Archive for the ‘Historical’ Category

New Find Reveals Romans Did Give a Duck About Bathing

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

Anaticula resiliens

A hugely significant find has been made close to the Letocetum Roman Baths at Lichfield in Staffordshire. Excavating an outlying field, which many believe to be a water shrine used by the bathers, excavators have recovered a small yellow duck. This tiny find is now set to revolutionise the way we consider Roman bathing.

I am sure most readers of this blog will subscribe to the International Interdisciplinary Journal of Early Roman Bathing and Bath Structures and so it will come as no surprise that one of the longest unanswered questions about Roman bathing habits is: did they have fun in the bath itself? Many of the activities that took place in and around the baths were carried out in the frigidarium, tepidarium, and laconium including meeting friends, eating snacks from vendors around the baths, playing board games like tabula, and playing trigon, a ball game with three balls. But when it came to the actual bath and immersion in water, very little is known about what Romans did, as most evidence was carried away in antiquity by the drains. This chance find is now set remedy the lacuna in our knowledge.

Seneca the Younger, who recorded Roman bathing habits in Epistulae morales ad Lucilium, occasionally refers to Romans having anas or ‘duck’ with them in the baths. Until this find, it was assumed that Seneca was referring to a pre-bath snack – often a local mallard, known to be popular with fish sauce mixed with orange – but this new find posits another possibility. A more obscure Roman historian, Aprilis Calendae, writes about Anaticula resiliens rather than anas, which, until now, had completely baffled Latin scholars as to the correct translation. This new find suggests it is etymologically related to anas and that Anaticula resiliens can now be accurately translated as ‘Rubber Duckie’.

The fine condition of the Anaticula resiliens from Litchfield, with hardly any of the dirt that one usually expects from an excavated find, suggests it was heavily used in the bath itself. Any, dirt would have been washed off on a regular basis. Had the ‘Rubber Duckie’ been purely for display, it would have attracted dust and rapidly become very dirty. The baths may be self-cleaning but this was unlikely to reach a display duck. This means that Romans must have played with their ducks in the bath itself and clearly their bath time fun extended into the wet as well as dry areas. This adds significantly to our knowledge of Roman bathing.

Since this Anaticula resiliens appears to have been dressed as a centurion, it is likely it was used by the legionary commanders but, without further finds, it is not possible to say if ordinarily Roman soldiers used rubber ducks in the bath. The expectation is that they did.

The material from which the Anaticula resiliens was made is rubber. This material was only rarely found in the Roman world and may give a clue as to why this particular duck was finally deposited in a sacred area. Since Romans did not manufacture rubber themselves, it is likely that this duck was formed from local rubber, probably from recycled chariot tires. We know from Tacitus that Boudicca used chariots in her final battle with Suetonius, which many believe occurred along Watling Street near Litchfield – exactly where the Roman baths are located. It is possible that, the Roman victors from that battle would have recycled Boudicca’s chariot tires to make symbolically important items, including rubber ducks.

Using Anaticula resiliens in the bath may have therefore been a symbolic means of showing superiority over the local Celts who were, according to pretty much every Roman historian, a fairly filthy, unwashed bunch. But in addition, the Roman bathers were displaying their supremacy over the Celts – epitomised with the defeat of Boudicca – by bathing with ‘Rubber Duckie’ (or, most likely, Duckies).

That this duck survived the bath drains to be offered to the Gods at a water shrine shows that they were hallowed objects rather than purely functional items. Although it is only speculation at this stage, excavators believe each duck would have been named for its owner. It is hoped that laboratory analysis may reveal the name of the centurion from Litchfield. But whoever he was, he clearly loved playing with his duck over many bath times before offering him (and the clothing on the duck suggests male gender) as a gift to the Gods, marking both the subjugation of local tribes but also the affection in which the Centurion held his ‘Rubber Duckie’.

 

Mana to Heaven: Offerings to the Gods in Roman Britain

Friday, March 28th, 2014

Selby Hoard

It was in 2010 that a metal detectorist, who opted to remain anonymous, heard the tell-tale bleep notifying him of metal below his feet. He was part of a club detecting over land near Selby in Yorkshire. Digging gently down, and hoping to find a Roman coin, the metal detectorist was astonished when he came across two pots stuffed full with coins. Knowing this was now a job for professionals, he called in archaeologists via the hugely successful Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Such a large find of coins was instantly classed as treasure and the British Museum had a chance to buy it and put it on public display. I caught up with the hoard in Bristol, as part of its national tour, and it was incredible to see the silver coins spilling from one pot that was broken, whilst the other was so stuffed full the coins had actually fused together over the millennia.

Incredibly, the solid mass of coins could still be identified through something called Microtomographic Volume Imaging, which, in English, means using X-rays to identify every coin singularly (a general image of the pot is shown above). From this, researchers could tell each pot contained 201 (unbroken pot) and 99 (broken pot) Roman denarii (the small silver coin of everyday use) dating from the last years of the Republic right through to coins dating to AD 181. It seems remarkable that so many historical coins would have still been circulating so long after minting, so it is possible they had been collected and kept for many years, perhaps even centuries.

Initially, the find was reported as a chance loss of somebody’s life savings, buried in the ground for safe keeping but, unfortunately for the owner, never retrieved. This seems to be the standard approach to all coin hoards, at least initially, as it is hard for modern people to imagine giving away so much wealth for any other reason. We no longer offer such gifts to the Gods but there is something the X-rays found in both pots that suggest this may have been the true intention of whoever buried it.

In between the coins, the X-rays revealed small organic material (preserved only because the coins were so tightly fused), which turned out to be chaff from spelt-wheat grains. This was the grain from which Romans and Romano-Britons made their daily bread. But why put grain in with a coin hoard, unless both were intended as a gift to the Gods? Could these grains represent the first harvest of the year, offered in thanks for a successful year of farming?

Writing of an earlier time, Roman historian Siculus tells us that the inhabitants of Britain burnt their “first fruits” on a bonfire as an offering to the Gods in thanks for the harvest (he also talks about the odd human prisoner being thrown on as well for good measure). The Greek historian Arrian adds that Celtic people always offer the first fruits of the hunt to the Gods in a similar gesture of thanks. Perhaps the grain in the jars was the “first fruits” of the harvest, not burnt but buried in the ground.

If grain was a usual offering to the Gods from the first take from the harvest, then this particular year it was boosted by the addition of a small fortune in silver denarii. But why this year? The only event that occurred around 181 AD (the date of the last coin in the hoard and hoards are usually deposited close to the date of the last coin) is the overthrow of the Antonine Wall by the northern tribes and the retreat of the Romans to Hadrian’s Wall. It’s possible this may have caused repercussions further south, especially if it led to increased militarisation of the area.

Perhaps our farmer at Selby, probably an estate owner given the sheer wealth he or she gave away, had had a good harvest but, with the unrest in the north, feared for the future. So this year, as well as giving his or her first fruits to the Gods, he or she added the family’s greatest treasure, an heirloom passed down and added to across generations. It would have been a momentous event, seeing so much money disappear into the ground and perhaps gave the family hope that they would be safe from the turmoil. I hope that was true and that the Gods smiled on their harvest for a good few years afterwards.

 

Herodias: The First Witch?

Friday, January 17th, 2014

Witches FlightJohn the Baptist is a well-known figure from the Gospels, heralding the coming of a messiah and even baptising the young Jesus in the River Jordan. He wore a camel-skin robe and wandered the Holy Lands sharing the Good News that the Christ child was to be born. According to the Gospel of Mark, he met his death at the hands of Herod II, son to the more famous Herod (the Great) who intercepted the Three Magi. But it was not Herod II who was potentially the first witch in history but Herodias, his wife.

Herodias had an unfortunate start. She was the daughter of Aristobulus, Herod the Great’s son, who evidently did something to offend the great king as he was executed in 7 BC. This left Herodias an orphan and, in an attempt to make up for killing her family, Herod the Great engaged her to marry his other son, also called Herod.

The marriage went well until Herod II dropped from his father’s favour and Herodias, in a move that scandalised society, divorced her husband and married a more favoured son of Herod the Great, called Herod Antipas. One of those condemning the new marriage was John the Baptist, who had rolled up at the palace to reveal the new messiah. Herodias was not the sort of woman to be dictated to by a scruffy little prophet in a camel suit; she had outmanoeuvred kings to get her will. John was a marked man.

Now Herodias had a grown daughter from her marriage with Herod II, whose name is confused but comes down to us as Salome. According to the bible, she was the archetypal seductress and snared John the Baptist after dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils in his presence. The fact she was at youngest 17 and at oldest 22 may suggest her wiles were a little more innocent than the bible allows; after all, history is full of older men whose good sense leaves them in the presence of a young woman.

After dancing her dance, it was not only John who was smitten with Salome but also her step-father (and half-uncle) Herod Antipas. In fact, so besotted was Herod that he offered Salome anything she wished for. Following the whispered instructions of her mother, Herodias – who saw this her chance of revenge on John the Baptist – Salome asked for the prophet’s head on a plate. Reluctantly, as he rather liked being preached to, Herod obliged. So much for the biblical tale.

In later medieval legend, a strange new twist was added to the Gospel accounts. Nevardus, in his 12th century tome, Ysengrimus, tells that Herodias (subsuming her identity with Salome) asked to see John’s head as it lay on the plate. As she took in the sight, the head repelled her with its breath. So strong was this ghostly wind that Herodias was carried high into the air and then blown through a hole in the roof. The wrath of John the Baptist followed and Herodias was condemned to what Spanish medieval texts call “la dance aéra” or the aerial dance.

Since she had engineered the execution of a key figure in early Christianity, Herodias was already recognised as being an anti-Christian, but her reputation got darker still as people began referring to her as a witch. Her aerial dance became a night-time phenomenon and Herodias ushered in the belief that witches fly. Not only that, but she could draw out others to join her dance.

Writing in the 13th century, Jean de Meung in his Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), explains that up to a third of the population rode out with Herodias (now confusingly called Dame Abonde) for three nights every week. Interestingly, de Meung implies that only people’s souls rode out with Herodias, commenting that their bodies remain in bed. Adding a note of scepticism, he adds that their senses deceive them and they only believe they are witches wandering the night.

It seems that, whereas the spirit of Herodias was suitably mythological to allow its reality, other people entered into the night-time revels through allowing their souls to take flight in a kind of shamanic journey. There may also be a connection with psychotropic substances and to the unguent that witches traditionally use to affect flight. Apparently, Herodias returned everyone at the morning’s cockcrow as the sound of a cock sent spirits fleeing back to their own realm. According to a witch trial held in 1497 in Italy (of one Zuanne Giovanni della Piatte) Herodias, when she was not out riding, lived in the Mountain of Venus where she feasted with both invited and abducted guests.

Some medieval writers, notably John of Salisbury in his 12th century Polycraticus, tell of Herodias as the witch-ruler who sits in judgement over her devotees. Some are rewarded, others punished. John of Salisbury also records that Herodias and her troop, in a familiar theme of condemnation, devour babies. He concludes by calling these denizens of the night demons and muses that that only women and simpleminded men would follow Herodias. The demonization of the witch and the persecution it led to had begun.

In more recent times, American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1899 work Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches details the life of the Italian witch Aradia, reputedly, the first-born witch. Leland equates Aradia with Herodias. Indeed, Herodias is mentioned as a Witch Goddess in many Italian witch trial transcripts, such as that of della Piatte.

Despite her medieval notoriety, Herodias seems almost a lost figure in Pagan circles today. She might survive in the veneration of Leyland’s Aradia in some Wiccan traditions (although his work has recently received criticism over its authenticity) but, as far as I can tell, Herodias herself has all but disappeared. The only contemporary references I found were to Herodias as the name of an outcast devil in the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and as the name of an American funeral-doom-metal band. I wonder what the daughter of Herod the Great and arguably the first witch in history would make of that. Off-with-their-heads is a distinct possibility.

 

“We Three Kings of Orient Are…” What Exactly?

Friday, December 20th, 2013

Magi

According to the Gospel of Matthew, following the birth of Jesus, “there came three wise magi from the East to Jerusalem…For we have seen his star in the East, and are come to worship him”. Note that Matthew writes magi and not kings; that was a later change, although it may have had some basis of truth. According to tradition, the magi arrived at the nativity on Epiphany (originally celebrated as the day that Jesus was baptised on his 13th birthday), although even the most devout now accept that it is probably apocryphal.

But such traditions stem from somewhere. So just who were these three wise magi and how did they become so well known in the West that Matthew wove them into his gospel.

The name provides the first clue. Magi (or, in its Greek form, magoi) actually stems from the Old Persian (now Iran) word magush. There are many references to magush in the carvings and inscriptions from ancient Persia, including the stupendous rock-cut carving of Darius the Great at Bisitun (now in eastern Iran). He describes an enemy as a magush. Inscriptions in the great city of Persepolis also refers to magush, using the word specifically to identify priests.

Herodotus, our half-trusty guide to the East, mentions magush (using his native Greek of magoi) existing in the 5th century BC, describing how they prophesised for the ruling monarch and advised on the best course of action. No wonder Xenophon, another Greek author writing a century or so after Herodotus, refers to Persian magoi as authorities on all religious matters. These really were wise men.

The religion of the ancient Persians was Zoroastrainism, named for the prophet Zarathustra (or Zoroaster in Greek). Little is known about him, except that he came from the Aral Sea and trained as a priest. The religion he founded taught people to follow a path of truth and steer away from anything evil (personified as the dark God Angra Mainyu). The chief God of the pantheon was Ahura Mazda, Lord of Wisdom, and he presided over creation with six other divine beings, creating a mystical seven forces in the world. These forces correspond with sky, water, earth, plants, beneficent animals, humans, and fire. Fire was personified as the son of Ahura Mazda, and became the symbol of the religion. Although adherents do not worship fire (contrary to much that is written), they preserve its sacredness by not defiling it in any way. Bodies are never burnt and priests wear facemasks when intoning over the flames. Since the earth, another of the seven forces, must be likewise unsullied, bodies are never buried but are left on, so-called, Towers of Silence, for vultures to consume.

Zoroastrianism is concerned with truth. Both the spoken (and written) truth. Herodotus says that Persian children are only taught three things: to ride, to shoot a bow, and to tell the truth. The king’s personal signal was a falcon, hovering over his magisterial image. This was the shahin and it represented the path of truth and righteousness. If the King should stray from the path, the shahin would fly away, taking away Ahura Mazda’s authority for the king to rule. Wisdom and knowledge, personified by the magush, was at the centre of society. No wonder the magush, the seekers into the truth of reality, had the epithet “wise”.

Lesser spirits also helped the King, the most powerful being the Sun God Mithra (later known as Mithras – or the Persian God – to the Romans). As with most Sun Gods, Mithras was born at the winter solstice.

The traditions of Mithras and Jesus interact. This makes sense since they developed in tandem and adhered to many set archetypes that would be immediately familiar to people. The magi almost certainly visited Mithras (in his Persian guise) after birth, but what about Jesus. What was the inspiration that led Matthew to include the tale in his gospel. When would he have witnessed Persian magi?

During the reign of Emperor Nero, the Romans started to feel uneasy about the rise of the Persian Empire. To counter the perceived threat, they installed client kings to rule buffer states, sometimes removing the incumbent monarch. One of the deposed was Tiridates, ruler of Armenia and brother to the King of Persia, Vologases. The Romans could not have chosen a more dangerous man and the whole sorry episode led to war between Rome and Persia. After several battles, sieges, and much posturing, the parties agreed a peace treaty whereby Tiridates would be restored to his old position of king on the condition that he visited Nero in Rome and paid featly to his rule.

In addition to being a king, Tiridates was also a Zoroastrian priest, a magus, and was accompanied by other magi on his journey to Rome in 66 AD. He also took 3,000 horsemen as a royal guard. His stature and presence made a huge impression on Nero and the Romans (so much so that Nero effectively handed Armenia back to Persia to be ruled by Tiridates). The flowing dress, soft hat, and treasures of the Zoroastrian magi astonished those in the West. Even if St Matthew did not witness the visit, the memory of it hung in the West a long time thereafter.

St Matthew wrote his Gospel around 80 to 90 AD and it is likely he incorporated memory of the magi’s visit to Rome in his nativity story. He did not use the name Tiridates for the lead magi but instead chose another contemporary ruler. In south-east Iran a local king called Gondophares ruled. Scholars attest that his name would be translated as Caspar, the most familiar of the magi to visit Jesus. Maybe the three magi were also three kings.

The gifts the magi brought were possibly also adapted from those given to Nero, although they may have had a more symbolic importance when presented to Jesus. The writer Origen sets out the reasons in Contra Celsum, which he wrote in the third century AD. Gold was given as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (a holy incense) was given as a symbol of deity, and myrrh (an embalming oil) was given as a symbol of death (anticipating the crucifixion). More recent research at Cardiff University suggests that both frankincense and myrrh were useful treatments for arthritis, although it does seem a rather odd gift for a newborn child.

Some early portrayals of the nativity scene show the magi giving their gifts. Each bend and kneel, a sign of great respect in the East reserved only for kings and Gods. In certain representations, the magi wear gloves to present their gifts. In Zoroastrian tradition, hands must be covered in religious rites. The illustration above, taken from late Classical Ravenna in Italy, shows the magi in their Eastern garb, two with their hands covered, and bowing low in obeisance.

So “we three kings from Orient are…” not kings exactly (although they might have been) but Zoroastrian priests inspired by a spectacular visit to Rome in 66 AD, and bringing gifts worthy of both a king and a God. Back home, the Zoroastrian magi were known for their knowledge of astrology and the heavens. If there really was an odd star in the night sky, they would have been the first to know about it, setting in motion their incredible journey to mark the birth of the Sun God at the solstice.

Wishing all my readers a peaceful solstice and a very happy Christmas and may your God bless you.

What did the Romans Really Think about Britain?

Friday, November 29th, 2013

Knife Handle

In 2008, a metal detectorist found a copper Roman knife handle in a field in Syston, Lincolnshire. It wasn’t very large and sold for a mere £1,000 but is now the centrepiece of the Roman galleries in Lincolnshire Museum. It has already caused quite a stir. You only have to look at the handle to see why. In the straight-laced way of museums, it is being described as an “erotic scene”. In reality, it shows a naked woman straddling an aroused man while she holds onto another naked man clasping a severed head. I am sure we have all experienced parties like that. But this handle is particularly special as it is not just an erotic scene but may also cast light on what late Roman soldiers thought of their posting to Britain.

The largest figure on the handle wears a distinctive cap with a flat top rather like a pork-pie hat. From carvings and frescos in other parts of the Roman world, the headgear would suggest he is a Roman soldier from around the late 3rd or early 4th century. Such flat-topped caps were very popular and the fact the soldier is shown larger than the two other figures supports the identification. Moreover, the crudeness of its manufacture and the cheap metal used suggests the handle was not grand; this knife was for a common sort. It was likely a soldier’s knife and, fittingly, it’s owner took the starring role upon it.

The man holding the severed head is clearly a Celt. The Romans often portrayed Celts as headhunters and this man, completely naked, is living up to his stereotype. Unlike the soldier, this man is not aroused.

The woman who straddles the Roman soldier is naked but for a few lines on her body. One, around her neck, may be a torc, possibly a crude sign of royalty perhaps. The draped lines across her body may represent chains (they do not take the form of clothing), suggesting the woman has been defeated and humbled. The most obvious identification is Boudicca, the warrior Queen who provided a genuine military threat to Roman conquest of these isles. Portraying her in chains and sexually available brutally demonstrates her utter defeat and the ensuing dominance of the Roman military.

But, and this is curious, the penis of the Roman soldier does not point towards Boudicca but between the two figures (or even at the man holding the severed head), as if the soldier would happily give it to them both. Perhaps he would.

A more nuanced interpretation is that this is not an erotic scene – no actual intercourse is going to take place – but a triumphalist scene showing Roman domination over the Celts and their most famous Queen. In this sense, Boudicca stands for Britannia, the country of Britain.

Possibly, the Roman soldier is about to give the island of Britain and her inhabitants a good seeing to, and perhaps this is the message contained in the knife handle. It may have been a satirical comment of Roman rule and carried by an indigenous Briton, but I think it’s more likely to have belonged to a Roman soldier, doing his bit visibly to “stick it” to the Celts. Following the famous words of Caesar, perhaps he would even describe his role as “Veni, vidi, futuō”.

For the Portable Antiquities Scheme finds database record for the knife, click here.

 

Echoes of Shamanism in Medieval German Weather Lore

Thursday, June 27th, 2013

Islamic Art

In Germany today it’s Siebenschläfertag or Seven Sleepers Day, ostensibly a celebration of medieval weather lore. The weather experienced on Siebenschläfertag is supposed to determine the average weather for the next seven weeks. It’s similar to St Swithen’s Day in the UK or Groundhog Day in the US.

Siebenschläfertag, or Seven Sleepers, however, has far more ancient origins than mere medieval lore.

The Seven Sleepers were a group of youths who lived in the Roman city of Ephesus (now in modern Turkey) around 250 AD. They were Christian and, at that date, this meant they had to keep their practices secret due to persecution from the state.

The Roman Emperor at that time was Decius, who was known for his building projects in Rome, his love of morality, and his ceaseless persecution of Christians. His reach eventually fell upon Ephesus and the seven youths found themselves at dire risk. To escape, they fled to a cave outside the city where they walled themselves in. They were not heard of again for many, many years.

In fact, according to legend, the seven youths slept for 180 years until they finally awoke during the reign of Theodosius II. Fortunately for them, Theodosius was a committed Christian who liked nothing better than to pontificate on theological disputes. The youths left the cave and walked about the city, reportedly speaking to many residents before eventually succumbing to extreme old age.

The earliest version of their legend comes from the writings of the Syrian bishop, Jacob of Sarug, who lived in the 5th century, although he probably copied earlier (and now lost) Greek sources.  The best known record of the legend is by Jacobus de Voragine, an Italian chronicler and archbishop of Genoa who lived in the 13th century. His Golden Legend chronicled the lives of several saints, including the Seven Sleepers, who, by this time, had been beatified.

The disappearance of seven youths into a cave, where they slept (presumably in some sort of trance) for 180 years before emerging again, has clear shamanic overtones and may reveal traces of earlier ascetic traditions. Somewhat fortuitously, there is a clue in the Islamic Koran that adds further detail.

In Surah 18, verse 9-26 of the Koran, the legend is retold, except this time the sleepers lie in the cave for 300 years. Most tellingly, they were accompanied by a dog, which lay at the entrance to the cave, seemingly guarding the inhabitants from harm. (The illustration above shows a folio page from the Book of Omens, dating to around 1550 from Qazvin in Iran, where the dog appears in the foreground). The importance of dogs as guardians of the otherworld in the ancient world cannot be overstated. A canine friend also finds its way into Christian mythology in the story of Tobias, where a dog accompanies the boy along with Raphael, his guardian angel. Perhaps in an effort to divorce itself from earlier beliefs, the Book of Tobit (where the story appears) was excluded from the authorised bible and is now only found in the Apocrypha.

The Seven Sleepers legend may reveal echoes of earlier traditions of accessing the otherworld through caves, with a dog either accompanying the practitioners or acting as a threshold guardian. It is possible that, in the original legend, the sleepers brought back knowledge and wisdom from their sojourn in the otherworld, just like modern shamans, but, if they did, this part of the myth is now lost.

An early Christian catacomb on the slopes of Mount Pion near Ephesus came to be associated with the site of the cave. These catacombs, along with the ruins of a later church covering them, were excavated in 1927–28. Archaeologists discovered several hundred graves, dating to around the 5th and 6th centuries. Inscriptions dedicated to the Seven Sleepers lined the walls of the church and also occurred in the graves. Clearly, the legend of the Seven Sleepers meant a lot to people even then.

Curiously, according to the Koran, Surah 18, verse 15, the myth even came to be attached to Glastonbury. The cave is associated with a cavern beneath Chalice Well and the sleepers were guided by Joseph of Arimathea. But even the Koran concedes that this may be no more than a picturesque addition to the legend.

Modern Siebenschläfertag recalls only the merest hint of the earlier tradition but, somewhat whimsically, Siebenschläfer in German also refers to the edible dormouse, a creature known to sleep for long periods.

So whether you celebrate seven saints, medieval weather lore, or even an edible dormouse, have a wonderful Siebenschläfertag and let’s hope it doesn’t rain.

Could the Staffordshire Hoard be a Votive Offering?

Friday, March 22nd, 2013

Staffordshire HoardIt was back in July 2009 that Terry Herbert got permission to metal detect over a field next to the village of Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in Staffordshire. The farmer told him not to bother as there was nothing there. Over the next few days, Herbert dug so many gold artefacts from the field that he felt completely overwhelmed and so, like any responsible metal detectorist, he called in the archaeologists. They eventually excavated over 3,500 items, which, in the words of the British Museum’s Leslie Webster, were “absolutely the metalwork equivalent of finding a new Lindisfarne Gospels or Book of Kells.” The artefacts have tentatively been dated to the 7th or 8th centuries, placing the origin of the items in the time of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. It was probably the most significant Anglo-Saxon discovery since Sutton Hoo and, from when I first saw the items, still covered in mud, I knew that something very special had led to their burial.

As a prehistorian, I am used to the votive explanation for many hoards buried in the ground or thrown into rivers; they are gifts to the spirits or to the Gods. But it was not always like that. When I prepared my PhD thesis in 2001, I was considered radical for proposing this, flying in the face of more experienced heads who maintained that much of the metalwork had been buried for safekeeping, the owner fully intending to retrieve it later. For many academics, the idea of giving away such wealth was preposterous; they wouldn’t do it and so they couldn’t believe people in the past would do it either. Slowly, ideas changed and now much of the prehistoric metalwork found in hoards is assumed to be votive.

Anglo-Saxon archaeology is different. Dr Roger Bland, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, summed it up by stating in relation to the Staffordshire Hoard: “It is assumed that the items were buried by their owners at a time of danger, with the intention of later coming back and recovering them.” Where had I heard that before? But this is not my area of expertise and so I dutifully respected those in the know and bit my tongue. However, several new discoveries have made me reconsider and maybe it is now time to suggest that the hoard may have been a votive offering after all.

Despite assurances that the field had yielded all its secrets, another 91 pieces have been discovered subsequent to the initial excavation. A treasure inquest on 4th January of this year ruled that 81 of these items were part of the original cache (they were close to the original findspot and were probably only scattered by the plough), 8 were modern farm debris, and 2 were from different deposits altogether, being some 40 and 50 metres away from the original findspot. It is these two items I want to focus on.

Little more than 2-3 centimetres in length, these two scraps of copper alloy are Anglo-Saxon harness fittings, decorated with intricate patterns of interweaving lines. They are unlikely to be chance losses; harness pieces do not just fall off a horse and two separate losses would be very unlikely. Moreover, the fact that these two items reflect the items in the original hoard suggests that people returned to the site, possibly on more than one occasion, and deposited similar material. Deposition here was a pattern, not a one off.

The original excavation found no sign of a burial mound, and while it cannot be entirely ruled out, there seems to be little signs of prehistoric burial mounds that may have attracted activity at this particular spot. But air photography and – perhaps tellingly – local folk traditions tell of a small hillock in the field, right where the hoard was discovered. During the initial excavation, a later field boundary curved at this point, as if it were avoiding or perhaps respecting something pre-existing, perhaps the hillock. Soil surveys suggest the hillock was formed from sand and clay, which would have affected vegetation growth at this spot, making it even more noticeable.

So why did people bury the hoard? A striking feature linking many of the items is that they are martial in nature. Indeed, most come from weapons, including 66 gold sword hilt collars. Even a biblical quotation on a strip of metal refers to warfare: “Rise up, Lord; may Your enemies be scattered and those who hate You be driven from Your face” and a gold cross may have been a standard to lead troops into battle. The fragmentary nature of the items within the hoard suggests they may have been war loot; the most valuable parts of weaponry plundered from a defeated foe on the battlefield. To me, this makes a votive motivation far more plausible.

Again, as a prehistorian, I am struck by the Hjortspring boat from Sweden, an Iron Age vessel full of battle gear and deliberately sunk as a war offering. Victorious warriors probably collected the loot and gave it to their war God in thanks for victory. The Anglo-Saxons might have done something similar, especially since they were not that far removed from their pagan past, when warriors would offer Odin the spoils of war if he granted them victory.

So why bury the items at Hammerwich? Possibly people interpreted the hillock in the field, albeit natural, as a barrow for a God or even for a mythical ancestor. Stories about the mound might have grown and people visited the place to show their respects, possibly seeking aid in everyday life, possibly even for a forthcoming skirmish. Like their ancestors before them, people offered the God or spirit choice pickings from any war loot if only they were granted victory. True to their word, after the battle, the victors returned and buried a bag of selected items as an offering of thanks. The site’s reputation grew as a result and others also visited, leaving smaller offering, such as the harness fittings that have just been discovered. The martial nature of these offerings matches those of the original cache, showing that the traditions associated with the mound were now widely known And, when people later came to demark the land with field boundaries, they studiously avoided the mound, making sure it remained a prominent feature in the landscape.

But this is only one possible story to explain the hoard among many others and new research, particularly on the surrounding landscape, will doubtless lead to more being told. But these latest finds, albeit only tiny scraps of copper alloy, already change what we know about the site. And, for this prehistorian, allows me to wonder with more impetus: could the Staffordshire Hoard be a votive offering? I can’t wait to find out more.

Phanagoria: The Site Where History and Archaeology Meet

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

PhangoriaArchaeologists and historians occasionally have a healthy disrespect for each other’s disciplines. Archaeologists interpret what they dig from the ground, whereas historians interpret what they read in old manuscripts. In an honest article from Jan Vansina, writing in History of Africa in 1995, the respected historian states, “most historians are simply not interested in the results of archaeology”. The same could probably be written for archaeologists about history. And yet, there is a site at Phanagoria in Russia where the two disciplines really are siblings and, like most healthy family relationships, they definitely bring out the best in each other. Let me explain.

Phanagoria is a superlative site on the Taman peninsula, a hunk of land jutting into the Black Sea. Built by the seafaring Greeks at around 543 BC, it was named for one of its founders, Phanagoras. During the fifth century BC, the town thrived on trade with neighbouring Scythians and Sindi and, by the first century BC, it had grown to become the main centre of the Bosporan Kingdom.

Such success attracts covetous eyes and Mithridates VI, King of Pontus on the southern shores of the Black Sea, was steadily expanding his territory northwards. Eventually, this included Phanagoria and it was here that Mithridates reputedly built his palace.

Such expansion of territory in the first century AD naturally attracted the attention of the reigning superpower of the day and, almost inevitably, Rome decided that the upstart Mithridates should be brought to heel, so initiating the Mithridatic Wars.

Phanagoria was not so enamoured of its new ruler that it was not above siding with the Romans and, at around 63 AD, the inhabitants of the city rebelled. Mithridates himself was not at home but his children were. Appian, a contemporary historian originally from Alexander in Egypt, takes up the story:

“Although the citadel was already held by Artaphernes and other sons of Mithridates, the inhabitants piled wood around it and set it on fire, in consequence of which Artaphernes, Darius, Xerxes, and Oxathres, sons, and Eupatra, a daughter, of Mithridates, in fear of the fire, surrendered themselves and were led into captivity.”

A heady tale but could it be true? Historians might side with the written word but archaeologists need something they can physically touch. In 2011, they got just that. Excavators uncovered a large building in the centre of the city, located at the acropolis. It had been gutted by fire. The discarded coins that littered the floor put the date for the conflagration around the middle of the first century AD. Was this Mithridates’ palace, burnt down by the rebels to capture his children? The evidence seemed good.

But archaeologists (and historians) are cautious folk. The find might have corroborated some of Appian’s story but was it enough to prove conclusively that this was Mithridates’ palace? What the excavators dreamt of was a find with Mithridates’ name inscribed across it. They got it.

Much of Phanagoria now lies underwater and it was the submerged excavation team that hit gold. Or rather stone. A marble tombstone bore the inscription “Hypsikrates, Wife of King Mithridates Eupator Dionysos, Farewell”. But before the archaeologists broke out the champagne and coincidentally invited the Russian president to visit (Vladimir Putin was an enthusiastic visitor, actually scuba-diving the site and taking home a jar as a souvenir), there was a problem. Mithridates had many wives (the first was his sister with whom he bore six children) but the woman he married in 63 AD, just prior to the insurrection, was called Hypsicratea. Hypsikrates, the inscription on the tombstone, was the masculine form of the name. So what was going on? To the historians relief, Plutarch – the Roman biographer of Pompey who fought for the Romans in the Mithridatic Wars – comes to the rescue. He tells us that Mithridates wife:

“…who on all occasions showed the spirit of a man and desperate courage; and accordingly the king used to call her Hypsikrates”.

So Hypsikrates was Mithridates’ nickname for a beloved and apparently formidable wife. And if she lived (and died) in Phanagoria, so presumably did he. Appian and Plutarch, much to the historians’ relief, had been proved right through archaeological excavation. History and archaeology, working together as two siblings should. Cue the champagne.

Celebrating Llewelyn ap Gruffydd, the Last Native Prince of Wales

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

It’s Llewelyn II Day in Wales today, celebrating the last prince of an independent Wales before conquest by England.

Llewelyn came from good princely stock, being born around 1223. He was the second son of Gruffydd, who was himself the eldest son of Llewelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd in north Wales and, eventually, de facto ruler over most of Wales. Unfortunately, Gruffydd was later captured by the English, along with his first born son, Owain Goch, and died whilst escaping from the Tower of London. He had made an improvised rope from bed sheets but he was not a small man and they tore under his weight. The window from which he fell was bricked-up shortly thereafter and remains so to this day. Owain Goch remained in English hands.

Following his father’s death, Llewelyn joined forces with his uncle, Dafydd, who was always agitating against the English but was kept in check with Gruffydd’s imprisonment. With his brother Gruffydd dead, Dafydd went to war against King Henry III of England. Loyally, Llewelyn supported his uncle in the savage fighting that followed. Owain Goch meanwhile was set free by Henry, having been turned against his brother.

When Dafydd died in February 1246 without leaving an heir, Llywelyn, being on the spot when it happened, seized power for himself. Moreover, after subduing and unifying much of North Wales, by 1258 the lesser Welsh princes transferred their homage from King Henry to Llewelyn. In the same year, Llewellyn declared himself Prince of Wales. In order to keep the peace, Henry III recognised the title for Llewelyn and his successors in the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery. Llewellyn therefore became the last prince of an independent Wales.

All went smoothly for a while until a new English king took the throne: Edward I. Relations deteriorated as Llewelyn sought to test the new king and refused to pay homage or make the money payments due under the Treaty of Montgomery. It was a costly mistake as Edward soon showed he was not to be trifled with. Edward took a huge army into Wales, received subservience from the lesser princes, and starved Llewelyn into submission. In 1277, Llewelyn was forced to submit to the King and was stripped of his hard won overlordship.

Relations did not sour entirely, however, and Edward now gave Llewelyn permission to marry his beloved Eleanor de Montfort at Worcester Cathedral. Llewelyn had tried to marry her some years previously but, as she was Simon de Montfort’s daughter – a man who once overthrew the kings of England and ruled via parliament in their stead (all this in 1264, long before Cromwell had the same idea) – Edward used pirates to seize her when she was sailing from France for her nuptials and imprisoned her. He was not too harsh, however, as Eleanor was his cousin. Now, in 1276, after years of painful separation, the two lovers were finally wed and a stained glass window still exists in the cathedral depicting the event. Commentators at the time declared it a true love match and noted, somewhat wryly, that Llewelyn had no illegitimate children outside the marriage. Eleanor was the only woman for him.

Even the strained relations between Wales and England were not to last. In 1282, Dafydd ap Gruffydd – Llewelyn’s younger brother – attacked Hawarden Castle, an English stronghold, in a move designed to provoke war. Buoyed by a flood of Welsh barons, and the previously turncoat lesser princes, heeding the call for unity, Llewelyn sided with his brother against the English. It was a terrible miscalculation. Edward, never known to recoil from a fight, invaded Wales for a second time but, this time, he was here to stay.

Llywelyn left Dafydd to lead the defence of Gwynedd in North Wales while taking a force south, trying to rally support in mid and south Wales and open up an important second front. Just north of where I live, at the Battle of Orewin Bridge at Builth Wells, Llewelyn became separated from his troops and met his doom. Trickery from the English has always been hinted at in dark places but Llewelyn lost both his crown and his head, which was lopped from his body as he lay dying. The severed head was taken to London and crowned there with ivy, in mock defiance of the old story of Bran and his severed head that was buried under the White Tower. Nobody knows for sure what happened to Llewelyn’s head thereafter but it may have been returned for burial at the Cistercian Abbey at Abbeycwmhir.

Llewelyn’s brother met a more grisly end. Dafydd carried on the struggle for several months, but in June 1283 was captured in the uplands above Abergwyngregyn. A special session of Parliament at Shrewsbury quickly condemned him to death. He was dragged through the streets, then hanged, drawn and quartered. Edward now took control of Wales and our freedom was extinguished.

Llewelyn’s beloved wife Eleanor had previously died in childbirth, but their daughter, Gwenllian of Wales, was captured by Edward as a baby and imprisoned at Sempringham Priory in Lincolnshire, where she remained for the rest of her life. She probably knew little of her heritage and heard none of her language spoken. We mark her sad and pitiful life on June 12th every year.

Llewelyn is now remembered by a monument at the battle site where he died (shown above). Moreover, his spirit still haunts the rolling hills of this area. History has drawn Wales and England ever closer but we still remember Llewelyn and the days when he ruled an independent Wales.

Josaphat: The Christianised Buddha

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

We are used to many of our seasonal celebrations – Christmas/Yule, Easter/ Eosturmonath, even Hallowe’en/All Soul’s Night – having a Christian gloss on far older Pagan traditions. It seems that, as Christianity was taking hold, it was easier to attract converts if you changed rather than replaced existing traditions. But this did not just happen in the West. In the East, where Christianity came up against Buddhist belief, it also tried to put a Christian gloss on the story of the Buddha’s progression to enlightenment.

Today (November 27th) is the feast day of St. Josaphat, an early Prince of India, whose story mirrors the historical Buddha in almost every regard.

Josaphat was the son of the Indian Emperor Abenner, sometime in the early first millennium AD. Christianity had recently arrived in India through the evangelization of the holy apostle Thomas but Abenner did not take kindly to the new faith and persecuted its followers.

Unfortunately for him, the court astrologers predicted that his beloved son, Josaphat, would convert to Christianity when he became a man. Enraged, Abenner tried to isolate Josaphat by building a separate place for him and banning all talk of Christ and the Christian faith in his presence. Josaphat grew with no knowledge of the cares of the world.

However, just like Siddhārtha Gautama – the Indian prince who would become the Buddha – Josaphat stole out of the palace one day and began to tour the kingdom. He witnessed for the first time such things as suffering, sickness, old age, and death, and this prompted him to reflect upon the transitory nature of life. He also met a hermit called Barlaam, who saw the youth’s potential, and tutored him in the ways of Christianity.

When he returned to the palace with his new-found wisdom, Josaphat’s father, Abenner, tried all sorts of devious tricks to turn his son from Christianity. But Josaphat’s faith was absolute. Eventually, Abenner admitted defeat and also converted, leaving the empire to his son. Abenner then turned his back on his old life and became a hermit in the wilderness. Unlike the Buddha, enlightenment for Josaphat now meant ruling a kingdom, perhaps better reflecting the position of Christ in the kingdom of heaven.

Eventually, Josaphat tired of worldly things and, like his father, retired to the wilderness, where he too became a hermit. It was many years later that his successor recovered Josaphat’s dead body and, since it smelt of fragrant flowers, declared him a saint.

The name Josaphat is revealing as it derives from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva. This Sanskrit word was initially changed to Bodisav in Persian texts during the 6th or 7th century. Owing to copying errors, this became Yudasaf in an 8th century Arabic document and, later Iodasaph in Georgia in the 10th century. Finally, it became Ioasaph in Greece in the 11th century, and then Iosaphat or Josaphat in Latin. So even the name apes after the Buddhist origin of the story.

During the Middle Ages, the story became popular in Western Europe under the title The Golden Legend and is even mentioned in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. But I wonder how many people hearing the story then realised its Eastern origins or that they were actually paying homage to tenets from a very different religion to their own. Interestingly, by the 17th century, the story had become a philosophical treatise on free will and the seeking of inner peace through meditation. It was almost as if Josaphat had come full circle and returned to his Buddhist roots.