Category Archives: Archaeology

Object of the Month – July 2020

Hipposandal – a Roman horse shoe

Our Object of the Month for July has been chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator

How were hipposandals used?

Iron hipposandals (soleae ferreae) were removable temporary horseshoes, which were used to protect the hooves of working horses.  They were first introduced in the Celtic-Roman area north of the Alps in the mid-1st century AD and were in use until around the 5th century AD, when they were largely replaced by nailed on horseshoes.

The iron soles of the hipposandals were marked with grooves, with an oval-shaped thick metal cup above that, which would have enclosed and protected the hoof. They were fastened to the horse using metallic clips and leather laces.  This particular example from our collections has the back wings and upper frontal loop missing. 

Wearing Hipposandals gave working horses’ better traction and protected their hooves, particularly on rough ground and metalled tracks. Wearing them greatly improved the efficiency and resilience of the animals.  There were also versions known as kureisen (cure shoes) which were worn to help treat and protect a horse if it had diseased hooves.

The word hipposandal is derived from Ancient Greek as the word “hippos” means horse. Hence the word “hippodrome,” which we now use to mean a theatre, but which originally was the name for an ancient Greek stadium for horse and chariot racing.

Where did this one come from?

This item was donated to the Museum in 1985 by a metal-detectorist and researcher along with a collection of shell and pottery fragments (which included sherds of Nene Valley fine-ware) and belemnite fossils all collected in the same area of Wixoe.

Wixoe is a village in West Suffolk, located on the bank of the River Stour, 2 miles south-east of Haverhill. It was recorded in the Domesday Book as having covered 600 acres and was one of the smallest parishes in the hundred of Risbridge.  Today, many of its cottages are Victorian and it has a 12th century church, St Leonard’s. 

Roman remains have been frequently found in the vicinity of Wixoe, mostly on the Essex side of the Stour. In 1803, close to Watsoe Bridge, an earthwork enclosure was identified as a ‘camp’, along with two cemeteries.  In 1973 aerial photography showed many large pits, two streets and a building with flint foundations, close to the river.  Field-walking and metal detection over many years have revealed multiple finds of Roman coins and other artefacts, including brooches, figurines, pottery. 

The assumption of archaeologists and historians is that Wixoe in Roman times occupied between 12 and 24 hectares, and was one of eight small Roman towns in Suffolk, which included Icklingham, Long Melford and Felixstowe.

In 2011, on the Suffolk side of the Stour, archaeological surveying and excavation work undertaken during the Abberton pipeline installation, revealed a small town which was likely to have been occupied between 100-400 AD. Its road connections were the real advantage of the town’s location. 

The Via Devana, a military track, which ran from Chester to Colchester, would have passed through Wixoe. Another road would have led east from Wixoe, on the north side of the Stour, passing through Long Melford, before heading north-east to Baylham and probably on to Dunwich.  A third road led north, probably towards Icklingham and the Icknield Way.  A fourth road, close to the Ains Ford, is thought to have run towards the major Roman fort at Great Chesterford, on a more southerly section of the Icknield Way.  There is no clear trace of these roads immediately outside Wixoe, but it is likely that they have been eroded by ploughing or incorporated into the existing field boundaries.  Evidence suggests that the Stour may have also been navigable as far as Wixoe by flat-bottomed boats.  There may even have been a wharf there at one time.

The town appears to have been a planned rural commercial centre, rather than one which evolved naturally from an earlier settlement. It is most likely that it was built after the Boudiccan revolt and sacking of Camulodunum (Colchester) in AD60-61.  The archaeological evidence suggests that its wealth was focussed on industrial production relying on local timber (charcoal) and imported metals.  It appears to have consisted of largely timber-framed domestic buildings, with evidence of courtyards, boundary ditches, industrial ovens and hearths showing the remains of lead and iron workings, with cobbled surfaces and pits used for quarrying.

Use of horses in Roman Britain

Battle

The Romans used horses primarily for battle; horsemen fought as a secondary force to the infantry soldiers. They would have initially fought on the wings of the battle formation.  It was the job of the cavalry to prevent the enemy from outflanking the infantry, who would have been positioned in the centre of the formation.  When the Romans turned a battle in their favour and the enemy began to retreat, the cavalry would then move forward to cut them down.  The use of horses in battle enabled the Roman army to move faster and more efficiently.  Horse riders also played other crucial non battle roles for example couriering urgent messages and acting as scouts investigating new territories. 

Agriculture & Industry

In Romano-Britain, horses were used in the majority of agricultural processes as draught animals, alongside donkeys and oxen. In industrial processes their walking motion would have been used to power heavy machinery, for example in milling flour or operating a saw mill. 

Transport

The majority of Romano-British people would have travelled on foot, but those who were wealthier such as merchants would have used horses for transport, as did the military and government. Rest stops would have provided those travelling long distances with a chance to rest and change horses. 

Chariot Racing & Public Events

In ancient Rome, chariot racing was extremely popular. Races were held in what was called a “circus” because of the oval shape of the stadium.  The most famous and oldest of these is the Circus Maximus in Rome.  The closest chariot racing circuit in Romano-Britain would have been the Camulodunum Circus (Colchester). The Romans loved a spectacle and in addition to the chariot racing they would have also had hunting shows, where venatores, often on horseback themselves, would have hunted herds of wild animals including horses for the assembled audience’s enjoyment.

References

Manning, W.H. (1985). Catalogue of Romano-British Iron Tools, Fittings and Weapons in the British Museum, BMP, London.

Colchester’s Roman Circus Centre, Colchester Archaeological Trust: https://www.romancircus.co.uk/

New blog article: Roman Kitchen & Dining

Curator Carolyn Wingfield is giving a small display of Roman pottery a makeover, looking at where the pots were made or how they were used. This small bowl with a perforated base is a pottery strainer or colander, which has been partially reconstructed; it is quite rare for strainer bowls to be found complete. Domestic pottery like this was usually made locally, so it may well have been traded at a market in the Roman town of Great Chesterford, or the smaller centre at Great Dunmow. In this case, we do not have any information on where the strainer bowl was found. It was common in late Iron Age and Roman times to place food and drink offerings in the grave with the dead (usually cremated remains). We do not have detailed records of where every pot in the collections was found, but it is probable that most of the complete or reconstructed Roman pots in the collections probably come from burials.

Pottery strainer bowl or colander, probably made locally, c 170 – 250 AD

Everyday vessels like this take us straight to the kitchen or hearth of a Romano-British family home, to people preparing their food and maybe adopting some new food fashions and items of kitchen equipment after Britain became part of the Roman Empire. One manual of Roman cooking survives– the recipes of Apicius, a celebrated Roman ‘celebrity chef’. However his recipes do not necessarily reflect what the average Roman Briton was cooking – especially those with more exotic ingredients such as ostrich! Nevertheless it does give us a valuable insight into Roman cuisine, and some ways of preparing common foodstuffs and sauces. Recipes for preparing cooked squashes in sauce or lentils with chestnuts, for instance, refer to straining ingredients.

Small Roman flagon and cup, both dating from the mid 2nd century AD

This flagon was made at a pottery near St Albans (Roman Verulamium) and the cup was imported from north Gaul (Roman France). The flagon was found in Great Chesterford and given to the Museum in 1836 – the year after it opened – by a Mrs Barnes. The little cup, which is just 7cms high, may also have been found at Great Chesterford, but no record survives of its provenance.

Wine was imported and enjoyed before the Roman conquest by at least some local Iron Age people; wine amphorae (large pottery containers) have been found in high-status burials and sherds of amphorae were excavated at an Iron Age village site now under Stansted Airport. Romans usually drank wine diluted with water – even soldiers had a ration of weak, sour wine. After the Roman conquest the taste for wine and its availability spread. Drinks based on wines flavoured with herbs and spices were also popular, as was the use of wine in cooking. Native drinks were based on fermenting grains (barley, wheat) and honey, so mead was probably common as well as beer, though strictly it would have been more like an ale or barley wine as hops were not used in Britain until the late Middle Ages.

The small size of the flagon and cup suggest they might have ben used for someone’s special tipple rather than drinking to quench thirst. Perhaps we could imagine a local Briton enjoying a nip of spiced wine on a damp chilly evening? Bibite! (Drink up!)

Object of the Month – October 2018

October’s Object of the Month is a Roman wine strainer chosen by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator

An Essential Accessory for Wine Drinkers

This fragile bronze vessel was described as a “Roman Bronze colander – origin unknown” in the Museum’s registers when it was acquired in 1927. It was among a list of diverse archaeological, historical and ethnographic objects given by George Morris of The Friends’ School, Saffron Walden. It measures nearly 15cms in diameter and the tiny holes piercing the central bowl form a delicate pattern.

Too delicate to be a colander, it is more accurately described as a wine strainer, which would have been used to filter sediment from wine. It is of fine workmanship, though a little damaged and has in the past been repaired with plastic mesh to support the paper-thin edges where some pieces are missing. The handle is also largely missing, although the end adjoining the pan is visible, repaired in the past with modern solder.

We can now place this wine strainer in context, thanks to finds of similar vessels, often accompanying small Roman bronze saucepans know as trullei (singular, trulleus). Trullei were part of the standard equipment of Roman legionaries, but wine strainers were not everyday items issued to Roman troops, and strainers like ours could have been made in Britain. There are examples of strainers been buried with trullei or bronze bowls, for instance the Kingdtone Deverell hoard, discovered in 2005 and now in Salisbury Museum, and the Langstone hoard from Newport, Wales, found in 2007. The Langstone hoard may have been a ritual deposit made by Britons, but elsewhere, strainers and bronze vessels have been found in graves, as part of the feasting and drinking equipment which accompanied the social elite of late Iron Age and early Roman Britain to the next world.

Certainly at the top of Iron Age society in the Essex region, there were people enjoying wine imported from the Roman world as much as a century before the Claudian invasion of AD 43. We know this from high-status graves where wine amphorae were buried, and you can see examples of such amphorae in Saffron Walden Museum. So our wine strainer could date to around the 1st century AD, either just before or after the Roman conquest. It is a pity that we do not know where it was found, but we can imagine a local British aristocrat using this as part of a wine-drinking ceremony or special feast.

Cheers!

 

The wine strainer is on display at the Museum until 1st November 2018, where you can learn more about this object and life in Roman times.

Object of the Month – April 2018

 

April’s Object(s) of the Month is a selection of pieces of Roman roof tiles with paw, hoof and foot prints left by animals and people over 1,750 years ago. The tiles came from a temple that was about 1km north-east of Great Chesterford, which was an important town in the Roman period.

Can you work out what sort of animal left the footprints?

How animals left their mark
At the tile-maker’s yard, the wet clay tiles would have been laid out in the sun to dry before firing in a kiln. It was during this drying stage that tiles could be trampled over by any passing stray animals or domestic pets. Traces of footprints are found from time to time on Roman tiles, and the Great Chesterford tiles preserve prints from a number of different animals, including dogs of various sizes and cloven-hooved farmyard animals such as sheep, goats, calves or pigs. There is even the impression left by a hobnail boot or sandal, possibly from a workman trying to shoo away the animals that were treading on the unfired tiles!

The tiles with footprints are all pieces of tegulae – large, flat rectangular roof tiles with upturned sides. We do not know exactly where these tiles were made. Tiles and bricks were usually made near the building site if possible, where there was a supply of suitable local clay, water and wood to fuel the kilns. It was difficult and expensive to transport large numbers of tiles from a distance, though Great Chesterford’s position in the River Cam would have allowed materials to be brought in by boat.

Great Chesterford Roman Temple
The site of the temple, north-east of the town, was a special place before the Roman Conquest. Local British people had a shrine on the site in the late Iron Age. After the Roman conquest, in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, the temple was rebuilt in Roman style as a square building with walls of mortar and chalk rubble faced with flint and plastered, and a tiled roof.

By the mid-3rd century (around 250 AD) the temple had fallen into disrepair. Large amounts of roof tile and plaster fell off the building and it appears that the remains of the roof was cleared away before a big programme of rebuilding started in the late 3rd century.

You can see the tiles on display in the museum throughout April and find out more about Great Chesterford, the temple and Roman building materials in our archaeology gallery.

Behind-the-scenes on a Monday!

Have you ever wondered what staff do when the museum is closed on a Monday? We’re busy behind the scenes, making sure our collections are documented and cared for.

An important job to complete when the Museum is closed to visitors is routine cleaning of the museum’s permanent displays. Volunteers are helping curatorial staff to clean objects on display, a few cases at a time. This not only keeps the displays looking good, but also prevents potentially harmful dust particles accumulating on fragile objects, and allows curatorial staff to check for signs of corrosion and other problems.

Objects are carefully removed from the case to a table covered with acid-free tissue paper. Here they can be examined and very gently brushed to remove dust particles. The nozzle of the special mini-vacuum cleaner, designed for museum conservation, is held just above the object to remove any loose dust without touching fragile surfaces. Once the case interior has also been cleaned, everything can by placed back on display and the case secured. It can take about an hour to do a medium-sized show case.

Volunteer Joanne has been helping our curator Carolyn to clean the archaeology displays. So far, we are about half way round the gallery. In the case behind Joanne are some of the beautiful Roman glass vessels, pottery and metal objects used by and buried with local people over 1,800 years ago, at Little Walden, Canfield, Bartlow and Stebbing.

Other curatorial staff work in our off-site store with volunteers on a Monday. Here, we add and edit information about the collection onto our collections management database, making sure we know exactly what we have in the collection and where it is! This has been particularly important in the aftermath of our store-move, as the locations of all the objects moved (about 80,000 objects in total) needed to be updated! Every object has a separate record on the database, with information about its history, provenance, significance and physical appearance. 

As we work through the collections systematically, adding information to the database, we check the condition of our objects and identify any conservation work that needs to be done. Our new store has helped dramatically with this process as we now have the space to store our objects in a more visible way and to lay out objects so that they can be inspected. 

Whether they are on display, or cared for in our stores, our collections are at the heart of the museum. It is vitally important that we take the time to care for them properly, so that they are preserved for people to enjoy long into the future. 

Object in Focus – Medieval Seal Matrix

 

We are preparing to re-display our special ‘treasure’ case in the archaeology gallery, to include some new finds we have just acquired under the Treasure Act. These include a small silver medieval seal matrix, a metal stamp with a design to press into sealing wax and make a seal. Curator Carolyn Wingfield has been doing a little research into medieval seal matrices as part of the preparation for the display.

Document with seal (Portable Antiquities Scheme/ The Trustees of the British Museum)

In the Middle Ages, anyone with property or money would probably need to seal official documents, or send letters in the course of managing personal and family business. Royalty, nobility and the Church had large and impressive official seals attached to their documents. People of lesser rank, such as clerics, merchants or farmers, would use small seal matrices made of lead or copper alloy to imprint a wax seal only 1-2cms across. Silver seal matrices are rarer and so we can imagine someone of some wealth and social status owned our silver seal matrix.

These small, common seal matrices were suspended by a cord from a belt or carried in a purse and so frequently got lost. As a result, metal detectorists find lots of seal matrices. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over 4,000 seal matrices on its database – 139 of them are from Essex.

Impression of the medieval seal matrix recently acquired by the museum

Seal matrices show a wonderful variety of inscriptions and designs, though there are certain themes which were popular. Many give us the names of their owners, ordinary people such as ‘Richard son of Ralph’ or ‘Annais the wife of William Dun’. Religious symbols and portraits of favourite saints occur as well as comic ones, such as a sleeping lion with the inscription ‘Wake Me No Man’. Other inscriptions include an instruction in Latin ‘Frange. Lege.Tege’ meaning ‘Break [the seal]. Read [the letter]. Conceal [the contents]’. Carolyn’s personal favourite was a seal matrix shown to her by a local metal-detectorist several years ago. It was engraved with a comical medieval ‘cartoon’ character which had a large two-faced head, running along on two little legs. The Latin inscription translated as ‘The Seal of Nonesuch’. Clearly some of our ancestors enjoyed a joke!

You can see some of the museum’s collection of Treasure on display in the Great Hall or have a look at our Treasure20 campaign

Object of the Month – July 2017

 Handaxe from Warren Hill, near Mildenhall, Suffolk

July’s Object of the Month is a flint handaxe made and used by an unknown ancient human around half a million years ago. It will be featured in our next special exhibition, Life in the Ice Age which opens on 12 August 2017.

Over many thousands of years, the handaxe has been rolled and blunted by rivers and glaciers, and stained by minerals, but it still shows signs of deliberate shaping to form an edged tool.

The reverse side of the Handaxe

‘Handaxe’ is the name we use to describe these early multi-purpose hand-held tools for cutting, chopping and grinding. Experiments have shown that they were efficient tools for butchering large animals, and for chopping and pounding other foods such as edible roots. The people who made and used them were ‘hunter-gatherers’, who hunted herds of wild animals, and gathered natural foods such as nuts, berries and edible plants.

A Short History of Handaxes

The earliest humans to make simple stone chopping tools lived in Africa about 2 million years ago. When a new species of early human, Homo erectus, developed about 1.8 million years ago, they used more carefully shaped cutting tools, which we call handaxes.

By 1.5 million years ago, humans had spread out of Africa into southern Europe and continued to make handaxes wherever there was flint or other suitable stone. As humans evolved and learned to cope with different environments, so handaxes evolved: there are many variations of size and shape. It continued to be the main tool of many human cultures up to around 50,000 years ago, when modern humans appeared, and stopped making and using handaxes.

Joseph Clarke’s collection

Joseph Clarke

Our handaxe is marked to show that it came from the collection of Joseph Clarke (1802 – 1895), who was a local antiquarian. Joseph and his brother Joshua were active members of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society (later Saffron Walden Museum Society) and as trustees they played an important role in the Museum. Joseph was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and his network of contacts enabled him to collect objects from beyond the local area.

 

 

The site at Warren Hill

Warren Hill became famous in the nineteenth century for the large number of ancient handaxes and flake tools found there, many of which, like this handaxe, eventually found their way into museum collections. The age of the Warren Hill deposits and the flint tools in them has been debated for over a century. Investigations in the 1990s suggested that the gravels were part of a now extinct river system, called the Bytham River, which flowed from the Midlands across East Anglia and out into the North Sea. Later the Anglian Glaciation destroyed the Bytham River and created our present-day landscape. So the flint tools from the Warren Hill gravels must date from before the Anglian Glaciation, about 500,000 years ago. Evidence of human activity before the Anglian Glaciation is very rare because the ice sheets destroyed most of it._

Map showing the site of Warren Hill

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You can see this Handaxe on display in the museum until Sunday 30th July, and in our upcoming exhibition ‘Life in the Ice Age’, which opens on the 12th August.

Treasure20

Saffron Walden Museum is taking part in Treasure 20, a partnership project of the British Museum and Portable Antiquities Scheme, to highlight the important contribution of the Treasure Act to public museum collections around the country. Treasure 20 is a nationwide project which celebrates 20 years since the Treasure Act 1996 came into force in September 1997.

As part of the project, we are re-displaying our Treasure case, adding new archaeological finds such as a rare brooch in the form of a dove and a silver coin from Anglo-Saxon times, a delicate medieval finger ring and a tiny gold brooch with a pair of clasped hands.

The finds reflect the range of objects reported by metal-detectorists and also chance discoveries made by members of the public, like the Anglo-Saxon coin. The ring and brooches were all declared treasure under the Treasure Act 1996 and were purchased for the museum’s collections by Saffron Walden Museum Society Ltd, with generous grant-aid from the Arts Council England / Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund and The Headley Trust. Our collections and our understanding of local heritage have been enriched by over 50 acquisitions made through the Treasure Act.

As well as displaying new finds in the museum (look for the special Treasure20 labels), we will also be featuring a selection on the museum’s website and social media for 20 weeks, from June to October. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook to learn more about our Treasure collection or click on the gallery below.  We’ll be adding to the gallery throughout the project. 

 

 

 

Object of the Month – November 2016

November’s Object of the Month is a flint dagger over 4,000 years old. It has been chosen as Object of the Month by Carolyn Wingfield, Curator. The dagger was made by a skilled prehistoric flint-knapper and its significance was drawn to the museum’s attention by Hazel Martingell, a specialist in prehistoric flint and stone artefacts.

1912-58-19

Photograph of Windmill Hill, taken in about 1900 (from the museum’s collection)

Found on Windmill Hill in 1863
The flint dagger was found by workmen on Windmill Hill, just north of Saffron Walden, in 1863. They were digging a road from the main road to The Vineyards, the new residence of William Murray Tuke. Tuke was a banker and a trustee of Saffron Walden Museum. In 1871 he gave the dagger to the Museum but it was over a hundred years before the date and significance of the dagger were identified.

An identity puzzle
At first, the dagger was thought to date from the Old Stone Age, because it has some similarities to very fine flint tools produced over 16,000 years ago by the so-called ‘Solutrean’ culture (named after a French site).
We now know of hundreds of other flint daggers and knives like the Windmill Hill dagger. They date from the end of the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and beginning of the Bronze Age, around 2,500 – 2,000 BC. Both flint and metal (copper and bronze) daggers were in use at this time, though they are never found together. Perhaps different groups favoured different materials.
Archaeologists use many terms to describe flint blades; the Windmill Hill example could be called a dagger or a knife. It would have had a handle of wood, bone or antler, and must have been a prized possession.

1971-13-flint-dagger-h-martingell-drawing

Drawing of the flint dagger by Hazel Martingell

Fantastic Flint!
The technique used to make flint artefacts like the Windmill Hill dagger is known as ‘pressure flaking’. A flint blade was struck and shaped, then finished by levering off tiny, regular flakes by applying pressure with a pointed tool. It takes great skill to produce such thin and sharp blade in flint.

To see another example of fine flint-working from this period, follow this link to the website of the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes and Phil Harding’s favourite object, the remarkable ‘Stonehenge Dagger’, which was found in a burial near Stonehenge.

http://www.wiltshiremuseum.org.uk/galleries/index.php?Action=4&obID=287&prevID=111&oprevID=22

We do not know why or how the Windmill Hill dagger came to be buried, but it is unlikely that such a precious object would have been lost by accident.

You can see the flint dagger on display in the Museum until 30 November 2016.