstraction and texture that made use of a living native art. Soldiers were becoming part of local society and adopting local tastes. 'Art', he says, 'is a most valuable indicator of this shift in values'.
Their rarity, and the quality of workmanship (imagine them new, the shining gold-coloured bronze setting off the bright enamelled colours, and the rim inscriptions inviting you to pick them up and read), suggest these pans were no mere roadside souvenirs churned out in cheap factories. One, secondarily inscribed to Sulis Minerva but with no original lettering, was cast into the sacred spring in Bath; wall turrets are recognisable in its meandering decoration. Another was valued enough to reach France. There may even be one, the final specimen in this little collection of northern British art and craft, from Spain.
Known as the 'Hildburgh fragment', a small piece of bowl was bought in Barcelona by a Dr W L Hildburgh from an itinerant collector, who assured him it had been found between Leon and Zamora in north east Spain. The design is difficult to interpret, but there is a hint of a wall turret and some freehand lettering.
Lindsay Allason-Jones, Director of Archaeological Museums at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, is intrigued by these inscriptions. She notes that on the Rudge cup, the letters are in reserved metal against a background of enamel; on the Amiens cup, each of the forts (the letters always run without break) is backed by a different colour, blue or green.
These letters were cast into the cups. The Staffordshire pan, however, was cast uninscribed, being later incised and then enamelled, apparently at the same time as the rest of the bowl, the lettering containing the same turquoise as parts of the abstract swirls. The suggestion is that in this case the inscription was dictated by the buyer: which provided the opportunity, here taken up by one Aelius Draco, for some impressive personalisation.
See the cup
You can visit the sites of all named forts, though there is little to see at most. Castlesteads is now an 18th century country house; masonry from Burgh by Sands lives on as a church. Bowness has partly fallen into the sea. Stanwix, once the greatest fort on the wall, is but a small fragment in a hotel car park. Only at Great Chesters and Birdoswald are there significant masonry structures, and at the latter there is a museum.
You can also see the complete vessels. The Rudge cup is exhibited by the Duke of Northumberland in Alnwick Castle. The Bath patera can be seen in the Roman Baths Museum, and the Amiens patera in the Musée de Picardie-Amiens. The location of the Spanish fragment, shown in the Loan Court at the V&A in 1935, is unknown.
The Staffordshire patera can be seen in the British Museum exhibition Treasure: Finding Our Past (Nov 21 2003-Mar 14 2004), which later travels (without cup) around England and Wales. The exhibition will feature in the next issue of British Archaeology.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme's website will provide updates on the cup and other finds (www.finds.org.UK). On 11 Oct the PAS and the BBC hold eight 'finds roadshows' (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/).
For further reading see Breeze & Dobson 'Hadrian's Wall' (Penguin 2000), Johnson 'Hadrian's Wall' (English Heritage 1989), de la Bédoyère 'Hadrian's Wall: History & Guide' (Tempus 1998) and Henig 'The Art of Roman Britain' (Batsford 1995)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005