Some archaeological finds are instantly recognised for what they are, but others can remain a mystery for decades, waiting for their true identity to be revealed. I recently came across just such an object in the Lincoln museum stores. Described simply as a ‘bronze decorated sheet’, I believe that it is a much more fascinating object than that – a hitherto unidentified example of a late Iron Age or early Romano-British miniature votive shield.
It is a fragile object, measuring 71mm high x 48mm wide x 1mm thick. The thin copper alloy sheet has been damaged while in the ground and is now slightly distorted, with some surface damage and a tear from one edge to the centre. It was discovered in 1978 at Donington on Bain, on the western edge of the Lincolnshire Wolds, and donated to the museum the following year (LCNCC : 1979.134.1).
The sheet is decorated with a series of repoussé pellets – punched through from one side and in some cases puncturing the surface. These form a frame around the outer edge of the sheet’s rounded irregular hexagonal form, with a line across the centre and two arrow-like motifs pointing inwards from the narrow ends. A small raised ovoid is just visible in the centre, though much damaged.
My reasons for believing this to be a votive miniature shield lie in comparing it with the other examples known from Lincolnshire. A significant assemblage of miniature shields, tools and weapons has been found at Rothwell Top, just south of Caistor, and examples from this site provide interesting parallels. Though slightly smaller, measuring between c.40cm and c.60cm in length, a number of the Rothwell shields share a similar form – a rounded rectangle with flattened ends – and some have punched decoration of various forms around their edges. I’ve also discussed the Rothwell miniatures assemblage in a previous post here.
The findspot of the shield is also of interest, given this revised interpretation of its function. It was discovered along with other Roman finds which, although not deposited with the museum, are recorded on the Historic Environment Record. It lists an iron arrowhead, samian and coarse pottery, two penannular brooches, two bronze hairpins and 20 coins. Cropmarks have also been noted in the vicinity, and are also recorded on the HER. Two distinct enclosures are recorded in the same field, one of possible prehistoric date and the other rectangular with ditches, interpreted as being Roman. Other prehistoric cropmarks are known in surrounding fields, and excavations at Stenigot reservoir, to the south of the findspot, in 1997 revealed a late Iron Age farmstead (Lindsey Archaeological Services, STR97). When combined with evidence of Bronze Age barrows in the vicinity and the prehistoric ‘Bluestone Heath road’ running just to the east, the whole area is revealed as being one of busy and varied activity over a long time period.
A miniature shield would have been made specifically to have been a votive offering at a shrine or other sacred site. In the later Iron Age and into the Roman period, miniature examples of objects became more common as offerings – symbolic representations of the full-sized object. These were often deposited on or near settlement sites, in contrast to their full-sized precursors, which tended to be deposited at liminal sites such as major rivers (see Farley 2011 for more on this fascinating practice).
A single find does not necessarily suggest votive activity in a location, but I was thrilled to discover, when checking the Portable Antiquities Scheme database for other finds made in the area, that another votive miniature had been recorded close by. In 2009, a miniature sword was found only c.130m to the northeast, marked on the map above and illustrated below. The finding of two miniatures in such close proximity begins to suggest deliberate activity, perhaps focused on a well or stream, and likely to be associated with the Roman site reflected in the other finds and cropmarks. Whether the site was a dedicated shrine or, more likely, simply a rural farmstead remains unanswered.
Examples such as this reinforce the importance of properly recording archaeological finds, whether in museums or through the HER or PAS, as there is always the potential for future re-interpretation.