The Joy of X (rays)

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Unprepossessing lumps of rusty iron are very common finds from excavations. As part of the post-excavation process we x-ray these objects to see behind the corrosion.  Usually the x-rays reveal a nail or a fragmentary scrap item, and while all objects have the potential to add to our understanding of a site, individually these objects are not usually very compelling.  Just occasionally, however, x-rays reveal something far more interesting.

Very rusty object before conservationX-ray reveals a Roman dagger attachment

For instance, this very corroded D-shaped object was found on an excavation just outside Gloucester. The x-ray showed it to be an object of complex form, with areas of what appeared to be white-metal plating (tin or silver). A bit of research revealed it to be an attachment from a Roman legionary’s dagger or pugio, probably dating to the 1st-century AD.  Surviving examples of military daggers of this period indicate that these were often beautifully-made ‘status’ items, highly decorated with silver inlay. A find such as this may be of considerable value in helping interpret a site. But only if it is x-rayed!

Ed McSloy

Reconstruction drawing of a Roman legionary’s pugio, based on an example from Velsen, Netherlands, showing the iron attachment from Gloucester in context’
Reconstruction drawing of a Roman legionary’s pugio, based on an example from Velsen, Netherlands, showing the iron attachment from Gloucester in context

Remodelling of Crumlin Road Courthouse, Belfast

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Cotswold Archaeology assists with the remodelling of Crumlin Road Courthouse, Belfast, into a high-quality Signature Living hotel.

The term to be ‘sent down’ has several connotations, but in Belfast it literally described what happened when a defendant was sentenced by a judge in the Crumlin Road courthouse, as they were taken beneath Courtroom No. 1, through a long brick-lined tunnel, to emerge inside Crumlin Road jail and begin their sentence. Built in 1850 to a neo-classical design, Crumlin Road courthouse witnessed some of the largest trials in UK history and was an iconic landmark during The Troubles, where, in 1983 alone, 22 IRA suspects were jailed for a total of 4000 years. A number of ‘supergrass’ trials were also held in the courthouse during the early 1980s.

Surveying Crumlin Road Courthouse

Now ruinous, the courthouse closed in 1998 and has suffered from vandalism, several fires and general neglect. Several previous attempts to restore and re-use the former courthouse failed to develop, but Signature Living, based in Liverpool, have evolved a viable high-quality hotel scheme that has been welcomed in Stormont, the home of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Crumlin Road Courthouse 3D model

Crumlin Road Courthouse ceiling

 

Cotswold Archaeology’s Historic Building Consultants and Geomatics Team are working closely with Signature Living to record the building during this exciting development. Courtroom No. 1 is to be reconstructed and we are providing expert advice on the courthouse’s historic fabric to aid in the remodelling. We are delighted to work with and support Signature Living in this significant and impressive re-use of one of Belfast’s most iconic buildings in this ongoing project.

Garry Campion  


Stunning mosaic found in Roman Villa near Boxford

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The project.

Since 2015 Cotswold Archaeology has been involved in a three year community archaeology project “Revealing Boxford’s Ancient Heritage”. A joint project involving the BHP (Boxford History Project), the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group and CA, the project was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and involved investigating three closely linked Roman sites near to the village of Boxford in West Berkshire.

Supported by our archaeologists, the local community groups and volunteers explored the function, status, chronology, extent and relationship of the three sites, which represented a significant focus of high-status Roman occupation in the Lambourn Valley. During the first year of the project such investigations uncovered a large villa and bath house, with a farmstead following in the second year. Following on from a successful two years, the final year of the project did not disappoint!

Roman Boxford Dig 2017.

Roman plunge pool
Roman plunge pool

This year kicked off to a great start, with finds recorded on the first day comprising a child’s bracelet and coins. Led by CA’s Matt Nichol, with the help of Agata, Alice, Keighley and Joe, the volunteers worked quickly to uncover the remains of the main villa, a probable barn, a gateway into the courtyard and other associated features. Finds also include Roman pottery and tile (one of which is complete and has an animal paw print), animal bone and much more. Although the villa was of modest size and of a common design, with a series of rooms adjoining a corridor running the full length of its front, it had evidently been subject to significant investment and upgrades over time. These included the addition of a bath suite with a small cold water plunge pool located in the corridor at the villa’s northern end. The most  spectacular addition, however, was a mosaic placed in a room at the southern end of the building.

Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.
Volunteers hard at work on the potential site of a Roman barn.

The mosaic.

Our star find of the project was discovered during the initial stripping of the site, and measured over 6m in length. The mosaic comprised a highly decorated central panel surrounded by a plain border. Despite only one side of the mosaic being revealed within the trench, it is clear that the figurative mosaic is packed with mythical characters and beasts based on Greek legends.

Mosaic experts have visited the site and were explicit in their excitement and delight.  Anthony Beeson, one of the experts, said that:

 “This is without question the most exciting mosaic discovery made in Britain in the last fifty years and must take a premier place amongst those Romano-British works of art that have come down to modern Britons.”

Our own Roman expert, Neil Holbrook noted that:

“The mosaic is a truly important find. Not only is it a fantastic new piece of Roman art from Britain, but it also tells us about the lifestyle and social pretensions of the owner of the villa at Boxford. That person wanted to project an image of themselves as a cultivated person of taste – someone familiar with classical mythology and high Roman culture, despite the fact that their villa was of relatively modest size in a remote part of the Roman empire. While this person was most probably of British origin, they wanted to be regarded by their friends, neighbours and subservients as a proper Roman.”

Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Matt Nichol working on the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic
Volunteers cleaning the mosaic

Iconography.

For those interested in the iconography, Anthony Beeson suggests that the sideways scene may be interpreted as Bellerophon, a hero of Greek mythology, at the court of either Iobates or Proteus.

Bellerophon was sent to kill the chimera, a fire breathing monster with the head of a lion, the torso of a goat and a serpent’s tail.

The chimera illustrated on the mosaic at Boxford is one of only two known from Britain which turns back to attack in the traditional manner. The others all flee.

Other figures on the mosaic possibly include Hercules fighting a centaur, Cupid holding a wreath, and depictions of telamons in the corners, who appear to hold up the central panel.

Other examples of Romano-British Bellerophon mosaics are known from Frampton and Hinton St Mary in Dorset, Lullingstone in Kent and Croughton, near Brackley in Northamptonshire.

Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand
Left to Right: Potentially Hercules fighting the Centaur & Cupid with a wreath in his left hand

What now?

A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)
A site tour during the open day (Saturday 25th August)

The Open Day last Saturday was attended by over 250 people who were able to view finds from the excavation, as well as the villa and mosaic. While the site has now been backfilled, it is hoped that future investigations will allow us to further our understanding of some of the features discovered, including the bath suite, and will reveal the mosaic in its entirety.

We have thoroughly enjoyed being involved in this project, and agree with the Chairman of the Boxford History Project who said: “Thanks to everyone who has contributed in any way to this amazing success. What a fantastic way to end this three-year project!

Steve Clark from the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group also commented “We’re very grateful for all the support provided by Neil Holbrook and Duncan Coe over the course of project and for the professionalism and patience of CA’s field staff in guiding us through the excavations. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have been led by somebody like Matt who has gone the extra mile to get the most out of our limited time on site each year”.

Our own Duncan Coe, who has been involved with the Boxford project for the last 6 years, stated that “this is one of the best examples of a project where a local community, local volunteer archaeologists and professional archaeologists have worked together to produce some truly inspiring results. We hope that the local community take away a greater understanding of the world around them and the time depth within the place they call home”.

For more information about the mosaic and dig go to:
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope
The mosaic after cleaning, note the Victorian land drain in the corner, and the manner in which the building has been terraced into the slope

Vinegar Hill battlefield, Co. Wexford

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In August 2017 a small team from CA’s Andover office travelled to County Wexford in Ireland to undertake a licenced metal detector survey on the Irish Rebellion battlefield of Vinegar Hill (1798). The project was an international collaboration, funded by Wexford County Council and working with archaeologists from Rubicon Heritage, Earthsound Geophysics and IT Sligo to research this important and iconic Irish site. The research project is the largest and most comprehensive ever undertaken on an Irish battlefield, and a great privilege for CA to be a part of.

Surveying underway

The survey methodology involved the application of systematic metal detecting techniques that have been utilised to great success on many British and European battlefields. This enabled a consistent and comparable recovery of unstratified scatters of metal objects that had been fired, used or dropped during the battle across different parts of the site. As objects were recovered they were allocated unique finds numbers and plotted with a sub-cm GPS, enabling a complete digital plot of the artefacts to be built and the identification of trends and patterns within the assemblage.

Within five minutes on day one the first musket ball appeared! By the end of the week a large number had been found, some dropped during reloading in the middle of the battle and some heavily impacted from striking something solid after firing. Other recovered finds included a number of pieces of ‘weapon furniture’ – broken fittings from muskets and pistols perhaps suggestive of close combat, shrapnel from shells used to bombard the hill, and numerous buttons and coins which may have originated from the Irish camp on the hill in the weeks leading up to the battle.

A small selection of the recovered musket balls
A small selection of the recovered musket balls

By the end of the week, the team had covered a large part of the battlefield and by examining the relative concentrations of material across the surveyed area, it is tentatively possible to identify the location where one of the main British assaults advanced up the hill. A great deal of additional research is still to be done on the finds assemblage, in order to identify and isolate different calibre weapons and understand the scatter of material in greater detail. However, it is already clear how important the results are for Irish battlefield archaeology. By participating in the project, it has been possible to demonstrate the huge benefit of applying a systematic archaeological approach to the study of these sites in Ireland and the new information battlefield archaeology can reveal for even a well-studied site. As the first major project of its kind, it represents a huge leap forward for Irish battlefield archaeology, and is a site we hope to return to in the future.

Sam Wilson

A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A piece of anti-personnel grape shot
A recovered musket 'hammer' compared to a modern display musket
A recovered musket ‘hammer’ compared to a modern display musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Ramrod guide, probably from a British brown bess musket
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole
Mortar bomb fragment with fuse hole

Excavation at Bath Abbey

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Bath Abbey Location planCotswold Archaeology has recently undertaken an excavation at Bath Abbey as part of Phase One of Bath Abbey’s Footprint Project, a major programme to repair the Abbey’s collapsing floor, install an eco-friendly heating system using energy from Bath’s hot springs, and create new spaces and facilities which will enable the Abbey to improve its worship, hospitality and service to the community, visitors and the city of Bath. As part of Phase 1 of the Footprint project, some initial excavation work took place earlier this year to shore up the foundations and to create some of the new underground spaces along the south side of the building, just outside the Abbey shop (known as the Jackson extension).

Rather than creating the underground spaces from scratch, the Abbey was able to use a small area of former cellars which date from the late 1750s. These became infilled when several buildings, known as the Kingston Buildings, were demolished around 1834 and the resultant rubble used to backfill the cellars. The first stage of work involved the monitoring, by Cotswold Archaeology, of the mechanical removal the cellar infill down to the old cellar floors. Following this, CA commenced removal, by hand excavation, of the deposits underlying the former cellar floors down to the construction level required for the new store rooms.

The excavation uncovered a compacted gravel and stone construction deposit which had been laid down in a single event, although it had been compacted into several layers during its deposition. This deposit may have formed a rafted foundation for construction of the Norman Abbey; a wall footing relating to the Norman Abbey was recorded overlying this deposit in the edge of the trench. However, similar deposits were uncovered during earlier works at the adjacent Roman Baths, where they were believed to be the base of a Roman podium associated with the Roman Baths and Temple complex. The southern edge of the deposit had been cut away by a trench whose location suggested it had been excavated to rob stones from a wall associated with the deposit.

Gravel and stone construction deposit with probable Norman Abbey wall in upper right hand corner of photo
Gravel and stone construction deposit with probable Norman Abbey wall in upper right hand corner of photo

The base of a wooden coffin, which had been heavily disturbed by the construction of the later cellar in the late 1750s, lay to the south of the robber trench. Any skeletal remains were probably removed and re-buried at that time, as only three small fragments of bone were found within the remains of the coffin. Several coffin nails, and a possible coffin plate, were associated with the remains of the coffin – a large piece of which was recovered intact. The coffin is likely to be of 17th-century date or earlier. Another probable burial lay adjacent though was not excavated as it lay beyond the required limits of the excavation.

Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin
Recovery of the largest surviving piece of the coffin

A mortar surface, identified in the deepest part of the trench, was likely associated with a cellar of the Abbey House, which was constructed in the 17th century to accommodate visitors to Bath. At some stage this cellar was infilled with a large amount of residual Roman material, and around 1750 new cellars were constructed when several houses, depicted on 18th-century mapping as the ‘Kingston Buildings’ abutting the south-west corner of the Abbey, were constructed. These cellars featured several light wells and at least two fireplaces. They were infilled in the early 1830s when the Kingston Buildings were demolished prior to construction of the moat around the Abbey.


A 1st Century Funerary Enclosure at Barnwood, Gloucestershire

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Cotswold Archaeology has just completed a full report on the findings from a site excavated in 2014 at Barnwood, ahead of redevelopment, funded by Barnwood Construction Ltd. The excavations produced evidence for quarrying associated with the initial construction of Roman Ermin Street in the mid 1st-century AD, along with a funerary enclosure containing the remains of a cremated individual, possibly an adult male, perhaps a soldier or veteran of the Roman army. Amongst the many finds recovered during the excavation is an internationally important assemblage of samian pottery.

Sherds from a decorated samian vessel from one of the quarry pits
Sherds from a decorated samian vessel from one of the quarry pits
A Roman military harness pendant recovered from one of the quarry pits
A Roman military harness pendant recovered from one of the quarry pits

The site is located immediately to the north of Barnwood Road, which follows the alignment of Roman Ermin Street. This road ran from the early Roman legionary fortresses at Kingsholm and Gloucester (later the colonia of Glevum) south-eastwards to Cirencester (Roman Corinium).  The earliest features recorded were a series of roadside quarry pits, probably dug to extract gravel used in the construction of the road. These pits were dated by samian pottery to between AD 40 and 70, indicating that Ermin Street was constructed as a metalled road within three decades of the Roman Conquest of AD 43. One of these pits contained a remarkable assemblage of finds, including hundreds of sherds of decorated samian, amphorae, vessel glass and metal objects. These include military harness fittings and a possible situla or ‘camp kettle’. Notably, the samian pottery is unused, as many of the base sherds retain the grits used to prevent vessels from fusing together in the kiln. This suggests that the assemblage is dominated by discarded stock, rather than being evidence for domestic occupation. Potters’ stamps on the samian provide a Neronian date range for the deposit, probably during the AD 60s.

After the construction of Ermin Street, a series of ditches with a central alignment of postholes was established, running at right-angles to the road. These were perhaps plot boundaries for a market garden. These features were within a large rectangular ditched enclosure, although it is somewhat unclear whether this enclosure was contemporary with the plot boundaries or slightly later. The garden plots were short-lived, as in the south-east corner of the large enclosure they were cut by a small (approximately 10m x 10m) square ditched enclosure; this contained a series of postholes indicating a square internal timber-built structure. Within the centre of this structure there was a number of pits, one of which contained a lead urn (an ossuarium) that held the cremated human remains of a possible adult male aged between 36 and 45. Another pit contained nails and hobnails, along with the remains of burnt broad beans and peas, perhaps part of a ritual food offering associated with funerary activity. The burial rite and use of a lead ossuarium strongly suggest that the individual had military connections and was perhaps a soldier or veteran of the Roman army.

lead urn (ossuarium) which contained the cremated remains of a possible Roman soldier
lead urn (ossuarium) which contained the cremated remains of a possible Roman soldier

While precise dating evidence for the cremation burial was scarce, an unstratified partially melted glass vessel, of a type commonly used as pyre goods during the 1st-century AD, is likely to relate to the funerary activity.

Subsequent activity at the site included a probable drainage ditch following the alignment of Ermin Street, which had been dug through the quarry pits in the late 1st or 2nd-century; the creation of probable roadside plots during the medieval period; and further quarrying during the medieval and post-medieval periods.

Together, the Roman-period evidence from Barnwood is highly indicative of a Roman military presence, yet the site is located approximately 3km away from both the legionary fortress at Kingsholm and its slightly later replacement at Gloucester. This raises the possibility that the activity was associated with an unknown military base in the Barnwood area, perhaps an auxiliary fort. If this were the case, could the unused samian stock and other finds deposited in the quarry pits be associated with clearance during the abandonment of such a fort, perhaps deliberately broken to prevent reuse or resale? There are, of course, multiple other potential explanations; maybe the group represents stock damaged in transit along Ermin Street and disposed of in a convenient open quarry pit, along with other waste from a nearby military establishment? Or perhaps the finds relate to a roadside funerary ritual involving the placement of broken up pottery in pits near the funerary enclosure? We can never be certain of the true reason the material was deposited as it was, yet the construction of various interpretative possibilities represents one of the joys of doing archaeology.

Roman vessel glass from one of the quarry pits
Roman vessel glass from one of the quarry pits
Part of a Roman amphora being excavated from one of the quarry pits
Part of a Roman amphora being excavated from one of the quarry pits
The copper-alloy ‘camp kettle’ after conservation
The copper-alloy ‘camp kettle’ after conservation