Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Roman Oil Flask Suspension Swivel

Whilst work continues on the roman road discovery, a project that has now mushroomed into the search for what I believe is an important lost trade route of crucial importance to the heavily populated interior of the country and delivering a commodity that those living there could scarcely do without. I thought it appropriate to publish one of the tell-tale finds from what I now affectionately call, 'Halfway House.'

This fascinating object came up on the first day on the site proper, along with a few rough looking bronzes and a stunning denarius of Domitian. At first I hadn't a clue what the hell it was for apart from it being some kind of swivel. My best shot was the swivel from a dog's lead, but that failed completely to find any kind of roman world match, so I was left dangling by it for some considerable time.

The patination types of objects, ancient or otherwise, buried in ones local soils are something learned by degree, but, they tend to be particular, and after many years digging up all kinds of things made of copper alloys, it's possible to assess quite accurately the period of otherwise un-datable scraps and fragments without any recognisable shape.

Of course such a subjective method this is fraught with problems, but in the main, it works. The patination of this object was fairly thick, the original metal of the surface long mineralised by thousands of years of burial in slightly acidic clay, and, it was brown-coloured too, and because later medieval material hardly ever is any other colour than green in this locality, therefore it was Roman, or older still.

It was also a feat of technical bronze casting I have yet to fathom, the whole thing seemingly cast in one go, but in two perfectly formed pieces that are captive to each other, turn freely around each other, but with no visible way of making that happen except by magic!

I must have endured six months or more trying, before I finally conceded defeat at my favourite game of hunting down the true attribution of unknown things entirely under my own steam, and decided to throw the object open to a wider audience in hope of an answer. The answer, when it finally came, came from none other that great friend to detectorists and proper expert on many things, Dr Kevin Leahy. What he delivered was not just an answer, but the definitive article.

He sent over a picture from a book by Joan Liversage in which such a swivel is depicted as the suspension swivel for an oil flask complete with suspension chains. Not only was the swivel in that picture identical in function, but very near identical in form too. It was a remarkable ID, but of course, the item then begged the question — were there ever hot baths on site where an oil flask might be used?

Well, the site always seemed rich enough for such luxuries to be available to the occupants, but now that I think the site to be a halfway house, or mansio, with a commercial interest in laying on creature comforts for paying customers, then I don't really see how the proprietors could not have provided hot baths. It would have been demanded, surely?

The only trouble with that idea is that there doesn't seem to be much in the way of a fresh water supply nearby, well not one bountiful enough to supply baths with. The river is a mile away and the site is on dead flat elevated ground, which would have meant an artesian well or spring supply. However the area abounds in springs, and there appears to be one in a nearby wood, or at least a stream has its source within it, so perhaps that is how water was got?

Perhaps one day the site will be excavated and then it'll all become clear, and if the Roman road is one day confirmed as such and the site suspected as something more interesting than just another Roman farm, then perhaps that'll happen. Till then, I'm not holding my breath.

Roman bronze oil flask suspension swivel. 44.5 x 37mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.

Ref: Joan Liversage, 'Britain in the Roman Empire' 1968, 127, fig. 50.

Sunday, 23 September 2012

A New Roman Road — Discovered!

I've been researching land that I worked seven years ago, a landscape where I discovered some very interesting sites indeed. Two large Roman sites — the first a Roman continuation of an early Iron Age circular enclosure, and with two more circular enclosures nearby, the second a site built in the Roman period but with Iron Age activity nearby and a rare Bronze Age habitation site just a few hundred yards distant, itself with an associated enclosure.

Both areas were seen to be linked together by a three mile long straight linear cropmark that crossed modern fields, entered and exited a pathway, and continued on past the second Roman site and petered out in a field just beyond it. All the cropmarks, the circular enclosures and the linear features, were seen on aerial imagery available at the time.

Well, the current crop of images available are somewhat better than those available back then, because they show land not in crop, but ploughed and harrowed, so as a consequence, the circular enclosures have vanished because they show up better in crop than out, but the linear features have become very visible indeed because the road beneath makes the land drier above, so we see a light coloured line of regular width.

Now, the road I mentioned running north-south and linking one Roman site to another, does not simply peter out as thought, but joins another road running east-west at a T-junction. This second road was tracked and to my amazement, it just kept on going in both directions. When I'd finished the task of mapping it, I'd found a road 13 miles long linking two Roman towns together, both of them large, one of them major. However, they were not linked directly. The new road I'd discovered linked to the large towns at smaller settlements located just a few miles north of both, but themselves on major north-south routes.

As a matter of great interest, the roman site I had found was in the angle of the junction between the two roads and exactly half way between the two large towns on the new road at the six mile point. This makes it a 'halfway house.' or, a service station!  These stations were known as 'mansio,' and could grow into towns in their own right, but this site never did. It remained a 'villa' type place, but it did have creature comforts on offer to the traveller, because beyond plenty of the kind of coinage needed to pay for the services offered by the proprietors to the weary traveler, I also found the suspension swivel from an oil flask on site, and that means hot baths...

You'll forgive me for not publishing pictures of the roads and sites, because such information can be used against my own interest, as you can imagine, but all this must be made known, in the end, and somehow. There's a world of difference in finding portable antiquities and permanent ones. There's also a very big difference between long linear marks in soil, and a recognised roman road. That it certainly looks like one, is not the same as it certainly being one — that requires confirmation and publication by those who confirm and publish such things — historians and archaeologists. So, I can either contact them, let the information out of my hands, and probably never hear about it ever again, OR, I can publish the results of my research, myself, and let them argue the toss afterwards...

Oh dear, here we go! 

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Medieval Gilt-bronze Reliquary Chasse Mount

This marvelous object turned up at the ploughed out site of a small medieval building I worked hard & long back in 2004/5. As mentioned in a previous post about an Edward Confessor penny, there were village rumours about a medieval establishment having have once stood nearby, a place the locals called, 'The Priory.'

Before this item was located, I'd found plenty of higher grade medieval material there — nothing spectacular though, just larger and more expensive buckles and brooches than were usual in the locality, and other clear signs of wealth. I had, of course, dismissed the local rumours of the one-time existence of this legendary 'priory' as the product of overactive imaginations and thought the site nothing more interesting than a house.

However, that all changed when this mount flipped out of the soil and saw the light of day for the first time in the best part of a millennium. I hadn't a clue what it actually was at first, the surface covered in impacted fine soil, though I thought I could see curvilinear decoration that appeared almost Iron Age in style.

I suppose the shape of the object conjured up mental images of a miniature celtic shield, and that, together with the fact that just a few weeks earlier I'd found an Iron Age potin nearby, led to my apprehending what the eye is accustomed to, and that is what it already knows well. However, on washing, the intriguing object, now free of much of the heavy soil it was caked in when found, began to take on an altogether different complexion. All thoughts of having found a really special Iron Age object fell away to be replaced with the equally special thought that I'd found something just as remarkable, but Medieval.

I knew that I'd seen something very similar before, but couldn't for the life of me remember exactly where. Trawling through the Internet and scanning through every book I could find on medieval art in search of similar, drew a resounding blank. The style of the decoration rang a bell though. Late saxon period inhabited vine-scroll ornament was similar, but this ornament had no beasts in it, so it wasn't that, but it was a start in the right direction...

Then, on one of my regular trips to the British Museum, after viewing just about every medieval thing in it, both early and late, I was suddenly confronted with the truth of the matter when I turned a corner, peered into a cabinet, and saw the very thing riveted onto a beautifully decorated and sumptuous reliquary chasse covered in enameled gilt-bronze panels.

Copyright © The Trustees of the British Museum

There it was, in all its former glory. The mount on the chasse was almost exactly the same size as the one I'd found, was nearly the same shape, had the same four rivet holes, and still had its original cabochon of a massive rock crystal gem, in situ. The only real difference was the decoration, where my find beat the BM example into a cocked hat, because it wasn't decorated in the same way or to the same degree, however, the gilt-bronze panels of the casket were decorated, and decorated in the very same style - with 'uninhabited' vine-scroll ornament of the 12th century.

Now, examples of medieval ecclesiastical metalwork of any type or form are excessively rare as finds from British soil. Hardly any come up each year, and those that do are usually very rare bits and pieces of altar or processional crosses, such as crucifix figures, figurines of saints, and other decorative elements, but parts of reliquary chasse are almost unheard of. To have found such a thing, a bona-fide item of ecclesiastical metalwork of very high quality and of high style too, in a place where once a priory is rumoured to have once stood, is either a miracle of chance, or clear material evidence that the rumours of 'The Priory' were, after centuries of degenerating folk memory, true after all.

12th Century gilt-bronze reliquary chasse mount, decorated with vine scroll ornament, cabochon of (probably) rock crystal missing. 4 rivet holes, reverse plain. Dimensions 58 x 36 x 6.5mm. Epping Forest District, Essex.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Aesica Brooch — A Marriage Made in Heaven

It took a while convincing the folks over at UKDN, but I finally drove the nail hard home. A fragment of an object had defied identification for a couple of days, and was in the process of being roundly dismissed as modern, but when I clapped eyes on it, knew exactly what it was without a second doubt. And it was... a brooch fragment.

However, this was no ordinary Roman period brooch we were looking at there, but one of such quality as to rival the eponymous type example itself — The Aesica Brooch.

The Carmarthen Brooch
The decoration was absolutely typical of its period, and I initially thought of the Carmarthen brooch as a place to start a proper ID from. I tend to see decoration first and form second when faced with fragmented, unknown things, because decoration is not subject to such confusion as form is when it's in bits. This decoration was clearly early Roman period, and better, it was derived from the British Celtic Tradition.

The Aesica Brooch
I then had a look at the form of the thing, and offered it up to a picture of the Aesica Brooch in one of my books. It matched perfectly. There could be no doubt, if the thing was genuine, that this was the foot (or is it the head...?) of a brooch of the very same style and of the very same high quality.

So, I posted the evidence, and sat back to await replies...



In the end, two days later, and without progress made in the meantime, I got mad. So, I posted a photoshop overlay of the fragment on top of the Easica Brooch itself, and stormed off in a huff.

A marriage made in heaven

A few days later still, I went back to check progress. Two extra pages of excitable comments had arisen, and on the second page was a missive from one of the finders that the fragment had been confirmed as being what I had said it was all along, but without so much as an acknowledgement in my direction from him, let alone a 'thank you very much, Rufus.'

And thanks would have been more than enough.

Fricking forums, eh? This is the very reason why I stopped doing ID's on UKDN all those years ago, and perhaps part of the reason why CJ dropped out, and why Rod Blunt skipped over to UKDFD and never went back. It's hard work is working for free. And a thankless task, to boot.

Blimey, every self-respecting detectorist should be aware that the Aesica Brooch is one of the most important objects of the entire early Roman period ever found in this country. This new example of one not only similar, but of better metal — because the Aesica Brooch is 'merely' gilt-bronze, where this one is silver-gilt — is, to my knowledge, only the second ever found of the same high standard, and is therefore an important thing itself, and in every conceivable respect.

That should have been obvious, but detectorists do not learn the trade 'sky down,' from studying the great and classic treasures, but learn it 'ground up,' from the mundane, commonplace and everyday. Therefore quotidian things are easily recognised, but seriously important things rarely are.

I think that the finders need to get out there and comb the land it arose from for the rest of it, before the archaeologists claim it as the treasure it certainly is, throw a cordon round the place, and do the same...

Then again, given that this was found in two pieces some 15 years apart from one and another, and in the meantime has never been suspected as being anything of note, was never checked out as such, and almost hit the junk pile as nothing better than modern trash when it finally was, then perhaps that would be the very best course of action...

Monday, 17 September 2012

Silver Penny of Edward the Confessor

Easily the best hammered coin I've found in my entire career thus far, and one that would be hard to better. In such brilliant as-struck condition that under an eye glass you could see every tiny detail of the dies, and see easily that the obverse and reverse dies were of different ages, the obverse being fresh and the reverse well-used.

It was found near to a Medieval manor house, still standing to this day. Local rumor had it that there once stood a medieval ecclesiastical establishment nearby, known legendarily as 'the priory.'

Though this was never located for certain, what I discovered was a ploughed out level platform, a spread of high-grade Medieval material, and a number of large stones some hundreds of yards distant from the manor, certainly once a building, and possibly what the locals were talking about. It was an exciting place to search in any case, but the excitement was really fueled by those rumours.
When I found an actual and bona-fide piece of ecclesiastical metalwork, a heavily gilded and beautifully decorated reliquary mount, only short of its original massive cabochon of rock crystal, and just tens of yards outside the bounds of the Medieval site, I thought that the rumours were becoming something of a fact. But when this beautiful coin turned up too, but inside the bounds, I was certain I had established the site as the 'priory' of legend.

Of course we'll never know for sure, but what is ever certain in this pastime of ours, eh? One thing's for sure though... always follow up on the local gossip, because even the faintest smoke always leads to a fire!

The hard numismatic details of this coin can be found here at UKDFD, but in brief, they are ~

Edward the Confessor penny, pointed helmet type, mint - London, moneyer - Brungar. Epping Forest District, Essex.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Back in the Swing of Things

Once upon a time I was an inveterate detectorist. Out all hours, wind or shine, plying the fields, scumbling the stubble, marching the furlongs, making the finds. Back then, I had land to die for. Real detectorist's land — thousands upon thousands of golden acres providing a steady and reliable bounty I scarcely appreciated for what it was, until I stepped out on land that others considered their very best, but proved far from what I would consider even reasonable by comparison.

That was Essex, but this was Warwickshire and early this afternoon, I marched out on a field again for the first time in, perhaps, seven years... It was as if I'd never left them behind —the old style kicked in and the going was good. My trusty old machine began its familiar chatter as flecks of iron in the soil were passed over, and every few minutes a good signal was found and dug. All were the odds and ends of scrap metal you'd expect from most anywhere, but none were of any age or interest.

I expected at any moment to find something of real interest, even if that would be a fragment of buckle or a chunk of broken metal pot. When a lead palm guard turned up I thought the chain of events had begun, where such a find leads to another and another of similar period, and then, with a little luck, something more substantial would come.

But it didn't, and as I ventured further and further from the car, it became increasingly clear that it wouldn't. The iron chatter died away to the point where every now and then, I had to pass the spade across the top of the coil just to check the machine had not run out of battery power. It hadn't, but the field had.

Andy, my detecting partner for the day, and who'd kindly taken me out on these fields of his, had fared similarly, with just a few odds and ends from the last century or so, but nothing that would point to there being any point in staying on here for very much longer.

The soil was unkind to copper. Even scraps half a century in the ground had corroded powdery surfaces, an effect I associate with land not cultivated long, and that has seen little manuring. Most land like this I believe to have been forest until quite recently. In Essex, such land was never productive and would be last on my list and only ever visited twice if there was a very good reason to, or simply nowhere else to go.

Of course there might well be a few items worth finding in such land, but the time it takes to locate them is punishing, and the finds really do have to be of precious metal to survive in anything like worthwhile condition — the backbone of detecting, the copper based finds, are simply not worth the effort being in such a parlous state, that finding them is only ever a crushing disappointment, no matter how rare and desirable they might be.

We moved across to a new field. Right off the bat, I had the reassuring noise of iron chatter. Signals came and finds were dug. Once again, just scraps of foil and aluminium to start, but a few odd chunks of green coloured molten waste, that looked like bronze, but were far too light in weight to be that, so must have been nothing but spelter, and therefore very recent.

Once again the chatter died away as I moved down the field. In an hour I'd found very little so moved back to the top and began to concentrate fully on the first area searched. I was hard going for little reward though. The stubble was nowhere near as tough as some I've struggled with but high enough to seriously impede progress and reduce sensitivity to deeply buried items. Given such conditions, I tend to move quickly, there being little point in trying to achieve depth by moving slowly and deliberately, when by far the best course of action is to pluck as many obvious surface finds in the short time available.

Without having made a single decent find in nearly four hours and with just ten minutes to go, up came a button (and the only button of the day!) that I recognised immediately for what it was. A semi-hemispherical button with an open back can only be the one thing, and that's a valuable early military one. It was worn and its surface corroded somewhat, but it had detail that could be appreciated. Under reading glasses, I could see it was probably a guard's button, but couldn't make out which regiment. A shame though, that it's value had been reduced so very far by the acidic soil.

With five minutes left I made the only ancient find of the afternoon — a bronze pot leg of probably Medieval date. This was corroded, bitten, encrusted and lumpy, proving that the land was incapable of preserving ancient base metal objects in a good state, and was therefore unlikely to be worth a second visit unless that be a concentrated search along the area of interest at the top of the field, and under perfect search conditions, when there's always the outside chance of plucking a very few noble metal things out of unlikely prospects.

18th C. tunic button of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards & a crusty Medieval pot leg. 

Though we'd failed to bring up anything of real note, and nothing pointing to better prospects elsewhere, it had been good to get back in the swing of things and remind myself why I loved detecting so much in the first place, and why to my surprise, I still retain the passion, and that's because you never do know what the next dig brings.

When things are tough and unrewarding, you must keep on undaunted and not lose heart. This field may be no good, and the next might be just as bad, but keep on searching hard and long enough, and soon enough you'll step out on a new field and the returns it offers will be all the reward in the world for that earlier effort.

I have a motto for such times, and it serves me well...

'Dig Regardless!'