Archive for the ‘Ancient’ Category

Roman cemetery with unusual decapitations found

Thursday, January 10th, 2019

Archaeologists have discovered a Roman cemetery with an unusual number of decapitation burials in Suffolk. The skeletal remains of 52 individuals, men, women and children, were unearthed. About 40 percent of the burials found — including two ten-year-old children — had been decapitated and their heads deliberately placed between their feet or at their sides.

The team was excavating the site of a new housing development in Great Whelnetham, near Bury St Edmunds, known to have been a Roman settlement of the 3rd century A.D. The area has fine, sandy soil, a very poor preservation medium for organic remains, so they expected to find maybe the shadows of burials, the subtle impressions left in the ground after all of the bodies had disintegrated centuries ago. When the first exploratory trench revealed two largely intact skeletons, archaeologists were intrigued and widened the excavation to cover two large squares.

The wide trenches were necessary because of that sandy soil. Usually cemetery finds can be excavated by focusing on the grave cuts which mark the spot of a burial better than any X can mark the spot of a fabulous pirate treasure. The grave cuts disappeared completely in this soil, so in order to excavate the entire cemetery, they had to dig up a lot of ground. The work paid off and dozens more skeletons in good condition were unearthed.

It’s extremely rare to find so many decapitation and otherwise non-standard burials in a Roman cemetery in Britain. Traditionally, the Romans buried their dead on their back, bodies intact and significant religious and personal items interred with them. Most Roman cemeteries contain a few unusual or deviant burials, often the result of executions or death from an illness that was considered dangerous to the living.

According to archaeologist Andy Peachey, 60% of the graves at the site, which dates to the 4th century, could be classified as ‘deviant’ – placed in a manner which does not conform to the most common Roman burial rite. […]

Mr Peachey, from excavation company Archaeological Solutions, said the remains did not indicate executions.

“This appears to be a careful funeral rite that may be associated with a particular group within the local population, possibly associated with a belief system (cult) or a practice that came with a group moved into the area,” he said.

“The incisions through the neck were post-mortem and were neatly placed just behind the jaw – an execution would cut lower through the neck and with violent force, and this is not present anywhere.”

Less than a handful of burial grounds with such a high proportion of deviant burials have been discovered in Britain. The two other Roman cemeteries found in Great Whelnetham have the normal small proportion of deviant burials. Given that 60% of the burials in this cemetery deviate from the norm, the deviant largely was the norm for this community.

Peachey speculates that it could have been a local cult, absorbed like so many were by the Romans, that venerated the head as the locus of the soul, perhaps, or reserved it special treatment for some other reason. The other possibility, that these were a sub-group of the population who moved to Britain and brought their funerary traditions with them, may be confirmed or denied by staple isotope analysis of their teeth. It can pinpoint where people lived as children.

If it does turn out that they came from some far-flung area of the Empire, that opens up the possibility that they were slaves, an imported agricultural labour force. Osteological analysis has found that they were, as a group, healthy, well-fed and well-doctored. A few children died young, but there were more adults in what we would consider middle age and older. They were well-built with muscular arms and upper body and had no signs of malnutrition. They even had bad teeth indicating they had easy access to sugars and carbohydrates, the downfall of dental hygiene since time immemorial, but all the abscesses, lesions and areas of lost/extracted teeth were well-healed.

The results of the analyses will take at least six months. The remains have been moved to a museum laboratory for further study. When the report is complete, it will be published and all remains and artifacts deposited in the Suffolk County Council archaeological archive.

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Buff woman is earliest-known burial in lower Central America

Monday, January 7th, 2019

The remains of a woman discovered at the Angi shell-matrix site near Monkey Point on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua are the oldest-known human remains in lower Central America.

The site was first excavated in the 1970s, but archaeological exploration of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast in general was limited. That has begun to change in the past 10 years as a concerted effort has been made to survey and thoroughly document ancient sites. The Angi shell-matrix site was revisited in 2013 as part of this project with the aim of assessing its condition for conservation purposes. The excavation made it possible to fully document the statrigaphy of the midden and collect deposit samples, including ones that could be radiocarbon dated. The layers were made of shell (bivalve and snail), charcoal and sediment with a few fragments of ceramics found in the upper layers.

Seven and a half feet under the surface, archaeologists unearthed (unshelled?) the skeletal remains one adult buried in a shallow oval pit on its back with legs bent over the torso and arms at the sides of the body near the feet and pelvis. It was undisturbed, found in the position in which it was buried.

The body was placed over a layer of small fragments of basalt inside the pit. Underneath the basalt rocks was a base layer of charcoal-rich sediment. That was fortuitous material because not enough of the collagen in the bones had survived to make direct radiocarbon dating possible. Instead archaeologists were able to test samples of the sediment and thereby date the burial to 3900 B.C. That makes it the earliest archaeological feature ever recorded on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as well as the oldest human remains in the area.

With permission of the local indigenous communities, archaeologists removed the skeletal remains to the Historical Cultural Museum of the Caribbean Coast (BICU–CIDCA). Osteological analysis determined the individual was a woman between 25 and 40 years old at time of death. She was 4’11” and powerfully built.

Despite the woman’s small stature, she had “strongly developed musculature of the forearm — possibly from rowing or similar activities,” [study author Mirjana] Roksandic said. Even today, local people are adept rowers.

“While we were in the village of Bankukuk Taik, [study co-researcher] Harly Duncan introduced us to a Rama elder who rowed that very day for 4 hours to visit family,” Roksandic said. “She was 82 years old. Kids as young as 9 rowed around Rama islands in a dugout.”

Moreover, like other people who eat a fair amount of shellfish, the woman had extensive wear on her teeth, Roksandic said.

Given that few ancient human remains are found in tropical places, little is known about the indigenous cultures of lower Central America, Roksandic said. While ancient people who build shell mounds are often fishers, gatherers and horticulturalists, “without further study of the site, it will not be possible to ascertain who they were and why the burial was placed there and what is the significance of this particular individual,” Roksandic said.

There’s a tight deadline on additional study of the site. Canal construction and other development will have a profound impact on the Monkey Point’s archaeological sites.

The study, published in the journal Antiquity can be read in its entirety online here.

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Chinese bronzeware designs found on Stone Age reliefs

Friday, January 4th, 2019

Reliefs carved on stone walls at the Neolithic site of Shimao in Shaanxi, northern China, are strikingly similar to the characteristic motifs found on bronzeware made hundreds, even thousands of years later during the Chinese Bronze Age.

Shimao was built in around 2000 B.C., two massive stone walls encircling it at a time when most towns in the region only had earthen ramparts for defense. The walls average eight feet in thickness over perimeters of 2.6 miles for the inner wall and 3.5 miles for the outer. There are towers and gates dotted along their length. There is even precious jade packed into the walls, likely intended as protective talismans.

The site was discovered in 1976 but there was no thorough professional archaeological exploration of Shimao until 2011. Since then, excavations have unearthed more than 100 murals of geometric patterns on the inner wall, copious jade, the remains of animal sacrifices and the skulls of 80 women were found near the city gates, thought to have been ritual sacrificed before construction of the walls began.

About 30 carved reliefs were found in the most recently excavation. The majority feature geometric designs like the painted murals on the inner wall, but there are some unexpected and notable anthropomorphic creatures with monstrous faces, what look like tusks and arms posed like an animals’ forelegs. These beastly creatures are highly reminiscent of the designs on the bronze vessels of the Shang (1600 B.C.- 1046 B.C.) and Zhou (1046 B.C.- 256 B.C.) dynasties

“The beast-face patterns found in Shimao might have had a significant influence on the motifs of China’s Bronze Age,” Sun Zhouyong, president of the Shaanxi Provincial Institute of Archaeology, said….

Researchers were working to find out whether there might have been a link between the people who carved the ancient stones and the craftsmen of the Zhou and Shang dynasties, the report said.

“The discoveries at Shimao are constantly challenging our understanding of early civilisations in China,” Sun said.

“We now have more reasons and confidence to infer that Shimao is a landmark discovery for China and east Asia.”

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Missing Ancient Greek decree found in wall

Friday, December 28th, 2018

More than a century after it was lost, a 3rd century B.C. stele has been rediscovered embedded in the outer wall of a home on the island of Amorgos in the Cyclades. The Nikouria decree went missing in 1908 and many researchers have tried and failed to find it ever since. An archaeology student, Stelios Perakis, and archaeologist N. N. Fischer found the piece with the help of local residents.

French archaeologist Théophile Homolle, then director of the French School at Athens, discovered the stele in 1893 in the Panagia Church on the islet of Nikouria in northeastern Amorgos. The inscription records a response to Ptolemy II Philadelphus’ request that delegates be sent to Samos to discuss the Island League’s participation in the games and religious rites in honor of his father Ptolemy I Soter. Ptolemy, friend and general to Alexander the Great and ruler of Egypt after his death in 323 B.C., had “liberated” (really it was more of a take-over) some of the city-states of the Cyclades, restoring their ancient constitutions and repealing their taxes.

His son picked up where the father left off, expanding the Ptolemaic dominance in the Cyclades. The Island League was a political union of the Cycladic islands created by the Ptolemies to cement their influence. In the stele, the League agrees to send a mission to the sacred games held for Ptolemy in Alexandria. The Ptolemy games were also held every four years and the inscription explicitly addresses the obvious rival by stipulated that the members of the League hold the Ptolemaieia in equal importance to the Olympic games. The decree would be proclaimed in all the cities of the League. Ptolemy II would be gifted a gold crown at the cost of 1,000 staters. The stele then details how the island cities would pay for all this and names the three delegates they’d send to Samos. (The name of the third is lost.)

There’s been a lot of debate among scholars about the dating of the Nikouria decree. The first date proffered in 1895 was ca. 285-3 based on a reference to Ptolemy II’s accession to the throne, but Ptolemy didn’t conquer Samos until after his victory in the battle of Kouroupedion in 281 B.C . Later scholars shifted the range to the 260s B.C., likely 262 when the Ptolemaieia was held.

The specific stele is considered important since it provides evidence concerning the balance of power during the first half of the 3rd century BC and the transition of control from the Macedonians to the Ptolemies.

Belying its significance, the stele was not kept in a secure location after is discovery. It was stashed in a stable near the find site for years. That stable was its last known address when all records of its ceased in 1908. It was found again in the wall at a newly renovated home which had once belonged to Stamatis Gripsos, a shepherd from Nikouria. Perhaps he had access to the barnus delicti. The Nikouria decree will now be removed from the wall and moved to the Amorgos archaeological collection.

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Remains of third horse found at Pompeii villa

Wednesday, December 26th, 2018

The skeleton of a horse who died wearing an elaborate harness and saddle have been unearthed at an elite villa on the outskirts of Pompeii. This is the third set of horse remains discovered at the estate north of the city walls, the first of which was the first confirmed horse ever found at Pompeii.

Excavations began last March as an emergency response to looting activity. Tunnels dug underneath the villa by thieves were endangering the archaeological material. The dig brought to light a series of service areas of the grand suburban villa with artifacts preserved in exceptional condition. Amphorae, cooking utensils, even parts of a wooden bed were recovered, and a plaster cast was made of the entire bed.

One of the service areas that could be identified is the stable. Archaeologists unearthed the first horse lying on its side and were able to make a plaster cast from the cavity the horse’s body had left in the hardened volcanic rock. They then unearthed the legs of a second horse. This year the team excavated the rest of the stable, revealing the rest of the remains of the second horse and the skeleton of a third complete with its harness.

The former was found lying on its right side, skull on top of the left front leg. It was next to charred wood pieces from a manger (also cast in plaster). The position suggests that the poor horse was tied to it and could not get away when Vesuvius’ pyroclastic fury hit the stable. The third horse was found on its left side, an iron bit clenched between its teeth. The looting tunnels exposed the cavity and cementified it made it impossible to make a plaster cast of it.

The excavation of the third horse revealed five bronze objects: four wood pieces of half-moon shape coated in bronze found on the ribs, one bronze piece made of three hooks riveted to a ring connected to a disc. It was found under the belly near the front legs. The shapes and design of these parts suggest they were part of a saddle that is described in ancient sources. It was a wooden structure with four horns, two in the front, two in the rear, covered with bronze plates. This firm saddle gave the rider stability in an era before stirrups.

Saddles of this kind were used from the early imperial era particularly by members of the military. The ring junction, four for each harness, were used to connect leather straps to the saddle horns. This was rich, expensive tack that would have belonged to someone of very high rank. The artifacts found strongly indicate that this horse belonged to a Roman military officer and had been saddled likely in the hope of escaping the eruption. Vesuvius got to human and equines before they had a chance.

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Oldest Aramaic incantation explains how to capture “devourer”

Monday, December 24th, 2018

An Aramaic inscription discovered at the ancient site of Sam’al, modern-day Zincirli in southern Turkey, describes how to capture the evil “devourer” to liberate a victim from its “fire.” The inscription was made on a cosmetics pot that predates it and was reused for the purpose. It was inscribed on the vessel between 850 and 800 B.C., making it the oldest Aramaic incantation ever found.

The incantation was written by a magician named as Rahim son of Shadadan. It tells how the blood of the devourer could be used to treat people suffering from the devourer’s fire. The directions do not make it clear whether the blood would be used to make a potion to be drunk by the afflicted or if it should be smeared onto their body.

“Accompanying the text are illustrations of various creatures, including what appears to be a centipede, a scorpion and a fish,” wrote [Madadh] Richey and [Dennis]Pardee, who is the Henry Crown professor of Hebrew studies at the University of Chicago, in the abstract. The illustrations are found on both sides of the cosmetic container. […]

The illustrations suggest that the “devourer” may actually be a scorpion or centipede; as such, the “fire” may refer to the pain of the creatures’ sting, Richey told Live Science.

University of Chicago archaeologists, who have excavated the site for the past four years, discovered the artifact in August 2017 in a small structure that may have been a shrine or had some religious function. The incantation had to have been of some importance because the structure is more than a century younger than the inscription, dating to the late 8th or 7th century B.C., which means it was deemed significant enough to be kept for generations after it was engraved.

In addition to the incantation, another piece more ancient than the building was find inside of it, a black stone crouching lion with red stone inlaid eyes. It dates to the 10th or 9th century B.C. when it was used as the base for a metal figurine of a striding individual, perhaps a deity.

Sam’al has been occupied going back at least to the Bronze Age. During the time when Rahim was engraving his how-to guide, it was the capital of an Aramaean Neo-Hittite kingdom that began as a city state around 900 B.C. and expanded to encompass a few neighboring territories. It had massive outer defensive walls, a monumental palace and city gates with elaborate stone reliefs. With the rise of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, Sam’al was conquered around 720 B.C. and became first a vassal state, then a province.

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Bones of 5,750-year-old baby found in Argentina

Friday, December 21st, 2018

Archaeologists have discovered the skeletal remains of a prehistoric infant in Ciudad de Mendoza, western Argentina. Researchers from the Natural Science Department of the National University of Cuyo discovered the bones unexpectedly when looking for the sterile layer of a previous dig in the archaeological region known as the Niño de las Cuevas (the child of the caves). It was given that moniker after the remains of a young child between three and five years old at time of death were found there in 2015. That’s the excavation the University of Cuyo was following up on when they encountered the bones of a second child in the same archaeological layer as and just a few feet away from the first.

The team unearthed a circle of carbonaceous sediment whose black color and texture was markedly different from the reddish clay of the site. Researchers first thought it was part of a hearth, so the excavation proceeded in a different manner than over the rest of the grid, with thin, delicate tools like brushes instead of more aggressive digging tools. After removing an inch of sediment, they found fragments of a tiny jaw. The dimensions made it clear that this was the jaw of an infant.

When the burial was cleared, the full funerary structure was revealed, a circle just under a foot wide with the remains placed inside on the red clay layer. Because it was found at the same archaeological layer as the child discovered in 2015, it’s likely to date to around the same time: 5,750 years ago. The latest discovery is smaller, however, so died younger.

The dig began less than two weeks ago on December 10th. One team member is still clearing the burial. Materials and remains will be analyzed and catalogued by the Human Paleoecology Laboratory. The bones of the infant will be radiocarbon tested so we know their age from direct examination. Stable isotope analysis will also be performed to discover where the child was from. Researchers will also attempt to determine the baby’s age, gender and cause of death.

Until the beginning of these studies there was only archaeological information related to the period of Inca domination (especially on a sacrifice of a child that was deposited in a high sanctuary located in the Aconcagua). Finding a skeleton was not expected by the group, since very few human skeletal remains had been discovered in high altitude environments. The result of the radiocarbon dating done on a fragment of one of its bones by AMS was also a surprise. The date obtained gives this individual an age of 5750 years. It is the oldest in the province of Mendoza and corresponds to a period in which the climatic conditions were more favorable to the current ones (a little warmer and wetter) in the mountain range according to pollen studies.

The regional archaeological information allows us to propose that the society from which this individual came had a hunter-gatherer economy and a band-like social organization. Surely it was small groups (between 30 and 50 people) that moved throughout the year, from lowlands to highlands and vice versa, to obtain the meat of animals that hunted (especially guanacos — Lama guanicoe) and vegetables that they collected.

“Having found this infant burial, it can be ascertained that it was the entire family group that moved (men, women and children) and that it is likely that the mountain range where it was left was part of a larger territory, a space of seasonal occupation to which it recurred,” said [anthropologist Víctor] Durán. Knowing where these ancient mountaineers came from and specifying aspects of their way of life is one of the major challenges of the research group. This new finding will allow expanding the ongoing studies that have placed the town of Las Cuevas in a position of great importance within the Archeology of the province and the country.”

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Collapsing cliffs reveal exceptional dino tracks

Thursday, December 20th, 2018

Dozens of dinosaur footprints from multiple dinosaur species, the most diverse group of Cretaceous fossils ever discovered in the UK, have been found near Hastings on the coast of Sussex. More than 85 footprints from at least seven species (there are 13 different shapes but some were made by the same species) were identified by University of Cambridge researchers between 2014 and 2018, exposed by erosion of the cliffs after severe storms.

The prints range in size from less than inch to 24 inches across. They date to the Lower Cretaceous, left between 145 and 100 million years ago by herbivores and carnivores alike. There are prints from iguanodontians, an ankylosaur, an unknown species of stegosaur, likely sauropods and theropods. They are in such exceptional condition that the shapes and textures of skin, scales and claws are visible to the naked eye.

Look at this amazing iguanodontian claw. It’s like someone took a plaster cast of the fellow’s toe to make a realistic prosthetic.

The Hastings area is famed for its fossils. The first Iguanodon was discovered there in 1825; more recently the first fossilized dinosaur brain tissue was found in 2016. It is one of the richest sources of dinosaur fossils in the UK, but fossilized tracks are rare. While some dinosaur footprints have been spotted along its cliffs before, none of them were this varied, complex and well-preserved.

Even though dinosaur footprints may not have the drama of whole-body fossils, they can give scientists a lot more information about the way dinosaurs actually lived and interacted than their mineralized bones alone can.

“To preserve footprints, you need the right type of environment,” said [study co-author Dr. Neil] Davies. “The ground needs to be ‘sticky’ enough so that the footprint leaves a mark, but not so wet that it gets washed away. You need that balance in order to capture and preserve them.”

“As well as the large abundance and diversity of these prints, we also see absolutely incredible detail,” said [study co-author Anthony] Shillito. “You can clearly see the texture of the skin and scales, as well as four-toed claw marks, which are extremely rare.

“You can get some idea about which dinosaurs made them from the shape of the footprints – comparing them with what we know about dinosaur feet from other fossils lets you identify the important similarities. When you also look at footprints from other locations you can start to piece together which species were the key players.”

The footprints have revealed new information. There are prints from a dinosaur species not previously known to have inhabited the area during the Lower Cretaceous. Researchers also find the imprint of small plants growing inside the footprints, evidence of how dinosaurs effected this environment, giving plants a nice, watery trough in which to grow.

The study has been published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

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4,500-year-old stone circle recorded by archaeologists

Tuesday, December 18th, 2018

A recumbent stone circle in Aberdeenshire that has been known to locals since it was erected thousands of years ago has been identified and recorded by archaeologists for the first time. This type of circle, characterized by a large horizontal stone placed (hence “recumbent”) between two upright stones, is unique to northeast Scotland. They were built around 3,500-4,500 years ago and are well-known features of the landscape, which is why it’s so unusual to find one that has never been documented by archaeologists. If it had been in ruins, obscured by the landscape and hard to see on the surface it would explain how professionals didn’t know about it, but this one is complete, intact and perched on a well-maintained hill.

It stands on farmland in the parish of Leochel-Cushnie and it was a member of one of the families that have been farming in the area for generations, Fiona Bain, who alerted the Aberdeenshire Council’s Archaeology Service to the existence of the stone circle.

Neil Ackerman, Historic Environment Record Assistant at Aberdeenshire Council, visited the site along with Adam Welfare, Alison McCaig and Katrina Gilmour from Historic Environment Scotland (Survey and Recording).

While fitting the Recumbent Stone Circle model, this is a slightly unusual example, they say.

Describing the monument, Mr Welfare said: “In numbering ten stones it fits the average, but its diameter is about three metres smaller than any known hitherto and it is unusual in that all the stones are proportionately small.

“It is orientated SSW and enjoys a fine outlook in that direction, while the rich lichen cover on the stones is indicative of the ring’s antiquity.”

Mr Ackerman added: “This amazing new site adds to our knowledge of these unique monuments and of the prehistoric archaeology of the area. It is rare for these sites to go unidentified for so long, especially in such a good condition.”

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Tudor coin hoard goes on display

Monday, December 17th, 2018

A hoard of silver coins minted during the reigns of Henry VIII and all of his children has gone on display in the Ludlow Museum at The Buttercross in Shropshire. The coins were discovered by three metal detectorists in November of 2015 who reported their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The hoard was declared treasure and after a campaign that secured funding from the V&A Purchase Grant Fund, the Headley Trust and Friends of Ludlow Museum, in 2018 it was acquired by the Shropshire Museum Service.

The hoard is a small one of just 20 coins, likely the contents of a single purse. The finders noted that the coins were found close together in the top soil, evidence that they had spent most of their underground life in a container before being scattered and the container lost or degraded beyond recognition. The coins are sterling silver, following the standard for coinage of their era. One of them is a fragment of a coin from the late reign of Henry VIII or to the beginning of the one of his son Edward VI, struck in posthumous honor of Henry VIII. Some of the breaks are modern, suggesting there may be more of the broken coin at the find site.

The rest are intact and in similar condition of wear and corrosion. Several bear diagonal scratch marks left during an attempt at cleaning. They were probably individually selected by the collector to match the patina. The pattern of wear and tear on the coins suggest they were in circulation at the same time and little wonder given how high the Tudor turnover was between the end of Henry VIII’s reign and the beginning of Elizabeth I’s. They were all struck between 1544 and 1561 during the reigns of Henry VIII, (1509-47) Edward VI (1547-1553), Mary I (1553-1554), Mary I and Philip of Spain (1554-1558) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

The fragment is a silver groat of Henry VIII/Edward VI, one silver shilling of Edward VI (1551-53), five silver groats of Mary (1553-54), five silver shillings of Mary and Philip (1554-58), two silver groats of Mary and Philip, five silver shillings of Elizabeth I and one silver groat of Elizabeth I. The date of the most recent coin in the hoard suggests it went to ground during or shortly after 1561. After four monarchs in 11 years, there would have been little reason to expect Elizabeth’s reign to be as long and stable as it became. In times of political turmoil, cash tends to get hidden.

The hoard has a face value of 14 shillings (or the equivalent of a labourer’s salary for around three weeks).

Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison officer, British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, said: “Hoards such as these are not uncommon and this example being found outside the historic town of Ludlow is evidence of its rich and powerful past. Ludlow was an important place in the 16th century, being a royal centre — Prince Arthur, 1st son of Henry VIII died in Ludlow castle in 1502. Such small caches as these are probably either purse losses, or possible secretly stashed money deliberately hidden and never recovered.”

The coins can be seen at the Ludlow Museum on Friday, Saturday and Sunday between 10AM and 4PM. Entry is a token £1 for adults.

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