Monthly Archives: March 2015

VM_365 Day 275 Amber beads

VM 275Today’s image for Day 275 of the VM_365 project shows four amber beads found in Grave 32 of the Monkton Anglo Saxon cemetery, part of which, was excavated in 1982.

The 6th century grave, was orientated east west and had been heavily truncated measuring only 0.14 metres deep. It contained only the fragmentary skeletal remains of the long bones of the leg and a single tooth to indicate the presence of the individual who had been buried there.

The beads are a mixture of roughly shaped pieces of amber that have been pierced through their length (far left) and carefully carved cylindrical shaped beads that have been broken on one end. The bead on the far right is a fragment that has broken through the centre. The holes through the centre of the beads can be seen on all four  if you look carefully.

Amber is fossilised tree resin and Anglo Saxon amber beads are assumed to have been imported from the shores of the Baltic where large deposits are well known. However deposits of amber are also known along the east coast of England and it cannot be assumed that all of the amber beads found in Anglo Saxon graves are from the Baltic shores; they may have been traded down the East Coast of Britain. It is not unknown for pieces of amber to be washed up on the beaches of Thanet.

VM_365 Day 274 Iron Age coin Links North Foreland with continental intrigue

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The image today for Day 274 of the VM_365 project is of an Iron Age coin (a Van Arsdell Type 194), issued by Amminus, who was possibly also known as Adminius. Becoming King of the Kent’s Cantiaci tribe in the early to middle of the 1st century A.D., Amminus was thought to have had strong pro-Roman sympathies. Amminus was a son of Cunobeline, a King of the Catuvellauni in the early part of the 1st century. A gold stater minted by Cunobeline and found at St Nicholas at Wade featured in the VM_365 post for Day 272.

The coin in today’s image was found at North Foreland, on the eastern tip of the Isle of Thanet, where a large Iron Age settlement dating from the mid to Late Pre-Roman Iron Age occupied the crest of a chalk ridge overlooking the sea and an important shipping route to the mouth of the Thames estuary.

The coin links the location and its contemporary archaeology to the murky intrigue that eventually culminated in the full scale invasion of Britain by the Roman Empire. The limited contemporary evidence that is available from the distribution of coins of Amminus/Adminus is supplemented by a text reference in the biography of the Emperor Caligula produced by Roman historian Suetonius.

Seutonius claimed that Caligula had exaggerated the banishment of Amminus/Adminius and a group of followers for unknown reasons, into a grand announcement in the Senate  that the Emperor had secured victory over the whole Island of Britain.  Amminus may have also played a part in Caligula’s military posturing, which culminated in an abortive invasion of Britain. It has also been suggested that Amminus returned to Britain with the Emperor Claudius as an advisor and possible later as a Governor.

The coin issued by Amminus links the archaeology of the North Foreland, one of the major coastal Iron Age settlements in Kent, to the power struggles between the British tribal leaders and the growing Roman Empire which must have played a part in the defence of the Island against the Roman invasion fleet.


VM_365 Day 273 Coins and Iron Age Minster

VM 273The image for Day 273 of the VM_365 project is of another coin dating to the Iron Age, a struck Bronze of a Late Iron Age King called Eppillus, which was found at Minster on the southern side of the Isle of Thanet .

The biography of Eppillus is largely based on the evidence, using the tiny scraps of written evidence derived from the inscriptions on coins. Eppillus became king of the Cantiaci, the tribe that lived in Kent, around 15 A.D. , possibly after he was deposed or replaced as King of the Atrebates by his brother Verica.

The powerbase of the  Atrebates was in the region around Chichester, which was known to them as Noviomagus. The Atrebates began a political relationship with the Roman Empire as its influence expanded on the continent. Coins of Eppillus issued from Noviomagus were marked Rex, indicating that the King’s power had been recognised by the Roman state.

Like many of the coins issued by Late Iron Age regional rulers in Kent, the example shown in the image today (Type: Van Arsdell 178) is based on a coin issued by Phillip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great. Although the images on the coins went through many incremental distortions and abstractions, the bust and chariot on either side of the coin can be traced through their evolutionary changes to their ancient Greek origins. The imagery reflects the independent connection of the Iron Age states with the classical Greek world.

Coins struck by the pre-Roman Kings of Kent provide material and written evidence that was independent of the control of the Roman state, although its influence on the iconography and texts can be detected in the years before the Empire expanded to Britain.

As our extended written evidence of pre-Roman Britain comes almost wholly from writers who lived in the dominant culture, the study of the Late Iron Age coin series allows us to perceive, however dimly, an alternative point of view to the Romans. The scatter of Iron Age coins, pottery and other artefacts from Minster in Thanet provide an indication of what came before the almost overwhelming amount of cultural information about the Roman period which is represented by sites like the Villa that was discovered in Minster.

VM_365 Day 272 Coins as historic documents

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The image for Day 271 0f the VM_365 project is of the two faces of a Stater, a coin struck from gold in the early first century A.D. , in the Late Iron Age.  As the coin is made by placing a gold blank in a mould and striking it with a carved punch, the coin has a dish shape with one convex face and one concave.  The example shown in the image was found with a metal detector in a field in St. Nicholas at Wade in Thanet.

Although it may seem that the value in finding coins like this comes from the metal they were made from, there is greater value in the knowledge that can be derived from the symbols that were used to decorate them and convey authority and value, as well as their distribution in the country.  When coins are used to represent any sort of value in a society, they are often made from rare materials so they can not be easily copied,  they are also decorated with images and words that also have cultural resonances in the society that accepts them. From these symbols we can make a culture that has left us no written evidence speak in its own voice in a small way. If we apply our current knowledge and understanding of coins and the economics of systems of exchange to the examples of ancient coins we discover, we can generate new ideas about how this type of material functioned in an ancient society.

On the reverse of this coin, which has a concave surface, there is a stylised rearing horse along with the letters CUN, representing CUNOBELINE the name of a King of the Catuvellauni tribe who took power in the first century to the late 40’s A.D.  On the convex face of the obverse are the letters CAMU, showing the coin was minted at Camulodunum, now modern Colchester, one of the strongholds of the Catuvellauni and a  centre of Cunobeline’s physical power. The precious metal, the name of the authority who issued the coin and the location of the mint assert the authenticity of the coin. That is not to say that as in the modern period coins could not be forged, but the technology set a barrier to reproduction and the authority of the power that issued it no doubt conveyed the punishment that might be applied to anyone caught producing them.

The distribution of the power and authority of the Kings who issued coins like this one can be estimated from their distribution pattern, which in this case is confined to the south east region. Perhaps people could take these out of the general area of circulation, but like most monetary systems they were potentially of more value circulating within the network of traders who recognised and accepted them while they were in this form as struck coins.

Because of the painstaking work to locate each coin discovered in archaeological excavations and by metal detectorists, we can assume that in the 1st century A.D. Thanet was within the territory of exchange with Cunobeline’s people, linking the many Iron Age archaeological sites in the area to the small scraps of written and symbolic evidence from coins which has been used to model Late Iron Age society. Many more Iron Age coins have been found on the Isle and the picture of overlapping powers and evidence for the exchange of currency in the Iron Age is so complex that a gallery in the Virtual Museum is dedicated to Iron coins in Thanet.

With thanks to David Holman for providing photographs of this coin.

VM_365 Day 271 What’s in a ditch? Bronze Age barrow dimensions

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Segment excavated through Bronze Age Barrow at Westgate in 2011. Scale shows 0.5m increments.

Today’s image for Day 271 of the VM_365 project shows a segment excavated through a well preserved ring ditch surrounding an Early Bronze Age barrow during an archaeological evaluation carried out at Westgate in 2011. The location of the barrow ditch, with a diameter of approximatley 27 metres, had been identified by aerial photography.

The evaluation established that the well preserved profile of the ditch was cut into the chalk geology to a depth of 1.4 metres from the base to the interface with the subsoil. Although the section shown in the image is cut slightly obliquely across the width of the ditch it gives a good impression of its large dimensions. At its widest point across the top the ditch measured 2.3 metres; the flat base was 1.3 metres wide.

A mound would have been built from the soil and chalk taken out of the ditch to cover a burial in a grave at the centre of the barrow. The ditch profile near the flat base was  very steep sided, but the angle of the upper edges of the cut sloped more gently, creating an angled shoulder on the inner edge of the ring ditch.  The limits of the shoulder allow us to estimate the diameter of the mound as a maximum of 22 metres and its possible original height as around 10-11 metres, assuming that the sides had as much as a 45 degree slope when it was originally built. Soil compression and slipping of the edges would have quickly reduced the height and angle of the mound unless it had been carefully compacted or structured in some way.

As the grave of a significant individual in the Early Bronze Age, we assume that the ditch was kept clear and that the mound was maintained to some degree, preserving its height and function as a monumental marker in the landscape. When it was abandoned the chalky covering of the mound began to erode into the ditch, filling the base with clean chalky material. Later more silty deposits accumulated in the hollow left by the ditch, derived from the soil that formed over the mound and the surrounding landscape.

It is often assumed that the decaying  mound and ditch would have been a significant feature in the landscape, attracting later communities to reuse it for burisls and as a significant feature in the landscape. It is not often that the survival of a barrow mound or ditch can be dated. However the silty deposits that made up the upper fills of this barrow ditch contained abundant fragments of pottery, dating from as early as the middle Iron Age to the Roman period, in the 3rd century AD. This dateable material indicates that the hollow of the ditch remained a prominent feature, accumulating debris from nearby settlements many centuries after its builders and their successors had stopped looking after the monument.

How visible this feature was in the later Roman, Saxon and medieval periods we will never know as the most significant erosion suffered by the ring ditch and mound probabaly resulted from agricultural activity in the early 20th century and the eventual levelling of the site for recreational use.


VM_365 Day 270 Medieval purse frame

VM 270Today’s image for Day 270 of the VM_365 project shows a medieval copper alloy purse frame dating from the period 1474-1550 which spans the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III. The purse frame was found in the excavation of a medieval well at Little Cliffsend Farm that was previously featured on VM_365 Day 251.

The metal frame would have supported a fabric or leather purse suspended from the bar, one of the arms of which is now bent. The purse and frame would then have been suspended from a belt or other strap by the central, swivelling, suspension loop.

We can only speculate as to whether this was just an item thrown away with other waste into the well, or whether it was an unfortunate loss by someone leaning over the edge to draw water. Either way it seems that the purse was empty when it ended up in the well.

VM_365 Day 269 Anglo Saxon Shell beads

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Today’s image for Day 269 of the VM_365 project shows two different views of the Anglo Saxon shell beads that were found in Grave 33 at the Monkton Anglo Saxon cemetery in 1982.

These two shell beads are most likely carved from Cowrie shell, the ribbing along their edges being the natural lip of the shell. These beads were probably imported along the same trade route from Byzantium as the amethyst beads found in the same grave and featured in yesterday’s VM_365 Day 268 post.

Cowrie shells have been found in other 7th century graves on Thanet  in Grave 238 at Sarre and Grave 323 at St Peters, Broadstairs. They have also been found in graves of a similar date at Wingham and Kingston, Kent. Those shells, however were whole and the suggestion is that they were treated as amulets. We do not know whether the beads found in the grave at Monkton arrived in Thanet as part of a whole shell and were carved locally or whether they were imported already crafted into beads.

VM_365 Day 268 Anglo Saxon Amethyst beads

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Today’s image for Day 268 of the VM_365 project shows four amethyst beads excavated in 1982 from a grave containing a female buried at the Monkton Anglo Saxon cemetery.

These four roughly almond shaped amethyst beads were found as part of a necklet along with two shell beads probably cut from a cowrie shell.  The beads formed part of an early 7th century burial and are imports from Byzantium having been traded along the route from Aquelia, over the Alps, down the Rhine and then on to Kent.

If you look carefully at these beautifully translucent beads you can see the finely drilled holes, which show opaque, through which fine cord was passed to string them into a necklet. If you look very closely you can even identify the spirals caused by the rotation of the drilling implement.

Graves from the Monkton cemetery were first identified during the laying of a gas pipeline in 1971 when 22 were identified.  A further 12 graves were identified during the laying of a second pipeline in 1982.


VM_365 Day 267 The Lord of the Manor prehistoric landscape changes forever

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Today’s image, for Day 267 of the VM_365 project,  is the third and last of Dave Perkins’ reconstruction drawings, which show the progressive development of the landscape at Lord of the Manor, whose story has been revealed so vividly in aerial photographs and archaeological investigations and traced in the reconstructions shown on VM_365 Day 265 and Day 266.

The complicated development of the prehistoric funerary monuments ended in the Late Bronze Age, with the insertion into the mounds of groups of pots and urns containing cremated human remains. The mounds of the barrows then stood in the landscape for many centuries, becoming overgrown with vegetation and diminishing through erosion.

The prehistoric mounds were eventually overlaid by the graves of an extensive Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Perhaps the barrow mounds, as memorials of the older inhabitants of the area, continued to influence the choice of burial sites, but they may only have shown as rises and hillocks barely distinguishable from the surrounding landscape.

In the later medieval period much of the Lord of the Manor landscape may have been ploughed as a rising population, recovering from the effects of the Black Death, created a demand for agricultural produce. Ozengell Grange, which is also close to the Lord of the Manor barrow group, was an agricultural estate owned by the Monastery of St Augustine, who farmed much of the land where the barrows once stood. The once impressive prehistoric monuments, which were designed to preserve the memory and display the power of the ancient inhabitants, were reduced by the plough over many centuries.

There was no trace of the prehistoric monuments in the wide, flat and featureless fields that were left in the later 20th century, until they gave up their secrets to the archaeologists who were monitoring the crop marks each season and painstakingly plotting and investigating the sites they encountered.

VM_365 Day 266 The barrow reconstruction drawings get more complicated

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The image for Day 266 of the VM_365 project is the second in a series of images drawn by Dave Perkins, reconstructing the sequence of event associated with a funerary monument that was revealed in excavations at Lord of the Manor, Ramsgate.

In today’s image, the single ring ditch and mound that was shown in yesterday’s picture is being renewed, ready to receive another burial. The original ring ditch and its mound, now compressed and discoloured, have been sealed under fresh chalk which is being dug from a new ring ditch with a greater diameter than the earlier one. The circuit of the new ditch is  interrupted by a causeway, where a stretch of the circuit was not excavated. It is a process like this that created the concentric circuits of ditches that show up so well in the cropmark posted on VM_365 Day 264.

The location of the barrow is closely based on the landscape of the Lord of The Manor site, with the land falling away into a deep dry valley, which is shown covered with woodland. The sweep of the valley leads to the sea at Pegwell Bay in the upper right hand side of the picture. On the left side of the image a funeral procession is making its way up the side of the valley toward the newly refurbished barrow.

It is still possible in the present day to stand near the site of the barrow and see the same view over the bay which would have been presented to the prehistoric people of the area.  It was this experience of the landscape that Dave Perkins used to draw his reconstruction images.

Further analysis of the landscape has shown that there are only a few sites in Thanet’s landscape where such an uninterrupted view is possible and it becomes clear from considering the landscape that sites were carefully chosen to provide such a panoramic view. Excavations have shown that some were used over many thousands of years to locate settlements, gather for ceremonies and to create structures where the dead could be buried.

Once again we can reconstruct the facts that are presented by the archaeological features on the ground, but can never really confirm the reasoning behind the choice of location which is so well captured in the drawing. Was it to assert a power or domination over the landscape or to enhance the visibility of the monument from other sites? Motives may have changed over time passing from willful choice into tradition whose meanings were lost in the passage of time.

The true motives are lost without the record of contemporary voices, but we can explore possible meanings through attempts at reconstruction like the drawings in this series of posts. There are questions to ask about this reconstruction: was the natural environment so open and free of the influence of man as it is shown? Was it as simple a task to create a barrow as is suggested? The ring ditches of the many barrows that have now been excavated in Thanet have demonstrated that they are often perfectly circular with regular and symmetrical profiles throughout the circuit, despite the hard chalk rock that had to be cut to create them. It is immediately possible to suggest the picture could be made more accurate with the addition of some figures carrying out some quite complex surveying and architectural control over the cutting of the ditch as well as an indication of the greater amount of labour that went into cutting away the chalk in such quantity. Our ideas progress through such criticisms of the reconstruction, which perhaps leads in the future to new images that take new ideas on board. Sadly they will not have the benefit of Dave Perkins’ wisdom and experience to inform them.