Summary of Lecture delivered at Claremont by Steve Roskams (University of York) 16th March 2013
Structured Deposition at Heslington East Roman Site, York
Steve Roskams, of the University of York, spoke to the RAS meeting at Claremont on 16th March 2013 about recent work undertaken on his “home turf” at Heslington East continuing pre –construction excavations on the expanding student campus. Since previous excavations there had been visited some of our members, including myself, September 2008 it was of particular interest.
He first summarised the relevant history of the site, the biggest outside of York, mentioning recently discovered prehistoric finds of antlers and jet; stone and flint implements; a Romano-British crouched burial along with evidence of a few round houses and field boundaries, preceding ditches, tracks and a (probable) large- 7x5m- rectangular tower, together with a Roman era building with hypocaust which, by the late 4th century, had become an industrial site.
A glacial moraine had caused the formation of north- south oriented paleo-channels which created springs along a 22m length of hillside. This water supply proved a fundamental incentive to livestock rearing and a cobbled area close to a pond provided cattle with easy access from prehistoric periods onwards. Excavations revealed scatters of post Roman pottery shards dating from the 3rd-4th centuries along with indications of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery.
Steve suggested that the accessing of subsurface water, “a step forward towards sedentism”, eventually led to the digging of wells in the Iron Age when they were generally unlined, while wattle, wicker or worked wood fences were created to channel water from the springs. However a late 4th century Roman well, 3m deep, and partially collapsed with robbed out stone, presenting the excavators with some challenges, proved to be of prime interest to Steve on this occasion.
Containing a carefully dressed oolitic limestone lining with a highly visible sandstone roof finial, symbolic of height (?) found c. 1m from the top, the well was found to have been back-filled with a variety of objects of probable ritual significance. Evidence suggested the immediate vicinity had been mossy rough ground, (an insect and rodent trap) from which a layer of moss placed at the well bottom may have served, along with natural silting, as a filter to (maybe to keep the upper water clean - author’s comment) or just moss forming on the damp walls, but was, more significantly, part of a highly stratified deposition plan.
Other items in ascending order were: a well made wooden bucket of ash and yew with iron hoops, still in a useful condition, but lacking a handle, probably to render it beyond use; ceramics including complete vessels and, less numerous, relatively large pieces, mostly in the lower fills, 38% of which were of calcite gritted Huntcliffe ware, 28% narrow mouthed grey ware, and 27% small handmade jars; animal bones of cow, horse and pig, in proportionally greater numbers compared to sheep and goat, plus articulated bones of butchered cattle and horse and two, roughly removed, sows’ mandibles.
It is not possible here to detail the relative proportions displayed for us in charts, of skeletons of young animals - deer, a dog and a calf, while a pole-axed adult cow and the antlers of a mature stag led to speculation of “selection by age” and therefore connected with fertility ritual.
The bones and pottery brought to mind similar deposits found in a well at Shiptonthorpe by the now Prof. Martin Millett and at Rothwell by Donald Haigh, besides similar “closure deposits” at Langton and Dalton Parlours. Dr. Peter Halkon later remarked on the inclusion of part of a beautifully worked and decorated chest lid/door excavated at a well at Hayton, also from the late 4th century. Steve mentioned that dog remains often featured in late Roman wells as Dalton Parlours, while small puppies were found in a well at Welton. This author also recalls the many dog burials close to the temple of Nodens, near Bristol, built at a site of several springs. (We were reminded that Roman Britain had long been renowned for breeding first class hunting dogs, highly prized among the elite). Young deer remains were also found according to Baldock, near London.
However there were differing regional practices such as in a late Roman well at Draper’S Gardens in London containing young deer remains but none at Prestigion where there were metal vessels. In Swan Street, Southwark, dogs and human skeletons featured. Thus
questions are posed: “Do we have here (in Heslington East) a well or a ritual shaft?” Maybe varying agricultural cycles require differing ritual habits according to their season, when it is normal to slaughter different species?
Thus ended a well received, thought-provoking presentation.
(With thanks to Steve Roskams for his editing)