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Roundhouses, rubbish and Romans

7 September 2015 by Liz

The evidence of the buildings is being analysed, and they seem to have been constructed in clay and timber and may have been round-houses similar to this

The evidence of the buildings is being analysed, and they seem to have been constructed in clay and timber and may have been round-houses similar to this

Mark Adams, Archaeological Project Officer, tells us about one of his latest, and favourite, finds:

“A team of archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology North and the Museum of Liverpool have recently excavated a Romano-British settlement at Burton, Cheshire.  The site, which was first located from the air about 25 years ago, lay in the path of cabling being inserted for the Western HVDC Link which will bring renewable energy from Scotland to homes and business in England and Wales. Unfortunately the cable could not be re-routed to avoid the site but it has given us a rare opportunity to examine in detail the remains of a small farm which was occupied about 1700 years ago.

The archaeologists on site have carefully excavated the ditches which once enclosed the site and have also found the foundations of buildings which were lived in by the inhabitants.

About 400 fragments of Roman pottery have been found on the site, mostly locally made wares, but some have been imported from elsewhere in the UK and some from abroad.  Amongst these was the piece in the picture which is the rim from a mortarium, probably made in the Hartshill- Mancetter area of Warwickshire/Leicestershire in about AD230-300.

A near-complete example of a mortarium excavated at Halewood - on display in the Museum of Liverpool

A near-complete example of a mortarium excavated at Halewood – on display in the Museum of Liverpool

A mortarium was a special type of bowl, the inside of which was covered with coarse grit to give it a very rough surface and it would have been used for pounding or mixing foods in much the same way as a mortal and pestle is used today. A near complete mortarium is on display in the timeline in the Museum of Liverpool.

This fragment of mortarium is decorated with a repeating pattern using a red slip, a liquid clay applied just before the pot is fired.

This fragment of mortarium excavated at Burton is decorated with a repeating pattern using a red slip, a liquid clay applied just before the pot is fired

The mortarium rim from Burton is decorated in a repeating pattern using a red slip, a liquid clay applied just before the pot is fired.  It can be difficult to interpret the decoration found on pottery from archaeological sites but in this case I think it’s likely that the potter was trying to depict swans, there is a distinct head with a beak at the end of a long neck and the bird’s folded wings can be seen at the back of the body. Although mortaria with decorated rims are not unheard of, it’s unusual to find a surviving example with a decoration like this.

Of course it’s impossible to know what the potter’s intentions were, it could be that they just found it an appealing image, however swans often figure in Greek, Roman and Celtic mythology and it’s likely to have had a meaning as well.  For example in the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan: the god Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces Leda and the story was a popular theme in Roman art. The Greek poet and musician Orpheus, founder of the Orphic Mysteries, was believed to have transformed himself into a swan when he visited the Underworld.  Swans also feature in Celtic mythology, for example in the Children of Lir: Lir’s second wife becomes jealous of her step-children’s love for each other and for their father and orders her servant to kill them, but the servant refused. In anger, she tried to kill them herself, but did not have the courage. Instead, she used her magic to turn the children into swans.

It’s likely that the decoration on the rim of the mortarium will have had some significance both for the potter and the pot’s owner (though these may not have been the same) but unfortunately it’s impossible to know what these might have been.  However, objects like this show us that sites such as the farm at Burton were lived in by people in many ways much like ourselves and it is likely to have been a valued object with a meaning beyond simply being a pot for grinding up food.

Most archaeologists will get asked at some point ‘What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?’ and I always struggle to give a one line answer, but this would be in my personal ‘Top Ten’.

The excavation at Burton is led by Oxford Archaeology North, with Owen Raybould at RSK as Archaeological Consultant.  The project is funded by Western HVDC Link and construction of the Western Link is being carried out by a consortium of Siemens and Prysmian.

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