Thursday, 7 February 2013

Ancient Outlooks on a Prehistoric Past

It is always difficult for an archaeologist to know what to make of a "hoard," a group of ancient or prehistoric objects buried together without any obvious context. Were they buried for safekeeping, or as an offering to the gods? If they are broken, were they intended to be melted down? Are they spoils of war, collected at the end of a battle? All too often, we can only guess. It is all the more difficult if the objects are of very different dates.

The discovery of more than a hundred bronze weapons and tools at Tisbury, in Wiltshire, poses just such questions ( They were probably buried in around 680 BC, at the very end of the Bronze Age, or just at the beginning of the Iron Age. Some of the objects, however, are almost a thousand years older than this. What did it mean, to a man or woman of 680 BC, to hold in his or her hands a sword-blade of 1500 BC? Archaeologist Dot Boughton, of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, wonders whether we might not be looking at an early "community museum."

The Tisbury Hoard (Portable Antiquities Scheme). The socketed axes at bottom left date to around 700 BC but the horizontally-placed rapier-blade, second from top, is almost 1000 years earlier.

If she is right, then perhaps the same might be said of the extraordinary collection of objects found beneath the Iron Age and Romano-British temple on Hayling Island. Hayling Island sits in the mouth of Chichester Harbour, a few miles to the west of Fishbourne Roman Palace. The temple was at the northern end of the island. It was first built in the early to mid-1st Century AD, probably before the Roman invasion of Britain, but it was extended and rebuilt in c.70 AD, very possibly (given its proximity to Fishbourne) by Cogidubnus.

Chichester Harbour (John Armagh). Hayling Island is in the centre, and Fishbourne is at the end of the top-most rivulet.

The two phases of the Hayling Island temple.

Beneath the temple was found a hoard of objects, including British coins of the early 1st Century AD; a bronze spearhead of c.1200 BC; and a flint axe-head of 2500-3500 BC. These objects have more of a context than the Tisbury finds - they were buried beneath a temple - but perhaps temples served as a sort of museum as well as a place for the worship of the gods? Objects believed to be the sword of Julius Caesar and the breast-plate of Alexander the Great were displayed in temples in Rome in the 1st Century AD.

As a novelist, the Hayling Island finds have given me the opportunity to create a thread of continuity between the 1st Century world of Cogidubnus and the 2400-year earlier world of Amzai and Undreamed Shores. That such a thread (however much mythologised) might have existed should not, perhaps, surprise us. We still talk, after all, of Antony and Cleopatra; of Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate; of Socrates and Plato. Objects found at sites such as Tisbury and Hayling Island may, perhaps, make it easier to imagine the form such threads might have taken:

The three of us sat down within the enclosure, our backs to the temple wall.
"What do you know of your genealogy?" Tutinatia asked me.
I recited my family tree...The story worked backwards from the men whose waxen images peered down, ghost-like, from the poles at the back of the temple. I was the son of Verica, the son of Commios of Silchester, the son of Commios the Gaul...and so on back through almost a hundred generations to Solomael, the son of Edrocal, the son of Nodens.
Tutinatia nodded throughout my recitation. When I finished, she reached for my hand and leaned towards me. "What I am about to say may shock you." She paused for a moment. "Verica was not your father."
She gestured to Gesulla, who stood and went into the temple, returning with a tiny bundle, which she handed to Tutinatia...She handed me a silver coin, which bore the image of a centaur. "This is your father's coin."

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.

  2. Thanks, Scott, it's surprising how one thing can look like another. I remember once at an archaeological conference in France, a large group of us were dining in a restaurant which had paper table-coverings. We were all talking about our sites and illustrating our comments with sketches on the table-covering. When we finally left, someone commented that it looked like a canvas by Miro.

  3. Just as an update here, Museum of London archaeologists working around the Walbrook Stream have found a number of prehistoric objects (including Neolithic axes) re-used in Late Iron Age or Roman times.