Opportunities to excavate inside the walled town at Colchester do not come along that often these days, so you can imagine our excitement when Fenwick asked us to do precisely that. The company owns Williams & Griffins, a department store in the heart of the historic town, where some of its most important archaeological remains lie buried. Fenwick was about to embark on a major redevelopment, and was keen to disturb the ground as little as possible. The first stage of our work was to excavate some carefully placed exploratory trenches to find out about the depth and nature of the archaeological deposits. As a result, the new build was designed in such a way that the ground disturbance was limited to three small areas where loss of archaeological remains was unavoidable.
As is often the case in Colchester, from the very beginning the excavations revealed plenty of interest, but it was Day 94 that proved to be the big one. By then we had reached the layers relating to the tumultuous events of AD 61. This extract from site director Adam Wightman’s dig diary captures some of the excitement:
Day 94. GOLD!!! Today I had the good fortune to uncover a collection of gold and silver jewellery. It was buried beneath the floor of a Roman building destroyed during the Boudiccan fire. The jewellery appears to have been tightly packed into a very small pit and then covered over. It was in the same room that contained the burnt piece of furniture and burnt foodstuffs. The jewellery had probably been buried for safekeeping during the early stages of the revolt and then became covered over by the remains of the collapsed building. It is a remarkable piece of good fortune that the jewellery had not been found before, as Roman foundation trenches, a medieval lime pit, and a modern sewerage pipe had all been excavated within a metre of the jewellery. At least three people over the last 1,954 years had come within an arm’s reach of discovering it!
But first, the story behind the hoard…
Let us call the Boudiccan Revolt what it really was: a war of independence. Today, we often label it a revolt without a second thought, but only because the written accounts all come from the Roman world and, as far as it was concerned, the AD 61 uprising in Britain was most certainly a revolt. But for some Britons the event was completely different – it was a bold and dangerous bid to turn back the clock and rid the island of the all-conquering Roman army. The thinking behind Boudicca’s plan seems to have been simple. The Roman army in Britain was effectively on its own. It was cut off from support from the rest of the Roman world because Britain was an island. ‘So,’ thought Boudicca, ‘let’s start by destroying the big Roman towns of Colchester and London, isolating the army further. And then let’s hunt the army down, overpower it with our massive force of warriors, and restore Britain to its former free state.’
Many of the houses in pre-Boudiccan Colchester comprised sandy clay walls and floors, rendering them all-but incombustible. Yet archaeological excavations in the town reveal how consistently they succumbed to Boudicca’s torch. It is as if the systematic reduction of Colchester, building by building, to a pile of smouldering ashes was a key part of her plan. The ruined town, with only haphazard stumps of walling still standing, must have created a truly shocking sight and smell. This devastation, though, was only one part of the terrible tragedy that befell south-eastern Britain in AD 61. Although estimating the death toll in situations like this is notoriously difficult, the Boudiccan War of Independence was possibly the worst event of its kind ever to have occurred in Britain. It was short and very bloody. And, as we know, it did not end the way Boudicca had planned.
This human catastrophe turned out to be an archaeologist’s boon, as one consequence of the Boudiccan inferno was that it baked the clay walls and floors hard. The extraordinary preservation of the building fabric this permitted resulted in the survival of different construction techniques such as wattle-and-daub, timber-framing, and coursed straw-and-clay blocks. Charred remnants of food, generally heaped on the scorched floors, lay among the building debris. Wheat has proven especially common, but barley, flax, lentils, peas, dates, figs, and plums have all been found as well. Remarkable vestiges of a burnt bed or couch were discovered at Lion Walk in 1972, although, on the whole, the houses seem to have been largely devoid of furniture when they were torched. Perhaps Boudicca’s army looted the buildings before destroying them, although, if they did, not much interest was shown in shops or stores. Three such places, all with burnt and abandoned stocks of pottery and glassware, have been uncovered so far, and there must be many more awaiting discovery.
Boudicca’s War of Independence
The struggle for survival
Although the excavation at Williams & Griffins was small by past standards, the Boudiccan remains were true to form. The incinerated building, part of which we were able to investigate in our ‘Area C’, had the usual clay-block walls – one of which still stood 0.6m high – and floors, and must have been a substantial structure. A thick layer of crushed and broken burnt debris, including a 1.5m-long shelf, was strewn across its floor. Burnt foodstuffs – including dates, figs, and peas – lay scattered on and around the fallen shelf.
Despite this remarkable find, two further discoveries were of even greater significance. One was, of course, the hoard now known as the Fenwick Treasure (CA 296); but the other was fragments of human bone in amongst the Boudiccan debris (CA 294). Human remains within these layers have only been encountered twice before in Colchester. The first occasion was in 1966, when Ros Dunnett – now Niblett – was working on a site in West Stockwell Street. She describes bones from a burnt and ‘disturbed skeleton’ lying on the floor of a house veranda, which fronted on to a street running north–south through the town. Our excavation took place in the same location relative to the street, but lay about 100m further south. The second time human remains were encountered was in 2006, when we found a single fragment of pelvis near an east–west street running to the south of the Temple of Claudius.
The bones from Williams & Griffins are quite extraordinary for the graphic evidence they provide of injuries that might have been caused by sharp instruments such as swords. They strongly suggest that the bones were remains of people who had died in the fighting. The sliced tibia (shinbone) is particularly evocative. A man crouches behind his shield for protection but his left knee sticks out a little too much below it, and is caught by a downwards blow of a sword. Interestingly, all the human bone found so far in Colchester from the Boudiccan debris is from the north-east quarter of the early town, which suggests that this was where the fighting was concentrated. Such a distribution makes sense, because the Temple of Claudius was in this part of town. This is also where Tacitus tells us the townspeople held out against Boudicca.
The Fenwick Treasure is of great interest, not only because of its rarity and Mediterranean connections, but also because of the extraordinary drama behind its burial. A well-to-do couple with the means and desire to acquire valuable overseas goods must once have lived in the ruined residence we uncovered. Faced with the news of the approaching Boudiccan army, the couple did not gather their valuables and flee. Instead, they seemingly chose to stay in Colchester and await relief from Roman forces. It is easy to imagine their despair when news filtered through that the Ninth Legion had been defeated on its way to their rescue. If that prompted them to hide the hoard, in the smallest of holes in a floor, it invites the question of whether the couple truly believed that they would ever return for their treasures. In the event, the town’s population, aided by a few hundred soldiers, somehow held out for two days in or around the stone-clad Temple of Claudius. But victory belonged to Boudicca, and she elected to take no prisoners.
The hoard and what it reveals
by Nina Crummy
The objects comprising the Fenwick Treasure consist of gold and silver jewellery, a small lidded box containing earrings, finger-rings, and other items, and a bag of mainly silver coins. The whole group was almost certainly held in a larger cloth or leather bag, perhaps similar to that associated with Mercury. Metal artefacts recovered from the Boudiccan destruction levels in Colchester normally consist of fragments of everyday domestic items and military equipment; the collection of precious metal jewellery and coins making up the Fenwick Treasure is currently a unique exception to that rule. Examining what the hoard comprises provides a window into both its owners’ tastes and, very probably, how they came to be living in Colchester.
The lidded box (pyxis) was more-or-less rectangular, with rounded corners supported by small knobbed feet of turned ivory. The top and sides of the box were sheathed in silver, but there is no indication that this also lined the inside. Boxwood was a popular component of small pyxides in the 1st century AD: because of its fine grain, it looks beautiful when polished. As the wood of the Colchester box was hidden by the sheet silver, a less costly timber, perhaps even a softwood, was probably used. The wood would originally have been about 4mm thick, but nearly 2,000 years later the largest surviving fragment has shrunk to a thickness of only 2mm. The silver sheet that covered the box was thinner than paper, and now consists almost entirely of corrosion products. Sadly, instead of the gleaming item it must have been when it was purchased, the pyxis now resembles a stiff black tissue.
The box contained two pairs of earrings, five finger-rings, a loose glass intaglio depicting a panther, a copper-alloy bulla, and a silver coin. These last three objects appear to have been treasured keepsakes. As the coin has not yet been cleaned its precise significance is still unclear, but the intaglio dates to long before the reign of Claudius, and so was presumably a family heirloom. The bulla is a type of protective amulet worn on a chain or thong around the neck by Roman boys: wealthy families gave their male offspring a gold bulla. Although a boy’s bulla was put aside once he turned 16 and became a Roman citizen, it would be kept, and could be brought out and worn on ceremonial occasions.
Both pairs of earrings feature S-shaped hooks that make them far less likely to slip out of ears. Similar types are well represented at sites like Pompeii and Herculaneum. One pair from the Williams & Griffins site consists of large hollow gold balls, the other of pearls on gold pendants that dangle from a gold crossbar. These latter were known as crotalia – rattles – because the pendants would touch and jingle as the wearer moved. Pure white pearls were in great demand among fashion-conscious Italians in the 1st century AD, and Caligula even had them sewn onto his slippers. Although British oysters were exported to Italy, the fine pearls on these earrings are unlikely to have found their way back to their country of origin. Pliny dismissed British pearls, observing ‘it is a well-known fact that pearls are found in Britain, but they are small and of a bad colour’.
Three of the five gold finger-rings are set with an emerald, while the smallest has lost its setting, and the fifth has a dolphin incised into its bezel. Like pearls, emeralds were the height of fashion in the 1st century AD, and graced earrings as well as finger-rings. These stones were probably extracted from Egyptian mines. Gold earrings in the form of dolphins have also been found around Pompeii, so the image on the incised ring probably has no significance beyond the fashionable. As dolphins were closely associated with the sea-god Neptune, though, there is always a chance that it relates to a particular voyage, perhaps even one to Britain. Three gold-wire bracelets were too large to fit within the box, but were buried with it in the bag. Once again the search for parallels leads to the Mediterranean, and indeed the Continent more generally.
His and hers
This gold jewellery would have been worn by a woman, but, as we have already seen, the small copper-alloy bulla was a male item. Men also wore jewellery in the 1st century AD, and recent research on grave deposits in the towns around the Bay of Naples indicates that generally, though certainly not exclusively, gold jewellery was associated with females and silver with males. We can be reasonably confident that the silver jewellery within this hoard did indeed belong to a man. It consists of a long chain of closely interwoven links, two cuff bracelets, and a larger armlet fitted with a medallion. Unfortunately, just like the silver sheet of the box, none of these objects survives as much more than corrosion products marking where the silver has decayed, and so they will never again look as good as they once did.
Without doubt the most prized items of male jewellery would have been military awards, which included pairs of bracelets or armlets presented to ranks below centurion for valour in battle. In the Republican and early Imperial periods they were usually made of gold or silver, but their value lay more in the status that they afforded the wearer than the precious metal. In 47 BC, Metellus Scipio was unwilling to present gold armlets to a cavalryman because he had once been a slave. After hearing that the man had refused to accept his commander’s offer of the equivalent value in gold coinage, however, Scipio relented and gave him silver armlets instead, to the man’s complete satisfaction. The two silver cuff bracelets found in the hoard coincide with a number of copper-alloy bracelets, plated with tin to make them appear silver, which have been found in this region of Britain. They pre-date the Boudiccan uprising and, from their contexts and military-style decoration, have been identified as martial awards associated with the AD 40s conquest of southern Britain. The hoard bracelets would have been awarded in the same campaign.
The large armlet with its hinged medallion could only be worn on the upper arm. Both its diameter and decoration suggest that it was intended for a male, while its style suggests it is military and may have been commissioned to commemorate a particular deed or event. The broad hoop is ornamented with a hunt scene that features a panther, a stag, a mounted huntsman, another panther, and another stag; in the background, rudimentary trees indicate woodland. The presence of a panther on the curated intaglio and on the larger armlet’s hunt scene, playing a role often reserved for hounds, suggests the man had a particular affinity with the beast. Could his martial career have earned him the cognomen ‘Panthera’?
The coins in the small bag were mainly denarii, with those cleaned so far ranging in date from a Republican issue of c.109-108 BC through to the reign of Tiberius, AD 14-37. There were also four copper-alloy coins, at least three of which are Claudian, AD 41-54. Nero minted no base metal coins before AD 64, so these low denomination issues would still have been the small change in use at the time of Boudicca’s war. As a whole, this group of coins represents about 5½ weeks’ pay for a legionary, or less for a soldier of higher rank. Although the other Boudiccan coin hoards found in Colchester were much, much smaller, the purse group is still small beer compared to two Boudiccan denarius hoards found in Norfolk and Suffolk, which were equivalent to about six months’ and a year’s pay.
As the Roman colony at Colchester was founded to house retired veterans, we can be confident that the silver jewellery in the hoard belonged to a former soldier. His thin, base-metal bulla indicates that he did not come from the wealthiest of families, but his bracelets commemorate valour in battle, and he almost certainly played an active part in the campaign of conquest waged against Britain. Once his fighting days were supposedly behind him, the soldier retired to Colchester with his wife, whose gold jewellery was all the rage in the mid 1st century AD.
Despite the quality and Mediterranean connections displayed by the Colchester hoard, a comparison with the jewellery stored in a box within a chest in the House of Menander at Pompeii indicates that we are not witnessing real wealth. The Pompeian group included two much thicker gold bangles than the Colchester ones, two gold necklaces, three pairs of gold earrings, 11 gold finger-rings, one gold brooch, and three other gold ornaments. There was also a large gold boy’s bulla, while a smaller gold bulla was attached to one of the necklaces.
The difference between the two groups is even more marked when the two coin groups are taken into account. The House of Menander box contained 13 gold coins and 33 silver coins, against the 23 silver and 4 copper-alloy coins stashed at Colchester. It seems that the couple who had settled at Colchester had rather less income, both saved and disposable, than the Pompeian household. In both cases, though, these riches came to nought. In settling here they had, on the other hand, been aware that their life could involve elements of adventure and risk (although they could not have foreseen its dramatic end), while the inhabitants of the House of Menander little thought that their wealth counted for nothing against Vesuvius.
The archaeological excavations at Williams & Griffins were generously funded and supported by Fenwick.
ALL Images: Colchester Archaeological Trust.