Excavating the Chiseldon cauldrons

The team that joined together to recover the remains of unique find, a hoard of 2,000 year old cauldrons found at Chiseldon, near Swindon, Wiltshire, has been awarded a top archaeological prize.
The ‘Rescue Dig of the Year' award went to the team that recovered the Iron Age cauldrons at the "Archaeology Festival '09." The festival was organised by the leading archaeology magazine ‘Current Archaeology' and held at the National Museum and Galleries of Wales and the University of Cardiff, February 6-8th, 2009. The awards were decided by on-line voting by the magazine's readers.
Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology who led the excavation team said ‘this award recognises not just the importance of the find but also the way so many people with an interest in our past have worked together.'
When metal detector user Peter Hyams discovered a metal bowl at Chiseldon, he did not dig it up. He left it the ground and reported the find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). But this left Peter and everyone else with a puzzle. How old was the buried find?
Peter was convinced that further work was needed and local archaeologist John Winterburn and the Local History Society came forward to do a small excavation. This showed that the bowl was actually a cauldron, apparently of iron, and that there might be a second one. But the objects were too big to get out of the ground and their date remained a puzzle. There was not enough information for experts to be able to identify and date the cauldrons. Then scientific analysis of some of the metal at Oxford University suggested that the cauldrons were prehistoric, much earlier than had been thought. This would make them Treasure under the Treasure Act.


Excavating the Chiseldon cauldrons and wrapping them in plaster of paris for protection

Realising the significance of this, Katie Hinds the local PAS Finds Liaison Officer then asked Wessex Archaeology, the largest archaeological organisation in the region, and who had already helped the PAS with a number of other discoveries, if they could help. The PAS had limited funds available but it was clear that this would not be enough so Wessex took on the excavation and donated their time. The British Museum sent a conservator, Alex Baldwin, to help with the difficult task of removing the cauldrons intact. With the help of Peter Hyams, the farmer - who lent a JCB digger, members of the Chiseldon Local History Society, the Wiltshire Archaeological Society, archaeologists from Cambridge University and the PAS, the cauldrons were excavated.


To everyone's astonishment there was not just one or even two cauldrons, but a dozen, all made from wafer thin metal. It was the largest hoard of Iron Age cauldrons found, not just in Britain, but in Europe. The Chiseldon cauldrons are a unique find, the remains of a great feast.
Wrapped in bandages stiffened with plaster of paris, and still full of soil, the cauldrons were carefully removed from the pit in which they had been buried and then taken to the British Museum. At a Coroner's Inquest the cauldrons were declared Treasure and an independent valuation committee determined the reward payable to Peter Hyams for reporting the find. This allowed the British Museum to acquire the hoard and in the autumn of 2008 Alex Baldwin started the next stage of work, micro-excavating one cauldron in the Research Laboratory as part of an exhibition ‘Conservation in Focus' while visitors asked questions. This work was also aimed at establishing how well-preserved the cauldrons were. It would also allow an accurate estimate for how long it would take to excavate and conserve all of the cauldrons. The scale of the work needed is beyond the Museums' normal resources.

British Museum conservator Alex Baldwin micro-excavating the cauldrons

Soon it was possible to see for the first time what one of the cauldrons looked like and it proved to be much better preserved than anyone had hoped. The date of the great feast can now be narrowed down to the second or first century BC. Reacting to the news of the prize, Alex said ‘it's great to see the collaborative work acknowledged by an award, especially when it was decided by the readers of the magazine.'
Dr Roger Bland, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, added ‘the Chiseldon cauldrons show both the strength and weakness of the current arrangements for reporting archaeological finds. The find, which is of international significance, was properly reported through the PAS. This shows how effective the scheme is but it has no funds available for follow up excavations. The significance of the find only became clear because Wessex Archaeology stepped into the breach and everyone donated their time. We are very grateful for this. And this still leaves the British Museum with the challenge of raising significant funds to be able to do the essential conservation that will unlock further secrets and allow the full story of this unique find to be told.'