Roman soldier's gift found

David Ottewell

10/ 4/2008


HE was many miles from home - a Roman soldier posted to Manchester, perhaps feeling cold and lonely, longing for loved ones left behind.


He was called Aelius Victor. And now after 2,000 years an altar he built to keep a promise to the goddesses he prayed to has been unearthed in the middle of the city.


The altar - described by experts as being in 'fantastic' condition - was discovered during an archaeological dig at a site on Greater Jackson Street earmarked for development.


Aelius Victor had dedicated it to two minor goddesses.


A Latin inscription on the altar says: "To the mother goddesses Hananeftis and Ollototis, Aelius Victor willingly and deservedly fulfils a vow."


The find marks the first time in nearly 400 years that archaeologists have been able to put a name to a Mancunian Roman solider.


In 1612 another altar was found by the River Medlock, dedicated by Lucius Seniacianius Martius, a centurion - an officer - with the 20th Legion from York.


It is believed that Aelius Victor may have been a centurion commander posted from Germany - where worship of Hananeftis and Ollototis originates.


Norman Redhead, Greater Manchester's county archaeologist, said: "This is the first Roman stone inscription we have found for 150 years. It is a very, very valuable find and it is in fantastic condition, considering it has been in the ground for 2,000 years."


The altar was discovered during a pre-development dig at the site at the junction of Great Jackson Street and Chester Road.


Evidence suggests it may have been constructed in the latter part of the first century AD and later discarded, as it was found on top of an ancient rubbish pit.


The existence of a number of pits and ditches in the area suggest it was cleared for farming use.


The site is only hundreds of yards from a known fort and civilian settlement of Roman Manchester, dropping down to a ford across the River Medlock.


Mr Redhead said that, traditionally, that was the kind of area where places of worship were located. The altar will go on display at Manchester Museum.


General Julius Agricola (40-93AD), the commander of the invading legions, first founded a Roman settlement at the meeting point of the Rivers Irwell and Medlock. He called the place Mamuciam - meaning 'breast-shaped hill' because of the shape of the outcrop.


Archaeologists will be holding an open day at the dig site on Saturday between 10am to 3pm.



Bejewelled Anglo-Saxon Burial Suggests Cult

Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News

April 11, 2008


In seventh century England, a woman's jewellery-draped body was laid out on a specially constructed bed and buried in a grave that formed the centre of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, according to British archaeologists who recently excavated the site in Yorkshire.


Her jewellery, which included a large shield-shaped pendant, the layout and location of the cemetery as well as excavated weaponry, such as knives and a fine langseax (a single-edged Anglo-Saxon sword), lead the scientists to believe she might have been a member of royalty who led a pagan cult at a time when Christianity was just starting to take root in the region.


"I believe it is a cult because of the arrangement of graves, the short period of the cemetery's use and the bed burial and burial mound that is almost in the centre of the very regular cemetery," archaeologist Stephen Sherlock, who directed the project, told Discovery News.


"The whole focus of the cemetery is based upon the bed burial -- it is our view that this was erected first and the other graves were dug around it," added Sherlock, who worked with the Teesside Archaeological Society, which recently published a report on the research.


A summary of the finds also appears in the latest issue of British Archaeology.


The cemetery, named Street House, consists of 109 graves, most of which were dug in a square around the bed burial.


"This square formation is unparalleled in Anglo-Saxon England," Sherlock said.


Remains of a sunken-floored building, possibly used as a mortuary chapel where the body might have been laid to rest prior to her funeral, exist near the cemetery's entrance. A roundhouse and the burial mound also stand within the square.


The bed burial itself consists of a wooden bed held together, and decorated with, iron. Artifacts within the grave included two gemstone pendants, gold and glass beads, a jet pin or hairpiece, and the shield pendant that was unique for the time, according to Sherlock and colleague Mark Simmons.


Mounted by a central blue gemstone, the piece has scalloped-shaped carving with 11 separate lobes and a scalloped lower edge. Small red gems resting on gold foil, which would have reflected light when the piece was worn, surround the central stone.


Although the site's acidic soil eroded the woman's remains, the age of the cemetery and its location provide clues to her identity. Sherlock believes "likely suspects" include Ethelburga, the wife of King Edwin of Northumbria, who converted to Christianity and was made a saint. Other possibilities are Eanflaed, the wife of King Oswiu, or Oswiu's daughter, Aelflaed.


Next to the bed burial is a grave that also contained valuable jewelry, such as a unique gold pendant, a silver brooch and glass beads. The woman buried there might have been a relative or lady-in-waiting, while the researchers believe the other graves could have contained retainers or followers.


Iron age coins, pierced to hang as if they were crucifixes, were found in one of the perimeter graves, suggesting that at least one member of the group was interested in Christianity.


Archaeologist Mike Pitts, who is the editor of British Archaeology and was the former curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, told Discovery News, "This cemetery dates from that very interesting period in European history when a variety of religions and beliefs were circulating, out of which Christianity eventually rose to be completely dominant in religious thought, society and politics."


In 657, at around the time the cemetery was established, an abbey was erected nearby, marking a "turning point in the history of Christianity in Britain," Pitts said.


"So the Street House cemetery is particularly interesting," he added. "It seems to revolve, quite literally, around a woman… Her bed burial is stridently pagan, a sort of rare, female equivalent of ship burials, as she is laid out on a vehicle to deliver her to the afterworld."


Sherlock and his team plan to further investigate the Yorkshire site later this year. They hope to find an Anglo-Saxon settlement linked to the cemetery.



Experts bone up on grisly relics

By George Hamilton


Archaeologists now believe a dozen skeletons discovered in a mass grave in the centre of Oxford may have belonged to executed criminals from Saxon times.


A team of three archaeologists have been digging in the quadrangle of St John's College in Blackhall Road, off St Giles, for nearly two weeks since the discovery was made.


The bones of 12 or 13 bodies have gradually been uncovered after a body part was discovered 80cm below ground level by diggers excavating the plot before a new quadrangle is built.


City archaeologists have labelled the find the most exciting in Oxford for nearly half a century, and predict more bodies could be found in the area.


But they cannot date the corpses exactly because the bodies were stripped of clothing before they were thrown into the mass grave.


Sean Wallis, project manager for Thames Valley Archaeological Services, said: "We were expecting to find evidence of Medieval activity, but we did not picture to find any bodies.


"I don't think anybody expected that.


"They look as if they were all young men in their late teens, and we are looking at Saxon times.


"We originally thought they could be Roman but now we think it could be more recent, based on the condition of the bodies, which survived very well.


"We have no idea how many we will find - they are still popping up."


The archaeologists' job has been made more difficult by the fact the bodies have been thrown on top of one another, rather than laid out neatly like a Christian burial.


Mr Wallis said: "It looks like a mass grave.


"The bodies have been chucked in, and it doesn't look as though there was a pit dug deliberately.


"They could be executed criminals or they could be battle victims. Some of it does look grisly. It doesn't look as if they met a particularly nice end.


"It is exciting. I've been digging for 10 years and I've not found anything close to this."


Brian Durham, Oxford City Council's archaeologist, said: "This is certainly rare. I haven't seen anything like it in the 40 years I've been digging in the city.


"The idea that they might be battle victims is possible, but I think we will only know that if we start finding war wounds on them as they remove them. They are all males of fighting age so it makes sense."


He said the 12m by 3m spot could have been some sort of memorial, and added: "These people's bodies were stored somewhere else until they had decayed a bit, and then buried quite roughly.


"There are limbs lying on their own, but they are whole limbs.


"There were occasions when young men might have got chopped up. There are a couple of occasions when Oxford was beseiged and it is a possibility they could be casualties of battle."


6:54pm Sunday 6th April 2008



Huge Viking Hoard Discovered in Sweden

James Owen

for National Geographic News

April 8, 2008


Hundreds of ancient coins unearthed last week close to Sweden's main international airport suggests the Vikings were bringing home foreign currency earlier than previously thought, archaeologists say.


Buried some 1,150 years ago, the treasure trove is made up mainly of Arabic coins and represents the largest early Viking hoard ever discovered in Sweden.


Archaeologists from the Swedish National Heritage Board unexpectedly found the stash of 472 silver coins while excavating a Bronze Age tomb near Stockholm's Arlanda airport.


Kenneth Jonsson, a professor of coin studies at the University of Stockholm, has independently dated the hoard to about A.D. 850.


"That date is very early, because coin imports [by the Vikings] only start in about [A.D.] 800," Jonsson said.


The discovery contains more coins than Sweden's only other known large Viking hoard from the period, which was discovered in 1827, Jonsson added.


"That coins were so important to the Vikings at such an early date is very interesting" and suggests they may have engaged in intensive overseas trade earlier than previously believed, he said.


The newfound hoard consists only of eastern coins, which is unsurprising, since early Viking hoards are typically dominated by coins from the Middle East.


Most of the coins were minted in Arab locations such as Baghdad in modern-day Iraq and Damascus in Syria. The youngest coin dates to the A.D. 840s


But the oldest coins came from Persia, said dig team member Karin Beckman-Thoor.


These Persian coins must have been in circulation for centuries before being buried and "were very high quality," she said.


While Swedish Viking hoards are often found on the Baltic island of Gotland, they are much less common on the mainland.


Once thoroughly studied, the hoard "will give us lots of information about the journey it made and also ideas about why it was left in the ground," Beckman-Thoor said.


The Arlanda airport find might represent either loot from raids or profits from trade, she added.


Jonsson, of the University of Stockholm, favors the latter explanation.


"I think it's 95 percent trade," he said, adding that Vikings likely exchanged the coins for goods such as slaves, iron, tar, and amber.


While Vikings are documented to have traveled as far as the Middle East, most of this overseas trade probably took place in towns in Russia, a country rich in Viking remains, he said.


Most of the coins in the newfound hoard had been cut into pieces, Jonsson said, and the Vikings would have valued them principally for their 95 percent silver content.


"They put it on a scale and measured it and the weight gave the value of the silver," Jonsson explained. "They broke it into pieces to get exactly the amount of silver they needed."


The stone burial chamber where the hoard was found is being excavated before a new housing development is constructed on the site.


Measuring 52 feet (16 meters) in diameter, the Bronze Age tomb is thought to be around a thousand years older than the buried silver.


Only a handful of Viking hoards have previously been discovered hidden within such prehistoric monuments.


It may be that the prominent burial stones were used as a landmark by Vikings who intended to come back for the silver, Beckman-Thoor said.


"Or perhaps they thought their ancestors would protect the hoard, or perhaps it was an offering for their ancestors," she said.


The site of a medieval settlement lies below the hill where the stone monument is located, Beckman-Thoor noted.


"We believe the village goes back to the Viking age," she said.



Rochdale's Stonehenge?

Alice McKeegan and David Ottewell

9/ 4/2008


ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unearthed a "mini-Stonehenge"... on the moors of Rochdale.


The two nearby sites - an oval made up of collapsed slabs, and a 30-metre circle of rounded stones - are believed to be ancient burial sites dating back as far as 5,000 years.


They were spotted by archaeologist Stuart Mendelsohn during a walk on the hills in December and could now become a major tourist attraction.


"I suppose you could describe it as Rochdale's version of Stonehenge," said Mr Mendelson, 52, who is based in Sweden but originally from Middleton. "It would have been a sacred site and what we've found so far I feel will be the tip of the iceberg.


"It was very unexpected and I didn't believe it at first. I just can't believe that it's been missed by everyone.


"The stones are not arranged randomly and it's quite clear to see.


"For our area and beyond, it's very significant. We've found two burial mounds. The stones may represent particular lunar events in the calendar. I think it would have been a focal point for the whole community."


The two sites have been visited by Peter Iles, a leading archaeological expert from Lancashire County Council. They have also been inspected by English Heritage and entered on the official Greater Manchester archaeology database.


English Heritage described both as "fairly well preserved" and claim both are "possible of Bronze age date" - meaning they could date back to 3,000 BC.


Unlike the famous monument at Stonehenge, however, they are believed to be made of local materials.


The first site, made up of fallen stones, is 10.2m in overall diameter.. The second, which includes the circle, is on the western slope and - according to an English Heritage report - "seems to have been sited to be visible from some distance to the west, rather than the valley floor".


The report adds that both finds "probably represent Bronze Age burial monuments."


Around 20 stones have been uncovered it total - the largest being 1.5m tall - and the entire site covers an acre.


"It's great news for Rochdale," said Mr Mendelsohn. "Prehistoric flints have been found in Littleborough, but as far as I'm aware, this is the first significant discovery in the town.


"I don't know why that site was chosen originally but it has fantastic views of Rochdale and was fairly close to where people lived.


"It's a great site and we really need to get it protected and preserved."


Norman Redhead, the Greater Manchester county archaeologist, said he planned to visit the site in the next few weeks.


The construction of Stonehenge, one of the most famous pre-historic sites in the world, is believed to have been carried out in three stages, with the earliest starting in 3,100 BC - around 500 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza.


Historians are still puzzled as to exactly why Stonehenge was built and how its creators managed to transport rock from the Preseli mountains to a site in Wiltshire more than 200 miles away.


The site currently attracts an estimated one million visitors from around the world, every year.



Boer War black camps uncovered

April 12 2008 at 02:13PM

By Jana Engelbrecht


Beneath the surface of the dry, red sand covering a farm just outside Kimberley, the remains of an untold story have been uncovered, revealing the establishment of a black Boer War concentration camp, dating back more than 100 years.


About 1 200 refugees were moved from locations in Jacobsdal, Boshof and Petrusburg to a farm 30km outside Kimberley in the then Orange Free State, after the British forces had occupied the towns.


Local archaeologists had been searching in vain for the location of the camp for several years, when a Kimberley farmer stumbled on a leg of a potjie pot and some broken glass on his farm, miles away from anywhere, in late 2001.


Historian and research associate Garth Benneyworth and archaeologist and research associate Elizabeth Voigt were called out to the site to investigate the farmer's find, and they found a burial site and the living area of the camp.


"We couldn't believe it. We had searched for so long and the area was so vast," said Benneyworth, adding that there was no historical content elaborating on the black concentration camps, as all evidence was destroyed by the British forces at the end of the war.


An insight into the concentration camp experience of African civilians between 1901 and 1902 unfolded in the following few years, in which time Benneyworth and Voigt used GPS plotting, mapping, extensive photography, as well as extensive archival research and oral history to piece together the past.


"The archival research and foot-slogging over other camp sites revealed standard patterns of occupation which were based on British military requirements.


"This work is of use in interpreting the finds made on the Kimberley camp site. These extensive foot surveys revealed a suite of cultural remains which can be taken as reflecting life in the camp," explained Voigt.


The twosome uncovered grindstones, fragments of glass and china from broken plates, cups and bowls, pieces of ethnic pottery, as well as iron potjie pots, buckets and long strips of iron.


They also found the remains of ration tins, identifiable as being of the right period by shape and method of manufacture.


It is believed that the black civilians were forcibly removed from the outskirts of Kimberley between April and September 1901, carrying what personal belongings they could with them.


They had to build their own shelters from packing crates, grain bags, corrugated iron, tarpaulins and local vegetation, while enduring the cold and the heavy snow which fell in Kimberley that year.


African civilians received few rations and no medical help or tents, apparently to reduce the financial cost of the war.


According to Benneyworth, there were about 1 500 refugees housed at the camp by September 1901.


In October last year, Voigt received the necessary permits from the South African Heritage Resource Agency which allowed for the excavation of the sites in Kimberley, as well as at Dry Harts and in Vryburg.


Voigt said the first dump they excavated on the farm outside Kimberley fitted the military rules, as garbage, ash and glass had been dumped in a slight depression and covered.


"But the next two reflected a uniquely local solution - the glass had been thrown down an ant bear hole."


Personal items were also found, including fragments of a bangle, hooks from clothing, an earring and several buttons.


"These areas also produced tools, a complete hoe, half a pair of scissors, a sickle blade, and buckles, which probably came from cart harnesses. We were surprised to find many fragments of clay pots in the living areas, indicating that these women had brought some of their traditional kitchen goods with them."


Voigt said one of the exciting aspects of the archaeological research was that it had thrown light on the diet of the refugees, which went beyond archival information and the fragments of meat, fish and milk tins.


"The weekly ration for a person was half a pound of meat. The wild animals would have been snared, thus providing vital protein in a virtual starvation diet.


"We found eggshells in the ash and, unbelievably, fragments of burnt peach pips. This was an exciting and totally unexpected line of evidence," enthused Voigt.


This article was originally published on page 9 of The Star on April 12, 2008