British Museum blog

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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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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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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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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The Beau Street Hoard: excavating Roman treasure, one coin at a time


Julia Tubman, conservator, British Museum

In November 2007, during a routine archaeological excavation in advance of building work in Beau Street, Bath (a stone’s throw from the famous Roman Baths themselves), archaeologists came upon what was clearly a very large number of coins contained within a cist (a stone-lined box). Upon further excavation, they quickly came to realise they were looking at one of the largest coin hoards found in the UK, representing quite a tumultuous time in Roman Britain – about AD 270.

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

Some of the coins from the hoard during the initial excavation © Cotswold Archaeology

When groups of coins that appear to be over 300 years old are found, they must be reported to the local coroner (according to the Treasure Act 1996). The coins enter what we call the ‘Treasure Process’ where, if necessary for identification, they will be cleaned in preparation for their formal declaration as Treasure and the property of the Crown, or eventual valuation. Usually this occurs at the British Museum, or in the case of Welsh Treasure cases, the National Museum of Wales.

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

The hoard was lifted in a single soil block © Cotswold Archaeology

In order to preserve its shape and context, the archaeologists cut around the hoard and lifted it in a soil block. As a metals conservator at the British Museum, my job is to excavate the coins from the soil and clean them up. The initial excavation should take about six weeks and during that time I will be regularly adding to this blog with updates of my work as it progresses. Colleagues from curatorial departments and our science team who are involved with the project will also contribute as the hoard gradually reveals its story.

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The hoard in its soil block when it arrived in the conservation lab at the British Museum

The coins are currently held together by soil and metallic corrosion. They are blue and green in colour indicating the corrosion of a copper metal, which would have been used as a base alloy for the coins. Interestingly, within this copper corrosion is actually a layer of silver that was plated over the copper during the manufacture of the coins.

The coins have also maintained the shape of the cist they were contained within, as the soil and corrosion has concreted together. Looking more closely, we can even see that there are groups of coins within the hoard; which is because this large hoard appears to be composed of six individual smaller hoards.

We had an idea that this could be the case because in December last year Dr. Mavrogordato, from the Imaging Centre in the University of Southampton’s Department of Engineering Sciences, kindly took x-rays of the block. The resulting images show what look to be ‘bags’ of coins. We don’t know whether the bags themselves have survived (they could have been made of an organic material such as textile or leather), but the corroded coins have kept the shape of their containers and I will be looking for evidence of them.

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

The cleaning process is fine and detailed work

As my job will involve excavating the hoard, knowing that there are individual bags of coins gives me a very good starting point as it means I can deconstruct the soil block bag by bag. It will be very interesting to see if the coins were bagged together for a particular reason; for example, if they were grouped by emperor or denomination.

I’ve cleaned a few loose coins already and, after stripping away the copper corrosion, I’ve found some very impressive silver surfaces (nicer than we had previously hoped!) Given the large number of coins in the soil block, I’m hoping to be able to clean as many coins as possible using chemicals such as formic acid, rather than by hand using a scalpel. I have 18 months to complete this project, so time is of the essence.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

The hoard in May 2012 in the conservation lab, excavation underway.

Initial estimates put the number of coins at around 30,000. After having excavated the block a little since then, guesses about the maximum number of coins in the hoard have decreased and estimates vary between everyone looking at it. Readers of the blog are welcome to suggest their own figures – I say no more than 22,000 coins, what do you think?

Removing the tough shell of the copper corrosion layer is important not just to find shiny surfaces but also to find the detail on the coins needed for identification by my colleagues in the Coins and Medals department, Eleanor Ghey and Richard Abdy (who will be blogging about the significance of the find next week). At this early stage in the project, I’m only cleaning the coins so that they can be identified: I’m not cleaning them for display, by completely removing all the corrosion or soil; that would require more time.

Some of the coins after being cleaned

Some of the coins after being cleaned

When looking at Roman coins, specialists will be hoping to identify features on the ‘obverse’ (side bearing the bust of an emperor or an important relative) and the ‘reverse’ (side bearing representations of deities, animals, and other important Roman symbols). The subjects depicted on Roman coins varied according to emperor and coins of more than one emperor could be in circulation at any given time. On both sides, revealing enough of the ‘legend’ (the writing around the edge of the coin) is important, especially where the figure in the centre is very corroded or worn. Eleanor and Richard will also be looking closely for any mint marks on the coins (usually on the reverse) which indicate where in the empire the coin was struck, so I’ll have to be very careful when cleaning to reveal as much detail as possible.

Coins identified thus far have shown a real mix of the many Roman emperors of the third century AD (it was such a politically unstable time that many of them only got to reign a few years): Septimius Severus (AD 193-211), Gordian III (AD 238-249), Philip I (AD 244-249), Decius (AD 249-251), Trebonianus Gallus (AD 251-253), Aemilian (AD 253), Valerian I (AD 253-260), Gallienus (AD 253-268) and Postumus (AD 260- 268).

The Roman Baths Museum hopes to purchase the hoard and eventually display it to the public. It’s fantastic to know where the hoard might ultimately end up, and I’m working closely with curator Stephen Clews at the Roman Baths.

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

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Filed under: Archaeology, Beau Street Hoard, Conservation, , , , ,

New treasure!


Richard Hobbs, curator, British Museum

‘New treasure!’ was the title of an email I received two weeks ago from a colleague. It refers to a new hoard, or ‘treasure’, of late Roman silver plate, recently discovered in Croatia at Vinkovci. In Roman times the town was known as Colonia Aurelia Cibalae (Cibalae for short) in the Roman province of Pannonia. Cibalae was the birthplace of the Roman emperors Valentian I and his younger brother Valens (both AD 364-375). The Cibalae treasure dates to around a similar time, i.e. the fourth century AD.

My Croatian being non-existent I’ve managed via ‘Google Translate’ to glean that the treasure was discovered during rescue excavations in advance of construction right in the centre of Vinkovci, then transported under armed guard to the Mimara Museum in Zagreb where it is now on display to the public. It consists of about 50 items of silver tableware weighing a total of around 30 kilos. For comparison, the Mildenhall treasure, the treasure I am currently researching, has about half that number of objects, but weighs almost as much (around 26kg). It is clear from the images that many of the objects are rather damaged and heavily tarnished, but cleaning and restoration over the coming months will no doubt do much to rectify this.

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The Cibalae Treasure. Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

A more perfect set of circumstances surrounding the discovery of such a treasure could not be dreamed of. It is, to put it mildly, highly unusual for a silver treasure of this magnitude to be found at all, let alone by professional archaeologists. Such discoveries are exceedingly rare: the daily diet of most archaeologists is lots of pottery and animal bone, the occasional find of low value metalwork (perhaps an iron nail, or a copper brooch or coin). Even single finds of gold and silver objects are rarely found, let alone entire hoards. And because it has been excavated by professionals, we are likely to know a great deal more about it: we know exactly where it was buried, how deep it lay in the ground, and how it might have been buried, for example there might still be traces of a container in which it had been placed. In contrast such information relating to the burial circumstances of the Mildenhall treasure is sadly lacking.

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

Photo courtesy Steve Gaunt

The exact contents of the treasure will become clear in the next few weeks, months and years as the painstaking process of conservation and research is carried out. At the moment, I have to content myself with scrutinising the few images which have emerged from TV and newspaper reports. I can see, for example, that the Cibalae treasure has three large platters and at least two wide and deep bowls – in comparison the Mildenhall treasure has only two platters. It has at least another dozen smaller bowls and dishes – Mildenhall has six. It has many other vessels which are not represented in the Mildenhall treasure, but are paralleled in other treasures: these include silver beakers, also known from the Kaiseraugst treasure, discovered in Switzerland in the early 1960s; at least two silver jugs, also known in other treasures; and a number of spoons and ladles, again similar in appearance to ones known in other treasures. Most intriguingly, there are some pieces which are nicely decorated: one shows what appears to be Bellerophon slaying the chimera. This scene is in the centre of a platter with a very unusual flat rim decorated with a dozen recesses in the shape of scallop shells.

Even more exciting perhaps is a pastoral scene in the centre of another platter, which shows a shepherd leaning on a crook and surrounded by sheep: as my colleague Chris Entwistle, the curator of our Byzantine collections suggested, it would be tempting to think of the Parable of the Good Shepherd. If this is the case, it would be a very rare example of a Biblical scene on late Roman silver plate.

It’s early days in the life of this new discovery. Maybe in the next few months I will be able to see the treasure for myself.

Richard Hobbs is curator of Romano-British collections and is currently on a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship to publish the Mildenhall treasure

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Filed under: Archaeology, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , ,

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