British Museum blog

Amara West: season six is nearly upon us….

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)Neal Spencer, British Museum

In the next few days, our sixth excavation season begins.

Amara West was the pharaonic capital of conquered Upper Nubia in the late second millennium BC. Thus far, we have gained important insights into how houses were modified over time to suit individual needs, religious practises in the home, but also the impact of a changing landscape.

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Looking down a 3,000 year-old alley at Amara West (2012)

Analyses undertaken by a range of specialists, both inside the British Museum and at universities involved in the project, are casting light on plant exploitation practises, technologies for producing ceramics, the presence of luxurious imports from afar, and the complex array of funerary traditions evident in the cemeteries, including pyramid tombs and funerary masks, but also Nubian tumulus graves.

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Faience necklace (F6436) from a house at Amara West (2012)

Highlights from Amara West will continue to be featured on this blog, as in previous years, but for more regular updates as the season progresses – the discovery of buildings, objects, burials that shed light on life in a pharaonic town in occupied Nubia – follow our dedicated project blog: blog.amarawest.britishmuseum.org.

So far, you can read a preview of upcoming excavations in the ancient town, including excavation of a villa outside the town wall, and of the last house remaining in neighbourhood E13.3. And, across a now-dry Nile channel, Michaela Binder describes the excavations she will be leading in cemetery C, a burial ground providing fascinating insights into the mixture of Egyptian and Nubian funerary cultures in the early first millennium BC.

Follow @NealSpencer_BM on Twitter for further updates from the excavations.

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Filed under: Amara West, Archaeology, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , ,

Amara West 2012: the first glimpses of ancient living conditions and health

A burial at Amara West, SudanMichaela Binder, Durham University

After spending four months in the British Museum analysing skeletons from the ancient Egyptian town of Amara West this summer, our picture of health and living conditions there is becoming a little clearer.

I have now analysed 130 complete or almost complete individuals. My analyses indicate 35% of the individuals were sub-adults, which in itself is not surprising and not that high compared to other groups in antiquity. However, it is interesting to see only a very small number of children under the age of five, as very young children are generally more vulnerable to diseases. High percentages of infants in cemeteries are often an indicator of bad living conditions, and at Amara West, their absence is striking but could be explained by different burial rites – young children may have been buried elsewhere.

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

One of the rare burials of a 1-2 year-old child

The high percentage of older children is notable, and indicates that people living at Amara West were exposed to unfavourable conditions such as a high degree of infectious diseases.

Diagnosis of infectious diseases in human remains is not easy. The changes in bones are often not specific and the same sign could be caused by a number of different conditions. Moreover, it also takes some time before bones become affected too. Therefore, only chronic diseases will leave an imprint.

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

Healed, badly aligned fracture of the left upper arm

The most common forms of infectious diseases found in the people from Amara West so far are signs of chronic sinusitis and also infections of the lung. They are visible as new bone formation on the inner side of the ribs and in the maxillary sinuses. The changes could be related to bad air quality, both in- and outdoors, such as smoke inside the houses, dust or sand, but also to infectious diseases such as tuberculosis.

More unfavourable living conditions are also indicated by the lengths of long bones in adult skeletons from the town. Even though height is generally determined by our genes, whether we fulfil our genetic potential depends on our state of health and nutrition during growth. At Amara West, females reached body heights of 154 cm on average, while men reached 166 cm.

In comparison, mean statures in the UK today are 175 cm for men, and 162 cm for women, according to a study published in 2002.

Another interesting finding in the human remains from Amara West so far is the high degree of fractures, particularly in the upper body. These injuries are usually associated with falls or crashes. But what happened to these people? The distribution of injuries is remarkably similar to what is observed with people involved in agricultural activities even today, especially those who regularly handle animals.

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Murder and mayhem in Predynastic Egypt

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handleRenee Friedman and Daniel Antoine, curators,
British Museum

Using some of the latest imaging technology we now know that about 5500 years ago (about 3500 BC) the natural mummy known as Gebelein Man was stabbed in the back.

The ability to determine the cause of death in ancient remains is rare enough, but because his skin and muscle tissue are so well preserved, further detective work has allowed us to trace the trajectory (from above) and estimate the size (about two centimetres across, maximum) of the implement responsible.

Based on this information, the murder weapon was most probably a dagger.

While a projectile point is also a possibility, it is unlikely that it could have been removed without causing further tissue damage, and the cut on his skin is not lacerated. Only if it were a broad-edged transverse arrowhead, like those carried by the men on the Hunters’ Palette, might this be possible.

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters' Palette

Arrows, as shown on the Hunters’ Palette.

While this type of arrowhead was common in Predynastic Egypt, it was rarely made in a size matching the wound in Gebelein Man’s left shoulder.

Composite image of Predynastic silver dagger blade and ivory handle

Composite image of a Predynastic silver dagger
blade and ivory handle.

We can probably also rule out flint knives, although they were prevalent throughout the Predynastic period (3800-3100 BC), with various examples displayed in the British Museum’s Room 64: Early Egypt gallery.

From their shape it is clear that they were mainly for cutting and slashing, using their edge rather than their point to inflict wounds. Most are also too wide to fit the forensic evidence from Gebelein Man. Instead, it seems most likely that he was done in by a metal blade.

Tools and weapons of metal (mainly copper but also silver) are rare in Predynastic Egypt mainly because implements of such valuable materials would have been recycled rather than discarded by the living and were among the first things to be robbed from the dead. Nevertheless, there can be little doubt that copper was widely used at this time. For example, the central ridge depicted on the lances carried on the Hunters Palette (slightly later in date than Gebelein Man) indicate they were made of metal.

Six dagger blades of copper and silver have been preserved. Some still have their ivory handles, while all have a triangular blade with a mid-rib down the centre, and are 15-16.5 cm long with a maximum width of four-five cm. These blades are so far the best fit for the weapon used against Gebelein Man, and the two cm cut at the rib level suggest such a blade was plunged into his back for most of its length. The composite example shown here gives an idea of the original appearance, and evidence from one Predynastic cemetery suggests they were worn interlaced through armlets on the left upper arm for easy and rapid access.

We will never find the perpetrator responsible for Gebelein Man’s death, or determine his motives (revenge?, a hunting accident?, an act on the battlefield?), but the iconography and artefacts of Predynastic Egypt suggest it was not always a peaceful place.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters' palette.

Stone maces and metal lances on the Hunters’ Palette.

Already 200-300 years before Gebelein Man met his end, scenes on pottery show human prisoners threatened with stone maces. Mace-heads of hard stone are well-known throughout the period. While they were probably used mainly in hunting, that they were also used against humans is clear from excavations in a cemetery at Hierakonpolis, contemporary with Gebelein Man, where several individuals suffered massive and fatal skull fractures inflicted by such an instrument. Further defensive wounds suggest these injuries were attained in battle.

These may have been minor skirmishes, but shortly after Gebelein Man died, scenes depicting pitched battles begin to appear.

While Gebelein Man may simply have been the unfortunate victim of interpersonal violence, he lived in a time when several regional centres in Upper Egypt, Gebelein being one of them, were beginning to vie for power and territory, in a process that ultimately led to the so-called unification of Egypt and the establishment of the Dynastic Egyptian nation state at about 3100 BC. Diplomacy may have been influential in this process, but there is no doubt that violence also played a major role, as the scene on the Battlefield Palette (about 3200 BC) leaves little to the imagination.

Was Gebelein Man a victim of his times? Recent research, suggesting that he was buried in a large well-endowed grave and with a number of lethal weapons of his own, only adds to the mystery that now surrounds him.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
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Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, ,

Peering into the Iron Age through the Portable Antiquities Scheme

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme

David Prudames, British Museum

This helmet is Iron Age (over 2,000 years old), and was found in Kent, in southern England, by a metal-detectorist in October 2012. It had been upturned and used to hold a human cremation – the first accompanied by a helmet to have been found in Britain. In fact only a handful of Iron Age helmets are known from Britain at all.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An extremely rare late Iron Age helmet from near Canterbury, Kent. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

On the north-western edge of Europe, the mid-first century BC was a time of war, travel, communication, connections and change. Caesar was at war in Gaul (modern France) and mercenaries from Britain had travelled to join the fighting, so it’s possible that the person who owned this helmet might have fought in Gaul – perhaps against the Romans, or even alongside them.

Before Gaul fell, Caesar would make his first expedition to Britain, landing on the shores of Kent not far from where this helmet was found. I find it quite appealing to imagine that the owner, or the people who placed it in the grave, may have lived through the beginning of the story of Roman Britain.

The 2011 Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure annual reports, launched on 3 December at the British Museum, make for a slightly mind-blowing round-up of finds made by members of the public last year. There were 97,509 unearthed in England and Wales last year, not to mention 970 cases of Treasure – that’s gold and silver objects, and groups of coins from the same finds over 300 years old, as well as prehistoric base metal objects.

Such numbers give a very real sense that the ground beneath our feet is teeming with chapters in the story of its human occupation. Many of these chapters are being found and told thanks to the PAS, whose website – www.finds.org.uk – now includes 820,000 finds with nearly 400,000 images.

Invariably the finds are made – often while metal-detecting – and reported by members of the public, and this growing project is an incredible contribution to the archaeological record, with the potential to transform what we know about the past in England and Wales.

Here are some more of the amazing things discovered recently:

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

An important hoard of Viking Age gold and silver metalwork found in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The Bedale Hoard

An iron sword pommel inlaid with gold foil plaques, four gold hoops (from the hilt of the sword), six small gold rivets (probably from the pommel or hilt), four silver collars and neck-rings, a silver arm-ring, a silver ring fragment, a silver penannular brooch, and 29 silver ingots.

Found in May 2012 on farmland in the Bedale area, North Yorkshire, some of the objects, which date to the late ninth to early tenth centuries, are decorated in late Anglo-Saxon style, or reflect Hiberno-Scandinavian forms and ornament.

Boar mount associated with  Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Boar mount associated with Richard III. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A boar mount associated with Richard III

A copper-alloy mount in the form of a boar, found on the foreshore of the River Thames in London. Badges in the form of a boar were ordered for use at Richard III’s coronation (in July 1485) and also for the investiture of his son, Edward, as Prince of Wales (in September). It is not certain what the mount from London came from, maybe a piece of furniture or used to decorate an item of leather once owned by a supporter of Richard III, or possibly even the king himself.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The second largest hoard of Roman solidi (gold coins) ever found in Britain. Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The St Albans Hoard

Altogether, 159 gold, Roman solidi coins dating to the late fourth to early fifth century AD, the second largest such hoard found in the UK.

The dating of the coins suggests their burial could have been associated with the turbulent separation of Britain from the Roman Empire in about AD 410. Gold solidi were extremely valuable coins and under Roman law couldn’t be spent in everyday marketplace situations. They would have been used for large transactions such as buying land, or goods by the shipload, and were an especially handy source of portable wealth for travellers (in much the same way as gold sovereigns were to Britons abroad prior to traveller’s cheques or internationally accessible bank accounts). Therefore it is likely that the ancient owners of these coins were very rich, typically Roman elite, merchants or soldiers receiving bulk pay.

The Bedale Hoard (Room 2) and the St Albans Hoard (Room 68) are on display at the British Museum from 4 December 2012.

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Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, , , ,

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
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Amara West 2012: the life-story of a pot

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8Marie Millet, British Museum

The Amara West team is now beginning to finalise plans for its next excavation season, in January and February 2013. In recent months, we’ve been digitising our field documentation (drawings, plans, maps …), which has allowed us to reconstruct biographies for objects found during our excavations earlier this year. This work is shedding light on life at the town of Amara West, the principal administrative centre of Upper Nubia during the Ramesside Period, at the end of the second millennium BC.

One object in particular caught my attention: a large vessel (C4460) buried in the floor of house E13.8. This single object enables us to tell a chapter in the story of “House of Ramesses-ruler-of-Thebes”, as Amara West was called in ancient times.

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

A large vessel (C4460) found buried in the floor of house E13.8

House E13.8 was excavated last season by Tom Lyons and Shadia Abdu Rabu, between the enclosure wall and house E13.3. It was built over the remains of a production area with a kiln. Though this house was built over an empty, trapezoid-shaped space, it features all of the key elements of an Amara house: hearths, bread ovens, room with mastaba-bench.

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

Excavation at Amara West, 2012

In the back room, to the left of the door, we came across a large buried pot. Why was it there? Usually in archaeology we go back in time, because we are discovering the most recent part of a site and ‘peeling back’ the layers to find earlier remains. But with this object, we can tell the story from beginning to end.

We know that this very large jar was made on a potter’s wheel, as we can see wheel-marks on the interior surface. The exterior is a white colour. It’s made from Nile clay, which makes it difficult to distinguish whether it was produced in Egypt or in Upper Nubia: was it imported, or made locally at Amara West? Such pots are usually made from more specific Egyptian clay, ‘marl clay’, though in Abydos, examples made from Nile clay have been found with a white slip added to the exterior, to imitate pots made from marl clay.

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the British Museum collection

Storage-jar, found at el-Amarna, Egypt, 1350 BC from the
British Museum collection

Egyptologists call this kind of jar a ‘meat jar’, as ink labels found on them, especially in Amarna, state that meat was stored inside. Some jars from this site in the British Museum collection offer a good comparison with the newly-excavated material.

The Amara West pot bears a hieratic inscription, carefully conserved by Philip Kevin, saying it held cqw- (bread) loaves (thanks to Robert Demarée for the translation). So this jar was used to transport or store a number of loaves. At a later stage, it was then buried in the floor at the back of the house, possibly to keep food cool, a change in function we often see with this type of jar, both at Amara West and at Amarna. The archaeological stratigraphy suggests that it was buried during the 20th dynasty. As to what was stored inside; that’s a question for our archaeobotanists, Caroline Cartwright and Philippa Ryan, who will be studying the jar in due course.

Unfortunately, this jar lost its neck, perhaps while it was in use at the back of the house or when the area was refilled and the pot completely forgotten. The room was filled with rubble, containing doum-palm trees seeds, charcoal, wood, fish bones and ochre. The weight of these deposits caused the pot to collapse in on itself.

So this jar tells us its own life through its breaks, marks, shape, material and location in the archaeological stratigraphy. This provides us with a glimpse into the daily life of the inhabitants of Amara West.

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A correspondence with the history of Egyptology

A gallery display at the Roman Baths Museum, Bath

Patricia Usick, Honorary Archivist, Ancient Egypt and Sudan, British Museum

The archive of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan has recently acquired a fascinating collection of letters from Joseph Bonomi (1796-1878) to his friend and colleague Samuel Sharpe (1799-1881). Both men were important figures in early Egyptology with close connections to the British Museum; their friendship and interests are reflected in this lively, scholarly, and intimate correspondence of 1857-1878.

Bonomi’s contribution to Egyptology and his long and productive career have not been sufficiently appreciated.

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

A horse-drawn van advertising Joseph Bonomi’s ‘Panorama of Egypt’ exhibited in London in 1849

Bonomi, artist and sculptor, Egyptologist curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum, and Sharpe, Egyptologist and biblical scholar, first met in 1837 when Sharpe was publishing inscriptions from the British Museum. They developed a close friendship while collaborating on the Egyptian Rooms at the Crystal Palace, and numerous biblical and Egyptian publications, including the alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, which the architect and collector John Soane had purchased when the British Museum Trustees, alas, refused it.

Bonomi had joined Robert Hay’s expedition to Egypt as his artist in 1824, producing drawings and helping to make the plaster casts of Egyptian reliefs which are now in the British Museum along with Hay’s collections. Bonomi subsequently spent nine years in Egypt in the company of many of the eminent scholar-travellers of the day. In England, Bonomi illustrated John Gardner Wilkinson’s books on Egypt, made drawings for a Panorama of Egypt, and worked in the British Museum arranging exhibits. He designed the first hieroglyphic font produced in England for Samuel Birch, Keeper of Oriental Antiquities in the British Museum, and even designed an Egyptian temple façade for a flax mill in Leeds. Birch thought that, after Gardner Wilkinson, Bonomi knew more about Egypt than anyone of his time.

One of the Bonomi letters

One of the Bonomi letters

The letters touch on many of the Egyptological issues of the day: damage to Egyptian monuments, both natural and the deliberate ancient effacement of the name and image of the god Amun; the embalming of animals; their joint publication of the Soane sarcophagus – and how well their publications were selling; the statue of Khaemwaset (now EA 947), which Sharpe purchased and presented to the British Museum; Schliemann’s discovery of Troy; the provenance of a disputed basalt stone in Bologna and a fragment of a sarcophagus with the Asiatic Society; excavations at the mortuary temple of Amenhotep III in Thebes; the mathematical papyrus ‘in Birch’s room’ (The Rhind Papyrus P. BM 10058); the discovery of the famous Moabite Stone, the oldest Semitic inscription then known; and the Museum’s paintings from the tomb of Nebamun.

Bonomi considered Rev. Lieder’s collection ‘inferior much to Mr. Hay’s’, though worth a visit, and Birch had bought ‘20 pounds worth’. Rev. Rudolph Theophilus Lieder was a German missionary and collector who worked in Cairo for many years under the Church Missionary Society and collected Egyptian antiquities. In 1861 Lord Amherst purchased his collection of 186 items for £200, the inventory of which is in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan archives. A glimpse of what must be Rev Lieder’s son in 1869 is revealing; ‘I found Mr Lieder with eyes denoting neglected ophthalmia hand trembling from much tobacco and perhaps excess in wine. I knew him a little boy in Cairo as I then thought much neglected by his mother’.

Despite tragedy in Bonomi’s private life – his four young children died of whooping cough in one week in 1852 and he was left to bring up his four following children when his wife Jessie, the daughter of the painter John Martin, died in 1859 aged 34 – his output was enormous, and his humorous observations and cheerful disposition bring a seminal figure to life.

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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection,

A closer look at what the Chiseldon cauldrons are made of

High magnification image of one of the cauldrons

Quanyu Wang, scientist, British Museum

I am a scientist specialising in metalworking technology, particularly in relation to non-precious metals such as iron and copper-alloys. The scientific examination and analysis of the Chiseldon Iron-Age cauldrons is a key aspect of the investigative process as a whole and is crucial in supporting our understanding of them.

For the Chiseldon cauldrons I have been examining the microstructure of the metal under very high magnification in order to see its composition, deduce how it was worked and explore manufacturing techniques. Some of the questions I will be trying to answer include: ‘How were the cauldrons made?’, ‘Were different components from an individual vessel made in the same workshop?’, ‘Were the same parts, such as the iron handles for different vessels, made from the same metal stocks’ and, perhaps the most important question of all; ‘Were the cauldrons made especially for burial or collected together for a particular occasion?’

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Taking a sample from one of the cauldrons

Finding appropriate samples to test can be extremely difficult as the metal, particularly the iron, is extremely corroded and very fragile. The sampling process is made additionally complicated by attempting to sample a potential area that is as discrete as possible to make sure that we do not endanger the structural integrity of the artefact but will yield the best results. This is not a decision that is taken lightly and sample positions are chosen in consultation with curators and conservators. In order to reveal the structure of the metal the samples are mounted in resin, their cross-section polished, and then examined using metallographic microscopy up to x1000 magnification and a scanning electron microscope equipped with energy dispersive X-ray spectrometry (SEM-EDX) that allows us to examine them up to 300,000 times its actual size.

We have been able to deduce that the iron handles from both the cauldrons studied so far were probably formed by repeatedly hammering an iron bar while it was rotated. Additionally, iron used for the same parts of different cauldrons showed differences in microstructure and slag (impurity) inclusions, and was therefore from different stocks of metal, suggesting that these cauldrons were probably collected together rather than being made at the same time specifically for burial.

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

A high magnification scanning electron microscope (SEM) image of a copper alloy sample from one of the cauldrons. Darker horizontal lines were caused by many cycles of working and heating

The copper-alloy is likely to have been subjected to many cycles of working and annealing (heating) to reduce the sheet metal to its final thickness (and shape). Significantly, there are differences in the content of sulphide within the copper alloy from one of the cauldrons, which suggest that the metal of the bowl and that of the band were probably refined to different levels or were from different sources.

Some of the results we have achieved so far are intriguing and much more revealing than expected given the condition of the material. Further analysis of the remaining cauldrons will not only provide further details of how the metal was processed and how the cauldrons were made but will help us build up a more complete picture of the deposit as a whole.

The Chiseldon cauldrons research project is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

Find out more about this research project

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Filed under: Archaeology, Chiseldon cauldrons, Conservation, Research

The Beau Street Hoard: excavation progress

Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

As mentioned in previous blog posts, the Beau Street Hoard is not just one huge jumbled mass of coins, but actually at least six separate bags. My excavation plan is to remove these coins bag by bag, to preserve the groupings (which are potentially very significant), and give us a clearer view of the size and shape of each bag.

I had been concerned that the coins might have concreted together to such an extent that identifying separate bags would be very difficult during the excavation, but (fingers crossed!) thus far the removal of individual bags has progressed remarkably smoothly. I have managed to retrieve two whole bags of coins. I have numbered these bags five and six, and they are the two smallest bags at the northern end of the block in the x-ray (five being the smallest).

The block, after the removal of bags 5 and 6

We were excited to see that bag six almost exclusively contained denarii (the smaller coins with a high silver content discussed in Eleanor’s blog post last week), suggesting that the coins might have been bagged by denomination. Of the approximately 3,000 coins I excavated of this bag, I have cleaned around 1,000, and thus far the latest coins we have date to the third century AD.

There are actually a very small number of coins older than the third century contained within the bag: one coin was minted during Otho’s very short reign (AD 69), and an even older one, worn almost flat, minted at the end of the Roman Republic by Mark Antony (just prior to the battle of Actium in 31 BC).

This means that some of the coins were centuries old at the time of the final deposition of the hoard. As I’m cleaning the coins bag by bag in the order excavated, I haven’t yet got round to cleaning the coins kept in bag five, but thus far these all appear to be radiates.

A very worn coin minted by Mark Antony, circa 31 BC

As you can see in the photographs, it is quite easy to tell where one bag ends and another begins. The orientation of the coins themselves and the very bright blue corrosion helps a lot, but there are also other markers. The bags that held the coins would have been organic in nature (made from either an animal or plant product).My guess would be leather as they would have to be strong enough to hold large numbers of coins. Unfortunately, even organic material which has been treated and processed to form objects doesn’t always survive easily in Britain, which is why most of our surviving artefacts are made from stone, ceramic or metal. With this in mind, I knew that any piece of bag that might have survived would be in very poor condition, and I was prepared to look for scant pieces of evidence preserved in the corrosion generated by the coins.

Denarius bearing the emperor Septimius Severus, AD 193-211

Happily though, I think that I have found fragments of leather (see the light brown material loosely attached to the coins), exactly where I know the bags would have been. The leather is obviously very degraded, and as the fibre network has broken up, the leather has shrunken and split resulting in the flaky incoherent material we see today. I have taken some samples of this material, and hopefully my identification of this will be confirmed by a specialist soon.

The next stage of the excavation- the removal of bag 2

After three weeks I now have a much better understanding of the size and shape of the hoard. There were no more coins beneath bags five and six, but the x-rays taken through the side suggest this is not the case throughout the rest of the block – we suspect there might be more bags of coins beneath the six already identified.

The area excavated thus far shows that the floor of the cist is obviously not even, but seems to have been dug in a rough pit-like way. As yet I have found no evidence of any kind of wooden box that might have held all of the bags, and as I have found pieces of tile pressed up against the coins, I actually doubt that there ever was.

Given the way in which the bags have been piled (I do not want to destabilise the central bags by removing their supports), and to get an idea of what the bags of coins in the middle of the block look like, I will now begin excavating ‘bag two’ at the southern end of the block. I’m sure there will be more exciting developments to report.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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The Beau Street Hoard: what’s in the box?

Eleanor Ghey, project curator, British Museum

Hoards of Roman coins from later in the third century AD are the most common sort of coin hoards we see at the British Museum but the Beau Street Hoard is very unusual. When I saw the X-ray of the hoard I was very excited to see what looked like clearly separate bags of coins deposited in a group – normally coins are found in a pot or in a hole in the ground together in one lump. Here we have at least six (and probably more) groups of coins – several hoards in one! It was even more exciting to learn that it was going to be possible for my colleague Julia Tubman to isolate the groups.

It raises all sorts of questions. Do the bags contain the same sorts of coins or different ones? Do they each contain the same amount in Roman money or in weight of metal? Are they all coins that were circulating at the same date or are they deposits of coins from different time-periods gathered together at a later date for re-burial?

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation. © University of Southampton

An X-radiograph of the soil block before conservation taken at the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences. © University of Southampton

It is already possible to start to speculate about the contents of the hoard from the few coins that have been removed from the block (although it may still hold surprises). The coins are mostly of the denomination known as a ‘radiate’ (from the spiky crown the emperor wears on the obverse (front) of the coin).

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

A silver radiate of Gordian III from the hoard

This type of coin first appears in the early third century AD and at the time was of a value double that of the denarius (the main silver coin in the earlier years of the Roman Empire). Initially, like the denarius this was a silver coin. Gradually over time the silver content of the radiate was reduced, until (by the 270s AD) they were almost entirely base metal (copper alloy) and became smaller in size.

The first coins Julia removed from the block were large and silvery in appearance (once cleaned) and came mostly from the first half of the third century AD. The earliest coin was a denarius of the emperor Septimius Severus (ruled AD 193-211) and the latest were coins of the emperor Gallienus and his wife, Salonina, dated to the AD 260s. This would be fairly typical for the contents of a hoard buried in the AD 260s.

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

A silver denarius of Septimius Severus (AD 193-211) from the British Museum collection

However, when the hoard was first discovered, a sample of coins taken from another area of the block was quite different in nature. These were the smaller, more coppery radiates of the AD 270s (the most common type of coins we find in hoards from the 270s to 290s). This suggests that we may be dealing with bags containing different groups of coins, possibly gathered together at different times or sorted before burial.

Was this a secure store for bags of money that was added to gradually by one or more people over a fairly long period of time? It seems like an official store of money, organised into bags and purposely concealed in a place designed for that purpose. It was certainly a large amount of money (although we don’t have data for the later third century, pay scales for legionary soldiers in the AD 230s suggest they would have received about two and a half of these coins as a day’s wage) and it could have been looked after by an individual with authority.

It is rare to find hoards in Roman town centres. Perhaps it belonged to a local business in what was a busy town centre (deposited in a safe place in the way we leave money at the bank today). Why was it left for the archaeologists to find and not recovered by its owner?

Was there any connection with the nearby temple and sacred spring? We know that temples had treasuries; they may have periodically emptied out some of the coins thrown into the spring.

We are hoping that results from the archaeological excavation of the findspot will shed further light on this puzzle.

Find out more about the Beau Street hoard and the Roman Baths Museum fund-raising campaign.

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