A 2,000-year-old story of terror and devastation has been brought to light during renovation work at an English department store, revealing one of the finest collections of Roman jewelry as well as human remains of people who were slaughtered at the site.
The jewelry had been undisturbed since 61 A.D. in Colchester, some 50 miles northeast of London. It was found in a wooden box and bags under a department store in the town’s high street.
The small treasure includes three gold armlets, a silver chain necklace, two silver bracelets, a silver armlet, a small bag of coins and a small jewelry box containing two sets of gold earrings and four gold finger-rings.
According to Philip Crummy, the director of Colchester Archaeological Trust who excavated the area, the jewelry belonged to a wealthy Roman woman who may not have survived to recover her treasure.
“The find is a particularly poignant one because of its historical context,” Crummy said in a statement.
“It seems likely that the owner or perhaps one of her slaves buried the jewelry inside her house for safe-keeping during the early stages of the Boudican Revolt, when prospects looked bleak,” he added.
The revolt against the Roman rule was led from 60-61 A.D. by the warrior Queen Boudicca of the Iceni, a British tribe. In her unsuccessful attempt to defeat the Romans, Boudicca, also known as Boadicea, managed to burn to the ground three towns.
Colchester was her first target.
“The inhabitants knew a large British army was marching towards them and they knew that they were practically defenseless with only a small force of soldiers on hand and no town defenses,” Crummy said.
“Imagine their panic and desperation when they learned of the massacre of a large part of the Roman Ninth Legion on its way to relieve them,” he added.
Terrified, the Roman woman hastily hid her valuable jewelry in a small pit dug in the floor of her house, hoping to come back and recover her belongings. But after a two day siege, the fate of her home was sealed.
Near the jewelry, Crummy and his team found vivid evidence of the last dramatic moments in the house.
Foodstuff including dates, figs, wheat, peas and grain lay burnt black on the floor with a collapsed wooden shelf. The ingredients were carbonized by the heat of the fire so their shapes were preserved perfectly.
“The dates appeared to have been kept on the shelf in a square wooden bowl or platter,” Crummy said.
In the thick red and black debris layer left by the revolt, the archaeologists also found human remains which include part of a jaw and shin bone. They appear to have been cut by a sword.
“These remains suggest that at least one person fought and died in the building during the revolt,” the archaeologists said.
Nothing is known about the fate of the jewels’ owner, but it was likely unpleasant.
As reported by the ancient historian Dio Cassius, during the sacking of Colchester the “noblest” of the women were taken to sacred groves where they were killed in a horrific way.
“The quality of the jewelry suggests that the owner would have been in this category, although there is no direct evidence to indicate that she ended up in a sacred grove,” the statement said.
As the excavation continues, the archaeologists expect to find more artifacts.