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'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.