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Iron Age Warrior with Roman Links Found in U.K.

James Owen
for National Geographic News
August 8, 2008
 
The grave of an ancient British warrior with tantalizing Roman connections has been unearthed in southern England, archaeologists say.

The 2,000-year-old skeleton of the tribal king or nobleman was found buried with military trappings, including a bronze helmet and an ornate shield both of a style previously unknown in Britain, experts say.

The Iron Age man, who died in his 30s, was discovered in June at the site of a new housing development in North Bersted on England's southeastern coast.

(Read about another Iron Age man recently found in Denmark.)

"What we've found is of national and international importance," said dig team member Mark Taylor, senior archaeologist at West Sussex County Council.

Unique Discoveries

Pottery—including three large jars placed at the foot of the grave—date the site to between A.D. 40 and A.D. 60, the team said.

A bronze shield boss was found along with semicircular latticework plates that are thought to have decorated the shield.

The ornate artwork is unique "certainly in the U.K. and Europe, as far as we know," Taylor said.

The scroll patterning most closely resembles that of mainland Europe's La Tène culture, named after a late Iron Age site in Switzerland, Taylor noted.

The domed helmet likely had a similar origin, according to John Creighton, an archaeologist from the University of Reading.

Creighton, who specializes in the late Iron Age period, said it appears to be a Celtic-style Mannheim helmet—the first one ever found in Britain.

While the helmet originated in Gaul—the ancient Roman name for a region of western Europe—it was also worn by Roman soldiers, Creighton noted.

A greater mystery is a large, iron-framed structure that was placed on top of the warrior's body.

The study team suspects the object was a household item intended for use in the afterlife rather than the remains of a coffin.

"My hunch is that it was some usable part of the domestic riches that went into the grave with this chap," Taylor said.

The corroded object may have been a "fire dog," which was used to burn wood inside the home, he suggested.

Roman Alliances

Experts say the burial may provide important new evidence of Roman influence in the region before the Roman conquest of England in A.D. 43.

(See photos of ruins under Rome.)

Alliances forged by the Romans with southern tribal kings after Julius Caesar (see photo) arrived in 55 B.C. are thought to have involved taking hostages.

"One of the tempting and really exciting prospects is that the find might fulfill the theory that the sons of nobility may have been sent to Rome or sent abroad to undertake military training or to complete their education," team member Taylor said.

"It was all part of the empire-building process of that time to secure loyal, high-status client kings in the countries that were to become part of the Roman Empire."

Creighton, of the University of Reading, says the newly discovered grave adds to recent "astonishing finds of metalwork demonstrating a close link between Britain and the Roman world in the years before the conquest."

(Related: "Roman 'Curse Tablet' Discovered in England" [December 5, 2006].)

Astonishing Finds

Scientific analysis of the warrior may reveal more evidence of Roman links, experts say.

"Hopefully, in six months … we'll have a lot more information," Taylor said.

For example, isotope analysis may reveal the chemical signature of the water the warrior drank, which could show if he lived overseas in his youth.

The tests may similarly indicate his diet, according to Steve Ford, director of Thames Valley Archaeological Services, which led the excavation.

"We might also find out what killed him—whether there had been any traumas such as broken bones or knife wounds," Ford said.
 

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