Josef Mario Briffa SJ introduces his new volume: Catalogue of Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum (Archaeopress, 2017)
Some books are born of serendipity: being at the right place at the right time, finding something you weren’t looking for. This book is one of them.
It started quite simply and unexpectedly. Some ten years ago (2006/7), I was conducting research at the British Museum on letters written by Father Emmanuel Magri SJ to Dr E.A. Wallis Budge. Chatting – as you do – with the duty curator that day (Dr St John Simpson, now Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East), who was responsible for taking care of visiting researchers, and in my case bringing over the volumes of correspondence that I needed to consult, the conversation fell, naturally on Malta and Maltese archaeology. St John asked whether I knew of the British Museum artefacts database (online here), which I didn’t … so I was introduced to Merlin, as the database is called, and merely out of curiosity, we searched for “Malta”. A quick scroll through the results, and I was quite positively surprised, and felt there was potential for this project. Somewhere, I must still have the first list that St John emailed me, with an Excel extract from Merlin.
I realised immediately that such a project would have been impossible for me to handle alone: firstly, I felt that I lacked the experience to start with, and, secondly, I was busy with my studies to the priesthood as a Jesuit (then in theology in London), such that I would never have managed to finish it at all. Very early on, I roped in Dr Claudia Sagona, who I had known through the archaeological excavation at Tas-Silġ, and whose experience with catalogues of material I knew could bring important expertise to the project. Looking back, it was the most important decision I could take, and without Claudia’s significant contribution, the book would probably still be very much in the realm of ideas.
The book has been slowly cooking away on the back burner. Ten years, with many trips to the British Museum, its departments and storage facilities, by both Claudia and myself. Thousands of photos taken both in preparation for publication, as well as to help in the study of the material. Not to mention the drawings of the various items, and the detailed descriptions, and introductions to each of the collections. And many emails, phone conversations, as well as numerous drafts. I must say that after ten long years, seeing the book in print has something surreal about it.
I cannot imagine the book to become a major best seller. Catalogues of material aren’t exactly designed to be. But I hope that in its own way, this catalogue may shed some light on the history of archaeology in Malta, and make some material from historical excavations more immediately accessible to researchers in Malta and worldwide.
The catalogue is published by Archaeopress.
viii+326 pages; illustrated throughout in colour and black & white.
Paperback | 9781784915889 | £50.00
eBook | 9781784915896 | from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)
Josef Mario Briffa SJ is Lecturer at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, and a Roman Catholic priest. He has recently completed his PhD at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London on The Figural World of the Southern Levant during the Late Iron Age. He also holds a Licentiate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His research has included the history of Maltese archaeology, with a focus on the work of Fr Emmanuel Magri SJ (1851-1907), pioneer in Maltese archaeology and folklore studies. He has excavated in Malta and Israel, and is currently a staff member of The Lautenschläger Azekah Expedition.
Claudia Sagona is Honorary Principal Fellow in the Centre for Classics and Archaeology at The University of Melbourne. Her research has taken her from the islands of the Maltese Archipelago, to the highlands of north-eastern Anatolia and the Caucasus. She has written a number of books concerning Malta’s ancient past, including a comprehensive volume for Cambridge University Press, The Archaeology of Malta: From the Neolithic through the Roman Period (2015), another on the Phoenician-Punic evidence, The Archaeology of Punic Malta (2002), and has delved into the Mithraic mystery cult, Looking for Mithra in Malta (2009). In 2007, she was made an honorary member of the National Order of Merit of Malta (M.O.M.).
A short introduction to coin pellet mould by Mark Landon
Coin pellet mould has been found across Europe north of the Roman Empire, from Štaštín near Bratislava in Slovakia to Scotch Corner in North Yorkshire, England. It can best be characterised as trays of clay in which holes have been made. The holes range in diameter from 4mm to 20mm, and a tray will carry anywhere from 25 of the larger holes to 100 of the smaller. While it is undeniable that pellet mould was used in a process involving molten metal, it has been disputed that the pellets made in it were entirely, or even primarily, destined to be made into coin. Several writers, perturbed by the many finds of CPM in contexts generally considered ‘Early Roman’, have advanced claims that the main purpose of the mould was to produce pellets of similar weight and composition for use in general metal-working. At present, however, neither the physical evidence nor the theoretical basis is sufficient to support these ideas.
The current consensus is that unmelted metal fragments were placed in the holes: pre-mixed bronze, a much smaller fraction of silver, and occasionally an even smaller proportion of gold, so that alloying took place actually ‘in the cup’. The tray was then heated to cherry-red on top of the furnace, and then, by means of a tuyère, the contents of each hole brought very swiftly to the temperature at which fusion would occur. Because the pellets are essentially base metal, and because the clay has a significantly lower melting point than the metal, and despite the fact that a steady jet of oxygen-rich air must be played directly over the hole, if reducing conditions are not rigorously maintained the oxides that form on the surface of the molten pellets fuse irretrievably with the glassy phase of the clay mould. It is a tribute to the consummate skill of the Iron Age smiths that fewer than 10 trapped pellets have ever been found, a minute fraction when compared with the hundreds of thousands of successful pellets.
Making a Mint is the product of the first major comparative study of coin mould as an artefact in itself. Previous studies had relied on very small samples and did not use a consistent recording protocol, meaning that detailed comparison even within a single study was not possible. Furthermore, the primary focus had been on testing for metal residues, seeing the moulds as adjuncts rather than as artefacts in themselves. In the course of the work leading up to the book, nearly 50kg. of coin mould was examined and recorded using an exceptionally detailed protocol, thus enabling assemblages from across England to be compared very closely, and the findings then compared with the results of several series of experiments in coin mould manufacture.
Although pellet mould from different sites is superficially similar, close study reveals that variability is a salient characteristic. In fact, it is perhaps wise to think of the manufacture and use of pellet-mould as a family of closely-related techniques. This variability extends from the fabrics, through the methods used to make the trays to the way in which they were used. It has been assumed that it is possible to deduce pellet module from either the diameter or the volume of mould holes on a fragment, but an examination of more than 11,000 mould holes demonstrated conclusively that this is not so. Variation in these parameters, from site to site, from assemblage to assemblage, between fragments and between the holes on single fragments, show an absence of standardisation which means that the holes could not have been used to measure the metal they contained.
A major aim of the study has been to discover more about the social and economic context for pellet manufacture. Hints have been found in several of the assemblages studied for the season in which the coin mould was made. Chance impressions, mostly on fragment bases, of grass seed-stalks and of cultivated grains, suggest that the minting process often began in late summer or early autumn. This is exactly what one might expect from an agrarian society, because it is after harvest that there is time available for activities not directly related to farming, and it is also at this time that such a society is at its wealthiest. This is particularly important at those sites, such as the Braughing/Puckeridge settlement complex, where there is evidence for more than one episode of minting, because it locates minting in the broader cycle of life in these places.
It has been demonstrated very well by Haselgrove and others that European Late Iron Age coin had value over and above the purely monetary, so it is perhaps no surprise that the study found clear evidence that coin pellet mould also had significance on more than one level. The majority of deposits of coin mould in England are very small, ten fragments or fewer, and they are often accompanied by fragments of expensive pottery and the remains of feasting. This is mirrored by the undeniable fact that the larger assemblages show clear signs of the preferential removal of parts of trays. Although trays were often manufactured without a great deal of care, after use it would seem that they took on some of the numen of the coin they helped to produce. There is evidence that some , at least, of the larger assemblages were exposed to the elements for some time before finally being deposited in pits or ditches, raising the possibility that they may have been displayed in the open as symbols of wealth and prestige.
This blending of the practical with the mystical is perhaps adumbrated by the three tray sizes so far attested in England: 25 holes, 50 holes and 100 holes. The capacity of the tray seems to have been dictated by the diameter of hole to be accommodated, the largest holes being found on trays with the smallest capacity. There is a good, practical reason for this: the larger the tray, the more flimsy and susceptible to breakage it becomes.
However, the way in which holes are laid out on the two known types of 50-hole tray, as 7 rows of 7 holes, plus a single hole above the top row to make 50, appears to show that to the makers and the users of the trays, square numbers had a significance above and beyond the purely practical. It is possible to demonstrate that the portion of the pentagonal 50-hole Verulamium form tray proportionately most likely to be selected for removal from a larger assemblage was the apex of the pediment, with its single hole.
That the pedimental apex hole is often separated from the body of 7 x7 holes by a line adds to the idea that it was regarded as ‘special’, although we can never know whether it was regarded as ‘lucky’, or as ‘dangerous’. The picture that emerges is of a process made deliberately complex, taking place within a society which had a very complex and multiform view of value, where an object could unite utility, kudos in display and spiritual worth.
Since Making a Mint was written, another three major assemblages have been examined – Blackfriars, Leicester; Scotch Corner, North Yorks; BRR16, from Braughing in Hertfordshire.
This last assemblage is still in the process of being examined, but it is already clear that it is of the greatest significance. The Braughing/Puckeridge settlement complex has now yielded around 70Kg. of coin pellet mould in total, and it is clear from stray surface finds that more assemblages remain to be uncovered in the vicinity. Braughing/Puckeridge is therefore one of the most significant sites of pellet-mould deposition in Europe, and in conjunction with Jake Morley-Stone of the Liverpool University Archaeomaterials Department – with funding from Historic England – this new material will be subjected to the most comprehensive programme of analysis yet undertaken.
In all, 28kg of coin mould was retrieved as a single deposit, and preliminary examination has revealed new tray forms and new methods of tray manufacture. While none of the major conclusions of Making a Mint has been challenged, the BRR16 coin mould does seem to make necessary the modification of some of the positions adopted. Furthermore, given the sheer variety of types in the assemblage, the different fabrics, tray forms and techniques, it is difficult not to consider the intriguing possibility that coin mould is being brought together at Braughing from many different places in an echo of the Folly Lane burial mound, where each turf can be shown to have come from a different location. Some of the BRR16 coin mould shows strong similarities with an assemblage found at Bavay, Département du Nord, France, and only further research will be able to demonstrate whether this resemblance is significant or merely fortuitous.
All of these matters – and many others, including the recent discovery of a structured deposit which includes coin mould – will receive thorough treatment in the book The Mints of Braughing by Jake Morley-Stone and Mark Landon (forthcoming, Archaeopress).
David Breeze provides an introduction and detailed context for his new book ‘Bearsden: The Story of a Roman Fort’
27 August 1973 was the first day of a project which was to last for 43 years. On that day, I cut the first trench in an attempt to re-discover the Roman fort at Bearsden on the Antonine Wall. The fort had been recorded about 300 years ago, and planned 150 years back when it still lay in open countryside. But in the 19th century, the urban sprawl of Glasgow reached the hamlet of New Kilpatrick. When the railway station was built, it was named after the farm of Bearsden and this is now the name of the local authority area – and the Roman fort.
On that first day, we were successful. In fact, in the first season we met all our primary aims. To locate the fort and learn about its history were 2 of these, but in addition we discovered the fort’s bath-house, and started to reveal the environmental history of the area. What was planned as an exploratory investigation of 4 weeks extended to a 7-week excavation with significant media interest and many local visitors. The bath-house was put under a temporary cover which was not removed until 1979 when the examination of the building was completed and it was consolidated and put on public display.
The bath-house was formally opened to the public in 1982 by the then Minister responsible for Culture in Scotland, Allan Stewart. In the meantime, every season from 1973 to 1982 saw the digging team return to Bearsden to continue the examination of the site. By the end, we had examined half a hectare, mostly concentrated in the northern part of the site which was to be developed. The local authority which owned part of the southern half of the fort allowed us to excavate the gardens and flower beds of their house so that it was possible to create a coherent plan of the fort and its annexe as well as explore areas beyond the defences.
The areas examined in the southern part of the fort were restricted, but there were also problems in the northern sector. Four late Victorian villas had removed evidence from their footprints. The creation of platforms for the houses had led to the importation of clay which had squeezed the Roman layers underneath. The trees were protected and this restricted where we could dig. Yet, gradually, piecemeal, the plan of the fort and annexe were created and the history of the site elucidated.
The first surprise was that the fort planned by William Roy in 1755 had been divided into 2 by its Roman builders. To the left of the enclosure lay the fort while to its right was a smaller annexe. The regimental bath-house and the latrine were placed within the annexe. The fort contained 2 stone granaries and several timber buildings. These included the headquarters, two barrack-blocks and three long narrow buildings of uncertain purpose.
The big surprise was that the plan of the fort had been changed during construction. It took us some time to realize this. The original fort covered the whole enclosure, but when only 4 buildings had been erected, or started, for some reason it was decided to divide the large fort into two, a fort and an annexe. The headquarters, which was probably the first building to have been erected, was not moved, but the single room of the bath-house which had been built was knocked down and a new bath-house built on a different alignment within the annexe. One stone granary had also been built, to the left of the headquarters.
The new smaller fort therefore contained a headquarters building placed, not in the centre of the fort, but to one side, and a granary. In the northern half of the fort were now built barrack-blocks and other timber buildings – and one stone granary. This was in a most unusual position, but this appears to have been the result of the change in plan. The granary should have stood in the centre of the fort next to its pair, but space had to be found for the commanding officer’s house, usually placed next to the headquarters, and this led to the second granary being placed in its unusual location.
As a result of these changes, the plan of the fort looked most strange. However, while preparing the plans for publication Dennis Gallagher realised that the fort was laid out to a grid based upon the Roman unit of measurement known as an actus, that is 120 feet square. The whole enclosure measured 5 by 4 actus. Half an actus in lay the rampart. The central east-west line ran along the road through the fort. What was also intriguing was that the revised plan for the fort appeared also to use the actus. All the timber buildings were about an actus long and the distance across 2 pairs of such buildings was half an actus.
This was interesting in itself, but the use of the same unit of measurement in the first fort and in its revised version indicates that both phases of activity were the work of the same team. An inscription demonstrated that these were soldiers from the Twentieth Legion.
The evidence for such a change in the building of a fort on the Antonine Wall has not been recorded elsewhere along the frontier. It adds another dimension to the complicated history of the building of the Wall.
Another aspect of life in the fort provided to be very interesting. So much of the 2 barrack-blocks had been excavated that it was possible to plot the distribution of pottery through the buildings. Nearly every room provided one or more fragments of mixing bowls, cooking pots and bowls and dishes. It would appear that the soldiers were preparing, cooking and eating their food in their barracks. As we found no plates, it seems that they ate the food out of the bowls or dishes, perhaps with their fingers. Other items lacking were cups and beakers: it is not clear what soldiers drank out of.
There was also a distinction between the rooms of the men and the quarters of the officers. The latter produced higher quality pottery such as imported samian ware.
Quantities of samian ware were also recovered from the bath-house. Here, the lack of mixing bowls suggests that food was not prepared in the building, but there were several bowls, including fragments of 8 samian bowls, but a fragment from just one cup. What is the implication? Did the soldiers drink wine from bowls? This is not impossible as one such bowl from elsewhere bears the message ‘drink from me’. Could they have held fruit and nuts? This is a reasonable possibility as fragments of both were found in the bath-house. Or, bearing in mind the distance to the latrine, did the bowls serve as chamber pots?
The latrine proved to be a rich source of information, or rather the adjacent ditch into which the sewage from the latrine had drained. The sewage told us a lot about the diet of the soldiers. Two types of wheat were found, emmer probably used for porridge, and spelt probably made into bread. Analysis of the residue in some cooking pots led to the identification of a third wheat, macaroni wheat. This, possibly imported from Spain, could have been used to make pasta or porridge or mixed with spelt to make brown bread. Barley was also found in the sewage, mixed with fragments of beetles. Whether the barley was contaminated and therefore dumped in the ditch, or whether both elements had passed through soldiers’ guts is hard to tell.
The sewage also contained locally gathered foods such as bilberry, blackberry, raspberry, and wild strawberry, hazel nuts, wild turnips, radishes, mallow, flax and celery. More exotic items were coriander, figs and opium poppy, probably imported from the continent. Olive oil and fish-based products came to Bearsden from Spain in large jars, while wine was imported from France. Among the less welcome imports were no less than 4 different types of grain beetles; it is a remarkable testimony to Roman transport arrangements that within a hundred years of the invasion of Britain in 43, grain beetles could have reached the north-west frontier of the empire.
Few bones survived at Bearsden owing to the acidity of the soil, but pig was certainly eaten. Yet, biochemical analysis of the sewage demonstrated that the diet was mainly plant based. The sewage provided evidence of an altogether different kind. It demonstrated that the soldiers suffered from both roundworm and whipworm and had fleas.
A Roman fort, practically any Roman fort, attracted women, merchants, publicans, priests and so on. We found little evidence for any of these, only potters. Three or 4 potters came to work at Bearsden. One was from the workshop of Sarrius who already manufactured pottery in two places in southern Britain. He appears to have come north with the army, or very soon afterwards, for part of one of his vessels was found in a primary level in the bath-house.
The fort at Bearsden did not have a long life. Built in or soon after 142, it lasted for about a generation. An inscription from Hadrian’s Wall dating to 158 points to the re-occupation of that frontier and the abandonment of the Antonine Wall. Two unworn coins of 154-5 suggest that Bearsden was abandoned soon after that date. The buildings were demolished and the rampart slighted when the army marched out and returned to Hadrian’s Wall. Some of their possessions were dumped in the fort ditch but the quality of the finds on the site suggests that they took all the better items with them.
The fort at Bearsden was built in an area of established pasture with some partially cleared woodland. Trees growing here included alder, hazel and willow; there was some oak and birch. Grasses, heather and rushes grew in cleared areas. The Romans used these local resources in the building of their fort: turf for the ramparts, wood for the buildings, rushes for the roofs, clay to plaster the walls of the buildings – and to make pottery – while further afield there was stone. When they left the site, nature took over, and this can be observed, for example, in the growth of aquatic species in the ditches. The denuded ramparts and the partially filled ditches were to survive another 1700 years before they succumbed to the ever-expanding suburbs of Glasgow.
The archaeological excavation had started in 1973 and was completed in 1982. By that time, analysis of the finds had begun. This was to continue through many years. It was not until after I had retired in 2009 that I was able to bring all together and finalise the report which was published in June 2016; in 4 months it had sold out. By that time, I had decided to write a ‘popular’ account of the site, describing how the excavation and post-excavation work was carried out and the report written, as well as not only discussing the discoveries made at the site but also placing the fort and its occupants in a wider context, and, finally, looking to the future because the completion and publication of the excavation report is rarely the end of the story. Already, the parasite eggs have been submitted to a laboratory for DNA analysis while colleagues write to inform me of new discoveries which are relevant to our findings at Bearsden. This is as it should be: research never stops.