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A Roman Chi-Rho Graffito

By finds, News

Our Roman pottery specialist Eniko has written a fascinating article on this rare and significant find, just published in Britannia.

The inscribed sherd was found during our excavations at Brandon House in Southwark and is only the second example to be found in London.

The Chi-Rho graffito – photo by Strephon Duckering and drawing by Roger Tomlin.

The site is located on what would have been the edge of the Borough Channel, north of the junction of the Roman roads Stane Street and Watling Street – an area of land reclaimed after AD50, with buildings in use until the first half of the second century. After this time the buildings were demolished and the area was sealed by a dark earth layer in which the sherd was found.

The sherd is a fragment of an Oxfordshire Red Colour-Coated type C100 mortarium, dated to AD300-400, and shows internal wear and sooting on the exterior. The graffito consists of a capital P overlain by a capital X, confirmed by Roger Tomlin as a Chi-Rho.

The Chi-Rho is the oldest Christian symbol and this graffito represents its earliest type, called the ‘Constantinian’ Chi-Rho. The letters P and X stand for the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, which means ‘the anointed one’. The emperor Constantine is said to have won the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in AD312 under this early form of the sign, which subsequently led to widespread use among the Christian community. Although common on many objects , such as coins, dress accessories and seals, it’s rare to find it on pottery, making this a remarkable find.

Eniko suggests that position and size of this graffito, underneath the flange and therefore only visible from below, could mean it was intended for display, and as an aide for its identification when placed on a high shelf. She also notes as significant that the symbol appears on a mortarium, thought to be used for grinding foodstuffs in a communal setting, with the implication that it comes from a vessel belonging to a Christian community in Southwark for use in communal dining.

This was the only Christian find from the site, however the pottery assemblage contained several other pieces with graffiti and perforations which can be linked to ritual and religious activity. Perforated pots are commonly found as structured deposits having been ritually ‘killed’ in this way, for example at another PCA site nearby at Swan Street. Here, at least six wells or shafts produced evidence of ritual activity in the form of damaged vessels and disarticulated human and animal remains, displaying continiuty of tradition dating back to the Late Iron Age.

Our forthcoming monograph on Brandon House will discuss this in greater detail, but in the meantime if you’d like to read more of Eniko’s fabulous research, a pdf of her article is available by clicking this link: A Chi-Rho Graffito from Brandon House, Southwark

The Bronze Age cremation urn – an update

By Excavations at Cholsey, finds, News No Comments

The Bronze Age vessel we found in April at Cholsey has now been micro-excavated, with potentially fascinating results!

The beautifully decorated cremation urn was found deliberately buried in the centre of a droveway running through the site in Oxfordshire as an apparent votive offering.

Scans confirmed it held a cremation, and the precise 3-dimensional model produced was used to inform our micro-excavation and sub-sampling strategies. The radiographer identified a possible metal object in the urn so we were excited to see what this might be!

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The ‘metal’ object turned out to be a very dense pebble of pyrite, a mineral named after the Greek ‘pyr’ meaning ‘fire’. The urn also contained a piece of struck flint – a plano-convex knife with semi-invasive retouch around all edges. These types of implement were frequently used as grave goods during the Early Bronze Age, this one having been placed after the cremation process with the deceased’s ashes by the mourners. They seem to be quite personal objects and may even acted as a kind of insignia or token of their identity – interestingly this one doesn’t seem to have been used very much and may even have been made specially for the funeral. It is particularly impressive as it seems to have incorporated, or been crafted around, the oval inclusion in the middle which makes it even more striking!

Together these two items raise the exciting and fascinating possibility that they could form part of a strike-a-light, or ‘fire-kit’, attested to in prehistoric mortuary contexts throughout Britain. There is the suggestion of a use-notch on one end of the stone and the rough split edge would produce sparks when struck the flint; these types of knives are known to have been used to make fire in this way.

Strike-a-light kits consisted of a ‘striker’ – a piece of flint, a ‘strike-stone’ – an ironstone such as this and tinder, for example moss, which depending on soil conditions may leave no trace. Evidence suggests that these kits occur most frequently with the burial of adult males; additionally they’re often known to be associated with high-status burials. They have been argued to be symbolic inclusions in a cremation, rather than related to their use, which could explain the minimal wear patterns so far observed.

However, these artefacts will now undertake the next stage of their journey: closer examination by our lithics and stone specialists who may be able to shed more light on the matter! We’ll keep you posted!

Find of the week!

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We’ve had another exciting find from one of our evaluations this week!

This semi-complete urn, with decoration which commonly occurs on middle and middle-late Bronze Age pottery, and also (although less commonly) on post Deverel-Rimbury late Bronze Age pottery, contained a cremation along with these two copper-alloy objects.

One of these, a hollow hexagonal tube approximately 15mm long, appears to have been cast, and may be part of an implement such as a socketed axe or small socketed hammer. The second item, a flat, irregularly shaped piece of plate scrap, measures approximately 31mm across at the widest point and has a rectangular cross-section; this item was recovered from near the base of the vessel and will require further analysis for a more precise identification.

The association of the urn with an adjacent ring ditch is unlikely to be coincidental and the vessel may turn out to be one of a number of such deposits on the site in which other metalwork has been buried. We’ll keep you updated if this turns out to be the case!