Tuesday, 25th February, 2014
Shield-wearing [?!] skeleton, necklace and grave goods found in early Saxon inhumations
The discovery of nine bodies in Cambridgeshire could reveal much about the little-known early Saxon period.
An early Saxon man who fell on his shield [?!] has been found buried with a knife and spear alongside a jewellery-clad woman during a dig on a residential site in a Cambridgeshire village.
The discoveries [pics] follow the excavation of 11 skeletons in the village in 1990. Grave goods, weaponry and everyday items from the 6th century surfaced during the excavation in Haddenham, where similar remains – including a double burial of a man and a woman – were first identified more than 20 years ago*.
“A total of nine inhumations were discovered, ranging from the very young to fully grown adults,” says Jon House, of Pre-Construct Archaeology, thanking local residents for their “great interest” and “warm and welcoming” approach to the team during unfavourable weather conditions.
“The burials included an adult male, found lying upon a decorative shield and with a knife and a spear.
“A beaded necklace was found around the neck and upper torso of an adult female, who was also buried with a belt or girdle with copper and iron fittings.
“Projects such as these prove how even the smallest developments can yield a wealth of archaeological information and, in the case of this particular site, details not only of how people lived but also of their treatment towards the dead over 1,400 years ago.
“This is especially important during those periods, such as the early Saxon era, which have left little or no historical data.”
*Robinson, B & Dunhig, C. 1992. ‘Anglo-Saxon burials at the “Three Kings”, Haddenham, 1990′, in Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, Volume LXXXI: 15-38
Abstract: One intact double burial of the pagan Anglo-Saxon period and several disturbed burials were excavated. Three apparently later rectangular pits containing pig burials were also discovered. There is a report on ‘The skeletal material’ by Corrine Duhig (24–32). The burials are thought to date from the first half of the sixth century and there is some speculation as to the location of the settlement they served. Gravegoods included amber beads, glass beads, an iron shield boss, studs, buckle, ferrule, spear head, knife, and latchlifter, a bone comb and spindle whorl, and bronze brooches and tweezers. Finally ‘Appendix A’ (36–7) provides an artefact catalogue, ‘Appendix B’ (37) a burial catalogue, and ‘Appendix C’ (38) an outline of the site matrix.
Wednesday, 19th February, 2014
A Viking metal rod which left experts baffled for more than a century has finally been identified as a ‘magic wand’ used by a witch [O.N. volva or Icelandic völva] to cast spells.
The staff, which was found in a ninth-century grave, is curved at the end – causing it to be misidentified as a fishing hook or a spit for roasting food.
However, archaeologists have now concluded that it was in fact a magical item belonging to a sorceress who was ‘on the margins of society’.
It had been buried next to a woman’s body alongside other valuable items including an unusual plaque made of whalebone, implying that the person in the grave had a high status in Viking society.
They suggest that the reason it was bent before being buried with its owner was to remove its magical properties – possibly to prevent the witch coming back from the dead.
The 90cm-long rod has been part of the British Museum’s collection since 1894, when it was discovered in Norway’s Romsdal province.
Its unusual shape, with a knobbly ‘handle’ and a hooked end, originally led historians to believe that it was a practical object used for catching fish.
They later decided that it was in fact a skewer for roasting meat – but after comparing the rod with other similar objects*, experts have now reached a different conclusion.
British Museum curator Sue Branning says that it was probably a magical staff [vølvestav] used to perform ‘seithr’ [seiðr], a form of Viking sorcery predominantly practiced by women.
‘Our rod fits with a number of these rods that turn up in the ninth and 10th century in female burials,’ she told The Times. ‘They normally take the form of these long iron rods with knobs attached to them.’
The curve in the end of the staff is likely to have signified that it was being put out of use, a common practice in the medieval period for grave goods which were routinely broken when they were buried.
Bending or breaking the buried possessions of the dead could have served to neutralise their magical properties – preventing their former owners from casting spells from beyond the grave.
‘There must have been some kind of ritual,’ Ms Branning said. ‘This object was ritually “killed”, an act that would have removed the power of this object.’
Although Viking society, like most medieval societies, was dominated by men, some women were believed to have special powers which made them influential figures.
Ms Branning said: ‘These women were very well respected, but they were quite feared as well. They may have been on the margins of society.’
Because the Vikings were not converted to Christianity until around 1000 AD, there is strong evidence for the importance of magic in their society at a time when the rest of Europe had largely abandoned the practice.
Gardela, L. (2009) ‘A Biography of the Seiðr-Staffs. Towards an Archaeology of Emotions‘. In L. P. Slupecki, J. Morawiec (eds.), Between Paganism and Christianity in the North, Rzeszów: Rzeszów University, 190-219.
Monday, 17th February, 2014
Excavation begins to uncover St Piran’s Oratory
Followers of Cornwall’s favourite saint will be donning their boots and raising their shovels next week as the operation to unearth St Piran’s Oratory from the dunes gets under way.
The week-long project, to be carried out by a team of volunteers led by archaeologists, is the culmination of a 15-year campaign by St Piran Trust. Buried “for its own protection ” in 1980, the 5th century stone structure [probably later, although a stone bearing a fragmentary inscription (PERNP/1) of probable 5th or 6th century date is featured upside down in the wall of the oratory] set in sand dunes above Perranporth is claimed by some historians to be the oldest Christian building in Britain.
Truro and Falmouth MP Sarah Newton will be joined by diggers and archaeologists at the site on Monday to officially launch the excavation. Trust founder, Eileen Carter, has been invited to cut the first turf in recognition of her huge contribution to the campaign.
“I’ve waited 15 years for this and there were times I thought I wouldn’t live to see it,” she said. “I think if I’d known it would take this long I might never have started. But I’m glad we kept on going and I am confident we will find the oratory in good condition. It is heartwarming how Cornwall, despite the many delays and setbacks, has continued to keep the faith, pulled together and given so generously.”
Being located in one of the most ecologically sensitive sites in Europe meant it took the trust longer than expected to obtain the various legal permissions to excavate the building, which is encased in a concrete shell. The project is supported by Cornwall Council [link includes short film], Perranzabuloe Parish Council, English Heritage, Heritage Lottery, Cornwall Heritage Trust [p.5], the Duke of Cornwall and private donors.
The dig itself has been made possible thanks to the generosity of businessman David Barrie. Mr Barrie – who is also an artist, painting under the pseudonym Piran Strange – said that as a child he had become fascinated by the legend of the Irish holy man who came to Cornwall and discovered tin. He explained that he first came across the story at the age of nine, when he started at St Piran’s School in Berkshire.
“St Piran has provided me with the happiest times of my life and I owe him a lot,” he said. “You have to be on the dunes at Perranporth to know that he is there. His presence is all around you. It is mystical, magical and, above all, holy. By uncovering the oratory we are creating a place of pilgrimage to the patron saint of Cornish tin miners at a place that represents one of the earliest places of Christian worship in the UK.”
It was some years after leaving school and pursuing a successful career that Mr Barrie came across St Piran’s Trust and contacted Eileen Carter.
“Eileen gave me the background to the organisation and its ambitions and it just struck a chord,” he said. “I loved St Piran’s School and had enjoyed huge success through the name Piran Strange. So I decided it was time to give something back. The trust’s aim to raise the oratory from its burial place became my passion and I was happy to contribute.”
A decision on the next stage of the operation will be made when archaeologists and structural engineers have submitted their report. Trust company secretary Ian Saltern said: “After 15 long years of campaigning, the oratory will finally be uncovered. This is a momentous development and one to be savoured.
“Once uncovered, we will assess its conservation needs and potential and then prepare an application for funding for the second stage. Depending on what we find, it will see the oratory conserved and an exploration of the wider area of Lanpiran, the medieval monastic site which grew up around the oratory. The second stage will also see the production of resources for schools and community activities.”
An annual pilgrimage to the oratory and cross takes place each year on the Sunday closest to St Piran’s Day [5th March]. Several hundred people are expected to attend on March 2, when they will be able to view the excavations.
Thursday, 6th February, 2014
An exhibition exploring the origins of ancient skeletons in Sussex, including a woman from sub-Saharan Africa buried in Roman times, has opened.
The face of the so-called Beachy Head Lady was recreated using craniofacial reconstruction.
Eastbourne Borough Council‘s museum service was awarded a grant of £72,000 by the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Eastbourne Ancestors project.
The aim was to identify the gender and age of each skeleton in its collection.
Detailed scientific analysis of more than 300 skeletons of people who lived in the south of England thousands of years ago has undertaken by scientists and archaeologists.
Testing of the bones and teeth has identified the national or regional origins, age, gender, state of health, diet, and in some cases, how they died.
3D reconstruction techniques have allowed faces to be put to some of the museum’s skulls
Most of the skeletons are Anglo-Saxon, from about 1,500 years ago, but some are Neolithic and more than 4,000 years old.
The Beachy Head Lady was discovered in the East Sussex beauty spot in 1953, and she is thought to have lived around AD245.
Jo Seaman, heritage officer at Eastbourne Borough Council, said: “This is a fantastic discovery for the south coast.
“We know this lady was around 30 years old, grew up in the vicinity of what is now East Sussex, ate a good diet of fish and vegetables, her bones were without disease and her teeth were in good condition.”
The Beachy Head Lady forms part of an exhibition at the Eastbourne Museum which is opens on 1 February at the Pavilion.
Sunday, 5th January, 2014
Looted Viking treasure is discovered in British Museum store: Curator spots 1,000-year-old brooch in lump taken from 18th century excavationA Celtic treasure looted by the Vikings more than 1,000 years ago has been discovered in the British Museum’s storerooms. An ornate, gilded disc brooch dating from the eighth or ninth century was found by chance and is being described as a “staggering find”. No-one knew of its existence until now.Investigating the Lilleburge assemblage, a collection of Viking objects that includes items still in the small blocks of soil in which they were excavated in 1886 from a long barrow in Norway.
It had been concealed in a lump of organic material excavated from a Viking burial site at Lilleberge in Norway by a British archaeologist in the 1880s and acquired by the British Museum in 1891.
Curator Barry Ager, a Vikings specialist, was poring over artefacts before a visit from a Norwegian researching the Viking site when his eye was caught by some metal sticking out of the side of the organic lump.
Intrigued, he asked the conservation department to X-ray it. “At that stage, I really didn’t know what was inside,” he said. “It was a staggering find.”
He added: “It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.”
He believes that it was originally made in Ireland or Scotland, that it came from a shrine or a reliquary, and that the Vikings converted it into a brooch by attaching rivet holes and a pin.
The brooch, almost 6cm in diameter, had been buried in the grave of a high-status Viking woman. Substantial remains of the gilding still survive on the top surface and its elaborate design includes three dolphin-like creatures and interlaced patterns.
“The …patterns, the quatrefoil of the central roundel and the form of the ‘dolphins’ heads have clear parallels in Celtic metalwork and manuscripts of the 8th to early 9th centuries, such as the Tara Brooch and the Book of Mac Regol,” Ager said.
He described the craftsmanship as “very fine” and said that the Vikings valued “eye-catching” objects: “The Vikings themselves were very skilled metalworkers, so I’m sure that’s something that would appeal to a Viking eye.”
Other artefacts that came to the museum from that burial site included two oval brooches and strings of beads. There was also a spindle whorl and a whalebone plaque, which may have been used as a food serving-tray in feasts.
Ager explained: “It was the custom to bury the person with their personal possessions. They were pagan at the time, so it was part of the standard Viking burial rite.”
The burial site was a grave field marked by large mounds. The 19th-century excavation was carried out by Alfred Heneage Cocks*, a British archaeologist, in his spare time between hunting and fishing in Norway. He recorded his progress in a journal. Describing the moment he discovered the spindle whorl, he wrote: “This my knife unfortunately divided before I saw it – it was as soft as the softest cheese.”
Fortunately, he also retained some lumps of organic material, Ager said.
Extensive research is yet to be done. The wood within that lump leads him to suspect that it is the remains of a box to which the brooch may have been attached. Tests might determine whether it is local from the British Isles.
Removing the brooch from the lump was a painstaking process involving scalpels as conservators wanted to preserve a rare example of Viking textile. That too will be tested, but experts have already detected three different types, including a herringbone pattern.
The brooch will go on display from March 27 in Room 41 – Sutton Hoo and Europe AD 300–1100 – which tells the story of a formative period in Europe’s history. A major exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend, which focuses on the core period of the Viking Age from the late 8th century to the early 11th century, will include the remains of a 37-metre Viking longship – the longest ever found and never seen before in the UK – runs from 6 March to 22 June.
The reuse of an Insular mount may be paralleled by the example from Komnes, Norway. The gilt-bronze disc mount, with raised ‘watch spring’ spiral bosses, is now in the Universitetets Oldsaksamling, Oslo. It was probably, also, looted from an ecclesiastical cross or shrine during a raid in Ireland and brought to Norway and dates to the 8th or 9th century.
*Alfred Heneage Cocks (British archaeologist; collector; 1864 – 1928)
Monday, 9th December, 2013
Online in 3D: the ‘grotesque beauty’ of medieval Britons’ diseased bones
Digitised Diseases site makes 1,600 specimens available for doctors and members of the public to study for free
The bones of a young woman who died of syphilis more than 500 years ago, the reassembled jaw of a man whose corpse was sold to surgeons at the London hospital in the 19th century and the contorted bone of an 18th-century man who lived for many years after he was shot through the leg, are among the remains of hundreds of individuals which can now be studied in forensic detail on a new website.
The Digitised Diseases website, to be launched on Monday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, brings together 1,600 specimens, many from people with excruciating conditions including leprosy and rickets, from stores scattered across various university and medical collections. The original crumbling bones of some specimens now available in 3D scans are too fragile to be handled. The database is intended for professionals, but is also available free to members of the public who may be fascinated by the macabre specimens.
“We believe this will be a unique resource both for archaeologists and medical historians to identify diseases in ancient specimens, but also for clinicians who can see extreme forms of chronic diseases which they would never see nowadays in their consulting rooms, left to progress unchecked before any medical treatment was available. These bones show conditions only available before either by travelling to see them, or in grainy black and white photographs in old textbooks,” said Andrew Wilson, senior lecturer in forensic and archaeological sciences at the University of Bradford and the lead researcher on the project. He added: “I do think members of the public will also find them gripping – they do have what one observer called ‘a grotesque beauty’.”
Some of the conditions were thought to have been almost eliminated but are now on the increase, including diseases of poverty such as tuberculosis and rickets.
“If the vivid evidence of these bones flags up the importance of taking these conditions very seriously and tackling them early, so much the better,” Wilson said.
Bradford University holds the remains of 4,000 men, women and children dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, including bones from the Battle of Towton, the bloodiest ever fought on English soil, in Yorkshire on Palm Sunday 1461. Those bones were consulted by the team which excavated the remains of Richard III in Leicester last year, as evidence of the terrible injuries inflicted on medieval battlefields.
Other specimens came from the cemetery of a 12th-century hospital in Chichester that treated leprosy, one of the most dreaded diseases of the middle ages. Bones also came from a cemetery in Gloucester, excavated in 1991, which as well as the Dominican friars whose churchyard it was, included hundreds of people buried between 1246 and 1539. These included the skull showing signs of advanced syphilis, including loss of bone around the nose, jaw and cranium, of a woman aged between 18 and 25.
Other bones came from a previously unknown burial ground at the London Hospital and excavated in 2006 by archaeologists from the Museum of London. They were the remains of the unfortunate poor who died in the hospital and were dissected by its surgeons. They died in greater number than the hospital’s own anatomy school could use: some were sold to other hospitals, and body snatchers targeted the burial ground. The Bradford team manage to reunite three fragments of the same jaw, found in a jumble of bones from many individuals tipped into the same grave, which showed clearly the straight cut marks of the anatomists: their 3D film of the reassembled jaw was seen in the Doctors, Dissection and Resurrection Men exhibition at the Museum of London last year.
One long leg bone was evidently turned on a lathe – “for purposes we can only speculate on,” Wilson said.
He takes comfort from the fact that many of the individuals, including people who would have been bent double by spinal damage, or left too lame to walk or work, lived for many years with their conditions. “It’s important to remember that these are not just academic specimens, but the remains of real human beings – and in many cases it is clear that they were not just discarded as useless or shunned but accepted and cared for. This is by no means just a freak show.”
Monday, 25th November, 2013
A ‘CELTIC’ stone which is thought to be more than 1,200 years old has been unveiled in Barnstaple Museum.
The stone, which bears the inscription of the name ‘Guerngen’ [GUERNGENI - of Gwerngen] is one of only two* that have been discovered in the whole of North Devon.
Last year 15-year-old Jack Lawrence made the discovery in the wall of Shutes Cottage in West Down, where he lives with his parents.
He reported it to the North Devon Archaeological Society [pp. 3-4], and the stone was taken to the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon to be cleaned, drawn and studied.
Terry Green, who has researched the ancient find, said it was believed to be a memorial stone made from locally sourced sandstone.
“It is possible it could be a pillow stone which is placed at the head of a grave,” he said.
“It could have found its way from its original position to the churchyard, where it was built into the church in the 10th century.
“This was until the chancel was rebuilt in the 17th century and the tower in the early 18th century.
“These would have been two occasions where there would have been a lot of rubble available, and at some point this was built into the wall beside Shutes Cottage.”
Oliver Padel, of Cambridge University, said it was most probable the inscription dated back to the eight century, before the Anglo Saxons took over in Devon.
“This man who was commemorated must have been in the upper reaches of society for his family to afford such an expensive memorial,” said Mr Padel.
Jack, who was 13 when he discovered the inscription, said he hopes to pursue a career in archaeology or history.
He said: “I spotted some marks on the other side of the stone and they looked quite interesting we decided to turn it over – that’s when we found the inscription.
“The wall was knocked down before we moved in 12 years ago but it is amazing to think the stone has been sat in the pile of rubble all that time.”
The stone will remain in the museum until the spring, when it will be displayed in West Down Church.
*CARAACINEPUS, Winsford Hill [p. 2].
There is also a linear cross within a lozenge-shaped ring, scratched on one end of the stone. Four stones with this rare cross and lozenge pattern are known in Wales. One of them is at St. David’s Church in Llanllawer, the another is the re-discovered Silian 3 stone at St. Sulien’s Church, Ceredigion, mid-west Wales, and there is a cross on a shaft from St Tanwg’s Church, Llandanwg. A cross incised stone from St. Tecwyn’s Church, Llandecwyn, Gwynedd, is the closest match to the West Down stone, with one leg of the cross extending beyond the lozenge. The West Down stone is also comparable to the more local wheel-cross on the 7th- to 9th-century Culbone stone, Porlock.
Monday, 18th November, 2013
Experts say a shoe-wearing skeleton, found as part of an excavation on a church beneath Lincoln Castle dating back at least 1,000 years, should reveal much about the Saxon city ahead of radiocarbon dating on its hidden coffin
The bones of a holy figure, still wearing shoes and initially wrapped in a finely-woven textile, have been found buried within a wall beneath Lincoln Castle in a discovery pointing to the remains of a church dating to “at least” 1,000 years ago, according to experts.
Archaeologists believe the remains of several skeletons found during the dig at the castle, which was built by William the Conqueror more than 900 years ago, date to a stone church created between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the conquering Normans.
At least one of the remnants, found in a tiny space three metres below ground level, is a stone coffin, with the sacred bones found in a niche embedded in the foundations of an early stone wall on the opposite side of the site.
“Our knowledge of the site between the end of Roman period and when the castle was built is very scant,” admits Beryl Lott, the historic environment manager for Lincolnshire County Council, calling the excavation “very exciting”.
“While the discovery was totally unexpected, it is well known that other Roman walled towns often contained some form of high-status use during the Anglo-Saxon period.
“This will greatly increase our knowledge not just of the castle, but of uphill Lincoln as well. It’s a major find and we look forward to future developments.”
Tiny impressions of the cloth used to envelope the body were visible on the mortar of the wall, suggesting a “votive deposit” of the sort usually associated with holy dedications of buildings.
Archaeologists took a day to fully unearth the late Saxon sarcophagus the body rested in.
“The first step was to take a 3D scan of the coffin itself,” says Mary Powell, the programme manager for the Heritage Lottery Fund-backed Lincoln Castle Revealed project, which will eventually lead to a major public exhibition.
“Then we carefully opened it up to see what was inside. The body appeared to be wearing leather boots or shoes, which was usual for this period. This would suggest that it was someone of importance.
“Finding a sarcophagus from this period that’s still undisturbed is extremely rare, so this discovery is of national significance.
“The next step will be to thoroughly analyse both the sarcophagus and the remains to learn as much as we can from it. This will undoubtedly increase what we know about Saxon Lincoln.”
“The team has been carrying out DNA examinations of the skeletons and hope to create a digital reconstruction of what the man in the sarcophagus looked like.”