In the story of Bricriu’s feast and of MacDatho’s pig in the Irish epics, heroes vie with each other for the champion’s portion – the first cut of meat to be speared in the communal cauldron. What were these cauldrons like? A hoard of twelve – gobsmackingly unique’ in the words of one British Museum expert – has just been found by a metal-detectorist in a Wiltshire field. John Winterburn was one of the first archaeologists on the scene. This is his account of the excavation of the ’Chiseldon Cauldrons’.

The amateurs investigate

‘What do you think?’ I was immediately asked by Peter Hyams as I got into his 4×4 and he thrust a pile of thin bronze-sheet fragments into my hand. It was early in November 2004, we were on the edge of the village of Chiseldon, and I was meeting Peter for the first time. A few minutes later we were standing in a muddy field looking down a hole at something rather like a rusty bucket. We cleaned back thick mud to reveal the shape of a vessel, some iron rings, and thin sheets of green and corroded bronze. I did not know it then, but my first meeting with a metal-detectorist was going to lead to one of the most spectacular Iron Age finds ever made in Britain. Peter Hyams had posted a plea for help on the Britarch email list and been taken aback by the negative response from some list members. Undeterred, but a little wary, he persisted in doing what he thought was the right thing: getting advice from archaeologists. I first made contact with him when I realised that his find was in north Wiltshire. Then I discovered it was actually on my doorstep. Peter had detected in the field many times, recovering a number of Roman artefacts, but until now he had missed what would turn out to be his biggest find in eight years as a metal-detectorist.

We soon realised that careful archaeological examination was called for. So we returned two days later with helpers from the local history ,society to clean back the mud and take a closer look. After a day’s work we could see at least three cauldron-like objects and a mass of bronze-sheet fragments sitting inside what looked like a pit cut into the chalk just beneath the plough-soil. Peter wanted to set to with his spade and dig the objects out. He took some persuading that proper excavation was needed, probably with on-site conservation, and we just did not have the resources to hand. Reluctantly, he accepted the need to cover over the remains, and later that week we returned to the site – in a snow storm – with packing materials and wooden boards to protect the objects, backfill our excavation, and hide the hoard from anyone who might have heard of its discovery. We made a quick sketch plan, took GPS readings of the location, and made measurements to nearby trees, to ensure that we could return to the precise location – whenever that might be.

 

The professionals volunteer

Peter was frustrated. Why did no-one have any funds for excavation? Why could the county archaeology service not help? Why was the Portable Antiquities Scheme so powerless? But it had dawned on the archaeologists in the know that something special had been found. We were determined not to let Peter down and promised that the hoard would be excavated. The Wiltshire archaeology network was buzzing, and soon Wessex Archaeology decided to donate its expertise. But it was seven months later, after harvest, before the excavation team arrived on site, together with myself, Peter, local archaeologists, and volunteers from the local history society.

Our diligence in recording the location of the hoard paid off. Within a few hours, three cauldrons had again been exposed, and there were hints of others close by. The excavation was planned for just three days, and the expectation was that there would be ’three cauldrons the size of small paint-cans’. But more objects kept appearing in the pit, and the excavation was extended to a full week. Even then, it was possible only to half-section the pit and remove a few of the cauldrons.

The excavators decided to remove them with their soil fill still inside, and British Museum conservators duly arrived on site to reinforce and wrap the objects using plaster bandages, tissue paper, cling-film, and glue, ready for transport to a warehouse. Every precaution had to be taken to prevent deterioration once removed from the soil, and the conservators frequently had to work in difficult conditions, lying on planks suspended above the finds. The cauldrons were jammed into the pit, and it was a problem to know which to remove first: it was essential to take them out of the ground in the reverse order to that in which they had been deposited – both to minimise any damage and to understand the sequence. A space was cleared for someone to work inside the pit – to stand in the place last occupied by the person who had arranged the cauldrons 2,000 years before. The pit was roughly circular, approximately 2m in diameter, and up to 1m in depth. The cauldrons varied in size from around 400mm to 700mm in diameter.

After much deliberation and peering into the hole, the first cauldron was lifted – to the delight of the assembled crowd. Weather condi- tions that week did not help, with a combination of baking hot sunshine followed by torrential rain, and after a long and tiring day on site the conservators would return to London covered in mud and plaster, merging incongruously with mud-spattered revellers returning home from a wet Glastonbury. But they would be back the following morning to continue their work.

At the end of the first week the job was only half-done. Much goodwill had already been used up. Nonetheless, though there would have to be a week’s hiatus, as resources were committed elsewhere, Wessex Archaeology offered further time and expertise. The problem, therefore, was how to protect the remaining finds from unwanted attention in the interval. The site had attracted a lot of attention from locals, who would walk across the field each day to see what was happening. Word of the excavation had also spread beyond, and interested parties were arriving on site in vehicles. So an informal watch was kept through the following week. Local history club members watched from afar with the aid of binoculars. The landlord and landlady of the local pub walked their dog past the site every morning. Peter visited most days, and I would walk around the site in the evenings. The landowner and tenant farmer put the word around that allvisitors to the site should be challenged as it lay on private ground, and did their best to prevent unauthorised vehicular access. The site remained secure, and a week later the excavation team from Wessex Archaeology returned. This time it was necessary to control site visits, both to allow the archaeologists to work, and to ensure safety. Tape barriers were erected, and word was passed around that a brief explanation of the work would be given at 4.00pm each day.

During the second week the remainder of the pit was excavated and a total of at least 12 cauldrons lifted. Some where upright, others cut into two pieces, and a few had been damaged when originally deposited. It appeared that a pit had been dug and the cauldrons forced and squashed into the hole before being covered over. Underneath two of the cauldrons were ox skulls – perhaps all that remained of a great feast. The whole fill of the pit was ’primary’: it had all been thrown back in at the same time, showing that the pit had been dug, filled with cauldrons, and then quickly backfilled.

 

 part of the hoard fully uncovered prior to lifting

 

The experts deliberate How old were the cauldrons?

Peter Hyams had already taken matters into his own hands. During the long interval between discovery and excavation, suspecting that the cauldrons were Anglo-Saxon and having seen a Meet the Ancestorsprogramme in which the constituents of bronze had been used to date artefacts, he contacted Dr Peter Northover, Head of Materials Science-based Archaeology Group at Oxford University. He was invited to take some bronze along for analysis.

Visual inspection hinted at an Iron Age date, soon to be confirmed by analysis of the metal using an electron microprobe. This technique focuses a beam of electrons on the sample, producing X-rays which characterise the elements present. The metal was a low-tomedium tin bronze containing traces of cobalt, nickel, arsenic, and antimony, which dated it to the Middle Bronze Age in the South West, or the Iron Age in Wessex. Since the cauldrons themselves were of iron, there could be no doubt about which of these was the correct date. And they had of course been found in Wessex. Also, during excavation, large domed rivets had been noticed on some of the cauldrons, as well as decorated scalloped edges on some of the bronze cladding, both typically Iron Age features.

The cauldrons had been placed within a large pit cut into the Wiltshire chalk. The plough-soil above the pit was littered with fragments of Roman tile and Romano-British pottery; yet only a handful of Iron Age sherds had been found around the cauldrons. It appeared that the pit had been sealed before the Roman occupation of the area. An Early to Middle Iron Age date seems likely, though this assessment must await confirmation from radiocarbon dating of the ox skulls and any residual organic material from within the cauldrons.

How important are the Chiseldon Cauldrons? ‘As far as I’m aware,’ said Jody Joy, Curator of Iron Age Collections at the British Museum, ‘this find is unprecedented, and it is not just nationally significant, but many of our colleagues in Europe will be immensely interested in this find.’

Why were they buried at Chiseldon? The modern village sits on heavy clay-with-flint soils, the cheese of Wiltshire’s chalk-and-cheese downlands. The cauldrons were buried close to The Ridgeway, that ancient route across the chalk uplands, at a point where it crosses the fertile plain at the head of the Og Valley. They lay close also to an old route that runs northsouth along the west side of the valley, avoiding the wet areas and passing within sight of the Iron Age hillforts at Barbury and Liddington. So they lay on rising ground near a point where routes crossed, probably at the boundary of territories held by different clans or tribes associated with different hillforts. Boundaries are powerful spaces, liminal zones that are neither one thing nor the other, where rules and conventions of different groups can be accommodated, and where people can come together to settle differences or create unions.

Perhaps the cauldrons were used in a great feast. The ox skulls suggest this, though we will have to wait to see if there is any food residue within them. If correct, the number of the cauldrons implies a big gathering. The vessels might then have been buried with deliberate ritual intent. They had been carefully placed in a specially dug pit, some upside down, and at least  one deliberately cut in half, thus destroying its utility. Were the celebrants sharing their feast with the gods, thereby inviting divine protection for their activities? Were the Chiseldon Cauldrons ritually interred to consecrate a high-society marriage, a political alliance, or an end to hostilities? Writing of the formation of a great tribal alliance in Gaul in 52 BC, Caesar tells us that ’The Carnutes called upon the others to stack their military standards together – a most solemn rite, according to Gallic custom – and to bind themselves by an oath not to desert them once hostilities were begun.’ Was the burial of the Chiseldon Cauldrons also ’a most solemn rite’ to seal and sanctify a great event in contemporary politics?

 

Source
John Winterburn
Independent archaeologist, JWAS Archaeology Services
john@winterburn.info

 

 

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