Saturday, 4 May 2013

Of moles and car parks - some recent Roman discoveries

There have been two interesting bits of news about Roman Britain in recent days.  The first involves the archaeologists at one of my old institutions, the University of Leicester.  Fresh from digging up Richard III, they've been investigating another of the city's fine car parks, this time turning up an interesting Roman cemetery.

If this habit of finding good archaeology under Leicester car parks continues, I think they might have to announce a new branch of archaeology - 'car parkaeology'!

The excavation was at a site outside of the Roman town of Leicester ('Ratae Corieltavorum') and discovered a hitherto unknown cemetery site.  While this is interesting enough, its not spectacular, as new Roman burial sites turn up fairly regularly.  The reason this one is particularly significant is that it seems to reflect a mixture of pagan and early Christian burial practices.  The burials date to around AD300, so a handful of years before the Emperor Constantine officially declared Christianity the official religion of the empire.  Even so it is debatable as to the extent that the new religion took hold in provinces such as Britain.  Conversely, the belief was hardly new at the time of Constantine and Christians almost certainly existed in Britain before then, though how openly they displayed their religion is questionable.

Image copyright University of Leicester
The main piece of evidence is a finger ring, made of jet, which was found with one of the 13 inhumation burials.  On the bezel is inscribed a design with a central vertical line and a large X through it, with the sections thus formed cross hatched.  It has been suggested that this reflects the letters I and X, and therefore a monogram of the Greek characters Iota and Chi, and reflecting Christ's initials.  This of course is very similar to the, perhaps better known, 'Chi Rho' symbol which consists of the first two letters of 'Christos' in Greek, seen below on the Lincolnshire ‘Walesby tank’.

Although there's been a lot of media coverage, you can see the University's own page on the excavation here.

The second item of Roman news has been in the form of archaeologist-moles excavating their own little pieces of the Roman fort at Epiacum in Cumbria.  I confess I've never been, but the site is high on my list to visit as it looks stunning, and deserves to be much better known - especially for those wonderfully preserved defenses.  The site's website can be found here, and I strongly suggest you have a look, and try and make your way there the next time you're in Hadrian's Wall country.

The site is a scheduled ancient monument, but those little velvety fellows are famous for their disregard of heritage legislation and tend to follow a more Victorian ethic of digging into every bit of archaeology they can find.  This has led to a project to survey their work and record the finds they unearth.  So far, sherds of nicely dateable of pottery (including Samian ware), beads and even a dolphin brooch have been unearthed.

I look forward to hearing more about their work in the future.  I'm not sure how well moles draw sections though...

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