Mausoleum, industrial silver mystery site found in Kent

After 15 years of archaeological investigation and extensive research, a Roman site with unique features including a mausoleum and evidence of massive silver production has been published in a new monograph by Pre-Construct Archaeology.. Grange Farm in Kent was first settled in the Late Iron Age (ca. 100 B.C.) but became much more active after the Roman conquest because it was located a mile north of Watling Street, a major Roman road that ran from Dover to London.

In 2005, Grange Farm was archaeologically excavated prior to construction of a housing development. Over a year of excavations, archaeologists discovered a 4th century aisled building, walled enclosures from orchards, evidence of metalwork in both iron and silver and a large mausoleum containing the remains of an adult woman in a lead coffin.

The rectangular wooden building was divided into three long aisles dividing the usage areas — a living space on one end, a metalworking shop on the other end and a fireplace dividing the two. This building design was relatively common in Britain and was used for a variety of purposes, but this example is unique for the large quantity of litharge, a byproduct of the cupellation process used to separate silver from smelted lead ores, found there.

A small amount would be expected from the metalworking facilities in the aisled building, but archaeologists discovered 15 kg (33 lbs) of it, the largest amount ever found at a Roman site in England. So much litharge could only have been produced by a silver extraction operation of industrial proportions, and yet, the dig did not discover any traces of the type of infrastructure that would have been necessary to run an operation on this scale.

The mausoleum is another mysterious anomaly. It dates to the late 3rd or early 4th century A.D. and would have originally stood two stories high. Built on top of a raised terrace, it was visible for miles around. The interior had a tessellated red mosaic floor, extremely rare in Roman Britain, and contained a lead coffin holding the remains of a middle-aged woman. Lead coffins were luxury items in Britain, and the combination of lead coffin inside a mausoleum indicates the woman was someone of wealth and status.

She was not one of the idle rich, however. Osteoarthritic lesions found on her bones attest to her having labored hard at some point in her life. Stable isotope analysis of her teeth suggests she may have been a local, but the results were not conclusive. She may also have originated in southern England, eastern England or continental Europe. Radiocarbon dating points to her having died around the time the mausoleum was built.

The grand mausoleum dominated the landscape for centuries before it fell to ruin by the time of the Norman Conquest. Anglo-Saxon artifacts were found in the mausoleum, including a solid silver gilded Nydam Style brooch from the late 5th century, one of the earliest Scandinavian-style brooches ever found in England, and two spearheads from the same period. There is no evidence of Anglo-Saxon occupation at Grange Farm; they didn’t live there and nobody was buried there. Archaeologists suspect these valuable objects may have been left deliberately as votive offerings, suggesting the Anglo-Saxons, then still new immigrants to the area, held the mausoleum in reverence.

“The brooch is a very unusual find—stylistically it is closer to southern Scandinavia and is one of only a handful of similar brooches found in Britain,” added [Dr. James Gerrard, Senior Lecturer in Roman Archaeology]. “Both the spears and brooch are unusual and high-status objects on an otherwise unassuming rural site.

“The mausoleum wasn’t in use at this time, and in fact it appears that the grave of the elderly lady was disturbed in later years—possibly by early medieval graverobbers or relic hunters.”

As well as the litharge and the mysteries surrounding the mausoleum and the elderly lady in the lead-lined coffin, the team of archaeologists also found 453 Roman coins, more than 20,000 fragments of pottery and 8,000 animal bones.

14th c. lead sarcophagus found under Notre Dame

A lead anthropoid coffin from the 14th century has been discovered under Notre-Dame de Paris. Archaeologists unearthed the sarcophagus in the very heart of the cathedral where the transept and nave intersect, so the individual buried there must have been someone of importance, likely a church dignitary. Notre-Dame was the final resting place of several prominent individuals, but this is the first time a well-preserved intact sarcophagus has been found.

The area is being excavated archaeologically prior to the installation of massive scaffolding 330 feet high that will be used in the reconstruction of the spire that was so wrenchingly burned to the ground in fire that devastated Notre-Dame on April 15th, 2019. Archaeologists and scientists dug under the nave-transept intersection point to ensure the ground and subground are structurally sound enough to support the spire during and after construction.

The sarcophagus was found in the middle of a network of brick heating pipes from the 19th century. Apparently they added the pipes working around the sarcophagus. The soft lead had been dented by the weight of soil and stones on top of it, but it is overall in excellent condition. A mini endoscopic camera threaded into the sarcophagus confirmed that the contents are as well.

“You can glimpse pieces of fabric, hair and above all a pillow of leaves on top of the head, a well-known phenomenon when religious leaders were buried,” said Christophe Besnier, the lead archaeologist.

“The fact that these plant elements are still inside means the body is in a very good state of conservation,” he added.

Its discovery will help improve our understanding of funeral practices in the Middle Ages, added Dominique Garcia of the National Institute of Archaeological Research.

A few feet away from the sarcophagus at the foot of the choir, archaeologists discovered the broken remains of the old rood screen, the partition between the chancel and nave that was a common feature in churches of the late Middle Ages. Notre Dame’s rood screen was carved of stone and featured numerous statues painted in bright colors. It was built in 1230 and remained in place until the early 18th century, even though rood screens fell out favor in the mid-16th century when the Council of Trent required that Mass be made more accessible to the congregation. A heavy physical barrier blocking worshippers’ view of the altar was no longer on policy.

The screen was demolished, but it seems the crew did not believe in a keeping a clean workspace because archaeologists have found numerous fragments of stone from the screen, and larger pieces including the head of bearded man, vegetable accents and two clasped hands.

Human bone amulet found in Bronze Age grave

Archaeologists have discovered a unique amulet made with human bone in the grave of a woman from the Bronze Age Tagar culture in southern Siberia. The grave was unearthed in the Kazanovka 1 cemetery in the Minusinsk basin in 2020. It was one of multiple burials in 16 stone enclosures built with slabs and flagstones. Kurgan number 15 was divided into two enclosures by vertical sandstone slabs. The remains of four individuals — three adults and one child — were found in one of the enclosures. The remains of an adult woman were found in the other.

Her grave was an 8 x 14.6 feet rectangle pit with a stepped border. Large stones capped the perimeter with small flagstones filling the gaps around them and the border. The woman was buried in supine position, her head turned to the west, her arms outstretched down the length of her body. She had been elaborately adorned for burial. A circular bronze mirror with traces of a red leather pouch was nestled next to her pelvis. Bronze plaques and pins were found next to her right shoulder.

The grave contained the remains of animal offerings as well. The head of horse had been placed on the grave cover, and large pieces of meat and the carcasses of a calf and sheep were buried with the woman. A bronze knife and awl in a leather case were found next to the carcasses.

But it was the amulet found next to the woman’s right elbow that proved the most unexpected discovery.

The upper part was an X comprised of threaded tubular bronze and cap beads interspersed with carnelian beads. The lower part was also made of bronze tubular beads, with white argillite beads. A boar fang hung from this lower part.

And in the center, between them, the archaeologists detected shreds of what may have been a silken cloth bag, and a fragment of human rib bone.

Other burials in the region have beads, animal bones, fangs of boars or musk deer, and bird claws. It is also worth noting that similar amulets have been found in the basin, almost always been found in association within female burials.

Human bones that appear to have been used for ritual purposes have been found in other kurgans — a rib bone in a large pot, a wrist bone in a small vessel — but this is the only Tagar amulet found to include a human bone.

Shipwreck timber analysis confirms early 1600s date

A new analysis of timbers from a shipwreck believed to have sunk off the Cape Cod in 1626 has found it was built in England in the late 16th, early 17th century. This is the first scientific dating of the ship known as the Sparrow-Hawk, and the results confirm that it is the oldest known shipwreck from English Colonial America, and the only known surviving example of a 17th century trans-Atlantic vessel.

The small 40-foot ship was transporting 25 passengers, English settlers and Irish indentured servants and farmers, to Virginia when it ran aground on a sand bar near the modern-day town of Orleans on eastern Cape Cod. Massachusetts Bay colony governor William Bradford wrote about the wreck in his journal (paragraphs 262-266), recording the hardships they had experienced in the journey. The captain got scurvy and was so sick he could only vaguely direct the ship from the threshold of his cabin, so they got lost and spent six weeks at sea. By the time they hit that sandbar, they were out of water, beer and wood and had to be rescued, first by English-speaking members of the Nauset  tribe and then by the Plymouth colonists.

Bradford reports that they tried to repair the ship which despite having been blown about in the storm was still deemed recoverable, but once they had salvaged all the cargo they could, they realized the ship could never be made seaworthy again. They were given some land in Plymouth Plantation to farm for nine months, and had a decent enough corn harvest to pay for transport on two ships headed to Virginia in the summer of 1627.

The broken ship was soon buried under the sand. The timbers would be spotted on occasion, but a big storm in 1862 fully exposed the remains of the ship’s hull. It was at this time that the ship, its real name unknown, was given the moniker Sparrow-Hawk. The timbers were removed and reconstructed for exhibition. It was put on display in conditions that would give any modern conservator a series of heart attacks, including en plein air on Boston Common. In 1889, it was given to the Pilgrim Society and at least moved indoors to the Pilgrim Hall Museum.

The 109 timbers are too fragile for display now, but they are remain in the stores of the Pilgrim Hall Museum. In 2018, researchers took samples and photographs of the timbers for dendrochronological analysis. Tree ring patterns matched those from southern England in the 17th century. Also typical of the English shipbuilding tradition is the use of elm for the keel. Radiocarbon wiggle-match dating, a form of C-14 analysis that can be used to date more recent organic remains, found that the wood used to make the ship was felled between 1556 and 1646.

The dating and provenance identification process has been a long, complicated but hugely worthwhile exercise. Even if it cannot confirm the identity of the vessel, the wiggle-matching suggests that it is unlikely that this vessel is later than the mid-seventeenth century. Traffic along this coast increased, from 1620 onward, but was still relatively light in comparison to European coasts, with proportionately fewer losses. The number of possibilities for the identity of this wreck has been substantially narrowed, since we can be reasonably sure it is not a ship from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. It is even less likely that one of the few other ships wrecked on Cape Cod before 1650 might be in the same spot as Bradford reported in 1626. There is nothing in the construction of the remains that would be out of place in a vessel of this date. The assembly of the backbone elements and the framing method can be seen in the remains of other smaller vessels from the seventeenth century from Northern European sites. An upper pump box (the moving piston in a type of pump commonly used on ships in the early modern period) found in the wreck survives, and this is identical in its form and features with the pump boxes found on the Swedish warship Vasa, which sank in 1628…. By narrowing the likely date range, and combining it with the geographical and construction data, the statistical probability that this is a wreck other than the 1626 vessel has been significantly reduced.

The study has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports and can be read in its entirety here.

Roman shipwreck cargo recovered off Mallorca

An archaeological salvage operation has recovered objects from a Roman merchant vessel that sank off the coast of Mallorca 1,700 years ago. The wreck is less than seven feet deep under the Bay of Palma 160 feet away from one the most popular tourist beaches on the island, but it was effectively covered by the sands and was not fully visible until a storm churned up the seabed three years ago. It has not been looted, thankfully, but it is very exposed and vulnerable to the elements and human bad actors, so the island government has now taken action to ensure the richly-laden vessel is fully explored and objects recovered before its long run of good luck ends.

A recovery operation overseen by the island’s governing body, the Consell de Mallorca, and involving experts from three Spanish universities in the Balearics, Barcelona and Cádiz, has retrieved about 300 amphorae as well as other objects that offer priceless insights into the Mediterranean of the fourth century AD and the crew’s daily lives.

In addition to the clay jars – which still bear their painted inscriptions or tituli picti – archaeologists have found a leather shoe, a rope shoe, a cooking pot, an oil lamp and only the fourth Roman carpenter’s drill recovered from the region. […]

“It’s important in terms of naval architecture because there are very few ancient boats that are as well preserved as this one,” says Dr Darío Bernal-Casasola, an archaeologist at the University of Cádiz. “There are no complete Roman boats in Spain.”

What’s more, he adds, the amphorae represent an improbable subaquatic archaeological hat-trick: “It’s incredibly difficult – almost impossible – to find whole amphorae that bear inscriptions, and also still have the remains of their contents. The state of conservation here is just amazing. And you have got all this in just 2 metres of water where millions of people have swum.”

By mineral analysis of the clay used to make the amphorae, archaeologists were able to pinpoint their origin: they were made in the Cartagena area. It attests to the pivotal role the Balearic islands played along the trade routes linking the Iberian mainland to Italy.

The project is scheduled to last three years, and it is singularly ambitious. Once all the objects on board, cargo and personal effects of the crew, are recovered, they will be catalogued and analyzed in detail. The team will then turn to the ship itself. There is a plan in the works to recover the entire hull so it can be stabilized and put on permanent display in a museum.