Ian Meadow’s report on the Pioneer Burial is nominated for Current Archaeology Magazine’s Book of the Year Award 2020. Here, Ian relives the discovery and reminds us how serendipitous archaeological finds can be…
The Pioneer Burial epitomises the serendipitous nature of archaeology and the reason archaeologists do what they do. We had been working in the quarries at Wollaston from 1993 and had recorded two sections of landscape totalling a length of over 2 kilometres and over 100 hectares which was dominated by the remains of Iron Age and Roman settlement: a series of land divisions and then numerous small farmsteads, including honey bees from an Iron Age ditch and the first proven Roman vineyard in Britain. The whole site was arranged along a droveway that had its origins in the Iron Age and became a Roman road (perhaps running between Irchester to the northeast and Towcester to the southwest.)
The scale of works by the quarry was reflected by the machinery that was used to open up the ground, D8 caterpillar tractor units pulling box scrapers each weighing many tonnes. The scale of works, and the intention to return the ground to agriculture once quarrying had finished, meant large stacks of soils were created to preserve the agricultural topsoil and subsoil. Guidance on soils advised that, whilst topsoil could be stacked directly upon topsoil, a subsoil stack would require the topsoil removing so that it was stacked only on subsoil, thereby avoiding contamination. Areas of the landscape were therefore cleared of topsoil to enable the storage of the subsoil ready for reinstatement.
The discovery and excavation
Throughout the project a detailed metal detecting survey was carried out by Steve Critchley, the project’s detectorist, not just of the excavation areas but also on the footprint of these areas for subsoil stacks. As it was agricultural land the brief was not to bother with ferrous signals as they were generally nails, horse shoes or bits of tractor. One lunch time Steve came to the shed having recovered part of a bronze bowl and a decorative mount. From our previous experience we recognised these fragments as part of an Anglo-Saxon hanging bowl, an object-type of which there were around a hundred known at that time and which are often associated with rich Anglo-Saxon burials. Steve said that in the same area there were numerous ferrous signals. When we all went to investigate we saw that the bowl fragments were found about 1 metre from the edge of the latest area to have its topsoil removed, exposing the subsoil. If the area had been only slightly smaller it would never have been found. We carried out some initial excavation which exposed a long iron object, the sword.
We were very aware of the significance that a bowl and a sword indicated this was probably a rich burial but as it was Friday afternoon we would not be able to complete the excavation and recover the objects. I decided we should stop digging and conceal the grave location as best we could. We gathered an oil drum, various pallets and other bulky pieces of rubbish that we stacked on the grave, hiding its location to anyone that did not know it was there.
On the Monday morning we commenced the hand excavation of what we knew was likely to be a rich Anglo-Saxon grave. The digging was slow and careful with small tools so as not to miss anything and slowly but surely the remains of a bronze bowl, a long iron sword, a small knife, three buckles and a rough jumble of ferrous material was defined along with a couple of lengths of long bone, part of a cranial dome and bunter cobble. As these things were being exposed I tried to ensure the conservator was available to deal with the items. I duly phoned, only to be told he was out of the office. On the Tuesday, while the excavation continued, I tried again and got much the same response and on the Wednesday I was told he was on holiday until the following Monday. Knowing we could not leave the finds in the ground we carried on the excavation and recording of the grave.
Once everything was exposed and recorded we lifted the sword on a plank of wood (upcycled from a skip) and, to hold it together, we wrapped the rough jumble of ferrous material first in cling film and then in bandages soaked in plaster of Paris (the bandages came from the site first aid kit). This object was quite large, about the size of a big Christmas cake, but its shape was not clear. Whilst we wondered if it might have been a helmet we thought, given there were then only three other examples, it was unlikely; as a result the bags of stray pieces were marked ‘possible bucket’. Once all lifted the finds were taken back to the unit’s office in Northampton but no one else was told what we might have recovered. On the following Monday the finds were taken to Leicester and when we got the rough lump X-rayed and saw the distinct outline of a boar crest – it was obvious that what we had found was no bucket!
From that point on this burial dominated our lives. The quarry company (Pioneer Aggregates) funded the conservation and PR and the grave and finds were on the news around the world. As it was such a rare object, we had offers of help and support (much of it for free) from numerous specialists without which we would never have got all the information that features in the report. We also had ‘interesting’ offers including one from a member of the public who said he could trace his ancestry back to the God Odin and offered us a DNA sample to see if he was related to the body in our grave.
Given what we knew about the landscape in the quarry, a rich Anglo-Saxon grave was not something we would have anticipated and the fact it lay only just within an area stripped of topsoil shows how serendipitous archaeology is. We really were very lucky finding this grave that occupied only a couple of square metres in the hundreds of hectares we recorded and, ironically, the area stripped was ultimately not all used for stacking.
Sincerest thanks to Ian Meadows for providing this article for the Archaeopress Blog.
Magdalena and William Isbister present a qualitative examination of thimbles recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database
Note: This paper was originally written in 2014. Minor adjustments have been made but all discussions regarding finds within the database reflect data available at that time.
According to its website, ‘The Portable Antiquities Scheme is run by the British Museum and Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales to encourage the recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of archaeological objects are discovered, many of these by metal detector users, but also by people whilst out walking, gardening or going about their daily work… The Scheme’s database[i] holds records of archaeological finds discovered by members of the public.’ Objects found by professional archaeologists are not included in the database. The database was first made available online in 1999 and by September 2014 about 220,000 objects had been recorded. The majority of items reported seemed to come from the south east of England (Fig 1). In this paper we examine the data relating to thimbles in the database and the database itself and report our findings.
We searched the database for the term ‘thimble’ and 2776 items were found. We downloaded this database into Microsoft Excel and then imported the relevant parts to Microsoft Access. We found that not all of these objects were actually thimbles and after filtering out the non-thimbles including ‘palm guards’, ‘belt buckles’ etc., we were left with 2616 true thimbles to analyse. Some listings were for multiple numbers of thimbles so overall numbers in this paper are only approximate. Whole thimbles and thimble fragments are included. We searched the text for the words ‘copper alloy’, ‘silver’ ‘aluminum’, ‘tin’, ‘gold’, ‘iron’, and ‘lead’, in order to determine and classify the material from which the thimbles were made. We examined pictures of all of the silver thimbles, but there were too many copper alloy thimbles to examine each one individually.
Overall the distribution of thimbles found seemed to be similar to the overall distribution of all artefacts reported (Fig 2).
We wondered whether the type of material from which the thimbles were made might have affected their distribution but this seemed not to be the case either. There is a slight pictorial suggestion that there might be fewer silver thimbles found in the North of England and this might be due to the greater affluence existing in the South-East of the country (Fig 3).
The numbers of thimbles reported from each region, however, were too small for any meaningful statistical analysis, although we did compare silver and copper alloy findings in the county with the single largest number of thimbles recorded (Fig 4). Again there was no obvious difference.
107 thimbles were described as modern and these thimbles did seem to be distributed differently (Fig 5). The South-East domination seems to have disappeared.
The majority of thimbles were made of ‘copper alloy’, a term used in the database because, without a detailed analysis of the metal from each thimble recorded, it would be impossible to know visually what to call the material.
The percentage of silver thimbles was twice as great in Norfolk, Lincolnshire and the Greater London Authority area than in Suffolk, possibly an indication of greater prosperity in these three regions, but this may simply be a function of the relatively small numbers of thimbles involved.
* one tin, + one iron
218 copper alloy thimbles were described as either ‘acorn top’ or ‘beehive’ in shape but not all thimbles were classified, and not all ‘acorn top’ thimbles were so called (Fig 6, 7).
Of the silver thimbles recorded, 54 seemed to be ‘modern’ (19th century and later), 83 were long (mid 17th century), often called Jacobean thimbles (Fig 8) and 84 were short (late 17th century) (Fig 9).
Among the 167 17/18th century silver thimbles recorded there were only four which depicted King Charles II and his wife (Fig 10).
One short thimble had two medallions containing a crowned rose, the symbol of Charles I (Fig 11).
There were nine late 18th century thimbles and some would have had steel tops like the one illustrated (Fig 12).
A single damaged silver thimble, missing its steel top, and made by Hester Bateman is recorded in the database. The maker’s initials are clearly seen on the border of the thimble (Fig 13).
41 thimbles were recorded as having inscriptions. Of these, one was an aluminum advertising thimble, one was recorded as medieval (Fig 14), and three were ‘modern’. Six thimbles were made of copper alloy and the remaining 34 thimbles were made of silver.
From the database it was not possible to determine whether the inscription was a motto, maker’s mark or owner’s initials. Inspection of the pictures of the corresponding thimbles indicated that in addition to the single advertising thimble, 16 had mottos and the remainder either had maker’s marks (Fig 15) or owner’s inscriptions (Fig 9, left) or both (Fig 16).
Inscriptions were mainly hand-engraved (Fig 9, 16, 17) although the silver thimble with the clearest motto was not listed as having an inscription (Fig 18, 25).
Many thimbles were so damaged that it was very difficult to read the inscription from the picture (Fig 19).
A maker’s mark on a post-medieval thimble was recorded as ‘HC&S’ although the thimble was hallmarked in 1928 and the maker was Henry Griffith and Sons (HG&S) of Birmingham.
4. Other findings
Some thimbles seemed to have been cut down to very thin bands, presumably to be used as decorative finger rings (Fig 20). Two such thimbles were found.
Some thimbles were described as ‘double skinned’ (Fig 21) and, in the past[ii], we considered that two pieces of brass had been mistakenly deep drawn into a thimble.
Six such thimbles were recorded in the database. The finding sites were widely scattered and so we are now wondering whether this was not an accident but a deliberate method of construction, although we do not know why this might have been done.
Several of the thimbles recorded showed features that, as far as we know, have not been recorded in the thimble literature and they are illustrated below.
The only short strap work thimble that we have ever seen has a maker’s mark ‘AW’ and a rather unusual top (Fig 22).
This unusually shaped early strap work thimble might represent a stage in the progression from tall cylindrical silver thimbles to the later and shorter stubby silver thimbles (Fig 23)
Another thimble looks to be missing a top (Fig 24) but was it removable or does this thimble demonstrate yet another method of construction?
Niello thimbles were very rare in the 18th century and only one other is known (Fig 25). The found thimble has an ornate top and the inscription ‘+AFENDE +TO+THE+ENDE’ around the border (Fig 26). There is a makers mark ‘RL’ inside the rim. Another thimble (Fig 9, second from left) has a similar maker’s mark and these two thimbles are said to have been made in Holland by the recorder but this seems unlikely.
Two of the shorter 17th century silver thimbles had interesting bands (Fig 27) and one had an unusual top for a short thimble (Fig 28)
Finally, we found a couple of thimbles with medallions containing what looked like cupids and a bleeding heart overlying several arrows (Fig 29). These 17th century keepsake thimbles are exceedingly rare.
A database of this sort with many different recording officers is fraught with problems when it comes to analysing the recorded information. The organisers are to be commended on the mammoth project that they have undertaken and for the establishment of a searchable database. By nature of its organisation however it is subject to many limitations, many of which have only become apparent to us as a result of our study of the thimbles in the database.
The registration rate for the Portable Antiquities Scheme is unknown and therefore the total number of thimbles found and not reported is unknown. The majority of thimbles were found by metal detectors so this must necessarily bias the distribution of the thimbles found to the areas in which metal detectors are used most frequently. The distribution of thimbles and their types found must therefore be biased somewhat and cannot truly represent the distribution of thimbles in England and Wales during the 17th and 18th centuries. In addition, many of the more expensive thimbles, for example, might still be in aristocratic households or lost in the grounds of stately homes and therefore not available for metal detection. In the absence of any other archive, however, the database is invaluable as a window into the past.
Occasionally recordings were brief, some were duplicates and this made analysis crude at best. Not all recorded thimbles were described and often database fields were left blank or incomplete. When the search term ‘thimble’ was used online, finger guards (could be considered to be a form of protection for sewing but not really thimbles), a buckle, rings, crotal bells and a whistle were found in the listing. Silver thimbles were described as ‘cast’ when they had been milled in two parts. Some thimbles were described as ‘acorn’ shaped whilst similarly shaped thimbles were not described in this way by other recorders (see above, Fig 6, 7). The term ‘medieval’ was not used in the same way by all recorders and some so called ‘medieval’ thimbles were from a much later period. These inconsistencies, arising from the multiplicity of the recorders, made analysis difficult and somewhat limited. Clearly defined parameters for specific fields in the database, to be used by all recorders, might limit some of these problems and even insisting that all fields be filled would be a help. From a research standpoint the standard of data recording must be improved. We do not underestimate the difficulty of this task although the quality of recording in another multiple-user metal detecting database does seem to be much higher [iii].
The data presented in this paper represents our analysis of the thimbles recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database [circa 2014]. The results are limited by the biases described above in relation to the data itself, the data collection and recording and possibly the fact that thimbles form only a small fraction of the database and maybe there are many more items which are considered to be more important than thimbles to the recorders. Nevertheless, the database is a valuable instrument for learning more about thimbles from the past. It is hoped that it will become even more useful if recording methods are standardized and all recorders enter consistent data into all the fields in the database. At the present time the database is more useful for qualitative rather than quantitative studies.
All images, unless otherwise designated, were downloaded from the PAS website.
The UK Detector Finds Database is a voluntary, hobby-based database for objects detected with metal detectors. One of its aims is to ‘encourage those detectorists who would not otherwise record their finds to do so by making use of the UKDFD self-recording facility and to ‘encourage the recording of post c.1650 finds, many of which are not eligible for inclusion on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database’. Criteria for finds entry are clear and certain fields are mandatory. The standard of photography is high and the descriptive data is good as a result. The database itself is internet-based and can be analysed to some degree but not as easily or as fully as the PAS database. There are 451 thimbles recorded at the time of writing (October 2014) and 70 of these are silver thimbles. The silver thimbles are, in general, of the more modern type (Georgian onwards). The remaining thimbles are of copper alloy and include many early ‘acorn’ and ‘beehive’ thimbles. The detectorists seem to have a greater knowledge of thimbles[i] than the recorders of the PAS. As a result of the criteria for entry and selectivity of finds however, analysis, in detail, of the database is difficult and the results would necessarily be rather biased.
Three notable copper alloy thimbles found in the UKDFD:
Three interesting silver thimbles found in the UKDFD:
The right thimble is a very worn and possibly a little earlier version of the other two!