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Cover of British Archaeology 99

Issue 99

March / April 2008



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Stonehenge: now what?
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The wreck of the SS Mendi
John Gribble tells the story of forgotten war labourers

Philip Crummy and colleagues report on an elite cemetery at Camulodunum

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ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Stanway: an elite cemetery at Camulodunum

Roman writers tell us that Claudius conquered Britain in AD43, that Boudica led a revolt in AD61 and that the natives looked to a priestly caste of Druids. What does archaeology say? The occupant of a remarkable grave excavated near Colchester, Essex, say Philip Crummy, Nina Crummy, Ralph Jackson and Ulrich Schädler, was probably a Druid. These are finds that tell Britain's story.

Two thousand years ago, just before the Romans came, iron age Camulodunum was surrounded by many defensive earthworks. Beyond the outermost of these, 4.5km south-west of what was to become the Roman town of Colchester, was a group of five ditched enclosures set out in two rows. They were first noticed in the 1930s as lines in air photographs. After sand and gravel quarrying threatened some 20 years ago, they were intermittently excavated between 1987 and 2003 by the Colchester Archaeological Trust, with financial help from Tarmac, English Heritage and local organisations.

The smallest enclosure proved to be a middle iron age farmstead dating to around 200–50BC, with perhaps a single roundhouse at its centre (a pair of iron currency bars buried in the enclosure ditch matches similar finds in contemporary settlements elsewhere). Though abandoned by 50BC, this acted as a focus for the later enclosures. Completely different in character, these were the sites of funerary rituals and burials for a few distinctive people. Every grave is unique and some of them were well equipped. Almost everyone there died between about AD40 and AD60, a surprisingly short period of time.

The remains of a chamber made of wooden planks lay inside each enclosure, containing fragments of broken pots and other objects including (in all but one) small amounts of cremated human bone. In one enclosure was a funeral pyre, and in two others small ditched areas, perhaps to enclose either pyres or timber platforms on which corpses were displayed and left to decay. Concentrations of sherds from a large number of deliberately-broken pots suggest that the enclosures' eastern sides had been favoured for assemblies for commemorative feasting.

The presence of chambers points to the occupants' leading status as do many of the objects in the burials. The pottery includes some of the most colourful pieces available at the time, while the forms and bright hues of the glassware are exceptional for Britain. Intriguingly, however, it is some of the other graves with intact artefacts that tell us a great deal about the people buried at Stanway.

In one (dating to the late first century BC) was a ball of verdigris, perhaps used as a cosmetic or in medicine. The use of cosmetics and perfumes in the pre-conquest period is also shown by an Augustan (27BC–AD14) glass pyxis from one of the latest cremation burials, cherished for its beauty long after the unguent it originally held had been used up. Another burial contained an unusual pottery inkwell, showing that at least some of these people were literate, as do graffiti on the broken pottery in one of the burial chambers. In a fourth wasa copper alloy mirror. But most exceptional are what we have called the warrior's and doctor's burials.

The warrior

The warrior had been sent on his way with all he needed for feasting: an amphora of Italian wine, a small Gaulish flagon decorated with a trio of chained cranes, and a service of smart red and black Gallo-Belgic ware (made in what is now Belgium), no doubt holding a meal that had long since rotted away in Stanway's acid soil. To wash his hands before eating he had a copper-alloy water jug with a handle in the form of a lion and a basin with a ram's head handle. Such sets were common enough in Pompeii some 25–35 years later, but were rare in mid first century Britain, and are evidence of familiarity with continental formal dining behaviour.

To keep his body and mind exercised the warrior had his shield and spear and a game board with a set of counters. He had a plain arm-ring, a large and unusual blue and white glass bead, and two good quality cloaks, each pinned by a brooch of comparatively rare type. Some iron fittings are all that remain of a seemingly empty wooden chest, probably originally packed full of other clothes. Perhaps the chief glory of the grave goods - a large bowl of amber glass - was placed in the burial pit carefully packed in another chest. Unfortunately the glass was shattered as the wood decayed. The bowl is of a two-piece blown form that is unparalleled in Britain and rare on the continent, and may have been made in Italy in the late first century.

The doctor

A further burial excavated in 1996 caused quite a stir. Its well-preserved board game, with glass counters evocatively positioned as at the start of play, quickly captured the public imagination. But more was to come when the metal objects lying on the board were recognised as a set of surgical instruments - here was the earliest unequivocal evidence from Britain of a medical practitioner and his equipment. Furthermore, this was also one of the oldest surviving medical sets from anywhere in the ancient world. The doctor's burial was of international importance.

However, the significance of the find to the study of ancient medicine was even more profound and meaningful than those superlatives. Not only was there a belonging set of instruments with a great wealth of intrinsic information, but also a burial context that allowed them to be considered and interpreted in ways seldom possible.

In part the doctor's goods mirrored those of the warrior, but in the grave they were split into two sections, with most of the items concerned with feasting at one end of the burial pit and more personal items at the other. To the east were an 11-piece service of Gallo-Belgic ware, a locally-made copper-alloy strainer bowl, and from France a decorated samian bowl, a bronze saucepan (possibly tinned) used for warming wine and a pottery flagon. At the western end were a Spanish amphora, a jet bead, a possible cloak pinned by brooches, and the game board with carefully-placed counters.

Here too was the set of medical instruments, with four iron and four copper-alloy rods, and eight copper-alloy rings. The intimate association between the instruments, the board game, the rods (perhaps used for divination and, like the gaming pieces, laid out as in use) and the cremated remains may be meaningful: healing in its broadest sense melding with divination and games of chance, perhaps. Such an interpretation is incapable of proof, but the careful positioning of the artefacts is incontrovertible. The strainer bowl, perhaps used for the preparation of healthful beverages (it last brewed a herbal tea containing Artemisia), and the jet bead, with its perceived magical and amuletic powers, may too have been instruments of healing.

Whatever the case, the surgical kit alone would have enabled the practitioner to treat minor everyday injuries to battle wounds, bone surgery and more serious conditions. The scalpels, surgical saw, hooks, needles, forceps and probes mirror the basic sets of surgical tools from other parts of the Roman world. Of especial interest is the idiosyncratic form of the Stanway instruments, which combine Greco-Roman aspects with others seemingly derived from Gallic or native British culture. This "bridging of cultures" may reflect the instruments' age, for the secure and precise dating, made possible by their association with a sensitively-excavated, undisturbed burial assemblage, implies that the healer was practising both before and after the Roman conquest of Britain.

The burial evidence further suggests that the Stanway healer was part of a princely British household, his role similar, perhaps, to that of the personal physicians in the retinues of Roman emperors, aristocrats and top officials. Whether he was a native healer or a Gallic incomer is impossible to say, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he belonged to the stratum of late iron age society that comprised Druids, diviners and healers: hoc genus vatum medicorumque, "this tribe of seers and medicine men", as the Elder Pliny described them. We cannot be sure, but it is conceivable that this grave was the final resting place of a British Druid.

Playing the game

Great care was needed to excavate the doctor's board game because all that was left of the board itself was its metal corners and hinges. These lay in their original places and showed that the board had measured about 38.5cm×56.5cm. The hinges indicate that the board could be folded, similar to the board found at Baldock, Hertfordshire (1st century BC). Unlike other ancient game boards it had no handle(s), but apparently it had a raised rim. Along the long edges of the Stanway board 13 white and 13 blue typical Roman glass counters were placed in more or less straight lines. One blue counter bunched with others in the corner was turned upside-down, while the central white counter was slightly smaller than his companions.

The find poses a number of intriguing questions. What was the design of the game board? Were the counters placed in a starting position or is their position only decorative? Is their number complete? Have any moves been made? Did the flipped blue and the small white counter have a special function? And finally: what is the significance of such an arrangement in a burial?

At first glance, one may think that such a rare find would add to our knowledge of ancient board games. However, it is the other way round: the find cannot be interpreted without making assumptions about the game the doctor liked so much during his lifetime that he did not want to do without it in the afterlife. This is not an easy task, due to our scarce information about ancient Roman and Celtic games.

The relatively regular alignment of the counters - only some of them seem to have been drawn towards the cremated bones, while others seem to have shifted slightly to the side - suggests the gaming surface consisted of a grid of lines, like a draughts board. Since the board was not square but rectangular in shape, eight by 12 or nine by 13 squares would fit quite well. Unfortunately such boards are not known from early Roman times, where rectangular boards like this would normally be used for the "game of 12 points", a predecessor of backgammon. But this game was played with 15 counters for each player and two dice, while in the doctor's burial not enough counters and no dice have been found.

On the other hand the raised rim suggests the use of dice, and the counters might not represent a complete set. The notion of "completeness" makes sense only with regard to modern commercially-boxed games, but not to the ancient culture of play. As the numerous game boards incised in marble pavements all over the Roman world demonstrate, people used to play in public places and buildings, where everybody had to bring their own implements – as many as needed to play any game.

The two special counters are intriguing. The position of the inverted blue one is difficult to interpret. But the small white counter was placed exactly in the middle between six pieces on the left and six on the right, and close to the centre of the board as well. Did this piece have a special function in the game? This is perhaps the most important question to answer.

We do not know of any Roman board game that needed an extra piece. But a remarkable find from King Harry Lane site at Verulamium (St Albans, Hertfordshire) may help. In a burial dating to the doctor's lifetime, gaming pieces in the shape of pegs were found, half decorated and half plain. Moreover, one of the decorated pieces is further distinguished by a dot in a circle. There it is - the extra piece! But only one player had such an extra piece. Was the doctor's game an asymmetric board game, too? In fact, early Irish sources mention such a game: fidcheall. A similar game was popular during the early middle ages in Scandinavia and Britain: hnefatafl.We do not know where these games originate, but perhaps the doctor's game from Stanway sheds light on the origins and early history of the favourite board game of the Vikings?

Who were they?

The people buried at Stanway do not seem to have died all at once, so no dramatic explanation can be put forward to explain their deaths. It is curious, however, how they cluster around the Roman conquest of AD43 and the period immediately after it. Indeed, the site throws up a whole tangle of difficult questions relating not just to such obvious matters as the nature of the burial rites involved, but also to the dead themselves. Who were they? What were the familial or social relationships between them? What was their ethnic background and what sort of relationship did they have with their new Roman overlords? And as for the objects, why were they chosen and what do they tell us about the people in whose graves they lay?

Whatever the answers to these questions, we can be certain that there were no kings among the dead at Stanway, such as were found in 1924 at the Lexden tumulus in Colchester or more recently at Folly Lane in Verulamium (where a chariot had been burnt on the pyre). Nevertheless, the quality of the funerary goods and the nature and scale of the remains show the dead to have been members of Camulodunum's Catuvellaunian pre-Roman ruling class. Intriguingly, many of them must have been alive during the initial stage of the Claudian conquest of Britain. Most of them probably saw the Roman army enter Camulodunum with Claudius at its head. And those same people would have known Cunobelin and his famous sons Togodumnus and Caratacus. Indeed some of them may even have been close relatives. Importantly then, Stanway brings us close to people and events which helped shaped the Britain to come.

This article includes information from Stephen Benfield, Caroline Cartwright, Hilary Cool, Geoff Dannell, Susan La Niece, Sarah Paynter,Val Rigby, Paul Sealey, John Peter Wild and Patricia Wiltshire. Stanway: An Elite Burial Site at Camulodunum, by P Crummy, S Benfield, N Crummy, V Rigby & D Shimmin, is published by The Roman Society, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU, at £46 ISBN 9780907764359. See #24 at the bottom of the page.

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