1703: Fake or fortune and 'our' little Cuckfield urn

Updated: Mar 2


What could be one of the most valuable antiquities to be found in Cuckfield was recorded in 1703. Not only is it unusual for archaeology finds to have been recorded 0ver 300 years ago - but the relic has had an even more curious recent past. There is a tantalising revelation that there might have been some mischief afoot in the antique business.


The original finding of the urn was recorded by hand in the diary of local landowner and Ockenden House resident Timothy Burrell. The original diary was lost in a fire but a copy was kept. The entry was written in Latin to ensure that that the information was safely coded from prying eyes. Its translation read:


5 April 1703: ‘There was this day found in the high road, at Highbridge Hill, in Cuckfield near Ansty, a Roman sepulchral urn, filled with human bones and ashes, with various platters of different forms standing round it, made of red shining clay.’


The platters were Samian ware high quality pottery from Roman Britain. This dates the find to the 1st Century AD from the time of Claudius I (AD 41–54).


Where it was found

The location at Highbridge is odd as the nearest Roman road ran one mile to the east - through a forest of oak and ash trees which the Romans called the 'Forest of Anderida'. But there may have been a another trackway heading towards today’s Cuckfield following the route of our A272 perhaps linking to a main Roman 'highway' to the south.


It was not unusual for Romans to bury their dead alongside roads and at cross-roads. For example a Roman cemetery exists near Stonepound Crossroads at Hassocks, this would have been adjacent to the East-West Roman Road. The quality of the urn and accompanying pottery suggests that this was a high status individual. We might have expected the urn to have been placed in a small mausoleum and, most probably, it was and the building materials subsequently robbed.


Could an early iron furnace have any connection?

Highbridge Hill does not fix the location precisely, but at the foot of the hill, close to the Highbridge Mill could well have been the site of a Roman iron production furnace. This would have been 'a bloomery' - the earliest form of furnace capable of smelting iron. We know there was iron production taking place here in C15-16th. So the spot near the road might represent the final resting place of the owner of the furnace and allowed passing travellers to pay their respects.



£60,000 price tag

In 2014 the urn came to auction at Bonhams and sold for an eye-watering £60,000. It was sold by the descendants of the Fearons who occupied Ockenden Manor after the Burrells.


Four years later the urn came to auction again this time with Sothebys but with a very different estimate of £20,000-30,000. The item description reads:


'A Roman marble cinerary urn and lid, 1st Century AD, carved in front with two confronted birds perched atop both ends of a heavy filleted garland of leaves and fruit and flanking a framed rectangular panel engraved with a single line of inscription reading Memno, two birds with folded wings in the lunette, each side carved with a calyx of acanthus spreading into four symmetrical scrolls each centering a rosette, the gabled lid with voluted ends, leaf-shaped tiles, and pediment carved in shallow relief with two birds flanking a plant. Height 33 cm.'


But the expert valuer had spotted some things could be amiss: 'The presence of a single onomastic element, moreover in the nominative, to refer to the deceased, as well as its off-centre position on the tablet, suggests that the text was engraved in modern times, probably in order to increase its value at the time of the sale to the English collector.'


Professional disagreement


The photographs of the inscription urn on the earlier sale matches the image when it was rephotographed and resold - which seems to suggest that nothing had changed and that it was most probably sold by the family as found.


But the off-centre nature of the inscription (I assume rather than the border?) runs counter to the precision and balance of the sculptural detail - and Romans did like symmetry and order.


But the obvious counter is that 'MEMNO' is the Latin for 'remember' and the space beneath was left for a later inscription.


The auctioneers also quoted Roman inscription authority Roger Tomlin that 'the urn is characteristic of cinerary urns produced in Rome and collected by Englishmen on their Grand Tour, not of Romano-British ash containers, which were of a different material, style, and workmanship'. This might suggest that this has nothing to do with ownership by the Burrells and Fearons, and implies that the Burrell story was used to create provenance to sell the item.


Another theory is that the 'Grand Tour' was happening at around the time of the 1703 finding - so was it stolen and ditched by the side of the road before the finding perhaps?


Sadly the further thoughts of the auctioneers, the vendors, the purchasers and the final price are unrecorded and the outcome unlikely to be ever known.


Perhaps, and more significant than this, is that the private ownership means that what could be one of the most important historic findings in Cuckfield is not available to be viewed by villagers and its visitors. If the village had been aware could public funds have been raised? Even if they had - the display of this valuable item would have become a security issue.


But could the recent sales have involved a fake? Perhaps we need Fiona Bruce and art dealer Philip Mould to unravel the mystery on TV programme 'Fake or Fortune'.


Sources:

Timothy Burrell's Dairy: Sussex Archaeological Collections, vol 3, p174

Bonhams catalogue web page, Sotheby's catalogue page.

'Forest of Anderida' from A Chronicle of Cuckfield by Maisie Wright, 1991, P9.

A second funerary urn was found in 1922 at Whiteman's Green, further confirming Roman presence in the local area. This short item was found in the Sussex Archeological Society's Collection:


A number of fragments of Romano-British pottery were found at Whiteman’s Green, Cuckfield in January, 1922. A house is being erected in a meadow a little to the north of the green and adjoining the road from Cuckfield to Balcombe, marked 356 on the Ordnance map. While digging a trench in the garden about three feet deep and thirty feet from the Balcombe road, and roughly parallel to it, the workmen came upon the pottery embedded in clay, which showed distinct traces of the action of fire. Two of the pieces have a curved rim, and seem to have formed part of cinerary urns [for containing a person’s ashes]. The remainder have no marks of any kind. Sussex Archeological Society 63, 1922, P240


Both items contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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