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Breaking news: A collection of 13 Roman sheep in a ditch

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During excavation of a Roman settlement-edge site in the Fens in Cambridgeshire, we discovered approximately 13 sheep skeletons in a ditch. The skeletons are currently cleaned and prepared for detailed photogrammetry recording and eventual lifting, following advice by PCA’s animal bone specialist Kevin Rielly and the Historic England Regional Science Advisor. Preliminary assessment on site estimates that most of the sheep were juveniles. The bones are articulated but not all body parts are present. There are few butchery marks so how the sheep came to be in the ditch is still open to interpretation! 

LAMAS 58th Annual Conference of London Archaeologists

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This year’s conference will be held on Saturday, 19th March 2022, 10.45am to 5pm via zoom.

The morning sessions are, as usual, dedicated to a series of papers covering recent major excavations. PCA’s Ireneo Grosso will be giving a talk at midday called ‘The Roman cemetery at Great Suffolk Street’. The afternoon sessions focus on excavations along the line of High Speed 2.

Click here for further details and a programme of the day’s talks.

Our excavation of a large basement at Suffolk House in Southwark revealed a Roman cemetery with 64 skeletons, including both adult and juvenile, men and women, and 5 cremations. This area of Londinium‘s southern cemetery lay near where two Roman roads, lined with funerary monuments, converged. The burials date from the 1st- to 4th-centuries and most of the graves had evidence of wooden coffins, with iron nails around the base of the graves. A broad range of burial rites was observed including a crouched burial, decapitated skeletons with the head placed next to the legs or beneath the torso, a grave lined with large sherds of a Dressel 20 amphora and skeletons with their hands tied behind their backs, as well as a number of disarticulated human remains.

The grave goods recovered included a spectacular complete 3rd-4th century glass bottle with decorative bands on the neck and body; its handles, applied at the shoulder and neck, form ‘dolphins’. Other complete vessels, some containing cremations, include an Alice Holt/Farnham ware ring-necked flagon with burnished decoration and a Nene Valley beaker with painted floral scrolls (pictured below). These wonderful finds feature on the front cover of the latest edition of London Archaeologist.

Use this form to book your tickets:

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From Healing Waters to a Font of Knowledge

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We’re pleased to announce our latest publication, which is available as a free open-access download, with hard copies also available for sale on our publications page.

This booklet details the results of a built heritage survey of one of Hexham’s most important buildings: the former hydropathic hotel, known locally as the Hydro.

A late 19th-century engraving of the Tynedale Hydropathic Hotel.

The iconic building has been occupied by Queen Elizabeth High School since 1974, and the decision to relocate Hexham Middle School to the campus, and to provide both schools with new buildings, offered us the opportunity for a detailed examination of the historic core of the site.

In this fully-illustrated booklet we depict the many social and architectural changes which have occurred since the first building, Westfield House (left in the picture above), was established on the site in the late 19th century. This lavishly-decorated villa, surrounded by acres of landscaped grounds with a walled garden, was occupied by the successful Earthenware Manufacturer CT Maling, who updated and extended the property. His additions included a fernery and conservatory; at the time of their construction in the late 1850s glasshouses such as these were the height of fashion.

The presence of a chalybete spring in the grounds of Westfield House, along with Victorian enthusiasm for ‘taking the waters’, led to the construction of the Hexham Hydropathic Hotel in 1879. This magnificent building was designed with a central tower and many exotic features, including Turkish baths, a ballroom and elaborate stained glass windows, some of which survive today. The hotel continued trading until the Second World War, when it was repurposed as a hospital for sick children before being purchased by Northumberland County Council as an education establishment.

Our booklet, illustrated with historic images and details of the features recorded during the built heritage survey, also includes photographs of the idyllic walled garden, which had become overgrown and neglected before being rediscovered by a new generation who restored it to its former glory. The state-of-the-art development reflects and respects what went before, with the courtyard at its heart using the footprint of the original walled garden, thus providing an element of continuity during the evolution of the complex.

‘From Healing Waters to a Font of Knowledge’ – click here to read, download or purchase.

The school complex today.

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!

Rooted Cities Wandering Gods 2021

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This conference will be held from 18-20 November in Groningen as a hybrid event, where participants can attend in person or online; click here for more details.

Meagan Mangum, one of our newer staff members, will be giving a talk on 18th November:

‘Identity and Oisyme: Greco-Thracian Cult in the Archaic North Aegean’

On the south side of Eleutheres Bay in Northern Greece, stands a small hill crowned with boulders. In the Archaic and Classical Periods, it was the acropolis of Oisyme, a sub-colony of the Thasos, itself colonised from Paros in the late 7th century BC. Identified as the Homeric Aisyme home of Casteniera, wife of Priam and mother of Gorgythion, the site was occupied from the Early Iron Age (EIA) on. We have no concrete name for the specific tribe, people or settlement of this era, just the vague appellation ‘Thracian’. The Archaic/Classical era deity worshiped there is also uncertain, although dedications and spatial organisation suggest a female deity with kotouphoric, chthonic attributes. Excavators suggested the deity may Athena Poliochos based on parallels to her Sanctuary at Thasos. Recent research at Thasos, however, offers an alternative interpretation based on pre-colonial Thracian practices, such as those seen at the urban Temples of Heracles and Artemis. A similar practice may have occurred at nearby Neapolis where the Parthenos, identified as a Hellenized version of the Thracian Artemis or Bendis, was the primary deity. The use and preservation of pre-colonial structures at Oisyme through the Roman era tied the settlement to its fictional and physical past and suggests a similar blending of Greek and Thracian practice. Locally such a merger could have aided the populations to construct a single, coherent polis identity, the Oisymians of ‘deep-soiled Thrace’ (Iliad 11.222). Seen from a micro-regional level, this activity may provide evidence of a shared religious practice that bound the members of the Thasian Peraia into a supra-civic community. This paper argues that the Oisymian acropolis, when viewed diachronically, demonstrates a complex semiotics that communicated shaped their self-perception as citizens and worshippers.

Find of the week!

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A wonderful find from one of our sites yesterday!

This complete German Frechen stoneware Bartmann (or Bellarmine) jug has a benign face and a medallion with an unknown coat of arms. It dates from c. 1580-90 and was used for serving alcohol (probably ale).

Complete examples of these jugs are more frequent finds than other post-medieval pots because they are a robust stoneware and were often used as witch bottles buried whole, containing nails, hair, urine and other items. Witch bottles were usually buried on the threshold of homes and used to trap and stop evil spirits entering the home. Examination of the contents will reveal whether this is the case with this example!

The faces on Bartmann (which is German for ‘bearded man’) jugs may be a derivation of the green man motif.

Before Bedale: a talk

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Dr James Gerrard will be giving a talk in the Ballroom at Bedale Hall, on Friday 29th October 2021 at 7pm, on the results of our excavations ahead of the Bedale, Aiskew and Leeming Bar bypass in North Yorkshire. A selection of artefacts will be on display.

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