‘Some months’ before June 1913, workmen digging between Breachwood Green and Darley Hall in Kings Walden found a collection of objects six feet (about 2 m) below the surface. The depth suggests that this was not simple foundations work or a drainage ditch but something more substantial. We don’t know exactly where the workmen were digging, or what they were excavating. As we will see, historic maps give us a clue about where it might have been.
What was discovered? According to the original account, published in The Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries in 1913, there were four brooches (two identical), a girdle-hanger, a pair of bronze tweezers, fragments from the bronze rim of an organic vessel, and a fragment of pottery. The brooches consist of three small-long brooches and a fragmentary applied saucer brooch. These are all typical early-medieval types, unusual in Hertfordshire. The name ‘small-long brooch’ refers to the main division of early medieval brooches between long and circular forms. Long brooches are also known as bow brooches and developed ultimately from Iron Age La Tène styles.
The paired small-long brooches in the find were 69 mm long, with a square panel on the head and three rudimentary knob-like projections; that on the top has a moulded collar, while the others are plain. The bow is small and flattish (an indication of a relatively late date), with a projecting square projection at its high point, while the foot has a catchplate at the top, immediately below the bow, and a flaring foot with a flat end. Both brooches had traces of rust from the missing iron pins, and one had impressions of cloth at the back of the foot. These paired brooches are typical of female burials, not male.
The third small-long brooch was 70 mm long and of a different design. The head does not have a separate central panel, and it has trefoil lobe projections, with two corners of what would be the head forming spikes between the lobes. Around the edge of each lobe runs a double line of punch ring decoration, with just one line running past the base of each spike. Centrally, at the bottom of the head, is an incised counter-clockwise fylfot (swastika), a symbol well-known in various Eurasian cultures, perhaps first as a solar symbol and more recently for general good luck, before its unfortunate adoption by the Nazis in the 1930s.
The girdle-hanger, one of what would originally have been a pair or sometimes three, attached by a loop to the belt. It is 137 mm long and decorated with a stamped S pattern. The shape is similar to a latch-lifter, a type of key. Although they were not really keys, they likely symbolised a woman’s control of the home. An Old English riddle, number 61 in the Exeter Book of Riddles, includes the following: oft mec fæste bileac freolicu meowle, ides on earce (‘often a free maid, a woman, securely locks me in a chest’). Although the answer to the riddle is not clear – it might refer to a piece of man’s clothing or his helmet as she gives him the speaking object – it shows how women could oversee security in and around the home.
As an aside, it is amusing to see how Victorian translators could not understand how a woman might be in control of a home. An nineteenth-century translation of the Laws of Æthelbert (King of Kent about 590-616) refers to ‘a freeborn woman with long hair’. The Old English original
The published paper does not give dimensions or an adequate description of the tweezers, although it describes them as ‘broader than usual’. This may mean that they are a typical early medieval type, which flares towards a broad terminal. Although the publication suggests that they ‘might have served to extract thorns’, they are now thought to be used in personal grooming, for pulling out short hairs (locks again!), craft activities such as sewing, and medical uses, including removing splinters or ticks. Tweezers have a long history in Britain, being first found in the Late Iron Age; early medieval types occur both in female and male medieval graves, mostly with adults.
The publication describes the curved bronze as being 7.5 mm wide, identifying it as the ‘lip of a drinking cup of wood’. Without evidence for the survival of wood, it is also possible that they were mounts for a drinking-horn. If they really are the rim of a drinking vessel of any sort, this raises the question of the sex of the grave’s occupant. All the objects discussed so far are associated with women or with both women and men. Bronze- (or silver-) rimmed vessels seem to accompany male burials; where wooden cups or bowls occur in definitely female burials, any bronze is part of a repair patch. Perhaps this grave is the exception that proves the rule.
The final object recorded is a potsherd. Described as ‘an urn fragment of a coarse brown ware, shewing three bosses on the shoulder pressed out from within and separated by incised vertical lines’, it was clearly an early-medieval buckelurn. These were vessels often used as containers for cremated human bone and were introduced to Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers, the earliest being found in East Anglia, where they are dated about 420-430. Radiocarbon dating suggest that they became less popular after the middle of the sixth century.
The date of the potsherd (about 420-550) agrees with the likely dates of the brooches. There is so far no standard typology for small-long brooches, and none can be dated more closely than within a broad range matching the potsherd, although those with flatter bows, like all three bow brooches from the site, are thought to belong later rather than earlier in the range. The fragmented applied saucer brooch is of identical date. The earliest girdle-hangers are from the later fifth century, and they continued being used into the early seventh. Overall, this suggests a date in the first half of the fifth century for the grave. The date (c 670) given in the Hertfordshire Historic Environment Record, based on a notice in the Transactions of the St Albans and Hertfordshire Architectural and Archaeological Society, is more than a century too late.
We can thus be certain that the burial was of a woman who died in the first half of the sixth century AD. But where was it? When an oil pipeline from Humberside to Buncefield was proposed in 1990, it ran just to the east Darley Hall. As a result, the developer, Petrofina, commissioned a geophysical survey, carried out by Geophysical Surveys Ltd (Bradford), which failed to reveal anything resembling a cemetery. Further south, close to Winch Hill Farm, the investigation of a group of anomalies revealed a previously unknown Romano-British site with dating evidence from the second to fourth centuries, too early to be associated with the burial.
One possible clue to the location is that there is a group of hollows northwest of Breachwood Green and east of Darley Hall, marked ‘Old Clay Pits’ on the 1898 25-inch Ordnance Survey map surveyed in 1897, and they have been joined by a new pit to the south by 1937, when a new 2½ map was surveyed. This is where St Mary’s Rise was later built (perhaps in the late 1950s). By 1959, there were three more pits, further to the south, showing that extraction continued here throughout the early twentieth century.
The fact that they were clay pits offers an explanation for why the workers failed to spot a skeleton. Calculating a pH value measures the relative acidity of a soil, where 7 is neutral and the lower the number below that, the more acidic: clay ranges between about 5 and 7.5, and most local clays tend to the acidic side. In such circumstances, bone preservation is poor and can degrade to the point where non-specialists will not even recognise it.
What was notable at the time of discovery – and remains so to this day – is the rarity of burials of this character in Hertfordshire. Usually seen as the graves of incoming settlers from northern Europe, often inaccurately referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxons’, recent studies of DNA and stable isotopes in teeth have shown that many female burials of this type are of local women, descendants of the Romano-British population. The quality of the finds shows that she was a member of a wealthy family and that whatever ethnic identity we want to push onto her, this was not an issue for her contemporaries.
She may have considered herself a Briton or an Angle: we will never know. In many ways, this is an unimportant distinction. In looking for the origins of England, it is now clear that the early medieval English were a mixture of people of different ancestries, some whose families had been in Britain for centuries, even millennia, some who had made the perilous journey across the North Sea, some who had come from further west and some who had come the Mediterranean region.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
The discovery of Roman Baldock happened after Mr Hart, the farmer of Walls Field, ploughed up a human skull just before Easter in 1925. Over the next five years, Percival Westell of Letchworth Museum and his assistants excavated over 450 burials from a cemetery, or possibly two adjacent cemeteries. The burials were mostly undamaged by later ploughing, as they lay towards the bottom of a slope and soil washed downhill had protected them for many centuries.
Because of the excellent preservation, they provided Westell with a vast haul of objects to put into the growing Letchworth Museum. Although he published his results promptly, as a result of which the cemetery is well known among archaeologists, his standards were poor and his record keeping almost non-existent. We don’t even have a plan of the cemetery showing the locations of individual burials, let alone plans of the graves themselves. He did keep everything from a single burial together most of the time, though, so we can reconstruct from his ‘burial groups’ the contents if not the layout of each one.
Most of the burials in the cemetery were of cremated remains, which can be dated from the mid first century AD through to the late third because most of them contained datable pots. There were also inhumation burials, represented by skeletons; although Westell kept their skulls and sent them to the Royal College of Surgeons, they were destroyed by bombing during the Blitz along with the rest of the College’s collection. They are less easy to date than the cremations, although some contained pottery disturbed from earlier graves. Westell’s initial dating of the pottery was often wrong, and a 1985 dissertation by Maria Fabrizi, an undergraduate of the University of Bradford, was able to suggest more accurate dates.
Westell did not excavate the entire cemetery, as trenches by his assistant Erik Applebaum in the early 1930s uncovered more inhumation graves. It is also evident from his inadequate plan that the burials concentrated in two principal groups: one to the north-east and one to the south-west of the area he excavated. Using Fabrizi’s dating, we can see that the earliest burials in the southwestern group date from about AD 50-70, while the latest belong to the early third century. The 53 inhumation burials in this part of the site cannot be dated, unfortunately. The earliest burials in the northeastern are later, about AD 75-100, and deposition here continued into the fourth century. These distinct but overlapping date ranges make it likely that we are indeed looking at two separate burial grounds.
Westell retained very few cremated human remains: there is an account by his assistant J Peat Young of them tipping the remains out onto the field surface as being of no value! Nor did he record the positions of vessels in cremation pits or the alignments of bodies in individual inhumations. The majority were aligned with head to the west, although some had heads to the south; most were extended, but some seem to have been crouched.
One of the burials in the northeastern group (Westell’s Group 89), excavated in spring 1928, contained cremated bone inside a decorated samian bowl of form Dragendorff 37. The bowl came from the potteries at Lezoux in Central Gaul (Puy-de-Dôme, France), and bears the stamps SACRILLIM (Sacrillus’s Manufactory) and DOECCVS (Doeccus, the name of the artist who created the decoration). Doeccus’s decoration consists of an image of Silenus with a basket of fruit on his head, a dancer with scarf, hares and flames. Sacrillus was making pottery between about AD 165 and 200, while Doeccus was active about AD 160-190, meaning that this bowl probably dates 165-190.
As well as the decorated bowl, there were a colour-coated globular beaker and the lower part of a flagon. The beaker is probably of much the same date as the samian, while the flagon, probably from the kilns outside Verolamium, is not easy to date as the most easily dated features are towards the top of these vessels. Nevertheless, all three vessels indicate that the burial was probably deposited in the later second century (say AD 170-200).
The most remarkable aspect of this already unusual grave – it is uncommon to find the cremated bone put into a samian bowl – is its collection of beads. Westell recorded forty-four of them, but some apparently disintegrated during excavation, so we are left with the forty-one shown in the picture. Westell described them as ‘gilded’, but they are technically gold-in-glass or gold-glass. Such beads have an unusual distribution: they are found in Britain but rarely in other western provinces of the empire, and from central Europe southeastwards. This led George Boon to suggest in 1977 that they came to Britain with the 5500 Iazyges cavalry sent here in AD 175 by Marcus Aurelius, according to Cassius Dio’s Ῥωμαϊκὴ Ἱστορία (‘Roman History’) Book 72.
The Iazyges were a tribe of Sarmatians, a group of people from southern Russia who began migrating westwards into Ukraine during the fourth century BC. They had expanded into the Balkans, north of the Lower Danube and into the Carpathian basin, by the first century AD. The Iazyges were the Sarmatian group between the Danube and Dacia (which became a Roman province after Trajan’s conquest in AD 106, covering much of modern Romania). Marcus Aurelius fought a series of wars on the Danube frontier between AD 166 and his death in 180; to Roman historians, it was Bellum Germanicum et Sarmaticum (‘the German and Sarmatian War’), but historians today usually call it the Marcomannic War, after the main German enemies of Rome involved in the conflict.
Marcus defeated the Iazyges in 175, their king Zanticus surrendering in person to the emperor. As part of the peace treaty, they supplied 8,000 cavalry troops to the Roman army, of whom 5,500 were sent to Britain. Although numbers cited by ancient authors are often suspect and probably exaggerated (Dio’s 5,500 is a legion-sized body of men), we know that Sarmatians did arrive in Britain in the later 170s. The best evidence is from Bremetennacum Veteranorum (Ribchester), a cavalry fort in northwest England. It was home to a unit known at first as the
Much of the supposed evidence for Sarmatians in Britain is less clear-cut than the inscriptions. A tombstone from Chester said to show a Sarmatian cavalryman almost certainly does not: it is too early (it dates from the first half of the second century) and probably depicts a Dacian. Some enthusiasts have seen almost every bead from Roman Britain as evidence for them, even the ubiquitous melon beads!
What has been described as ‘an imaginative and controversial theory’ links these Sarmatians with the Arthurian legends. Why? A tombstone from Podstrana in Croatia commemorates a Lucius Artorius Castus, who late in his military career served as Praefectus Legionis for Legio VI Victrix, based in York. His next post was as Dux Legionum adversus Arm… (‘Commander of legions against the Arm…’). Unfortunately, the slab is broken at this key point. The most reasonable restoration is Armenios (‘the Armenians’), which is perhaps the war of AD 163. Supporters of the ‘controversial theory’ would rather read Armatos (‘armed men’), a term too vague ever to appear in an outline of a military career.
However, those who want to see Castus as a prototype of King Arthur propose that while Praefectus Legionis at York, he led Sarmatian troops against these ill-defined Armatos, identified as barbarians from north of Hadrian’s Wall. The descendants of the Sarmatians then conflated him with a folk-hero Batradz, remembered in the Ossetian Nart Sagas. Needless to say, this is the stuff of fantasy. A Praefectus Legionis was a late-career soldier, usually in his 50s, who acted as quartermaster for a legion. In other words, someone in charge of logistics rather than a fighting or even commanding soldier. Nothing links Castus with Sarmatians, and the Nart Sagas were first recorded in the nineteenth century.
The use of gold-glass beads to identify Sarmatians has also been called into question. Maud Spaur’s 1993 reassessment of the type has shown that far from being a type from the Balkans, they originated in Ptolemaic Egypt in the third century BC. They were probably made in the Roman period and later at several places around the eastern Mediterranean; the only chemical analysis of a British bead (one from Caerleon in Wales) indicated that it was an import from Egypt. Given that we have local evidence for Alexandrian glass (the mosaic glass dishes discussed a few weeks ago), an Egyptian origin seems likely for these beads from Baldock.
These beads are yet another example of the many layers of meaning than can be extracted from apparently ordinary objects. Even if some of them are dead ends – the idea that a supposed commander of Sarmatians in Britain was the original King Arthur – they add interesting digressions to understanding the past.
Written by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews
Guest post by Alice Rogers and Himani Sidhu work experience students from Knights Templar School, Baldock
We came here for work experience, and we had a great time! We have been given valuable life lessons by the beyond friendly workers at the museum. We have learnt lots about the area we have grown up in that we didn’t know prior to our visit. As part of our experience, we have been able to help with a new display, create top trumps cards, learnt how to catalogue items, went around town to promote a new exhibit and many other things.
We were asked by the museum staff to select our favourite display; we chose the suffragettes. This display includes letters to suffragettes, notably one from Christabel Pankhurst, outfits they once wore, badges and much more. It is fascinating to know that there were some of these noble people in this area.
Viewing these exhibits made us realize that there is a lot more significant history in North Herts than we were aware of. We have had an interesting and memorable time working here, an experience we will never forget.