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 The reason for the shrine’s demolition at this stage is unclear, but it has been suggested that it may have been replaced by a yet to be discovered temple dedicated to a Roman god built elsewhere on the site.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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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

Pilgrims' Progress

In trying to find out more about the ferry that may have taken pilgrims across the water to the Cathedral, I came across an interesting description of what they may have found there on their arrival.

A document described as an ‘indenture chirograph’ (1), two feet five inches long and eleven inches wide, lists the goods found in the sacristy in 1345. A transcript of the original Latin is included in the ‘Collections for a History of Staffordshire 1886, Part II, Vol VI’, edited by the William Salt Society. Thankfully, there is also a translation alongside, so that I don’t have to fumble my way through using google translate! (2)

A tile and a simple portrait mark the place where Chad’s shrine once stood.

The first part of the inventory lists the various relics owned by the Cathedral, including of course those of Saint Chad. Chad died in 672AD and around 700AD his bones were moved to a new church, on or near to the site of the present Cathedral. It’s thought that the Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003 whilst work was being carried out on the nave, may have been part of the original shrine, and that it may have been destroyed by Vikings. By the time the inventory was made in 1345, the holy bones seem to have been kept in several different places within the Cathedral. Chad’s skull was kept in the thirteenth century Saint Chad’s Head Chapel ‘in a painted wooden case’. The Cathedral website describes how initially pilgrims would ascend a staircase in the wall, walk around the head, and then exit down a second stairway which still exists today.

Staircase which pilgrims may have used to exit St Chad’s Head Chapel

An old photograph of St Chad’s Chapel

Eventually, due to the volume of traffic, one of the staircases was closed and the relic was shown to pilgrims from the balcony outside the chapel.  There is also mention of an arm of Blessed Chad, and other bones in a portable shrine, as well as the great shrine of St Chad. The latter was described as being decorated with statues and adorned with precious gifts and jewels and stood in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral until the reformation. It’s believed that some of the Saint’s bones are now kept in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Chad’s in Birmingham, enshrined on 21 June 1841, the day that the Cathedral was consecrated. (3)

An old photo of the Lady Chapel

It wasn’t just the relics of Saint Chad that were owned by the Cathedral. Other items recorded in 1345 include:

Some of Mount Calvary and Golgotha, a piece of the rock standing upon which Jesus wept bitterly and wept over Jerusalem, some of the bones of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, part of the finger and cowl of St William, some of the bread of St Godric and some of the wood of the cross of St Peter

There were also said to be some of St Lawrence’s bones, part of his tomb and a piece of the gridiron he was executed on. (4) Interestingly, it’s said that at number 23, The Close, different coloured bricks have been used on the south wall to depict this this symbol of St Lawrence’s martyrdom. Since I read about this, I have a look every time I walk past, but as of yet, have not managed to spot it!

Statue of St Lawrence at the church named after him in Walton on Trent, which sits on the border between Staffordshire and Derbyshire

Saint Chad’s skull may be long gone but the pilgrims still come, and on certain occasions have their feet washed at the pedilavium, a medieval feature thought to be unique to Lichfield. There are also plenty of other heads to be found at Lichfield Cathedral. Some are scarred and defaced, whilst others have been restored. They are a reminder of the medieval craftsmen who created the church, those who tried to destroy it and those whose skills and labour restored Lichfield Cathedral to the mirabilis edificii that it is today (ok, I admit I used google translate for that one!).

The medieval pedilavium where pilgrims still sit to have their feet washed.

Notes:

1) I believe this refers to a document that would have been written in duplicate on the same piece of parchment, and then divided into two with a serrated edge, so that when both parts were brought back together and compared, you could be sure that each was genuine and not a forgery.

(2) A footnote says ‘This transcript and translation were originally undertaken for ‘The Journal of the Derbyshire Archaeological Society’, and are now reprinted after careful revision and correction. It was the joint work of W H St John Hope, FSA and the compiler of this catalogue’. Thanks very much folks!

(3) The relics of St Chad were apparently smuggled out of Lichfield after the reformation and eventually ended up in Birmingham, a journey of thirty miles that took 300 years! You can read more about that journey here. I don’t think anyone knows what happened to the other relics.

(4) In a nutshell the legend of St Lawrence is that he was a Deacon of Rome, and when asked by the Prefect of Rome to assemble the treasures of the church  for him,  he brought him the poor and suffering, stating it was they who were the true treasures of the church. The legend says he was executed by being roasted over a gridiron (but some say he was most likely beheaded).

Sources: 

Collections for a History of Staffordshire 1886, Part II, Vol VI’, edited by the William Salt Society

Lichfield Cathedral Website – http://www.lichfield-cathedral.org/History/the-gothic-cathedral.html

Lichfield: The cathedral close’, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 14: Lichfield (1990), pp. 57-67