Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Trojan Horse Torpedo Attack — Bail Out!

Happily slaving away on my book on Sunday evening and things are going very well. All the front matter done and dusted, the introduction and 7 chapters complete with illustrations and the layout all set up for full bleed, perfect page design, footers and headers all working as they should and all I have to do now is keep going till the end, save it as as big pdf file and send off for the first proof copy hopefully by end of January.

Then I notice strange things happening. Something's afoot in the Mac's handling of things, it's slowing up and refusing to work as it usually does but it seems like a temporary glitch that just needs a restart to fix — it hasn't slept in days and the poor thing is tired and worn out...

I don't get that far before having it freeze completely —very unusual for a modern Mac. I hit the off button, and restart.

Flashing folder with a question mark

?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?

Oh shit...

It can't find its boot folder! Noooooooooo.........


Slow, slow, slow, but nothing doing. The apple Icon is there so it's found its boot directory but ain't able to get any further.


?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?   ?

Restart, restart...

Then it comes to life, but like a zombie on methadone, however, I have a desktop, of sorts...

Save, Save, Save!

I stick a memory card in the back and after an age, its icon arrives with me. I open it, open other folders and start to ditch whatever I can onto it. First is recent work — the book files. They go, they get stuck, the Mac freezes mid-stream, and this goes on for hours, and hours. While I have it doing at least something though, I can at least retrieve the important stuff, the stuff that otherwise must be rewritten from scratch.

HMS Regardless has been torpedoed. There's a gaping hole below the waterline and it's only a matter of time before the inevitable happens. I'm there till five in the morning but in all that time manage to get only the smallest of document files off and whatever else I can pack in the lifeboat along with them before the good ship finally upends, gurgles, and sinks.

I've lost whatever wasn't backed up for good. The originals of ten thousand photos... they are kaput! All I have now is the copies uploaded to Picasa, and they'll never be fit for print at half resolution or worse. I'm resigned to the fact that I've lost all my stuff and all I care about now is the dread of having lost the computer to a hardware failure which would mean forking out £1,700 I don't have for a new one. Sod the passengers! Salvage the ship!

With gritted teeth I reboot the frozen thing and hope that I get one more shot at it just so I can insert the system disk in the slot and wipe the slate clean. If it refuses, all is lost. By a miracle it just has the strength and in goes the disk. It takes an age but its icon appears on an otherwise bare desktop, on which I click and command a total system overhaul...

I'm writing this, so I guess you know how it worked out. Two days of struggle later it's now as lightning fast as the day it was bought and though I'm missing certain crucial applications I can't live without and will cost half the price of a new computer unless I 'guest' them, I do at least have what can be got free and legit on the Internet and that includes the invaluable application the book is being created upon, Openoffice.

One day all data will be stored on the Internet you know. Computers will not need to store anything, just run. They wont even need applications because they'll just work over the ether and all be free to use too, mark my words. All you'll need to pay for is access rights, an annual license fee to a service provider who'll undercut the competition and prices will fall, fall, fall. Gone will be the day when you'll need to fork out the price of a second hand car for Adobe Creative Suite for just the few professional features you'll actually use repetitively. And gone will be the day when anyone will need to worry about being torpedoed by a Trojan horse...

But till then I have the sincerely held desire for the miserable low life who holed the Good Ship Regardless to one day go to hell where his scrotum will be pricked with needles, on the hour, every hour, for all eternity, and for his skin to itch ferociously and weep with pus each and every day of his worthless life till that day comes.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Roman Steelyard Weights — Swinging the Lead

We find a lot of lead don't we, us detectorists? Found outside the tight confines of a single period site it's very hard to put a finger on what most of it means. Even when what is found has form — it's in the shape of something recognisable — then without marking of some sort, it's still difficult to separate the items into date ranges. Spindle whorls and steelyard weights if undecorated look much the same, period for period, because the form is basic and fundamentally the same whatever time or place they were made. Find either in the middle of nowhere and no-one is going to believe you when you say 'it's Roman.'

Steelyard weights are probably the easier of the two though. The Romans used them a lot in their trading and most, but not all, are quite easy to spot for what they are because they are almost always the same shape and that's biconical. They will have an iron loop at one or either end but more usually only the remains of them.

Above is a selection of weights found on a Roman site I used to search. It was a large farm or villa and about ten acres in extent and except for modern trash hardly a thing was ever found there of any other date so confusion about lead items and their date was non-existent.

Most of the ground was thin as you'd expect on a country estate, but here and there were discreet areas where it was abundantly clear that something went on in the past. One area of only thirty or forty yards in diameter produced all the weights above and immediately adjacent was an overlapping area which produced mostly 2nd century coinage. I read this as a trading area in two parts; one where goods were weighed and sacked up and another where the money changed hands, which makes perfect sense.

Of the eight weights found six were steelyard weights whilst the two large ones are a builders plumb bob which is 70mm long and weighs an ounce over an imperial pound and the smaller one with a hole through it, probably a loom weight. Only one of the steelyard weights is made of bronze that would have weighed about two imperial ounces with its iron loops intact and it has a flat bottomed globular form, but all the rest are biconical. The small fragment of bronze with a suspension loop is part of the balance arm the weights were hung from.

The coins found were all large bronzes and denarii of the 2nd century excepting two, a copper as of the 1st century and a silver antoninianus of Elagabalus of the 3rd, both of which may have been lost before and after the trading area ceased to exist.

Unfortunately I never found any trace of whatever it was that was traded, so in the absence of proof I'd say the general run of everyday victuals and provisions — grain, apples, hides, hay, meat, the bread, and the butter — the very things that wouldn't leave any traces behind for us to draw conclusions from, except for the lack of them, which may tell us enough.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Iron Age Tweezers — Extraordinary Ordinary Things

It's rarely the case in detecting that one comes across something outstanding in the general run of things and even scarcer are those things that are outstanding examples of their ordinary type, but here's a pair of tweezers that go even further than that — they are simply an extraordinary ordinary thing.

I have plenty to compare them with. Roman, Saxon, Medieval, what have you — the plain ones we find so regularly are interchangeable for date and could be anything. Basic in construction, just a strip of folded metal with a small loop at one end and with the blade terminals turned down for pulling nasal hairs and splinters out of digits, they are one of the only items I can think of that any fool could make given ten minutes of training but without a scrap of metalworking experience. What is there to do? Fold over the terminals with a pair of pliers, bend the middle around a four inch nail, crimp the thing tight with the pliers and slide it off...

Viola! Tweezers.

They are so easy I'm surprised anyone had a trade in making them — these though, are not quite so simple. Why anyone would bother to go such extreme lengths to create such a technically advanced and beautiful object when the object does not require either to function as it should is anyones guess, but here someone has bothered to, and bothered to a great degree.

Firstly they are quite substantial and beautifully shaped with curvaceous feminine outlines and a large perfectly formed circular suspension loop. Secondly they are made of great metal and were carefully finished and polished. The almost black patina is superb where it hasn't pitted which tells you they were cast from a refined and unsullied pool of the best bronze available, not out of some slop mixed together from impure copper alloy scraps, which means the bronze was actually made on site from pure copper and tin, and though that may sound far-fetched when high grade scrap would have been readily available, there's a crucial thing that says this must be true, because...

They are made of a precision engineered bimetallic strip for which equally precise alloys would have been required.

There must be a very good reason for this but I can't think of one. Modern bimetallic strips are designed so that heat makes one side expand more than the other resulting an up curving movement of the strip that can be utilised to trip a switch. These are certainly Roman tweezers at least because they were found on an exclusively Roman and Iron Age site where nothing was ever found of any other ancient period. Neither culture had any need for electrical switches, so what the hell reason is there for making them of two fused sheets of slightly different alloy? Does it make them springier and less likely to deform out of shape?

Well, I'm not about to try to find that out because as you can see they've taken a clout from the plough and might break in pieces if I did. I'm kind of sad it happened because they would have been stunning without the damage, but then again, if it hadn't occurred I 'd never have seen the truth of their construction, so in a way, the accident that befell them was something of a blessing — and it's only once in a blue moon you can say that about modern farming machines and the disastrous effects they have on buried ancient artefacts.

As for date. That patina is Iron Age. If you're a detectorist you'll know exactly what I mean when I pronounce something this date or that date solely on the basis of the way the metal and its surface looks. We dig an awful lot of copper based alloys — often hundred of items per day,  and of all different surface colours and textures. In our own detecting backyards they are instantly recognisable for the date they were made even without form as a guide because the memory accumulates a vast list of variables down the years and with enough experience is able to compute an answer in a second. We develop a 'knack' with it just as an expert perfumier develops an infallible nose for the faintest of odours.

I went and looked at every pair of tweezers on the PAS database and UKDFD too. There was nothing remotely like them in form and certainly none made of bimetal strips in hundreds and hundreds of records for tweezers of all dates except Iron Age — for which there wasn't a single entry. Then I remembered a pair found in an Iron Age bucket burial at Alkham Kent and so I went off to the the British Museum website to look for them. They were found paired to a fancy nail cleaner, and though not of the same curvy high quality, they were the same large size and the only tweezers I'd ever found with a similar large and perfectly circular suspension loop, so perhaps my instinct was correct after all...

The last thing to mention is a curiosity. The tweezers are undecorated which allows their lovely form to speak for itself. There is however a single punched annulet at the end of one of the tweezer blades and that's very odd indeed. There's no reason to put it there all alone is there?

I wonder if it is the makers mark? Now that would make them the most extraordinary ordinary thing imaginable because there's no such thing as a makers mark on tweezers or indeed any metalwork of any kind at such an early date.

Blimey if I'd gone to such endless trouble creating a pair of tweezers when my customers could have bent a bit of scrap metal around a nail for the same result, then I'd have stamped my moniker on it, wouldn't you?

Thursday, 15 November 2012

The Glasshouse Effect — A Photo Opportunity in the BM

I missed my train by five minutes. Without a watch but having the camera on me I timed my arrival at the station by its internal clock, which was correct last time I looked! With twenty minutes spare and feeling peckish I went to Coventry Station's news vendor for a bite to eat — a quid plus for a bag of crisps! You must be joking mate, I'm off to Greggs for a Cornish pasty at the same cost, you can keep your overpriced vitals and stick them where the sun don't shine...

That was a mistake. It was, according to my camera cum timepiece, twenty-to-two and my train arrives at 2:01, which was plenty enough time to re-enter town, scoff one down and get back . I return satisfied but the station clock is 'out' by ten minutes and my train has been and gone.... Ah crap!

Infernal clocks...

This isn't a problem but the ticket is el cheapo and that meant a meandering two and a half hour journey via Northampton rather than the 125mph rocket service straight through to Euston in just over an hour so I have to wait for the next slow train. I'm now short on available time at the British Museum perusing the Iron Age treasures of Room 50 before meeting Judy down in town at a conference at 5:30 museum closing time for our traditional evening soiree.

...and that means I have to work up a sweat... Bugger!

I make the walk from Euston to the BM in ten minutes via the backstreets of Bloomsbury but have to enter the grand portal in Great Russel Street rather than through the backdoor sheaved in blue hoardings whilst building work progresses. Five minutes lost then...

Finally in room 50 I shoot off a load of hurried pics of what I'm interested in and before I know it — closing time has arrived —and enough will just have to be enough.

The Aylesford Bucket is a lot larger than I'd imagined. I've seen it plenty of times before but never needed to take a great deal of notice of such detail. The glass and the very low light conditions make life hard getting a decent photo and the results are half real, half mirage...

The Welwyn bucket heads were next on my list but I fare just as badly. Shooting twenty odd pics one is bound to be bad of three and sure enough, two come out well but the best of the third is blurred. Typical. It was intended as the best photo available on the Internet of the entire set, but now it's still the best but only slightly better than the worst which is the next best available...

At least I established they were flat-backed, therefore not bucket handle mounts as led to believe and simply appliques. All traces of patina removed too so they were more pitted than I'd imagined. Glad that the practice of removal down to the bronze is nowadays recognised for the mistake it is, because they would have been stunning 'in the green,' I'm sure.

Next on the agenda is anything interesting in my current line of enquiry so there's a quick scuttle about looking for bulls heads and anything remotely related to buckets and their mounts. I'm in luck. Though the exhibition represents the best of the best when it comes to British Celtic art and some of the greatest treasures of the period are on display in Room 50, there's still a few pieces that though not the great treasures illustrating every book on the subject, are still of interest in their own right.

The object above was interesting because the form of the bulls heads is closely related to those on certain bucket mounts thought to be Roman period. They might be, they might not be. Nothing about the Celtic art of the Iron Age is ever that clear cut. I didn't have time to even remember what the whole object actually was so I guess a return to Room 50 is in order next time I'm in London...

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

A Roman Bucket Mount — Painting the Fuller Picture

During my bucket mount research extravaganza where in a week or two of work I'd pulled just about every one of the damn things ever published on the Internet onto my cluttered and unruly desktop, I received a message from Muddy Mick over at Detector.co.uk's forum. He'd sent news of a mount of his own and one he'd recorded with UKDFD.

It was very interesting indeed and appeared to be one still soldered to the rim of the bucket and as such the only example I'd come across that still was. It wasn't a bull head as the general run of handle mounts are, seemed to have the general outline of a human head, but didn't appear to represent anything at all which I though highly irregular because they always do.

It looked plain, functional and apparently without decorative embellishment apart from a double band of indents across the bottom of the suspension loop and what looked like circular indents upon it. However...

Two days later I stumbled upon a find from Castell Collen Roman Fort in Wales of a handle mount in the form of a female face on an escutcheon plate in the form of a vine leaf. I didn't see the resemblance at first but later the penny dropped, because it was the same thing! It was clear that both female heads were identical but Mick's example was mutilated. It would have remained unrecognisable as such without having the two brought together for comparison.

Mick was informed and so was Rod Blunt at UKDFD who immediately updated the record with a note about this new parallel.

Mick's return message offered to make a donation to me, a kindness which I accepted most gratefully because having things in the hand makes such a difference where work on ancient objects is concerned.

A few days later it arrived by post and the surprisingly heavy package was opened...

It was enormous!

I wasn't expecting that... It was twice the size of what I'd imagined and even though I'd seen the measurements at UKDFD its weight and chunkiness still came as a great surprise. Out came the high magnification reading glasses that make my eyes appear like owls eyes to others but really are essential for close-up examination, and I set to work.

It had been partially melted hence the destruction of the face and the piece of metal attached to the back appeared to be part of something else entirely and not the folded back portion of bronze band I'd thought it to be. It wasn't possible to state with certainty that the escutcheon plate was once a vine leaf too, the destruction of its edges had removed any sign of the original outline.

It was remarkable just how much close examination brought forth that could not be appreciated in pictures and within an hour theories were forming...

"... the damage incurred was either that caused by miscasting, partial melting in a fire or in the scrap crucible. The piece on the reverse isn't folded over from the front but appears to be a separate piece of rim, and perhaps not even a piece of same vessel, that's fused to the mount. The metal of the vine leaf escutcheon or vessel wall is 2.5mm thick, the face projects a good 8mm (minus the blob of melted metal) and the suspension loop is 5-7mm thick, so it's very chunky. The handle mount is 52mm in length which is big for a bucket mount when they average 30-40mm and appears to be separately cast from the escutcheon plate or vessel wall, slight differences in patination around the joint seem to indicate solder.

I think it must have been attached to a cauldron because the rim radius would have the vessel about two feet across, it is a heavy duty item and seems unnecessarily large for a comparatively lightweight wooden stave bucket filled with a couple of gallons of liquid when it looks robust enough to hold up ten or more in a solid bronze vessel.

There's also a left eye visible just where it is on the Castell Collen mount and the same hairstyle is plain to see."

These thoughts were sent over to Rod who included them verbatim as notes on the record. Mick was delighted with the developments and glad to have a clearer idea about his find. I was chuffed to bits just being able to examine one of the many pieces I'd seen on the Internet in the hand because there's no way I'd have seen the small things that add up to a big difference otherwise.

What had been a fascinating voyage of discovery so far was made only better by the discovery of an another close parallel — from Hockwold in Norfolk came a vine leaf escutcheon plate again with the handle mount attached and in the form of the head of Bacchus!

Once again everyone concerned was informed but the verdict is that Mick's mount remains a female head which I think correct until further examples turn up that overturn that idea because the Bacchus mount looks decidedly male whereas the Castell Collen example looks anything but with its flowing shoulder length hair.

It had been such an enjoyable task uncovering the truths and forming theories about Mick's find. It's no longer just a hunk of interesting metal but a fascinating one. Of course we'll never know how it came to be destroyed but that's OK because the story of how it happened can be imagined however you prefer it...

A terrible house fire that ravaged a villa, a failed casting at the foundry or the bronze smith's apprentice spilling the partially melted contents of his crucible? You decide which, or even come up with an alternative story of your own because after establishing the few facts about the past that we can, imagination paints the fuller picture.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Hey Hey! In Print — At Last...

It's been a long time a'coming but I'm finally in print! I have to say that just a few months ago I'd never would have believed I'd make the leap because I was only just getting back into the hobby then after years away from it. Once bitten by the bug though...

Many moons ago when I was seriously active out in the fields making finds rather than sat behind a desk writing about them as I do at the moment, I always toyed with the idea of writing for the detecting magazines but for one reason or another, never got around to doing it. I was probably so bound up in my research that I couldn't see the wood for the trees, my efforts failed and were never submitted.

But, just recently I was in contact with John Winter of The Searcher magazine and he suggested I write up an account of one of my finds from the mid 1990's.

So, I went to work on the project and sent the draft off to John with accompanying pictures to illustrate it. Just a month later it's published in the December issue and with the find blazoned on the front cover too.

It's quite a moment ! I think I'll have that cover framed and hung above my desk.

I sincerely hope you enjoy reading the story just as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Iron Age Bucket Reconstruction Project

I've busied myself with some reconstruction work this Sunday morning. The girls went shopping while I slaved over making a convincing picture of how my Iron Age boar head bucket mount would have looked on its parent object.

The Aylesford Bucket was used as a template from which to create the correct perspective. A bucket was drawn, the mount traced from the right angles for a correct fit then put in place upon the bucket rim and finally the handle was drawn to complete the thing. It looks just as it should and probably much as it once did, give or take an inch here and there.

Such an exercise is worth all the effort. The item cosseted in its little box is one thing but an imagination of how it was once used lifts it out of the collection and pushes it into another realm.

The mounts at left appear about life size on my screen. The buckets were quite small things too. Viewed in pictures they seem large because our notion of a bucket comes in a certain size and that's the size of a modern 5 gallon one. Perhaps they should be called pails? That term that would suggest something smaller than those black plastic utility buckets we buy from the DIY store and that skew our idea of these Iron Age vessels.

The Aylesford bucket is approximately twenty centimeters across the rim and thirty deep, so it's diminutive compared to the B&Q version and more the size of an ice bucket for chilling the champers than a vessel for carrying building rubble about. Its capacity was probably about a gallon or two.

The boar mount has the front of the deep slot that accommodated the rim of the bucket broken off. However, it's well known how such mounts were formed so I used the Alkham human head mount in the British Museum for the purposes of drawing a convincing missing front section where the rivet would have been.

The bronze bands that held the wooden staves in place would probably have been decorated but there's no point in my drawing my idea of what that decoration would have been without some evidence in the form of fragment of the bands, but I never found them so presume the mount was simply lost from the vessel after it broke.

The reconstruction works well for the purposes of having a clear idea of how my mount worked and once looked on its bucket. I think it was labour well spent on an otherwise ordinary Sunday morning.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Lexden Boar — Victim of Acid Attack?

After giving the discrepancy between the two pictures of the Lexden Boar a day's thought I think I have at least a plausible theory as to why they should be so very different.

Firstly I think the two pictures are of the same object but one is reversed. The angles are different and shot with different focal length lenses too but I don't think I've ever seen two Iron Age items (though this is Gallo-Roman in a British Iron Age context) so very similar to each other. This item would have been a one-off lost wax casting and another would have required a new wax model to be made because the process destroys it just as the name of the technique suggests. They are just too similar to be different objects from different places, I think, and I doubt that Miranda green would have made such a mistake even if were possible.

I'm beginning to think that this figurine has been inexpertly 'cleaned' some time soon after excavation. The excavation took place in 1924. Most Iron Age objects found before this date were routinely removed of all trace of patina because the 'standard' at this time was that set by the famous Iron Age finds from the Thames such as the Battersea Shield and Waterloo Helmet, all of which actually came up in river dredging perfectly preserved, un-patinated and naturally a bright bronze colour, which is quite normal for copper alloys from the anaerobic muds of the Thames as any mudlark will attest. It is almost unknown from soils though, where patinas will certainly develop well on copper-based objects and be heavy to the point of almost total conversion of metal to copper compounds in some.

The results of this highly jeopardous curatorial 'fashion' for stripping back Iron Age objects to the bare metal can be seen with many of the most famous treasures of the period in the British Museum collections with objects that were originally patinated to some degree or even to a considerable degree.

The Trelan Bahow Mirror
The Stanwick Horse

The Trelan Bahow Mirror is bright bronze and so is the Stanwick Horse, but they both would have been green — brown on discovery, as you can imagine with ancient finds from average soils and not anaerobic muds. The mirror shows what happens when what must have been a fairly thick patina is removed to expose a bronze surface — lots of detail is lost and vulnerable edges are bitten clean through because often whole areas of metal are converted in the ground into copper chlorides, sulfides, sulfates and carbonates, all of which are easily soluble in acids whereas the metal is far more resistant.

The truly beautiful Stanwick Horse has thankfully survived the acid test with just a little pitting around the forehead which suggests it was lightly patinated when found.

I reckon the early picture of the Lexden boar is of it when fully patinated, and the second of how it is now but after acid removal of patina some time back in the 1920's when thin areas such as the tip of the lower jaw and the lower parts of the legs, all of which may well have been converted completely from metal into other chemical compounds, suffered very badly and simply dissolved away to nothing.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Legless — Is the Lexden Chieftain's Boar in Safe Hands?

Whilst researching Iron Age bucket mounts I came across an awful lot of stuff concerning Iron Age and Romano-British sculpture. It's quite a subject and I can feel a book coming on such is the wealth of material, however the following revelation really got my blood up and my mind racing suggesting as it does that museums and their staff may not be the safe hands we would like to think they are when it comes to our own donations, archaeologists finds, and their own bought-in acquisitions.

Here's a picture of the boar figurine found in the Lexden Chieftain's burial near Colchester ~

This picture appears in Miranda Green's, 'Animals in Celtic Life and Myth,' 1992, and you can see clearly that the animal has a complete left hind leg and right foreleg. However, in a more modern picture of the piece just as it is displayed right now in Colchester Museum, things do seem to be somewhat different ~

In comparing both it seems clear that the boar no longer has a left hind leg, has the stump of the right hind leg much reduced, has seemingly gained a left foreleg shank and hoof, and lost its right foreleg shank and hoof too! It's almost as if it's been dipped and left to rot away in a very strong acid.

Now this is most perplexing, because I believe there was only the one boar found in that burial and not a pair. So, how did this damage occur, if damage is what it is? One of the pictures must be reversed, but that still does not explain it all away, in fact it confuses things even further because it would then be the right foreleg once complete that is now reduced!

To be honest I haven't a clue. Apparently the burial was looted and items damaged long before excavation, but presumably the boar was found as it appears in Green's illustration and has suffered damage since, unless that is, the picture was taken before excavation by a looter and the figurine damaged before it was acquired by the Museum?

All the information I can find suggests the contrary, though; that the piece was excavated by archaeologists. If that's the case then the damage must have been caused in storage and by handling since the moment it was dug up by either the excavators or Colchester Museum staff, which would be unforgivable, surely?

I'm sure there's a logical explanation for this discrepancy between two pictures of the same object taken decades apart from each other, but for the life of me, I cannot imagine what it might be...

But I'd really like to know, and wouldn't you?

Monday, 15 October 2012

Bucket Mounts — Miniature Masterpieces of Iron Age Britain

A long time ago I acquired in a swap of some importance to me, an Iron Age bucket mount. The trade was for some bellarmine masks that I'd found down the years on the Thames Foreshore. The deal include two other Iron Age items — a broken bridle bit and a half of a bronze bracelet — and all were found in the same general area in a town near Norwich.

I did rather well, I thought. I hadn't imagined the little handle mount would turn out to be the most interesting of the pieces, thinking the bridle bit more of what I would call 'a find' at the time, however, it has come through in latter years and taken its place in my most treasured items list and forms part of a small collection of Iron Age art.

This little mount is of a deer or stag and its rather beautiful in its treatment of form which manages to suggest every feature a deer must have — the long neck, refined snout, those sharp wary eyes and the antlers too — with remarkable artistic economy of means. It's just a few well judged strokes of the modeling knife that makes the head complete, but nothing is missing and nothing else is required for it to be utterly convincing. Anything more or less would simply ruin it.

Many years later, I was out working one of my Roman sites turning up the occasional brooch or perhaps one of the site's fine bronze or silver coins and doing just as well as I'd usually do there, when I decided to walk a line that would take me well outside the productive zones to explore an area I'd never given very much attention.

It was quiet and very few finds were made, but I continued anyhow because I'd found with this particular site that small areas that were productive could be located in many places well outside the main areas of the house, buildings and gardens. They were worth finding too, because often a few things would crop up of much earlier date than the main site's usual second and third century mainstay.

At one point I began working along the very edge of the ploughed ground up against the grassy track at the headland. I wasn't getting anything much, but a loud signal right in the side of the last slice and in  un-ploughed sod, stopped me in my tracks. What turned up in that clod of soil blew my mind, because it was instantly recognisable right there and then as another Iron Age bucket mount.

It was one of those earth shattering moments in a detecting career when you are brought face to face with the art of a long lost people and that's almost akin to meeting them in person because you have in your hand not something they merely used, such as a brooch or buckle, but something they actually created in the image of their own beliefs.

This was an animal that I didn't even recognise in the field, it was so otherworldly. I then thought it to be a ewe because its silver-coloured metal (see footnote) strange elongated snout, open mouth, and sad eyes made me think of Shari Lewis' Lamb Chop glove puppet! To be honest I still see it that way, and even though I am led to 'think' it must be an extremely exaggerated but artful bovine by sheer weight number of examples that are, I have to say that after viewing just about every bull mount in the British Isles, I still cannot see any bull in it at all.

Soay sheep — the ancient breed that was kept in Iron Age Britain

It's a shame that its lost its horns and only a half of one remains. The thing is, that stub of the horn curls backwards and not forwards as it should with a bovine, and if it were to have curled around on itself when complete then there'd be no doubt about the animal it represents. And what about that sheeplike forehead or the finely made and delicate mouth? Compared to the soay sheep above, I really cannot see anything but its resemblance — nothing so delicate and refined could ever be a bull, surely?

It's certainly a poser, but whatever animal it is, it's still a great piece and a credit to its ancient maker. Its lentoid eyes are typical in the Celtic artist's repertoire of treatments for facial features and are almost a defining characteristic of sculptural work that is pre-conquest. However, things are not quite so certain as that because these bucket mounts come in a wide range of forms representing both animal and human and they persist in usage well into the Roman period.

Timeline of artistic degeneration in bovine forms of bucket handle mount. First three are pre-conquest and the very first is an excellent example of beautiful early form, but the next three are likely to be Roman and the very last is also the very end of the artistic tradition with only its general outline the faint echo of what once was.

This is especially true of the bovine forms, and though the earlier examples are distinctly Celtic in origin and really couldn't be mistaken for anything else, as the years pass by they degenerate in style rapidly and eventually end up as mere triangles of metal with nothing marking them out as bulls except their general outline. In effect the equation function + artistic invention = form became merely function = form and all artistic value was lost in the process.

Now having two of these miniature works of Celtic art is one thing, but having three would be asking too much, surely? Well, I wasn't in the market for buying them in, no-one in their right mind would swap one for a bellarmine mask by that time, and I never even considered the idea that I would turn up another and so went about my detecting untroubled by ambition. They are such rarely found things in any case that most people will never find one in a lifetime of detecting, let alone two, so I was fully satisfied that that was that on the bucket mount front for the rest of my own lifetime..

Some way outside the limits of the Roman site was another field that had never shown signs of ever having had any activity of any date other than Medieval take place upon it, and even that was only in one small corner, the rest seeming quite barren. I was working this 'Medieval area' when a brown item that I thought was a stone fell out of the handful of soil I'd picked from the surface with the signal in it. I scanned the handful but the signal was gone. I scanned the area below and saw that the brown item was the source. I picked it up and turned it about in my hand, failed to see what it was while my brain calculated what it wasn't, and then right way up and right way round, the penny suddenly dropped... I'd found another bucket mount!

There was no confusion about this one though, the animal it represented was as clear as day for it was a boar and its head was just like those of the free-standing figurines of boars that were found in a group of three in Hounslow. In the back of its head was a socket where the bucket handle would once have pivoted and the front part below the head where the rivet that fixed it to the bucket would have been was broken off. The head though, was in good condition, radically simplified to essential elements as with the deer mount with even the ears doubling as eyes but nothing essential that a boar needs to be a boar was wanting.

This ability of Celtic artists to simplify form to its stark fundamentals is a trait displayed in much of their artwork. The free-standing figurines from Hounslow are exemplary in this regard, their makers doing away with anything unnecessarily fussy and getting down to the core of the matter. What they achieved by doing so was monumentality. In the picture above all are splendid examples of these rare figurines but the smallest of all with its crest of bristling hackles and radical simplification of features is boar deified and made a godlike being.

They aren't playthings these objects. The Celts revered the boar above all creatures and powerful men were often buried along with their precious earthly possessions and a whole boar too. Boar were admired for their ferocity, prized for their meat and deeply mytholigised. It remains fact that in the Celtic regions of Britain the mytholigies built about them run so deep and are so persistent that their essence remains unchanged to this very day. Boar were not to be be messed with and objects made in their image were undoubtedly saturated with the animal's physical and spiritual energies so far as the people who made and used them were concerned.

They are certainly saturated with meaning for me. Both stag and boar are associated with the Celtic deity Cernunnos and are shown as his attendants on the Gundestrup Cauldron, so I handle them with great care and due respect. Having found one of those attendants myself and come into possession of the other by a lucky deal, I must!

But I doubt very much I'll ever find another of these miniature masterpieces of Iron Age art because the chances are far too remote for that to be possible. I've been very fortunate to have acquired and found what I have. Deer or stag though well known from central Europe are almost unheard of from the UK, the bull/sheep is rather beautiful in its solemnity and is finely wrought and if sheep after all may be a picture of the early soay breed, and as for the boar, well it may be the only bucket mount known that is in the form of one.

They are all rare things and I treasure them equally so I suppose my collection is complete and sufficient. However, that doesn't mean I can't collect pictures for further study and contemplation, so here's my collection of Iron Age Bucket Mounts & Figurines for your enjoyment and future reference, and, should you be lucky enough find a bucket mount of your own then I'd very much like to hear about it.

1. Bucket handle mount in the form of a deer or stag, bronze. 30.5mm. South Norfolk District, Norfolk.
2. Bucket handle mount in the form of a bovine or sheep, bronze coated with white bronze? 41.5mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.
3. Bucket handle mount in the form of a boar, bronze. 35mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.

*As a matter of interest the Hounslow boars do seem to be made of the same silver-coloured bronze as my bull/sheep mount and have pitted in similar ways suggesting a plating or metal coating process. However, the colour may only be a patination effect. But, if some Iron Age metalwork was of a silver colour then that also suggests a silver-coloured bucket, which may counter and challenge our accepted idea of everything metallic in the Celtic world being golden-hued.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Knights of The Holy Sepulchre — My Arse!

Little cross-crosslets everywhere. Ebay's heaving with them, and so are crafty dealers trays. Collectors cosset each and every of the many, many cross-crosslets they've undoubtedly got and in cotton wool, lest they break.

'Knights of the Holy Sepulchre' pilgrim badges is what they are .  .  .

My arse!

This what they really are and I've known it for donkeys years, as have all the dealers who really will know something of fixtures and fitments that'll fall in fields from....

Wait for it....

Nothing more holy than Victorian mirror frames!

I bought one at a boot sale probably ten years ago now, and liked it very much with its gilt & ebonised frame and little cross-crosslets hammered onto the angles — very gothic and quite pretty. But then I started to see those same cross-crosslets everywhere I cared to look.

Funny how no one ever shows us the reverse of these things, isn't it? I think you might find them die-stamped mostly and that was a technology that whilst actually known in the Middle Ages, was not perfected as an industrial production method till, you've guessed it, the Victorian era, when all these 'Knights of the Holy Sepulchre Badges' were really made to adorn Gothic influenced mirror frames and the like.

My mirror hangs in Zena's Bedroom festooned with chains and bead necklaces. I snuck in when she weren't there and took some hasty pictures. You'll forgive their blurred image but at least the truth of the matter is made far clearer by them than any amount of spurious claims made by the unscrupulous out there peddling them as what they ain't.

Four per frame. No wonder there's so many on the market! Did anyone but the terminally credulous really believe for even a moment that genuine 'Knights of the Holy Sepulchre' pilgrims badges could ever have been so very common that so very many would have survived a half millenium?

Perhaps, because people are very easily convinced against their better judgement when some 'expert' or another claims things are what he thinks they might be. There probably are genuine ones out there somewhere, after all how did this mass delusion start?

But I for one, think 99% of those that are claimed to be, are no such holy thing.

PS, there's one on Ebay finishing in two minutes and now at £15.49...

PPS, It finished at £18.50... now should I prize those little cross-crosslets from Zena's frame, I wonder? Or would the frame be worth more than the £74 they'd make with them left on ? Hmmmm...

PPPS, Zena really needs a duster!

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Tangled Vine — A Medieval Mystery

It's great when you find rare things in fabulous condition. There's nothing like flipping up a spit of soil only to have some wonderfully preserved item of great age without a scratch or dink on it fall out and stare straight back at you after centuries of burial as if nothing but an ever ripening patina had developed meanwhile. I would argue that many things are more beautiful in their beautiful patination than they ever would have been in the polished brass — and I'm sure the aesthetes amongst you would agree on that point.

However, when something turns up made of the 'wrong' metal for the soil, then acids and whatnot make their way under the surfaces and what might have been a finely patinated sheen developing in the 'right' soil, turns to crumbly dust and becomes part of the soil encasing it, leaving behind a pitiful pitted and corroded thing whose aesthetics are only appreciated in consideration of its very survival.

This is such an object ~

It's brooch sized, and brooch is always what I've thought it to be. It has an iron pin that projects from the centre of the face that would have once held a circular mount of probably a small stone or metal decoration. The evidence of its shape can be seen as a circular area of lesser corrosion, which suggests either that the mount was lost long after burial, or, that it protected that area from wear in usage leaving a tough surface of unworn, unpolished and unscratched metal that the acids had a harder time getting under.

It is related directly to the chasse mount I discovered a mile away, by decoration if not by function, because it's the same vine-scroll ornament of the 12th century. It is probably the same age or earlier, because the reverse carries a strip of bronze that looks very much like the type of catch plate fixture used on certain types of late Saxon and Norman disk brooches.

The red coloured corrosion is also identical which tells us that's its made of a very similar copper alloy, and this an alloy that whenever found in the general locality always turns out to be from items of metalwork of either the late Saxon or Norman periods. Later Medieval things are invariably green, and usually very well preserved indeed, whilst red-coloured things are always earlier, always in a parlous state, and are easily bracketed between datable colours of rot. Detectorists know these things instinctively, because we dig a lot of Medieval stuff, but little of it red-coloured.

Its status as an object is unclear. It may be a brooch, and brooch is the most likely thing it could be, however, the 'catch' ends are broken away, so its not clear if it's a catch plate or not. What confuses matters even more is the fact that there's the corroded traces of a thin iron plate under the bronze plate, and that means it must have been fixed to a larger iron object and may not be a brooch after all. Then again, it may have been part of a larger brooch still, and one of iron... But I've never heard of such a thing.

If it's not a brooch then I suspect it may be another mount once decorating something far larger, but what from I haven't a clue. The trouble is with the period between the Norman conquest and the succession of the Plantagenets is that it's a metalwork vacuum, if dates bandied about for the majority of Medieval metal items found are to be believed.

'13th-15th century' is the catch-all phrase used for just about everything, from buckles and tumbrels, to buttons and thimbles. That's George III, till now! Or the height of Turner's extraordinary artistic powers till Hurst's diamond encrusted demise, if you'd prefer things in art terms? Which this must be explained in...

It's as if people used and wore no metal objects whatsoever in the 160 years between 1066 and the Year of our Lord, 1216. And perhaps they really didn't, because there's precious little of it known to make comparisons with here.

This style of decoration was the height of fashion in the twelfth century and adorned only expensive imported goods from Europe, and mostly from Limoge, so far as we know. It is not English work and certainly not provincial in any way— even though its surface now looks crude, that is only the effects of the corrosion — and it would once have been a very fine thing of high style, whatever it actually was to begin with.

Such decoration is also very rare indeed in this country. There's not a single equivalent instance recorded of any contemporary object decorated with this very particular and precisely dateable kind of vine scroll ornament that I can find on the entire PAS website, and there's only the one on UKDFD which out of interest, is made of the same kind of alloy.

Given such rarity, two items decorated with it from the same parish would be remarkable enough, but I have a further example in the form of a buckle plate found in the same place and of course, it's reddish brown in colour so it's made of the same alloy too. Its style is less curvaceous though, but I've no doubt it's the same date.

Why would so many vine-scroll decorated objects of related date occur in the one place when so few occur in others? I don't have an answer to such a question, just as I don't have many clear answers to the puzzles thrown out the ground by detectorists.

They are remarkable things, though, despite the corrosion. What a shame that the alloy reacts the way does — under suitable conditions this odd little thing may have come from the ground as a beautiful decorated golden disk with deep green patinas where the gilding had rubbed to the bronze. What we have though is merely an historical object whose significance will only ever be apparent to scholars, but forever invisible to everyone else.

12th Century gilt-copper brooch or mount, decorated with vine scroll ornament. Dimensions 24mm diameter. Epping Forest District, Essex.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A Bronze Age Factory? — The Firm Evidence

With Winter comes the chance to put the flood of detecting finds made through late summer and autumn into order and evaluate their meaning. The finds from the Bronze Age 'factory' site (read here) were certainly the remains of something meaningful, but without excavation to evaluate their underlying context I thought nothing could be ventured other than they were the evidence of some kind of settlement. Which clearly they were.

About that time in the mid-2000's, aerial mapping had become available on the Internet. It wasn't easy to navigate on a dial-up modem and reloading frames to move just a few hundred of yards would take ages. Nevertheless, it was fascinating stuff and promised to unlock plenty of secrets if only the pictures were of fields in perfect condition to reveal them. Unfortunately, the majority were far from ideal.

Undaunted, I scanned across my entire operating area of three parishes and downloaded every frame to make a composite map from. I did discover things I didn't know about before, but to be frank, it was as confusing as it was enlightening with all kinds of features 'made' into what they were not, and details that later proved to be direct evidence of things, completely missed or ignored.

I no longer have those original images (luckily I've rediscovered them on the Internet since!) but remember clearly the sequence of events concerning the Bronze Age site. Firstly, there was an aerial shot of the field in crop taken in 2004. This was the same year I discovered the site but the shot was of a field of ripening wheat taken in late-summer, not when ploughed and harrowed in autumn when it might have revealed more than it did. There was hardly anything to see but a slight mark where there's a shallow depression in the field that I already knew about.

The next year I came across a second provider of these fascinating images (pictures taken in 1999) and went back to work. I became completely bound up with what they revealed about one of my pet Roman sites and concentrated on them for weeks making line maps from the startling features revealed, however, I finally got around to the Bronze Age site...

The shots had been taken of the field in stubble and there was a sketchy feature visible of dark marks around the area of the depression that I thought very interesting. It seemed to be an enclosure of some kind, but as I had already discovered, you must exercise caution when making interpretations of these kinds of crop marks because they rarely turn out to be anything remarkable...

Nevertheless, because all the finds had come from directly to the West of the marks (left in the picture) I took them seriously enough, and when I finally got back on site, gave the area inside the marks all my attention and resisted the urge to venture to the area of the Bronze Age finds thinking there was plenty of time for that later

I found nothing there of Bronze Age date but did make a few Roman period finds of a Colchester brooch, a small bronze mount, and two coins, one of which was a third century issue in very poor condition and the other a far more interesting 1st Century bronze issue of probably Vespasian, with a legionary eagle on the reverse.
Copper As with legionary eagle reverse

These Roman finds were nothing that couldn't be found in a day anywhere else in the locality in fact such a number of finds would seem a poor haul in places. I thought it odd, though, that this field had never given up a single Roman find before — also that a Flavian copper dating to the 1st century was the earliest Roman coin I'd ever found in the local area.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned the field had been quickly turned around and was drilled, so I'd missed my opportunity to extend my knowledge of the field's Bronze Age past for another year. Tragically, unforeseen domestic circumstances that winter forced a relocation the Midlands where I was then too far distant from Essex for any chance of a return, so it was also my last.


Fast forward to the present day and my rekindled interest in detecting. It's 2012, and 7 years since my last visit to the field, but I'm 100 miles away in Coventry, not Essex. That doesn't stop the determined though! Nowadays we have excellent high-speed access to the Internet and aerial maps are not only available and free, but so easy to scan that whole districts can be browsed in minutes. I went back to work on the Bronze Age site...

The field ploughed and rolled - the red stars represent the scatter of Bronze Age pottery

The first pictures were disappointing. The field was rolled and besides a large dark mark that would have been inside the 'enclosure' and I thought was probably nothing more interesting than loamy soil caused by wet conditions at some point in history, the only other features visible were light areas of soil that could have been where the plough had bitten deeply and thrown up subsoil, but, such marks were rare in the surrounding fields, when found were almost always single instances, and when compared to other aerial pictures and old maps usually proved to be features such as ponds (the large mark in the next field actually was) or other small scale excavations...

Therefore, I thought they might actually be a dense collection of pits...

I took a closer look and saw a faint dark line around the large dark mark that looked like half of a square enclosure. Oddly, this 'square' seemed larger than the original sub-circular enclosure I'd hoped to see, but of which there was no visible trace.

The individual findspots of the scattered fragments of pottery that I'd noted in the field in a log, were plotted on to the aerial shot in hope of them revealing something. They failed to. I couldn't see anything I didn't already know of and had no way of going back on site to examine those light soil marks to see what they were all about or to see if that fine dark mark in the shape of a square was real or just an illusion.

It seemed that I'd hit a brick wall, however I'm determined once I get started and went back online to see if there were any other maps out there that could help me out. I soon discovered an alternative aerial map provider, and what I discovered there was simply astonishing...

Here's a sequence of pictures of the site with the new information overlaid and made visible by degree ~

I was dumbstruck when I first discovered these new pictures because they proved that the marks that I once thought might be an enclosure really were after all. They also revealed much greater detail than any previous picture had so it's possible to see that there's probably a second smaller enclosure inside. The best thing is though, they've proven beyond reasonable doubt that those pottery and metal finds really are not the traces of a long-vanished 'itinerant' bronze-smith's encampment, but really do belong to something important, substantial and long-lasting in the Bronze Age landscape of Essex.

All finds and site Epping Forest District, Essex.