"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]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] 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]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."
Devizes Assizes CourtA dilapidated landmark building in Devizes could be given a new lease of life – as the county’s new museum.
Wiltshire Museum – which displays treasures from Avebury, Stonehenge, and further afield – is currently based in a former grammar school and two adjoining Georgian town houses in Long Street, Devizes.
But museum bosses want to move into the former Assize Court building in the town’s Northgate Street.
The distinctive Grade II* listed building, built in 1835 in the Classical style with ionic pillars, has been empty since the 1980s when it ceased to be used as a magistrates court.
Multiple plans to bring the building back into use have come and gone. It remains on the Historic England Buildings at Risk Register.
The current owner has had planning permission and listed building consent to convert the building into flats for a number of years but has not yet implemented the permission.
Museum director David Dawson said: “Relocating the museum to the Assize Courts would be a transformational project, linked to a newly revitalised area of the town. It could be a world-class building matching the importance of its internationally significant designated collections.
"The building would offer more space, including a café, new library and purpose-built galleries."
Mr Dawson said a business plan is being developed to ensure that a move would be financially sustainable, and any additional costs of running the new museum would be met from income from increased visitors and from investing the sale proceeds of the current property.
"There is lots of planning work to do over the next two years before a decision can be made on whether to go ahead with the project or not, and is conditional on the building being acquired for such use," he said.
"A major fund-raising campaign would be needed to restore the building to its former glory and create the new Museum, which could open in five to ten years’ time. Meanwhile the museum continues to develop its existing offer and attract increasing numbers of visitors and new members."
The proposals will be discussed at the AGM of the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society – which runs the museum – on Saturday, October 15 from 2.30pm at Devizes Town Hall.
Chris McGrath at the White Horse BookshopIn July journalist Christopher McGrath came to the White Horse Bookshop to talk about his first book: Mr Darley's Arabian (2016, John Murray). For anyone interested in history or racing - or both - it is a fascinating read:
Following the descendants of the three Arab stallions that founded the British thoroughbred line and so spread flat racing around our islands, could land you up to here in bloodstock riddles.
For stud book fanatics it might be interesting to trace the line through the centuries and see how Mr Darley's Arabian (born 1700) and his progeny came to rule stables far and wide. However it might also become extremely tedious - as tedious as those lengthy Old Testament chapters about who begat whom and how long they lived.
Chris McGrath - the one-time racing correspondent of The Independent - eschews the safety of the rails and takes us onto a far more interesting part of the course. His long book has a long and very instructive sub-title: "High life, low life, sporting life - A history of Racing in twenty-five horses."
McGrath introduces us to an amazing array of 'characters' and takes us through a whole series of extraordinary tales, scandals and races. It is a bit as though William Powell Frith's famous painting of Victorian racing - The Derby Day - has been crossed with some of Hogarth's most distressing satirical prints.
There is a great sketch of the Running Rein scandal - the horse that won the Derby (a race even in the 1840s confined to three-year-olds) and turned out to be a four-year-old called Maccabaeus.
In case that name rings a bell, there was an Old Testament priest called Judas Maccabaeus who led a revolt against Greek imperialists - racehorses have always been saddled with strange names. In the 1770s a son of the great racehorse Eclipse (painted by Stubbs and still honoured with Sandown's Group One Eclipse Stakes) was named Potatoes.
But when a groom with little education was asked to write his name on his corn bin, his name came out as 'Potoooooooo'. The horse's owner, the eccentric Lord Abingdon, was so taken by this that he changed the horse's name to Pot8os - not a name to please present day racing authorities.
As we follow racing into the realms of 'big money', things get worse with a number of jockeys and gamblers committing suicide or, in the case of some jockeys, dying early or in penury - proving again how fleeting fame can be.
Beneath McGrath's colourful collection of 'blacklegs, betting men and loose characters of every description' lies a grand if not always very cheerful vista of social history. After all, over the centuries racing as has been claimed to be the one sport that brings together all classes and conditions in one place - the racecourse.
Among McGrath's stories is one that tells us a lot about the nineteenth century. A trainer won £25,000 betting on his entry in the 1856 Derby - in terms of living standards worth about £2.4 million today. He put the money in a hat box and left the hat box on train. It was returned to him some days later with the money intact - after it had travelled to Aberdeen and back.
Local interest in this book centres on one place - Russley Park near Baydon - and on one man - Robert Sangster.
Russley Park was where the Glaswegian 'iron master' James Merry had his stables in the 1850s and launched many winning horses and two famous trainers, Mat Dawson and Robert Peck who both favoured gentler training methods. But trainers had not yet won a dominant place in the sport and Dawson was paid £5 a week by Merry. There is still a house at Russley called Trainers House.
James Merry - he called himself 'the Glasgae body' - was a new money man of the Industrial Revolution who was despised by the aristocrats of the turf: "James Merry conformed to the crudest caricatures of the new smokestack barons...As a perennial outsider, he trusted nobody and was constantly sacking even the most upstanding trainers and jockeys."
In the twentieth century, Robert Sangster's obsessive desire was, in his own words, 'to get hold of the racing business by the neck, and shake it.' Or, as some might have put it, shake the money out of it. In 1985 he paid £6 million for Marlborough's famed Manton House stables - his father had founded Vernons football pools.
Manton became the centre of his racing operations in Britain with a string of great horses and great trainers: Michael Dickjnson, Barry Hills, Peter Chapple-Hyam and John Gosden. Sangster died of cancer in 2004 - leaving his great rivals Dubai 's Maktoum brothers to make their indelible mark on the sport.
After the dark days of the two world wars, this marvellous history book closes with the terrible story of the great trainer Henry Cecil and the greatest horse he trained, Frankel.
This was an era reported on daily by McGrath - and you can tell he feels the ups and downs of the story really personally. However, my abiding response to the book is that McGrath adored his research - and it is this that shines through the pages.
If you are into pub quizzes there is arcane information galore in those pages. You can astound your team by telling them how Lester Piggott's first name came from the jockey Fred Rickaby - a winner of five classics.
After an MP accused Lord Derby - a First World War government minister and major racehorse owner - of shielding Rickaby from war service, the young jockey was drafted into the forces and died of wounds a month before the Armistice. His sister, Mrs Iris Piggott, marked Frederick Lester Rickaby's death by giving her newborn son her brother's middle name.