The Scythians have arrived at the British Museum!

St John Simpson introduces the BP exhibition ‘Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia’, open at the British Museum from 14 September 2017-14 January 2018

On 14 September a major new exhibition opened at the British Museum and creates a unique opportunity to see the world of the Scythians, warriors and nomads, in an atmospheric setting and with hundreds of stunning objects. This was organised with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, from which most of the objects have been very generously loaned, and includes other important loans from the National Museum of the Republic of Kazakhstan, the Ashmolean Museum and a magnificent portrait of Peter the Great lent by Her Majesty the Queen.

This exhibition was devised four years ago to mark the British Museum’s contribution to the past year of exhibitions and events celebrating Russian art and culture in the UK. The British Museum team was led by St John Simpson, with Svetlana Pankova of the State Hermitage Museum co-ordinating her colleagues in the Departments of Archaeology, Ancient World and Russian Culture: together they have co-edited the sumptuous catalogue published by Thames & Hudson to go with it.

visitors admiring gold
Photo: Benedict Johnson

The exhibition is attracting 5* reviews and is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see these objects together. The exhibition begins with some of the first Scythian gold objects to be discovered in the early eighteenth century as explorers during the reign of Peter the Great set out to explore and map newly conquered territories in present-day southern Siberia. These were found in burial mounds and excited huge interest in Russia at the time: they are shown here alongside early eighteenth century watercolours commissioned in St Petersburg, and astonishingly this is the first time they have been exhibited together.

The exhibition continues with a stunning digital panorama based on late nineteenth century Russian watercolours showing parts of the route taken by the Trans-Siberian Railway as it passes through Siberia. They evoke the scenery and show that Siberia is not just the place of hardship, cold and forest that is mentally conjured up in most peoples’ minds but the southern portion was a grassy corridor which connected China with the edge of Europe.

© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Separate sections in the exhibition then set out to answer common questions with carefully selected objects set against massive landscape backdrops with succinct text panels printed on cloth banners and illustrated with contextual images and accurate reconstructions. Some of the earliest tattoos and a beheaded chieftain’s head illustrate personal appearance and body art. Trousers, a fur-lined coat, exquisite gold dress appliques, an embroidered shoe and a tall woman’s headdress bring home a sense of style. Mirrors, manicured fingernails, a false wig and pouches filled with black hair dye show that vanity is not a modern concept and these men and women were careful to show themselves to best effect. A portable lifestyle meant that possessions had to be easily transported, and people of status wore their wealth on their bodies. Oversized gold buckles demonstrate this in one way; massed rows of miniature gold dress ornaments show it in another and mark the beginning of a very long Eurasian nomad tradition.

A reconstructed miniature tent and a brazier with hemp seeds confirms a famous passage by Herodotus that Scythians appreciated the effect of consuming cannabis in a confined space and enjoyed “hot boxing” so much that they “howled with pleasure”. These nomads moved according to the seasons and the availability of water and pasture, but exhibiting ancient nomads is tough when they leave a light footprint in the landscape. Fortunately they buried their essentials as well as their status items in tombs for an anticipated afterlife. Exceptional preservation in the permanently frozen subsoil beneath these mounds in the Altai mountain region has meant the preservation of all the organic remains: a sable fur bag, leather, wood, felts, rugs, horse harness and even lumps of cheese, labelled with a “best before” date of 300 BC.

Soft saddle
© The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, 2017. Photo: V Terebenin

Life was tough though and evidence for weapons and trauma on excavated human remains shows that there must have been considerable competition over resources. Showcases contain deadly aerodynamic arrowheads, fired from the famous Scythian bow described by Greek authors, an efficient pointed battle-axe with its original honeysuckle wood handle, wooden shields, armour, a bronze helmet and a serried rank of daggers and short swords. And of course there is the horse-tack: not just bronze horse-bits but complete bridles with leather straps and carved wooden ornaments, and another Scythian invention: the soft saddle, stuffed with straw and deer hair and covered with an extraordinary decorated cover.

Fittingly, the largest object in the exhibition is a super-sized perfectly preserved log coffin from Pazyryk which weighs a third of a ton! Digital media show frozen tombs like this being excavated and how the interiors were encased in solid ice which had built up over centuries inside. Even so, the Pazyryk tombs were robbed in antiquity so although the organics are spectacular there is precious little of intrinsic value: that is where the exhibition has drawn on late eighteenth and nineteenth century tomb finds from the northern Black Sea region (all from the State Hermitage and the Ashmolean) and very recent discoveries in southern Siberia and neighbouring Kazakhstan.

a family comes face to face
Photo: Benedict Johnson

The exhibition closes by looking at life in southern Siberia after the Scythians. Although even the names of the tribes are unknown, the excavated tomb finds show increasing complexity and long-distance connections: the remains of a composite bow, colourful beads imported from the Mediterranean, a scrap of Chinese silk reused along the hem of a toy quiver. The archaeology of the Scythians and other early nomads of Eurasia is a very active field and there are many surprises. New scientific research carried out at the British Museum answered some questions we had about gold objects from the Siberian Collection of Peter the Great, and in fact there is more scientific research on show in this exhibition than in any ever before at the British Museum! One of the last things a visitor sees is the CT-scan of a (post-Scythian) man’s head concealed beneath his painted death-mask and what this brand new piece of Russian research shows is that he has a carefully stitched up scar on his left cheek and the hole where his left temple had been trepanned as part of an embalming ritual.

The subject of continuing new discoveries is the topic of an exciting three-day archaeological conference to be held at the British Museum this coming 27-29 October. This will bring together scholars of all ages and nationalities to share the results of their research projects, latest archaeological discoveries and new scientific research. Many of these results are presented here for the first time and they evoke the world of the steppe: a natural open corridor without borders which connected Russia with Europe, the Middle East and China. There will be papers on Scythians, Hephthalites and other Eurasian nomad economies, tombs, burial rites, gold-working, human remains, the invention of trousers, early Scythian dyes, “Animal Style” art, rock art, connections with China, and some tantalising if not gruesome answers as to where the Scythians got their leather for their bow quivers! This conference is being generously supported by the ERC and the British Museum and is part of the public programme associated with the exhibition. Booking is via the British Museum box office.

The BP exhibition Scythians: warriors of ancient Siberia is open at the British Museum from 14 September 2017-14 January 2018.

A conference, Scythians and early nomads from Siberia to the Black Sea, will be held in the BP Lecture Theatre at the British Museum from 27-29 October 2017. This major three-day conference is open to all. It will include the latest research on early nomads of Eurasia with papers on horseriding, warfare, technology and many other topics. It will also include results of recent archaeological excavations and new scientific research, and poster displays. Click here to view the conference programme.

Header image: Landscape in Southern Siberia courtesy of V. Terebenin.

Sincerest thanks to St John Simpson for providing this latest post for the Archaeopress Blog. We are actively seeking new content for the blog; articles on all aspects of archaeology and related heritage topics will be considered. Perhaps you would like to highlight a small find on an excavation that won’t be fully reported until years from now; an opinion piece; summaries of local activity; introductions to new and ongoing exhibits; conference reports; the list goes on. Articles should be approximately 2,000 words in length with 4-8 accompanying illustrations, but please note this is just a guide and both shorter and longer articles would be considered. Please submit blog proposals to Patrick Harris at

A Country Retreat for an Archaeologist: Sutton Hall, Macclesfield, Cheshire, UK

by Gerald Brisch, editor of the 3rdGuides series and Archaeopress Director

Fig. 1 (above): Sutton Hall, near Macclesfield, Cheshire (used under creative commons license)

A casual reference to a remote Cheshire hamlet begins Mabel Bent’s 5th travel diary, or Chronicle, in January 1888; she (1847-1929) being the indefatigable wife of that great traveller and self-styled archaeologist, James Theodore Bent (1852-1897), who will be sitting close to her, looking at some map or travel permit. Mabel is writing from the Hôtel de Byzance in Istanbul (Constantinople to her, of course), about as far removed from the Norman-founded house of Sutton Hall as one can get. Mabel confides that the explorers were hoping to return to Thásos island to continue their semi-authorised excavations of the season before, but their nemesis, Istanbul Museum director, Hamdi Bey, has steimied them.

fig 2 Mabel Bent and fig 3 Theodore Bent
Fig. 2: Mabel Virginia Anna Bent (unknown date, private studio portrait, private collection)
Fig. 3: James Theodore Bent (unknown date, after an image in the Illustrated London News, 1897, private collection)

Instead, the couple shortly embarked on a sequence of (illicit) investigations along the Turkish littoral (in particular the coastline opposite Rhodes), which proved fruitful: some of Bent’s marbles from this expedition are now in London at the British Museum (and a search of  its on-line catalogue will turn them up). Bent briefly wrote up his discoveries of ancient Loryma, Lydae, and Myra for the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1888, Vol. 9, 82-7), but a lengthier account was provided by E. L. Hicks (‘Inscriptions from Casarea, Lydae, Patara, Myra’, 1889, Vol. 10, 46-85), including transcriptions of over forty inscriptions and passages of text from Theodore’s own notebooks (which are rare, as many of his original notebooks are now missing).

But let’s cut back to Mabel in the Hôtel de Byzance, and that reference to Sutton Hall:

We left England on January 19th Thursday, travelling from Sutton Hall to Marseilles, which we reached at 12.10 pm on Saturday morning and went to bed at the Station Hotel. We varied our journey by going for our meals to the Waggon Lits dining car. We embarked in the afternoon on board the Messageries steamer La Bourdonnais, with only one passenger besides ourselves and a captain’s wife going to join her husband. We had dreadfully stormy weather after Cape Matapan and had to shelter 20 hours in the island of Seriphos, always eating with fiddles on the table. We only got to Syra on Thursday. We landed and found to our sorrow that our kind consul Mr. Binney was dreadfully ill. At Smyrna we visited Mr. Disinnis and he seemed nearly worn out from nursing his wife. We reached Constantinople on Saturday [January] 21st and after an odious landing in a downpour of rain, our goods being as usual opened in a passage roofed over only, we found ourselves again in the Hôtel de Byzance. There is not much to tell of our stay there. Our great object was to obtain a firman, permitting us to dig in Thasos and have a share of the finds. With this object we went to visit Hamdi Bey, the head of the museum, accompanied by Mr. Wrench, our Consul… Hamdi is a very agreeable foe. He is a painter and has been educated in Paris and has married 2 French wives in succession. We were at his house 2 years ago. He was extremely polite and most willing that we should dig “for the love of science” and the benefit of his museum. His wife is a pretty, bright little woman, who, though she receives everyone at home, has to go out in a yashmak… We went twice, our second visit was to say we had given up wishing for a firman, as we were not justified in digging for nothing. Hamdi seemed annoyed at this but was none the less civil. Mrs. Hamdi took me upstairs to see her 2 children, Leila aged 10 and Edhem 4, called after his grandfather, His Highness Edhem Pasha, who was himself, or was the son of a slave. I also saw her mother, an untidy old woman in a dressing gown, and I had coffee.

[The Chronicles of Mabel Bent, Vol. 1, 228-9, Archaeopress, 2006]

And all a long way from rural Cheshire. The modest grand house of Sutton Hall, a few miles from both Macclesfield and Chesterfield, has sturdy Norman roots: for a period of time in the late 19th century it just also happened to be  leased to Theodore Bent – arguably one of the pioneers of Cycladic archaeology (1883/4); controversial surveyor of ‘Great Zimbabwe’ for Cecil Rhodes (1891/2); and searcher for traces of the Queen of Sheba along the daunting Hadramawt (1894/5). [A select bibliography follows]

Wikipedia informs us that:

fig 4 sutton hall pic 2
Fig. 4: Sutton Hall, near Macclesfield, Cheshire, UK (

‘The house is constructed partly in stone, and partly in timber framing, with a U-shaped plan. The arms of the “U” end in irregular gables. The left gable is in stone, and the right is timber-framed. The upper storey of the right gable is jettied, the jetty being supported on brackets carved with wooden figures, one a knight in chain mail. Between the two wings is the former great hall. A 16th century chapel at the rear of the house, which has served at different times as stables and as a convent, now serves as the restaurant kitchens. The house is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade II listed building.’

and that:

‘Once the property of the Sir Humphrey Davenport, Chief Baron of the Exchequer in 1631, the Manor of Sutton later passed by marriage to Sir Rowland Belasyse, an ancestor of the Earls of Fauconberg. In 1819 it was acquired by the Countess of Lucan and descended to her successors, the Lords Lucan, primarily used as a farmhouse. The countess had been born Elizabeth Belasyse, daughter of Henry Belasyse, 2nd Earl Fauconberg and in 1794 had married Richard Bingham, who became the 2nd Earl of Lucan in 1799. By 1804, after six children, they had separated.’ [,_Sutton_Lane_Ends]

In its present incarnation, the erstwhile Bent residence is a pleasant, out-of-the-way gastro-pub and very worthy of a detour and lunch. [GPS= 53.240306854248,-2.1160869598389. A potted history and photo gallery is available at

Local historian Alan Dinnis adds:

‘The Bents had been in the Sutton area for some time.  Back in 1838-39, when St James’ Church was planned, members of the family contributed a total of ten pounds to the building fund.  In the 1860s, when it was customary for church pews to be rented, “The Misses Bent” held eight seats with another four seats for their “domestics”.  Theodore owned The Elms in Byron’s Lane and had another house in London.  He also held the lease (from the Earl of Lucan) of Sutton Hall, which was occupied by his Aunt Maria.’ [personal communication, Oct 2011]

Sutton Hall was initially leased by Bent’s parents, James Bent and Margaret Eleanor (née Lambert, daughter of wealthy Baildon (near Bradford) locals, John and Ann Lambert of Baildon Hall), who married in April 1848. The Bent family could be traced back some generations in the north of England, related to the splendidly-named Hamlet Bent (1642-1728). Another branch of the family included the distinguished surgeon Sir James Justin Bent, who amputated Josiah Wedgewood’s right leg in May 1768. Sir James resided in Basford Hall (near Leek, Staffordshire) and it was his family crest that was adopted and adapted by other members of the extended family – including Theodore: the ‘demi-lion azure’ featuring on his stationery. One family motto was ‘Nec Temere, Nec Timide’ – ‘neither reckless, nor timid’. Bent was never the latter. (Theodore (he dropped his first given name – James) was born in thriving Victorian Liverpool on 30 March 1852 – an uncle, Sir John Bent, was Lord Mayor of the city in 1850-51.)

The non-medical Bents made their wealth collectively in the pottery and brewing trades – making both beer and the means of supping it being rather canny. The business  ‘Bent’s Brewery Co. Ltd.’ only disappeared as a trade name in the 1960s.

As well as their fine home in Baildon, and assorted properties in the area, Theodore’s father (presumably) also leased Sutton Hall, it seems as a home for his sister and those of his brothers, and which was to become the favourite English summer residence of his son Theodore and his wife Mabel.

Within a year of his father’s death, with Theodore 25 and Mabel 30, the couple announced their engagement (the couple having met in Norway) and a few months later, in August 1877, the local Cheshire and Yorkshire newspapers (York Herald, 6 August, and Cheshire Observer, 8 August 1877) printed a marriage notice:

‘On the 2nd inst. at Staplestown Church, county Carlow, Ireland, by the Rev. Charles Lambart, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. H. A. Barker and the Rev. T. Hatchell, James Theodore Bent, of Sutton Hall, in this county, to Mabel Virginia Anna, second sister of the late Robert Westley Hall Dare, of Newtonbarry House, County Wexford.’

In the summer of 1885, Theodore (now comfortably off) put up for sale five freehold cottages and premises (totalling about four hectares) at Brook Hill, Baildon (and a freehold close of land in Slaughter Lane) at auction. The young explorer was left with Baildon House and his property interests in Sutton. (Anglo-Irish Mabel had access to lands of some grandeur in Co. Wexford and Theydon Bois, Essex, where the couple rest together today in the Hall-Dare plot in St Mary’s church.)

From 1880, at least, the Bents also leased property in London. In 1880 they were in 43 Great Cumberland Place (near Marble Arch) and a few years later they were in number 13, in which Mabel continued to reside in rather lonely isolation  until her death in 1929. It is unclear what happened to the lease at Sutton Hall up until Mabel’s death in 1929, but at Theodore’s death in 1887 it was incorporated into his trust estate:

‘…I bequeath to my Aunt Maria Bent her executors administrators and assigns absolutely All that my leasehold messuage called Sutton Hall Macclesfield wherein she now resides for all my term and interest therein she paying the rent and observing and performing all the covenants and conditions contained in the lease thereof. I devise all my freehold or copyhold estate at Sutton near Macclesfield aforesaid called “The Gurnett” unto my trustees…Upon trust to permit my said Aunt Maria Bent during her life to receive the rents and profits thereof and from and after her decease I declare that the said freehold or copyhold estate shall sink into and become part of the trust estate hereinafter mentioned…’ [‘Clause in Will of J T Bent, signed 21 Jan 1891 (died May 1897, no other wills known by me but further codicils may have been added)’]

It seems that ‘The Gurnett’ was linked in some way with the property referred to (see above) as ‘The Elms’. This residence was perhaps in turn rented out, as in 1895 it was the residence of one ‘Alderman John Birchenough JP… a prominent local politician and silk manufacturer’, and described as ‘a pretty mansion in Byrons’ Lane, Sutton…’ []

The Daily News of 21 August 1897 records that Theodore’s personal estate on his death was valued at £21,497, and refers to the deceased as ‘the well-known traveller and archæologist’.

Sutton Hall pub’s own website has an interesting archaeological snippet:

‘In the grounds of Sutton Hall there is a somewhat dilapidated Bronze Age barrow (now the resting-place of a water trough).  In 1962 the barrow was again excavated, by James Forde-Johnston of Manchester University, who unearthed evidence of several further cremations. He discovered that the mound had originally been around 100 yards in diameter, but was substantially reduced, with many of the river cobbles having been removed to the nearby farmyard for use in paving, where they can still be seen.’ []

Bent would most certainly have known of it (probably a cremation site, now much reduced in size), and in all likelihood taken a spade to it, although we have neither record nor proof: although the ‘somewhat dilapidated’ is perhaps one clue (!) and a search for Forde-Johnston’s notes (this current author has not attempted to) might reveal others.

Theodore did however make several notable archaeological discoveries, and very often refers to himself as an ‘archaeologist’, however he is not recognized quite as such by today’s practitioners. Although the discipline was already well advanced by the late 19th century, Theodore was much more artefact- than context-lead as an ‘excavator’, more interested in recovering material to return with to England (and perhaps to deal in) than interpreting and communicating a wider understanding of the site he was excavating. In a similar way, he was often handicapped by his own theories – for example his notorious work at ‘Great Zimbabwe’, the discrediting of which caused Mabel such distress after his death. So, perhaps then archaeologist, no; but explorer-traveller, adventurer, even antiquarian and ethnographer, emphatically yes. Great British travellers, travel-celebrities even, indeed. Bent would be a TV presenter today – Jago Cooper if not Michael Wood.

Sutton’s local church of St James’ contains a sweep of memorial windows to the Bents. Theodore installed one for his father († Dec 1876) and mother († Nov 1873). And their son, in his turn – and nicely depicted as St James – has one donated by his widow. In the church guide we read:

Fig 5 Theodore Bent window
Fig. 5: Memorial window to Theodore Bent in St James’ Church, Sutton (author’s photo)

‘This window is dated 1897 and depicts a pilgrim ending life’s journey at the gate of Heaven and being welcomed by an angel. The pilgrim is dressed as St James. There is a scallop shell in his pilgrim’s hat… The window is in memory of J. Theodore Bent, of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall, who died on 5th May 1897 aged 45. It was given by his widow Mabel, of 13, Great Cumberland Place, Middlesex.’ [Alan Dinnis, St James’ Church, Sutton: 1840–1990, Macclesfield 1990, 136]

The Cheshire Observer of 27 November 1897 provides more information:

‘Mrs. Mabel V. A. Bent, residing at 13, Great Cumberland Place, London, applied for a faculty to place a stained-glass window at the east end of the church, as a memorial to the late James Theodore Bent, a former parishioner. The cost (£72) would be defrayed by Mrs. Bent. – The faculty was granted.’

It is a fine, long window (dated 1896 curiously), depicting the pilgrim (a.k.a. Bent) being welcomed by an angel at heaven’s gate. The caption reads: ‘To God’s glory and in remembrance of J. Theodore Bent. FRGS, FSA. Son of James and Margaret Eleanor Bent of Baildon House, Yorks, and Sutton Hall. Died May 5 1897, aged 45.’

Mabel specified two quotations: ‘The highways were unoccupied and the travellers walked through byways’ (Judges 5:6) and ‘They were strangers and pilgrims on the earth’ (Hebrews 11:13). Mabel and Theodore are reunited in these lines. (There are other memorials to the Bents and Hall-Dares in Baildon (St John’s), Theydon Bois (St Mary’s), and Bunclody (Co. Wexford, also St Mary’s.)

But Sutton Hall was to remain one of the Bents’ happiest homes and they spent time there as often as they could – their routine from the early 1880s until Theodore’s death in 1897 was to travel in English winters and return to England and Ireland for summers and autumns. As well as visiting family and friends, Theodore would spend these periods writing, lecturing, and preparing for the next season and the beeswaxed and grandfather-clock-ticking rooms of Sutton Hall would have been furnished with the desks and tables on which Theodore worked on many of his books (a select bibliography concludes this essay) as well as the hundreds of letters (his correspondents including Rider Haggard: did he have Bent in mind as Allan Quatermain?), as well as the articles and lectures he generated over the twenty or so years of travel.

fig 6 Bent letter to rider haggard
Fig. 6: Letter of unknown date from Theodore Bent to Rider Haggard, addressed from Sutton Hall (private collection)

As one example, alluded to above, Theodore spent a good deal of the summer and autumn of 1887 trying (unsuccessfully) to drum up enough support to have some of the fine marbles he uncovered on Thásos saved for London; the Turks claimed them, the Greeks were dispossessed – today most are in Istanbul. Letters exist from Theodore at a series of addresses in Herefordshire (mostly vicarages), and Sutton Hall to senior staff at the British Museum:

‘… We have indeed been unfortunate about our treasure trove [sic] but I have hopes still. I sent to Mr. Murray [of the BM] a copy of two letters which recognize the fact that I had permission in Thasos both to dig and to remove… Seriously… Thasos is wonderfully rich and I have some excellent points for future work and if we could by not being over grasping get the Turkish govt. to recognize the [position] I am confident we could produce some excellent results.’ [Bent’s letter to Arthur Smith at the British Museum, 4 Sept 1887]

As for Sutton’s later role in the lives of the Bents, future research, we hope, will uncover the story of Mabel’s holidays, as a widow, at Sutton Hall, but we may assume that Theodore last saw the house in the summer and autumn of 1896 before leaving for Sokotra and Aden – his final journey.

At Aden, the Bents – with their long-serving assistant Matthew Símos (from Anáfi in the Greek Cyclades) – set out on 27 February 1897 for their last explorations together into the territories east of Aden. They were clearly weakened after their stay on Sokotra, and on March 16 Mabel records that: ‘Theodore was in a raging fever so that I had to tell him I was now much better and had got quite strong, so I could take care of him…’ (Mabel’s Chronicle for March 1897), and it was clear that the expedition would have to be aborted: the arduous trek back to the South Arabian coast, and onward boat-journey to Aden, would have to be made as soon as possible. With great difficulty, the stricken travellers were aided down to the coastal town of Shuqra for the 100km return sail to Aden, and by 26 March 1897 they were all in the hospital there.

Mabel’s letter (from London) to Scott Keltie at the Royal Geographical Society,  London, just before Theodore’s death, sums up their acute distress at the time:

‘Dear Mr. Keltie… We got home on Saturday night [1 May 1897] in a most wretched state. We have had malarial fever and I have been ‘dangerous’ in Aden and now it is my poor husband’s turn. He got a fresh attack just getting home and pneumonia. He is a little better today but not out of danger – but I have good hopes though awfully anxious as the Drs. shake their heads. We have one sleeping in the house and 2 nurses as I am no good yet. I had to be carried to the steamer in an ambulance litter… We have had an awful time – bad enough without this. I have one of my sisters so have good help. He made little maps fitting on to each other but just yet I seem not to know where they are. When as I can’t help thinking he is better I will ask you to come and see the things. I was pretty lucky with my photos. We nearly got to the coast at Shugra before we got the fever, through part of the Beled Fadhli again – We were in the hospital at Aden… Yours truly, Mabel V. A. Bent’

Despite the attentions of Mabel, her sister Ethel, a resident doctor and two nurses, Theodore did not ‘get better’, succumbing just a few days later on 5 May 1897. (He is buried in his wife’s family plot at St Mary’s, Theydon Bois: there is a memorial stone to them both; you can visit.)

Sutton Hall witnesses this next sad letter written by Mabel, as, on top of everything else, with her uncle Francis also dying in May, she was faced with the melancholy task of unpacking all their botanical specimens for Kew. From Sutton Hall (on black-edged paper), she writes (24 May 1897) to Kew director, Sir William Thiselton-Dyer:

‘I don’t know how to thank you enough for your letter, it was so kind. People have been so good in writing to me and though of course one cannot be consoled it is a pleasure to feel my husband was appreciated and that my friends share my great sorrow. He was always occupied and so happy in his work. Of course he collected some flowers and I shall have to unpack them soon and I should like to take them to you on Friday or Saturday which ever day and time suits you. One of my sisters is with me and we go up to town on Thursday morning to be ready for the valuations and then I must unpack all our ‘long sea’ baggage and camp furniture which will be very sad and painful. [Mabel adds a postscript from London here] I wrote so far but now I find I am not strong enough. I have unpacked this morning and I am sure the things want attending to as the bulbs are growing and I am alarmed about some of the cactuses. Could you send someone to get explanations or come some afternoon. Please let me know when. Soon would be best as after the 1st I think the valuators will infest the house… With kind regards to Mrs Dyer, Yours very truly, Mabel V. A. Bent’   [Black-edged letter, 24 May 1897 from Mabel Bent at Sutton Hall, Macclesfield, to Thiselton-Dyer. On reverse: ‘Ansd 29.v.97. Mr. Watson to go on Monday afternoon. Parcel of dried plants, bulbs, seeds etc. from Arabia and Socotra brought to Kew. Ackd 4.6.97’ (Kew Archives: Directors’ Correspondence, Vol. 179, 8)]

This trip that cost Theodore his life produced the least return. There were no major archaeological finds: a very few artefacts are now in the British Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. There were some plant specimens for Kew, as usual, and a few land snails are in drawers in the Natural History Museum, London.

We must wait for a suitable Bent memorial at the gastro-pub that Sutton Hall now is (although at the upstairs windows one might glimpse drawn faces still), but just along the church lane, on the little hill that offers up St James’, Theodore, from his stained glass window, looks out south and south-east towards their remarkable routes and researches in the Mediterranean, Africa, and Arabia: thousands of land- and sea-miles, on hundreds of steamers, small boats, horses, mules, camels, and ox-carts to ‘Great Zimbabwe’. Today’s pub visitors have no idea – but, inside, the dark, Victorian rooms crackle with Empire and the small-talk of archaeologists.

fig 7 map
Fig. 7: Map showing the major regional spheres of interest of the Bents (drawn by Glyn Griffiths)

(c) Gerald Brisch, August 2017

Acknowledgement: The author would very much like to thank Robin Barber for a communication that inspired the above article.

A select bibliography

Bent, J. T. 1877. A Freak of Freedom (London).

Bent, J. T. 1881. A Life of Garibaldi (London).

Bent, J. T. 1881. Genoa, how the Republic Rose and Fell (London).

Bent, J. T. 1885. The Cyclades; or, Life Among the Insular Greeks (London).

Bent, J. T. 1892. The Ruined Cities of Mashonaland (London).

Bent, J. T. (ed.) 1893. Early Voyages and Travels in the Levant (London).

Bent, J. T. 1893. The Sacred City of the Ethiopians (London).

Bent, J. T. and M. V. A. 1900. Southern Arabia (London).

Bent, J. T. , Bent, M. V. A. and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2015. The Dodecanese: Further Travels Among the Insular Greeks (Oxford, Archaeopress).

Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2006. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume I, Greece and the Levantine Littoral (Oxford, Archaeopress).

Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E.  (ed.) 2012. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs. J. Theodore Bent. Volume II: The African Journeys (Oxford, Archaeopress).

Bent, M. V. A . and Brisch, G. E. (ed.) 2010. The Travel Chronicles of Mrs J. Theodore Bent. Volume III: Southern Arabia and Persia (Oxford, Archaeopress).

A fuller Bent Bibliography and other information on the Bents is available at:

[All above websites accessed August 2017]

3rdGuides Offers

Visit the Archaeopress website to view the 3rdGuides range of publications including Mabel Bent’s Travel Chronicles Vol 1-3, written during the couples’ excursions to Greece, Africa, Arabia and Turkey (1883-1898), a new edition of Theodore Bent’s The Cyclades (1885) accompanied by a newly commissioned biographical introduction and a series of notes including route-planner, and historical and archaeological summaries, and a volume of compiled papers, notes and travel-writings, The Dodecanese (2016).

The above books are available at special prices until 30/09/2017.

The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

George A. Said-Zammit PhD (Leiden), FSA, introduces and contextualises his recent Archaeopress publication

This study, which forms part of an extensive body of research undertaken and presented for my doctoral thesis at the University of Leiden (The Netherlands) in 2016, traces and analyses the evolution of domestic space in Maltese vernacular and “polite” houses between the late Middle Ages and the second half of the twentieth century. The study was published as a monograph later in 2016 by Archaeopress. The houses under study range from humble buildings of modest size, materials and design, like farmhouses or those for the less affluent town-dwellers to buildings of grand design, like townhouses and private palaces. This work considers various aspects of Maltese lifestyle, culture and economic activities to assess the local houses both from an architectural point of view and from an economic and anthropological perspective. The specific aim is to examine Maltese houses not as a static relic of the past, but as a vibrant place of human activity and social interaction, in which people act and react in different ways, according to different circumstances. In this sense, houses are also studied in terms of their spatial properties and how these generate privacy, interaction and communication, accessibility and security, and, equally important, how domestic space relates to gender roles, status and class.

The main objective of the study is to reach a deep and nuanced understanding of domestic space and how it relates to the islands’ history and the development of its society. The complex nature of the Maltese houses can only be addressed through applying a multidisciplinary approach. Therefore, my research promotes a multifaceted enquiry into the houses of the Maltese islands, reaching from the physical buildings and their material culture, via the perception of houses in art and literature, to the socio-economic significance of buildings in terms of property relations and economic activities. More specifically, in order to gain a comprehensive understanding of domestic space in Malta, the study pursues the following lines of investigation:

  1. systematic house surveys and rigorous data recording to establish categories of different types of dwellings;
  2. detailed field surveys, cartographic analysis and geographic research to relate the evolution of settlements to the development of domestic space;
  3. the study and appreciation of literary sources and oeuvres d’art to evaluate how Maltese houses have been perceived by travellers, visitors and artists;
  4. the documentation and evaluation of house furniture and contents through comparative studies of permanent museum exhibitions and notarial records;
  5. the analysis of a wide range of historical sources (including notarial records and travelogues) to explore Maltese houses as a place of human habitation and socio-economic activity;
  6. a systematic analysis of a small but coherent sample set of house and settlement plans using formal techniques for spatial analysis (Space Syntax) to study the evolution of the Maltese houses and settlements through their intrinsic spatial properties;
  7. the analysis of demographic data (for example, population records and the national censuses) to study the socio-anthropological dimension of the Maltese houses;
  8. the analysis of recent local domestic architecture to evaluate the perceptions of Maltese contemporary society.
Figure 105
Falson Palace in Villegaignon Street, Mdina

These individual strands of enquiry have their own merits; when combined, however, they complement and amplify each other and allow new and deeper insights into the evolution of the Maltese houses.

The resulting monograph is divided into twelve chapters. The first three provide the general framework for this research, including the geographical and chronological parameters as well as the methodology employed (Chapter 1), a historical background on Malta, with particular reference to society, class structure, economy and settlements (Chapter 2), and an analysis of local domestic architecture (Chapter 3). It is through the background provided in these chapters that the Maltese houses and settlements will be analysed in further detail in this work.

The next two chapters explore the local built environment through literature and art. Chapter 4 studies the houses and settlements from the observations or descriptions made by poets, writers and visitors. In this chapter the national censuses were instrumental to acquire data on local population and housing, for example occupancy and the person per room index. Chapter 5 examines local settlements and houses through a number of artistic works. These works-of-art were instrumental to study different types of urban and rural houses not only from an architectural point of view, but also from an anthropological perspective. The importance of these two chapters lies in the fact that the Maltese houses and settlements are considered from different perspectives, whilst providing an insight as to how through time locals and foreigners looked at dwellings, villages and their inhabitants.

Figure 116
A farmhouse in Sannat, Gozo, built in ashlar masonry

The next four chapters deal with different aspects of local life and how the Maltese family used domestic space for various functions. Chapter 6 deals with the relationship between domestic space and the family’s religious beliefs and traditions. This chapter demonstrates that the house was a place which often brought together the members of the family to pray together and to conduct their private worship. Chapter 7 is concerned with aspects of diet, dining fashions, health and education, while Chapter 8 focuses on furniture and costumes, which varied according to the social status of the house owners. Chapter 9 deals with household, gender, class and property. Together, these chapters are important because through the study of various sources they demonstrate that houses are a building as much as they are a place of human habitation and activity. They also show that houses were often a symbol of social status, political or economic power, and identity.

Fig 152 colour
An example of a Maltese villa in Guardamangia built in the sixties

Chapter 10 looks at the development of settlements and houses in Malta from a Space Syntax perspective. It shows that the development of local dwellings often reflects changes in local society and the way house dwellers interacted together through time. This chapter has also demonstrated that settlements evolved in a way to meet not only the political aspirations of the country, but also the economic and social needs of the local community. Chapter 11 deals with the development of domestic space in the Maltese islands during the last fifty years. The changes that occurred in Maltese society during this period also had an indelible effect on the Maltese house and the configuration of its domestic space. Apart from identifying the main phases of development of local urban and rural dwellings in the Maltese islands, Chapter 12 demonstrates that changes in local domestic space were often influenced by particular political, social and economic situations. It also shows that the evolution of domestic space in Malta and Gozo was generally associated with changes in local society, particularly in issues regarding privacy, class and gender. At the end of this study Appendix 1 provides a detailed description of each house that I studied as part of the Malta Historic House Survey. Appendix 2 includes a glossary of the key terms used in this research.

The author (right) at a book launch event in Malta with Archaeopress’ very own Ben Heaney.

9781784913915Sincerest thanks to George for providing this blog post. His book The Development of Domestic Space in the Maltese Islands from the Late Middle Ages to the Second Half of the Twentieth Century is available now in paperback (RRP £65), hardback (RRP £85) and eBook (from £16 + VAT) editions.

Print editions will be available with 20% discount via the Archaeopress website until 31/08/2017.



Photographing a Bronze Age Past

Gavin McGuire considers the first phase of a photographic study of an archaeological excavation in Crete, highlighted in his book ‘Minoan Extractions – A Photographic Journey 2009-2016’

With the Sissi Archaeological Project, my seven year photographic study of the Bronze Age Minoan excavations under the auspices of the Belgian School in Athens, Université Catholique de Louvain, I have been offered an extraordinary opportunity to capture moments of human interaction during excavations as they interconnected with an ancient Minoan culture that stretches back millennia (2600-1200 BC). And there is more to come with the new dig campaign under way at a three hectare site which has been described as one of the most important Bronze Age excavations in Crete during the past decade.

Sissi Archaeological project
All Things Must Pass © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

The Minoan Extractions has also been a personal journey with the chance to pay homage to the work of influential photographers – in and out of the archaeological sector, including my mentor, the outstanding photographer – Harry Burton. During the 1920’s his iconic monochrome images of the Tomb of Tutankhamun, as well his work at other sites in Egypt, have fascinated people throughout the world, and yet only in recent years has there been a growing reassessment of his contribution to photography.

Of course photography within archaeology is not new – with its origins arising during the early nineteenth century and especially in 1904 becoming ‘official’ with Egyptologist Flinders Petrie’s manual ‘Methods and Aims in Archaeology’. For nearly 200 years in the Mediterranean and Near East in particular, photographers in conjunction with archaeologists have played a crucial role in pushing back the barriers of the ancient world for both scholars and for a demanding global general audience.

Sissi Archaeological Project
North by North West © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

With the Sissi photographic project, at a unique coastal landscape about four kilometres from Malia palace in Crete, I have continued a proud photographic tradition that is once again facing a new era of major technological change – from digital to virtual, from handheld cameras to drones and to live excavation access. It is also the age of the smartphone – easy for anyone to use, producing high quality images and ultimately engaging a wide general audience.

Needless to say these changes are highlighting the importance of imaging, especially at this time as we are seeing wanton destruction of major archaeological sites in the Middle East and of general neglect and a lack of financing. Discovery may be an over arching goal for archaeologists, but the truth is rescue and preservation dominate excavation campaigns. The past is present but the present is a very fragile one indeed.

Sissi Archaeological Project
The Restorationist © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

The photography at Sissi is simply being at the right place and at the right fleeting moment, making images that highlight motion and emotion from the 80 or so ‘players’ on the archaeological stage for their six week or so excavation during July-August. It is what the renowned French photographer and humanist, Henry Cartier Bresson, referred to as ‘The Decisive Moment’.

There are images of scientists at work – archaeologists, anthropologists, technical specialists, such as surveyors, local workmen digging (many proudly following in the wake of their forefathers) and restorers and conservators dealing with the thousands of finds housed at the apothiki or workshop.

Yet the Sissi Project encompasses not only the excavation period but includes images of the site throughout the year, showing, in part, the impact of the environment. Indeed if there is a favourite ‘out-of-dig-season’ photographic period then it must be autumn and winter, where the dominating Selinari mountain range and often violent seas and dark storms combine to conjure up a dramatic contrast to the Bronze Age remains. This is surely what the Minoans must have witnessed for more than nearly 1300 years.

Sissi Archaeological Project
Minoan Storm © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project 

I photograph in both colour and black-and-white but in recent years have preferred the latter, mainly because of what I see as the aesthetic qualities of the genre. It is a realism ensured through the subtle variations of contrast and light without the distraction of colour. In other words it comes down to getting the viewer to look into the image not at it.

The Sissi site is an ideal laboratory to test any camera and its paraphernalia – the near stifling heat, the dust, sea grit and water and general bashing about. In this respect I have stayed faithful to my favoured Olympus E-510 SLR and lately with the mirrorless OM-D E-M5 Mark II. Of the Digital ED lenses I prefer to use the 9-18 ultra-wide and 50mm. The one filter that has become indispensable is the HD digital protector screw-in filter. They are a godsend to protecting lenses from the damaging environment and I have certainly got through a few of those over the years. Post production is kept at a minimum.

I have certainly produced many hundreds of photographs at the site during the last seven years. There is never a daily schedule and time to prepare once there. My photography is on the run or more importantly on the sly – as I prefer subjects not to be aware of my efforts.

Looking back at what I would consider my favourite images I would say they reflect the work of the anthropologists in the cemetery with the excavated skeletal remains, highlighting memory, time and mortality and of their attempts to seek closure for such finds through the processes of DNA and isotopic study.

Sissi Archaeological Project
Death Under the Midday Sun I © G. Mcguire & Sissi Archaeological Project

But I would also confess that the photographs that have proved particularly successful have been nothing more that opportunistic, often arising from one rapid shot, almost from the hip. It happens. Nothing planned but if the brain connects with the eye then you can walk away highly satisfied. Job done – at least for the moment, for as archaeologists well know the excavation is never over until the sound of the last shovel dies away. It is generally accepted that the last 48 hours of a dig is the period in which new and sometimes site changing discoveries are made – and so it has happened at Sissi. It makes this Bronze Age settlement worth photographing. So watch this space.

Minoan Extractions: A Photographic Journey 2009-2016 Sissi Archaeological Project by Gavin McGuire (2017). Paperback ISBN 9781784916367. £25.00. (eBook ISBN 9781784916374, from £16.00 + VAT if applicable)

Gavin’s book will be available in July/August in paperback (£25) and PDF eBook (from £16). A special pre-order price of £20 is available for the paperback edition until 31/07/2017. To pre-order at the special price please e-mail

Artefacts from Malta in the British Museum

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.

Reverend Greville John Chester Collection cat. no. 66 pg 156
Closed single-nozzled lamp. Late Roman to Early Byzantine, c. 400–500 AD (Charles Townley Collection. Drawing by C. Sagona)

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.

Figure 68. Reverend Greville John Chester Collection cat. nos 73, 81
Strigil in bronze, found in Mdina, Malta (Reverend Greville John Chester Collection. Photo © J. M. Briffa. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum; drawings by C. Sagona)

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.

Figure 111. Arthur John Matthews Collection cat. no. 416
Large Maiolica storage jar. Painted decoration on front — arms of Antonio Manoel de Vilhena (1663–1736), Grand Master of the Order of Malta (Arthur John Matthews Collection. Photos © J. M. Briffa. Taken courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum.

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.

9781784915889The 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)

Further information  and purchase options available via the Archaeopress wesbite, here.

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.).

Studying Coin Pellet Mould

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.

Landon Fig 1
Fig. 1 – Partial apex of a Verulamium-form 50 hole tray from the Puckeridge assemblage

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.

Landon Fig 2
Fig. 2 – Edge fragment from Bagendon with 7mm – 8 mm base diameter holes

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.

Landon Fig 3
Fig. 3 – 17mm base diameter holes from Ford Bridge, Braughing

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.

Landon Fig 4
Fig. 4 – Reconstruction of a Verulamium form tray

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.

Landon Fig 5
Fig. 5 – Verulamium-form pedimental apex from Ford Bridge, Braughing, showing incised line

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.

Landon Fig 6
Fig. 6 – BRR16: Coin mould pavement

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.

Landon Fig 7
Fig. 7 – Coin mould with square holes from the BRR16 trench, Braughing

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).

9781784914080Mark Landon’s Making a Mint is available now in paperback (£34) and PDF eBook (from £16 + VAT) from Archaeopress. Order online at at the special price of £27 (20% discount) until 31/05/2017.

Making a Mint Comparative Studies in Late Iron Age Coin Mould by Mark Landon. Printed ISBN 9781784914080. Epublication ISBN 9781784914073. Book contents page

xii+198 pages; illustrated throughout in black & white.


Metal Tools of the Pyramid Builders and other Craftsmen in the Old Kingdom

Martin Odler introduces his recent publication and points towards his current and future research

The Old Kingdom of Egypt (Dynasties 4–6, c. 2600–2180 BC) is famous as the period that saw the building of the largest Egyptian pyramids. Generally, it has been accepted that only humble remains of copper alloy tools are preserved from this era. What might be more surprising, is that there has been little analytical work of archaeometallurgy on the preserved metal objects from the Old Kingdom. My name is Martin Odler; I am working at the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague. Last November, Archaeopress published my book Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, aiming to update the research on the metal tools of the pyramid builders and other craftsmen during the Old Kingdom.

My research was initiated by one of the largest Old Kingdom finds of copper alloy model tools in the tombs of the sons of Vizier Qar at Abusir South by a team from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, led by Miroslav Bárta, in early 2000s. The tools were from the Sixth Dynasty, reign of Pepy II, and altogether there were about 3 kilograms of copper found in the burial chambers. Copper tools became the topic of my M.A. thesis in 2009. After its defence, I received a grant from the Grant Agency of Charles University to study unpublished collections of copper alloy objects in the European museums and in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The monograph is a result of these research visits and also of the processing of the finds of copper alloy objects from Czech excavations at Abusir.

Old Kingdom copper metal tools as found in Tomb AS 27, early Sixth Dynasty. Photo by Květa Smoláriková, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I have collected the textual, iconographic and palaeographic evidence. The evidence available to modern archaeologists is largely determined by preselection by the past culture, by conscious and unconscious rules that were applied to the creation and production of the sources. Everyone is aware of that, but in the case of the Old Kingdom, we have data that shows how much is missing from the evidence. Old Kingdom evidence shows in great detail the extent to which the range of artefacts available for study by archaeology today is influenced or even biased by a selection made by the past culture. Had it not been for the custom of depositing copper model tools in the burial equipment (and in the richest assemblages, there are altogether more than a thousand tools preserved), we would have almost nothing preserved from metal tools used in the era. Iconographic sources indicate the use of other metal artefacts that were not even fragmentarily preserved from the Old Kingdom (such as metal blades of weapons). Scattered finds from Old Kingdom settlements provide artefacts which were included neither in the burial equipment (or very rarely) nor in the iconography (e.g. needles). Harpoons and fish-hooks have their firm place in Old Kingdom iconography, yet their specimens in the Old Kingdom material culture are rather rare.

Abusir South, Tomb AS 27, complete model tool kit with model blades of chisels, adzes, axes and saws. Photo by Kamil Voděra, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

Furthermore, I have provided in the book updated definitions of tool classes and tool kits, together with the context of their use. They can be divided into artisan tool kit (comprising chisels, adzes, axes, saws and drills), cosmetic tool kit (razors, mirrors, tweezers, hair curlers, kohl-sticks and cosmetic spatulas), weaving tool kit (needles, awls and pins), leather-working tool kit (leather-cutting knife), hunting weapons and tools for food procurement (fish-hooks, harpoons, knives), and weapons as a separate category of metal blades (battle axes, arrowheads, spearheads, and daggers).

Besides rare specimens of full-size tools, scattered in the museum collections world-wide, the largest corpora of the material have been preserved in the form of model tools in the burial equipment of the Old Kingdom elite and were most probably symbols of their power to commission and fund craftwork. Metal tools occurred already in the Pre-dynastic Period, in the graves belonging probably to craftsmen and also in the rich graves of the supposed elite. It is hard to believe that kings and high officials spent their time in craftwork; already then, the tools were most likely to have been symbolical representation of the elite households, with craftsmen present in the households (and in the subsidiary graves) to wield those tools.

Tools in action, Abusir, Tomb of Ptahshepses, sculptors with adzes at work. Photo by Milan Zemina, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

I should dispel one of the most common misunderstandings. You may have read in many popular and semi-popular works that Old Kingdom Egyptians knew and used only tools made of pure copper. This is simply not true; they were using arsenical copper as the main practical alloy, typical for the whole Ancient Near East in the Early Bronze Age. For Egypt, this fact was proven already in 1976, in an article “Near eastern alloying and some textual evidence for the early use of arsenical copper” by E. R. Eaton and Hugh McKerrell. Already, in the Early Dynastic Period, Egyptians certainly knew bronze as the oldest securely-dated bronze objects, spouted jar and wash basin, have been found in the tomb of King Khasekhemwy, built and furnished at the end of Second Dynasty. To know more, we need to analyse more objects from secure archaeological contexts.

The long-standing division in the Egyptological literature between full-size tools and model tools is questioned. One of the most important arguments is that the traces of tools on objects are actually very close to the size of some bigger so-called “model tools”. The typology alone and use of the preserved textual and iconographic sources are not sufficient for the correct understanding of Old Kingdom material culture. Typological studies can be enriched by the use of morphometry, further vital knowledge can be provided by the archaeometallurgical study of the objects. Statistical studies of Old Kingdom material culture are only just beginning, with an exception of Old Kingdom pottery. Ceramic studies have thrived in recent decades and more Egyptologists than ever realize the importance of pottery for the reconstruction of the site histories.

The volume is completed by co-authored case studies and Archaeopress agreed to post all four on and Research Gate. The first one is a detailed archaeometallurgical study of selected Old Kingdom artefacts in the collection of the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University in Germany (as a brief aside, the research was approved by the curator of the collection, Dietrich Raue, whose team recently discovered a Late Period colossus in the temple of Heliopolis). The research was in this case led by my colleague Jiří Kmošek, a specialist on Prehistoric metallurgy. One of the most interesting findings of the project is that Old Kingdom Egyptians did not rely on alloying properties of arsenic, but instead annealed and hammered the objects to create the desired shape and hardness of the object. Research goes on, we have submitted the samples for neutron activation and lead isotope analyses, and you can look forward to news about the origin of the alloys used for the production of Old Kingdom objects.

Full-size razor blade from the Old Kingdom Giza (ÄMUL 2131) with 6% of arsenic analysed by metallographic methods contained a two-phase structure of α copper and arsenic rich γ phase. Photos by Jiří Kmošek, Tereza Jamborová, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

The second case study is the first application ever of a method of geometric morphometry on a corpus of ancient Egyptian copper tools, in this case Old Kingdom adze blades. We have analysed the assemblage with a mathematician Ján Dupej. Morphometry proved my suspicion, already expressed elsewhere, that the size of the model tools is somehow connected to the specific parts of the sites and social status of the buried persons. The bigger the models are, the higher the status of the person. However, this rule is sometimes broken by less affluent officials and I think that those bigger models were probably “royal” gifts. Although uninscribed, they might have been perceived as status objects by the Old Kingdom Egyptians.

Two remaining case studies were written by my colleagues from the Czech Institute of Egyptology, Lucie Jirásková, about the stone vessel finds associated with copper model tools, and Katarína Arias Kytnarová, on the ceramic vessels in the same contexts. Old Kingdom tombs are frequently dated on the basis of iconographic and textual evidence. Yet the tomb decoration must have been planned and executed well in advance. The objects associated with burials might be in fact closer to the actual dating of the burials themselves, and this dating does not always match the tomb decoration. But this is also a task of future research, at the Czech concession in Abusir and elsewhere on Old Kingdom sites in Egypt.

Mean shapes of the adze blades from the Old Kingdom burial contexts, counted within categories of social status (defined by Veronika Dulíková). Dashed line marks mean shape of all Old Kingdom adze blades. Plotted by Ján Dupej, © Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague, Czech Institute of Egyptology.

My book is only one of the steps leading to better knowledge of ancient Egyptian material culture. Already when submitting the final manuscript, I knew that the contents could not be called complete. In spring 2016, we excavated anonymous tomb AC 31 at Central/Royal Abusir, a tomb with rich remains of original Fifth Dynasty burial equipment, including copper model tools. The tomb provided us with incredibly detailed information on the late Fifth Dynasty burials of the elite, and we now know that it is one of the most important Czech discoveries at Abusir.

There are also some open questions, regarding which my book could be helpful for future research. If you would like to produce for yourself your own Old Kingdom artisan tool kit and do experimental work with it, the drawings of the tools are published. But, please, document it. Also the tool traces on the Old Kingdom objects need to be gathered in a more systematic way. My current research is focussed on the archaeological evaluation of the archaeometallurgical analyses of objects from the Egyptian Museum of Leipzig University (not only from the Old Kingdom). The first phase of the research was presented last year at 41st International Symposium on Archaeometry in Kalamata (Greece) and our poster received honourable mention from the Society for Archaeological Sciences in the R.E. Taylor Student Poster Award. Another project focused on the ancient Egyptian objects from the documented archaeological contexts in the collection of Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, datable from the First Dynasty to the Second Intermediate Period. The results of both projects will be published this year and hopefully I will write about them more in a future post on the Archaeopress Blog.

9781784914424Martin Odler’s book, Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools, Archaeopress Egyptology 14, 2016, is available now in paperback (£45.00) or as a PDF eBook (£16 + VAT if applicable). The paperback edition will be available at the specially reduced price of £36 until 30/04/2017 at

Praise for Old Kingdom Copper Tools and Model Tools:

“In short: the authors have succeeded in presenting a reference and standard work, in which no one who is concerned with this period and this material should pass by; a work that will always be consulted with pleasure and joy.” – Robert Kuhn, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin ( (Translated from the German)

Sincerest thanks to Martin Odler for submitting this article for the Archaeopress Blog. If you would like to submit something for consideration to be published on the blog please contact Patrick Harris ( Articles on all aspects of archaeology will be considered. They should be approximately 2,000 words accompanied by up to five images.

Bearsden: the rediscovery and excavation of a Roman fort

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.

Above: Plan of the bath-house at floor level

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.

Above: A mixing bowl stamped with the name Sarrius

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.

Above: David Breeze at the launch of the excavation report, published by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, held on 2 June 2016 at the Hunterian Museum of Glasgow University

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.


David Breeze’s new book, ‘Bearsden: The Story of a Roman Fort’ is available now from Archaeopress and can be purchased in paperback for £20 and PDF eBook from £16.00 (+VAT if applicable)