Wednesday, 10th April, 2013
8,000 artefacts and rising: City dig pronounced the ‘most important ever’ in London
Archaeologists have nicknamed the site ‘the Pompeii of the North’
When archaeologists were called to a site in the City of London where an ugly office block and a bar once stood, they were sceptical that it held any secrets.
Yet six months into the dig on Bloomberg Place, a three-acre site close to Mansion House tube station, experts believed they have stumbled across the most important find of Roman London artefacts in recent memory and have dubbed it the “Pompeii of the north”.
Sophie Jackson, from the Museum of London Archaeology (Mola), is managing the site. She said: “We have a huge amount of stuff from the first four hundred years of London. It will tell us so much about the people of London. We will get names and addresses, things we’ve never had before. It’s really exciting.”
Archaeologists have so far discovered 8,000 objects and expect that to rise to 10,000 by the time the project is finished. These include writing tablets,
clothing, jewellery and
pottery as well as parts of buildings that will help build a picture of thriving London life from around 40 AD to the fifth century.
Ms Jackson said: “Why the site is so incredibly important is the preservation of archaeological finds which are normally decayed, or lost or destroyed on other sites.” The reason many of the objects are so well preserved is that one of London’s lost rivers, the Walbrook River, ran under the site, with the damp conditions preserving the objects.
Michael Marshall, Roman find specialist at Mola, said the findings would “completely transform” understanding of Roman London. “There are very few civilian sites. This is the largest assemblage discovered in London.”
Bloomberg is building its new headquarters on the site and in late 2010 started demolition of Bucklersbury House, build in 1952.
It was that original development – which made the discovery of the Temple of Mithras on the site – that had led the archaeologists to believe there would be little of historical value left.
Ms Jackson said: “We thought that construction had removed all the archaeology on the site. We thought: ‘What a shame, it’s all gone.’ Then we found that around the edges, archaeology survives.”
Yet, the newly uncovered treasures include 250 leather shoes, writing tablets that may give clues to names and addresses of Roman Londoners, as well as several items never seen before.
This included a stitched leather furnishing never before seen in Roman discoveries and
an amber amulet in the shape of a gladiator’s head.
Over 150 fragments of writing tablets have been discovered in one room – in what was described as similar to finding an abandoned filing cabinet – with information written on or scratched into them about people who lived in London at the time.
Archaeologists expect to double the number of names known in London to over 30, although nothing is certain. Mr Marshall said: “It’s an amazing accident when the text survives.”
Ms Jackson added: ““These are really exciting; there are only 14 references to London in all of Roman literature.”
The objects ended up in the ground generally from two ways, people throwing objects into refuse pits, or throwing them into the river as offerings.
The wetness of the ground proved particularly fortuitous, helping preserve the organic remains, and Mr Marshall called it the “best site in London” for Roman remains.
“No oxygen could get at the organics, so wood, leather, horn, and occasionally textiles survive in these conditions. The rest of the city of London doesn’t get that water logging. It gives us a picture of what it would have been all over the whole city.” The Temple of Mithras, which was dismantled and moved down the road in 1954, will also return as part of the building works. It will be restored to the original site with a viewing area built into the new Bloomberg headquarters.
London’s ‘deepest’ Roman excavation finds [pictures with link]
Current Archaeology [pictures with link]
Wednesday, 3rd April, 2013
In what was once the housekeeper’s office of a Tudor mansion in Hampshire, a very odd golden ring glitters on a revolving stand in a tall perspex column. In chapter five of The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins finds a ring in the gloom of Gollum’s cave. Not just any ring. “One very beautiful thing, very beautiful, very wonderful. He had a ring, a golden ring, a precious ring.”
A new exhibition opening today at The Vyne, now owned by the National Trust, raises the intriguing possibility that the Roman ring in the case, and the ring of power in JRR Tolkien‘s book The Hobbit, and in his Lord of the Rings trilogy, are one and the same.
As Dave Green, the property manager, explains, there’s more to the story than the ring – an iron-age site with ancient mine workings known as “the Dwarf’s Hill”, a curse on the thief who stole the ring, and a strong link to Tolkien himself.
Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford before he found fame as an author, with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937, and the first of the Rings trilogy in 1954. He certainly knew the story of the curse and the ring, and was researching the subject two years before he began work on The Hobbit.
The ring was in the collection of the Chute family – which for generations was interested in politics, collecting, and antiquarian research – for centuries before the house came to the National Trust in the 1930s.
“I was looking for the ring to show a visitor, and I walked right past the case with it – that’s when I decided we really had to make more of this amazing thing,” Green said. As well as the exhibition room, created with the help of the Tolkien Trust, the house now has a dwarf trail for children and a new playground with circular tunnels and green hillocks recalling Bilbo’s home, Bag End.
The ring was probably found in 1785 by a farmer ploughing a few miles away within the walls of Silchester, one of the most enigmatic Roman sites in the country – a town which flourished before the Roman invasion, was abandoned by the 7th century and was never reoccupied.
There are no details of exactly when it was found, but historians assume the farmer sold it to the history loving wealthy family at The Vyne. It was a strikingly odd object, 12g of gold so large that it would only fit on a gloved thumb, ornamented with a peculiar spiky head wearing a diadem, and a Latin inscription reading: “Senicianus live well in God“.
A few decades later and 100 miles away, more of the story turned up: at Lydney in Gloucestershire, a Roman site known locally as the Dwarf’s Hill, a tablet with an inscribed curse was found. A Roman called Silvianus informs the god Nodens that his ring has been stolen. He knows the villain responsible, and he wants the god to sort them out: “Among those who bear the name of Senicianus to none grant health until he bring back the ring to the temple of Nodens.”
Lydney was re-excavated by the maverick archaeologist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, who called in Tolkien in 1929 to advise on the odd name of the god – and also spotted the connection between the name on the curse and the Chute family’s peculiar ring. It seems that Senicianus only got as far as Silchester before he lost his booty.
Dr Lynn Forest-Hill of the Tolkien Trust said Tolkien’s source was usually assumed to be literary sources, including the Niebelung legends. “It is, then, particularly fascinating to see the physical evidence of the Vyne ring, with its links to Tolkien through the inscription associating it with a curse.”
The ring is now on display with a first edition of The Hobbit and a copy of the curse – visitors are invited to vote on whether they are looking at the original of Bilbo’s ring.
Wednesday, 13th March, 2013
Cirencester Roman cockerel ‘best find’ in 40 years
A restored Roman cockerel figurine is the best result from a Cirencester dig in decades, archaeologists have said.
The enamelled object, which dates back as far as 100 AD, was unearthed during a dig in 2011 at one of Britain’s earliest-known burial sites.
It has now returned from conservation work and finders Cotswold Archaeology said it “looks absolutely fantastic”.
The 12.5cm bronze figure was discovered inside a child’s grave and is thought to have been a message to the gods.
It is believed that the Romans gave religious significance to the cockerel which was known to be connected with Mercury.
Experts say it was Mercury, a messenger to the gods, that was also responsible for conducting newly-deceased souls to the afterlife.
The figurine had to be sent away for conservation work to be carried out which has taken four months to complete.
Archaeologist Neil Holbrook, from Cotswold Archaeology, said the work had “exceeded expectations”, particularly for highlighting its fine enamel detail.
“It reinforces what a fantastic article this is and how highly prized and expensive it must have been,” he said.
“This must have cost, in current money, thousands of pounds to buy and countless hours to make, and so to actually put this into the grave of a two or three-year-old child is not something that you would do lightly.
“It really shows that this was a very wealthy, important family, and signifies the love that the parents had for the dead child.”
The cockerel was found during excavation work at the former Bridges Garage site on Tetbury Road in Cirencester – once the second largest town in Roman Britain.
A burial site was unearthed at the site including more than 40 burials and four cremations; something experts said was the largest archaeological find in the town since the 1970s.
This particular figurine is one of only four ever found in Britain, with a total of eight known from the whole of the Roman Empire.
Mr Holbrook added: “Without a doubt this is the best Roman cockerel ever found in Britain.
“This is the best find that I have seen come out of Cirencester in 30 to 40 years and is of national significance.”
The object is believed to have been made in northern Britain, with evidence pointing to a workshop in Castleford, West Yorkshire, which made enamel artefacts.
Talks are under way for a permanent display of the cockerel, possibly at the Corinium Museum in Cirencester.
Saturday, 9th March, 2013
Archaeologists revealed this week that the dig at Camp Farm last summer has unearthed what appears to be a Christian church, dating back to the 5th or 6th century.
Experts believe the possible church, built in an east-west direction, was positioned so it could be seen at Whithorn, the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, on the other side of the Solway Firth.
They revealed their findings exclusively to a Maryport audience crowded into the town’s Senhouse museum on Tuesday night.
Tony Wilmott, site director, said that volunteers on the dig had discovered what appeared to be Christian long cist graves. In one they found fragments of bone and a tooth.
Forensic work has since discovered that the remains may be of an individual, possibly a girl, aged about 14 but was unable to carbon date the remains.
He added: “However, one of the graduate students, Lauren Proctor, discovered a small fragment of textile while processing soil samples from one of the graves.
“It was a tiny piece of wool no bigger than my fingernail. The remarkable thing was that it has survived all these centuries.”
Radiocarbon dating indicated that the fleece was probably sheared between AD 240 and AD 340, placing it in a late Roman context.
Dig director Professor Ian Haynes, of Newcastle University, said: “This is big news. Maryport was already an important site.
“The discovery of pits containing altars in 1870 led to a belief that these stones were ritually buried by the Roman army. This is something that became accepted.
“What we discovered was that the altars were actually buried as ballast to support the large posts used for the church buildings.”
He added that activity at the church site may well have begun before 410 AD and that a Latin-using Christian community occupied the hill top for some decades afterwards.
Mr Wilmott said: “In the end, the least unlikely explanation is that the structures include a Christian church.”
Monday, 24th September, 2012
’Important’ Roman site found at Llanedwen, Anglesey
Archaeological work on the banks of the Menai Strait has revealed evidence of what has been described as “a Roman site of some importance”.
The site at Llanedwen, Anglesey, revealed “an unusual amount of high status material, suggesting a Roman site with links to the military”.
The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust says road works and a honeycomb of buildings were found, but no defensive ditches.
Pottery and coins found were also discovered at the site.
The works at Trefarthen was funded by historic monuments agency Cadw.
Artefacts have yet to be analysed but it is believed they show the military site was in use from the 1st Century shortly after the Roman invasion through to the end of the 4th Century.
The site is located opposite Caernarfon, which is home to Segontium, a major part of the Roman military presence in Wales.
Dave Hopewell, of Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, said: “It changes our view of how we see Roman Wales really, and Roman Britain to a certain extent.
“It has always been assumed that we were in a militarised zone here and there was no Roman or Romanised civilian settlement at all.”
Thursday, 16th August, 2012
If you were called Sacratus, Constitutus or Memorianus, and had some bad luck in Roman Kent, archaeologists may have discovered why. A “curse tablet” made of lead and buried in a Roman farmstead has been unearthed in East Farleigh.
Inscribed in capital letters are the names of 14 people, which experts believe were intended to have bad spells cast upon them.
The tablet is being examined by a specialist from Oxford University. It was discovered by the Maidstone Area Archaeological Group during a dig and has undergone a detailed series of tests. Measuring 6cm (2.3in) by 10cm (3.9in) and 1mm thick, the tablet is extremely fragile.
Experts believe it would have been used by Romans to cast spells on people accused of theft and other misdeeds.
The tablets, which have been found throughout Europe, were rolled up to conceal their inscriptions, then hidden in places considered to be close to the underworld, such as graves, springs or wells.
Dr Roger Tomlin, lecturer in late Roman history at Wolfson College, Oxford, and an authority on Roman inscriptions, spent four days examining the scroll.
He said it is difficult to date the tablet but believes it was made in the third century AD.
“Lists of names are quite often found on lead tablets,” he said. “Sometimes they accompany a complaint of theft addressed to a god, and name persons suspected of the theft.
“In one case, a tablet found in Germany, the names were explicitly those of enemies.”
The tablet’s significance also lies in the fact that Romans were the first inhabitants of Britain who could read or write.
This means the tablet, along with other similar items, are among the earliest written records of British life.
Only six of the 14 names are legible. The Roman names of Sacratus, Constitutus, Constan and Memorianus can be seen.
There are also two Celtic names – Atrectus and Atidenus – written on the tablet.
Dr Tomlin said the eight other names are incomplete, but further cleaning and testing could lead to them being transcribed.
He added: “If this is a curse tablet, which it seems to be, it is presumably a product of its local community – so it is a reasonable guess that the persons named on it lived there.”
The Sittingbourne-based Conservation Science Investigations (CSI) is being funded by the Kent Archaeological Society to conserve the tablet.
It is hoped that visitors to its offices will be able to watch some of the work take place.
Since 2005, the site has been slowly excavated with finds such as painted wall plaster and an underfloor heating system being discovered.
Other notable artefacts have included broken copper bracelets found scattered on the kitchen floor and a ring, decorated with snakes.
Pearce, J. 2004. ‘Archaeology, writing tablets and literacy in Roman Britain’, Gallia, Volume 61: 43-51.
Daniels, A.J., 2009, ‘Roman Buildings at East Farleigh: An Update’, KAS Newsletter, No. 82: 4-5.
Wednesday, 23rd May, 2012
In the Archæological Museum in Cambridge [was] a stone coffin* [The Arbury Coffin] containing the skeletons of a woman, a mouse and a shrew. The ankle-bone of the woman has been slightly gnawed. The exhibit inspired Sylvia Plath to write a poem: All the Dead Dears.
Rigged poker -stiff on her back
With a granite grin
This antique museum-cased lady
Lies, companioned by the gimcrack
Relics of a mouse and a shrew
That battened for a day on her ankle-bone.
These three, unmasked now, bear
To the gross eating game
We’d wink at if we didn’t hear
Stars grinding, crumb by crumb,
Our own grist down to its bony face.
How they grip us through think and thick,
These barnacle dead!
This lady here’s no kin
Of mine, yet kin she is: she’ll suck
Blood and whistle my narrow clean
To prove it.
As I think now of her hand,
From the mercury-backed glass
Mother, grandmother, greatgrandmother
Reach hag hands to haul me in,
And an image looms under the fishpond surface
Where the daft father went down
With orange duck-feet winnowing this hair —
All the long gone darlings:
They Get back, though, soon,
Soon: be it by wakes, weddings,
Childbirths or a family barbecue:
Any touch, taste, tang’s
Fit for those outlaws to ride home on,
And to sanctuary: usurping the armchair
Between tick And tack of the clock, until we go,
Each skulled-and-crossboned Gulliver
Riddled with ghosts, to lie
Deadlocked with them, taking roots as cradles rock.
TUE 19 JUNE 2012
Roman Arbury and Sylvia Plath Talk
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
Talk with questions and answers looking at the Roman period in Arbury, north Cambridge.
In the 1950s, excavations revealed a number of Roman burials in Arbury. One lead-lined coffin, complete with a female skeleton, went on display in Cambridge. The exhibit that inspired Sylvia Plath is now back on display in a temporary exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.
C. Fell. 1955. ‘Roman Burials at Arbury Road, 1952′, Proc. Camb. Arch. Soc. 49: 13-23. Burial 4.
*The almost seven foot long, stone coffin and lid were of Barnack Rag (Oolitic limestone), found with the lid already broken. Pieces of the woollen shroud, in plain weave and matt weave survived and also some snail- shells, as well as the mouse and shrew skeletons with the female skeleton.
As a matter of coincidence, my husband purchased a few East Anglian magazines from a Jubilee stall in the High Street. One of the magazines (dated March, 1954, Volume 13 (5)) had an article which makes mention of the finding of the coffins in Arbury Road, Cambridge:
‘It was hereabouts that the Roman Road known as Akeman Street ran through from Cambridge to Ely. The remains of a house and many pieces of pottery have been found, also a Roman well, lined with oak board and still intact. late coins were found, too, and one of the Emperor Trajan (98-117 A.D.).’ [Lister, I. F., p.303]
‘On this Arbury Road site at Chesterton, Cambridge, there were discovered in 1952 coffins hewn out of solid stone and lined with lead a quarter of an inch thick and each containing a perfect skeleton perhaps about 1500 years old.’ [Lister, I. F., p.304]
The ancient stone coffin discovered on the Arbury Road site, Chesterton (Lister 1954: 303)
Wednesday, 28th March, 2012
EXPERTS believe they have found the remains of the earliest stringed instrument ever found in Western Europe – dating to more than 2,300 years ago – at an excavation on the Island of Skye.
Cabinet Secretary for Culture Fiona Hyslop today revealed the small wooden fragment that it is believed comes from a lyre. It has been burnt and broken, but the notches where strings would have been placed are easy to distinguish on the artefact.
Music archaeologists Dr Graeme Lawson and Dr John Purser studied the fragment which was discovered at High Pasture Cave.
Dr Lawson, of Cambridge Music-archaeological Research, said: “For Scotland – and indeed all of us in these islands – this is very much a step change. It pushes the history of complex music back more than a thousand years, into our darkest pre-history. And not only the history of music but more specifically of song and poetry, because that’s what such instruments were very often used for.
“The earliest known lyres date from about 5,000 years ago, in what is now Iraq: and these were already complicated and finely-made structures. But here in Europe even Roman traces proved hard to locate. Pictures, maybe: but no actual remains.
“But it’s the location of the find that keeps amazing – and delighting – us. Here is an object which places the Hebrides, and by association the neighbouring mainlands, in a musical relationship not only with the rest of the Barbarian world but also with famous civilisations. It now becomes a world that was held together not just by technology and trade but also by something as ephemeral and wonderful as music and poetry and song.”
Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs Fiona Hyslop said: “This is an incredible find and it clearly demonstrates how our ancestors were using music and ritual in their lives. The evidence shows that Skye was a gathering place over generations and that it obviously had an important role to play in the celebration and ritual of life more than 2,000 years ago.
“A project like this brings so many organisations and individuals together. The site has revealed insights into the practises of people who continued to use the cave complex over a very long period.
“This find is exciting and shows the variety of expertise there is in archaeology. The skilled excavation team realised immediately that they had something special, the finds were then passed onto the laboratory and then specialists in musical traditions were able to support that initial realisation. All of it leading to today and us being able to unveil this replica of what the lyre would have looked like.”
The bridge was found during the excavations of High Pasture Cave.
Archaeologist Steven Birch said: “Access to the natural cave at High Pastures was of prime importance to the people using the site and throughout its use the entrance was modified on several occasions which included the construction of a stone-built stairwell. Descending the steep and narrow steps, the transition from light to dark transports you out of one world into a completely different realm, where the human senses are accentuated. Within the cave, sound forms a major component of this transformation, the noise of the underground stream in particular producing a calming environment.
“The cave provided a major focus for a wide range of activities including metalworking, craft specialisation and the deposition of everyday objects, human remains and the debris from some major feasting events. These activities took place at the site over a period of some 800 years between the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, although the use of the site extends back in time for at least 5000 years.
“The discovery of the wooden bridge from the musical instrument represents a fitting end to the excavations at the site and conjures up a vivid image of the past, showing people gathering together for religious ceremonies, feasting on pig and cattle, and drinking to the accompaniment of music.”
Cultural historian Dr John Purser said: “What, for me, is so exciting about this find is that it confirms the continuity of a love of music amongst the Western Celts.
“Stringed instruments, being usually made of wood, rarely survive in the archaeological record; but they are referred to in the very earliest literature, and, in various forms, were to feature on many stone carvings in Scotland and Ireland, and to become emblematic in both countries.
“Such an instrument would traditionally have been used in a number of contexts, but in particular for accompanying song, declamation and recitation. The panegyric tradition is deeply embedded in Gaelic culture, and within that tradition includes praise songs, funeral elegies, and incitement.
“In the Gaelic tradition there were three basic types of music – “Sleep strain”, “Wail strain” and “Laughter strain”*. We may legitimately imagine the musician who owned and played this instrument, performing such music both as a soloist, in combination with other instruments and especially, with the human voice.”
The project was supported by Highland Council, Historic Scotland and the National Museums of Scotland.
Convener of The Highland Council, Councillor Sandy Park said: “The Highland Council is delighted to support the research at High Pasture Cave and we are very excited about the implications of this extremely significant find. The Island of Skye has long been a seat of musical tradition but we had no idea how far back in time people were playing in this area.
“The discovery of a fragment of the oldest stringed instrument in Western Europe, will not only put the Highlands of Scotland firmly on the musical map of ancient Europe but it will benefit tourism on the island immensely. I am looking forward to hearing the full results of this research which I am sure will be a major feature in the Highland Archaeology Festival seminar in October.”
Dr Fraser Hunter, Principal Curator, Iron Age and Roman Collections, National Museums Scotland, said: “This find puts sound into the silent past. National Museums Scotland is delighted to be supporting the project by carrying out work on a wide range of finds from the site. This new research is casting fresh light on the lives and beliefs of people 2000 years ago.”
When fieldwork was completed in 2010 the artefacts were transferred to AOC Archaeology in Loanhead, Edinburgh, for conservation.
Dr Andy Heald, MD of AOC Archaeology said: “Previous to this the earliest musical representation we had encountered had been a carved concert lyre and plectrum on the side of an exquisite Roman altar we excavated from Musselburgh in 2010 but to have an actual fragment of an even earlier lyre really fires the imagination. It brings another dimension of our Iron Age antecedents to life.”
Also from the High Pasture Cave excavation:
A number of unusual finds merit more detailed comment. Foremost is a cache of seven bone/antler points, their tips showing polish and fine circumferential wear. The wear pattern is an unusual one, and the only comparanda known to the writers are tuning pegs for lyres, the wear arising from the movement of the wire. These are a highly unusual find, but there is a similar example from Cnip, Lewis (Hunter 2006, 147-8, fig 3.24a). If the identification is accepted, the discovery of seven pegs together suggests we may be dealing with the deposition of a complete lyre, perhaps with seven strings.
Depictions of lyres:
Statuette with a lyre
Height: 42 cm
Dating to the third century – the second century BC
From the excavation site of Paule-Saint-Symphorien, Brittany and found in a ditch, this is a statue, wearing a torc, bears the attributes of the bard, the lyre and the wreath. despite the damage to the legs, the figure appears to be in a seated position.
Coin image of lyre from Britain. The lyre is found on coins of the central Armorican tribes from modern-day Brittany. However this is a local variant struck by the Atrebatic tribe modelled on continental coins and dating to the mid-1st century BC.
* ‘Lug played the three magic harp-strains so often referred to in the Irish texts – sleep-strain, wail-strain and laughter strain, which in turn caused slumber, mourning and joy.’ MacCulloch, J. A. 1898, The Mythology of All Races. Volume III: 29.
Further reading: Ralls-MacLeod, K. 2000. Music and the Celtic Other World. Particularly chapter 4: Effects – about the Three Strains: suantraigi, genntraigi, golltraigi.