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Buried in time – an execution cemetery on Stockbridge Down

Woolbury hillfort in 1989, with Stockbridge Down beyond it - upper middle left in the image.

Woolbury hillfort in 1989, with Stockbridge Down beyond it – upper middle left in the image.

The preparation of a site for a bonfire on the hill east of Stockbridge, to mark the 1935 Jubilee of HM King George V, led to the chance discovery of a human skull and other bones. This resulted in two seasons of excavation by Dr N Gray Hill in the summers of 1935 and 1936 and the uncovering of a cemetery containing at least 41 identifiable burials, in an area of about 100 square metres.

Plan of the 41 burials, showing their haphazard nature - the two postholes are also shown.

Plan of the 41 burials, showing their haphazard nature – the two postholes are also shown.

A nearby ‘barrow’, which had ‘well-defined chalk walls’, was also examined but produced no convincing evidence of association with the burials. Finds of clay pipe and glass, and the absence of any Bronze Age material, led the excavator to conclude that its origin may have been as recent as the 17th century.

Excavation in progress. In the general view, skeleton 16 is in the foreground; in the close up (skeleton 19) both a man and dog had been decapitated. The dog's head was not in the grave.

Excavations in progress. In the general view, skeleton 16 is in the foreground; in the close up (below) both a man (skeleton 19) and dog had been decapitated. The dog’s head was not in the grave.

The cemetery graves were generally shallow, haphazardly aligned, narrow and of short length. In one case the interment was less than 15 cm (6”) below the turf and in no other instance was an undisturbed burial found at more than 90 cm (36”) below that level. Frequently a body had been flexed to fit into a grave and it was apparent that little attention had been paid by the grave diggers to earlier burials: in all, nine skeletons had been cut through and occasionally assemblages such as a foot with ankle bones were found at some distance from the associated skeleton.

All of the skeletons were males in ‘the prime of life’ although one was probably in his mid-teens and two were ‘middle-aged’. In general they appeared to be in good health, although there was plenty of evidence of worn teeth, associated with the consumption of bread made from coarsely ground flour, and crude dentistry. One or two skeletons showed past injuries which had healed well, while examination of the several thousand bones showed little evidence of serious disease. Typically the individuals would have stood about 1.70 m (5’ 6”) in height although one may have been about 1.85 m (6’ 0”) tall.

chment

Among the finds associated with individual burials were six silver coins of the reign of Edward the Confessor which were minted in Winchester* (they were hidden in a small bag under an armpit of skeleton 19 and missed by the grave diggers).  There were also two bronze and three iron buckles identified as belonging to the post-conquest period, a ‘wrist-fastener’ and three iron rings, along with evidence of a leather belt. The skeleton of a large dog and the skull of a hornless sheep were also found. There was also a piece of coarse, grey-ware, decorated pottery identified as part of a glazed pitcher, of a type known to be common in the area c. AD 1100.

The indifferent and callous nature of the burials identifies the site as an execution cemetery and it is interesting to note that similar groups of burials have been found along the line of the Winchester-Old Sarum road at Lopcombe Corner, Meon Hill and Old Sarum itself. Two near-identical post holes, found in close proximity to the burials on Stockbridge Down, may have been the sites of gibbets, and an unexplained spread of oyster shells was found across the site.

The path up to Stockbridge Down

The path up to Stockbridge Down

Under the Norman kings ‘Forest Law’ barred anyone other than the king from exclusive ownership and use of a forest. William II Rufus (1087-1100) introduced the death penalty for infringements such as poaching, in place of the mutilation prescribed by his father, William the Conqueror (1066-1087).  This punishment was continued, although with less rigour, into the reigns of Henry I (1100-1135) and Stephen. Forest Law was administered by special justices appointed by the king.

Bearing in mind that only officers of state acting under royal authority would have the power to order the execution of a large number of men over an extended period of time, it seems fair to conclude that the cemetery contained the remains of those put to death for infringement of Forest Law, presumably during the reigns of William II Rufus and Henry I, although the former is perhaps more likely (but see the case – below* – for an earlier start, at least, for the cemetery, based on the coin evidence).

Further reading:

N Gray Hill (1937) Excavations on Stockbridge Down, 1935-36, Proc Hants Field Club, vol 13, 247-259.

* In a follow-up paper published in the British Numismatic Journal in 1955, R H M Dolley refines the dating of the coin hoard and argues that it is with ‘considerable exactitude’ that he can date the execution of the man in question to ‘not earlier than the autumn of 1065, and before the summer of 1066’. There is even enough evidence to suggest the event took place ‘before Christmas’.  The six coins, which were concealed in a linen bag, presumably fixed by wax to the hairs under his armpit, included three from the same die (the moneyer Anderbode) another struck by Anderbode and two made by Leofwine. Three of the coins are in the British Museum, two lost, and one held by the Hampshire Cultural Trust.

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

 

Buried in time – the Silchester hoard of rings and things.

silch

Silchester's surviving walls - a dramatic reminder of this Iron Age oppidum and Roman town.

Silchester’s surviving walls – a dramatic reminder of this Iron Age oppidum and Roman town.

Just to the southwest of the walled Roman town of Silchester is a late Iron Age earthwork. In 1985, for the first time in many years, the adjacent area was ploughed. Searching by a metal detectorist unearthed an elaborate and flamboyant gold finger-ring with strands of beaded gold wire forming a filigree hoop and a large engraved gem (intaglio). Such rings generally date to the last few decades of the Roman period in Britain and were widespread throughout the Roman Empire. The intaglio consists of onyx engraved with a satyr and a small cupid. Four late Roman silver coins were found nearby.

The coin hoard

The coin hoard

During the winter of 1986-7 further finds were detected nearby and coin finds reached 55 in total. Although the exact locations were not reported, a visit to the site by an archaeologist revealed a limited area of disturbance and it is thought likely that both sets of discoveries derive from a single hoard. A subsequent small excavation exposed no further late Roman material and no associated features.  This suggests that the collection was lost or hidden and is most likely to have been a ‘flight’ hoard.

One of the better-preserved coins, showing the Emperor Gratian (367 - 383)

One of the better-preserved coins, showing the Emperor Gratian (367 – 383)

Of the 55 coins, all but three were heavily corroded, broken silver examples of the late 4th century AD. At least 13 of them had been ‘clipped’, a practice dated to the reign of Constantine II (407-11 AD). Four additional rings were found, two complete gold examples and two fragmentary, one of which was silver. Because of potential plough damage it is impossible to tell whether the incomplete and broken rings were part of a jeweller’s hoard or were damaged after their concealment.

IMG_2437

Gold ring dismantled for cleaning and conservation. The glass intaglio is decorated with a satyr carrying a hare and a pedum or staff.

Gold ring dismantled for cleaning and conservation. The glass intaglio is decorated with a satyr carrying a hare and a pedum or staff.

One of the complete gold rings has a raised bezel set with a glass gem in imitation of onyx, cast with the device of a satyr carrying a hare. This ring is large and heavy; the other complete but distorted gold ring is much slighter, set with a re-used glass bead. Only very fragmentary and mineralised remains of the silver ring survived. This had also been set with an imitation onyx cast glass gem, decorated with the image of a seated bearded man reading from a scroll, interpreted as a philosopher.

Fragments from a gold ring and the gem from a silver ring which had almost totally disintegrated. The subject is a bearded man sitting on a three-legged stool - a philosopher.

Fragments from a gold ring and the gem from a silver ring which had almost totally disintegrated. The subject is a bearded man sitting on a three-legged stool – a philosopher.

Some of the items mentioned here are on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke. The Silchester hoard, though smaller in size, can be compared through its composition to the late Romano-British Thetford Hoard, discovered in 1979 in Norfolk. Two rings from Thetford are similar to the Silchester gold ring with the glass bead; a satyr appears on a gold buckle-plate from Thetford.

References:

N1997.20 – archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

M.G. Fulford, M. Henig and C. Johns, A Late Roman Gold Finger-Ring  from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XVIII, 1987, pp.279-281.

M.G. Fulford, A.Burnett, and C. Johns, A Hoard of Late Roman Rings and Silver Coins from Silchester, Hampshire, Britannia Vol. XX, 1989, pp.219-228.

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

Object photographs by Claire Woodhead.

 

Buried in time – the Hamble hoard

On 29 March, 1968, a bulldozer levelling a playing field near College Copse, Hamble, unearthed a hoard of Roman coins and the remains of the pot in which they had been buried. Some confusion followed regarding ownership but it was eventually decided that they belonged to the landowners, Hamble-le-Rice Parish Council, who had commissioned the landscaping works.

'Eyes right' - well, almost all. Sixty-four coins from the Hamble hoard.

‘Eyes right’ – well, almost all of them. Sixty-four coins from the Hamble hoard.

The coins went first to the Hampshire Museums Service and then to the British Museum, to be identified. A list of the hoard contents was published and the British Museum also purchased about 200 coins for their own collections. Hamble Parish Council retained 90 coins for display purposes. The remaining 2,190 were deposited with the Hampshire Museums Service, initially as a loan, but in 1997 the loan was changed to a gift and the coins accessioned as N1997.47.

In more recent years a selection of thirty representative coins has been remounted in a frame for display in Hamble.

A total of 2,494 coins have been accounted for, but it is possible that the hoard was originally larger. The majority (2,192) belong to the period 330 to 335.  Only fourteen coins are older than this but 267 are younger, with the latest dating to 348-350. A burial date of around 350 therefore seems likely.  A small number of coins (21) were not from official mints, but were ‘barbarous copies’ – contemporary forgeries! Such practices were rife in Roman times.

Large hoards of this date are quite common in Britain and Gaul and may relate to reforms in the coinage which took place in 348. Equally, the idea that they were buried as an offering to the gods should not be discounted.

Heads

Heads

The earliest coin in the hoard was issued by Claudius II (268-270). All the other coins belong to the 4th century and most were issued by Constantine I (‘the Great’) and his dynastic companions, including two imperial women, Helena and Theodora. Other well-represented coins include those struck to mark the dedication of Constantinople (Istanbul) as new capital of the Eastern Empire and to placate Rome, the old capital – both showing helmeted busts – personifications of the two cities.

...and tails

…and tails

By the 4th century, coins were being made at many imperial mints around the Empire and these are identified by mint marks. Most of the Hamble coins were manufactured close to Britain (London ceased production in 326) at Trier, Arles and Lyon, but there are also examples from numerous other sites including Nicomedia, Cyzicus and Antioch, showing just how far money travelled.

Hamble hoard mint map.

Hamble hoard mint map.

Further reading:

Recent Coin Hoards from Roman Britain Vol 1, British Museum, 1979; The Hamble and Chorleywood Hoards and the Gallic Coinage of AD 330-335

N1997.47            Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust

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