Hoards, Hounds and Helmets: An Iron Age Shrine at Hallaton, Leicestershire

In 2001, fieldwalking and metal detecting by a local fieldwork group discovered large numbers of gold and silver Iron Age and Roman coins on a rural site near Hallaton in east Leicestershire. Subsequent work, funded by English Heritage, the British Museum, the BBC and ULAS uncovered a relatively undisturbed site. The evidence for artefact deposition, rituals and animal sacrifice suggest that this was a sacred place, exhibiting intense activity at the very end of the Iron Age.

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Simplified plan showing main areas of deposition

The shrine is defined by a boundary ditch located on a ridge overlooking the Welland Valley. The eastern entrance is divided in two by an angled gully. Coin hoards were buried in the entranceway, along with further deposits of coins and metalwork within the ditch, and a Roman helmet in a pit overlying it. To the east is an area of animal bones that may be the remnants of offerings and ritual feasting.

Coins

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Hoard of silver and gold coins as it was uncovered.

Over 5292 coins were recovered, predominantly within thirteen separate coins hoards in the entranceway. The hoards contain locally produced Iron Age coins and early Roman Republic and Imperial issues and were probably deposited between around AD 30-60.

Although they were not buried in pits, the clustering of the coins in the ground suggests that they may have originally been in bags. The dating of the inscribed coins suggests small contemporary groups each producing coinage inscribed with the name of their leader rather than the traditional interpretation of a succession of rulers of a single large tribe, the Corieltavi.

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Coins retaining the shape of their vanished container.

Helmet and metalwork

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Helmet cheekpiece showing a mounted figure with arm raised, and a winged Victory on his back. Beneath him is a crouched figure.

The remains of a helmet were recovered from a pit overlying the boundary ditch. This fragile artefact was lifted as a block and sent to the British Museum for conservation. The helmet was made of iron covered with silver and gilt, consistent with early Imperial Roman cavalry helmet types found on the Continent. Over 1000 coins in the same pit provide a mid-1st century date, suggesting that the helmet was buried at the same time as the coins in the entranceway. The reason why the helmet was buried within a British shrine remains uncertain – it may have belonged to a Briton serving in the Roman army, or was possibly a diplomatic gift.

Placed carefully within the ditch were a number of silver objects including a silver bowl, a decorated mount, a crescent-shaped silver ingot and a triangular crucible base made from melted down coins. Coins scattered over the top suggest that this is likely to be a slightly earlier deposition than the coin hoards and the helmet (around 30AD).

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The silver bowl found in the enclosure ditch.

Animal Bones

The animal remains from the site are clearly not domestic in nature and divide into two groups. Firstly, there is evidence for the burial of at least three dogs in the entranceway and boundary ditch. Two were disturbed by later re-modelling. The third was still partially articulated, although truncated by a medieval plough furrow. The animal’s body had been carefully positioned with its neck stretched unnaturally backwards and it may have been placed to guard the entrance to the shrine.

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The dog in the entrance way.

External to the sanctuary are a cluster of pits containing the bones of more than 80 young pigs, predominantly aged between 7 and 12 months of age. Although all parts of the skeleton are present, it is evident that the carcasses were not buried whole but were divided into pieces. The right lower forelimb must have held a particular significance, as it was rarely found, suggesting that it was removed for deposition or disposal elsewhere.

Sacred Space

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Clear spatial divisions exist between different artefact types, which are deposited in specific areas.

The site has clearly defined zones containing specific types of deposits.

The boundary ditch marks the sacred area. Its importance is shown by the structured deposition of metalwork, coins and animal bones and the placing of the helmet over it. At some point the ditch was backfilled and there may have been a palisade screening off the interior.

The entranceway is divided by a gully, possibly used to control access to and from the sacred space. The thirteen coin hoards were clustered in a small group and the dog may have been buried at the entrance as a guard.

The interior of the area had no identifiable structures; however natural features such as stones or trees may have existed.

The animal bone deposits were immediately east of the entranceway. Whereas access to the interior of the sacred space may have been restricted, this external area may have been more widely accessible.

Interpretation

The large numbers of carefully placed artefacts suggest that this hilltop was used as a shrine where groups could come together as a community to perform ritual acts. An absence of domestic evidence, such as food waste and pottery, indicates that people were living elsewhere and may have travelled to the site for a specific event – perhaps an annual festival.

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The sanctuary was in use from the late 1st century BC, with the main phase being c.AD 30 – 60. Although activity ceased after the 1st century AD, there is extensive Roman settlement nearby, until the 4th century AD. Subsequent Roman occupation avoided the main area of the shrine, despite its prime location, implying a continuing awareness of the sacred space. Finds of Roman brooches and metalwork suggest that a hitherto undiscovered Roman temple may exist close by.

Although Late Iron Age shrines are well known in Southern Britain, this site is different as it has no building (although natural features may have existed). It may be that this site represents a new type of British late Iron Age shrine with structured deposits of coins, metalwork and animal bone.

If you would like to learn more, there are two books available, a popular account and a more detailed monograph, both titled ‘Hoards, Hounds an Helmets’.

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