Author and anthropologist Mary-Ann Ochota brought the lecture season to a close with a fantastic insight into archaeological discoveries in Britain, particularly those made by members of the public. It proved a fascinating talk, giving an overview on incredible findings from the modern as well as the ancient world, and gave a sense of the historical heritage of Britain that surrounds us yet remains, for the most part, unseen.
The lecture began with a brief discussion of the nature of archaeological findings in Britain. Possessing a rich history, a wide variety of artefacts have been buried across the country for a number of reasons, including safe-keeping, ritual deposit, being thrown away or simply lost. These items of interest are scattered across the landscape, and fascinating finds have been made in the most inconspicuous of places. This is, indeed, part of the allure of archaeology – it provides a platform to engage with the history of areas that we see every day, and even the smallest finds can tell substantial stories. The charm of these discoveries is furthered by the fact that they can be found by almost anybody. 1,336,894 artefacts have been discovered and recorded by members of the public as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, often by detectorists, but on occasion an unsuspecting individual will chance upon a relic of historical interest purely by coincidence. By working together, experts and amateurs have had much success in uncovering lost aspects of Britain’s past.
Following this, Mary-Ann provided insight into several significant findings across
Britain, the first of which was the Ashwell hoard. In a unremarkable field northwest of
Ashwell’s wellhead, a metal detectorist came across a remarkable cache of metal objects buried over sixteen hundred years ago. At least 27 gold and silver objects were found, including 19 plaques and a silver statuette. These were votives, likely engraved and purchased at a nearby temple. It is unknown why they were buried, perhaps to avoid theft, or by a thief hiding stolen goods, but what is interesting is the dedication of the artefacts. When the base of the statuette was found, it was revealed that it depicted a goddess named Senuna. Previously unknown, this discovery revealed a Celtic deity worshipped in Roman Britain, that was a syncretism of Minerva and a pre-Roman goddess. This find highlights the value of detectorists, without whom this insight into ancient religion would have been lost forever.
The next find discussed was the Frome hoard. In 2010 a dedicated detectorist, Dave Crisp, had the find of a lifetime when he came across a ceramic pot weighing 160kg and holding 52,503 Roman coins dating from AD 253-293. When first found, it was reported to the Finds Liaison Officer, and then excavated in layers. This revealed the order in which the coins had been put into the pot – it seemed to have been filled by different pouches, but some of the latest minted coins were found in the middle layers. It was originally thought to have been a temple donation pot, yet this would entail the most recent coins being donated last, so it may have been a larger donation pot that was filled at the same time by smaller containers from different temples. Many of the coins minted depicted the usurper Carausius, and it is speculated that the pot may have been buried in response to the events surrounding this usurpation of power, as Britain was undergoing a time of decreased security. Archaeology provides only a limited amount of evidence, and there are gaps that need to be filled – this isn’t always possible to do with certainty, but much can be revealed from such a seemingly small amount of physical proof.
A unique example of how archaeological finds can rewrite history was the Chalgrove hoard. A coin found in 1900 was minted with the name ‘Domitianus’ – this Emperor was unrecognised, and so was considered to be of doubtful authenticity. However, in 2003, over 4,000 coins were found, dating from AD 260-274, one of which again portrayed the same Domitianus. Inspection revealed that these coins were stamped from the same die, attesting the authenticity of the first coin found. It is now accepted that the coins show a Gallic usurper, acclaimed Emperor in AD 270-271.
The Hackney hoard was given as an example of how discoveries can tell stimulating stories. 80 double-eagle American gold coins dating between 1853-1913 were found in 2007. A local historian looked for any evidence to find the story behind the gold coins and came across an identical find in Hackney in 1952 in a newspaper. This first find had been claimed by a man named Martin Sulzbacher – his son was contacted and was able to retrieve the coins. The rather moving story behind the coins was uncovered. Martin Sulzbacher was a Jew who fled from Nazi Germany the night before Kristallnacht to live with his brother in London – before this point he had smuggled much of his wealth out. When in London, however, he was labelled a potential enemy alien during the war, and him and his wife were deported. His brother, fearing Nazi invasion, buried all of the coins for protection, however during a bombing the house was hit directly and everyone who knew where the coins were buried died in the hit – when Sulzbacher returned he found his storage box empty, and didn’t retrieve the coins until they were luckily found in 1952.
The Near-Canterbury helmet (75-25 BC) was found with cremated ashes buried with a brooch. Interestingly, the ashes were found to be female – it is unknown whether the individual would have been a soldier’s wife, or perhaps a female soldier during Caesar’s campaign. The Happisburgh hand-axe was also shown, the oldest hand-axe found in North-West Europe. Over 500,000 years old, it was found by a man walking his dog and when he held it – an object designed to be aesthetically pleasing as well as functional – he had a connection with an individual alive before Homo-sapiens even existed! Indeed, such links with the past form one of the most appealing aspects of archaeology.
There was also mention of a rather vulgar ornamental knife hilt. Apparently, such compositions didn’t typically portray three figures, but this hilt was somewhat of a British exception. Such a scene would, of course, be incomplete without a dwarf and a severed head! The subject matter of what is being portrayed is unknown, not being referenced in any literature, but it likely refers to a local story or folklore of some kind, providing insight into the less idyllic side of our ancestor’s lives.
The Crosby Helmet was the final artefact shown. This incredible Roman cavalry helmet was discovered in Cumbria in 2010, and was thought by its finder to be Victorian, before its Phrygian cap revealed it to date from antiquity. This is the most intact cavalry helmet found in Britain, and was likely not used for combat, but instead for ceremonious purposes. The mask was, however, made of copper alloy, which unfortunately meant that it was not classed as treasure as it would have been if it was made of a more expensive metal. This prevented it from being part of the public realm by law, and the finder was able to auction it, the helmet being bought by a private bidder for £2.3 million. One important lesson from the lecture is that our laws concerning antique artefacts may need to be updated. The metal detectorist who found the helmet cannot be blamed for selling the item, but it is a shame that an object of such cultural significance is not available to the public to view due to a limitation in the laws concerning treasure.
The lecture season began with Dr. Caroline Vout’s insights into the images of the gods in ancient Greece, and it is difficult to imagine many things further from rainy Lancashire. It is perhaps apt that the final lecture brought us closer to home with a discussion of archaeological finds, some less than 75 miles from Lytham. There has been no shortage of discussion of the ancient world on a monumental scale, yet Mary-Ann Ochota reminded us that sometimes you do not need to stray too far to explore the marvels of the ancient world.
Classics Ambassador, Runshaw College