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Major find in the Vale of Pewsey : metal detectors' Roman hoard gives up rare evidence about ancient plant life

"At first we thought it might be a landmine."  [Photo: Marina Rae]"At first we thought it might be a landmine." [Photo: Marina Rae]Mick Rae, Rob Abbott and their friend Dave were detecting in a field in the Vale of Pewsey in October 2014 when they came across a hoard of eight metal vessels - including a cauldron and four small pans from weighing scales. 

The vessels were buried in a pit beneath about 350 millimetres of top-soil and, as one would expect, were in varying states of disrepair.  

The find was quickly identified as Roman.  The discovery was reported to Richard Henry who is Wiltshire's Finds Liaison Officer.  His role is to record archaeological finds made by members of the public – mostly metal detectorists, but also by people who are just walking in fields or digging in their back garden.

Most of the cauldron survives and a large copper-alloy vessel had been placed upside down into the cauldron - forming a sealed cavity.  What was inside?

[Photo: Marina Rae][Photo: Marina Rae]There were no gold necklaces or bronze coins in this hoard of Roman vessels. But what was found inside is worth its weight in gold to archaeologists - remains of plants preserved by the copper vessels' own micro-environment.   

Among the remains of the dried plants were heads of common knapweed and pieces of bracken.  They also found seeds of cowslips or primrose, milkwort, lesser hawkbit, sedges, clovers, vetches and sweet violet, fat hen, knot grass, black bindweed, buttercup and corn spurrey.  They may be what is left of some careful packing.

Remains of the flowers and bracken are now on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.  Organic matter never survives if buried unprotected in the Pewsey Vale's greensand - so to find dried plants and pollen this old provided the scientists with many opportunities for research.

Cauldron showing scale pans [Photo copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme]Cauldron showing scale pans [Photo copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme]  Vessel with dried plants [Photo copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme]Vessel with dried plants [Photo copyright Portable Antiquities Scheme]

The find did not count as 'treasure' so remains the property of the finder and the landowner.  The detectorists donated the organic material to Wiltshire Museum - the scientific processes used to test it with would ultimately destroy it.

Richard Henry led the quest to discover more about the find. He brought in a team to excavate the site of the discovery, led by David Roberts of Historic England with the Assistant County Archaeologist, members of the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group and the finders.  They found shards of domestic and imported ceramics and ceramic building materials.

The project to analyse the plant remains has been led by the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme and supported by Historic England, Southampton University, the Association for Roman Archaeology and Wiltshire Museum.

Some of the flower heads from the hoard [Photo Steven Baker at Historic England - their copyright]Some of the flower heads from the hoard [Photo Steven Baker at Historic England - their copyright]The scientists discovered that the plants were dated between AD380 and AD550.   They believe the hoard was hidden sometime in the fifth and sixth centuries - during the early Anglo-Saxon period.  And interestingly, the find was within striking distance of the major Anglo-Saxon cemetery discovered in Blacknall Field - finds from which can be seen in the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

But if the age in years is a little speculative, the state of the plants reveals pretty accurately that they were picked and packed away in late summer soon after the harvest - late August to early October.

When their own kind of Brexit happened, the Romans obviously left much more behind them than roads, mosaics, villas and hoards of coins.

Wiltshire Museum's Director, David Dawson, is thrilled they can display this important material: “Richard Henry has led this remarkable partnership project, drawing specialists from across the country to piece together the fascinating story of the burial of Roman bronze cauldrons that took place on a summer’s day 1,500 years ago."

Richard Henry said “Such discoveries should be left in situ to allow full archaeological study of the find and its context. The finders did not clean or disturb the vessels which has allowed us to undertake detailed further research. If the vessels had been cleaned none of this research would have been possible.”

It is very tempting to imagine how this hoard came to be made so long after the vessels were first used. It is as though someone today decided to bury the Victorian kitchen pots Aunt Bertha inherited - and packed them with plants.

Why they were buried remains a matter for speculation. Does the careful packing of the metal vessels mean they were the antiques of their day? Were they, so long after the Roman era, still valued as useful cooking pots?  Or was this some kind of votive offering?

Marlborough.News understands that metal detector Dave aims to have the vessels professionally conserved.

Ruth Pelling and Stacey Adams will be talking about their research on the flowers and other recent Wiltshire discoveries at the Archaeology in Wiltshire Conference on April 1 in Devizes. Their talk is titled “Bake Off and Brewing in Roman and Early Saxon Wiltshire: recent archaeobotanical finds."

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