Hampshire Archaeology

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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.