Druids in Colchester?

Mention the Druids to the media and you’ve got yourself a story or two. And that’s what happened with the Stanway site. Mike Pitts, editor of British Archaeology, has been pushing the idea that our ‘doctor’ at Stanway was in not just a medical man, but he was in fact a Druid. Plenty of newspaper coverage followed and there are at least two TV programmes where the Stanway Druid is featured.

Early last year, we published a lengthy and detailed account of the findings making public all the ins and outs to the investigation. So people now can study the facts and come to their own conclusions.

Archaeological writing is full of conjecture and surmise. The nature of the beast makes it like that. If, for example. an archaeologist found a grave with an inscription in it saying that the dead man had been an architect, the archaeologist would not only be extremely lucky, but he would be able to state with a fair degree of the conviction that he had just found the remains of a architect. No surprise there you will say. If, on the other hand, he found a grave which had no inscription in it, but instead contained a ruler and a set square, what then? Could he claim that the dead person had been an architect? No, of course not. He could say that he might very well have been one, but without more positive proof, he would draw back at going the whole way. And this is how it is at Stanway, The set of metal tools in our so-called ‘Doctor’s burial’ suggest that the dead person had been a surgeon or at least somebody sufficiently knowedgable to carry out some surgery. The presence of artemisia in the strainer bowl points to a familiarity with herbal remedies .

Remains of one of the dead people there contained a large and varied range of objects amongst which there was a set of surgical instruments and a large metal bowl which had been used to prepare a drink or preparation of some kind which included the herb artemisia. We know this because in the spout of the vessel there was a lump of organic material which contained many pollens of that plant. The presence of the sand surgical instruments tells us that the dead person practised surgery  and that therefore he was likely to have been a surgeon. The presence of the artemisia supports this view and since this widens out the healing angle to include herbal remedies, we conclude that the dead person had been a healer of some kind, hence the ‘doctor’s grave’

Now this conclusion is not without its problems. Firstly we have to make the assumption that the surgical instruments had actually belonged and been used by the dead person in life.

Most of the graves which we excavate contain objects of one kind or another. The commonest is a large pot which had been used as a repository for the dead person’s cremated remains. Sometimes there are other objects in the grave commonest among them being beakers and dishes. These vessels are almost invariably found lying upright in the ground suggesting that they contained food and drink when they were buried. The Stanway Doctor’s grave was exceptionally well provided for and contained not only food and drink (presumably for the afterlife), but other objects too including clothing, brooches, a jet ring, the surgical instruments, the metal strainer bowl, a gaming board with counters. There were also a mysterious set of metal rods and rings.

The typical object in a grave might be a pot or a dish. This is an important and very real point. Given the unusual nature of the objects this seems likely, for why else would you put surgical instruments in a grave unless the diseased had once used them?  Add to this the evidence of artimesia, then the case that the dead person had been a doctor, or at least some kind of healer, becomes almost irresistible.

The proposition that the Stanway doctor had been a Druid takes as its starting point that the dead person had been some kind of healer and then goes to suppose that he had been a particular kind of one and that type was a Druid.