Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Were there camels in Roman Britain? A brief note on the nature and context of the London camel remains

The following note looks briefly at the question of camels in Roman Britain. Recent work has demonstrated that both dromedaries (or Arabian camels) and Bactrian camels were indeed in use across much of Europe during the Roman era and into the early medieval period, and in this context an early twentieth-century record of Roman camel remains found at Greenwich Park, London, is of considerable interest.

Sites with Roman-era camel remains in Europe. Image: C. R. Green, based on a map of the Roman Empire in the early second century AD by Tataryn/Wikimedia Commons, with the empire depicted in red and its clients during the reign of Trajan in pink; click here for a larger version of this image. The distribution of finds of camel remains in Europe is based on Pigière & Henrotay 2012, Tomczyk 2016, Bartosiewicz & Dirjec 2001, Daróczi-Szabó et al 2014, Albarella et al 1993, Maenchen-Helfen 1973, Moreno-García et al 2007, Vuković-Bogdanović & Blažić 2014, and Vuković & Bogdanović 2013.

There is now a fairly substantial body of archaeological evidence showing that both dromedaries and Bactrian camels were present in modern Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and the Balkans between the first and the fifth centuries AD, with the majority of finds dating from the third century AD or after. Recent surveys by both Pigière & Henrotay and Tomczyk indicate that, where identification is possible, the evidence points to dromedaries or Arabian camels being dominant in the western half of Roman Europe whilst Bactrian camels were mainly found in the east, although the split was not absolute—for example, a near-complete skeleton of a Bactrian camel is known from a Roman urban context at Saintes, France, and dromedary remains have been recovered from Kompolt-Kistér, Hungary.

As to the contexts of these finds, camel remains have been recovered from a wide variety of sites, including military settlements, rural villas, civilian urban sites, and amphitheatres, most of which were on or close to major road routes, and it has consequently been argued that camels were being primarily used as pack animals/beasts of burden for both Roman military and civilian traffic in this era. In addition, it is possible that a few of the finds of camel remains may reflect curiosities in the collections of rich landowners, whilst a small number of sites show evidence for the butchery and consumption of camel meat, and the handful of amphitheatre finds have been sometimes considered suggestive of the use of camels in public shows, although this latter notion is open to question—certainly, an investigation into the fourth-century hybrid camel skeleton from the amphitheatre at Viminacium, Serbia, shows that this dates from after the amphitheatre had ceased to be used in that way.

A large classical fountain-spout in the form of a camel's head, preserved in the Hall of Animals in the Pio Clementino Museum, Vatican City (image: Colin/Wikimedia Commons).

With regard to the camel remains from Roman Britain, Pigière & Henrotay only offer the briefest of comments on their nature, noting simply their Roman date and that they were found in Greenwich Park, London, citing for this a 1987 publication by Shimon Applebaum. Unfortunately, this reference adds no further details in terms of what was actually found at Greenwich, but the Victoria County History of Kent (London, 1932) III, p. 116, is rather more helpful on both the finds and their context:
GREENWICH PARK.—Important remains of Roman occupation have been found in the north of Greenwich Park... They came to light accidentally in 1902, and were examined by Mr. Herbert Jones and others... [M]uch building material [was found]—roof and other tiles, hypocaust pilae, wall-plaster painted (it is said) in as many as twelve patterns, tesserae both rough red cubes of brick and finer specimens in other colours, a piece of green porphyry which may have belonged to a marble wall-lining, nails with burnt wood attached, worked and moulded blocks of oolite, parts of the drums of three diminutive columns, and some window glass. These structural remains were accompanied by numerous smaller movable objects. Several pieces of inscribed and sculptured stone provide a feature unusual on these sites...
     Besides these notable pieces, there came to light much pottery in many varieties, including one cup of Samian ware... There were also bronze fibulae, nail-cleaners, box hinges, iron nails of various sizes (2-6 in. long), key, knife, rings, hooks and the like; bone pins and a carved piece showing a woman holding a shield above her head; bottle glass, and lastly, oyster shells; and many bones of horse, sheep, oxen, deer, and teeth of dogs, rabbits and (it is stated) camels. Coins abounded to the number of about 300, and ranged from Claudius to Honorius...
     To complete the description of the site, we must add that the probable line of Watling Street crosses Greenwich Park, a little to the south...
Three particular points are worthy of note here. First, it seems clear that the camel remains in question came from a high-status site, a conclusion supported by later work here which has identified the Greenwich Park site as a probable Roman temple complex. None of the other findspots studied by Pigière & Henrotay are noted as temples, but given the wide variety of sites that have produced camel remains and their apparent use for both civilian and military transport, this isn't a major issue. Second, the site was located close to a major Roman road route and just to the south-east of the main city of Roman Britain, Londinium; needless to say, such a location fits in well with the other findspots of camel remains in Europe, many of which come from urban locales and almost all were found close by major Roman roads. Third and finally, the camel remains consisted of teeth, not bones, something confirmed by the catalogue of finds contained in A. D. Webster's contemporary book on Greenwich Park: Its History and Associations (London, 1902), p. 74. However, this is again not a major obstacle—the vast majority of finds of camel remains in Europe are, in fact, not of whole or even partial skeletons, but rather 'consist mainly of one isolated bone' (Pigière & Henrotay 2012, p. 1535). As such, the small quantity of the remains is in accord with the general find pattern in Europe, and other excavated sites have likewise only produced teeth, such as Ajdovščina, Solvenia (ancient Castra).

All told, the finds from Greenwich thus seem to fit into the general pattern of Roman-era finds of camel remains across Europe, and there consequently seems little reason not to interpret them in a similar manner, that is to say as evidence of the presence and use of Roman camels, probably primarily as pack animals/beasts of burden. Certainly, if the Romans were willing to transport elephants across the Channel, as they may well have done, then there seems little reason to think that they wouldn't have done the same with camels, particularly given that camels were apparently being fairly widely employed elsewhere in north-western Europe then.(1)

The Adoration of the Magi featuring three rather happy camels, from a fourth-century AD Roman sarcophagus at Rome (image: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons).


1     For the sake of interest, it perhaps worth noting here that the next solid evidence for the presence of camels in Britain comes from the early twelfth century, when written documentation is first encountered for their presence in royal menageries belonging to the kings of England, Scotland and Ireland. Whether there were any in Britain earlier than this is wholly unclear, although camels were certainly present in western Europe through the early medieval period, including in Germany and Poland in the tenth century, and William the Conqueror is said to have owned lions, leopards and camels.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts and trade in the Roman era

The following post offers a brief discussion of Saharan and trans-Saharan contacts in the Roman era along with a distribution map of Roman finds made beyond the southern boundary of the empire. Although such Saharan/trans-Saharan contacts have often been assumed to be a primarily medieval and later phenomenon, recent archaeological work in the Sahara and West Africa suggests that there was, in fact, a significant degree of interaction taking place from at least the first century AD through until the seventh century. This interaction is thought to have been primarily driven by a trans-Saharan trade in slaves that was largely organized and controlled by the ancient Garamantes of the Libyan Sahara.

Roman and early Byzantine finds from Saharan and sub-Saharan West Africa, after Wilson (2012), MacDonald (2011), Magnavita (2009 & 2013), and Fenn et al (2009); also shown  are a selection of Saharan trade routes that may well have functioned in antiquity after Wilson (2012), with a possible western addition from Boone et al (1990), and the location of the Garamantian capital of Garama. Click here for a larger version of this image; note, the black dotted line represents the approximate normal southern edge of the Roman Empire in the second century AD. Image drawn by C. R. Green using a public domain basemap from NASA/Wikimedia Commons.

Undoubtedly the most significant archaeological evidence for Roman interaction with the regions to their south comes from the Libyan Sahara, in particular the Wadi al-Ajal (Fazzan) area once occupied by the Garamantes, around 1,000 kilometres south of Tripoli. Although the Garamantes are referred to by a number of classical authors from Herodotus onwards, it is only in recent years that the scale and significance of both the Garamantian civilisation and Roman trade and contacts with them has been recognized. In particular, research by the Fazzan Project and the Desert Migrations Project has demonstrated that the Garamantes made use of elaborate underground irrigation systems known as foggaras in the Fazzan area of Libya in order to create a prosperous oasis civilisation in the Sahara desert, with several small planned towns and a capital, Garama (modern Germa/Jarma).

At its height, Garama was home to around 4,000 people, with a further 6,000 living within 5 km in surrounding satellite villages and many more—perhaps up to 100,000 in total—living across the Garamantian territory as a whole, and the archaeological evidence accumulated over the last generation or so from this area indicates that there were, in fact, significant Roman influences on both Garamantian architecture and culture, despite its situation so far to the south of the Roman border. So, for example, monumental public buildings and the grander houses of the Garamantes from the first century AD were built using ashlar stonework, rather than mudbrick, with colonnaded courtyards, Mediterranean-type wine presses, and even hypocaust fragments, marble veneers and hydraulic cement indicative of a Roman-style bath-house all being in evidence. Likewise, significant quantities of Roman imports have been recovered from over 200 sites in the Wadi al-Ajal and southern Fazzan, including Roman finewares such as African Red Slip Ware; amphorae that once contained wine, olive oil and fish products; and lamps, jewellery and glassware. As Andrew Wilson has emphasised in an important survey of the evidence,
The apparent ubiquity of imported pottery (finewares and transport amphorae) suggests that imports from the Roman world were not simply restricted to an elite few, but were fairly widely available in Garamantian society, both in the Wadi al-Ajal and the Murzuq depression.
The peak of this exceptional Roman contact and trade with the Saharan Garamantes, suggested to have required a caravan trade 'numbering in the hundreds of camel loads per year', appears to have come in the late first to early fourth centuries AD, but Late Roman and early Byzantine imports continued to arrive in this region through into the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries, albeit in lesser quantities. This relative decline in trading across Late Antiquity is thought to have been mirrored by the failure of the underground irrigation systems that supported the Garamantes' civilisation and its transit trade (due to the water table that the foggaras tapped falling below an economically exploitable level), a process that may well have been completed by the time of the first Arab incursions into the region in the mid-seventh century and which arguably led to the recorded political instability in the northern Sahara and along the Roman frontiers during Late Antiquity.

Kite photograph of the archaeological remains at Germa, Libya, capital of the Garamantes; click for a larger version of this image. The building in the bottom half of the image had stone footings and was excavated in the 1960s; it was fronted by a broad set of steps and incorporated columns in its facade. (Image © Toby Savage, used by kind permission). 

Beyond the probable territory of the Garamantes there have been further finds of Roman material, although the quantities involved are much smaller than those encountered in the Fazzan region of Libya. Within the Saharan desert, there is a scattering of Roman material to the west and south-west of the Garamantes, which have been recently mapped and briefly discussed by Andrew WilsonKevin McDonald and Katia Schörle. For example, a Roman oil lamp, a glass goblet and the imprint of a coin of Constantine on gold leaf were found in the fourth-/fifth-century 'Tomb of Tin Hinan' (Abalessa, Algeria) in the Central Sahara, and a painted Latin inscription and coins have been found in the same area of southern Algeria at Ti-m-Missaou, whilst sporadic Roman finds from sites such as Hassi el-Hadjar and Fort Miribel further north in the Algerian Sahara have been interpreted by Wilson as reflecting the development of a small-scale western route through the desert by around the third century AD.

In addition to these central and northern Sahara finds, a small number of items of Roman manufacture or origin are also known from the southern shore of the Sahara and the semi-arid grasslands of the Sahel. From the far west, in southern Mauritania, there are a handful of coins dating from the first century BC to the third century AD, including two of Severus Alexander from Nouakchott and Tamkarkart. Perhaps more significant, however, are a number of fascinating finds from sites in Burkina Faso and Mali. As was noted in a previous post, a fourth- to seventh-century cemetery site at Kissi, Burkina Faso has produced cowrie shells from the Red Sea or further afield, carnelian and glass beads imported from both Egypt/the Levant and the Sasanian Middle East, and copper-alloy items made from metal that was imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain, probably via Carthage. Likewise, there have been finds of amphorae rims which seem to be imitative of North African amphorae of Late Roman/early Byzantine date from three sites in Mali, to the west of Kissi, one from a context dated c. 450–600 AD. Other arguably relevant items include a number of early beads from Djenné-Jeno, Mali; metallurgical debris and ingots from Marandet, Niger, which match with some of the imported metal found at Kissi; and a second-century AD Janus statue from Roman North Africa found at Zangon Dan Makéri, southern Niger.

Brass anklets found in a fifth- to seventh-century AD grave at Kissi, Burkina Faso (West Africa), made with metal probably imported from the Eastern Mediterranean and Britain via Carthage; see further Fenn et al, 2010. (Image: B. Voss/Afriques, CC).

Turning to the question of what all this means, both David Mattingley and Andrew Wilson have argued that the sheer quantity of available evidence indicates that there must have been a very substantial degree of Saharan and trans-Saharan trade taking place in antiquity. This was probably primarily mediated via the Garamantes of Fazzan, given that the vast majority of Roman exports were concentrated in the hands of—and consumed by—the Saharan inhabitants of that region, with only a very small proportion of this rich array of Mediterranean goods being subsequently traded on into sub-Saharan West Africa, and Wilson thus suggests that we are probably dealing with a network of interlocking sub-systems of short-, medium- and long-distance exchange in and across the Sahara rather than a single trans-Saharan trade route. As to just what was being traded northwards and southwards via these networks, natron, cotton, and gemstones were probably minor components in the Saharan trade with the Roman Empire, but these and other local Garamantian products are almost certainly insufficient to explain the substantial quantity and ubiquity of Roman imports now known from the Libyan Sahara. As such, it is generally thought likely that the primary commodity exchanged for Mediterranean products by the Garamantes originated further south and was obtained by them either by trade in return for Saharan salt, alum and perhaps grain, or by force of arms (something hinted at by our textual references to the Garamantes raiding their southern neighbours)—in either case, the primary commodity in question is believed to be enslaved people.

As Wilson notes, such a trans-Saharan trade in enslaved people certainly operated in the medieval and early modern eras, and our available classical textual sources do indeed imply that the Garamantians were engaged in slave-raiding to their south. Needless to say, his consequent argument that the Garamantes were controlling an earlier form of the trans-Saharan slave-trade operating at a similar or greater scale to that of the medieval and early modern periods (c. 5,000–10,000 slaves per year, across all routes) not only makes sense of the otherwise inexplicable and exceptional concentration of Roman imports in the Libyan Sahara, but moreover explains where the necessarily massive workforce required to dig and maintain the hundreds of kilometres of underground foggara irrigation channels that supported the Garamantes' oasis culture originated too. It has also been argued that the evidence for the presence of slaves of 'sub-Saharan' African ancestry in the Mediterranean world, as most recently surveyed by Elizabeth Fentress and Kyle Harper, potentially supports the existence of such a Garamantian-controlled trade—for example, Fentress notes that there are an increasing number of images showing African subjects in servile positions over classical antiquity, most especially involving children, which she associates with the Garamantes, and a third-century AD inscription from Hadrumentum (modern-day Sousse, Tunisia) does, in fact, directly refer to a black slave as faex Garamantarum, the 'dregs of the Garamantes'. In this light, it is perhaps additionally worth pointing out that there is physical evidence for the likely presence of people of 'sub-Saharan' African ancestry (albeit of varying statuses) in both the Garamantian kingdom and the Roman Empire beyond too. For example, Mattingley notes that a skeletal analysis of Garamantian graves in the Fazzan area of Libya indicates that the people buried there included a significant proportion who seem to be of 'sub-Saharan' ancestry, with one woman recently excavated at Taqallit being furthermore found buried with a sub-Saharan-style lip plug. Likewise, recent work at Roman York, London and Leicester has suggested that a notable proportion of the people interred in the second- to early fifth-century AD urban cemeteries there—respectively c. 11%, 24% and 6% of the total examined—are likely of 'sub-Saharan' African descent, as is the famous third-century AD 'Beachy Head Lady' from East Sussex, although it does also need to be observed that there is no evidence that any of these people were themselves enslaved or of Garamantian origin and a number are, in fact, thought to have been of probably high social status and/or born in Britain.(1)

In sum, the available evidence seems to point to a substantial degree of Saharan/trans-Saharan contact and trade in the Roman era, potentially equal to or even greater than the level seen in the medieval and early modern periods, given the quantity and ubiquity of Roman imports now known from the Libyan Sahara. This trade appears to have been primarily mediated via the Garamantes, who had established a prosperous desert oasis civilisation in the Fazzan area around 1,000 kilometres to the south of Tripoli. The peak in this trade came between the first and early fourth centuries AD, although it continued into the sixth and seventh centuries, and it seems probable that the Garamantes were, in the main, exchanging Roman goods and luxuries for enslaved people obtained to their south, either through trading or by raiding, although other goods may well have played a minor role too. Relatively few Roman exports made it across the Sahara into the Sahel, suggesting that unlike in later eras trading was not directly trans-Saharan but conducted through a network of interlocking trading sub-systems.

Unloading camels in Egypt, from the Late Antique (sixth-century?) 'Ashburnham Pentateuch', BnF NAL 2334, f. 21r. (Image: BnF, Public Domain).


1.     Note, the higher proportion at London may reflect the fact that only 17 skeletons were subjected to ancestry analysis, compared to 83 at Leicester and 85 at York. For details of the cemeteries at York, London and Leicester, see S. Leach et al, 'Migration and diversity in Roman Britain: a multidisciplinary approach to the identification of immigrants in Roman York, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 140 (2009), 546–61, online at; R. C. Redfern et al, 'Going south of the river: a multidisciplinary analysis of ancestry, mobility and diet in a population from Roman Southwark, London', Journal of Archaeological Science, 74 (October 2016), 11–22, online at; and M. Morris, 'Between road and river: investigating a Roman cemetery in Leicester', Current Archaeology, 319 (2016), online at, & 'Leicester's Roman skeletons have "African links"', BBC News, 2 December 2016, online at

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Missing Lincs? Some lost islands along the Lincolnshire coast

The following post offers a quick survey of some of the lost islands off the medieval and earlier Lincolnshire coast. As has been discussed in a number of previous posts, the coastline of Lincolnshire has changed considerably in both the historic and prehistoric eras, and part of this change has involved the creation and subsequent loss of a number of coastal islands to both the sea and the land.

The coastline of Lincolnshire in the thirteenth century, drawn by C. R. Green after S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), with slight modifications. This map includes one depiction of the possible number and extent of both the offshore barrier islands that are often thought to have protected the coast of Lincolnshire through until the thirteenth century and the calmer, lagoonal conditions that they are suggested to have created to their west, protecting the Lincolnshire coast from the full erosive force of the North Sea.

The offshore barrier islands

The melting of the ice-sheets after the last glaciation saw the North Sea basin—a landscape now usually termed Doggerlandgradually, and occasionally not-so-gradually, inundated by the rising tide. Over the course of several thousand years, the steadily advancing coastline moved towards that of modern-day Lincolnshire until it reached something close to it in around 6000 BC (approximately the same time that the glacial-era land-bridge between Britain and the Continent was finally severed). For the Lincolnshire coast, one major effect of this was the drowning of the Mesolithic forests that once covered the region—the remains of the submerged forest are still visible along the coast at very low tides and its inundation has been dated to 6174–5961 cal BC at Theddlethorpe, for example. Even more significantly from the present perspective, the marine flooding also created offshore islands from the slightly higher ground that once lay to the east and north of the modern Lincolnshire and Norfolk coastlines (probably originally part of a glacial moraine left by the retreating ice-sheets on what was then the land surface). These islands extended south-eastwards from Spurn Point and are believed to have shielded the Lincolnshire seaboard from the full ferocity of the storms and tides of the North Sea, creating a sheltered tidal lagoon between themselves and the main coastline that was characterised in part by saltmarsh, wide sand and mud flats, and tidal creeks and estuaries.(1) As was discussed in a previous post, this protection appears to have finally failed during the 1200s when the offshore islands were finally destroyed by an unprecedented series of storms and floods in that century. The debris that resulted from their destruction is usually thought to have been cast up along the foreshore of the Lincolnshire Outmarsh as broad 'storm beaches' and sand dunes, as at North Somercotes.

The Lincolnshire Marshes in the pre-Viking period (drawn by C. R. Green, contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2014). Louth is marked on the map to aid with location. Light blue represents freshwater wetlands and saltmarsh, whilst dark blue is used for the sea and main creeks/rivers in this region; note, the extensive areas of sand, silts and channels shown on the previous map are not depicted here but would have been present. Key sources of information used in its creation include the British Geological Survey's maps of this region; D. N. Robinson's map of Lincolnshire's 'Saxon Shoreline' from The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981); H. Fenwick, The Lincolnshire Marsh: Landscape Evolution, Settlement Development and the Salt Industry (PhD Thesis, University of Hull, 2007); N. G. Berridge and J. Pattison, Geology of the Country Around Grimsby and Patrington (London, 1994); and the 1628 (Mercator) and 1645 (Blaeu) maps of Lincolnshire.

The geology of Stain Hill and the surrounding area, set against a present-day streetmap, showing the island of Stain Hill surrounded by marine alluvium; click image to view a larger version. Yellow represents marine alluvium; green Devensian glacial till, and purple Devensian glaciofluvial deposits. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2014.

Stain Hill and other 'islands' in the pre-Viking coastal zone

The post-glacial marine inundation did not simply cease when it reached the area of the modern coastline of eastern Lincolnshire in around 6000 BC, but rather continued to press inland for millennia to come. The Mesolithic land surface that it encountered was comprised of a thick undulating layer of glacial till that had been deposited as the ice sheets retreated northwards at the end of the last 'Ice Age', around 15,000 years ago. This glacial till still forms the surface of the Middle Marsh of Lincolnshire, between the Wolds and the present-day flat coastal plain, but it is buried by marine deposits up to 17 metres or so thick on the coastal Outmarsh. As this undulating landscape underneath the present-day flat Outmarsh was gradually flooded by the sea, some former high points and minor hills were eventually surrounded and became 'islands' and peninsulas of dry land in this new coastal zone. Many of these were subsequently drowned in turn by the rising tide, but some were sufficiently elevated to have remained dry right through until the maximum extent of the inland penetration of the sea was reached in around the fourth- to sixth-centuries AD, when land up to 4.22 to 4.52m above present-day sea-level was flooded in southern Lincolnshire and Romano-British sites on the coastal marshes of the eastern Lincolnshire were buried under two to three metres of marine silt.

One of these coastal zone 'islands' surrounded by the upper levels of the marine silts was Stain Hill near Mablethorpe (depicted on the British Geological Society map included above). This small island of glacial till and gravel rises from the surrounding marine alluvium to reach a maximum height of 9m above sea-level and has been the site of a number of interesting finds, not least a large group of Late Roman coins and a locally notable grouping of Anglo-Saxon material that is perhaps indicative of the presence of some sort of significant settlement or estate centre located on this elevated point in the coastal marshes. Further south are found other small islands of higher glacial till standing above the marine alluvium of the flat Outmarsh, which can probably be identified as the original locations for Sutton-in-the-Marsh/Sutton-on-Sea (given that this is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning the 'southern farm' or similar, perhaps named in relation to the possible central place at Stain Hill and part of its estate?) and Hannah (another Anglo-Saxon name which involves Old English ēg, 'island', plus hana, here either 'a cock, rooster' or a related personal name).

To the east of Alford there is another, much larger island of glacial till surrounded by the marine deposits of the Outmarsh according to the British Geological Survey, now occupied by the villages of Thurlby, Mumby, Anderby, Huttoft and Cumberworth. Once again there is evidence for Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon-era activity here, not only from the names Huttoft and Cumberworth (which are Old English in origin, with the first element of the latter being potentially OE Cumbre, 'the Britons, Welsh'), but also from metal-detected finds and archaeological excavations too. Thus chance finds from Cumberworth parish include part of a Late Roman crossbow brooch, indicative of the presence of the Late Roman military in the very late fourth or early fifth centuries; a Late Roman clipped silver siliqua of Arcadius, struck at Milan in c. 395–402; and an Anglo-Saxon silver coin of c. 680–710. At the same time, excavations at St Helen's Church in the village of Cumberworth itself have seen the recovery of 26 burials from a mid- to late Anglo-Saxon cemetery that was in turn overlain by a timber church that was probably demolished by the end of the tenth century. Finally, to the south-east of this large island were a scattering of smaller dry glacial till islands in the coastal marshes heading out towards the open sea, including one now occupied by the village of Hogsthorpe. Again, these seem to have seen activity in the Anglo-Saxon period, with finds of metalwork and even high-status gold pieces.

The former islands east of Alford; click here for a larger version of this image. The green and purple colours represent glacial deposits standing above the surrounding marine alluvium, coloured yellow. The main former island is presently home to the villages of Thurlby, Mumby, Anderby, Huttoft and Cumberworth, with a scatter of lesser islands in the old coastal marshes (that is, former high points in the underlying post-glacial landscape that were never inundated by the sea) then strung out eastwards towards the open sea. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2017.

An Early Anglo-Saxon gold disc pendant of the  seventh-century, decorated with applied filigree beading. Found on an island in the coastal marsh in the 'Skegness area' of Lincolnshire (image: PAS).

A 1541 map of the Humber estuary, which seems to show dry islands around Spurn Head and in the middle of the Humber; click here for a larger, zoomable version of this map (image: British Library). It seems that the islands depicted are intended to be read as dry islands, rather than low-water sand banks and other features; certainly, this is the impression that their colouration gives, which is that of the land rather than the sand (a large area of sand is shown and labelled on the southern bank of the Humber, opposite Spurn Head). Moreover, if this map were a purely low water map showing sand banks and the like, then we would expect it to show considerably more features in the Humber estuary than it does—a comparison of this map with the only slightly later 1595 Cecil map supports this contention, as this is a low water map and shows the Humber estuary full of such features. 

Ravenserodd, Burcom, the Bull, and Sunk Island: former islands at the mouth of the Humber

Looking northwards to the mouth of the Humber, a number of islands are recorded, some more ephemeral than the others. Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, of these is the medieval pirate island of Ravenserodd, which thirteenth-century witnesses describe being thrown up by the waves in the mid-thirteenth century somewhere in the vicinity of Spurn Point:
By the casting up of the sea, a certain small island was born, which is called Ravenserodd, which is distant from the town of Grimsby by the space of one tide. And afterwards fishers dried their nets there, and men little by little first began to dwell and stay there, and afterwards ships laden with divers kinds of merchandise began to unload and sell there...
By 1251, a charter for a market and a fair at Ravenserodd had been obtained, and by 1290 the town and port of Ravenserodd had begun to seriously threaten the trade of nearby Grimsby, with contemporary Grimsby folk declaring it a pirate island at the mouth of Humber, preying on passing shipping. Indeed, the demise of this town (which received its borough charter in 1299) during the following century was widely attributed to its evil character—as one fourteenth-century chronicler put it, 'by its wicked works and piracies, it provoked the wrath of God against its self beyond measure' and was consequently swallowed by the sea. This reclamation of the island and town of Ravenserodd by the waves seems to have begun in the 1330s, with over 200 buildings and properties lost by the mid-1340s, and by 1362 the once-prosperous town was 'destroyed to its foundations' and lay derelict, with its exact former location nowadays being uncertain.

The 1595 Cecil map of the Humber and the east coast of Yorkshire, showing all the sand banks and 'dry sands' then within the estuary; 'The Bull' is described as a 'dry sand' on this map and Burcom appears simply as a sand bank. Click here for a larger version of this section of the image or here for a zoomable version of the entire map (image: British Library).

Another, less dramatic case is that of Burcom, which now exists as a sand bank close to the south shore of the Humber near Grimsby. The name itself may be old and has been thought likely to reflect OE *burg-cyme or *burg-cuma, meaning either 'arrival at the town' or 'arriver at the town''—the latter involving the personification of the sand or island—in reference to its close proximity to the medieval borough (burgh) of Grimsby. Its exact status is open to some question, as whilst it is presently a sand bank and is described as such on the 1595 Cecil map of the Humber, on some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century maps and charts it seems to be shown as a dry sand or even an island, suggesting that its character may well have fluctuated over the centuries.

Similarly worthy of note is 'The Bull' or Bull Sand, a sand bank in the middle of the Humber mouth. This is shown as an island and labelled on the 1541 map of the Humber included above and is described as a 'dry sand' on the 1595 map, but it conversely isn't plotted on those nineteenth-century maps that show Burcom as an island or dry sand and the Bull isn't shown as a dry sand in 1707 either; it is currently the site of Bull Sand Fort, a four storey steel and concrete fortification originally armed with four 6-inch guns and built 1915–1919. Finally, mention ought to be made of Sunk Island, a parish on the north bank of the Humber. This initially developed as another dry sandbank in the middle of the estuary before it was embanked and reclaimed from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, becoming first an island before the channel between it and the mainland silted up in the eighteenth century and was also subsequently reclaimed. Sunk Island became a parish in 1831 and further reclamations extended the land here through until 1970.

Samuel Thornton's 1702-1707 chart of the Humber, showing Sunk Island when it was still an island and Burcom as what appears to be a partially dry sand, or nearly so; conversely, Bull Sand appears to have ceased to be a dry sand by this point. Click here for a larger version of this chart (image: New York Public Library).

An Ottoman Turkish map of the Humber, dated 1803/04, showing Sunk Island joined to the north bank and what seems to be Burcom shown as a semi-island. Click here for a larger version of this map (image: Library of Congress).

Map of the Humber in Élisée Reclus's Universal Geography IV: The British Isles (London, 1876), p. 235. This shows Burcom as an island in the Humber to the north of Grimsby and Sunk Island attached to the north bank.  Click here for a larger version of this map (image: Internet Archive).

Marshchapel, Conisholme and Somercotes: salt making and sand islands on the north-eastern Lincolnshire coast

The final set of lost islands are located in north-eastern Lincolnshire, in the Outmarsh around Marshchapel and Somercotes, and perhaps the most recent and interesting of these are the saltern mounds of this area. By the tenth century AD, the edge of the coastal zone had clearly moved eastwards from its earlier inland maximum to somewhere in the vicinity of Marshchapel, given that a Late Saxon saltern has been excavated a little to the south-west of the church that was processing sea-water brought to the site by an artificial channel. Over the medieval period, salt making continued in this area and gradually moved eastwards, as saltern mounds were created from the waste products of the process and the land in between them was reclaimed, pushing the coastline and its salt-making industry eastwards. These saltern mounds, some 6m high and 20m across, initially acted as dry islands in the coastal marshes, and as each generation of mounds were reclaimed they became part of an odd, hilly landscape on the landward edge of the coastal zone, although over time the majority have been reduced by ploughing and remain visible only from the air. The industry here was still in operation in 1595, when William Haiwarde's drew a detailed map of Fulstow and Marshchapel, reproduced below, and described the eastwards movement of the mounds as follows:
The round groundes at the Easte end of Marshchappell are called mavres and are firste framed by layinge together of great quantities of moulde for the making of Salte. When the mavres grow greate the Salt makers remove more easte and come nearer to the Sea and then the former mavres become in some fewe years good pasture groundes. Those that have the Cottages nowe upon them are at the presente in use for salt.
Extract from  William Haiwarde's 1595 map of Marshchapel, showing the saltern mounds still operational in the east at that time and being gradually reclaimed as one moved further from the sea; click here for a larger version of this map.

Lidar map of the same area of Marshchapel, showing the surviving saltern mounds, which matches up remarkably well with the 1595 mapping of Haiwarde. Click here for a larger version of this picture (image: Lidar data © Environment Agency, provided under Open Government Licence; rendering by lab, CC BY 4.0).

Looking south of the Marshchapel area, several more 'islands' can be noted. The first of these relates to the village of Conisholme, to the south-east of Grainthorpe. The name itself makes reference to its origins as an island in the Late Saxon coastal marshes, reflecting Scandinavian kunung + holmr, 'the king's island', and it lies between two branches of the River Lud (the northern outfall being the medieval port of 'Swine' and the southern one being 'Somercotes Haven'). There was clearly some sort of significant settlement activity at Conisholme by the late tenth or early eleventh century, as the head of an Anglo-Scandinavian standing cross of this date depicting Christ in low relief has been found in the churchyard here. Interestingly, Conisholme is still shown as located on a large island between the river outfalls on the Saxton map of 1576 and this situation is made even clearer on the John Speed map of 1611/12 and especially John Cowley's map of c. 1743–5, reproduced below. Both of the latter maps actually show two islands between the two outfalls of the Lud, the larger of which is Conisholme and the smaller, seaward island is probably the area of thirteenth-century storm beach and associated medieval to early modern saltern mounds visible on Lidar and geological maps of the area.

The Outmarsh 'island' of Conisholme on Christopher Saxton's 1576 map of Lincolnshire, showing a large 'island' of land between the northern and southern outfalls of the River Lud (image: British Library).

John Cowley's eighteenth-century map of Lincolnshire, dating from c. 1743–5,  showing a significant estuary for the Lud with two islands in it; the larger of the two is Conisholme and the smaller is probably a raised storm beach with salterns on it, with this still being partly visible on Lidar. 

Finally, there is an intriguing ancient sand island in this area running from North Somercotes to Saltfleet. As was discussed in a previous post, the land in this part of Lincolnshire began to be inundated by the sea from c. 6000 BC, and whereas the flooded landscape of glacial till further south had hills and larger islands of higher ground that remained above high tide right through into the post-Roman era, this was not the case here. Instead, the Mesolithic land surface in this part of Lincolnshire appears to have been completely flooded by c. 3000 BC, aside from one small short-lived island of glacial till at Grainthorpe (which was itself flooded during the following millennium). However, two persistent sand bodies did form here which were of some significance. The most important of these ran from Saltfleet to North Somercotes and seems to have formed during the original flooding of the region, as its base lies directly on the Mesolithic land surface. By c. 3000 BC it would appear to have been entirely surrounded by coastal marshes and the sea, forming an sandy island in the coastal zone that continued to build up and persist into the Anglo-Saxon period. By the medieval period, the areas to the west of this 'island' had largely ceased to be coastal marshes and the ancient sand body was itself subsequently covered by medieval storm beach deposits, thought to be made up of the remains of the offshore coastal barrier islands that were destroyed in the thirteenth century (see further above).

The coastline of north-eastern Lincolnshire and south-eastern Holderness at the start of the first century AD, showing the ancient, persistent sand body between North Somecotes and  Saltfleet and another stretching down from Cleethorpes to the Marshchapel area. The Somercotes body is thought to have remained in place through the Late Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras as a sand 'island' in the coastal zone before being largely buried under storm beaches in the medieval period; the Cleethorpes to Marshchapel sand body looks to have been largely swamped by the Late/post-Roman marine transgression, which covered it over with a thin layer of marine silt (around a metre thick at North Cotes and rather less than this at Marshchapel), to judge from borehole records, with only a few sections of the former sand bank probably being left exposed to the east of Marshchapel (image drawn by C. R. Green, after a map in Berridge & Pattison, 1994, with some modifications). The present-day coastline from approximately Saltfleet in Lincolnshire to Easington in the East Riding of Yorkshire is shown in grey. Note, this map shows the approximate position of the coastline in this period; however, there would also have been an extensive zone of coastal marshes, inter-tidal flats and the like too on the seaward side of this coastline; these are not mapped here, but they clearly saw a significant degree activity in the Roman period.

Geological map of the Conisholme and North Somercotes area, showing the storm beach deposits in purple, thought to be formed from the remains of the offshore barrier islands destroyed in the thirteenth century, surrounded by deposits of marine alluvium in yellow; the Somercotes to Saltfleet sand body largely lies below the medieval storm beach. Note, the separate area of storm beach to the north of Somercotes probably represents the second island between the River Lud outfalls shown on seventeenth- and eighteenth-century maps. Image taken from the BGS Geology of Britain Viewer, licensed under an Open Government Licence 2.0: contains British Geological Survey materials © NERC 2017.


1.     These coastal barrier islands were first suggested by H. H. Swinnerton in 'The post-glacial deposits of the Lincolnshire coast', Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 87 (1931), 360–75. See also D. N. Robinson, The Book of the Lincolnshire Seaside (Buckingham, 1981), pp. 13, 17 (map), 20; S. Pawley, Lincolnshire Coastal Villages and the Sea c. 1300–1600: Economy and Society (University of Leicester PhD thesis, 1984), pp. 69–70, 73–5, 80; S. Bennett & N. Bennett (edd.), An Historical Atlas of Lincolnshire (Hull, 1993), p. 8; Institute of Estuarine and Coastal Studies, Humber Estuary & Coast (Hull, 1994), p. 33; H. Fenwick, The Lincolnshire Marsh: Landscape Evolution, Settlement Development and the Salt Industry (University of Hull PhD Thesis, 2007), pp. 54, 160, 174, 181–2, 189, 199, 202, 267, 304; and Natural England, NA 101: Bridlington to Skegness Maritime Natural Area Profile (Sheffield, 2013), pp. 11, 21.

The content of this post and page, including any original illustrations, is Copyright © Caitlin R. Green, 2017, All Rights Reserved, and should not be used without permission.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Sasanian finds in early medieval Britain and beyond: another global distribution from Late Antiquity?

A previous post mapped and discussed the spread of early Byzantine finds across both Eurasia and Africa, ranging from Britain to Japan and Sweden to Tanzania. The following one expands upon this by turning to look at the global distribution of finds from the fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian Empire, the early Byzantine Empire's eastern neighbour and rival, starting with an examination of Sasanian coins found in Britain. This Late Antique empire, with its capital at Ctesiphon near to modern Baghdad, controlled an extensive area stretching from Iraq in the west to Pakistan in the east, and items produced within this territory are once again found spread across both Eurasia and Africa. Needless to say, the extensive distribution of Late Sasanian material shown here is of interest for a number of reasons from the perspective of this blog, not least the light that it sheds on trade and movement in this era and Britain's place within the wider global community.

Distribution of Sasanian finds of the fifth to seventh centuries AD found outside of the boundaries of the late sixth-century Sasanian Empire, along with a depiction of the empire during the late sixth century. For a larger version of this map, click here. Note, the map is based on the sources listed in fn. 1 and is not exhaustive; rather, it is intended to offer an impression of the wide distribution of fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian objects across Eurasia and Africa. Image: C. R. Green.

Britain and the west

The degree to which the Sasanian Empire was aware of the existence of Britain is uncertain: whilst an inscription of the third century AD refers to Spain and a number of other provinces of the Roman Empire, the earliest surviving reference to Britain from this region belongs to the ninth century AD, as was discussed in a previous post. Nonetheless, in recent years a number of Late Sasanian coins have been recorded from this island that sixth-century authors described as lying 'virtually at the end of the world towards the west and north-west' (Gildas, De Excidio Britanniae, §3, c. AD 500–540). Two of these coins have been published and discussed in print previously:
  • A Sasanian coin of Khosrow I, minted in AD 565/6 at Susa in modern Iran and found at Winchelsea, East Sussex, in 1930.(2)
  • A Sasanian coin of Khosrow II, minted in c. AD 628 at Weh-Andiyok-Shapur (Gundeshapur, Iran) and found on the coast of the Island of Anglesey, Wales, in 2001.(3)
A further four Late Sasanian coins can now be added to this list that were either missed in the original catalogue or discovered after it was published:
  • A seventh-century Sasanian coin, presumably of Khosrow II (590–628), found at Beverley, East Yorkshire, in 1982.(4)
  • A sixth- or seventh-century Sasanian coin found at Barford, Warwickshire, in 1994.(5)
  • A Sasanian coin of Khosrow II, 590–628, minted at Ram Hormuz in southwestern Iran and found at Thamesfield, London; it was recorded by the PAS in 2017.(6)
  • A Sasanian coin of Khosrow II, probably minted c. AD 618 at either Veh-Kavat or Veh-Ardashir (both in modern Iraq); possibly, although not certainly, found in the East Midlands in or before 2009.(7)
A Sasanian coin of Khosrow II, 590–628, found on the coast of the Island of Anglesey, Wales, in 2001 (image: PAS, CC BY 2.0, kindly modified by Yngve Karlsson).

With regard to the presence of these sixth- to seventh-century Sasanian coins in Britain, several points can be made. First, there seems little obvious reason to assume that they are all modern losses by careless antiquarian coin collectors. As has been observed in earlier posts, 'the proverbial absent-minded college don or cathedral canon, dropping items of his collection here, there and everywhere... has never seemed a very convincing character' (as Martin Biddle memorably put it), and the nature and circumstances of the finds under consideration here supports this.(8) Not only have these Sasanian coins all been found in widely distant locales, but they have also been discovered over an extensive period of time—1930 to 2017—yet appear to have been all minted near-contemporaneously too (in the later sixth to early seventh centuries), circumstances which arguably better fit with these coins being genuinely ancient losses and imports arriving due to a specific set of circumstances, rather than random modern losses or hoaxes. Indeed, a useful comparison might be made with the increasingly large quantity of sixth- to early seventh-century Byzantine coins now known from Britain, which were once viewed with hyper-scepticism by some but are now generally accepted as genuine imports to early medieval Britain.(9) Furthermore, potential Sasanian imports to early medieval Britain are not, in fact, limited to these coins alone, but also include a small number of Sasanian engraved gems which have been found in excavated Anglo-Saxon graves, something that is obviously of considerable interest and relevance in the present context.(10)

Second, with regard to the mechanism by which these coins might have arrived in Britain, Gareth Williams has suggested that they could have travelled alongside the above-mentioned Byzantine coins from North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean that are found in sixth- to seventh-century Britain.(11) Such a scenario would undoubtedly make a great deal of sense. There are, after all, clear connections between the Sasanian Empire's western neighbour, the Byzantine Empire, and both western Britain and Anglo-Saxon England in this era. For example, not only are significant numbers of early Byzantine coins found across the island, but there is also a considerable quantity of eastern Mediterranean pottery known from sites in the west, and isotopic and textual evidence moreover indicates that people who probably grew up in Byzantine North Africa were living and dying in seventh-century South Wales, Northumbria, East Anglia and Kent too.(12) The material in western Britain has long been seen as resulting from direct maritime contact with the eastern Mediterranean and that in the east can probably be at least partly seen in this light too, with finds of late sixth- to early seventh-century Byzantine coins from the Anglo-Saxon royal site of Rendlesham, Suffolk, having recently been interpreted as evidence for 'direct mercantile contacts' with the Byzantine world by Chris Scull et al.(13) As such, it seems perfectly credible that the Sasanian coins could have travelled directly to Britain alongside Byzantine imports, especially in light of the fact that Sasanian silks and gems were definitely imported into the Byzantine Empire and Sasanian coins are recorded from at least parts of the Byzantine Levant.(14) Indeed, it is worth noting that the Levant, parts of Anatolia and Egypt were all actually briefly under Sasanian control for a period in the early seventh century, something that may be of relevance here, especially given that, for example, the seventh-century Byzantine Life of St John the Almsgiver tells of a ship from Alexandria that visited Britain around that time and exchanged a cargo of corn for one of tin.(15)

A Sasanian coin of Khosrow II, 590–628, minted at Ram Hormuz in southwestern Iran and found at Thamesfield, London; it was recorded by the PAS in 2017 (image: PAS, CC BY 2.0).

A garnet intaglio of a lion mounted in an seventh-century Anglo-Saxon gold pendant from grave 172, Sibertswold Down, Kent; the gem has most recently been identified by Jeffrey Spier as a Sasanian original in his Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden, 2007), p. 87. Image: Public Domain, drawn and engraved by F. W. Fairholt for B. Faussett, Inventorium Sepulchrale (London, 1856), plate IV, no. 17.

Looking south and east: Sasanian artefacts in Africa and East Asia

If the distribution of fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian extended to the north-western edge of the then-known world, it also reached equally far in the other directions. In East Africa, for example, Sasanian beads and pottery occur down the east coast from Ras Hafun, Somalia, to Kivinja, Tanzania (a site radiocarbon dated to the fifth to sixth centuries AD), and then on to Chibuene, southern Mozambique. The probably seventh-century Persian glass beads found on this last site are associated with a small amount of Sasanian pottery of the type found at Ras Hafun and are believed to attest to pre-Islamic direct trade links via the Persian Gulf that stretched right down into the south of Africa. Needless to say, this is particularly intriguing, especially as Chibuene is around 1,900km further south along the coast than the southernmost East African sites that have produced fifth- to seventh-century Byzantine artefacts! Even more interestingly, it also now appears that these beads, made with glass produced somewhere in the region east of the Euphrates, were subsequently traded inland from Chibuene, with three sites in Botswana now known to produce them, including Nqoma in far western Botswana, 1,500km from Chibuene and closer to the south-western coast of Africa than the east.(16) It is worth noting, incidentally, that Nqoma is not the only part of western Africa receiving Sasanian beads around this time—further north yet more beads manufactured east of the Euphrates are found in fifth- to seventh-century graves at Kissi, Burkina Faso, although these beads are thought to have arrived via a different route, through the Saharan Garamantian kingdom along with early Byzantine artefacts exported from the Mediterranean.(17)

Looking eastwards of the Sasanian Empire, the situation is equally interesting. As might be expected, there are significant quantities of Sasanian coins known from Central Asian Sogdiana, which bordered the Sasanian Empire in the north-east. However, there are also large numbers of Late Sasanian coins known from China too which almost certainly arrived there via Sogdiana and the Silk Road. The Sui–Tang period tombs of Astana (Xinjiang, China), for example, contain a significant number of these coins, which are notably more common than Byzantine pieces there, and Sasanian coins and glassware are additionally found at a significant number of sites further east too, as can be seen on the map included above—indeed, over 1,300 coins of Khosrow II alone have been found in China according to a recent survey.(18) In addition to these finds in the north, a number of sites in Guangdong in the south of China have also produced fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian coins, which presumably reflects maritime trade along the southern 'Silk Road of the sea' rather than the land route, an extension of the connections that brought Sasanian torpedo jars, seals and coins to India, Sri Lanka and even Thailand.(19) There is certainly documentary evidence for Persian activity and maritime trading in and around India, Sri Lanka and China in the Late Sasanian era and immediately after, and it has recently been suggested that this activity may well have extended as far as Korea and Japan in the fifth to seventh centuries. Thus not only is at least some Sasanian glass present in the late fifth- to early sixth-century AD royal tombs at Silla, South Korea, but a notable quantity of fifth- to seventh-century Sasanian glassware is also known from several sites in Japan, including Nara, Kyoto and Osaka. For example, the tomb of the 27th Emperor of Japan, Emperor Ankan, who died c. AD 536, contained a complete cut-glass Sasanian bowl of the fifth or sixth century, whilst the late fifth-century tomb 126 at Nara contained a blue glass Roman dish that had been painted in Sasanian Persia before being transported on to Japan. Although certainty is difficult, Seth Priestman has argued that these and other Persian finds in Japan are best seen as resulting from direct maritime contact with the Sasanian Empire, rather than indirect contact via the overland Silk Road, and in this light it is at the very least intriguing to note that documentary evidence has recently emerged of a Persian official or teacher living in eighth-century Japan.(20)

A repaired complete Sasanian glass bowl excavated from the sixth-century AD tumulus of Emperor Ankan in Osaka, Japan (image: Wikimedia Commons).

A selection of beads found at Kissi, Burkina Faso. Carnelian beads like those shown here were found in the fifth- to seventh-century grave 10 at Kissi 3 and are believed to have been manufactured in the Byzantine Near East/Egypt; chemical analysis of the glass beads indicates that they were made using glass from the Near and Middle East, with the majority being made within the Sasanian Empire. (Image: B. Voss/Afriques, CC)


1.     The following sources were used for areas other than Britain when putting together the map included here; it should, incidentally, be noted that Sasanian coins found in association with Islamic coinage—as all finds in Scandinavia, for example, seem to be—are not mapped here as they are believed to represent post-Sasanian trade. Map sources: I. Smirnov (ed.), Vostochnoe Serebro (St Petersburg, 1909); F. E. Day, 'Silks of the Near East', Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9.4 (1950), 108–17; J. P. Oleson, 'An unpublished Sassanian seal, with a comment on the deportation of Armenians to Cyprus in AD 578', Levant, 8 (1976), 161–4; J. A. Lerner, 'Sasanian seals in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities of the British Museum', Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 35 (1976), 183–7; P. O. Harper & P. Meyers, Silver Vessels of the Sasanian Period. Volume One: Royal Imagery (New York, 1981); H. M. Malek, 'A survey of research on Sasanian numismatics', The Numismatic Chronicle, 153 (1993), 227–69; P. Urbańczyk (ed.), Origins of Central Europe (Warsaw, 1997); E.A. Smagulov, 'Finds of Sasanian gems in the Otrar Oasis', Ancient Civilizations from Scythia to Siberia, 3.2 (1997), 253–9; J. K. Skaff, 'The Sasanian and Arab-Sasanian silver coins from Turfan: their relationship to international trade and the local economy', Asia Major, 11.2 (1998), 67–115; S. D. Sears & D. T. Ariel, 'Finds of Late Sasanian and Early Muslim drachms in historical Palestine', ‘Atiqot, 40 (2000), 139–50; A. M. Maeir, 'Sassanica Varia Palaestiniensia: a Sassanian seal from T. Iṣtaba, Israel, and other Sassanian objects from the Southern Levant', Iranica Antiqua, 35 (2000), 159–83; M. Compareti, 'The Sasanians in Africa', Transoxiana, 4 (2002), online at; T. Daryaee, 'The Persian Gulf trade in Late Antiquity', Journal of World History, 14 (2003), 1–16; R. K. Kovalev, 'Commerce and caravan routes along the Northern Silk Road (sixth-ninth centuries) – Part I: the western sector', Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi, 14 (2005), 55–105; S. Li, 'The distribution and significance of Sassanid silver currency in China', Chinese Archaeology, 6 (2006), 190–4; M-L. Chen, 'The importation of Byzantine and Sasanian glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Gobalization? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2006), pp. 47–52; R. Tomber, 'Rome and Mesopotamia – importers into India in the first millennium AD', Antiquity, 81 (2007), 972–88; B. Borell, 'The early Byzantine lamp from Pong Tuk', Journal of the Siam Society, 96 (2008), 1–26; S. Magnavita, 'Sahelian crossroads: some aspects on the Iron Age sites of Kissi, Burkina Faso', in S. Magnavita et al (eds.), Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel: Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium BC/AD West Africa (Frankfurt, 2009), pp. 79–104; N. Schindel, Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Israel (Wien, 2009); F. Curta & A. Gândilă, 'Hoards and hoarding patterns in the Early Byzantine Balkans', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 65–66 (2011–2012), 45–111; T. Power, The Red Sea from Byzantium to the Caliphate: AD 500–1000 (Oxford, 2012); M. Wood et al, 'The glass of Chibuene, Mozambique: new insights into early Indian Ocean trade', The South African Archaeological Bulletin, 67 (2012), 59–74; S .Liu et al, 'Silk Road glass in Xinjiang, China: chemical compositional analysis and interpretation using a high-resolution portable XRF spectrometer', Journal of Archaeological Science, 39 (2012), 2128–42; G. I. Bijovsky, Gold Coin and Small Change: Monetary Circulation in Fifth-Seventh Century Byzantine Palestine (Trieste, 2012); J. Spier, Byzantium and the West: Jewelry in the First Millennium (London, 2012); L. Baratova & N. Schindel, Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Usbekistan (Wien, 2012); A. Giumlía-Mair, 'Metallurgy and technology of the Hunnic gold hoard from Nagyszéksós', The Silk Road, 11 (2013), 12–35; E. Petac & A. Ionescu, 'Some Sassanian silver coins discovered at Axiopolis (Cernavoda, Constanta County, Romania)', Iranica Antiqua, 48 (2013), 355–60; S. Lee & D. P. Leidy, Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom (New York, 2013); M. Kazanski, 'The Middle Dnieper area in the seventh century: an archaeological survey', in C. Zuckerman (ed.), Constructing the Seventh Century (Paris, 2013), pp. 769–864; N. Boivin et al, 'East Africa and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean world', Journal of World Prehistory, 26 (2013), 213–81; T. Gesztelyi, 'Sasanian seals in Hungarian collections', Acta Classica Universitatis Scientiarum Debreceniensis, 50 (2014), 179–83; J. Denbow et al, 'The glass beads of Kaitshaa: new insights on early Indian Ocean trade into the far interior of southern Africa', Antiquity, 89 (2015), 1–17; M. Wood, 'Divergent patterns in Indian Ocean trade to East Africa and southern Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries CE: the glass bead evidence', Afriques, 6 (2015), online at; J. Then-Obluska, 'Cross-cultural bead encounters at the Red Sea port site of Berenike, Egypt. Preliminary assessment (seasons 2009 - 2012)', Polish Archaeology in the Mediterranean, 24 (2015), 735–77 at p. 764; M. Gasparini, 'Sino-Iranian textile patterns in Trans-Himalayan areas', The Silk Road, 14 (2016), 84–96. The depiction of the Sasanian Empire in the late sixth century is based on P. Sluglett & A. Currie, Atlas of Islamic History (Routledge: London, 2014), pp. 13–15, maps 1 and 2.
2.     R. Abdy & G. Williams, 'A catalogue of hoards and single finds from the British Isles c. AD 410–675', in B. J. Cook & G. Williams (eds.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250: Essays in Honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden, 2006), pp. 11–74 at p. 57.
3.     Portable Antiquities Scheme, LVPL2174; R. Abdy & G. Williams, 'A catalogue of hoards and single finds from the British Isles c. AD 410–675', in B. J. Cook & G. Williams (eds.), Coinage and History in the North Sea World, c. AD 500–1250: Essays in Honour of Marion Archibald (Leiden, 2006), pp. 11–74 at p. 57. Information on the mint site kindly provided by Yngve Karlsson.
4.     M. P. T. Didsbury, Aspects of Late Iron Age and Romano-British Settlement in the Lower Hull Valley (University of Durham PhD thesis, 1990), vol. 2, p. 15 (dated broadly fifth to seventh century); Humber Historic Environment Record, 8734 (dated to the seventh century).
5.     Warwickshire Historic Environment Record, MWA9909.
6.     Portable Antiquities Scheme, LON-B2F5CF.
7.     Portable Antiquities Scheme, LEIC-BF6164. Note, this coin was discovered for purchase at a car boot sale in the Leicester area and no firm details are known of its find circumstances; as such, it needs to be used only very cautiously.
8.     Quotation from M. Biddle, 'Ptolemaic coins from Winchester', Antiquity, 49 (1975), 213–15.
9.     See, for example, S. Moorhead, 'Early Byzantine copper coins found in Britain – a review in light of new finds recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme', in O. Tekin (ed.), Ancient History, Numismatics and Epigraphy in the Mediterranean World (Istanbul, 2009), pp. 263–74; C. Morrisson, 'Byzantine coins in early medieval Britain: a Byzantinist's assessment', in R. Naismith et al (ed.), Early Medieval Monetary History: Studies in Memory of Mark Blackburn (London, 2014), pp. 207–42; E. S. Georganteli, 'Byzantine coins', in M. Biddle (ed.), The Winchester Mint and Coins and Related Finds from the Excavations of 1961-71, Winchester Studies 8 (Oxford, 2012), pp. 669–78; G. Williams, 'Anglo-Saxon gold coinage, part 1: the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon coinage', British Numismatic Journal, 80 (2010), 51–75; C. Scull et al, 'Social and economic complexity in early medieval England: a central place complex of the East Anglian kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk', Antiquity, 90 (2016), 1594-1612.
10.     J. Spier, 'Late Antique and Early Christian gems: some unpublished examples', in C. Entwistle & N. Adams (eds.), ‘Gems of Heaven’: Recent Research on Engraved Gemstones in Late Antiquity, c. AD 200–600 (London, 2011), pp. 193–207 at p. 199 ('A small number of... engraved Sasanian gems, have been found in other Anglo-Saxon graves, a notable indication of the great distance such prized objects could travel.'); J. Spier, Late Antique and Early Christian Gems (Wiesbaden, 2007), p. 87 (identifies the gems from Sibertswold, Kent, grave 172, and Alfriston, Sussex, grave 28, as Sasanian originals). See also P. W. Rogers, Costume in the Early Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Saltwood, Kent: Part 1, Women's Costume Accessories (2014), finds report, available online here, p. 30; H. Geake, The Use of Grave-Goods in Conversion-Period England, c.600–c.850 (Oxford, 1997), p. 39.
11.     G. Williams, 'Anglo-Saxon gold coinage, part 1: the transition from Roman to Anglo-Saxon coinage', British Numismatic Journal, 80 (2010), 51–75 at p. 58. An alternative scenario might be to associate them with the Viking impact on Britain in the ninth century, as Sasanian coins are found alongside later Arab-Sasanian coins and Islamic dirhams in Viking-era hoards in Scandinavia (see, for example, R. K. Kovalev, 'When and what regions of the Islamic world exported Sasanian and Arab-Sasanian silver coins to early Viking-Age Northern Lands?', in T. Talvio & M. Wijk (eds.), Myntstudier (Stockholm, 2015), pp. 68–83); however, Gareth Williams does not do this and it is important to note that the distribution of Sasanian coins from Britain catalogued here does not match well with that of Islamic dirhams in Britain thought to have been imported during the Viking-era, as mapped in C. R. Green, 'The distribution of Islamic dirhams in Anglo-Saxon England', 16 December 2014, blog post, online at, nor do any of the known Viking-era hoards of dirhams found in Britain contain Sasanian coins. As such, it is not adopted or pursued in the present post.
12.     On the coins, see the references cited in fn. 9; references for the imported Byzantine pottery can be found in fn. 13, below. The isotopic results are discussed and summarized in C. R. Green, 'Some oxygen isotope evidence for long-distance migration to Britain from North Africa & southern Iberia, c.1100 BC–AD 800', 24 October 2015, blog post, online at and C. R. Green, 'A note on the evidence for African migrants in Britain from the Bronze Age to the medieval period', 23 May 2016, blog post, online at The results discussed and analysed in these posts were published in K. A. Hemer et al, 'Evidence of early medieval trade and migration between Wales and the Mediterranean Sea region', Journal of Archaeological Science, 40 (2013), 2352–59; S. Lucy et al, 'The burial of a princess? The later seventh-­century cemetery at Westfield Farm, Ely', Antiquity, 89 (2009), 81–141; S. E. Groves et al, 'Mobility histories of 7th–9th century AD people buried at early medieval Bamburgh, Northumberland, England', American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 151 (2013), 462–76; and J. A. Evans et al, 'A summary of strontium and oxygen isotope variation in archaeological human tooth enamel excavated from Britain', Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, 27 (2012), 754–64 and 'Supplementary Material I' (14 pp.). The textual evidence relates to the early eighth-century Historia Ecclesiastica IV.1, where Bede describes Hadrian, the later seventh- and eighth-century Abbot of St Augustine's, Canterbury, as 'a man of African race' (HE IV.1). Hadrian is thought to have grown up in Libya Cyrenaica before the mid-seventh-century Arab conquest of North Africa: B Bischoff & M. Lapidge, Biblical Commentaries from the Canterbury School of Theodore and Hadrian (Cambridge, 1994), especially p. 92.
13.     For eastern Britain and East Anglia, see C. Scull et al, 'Social and economic complexity in early medieval England: a central place complex of the East Anglian kingdom at Rendlesham, Suffolk', Antiquity, 90 (2016), 1594-1612; for western Britain and Byzantine imported pottery, see for example M. Fulford, 'Byzantium and Britain: a Mediterranean perspective on post-Roman Mediterranean imports in western Britain and Ireland', Medieval Archaeology, 33 (1989), 1–6; E. Campbell, Continental and Mediterranean Imports to Atlantic Britain and Ireland, AD 400–800, Council for British Archaeology Research Report 157 (York, 2007); E. Campbell & C. Bowles, 'Byzantine trade to the edge of the world: Mediterranean pottery imports to Atlantic Britain in the 6th century', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th-12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 297–314; and T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 222–3. On Byzantine–British connections, we can also note, for example, the Penmachno Stone from North Wales, which has recently been persuasively interpreted as a late sixth-century monument declaring continuing British loyalty to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II: T. M. Charles-Edwards, Wales and the Britons, 350–1064 (Oxford, 2013), pp. 234–8.
14.     For example, Procopius in the mid-sixth century mentioned that the Romans of the eastern empire (now usually termed the Byzantine Empire) 'buy silk from the Persians', although few potential examples now survive of these silk imports: see H. B. Feltham, 'Justinian and the international silk trade', Sino-Platonic Papers, 194 (2009), pp. 1–40; M. Compareti, 'The Sasanians in Africa', Transoxiana, 4 (2002), online at; F. E. Day, 'Silks of the Near East', Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 9.4 (1950), 108–17; N. Oikonomides, 'Silk trade and production in Byzantium from the sixth to the ninth century: the seals of kommerkiarioi', Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 40 (1986), 35–53. On gems, coins and other Sasanian artefacts in the Byzantine Empire, see for example J. P. Oleson, 'An unpublished Sassanian seal, with a comment on the deportation of Armenians to Cyprus in AD 578', Levant, 8 (1976), 161–4; J. A. Lerner, 'Sasanian seals in the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities of the British Museum', Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 35 (1976), 183–7; S. D. Sears & D. T. Ariel, 'Finds of Late Sasanian and Early Muslim drachms in historical Palestine', ‘Atiqot, 40 (2000), 139–50; A. M. Maeir, 'Sassanica Varia Palaestiniensia: a Sassanian seal from T. Iṣtaba, Israel, and other Sassanian objects from the Southern Levant', Iranica Antiqua, 35 (2000), 159–83; N. Schindel, Sylloge Nummorum Sasanidarum Israel (Wien, 2009).
15.     Leontius, Life of St John the Almsgiver, chapter 10; C. A. Snyder, An Age of Tyrants: Britain and the Britons, AD 400–600 (Stroud, 1998), p. 152; C. J. Salter, 'Early tin extraction in the south-west of England: a resource for Mediterranean metalworkers of late antiquity', in M. M. Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries: The Archaeology of Local, Regional and International Exchange (Farnham, 2009), pp. 315–22 at p. 320; M. M. Mango, 'Tracking Byzantine silver and copper metalware, 4th–12th centuries', in Mango (ed.), Byzantine Trade, 4th–12th Centuries, pp. 221–36 at p. 223.
16.     On Late Antique trade down the East African coast, see especially N. Boivin et al, 'East Africa and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean world', Journal of World Prehistory, 26 (2013), 213–81 at pp. 244–5, for a good, recent summary. On Chibuene and Persian beads traded into Botswana, see M. Wood et al, 'The glass of Chibuene, Mozambique: new insights into early Indian Ocean trade', The South African Archaeological Bulletin, 67 (2012), 59–74; M. Wood, Interconnections: Glass beads and Trade in Southern and Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean – 7th to 16th centuries AD (Uppsala, 2011); M. Wood, 'Eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean world in the first millennium CE: the glass bead evidence', in G. Campbell (ed.), Early Exchange between Africa and the Wider Indian Ocean World (Cham, 2016), pp. 173–94 at pp. 184–6; J. Denbow et al, 'The glass beads of Kaitshaa: new insights on early Indian Ocean trade into the far interior of southern Africa', Antiquity, 89 (2015), 1–17; M. Wood, 'Divergent patterns in Indian Ocean trade to East Africa and southern Africa between the 7th and 17th centuries CE: the glass bead evidence', Afriques, 6 (2015), online at; A. M. Daggett, Early Iron Age Social and Economic Organization in Sowa Pan, Botswana (Michigan State University PhD Thesis, 2015), especially p. 322.
17.     On the Sasanian beads of Sub-Saharan West Africa, see S. Magnavita, 'Sahelian crossroads: some aspects on the Iron Age sites of Kissi, Burkina Faso', in S. Magnavita et al (eds.), Crossroads / Carrefour Sahel: Cultural and Technological Developments in First Millennium BC/AD West Africa (Frankfurt, 2009), pp. 79–104, and S. Magnavita, 'Initial encounters: seeking traces of ancient trade connections between West Africa and the wider world', Afriques, 4 (2013), online at
18.     See, for example, S. Li, 'The distribution and significance of Sassanid silver currency in China', Chinese Archaeology, 6 (2006), 190–4; M-L. Chen, 'The importation of Byzantine and Sasanian glass into China during the fourth to sixth centuries', in A. Harris (ed.), Incipient Gobalization? Long-Distance Contacts in the Sixth Century (Oxford, 2006), pp. 47–52; S .Liu et al, 'Silk Road glass in Xinjiang, China: chemical compositional analysis and interpretation using a high-resolution portable XRF spectrometer', Journal of Archaeological Science, 39 (2012), 2128–42; J. K. Skaff, 'The Sasanian and Arab-Sasanian silver coins from Turfan: their relationship to international trade and the local economy', Asia Major, 11.2 (1998), 67–115.
19.     For finds in southern China, see for example Li, 'The distribution and significance of Sassanid silver currency in China'; R. C. Houston, 'A note on two coin hoards reported in Kao Ku', Museum Notes (American Numismatic Society), 20 (1975), 153–60; T. Daryaee, 'The Persian Gulf trade in Late Antiquity', Journal of World History, 14 (2003), 1–16; T. Daryaee, Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire (London, 2009), pp. 138–9. Note, Daryaee, 'The Persian Gulf trade in Late Antiquity', p. 13, suggests the coastal finds in east China may also result from the maritime trade route, rather than the overland Silk Road, and notes the discovery of a potential Zoroastrian fire-temple in southern China (p. 14). For finds in India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand (at Yarang) and documentary references to Persian maritime trade across to China, see, for example, R. Tomber, 'Rome and Mesopotamia – importers into India in the first millennium AD', Antiquity, 81 (2007), 972–88; B. Borell, 'The early Byzantine lamp from Pong Tuk', Journal of the Siam Society, 96 (2008), 1–26 at pp. 9 and 11; D. Whitehouse & A. Williamson, 'Sasanian maritime trade', Iran, 11 (1973), 29–49; Daryaee, 'The Persian Gulf trade in Late Antiquity'; and S. Faller, 'The world according to Cosmas Indicopleustes – concepts and illustrations of an Alexandrian merchant and monk', Transcultural Studies, 1 (2011), online at, although see now R. R. Darley, '"Implicit cosmopolitanism" and the commercial role of ancient Lanka', in Z. Biedermann & A. Strathern (eds.), Sri Lanka at the Crossroads of History (London, 2017), pp. 44-65, on the disputed character of Sri Lankan finds of Sasanian coins and also on textual references to Persian activity on the island.
20.     On the Korean finds, see C. Kwangshik, 'Silla art and the Silk Road', International Journal of Korean History, 19 (2014), 1–22 at p. 3; S. Lee & D. P. Leidy, Silla: Korea's Golden Kingdom (New York, 2013), p. 125. On the Japanese finds, see S. Priestman, 'The Silk Road or the sea? Sasanian and Islamic exports to Japan', Journal of Islamic Archaeology, 3 (2016), 1-35, who argues for these items having arrived via the sea rather than the overland Silk Road; there is also some discussion of these finds in the Encyclopædia Iranica, 'Japan XI: collections of Persian art in Japan' (2008), available online. The documentary evidence for a Persian official living in Japan was revealed in October 2016: 'Research uncovers evidence that ancient Japan was "more cosmopolitan" than previously thought', Japan Times, October 5 2016, online edition.

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