Nottinghamshire’s ancient heritage waiting game goes on


A lovely cream-coloured Romano-British jug kept by Newark and Sherwood District Council

WHEN is anybody going to see some of the 100,000 ancient artefacts – Ice Age to Anglo-Saxon – that were found alongside the A46 Fosse Way during the recent road dualling project? The question has arisen twice at events I’ve been involved with in the last fortnight. At the first, a visit to Newark and Sherwood District Council’s resource centre in Newark, where WEA adult learners saw and handled some of the many Romano-British items owned by the authority, we learned that the only artefacts from the A46 dualling which will eventually go on display in Newark will be the Ice Age flints which were found at Farndon. That’ll be 2015 at the earliest. At the second event, a talk on Margidunum which I gave in East Bridgford, general exasperation was expressed that the general public in Nottinghamshire has yet to see any of the artefacts recovered ahead of the £362m dualling of 17 miles of the A46. That project was completed last summer and, to date, the only public report on the archaeology has been a 16-page summary titled Following the Fosse Way Through Nottinghamshire. A full public report has often been vaguely promised but has not appeared and artefacts which could have been gone on tour to local schools and village halls at little cost but great educational advantage have been kept out of sight by private archaeological consultants. This is outrageous when you consider that the Highways Agency’s bill, including the cost of the archaeology work, was actually paid for by public money. Then again, having dealt with both the Highways Agency and two big archaeology consultancies during the course of writing two Roman books, I’ve learned not to expect a great deal from some consultancies. Their first loyalty is to their contract, not the general public. Ditto the Government agencies which employ them. Perhaps it’s time the rules governing archaeological investigations of such big schemes were rewritten to take into account the interests of the public who actually pay for them. But now for a recap. At Newark, we learned that it is likely that the town’s new museum, housed in the old Magnus School building, will not open until 2015. Although the HLF-supported museum will be heavily orientated towards Civil War history, many of the area’s best Iron Age and Romano-British items will also go on display. These will include the famous golden Iron Age Torc (which is currently on loan to the British Museum – since Newark has never had the facilities to display it), Roman lead coffins, mosaic pavements from the Norton Disney villa and the delicately gorgeous cavalry helmet cheekpiece that T.C. Smith Woolley recovered from Crococalana (Brough) over 100 years ago.


A Roman clay lamp also owned by Newark and Sherwood

These are currently carefully stored in Newark and Sherwood’s resource centre, along with 60,000 other items, and as collections and learning assistant Kevin Winter told us, this sheer volume means the authority now has to be choosy about what other artefacts it can take in. And so far as the A46 goes, they’re only taking the flints from Farndon. In which case I would speculate that other items, possibly including an eye-catching Bronze Age beaker recovered from a burial, will be going to the University of Nottingham archaeology museum. But when? And why wait so long to see it all? That was the subject of a conversation a week later at East Bridgford following my talk on Margidunum, the Roman town about half a mile down the road where the A46 archaeologists found the mass burial of 17 Romano-British babies. We’re still waiting for a report on that one too. All agreed it was shocking that so little information about the A46 finds has been made available to the public.

Fragment of wall plaster from the Norton Disney villa

Fragment of wall plaster from the Norton Disney villa

Quite apart from the educational impact of seeing artefacts (think how interesting it would have been to children to have a mobile display come round to their schools for the day), gaining constructive knowledge of the ancient history on your doorstep might even have a tourism benefit. This indeed was the issue raised by a villager at Colston Bassett when the Highways Agency mounted an information evening about the A46 finds in early 2010. This elderly villager put his hand up and asked whether the archaeology results would be published so that everybody could read them. He was told that while a summary might be available, a detailed report would probably not be made available. I attended that meeting and can also still remember my encounters with the suspicious mindset of a Highways Agency ‘public liaison manager.’ After the HA presentations I asked this official about obtaining photographs of the A46 archaeology. Reiterating that photographs of the excavations could only be obtained directly from the Highways Agency, she said, ’after all it is their road.’ She then quickly corrected herself and added, ‘well, actually it is the taxpayers’ road since we all pay for it.’  That little verbal slip may tell you why the people of Nottinghamshire are still unable to see any of the 100,000 artefacts that were dug up alongside the Fosse Way. Please note that the photographs on this page were all taken by me with permission of Kevin Winter of Newark and Sherwood District Council.


Romano-British weight set

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Savile, Diana and Eaton


FundiliaIf you haven’t seen the Nemi exhibition at Nottingham Castle yet – hurry up. Although the show is on until September 29 this display of Etruscan and Roman artefacts from the shrine of Diana at Nemi hasn’t been seen in public since the early 1980s, which suggests they might not go on show again for another 25 years. That the contents of an ancient healing temple in Italy  are in Nottinghamshire at all is all down to Lord Savile, who excavated Nemi in 1885. Savile’s seat was Rufford Abbey and so donated his collection of Nemi busts, frieze fragments and clay devotional figurines to his local museum which was Nottingham Castle. Curator Ann Inscker has been working to get the artefacts out of storage again for years and return items that had been on loan to a museum in Denmark (the museum there owns the other half of the artefacts excavated at Nemi). Ann’s favourite piece, and no doubt the favourite of many visitors, is the impressive tall herm of an imposing Roman lady called Fundilia which is displayed in a room which may be designed to look like a shadowy temple interior. Elsewhere you can peer at dozens of devotional figurines and models of human anatomy shaped in clay which were, presumably, left at the shrine in the hope that Diana, goddess of hunting and healing, would bless the worshippers with better health. The Nemi shrine was of course a  source of considerable interest to Sir James Frazer, whose multi-volume study of magic and mystery The Golden Bough was an attempt to understand the atavistic forces expressed in the rites of the priest of Nemi, Rex Nemorensis, King of the Grove. The priest had one of the best and worst jobs since he was guardian of the goddess’s shrine but knew that his fate was to be killed by the next person who wanted to be priest. The killer would then become the new priest, fated to be slain by the next job- seeker. This continual cycle of life and death within the woods of Nemi inspired both Frazer’s monumental work of anthropology and a much less well known French play titled Le Pretre de Nemi (The Priest of Nemi) by Ernest Renan in 1886. The play is, by most accounts, unperformable but,  for the occasion of the exhibition, has been translated into English by the Nottingham playwright and screenwriter Michael Eaton and published by John Lucas’s Shoestring Press in Beeston. In fact, Michael has several other connections to the Nemi story (including a degree in anthropology), all of which he will be explaining in his talk at Nottingham Castle on September 18 (1.15pm – it’s free but you have to pay to get into the Castle). Michael’s film, The Priest of Nemi, is also showing in the Nemi exhibition: both this and his talk should help illuminate the unlikely story of how the contents of an ancient Roman shrine ended up at Nottingham Castle.  But there are two other Nemi-related issues worth mentioning. One is that the lake at Nemi contained the sunken remains of two huge wooden pleasure barges that were built on the orders of the Emperor Caligula. After years of efforts to raise them, one was finally recovered in Mussolini’s time by draining the lake. The boat was on show in a museum for years but was, alas, burned by accident or design when the Germans retreated from the area in the Second World War. However, you can see photographs of  the two boats in the Castle exhibition. The other issue is the similarity of Rex Nemorensis – the King of the Grove – to Vernemetum, which was the name of the Roman town near Willoughby-on-the-Wolds in Nottinghamshire. The town’s name, translating as ‘very sacred grove’, suggests that it may have harboured a shrine or temple of some kind. The Roman spa town Aquae Arnemetiae, today called Buxton in Derbyshire, is also often translated as ‘waters of the goddess of the grove’ or some variation thereof.

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Ancient history walks? Sign up here.


Nottingham and Nottinghamshire are packed full of themed guided walks: pub walks, ghost walks, literary walks, history walks. But ancient history walks? They’re been strangely rare, which seemed a good reason, among a few others, for me to begin arranging a programme of such walks with the WEA. Three are planned so far, with the first starting from Oxton on Saturday, June 15 and taking in three places of interest: the Old Ox defended enclosure, the earthwork at Combs Farm and the Roman army marching camp at Farnsfield. Two shorter walks, from Calverton and from Thurgarton, are currently being road-tested for inclusion in a new programme of ancient history walks to be launched by the WEA in Nottinghamshire in the early autumn. If all goes well, we aim to expand the programme to other parts of the county. Participants on all walks will receive a pack of documents which will include a route map and a selection of notes and reports about the known history of the sites to be visited and some of the personalities involved in their investigation. Thus, the stories of both Old Ox and Combs Farm (which will be observed, rather than visited, since it is a private farm) cannot be told without mentioning Nottinghamshire’s best known 18th century antiquary, Maj Hayman Rooke, who looked at both sites and excavated a barrow near  Old Ox. Mention of Rooke quickly leads on to his discovery of the Mansfield Woodhouse Roman villa, the Major Oak, his circle of antiquarian friends in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire and indeed the entire issue of the antiquarian rediscovery of ancient Britain…. So, yes, as long as the weather is good enough, we will be sitting down in the grass to discuss these kinds of interesting background issues. And if it’s raining, I imagine we will be standing up to do the same.


In some ways these walks are meant to try to revive an old WEA tradition of offering inexpensive outdoor instruction. But I also want to do my bit towards encouraging more people to get and out about in the countryside to experience and participate in local landscapes. I’ve also long been interested in the outdoor movements of the 1920s and 30s, an era which saw the growth of youth hostelling, the keeping-it-simple approach and which extolled access to the countryside as an inexpensive and democratic right; a working class response to the depression, perhaps. Now, in a time when to be ‘a walker’ has come to imply the possession of huge amounts of expensive technical kit, I’d like to reemphasise the need for a purposeful (and cheaper) kind of walking – and, in this case, with some discussion of Roman and Iron Age local history thrown in.  A quick glance at the footpaths on the relevant OS map should suggest that the Oxton walk is a 7-8 mile round journey, which will probably be the longest one of the trio currently planned. Thurgarton is the shortest while Calverton is the mid-sized walk. Places are limited to 15, so if you want to sign up please contact Nikki Cleaver at the WEA asap on 0115 962 8418 or Further walks will be announced in the next WEA brochure.

IMAG5214The three images in this post are taken from the Youth Hostel Association of Northern Ireland’s 1938-39 handbook.

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Iron Age coins, travel and other thoughts on the train to London

The Hallaton Treasure of coins, bowls and a Roman helmet discovered in south Leicestershire shed considerable light on the religious and social customs of the Corieltauvi people who lived in the East Midlands during the Iron Age. As Leicestershire County Council Archaeology Officer Helen Sharpe showed at a talk in Nottingham last week, this astounding collection of more than 5,000 coins included a huge number of locally made coins as well as examples from every coin-making Iron Age tribe in Britain apart from the Canti people of Kent and the London area.

gold coin, called a stater, from Hallaton

gold coin, called a stater, from Hallaton

The buried money also included 300 Roman coins, among them a Republican coin from around 200BC which may be the oldest such coin found in Britain. Then there was a solid silver bowl, a drinking vessel handle, ingots, two small pieces of coloured glass (the eyes from an idol? Sharpe suggested) – and of course the cavalry helmet, which was pieced back together over five years by the British Museum. Although the additional presence of the buried bones of 400 pigs has been shunted aside in all the media fuss about the bling, these organic remains strengthen the argument that the hilltop at Hallaton must have been an important outdoor shrine where people came together to feast and make offerings to their deities. Nobody, of course, can explain the presence of the helmet which, with its silver-gilt exterior and image of Cybele (the Anatolian mother-goddess of antiquity) above the front rim, must have been a gorgeous and highly prized example of Roman craftsmanship in its day. But back to the coins. Although it was already known that Corieltauvian coin-makers used Latin lettering to inscribe pairs of short (and to us, cryptic) groups of letters on their money, the Hallaton coins offered the suggestion that that the coin-nakers may still have been unsure of the Romans’ alphabet One coin inscribed with the already known word TATISOM had the ‘S’ backwards, which made it look as if the coin-makers wanted to imitate Roman writing – ‘but they didn’t really get it’, said Sharpe. It has always been assumed that these letters were abbreviated versions of the names of Corieltauvian chieftains, magistrates or co-rulers.

other side of the Iron Age stater

other side of the Iron Age stater

But while the Iceni people of East Anglia had a Queen called Boudicca, and the Brigantes had, at one point, a Queen and a consort called Cartimandua and Venutius (until they fell out, causing the Roman army to rescue Cartimandua), the many variations on local coins suggests that the Corieltauvi may have had many local leaders. And given the size of the Corieltauvian area, that isn’t difficult to understand. I was thinking about this issue when I took the train to London last Friday to attend the Current Archaeology awards (‘Roman Nottinghamshire’, which was up for book of the year, didn’t win, but it was nice to be nominated all the same). The train took 45 minutes to get from Nottingham to Market Harborough, which is the nearest town to Hallaton, at an average speed of, let’s assume, 100mph. Now, if it takes 45 minutes to travel from the Trent to the south of Leicestershire on a modern high speed train, imagine how long it must have taken for Corieltauvian people to ride or walk the same distance along their own well-beaten but occasionally muddy tracks. I’m not going to work the time and distance out now, but it would have been an undertaking that you didn’t do on the spur of the moment. Such a journey would have taken a few days and required some planning as to food, accommodation etc. As ever, the slower you travel, the bigger (and, I would argue, the more interesting) the world becomes. Yet the Corieltauvian area was, we understand, much bigger than the distance of the train line between Nottingham and Market Harborough. Here was a region which seems to have extended from north Nottinghamshire to Northamptonshire in the south and from the Lincolnshire coast to parts of Derbyshire in the west. Given that people could only travel as fast as a horse could carry them (if you could afford a horse, that is) is it likely that one chieftain could rule a tribal area – a civitas, or state, as the Romans later called it – of that size? If you summoned your lieutenants to a gathering in Sleaford, for example, how long would it take for the message to get to all of them and for them all to arrive? Far more likely, I think, that the ‘tribe’ was composed of several smaller and inter-related, intermarried, subtribes led by their own chieftains or pairs of chieftains – which is what the names on the coins suggest.  And perhaps this is why the Corieltauvi appear to have been over run by the Roman army so quickly; they were unable to put up a united defence under a single ruler. As armies through the centuries have found, one usually cannot win a war by committee…

Coin marked with the Tenth Legion found in the Hallaton Treasure

Coin marked with the Tenth Legion found in the Hallaton Treasure

The response to this argument, of course, is that the Brigantian area was even larger than the Corieltauvian region and they managed to have a queen and consort. But that was them.  Who said all Iron Age tribes had to be the same? But, ah, you say, didn’t much the same communication problems hamper the medieval monarchs – and yet they still managed to wield power and summon armies? True, but medieval England was pretty much a unified nation (and they had paved Roman roads to travel on). In the Iron Age England and Britain as entities did not exist – it took the Romans to make a proto-nation, even if it was a colonised province, out of what had been a patchwork of rival and warring tribal nations. After the end of Roman Britain, the land in Anglo-Saxon times reverted to the Iron Age pattern of rival kingdoms, where there may have been fewer reason, and reduced possibilities, for long distance travel than had existed under the Romans

A second interesting point about the Hallaton Treasure is that it shows just how productive local coin-mints must have been. And although most of the records of Corieltauvian coin finds have been outside Nottinghamshire,  by coincidence I was contacted a few weeks ago by a metal detectorist who wanted to show the Iron Age, Roman and Anglo Saxon material he has found in Nottinghamshire over the last few years. These included several Corieltauvian coins (bottom picture) showing the usual abstract renditions of horses – artwork that, in a different context, could be mistaken for a Picasso drawing. These items were all found to the north west of Nottingham. A touring exhibition about the Hallaton Treasure can currently be seen at Chesterfield Museum but a completely new show about it the treasure due to open at Snibston Discovery Museum in Leicestershire on May 23.


Corieltauvian and (top) Roman coins found near Nottingham - not part of the Hallaton Treasure

Corieltauvian coins found near Nottingham

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Roman Nottinghamshire up for award


An unexpected email this week informed me that Roman Nottinghamshire has been nominated for Book of the Year by Current Archaeology magazine. It’s one of those voting awards where authors and publishers are expected to round up fans, friends and family and demand that they cast a vote in their favour. Those with the biggest popular vote win the prize. It’s a bit like a mixture of a Roman gladatorial battle and The X-Factor, but without the expensive phone call costs. So put your thumbs up for Roman Nottinghamshire! The place to go is But while I’m pleased as punch to be nominated I am not seriously expecting to win this award. After all, the other shortlisted authors include one of Britain’s best known Iron Age/early Romano-British experts, Barry Cunliffe – and I’m pretty sure the much published Barry Cunliffe has many more fans than I have. On the other hand, there’s always the chance I’ll sneak in as the surprise outsider choice…Whatever happens the winner will be announced on March 1 at the Current Archaeology annual conference in London. Readers, you have until February 15 to vote for Roman Nottinghamshire. Do so or we’ll send Spartacus around.



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New review and Derbyshire on the way

A belated and positive review of Roman Nottinghamshire has been published in the magazine Current Archaeology (no. 272, November 2012) – the one with Richard III on the front cover. The book has also just been reprinted at a new price and with an author’s note explaining that a wholly revised edition is on the cards for 2014 to reflect, inter alia, the latest finds and developments at Southwell, Margidunum and along the A46 Fosse Way. The text will also incorporate interviews with some of the many people who have come forward to talk about their involvement with different aspects of Roman archaeology in the county. Publication of this new book should take place simultaneously with the book I am currently working on, Roman Derbyshire, which is being published by Five Leaves Publications in association with Derbyshire County Council. Taking note of some of the criticisms of the Nottinghamshire book (see review) the Derbyshire book will contain a completely new map of Roman roads, forts and other structures across Derbyshire.  In the meantime, apart from some WEA courses in Roman Nottinghamshire I’m teaching in the spring of 2013, I am booked to give a talk at Bingham on March 28 for the Bingham Heritage Trails Association. The talk will probably focus on some of the latest and more unusual finds around Margidunum… and that’s all I’ll say for now!

The Current Archaeology review is below:

Current Archaeology review

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When travellers from afar came to ancient Nottinghamshire…


...and his brother Arcadius

It’s been a while since the last posting but this has largely been due to work, which has included a new career teaching Roman Nottinghamshire as a subject to adult education classes with the WEA. Two courses have just finished in Nottingham and Burton Joyce and two more begin in Lowdham and Radcliffe-on-Trent later in April 2012. At least two more are booked for the autumn and one more is being organised for spring 2013. If you are interested in booking a place on one of these courses then please contact the WEA. However, what prompts this new posting is the recent conference held by the Nottinghamshire Local History Association at Ravenshead, which featured three talks on Roman issues. They were all interesting but one fact that really caught my imagination – and almost went by unnoticed – emerged in the talk about the archaeology that has been found under and alongside the A46 Fosse Way. Louise Robinson, an archaeology consultant, took the audience through the finds along the road from Widmerpool to Farndon on a find-by-find basis. Here is a stretch of 28km which has yielded evidence of everything from Bronze Age burial mounds to Iron Age settlements to Roman infant burials at Margidunum, near East Bridgford. And it was at Margidunum that Robinson said a coin of Arcadius has been found. Arcadius? Arcadius was  brother to Honorius at a time when the Roman Empire had been formally split into two; Honorius ruled the Western half, Arcadius ruled the Eastern half from Constantinople. And it was Honorius who formally disconnected Britain from the Empire in 410AD when he told the Britons that they could no longer expect military assistance from Rome and that they were on their own. Since Arcadius died in 408,  the coin means that Margidunum was occupied almost up to the very end of the Roman occupation of Britain. But one could understand finding a coin minted by the Western Emperor in Nottinghamshire. How would a coin by Arcadius, who ruled from a throne on the tip of ancient Anatolia, have found its way here? We will never know but its discovery underlines once again how this humble corner of the province of Britannia was once connected to the further reaches of the great Roman Empire. Another welcome piece of news from the NLHA conference was that all of the discoveries along the A46 are due to be published in a report at the beginning of 2013.

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