British Museum blog

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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The Lycurgus Cup: transformation in glass

detail of Lycurgus cupBelinda Crerar, curator, British Museum

The Romans are famous for doing things ‘big’ – enormous private villas, the largest armies the world had ever seen, huge temples to house countless gods and of course, larger than life personalities. The power, wealth and splendour of Rome are clear to see when you approach the Late Roman and Byzantine displays in the Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100. Facing you are cabinets full of gold and silver – hoards of tableware from Cyprus and Rome, bracelets and earrings encrusted with precious gems, gold crosses declaring a love of Christ in the most ostentatious way. It’s safe to say that the Roman aristocracy liked to show off their wealth, but, for the quantity of gold and silver used to craft the treasures in the gallery, the one that contains the least shines the most.

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

The Lycurgus cup being installed by project curator Rosie Weetch in Room 41

At the centre of the display is the Lycurgus Cup. A Late Roman diatretum, or cage cup, it was carved around the 4th century AD. Its exact provenance is unknown, but it was possibly created in Alexandria on account of the fine glasswork emerging from Egypt at this time. Decorated on all sides with figures painstakingly carved in high relief, the cup shows the myth of the Thracian king Lycurgus, who enraged the god Dionysus by expelling him from his kingdom and attacking his followers. Needless to say, things didn’t end well for Lycurgus, though precisely how depends on who told the story. The version depicted on the cup was told by Nonnus of Panopolis in his 48-book-long epic, the Dionysiaca. Nonnus recounts how Lycurgus attacked a female follower of Dionysus called Ambrosia. To save her, Mother Earth transformed her into a vine which ensnared Lycurgus as it grew. On the cup, Ambrosia lies on the ground in the moment of transformation while the hapless king fights for his life against the emerging tendrils. Dionysus watches, remorseless, while the fawn-legged god Pan and one of Dionysus’ followers taunt their victim and pummel him with rocks.

The carving is of exceptional skill and the preservation of the vessel is unparalleled, but the most impressive element of the cup’s design comes from an feature that cannot be seen with the naked eye. In reflected light the cup appears opaque olive green, but when transmitted light is shone through the glass, it changes to a rich and vibrant red. The effect is caused by nanoparticles of gold and silver within the glass, so tiny and in such small quantities that only in the last few decades has microscopic analysis with sufficiently high resolution been developed to detect them. As light passes through the glass the gold and silver particles scatter the waves, allowing those at the red end of the spectrum to pass though more easily, causing the dramatic colour change. The cup’s modern name is likely to be a misnomer: the original use for the vessel was possibly as a hanging lamp, only being transformed into a cup when the gilt-silver foot and rim band were added in the 19th century. As a lamp, flickering over the dinner table, the optical properties of the glass would be shown to their full effect for all to admire, although admittedly, no one has yet been brave enough to fill the fragile, 2000 year old vessel with wine and observe the effects of light through it when full.

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

The Lycurgus Cup, shown with transmitted light

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The change of colour from green to red mimics the ripening of grapes, suitable for the Dionysian theme, but whether or not the dichroic effect was deliberate or the fortunate result of contamination in the molten glass is still unclear. Nonetheless, the optical trick of this rare form of glass delighted the Roman aristocracy so much that it attracted the attention of emperors: the author of the 4th-century Historia Augusta reports that the Emperor Hadrian sent ‘a cup that changes colour’ to his brother-in-law as a gift for his banquets. It would, after all, make a fantastic conversation piece, and if its later life is anything to go by – likely preserved above ground throughout the centuries, on account of its almost perfect state of preservation, acquired by the Rothschild family in the 1800s then bought by the British Museum in 1958 – the Lycurgus Cup has lost none of its appeal.

The Sir Paul and Lady Ruddock Gallery of Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300–1100 recently opened after a major re-display in Room 41. Admission is free.

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A hoard from the dawn of Roman Britain

Coin from the hoardEleanor Ghey, curator, British Museum

Sometimes as curators we are lucky enough to be brought the most amazing new finds that through careful study can offer a tantalising glimpse into the ancient past. One such discovery that sheds light on the earliest years of Roman Britain is now on display in the Citi Money Gallery.

Coins from the hoard on display.

Coins from the hoard on display.

In 2010 metal-detector user Jason Hemmings found – in a field in Dorset, southern England – what at first glance seemed to be just a handful of Roman and Iron Age coins. When he reported them to the Portable Antiquities Scheme it soon became apparent he had a hoard that can be closely linked to the years following the Roman conquest of AD 43.

It is a mixed sample of the different coins in use in Britain during these turbulent years. It contains worn silver Roman republican coins that had been in circulation in the Roman Empire for around 150 years and were also valued by local people as a source of silver. There were a few Iron Age staters, base silver coins issued by the native inhabitants of Dorset before the Roman conquest. Finally, and most significantly, there were copper alloy coins of the emperor Claudius issued between AD 41 and 50.

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Coin of Emperor Claudius, Roman Imperial, AD 41-50

Official issues of the emperor Claudius are rare in Britain, although they were later copied in large numbers, probably to meet a shortage of supply. Two of the coins from this hoard are stamped with an official mark of approval found only in Rome and Britain. It is thought that these coins were produced in Rome in order to supply the invading army with useful currency whilst on campaign in Britain and may have even arrived with them. So they are likely to be close in date to the conquest of Britain in AD 43.

If this hoard belonged to a soldier, we can assume he was of lower rank, probably a legionary. At this time a legionary would have received an annual salary of 225 denarii. The hoard represents 4.25 denarii. A hoard of 34 Roman gold coins buried at Bredgar in Kent during the Claudian invasion – a vast amount of money more likely to have belonged to a high-ranking officer – is on display in Room 49. It is easier to imagine these coins from Dorset as the sort of sum carried by an individual: one of the lowest value Roman coins in the hoard would have bought two small sausages in ancient Pompeii!

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

Roman Republican coin, 100 BC

So how did these coins get into the ground in Dorset? It could be that we are seeing the contents of a purse lost by a Roman soldier as the famous Legio II Augusta advanced through the county in the years immediately following the conquest (under the command of the future emperor Vespasian). Alternatively, the coins could have found their way into local hands, which might explain the presence of local issues alongside Roman ones.

The question of how and why coin hoards were buried in the Roman period is currently being investigated in a new AHRC-funded research project by the British Museum and Leicester University. It will study the large number of hoards now known from Roman Britain (about 2,700) with a view to understanding the circumstances of their burial and what changing patterns of hoarding behaviour tell us about the economy and society of the time.

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

Coin of Emperor Tiberius, Roman Imperial, AD 14-37

For now, we can only speculate as to why these coins ended up where they did; while being grateful, of course, that some 2,000 years later we have the opportunity to try and tell their story.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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A very versatile Roman oven

A very versatile Roman ovenSally Grainger, chef and author

In my previous post about Roman cooking I described a type of oven used to bake and roast food about 2,000 years ago. Known as a clibanus it was a sophisticated piece of cooking technology most likely used by the wealthy, and one with which I have spent many years experimenting.

These ovens were made with very course gritted clay and ranged in size from 15-50 cm in diameter, with walls of up to 10 cm high. A central hole seems to have been for regulating the temperature and could also allow cooks to keep an eye on the food baking inside. A flange allowed the fire to be placed on the top of the oven.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

The sites in Italy where these ovens have been identified tend to be rather elite villa complexes where one could imagine the baking of delicate cakes and also warm bread for dinner. It is not necessarily apparent that these ovens were used by the less well off as a means of cooking simpler fair, and it is often assumed that they took their bread to be baked at large bakery complexes in towns, while we do not know what the rural poor did about baking at home. There was an assumption that they didn’t eat bread but made puls wheat porridge in a cooking pot over a wood fire.

The poem attributed to Virgil called moretum suggests that a relatively lowly market gardener baked his bread sub testu: under one of these ovens, though the status of this man is quite difficult to determine. He is considered a peasant, but he sells his produce in town and comes home with a heavy purse on occasion. Identifying these ovens is also not easy as they often come to pieces after prolonged use and recognising the shards (broken pieces) as testa (ovens) is problematic.

There is quite a detailed description of this oven in use in an agricultural manual written by Cato the Elder, in 150 BC. The recipe is for a special sacrificial cake called rather unfortunately placenta: the reason for which is another story altogether. It is a complex layered construction with sweet pasta sheets and cheese and honey bound in an outer pastry shell which might best be described as a round cheese strudel. While being constructed, the cook is advised to ‘heat the hearth and the testum where you are to cook’. Then ‘make the hearth ready beforehand and place the placenta on it, cover with a heated testum and place hot coals on top and around it’ (i).

From original drawings and reconstructed ovens the instructions on how to use it seemed quite logical, although my initial experiments were rather haphazard. I used a wood fire at first and rapidly broke the first oven I owned – we find evidence of metal versions of these ovens in Greece which could be used with a wood fire but ceramic, even very coarse material as these were, could not tolerate an open flame for long. Subsequently I used charcoal with much greater success.

Now I bake so often it has become second nature. The oven needs to be raised above the fire in order to be heated, so a trivet is used. Leaving the vessel directly on the fire caused rapid heat differential which caused cracking and sometimes put the fire that was inside the dome out.

A replica oven being used

A replica oven being used

I left the oven to heat over a charcoal fire and found that the hole acted as a chimney to draw the fire quite well. After a time it seemed better to close the hole and keep the heat in. The hearth I used was a raised platform and its position was crucial as a strong draft also helped the fire to heat. After about an hour or sometimes longer when the heat from the surface caused our spit to sizzle – a past visit to a wood-fired bakery had already told me that when the roof of these ovens is white hot that is when the baker knows it is ready to use.

At this point the hearth needs to be prepared which meant cleaning away the fire so that the cake or bread could go directly onto a tile or ceramic hearth. The fire was brushed aside to make space as big as the oven, and my freshly proved loaf or a Roman cake called a libum was placed on this hot surface with a bay leaf beneath for flavour.

The oven is put back over the cake and then the fire is piled around the sides and on top. A good bake requires good quality ‘restaurant charcoal’ (heavier and therefore long lasting) to retain plenty of latent energy. It is then possible to place fresh charcoal close to the already alight coals so that a continuous fire can be maintained. The remaining embers and smaller pieces of charcoal are pushed around the sides of the oven evenly spaced so that no area is left unheated. Doing this I was able to reach 410F (210C) on a regular basis when baking bread, so could then bake and roast very efficiently.

I can only indicate the quality of the bake by offering the following:

The crust on my sour dough was beautifully thick and crisp even when cooled; meat on the legs of a small chicken roasted for 45 minutes in a dish rather than directly on the hearth, fell to pieces; a lamb shank cooked for one and a quarter hours was similarly tender, and belly pork fell apart and had super crackling after the same amount of time.

Over the years I have come to the conclusion that the relatively small space inside the oven is such that any potential moisture both from bread and also meat is retained around the food being cooked so that a steam/roast/bake process is going on. Bakers know of course that you need steam to create a good crust and now it has become common to find modern catering ovens with added steam.

All manner of complicated techniques are used to achieve the desired moist atmosphere yet 2,000 years ago the Romans had invented the technique already.

i. C. Grocock and S Grainger, 2002 Moretum: a peasant lunch revisited. The meal: proceedings of the oxford symposium on food and cookery 2001, Prospect books Totnes, pp.95-104.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Filed under: Chiseldon cauldrons, Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, , , ,

Heat, steam and Roman cooking

Heat, steam and Roman cookingSally Grainger, chef and author

There are two exhibitions on at the British Museum at the moment which relate to the theme of Roman cooking and dining.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain evokes a late Roman dining room, including a partial reconstruction of a curved dining couch, or stibadium, arranged around the Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure. Many have puzzled as to how these huge silver platters were used: what kinds of food, if any, were placed on them and was it acceptable to cover up the fine carving?

Having spent many years studying and experimenting to understand what Romans ate and how they prepared and made it, my particular interest is not so much with the outward service of the food, but the actual cooking process. It is clear from ancient texts that the preparation of dishes for fine dining was very sophisticated with intricate vessels combining steam and oven heat and also gentle delicate poaching and simmering: techniques one does not normally associate with ancient cultures.

Food also features heavily in Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which has a unique and inspired focus as Dr Paul Roberts, curator, has re-created the shell of a Roman home, each room containing the artefacts associated with the function of that room.

When I visited, I entered the kitchen room with huge anticipation. I was not disappointed: a good selection of bronze cooking pans, and food residues of all kinds including one of those wonderful carbonised loaves of bread and dried fruits, seeds and nuts which are so perfectly recognisable. The cooking equipment is very fine; a compact little portable brazier that appears to be the kind shared around by the tenement dwellers, and most importantly for me a double clibanus or portable oven/ casserole.

Many years ago, Dr Roberts was responsible, along with two other archaeologists, in reporting on these ovens and had alluded to the idea of a double one, but no drawings existed and I had long been impatient to see one (i). He tells me that when he found this oven in the Naples store he just had to have it for the exhibition and I am so grateful that he did as it is a beautiful piece of cooking technology that I am eager to experiment with.

Many years ago now I had one of the more common single bodied clibanus ovens made by potter Andrew Macdonald. Since then these ovens have spread among the Roman historical re-enactment fraternity and I see them wherever Roman cooking is demonstrated. Over the years I have had numerous versions made (as they inevitably fall apart under the thermal shock) and have also developed the skills needed to bake and roast in them and written about these experiences in my own publications on Roman food (ii).

Replica of a double clibanus oven

Replica of a double clibanus oven

On Sunday 19 May I received a replica of a double clibanus made just three weeks after the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition opened, by potter Chris Lydamore whose creations are highly valued as museum replicas as well as by historical re-constructionists.

My first experiments with this new piece will be reported on here soon. But as a preliminary I will start with a look at how the single-bodied oven works.

i. Cubberley et al 1988 AL Cubberly, J.A Lloyd, P.C. Roberts, Testa and clibani: the baking covers of classical Italy. Papers of the British school at Rome 61, pp. 98-119

ii. C. Grocock, and S. Grainger. 2006. Apicius: a Critical Edition with Introduction and English Translation. Totnes: Prospect Books. Grainger, S. 1999 Cato’s roman cheesecakes: the baking techniques, Milk:beyond the dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on food and cookery, Prospect books Totnes, pp.168-178

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Mildenhall treasure, Research, , , ,

Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Telling the human story of Pompeii and HerculaneumVanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are not artefacts, they are people’s possessions. The people living in these two cities saw them and used them every day; they commissioned them or bought them for each other, and for themselves.

After years of researching, planning, designing and building, the exhibition is now open and it’s all about the people – people going through their daily lives with no idea of what was coming; the volcanic eruption in AD 79 that destroyed their cities, their lives over in an instant.

My favourite object, at the moment – because it does change from moment to moment – is a marble plaque from Herculaneum. It was set up between two houses and on one side it reads: ‘this is the property of Marcus Nonius Dama, private and in perpetuity’. And on the other side it reads, ‘this is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity’.

Marcus and Julia were ex-slaves, and they were living next door to each other. They must have had some sort of dispute about the boundary between their houses and this plaque was set up to resolve it. The extraordinarily human stories like this one are what I love most in the exhibition: to know people’s names, know who they were living next door to, and how they might have lived.

Seeing the trucks full of objects arriving from Italy really took our breath away. To then see them emerge from their crates to become part of a design that we’d only ever seen on paper has been the most special experience.

Over the 15 months I’ve been working on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to share the process of staging an exhibition with the curator Paul Roberts and the many fantastic people in the Museum who’ve worked alongside us. To go from object research and selection to their arrival and installation has been a whirlwind that I’ll never forget.

And now we get to share the stories, the objects and the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum with everyone.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

The exhibition is sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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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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