The Pin Lifting Challenge. Excavating Roman objects from a soil block
Everything has now been recorded, so the next step is to lift the pins! The decorative pins were once attached to an organic material, possibly leather, this has now gone, replaced by soil and once the soil has been removed there will be nothing holding the pins together. So the challenge is to lift and conserve the pins in such a way to preserve the original fish scale pattern and any dimensions of the group, which may help identify this mystery object in the future.
A bit of a challenge, so I decided to lift only small sections at a time, which does mean breaking up the largest surviving section unfortunately, but I should be able to reconstruct this later.
In the first image you can see that some of the pins are facing up and some facing down, indicating that the material the pins were once attached to was folded, this has perished leaving the pins in this position. So now it’s not just a mystery object it’s also a layered mystery object! Oh joy!
On the next image, outlined in white, is the first section to be tackled; I thought I’d start with the smallest and simplest first! The upper surface of the pins is faced up with Japanese tissue and adhesive. Once dry I excavate round and under the section then lift and turn it over.
Not as straight forward as I thought as something new appears, not just pins, but a disc headed stud. The x-ray also reveals the remains of a chain, plus a line of dome headed studs
On cleaning, the chain can clearly be seen attached to the stud and would have once been suspended from it, possibly linking up to another stud elsewhere on the armour. There are also enough dome headed studs running in a line to suggest they were part of a deliberate pattern. The remains of a tinned surface and therefore white metal finish survive on the upper surface of the stud and at the end of the pin there is a washer or rove identical to that on the plaque featured on the previous blog. So there is a good chance that they were once part of the same object, but again it’s too early to be sure.
The disc and pins are now cleaned and preserved, in the last photo they are laid out as they were in the ground. The dome headed pins were in direct contact with the disc suggesting they were on the same layer as the stud, which was facing downwards in the soil and attached to something folded under the layer with fish scale pins, which were facing up. Hope that makes sense!
Now to tackle the next section and I have a feeling that this may be full of surprises as well.
Unearthing more mystery objects from a soil block lifted during excavations at the Roman site of Caerleon
The second significant object in the same block as the pins (highlighted in the previous blog in this series) is an unusually shaped bronze sheet decorated with a stud depicting a human head. The head is wearing what appears to be a Phrygian cap. This type of soft, conical shaped hat with the top flopping forward was originally associated with people from the eastern part of the Roman Empire.
The head, cast in solid bronze, measures from ear to ear about 2cm. Soil and debris obscure the detail but I can see under this the features of a face peeking through, including large almond shaped eyes and curly hair poking out from under the cap. Looks a bit of a mischievous character to me!
The bronze sheet is an odd shape too; the edges are damaged and eroded in places. I’ve indicated with a black line the surviving edges I can be sure of. The damage on the other edges means unfortunately that they may not reflect the original dimensions of the object.
The sheet is not flat either, these bends and folds in the metal look like they were made in antiquity as the original patina is still smooth and undamaged around these areas. If the metal had been bent after the green patina was formed then this fragile surface would have cracked and flaked off revealing the metal below. So was this metal sheet originally wrapped round something more three dimensional? Difficult to say at this stage, it is also possible it got damaged in antiquity when flung on a pile of other armour and scrap, before it finally got buried. It’s amazing such delicate objects have survived at all!
When the sheet was lifted and turned over, four metal pins were found protruding out of the back. One, in the middle, belonged to the decorative stud; the pin had been punctured through the sheet to secure it. The three smaller pins are part of the sheet, created during the original casting by the looks of things.
Where the metal had been lifted there was a dark stain in the soil, probably the only evidence we will ever have that an organic material was once present. Among this there were fragments of a small doughnut shaped object. On further examination its original location could be identified as it was dislodged when the plate was lifted. The object lined up with the central stud and is in fact a washer or rove associated with securing items to leather. Two other tiny roves were found and all 3 have now been reattached to the pins at the back of the sheet. These now give us an indication of the thickness of the original backing material, which is about 3mm. The possible association with leather links this object to the pins lying near by. These were also applied to a flexible backing like leather; therefore there is a strong possibility that these artifacts were part of the same object, but more work has to be done to establish this.