Roman Child Burial from Hinckley

Definitely an interesting one from the Hinckley Times:

A child’s coffin, believed to date from Roman times, has been unearthed at a field in Witherley.

The lead box, less than 1m long, was found by amateur treasure hunters using metal detectors on Sunday.

Archaeologists exhumed the coffin yesterday (Thursday) and transported it to Warwick for detailed analysis.

It’s the first find of its kind from the Leicestershire-Warwickshire border area – a stretch bordering the A5 known to have been of military significance during the Roman era.

Stuart Palmer, business manager for the appointed experts, Archaeology Warwickshire, said: “Everything points to the coffin being from the Roman era and it is the first lead coffin to be recovered from the area.

“It might be one of the few Roman burials recovered from the Witherley-Mancetter cross border region.

“We know quite a lot about the Roman military activity in that part of Leicestershire and Warwickshire but not a great deal about the indigenous population.

“This coffin might provide us with one of a very few opportunities to examine how those people lived.”

The artefact will undergo months of analysis and a report will highlight findings and recommend what should happen to it next.

Mr Palmer said it would be some time before the coffin was opened and only then in the presence of appropriate experts and in the right environment.

The coffin was found along with Roman and medieval coins by members of Digging Up the Past metal detector group.

Realising the importance of the artefact they alerted the police and kept nightly vigils at the site for fear of looters.

Club spokesman, David Hutchings, said: “As the coffin was found in a ploughed field it was probably only a matter of time before it was accidentally damaged by farm machinery, so it’s almost with a collective sigh of relief that such a significant discovery was made before this could happen and the coffin was lost forever.”

There’s some nice photos of the little lead (?) box in the original article. I’m sure we’ll be reading some followups to this when they open it up …

More coverage from the BBC: ‘Roman child’s coffin’ found in Leicestershire

Crossrail Roman Skulls Followup

Yesterday we had a BBC piece detailing the discovery of a number of possible Roman skulls in the Walbrook River area (Possible Pile of Roman Skulls) but today we see headlines connecting them with Boudicca, alas (dead Romans? must be Boudicca’s fault). Seems a passing remark by one of the archaeologists was given greater focus than he probably wanted: From a Reuters piece:

“This isn’t the first time that skulls have been found in the bed of the River Walbrook and many early historians suggested these people were killed during the Boudicca rebellion against the Romans,” lead archaeologist Jay Carver said.

“We now think the skulls are possibly from a known Roman burial ground about 50 metres up river from our Liverpool Street station worksite.”

… give the journos a name and they’ll take a rebellion. In any event, the Reuters piece is accompanied by a nice little video report:

… the horse jaw might suggest something more ‘Iron Age’ than Roman …

Possible Praetorium from Balaklava

Interesting item from PAP:

Praetorium, Roman garrison commander’s property, has been discovered by found Polish archaeologists working in the Crimea, told PAP Dr. Radosław Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski of the Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw, head of excavations in Balaklava, Ukraine.

Until now, researchers have speculated that this house was located at the citadel in nearby Chersonesus.

Archaeologists studied the building of unknown purpose in previous seasons. This year’s work allowed for its full exploration.

“At first we thought that we were digging up the common barracks or quarters of one of the officers – centurions. However, the structure turned out to be more extensive than we thought. We uncovered a large house with rooms surrounding a stone-paved courtyard from three sides. Analogies with similar Roman forts indicate that the house belonged to the garrison commander” – said Dr. Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski.

The commander of the garrison was a high-ranking officer (tribune), who probably only visited outposts, and had permanent quarters on the Lower Danube.

Best preserved was the last construction phase of the building, dating back to the turn of the second and third century and the first decades of the third century.

“Discovery of the praetorium in Balaklava suggests that, at least in the beginning of the third century, the quarters of the Roman army commander in Tauris (the ancient name of Crimea – ed. PAP) was the fort in Balaklava, and not, as previously thought in the nearby Chersonesus citadel” – said Dr. Karasiewicz-Szczypiorski .

Warsaw archaeologists first visited Balaklava in the 1990s. The excavations are carried out jointly with the staff of the local museum ” Chersonesus Taurica” in Sevastopol. The result of these studies include the discovery of the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus. The current project was carried out for three seasons with the funds from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education.

The relevant scholarly paper seems to be at

Major Bust/Discovery at Lanuvio

From the Gazzetta del Sud:

Police have foiled ‘tomb raiders’ looting an ancient Roman archaeological site near the capital that was previously unknown to the Italian authorities, investigators said on Wednesday. The site is located near the ruins of a temple devoted to Juno ”The Saviour” at Lanuvio, in the Castelli Romani (Castles of Rome) – a cluster of towns southeast of Rome. Investigators saved five marble elements from works of architecture, coins, the ruins of a number of buildings, and over 24,000 terracotta fragments attributable to the late Republican and imperial period. Investigators also found tools presumably being used for archeological theft, including metal detectors, two-way radios. The authorities commandeered 17,000 sq meters of farmland where the ruins of monumental walls were brought to light by the illegal excavation. Lazio regional authorities said the site and artifacts recovered were of great scientific interest due to the size of the discovery, the state of its preservation and the location, near an important Roman temple. Investigators noted that in recent months, 500 cultural works have been seized and five people charged in unrelated operations to protect Italy’s heritage.

The coverage in La Reppubblica downplays the theft side of things and seems to emphasize that this is a major new site … it also include a video of some of the items there: Lanuvio, scoperto sito archeologico La Finanza sventa il saccheggio

Roman Toilet Paper/Game Piece Revisionism?

More on the game piece side, actually , although I’ll admit to not knowing about the other personal hygiene method mentioned in this item (tip o’ the pileus to Sarah Bond for setting me on to this one and to Dan Diffendale for tracking down the original article). Here’s how the Daily Mail covers it:

Ancient artefacts thought to be early gaming pieces will have to be reclassified after new research which claims they were actually used to wipe bottoms.

The flat, disc-shaped Roman relics have been in the collection at Fishbourne Roman Palace in Chichester, West Sussex, since the Sixties.

Up until now museum experts thought the items were used for early games like draughts, but an article in the British Medical Journal has now proposed that they have a very different function.

It is well publicised that Romans used sponges mounted on sticks and dipped in vinegar as an alternative to toilet paper.

Yet the idea these ceramic discs might also have been used for such personal hygiene is a revelation.

The broken pieces – known as ‘pessoi’, meaning pebbles – range in size from 1in to 4in in diameter and were excavated near to the museum in 1960.

It had been thought that they were chips used to play an ancient game, also known as ‘pessoi’, but research published last month in the BMJ drew from classical sources to present evidence that they were also used to clean up after going to the toilet.

Noting the ancient Greek proverb ‘three stones are enough to wipe one’s a***’, Philippe Charlier, assistant professor in forensic medicine at the Raymond Poincaré University Hospital in Paris, points to archaeological excavations which have uncovered pessoi inside the pits of Greek and Roman latrines across the Mediterranean.

In one such dig in Athens, American archaeologists found a range of such pessoi 1.2-4in in diameter and 0.2-0.8in thick which, Professor Charlier wrote, were ‘re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma’.

Other evidence from the classical world has been passed down to us in the form of ceramics painted with representations of figures using pessoi to clean their buttocks.

According to Professor Charlier’s article, the Greeks and Romans even inscribed some of their pessoi with the names of their enemies or others they didn’t like.

Thus everytime they went to the toilet they would literally be wiping their faecal matter on the names of hated individuals.

Examples of such stones have been found by archaeologists bearing the names of such noted historical figures as Socrates, Themisthocles and Pericles, Professor Charlier reported.

Museum curator Dr Rob Symmons said: ‘When pottery like this is excavated it is someone’s job to wash it clean.

‘So, some poor and unsuspecting archaeologist has probably had the delight of scrubbing some Roman waste off of these pieces.

‘It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we could still find some further signs of waste or residue.

‘However, these pottery pieces have no monetary value because we are essentially talking about items once used as toilet roll.

‘The pieces had always been catalogued as as broken gaming pieces but I was never particularly happy with that explanation.

‘But when the article produced the theory they were used to wipe people’s bums I thought it was hilarious and it just appealed to me.

‘I love the idea we’ve had these in the museum for 50 years being largely ignored and now they are suddenly engaging items you can relate to.’

Dr Charlier’s research indicates that the use of such stones would have probably been rather hard on the rear ends of the ancients, and could have caused a variety of medical issues.

He suggests the abrasive texture of the pessoi could have led to skin irritation, mucosal damage, or complications of external haemorrhoids.

He wrote: ‘Maybe this crude and satiric description by Horace in his 8th epode (1st century BC) — “an a*** at the centre of dry and old buttocks mimicking that of a defecating cow”— refers to complications arising from such anal irritation.’

Dr Symmons, who has been at the Fishbourne Roman Palace museum for seven years, added: ‘We will obviously have to think about re-classifying these objects on our catalogue.

‘But we hope the pieces will make people smile when they learn what they were used for.

‘They would have probably been quite scratchy to use and I doubt they would be as comfortable as using toilet roll.

‘But in the Roman era it was that or very little else.’

… plenty of photos at the Daily Mail page, which will give you an idea of the (uncomfortable, it seems to me) size of these things.

As mentioned in the article, this all stems from an item in the British Medical Journal by Philippe Charlier et al (Toilet hygiene in the classical era). I was initially skeptical (primarily due to the size of the things) but there does appear to be archaeological, literary, and forensic (not sure if that’s the right word) support  for all this. An excerpt from the article (footnotes can be tracked down in the original):

Many pessoi have been found within the faecal filling of Greek and Roman latrines all around the Mediterranean world (fig 1).6 Pessoi found during the American excavation on the Athens’ agora, for example, are described as 3-10.5 cm in diameter and 0.6-2.2 cm thick and having been re-cut from old broken ceramics to give smooth angles that would minimise anal trauma.4 Use of a pessos can still be seen on a Greek cylix (wine cup) conserved in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, US. The cup, dating from 6th century BC, was found in Orvieto, Italy, and shows a man, semi-squatting with his clothing raised. The man is maintaining his balance with a cane in his right hand and is clearly wiping his buttocks using a pessos with his left hand.

Some scholars suggest that ostraka, small pieces of broken ceramic inscribed with names that the Greeks used to vote to ostracise their enemies, could also have been used as pessoi, literally putting faecal matter on the name of hated individuals. (Examples of ostraka with the names of Socrates, Themisthocles, and Pericles have been found in Athens and Piraeus).

The two pessoi in figure 1 belong to a private collection. Their precise archaeological origin (discovered in the filling of latrines close to deposits of excrement) and their morphology (rounded form with the edges recut) clearly indicate their use for anal cleaning. Solidified and partially mineralised excrement can still be seen on the non-cleaned and lateral surfaces, which has been confirmed by microscopy (fig 2).

… I’m still somewhat skeptical now, however, because all the evidence adduced (including a bit from Aristophanes that I skipped) comes from the Greek world. Then again, Graecia capta asperum victorem cepit, and perhaps that, er, assault extended to the latrines (the Wheelock gloss on Horace’s original seems punnishly appropriate here)? Or perhaps this gives us an idea of what Romans did in the latrines while waiting? Whatever the case, it’s another interesting detail to add to the arsenal …

Other coverage: