Blank curse tablets, miniature votive axes found at Roman villa site

An excavation at the site of a real estate development in Grove, Oxfordshire, has uncovered the remains of a richly-decorated Roman villa complex that contained a wealth of artifacts including coins, jewelry, lead curse tablets without curses and tiny votive axes. It had a long period of occupation, from construction in the 1st or 2nd century through abandonment in the late 4th or early 5th century.

During a year of excavation, archaeologists from the Red River Archaeology Group unearthed a monumental aisled building with internal colonnades typical of the late 1st century A.D. The building was likely multistorey and almost 11,000 square feet just on the ground floor. No columns have survived, but four column bases have and they are among the largest of their kind ever found in Roman Britain.

Adjacent to that building is a winged corridor villa characterized by a central group of rooms flanked on each side by wings of rooms accessed by a central corridor. It had walls painted with floral motifs and mosaic floors as well as an intricate brickwork floor. Hypocaust tiles have been found, the remnants of a hypocaust underfloor heating system for private bathhouses. A cereal drying oven was also discovered, part of the complex’s agricultural and food storage function.

Hundreds of coins, rings and brooches have been found in the villa complex. One particularly significant piece is a double horse-head brooch or buckle dating to between 350 and 450 A.D. It was likely worn by a member of the military elites. They also found several axes small enough to fit in a palm, and a number of tightly scrolled lead strips look just like curse tablets. The ones that have been unfurled so far are blank on the inside. If they were meant to curse, the curse itself was left unwritten. The mini axes coupled with the mysterious curse-like scrolls, suggest the villa or some part of the complex was a site of pilgrimage or ritual significance.

“The sheer size of the buildings that still survive and the richness of goods recovered suggest this was a dominant feature in the locality, if not the wider landscape,” Louis Stafford, Red River Archaeology senior project manager, said.

Her colleague Francesca Giarelli added the site was “far more complex than a regular rural site and clearly was an important centre of activities for a long time”.

Here is a drone video flyover of the site:

Mycenean refuge from Bronze Age collapse found

Excavations on the top of Mount Hellani, the tallest mountain on the Greek island of Aegina, have uncovered a Mycenaean building filled with vessels dating to the Mycenaean late palatial and post-palatial eras. This was the period of the Bronze Age collapse (1200-1050 B.C.), when the central administrations of the palace society disintegrated under pressure from environmental catastrophes, migrating populations and economic decline. Powerful states and urban centers were destroyed and survivors shifted to small villages. Mycenaean populations fled mainland Greece seeking refuge on Aegean islands, including Aegina, one of the islands in the Saronic Gulf less than 20 miles from Athens.

The building is approximately 15 by 10 feet with three stone walls and a large boulder as the fourth. Inside the structure were 30 vessels of different types, including cooking pots, storage vessels and drinking goblets. When the walls collapsed, the pottery was covered by the stones from the walls, and while the artifacts were damaged, the collapsed walls protected then from complete fragmentation and scattering. The style of the pottery dates them the period of the destruction of the Mycenaean palaces and right afterwards, a time of upheaval and constant danger that drove people to seek the shelter of the highest possible ground, in this case the peak of Mount Hellani.

The mountain was already known as a place of worship by that time, as Aegina had been an important center of commerce and maritime trade in the Middle Bronze Age (the first half of the 2nd millennium B.C.), and a fortified enclosure on the mountaintop indicates it was used for shelter going back 4,000 years. In the 4th century B.C. a temple of Zeus was built on the northern mountain slope, and the remains of thousands of burned animal bones attest to the site’s use for sacrifices. Ceramics going as far back as the Geometric period (900-700 B.C.) have been found at the temple site.

Roman gold coins link Vindelev to European elite

Newly published research into the Roman gold coins in the Vindelev treasure points to a strong local power in the small town in East Jutland with connections to a network of the European elite.

The hoard consists of 23 gold objects dating to the Migration Period (375-568 A.D.) unearthed at a farm in Vindelev outside of Jelling in South Jutland by a metal detectorist in December of 2020. There are 13 Nordic gold bracteates (thin, round gold sheets carved with figures from Norse mythology) from the 5th century A.D, including the largest bracteate in the world, and one with a runic inscription that is the earliest known mention of Odin. There is also granulated gold fitting from a sword or knife. There are four Roman gold medallions from the 4th century A.D. mounted as pendants. Four gold medallions together in a single hoard have never been found before in Denmark.

Senior researcher Helle Horsnæs, who is behind the research, has examined the four Roman medallions that are part of the treasure and can conclude that, by all accounts, the medallions were included as bride-payments or gifts in a European network of important women and men in the Roman part of Europe.

And someone from that network has therefore stayed on a farm in Vindelev, because the treasure was found there. This surprises Helle Horsnæs.

“There are other exciting gold finds in the East Jutland area, but Vindelev is just bigger on all parameters. We don’t have any signs that there was supposed to be a power base in Vindelev at this time, so it is surprising for us to find objects that not only show local power, but also European connections,” she says.

“This really puts Vindelev on the European map and places the owner at the highest European level.”

The four gold medallions were issued by four different emperors : Constantine the Great (306-337 A.D.), Constans (337-350 A.D.), Valentinian I (364-375 A.D.) and Gratian (367-383 A.D.). It is therefore extremely unlikely that they were awarded to the august personage in Vindelev. They also had loops mounted at the top by artisans outside of the Roman Empire so they could be worn as pendants, suggesting that the medallions changed hands several times before winding up at Vindelev.

One of the medallions has particularly attracted Helle Horsnæs’ attention. It turns out that it is stamped with exactly the same stamp as a medallion found in Zargozyn in Poland.

The two medallions have therefore been followed out of the Roman Empire, after which they have had rings attached in the same workshop and reworked into pendants. After that, one may have taken different detours to Zargorzyn in Poland and the other to Vindelev in Denmark.

“It shows that the European network at this time in the Iron Age was widely branched, and that the European elite were already connected to each other back then,” says Helle Horsnæs.

11-year-old walking the dog finds Roman gold bracelet

An 11-year-old boy discovered a rare gold Roman cuff bracelet in a field near Pagham in West Sussex, England. It is a decorated bracelet of the armilla type, awarded to Roman soldiers for valour, and dates to the 1st century A.D. As a gold object more than 300 years old, it has officially been declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest.

Rowan Brannan was walking the dog with his mother Amanda two years ago when he picked up a shiny yellow piece of metal. This is not unusual for Rowan. He likes to scout the ground for interesting things to pick up (don’t we all?), but his mother usually vetoes his pickups. This time he hung on to it, adamant that it was gold even when his mother told him it was probably just a gross old fragment of fence or something.

Once he got home, he researched how to determine if a metal is gold, and his find checked all the boxes. It probably wouldn’t have gone beyond the curiosity stage if a metal detecting friend of his mother’s hadn’t come over. She thought Rowan had something worth investigating and sent a picture to the leader of her metal detecting group. He suggested they report it to their local Finds Liaison Officer. Archaeologists examined the piece and confirmed it was real ancient Roman gold jewelry.

It is a large fragment of a bracelet 8.1 mm (.3 inches) wide and 71.3 mm (2.8 inches) long folded over. One of the folded sides is about 8 mm shorter than the other, so if it were unfolded it would be about 135 mm (5.3 inches) long. (There are some bends and waves so it’s not the straight measurement.) The total gold weight is 7.69 grams. It is decorated with five parallel bands, three plain ribs and two in rope style with the lines at opposite angles. One terminal end is pierced.

Several examples of copper-alloy Roman wide cuff bracelets have been found in Britain, but gold examples are far more rare. This is only the fourth recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. The gold ones are all slimmer than the base metal ones which are usually 12-22 mm, and with so few examples of them known, archaeologists are still not certain the gold ones actually were worn as cuff bracelets. Scholars believe the more valuable the metal, the higher the rank of the officer who was awarded it.

Amanda said the piece has been analyzed at the British Museum and has gone through the Coroner’s Court in a ‘fascinating’ process where they have been learning more and more about the bracelet.

She said: “It’s very exciting whenever we read an email and we have been kept up to date throughout the whole process.

“The Coroner’s Court emailed us and said ‘it’s been so lovely to deal with Rowan’s treasure’.”

The first Neolithic boats in the Mediterranean

New radiocarbon analysis of five dugout canoes found on the bed of Lake Bracciano 20 miles northwest of Rome have revealed the vessels are between 7,500 and 7,000 years old, the period when the first farmers migrated from the Near East throughout the Mediterranean, establishing communities in central Italy. The results, published in the journal PLOS ONE, identify the vessels as the oldest Neolithic canoes in Europe.

They were discovered at the submerged site of La Marmotta, a Neolithic lakeshore village rich in archaeological remains including 3,400 piles supporting the dwellings, walls, roofs, floors and hearths. Found at a depth of about 26 feet under 10 feet of sediment, the anaerobic conditions protected the copious organic remains from decay and boring critters. The remains of domestic livestock (mostly sheep and goats, a few cattle and pigs), two canine species and a large number of wild animals attest to the community’s herding, hunting and fishing practices. Botanical remains were plentiful too, a variety of cereals, legumes and fruits, both cultivated and foraged. A wide variety of wood, basketry and textile utensils were unearthed, including spindles, bows, sickles and adzes.

The five canoes were unearthed in a series of excavations between 1992 and 2006. Each canoe was associated with one of the dwellings. The boats are exceptional for their large size — the largest is 36 feet long — and for the advanced techniques used in their construction. Canoe 1, for example, has four transversal reinforcements carved in a trapezoidal shape that would have strengthened the hull and improved the handling of the boat. It also has three T-shaped mounts on its starboard side pierced with 2, 3 and 4 holes. They were placed at regular distances and were likely used to fasten ropes, perhaps to a sail or a stabilizer or maybe even a second boat to create a catamaran.

These canoes at La Marmotta, and the occupation of many islands in the eastern and central Mediterranean during the Mesolithic and particularly the early Neolithic periods, are irrefutable proof of the ability of those societies to travel across the water. This is enormously significant, because all the canoes found at European Mesolithic and Neolithic sites are associated with lakes and therefore with sailing in those waters.

In the case of La Marmotta, the size of the lake (it is now 9.3km across, but must have been smaller in the Neolithic as the shore was 300m from its current position) barely justifies the large size of a canoe nearly 11m long. It is therefore possible that they were used to cover the 38km from Lake Bracciano to the Mediterranean Sea along the River Arrone. In this way, the canoes were used both in the lake and on the sea.

The significant nautical skills needed to build and operate the boats sheds new light not just on Neolithic seafaring, but also on how these communities were structured.

There must have been people who knew how to choose the best trees, how to cut the trunk and hollow it by burning out its middle, and how to stabilise the dugout with transversal reinforcements on its base, or perhaps by the use of side poles or even parallel canoes in the form of a catamaran. To achieve this they made a series of amazingly modern artefacts, such as the T-shaped objects with two, three or four holes. These canoes and nautical technology are undoubtedly reminiscent of much more recent navigation systems. This shows that many of the major advances in sailing must have been made in the early Neolithic.

This technical complexity must be linked to social organisation in which some specialists were dedicated to particular tasks. The canoes can only be understood in a context of collective labour overseen by a craftsman who was in charge of the whole process: from cutting down the tree to launching the canoe in the lake or in the sea. These communities would therefore be well-structured in the organisation of labour, since collaboration would have been necessary to build the houses, make the canoes, procure raw materials from their sources several hundred kilometres away and put in practice certain agricultural tasks.