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Newsletter 43 - Spring 2005

Conference report - Hampshire in the Iron Age: A Special Place?

Kay Ainsworth

As the result of a number of high status Iron Age discoveries found recently in the county, it was decided to concentrate on this period for the Annual Conference and to investigate the possibility that this may have been an area of some importance in the Iron Age; perhaps even 'A Special Place'.

Who better to set the scene but Professor Barry Cunliffe, who has been excavating here and in Europe for many years? His talk 'Hampshire and the Wider World in the Iron Age' began with aerial photographs showing abundant Iron Age features as the theme of territory was explored. Some major boundaries had their origins in the earlier Bronze Age, such as the one passing west of Quarley which was still kept in a good state of repair in the 3rd century B.C. Another way of trying to assess tribal boundaries is by pottery distribution. In the 6-5th centuries B.C scratched, cordoned bowls, often haematite coated, were used at Danebury and clustered in an area north of Salisbury and Winchester. By 350-100 B.C. other decorative forms had taken over and spread much further afield. From the pottery evidence Hampshire and West Sussex had become a distinctive territory at this time.

Hill forts could also be territorial markers. Many change over time from simple earthworks to massive multivallate forms. Others, like Danebury, appear to become regional centres, presiding over Quarley, Balksbury, Bury Hill and Figsbury. Nearly all of these forts were active in the 4-5th Century B.C, but by 300 B.C Danebury was the only hive of industry, with repeated re-builds of houses and masses of pits. There is a notable change about 100 B.C, and troubled times are indicated with possible raiding and destruction. The same phase can be identified at Bury Hill, which had developed in the Early Iron Age, been abandoned, but by c.100 B.C. was dramatically re-defended with double ditches. Excavations found an unusual quantity of horse equipment suggesting that the site was used for horse breeding and chariot building. It may be that some places had specialist functions in this period of change.

About 150-50 BC dramatic developments across the Channel affect the south-east of Britain. Cross-Channel exchange can be identified from the Gallo-Belgic 'A' type coinage and objects possibly given as gifts. Around 55-54 BC the Aylesford-Swarling Culture in Kent links with the South Belgic in Gaul, and exchange patterns can be identified on the Atlantic route, with Hengistbury Head the main Iron Age port. Excavations at Hengistbury have recovered high-quality wheel-thrown Breton and Armorican pottery. Other imports include wine from northern Italy, in Dressel 1 type amphorae, and possibly olive oil and fish paste. Fig seeds suggest that exotic Mediterranean fruit was imported and the purple and yellow glass found came from the same source. Cloth, spices and perfume were other imports that have not survived in the archaeological record. So what was exchanged? Strabo lists slaves, hunting dogs, hides and metals, to which can be added cattle and corn. Hengistbury must have served as a redistribution centre, where goods were sorted for inland and overseas markets.

There were tribal alliances across the Channel in Gaul, and it was Caesar who said that 'The Belgae came to raid and stayed to sow'. What evidence is there to substantiate this? In this area Winchester took the name Venta Belgarum, pottery and coinage is found, and even an associated cemetery at Westhampnet. Here a Belgic cremation cemetery contained a mix of local and non-local urns. As inhumation was the normal rite at the time, perhaps the traditions of a locally-settled migrant group are reflected here.

The 1st century B.C saw the emergence of the Atrebates, centred on Calleva Atrebatum. Excavations here also highlighted the mix of imported and locally produced wares. Calleva was reputedly set up as a market and administrative centre by Commius migrating from the Arras region in northern Gaul. Perhaps Professor Mike Fulford, who has been excavating here for many seasons, could provide the proof in his talk 'Why is Calleva where it is; was it a special place?'

In the 1970s Mike worked on the Basilica site where there was ample evidence for intense occupation in the Late Iron Age. This was on a totally different alignment to that of the later Roman town. There was a palisade ditch, gullies and a street of rectangular buildings. A wide range of coins were found representing Gaulish territories as well as coins from Atrebatic rulers such as Tincomarius and Eppillus. Imported metalwork was abundant and pottery consisted of locally made wares and a large collection of imported material from France. Amphorae indicated the importance of wine, olive oil and fish paste. In return Calleva was engaged in trade which used the Thames as its outlet, rather than Hengistbury.

The early Roman town was divided into insulae by a regular street pattern. Recent excavations are concentrating on Insula IX. It does not have major public buildings, but was composed of houses and shops. The area is within the Iron Age enclosure, and beneath the Roman levels buildings are providing evidence of how the town first evolved. One feature is a large town house lying diagonal to the Roman grid, on a north-east/south-west orientation. The evidence so far seems to suggest that the Iron Age town became established prior to the Roman invasion of AD 43. Coinage indicates a royal dynasty following the migration of Commius after Caesar's conquest in 57 BC. He was striking coins bearing the name CALLEV c.35 BC followed by Tincomarius c.20 BC and Eppillus in c.5-10 AD. The latter call themselves 'sons of Commius'.

But what about the high status finds that inspired the theme of the conference? Few can be more stunning than the Winchester Gold Hoard. However, J D Hill not only agreed to talk about this, but also some of the other magnificent Iron Age gold items exhibited at the British Museum. His talk 'Treasures: Special objects in Special Places', would certainly bring a sparkle to the eye!

The Winchester Hoard is arguably the most important Iron Age discovery in the last ten years. It was found by a metal detectorist. Initially only one brooch came to light, but further detecting located three more and a linking chain, two necklace torcs and two ingot bracelets, all of gold. This group is considered to be one of the most unusual sets ever to be found in Western Europe, and was probably a paired set made for a man and a woman.

The set is made of pure 23 caret gold. A study of the torcs reveals that they are from the Classical world, probably made by a Greek goldsmith somewhere in the Eastern Mediterranean. If they were made locally, then it was by a foreign craftsman. The brooches, however, were probably made in north-west Europe and can be dated by design to c.70-20 BC. The objects may have been given as a diplomatic present to an important couple who had contact with the Roman world. All this was during this time that Caesar arrived (55-54 BC) and tribal groups crossed the Channel but maintained their links with the Mediterranean world. Who were the Hampshire Aristocrats and their mysterious patron?

Torcs were worn as a status symbol, Boudicca wore one, and they were believed to protect the wearer in battle. Numerous hoards have been found, however, and it appears that they held special ritual significance and were frequently deposited as offerings to the Gods. This was possibly the case for the Winchester Hoard which was found on the false crest of a hill. The soil consisted of clay with flint, certainly not good agricultural land, and was possibly covered with shrub and maybe in the Iron Age considered a special place in the landscape.

Numerous hoards have been found in Norfolk such as the Snettisham hoard which was also buried on high ground on what is now called the 'Gold Field'. The Snettisham great torc is a glorious masterpiece of craftsmanship totally different in technology to the Winchester torcs. But this was not all; numerous other hoards have been found in the same area and can be seen in all their glory in the Iron Age Gallery at the British Museum.

We were also shown pictures of a Leicestershire hoard consisting of three and a half thousand Iron Age coins and the remains of a Roman parade helmet painstakingly unpicked from a block of soil at the British Museum. Four helmet cheek-pieces discovered beneath a dog's skull, were decorated with scenes of an emperor on a horse, a winged victory, and a dejected Barbarian. As if that was not enough the helmet was crammed with coins; some were Iron Age, others from the time of Mark Antony. This site had turned up various hoards from different periods suggesting it was a special place, sacred over a long period.

In considering our region a special place in the late Iron Age, it was necessary to compare it with another part of Britain. Philip Crummy has been excavating in Colchester for over thirty years and during that time has unearthed some amazing sites and finds. His talk 'Rich and other recently excavated Iron Age burials at Colchester' looked set to provide a wealth of comparison. Colchester, or Camulodunum, the fortress of Camulos the war god, was the tribal centre of Cunobelin, king of the Trinovantes. There was an important royal centre at Gosbecks and a remarkable cemetery at Stanway, two miles to the south.

An aerial photo of Stanway taken in the 1930s identified five rectangular enclosures in two rows. In the 1960s excavations revealed that the enclosures were not for occupation but sacred in nature. Two types of grave were identified. There were the main central burials in timber-lined chambers and secondary burials placed elsewhere. It was the secondary burials that were to provide the most spectacular discoveries, such as a warrior's grave containing a spear, shield, two brooches, over twenty pots, two copper alloy vessels, and a large amber glass bowl from northern Italy, dating to AD 50.

Then there was the spectacular 'Doctor's grave' found in 1996. This was so-named because of the box of medical instruments contained in it, along with a board game with pieces set ready to play and food and wine containers ready to serve.

Clearly we have here a high status burial ground, perhaps not for kings, but for the tribal elite, including specialists such as warriors and physicians. So where are the burials of the Trinovantean rulers? The richest burial found in Colchester is the Lexden Tumulus discovered in 1924. The deceased was laid on a bed and the grave goods consisted of 17 amphorae, pieces of chain mail, gold cloth, figurines and furniture. Many of the grave goods appear to have been broken at the time of burial. It has been dated to 15-10 BC with the suggestion it may be the grave of a king named Tasciovanus.

The haunt of the living kings may have been an exceptionally sized enclosure at Gosbecks about a mile east of Stanway, which is believed to have been a royal stronghold. It is associated with a temple site close by at Cheshunt Field, near a gap in the western defences. The temple was possibly dedicated to Camulos..

It was clear from the story so far that the tribal elite enjoyed considerable wealth and benefits from their overseas contacts. These links with Continental Europe also brought the first use of coinage into this country. Richard Hobbs's talk 'Coins, minting and use in the Iron Age' would help our understanding of this process.

About the 3rd century BC we can witness the spread of coinage throughout Europe, as native groups copied Greek and later, Roman coins. North of the French Massif Central, tribes in Belgium, Switzerland the Rhineland and Britain based their coinage on the 4th century gold staters of Philip II of Macedon. Here there are many abstract variations on this theme, but the original design consisted of a beardless head of Apollo and a horse drawn chariot.

Numismatists have given coin groups names such as 'Gallo-Belgic A to F'.. Gallo-Belgic 'A' arrived at the end of the 2nd century BC. as did Gallo-Belgic 'B'. The reverse of this coin has an charioteer wielding what appears to be a pole, but in effect is a whip on the Philip coin. The engraver would not have seen an original stater, so had no idea what he was reproducing. This type is found in Gaul and in the south east of Britain particularly the London area. It is of particular interest because a coin die used to strike a Gallo-Belgic 'B' was found near Alton in 2003. As only one other Iron Age coin die has been found in Britain it had long been believed that these coins were produced in France. This find has now led scholars to reconsider. It now appears that coins were being struck in this country, but there were still some areas in the north that did not use them. In the Midlands and South, from the 2nd century BC onwards, uninscribed coins were introduced followed later in the 1st century by those identifying regal dynasties. The Atrebates, for instance, with their capital at Silchester struck a whole series bearing the names Commius, Tincomarius, Eppillus and Verica. Some also carried the abbreviated name of the capital such as Calle for Calleva Atrebatum. The considerable number of stater coin hoards found in the region indicates the wealth of the tribe and perhaps the individual.

In 'Keeping up with the Atrebates: Populations, Identities and Social Change in the late Iron Age' our final speaker, Richard Massey, a post-graduate researcher at Reading looked at the enormous amount of archaeological evidence from the region. He explained how he transcribed aerial photographs of sites onto maps and then field-walked the area. He included hill forts, settlements, enclosures, banjo enclosures, linking track-ways and possible regional boundaries.

In noting the evenly scattered settlements on the chalk from the Early Iron Age such as Chilbolton with its two sub-circular enclosures, he found 'Saucepan' type pottery characteristic. The decline of hill forts in the 1st century BC to be replaced by farmsteads with field systems such as the sites at Hursley and Wonston was also explored. In the Late Iron Age he identified regional differences in pottery such as the distinct cluster of sand-tempered ware around Basingstoke and Andover, whereas 'grog-tempered' (crushed pot) ware appeared to be favoured in the Meon Valley. Flint-tempered pottery was abundant everywhere and continued into the Roman period. Richard believes, just as earlier speakers did, that pottery types truly define different cultural areas.

We had set out to see if Hampshire had been an area of special significance in the Iron Age. What I think had been revealed from the day were the strong cultural links and influences from across the Channel, associated with the arrival of immigrant chieftains, who settled these southern regions. Sites such as Silchester and the graves of the elite clearly show that high status goods and wine from France and Italy arrived by trade or gift exchange. The expanding Roman Empire and associated political intrigues no doubt lined the pockets of some, if the coin hoards are anything to go by. There may be other explanations for these coin deposits, but at a time when Rome was planning to expand her northern Empire, support from within Britain was paramount. This too, could account for the magnificent Winchester Treasure, a worthy gift to a trusted ally to ensure support at that time. So was it a Special Place? Yes, I for one think it was, but this was probably a claim that equally could be made by other parts of Southern Britain at this turbulent time.

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