We continue our look at Current Archaeology magazine’s recent annual ‘CALive!’ conference at Senate House in London, with a review of the Saturday sessions.
We reconvened at Senate House once again on Saturday morning for the first session of the day, ‘The Osteology of Trauma’, introduced by Neil Faulkner, editor of Military History Monthly magazine.
First up was Ray Baldry with ‘Sedgeford’s Anglo-Saxon skeletons – That Fateful Day’. Only around 30% of the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Sedgeford has been excavated so far, with over 400 skeletons found. Eight of these – all tall, strong men – show signs of ‘severe hit trauma’ and wounds associated with armed combat – sharp weapon trauma to arms bones and skull. One poor victim had lost the left half of his face, which had been cleaved off – horrific, brutal injuries. Looking at a second group of three men, it was interesting to hear how trauma fractures can be traced to specific defensive actions (identified by some experimental archaeology: “when I tried this on my son…”) For instance, forearm trauma associated with a partial skull cut shows a successful defence of an axe attack, but only partially – a second axe cut pierced the skull. But some of the skeletons showed no sign of defence – executions? If so, which came first, the conflict or the executions? Trying to analyse trading routes and possible Viking raiding parties as an explanation requires more precise dating evidence, but as a charity the SHARP project is financially constrained (however, see below).
Louise Loe then told us about the Ridgeway Hill Vikings in ‘Death on the Ridgeway: Analysis of a Viking Age Mass Grave discovered near Weymouth’. The grave was uncovered in 2009 during construction work for a relief road built for the 2012 Olympics. The burials were all male, mostly young, dating to the 10th-11th centuries. All had been decapitated and thrown into a disused Roman quarry, the heads being tossed to one side. Splinters of bone found in the soil suggest graveside executions. Isotope analysis shows they were from Scandinavia, Russia, Iceland and the Baltic states, and hadn’t been in England long when they died. Study of the bones showed an average of four wounds per execution victim, most beheadings having been ‘hacked off’, rather than taken cleanly. There was some thought given to the idea that the cleaner executions in the group were either done earlier when the blade was sharp, or later when the executioner had had more practice and had ‘got into his swing’. Many of the men had put up a defence, with sword trauma on hands and arms, and many of the victims had disabilities or some form of physical impairment. Despite their Scandinavian origins, it is unlikely the victims were Viking warriors. So more questions to be answered with further analysis.
Dr Martin Smith then described ‘The Children of Cain, Making sense of Neolithic violence’. He explained that the Neolithic is generally considered a peaceful time, with few obvious weapons. However, a pattern is appearing in prehistoric skulls of ‘healed trauma’, skull depression injuries often explained as prehistoric people ‘banging their heads on caves’! But we also were shown some unhealed trauma injuries, and Martin compared living bone fractures to chocolate, and dead bone fracture to biscuits – an interesting image. Moving on to projectile injuries there was an interesting comparison between shotgun wound trauma and arrow or slingshot injuries. Flint arrowheads shot into cattle and pig scapulas showed nice clean holes. Turning to look at various sites across Europe, several show signs of mass attack where occupants were violently killed, often from behind (running away?) Many Neolithic mass graves across Europe include men, women, and children, but no young adult females; perhaps kidnapped as they were of childbearing age? Statistics suggest 1 in 8 Neolithic people suffered violent trauma to the head. Some possible reasons for such violence were discussed: Neolithic people were herders and farmers, so could support bigger families. This could have led to greater rivalry for resources/wives. Inequality often leads to violence – the haves and have-nots.
Just before we broke for a refreshment break, during which the Archaeology Fair was once again packed out, Julian Richards grabbed the microphone and suggested that as there was so much interest in Ray Baldry’s talk, and there was no money for dating analysis, that a voluntary collection should be made from the conference delegates. To this end, a makeshift collection box was set up, and donations poured in…
Back to the talks, and the late morning session leading up to lunch described ‘Warfare in Roman Britain’, and was introduced by Matt Symonds, editor of Current Archaeology.
Mike Bishop, editor of the Journal of Roman Military Equipment Studies ushered into the hall a couple of members of the Ermine Street Guard for his talk, ‘The Detritus of War or Peace?’ – a wonderful piece of one-upmanship in the visual aids area!
Mike explained that Roman military equipment is rare, and only found in specific circumstances. This affects what we can say about the Roman army in battle. Classicists and military historians have to largely rely on written sources for evidence on battle. Sculptures can also be useful for interpretation. Looking at physical evidence for Roman equipment, it seems that hobnails were commonly lost, and can sometimes provide evidence for ‘lost’ Roman roads. The various parts of the Roman armour/dress were explained – the army adopted and adapted equipment and techniques. Lorica segmentata armour sheds parts “like a Mk 3 Land Rover, and has the same corrosive issues”, leather straps linking the metal strips of the armour seem not to have been tanned and are not found except via traces of mineralisation. Roman law stated that soldiers mustn’t lose their sword, shield, or helmet (upon pain of death), and intact helmets are rarely found, except as votive offerings in rivers though helmet components are sometimes found due to re-use and repair. There is little evidence for Roman battle in Britain – the famous Maiden Hill skeleton with a ‘ballista bolt’ was in fact shot with a javelin head (it has the wrong profile for a ballista bolt).
Phillip Crummy then told us about ‘Boudicca, Colchester and Buried Treasure’, talking about Boudicca’s legacy in the Roman town, which is clearly delineated by the burnt area. Archaeology confirms that Colchester’s defensive ditches had been filled in and its town wall post-dates the Boudiccan attack so the town would have been essentially defenceless against the Iceni. After comparison of different descriptions of Boudicca and the Gauls, focus changed to the Fenwick Hoard which included Gold earrings, bracelets and silver cuffs. Three large silver arm bands were armilla – military awards – but there was also gold female jewellery present, as well as a bulla – an amulet given to a baby boy and worn throughout childhood. Many of the male items included panther imagery, a possible link to the owner’s nickname perhaps? It is thought that the hoard was hurriedly buried as the Iceni were about to attack the town, in the hopes of later retrieval, but the finds are now just a sign of human catastrophe, as Phillip drew comparisons with modern Syria “will we ever learn?”
Finishing off the morning session, John Reid told us of ‘The Roman Siege of Burnswark Hill‘ in Dumfriesshire, about a day’s march north of Hadrian’s Wall. Two Roman camps have been discovered north and south of the hill. The hillfort is covered in projectiles, many lead slingshots, stone ballista bolts and arrowheads, and the topology of the camp entrances would allow fast movement of troops from the camps. The standard interpretation is of a siege, but could it have been an artillery range? Analysis of the projectile scatter provided some clues and experimental archaeology showed that whilst a ‘lobbing’ method allows projectiles to travel up to 300m, a lower, horizontal action allows much greater accuracy at the expense of range (circa 100m), and can be as powerful as a .45 Magnum! Three types of shot were recovered, a lemon shape, an acorn shape (much rarer) and a third type which was pierced. Experimenting again, there was little difference in accuracy for the first two, but the third was less accurate, and whistled. Could this have been to terrify the enemy? Metal detectors have been used to locate used slingshot a Burnswark – but not excavated as the stratigraphy there is very delicate, with deposits just 3″ deep in most places. Of over 2600 targets, based on trial trenching nearly 700 are almost certainly lead sling bullets. Their distribution suggests a line of attack from the south, and the use of ‘live’ ammo i.e. lead, suggests a true attack rather than a practice run. A fascinating piece of research, which continues.
With a reminder that Current Archaeology will be holding a conference focussing on Hadrian’s Wall, in Durham in September, Matt brought the session to a close for lunch.
Once again, lunchtime seems a reasonable time to take a break here, and we’ll finish off this conference review in Part 4, later today.