Archaeological work near Alconbury, Cambridgeshire, has revealed evidence of skilled artisans producing decorated wooden objects and furniture in the late Roman period.
MOLA Headland Infrastructure uncovered c.300 pieces of animal bone and deer antler while excavating a small Roman settlement between 2016 and 2018 as part of the National Highways A14 Cambridge to Huntingdon Improvement Scheme (see CA 339). These finds have now been analysed and are thought to be working waste left over from the production of luxury inlays and veneers used to decorate wooden boxes and furniture, in the 4th or early 5th century.
The pieces of bone and antler (from cattle, horses, and red deer) were found both as raw offcuts and as fragments of worked veneer designed to be glued to wooden furnishings. The latter pieces had been sawn into 2-3mm-thick strips of various sizes (pictured above), the surfaces of which had been smoothed and incised with geometric patterns, including parallel lines, diagonal crosses, cross hatchings, and rows of circles with inscribed dots, which could have been filled with black or coloured wax to create even more eye-catching designs.
‘It’s quite unusual to find evidence for this particular kind of manufacture on this type of site,’ Michael Marshall, Senior Finds Specialist at MOLA, told CA. He explained that while bone and antler veneers and inlays were not uncommon in Roman Britain, they are typically found in urban centres or at villas, rather than at relatively small rural sites like this one, which has yielded otherwise modest finds.
Romano-British furniture workshops generally used veneer and inlay made from antler, whereas a lot of working waste at Alconbury was made of bone. This could suggest that there were material supply issues or that these types of furnishings were not the makers’ primary product. Nevertheless, the craftspeople working on this site must have been highly skilled, with access to fine tools, Michael said. ‘I don’t think this is just a visit from itinerant craftspeople. When you look at the distribution of the material across the site, it’s not all just in one pit. It’s in at least half a dozen different contexts, spread over 100m or more. I think that suggests several episodes of production,’ he said, suggesting that this might be a seasonal industry, with its products perhaps being exported to the nearby town of Godmanchester, or similar markets, alongside agricultural produce.