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In October 2014, Phil Kirk was metal detecting on a field in the hills south-west of Royston, when he encountered a strong signal. Digging down about 15 inches, he found the top of something bronze. Thinking initially that it might only be a modern filter from a car, it turned out to be a complete Roman jug, missing its handle. On lifting it, he spotted the handle and bowl of a bronze patera (a dish for pouring libations). Next to this lay the battered bottom half of a large jug and last of all a third jug in four or five pieces, apparently crushed by a large flint, with a trefoil mouth. All four vessels came out from a hole no more than 50 cm across. Quite by chance, the broken base of the third vessel matched a bronze object found a few months earlier and about ten metres away, which had been discarded under a nearby hedge as probably twentieth century but which was the top half of the jug.

Excavating the objects

It was clear that this was something important, so Phil contacted Julian Watters, Finds Liaison Officer for Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. Julian then contacted Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, then Archaeology Officer for North Hertfordshire District Council, who agreed that it would be a good idea to conduct a small excavation around the hole. So, on a cold morning in late October, we went up to the site, accompanied by another detectorist, and expanded the original hole to a one metre square.

During the course of the digging, the missing jug handle turned up but it proved impossible to find an edge to the hole that the bronze vessels had originally been buried in. The vessels also appeared to have been covered with massive flint nodules. It was clear that a larger excavation would be needed to find out the context of these objects. Owing to other commitments, it impossible to return before the second week of November, not a good time to be excavating on an exposed hilltop.

Iron lamp holder

This time, the farmer scraped off the shallow topsoil over an area around 3 m square and the team set to work removing the last traces of topsoil. Soon, the rim of a glass bottle became visible, then more shards of glass. Cleaning quickly revealed a group of glass bottles towards the south-western corner of the grave. Next, an iron lamp with a crescent decoration on the suspension bar and wall mounting bracket was exposed towards the centre of the pit. It had evidently been in one piece when it was placed in the ground, but the weight of the flint nodules above it had broken it into three parts.

To the east of where the bonze vessels had been found were two layers of hobnails, from a pair of shoes placed one on top of the other. There was also a figure-of-eight shaped buckle with each shoe, probably a means of fastening the straps. Next, a bronze corner binding from a wooden tray became visible; the wood had decayed, although some was preserved around the binding, which will allow us to find out what sort of wood was used to make it. The patera had stood above another corner of the tray and some of the fragments of metalwork recovered in October that we thought were part of the patera probably came from the binding in this corner.

The millefiori dishes

On top of the tray stood a shattered but otherwise complete shallow dish, about the size of a saucer. At first, it appeared to be iridescent from decay, but it quickly became obvious that it was composed of coloured glass in a millefiori or mosaic style. Individual rods of dark purple, white, yellow, blue and red glass had been fused into diamond patterns before blowing, creating a spectacular if rather psychedelic effect. A second mosaic glass dish sat next to it. Underneath them and on top of the second were traces of something organic and decayed that was not the wood of the box, which mimicked the pattern of the glass. Perhaps it was the remains of a cloth used to wrap these unusual dishes.

Inside the box were the shattered fragments of two clear glass cups and a pair of blue glass handles, which were phaps part of one of the cups. There were also fragments of a lava object in very poor condition, which crumbled into fragments when it was lifted. It was too small to be a complete quernstone and does not seem to have been a decorative object, so it is unclear what it was or why it was in the box. Underneath it, at the bottom of the box, was a silver denarius of Trajan (98-117).

Next to the box was a collection of glass bottles. The largest was hexagonal, measuring 23 cm across, with a mouth 10 cm in diameter. It contained cremated bone, which we assume to be human. Remarkably, there was a worn bronze coin sitting on top of the bone: it is an issue of Marcus Aurelius and appears to date from 174-5, although we will only be able to confirm this after it has been cleaned and conserved. The bottle was wrapped and lifted with the contents still inside it, which were excavated in the museum. It contained large fragments of cremated bone, from an adult, and two more bronze coins.

Next to the hexagonal bottle stood an unusual octagonal bottle, a form only rarely found in Britain. South of this were two square bottles, one with the letters IΛƧ (IAS) on its base and with very clear traces of a whitish residue inside it, and a rectangular bottle. The bottle with the lettered base is exactly paralleled by an example from an early third-century ditch at Cramond, near Edinburgh. The glass of the bottles was the typical Romano-British greenish glass, variable in thickness but with few air bubbles, and all of mid to late second century styles. All the glassware was completely shattered by pressure from above.

A pile made from some of the flints

The reason for the shattering was a layer of large flint nodules. At first, we thought that they were part of the grave packing, placed between the different objects, but around the edges of the pit, we found that they had been laid carefully and were interlocking. It looks as if they had formed a low mound or cairn over the top of the grave. As the contents settled, so did the flints, crushing the glassware. A number of large nails found at the corners of the area defined by the nodules look as if they were part of a large box or frame placed inside the grave, holding all its contents.

Most of the finds from the grave date from the second half of the second century: the glass bottles are all of this period and the iron lamp is of a similar date. The mosaic glass dishes are more unusual. Although the manufacturing technique appears to be Alexandrian, there seem to be no exact parallels for these two vessels, which form a pair. The colours may indicate a date around 200.

Hexagonal bottles are less common than square or cylindrical types but the larger forms are sometimes found reused as containers for cremated bone, like this one. The base is decorated with a raised ring containing a hexagon with indented sides. The square bottle with the stamped base had only a single handle, while the rectangular bottle seems to have had two. We will only find out about the others after they have been reconstructed, as they are so badly shattered.

The best preserved of the jugs

The best preserved of the bronze jugs

The bronze vessels also seem to be mainly second century types and some were perhaps Italian imports. They are all of very high quality and at least one of them appears to have been silvered. Their handles are decorated in a variety of ways. The tall bottle-shaped vessel has a handle with an agricultural or industrial scene at the base, with a figure wearing a brimmed hat similar to that worn by Mercury, although it does not seem to have wings. Higher up is a seated figure beneath a vine from which a basket is hanging. The top depicts vine leaves and branches, which grasp the rim of the jug. The broken vessel with the trefoil opening has a handle with a head wearing a Phrygian cap at the bottom, while the top end has a deer’s head, its antlers shown in relief on the handle and its forelegs reaching forward to grasp the rim.

The patera, which is in poor condition, is plain with a raised boss (umbo) in its centre. The handle has become detached, is ribbed along its length and the terminal has a woman’s head facing up. Paterae are thought to have been used in religious ceremonies, for pouring libations onto an altar. Their handles often ended in a ram’s or, less commonly, wolf’s head, so this type with a face is unusual. There is an identical handle from Rocester in Staffordshire and another from the Netherlands; the face is thought to be a Bacchic Medusa. This type of patera was probably made in Italy.

Curiously, there were no ceramics in the grave other than a few small sherds. These seem to have come originally from an infilled ditch that the grave had cut across and were more than a century older than the grave contents. Much of the grave pit, which measured 1.9 by 1.6 m appeared “empty”. This suggests that there were organic objects in this part of the grave that have since decayed.

Because one of the jugs had inlaid silver eyes and there was a silver coin, the items were declared Treasure and valued at the British Museum. North Hertfordshire Museum was successful in applying for nearly £60,000 of grant funding from The Art Fund, V&A Arts Council Purchase Fund, The Headley Trust and the Hertfordshire Heritage Fund. There was also a gift of £1000 from a private donor.

So who was the person buried here? Had they lived nearby? Is the burial part of a much larger cemetery? These are the sorts of questions that archaeologists will want to try to answer that go beyond the sorts of information we can get from using a metal detector. The person buried in this unusual grave—whoever they were—was wealthy, cosmopolitan and a member of a family that wanted to make a mark. After 1800 years, the contents of their grave still impress us with their workmanship (even if the mosaic dishes are not to 21st-century tastes). Thanks to the cooperation between metal detectorists, field archaeologists, finds liaison officers and geophysicists, we can find out so much more about the community to which they belonged than we would have done if the initial find had gone unreported. This must count as a real success story for the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The ground floor of the new museum is now partly open, accessed via Hitchin Town Hall main entrance, Tuesday to Saturday 10.30am to 4.30pm. Visitors can see the ‘Discovering North Herts.’ gallery, and the temporary exhibition gallery. Currently we have a really good exhibition of Shell advertising posters from the 1930s, with images of Britain by artists including Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland. This runs until 3 March, to be followed by ‘Artists at War’; WW1 art from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, starting on 17 March.

Duncan Grant poster for Shell, 1932


Upstairs ‘Living in North Herts.’ gallery

We’re running ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours of our upstairs ‘Living in North Herts.’ gallery, on Mondays at 3pm and Thursdays at 5pm. These can be booked directly on Eventbrite, or else via on a link on the museums pages of the NHDC website:

Another view of the upper gallery

Nowadays we use the Museum Facebook pages for updates rather than this blog, so it is worth keeping an eye on what’s happening there:

A guest post from Dylan Bailey

For a week or so in August, I worked as a volunteer at the as-yet-to-be-opened North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin. I wanted to do some work experience to put on my personal statement, as I am interested in studying History at university and thought working at a history museum would be an interesting experience to include.

I was given a job to do on my first day. In the museum, which contains a variety of valuable museum pieces collected from all over North Hertfordshire, there is a map (presumably printed in the 1930s) called the ‘Incident Map’, which shows us where Axis bombs were dropped in and around the Hitchin Rural District during World War Two.

Hitchin Rural District Council's Incident Map

Hitchin Rural District Council’s Incident Map

The map (which was originally on display at Hitchin Museum) has a key with eight symbols on it. These symbols each represent a different bomb or object that landed in the Hitchin Rural District during the war. The eight ‘subjects’ that are featured on the map are: ‘High Explosive Bombs’, ‘Parachute Mines’, ‘Oil Bombs’, ‘Firepot Bombs’, ‘Phosphorous Bombs’, ‘Fly Bombs’, ‘Rockets’, and ‘Enemy Planes’. The final one, ‘Enemy Planes’, was marked by a Swastika (the symbol most typically associated with the Nazis during World War Two).

Bombs dropped between Pirton and Holwell on a modern background

Bombs dropped between Pirton and Holwell on a modern background

This map indicates that all these bombings took place throughout the war, from 1939 all the way to 1945. The task that I was given to do at the museum was to start mapping out these bombing positions on Google Earth, so then people could see where the bombs landed in relation to our present-day geography. I was given this job due to my personal fascination with World War Two and in general modern history. There are plans for the Google Earth map to eventually be processed, so then people can interact with it in the museum.

Incidents around Lilley mapped onto an aerial photograph from 1945

Incidents around Lilley mapped onto an aerial photograph from 1945

Knowing exactly where the bombs fell in North Hertfordshire in relation to how the county’s land is laid out now and being able to interact with it will hopefully help people to learn more about our local history then they could before now. I finished placing all the bomb markings on except for the ‘High Explosive Bombs’. I started on them but found that there were simply too many to finish by the end of my tenure at the museum. However, I got the vast majority of the bombs mapped out onto Google Earth.

The bombs so far mapped by Dylan shown in Google Maps

Yet I think I have made a positive start to the project in which the museum workers can continue to work on. I had some trouble with the scaling, and so I am not completely confident that I have placed all the markings from the map in the right spot on Google Earth. However, I feel that overall I have made a significant contribution to the North Hertfordshire Museum and helped them in their goal of preserving North Hertfordshire’s culture and heritage.

31 August 2016