A late Bronze Age Socketed Axehead from a Surrey Hillfort

Whilst the vast majority of metal objects recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (www.finds.org.uk) come from detectorists, every so often a more unusual method of discovery results in a find coming our way from people out enjoying the countryside. A good example is this socketed axehead (SUR-F51EA5) dating to the late Bronze Age (c 1100-800 BC), which was uncovered by a dog nosing around in rabbit burrows a short distance outside of the banks and ditches of Holmbury Hillfort in the southern part of central Surrey. The owner of the dog picked up the find and apparently kept it in a drawer for two years without realising its significance, before bringing it to the Surrey FLO for proper identification and recording in September 2019.

SUR-F51EA5: a late BA socketed axehead

The axehead itself is a well preserved example of its type, remaining complete aside from surface damage typical from the prolonged exposure of copper alloy surfaces to the acidic sandy soils of the area. The form is small and simple, with a short, narrow blade, a sub rectangular socket with moulded rim, single side loop and undecorated sides. There are pronounced casting ridges down each side as is typical for these mould-made objects. These types of axeheads were produced in large numbers during the Ewart Park phase of the later Bronze Age (c 900-700 BC) and continued to be used well into the subsequent beginnings of the Iron Age.

The context of discovery of this example is particularly significant from the perspective of the local archaeology. Whilst it ties in to a general picture of late Bronze Age activity on the greensand escarpment along the Wealden fringes of Surrey, the specific archaeological evidence from the nearby hillfort, most particularly the ceramic sequence, has previously suggested a late Iron Age origin for the site (Thompson, 1979; Bird and Bird, 1987), with no strong evidence for permanent settlement. Small residual quantities of late Bronze Age post Deverel Rimbury pottery, contemporary to this axehead, have also been recorded, which has provided tentative evidence for earlier origins for the site (Seager Thomas, 2010). Consequently, whilst this axehead in isolation can tell us very little in the way of specifics about the history of the site, when seen in the context of this previous evidence it becomes very important in strengthening arguments for the earlier origins of the hillfort. It quickly becomes apparent from this just how important it is to record the discovery of unusual stray finds like this to ensure that the information that they represent becomes preserved within a broader context of understanding.

The story of the discovery of this find has a happy ending. It has now been returned to the landowner, Shere Manor Estate, with the intention that it will be displayed either in a local museum or in a community space in the village. This type of outcome, where finds remain preserved and displayed within the communities and areas from which they originate is a very important one with regards to the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It is only made possible through the generous actions of finders and landowners and is becoming ever more vital in a time when museum acquisition budgets are cut to the bone and the public facility to retain items of archaeological heritage is constantly challenged by the activities of both commercialised metal detecting and a booming online antiquities trade.

Bird, J and Bird D.G. 1987, The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540, Surrey Archaeological Society

Seager Thomas, M, 2010, A re-contextualisation of the prehistoric pottery from the Surrey hillforts of Hascombe, Holmbury and Anstiebury, Surrey Archaeological Collections 95

Thompson, F.H, 1979,Three Surrey Hillforts: excavations at Anstiebury, Holbury and Hascombe, 1972-1977, Antiq J, 59. 

Potins and the Iron Age in Surrey

Surrey is a region which during the Iron Age (c800 BC – AD 43) sat on major fault lines of tribal identity, with powerful groups such as the Atrebates (Hampshire), Regni (Sussex) and Catuvellauni (north of the Thames) variously incorporating bits of the county area into their territory as their power waxed and waned. To the east, the Cantiaci / Cantii (after whom Kent and Canterbury are named) were the major group. This region was heavily influenced by continental cultures on the periphery of the early Roman world which resulted in the Cantii producing the first coins actually made in Britain, known as potins, between the mid 2nd to the mid 1st century BC.

A flat linear potin from Surrey, SUR-BB9339 © Surrey County Council

This word “potin” is of French origin and used to describe coins cast in clay moulds from a copper alloy with a high tin content. This would have made the coins shiny and silver-coloured when new – occasionally some examples turn up which retain this colouration (e.g. SUR-BB9339) – however by the time they get dug most now have a characteristic black patina from tin oxidation. They would have been cast in strips which were then cut into separate coins and as a result often retain characteristic cut edges from the runlets which joined them together (Mack, 1975: 3). The moulds themselves were made using “master” matrices of copper alloy which were cast with the design for one side of a coin in high relief and pressed into the clay. A rare example of one of these (albeit for a different type of continental style potin) has been found a few miles west of the Surrey border in Hampshire (SUR-08FD05).


The designs of the majority of potins found in England derive ultimately from coins produced in the Greek colonial Mediterranean city of Massalia (modern Marseilles) in southern Gaul in the late 4th century BC. These coins featured a head of Apollo on the obverse and a charging bull on the reverse. They were originally imported from the continent (e.g. SUR-1FB22D) and later locally copied in the mid 2nd century BC, in the form of what are known as “Thurrock” types, which adhere closely to the original design (e.g. SUR-7FF6E7). Later forms, known as “flat linear” types, greatly simplified this design into deep abstraction, ultimately reducing the head of Apollo to a circle, with a line for the neck and crescents for the eyes and the bull to a trapezoidal arrangement of lines (e.g. SUR-1DBC1E).


We actually don’t know what these coins were called by the people who made them, or what they were worth in fiscal terms, but they are generally only found in south east England, which probably reflects the limits of the political and economic influence of the Cantii themselves. Sitting very much within this sphere of influence, Surrey now has 69 examples of these coins recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database (www.finds.org.uk) and they comprise a distinctive component of the county’s Iron Age archaeological heritage. In fact, aside from the Cantiaci heartlands of Kent, the Thames estuary and East Anglia, Surrey has produced more of them than almost anywhere else in the country. They have been found in various places, typically in areas along the chalk dip slopes of the North Downs, where contemporary settlement activity is known to have been concentrated (Bird and Bird, 1987: 142).

Distribution of finds of potins on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database from Surrey.

It is clear that the role of coins in the Iron Age was quite not as we understand them today and it is likely that potins served a range of functions from monetary transaction (perhaps in quantity by weight), to use as political tribute, maintenance of social power structures and as votive objects with a religious function (Holman, 2016: 16). Archaeologically, they are known from hoards, as isolated finds and from settlement sites, usually as residual finds with no clear context. Occasionally however they turn up in securely stratified sequences which gives us a clue to their dating and sometimes they are found deposited at the base of pits as intentional acts of sacrifice, which perhaps gives us something of an insight into their role. This is seen at several sites in Kent (Holman, 2016: 10).


At Abinger in Surrey three coins were found associated with late Iron Age grain storage pits, at least two of which clearly seemed to be placed deposits; a fourth was also found incorporated within a cremation burial. These associations are important to both understand the role of the coins and the nature of the sites, offering scope for interpretations of behaviours surrounding food storage as well as mortuary ritual. With such evidence we can begin to envision the deposition of potins forming part of a range of practice involving various different aspects of life in the settlement.


As well as occupation sites, Surrey is distinctive for having a number of intriguing, rare and very important late Iron Age / early Romano British rural shrine sites ( Wanborough, Farley Heath and Titsey) where activities included the intentional deposition of huge numbers of coins in the early 1st century AD (Bird, 2004: 151). This makes the distribution of potins particularly interesting to study across the county, as in some cases they may represent an earlier manifestation of this type of depositional activity, a century or more before the Roman invasion and on different types of sites.


No regional synthesis of the specific economic use and social role of these coins in south east England has yet been attempted. Despite this, an increasing body of site-based evidence is becoming available which may one day allow us to place these coins within a more refined context of Iron Age culture, economy and belief. As a part of this process, data recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme will doubtless play a huge role in answering some of these questions.

References
Bird, D and Bird, J (Eds), 1987, The Archaeology of Surrey to 1540, Guildford: Surrey Archaeological Society
Bird, D, 2004, Roman Surrey, Stroud: Tempus
Holman, D. 2016, A New Classification System for the Flat Linear Potin Coinage, London: British Numinastic Journal
Mack, R.P, 1975, The Ancient Coinage of Britain (3rd Edition), London: Spink & Son

Surrey FLO weekend sessions, Autumn 2019

The schedule of weekend drop-in finds sessions (typically held from 11am until 1pm) in Surrey for the rest of 2019 is as follows:

Saturday September 14th – Guildford House Gallery, High St. Guildford.
Sunday September 15th – Surrey Arch Society Research Centre, Abinger (as part of their open day).
Saturday October 5th – Addlestone Community Centre, Addlestone.
Saturday October 12th – Guildford House Gallery, High St. Guildford.
Saturday October 19th – Staines Methodist Church, Staines-upon-Thames (as part of the Surrey Heritage Showcase).
Saturday November 9th – Guildford House Gallery, High St. Guildford.
Saturday November 30th – Surrey Heath Museum Camberley.
Saturday December 14th – Guildford House Gallery, High St. Guildford.

Please feel free to come along with anything you’d like identifying or recording!

A unique late Papal Bulla from Odiham, Hampshire.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme provides a unique avenue for documenting small finds which, although not associated with any archaeological context, can still yield important new information about local and national history purely on their own merits. One such find recently recorded by the Surrey FLO, is SUR-F847F3 – a papal bulla or lead document seal found near Odiham in north east Hampshire. This type of seal was used to authenticate papal documents, and was attached to them with silk or hemp cords; the obverse typically features the name of the pope and the reverse shows the heads of St Peter and St Paul.

The bulla from Odiham (SUR-F847F3). ©Surrey County Council / Portable Antiquities Scheme

The vast majority of these objects relate to medieval popes, however the obverse of this example reads PAVLVS // •PA•PA• // IIII, demonstrating that it was issued by Pope Paul IV (1555-1559). In its association with this pope it is absolutely unique on the PAS database as being the only post-dissolution bulla ever recorded. It is believed to represent the latest known example of this sort of object found anywhere in the country.
The significance of this bulla becomes particularly apparent when this date is considered against its historic context – the brief Catholic revival under Queen Mary and Philip II of Spain (1553-1558). This means that it can be interpreted against the background of the (temporary) resurgence of communications between Rome and the various Catholic entities in England, as the papacy attempted to re-assert itself in England under royal assent.


The findspot is not far from an important royal deer park and manorial site (Odiham Place), owned at this time by Chideock Paulet, a noted catholic and the son of the Marquis of Winchester. He was also at one point treasurer to the Bishop of Winchester who was himself based at the nearby palace at Farnham in Surrey and who controlled large estates in this part of the country. At this time the Bishop was one John White (1510–1560) a Roman Catholic who was promoted by Queen Mary to the see in 1556 and who was subsequently deprived of it in 1559 on the accession of the protestant Elizabeth I. He would therefore perhaps seem to be the most likely candidate for the intended recipient of the documents to which this object was attached.


Although the details of the decree secured by this object will never be established, the find helps illustrate the religious turmoil which dominated the late 1550s in England, as the country struggled with its spiritual identity both domestically and in relation to the ecclesiastical power structures in Europe and Rome. In view of its unique importance, the finder has very generously agreed to donate this object to Hampshire Cultural Trust. It is due for a more complete write up in the journal of Post Medieval Archaeology later in the year.

A Medieval Hawking Ring (Vervel) from Surrey

A silver medieval vervel from Surrey
A silver medieval vervel from Surrey. Image Copyright: Surrey County Council. Licence: CC-BY

A rare example of an inscribed silver medieval hawking ring or vervel has recently been recorded from Surrey. This little object (SUR-44916D) was tied to the legs of a hawk and used to connect the bird to a leash which tethered it to a perch. During the medieval and post medieval periods, falconry was a ubiquitous pursuit of the nobility and the exact species of hawk used by any individual was socially regulated and dependent on their rank. As a hawk was a highly expensive badge of status, this object had a doubly important function in both securing the valuable bird and identifying the owner.

What makes this example highly unusual is the lombardic script used in the inscribed lettering which suggests a 14th – 15th century date for the object. Most examples which are found and recorded by the PAS are much later and date to the 16th – 17th century.

The name inscribed on the vervel reads RAVEnEShOLmE, which may be a personal or place name – and most likely is both. A John de Ravenesholme, identified as the “king’s yeoman” of Edward III (1327-1377), is recorded as holding the manor of Pury in Bentley parish, a few miles across the border into Hampshire in 1344. This same individual and other members of his family also held estates in Northamptonshire as well as Lancashire in the latter half of the 14th century, including a messuage called Ravensholme in Downham, Lancashire, which may well be the origin of the name. Whilst speculative, this association makes sense in terms of the earliest conceivable date for the vervel.

The loss of this type of object would most likely have occurred accidentally whilst people were out in the countryside, far from a settlement, busy hawking and hunting. As a result it is not a type of find which would ever likely be made from a conventional archaeological excavation. The work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is vital to record such socially charged and significant little objects, which would be otherwise invisible to the archaeological and historical record.

A Bronze Age Copper Alloy Arrowhead from Surrey

One of the most important and lasting legacies of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is the way in which it has transformed our understanding of the very existence of a wide range of artefacts which were previously entirely or almost entirely unknown in Britain. A great example of this achievement is our knowledge of the distribution and use of a rare type of Bronze Age flat barbed and tanged arrowhead, made of copper alloy in apparent imitation of earlier and far more common flint examples. They are clearly functional objects in terms of their size, form and manufacture, but being made of what was at the time an expensive material they may well represent a significant display of social status through their ownership and use. One such example,  SUR-4655A8, has recently come to light in Surrey and is the first of this type of object to ever be recorded from the county.

A Bronze Age Arrowhead from Surrey.
Bronze Age copper alloy arrowhead. Copyright: Surrey County Council, License: CC-BY.

Although there are now more than twenty examples of these small finds on the database, prior to the start of the scheme there was really only one known in Britain – from the Penard Hoard, found in West Glamorgan in 1827. This particular example was long thought to be an exotic import from the continent where metal arrowheads of this very early date are more widely known. The work of the PAS has demonstrated that these arrowheads are actually a part of the British Bronze Age metalworking tradition, as they have now been recorded from many different parts of the country as isolated finds. For now however, the Penard example remains the only one from a dateable archaeological context and provides the best dating evidence (to the middle Bronze Age, circa 1275-1140 BC). As more examples come to light, perhaps from better contextualised hoards or sites, our understanding of these little objects in terms of when and how they were made and used, can only increase.

An Anglo-Saxon Spear from Surrey

One of the most interesting finds recorded from Surrey by the Portable Antiquities Scheme during summer 2018 was an Anglo-Saxon spearhead,  SUR-0EC561. This object was recovered by magnet fishing from the confluence of the Bourne or Hoe stream with the Abbey Stream and river Wey adjacent to Newark Priory, Pyrford (TQ0457).

Image of an iron spearhead from the Early Medieval Period.
Early Medieval iron spearhead. Copyright: Surrey County Council, License: CC-BY.

This spearhead has a lozenge-shaped cross section, with pronounced midrib and a characteristic split socket. According to a commonly used typological scheme for these objects produced by Swanton (1973) from studies of burial assemblages, aspects such as the profile and ratio of blade to socket length enable the spearhead to be attributed to category H2 (angular blade with concave curves to the angle) and dated to the latter half of the 6th century AD. It was heavily corroded by nearly fifteen centuries at the bottom of a river. It was also apparent that it had been intentionally bent to an angle of around 50° before deposition and would have been over 27cm in length when straight.

Spears had a great deal of meaning in early Anglo-Saxon society which was, in many ways, fundamentally a warrior culture. They were the most common weapon type of the 5th and 6th centuries, and are the most common type of weapon found intentionally deposited, like this example, in rivers. Two comparable examples of contemporary spearheads deposited in local rivers are known from within a kilometre or so of the find spot and many other examples are known from North Surrey and the Thames valley.

This find represents a rare and important material addition to our understanding of the pre-Christian cultural landscape in Surrey and the origins of the minster of Old Woking and the occupation activity underpinning the medieval site of Newark Priory. Following its recording by the PAS, the artefact was returned to the finder, who subsequently and very generously donated the spearhead to Guildford museum, where it now compliments the wider collection relating to Anglo-Saxon Surrey and the history of Newark Priory.

A rare find from the Great War in Surrey

The Portable Antiquities Scheme doesn’t often record items from the last century, except when they turn out to be something quite special, or have considerable historic interest. One such item from Surrey which was recorded recently, is a rare example of an object which tells a story of the patriotic fervour and intense social pressures experienced on the home front during the early days of World War One.

The Strachey Badge. Image Copyright: Surrey County Council. Licence: CC-BY

This find, SUR-07E25F, is a copper alloy badge found by a detectorist at Send, near Woking, of a type that was commissioned by John St Loe Strachey, High Sheriff of Surrey in 1914, to support and encourage local men who wanted to join up. The badge shows a rose surrounded by the legend SURREY 1914 and a paraphrased biblical quote on the theme of service and sacrifice taken from the book of Judges, verse 2: WHEN THE PEOPLE WILLINGLY / OFFERED THEMSELVES. The badge was designed by the artist Henry Strachey, brother of John St Loe Strachey, and reproduced by Messrs. Elkington, Silversmiths, of 22 Regent Street, London.

The function of this badge was publicised by Strachey in an article published in the Surrey Press and the Spectator Magazine on September 26th 1914. In the article he talked about the badge offering “proof of service proffered to the state” for those who tried to enlist in the early months of the war, but who were turned down on the grounds of poor health or for not making the recruitment grade in terms of height or physical fitness. The badge was intended to be worn by those individuals to mark their desire to serve and to encourage them to continue to train and to ultimately try to enlist again at a later date.

The need for such a badge becomes clear when the intense climate of social pressure placed upon those pilloried as “cowards” for not being in uniform is remembered. Against this background, this object represents a story of a well-meaning attempt by a local dignitary to protect local men from the “white feathers” and shame dealt out to those of enlistment age who remained behind in Surrey. It also tells the wider tale of the jingoism and enthusiasm for enlistment which gripped the nation in the autumn of 1914, before the horrors of the Western Front and the return of broken survivors from the trenches changed the tone of the war.

The finder has generously agreed to loan this very poignant find to the Surrey History Centre in Woking and it was presented to the current High Sheriff of Surrey at a heritage event on the centenary of the armistice. It will now be displayed alongside other local items related to the Great War in Surrey.