Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.


The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.


The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 


The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.


The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”

39 thoughts on “Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

  1. Makes you wonder what some archeologist will uncover in 1,000 years about us. Probably a lot of burning, smoldering lithium batteries that will explode in their faces when uncovered…along with a cracked iPhone with some touristy pictures they can’t get at because they don’t have the passcode.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I used a friend’s metal detector one time, to try to find my throwing knife. I’m a beginner and overthrew the board by a mile. I might be stretching the distance, but maybe not, since I had no luck finding my knife. I did find enough odd pieces of trash to fill a small bag. None of it was a treasure.
    This “Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns.” Makes me wonder how finding these types of ancient/medieval graveyards affects the results of our current DNA testing companies. I’ve had a few of these done and the results vary between companies, and contain some unknowns (which makes it clear to me that this must obviously be why I don’t understand most humans.)

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t understand most humans either. Based on a sample of two, that must be a human characteristic. It would explain a lot about our history.

      From what I’ve read, the DNA companies base their readings on the sampling of people who pay them, with (and this is a guess) maybe some cluster of DNA to begin with. That explains why the different companies get different readings and why they’re more accurate (or at least more specific) about some parts of the world than about others. But people do seem to take it all very seriously and for the most part I don’t have the heart to argue.

      Knife throwing, though? Now that’s interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My son is a DNA analyst (for a crime lab), his opinion is that you get (close) to what you pay for. It all goes into which, and how many, of the alleles, they test. The more they check the more detail they can give. Some of it also goes to how much of the Genome Project they extract from, this is where the ancestry field started. The Genome Project was the diligent work of hundreds of scientists to map the human genome across the globe before solid mapping was lost to modern cross-breeding (interracial families). It was from this that the ability to map our ancestry came from, and part of the reason you get different results from different companies.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Pingback: Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history – sport

  4. So some of that student housing actually WAS built over an old graveyard ? Cue the spooky music !

    “Motel of the Mysteries” by David Macaulay (yes, the serious author David Macaulay) gives some insight into what archeologists in 1000 years will find of us.

    Expensive metal detectors have various settings that allow for missing bottle caps and soda cans and going only for more precious metals. (Any metal detector I ever used came from Radio Shack, so I only know what I wasn’t likely to find.)
    This is the kind of history that fascinates me, whether it’s Stonehenge or Karnak or Baalbek or Tikal, so thank you for adding to my knowledge !

    You lost a bit of your own history with the death of The Duke of Edinburgh. No matter anyone’s opinion of him or of The Royals, “Any time an old person dies, a library burns.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like the quote, even if I can’t say much for the duke. I couldn’t resist writing about him, though–it’ll post on Sunday. I’m sure I’ll piss someone off.

      Interesting about the metal detectors. The closest I’ve ever been to one was talking to a guy on the beach who really had found a bunch of aluminum tabs.


  5. Fascinating.
    Well said about the glazed eyes of the detectorists – I spent many hours with my uncle scouring the fields in Grimes County, Texas looking for Santa Ana’s buried treasure.
    Glazed eyes always looking down at the metal detector with high hopes.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Periodically my uncle would produce a map someone sold him when he was working oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico outside of Galveston Bay. He set our searches according to this frayed piece of paper that assured him the treasure was just within reach in Grimes County.
        As an adult I realized the evidence was far from compelling.
        Dreamers, failures waiting for their “ships to come in” as my grandmother had hoped – my mom was the only one to escape Grimes County with flashes of pursuing realistic goals.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. This is really interesting, thank you. It’s mind-boggling, what keeps turning up and how much of it there is. As for ‘The Detectorists’, it is one of the best series I’ve ever seen; so cleverly written, with gentle humour. I s’pose, if you got enough aluminium tabs you could pay off the mortgage and retire? Re the Duke of Edinburgh, Twitter earlier was full of unpleasant stuff by immature people who don’t have a clue but just like being offensive, as opposed to grown-up republicans who of course are entitled to their point of view (but possibly not at the moment).

    Liked by 3 people

    • In the US, when I’d see people wandering around behind metal detectors I couldn’t imagine what they’d turn up. Here, at least, I can understand the sense of possibility that might lead a person to go out there in the drizzle. All we’ve dug out of our little patch of yard is slate, but I still believe that all you have to do is push a shovel into the ground in this country and something exciting will make itself known.

      As for the Duke of E, I did write a bit about that, which will post on Sunday. I may or may not offend people, but I thought I’d roll the dice and find out. It’s not my goal, but it does sometimes happen. I try to find that narrow path that runs between being sensitive to other people’s feelings and censoring myself.

      Liked by 1 person

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