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Unearthing a priceless prize
Buy this photo » Teams from the British Museum and Wessex Archaeology Pictures: James Douglas
STANDING in a muddy field on the edge of Chiseldon Peter Hyams peers into a shallow hole that he has just finished digging and studiously appraises what for most of us would appear to be the remnants of a rusty bucket or perhaps a crumpled paint pot.
But experience gained from endless hours of solitary Sundays tramping through rain-sodden acres of farmland in the vicinity of Swindon, unearthing discoloured coins, fragments of jewellery and on one memorable occasion a Saxon sword, tells him that that this is almost certainly not the case.
A faint but “deep” noise in his headphones, transmitted via an electric current into the coil of his White’s Eagle Spectrum metal detector, indicates that an object of potential interest is concealed a foot or so beneath the surface of the ploughed soil.
As he burrows down, flecks of green revealing the presence of copper or bronze, begin to appear in the earth; when he scrapes the mud from the rim of a long buried vessel he is convinced that he has stumbled upon something of importance.
What Peter does not realise, however, is just how important. An expert from the British Museum later describes the discovery as “gob-smackingly unique.”
Respected independent archaeologist John Winterburn asserts that it is “one of the most spectacular Iron Age finds ever made in Britain” – a sentiment echoed over again by the British Museum.
What he has revealed is the first of The Chiseldon Cauldrons – an unprecedented hoard of a dozen large vessels that are mysteriously buried, very likely amidst much pomp and ceremony more than 2,000 years ago.
Today, the heavily corroded cauldrons – used for feasting on important occasions by the Celtic tribes who occupy Britain during the period preceding the Roman Invasion – are preserved in clinical conditions at the British Museum.
They are painstakingly cleaned, conserved and analysed by a team of experts in an ongoing bid to discover exactly why they are buried, how they are made, and what sort of food or drink they once contained.
Skillfully and laboriously constructed from copper-alloy and iron by prehistoric craftsmen, some of them even bear elaborate patterns. The British Museum says: “Decoration on cauldrons is extremely rare, and this is a significant and exciting discovery.”
They are too fragile and important ever to be returned for display in Chiseldon or Swindon.
So the Chiseldon Local History Group – actively involved in the project ever since Peter’s resounding find – come up with a grand gesture that reflects the significance of the discovery.
They raise £2,000 to pay for the construction of a full-sized replica of one of the iron-handled cauldrons (see panel). Peter, 61, of Cheney Manor, Swindon, is on hand to film the replica’s meticulous reconstruction. “It’s wonderful,” he says of the resultant iron and copper vessel.
Watching specialist craftsman Hector Cole in action, he considers the time, care and skill that goes into creating the superbly-crafted cauldrons more than two millennia ago.
Making sheets of bronze-like copper alloy, hammering them into shape, creating the patterns, applying the domed rivets. All of that effort... and then hacking 5ft into the chalky earth and sticking them all into a great big hole!
Experts conjure the potential scenario on the windswept Marlborough Downs near modern-day Chiseldon around 100BC (about the time of Caesar’s birth.) This is an area already steeped in history. It is close to the Ridgeway pathway, by then used by travellers for around 3,000 years; it is also near the Iron Age fortresses of Liddington and Barbury.
Two ox heads are buried with the cauldrons, indicating a feast. Some feast though, if it involves the ritualistic burial of 12 finely wrought cauldrons.
Are the ancient Britons celebrating an important tribal alliance, a royal marriage, the death of a great warrior chief, a military victory, or perhaps sharing their feast with the gods on a particularly momentous occasion?
We will almost certainly never know.
Fast forward to the exact spot more than 2,000 years later. It is a murky, drizzly, grey November day. Peter Hyams, an electrician, is with fellow metal detector enthusiast Ken James. They arrive at a favourite field adjoining Chiseldon where the Romano-British have left coins, brooches and fragments of tile and pottery to be discovered many centuries later.
It is approximately 10am and Peter’s metal detector – an apparatus which recalls to the uninitiated a garden-strimmer – is within minutes busily indicating an iron/metal object a foot or so underground.
Peter, a member of the Wyvern Historical and Metal Detecting Society, makes a mental note of the location and presses on. But as the day gets colder and darker he is increasingly niggled by that first signal. Returning at around at 3pm, he digs down. “Eureka.”
Alerting local archaeologists via the internet – as is the practice – the first learned fellow turns up a couple of days later and speedily dismisses the discovery as “17th Century rubbish.”
But as snow begins to fall, Chiseldon-based archaeologist John Winterburn has joined him and together they uncover the remnants of three cauldrons.
Peter has fragments analysed at Oxford University where two magic words are uttered: “Iron Age.” Suddenly there is a buzz. Experts descend on the site in June 2005 for a “rescue excavation.”
After ten days they are thrilled to unearth a dozen cauldrons tightly packed on top of each other and sealed in a 5ft pit.
The precious artefacts are carefully removed in chunks of soil that are wrapped in plaster bandages and cling film.
The globular-shaped vessels vary in size from 16 and 28 inches in diameter, 24 and 32 inches wide and 14 inches deep. Jody Joy, Curator of Iron Age Collections at the British Museum – where one of the cauldrons goes on display – deems the find “unprecedented.”
She says that surprisingly little is known about Iron Age cauldrons. “We think they were used to boil meat and/or to serve alcoholic beverages such as beer or mead.
“They are substantial artefacts and quite rare so we think they were used for feasting.”
She says The Chiseldon Cauldrons are “nothing less than the largest group of Iron Age cauldrons ever discovered in Europe.”
Jody adds: “This is giving us a fantastic insight into Iron Age technology.”
Making a habit of digging up treasures
Metal detectorist Peter Hyam’s discovery of The Chiseldon Cauldrons is not his only significant find.
In 1999 he uncovers the grave of a Saxon warrior buried with full military honours at Brimble Hill, Wroughton.
The warrior died at the age of around 35 some 1,500 years ago. His armour marks him as a man of great importance.
In his right arm he cradles a sword while a leather-bound wooden shield has been placed over his lower body. Two spears are carefully laid across his chest.
Experts say the sword – which contains traces of its leather scabbard – is in unusually good condition.
The finds are displayed at Swindon Museum in Bath Road, Old Town.
Fabulous replioca of a forgotten time
Hector Cole, who reconstructs archaeological artefacts, has just completed a much anticipated replica of one of the Chiseldon Cauldrons at his workshop in Great Somerford near Chippenham.
The gleaming new vessel, with its chains and tripod, is being kept firmly under wraps until it is unveiled at Chiseldon Memorial Hall, coinciding with the ninth anniversary of the hoard’s discovery on a wintry November afternoon in 2004.
Sheila Passmore, of the Chiseldon history group, has seen the recreation that is fashioned approximately 2,100 years after the originals were believed to have been made.
“It’s magnificent,” she says. “It has been beautifully made. The bottom is iron, the top is copper.
“The detail is immaculate. Hector Cole has done a fantastic job.”
Mr Cole studies photographs of the originals and also inspects and measures the cauldrons at the British Museum before starting work.
The modern-day cauldron is now “hidden away at a safe location” until it is unveiled on November 16, after which it goes on display at the village museum.
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