Archaeologists plan Roman shrine excavation in Wiltshire as Wessex Gallery opens

By Ben Miller | 11 July 2014

Ahead of the new Wessex Gallery opening at the Salisbury Museum, Richard Henry, the Finds Liaison Officer for Wiltshire, tells us about Roman shrines, coin hoards and bent swords

A photo of various green archaeological vessels
A miniature amphora is part of a site in Wiltshire which could be a Roman shrine, says the county's Finds Liaison Officer© Portable Antiquities Scheme
“I’m talking to landowners at the moment about an excavation later in the year. A potential Roman shrine has been discovered.

We’re going to see whether it is, for a start, and whether we can get a better date for it.

We’re being careful about the location. We’re getting a lot of miniature objects from there – for example, we’ve got a copper alloy amphora and brooches.

We’ve also got 38 coins with iron nails in them. To our knowledge that’s unparalleled. It depends who you speak to, but the theory is they’ve been attached to something like cloth or hammered into a post or a door.

We don’t have a clue why. It’s a bit early to say, really. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in the country, as far as we know.

You get mutilated coins at a couple of sites but that’s usually where you’ve had them scratched out. There are a couple of coins on the database where people have cut around the busts, so you’ve just got the bust of an emperor left.

A photo of three tall green Roman coins with etchings on them
This medieval seal matrix was found by a resident while gardening© Portable Antiquities Scheme
It’s really interesting, we’re hoping to find out more in a month’s time. I try to undertake further research on finds wherever possible.

One of the ones that was quite famous a couple of years ago was the Wardour Hoard, which is a Bronze Age hoard but spans into the Iron Age, about 1,600 years.

It proves that the Salisbury Hoard, which was this illicitly detected hoard in the 1980s, was actually feasible.

After conservation it was discovered that there was socketed material in the axes and some of the tools, so we’re currently looking into getting radiocarbon dating for that. We’ve got funding for three so far but we’re looking for 15 to 20.

About five miles away from the Wardour Hoard was the Hindon Hoard, which has got some of the earliest iron tools in the county. That’s also got socketing, so we’re seeing if we can do some more radiocarbon dating on that.

The objects were left in situ so they could be excavated. The person left them in the ground to be excavated, which proves they were linked to something important.

A photo of green and yellow long thin bronze age swords from an excavation site
This Bronze Age sword has been donated to the museum, although it arrived too late to appear in the new Wessex Gallery© Portable Antiquities Scheme
I had a lady who found a medieval field matrix in her back garden. It turned out that the inscription was the seal of the sub-deaconry of Salisbury.

In the medieval period Salisbury had two basic arch-deaconries. One was the cathedral itself. There was also one in the north of the county. A third one just dealt with the city, and this seal is the seal for that.

She didn’t actually know what it was. She emailed a picture to me so I asked to see it. That’s now been donated to the museum. It’s copper.

There was a Bronze Age sword from 2,500 to 1,000 BC. The handle of the blade had been broken. They’d hammered flat part of the blade edge so that you could reuse part of the blade as a handle.

If you imagine, the first ten centimetres of the blade would then have been a makeshift handle, which is quite unusual as well. It’s not something we’ve seen before.

That was found by Stonehenge but not in Stonehenge itself, we’d get in trouble for that. It had been deliberately broken and bent so it raises lots of interesting questions for the future.

It was almost like someone had bent the sword over their knee before it had been deposited. Every single object has its importance in furthering our knowledge.

My role is to record archaeological finds made by members of the public – mostly metal detectorists, but it can also be people who are field-walking, in their back garden, lots of different things. I also deal with treasure cases, educational outreach, finds days, that kind of thing.

I haven’t actually seen much of the new gallery yet because it’s still a work site, we’re not really allowed in. We’re expecting to see maybe 3,000 people for the opening. It should be really good.

It’s always go, go, go. You don’t know what to expect from day to day. Tomorrow the Wiltshire equivalent of the Staffordshire Hoard could come up, although I suspect that won’t be the case.

Most of the time I record coins. Such a huge number come up, ranging from prehistory to the modern period. The archaeological importance of even the most mundane of coins is massive.

The mundane things often tell us the most about a site, rather than the exciting, stand-out objects.

Sometimes it’s about knowing who to ask – we have a good relationship with the British Museum, and it’s really useful being able to ask people like that.

Find spots, for us, are absolutely critical. Some of the people I deal with are absolutely fantastic. They leave objects in situ and use things like GPS, which means we can learn so much more.

It’s the things that people didn’t bother to look for that can tell you the most about daily life. It’s quite interesting really – I quite like my job.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of a small sword covered in brown mud from an excavation site
The Wardour Hoard was deposited between 800 and 600 BC© Portable Antiquities Scheme
A photo of a series of small brown swords laid out on paper from an archaeological excavation
The Hindon Hoard includes 82 copper-alloy and iron objects© Portable Antiquities Scheme
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