Fiction: Terminus Post Quem

An essay by Daniel Benlainey, as provided by Steve Toase
Art by Leigh Legler


Daniel Benlainey BA MSc
Project Manager
Multivallate Archaeology
Unit 4 Sunray Farm
YK94 1SX
D.Benlainey@multivallate.org.uk

Simon Campbell BSc
Senior Archaeologist
Historic Environment Team
Callshire County Council
County Hall
Ostbarnton
YK56 4RF

Dear Simon,

Please find attached the interim site report for the Carrion Knoll Excavation. Hope everything is OK. We’re still waiting on some results from a subcontractor, but I’ll forward them as soon as they arrive.

Yours sincerely

Daniel Benlainey BA MSc

~

Interim site report of Carrion Knoll Archaeological Excavations 2017 September 8th

Due to the position of the Carrion Knoll housing development in an area of known prehistoric and Roman activity, a planning condition for archaeological evaluation was required ahead of any groundworks.

Between August 1st and August 25th, a five-person team carried out the necessary work. Due to the low-lying nature of the site and anaerobic conditions found in certain areas, the quality of organic preservation was good, with several surprising results.

Three trenches, each 20m by 10m were excavated. These were distributed across the development area to give as wide a spread of results as possible.

Historic Background

Carrion Knoll lies in an area of known Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman, and Anglo-Scandinavian activity, though no known archaeological material has previously been recovered from the exact site location. Since approximately 900AD, there is no evidence of activity in the vicinity.

Trench 3

Context Record

[01] Topsoil. A layer (average 0.4m thick) of black hummic sandy clay silt. Very little evidence of recent agricultural activity. This layer covers the whole site, including all of Trench 3. The topsoil was removed by machine, and the spoil scanned by metal detector. Nothing of significance was found. The only finds recovered were eight clay pipe stems of various lengths and one incomplete clay pipe bowl, the incised decoration indicating a date somewhere in the early 19th century.

[02] Subsoil. A brown silty clay with regular inclusions of small rounded pebbles. This layer contained several residual pottery sherds of all periods, including a non-diagnostic fragment of Roman Nene Valley Colour Coated Ware, and five sherds of Iron Age Black Burnished Ware. All were heavily abraded.

[03] was assigned for the underlying natural geology, though this was not reached during the excavation due to the depth of archaeological deposits.

[04] A thick peaty organic layer only identified in Trench 3. This consisted of a firm dark green organic silt with a very high proportion of plant material, vegetation, and charcoal flecks. Occasional small angular limestone inclusions. This deposit covered all excavated archaeological features.

[05] Cut of large pit identified in Trench 3. This large feature had a steep edge with a base sloping to the centre and measured 1.2m deep and 2m in diameter. When excavated, this pit was found to have cut through an earlier deposit [11] and truncated a Samian bowl. Pit [05] contained several fills. [06], [07], [08], and [09] seem to represent rapid backfilling of the pit. [10] is the primary fill.

[10] was the primary fill of pit [05] and was a friable dark grey organic silt with regular inclusions of vegetation. [10] also included several sherds of the Samian bowl identified in section and located in layer [11]. Whereas the ceramic remains in [11] are in very good condition (see below), the fragments recovered from pit fill [10] are not. The ceramic material has several bones accreted to it, which our osteological specialist (see Appendix Four) has identified as the phalanges from the hand of an adult human. In all cases, the bones press through the sherds and are visible on the other side. In places, the distinctive red slip covers the skeletal material. There is no evidence of burning on the bone, and as our ceramic specialist has pointed out (see Appendix Five), a vessel in such condition would not survive firing.

The ceramic sherds are clearly derived from the same vessel as that recovered from context [11] (see below), and date to sometime in the 2nd century AD. However, carbon 14 dating of the skeletal material has given a date of 850AD±25, which is contemporary with other finds from pit [05], including a broken antler comb (see Appendix Seven) and several well-preserved pieces of fabric (Appendix Eight).

[11] was a thick layer of dark grey organic silty clay extending across most of Trench 3, into which the majority of the other features were cut, including pit [12] and graves [15] and [17]. The presence of a considerable number of Romano-British finds, including the Samian bowl truncated by pit [05] and several incomplete Nene Valley Colour Slip Ware vessels gives this a very secure terminus post quem of the 2nd century AD. The Samian vessel is discussed in more detail in Appendix Five, and the contents in Appendix Six.

The high level of organic preservation has led to the recovery of vegetable material, which has survived to such a degree that examination in the field allowed initial species identification, including hyssop, fennel, and wormwood. All were found in bunches tied together with some form of nettle string, and all had been placed in a circular arrangement around the Samian bowl. It must be assumed that when the vessel was truncated, any herbs placed on the western side were lost.

Cut [12] was a pit located in Trench 3, and to the west of pit [05]. In contrast to pit [05], pit [12] was very shallow in depth (150mm), just deep enough to take the contents. The edges were uneven, with several irregular shovel scoops at the base. Pit [12] contained a single fill [13].

[13] was a loose light grey silty sand with few inclusions. The majority of the pit fill was taken up by a single adult human skull (see Appendix Four).

[15] was recognised as a single isolated grave in Trench 3, cut into layer [11], with vertical sides and rounded corners.  This was clearly recognisable as a grave cut in plan, allowing careful excavation to enable the recovery of all human skeletal material.

[16] was the fill of grave [15]. The skeletal remains inside appeared to be of an adult human. The skull and phalanges of the left hand were absent.

Cut [17] was an additional grave identified further in Trench 3. The trench was widened by 2m to allow the full recovery of all skeletal material. The pit was 1m20 deep and contained fill [18].

[18] Very little soil matrix was recovered from fill [18], with most of the volume made up of butchered fragments of bone, including femurs, vertebrae, and ribs. A full discussion can be found in Appendix Four.

~

Appendix Four

Human Skeletal Material

Report by Adrian Anchancy

Several deposits of human skeletal material were recovered from Trench 3 of the Carrion Knoll excavation. Here I will go through them in context order and outline the physical evidence, followed by a discussion of the implication of the results.

[10] In an excavation where a large volume of skeletal material was recovered, the bones found in fill [10] are unique. A group of five phalanges were identified, all of them cemented to sherds of Romano-British Samian pottery. This in itself is not unusual. Post deposition processes, such as iron panning, can lead to the accretion of finds in the ground. However, there are several aspects to the recovered bone that this researcher has not seen before.

The phalanges are not just concreted to the surface of the Samian ware, but actually pass through the pottery. There is no evidence of cracking to the clay or burning to the skeletal material. In at least one example, the characteristic red slip glaze coats the bone.

Having spoken to the ceramic specialist, Diane Bansetten, whose report can be seen in Appendix Five, the presence of such a large intrusion in the body of the vessel during firing would have led to destruction. In addition, exposing human bone to the high temperatures found in a Romano-British kiln would lead to severe discolouration and diagnostic cracking on the bone surface. Therefore, it is the opinion of both myself and my ceramics colleague that the bone must have been introduced post firing. Carbon 14 dating of the skeletal material has given a date of 850AD±25, which is not consistent with the age of the Samian pottery, suggesting it was introduced six to seven centuries later.

There are other issues with the condition of the phalanges. All show evidence of small holes in the outer surface of the bones. At first it was the opinion of this researcher that these were the pathology of some form of disease. On further examination, it was found that each lesion displayed evidence of microscopic tooth marks, consistent with certain types of immature coral larvae. When submitted to x-ray analysis, the tunnels can clearly be seen passing through the bone into the marrow. The sinuous form of the pathways also suggests that this damage was created by the actions of a living organism.

Tree root action was soon discounted, as there is no evidence for that type of activity within the contexts excavated or surrounding area.

[13] The skeletal remains from fill [13] (pit [12]) consisted of a single adult skull. It is not clear if the head was removed from the body pre- or post-mortem. There are several unusual features about the condition of the skull. The eye sockets show damage from a bladed weapon, particularly running from the infraorbital foramen into the supraorbital margin. On the right-hand side socket, there is clear damage to the lacrimal bone, and on the left-hand socket, repeated shallow strikes to inferior orbital fissure, reaching as far back as the sphenoid bone.

The position and nature of the damage allows us to discount any consideration of surgery. The physical evidence suggests that a blade has been repeatedly, and without control, forced into the eye socket. The result of this would be for the soft tissue of the eye to be completely destroyed.

None of the marks have been made to the edges of the eye-sockets, only to the upper and lower bones. The position and angle of the damage allows us to make some more inferences. It is the belief of this researcher that the damage was self inflicted. The size of the cuts suggests the injuries were made with a small eating knife common during the 9th century.

A second unusual feature of the skull is a series of lesions in the styloid process region. This displays similar characteristics as those seen in the phalanges recovered from fill [10], but the lesions are much larger in scale. Here, the shape and form of the damage from gnawing is clearly visible to the naked eye and suggests the damage was created by a living organism.

[16] As noted above, the skeletal remains recovered from the fill of grave [15] were incomplete, lacking a skull, and phalanges from the left hand. When compared to the skull and phalanges recovered elsewhere during the excavation, and discussed above, it is clear they are from the same individual.

The lesions observed in both previous skeletal finds are also evident here. One of the jobs that became essential post excavation was the mapping of the route these lesions took through the body. This was mainly achieved using x-ray analysis, which allowed the tunnels to be recorded. The preliminary results are published below. It became clear that whatever created the voids within the skeletal material also travelled through the soft tissue, and as it progressed through the body, it increased in diameter.

At several points, the creatures entered the spine of the individual, with several of them following a final channel through the C1 and C2 vertebrae into the skull. It is not possible to confidently identify the maximum number of creatures which this individual may have hosted, but a conservative minimum count is 12.

All the ribs, femurs, radius, humerus, and ulna showed considerable damage. Having examined the wear pattern caused by the invading species’ teeth, it is my personal opinion the pain would have been excruciating for the individual concerned. No remains of the creatures were found within the skeletal material, or within the high organic content soils in the surrounding area.

[18] Fill [18] produced a large amount of human bone (205kg by weight). All types of human skeletal remains were represented, including femurs, ribs, vertebrae, skulls, and illium. All bones showed some form of damage from a bladed weapon. The evidence varied from precise butchery marks, particularly around the tendons of the long bones, to frenzied strikes. The cuts are consistent with the injuries seen on the skull in context [13], and it is my belief that the same blade was used.

In total, around 15 individuals were identified using the presence of diagnostic skull elements. Due to the fragmentary nature of the bones, this is a bare minimum, and the count could be much higher.

None of the skeletal remains from [18] show the same pattern of internal damage as the skull, phalanges and skeleton recovered elsewhere in Trench 3.

~

Art for "Terminus Post Quem"

In nearly thirty years as a professional Romano-British ceramic specialist, I have never encountered bone and pottery fused together in such a way.

Appendix Five

Specialist Ceramic Report by Diane Bansetten

The “Carrion Knoll Bowl”

In many ways, the vessel is typical Samian ware displaying the characteristic high-quality burnished red slip. The bowl has a slightly deeper profile than usual (300m diameter x 200mm deep).

The main difference is in the decoration. While the scenes displayed on Samian vessels are hugely varied, depicting everything from hunting to pornography, I can think of no comparative to the designs on the Carrion Knoll Bowl.

The same panel repeats three times. Each shows a group of humanoid figures. I use the term humanoid advisedly. While they display the proportions typical of 2nd century AD figurative art, the humanoids are fringed with what I first took to be some kind of fur. On closer inspection and following consultation with a colleague (J. Sanders pers. comm.), they have more in common with certain types of coral. It appears to represent a series of cylindrical polyps emerging from every inch of the skin. The segmented form is clearly defined and, using a hand lens, the fan of teeth can be seen at the terminus of each strand.

Only the humanoid faces are clear, which are rendered in such extreme and precise agony that this author assumes the potter drew on something he witnessed first-hand.

I must also comment on the residual fragments of the bowl recovered from fill [10]. In nearly thirty years as a professional Romano-British ceramic specialist, I have never encountered bone and pottery fused together in such a way. During the firing process, the presence of an entire finger bone in the vessel wall would cause the bowl to explode. This would suggest that the finger bone has been introduced later. Yet once the bowl has been fired, any attempt to force the finger tip through the wall would cause considerable damage. The presence of the slip on the bone suggests that the pottery has melted somehow and then reset, trapping the fingers in the clay.

Conclusion

Due to the unique and extremely disturbing nature of the decoration, the Carrion Knoll Bowl is unparalleled, certainly in British archaeology. The presence of the herbs surrounding the vessel, as well as the as yet unidentified contents, suggest that it had a very specific ritual purpose.

  1. A smear of the gel-like substance still adhered to the inside of the vessel when it arrived. During the unpacking this slid out and fell onto a pottery sherd from my reference collection. The glaze and decoration of this other fragment dissolved in front of my eyes. There may still be traces within the Carrion Knoll Bowl, and I would highly recommend that any further work is carried out following Hazmat guidelines.

Further work

In addition to regular consolidation and conservation work, I would recommend approaching a marine biologist to establish the identity of the coral deforming the humanoid figures in the decoration.

~

Appendix Six

Organic material recovered from the Carrion Knoll Samian Bowl

The material in the Samian bowl recovered from layer [11] was recognised in the cut of pit [05].

When the overlying archaeological material was excavated, the substance was visually inspected before removal by staff from Danburn Archaeological Conservation Laboratories.

The substance had the appearance and texture of aspic. Transparent and gelatinous, several inclusions were visible:

  1. A fragment of skin and intact fingernail. The whole fingerprint was recognisable. Hopefully when the material is back in the lab, this can be recovered and examined further.
  2. Several flower petals and mushrooms. Neither could be identified from a visual inspection and will require specialist study.
  3. Clustered around the base appeared to be 20+ sinuous, segmented polyps, none more than 10mm long. Without cutting into the substance, it is difficult to determine whether they are organic or mineralised.

[Handwritten note]

(These observations of the Carrion Knoll Bowl’s contents are from visual examination on site. The material was immediately shipped to the Danburn Archaeological Conservation Laboratory for analysis. In the last two weeks, there has been no further communication. At the time of publication, phone calls and emails have gone unanswered. If we have not received a response after the weekend, we will be in touch with emergency services to gain access.)


Daniel Benlainey was born in Fife, Scotland, and got his BA in Archaeology from the University of Sheffield, before completing an MSc in Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford. After working the commercial archaeology ‘circuit’ for several years, Daniel has been with Multivallate Archaeology for a decade, starting as a site assistant and working his way up to a project management position. He is especially interested in vitrified forts. When not working he spends his time seeing bands such as Blyth Power, New Model Army, and Flogging Molly, or playing for his local cricket team.


Steve Toase lives in Munich, Germany. His work has appeared in Shimmer, Lackington’s, Aurealis, Not One Of Us, Hinnom Magazine, Cabinet des Feés, and Pantheon Magazine, amongst others. In 2014, “Call Out” (first published in Innsmouth Magazine) was reprinted in The Best Horror Of The Year 6. He first worked on an archaeological site in 1994, and has an MA in Landscape Archaeology. He spent too many years digging big holes looking for old stuff, and once found 1,000 year old human hair. He also likes old motorbikes and vintage cocktails. You can keep up to date with his work via http://www.tinyletter.com/stevetoase, facebook.com/stevetoase1, www.stevetoase.wordpress.com, and @stevetoase.


Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.


“Terminus Post Quem” is © 2019 Steve Toase
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler

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