Gerald Reeve’s cottage in Godmanchester sat on the site of a wealthy Roman settlement and he was used to finding treasures in his garden.
Most residents of the town were and still find them today.
The town’s Roman name is Durovigutum, the premier Roman town in the province and it has always been said that if you put your trowel in the ground you’re likely to find ancient treasure.
So it was for this reason Gerald dug carefully while starting foundations for his Pinfold Lane garage in 1991, and it was fortunate that he did because he unearthed a find of international significance.
Gerald happened upon the burial of a seven-year-old girl dating from the 2nd century AD, which had been embellished with imported pottery, bangles and figurines.
There was a rare red Samian ware vase imported from the Rhineland, flanked on either side by two white figurines, a horse and a bull, again, both imported, this time from Lezoux, in France.
“Dot,” he shouted to his wife, “Quick. Bring the camera”.
That picture taken in 1991 is now on show at the British Museum along with the items discovered in the burial, donated by Gerald’s widow, Dorothy, earlier this year.
Gerald found a group of pots, figurines and bracelets, the poignant cremation burial of a Roman child.
In front of the red Samian ware cremation vessel which contained the child’s remains, was a black burnished ware drinking cup, perhaps containing a drink for her journey to the afterlife.
The sacred bull, which symbolised strength, has a symbolic sacrificial sash around its belly and would have been there to protect the child and impress the gods with her high status.
Behind the bull her parents had put a little a black burnished ware dish for sweets and at the back a buff coloured cooking pot so that she could have porridge in the afterlife.
The horse figurine is that of the Romano Celtic goddess Epona, escorter of souls to the afterlife, also goddess of crossroads and goddess of cavalry too, which might indicate that the child’s father was Roman cavalry officer.
Sue Jones, Gerald’s daughter, said: “My father treasured this find and kept the little girl safe in a way. He only showed people the vessels and the bangles but kept the cremated remains private – perhaps for her sake.”
Gerald immediately showed his find to the Cambridgeshire county archaeologist, Alison Taylor, who verified that the child was about seven or eight-years-old, using bone analysis.
Sue said: “Alison was amazed by the rarity of the find, the rarity of the perfect figurines and Samian ware vase and became my dad’s friend. My father died some time ago, but he would have been pleased to see this lovely collection go to the British Museum.”
The burial group had been put in the ground in a wooden box as was the custom in Roman times. The wood rotted away, but two little gold box fittings used to close the lid had fallen into the cremation vessel.
Professor Stephen Upex, the Cambridge archaeologist who helped negotiate the collection’s place into the British Museum, said: “This burial is of international significance. Such perfect figurines are extremely rare, as is the Samian ware vessel, and everybody must be grateful to Gerald and Dorothy Reeve who ensured that the objects could be seen by as many people as possible”.
Rachel Jackson, from the British Museum, said: “The museum was grateful for the generous donation of the important and poignant child cremation burial. The bracelets, animal figurines and box fittings accompanying the child demonstrate the wealth of the family and the links abroad make it an unusual burial compared to other graves from Roman Britain.”
Professor Upex believes the costly items used in the burial were available to buy in Godmanchester, a wealthy, relatively sophisticated town in 2nd century AD, as there would not have been time to obtain them from abroad or even London.
Kate Hadley and Professor Upex have recently published Roman Secrets from Private Collections, a digital catalogue of votive Roman treasures from Godmanchester and Cambridgeshire.
It is available from Kate by calling 01480 454154 or by visiting the Porch Museum website - www.godmanchester.co.uk.
Kate is hosting a talk on Roman treasures at Huntingdon library, on December 7, from 1.30pm.