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.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

A Bronze Age Factory? — The Soft Evidence

Back in 2004 I discovered the very first piece of evidence pointing to what I hoped would turn out be a Bronze Age habitation site. I was extremely lucky to stumble across such a scrap in the first place, working as I was in total ignorance of anything to suggest it might be there. There were no records of Bronze Age activity anywhere nearby except for a single instance of a hoard of axes found four miles away and up till that point I'd never found so much of a fragment of a recognisable bronze item to suggest there ever had been.

Flint tempered pottery of the mid-late Bronze Age
The find was a single piece of pottery. Such sherds look like the chunks of dried mud mixed with trodden-in grit that fall from the tread of your wellies. Even in the hand and recognised for what they really are, they still appear to be made of the same soil that you've been searching, therefore they're almost impossible to spot against it. However, spot it I did, but only because I had prior knowledge of what it looked like.

In 1990, and just a few months after starting detecting, I'd discovered a small hoard of two socketed axes and along with them were found two body sherds of locally made flint-tempered pottery. So, I understood full well what small pieces of broken common or garden bronze age pottery vessels looked like, and was therefore able to 'see' them at very short range, but quite how I managed to see that first piece when I was not looking for it, I have no idea.

I was searching a very quiet field at my rapid 'prospecting rate' and looking for scatters of Roman finds related to a nearby Roman site, but instead came across a small body sherd identical to my 'hoard sherds,' and certainly of Bronze Age origins. I stopped in my tracks and considered what I'd discovered. 14 years of detecting experience had taught me that such finds are never alone, and why would they be? People are not in the habit of carrying bits of broken pottery around with them. Where's there's one there's often two, and where there's two, there's usually many. A few more pieces of this pottery in the bag and I'd identified a site proper...

So, I commenced a painstaking search of the immediate area and eventually found another piece of the same stuff. The detector was in play throughout, but it failed to find anything that could be said to be contemporary with the pottery. Hours later, I was exhausted by the exercise but had found a further sherd some distance from the first two. I realised then just how very sparse prehistoric sites really are!

Fragment of a pure copper 'bun' ingot.  Raw materials
 Daunted by the incredibly thin pickings, but spurred on by the knowledge that I might have discovered something important, I commenced session two. This time I was determined to find metalwork amongst the pottery even if were only a tiny scrap of a thing — so long as it was certainly 'period' then I'd be happy.

Prepared for a long hard day, I set off to walk up and down the guide lines made by the rotovator for just as long as it would take, but I found no metal I could say was Bronze Age all day long.

A third session was made the very next day. I had begun to think I was wasting my time and that metal find I needed so badly probably wouldn't come, was prepared to give the job till lunchtime and then reassess my position, but it turned up on just the second pass! It was a piece of copper 'bun ingot' and proof positive that metalwork contemporary with the pottery was there after all. Such an innocuous piece of metal surely never made a detectorist so happy — you'd have thought I'd found a gold noble! I was beside myself with excitement and punching the air, not because it was valuable or even especially rare, but because it was so hard-earned and was absolutely crucial to the future of the site.

The day after I worked very hard indeed and was on site for the best part of eight hours, but in all that time I'd found a only a few extra pieces of pottery and a handful of possible flints. The evidence was extremely thin and well spread but I felt it was worthwhile continuing and I'm ever glad I did, because in the last hour I finally turned up an exciting metal item — the tip of a bronze spearhead.

At last, a weapon!

The tip of a Bronze Age spearhead — scrap bound for the furnace

Neolithic- Early Bronze Age knife fragment

Further investigations included a hunt for flints. I found just one identifiable tool — a broken knife blade — but quite a bit of worked flint, and taken altogether with the pottery and metal finds, the assemblage so far collected was fast becoming enough to establish the site as something very unusual and interesting.

Over successive trips, and a total of 60 hours of very hard and demanding work, I turned up a few more bits and pieces of unidentifiable bronze, a cast bronze pin head, a complete but very small bun ingot, and a fragment of the mouth of a socketed axe which compared exactly with those complete ones in my collection — South-eastern types, and common to Essex. By the time the crop was sown, I'd amassed a persuasive collection of finds that together were more than enough to make anyone interested in the Bronze Age, sit up and take notice.

The mouth fragment of a late Bronze Age socketed axehead compared that of a complete example

Rarely are finds of metalwork made within scatters of Bronze Age pottery and worked flint. Usually a field walker would discover a scatter of pottery and worked flint without metalwork, or a detectorist might discover a hoard of metalwork or metalworking evidence but without associated flints or pottery. Archeologists have always remarked upon this phenomena when excavating Bronze Age sites where metalwork finds are meagre to non-existent. However, I'd discovered not only pieces of metalworking scrap and bronze ingot, but worked flint, flint tools and pottery sherds too, all spread together over a localised area of a single field.

The sum total of 60 hours hard work — just a few handfuls of finds
I thought the effort had more than paid off, because scanty though the evidence was, it seemed to be pointing toward long-term occupation with metalworking industry 'on site' and away from the long-held academic notion of itinerant smiths wandering the country, setting up temporary camps near to occupations sites, where they'd chop down trees, make fires, and cast tools and weapons to sell to the residents.

In short, I'd begun to think I'd proof of the first known Bronze Age factory, which may seem an extraordinary claim to make for such a meagre collection of finds but in the field, and without pause for thought, such ideas are bound to create themselves. It's human nature to speculate, after all.

When the field was drilled and out of bounds, I went off and searched for 'easier' prospects elsewhere on the farm. A new Bronze Age site was established beyond doubt but I intended to return the following year just to consolidate things. However, despite my pet theories, a month later I'd already begun to kerb my enthusiasm for them because what the site could be or what it could mean were things I'd decided were impossible to ascertain for sure without some kind of 'extra' evidence. But I'd no clear idea what that might be or how I could go about finding it.

There was a whole year to mull it over and make my plans, though, before making the attempt...

Tomorrow, the story continues when I make an astonishing discovery from an elevated perch...