Heads and Tales

Just outside of Lichfield, in the village of Wall, are the remains of the Roman settlement of Letocetum, a latinized version of an Iron Age place name meaning ‘grey wood’. The foundations of the bath house and guest house (or mansio), established here to provide rest and recuperation and a change of horses to those travelling along Watling Street, are still visible.  As you’d expect, some fascinating archaeological finds have been unearthed at the site, giving us a glimpse of what life in Letocetum was like almost two thousand years ago. Many of these are displayed in the site museum, including my favourite – a carved stone, discovered built into the foundations of the mansio, along with seven others, which I suspect not many people even realise exist.

Stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what's thought to be a shield.

Carved stone on display at Wall museum, featuring two carved heads and what’s thought to be a shield.

The carving seems to show two horned heads facing each other, with a circular object, interpreted as a shield, to their right. Heads also appear on some of the other stones found alongside it.  One depicts a figure with a club in one hand, and a severed head or skull at its feet. Another features a head in what may be some sort of niche and a fourth has a head with an open mouth, that may suggest it is screaming.

Carved onto a fifth stone are two ‘warrior’ figures with shields, stood side by side. A pattern of sorts around their legs has been interpreted as representing water. A second pair of figures, enclosed in a frame or box of some sort lie at right angles to these ‘warriors’. Two further stones have inscriptions, or at least partial inscriptions CUINTI…CI and DDBRUTI, and on the eighth stone is a carving which resembles a Christian cross, although it may be a pagan symbol representing the sun.

All but one of the stones were built into the foundations of the mansio in an inverted position, and there is a theory that they were originally part of a Romano-British shrine dedicated to a native god or gods (the names of whom may be recorded on those inscripted stones), which was demolished sometime around the building of the mansio. The reason for the shrine’s demolition at this stage is unclear, but it has been suggested that it may have been replaced by a yet to be discovered temple dedicated to a Roman god built elsewhere on the site. Incorporating the stones upside down suggests that the native gods represented by the carvings were still respected, and perhaps even feared by the builders of the mansio – I understand that inverting an object was thought to neutralise its power.

There is also a ninth carved stone, found separately from the others, in a hypocaust in the north east of the mansio. It appears to depict a phallus, and was inserted after construction to provide additional protection for the building.

Unfortunately, the stone with the ‘cross’ has disappeared and no photographs appear to exist. The other stones are kept at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery but photographs of them can be found in the eleventh report of excavations at Wall, included in Volume XXI of the Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society transactions for 1979-80. Along with all of the Society’s other transactions, this is accessible online to members (it’s well worth joining if you are interested in the area’s archaeology).  I haven’t got around to asking for permission to use the photographs here, and so in an attempt to stay on the right side of copyright law, whilst trying to give a better idea of what the carvings on the stones look like, here are some drawings I did of them. Apologies to archaeologists and artists everywhere.

Carved stone 1

carved stone 2

carved stone 3

carved stone 4

I’m not drawing the ninth stone. You can probably work out what that one looks like for yourselves….

This all fits quite nicely (albeit unintentionally!) with the theme of ‘Hidden Histories’ for this year’s heritage weekend in Lichfield (20th/21st September). If you are interested in finding out more about the story of Wall, and hearing about some of the other archaeological discoveries made here, there is free guided walk around the village led by the Friends of Letocetum on Sunday 21st September.  The walk is free and open to everyone, and will be starting out from the the village car park at 10.30am.

 Sources

Staffordshire Archaeological and Historical Society Transactions for 1979 -80 Volume XX1

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Get The Drift?

Over at Curborough Craft Centre today, I noticed a plaque on one of the converted farm buildings explaining that it was a former drift house, possibly built on the foundations of an earlier building.

Back at home, I tried to find out what exactly a drift house was used for.  It seems there are plenty of them around (including one in Stonnall) but no real explanations as to exactly what purpose they served. And believe me I’ve looked – I googled, I read (an English Heritage study into farm buildings of the West Midlands and some ye olde book on farming) and I attempted to apply logic but all to no avail.

However, what I did find was that the drift house at Curborough was surveyed in August 1984 along with other agricultural buildings in the Curborough and Elmhurst area. The report on the Heritage Gateway site includes the following information – “Mrs Hollinshead referred to this as a ‘drift barn’. It is in a poor condition; the doors are blocked with corrugated sheeting, the roof is gone and is replaced with corrugated sheeting and the north-east side has been repaired”. The report was part of the Domesday survey of barns in Staffordshire co-ordinated by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1985 and clearly the building has had a lot of TLC since then. You can read it here.

Anyway, eventually, I gave up and went off on a tangent. I’d read previously that the place name Curborough is thought to derive from the Old English ‘cweorn burna’. However, what I didn’t know is that there have been an abundance of archaeological finds in the area, indicating that Curborough was inhabited long before the Anglo-Saxons decided to build a mill on the stream here.  A site near to the farm has been identified as a possible Roman settlement with large quantities of coins, brooches, pottery, tiles and glass being discovered in the late 1990s. It seems even the Romans were relative latecomers, with Mesolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds also being unearthed nearby. So many wonderful discoveries and so much more to learn about this fascinating place I’m sure. However, at this moment in time, I’ll settle for an explanation of what a drift house (or barn) is, if anyone can help!

Sources

http://www.heritagegateway.org.uk/Gateway/Results_Single.aspx?uid=MST4660&resourceID=1010

‘Townships: Curborough and Elmshurst’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990)

Friends and Romans

Wall is just a few miles south west of Lichfield and is of course the site of a Roman settlement known as Letocetum. Remains of a bath house and a ‘mansio‘ are still visible at the site, and there’s also a small museum in the village displaying some of the archaeological finds from the area, although sadly not the statue of Minerva, supposedly broken into pieces shortly after discovery to mend the bank of a drain (assuming that such a statue actually existed in the first place…)

Since visiting Wall last month, my interest in the place has grown and grown. As well as the occupation of the site by the Romans themselves, I’m also interested in the period prior to their arrival –  several carved stone thought to indicate the presence of a Celtic shrine at the site have been discovered.

Roman re-enactors at Kelmarch 2013 A D, but was the real thing in Lichfield in 300 A.D?

I’m also intrigued by how Letocetum relates to the later settlement at Lichfield.  One of the early medieval buildings excavated at Cross Keys, during work on the car park in 2007/08, was found to incorporate reused Roman masonry and there have also been other stray Roman finds in and around the city. Coins have been discovered near Sandfields and at Streethay. Roman pottery, including an inscribed mortarium, was apparently discovered at a place known as ‘Toad’s Hole Piece’, an area later known as Christian Fields and in 1802, a Roman Cyathus, fragments of pottery and human bones were reported to have been discovered during construction of a malt house on the causeway between Bird St and Beacon St.

Some of the finds discovered at Toad’s Hole Piece, later part of the area known as Christian Fields.

Wall is a fascinating place and a lovely village to visit. What’s more, there is a family open day at the site tomorrow (Sunday 4th August) between 11am and 4pm, organised by the Friends of Letocetum. I understand that as well as guided walks around the site and the village, there will also be children’s activities and replicas of items from the Staffordshire Hoard on display. You can find out more via their Facebook site here.

Sources: https://lichfieldlore.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/lichfieldeusreportfinal.pdf http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=306575 http://www.pastscape.org.uk/hob.aspx?hob_id=307078
http://www.sahs.uk.net/Volume%20XXXIII.pdf

Wall Street Journal

Sunny days should be spent out and about under blue skies, not shopping for bathroom suites in Cannock. However, needs must and afterwards we made up for it by continuing the bath theme in much more pleasant surroundings, spending the afternoon at the Roman bath house at Wall. Although it’s only about three miles away from Leomansley, it’s a while since I’ve been to the ruins of the Roman settlement of Letocetum. My last visit  was in 2011,during an open day organised by the Friends of Letocetum for the National Archaeology Festival. Another visitor on that day, who sadly I didn’t meet, was the late Mick Aston (wearing a stripy jumper of course!), who had one of his first experiences of archaeology at the site as a young man under the guidance of Jim Gould FSA.

Remains of the guest house and bath house at the Roman settlement of Letocetum

Roman occupation at the site is thought to have begun with the establishment of a military site to protect this important route, later developing into a staging post where those travelling along Watling St could rest and recuperate at the guest house and bath house, (it is the remains of these buildings which are still visible) and eventually a small town.  You can see another Roman road, running between the remains of the two buildings on the site, with some of the original cobbles still intact.

Not quite on Watling Street scale, but a Roman road nonetheless.

After looking around the ruins, we followed the Wall Heritage Walk (available from the museum) which took us along more ancient routes – the greenways and sunken lanes that surround the village, thought to be old drovers’ roads.

I’m including this, not because I fancy myself as a wildlife photographer, but because I am grateful to the subject for being the only butterfly ever to have stayed still long enough for me to take a photo!

As well as enjoying the views and the wildlife of the hedgerows, I also couldn’t help looking out for buildings in the area that had used stone from the ready made quarry nearby!

Are these Roman stones I wonder?

One of the lanes runs past St John’s church. Built in the late 1830s, in comparison to the ruins it overlooks, it’s a young whippersnapper of a building. The architects were George Gilbert Scott and William Bonython Moffat, who it seems were also working on Lichfield’s new workhouse at St Michael’s around the same time.

One of the questions that seems to be subject to much discussion here is, could earlier places of worship once have existed on the site? There has been speculation that there was once a shrine to Minerva here, based on an account of a man who worked draining the lands around Wall. Asked if he had ever found anything in the course of his work, he told how as well as finding lots of old coins, he once found an earthenware figure that he described as being as big as a man, but not a man due to having a bust, and also not a woman as it had a queer dress and a man’s cap like a soldier’s helmet. And what did he do with this amazing find? Prepare to weep – he used it to mend a drain.

However, before getting too upset we can perhaps take some comfort in the fact that Jim Gould (who as well as working extensively at Wall explored and wrote about the archaeology of many of the other sites around here) was not convinced that the statue ever existed, the story being “from an unknown source, of the finding of an impossible statue, by an un-named man, at an unknown spot and date (1). A good lesson that no matter how appealing some stories may seem, they should be taken cum grano salis. 

Entry is free but the museum is only open on certain weekends so check first!

Thanks to archaeologists like Mr Gould and others, a great deal of the history and significance of the site has already been discovered, although it seems there are still plenty of crop marks and questions out there (including the relationship between Letocetum and what was to become Lichfield) to keep future generations of archaeologists busy. However, just as sunny days ideally shouldn’t be spent shopping on retail parks, places such as Wall ideally shouldn’t be explored through words and photographs along, but physically instead. The museum even has a collection of objects you can touch! Instead of using this post to further summarise the history of the site (especially as others will have done a far superior job elsewhere!),  I’d rather encourage you to go and have a look for yourself.  In case you need any further convincing, entrance to the ruins and the museum is free and the heritage leaflet I picked up there was worth every one of the 20 pennies I paid for it.

Slightly gratuitous photo of Roman army re-enactors, English Heritage Festival of History 2011

Sources:

(1) http://www.sahs.uk.net/Volume%20XXXIII.pdf

Wall Heritage Walk

Pastscape Record for Letocetum

Potholes

After visiting the Christian Fields Local Nature Reserve, it seemed a good time to revisit the story that gave a name to the immediate area, and according to some, to the wider city as well.

Legend has it that in around 300AD, one thousand (or 999 depending on which version you read) Christians were massacred by a Roman army and their bodies left unburied in a place that would become known as the ‘Field of Corpses’ aka Lichfield (from the OE lic – body/corpse).   From 1548, versions of this story were depicted on the city seal, examples of which can still be seen in several places across the city, including the Martyrs Plaque at Beacon Park, 19thc police badges on display in the City Gaol, and in the main hall at the Guildhall.

Version of the City Seal from 1688, Main Hall, Guildhall

Several fairly obvious locations in the city have been mooted as possibilities for the specific location of the massacre, including Borrowcop Hill, St Michael’s Churchyard and the site of the Cathedral. However, what was it about this parcel of land, a mile north of the Cathedral that convinced people to such an extent, that it was given the name ‘Christian Fields’?

The image below is an aerial view of the area from 1971. Christian Fields is south of Eastern Avenue, between Dimbles Lane and Curborough Rd.  (Shortly afterwards, a new housing estate was built on the field. Perhaps as a nod to the site’s legendary history, the streets were named after saints. Funnily enough, one of these new houses was my husband’s childhood home – I must ask my in-laws if they ever found anything of interest in the garden!)

An aerial view of Christian Fields, 1971. Reproduced with thanks to Gareth Thomas, Lichfield District Council

Lichfield District Council’s information on the site says,

In the 17th-century the antiquarian Robert Plot declared that the area, now known as Christian Fields, had been the site of the martyrdom and it has born the name ever since. Needless to say Robert Plot’s claim has never been substantiated and no archaeological evidence has ever been presented in its support.

Looking at John Speed’s 1610 map of the city, I wonder whether the idea that the massacre took place at Christian Fields actually pre-dates Robert Plot? At the end of a road leading north from the Cathedral (possibly Dimbles Lane?), in the vicinity of Christian Fields, is an illustration depicting a scene that looks like a representation of the legend, similar to that found on the city seal.

John Speed’s 1610 map of Lichfield

In the early 1800s, local historians wrote about a series of discoveries near to the site, that persuaded them that the legend was true. The pastscape record has the following description, taken from a history book of the time,

In a meadow adjoining CHRISTIAN FIELDS, known by the name of the TOAD’S HOLE PIECE, have been recently found a considerable quantity of human bones, various pieces  of earthenware, some of which are Roman, a stone bowl or dish perhaps used for grinding corn, a stone ball, fragments of weapons including the head of a pike or halberd and several horseshoes  pierced for nails at the top as well as the sides. The objects  were discovered nearly four feet below the surface in a peaty soil, amongst and covered by great quantities of roots and decaying branches.

I found the book (1) on googlebooks and found it contained illustrations of the objects.

 

A letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine in November 1817 gave a little more information,

The articles of which I have sent you drawings were found near some land known by the singular names of Hic Filius and Christian’s field so called, according to tradition, from having been the place where the early converts to Christianity had used to assemble  and where the massacre from which Lichfield derives its name took place.

The letter goes on to describe what I think are these drawings from the Staffordshire Past Track site. – “a stone dish one foot diameter used perhaps for grinding was placed in the earth as a cover for a smooth red earthenware broken by the eagerness of the workmen to examine the contents (proved earth only). The black spots arc metallic. Also, the head of a weapon in preservation the wooden staff was broken off near the head, the iron is 21 inches in length.  There are also weapons found in 1817 in the foundation of one of the canons houses on the North side of the Close with some bones and broken armour”.

I’m not suggesting that the objects are proof of the legend, which along with the ‘Field of the Dead’ explanation of the place name of Lichfield is generally accepted to be untrue (the current favoured explanation of the name is ‘the common pasture in or beside the the grey wood).  However, and I may be reading into things too much here, I do think it’s a little curious that these items seem to almost be a tick list of props for the martyrs’ story…. Bones? Check. Horses & weapons? Check. A link to the Romans? Check.  The question I’m finding it hard to find an answer to is, if it’s agreed that these objects aren’t part of the story of the Christian Martyrs, in some way, shape or form, then whose story or stories are they part of?

Edit 6/10/2012

A further reference from the same book says the following,

About three quarters of a mile from (St Chad’s Well) are Hic filiius and Christians Fields where the converts of Ampbibalus are said to have been massacred; a considerable quantity of human bones have been found in the adjoining fields a few feet beneath the surface.

It has been the custom of civilized nations to collect and burn or bury the bodies of those slain in battle here fragments of bones are found scattered through a space exceeding half a mile and in one place only have they been met with under the appearance of having been buried which was in a field near Pones mill on the east side of the brook these had probably been dug up and thrown into an excavation as were several cart loads found in the field adjoining to that in which the earthen ware before noticed was discovered which were thrown into a marl pit near the spot. Tradition says the bodies of the massacred christians were left unburied a prey to the birds and beasts of the forest.

On maps from the later 1800s, there is a marl pit in the corner of the field marked as ‘Christian Fields’.

Sources

(1) A Short Account of the City and Close of Lichfield by Lomax, Woodhouse & Newling (1819)

(2) Derbyshire Record Office Online Catalogue

(3) Holinshed’s Chronicles ofEngland, Scotland & Ireland

http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/holinshed/index.php

http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=42340#s1