7. Long Distance Networks?

The exchange considered so far has been at a purely local scale, much smaller than the exchange networks operating in the Late Iron Age. This exchange made an increasingly scarce resource – everyday manufactured ceramics – available to at least a portion of the inhabitants of Baldock and maintained social relations with the former town's hinterland. However, there is (admittedly limited) evidence for wider contacts across the Roman world.

7.1 The St Menas ampulla

The most startling object that is probably from Baldock is a St Menas ampulla, a small ceramic flask conventionally dated 580-650, from the monastery of Abu Mina, 45km west of Alexandria in Egypt, an important Byzantine place of pilgrimage (Letchworth Museum Accession Number 1936.7421; Figure 6). According to the Accessions Register, it was donated on 15 September 1936 by a Mr Lee of 5a Royston Road, Baldock, and is described as a 'Small Roman Pottery Flask from Pompeii', a provenance that is clearly impossible: not only does Pompeii lie outside the predominantly south-east Mediterranean and north European distribution of these flasks (Harris 2003, 68), the date of the town's destruction in AD 79 is incompatible with the date of manufacture of the flasks, which appears to be the 6th and early 7th centuries AD. It is possible that an inexpert and self-taught curator, whose post relied on his expertise as an amateur naturalist, wrongly identified a Byzantine object; another misidentification is a Hellenistic or Orientalising Etruscan stone head recorded as a medieval English ecclesiastical carving (Accession Number 1931.6117).

Figure 6: The St Menas ampulla from Letchworth Museum

However, in 1988, the writer discovered a late Roman cemetery on the site of Mr Lee's house following its demolition. Mr Lee had clearly disturbed some burials – at least three in the area investigated in 1988 – and had made an attempt at gluing a shattered skull back together before reburying it. During the investigation of the site, sherds of sub-Roman pottery were found unstratified, suggesting 5th-century activity, presumably for the deposition of burials. Unfortunately, most of the graves were identified in footings trenches for two new houses and so their graves could not systematically be emptied of contents; as a result, no grave can be shown to have contained sub-Roman ceramics.

St Menas ampullae are, however, known from a number of places in Britain: Susanne Bangert (2007, fig. 3) gives examples from Canterbury (where two are known), Derby, Faversham (two examples), Meols (Wirral), Shincliffe (Durham, two examples) and York, while another is known from Preston Brook, Cheshire (Griffiths and Bangert 2007, 59). None has been retrieved from a secure archaeological context, but there is increasing acceptance of them as genuinely early medieval imports. The Letchworth ampulla might therefore be associated with the late Roman cemetery on Mr Lee's property (Fitzpatrick-Matthews 2010, 137).

The British ampullae are now interpreted as evidence for contact with the Eastern Empire, although the precise nature of that contact is unclear. Anthea Harris (2003, 69) has tentatively suggested that they were brought to Britain by returning pilgrims, while Susanne Bangert (2007, 32) has speculated that they may have been brought in by Christians from southern Europe, perhaps connected with the Augustinian mission to the English. On the other hand, William Anderson (2007, 238) has seen them as part of a trading network via northern Gaul; moreover, he has characterised them as prestige items (Anderson 2004, 89). The two alternatives are not mutually exclusive, but both raise the intriguing question of Christian survival in eastern Britain during the 5th and 6th centuries; interestingly, a Christian cemetery excavated in 2001 in Hitchin, some 9km to the south-west of Baldock, is dated by radiocarbon to the 5th to 6th or 7th centuries (Davis 2005, 62).

There are also a few coins of Justinian I, Justin II and Tiberius II said to have been found locally in the collections of Letchworth Museum. As with the St Menas ampulla, though, none is from a secure archaeological context but they are potentially evidence for continuing contacts between the Baldock area and the Empire.