thinking about archaeology


Ancient flowers


Knapweed and bracken growing together beside a path at Tintagel, Cornwall (photo Gill Campbell/Historic England), with remains from the hoard, including a common knapweed flower (top) and bracken (photo Portable Antiquities Scheme)

I wrote earlier about the hoard of bronze pans found near Pewsey. Ruth Pelling, senior archaeobotanist at Historic England, tweeted “My wonderful flowers – most exciting material I’ve ever worked on”. I asked her more about them, a very unusual find.

The principle plant material is grassland vegetation and bracken. Pelling counted 23 Centaurea flower heads, one of which could be identified as Centaurea nigra (common knapweed). Other remains include a few seeds each (or just one) of cowslip/primrose (probably former), milkwort, lesser hawkbit, sedges, clovers, vetches and sweet violet, fat hen, knot grass, black bindweed, buttercup and corn spurrey. Devil’s bit scabious is represented only by pollen. Pelling tells me that she suspects this is all from vegetation collected incidentally with the bracken or handfuls of grassland vegetation, which provided the actual packing.

The spring flowers (cowslip/primrose) are likely to have persisted as dried seed pods in what is otherwise a July or August flora, collected from local grassland. Analysis of pollen from soil in the vessels shows they were packed in a place with areas of disturbed vegetation, such as beside ditches, roads, paths or rivers, and confirms that the pit was dug in late summer, probably within an arable field. Radiocarbon dating of plant remains puts the year much less precisely at around AD450 give or take.

• Digital versions of the magazine are correct, but in the printed magazine, we got the Centaurea quantities wrong: the correct figures are 23 flower heads, of which one is identifiable as common knapweed.

Peter Lord talks to British Archaeology about Early Man

Peter Lord.jpgThe new British Archaeology has three great exclusives. I’ve already written briefly about two of them: new discoveries at Stonehenge, and some Roman pans buried with flowers which were preserved by the corroding bronze. Here’s the third. Last year I went to Bristol to talk to Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman. We talked about archaeology, imaginary worlds and Aardman’s next film, Early Man.


Screengrab from Early Man website

We have every reason, on Aardman’s and director Nick Park’s track records, to expect this movie to be immensely popular. There aren’t enough archaeologists in the world to make a statistically significant difference to the audience, even if every one of them went to see it (or indeed if they all boycotted it). But I think most archaeologists will love it. A sort of ancient Britain with echoes of One Million Years BC, the Beano and Ealing comedy, Early Man will at last offer the chance for them to get enthusiastic about a film that doesn’t feature Indiana Jones. Peter Lord was a lovely host, chatting away while he modelled a clay figure.

BA153 Lant St.jpgThe magazine also feature five major excavations, from the Calanais megaliths on the Isle of Lewis, to a Roman town in Norfolk with an unusual story, and early medieval natives, immigrants and changing times in north-east Scotland – Portmahomack.

BA153 Gray.jpgI particularly enjoyed working with Alison Jane Hoare on her article about the Victorian/Edwardian archaeologist Harold St George Gray. He’s familiar to a handful of archaeologists for his work with General Pitt Rivers, and later his own excavations of neolithic sites. But he really deserves to be more widely known, and as the feature shows, there is an interesting life (with a personal tragedy) we hear little about – and there remains a story to be told. He was an extraordinary photographer, as I discovered when I arrived as curator of Avebury Museum in 1979, only a little after the National Trust had brought it Gray’s archaeological archive on a stone circles project. With the help of the National Trust and staff in Avebury Museum, I put together a portfolio of some of his photos for the magazine, most of them never published before.

With all the usual stuff, including photographer Mick Sharp’s new column and the annual Requiem feature, there’s a lot to read in the first British Archaeology of 2017.

Roman bronze pots and pans buried with flowers

vessels drawing tinned.jpgHere’s another great story from the new British Archaeology, which went live online today (February 8). Conservation of a hoard of late Roman bronze pots and pans found near Pewsey, Wiltshire, has revealed they were packed with plants, among which were bracken and knapweed flowers.

Eight mostly plain vessels had been carefully nested inside each other. There’s a bit of tinning on some of them, so I coloured the diagram silver rather than a reddish bronze.

The plants gave a rare radiocarbon date for a hoard, of AD380–550, placing its burial most probably in post-Roman (after AD410) or Anglo-Saxon times. It may be contemporary with a nearby early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Blacknall Field.


Richard Henry, Wiltshire finds liaison officer, and Rachel Foster, assistant county archaeologist, excavating the hoard site in 2014. Photo Past Landscapes Project

Three men and a woman with metal detectors made the discovery in late 2014 (Tony Millett writing in Marlborough Online – nearly opposite me across our little street! – identifies the detectorists as “Mick Rae, Rob Abbott and their friend Dave”, and credits photos to Marina Rae).


Some of the pans (not to scale). Photos Portable Antiquities Scheme

In an example of how the Treasure Act can have some odd results, the hoard is not legally treasure (which it would have been if prehistoric, or if Roman, of precious metal). Were it treasure, the pans would be independently valued and museums would have the chance to raise money to buy them from the finders. The finders have kept the vessels, but have given the fragile organic remains to the Wiltshire Museum: they are on display there now. What will happen to the pans is entirely in the hands of their new owners.

More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.

Stonehenge finds tell of divided society

west-amesbury-digThe new British Archaeology, which went live online today (February 8), reports significant new discoveries near Stonehenge, among them the grave of a man who might have seen the earliest megaliths erected at the site.

West Amesbury Farm copyright Judith Dobie .jpgCremated remains of over 100 people were buried at the first Stonehenge, from 3100BC – the largest cremation cemetery in prehistoric Britain. Human remains of this age are otherwise rare in the world heritage site, or across Britain as a whole. So it is noteworthy that the man buried at West Amesbury, who was not cremated, probably saw funerals at Stonehenge quite different to his own.

W Amesbury pit.jpgFive pits in the chalk contemporary with the henge’s origins contained huge amounts of artefacts. These include quantities of Peterborough pottery, in large fresh sherds, all in the Fengate style (one of these pits has more pottery in it than the whole of prehistoric Stonehenge).

Stonehenge W Amesbury pot.jpgHitherto, discussions about the people who were buried at Stonehenge – were they part of an elite? – have been one-sided, with evidence only from the site. For the first time, these pits bring another part of the early Stonehenge community into the picture – the people who did things, and were buried, elsewhere. Were they the people who cut the trees to make the pyres for the select few to be cremated and buried at Stonehenge?

The finds were made in the first stage of a major Historic England project to better understand the southern part of the Stonehenge world heritage site, little investigated in modern times.

stonehenge map.jpgOther discoveries include the remains of two men, one buried shorty after the other around 1450–1300BC, at the bottom of a ditch just south of Stonehenge. The ditch is part of a network of boundary earthworks that divided up the land around Stonehenge, apparently for the first time, in the middle bronze age. It runs north-south more or less at right angles to the A303, showing that in the bronze age at least, that east-west route did not exist. The road was created by the Amesbury Turnpike Trust about 250 years ago.

More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Council for British Archaeology members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.

All pictures Historic England (I’ve simplified the map a little). The painting is copyright Judith Dobie.

The 7 Ages of Hockney

IMG_4551.jpgImmediate thoughts on seeing Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition.

Oh my. It’s uplifting and beautiful. My memories of his work when we were younger – he’d paint, I’d see them in colour supplement features – made me think this show might have a bit of a gay narrative (We Two Boys Together Clinging, A Bigger Splash, men in showers and so on). But it’s larger than that. His earliest drawings, done when he was a teenager, have such perception and promise (like Lucian Freud’s very early work). At the Royal College of Art in the early 60s his work is raw, experimental, struggling with art and with life (here is the only sexually graphic stuff we see, and even then it’s coded). He matures, finds his feet and the joy of relationships. He discovers light, nature and seasons, beauty in people and landscapes. He becomes calm and wise in older age. This is not about being gay, it’s about life, a life – our life, if we had his drive and talent, the eyes to see, the confidence to be our self, and to just enjoy things, to not fuss about the past.

That Hockney’s work is representational is deceptive: it can help to look for the abstract in the scenery, it can be a mistake to assume everything is as easy as it sometimes looks. His frequent style changes and discoveries of new media are inspiring, he never loses his youthful enthusiasm. It doesn’t always lead to his best work (whenever he rails against other art or art forms, as he does with conventional photography, you are warned).  But what an achievement, a tour with force.

Hockney Bacon.jpgAnd humour. This Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (centre, 1961) made me think of Francis Bacon’s existential boxes, life trapped on a stage with its entrance and exit (on left is Bacon’s Seated Figure, 1961, and on right, a panel from Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962). Hockney’s box does offer a sense of hopeless entrapment, but you can’t help also thinking of tea leaves and a nice pot of tea (and you can’t imagine Bacon making jokes about how he misspelt TAE). Yet somehow the angst survives.

This is supposed to be a blog about archaeology, so here are some pictures…

IMG_4560.jpgDetail from Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians (1965)

IMG_4552.jpgDetail from  American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968

IMG_4554.jpgThere’s a roomful of lovely East Riding landscapes. There’s some great archaeology up there, and some archaeologists looking at these will feel on familiar ground. There’s a bowlful of blossom in Kilham and blossom bursting from a hedgerow near Rudston. Above is The Road to Thwing, July 2006 (2006). Below is May Blossom on the Roman Road (2009). (These are bigger than they might look here.) It’s some time since I’ve felt such sheer joy in an exhibition.

Ten archaeology headlines I don’t want to see in 2017 (but know I will)

stonehenge road junction.jpg

  1. Ancient Britons/people were not as primitive as we thought

Over a century ago, the Illustrated London News ran a feature about the newly excavated iron age lake village at Glastonbury, headlined, “Not the woad-daubed savage of the old history-books: the civilised ancient Briton”. When we see a headline like this, we know the writer went to school before 1911. We might guess rightly that a PR office had issued a release with a story making the claim, and worse still that the archaeologists behind the report had themselves suggested something similar. Archaeologists seeking to make their research sound important should note that the readers you want to reach know that the people who invented art, boats, farming, houses, fireplaces, language and making string were not primitive. Claiming so only makes you look that way.

  1. Neanderthals were not as stupid/brutish/macho/hairy as we thought

See above. This was neanderthal journalism (whoops, there I go) even before it was found that apparently everyone alive today originating from outside Africa has a small amount of neanderthal in their DNA. Now it’s not only stupid and lazy, but racist.

  1. *** explains Stonehenge

No it doesn’t. And anyway, it’s been said before, probably some time in the 18th century and every other Tuesday since.

  1. x-rays/lasers/drones/satellites/sonic screwdrivers discover hundreds/thousands/millions of ancient shoes/temples/civilisations

There is part of me that likes these stories. There is often good research behind the headlines: who would begrudge easy publicity for field projects that need to please their sponsors? And isn’t the promise of making spectacular discoveries what first drew many of us into archaeology in the first place? Yet on balance they don’t work for me. First, the science is over-hyped, when there is a lot of more sophisticated technology out there that is profoundly changing the way we understand the past, but is almost impossible to put into a short heading that makes any sense. Many people reading these stories must think to themselves, how hard is looking at Google Earth? Are archaeologists really that far behind the tech curve? Secondly, claims to have discovered all those things nobody knew about often forget to note that other archaeologists who might have spent half a career researching an area actually did know all about them. It’s just that their pictures weren’t quite so pretty.

  1. Archaeologists find mysterious chamber in pyramid

The real problem with this headline is the first word. Is there nothing better for an archaeologist to do in Egypt right now that doesn’t involve a pyramid that nobody is going to steal or destroy? Although on reflection, perhaps looking at pyramids is better than digging up more mummies. At last no one has to pay for the conservation and find somewhere to store everything.

  1. Viking helmets did not have horns!

That’s probably true (though I like to think there was a Grayson Bluetooth out there, in touch with his inner Viking man, who thought horns looked rather dinky, and attached a blond wig to boot), but archaeologists have been saying it for a very long time. Everyone knows! Roberta Frank dates the horn idea to 1875, when Carl Emil Doepler designed costumes for the first Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “However ‘wrong’,” she concludes, “the horned Viking helmet has been a recurrent fantasy transmuting the desert of daily existence into contours rare and strange.” Or in other words, why spoil the fun? (See “The invention of the Viking horned helmet,” in International Scandinavian & Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ed M Dallapiazza (2000), 199–208.)

  1. Archaeology is in crisis

This is different, in that while I don’t want to read it, I know it could be true in Britain and I wish it couldn’t. The effects of relentless government cuts on Historic England have resulted in the recent departure of significant numbers of experienced, skilled staff. Central government support for local authorities is so poor that the latter often have no option but to choose between funding libraries, museums, archaeology services, hospitals and schools to the point that some of the former have to close, and even if not they are severely stretched. Significant archaeological archives could be disposed of simply became there is nowhere to keep them. Archaeological research is an international affair: the impact of Brexit is certain to be negative, and not just through the loss of EU funding. Insufficient skilled archaeologists to meet the demand from new large infrastructure projects could mean development without archaeology, an idea that might catch on. And so on.

But all is not lost. Public interest in archaeology has never been higher, and arts, heritage and culture make a very significant contribution to the British economy and the UK’s international identity. Will there be a crisis? A lot depends on how well the archaeological profession can work together to stand up and speak clearly in language politicians understand. The headlines we want to see, are “Government supports archaeology because it matters to the nation.” Because it does.

  1. *** rewrites the history books

The past is a long, big complex place. No one discovery or idea is going to turn everything upside down, nor for that matter is one archaeologist. Research is now happening on a very larges scale, and an unprecedented amount of new stuff is being discovered and understood. If books are changing, however, they are being extended and revised, or written from scratch where none previously existed, but much of what we thought we knew is always going to stay in. And anyway, with no A level archaeology, who needs history books that need archaeology any more? If books need rewriting, it’s not because of something somebody found. It’s because they were no good in the first place.

  1. Archaeologists find 2,000-year-old pot decorated with face of Jesus in kitchen of Albanian garage mechanic who used it for storing liquorice, revealing the Lord was a redhead and almost bald

Or something like that. Typically with these stories, where a find of sensational international interest falls off the back of a lorry and is fortuitously picked up by a scientist no one has ever heard of, you find that said scientist has written an embargoed book, and/or is about to feature in a film to be screened on an obscure channel and is interested in talking to anyone who would like to buy said discovery. Here’s a tip for any journalist who knows nothing about science or archaeology, but finds themself writing about a science and archaeology story that sounds like the exclusive of a lifetime (a growing likelihood in these times where journalism is less and less well paid and driven more and more by trivia). Before going to your editor with the story, talk to an archaeologist. They will help you, and you might have a sensational exposure of post-truth fakery on your hands. If it sounds incredible, it probably is.

  1. Experts say tunnel under Stonehenge could irreparably damage world heritage site

There is going to be a consultation this spring to consider options for the A303 road tunnel past (not under) Stonehenge. Will the press report this in a balanced, understanding way, or will it focus Brexit-style on the loud voices obsessed with stopping a tunnel regardless of any proper consideration of the current situation and potential outcomes? And… whoops, this one has already happened. As I write, the Guardian has exactly theses words in a headline and subhead, quoting Dan Snow and Tom Holland. These are good men both, a forceful TV presenter of military history (Snow) and a masterful writer on classical history and presenter of Radio 4’s Making History (Holland). But, pace the Guardian, neither is an expert on Stonehenge archaeology or the Stonehenge tunnel. Nobody beyond involved engineers can be a tunnel expert – we still have a great deal of detail to learn. I’m not sure what Michael Gove had in mind in his infamous dismissal of “experts”, but tabloid-style use of the word like this does nothing for public understanding or respect for specialists. You do not become an expert by making the most noise (as I’m sure Snow and Holland would agree).

Trowels at the ready

garden villages.jpgThis is a map of local archaeology, or, as the Department for Communities and Local Government would describe it, of approved new garden villages. The plans are not new – the name Welborne was chosen by local residents several years ago for a village in Hampshire – but the promise of government support for 17 new settlements is welcome. Greenfield developments have the potential for many significant archaeological discoveries. We should support the planning system and the archaeologists it brings to these sites, which together will give unique historical depth to new communities, and enhance our national heritage. And we should support the schools, universities, museums, and Historic England and all the other archaeological organisations down to the smallest local voluntary group, that inspire, educate and employ the archaeologists needed for the job.

Happy New Year!

Fog on Uffington


Out for a walk this afternoon round the hillfort and white horse at Uffington, foggy and cold with frost patches remaining in areas of shadow and some lovely light. Despite the apparent archaeological evidence, I still find it difficult to imagine this outline of a horse to have been maintained up there since before 500BC. Yet everything about it is curious, so who knows?


Happy Christmas everyone!

Christmas 2016.jpgFrom Boris Anrep and the National Gallery Gallery (and Mike Pitts)

Dunelm House

_MP26400.jpgI was in Durham yesterday. This is Dunelm House, a student union building (1965), reached by a concrete footbridge opened two years before. It’s a lovely, delicate thing that drapes over the cliff down to the river Weir like a rug on the back of a chair. And it’s crumbling.



Ove Arup, responsible for both bridge and building

Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has rebutted Historic England’s request to list it, on the grounds that it has design flaws causing maintenance problems. I guess the same cause lies behind the need for the works currently in progress at the cathedral the other side of the river.

Is taking control of architectural heritage not one of our government’s duties?

_MP26419.jpg_MP26407.jpg_MP26414.jpg_MP26406.jpg_MP26413.jpgDunelm House.jpg_MP26411.jpg


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