IT is one of the most important artefacts ever unearthed in Swindon and now experts are hoping to unravel the secrets they believe are contained within a buckled 1,600 year-old ceremonial silver bowl.
Plans are also underway to recreate a lustrous replica of the precious Roman vessel as it looked when it was crafted to be displayed alongside the crushed original at Swindon Museum.
The 38-ribbed fluted liturgical banquet bowl (pictured below), painstakingly fashioned from high quality silver and boasting swan-neck beaded handles, would have been used in religious ceremonies during the British Romano period.
One of only four ever found in the UK, it was discovered by archaeologists at Groundwell Ridge, Abbey Meads, North Swindon in 1996 during excavations at a site containing the remains of a magnificent Roman complex.
The dig was undertaken by a team led by Swindon-based archaeologist Bryn Walters, now director of the Association for Roman Archaeology (ARA) which is behind the project to discover more about the bowl.
The scheme, which has the backing of Swindon council, is now awaiting the go-ahead from experts at Southampton University which has a scanning machine capable of conjuring a 3D image from the misshapen bowl.
It is believed the bowl was deliberately crushed before being buried during the 4th century AD – a time of immense upheaval when the Romans left Britain to fend for itself against invading hordes.
Mr Walters said: “This is an extraordinary artefact. I believe the bowl was folded like an envelope to conceal something inside. We know there is a sheet of metal, or possibly silver inside. It is really important for us to see whatever it is.
“Perhaps it contains writing. If so that could be absolutely invaluable and may reveal more about the history of the Romans in Swindon, which has always been greatly underplayed.
“Any writing on the sheet inside the bowl would be like hearing voices from the past telling us today what happened at this site all those centuries ago.”
Southampton University’s world-leading and much in-demand X-ray imaging technology enables experts to examine centuries-old buried objects in intricate detail.
Mr Walters hopes the scanner may be able to detect what – if anything – is written on the strip of metal inside.
The ARA has raised £1,300 through private subscription to pay for the X-ray which is likely to cost in excess of £2,000.
Following a scan the ARA’s next step would be to take the artefact to an archaeological conservation laboratory where experts would attempt to carefully unfold sections of the bowl – and hopefully remove the sheet inside for an eagerly awaited perusal.
Experts would then make a polyester mould of the bowl, from the rim to the bottom, enabling them – with the aid of the 3D image – to create an exact facsimile for display at Swindon Museum in Bath Road.
“That’s some way in the distance, but the first step is to get our bowl scanned,” said Mr Walters.
He added: “Imagine what a fantastic exhibit this would make for the people of Swindon – to see an exact replica of the bowl next to the original.
“I believe this entire project is a unique opportunity that will show this is one of the greatest treasures ever found in Swindon – a town whose history certainly didn’t begin with the arrival of the Great Western Railway in the 1840s.”
Interim curator of Swindon Museum, Sophie Cummings, said: “We very much support this project. The bowl is absolutely beautiful. It’s such an amazing piece. It has a beautiful lustrous gleam. “It’s one of the most important pieces in the museum. To know what it may contain inside is very exciting.”
She also felt that having a replica of the bowl as it originally looked – displayed next to the original – would be a great addition to the museum’s collection.
Ms Cummings said they had been in touch with Southampton University regarding the scan.
“It’s been a bit slow at their end but we’ll keep reminding them,” she said. Of three similar bowls found in the UK, one was discovered among the belongings of a Saxon chieftain at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk – widely regarded as the UK’s greatest ever archaeological hoard.
“The bowl was already an antique when it was buried at Sutton Hoo,” said Mr Walters.
Another is from the Mildenhall Treasure, a major hoard of highly decorated Roman silver also from Suffolk and now at the British Museum.
The third is displayed at the National Museum of Scotland, having been found among the country’s Trapain Law hoard of Roman silver.
n The bowl can be seen at Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, Bath Road, Old Town, SN1 4BA. Tel: 01793 466556. It is open Wednesday to Saturday from 11.00am to 3.00pm. Membership to the Association for Roman Archaeology is available to anyone interested in the archaeology of our Roman past. The Association’s head office is based in Swindon and can be contacted by telephone, 01793 534 008, or by looking up its web pages on the internet, http://www.associationromanarchaeology.org/ Membership is £17.50 a year and members gain free access to almost every Roman site in Britain, along with three colour magazines a year.
Tours and excursions in Britain and abroad are organised annually.
DIGGING INTO THE PAST
Roman remains were discovered at Groundwell Ridge in 1996 during the building of Swindon’s Northern Development Area.
Such was its importance that English Heritage paid £854,000 – with Swindon council adding £100,000 – to enable the latter to buy the 10-acre site.
Excavations have revealed coins and buildings including an elaborate bath and heating system dating back nearly 1,900 years.
English Heritage believes it served as a luxurious villa complex but the ARA is convinced it was a water sanctuary for healing and religious purposes.
Large areas lay unexcavated and the entire site remains covered up as public open space in Ash Brake, awaiting possible future digs.