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Buried in time – ‘my little bull calf’

Deep pits were a recurrent feature of the 1970s excavations at the Romano-British small town at Neatham, near Alton.  They appear to have been cut to source water (wells) to retain water (cisterns) or to be used for human waste (cess pits). Sometimes there was a clear evolution in the use of a pitted area and the final act would be infilling with rubbish. In other examples, later activity – the creation of a furnace, or even a post-Roman ‘grubenhaus’ – complicated the picture.

Deep pits and damp digging conditions!  Excavation in progress in the 1970s.

Deep pits and damp digging conditions! Excavation in progress in the 1970s.

One regular occurrence was the deliberate deposition of significant offerings in these subterranean holes and this echoed a practice widespread across the Roman world. In one instance at Neatham, 195 coins of late 4th century date were recovered from a well, although as they were dispersed it was difficult to know if they were all, or just part, of the original hoard.

A Neatham bath house under excavation.

A Neatham bath house under excavation.

The circumstances of some of the other finds were a bit more straightforward. Along with a series of complete coarseware pots there were two Rhenish motto beakers, a plain Rhenish beaker, a complete cock skeleton, cock bones and dog bones discovered in various pits. ‘It is suggested’ said the report’s authors, ‘that when a pit was dug below the water table an offering was made to the water deity; and a similar offering was made when the water had turned foul and the function was to be changed’.

Copy of neatham pot

The Rhenish ware included a motto beaker, painted in white slip, which read V I [ T ] V L A, a term of endearment, through a pun on the word vitvla (latin for ‘bull calf’) and the diminutive ending – vlvs of vita (latin for a loved one). The same endearment, in its German form, is still used today. The other motto beaker read DAMER[VM, which translates as ‘give me pure wine’.

Rhenish ware is generally thought to be an early 3rd century import, although the Neatham deposits were probably not made until around the year 300.

Further reading

Millett & Graham, Excavations on the Romano-British Small Town at Neatham (1986), Hampshire Field Club & Arch Soc, Monograph 3

Many items, including the beaker, are on display at the Curtis Museum, Alton.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Buried in time – Mount Pleasant Saxon cemetery, Alton

Graves 3 and 4 - excavated in 1960

Graves 3 and 4 – excavated in 1960

Two areas of a Saxon cemetery in Alton were excavated in 1960 and 1961, with further work taking place in the 1980s and 90s. The location was Mount Pleasant Road, on the east side of a valley containing the spring which is the source of the River Wey. The excavations identified over one hundred graves, almost equally divided between inhumation and cremation burials. There was little evidence of later disturbance and many grave goods were found. Those associated with inhumations were usually found on the bottom of the grave or on any remaining bones. Most of the material can be dated to between AD 425 and 525, and some to the first half of the 7th century. In addition to Saxon items, a small number of objects were Romano-British, indicating contact with, or at least an interest in, the indigenous population.

Cremation vessel (C 12) decorated with bosses and trellis stamped circles.

Cremation vessel (C 12) decorated with bosses and trellis stamped circles.

The skeletal evidence indicated approximately equal numbers of males and females, with the women generally surviving to a greater age. A number of juveniles were also present. Sex was determined according to grave finds and by analysis of the bones. There were four sword burials (all male) and seven of the females possessed brooches.

Grave 16 - the position of sword and buckle are shown.

Grave 16 – the position of sword and buckle are shown.

One of the sword burials (Burial 16) was of a man who died aged about 28: The grave was roughly cut, but was the deepest on the site (at nearly 1m) and the head end had been hollowed out so that the longer grave goods could be accommodated. His body had been placed on its right side; his palate and left shin showed signs of disease and inflammation.

The 'Alton Buckle'

The ‘Alton Buckle’

The grave goods included the most remarkable item from the whole site. This was a jewelled silver-gilt buckle. It belongs to a ‘Kentish series’ of buckles of the late 6th to early 7th centuries. It had been mended at least twice, suggesting that this may have been one of the latest graves in the cemetery. Like the other Kentish buckles, the object had applied gold plates and filigree and included garnet decoration. At each side of the triangular plate is a birds head with curving beak and garnet body. It is possible that the man who wore such a valuable item was the head man in the district.

The buckle has a hole for a large strap and was found under the man’s left forearm while the sword, which was placed diagonally across the pelvis and legs, was possibly originally suspended from a belt. Other grave goods included a knife, two spearheads, a shield boss, silver cup rims and iron clamps. In the fill of the grave were two pieces of pottery, one from a Roman triple-fluted strap handle.

Further reading

An Anglo Saxon Cemetery at Alton, Evison (1988), Hampshire Field Club & Arch Soc, Monograph 4

Various items, including the buckle, are on display at the Curtis Museum, Alton.

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Buried in time – an Early Romano-British cemetery at Alton

A small Early Romano-British cremation cemetery was excavated at 87 High Street, Alton in 1860 and again in 1980. The first excavation uncovered a richly furnished cremation burial and most of the finds ended up in the Curtis Museum in the town. In 1980, before the construction of the Inner Ring Road, further exploration took place and eight more graves were excavated. All of the graves contained a large assemblage of pots as grave goods and several contained other items as well. The pottery suggests a date in the 1st century AD.

Digging in progress: 1980

Excavation in progress: 1980


The richest burial, known as Grave 2, was a shallow pit first discovered in 1860 and only completely excavated in 1980. The earlier excavation found 18 pottery vessels, two glass vessels, 19 glass gaming pieces and a gold signet ring. Metal corners were noted surrounding the gaming pieces and the presence of the ring suggested that these were originally contained within a wooden casket, along with the cremated remains of the deceased.

Some of the 19 glass counters

Some of the 19 glass gaming pieces

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

Grave 2: the bindings of the gaming board found in 1980

The two glass vessels

The two glass vessels

The 1980 excavation added a further 13 pottery vessels to the contents of this grave, as well as four copper alloy corner plates and a drop handle (which probably represent the remains of a gaming board). In addition there were two spoons, a fragment of an iron knife blade and a glass bead. The cremated bone is from an adult of indeterminate sex, although the signet ring and gaming pieces suggest he was male.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

Cast of the signet ring gem stone.

The stone inset in the gold signet-ring was engraved with four symbols representing Roman deities. At the time of the burial, Roman law dictated that gold rings could only be used by people of high rank, indicating that the deceased was of high status, possibly a native aristocrat. A signet-ring was generally passed to the heir at the time of death as proof of succession and it is unusual for one to be found in a grave. The most likely explanation for the inclusion of the ring is that the deceased was young, or without heirs.

Alton Grave 5 - horse's head to the left.

Alton Grave 5 – horse’s head to the left.

Another of the Alton graves, known as Grave 5, was in a deep pit with two distinct deposits. The upper layers contained 13 broken pottery vessels, a scatter of animal bone and cremated human bone. The lower deposit had been carefully covered with earth and levelled before this upper material was added. The lower deposit itself contained 40 pottery vessels, two brooches, two finger rings of copper alloy and iron, a copper alloy cosmetic set (tweezers, nail-cleaner, ear scoop), copper alloy fragments of a casket (including studs, lock plate and drop handle), an iron knife and eight nail fixings from a wooden box. The grave also contained an inverted horse skull. Cremated bones from an adult of indeterminate sex were contained in a pot with a lid placed in the grave early in the sequence of filling. The grave goods suggest that this may be a female burial. The broken pottery in the upper fill of the grave may represent the disposal of things used to prepare a funerary feast after the remainder of the grave had been filled.


Further reading

Millett M (1986) Early Roman Cemetery at Alton, Hants Field Club Vol 42, pp 43-87

Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, with help from Stacie Elliot.

Still Residin’ in Leiden

The Alton Buckle is nearly a third of the way through its stay in Leiden and we have just received a copy of the book by Dr Annemarieke Willemsen which accompanies the ‘Golden Middle Ages’ exhibition. There, on p156, is the Alton Buckle and a few words that  say it’s special because it has a star or sun on it – we always knew it was prachtig.

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