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A guest feature by Littlestone.
William Stukeley’s 1758 plan of Caesaromagus (present day Chelmsford) in the Bodleian Library, Oxford
After twelve years in Lancashire, eight in Wiltshire and thirteen in Japan, I finally ended up in the old English market town of Chelmsford (Essex, south-east England). That was thirty two years ago next month. Chelmsford is some forty miles from London and so was well within commuting distance of my new job in the capital. Houses in the town were affordable, schools for the kids looked good and that, basically, was all I knew about the place – other than the welcome signs as you entered the town which proudly (though somewhat inaccurately) claimed Chelmsford as ‘The Birthplace of Radio’ (the Marconi connection). All, that is, until I heard of an archaeological excavation undertaken by the British Museum back in the early 80s. The excavation was of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons on a derelict piece of land just down the road from where I then lived. Sadly, after the BM’s excavation, the site was again abandoned and is now rapidly disappearing under a new business park.
The derelict site of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Springfield Lyons, Chelmsford before being developed into a business park
Little by little though I learnt that Chelmsford had a bit more of a history to it than just an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. The area had been occupied from Neolithic times and once boasted an impressive prehistoric cursus (the Springfield, or Chelmer, Cursus ) with a wooden circle at one end (now both sadly buried under a supermarket and modern housing development).
But here’s the interesting bit; two thousand years ago Chelmsford was (and still is) situated midway between Colchester and London – both important Roman towns. Perhaps that’s why it somehow earned the distinguished Roman place-name of Caesaromagus (Caesar’s Marketplace). Why it should have been called Caesaromagus is something of a mystery as it was, “…a great honour for a town to have the imperial prefix incorporated in its name, and no other town in Britain was so honoured…”* Although Caesaromagus is mentioned on a 3rd century Roman map (the Antonine Itinerary) its exact location puzzled scholars for centuries. It wasn’t until 1758 when William Stukeley (of Avebury and Stonehenge fame) correctly identified Chelmsford as the Roman town of Caesaromagus. Stukeley even drew a plan (top) of what he thought the town looked like; although the plan is purely fictions and Stukeley has incorrectly placed it on the north side of Chelmsford’s River Can and not on the south side where excavations show it was actually sited.
Artist’s impression of Caesaromagus’ 4th century octagonal Romano-Celtic temple Chelmsford Archaeological Trust
Sometime around 325ce however an impressive, octagonal stone temple (above) was constructed in Caesaromagus for the worship of a Romano-Celtic deity (or deities). The temple stood on what is now the Baddow Road roundabout, close to where the Roman town was then situated. Similar temples, of the same date and plan, have been found in London and on the continent; perhaps the most famous of which is Charlemagne’s Palatine Chapel at Aachen in Germany. The Aachen Cathedral, which now envelopes the octagonal Palatine Chapel, is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe. Constructed by Charlemagne around 796 it has seen the coronations of thirty German kings and twelve queens.
What is interesting, and what has recently been reported by Christopher Howse in the Daily Telegraph, is that Caesaromagus’ octagonal stone temple, “…was behind the design of the third most influential ecclesiastical structure in the history of the Latin Church, after St Peter’s Rome and the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In third place came Charlemagne’s palace church at Aachen. The Roman tradition that it was built in is represented by a temple from AD 325 unearthed in Chelmsford in 1970.” Howse goes on to say, “As an exemplar of the Roman tradition embraced by Charlemagne, Chelmsford is invoked by Professor Eric Fernie, the former director of the Courtauld, in his splendid new volume Romanesque Architecture, an addition to the Pelican History of Art published by Yale.”
So, from what I thought was little more than a convenient place to commute from, Chelmsford turned out to be a place of unassuming mystery, not to mention one with a long and intricate history. A timeline that begins in the Neolithic with a cursus and wooden circle, through the Roman period giving rise to a well-organised little town boasting an octagonal temple of impressive stone construction. Then on through the medieval to the more recent past and the ‘Birthplace of Radio’. And, lest it be forgotten, Chelmsford was the first place anywhere in the world to employ electric street lighting 🙂 Oh, and I almost forgot, it was from Chelmsford that the Quaker, William Penn, left England in 1682 to establish the Province of Pennsylvania in North America, and it was from Penn’s endeavours that the city of Philadelphia was later planned and developed.
No small accomplishment for a little marketplace on the fringes of the once great Roman Empire. That’s not quite the end of the story though. I mentioned at the beginning of this feature that I’d lived for thirteen years in Japan. A lot of my spare time was spent visiting Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. Japan boasts what is probably the oldest wooden building in the world – the Hōryū-ji (法隆寺) temple built in 607ce in Nara Prefecture, western Japan. Within the Hōryū-ji compound there’s a small wooden hall known as the Yumedono (Hall of Dreams). The Yumedono was built in 739ce to assuage the spirit of Prince Shōtoku (the prince was an Alfred the Great sort of figure who promoted Buddhism in Japan). The Yumedono stands on the site of a slightly earlier building commissioned by Prince Shōtoku himself. There is also, still in existence, a similar but slightly later building at the Eizanji-temple not far from the Yumedono in Nara Prefecture.
The octagonal hall at Eizan-ji temple in Nara Prefecture is thought to date from before 764ce
There are two things about Prince Shōtoku and the Yumedono. The first is that both the Yumedono and the Eizan-ji buildings are octagonal halls. The second is that legend has it that the Prince was born in a stable. The Hall of Dreams was built 414 years after the Romano-Celtic temple in Chelmsford so there would have been plenty of time for the idea for this style of building to reach Japan from the West, along with other goods and ideas via the Silk Road. Indeed, other aspects of temple building in Japan were influence by Greco-Roman styles of architecture and there are countless artefacts of Persian, Greek, Roman and Egyptian origin in the early 8th century Shōsō-in (正倉院) Imperial Repository in Nara (see also the Trust’s feature on Roman jewellery found in 5th century Japanese tomb). It would be fascinating indeed if the inspiration for Prince Shōtoku’s Hall of Dreams had its origins in Roman octagonal temples – perhaps even the one here in Chelmsford.
* Caesaromagus: A History and Description of Roman Chelmsford by Nick Wickenden, Keeper of Archaeology, Chelmsford Museums Service. A Chelmsford Museums Service Publication, 1991.
Full Telegraph article here. And for a light-hearted glimpse into the life and times of Chelmsford during the Roman period see Channel 4’s Chelmsford 123 situation comedy produced by Hat Trick Productions in 1988 and 1990.
The Heritage Trust
Ed Caesar’s article, in the Smithsonian Magazine, deals with a ground-breaking survey which is revealing tantalizing new clues as to what might have gone on in the Stonehenge area four and a half thousand years ago –
Gaffney’s [Vince Gaffney, archaeologist from Newcastle upon Tyne in north-east England] latest research effort, the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, is a four-year collaboration between a British team and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Archaeological Prospection and Virtual Archaeology in Austria that has produced the first detailed underground survey of the area surrounding Stonehenge, totalling more than four square miles. The results are astonishing. The researchers have found buried evidence of more than 15 previously unknown or poorly understood late Neolithic monuments: henges, barrows, segmented ditches, pits. To Gaffney, these findings suggest a scale of activity around Stonehenge far beyond what was previously suspected. “There was sort of this idea that Stonehenge sat in the middle and around it was effectively an area where people were probably excluded,” Gaffney told me, “a ring of the dead around a special area – to which few people might ever have been admitted… Perhaps there were priests, big men, whatever they were, inside Stonehenge having processions up the Avenue, doing… something extremely mysterious. Of course that sort of analysis depends on not knowing what’s actually in the area around Stonehenge itself. It was terra incognita, really.”
Read the full Smithsonian article here.
The Rillaton Gold cup (left) discovered by workmen robbing stone from a cairn on Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, in 1837, and the Ringlemere Gold Cup (right) discovered by a metal detectorist in Kent in 2001. Both now in the British Museum
Image: The Heritage Trust
A crowdsourcing archaeology project is on target for completion within a year. Thousands of volunteers worldwide have logged on to help transcribe more than 30,000 British Museum handwritten catalogue cards dating back to the late 18th century. Maev Kennedy, writing in The Guardian today, reports –
A 3D plastic model of a 3,000-year-old bronze axe – stored in the British Museum since it was found more than 30 years ago at Jevington, East Sussex – has been printed out in a public library in Washington DC through a unique experiment in crowdsourcing archaeology. Volunteers worldwide are logging on to help transcribe more than 30,000 handwritten catalogue cards dating back to the late 18th century, and making digital photographs of thousands of ancient bronze objects so they can be stitched together to form 3D images. There will be no copyright on the objects or the information, and the project is entirely built on open-source software, so could be copied anywhere. Producing the axe at an archaeology open day in Washington DC was the idea of volunteer Joseph Koivisto, a research assistant at the Catholic University of America.
Wilkin [Neil Wilkin, curator of the bronze age collections at the British Museum] said museum staff would have taken years to do the job, and the funding would probably never have been found. The crowdsourcing was launched in April, with a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and is on target to complete the project within a year. The information will be added to the huge Portable Antiquities database – recording archaeological finds made by members of the public, mainly with metal detectors – which will soon record the millionth object since it was launched as a pilot scheme in 1997.
Full Guardian article here.
On Silbury Hill by Adam Thorpe
Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4 this week is Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill (see our earlier feature here).
The novel pays personal tribute to the Neolithic monument. The base of Silbury Hill covers five acres of Wiltshire turf that has not seen the daylight for 4,300 years. Adam Thorpe has known the place since he was 13 years old. Abridged by Jill Waters. Read by Philip Franks. Broadcast daily from 9:45am – 10:00am.
Discover the hidden secrets of the Great Gold Cross, one of the Staffordshire Hoard’s most iconic objects. View other films in this series and find out more about the history of the West Midlands, on the History West Midlands website.
A guest feature by Roy Goutté. Text and images © Roy Goutté
King Arthur’s Hall, Bodmin Moor, Cornwall
Many, many years ago, nobody really knows quite when, work began on constructing a banked ‘enclosure’ on the north-west corner of Bodmin Moor near St Breward, an area known for its collection of early stone circles, cairns, hut circles and settlements. The enclosure was eventually to become known as King Arthur’s Hall and the portion of moor it was located on, King Arthur’s Downs… but what was the exact purpose of this Scheduled Monument?
Many ideas have been put forward as to what its purpose was, including things as diverse as a Neolithic mortuary enclosure, a Medieval animal pound, a gathering place for ceremonial or ritualistic purposes or an ancient reservoir, but until it has been professionally excavated and dated in the quest for clues its use has to remain speculative as there is little or nothing to compare it with.
Basically, earth appears to have been extracted from a rectangular north to south orientated area 160ft x 66ft and banked up on the four sides of it, thereby forming a type of sub-level ‘tank’ with an 8ft ‘apron’ between that excavated area and the banks.
Removing the earth to form the banks from the centre of the structure strongly suggests that the sunken tanked appearance was a pre-requisite, otherwise the soil would surely have been either imported from elsewhere, or obtained from the immediate area surrounding the entire structure, thereby leaving a level surface internally. This lowered area must then surely be our first clue as to its possible use.
It then appeared that granite standing stones of varying heights and profiles were erected to the inner face of the banks on the apron in what appears to be a continuous pattern of stone-gap, stone-gap sequence until reaching what could have been an original entrance to the south-west corner.
However, I have now, due to a recent fortuitous discovery made by myself and a co worker as part of a team of clearance workers, re-named these standing stones the façade stones, as they stand immediately in front of what appears to be a revetment wall built to retain the inner bank that had never been recorded before as far as I can determine as it lay hidden within the banks. Due to time, and one assumes roaming cattle, sheep and ponies over the centuries clambering over the banks and those same banks being washed over the top of the revetment wall, the majority of what was once around 140 uprights, have now either fallen and lie buried beneath the ground surface, lying recumbent on the surface itself, or indeed still standing but angulated.
Discovering this revetment wall has made me rethink what the original sequence of build was and whether the upright standing stones were an original feature, or introduced later and if so, for what purpose?
The revetment wall lying behind the granite standing stones makes its presence known during a clearance of the eastern bank in 2013. A modest investigation in 2014 showed it continuing in at least a northerly direction with other stones beginning to protrude through the newly exposed bank
Prior to the revetment wall discovery, the former description is really all we knew about its possible method of build but nothing about its age and purpose, whilst others, myself included, believe it could be much older and possibly Bronze-Age or even Late Neolithic in keeping with many of the ancient remains over this moorland landscape such as the three ‘ceremonial’ stone circles of Stannon, Louden and Fernacre about a mile or so to the north, the twin stone circles on Emblance Down to the south-east and Leaze stone circle just beyond them about half a mile away from the Hall. To the immediate west and east are the settlements of Candra and Garrow. King Arthur’s Hall sits comfortably in the centre of this wonderful landscape overseen by both Roughtor and Brown Willy and it would be easy to believe that there just may be a shared connection between them all. I would seriously like to think that is indeed the case!
So what exactly could its purpose have been and why are there not more structures identical to this spread over the vast expanse of Bodmin Moor known historically for its roaming cattle, sheep and ponies if indeed it was just an animal pound as suggested in a study carried out by Cornwall Archaeological Unit (now Historic Environment Projects) in 1991:-
‘Although King Arthur’s Hall is actually on King Arthur’s Down in the Manor of Hamatethy, it features significantly in the landscape of the Manor of Blisland. The rectangular earthwork is considered to be originally an early medieval animal pound for the hundred of Trigg, later retained as a pound for both the manors of Hamatethy and Blisland’.
A ‘pound’ was where straying animals were impounded. Some probably date from the Bronze Age but most of them won’t be more than around 1400-1500 years old. When some of the early Cornish settlements were evolving into villages, many of the ancient Commons became literally just open fields. Although most of them were hedged the banks were often quite low and often in need of repair. As no-one in particular would have been responsible for their upkeep, other than collectively, they would, on occasion fail and stock escape. Livestock allowed to wonder and roam free on the Common land were often found straying on to someone’s private land so would have been driven into the local pound from which the owner could only retrieve them by paying a fine. About fifty of these pounds, or the remains of them, have been found in Cornwall although there would originally have been many more because every Parish had them, sometimes two or three. In fact Mawgen-in-Pydar is recorded as having four!
They weren’t always huge secure areas either as they varied according to the size of the parish and the likely amount of stock likely to be escapees. The pound at Stratton for instance only measured 20ft x 24ft and was still in use in 1826 when its 9ft high walls were rebuilt. The hedges around a pound had to be especially stock-proof in order to keep in livestock which had already strayed from home so were often built more as walls than hedges. Anyone who has sheep for instance will know that the first thing they do when introduced to a new field or paddock is look for a way to escape… and often do!
King Arthur’s Hall prior to its perimeter fencing being seriously erected. These sheep had no trouble getting in as well as out! Note the gap between the façade stones which would have allowed for an easy escape route at any stage in its history
There are too many differences I feel between King Arthur’s Hall and a typical pound in Medieval times on Bodmin’s various moors. Where is there another that has been built in the same manner and so grand? A level patch of scrubby land with a basic wall/hedge or timber stockade high enough to prevent an animal escaping was good enough without going to all the trouble of digging out a massive hole by hand, banking all the soil up around it and held back by a revetment wall that had to be built, then lining it with granite standing stones of varying heights, some only about 2ft high! Add the 2ft wide gap between most of them that an animal could walk over or through and it’s like being jailed in an open prison! It makes no sense at all.
Assuming the sub-level tanked area of King Arthur’s Hall was indeed an integral part of its usage and purpose which seems highly probable, then it would obviously have filled with water, either rising or from rainfall being the two natural ways. Now, was that water purposely retained until overflowing, or was it drained out automatically by a purpose made ditch or possibly a stone-lined gully to keep it dry or at least free of standing water if not a pre-requisite? There is an entrance-way to the south-west corner but that may be more recent and as it stands higher than the excavated base of the tank any drainage construct would have to be formed underground. This is an important point as it would help our understanding more of what possibly the Hall was used for. Obviously if the water was retained then it would certainly not have been built as an animal pound that’s for sure and if constantly damp would turn into a mud swamp if it was!
The depth of the excavated area seems to be variable but is now entirely silted up with sedge-type grass growing profusely to the outer perimeters of the tank and to around a quarter of its length to the southern end. It is this and the other vegetation/plant life that proliferates here that indicates to the trained eye that the excavated area to this southern end and to a lesser degree the northern end and all perimeters is shallower than the more central parts and this could be significant.
I have plumbed the depth as best I can with rods and have found the southern and northern ends to be two feet deep increasing to nearly three feet as you move further away from their perimeters. At the end of the sedge grassed areas the plant life changes and the depth increases and it gives an indication of being ‘stepped’ as the depth increases slowly. I was able to rod down to around 6ft toward the centre on one occasion but unable to reach the absolute centre as it became very bog like underfoot and dangerous as water is always present! I had to wonder if the base has been paved or actually taken down to bedrock as all my probing, with the exception of near the centre, was met with a solid feel to the heavily silted base. On another occasion when accompanied by a friend, we were only able to reach a depth of just over a metre when nearing the centre.
Without dating or a fully investigative excavation having taken place, the mind is allowed to go into a speculative mode and consider alternatives to an animal pound.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that it wasn’t used as a pound at some stage in its history, but too many things tell me that wasn’t its initial purpose, one being that there are no others like it on any of Bodmin’s collection of Moors and Downs which are famous for its wandering ponies and other livestock… in fact there is nothing like it anywhere in the UK! Why not if it’s just a pound?
I’ve always felt it was a gathering place, but for people (and maybe not all living ones), not animals, so the term ‘hall’ may not be far off the mark. The ‘tank’ is the sticking point because what would it have been used for other than containing water?
If what I’m saying is proven to be accurate, then it has a longish southern shallow end and sides with a deeper middle. What does that suggest to you in Neolithic or Bronze-Age terms… a pool where a possible ‘ritualistic’ or ‘ceremonial’ practise took place taking into account ancient man’s apparent reverence to water and the belief in the underworld and afterlife? Water rising out of the ground via a spring, a distinct possibility here as I have never once, neither in the height of summer or winter, not seen water in the centre section of the enclosure. This would have been seen as a very ‘holy’ place indeed if ever proven to be far earlier than Medieval times and purposely built directly over an active spring!
And why so complex for just a pound? Surely a stockade fence/wall erected on a level surface would have done the job in a fraction of the time and negated the need for this hand dug mammoth excavation! Aside from the excavation, the building of the revetment wall and the façade of standing stones that would have had to have been dragged over the moor from wherever they came from would have taken considerably more time? I can’t see it as much as I try. Even English Heritage’s own website, PastScapes, doubts it:-
‘There are no traces of associated linear banks or earthworks. The origins and purpose of the enclosure remains obscure but the effort required to both excavate or import material for a bank of such proportions and to erect the slabs suggests that it had a more important function than just an animal pound’.
More recently, after gaining permission to undertake a small remedial clearance excavation, a granite paved area was discovered by myself and two other Heritage Trust members when removing the turf from what was taken to be a fallen upright that was thought to have broken off from its base to the eastern bank. The ‘fallen upright’ although identified as such by probing, was actually paving with a raised centre-line and not a stone at all. It abutted the remains of the façade stone perfectly and gave the appearance of a possible buttress to it. If it was intended as a buttress, then it has succeeded, because the standing stone it abutted to is one of the only ones to have remained completely perpendicular! The paving itself was ‘proper paving’ inasmuch that it was around two/three inches thick, laid flat with no upturned corners and selected or cut to fit its allocated position perfectly.
Paving at the base of a façade stone to the eastern bank discovered in April 2014. As far as could be determined by probing, it continued throughout the whole immediate area
It is said that another small paved area was discovered in the north-west corner either on the apron leading up to the façade stones or indeed in the shallow area of the tank many years ago, but I don’t have, or know of, any official documentation for this claim. But why would you require paving for an animal pound? I can’t think of a reason, but can if it was for people to walk on or to cover something up!
While we were there a small incision was made above the assumed line of the newly discovered revetment wall in a northerly direction. I am happy to say that it did indeed continue and probing along the western bank at the same level also produced a positive result and at one point, stone was beginning to reveal itself naturally. We were more than a little surprised that this walling had not been detected before by more qualified people.
After removing the turf from above the line that the newly discovered revetment wall would have taken, it does indeed reveal itself running behind the façade stones
Walling/revetment stones revealed in the west bank
I am of the opinion that this entire site should be re-evaluated because I believe there is far more to it than currently understood as proven by the new findings. What else lies hidden here you have to ask? A section cut through a bank to confirm its construction and to determine the original land surface would be a good start, plus an excavation within the ‘tank’ to see what lies beneath… and of course a dating! At least that would really tell us what exactly we have and whether or not Cornwall has something really special and unusual on its hands… a distinct possibility… or just that Medieval animal pound all along!
Easily said, but how does one go about making it happen when there is likely to be no funding available and possibly not enough interest shown anyway. I firmly believe that this is a special place and hope that one day someone with more authority and knowledge than myself will finally get someone to listen!
Middle Jomon Period rope pottery 5,000-4,000bce
Image credit: Chris 73 Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Sainsbury Institute is delighted to present the Second Ishibashi Foundation Lecture Series in Tokyo this October, sponsored by the Ishibashi Foundation and co-organised by Tokyo National Museum. Senior scholars from Europe will share their research with the Japanese audience and illustrate the current status of Japanese archaeology and cultural heritage studies in Europe and also how Japanese art and antiquities are studied and displayed in European museums. Lectures will be given in English and simultaneously translated into Japanese. This Lecture Series aim to offer new perspectives in the studies of Japanese arts and cultures and contribute to the promotion of scholarly and artistic exchange between Europe and Japan.
The Stonehenge Urn. Excavated by William Cunnington in 1802
Lecture 1 | 1.30-2.10pm
British-Japanese Archaeological Exchanges from the 19th Century to Today
Head, Centre for Archaeology and Heritage, Sainsbury Institute
Lecture 2 | 2.10-2.50pm
Molecular Archaeology: Investigating Diet, Food and Cuisine from Stonehenge to the Jōmon?
BioArCh, Department of Archaeology, University of York
Panel Discussion ‘Euro-Japanese archaeological exchanges’ | 3.00-4.00pm
Moderator: Shirai Katsuya, Chief Curator of Archaeology, Curatorial Research Department, Tokyo National Museum
Venue: Tokyo National Museum, Heiseikan Auditorium, 13-9 Ueno Park, Taito-ku, Tokyo, Japan on Saturday, 25 October 2014 from 1.30 – 4pm. Details here.