Celebrated crafts and cross-cultural connections

Buried in lead

The excellent Museum of Antiquities in Rouen, Normandy, has mounted a special exhibition called Le Plomb et l’homme (Lead and Man; open until 5 March 2024) devoted to the large number of Gallo-Roman lead coffins and funerary urns in its collection, many of them discovered in the 19th century, with a concentration of coffins around Rouen and of urns around Lillebonne.

What is puzzling about this distribution is the lack of a source of lead in the Seine-Maritime region. Instead, research carried out by Malina Robert at the University of Nantes points to Roman Britain as the source of the lead and the Seine estuary as a major production centre. Work has just begun to understand better what this means for commercial links between Britain and the Seine area in the Roman period, for manufacturing sites in the estuary, and for the funerary significance of lead containers.

The discovery of a decorated lead coffin in London in 1999 grabbed the news headlines, as archaeologists opened the sealed container in the full glare of the TV lights at the Museum of London. The lid was lifted to reveal the well-preserved remains of a young woman, buried in the 4th century AD, with the leaves of a flower garland intact beside her head, as well as a single thread of gold, possibly from a gold embroidered robe, and a slender glass perfume vial. More recently, two lead coffins have been excavated in Surrey, made from soldered sheets of cast lead, decorated with scallop shells enclosed within triangles and rectangles formed by a beaded cable motif. Another plainer example was found in Garforth, Leeds, last year.

In three out of these four examples, the deceased appears to be a young woman, one of whom was buried with an infant, so it is possible that there is an association between lead coffins and the grief experienced by the families of cherished offspring who die young? Their rarity suggests that lead coffins were an expensive choice, and were used to demonstrate a level of wealth or social standing.

The late Hugh Toller published a catalogue of Romano-British lead coffins in 1977, and he concluded that the distribution of the 243 examples then known did not correlate with regions rich in lead, such as the mines of the Mendip Hills of Somerset, but was instead an indication of wealth in the province. The majority of the lead coffins came from south-eastern and southern Britain, with more than half coming from cemeteries attached to major urban centres, particularly York, Cirencester, Dorchester, Colchester, and London. Clearly there is much still to be learned about these intriguing objects.

Winemaking as a spectacle

Did wealthy and powerful Romans, perhaps including the emperor himself, regard winemaking as a kind of theatrical spectacle? That is the conclusion of a paper published in Antiquity (https://doi.org/10.15184/aqy.2023.18) by Emlyn Dodd, Giuliana Galli, and Riccardo Frontoni concerning their discovery of an opulently decorated mid-3rd-century AD winery at the Villa of the Quintilii, located at Mile 5 of the Via Appia Antica, just south of Rome.

The system of rooms, vats, sunken storage jars, and channels used for wine production and storage at the villa was standard for a Roman winery, but the architecture and decorative scheme displayed ‘a degree of luxury rarely seen in ancient production spaces’, according to the authors, who say the only other winery decorated to such an elaborate degree lies 50km to the south-east, near Anagni, at the Villa Magna.

At the Villa of the Quintilii, the grape-treading room is clad with expensive red breccia marble rather than waterproof concrete. The resulting grape juice was fed from the collection vat to the cellar via white marble channels and a series of niches clad in white marble veneer, decorated with frames of grey and red marble. Spacious rooms with walls and floors decorated with opus sectile (marble veneer) surrounded the winery, with wide entrances providing an expansive view of the interior of the winery complex, allowing views of almost all the production stages by those using the rooms for dining.

Surrounding the winery at the Villa of the Quintilii were rooms lavishly decorated with opus sectile, where diners could observe various stages of the wine-production process. Image: photograph by S Castellani, from Dodd et al. (2023) Antiquity

Lead author Dr Emlyn Dodd suggests that the villa was used by Gordian III (emperor from AD 238 to 244) for gatherings associated with the annual vintage, perhaps for the ceremonial opening of the harvest in Latium, or to emphasise the spectacle of agricultural production for an aristocratic audience as part of the construction of elite identity. The latter interpretation is consistent with the depiction of wine production in wall paintings and carved sarcophagi, and with the body of Classical literature in which agriculture is presented as an allegory for the upkeep of the state.

Invest in Chartreuse

If you have a bottle of the green herbal liqueur called Chartreuse lurking at the back of your cupboard, hang on to it, as it might soon be worth a fortune. Produced by the white-robed monks of La Grande Chartreuse monastery, founded in the French Alps north of Grenoble a thousand years ago by St Bruno of Cologne, the liqueur has been made since 1605 to a secret recipe involving a blend of 130 plants, flowers, and herbs, and slow-aging in oak casks.

Drunk on its own, the distinctly medicinal liqueur is an acquired taste (it was originally sold as a cure for common ailments and as a salve for insect bites and sores), but a revival in its popularity as a cocktail ingredient has led to a shortage of supply, and the monks have decided that, rather than increase production, they should focus on their primary and much-needed task of praying for humanity.

Concern for the environment was another reason for their decision to limit production to the present level of 1.2 million bottles a year. The monks have also decided to focus more on making herbal teas and medicinal balms since, according to their spokesperson, ‘alcoholic and sugary products don’t get a good press’.

A French collector recently sold 1,500 bottles for a total of £1.3 million, but that included two special edition bottles distilled in 1953 to commemorate the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II that fetched £30,000 each.

The bees of Ferns Abbey

Back in the 6th century, the monks of County Wexford, Ireland, were busy mastering the art of beekeeping rather than liqueur-making. The bees were a parting gift from St David, now patron saint of Wales and the founder of the monastery and settlement that bears his name in Pembrokeshire, to his pupil St Aidan, who took them back with him to his native Ireland. One assumes that the bees were hibernating, otherwise crossing the Irish Sea in a fragile leather-skinned boat with a hive of lively bees would not have been very comfortable.

St Davids has been a pilgrimage destination for many centuries. The newly opened Wexford–Pembrokeshire Pilgrim Way highlights the historical connections between the city in Pembrokeshire and Ferns in County Wexford.  Image: David Lloyd_pixabay

Earlier this year, the ancient connection between St Davids and the monastery at Ferns in County Wexford that St Aidan founded on his return to Ireland was re-established with the opening of a new pilgrimage path. Naturally this uses the bee as a symbol on signposts marking the route. Fortunately, the Irish Sea crossing no longer has to be made by coracle: a ferry service provides a link between Rosslare on the Irish coast with Fishguard in Wales.

St Davids has long been a pilgrimage destination: in AD 1120, Pope Callixtus II declared that visiting the shrine of the saint on two occasions was equivalent to one visit to Rome, and that three visits to St Davids counted as the same as one to Jerusalem. Those who have worked to establish the new 130km (81-mile) route are hoping that it will help turn the town of Ferns into a key heritage attraction and provide a welcome boost to local hospitality businesses on both sides of the Irish Sea.

As people all over the world look for more meaningful no-fly travel, established pilgrimage routes are beginning to suffer from overuse: nearly half a million people completed all or part of the 490-mile Compostela pilgrimage route through northern Spain in 2022. Explaining the appeal, Christine Smith, of the not-for-profit travel company Guided Pilgrimage, says that ‘it attracts people from all walks of life and of all faiths or none – particularly people who are at a crossroads in their life and want a different perspective’.

Chris Catling is an archaeologist and writer, fascinated by the off-beat and the eccentric in the heritage world.