Friday, 21 August 2015

Celtic king(?) burial from West Sussex

Quite a distance separates the two correlates at North Bersted
and Tal-Y-Llyn and this is fairly normal for high status work.
map: © OpenStreetMap contributors
I don't know how I missed this last year, but a fascinating burial of ca 50 BC has been excavated at North Bersted, Bognor Regis, West Sussex. The grave was found by Thames Valley Archaeological Services during a building development survey. Its media reporting is confused and spotty but I will order the report and give a further post to it later.

The most remarkable find (as far as I can currently tell) are two bronze openwork appliqués from a Celtic shield together with its boss. These are illustrated in the top right photo in the article link above. Openwork early Celtic decoration is more commonly found on the continent, but some of the design motifs, in this case, are distinctly British. At a much later date, there was a bit of a fusion with early Celtic designs and Roman openwork as Celtic workshops started to cater more to Roman clients (especially soldiers). This might partly be the source of the confusion in this report, which says the occupant is a Roman. It also has a quote that Barry Cunliffe said that he knew of nothing like this metalwork. If this was referencing the shield furniture, that is not exactly right. Mind you, some similarities can be subjective and no two high status examples of decorated metalwork are the same anyway. If we allow the same type of object, techniques and shared motifs then we do have a British correlate, the find at Tal-Y-Llyn, Merioneth, Wales (Jope, 2000, Plates 96-7.). Jope even provides a reconstruction of the same shield type. The curved appliqués frame the central spindle boss. In Jope's reconstruction, two openwork roundels are at the centre of the linear border drawn to represent the shapes on both sides of the boss. The most equivalent shared element is the the two circles connected by a diagonal line (or a closed S shape). Jope speculates (p. 250) that red glass originally backed these openwork roundels. That being the case, we can perhaps give the effect as prototypical to some later Iceni mounts. This would also seem to fit well with the attributed date of the burial.

So why am I suggesting a king instead of a warrior as is reported? First, this sort of elaborate metalwork was beyond the means of any common foot-soldier of that period (but not of some who had fought in the much earlier Italian campaigns like the owner of the Witham shield). Second, the burial contains the remains of a shield, spear, sword, Mannheim type helmet (first British find) and "elaborate headdress". This is a curious mixture: a much earlier foot soldier would have fought with a long shield and a spear, and would have carried a very short sword (or dagger). A later cavalry soldier would have used a buckler and would have had a longer sword (spears or javelins are also possible). I will have to wait to see what sort of sword was in the grave. The headdress is something that might have been worn by either a king or a Druid (however, Sean B. Dunham equates the two). We also have to understand that Celtic kings are not the same as what we call kings today. Any tribe would have a number of concurrent kings and one of lesser rank might only control a hillfort or settlement. Perhaps these were more like the city mayor of today. That we have two styles of fighting represented, including one that was rather archaic, and also have a ceremonial headdress, it would seem that the grave has more cultural than personal content and it does seem to add weight to Dunham's theory. I will have more to say when I see the actual report.

Have a Jungian weekend.

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