Hampshire Archaeology

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Buried in time – reflections on the Late Iron Age

In the autumn of 1994 a metal detectorist found a Late Iron Age decorated bronze mirror, the first from Hampshire, at Latchmere Green, near Silchester.  It was associated with the cremation burial of a woman and a child, and tells of a tradition of high status metalwork ‘reflecting the British nobility’s contacts with, and travels in, Italy in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD’.  

'generally poor condition' the Latchmere Green mirror.

‘generally poor condition’ the Latchmere Green mirror.

The mirror was unearthed just within Bramley parish, at the southern edge of a known Roman site close to the junction of the Roman roads from Silchester to Winchester and Chichester. This settlement had been previously surveyed (Corney, 1984) and had yielded pottery finds of the late 1st to early 2nd century, through to the 4th century AD.

The decorative motifs - as drawn by Steve Allen, University of Reading, Dept of Archaeology.

The decorative motifs – as drawn by Steve Allen, University of Reading, Dept of Archaeology.

The mirror itself was badly corroded, with the handle and plate separated, and was in generally poor condition. Assuming circularity, dimensions were estimated as 170 mm diameter, giving a 227 sq cm surface area; it was 1.1 mm thick. The overall length (mirror and handle) was estimated to be about 263 mm.

Basket engraving on the reverse side of the mirror plate was found to be in the form of a whirligig or triskele,  with the lower arms extended at right angles to the axis of the plate in pelta (or shield-like) loop patterns, giving the impression of a pair of eyes.

This elaborate style of decoration, known as ‘irregular oblong block’, is not unlike that of the 1904 ‘Colchester mirror’ and other similar finds and is thought to date from the late 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD, while the plate area links the mirror with the south-eastern group* of mirrors, centred on East Anglia and the London Basin. Up to 60 mirrors of the period are now known, and many of these finds have been made over the past three decades.

For a number of years a replica of the Holcombe Mirror (Devon) was on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, courtesy of Nicholas Riall, who found the original on an excavation in 1970.

For a number of years a replica of the much better preserved Holcombe Mirror (Devon) was on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, courtesy of Nicholas Riall, who found the original on an excavation in 1970.

Samples of metal taken from the handle and plate of the Latchmere Green mirror consisted wholly of ~88% copper and ~12% tin with a trace of phosphorus, which showed that the mirror was not of Roman manufacture. Roman mirrors always contain more than a trace of lead and a lower proportion of copper with tin.

Following the initial discovery, a small controlled excavation (5 x 5 m) unearthed a late Iron Age pedestal jar, lying on its side in a shallow pit. The jar contained a quantity of cremated bone and the evidence suggested that the mirror had been placed as a ‘lid’ closing the jar. Also present were fragments of iron pin and other pieces associated with brooches. These latter were found to be comparable with finds at Silchester and Thetford and again can be dated to the very late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD.  The wheel-thrown jar, although in a very fragmented condition, is of a type identifiable with the pre-conquest period.

The cremation was unusual, in that the small fragments proved to be very probably of a female, aged 30 or more, with a child who was not newborn or an infant. That the adult was most likely to be female is evidenced by the fact that such mirrors have never been unambiguously associated with Iron Age male burials. The small fragments of cremated animal bone present were found to be of pig – again an occurrence consistent with animal bone finds in other Iron Age burials.

Mirror, mirror in my hand, Who is the fairest in the land?

Mirror, mirror in my hand, Who is the fairest in the land?

In summary, the evidence points to a late pre-conquest or early post-conquest date for this Late Iron Age high-status burial, possibly of a mother and child (but see below).  As to the triskele design with loops it can only be said that this is of unknown origins but no object associated with it has been datable to earlier than 1st century BC. The ‘masterly’ and ‘mature’ embellishments, as they have been described, would appear to be unique to Britain.

*As the Latchmere Green discovery is an outlier to the south eastern group, it was included in the Dating Celtic Art programme of radiocarbon dating (Garrow et al, 2009). The dates realised (360 – 50 and 360 -110 cal BC) seem too early (2nd century BC) for the associated brooches and pottery vessel, and there is the intriguing possibility that one of the individuals (the one dated) had been cremated some decades before the double burial was actually made.  

References:

M Corney (1984) A Field Survey of the Extra-Mural Region of Silchester, in M Fulford, Silchester Defences, 1974-80.

M Fulford & J Creighton (1998) A Late Iron Age Mirror Burial from Latchmere Green, near Silchester, Proc Prehist Soc, Vol 64, pp331-342.

D Garrow et al (2009) Dating Celtic Art: a Major Radiocarbon Dating Programme of Iron Age and Early Roman Metalwork in Britain, Arch J, Vol 166, pp 79-123.

Archive A1994.26, held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

The Latchmere Green mirror is currently on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, Andover.

Series by;     Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone

 

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1 Comment

  1. Marie Keates says:

    What an interesting find. I can’t help wondering about the story behind it.

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