I’m not an archaeologist. But that doesn’t stop me getting very excited by archaeology; about the idea of something being found, seen for the first time in hundreds or even thousands of years since it was lost, discarded, carefully laid, buried, or any number of other possibilities. We then get to dissect this object’s history, what it meant to somebody, and the stories held within its very fibres, in a uniquely personal way.
These three large wine amphorae, two of pink-buff clay and one of yellow-white clay, are all cared for in the collections at MAA. They formed part of a cremation burial of an Iron Age warrior dating to the first century AD at Snailwell, Cambridgeshire, a Belgic chieftain. It was a chance find on a hot, sunny day. A new housing estate was being built, and the trench for a pipe-line passed through one end of the tomb, exposing an amphora still standing upright in the ground. A report from the time of discovery describes:
‘A chance discovery, speedily reported, resulted in the examination of the most important Iron Age find to be made in the Cambridge area for many years’ (Lethbridge, 1954).
It was quickly clear to the archaeologist on scene, T.C. Lethbridge, that it was ‘one of the rare Belgic tombs’ like a similar one excavated from Stanfordbury, Bedfordshire, also in our care (figure 2). The Belgic tribe in Britain were a group of Celtic peoples who lived in what is now southeastern England during the Iron Age and Roman period. Their name is thought to be derived from the Celtic ‘Belg’ or ‘Belgos’, meaning ‘bright’ or ‘brilliant’, and they were well known for their metalworking skills and production of high-quality iron and bronze objects. They had close ties with the Roman Empire and were a significant cultural and economic force in pre-Britain. The Gallo-Belgic pottery industry represents a fusion of indigenous native and Roman forms, using distinctly Roman technologies. Around the last two decades of the first century BCE, Gallo-Belgic pottery appears across southern Britain, on sites mainly within the presumed territories of the Atrebates and Catuvellauni – Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex, and Hampshire.
Seeing excavations like this one at Snailwell are critical to our knowledge about trade and expansion in the Roman period. Imports like these signify an increase in cross-channel contact, and their styles indicate not only a useful chronological marker but a reflection on society. What changes were happening in eating and drinking habits? Was our chieftain’s life very similar to that on the Gallic mainland, or was it completely different? And, also, why was he buried with these items?
The date of the death of our chieftain is significant – we know from studying the pottery that he died within a year or two of the Claudian conquest in AD 43, widely considered the starting point of Roman Britain – and can tell us a lot about the cultural practices and customs of the Belgic people immediately, or during, the country coming under Roman rule.
The grave contained a number of artefacts offering insights into our chieftain, including our three amphorae, five wine jugs, at least five ornamented lengths of bone, and an iron shield boss (he was buried with his shield, in itself a rarity in the archaeological record of the times). These are all highly practical, used for serving and drinking wine or other beverages, but with their delicate and intricately decorated forms would have also been seen as symbols of wealth and status.
In the same report as above, Lethbridge tells us that the chieftain’s burial was only slightly less-well furnished than that of the great barrow at Lexden near Colchester – which some authorities have believed to be that of Cunobeline, a king in pre-Roman Britain – and that he was probably a Catuvelaunian chieftain, and so one of the ruling caste. It is said that a full wine jar was the value for a slave, so the amount of vessels in this grave (16 in total!) would have been of hefty value, and one hell of a send-off. Funerals were, historically, a great excuse for a party – the chaotic selection of broken pottery thrown into the grave, evidence that the cremation was buried while still hot – all shows that this man was of high wealth and status.
A quick digression on amphorae. Why do we so often insist on carrying liquid around in gloriously impractical vessels? Working with the collections at MAA, I’ve thought this on at least a few occasions, but especially whenever I see ancient amphorae. Most of the time they didn’t have a lid, the pointy base means they can’t stand up unassisted, and the lightest of these three is a breezy 12 kilograms completely empty.
The interesting answer is that they weren’t impractical at all. Wine was shipped all around the Roman empire in an astonishing feat of coordination and iconography; it’s not quite next-day delivery, but these things sure did travel far. Amphorae like these were typically shaped with a narrow neck and a large body to maximise their capacity for storing and transporting goods. The tall, slender shape of the amphora made it easier to stack and store on ships, and the narrow neck would have reduced the amount of air that could enter the vessel, helping to preserve the contents. They were comparatively cheap to reproduce, and although heavy, could withstand a lot of wear and tear. The shape of an amphora could also serve as a marker of its place of origin or differentiate between different goods; wine amphorae, for example, were typically taller and more slender than oil amphorae, which had a wider and more squat shape.
Wine, for many cultures, is often a social drink. We associate it with celebrations, with connecting with people, with both day to day activity and indulgence and excess; and importantly, as an indicator of class. Grave goods like these wine amphorae also show us not only that this was still true in the Roman age (clearly significant enough to include in a Belgic chieftain’s burial, both in terms of expense and space), but are integral to our understanding of trade, social and political movement, and cultural expansion in Iron Age Europe. Thank you, Belgic Chieftain.
Lethbridge, T.C. (1954). ‘Burial of an Iron Age Warrior at Snailwell’. Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol. 47. Pp 25-37.