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Tuesday 3 February 2015

Review: Digging For Britain, BBC4

Alice Roberts and Matt Williams co-hosted the latest instalment in BBC4’s ‘Digging for Britain’ series, providing viewers with the first of four regional updates relating to significant British archaeological finds made during 2014. Tonight’s episode focused upon East Anglia and the Southeast, taking in a wide variety of sites spanning from the Bronze Age to the Civil War. Sitting in the impressive setting of Norwich Castle Museum, the duo chatted to individuals who had overseen the featured excavations, questioning them as to their significance, and any specific findings that have changed our knowledge, or perceptions, of our island forebears.

The first site to be featured, and one of the most interesting, was Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, where archaeologists have discovered evidence of fishing during the Bronze Age “on an industrial scale”, involving the widespread use of wattle wears and fish traps in the River Nene, with some twenty such traps having come to light. Furthermore, large numbers of pieces of metalwork have been found, including swords, spearheads and other items. Interestingly, many swords betray the fact that they have been used in combat, through the distinctive nicks in the sides of their blades. Eight well-preserved log boats were also found in only 300 metres of channel, suggesting that the area would have been well settled at the time of their creation. An oversized ceremonial dirk was also discovered, bent out of shape, representing, it was said the “ritual killing of the object.”

Colchester yielded some interesting finds from a Roman house in the Boudiccan destruction layer, burned down during the anti-Roman revolt in AD61. Charred foodstuffs showed that the householder in question may have been enjoying – or intending to enjoy – a meal which included figs, dates, peas and wheat when the house was levelled by fire. The mistress of the house had hidden her jewellery – earrings, armlets, chains and rings – in a hoard that had lain undisturbed from the date of its deposition to its discovery in the excavation. Human remains – parts of a mandible and tibia – were discovered just outside of the house, bearing what appeared to be slashing injuries inflicted by weaponry, such as a sword. Cassius Dio was quoted in his description of what happened to the richest female inhabitants of Britain’s early Roman towns sacked by the Boudiccan rebels; their fate was gory, for they were said to have met their end in ritual sacrifices conducted in sacred groves dedicated to the British goddess of victory (presumably Andraste, although the programme did not mention her by name), involving the sort of torments beloved by ISIS militants: skewering lengthways. Then again, was Dio’s account merely Roman propaganda? At a guess, given the barbarity with which history is replete, I suspect not.

Oakington in Cambridgeshire played host to the discovery of a significant sixth-century Anglo-Saxon cemetery containing 124 graves, 30% of which belonged to infants. A number of the burials belonged to high-status women, one, strangely, being buried with the entire carcass of a cow for throwing parties in the afterlife.

Thence the programme moved on to what was “a bustling royal centre” in seventh-century Lyminge in Kent, although discovering evidence of its royal hall involved ripping up the village green and leaving it looking rather less appealing than it had done beforehand. We were then transported through a thousand years of history to the most modern excavation site featured – Basing House – which finally fell to the Parliamentarians after a two-year siege on 14 October 1645. The remains of one of the poor devils defending the Postern Gate were discovered, with his head decapitated and a large sword mark across the top of his cranium.

The programme finished, perhaps appropriately given that 2014 marked the final year of excavations in a run of 18 successive seasons at the site, in Silchester, or Calleva Atrebatum as the Romans knew it. New discoveries in a grand house in insula 3 – specifically fragments of “Nero tiles” – took us back to the period immediately following Boudicca’s rebellion, and speculation that Nero had either channelled money into Calleva either directly or through a client king, to help shore up Roman rule in southern and western Britain.

All in all, the sites featured were interesting, although none of the artefacts matched the dazzling brilliance of some of the finds made in the Staffordshire Hoard, or indeed, in the Snettisham Hoard discovered in Norfolk. What awaits us in the next three programmes of the series? Whether they should be treasures of gold and silver, or rather more humble offerings of semi-decayed wattle and wood, they will serve to illuminate further the forgotten ages of our land, and help to bring the lives of our ancestors into more vivid relief.

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