The Hallaton Treasure: evidence of a new kind of shrine?

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In CA 233 we reported on the discovery at Hallaton, in Leicestershire, of a rare Roman cavalry parade helmet. It was just one of a number of items of treasure found at a pre-Roman shrine that continues to excite debate. Frank Hargrave, Project Officer at the Harborough Museum describes the other finds.

In 2000, Ken Wallace, a member of the Hallaton Fieldwork Group, discovered some Iron Age coins scattered across a field on a hilltop in southeast Leicestershire. After finding more than 200 coins, Ken realised their importance and reported the find, instigating what became one of the most important Iron Age excavations and community archaeology projects in the country (CA 188).

The resulting finds — originally known as the Southeast Leicestershire Treasure, now as the Hallaton Treasure — are on display in a new gallery at Harborough Museum. This exhibits around 600 of the 5,294 Iron Age coins discovered at the Hallaton shrine, as well as some enigmatic artefacts that include a decorative mount as well as a unique silver bowl and two ingots. The Roman cavalry parade helmet that was also found at the site is currently being conserved at the British Museum.

Displaying and interpreting the Treasure has been difficult, as so little is known with any assurance about the site. Vicki Score, the Project Manager from ULAS (University of Leicester Archaeological Services), believes that it is a hitherto unrecognised type of open-air shrine, without a building. She suggests that, now we know of its existence, it is likely that we will find more examples in the East Midlands, and possibly all over Britain.

An east-facing boundary ditch

Vicki suggests that worship was focussed around some natural feature — perhaps even the sacred groves of druidic legend — but no evidence of this survives. Instead, what has been found is evidence that the hilltop was enclosed by a ditch, and probably with a palisade. This stretched across the east-facing side of the hilltop: if the enclosure ditch originally encircled the hilltop, it was not visible from the geophysics. Vicki believes that, in any case, the east-facing slope is the important one, as there is evidence here for a processional way whose route takes into account older ritual features within the landscape. Its east-west orientation is also shared with many other Iron Age ritual sites.
The boundary ditch was the focus of the excavations and the majority of the coins were discovered in the entranceway, in 14 separate hoards. Ian Leins, curator of Iron Age coins at the British Museum, has dated these deposits to the AD 40s, and possibly into the AD 50s, a period concurrent with the Roman invasion. In fact, all of the activity on this site falls within a few decades of the conquest, which suggests that it was not unconnected with the Roman threat; a view further evidenced by the presence of the Roman helmet.

Multiple responses to the conquest
We do not know whether the Corieltavi — the East Midlands community in whose tribal lands this shrine was found — were friendly, antagonistic or ambivalent towards the Romans, or even if there was a unified response to the invasion. The coins buried at the shrine increase the number of known Corieltavi coins by 150 per cent, and offer an unrivalled opportunity to develop a type series. Ian Leins’s analysis has suggested what many people had long suspected, which is that coins struck by different rulers were in circulation at the same time, and that the East Midlands was not one monolithic kingdom but had several rulers all striking coins in their own names.

Recent work by ULAS on Iron Age Leicester (Ratae), has uncovered large-scale defensive ditches built during the years of the invasion. Lynden Cooper of ULAS believes that it is evidence that at least some of the Corieltavi were preparing to defend themselves. He supports Ian’s view that the East Midlands had a number of separate groups, who may or may not have seen themselves as belonging to a larger ‘Corieltavi tribe’ and whose reactions to the Romans may have been quite different.

The bones
Easily overlooked alongside the thousands of coins, the helmet, and the silver finds, is the astonishing bone assemblage. Not only was it large (6,901 fragments), but they are almost exclusively from pigs (97 per cent). On most domestic Iron Age sites, pig bones constitute a relatively minor part of any waste assemblages, often no more than 10 per cent of the bones.

Pork was a meat reserved for feasting, and Jen Browning of ULAS estimates that in total around 300 pigs were probably buried at the site. She has discovered that the majority of the animals were between seven and 12 months old, so it is clear that these pigs had been deliberately selected over a year younger than the age at which they would normally have been butchered. Many of the bones were also articulated, or anatomically attached to each other, which suggests that large joints of meat were buried without being eaten or pulled apart, perhaps as offerings.

The full article can be read in Current Archaeology 236.

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