Late Roman, early Saxon cemetery found in Leeds

An ancient cemetery that contains burials of both late Roman and early Saxon funerary traditions has been discovered in the town of Garforth, near Leeds. The excavation has unearthed the remains of more than 60 men, women and children from the significant transitional period between the end of Roman rule in 406 A.D. and the formation of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 6th-8th centuries.

There’s a clear distinction between the Roman graves, which were aligned east-west and the Saxon ones, aligned north-south. The Saxon burials contain typical grave goods like weapons and pottery that are different from the funerary offerings typical of the Roman burials. There are also a few burials that appear to indicate early Christian beliefs.

The most notable find was a lead coffin from the late Roman period. It contained the skeletal remains of an adult woman. Lead coffins were expensive, both in raw materials (large sheets of lead) and the expertise to craft them, so she must have been a member of the elite.

The cemetery was discovered last year, but was kept under wraps to give archaeologists the chance to excavate the site secure from would-be looters. An archaeological investigation was triggered before development of the site due to the proximity of late Roman stone buildings and early Anglo-Saxon structures. Some ancient remains were expected to be found, but the discovery of a large cemetery from such a historically significant transitional period came as a happy surprise.

After the retreat of Roman forces from Britain, what is now West Yorkshire was part of the Kingdom of Elmet, a British kingdom rather than an Anglo-Saxon one. Even bounded by Anglian kingdoms to the north and south, Elmet was unusually long-lived for a Brittonic kingdom, extending well into the 7th century when it was finally annexed by the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. This is the first Anglo-Saxon cemetery ever discovered in West Yorkshire.

David Hunter, principle archaeologist with West Yorkshire Joint Services, said: “This has the potential to be a find of massive significance for what we understand about the development of ancient Britain and Yorkshire.

“The presence of two communities using the same burial site is highly unusual and whether their use of this graveyard overlapped or not will determine just how significant the find is. When seen together the burials indicate the complexity and precariousness of life during what was a dynamic period in Yorkshire’s history.

“The lead coffin itself is extremely rare, so this has been a truly extraordinary dig.”

The excavation is now complete, and researchers will now focus on analysis of the skeletal remains. Bones will be radiocarbon dated to establish the timeline of the burials. Stable isotope analysis will also be performed to determine the geographic origins of the deceased. About half of the burials were younger than adult age, and there were several double burials, so researchers will be looking for evidence of disease as well.

Unusual Roman cremation burial magically sealed with bent nails

A 2nd century cremation burial in the ancient mountain-top city of Sagalassos, southwestern Turkey, contained a never-before-seen combination of deliberately bent nails, covering tiles and a layer of lime. These features, found individually in other burials in the ancient Mediterranean, collectively suggest the use of magic to keep the deceased from interfering with the living.

Founded in the late 5th century B.C. when the region was part of the Achaemenid Empire, by the 2nd century B.C., Sagalassos was an urban center of the Hellenistic Attalid Kingdom that was bequeathed to the Roman Republic with the death of King Attalos III in 133 B.C. Augustus incorporated it into the Roman province of Galatia in 25 B.C., and the city thrived in the Roman Imperial era. Major public buildings, city squares and streets were constructed and a new pottery industry mass-producing what became known as Sagalassos Red Slip Ware prospered, transforming Sagalassos into the pre-eminent city of the region. Under Hadrian the city saw another boom of public construction. The library, nymphaeum, Temple of Apollo and the enormous baths were built starting under Hadrian. The baths were completed and the theater built under Marcus Aurelius.

The city declined in importance in late antiquity, but continued to produce its eponymous pottery into the 7th century A.D. when it was severely damaged by an earthquake. It was much reduced in population after that and became largely agrarian until it was finally abandoned altogether in the 13th century when its fortress was destroyed by the Seljuk sultanate. Many of its remains were left undisturbed in subsequent centuries, and the Catholic University of Leuven has been systematically excavating the site since 1990.

In 2010, KU Leuven’s Sagalassos Archaeological Research Project embarked on a new exploration of the northeastern periphery of the city. The area was originally dedicated to agricultural terracing, but as the city expanded in the Hellenistic period, it began to be used for funerary purposes. The excavation ultimately uncovered inhumation and cremation burials dating from the late Hellenistic (c. 150–25 B.C.) continuously through the Late Roman (c. 300–450/475 A.D.) period.

The unusual cremation burial was in situ, the human remains burned on a pyre and then buried. The distribution of the charred bone remains indicate they were not collected or moved, which is atypical for 2nd century cremations.

Usually the cremated bones were moved into a cinerary urn before burial. Instead, here the pyre was covered with 24 flat bricks arranged in four rows. The undersides of the tiles were discolored from the heat, meaning they were placed on top of the pyre while the embers were still smoldering. The bricks were then covered with a thick layer of solidified lime, not the thin, temporary layer typically used to cover the cinerary remains before they were recovered for burial. This lime layer over the bricks permanently sealed in the cremated remains as much as a solid coffin or tomb would have.

Grave goods found include a 2nd century coin, a few small ceramic vessels dating to the 1st century, two blown glass vessels and a hinged object. Stratigraphy indicates they were buried in the first half of the 2nd century A.D., a time when these types of artifacts were common in burials.

Not at all common are 41 broken and bent nails found along the edges of the burn area. Twenty-five of the nails were bent deliberately at a 90° angle and the heads twisted off. Sixteen were deliberately bent or twisted but still complete with their heads. They could not have been used for a practical purpose (for example, in the construction of the pyre) and their distribution around the pyre’s perimeter points to them having been placed.

“The burial was closed off with not one, not two, but three different ways that can be understood as attempts to shield the living from the dead — or the other way around,” study first author Johan Claeys(opens in new tab), an archaeologist at Catholic University Leuven (KU Leuven) in Belgium, told Live Science in an email. Although each of these practices is known from Roman-era cemeteries — cremation in place, coverings of tiles or plaster, and the occasional bent nail — the combination of the three has not been seen before and implies a fear of the “restless dead,” he said. […]

Claeys thinks that the man in this strange cremation grave was likely buried by his next of kin in a ceremony that would have taken days to prepare and carry out. The set of beliefs that encouraged people at Sagalassos to bury this man in an unconventional way are best understood as a form of magic(opens in new tab), or an act intended to have specific effects because of a supernatural connection. It is possible that his odd burial was made to counteract an unusual or unnatural death; however, the researchers found no evidence of trauma or disease on the bones. Unfortunately, even though the “magic cremation” overlaps in time with other graves, Claeys said that “it cannot be established with certainty whether or not any family members were buried nearby,” as DNA is usually destroyed by high temperatures in ancient cremations.

“Regardless of whether the cause of [the man’s] death was traumatic, mysterious or potentially the result of a contagious illness or punishment,” the researchers concluded in the study, it appears to have left “the living fearful of the deceased’s return.”

The burial findings have been published in the journal Antiquity and can be read here.

King’s spice cabinet found on Gribshunden

A new study of botanical materials found on the wreck of the Gribshunden, the 15th century Danish royal warship, has found it was laden with exotic spices, including the first archaeological evidence of saffron, ginger, cloves in medieval Scandinavia, previously only known from scant written sources instead of material remains. It is also the only known archaeological example of a complete royal spice larder from the Middle Ages. It is so well-preserved that the saffron still has its distinctive aroma after 527 years underwater.

Gribshunden, the flagship of King Hans of Denmark and Norway, sank while anchored next to the island Stora Ekön off the Baltic coast of Ronneby, southern Sweden, in 1495. The king and his retinue had disembarked and were headed to a meeting with the regent of Sweden in Kalmar when the ship suddenly caught fire and quickly sank to the seabed 35 feet below the surface.

The wreck was first spotted in 1971 by local sports divers and it became a popular scuba site. Archaeologists only began to explore the site in 2001 after early iron gun carriages were found. Subsequent fieldwork revealed a carvel-built warship from the late 1400s that was unusually large for the period. It was also unusually well-armed and well-provisioned. Its design, contents and radiocarbon dating of the timbers identified it as the Gribshunden. It is the oldest armed warship found in Nordic waters.
Built in 1485 in northern France or Belgium, Gribshunden was one of the first European naval vessels to be outfitted with guns and King Hans made ample of use it for a decade before its sinking. Its last trip in June 1495 was a diplomatic mission. Hans was attending a summit to convince the regent of Sweden and the Swedish Council to recreate the Kalmar Union by electing him King of Sweden. That would join the crown of Sweden to that of Denmark and Norway and reunite all of the Nordic countries under a single ruler.

Hans needed his flagship fully stocked with emblems of his hard power — shipboard artillery, a whole battalion of soldiers, armor, small arms — as well as his soft power — luxurious livery, books, enough food and drink for multiple royal courts to feast on — to impress the Swedish delegation. Archaeological evidence of this rich assemblage, even the organic elements, survived in exceptionally good condition thanks to the consistently low temperature and low salinity of Baltic waters. Thick algae deposits also create anaerobic zones that preserve archaeological remains from wooden crossbow stocks to fruit seeds.

In total, the study identified 3097 plant remains from 40 species. Spices dominate, representing 86% of the assemblage.

The plant material from Gribshunden contributes new knowledge about the foodstuffs consumed by the social elite in medieval Scandinavia. Considering that Gribshunden sank in the beginning of June, perishables such as ginger, grapes, berries, and cucumber were likely preserved as dried fruit, pickles, or jams to have been available for consumption all year around. It is unclear if ginger rhizomes were stored fresh or were preserved in some form. If fresh, the rhizomes must have been procured within days of Gribshunden’s departure from Copenhagen, as fresh ginger has a short shelf life. Other foodstuffs recovered from Gribshunden could be stored for far longer than fresh ginger. Spices from far distant origin, such as black pepper, saffron, and cloves would keep for long periods if they remained dry. Dill, black mustard, and caraway were likely sourced locally. Flaxseeds, almond, and hazelnut have long storage lives. It is probable that nuts were stored on board in their shells and cracked opened when ready for consumption, as broken shell parts were recovered from both nut species.

It is tempting to compare this wide variety of fresh produce to records of medieval maritime provisioning; but as the royal flagship, Gribshunden is a special case. Instead, the exotic foodstuffs from the king’s spice cabinet provide a window into the consumption patterns that likely followed in the elite landscapes of castles ashore. Despite the popularity of exotic spices among the medieval aristocracy, very few of these foods have survived archaeologically. The preservation of these plant foods on Gribshunden constitutes a discovery of great historical value. Spices and other exotic foods such as almonds were typically consumed only by society’s wealthiest. On Gribshunden these were not victuals for the working crew. Exotic food items are probably some of the most easily identifiable indicators of social context. King Hans was travelling on the ship together with his courtiers; these expensive exotic foods are linked to these passengers.

Danish archival sources from 1487 relate brief but telling details specific to King Hans’ expenses and activities aboard his flagship. While laid up awaiting favorable winds in 1487 en route to Gotland and at a stop on Bornholm island on the return, Hans gambled on card games. In those few weeks, his recorded losses totaled 42 marks, nearly the annual salary of one of the ship’s senior officers. He ate candy and nuts, and with his companions, drank wine and particularly beer. On that voyage the ship reprovisioned with fresh barrels of local beer, as well as embstøll, a hopped Prussian beer originally brewed in Einbeck, Germany. Other recorded purchases for Hans’ sea voyages are consistent. He bought more confectionaries for the apothecary, nuts, and saffron while voyaging to Års, Jylland, Denmark. The amount of saffron purchased was prodigious: the cost was 36 mark danske, equivalent to nine months of salary for a senior officer on Gribshunden, or 18 months of salary for a sailor. These documentary references combined with the remains of saffron, almonds, and hazelnut recovered from Gribshunden’s 1495 wrecking prove that the king regularly consumed these extravagant foods while at sea, and most probably while ashore. […]

Had Gribshunden safely arrived in Kalmar, from its decks Hans would have employed all manner of elite signaling to impress the Swedish Council. The consumption of exotic foods certainly was symbolic of prestige and social superiority within Hans’ realm. It also demonstrated that King Hans and medieval Denmark were culturally integrated with the rest of Europe, and the world beyond the continental borders.


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