Roman law

Treasure Trove: it can’t be shiny all the time

Occasionally a day in the office reading policy documents can be a bit dull. Let’s be honest, it’s too nice a day to be in the office. My archaeological fingers are itching to be outside. But there is work to be done, and actually, there are some pretty great things to be looking at here in the Treasure Trove Unit.

Occasionally a day in the office reading policy documents can be a bit dull

Occasionally a day in the office reading policy documents can be a bit dull

Apart from the usual emails, dealing with reported finds and answering enquires about Treasure Trove, there are two main jobs for today; going over our Code of Practice review and researching some recently reported finds which have been made by members of the public. The first one, let’s be honest, is dull. As archaeologists sometimes it is important to admit that our profession can have boring bits from time to time, whether it’s data entry, backfilling a trench or reading policy documents. It’s not sexy archaeology for sure, but the launch of the reviewed Code of Practice is an important one and will in some cases make some positive alterations to some of our procedures when dealing with the public, archaeologists and museums. What I have to do today is read through it and highlight areas were a change may affect our normal working practice. Yawn!

Researching a 14th century medieval macehead found in the Scottish Borders

Researching a 14th century medieval macehead found in the Scottish Borders

The second part is much more up my street and that’s researching objects. This research forms part of understanding the significance of the object or assemblage and demonstrates why we think it should be claimed as Treasure Trove. You can read more about this process on our website.
http://www.treasuretrovescotland.co.uk/

Today I am doing some research on a very exciting object, a medieval macehead, which was reported to us last week by a metal detectorist from the Scottish Borders. You can see an image of it on our Twitter feed @TTUScotland #recentTTU

Although quite worn and with a couple of chips it is actually in good condition. Medieval weaponry is fascinating, but chance finds of this kind are relatively rare, so an opportunity to research it further is great. We have already recorded and photographed it, so the next part is to compare it with other examples in published reports or in the NMS collection. With all this to keep me occupied, I don’t even mind being indoors.

Dis Manibus Sacrum…

Lloyd Bosworth: Archaeology Technician, Classical and Archaeological Studies, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK.

My day started like any other day for me. Wake up at 7:30am (ish), make a coffee, put the Today programme on the radio and shamble about the house until the caffeine kicks in. The morning is also when I catch up with the US archaeology blogs that I follow.

Arrival at Work

First order of business is to turn on my workstation and, while that wakes up, make another cup of coffee.

I check my emails.

I’m waiting for a reply from English Heritage to my request for a license to carry out a geophysical survey at Bigbury Camp Iron Age hillfort, near Canterbury. It seems like I’ve been waiting ages for a reply, but it’s really only been two weeks.

This being Friday, my whole day is set aside for working on Professor Ray Laurence and Dr. Francesco Trifilò’s Leverhulme Trust funded research project on age across the Roman Empire.

A Little Background for the Uninitiated

Because Roman law forbade burial within settlements, the roads leading to and from Roman cities were lined with tombs and cemeteries. What may strike us as unusual, or at least unusual to our understanding of modern burial practices, is that the deceased’s age at death was not always recorded on their memorial. This is not to say that this practice was rare, just far from standard across the Empire.

What Ray and Francesco are doing is looking at the ages recorded on memorials and picking up patterns in the overall distribution of the range of chronological age at specific archaeological sites.

My Part In This

This research has produced a unique database containing around 24,000 entries. That’s 24,000 individual burials from across the Roman Empire; each entry recording many different pieces of information about the deceased, including their name, age, memorial inscription, and, in many cases, their social status, too. But this is not the only information recorded, as there is often the same detailed information about the person who erected the memorial.

My part in this is to prepare the database for analysis within GIS (Geographic Information System) software, which can be used to plot density and distribution patterns in the data and display this visually over a map of the Roman Empire.

The database as it stands isn’t suitable for using within GIS, because each entry represents an individual. To be able to plot density based on ages, I’ve been combining entries that share the same age and sex. For example, if there are ten entries from Carthage for females aged 9, it will become one entry for females aged 9 from Carthage, with a total count of ten.

Once the database has been prepared, it’ll be time to start querying the data and plotting density maps to see what the data says about chronological age across the Roman Empire.

While I’ve been working on the database, I’ve also created a website that will host the GIS and tabular data. The GIS server will be able to draw maps based on a user’s query, so that anyone can view the patterns in the data for themselves.

What Does the Data Show

Well, there’s not much I can say about the findings of the study, because, one, it isn’t finished yet, and two, I can’t just spill the beans about it. What I can say, however, is that age data from memorials is not a credible demographic tool. The declaration of age on the memorials appears to conform to the set of key ages which were considered of crucial importance to Roman society. A contemporary example could be the age of retirement as an indicator of the beginning of old age, or the age of 21 as a common indicator of a person’s entry into the world of adulthood.

Children are also poorly represented in the data. But, within this under-representation, there are greater and smaller numbers which may mean something. Roman Law explicitly stated that a child under three years was not permitted a proper funeral, (although simply having a tombstone didn’t necessarily mean that you had had a proper funeral, either). This may sound harsh to us, but, as infant mortality was much higher than it is today, they would have been more used to child death, and so there would be a certain desensitisation over an event that today would be horrific to experience. However, before we condemn Roman parents as monsters, there is a peak in the data for the age of three, which could be showing instances in which the parents lied about the child’s age in order to provide a proper funeral

Final Thoughts

So, working my way through data on 24,000 burials may be quite repetitive and a little morbid, but this kind of information is the bread and butter of archaeology. The repetition does allow time for an inevitable reflection upon life and death, though. I doubt there is an archaeologist who isn’t moved to these same reflections when dealing with data derived from burials. When data like this are analysed, what gets thrown out the other end are impersonal numbers; the reduction of 24,000 lives to a single statistic can’t really get much more impersonal!

But I think it’s impossible to forget that these were real people, as I think this one, randomly selected inscription shows:

[quote style=”boxed”]To the spirits of the dead. Lucius Annius Festus [set this up] for the most saintly Cominia Tyche, his most chaste and loving wife, who lived 27 years, 11 months, and 28 days, and also for himself and for his descendants.[/quote]

Is this really any different to what you’d find on a gravestone today? Lucius was obviously devoted to his wife, and he must have grieved at her passing. You or I would feel no different.

There’s still much work to be done, so I’ll finish this here. Thanks for reading!

A note on the title of this entry:

The phrase ‘Dis Manibus Sacrum’, (often shortened to D.M.S.), is found on many Roman graves. The Manes, to which it refers, were the spirits of the dead, so it can be translated as “Sacred to the Spirit-Gods” or, more loosely, “To The Memory Of…”.

Working on the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework (ScARF) pt 2

Morning’s work done and after a quick lunch I now have a meeting with Stuart Campbell of the Treasure Trove Unit (TTU). The TTU is responsible for the identification and preservation of recently discovered and significant objects. They also co-ordinate the allocation of objects to public museums and set suitable market-value finder’s rewards where appropriate. The Treasure Trove website is the best place for more details and the legal background.

Discussing the document: Stuart about to volunteer his expertise

Finds reported through Treasure Trove comprise a considerable research resource and the potential it has to help us answer our questions regarding the past is something we have previously discussed. Today however, I’m talking to Stuart about his research interests, particularly in relation to the work of our Modern panel. We recently held a workshop through in Glasgow to discuss our draft report and got a lot of feedback on what we should include, and what we might edit down. All of our panels hold a workshop of around 25-40 people and it is a really useful way to get feedback. We’ve also found people are very willing to help address gaps that we might have, and today I’m discussing a couple of topics that Stuart might be able to help us cover.

After a good discussion and with Stuart volunteering to cover a few of the outstanding gaps in the report I head back to the Society offices. Everyone who contributes to ScARF gives their time and their work for free, and I’m constantly amazed at how much effort people put in. We had initially envisaged our series of reports as each being around 25,000 words long – this was then revised upwards to around 35,000. We keep on getting in really good work however, and in a variety of formats (databases, maps, date-lists, spreadsheets etc). As a result, we are developing a ‘wiki’ or online encyclopaedia in order to house the information from the reports, as well as all of the extra information that we had to edit down. Hopefully, we can keep this updated and streamlined so that it becomes a useful and used resource (not much worse than a dead wiki!).

Some of the Society’s publications

Early afternoon I was scheduled to meet with my line manager, Simon Gilmour, the Director of the Society of Antiquaries. He was called away to a funeral today however so I have a bit of time to focus on a couple more of the reports, and hopefully have the chance to have a quick look around the newly opened museum. Before I do, I thought I would highlight the work of the Society as a publisher. As well as publishing the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and the Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports (SAIR) we also produce a number of books. Our Proceedings and SAIR are both available online entirely for free – a real source of pride for the Society. I don’t have the number of times these resources are downloaded to hand, though over the course of a year SAIR is well into 6 figures, and the Proceedings into 7 figures. If my boss reads this, he may be able to update accordingly! Our publications cover a whole range of topics, with recent books on St Kilda, and on excavations of henge monuments by Richard Bradley.

My colleague Erin’s desk – publication is a busy business! (and the desk is always this tidy)

Writing about henge monuments reminds me that my next task is connected to our Bronze Age panel…