Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Victorian map unlocks ‘incredible’ tale of Romano-British metal hoard

Archival detective work and scientific analysis by archaeologists have revealed the likely origin of one of the largest and most unusual hoards of late Roman artefacts discovered in Britain.

Given the new light shed on its provenance and archaeological context, the researchers said that, after 150 years in relative obscurity, the Knaresborough Hoard “can rightfully claim its place as one of the most important collections of late Roman metalwork from Britain and the western provinces of the Roman Empire.”

Although the hoard was discovered in North Yorkshire around 1864, no detailed analysis of the items was previously undertaken and the circumstances of the find were unknown. Newcastle University archaeology student Jessica DeMaso carried out the first comprehensive study of the hoard as part of her MA degree and the results are published in The Antiquaries Journal.

She said: “Yorkshire Museum have a research initiative called Old Collections, New Questions and had written up some research prompts. I thought, ‘This Knaresborough Hoard sounds so interesting — why has no one studied it before?’ So I spoke to James Gerrard [Professor of Roman Archaeology at Newcastle University] and the museum and it went from there. And it turns out to be an incredible story.”

The 29 surviving objects are mostly bronze vessels such as bowls, plates and strainers that DeMaso and her colleagues date to the late fourth or early fifth centuries — the final decades of Roman rule in Britain, which ended around 410. They include a large fluted bowl of around 48cm diameter, with a scalloped edge more commonly found in silverware. Strainers are decorated with elaborate punched-hole designs such as petals and swastikas. There are also several bronze rings that may have been used in horse harnesses. Curiously, three of the objects are iron tools — two axes and a hammer.

The large fluted bowl represents a bronze form of a vessel type better known in silver, such as examples from the Mildenhall and Kaiseraugst hordes. Photo: the Yorkshire Museum

The researchers suggest that many of the bronze pieces were intended to impress guests at the table when displaying or serving food. When polished, the metal would have resembled gold and would have implied a level of wealth. The hoard is, nevertheless, not of the rarefied quality as some others, such as the Hoxne Hoard from Suffolk, with its Roman silverware and gold jewellery. Instead, DeMaso said it provided a rare snapshot of Romano-British daily life. She said: “Some of the pots could have been used in ablutions, the strainers might have been for beer-making and the tools would obviously have been used for commercial purposes so it’s really interesting how wide-ranging it is.”

The pieces, weighing over 10kg, are only a small part of the original hoard, which was said to have filled a large sack or a cart. Most of the objects now held by the Yorkshire Museum in York were given to the museum in 1864 by Thomas Gott, an ironmonger and town councillor in Knaresborough. It is recorded that, after its discovery, the hoard was sent to Gott’s premises. There, due to an oversight by the foundry foreman that seems extraordinary today, most of the metal was melted down. DeMaso said: “My guesstimate of what remains is, best case scenario, 25 per cent.”

Records indicate that objects that have been lost from the original hoard include an iron spur, bridle bits, an axe-hammer and a “great quantity of nails”. The spur was of a type thought to have been introduced in the last third of the fourth century and may imply a connection with the army and high-status individuals.

When Gott donated the objects to the museum in 1864 and 1876 he did not specify exactly where they were found or who owned the land, meaning that their archaeological context was a mystery. Now, the research by DeMaso and colleagues suggests the hoard was probably discovered in a boggy area near Farnham in the Vale of Mowbray. In late Roman times, this was an important agricultural landscape, dominated by villa estates and close to the urban centres of Aldborough (Isurium Brigantum), and York (Eboracum) and to the Roman roads Dere Street and Cade’s Road, both running north to the frontier.

A crucial clue was in an 1876 paper on the discovery of another hoard, at Irchester in Northamptonshire, in which the author writes: “I learn from Mr Thos Gott, of Knaresborough, who presented them [the Knaresborough vessels] to York, that they were found in digging a drain four feet deep, two miles north of Knaresborough.”

Strainers in the horde may have been used in beer-making and are decorated with patterns formed of lines of holes. Photo: the Yorkshire Museum

This distance corresponds to the location of Farnham. Studying the village’s history and topography, the researchers found only one area likely to have required drainage. This was “the Bottoms”, a marshy part of the estate of landowner Sir Charles Slingsby of Scriven. Significantly, the Slingsby estate papers include a plan, dated 1863, for a proposed new drain laid across the Bottoms. It was certainly installed as it appears on subsequent maps. The work would have been overseen by Slingsby’s land agent and estate manager Frederick Hartley, who was a fellow member, with Gott, of the Knaresborough Improvements Commission.

DeMaso, who is now working as an archaeologist in the US, recalls learning of the 1863 plan from Gerrard, the study’s lead author. She said: “Sally, James’ wife [and a co-author], is really good at documentary analysis and knows the different avenues of where to look. We would have gotten nowhere without her. I remember the day James came to me with the map from the estate papers. He was so excited and said, ‘Jess, you won’t believe it. Look at what we’ve found about Slingsby and the Bottoms’. Oh my gosh, it was amazing.”

The researchers suggest that, after the hoard’s discovery by labourers, Hartley believed the artefacts would be of interest to his ironmonger friend, Gott. In their reconstruction, he gave or sold the hoard to Gott and details of the find spot were obscured, either to “conceal the discovery from Slingsby, or to keep the baronet’s good name out of the limelight”.

“This project has shown the value in revisiting old discoveries”

Professor James Gerrard

Given their knowledge of the area’s Roman infrastructure, the team speculate that the objects could have originated from a villa estate, a wealthy townhouse or the residents of a roadside settlement coming together to try to protect their valuables. Because they were buried in a bog, DeMaso said it was conceivable that they were deposited as ritual offerings. However, such offerings were normally made much earlier in the Roman period.

She added: “Honestly, as an archaeologist, I think ‘ritual’ is a little bit overused, because I think people had a lot more purpose than that. So I lean towards [the idea] that they deposited this because they intended to recover it later.”

There was certainly plenty of instability in Britain at the end of the Roman period and during the decades afterwards when Roman objects were still in use. Written sources refer to conflicts between Romanised Britons and “barbarians” attacking from across Hadrian’s Wall and the North Sea and Irish Sea. There may also have been internecine conflicts among the Britons that affected the region.

It is not usual to find mixed hoards of bronze and iron pieces, so DeMaso suspects the Knaresborough Hoard may in fact constitute two hoards deposited at or around the same time by individuals known to each other and acting together.

Jessica DeMaso chose to study the Knaresborough Hoard for her MA dissertation at Newcastle University

X-ray fluorescence analysis by co-author Dr Marco Pitone reveals that many of the artefacts were made from leaded bronze alloys consistent with those known from other late Roman objects. Given their designs, and evidence for ferrous and nonferrous metalworking in Roman Britain, the archaeologists believe the pieces were all British-made and could have been produced locally. Due to their late Roman date, they said it was likely that most of the vessels were made from recycled metals. Several show evidence of ancient repairs, such as riveted patches, suggesting they were used for prolonged periods.

The research also uncovered some more personal history concerning Gott. In 1848, he married Mary Drury, a widow, in Scarborough. She died in 1860, aged 47, and the following year Gott married his late wife’s sister, Emma, in London. At this time, although the marriage of a widower to his sister-in-law was widely accepted, it was illegal and this might explain why it took place away from Yorkshire, where they could avoid scrutiny and minimise the risk that Gott’s reputation could be called into question. 

What does DeMaso hope people will take from the research? She said: “That this is a very significant hoard that deserves to be in the limelight, both for its large quantity of finds and the quality. Both of those things are very important. Also that research on artefacts or finds already in museums can bring a lot of value and understanding to areas that we may not know about. Endless avenues of research can be done on existing collections.”

Gerrard said: “This project has shown the value in revisiting old discoveries and we’re delighted to have the opportunity to work alongside the Yorkshire Museum to understand more about this extraordinary collection and who Thomas Gott was. It’s good to know that more than 150 years on, our research has helped tell a fascinating, if complex, part of the story about this remarkable discovery.”

The Yorkshire Museum’s Old Collections, New Questions project, which inspired the study, seeks to carry out innovative research across the museum’s extensive Roman holdings. Commenting on the Knaresborough Hoard findings, Adam Parker, the museum’s curator of archaeology, said: “The excellent work undertaken by Newcastle University has unlocked the research potential of these objects for the first time and will allow us to tell their story more completely.”

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