The perfect journey is never finished, the goal is always just across the next river, round the shoulder of the next mountain. There is always one more track to follow, one more mirage to explore.Rosita Forbes. From Red Sea to Blue Nile: a thousand miles of Ethiopia (ed. 1935)
A long lane runs from the old Roman road known as ‘Ermine Street’ to Riseholme, a hamlet just north of Lincoln. At the end of the lane is a large estate – a curious mix of 18th century grand hall and soviet-era style student accommodation set within the grounds of a deserted medieval village.
For years, Sean and Hugh have metal detected the fields around the hall. The fields have been good to them; Roman coins, medieval buckles, and pottery in abundance now form the bulk of their collections. “There must have been an important settlement here” barks Hugh to me, his heavy headphones muffling his ears and making him shout secrets he’d normally be quieter about. And for good reason, people have searched these fields before – often without permission.
Their searches focus on fields around a square mound set peacefully in one corner of an otherwise unremarkable field. A rickety wooden fence surrounds the mound to keep plough and archaeologists away, its rotting posts disguising the fact that it is one of the most northerly Roman burial mounds in the Roman Empire. Excavations on the mound in the 1930s and again in the 1950s found pots containing cremations, but little else.
For Sean and Hugh, the mound is just the backdrop to the remains of an elaborate Roman building which emerges from the plough soil clearer with every find. Coins, brooches, and other items of jewellery bring the people who once lived in the mound-field back to life, temporarily. Rich people, by the looks of things. Women with silver rings, households with Pompeii-style hanging lamps. The trappings of elite Roman people who probably knew the names of the people buried in the mound.
Those names have long since been lost, but the metal detectorists think they might not have been names familiar in Rome. On a cold Saturday morning in February 2017, Sean got a loud signal on his metal detector. Looking up, he noticed the mound was in sight. Hugh helped unearth the find. The hole they dug came down onto a flat stone, much like that which capped the cremation discovered in the mound in 1935. And just like in 1935, the stone covered a much bigger secret. Lying beneath the featureless flat stone were coins – 282 of them, all dating to the decades immediately before the Roman conquest of Britain in AD43. The names and motifs on the coins showed these were struck by the local Iron Age tribe in the area – the Corieltavi. Some of these coins give the earliest known names in this part of England: Vepo Corf, Iisup Rasu, Dumnoc Tiger Seno, and Dumnocoveros. Might one of these names belong to someone buried in the mound? A fanciful thought, but perhaps less fanciful than them being called Claudius.
For Sean and Hugh the discovery brought fame and a little fortune, but the thrill soon gave way to more questions. Was the hoard buried at the same time as the mound was constructed? Was it perhaps buried to protect the entrance to a shrine or temple? Why did they not come back for it? The discovery was just the beginning, as so many discoveries usually are.
English travel writer and novelist Rosita Torr (1890-1967) knew this feeling well. “There is always one more track to travel, one more mirage to explore” wrote Rosita in her novel From Red Sea to Blue Nile: a thousand miles of Ethiopia. Rosita’s adventures took her to over 30 countries including Libya in 1921 where she disguised herself as an Arab woman named “Sitt Khadija”. Rosita, it seems, was the first European woman to have visited the Kufra Oasis. Her spirit for adventure and archaeology would not be the only thing in common with the detectorists; Rosita was born at Riseholme Hall and would certainly have sat on top of the mound, looking out on the fields Hugh and Sean would come to search decades later. Rosita was the eldest child of Herbert James Torr – a member of parliament, and Rosita Graham Torr. The young Rosita could not have failed to be intrigued by the humps and bumps of the landscape in which she grew up – a palimpsest of two thousand years of settlement that is largely still visible today.
A lifetime of adventures passed, and in June 1941 the now elderly Rosita Torr (now Forbes) visited the City and County Museum in Lincoln, where she presented the curator with five Inca ceramic pots from Peru. The curator got out the large register and neatly documented the donation. In the 1940s curators spent little time on detail.
The register tells us nothing about three of the pots apart from that they were found between 1847-49. However, two of the vessels – a small jug and basin – were apparently found in a grave with a mummy of a child at the Temple of the Sun at Pachacamac, Peru. Pachacamac lies 40km south east of Lima in the valley of the Lurin river. The name shows the complex was dedicated to the god Pacha Kamaq – the most important deity in the region at the time. Archaeological excavations at Pachacamac – of a sort – began in the 1890s, though looting had been going on long before this. As early as the mid-19th century skulls were being collected from the site for ‘scientific analysis’; many of these were the unwanted scraps left behind by looters.
The wording of the accession register suggests that Rosita Graham (Rosita’s grandmother) was part of a team excavating the site. It appears that the Roman mound was not the only source of inspiration for the young Rosita.
Rosita’s grandmother was married to John McLean – a much respected Scottish merchant who exported plants from Lima, Peru. McLean apparently lost much of his retirement fund through the fault of his nephew, but his name lives on in Macleania – a genus of plants in the family Ericaceae. Rosita’s grandmother’s name also lives on the accessions register of the City and County Museum in Lincoln, thanks to the donation of the Peruvian pots. In the same book, many pages on, are also the names of Sean Scargill and Hugh Jenkins, finders of the Riseholme coin hoard.
For Sean and Hugh, the search continues. “Each turn of the plough can bring new artefacts to the surface”, they tell me, “and there are many more fields in the area yet to be searched”.
The lure of new ground was familiar to Rosita, too.
It is true there is a scent in the desert, though there may be no flower or tree or blade of grass within miles. It is the essence of the untrodden, untarnished earth herself!Rosita Forbes. The Secret of the Sahara: Kufara, ed. 1921