Portable Antiquities Shropshire & Herefordshire: Exploring The Borders

By Richard Moss | 18 November 2004
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shows a photograph of two sides of an old seal. It has a redish-brown patina with some inscriptions in Latin on it

Cast lead or lead alloy papal bulla of Pope Paschal I (817 – 824). © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Birmingham County Council

This is the third of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.

Occupying what is in effect the English half of the Welsh Marches, Shropshire and Herefordshire is a fertile ground for the archaeologist.

Up and down this borderland can be found a series of Iron Age hill forts and several Bronze Age monuments and although there is only one Neolithic monument, in the form of a chambered tomb, the Roman border towns of Magnae (Kenchester) and Viroconium (Wroxeter) ensure a varied historical landscape.

"It’s interesting that I do get a spread of most periods with no real peaks,” says Peter Reavil, Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for the local Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), “although there are a couple of troughs with the Pre-historic and Saxon periods.”

“That said, one of our best recent finds is a papal bulla from the Saxon period that came from a papal seal of Pope Paschal 1st. His reign was from 817-824, making it the second oldest one in the country.” It's an impressive find, the only other similar example is in the British Library.

shows a pencil drawing of both sides of a papal seal

This decorative motif would originally have been a full circle enclosing the inscription. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Birmingham County Council

“What’s interesting about this object is that it’s been cut down – it should be a round head seal, so at some point after being removed from a papal document it has been cut down to a weight of one ounce.”

Dr Tim Pestell, an expert at Norwich Castle, has examined the bulla and believes it was intentionally cut down and used as an official weight. “Again it raises questions about how it got there,” adds Peter, “I think it’s probably been in a merchant’s pack and dropped”.

The seal is a classic PAS find – discovered by a metal detectorist and reported, plotted and logged successfully through the scheme, so how does Peter see his relationship with the metal detecting community?

“I only have one club in Hereford to visit, there are also one or two other local informal groups I'm in contact with,” he says, “but I run regular finds days in local museums and with the Finds Roadshow coming up I’m hoping that metal detectorists I wouldn’t normally meet might come to the day.”

shows a side photograph of the top of a metal incense burner, which is shaped like a church

Medieval censer covers are extremely rare and less than twenty examples have been found in the UK. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Birmingham County Council

Despite good relations with metal detectorists he still sees a gap between them and many archaeologists.

“What my job is about and what a day like this can do is help to bridge the gap that has been established over the years," he says. "It’s through schemes like this that we spread understanding – we’ve still got a long way to go but we’re getting there.”

“Sometimes it feels as if you are dangling from a rope in the middle of it all, but I can really see the benefits, it’s just a shame this job wasn’t started 20 years ago. I see some amazing private collections and I simply don’t have the time to record them all.”

And it’s not just metal detecting finds, Peter says there are people who have been field walking the area for years with flint collections that are ‘astonishing’.

Some of the PAS finds can be seen in a small display at Ludlow Museum Resource Centre. One of the star pieces is an ornate cover from a medieval incense burner found last year and dating from the early Norman period (12th/13th century).

shows a drawing of a metal incense burner which takes the shape of an orb supsended by three rods and a chain

Censers were used during most religious services and would have been common in most parish churches before the reformation in the 16th century. A censer is an elaborate incense burner that was swung on a long chain during services and processions. The smoke from the incense would have been forced through the pierced holes in the cover. © Portable Antiquities Scheme and Birmingham County Council

“A chap phoned up and said 'I’ve found a small bronze dish with a church stuck on top of it,'” recalls Peter. “It’s quite astonishing: there are visible Romanesque arches and a remarkably detailed slate roof. I think it was the top part of an incense burner that became damaged and was probably snapped off and discarded at some point.”

Again it’s a mystery how it came to be found where it was – the local landscape boasts a chain of motte and bailey and later stone castles so there may be a connection there, but as a rule Peter doesn’t see a huge range of medieval artefacts.

In fact a trawl through the finds coming in the through the PAS reveals an interesting spread covering most periods.

Of these Peter estimates that 70% are from metal detecting and 30% from field walking and gardening - with most of the latter being less than 300 years old (300 years being the current cut-off date for the PAS).

shows the top of an incense burner. It is a green metal object shaped like a church.

The censer cover is made of bronze (copper alloy) and is designed in the shape of an early Norman cruciform church. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Birmingham County Council

“Having said that a young girl recently found a barbed and fanged slate arrowhead in a garden in the centre of Hereford,” he says. “It’s a large built up area so yet again it raises all sorts of questions as to how it got there.”

It’s such anomalies, together with the sheer range of finds, that make the job so interesting for Peter. “I’ve worked in field archaeology for years and I haven’t had a job anything like it. It’s the quality and the quantity coming in – the standard of Roman metalwork for example is amazing.”

A particular favourite of the moment is an unusual anthropomorphic Roman duck brooch and Peter believes the PAS scheme is picking up, little by little, on such archaeological oddities. “I’m not saying we're re-writing history but we are tweaking some of the patterns that were written down in the 1970s.”

Education is also important - a recent flowerbed project with school children from Newport yielded mainly Victorian pottery but as Peter explains those kids now have an understanding of archaeology.

“They get to go through the valuable process of finding something in the ground, interpreting it and making a link with somebody in the past and that is really invaluable.”

shows the top of an incense burner - it is made of a greenish metal and is circular in shape.

The design on the roof suggests wooden shingles or slates. © Portable Antiquities Scheme/Birmingham County Council

For the Finds Roadshow, at the Shirehall In Shrewsbury on November 27, Angie Boulton, FLO of Worcestershire and Warwickshire and Caroline Johnson, the FLO for Staffordshire and West Midlands will be joining Peter.

They will all be on hand between 2 and 4pm to examine objects and offer advice and help to anyone with a find or an interest in archaeology.

“It’s good that people are bringing their finds in, whatever they might be,” says Peter, “because it’s a chance to educate, to give out some literature and to help them understand the importance of their local archaeology.”

The day forms part of the Shropshire Archaeological Day School, a small conference highlighting recent archaeological work. For more information visit the Portable Antiquities Scheme website at www.finds.org.uk

This is the third in a series of seven features we are writing in the run up to the forthcoming PAS Roadshows.

Over the next week more FLOs will be telling us about their experiences of administering the PAS and revealing some of the amazing finds they have encountered - giving an insight into the archaeological landscape that surrounds us.

The series starts in Essex where we talk to Finds Liaison Officer Caroline McDonald.

Next we look at Devon where Nicky Powell tells us about some of the things that land on the desk of an FLO.

The article you are reading now followed that, then the series visited North and East Yorkshire where Simon Holmes expounded the virtues of 'community archaeology'.

In Oxfordshire and Berkshire, Kate Sutton told us about the vast range of finds coming through the scheme.

To read about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and get more information about the Roadshows read our Roadshows feature where we talk to MIchael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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