thinking about archaeology


Another chip at the bluestone problem


The Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrop, with excavation in 2015 at left; rhyolite chips found near Stonehenge precisely match part of this outcrop, now confirmed by uranium-lead dating (photo M Pitts)

A new study of Stonehenge bluestone is out. It’s short and densely written, and not dramatic. But it confirms the direction of current work which suggests that many of the Welsh bluestones came from north of the Preseli hills, rather than the top or to the south as traditionally believed (HH Thomas identified Carn Alw as a source for these particular stones, see map). The significance of this, as argued earlier by Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer, is that while Carn Alw might allow for ice transport of stones at least part of the way to Wiltshire, the nearer the sources move downslope towards the coast, the less supportable that becomes. And Mike Parker Pearson may have another quarry to look for.

Bevins, Nicola Atkinson, Ixer and Jane Evans describe their work in the Journal of the Geological Society. Before, the Fishguard Volcanic Group in north Pembrokeshire had been dated geologically only by fossil inclusions. They have now dated two types of rock by uranium-lead analysis of zircon crystals (like radiocarbon dating, but for much older stuff). They compare these with dates similarly obtained from pieces of stone from Stonehenge.

One rhyolite sample came from the Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrop, known as a possible quarry for Stonehenge bluestones, and two from outcrops at Fishguard Old Harbour on the coast. The Stonehenge samples were both excavated in 2008, one (previously thought to come from Craig Rhos-y-felin) by Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, and one (petrographically identical to bluestone 48, and previously thought to have come from an unknown location in the Fishguard Volcanic Group) by Mike Parker Pearson’s team.

The Craig Rhos-y-felin sample came out at 462 million years old, the same age as the rhyolite sample from Darvill and Wainwright’s trench, confirming the archaeological identification.

The other two, from the coast, are a little older, at around 464 and 465 million years old. Interestingly, the archaeological sample (which can be linked to stones 38, 40 and 46 at Stonehenge as well as 48) is also around 464 million years old. Not from Craig Rhos-y-felin, then, but, say the scientists, probably from Fishguard outcrops exposed across the low ground north of Mynydd Preseli. “This region”, they conclude, “provides an obvious target to search for further Neolithic quarry sites.”


Map of north Pembrokeshire, simplified from Bevins et al

See “U–Pb zircon age constraints for the Ordovician Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones,” by R Bevins, N Atkinson, R Ixer & J Evans, Journal of the Geological Society 2016.

The strange case of the dog in the Stonehenge tunnel

It had been pretty quiet in Stonehenge media land. We had an excavation at Durrington Walls in August that got a bit of attention. This was thin stuff compared to the coverage given last year to the geophysics sensation that the dig overturned, though what we now have is far more significant (and so features in the new British Archaeology).


Don’t believe everything you see online. This graph of media interest in Stonehenge, made by Google Trends, shows the relative coverage given last year to a theory based on a geophysics survey, and an excavation this summer that ground-truthed the survey and found something different

Then suddenly within a few days of each other in early October, two stories took off, and people were asking me what was going on? I had no idea, so it’s taken me a bit of time to catch up behind the scenes. This is what I found. (Quick summary. What was going on? Nothing much.)

Let’s start with the tunnel. Secret excavations. Solstice sunset view ruined. The government wants to concrete it over. The whole purpose and meaning of Stonehenge destroyed… A blog on October 6 set off an explosion of online indignation. Why didn’t I know about this?

The blog was by Tim Daw, the man who built a neolithic burial mound in north Wilshire for the recently departed. He noticed people excavating south of the A303 at Stonehenge. He drove down a byway to have a look, and realised the site was in line with the setting midwinter sun as seen from the monument. The dig meant “where the western tunnel portal will be has been decided”. The portal, being in line with said event, means the sun, dropping big and red through the centre of Stonehenge in late December, will be drowned out by street lights.




Tim Daw’s illustration: the midwinter solstice alignment through the stones meets a tunnel portal in the woods. Note the current A303 on the surface, just beyond Tim’s Stonehenge line, where road traffic passes day and night, usually at night with headlights

Heritage Action put it like this: “Hard to believe, but true. Even though Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust say they are committed to ensure that ‘only schemes which protect and enhance the World Heritage Site are progressed’ it has just been revealed that Wessex Archaeology are secretly test digging at the very spot where the entrance to one version of the route would be and it’s at the very place where it would do maximum damage to the significance of Stonehenge.’ They could have said that as HE, EH and the NT want to protect and enhance the world heritage site, it’s unlikely they would’ve wanted the tunnel portal there. But where’s the fun in that?

The BBC turned it into this headline: “Stonehenge solstice sunset view ‘will be ruined by tunnel’.”



Images Stonehenge Alliance

Stonehenge Alliance went ballistic on Twitter and Facebook, looking like the archaeological wing of Donald Trump’s social media campaign. They even got Tom Holland in a photo holding up their new leaflet (above), which features misleading imagery worthy of Putin-supporting trolls. Please, Tom, tell me this was a set-up job?

There can’t be many who don’t know a road tunnel may be built at Stonehenge (past, not under). But, notwithstanding all the fuss, no one knows anything about it. That’s because a decision to build a tunnel has not been taken. Its route is not known. Where the entrances might be has not been decided. Nor has how many lanes of road there would be, which brand of wine will be cracked at the opening or if anyone will be allowed to set up strawberry stalls inside it. Remember all this whenever you hear someone complain about what the tunnel will do. They’re making it up.

The place to go for what we do know is Highways England. This huge organisation is not brilliant at communication. An expected press announcement seems to be stalling from one week to the next. But it’s the best we have, so worth listening to.

There’s no question that Highways wants to upgrade the A303 as it passes Stonehenge. Its vision is “to make the A303 a free-flowing expressway, allowing mile-a-minute journeys.” Stonehenge, Amesbury and Berwick Down is one of nine schemes to effect this, with an estimated cost of £864–£1,321m – the huge range there (nearly half a billion pounds) is a hint as to how much is still undecided. The project timeline for Stonehenge begins in 1989, and ends, “to be confirmed 2020: Start on site”.

There’s not much more to say, but what there is is significant. From the timeline:

2015–2016   Route identification
TBC Early 2017   Have your say: public consultation on all route options
TBC Summer 2017   Announce our preferred/recommended option
TBC 2018   Submit planning application


So all this stuff about portals and midwinter sunsets is premature. Currently routes are being identified – not decided on (the picture above showing proposed routes is from my earlier blog on the topic). There will be a public consultation next year. The decided route then has to get planning consent, when there will be more opportunity for scrutiny. If I was an objector, I’d wait until next year. At least I’d know what it was I was objecting to, always a help in these things.

Why were archaeologists digging in a field south of Stonehenge?

Highways needs its plans to be approved by Icomos (a conservation outfit that advises Unesco). Put another way, Icomos probably also cares about where a tunnel portal might be, and my guess is it will probably ask Highways. It’s tough in road planning, but I don’t think Highways would be able to secretly put a tunnel portal just where the sun sets at midwinter. The eagle-eyed people at Icomos would notice.

To put its case to Icomos, Highways needs evidence, which includes descriptions of what survives of archaeological interest below the soil. To get this, Wessex Archaeology was contracted to conduct yet another evaluation. In this particular case thirty trenches were dug over a wide area south of the A303. If each trench was a sign of where a tunnel would end, we’d have a portal that reached half way across the world heritage site. And note that “evaluation” is not the same as “excavation”: the idea is to dig down until you come to undisturbed remains, and then stop. Done well, little if any archaeology is touched.

So if we don’t know if or where a tunnel will happen, how can it be said that it threatens “our chance of piecing together the jigsaw to explain why Stonehenge was built”? This is what David Jacques said when he was quoted in the Guardian. His concern is with the portal at the other end, to the east, where he thinks it will damage the site of his excavations at Blick Mead. All evidence to date suggests that a tunnel wouldn’t be anywhere near the site (see map above), so why the fuss?

David’s colleague Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust, says “Blick Mead is without doubt one of the greatest national discoveries ever made in the Stonehenge landscape.” The latest addition to the list of discoveries is a tooth. It got a lot of attention in the media, but that simple fact is almost the only thing about the story that I’m happy not to question.

Blick Mead is important, and has considerable potential, as I explained in a feature I wrote for British Archaeology last year. To date, however, we have not had a single peer-reviewed publication about the dig or anything from it, despite the fact they began excavating there a decade ago. That’s not great for an excavation, especially in a world heritage site – but it happens. What’s not acceptable, I think, is to fail to offer your work for scientific scrutiny if you make exceptional claims for it, and regularly take them to the public, who are undoubtedly interested.

Francis Pryor writes about Blick Mead in his new book (see below). He says the artefacts are in situ; that the site has produced the largest collection of wild cattle bones yet found on a British mesolithic site; that the mud turned the flints bright pink; that it features the longest proven occupation of a British mesolithic site; that dates prove it was occupied at the same time as large posts were erected near the future site of Stonehenge. But no evidence has yet been offered to prove any of those claims.

Francis’ book was too late for the tooth. This, we are told, is evidence for “a 250-mile trip from York to Wiltshire made 7,000 years ago by a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and his dog” (Guardian) – “evidence of the earliest journey in British history” (BBC). A leader in the Times announced, “A Mesolithic Alsatian from Yorkshire is now Stonehenge’s earliest recorded visitor.” Yet the only solid evidence we were given for this is a photo. Yup, it’s a tooth.

Prehistoric dog tooth find - Stonehenge

Photo University of Buckingham

The argument is that the tooth is a domestic dog’s; that stable isotope analysis shows the dog grew up in the Vale of York; as the tooth was found in Wiltshire, the dog must have walked there from Yorkshire; the tooth was found in a mesolithic context at Blick Mead, so the journey occurred 7,000 years ago; and that is the oldest demonstrated journey in British history.

Is the tooth from a wolf or a dog, and if the latter, what did it look like? Did a dog walk to Wiltshire, or did a person carry a tooth – perhaps in a necklace? Published mesolithic radiocarbon dates from Blick Mead range from 9,500 years ago to 6,250 (note at the nearest this is over a thousand years before Stonehenge began, so pace the Times leader writer, no mesolithic dog visited it). So, given the apparent lack of stratigraphy at the site which means items can be dated only by typology or direct carbon dating, has the tooth been dated, and if not why 7,000 years ago? And the key question: do the isotope data show the beast grew up in Yorkshire?

First I asked David Jacques, as site director, for information. He declined.



Maps I prepared for British Archaeology, showing areas around Amesbury and Newbury with contours at metres above sea level. From a hunter-gatherer perspective, they have a lot in common. At present, we know more about the Mesolithic from sites around Newbury, where activity over a longer period has been demonstrated than seen at Blick Mead, and where better preserved sites have been investigated. Significant mesolithic sites are marked by red dots: pits on Stonehenge Down (“car park postholes”, D), West Amesbury (C), Blick Mead (A), Countess West (B), Victoria Park (G), Greenham Dairy Farm (F) and Thatcham (E)

Then I asked Bryony Rogers, a research student at Durham University supervised by Janet Montgomery, who worked on the isotope analysis. She was very helpful, and what she told me was more or less what the media had reported, but with a little more detail and no hype. I learnt the tooth was a lone find. So it was not attached to a jaw or skeleton to prove a whole dog, as opposed to a tooth which might have been carried.

Bryony’s main focus was on reconstructing diet, she told me. Her data show the dog was not eating marine food, and was most likely consuming aurochs (wild cattle) and other large herbivores with the possible inclusion of freshwater fish. The dog’s diet “remained relatively constant across the time period represented by the tooth”. This is the first time that this technique has been carried out on a dog and on a sample of this age, she says. Pioneering stuff.

They also looked at the tooth enamel: this is where various stable isotopes might throw light on the creature’s migratory history. Oxygen, says Bryony, is not consistent with the dog drinking water local to Blick Mead when it was a puppy. “We suggested that the dog came from the north-east of the site,” she said, “but did not specify York as an origin. We are currently carrying out strontium isotope analysis to try and get a better understanding of the dog’s origin, as these oxygen results could also suggest an origin of higher altitude.”

The phrase “north-east of the site” rang a bell. This was exactly how Paul Budd, Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery described the home of the beheaded Anglo-Saxon man buried at Stonehenge. They interpreted oxygen and strontium data to suggest he had grown up in an area “primarily to the north and east of the monument” (see “An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge,” Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 95 (2002), 131–46, and my book Hengeworld).

The Anglo-Saxon man’s potential home territory was quite limited, and did not reach further north than Cambridge. Is it possible, I asked Bryony Rogers, that the Blick Mead dog grew up in the same area?

She said it was.

“It could be a possibility for the dog to have moved from a similar locality,” she wrote in an email. Now strontium isotopes may show the dog came from much further north. But until the analyses are done, and we have that evidence, all we can say is that the dog was not local. “We can’t say how far it travelled to the site on this evidence alone,” concludes Bryony.

Suppose it did come from Yorkshire. Would we then have the oldest demonstrated journey in British history? The key word is “demonstrated”. Hunter-gatherers can cover very wide distances over the course of a year. But do we have any evidence for this from the British mesolithic? How about the final palaeolithic, older still?

In 2012 Paul Pettitt, Marcy Rockman and Simon Chenery published a peer-reviewed article in which they claim to chemically characterise surface flint outcrops in various parts of England (Quaternary International 272/273, 275–287). Applying the analyses to artefacts made in the Creswellian era, 12–13,000 years ago, they found “some flints [had been] transported over distances ranging from the local to >200km”. More than 200km sounds like a journey to me. The mesolithic hadn’t even begun then.

The good news, is that we have been promised a peer-reviewed book on Blick Mead, edited by David Jacques and called Blick Mead: Spring Excavations. It will contain an article by Bryony Rogers, K Gron, J Montgomery, DR Gröcke & P Rowley-Conwy, “Aurochs hunters: the animal bones from Blick Mead”. Peter Lang expect to publish it early next year.



Photo: Salisbury Journal

Meanwhile, we’ve had some more gentle news from Stonehenge. In late September, locals in Wylye were able to watch the latest Stonehenge replica being built. Shoots for the forthcoming Transformers: The Last Knight, gave Arthur Pendragon an opportunity to complain that setting off explosive effects in front of some polystyrene megaliths ten miles down the road from Stonehenge (and out of sight) offended the ancestors. It’s a good thing the ancestors don’t keep up with politics, or they’d be really miffed. The movie’s set to be released in June next year, to add a bit of needed colour to the summer solstice events.

Speaking of colour, over at the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon, which I edit along with British Archaeology), a Fellow wrote in about Victorian flower shows at Stonehenge. He was reading Richard Davenport-Hines’ biography, Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, and was surprised to learn that the great economist’s grandfather had put on displays of dahlias at Stonehenge in the 1840s. Apparently Sir Edmund Antrobus, who owned the stones, was president elect of the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society when John Keynes snr was honorary secretary. They conspired to move the annual flower show from Everleigh to Stonehenge. As you’d expect, attendance rocketed. John “dahlia” Keynes had to issue a notice commanding that “no vehicles, booths, or standing pitches” should be put within 50 yards of the stones.

Back in 2016, “Hundreds of druids and pagans” at the site for the September equinox sounded like a very low-key affair – and quite posh, judging by the Mail Online’s photos. English Heritage now opens the stones up for full public access for the equinoxes as well as the solstices. While the solstice case is quite compelling, there is no evidence that people in 2500BC were any more aware of an equinox than they were of Christmas or April Fool’s Day. But why not?


Photo Daily Mail


And a couple of books are out to add to the Stonehenge canon. Jane Brayne’s long-awaited – by those of us in the know – comic book inspired by the Amesbury Archer is finally done and self-published. It’s a lovely thing which I highly recommend: my daughter and I enjoyed a long Sunday breakfast in bed reading it together. Jane tells me you can find it in the shop at Stonehenge; I interviewed her for the new British Archaeology. The other title is Francis Pryor’s Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape, nicely made by Head of Zeus, in a smallish gift format with tinted paper and much full-page art and photography. The text is a useful introduction to where we are now, in an ever-changing story (see above) of competing ideas and new evidence.

brayne stonehenge.jpg


Below: map added October 20 in response to Tim Daw’s comment.


DNA to Durrington Walls: New British Archaeology

British Archaeology 151.jpgI’m excited about the new British Archaeology. It looks good, and it’s full of interesting things. On the cover is a symbol of the revolutionary changes sweeping through archaeology, led by fast-moving developments in science. It’s a story of ancient DNA.

The DNA of living people is widely used to investigate ancestry, but there are problems with interpreting the results. These were avoided when, for the first time, three separate projects considered identity and migration in England using ancient DNA from excavated skeletons. In all 32 individuals were examined, of iron age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon date. In a major feature, with the help of key scientists and archaeologists involved, we review the discoveries and the science behind them.

Skipsea castle.jpgOur lead news story is about the great iron age mound in Yorkshire, up to now assumed to have been raised as a medieval motte. Only excavation will reveal what was really going on (and given the scale of the mound, that’s a real challenge). But we must speculate, and doing so takes us to northern France and central Germany, where a handful of mounds of comparable size and date – mostly excavated long ago and less well preserved – covered truly spectacular graves. My piece gives the Skipsea Castle details and the continental background.

Mike Parker Pearson and Vince Gaffney write about their Durrington Walls dig. It trashed last year’s spectacular theory – and brought in an equally dramatic new one.

BA151 Black Loch.jpgFurther north, in Wigtownshire, excavations at Black Loch are changing our preconceptions about iron age settlement and architecture. Anne Crone and Graeme Cavers report on the Scottish answer to Must Farm.

Archaeologists are concerned about an unintended side-effect of green waste spread on fields, threatening historic research (and metal detecting). James Gerrard and Martin Cooke’s feature comes with a comment from the green industry, by John Pitts, who, um, happens to be my brother.

BA151 Adela Breton.jpgAdela Breton is a really interesting character, a highly driven independent Victorian artist who recorded wonders of ancient Mexico. A plaque was recently unveiled on her house in Bath, calling her “adventurer archaeologist artist”. Who was she? Why has she been commemorated? Sue Giles, who has curated an exhibition about her work at Bristol City Museum, introduces the remarkable Adela Breton.

BA151 Battle Abbey.jpgAnd finally, Battle Abbey. On October 14 950 years ago, William of Normandy defeated Harold near Hastings. Confident that the abbey was built where Harold died, English Heritage has developed the site to help visitor understanding, as Roy Porter explains.

And then there’s all the other stuff – reviews, Briefing, Spoilheap, CBA news, Greg Bailey on TV, letters and so on. In the shops now!

Why I cried at the new V&A show


Press day at the V&A in London, for its new exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970”. Will we see Martin Roth, celebrating five years as director and now soon to leave? (“Martin intends to devote more time”, said Monday’s press release, “to various international cultural consultancies and plans to spend more time with his wife Harriet and their children, in Berlin and Vancouver”; but the gossip is all about disillusionment with Brexit, and the referendum “war rhetoric”).

If he was there, I missed him. But I did hear two quite slick, carefully prepared speeches from key sponsors Levi’s and Sennheiser. Is this all about selling jeans and “audio technology”? Is this what Woodstock was for (Martin Scorsese’s film screening big above their heads as they speak)? Where are Art not Oil when you need them?

Revolution exhibition photography 06-09-2016

That’s Keith Moon’s 1966 drum kit. Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

Actually, thankfully, not here. At the end of his talk, CEO Daniel Sennheiser says something that is not in the company press handout. (It has things like this: “With music being the uniting element of the world’s youth at the time, Woodstock was much more than just a music festival – it embodied an alternative way of life. This special concert atmosphere is recreated with a 14.1 AMBEO installation that uses upmixed audio material from the period.”) Sennheiser tells us (in my words) that the 60s were not just about style and music, but about ideals and hope, of visions for change. As we watch “two baby boomers slug it out across the Atlantic” (I think that’s what he said), perhaps we can learn from them, and think about changing things now.

Roth hits a similar note in the catalogue foreword. In 1970, he starts, he was a teenager living in West Germany. Students were questioning their parents’ role in the Nazi era. He wanted to change the world. He still does. “Now I run a national museum and have the opportunity to revisit the utopian vision and revolutions that took place” in the later 60s.

“But which developments from that time”, he concludes, “have perhaps not gone far enough? And what can we learn from those heady days when anything seemed possible?”

Revolution exhibition photography 06-09-2016

Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

That’s not why I cried (I clapped). That happened earlier, as I listened to the music and sound tracks and looked at all the stuff – books, posters, videos and things, so much stuff, not least a continuous thread of album sleeves from John Peel’s record collection. This was the wallpaper of my school days, much of it still around me in my home, and more in my head. It’s what I loved and was inspired by: the songs, the designs, the protests and politics, the visons and the promise of a young generation “taking control”. And look at us now. That is what made me cry.


The actual chair! Christine Keeler in Lewis Morley’s photo, and the Arne Jacobsen chair that Morley sat her in


A Kodak Carousel slide projector

But back out in the London streets, the sun shines on people eating and laughing around tables on a wide, now pedestrianised but not long ago dangerous fume-thick road. I descend into a functioning and very busy underground train station. I step into a bright, clean train full of people with phones and tablets. A couple of men embrace. Buskers play. Out in Paddington Station, bright and spacious and full of food and shops, the accents and languages are endlessly variable (and that’s just the English). So much is so much better now than it was in the 60s and 70s.


Worth a million spreadsheets: Poster for the Health Education Council, issued by the Family Planning Association, Cramer Saatchi Advertising Agency (1969): Photo Victoria and Albert Museum

And so it could be again. A very striking thing in the V&A show is the use of graphics, poetry and performance at that time. We cared then about peace and love and community, about a brighter future for a better world. But we did it not with figures and logic, with government reports and peer-reviewed articles. We did it with passion and emotion!  We didn’t write press features complaining that people are too stupid to see that global warming is happening, and is terrifying. We sang songs! We didn’t explain in intricate detail how politicians who want the UK to leave the EU are insane. We marched and took our clothes off! We put posters on our walls! “WAR IS GOOD BUSINESS”, reads one, over a photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta: “INVEST YOUR SON.” “ABORTION IS A PERSONAL DECISION”, another: “NOT A LEGAL DEBATE”. With powerful design and colour.

That’s what’s really missing now. We do care. But we need to learn from Trump, and Johnson, and Farage, and all the folk with the good tunes. Look at the 60s. Facts matter, a lot. But you don’t change things only with facts. Bring back the passion. And even with the very sad departure of Martin Roth, the museums and galleries of our capital city are run by able, not so old, ambitious people with global visions from around the world. That feels, perhaps, quite 60s.

Percival Turnbull RIP

Val Turnbull 1972.jpg

Archaeologist Percival Turnbull has died from a sudden stroke, a great shock to his friends and colleagues. He had been a partner in The Brigantia Archaeological Practice in Barnard Castle since 1995, and was, as Tony King says, a stalwart of archaeology in northern England. Val, Tony and I were fellow undergrads at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I took the photo above in the Guildhall Museum (Percival stands with a 19th century wheelwright’s bellows) in 1972, when we were sent out across London in pairs with a Gandolfi camera during our photography training. In good antiquarian style Percival’s face is blurred in a very long exposure.

Maev Kennedy has it spot on in her post: “RIP Percival Turnbull, a gentleman, a scholar, a cynic, a big brain and a razor sharp wit”. He was his own man, a very bright mind navigating modernity and antiquity with an open, questioning mind. Maev quoted him in 2009 in the Guardian, in a nice piece reviewing the state of British archaeology in depressed times (Percival’s default mode, one might sometimes have thought). “Percival Turnbull”, she wrote, “is philosophical and borderline optimistic. ‘I do think that we’ve lost as well as gained: lost much of the community of purpose that united us as archaeologists; the extraordinary special local knowledge and other expertise which had been built up in many places; the sheer fun of it all. On the other hand, I don’t expect ever again to spend an evening washing string so that it could be re-used’.”

His wit was always there. In 2012 I credited him with the best joke about the Richard III dig, expressed in a letter to the Guardian at a time when people were questioning who the skeleton really was. “The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September)”, he wrote simply, “may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.”

There is a good story from 2008. Outside his local pub because of the smoking ban, he was puffing on his pipe when the landlord opened a door beside him. He promptly spotted a fragment of medieval cross slab grave cover in the wall. As ever, his mind alert.

The age of A’a

OcLMS.19 left hip figure

Good to see Martin Bailey write about A’a in the Art Newspaper yesterday. We reported this story in British Archaeology in June, when British Museum curator Julie Adams wrote about the new research she led into the wonderful, unsettling carving from Rurutu taken to London by British missionaries in 1821. This and Hoa Hakananai’a (delivered to London in 1869) are arguably the two most spectacular items in the British Museum’s early Pacific collections, which are stronger than the current displays reveal.

Bailey headlines the carbon dating of A’a (actually some time between AD1505–1645, rather than “around 1505”), which like a date obtained some years ago for an Easter Island wooden carving is significantly older than art historians had it. As Adams wrote:

“Even at the younger end of the range, this is still dramatically earlier than had been imagined; it is a major finding that requires a complete reevaluation of our understandings of Pacific art. It makes it clear that A’a was created using stone tools, rather than metal, and that the people who created it were extraordinarily skilled carpenters. It also challenges our perceptions about how long objects may have survived in a tropical environment. The skill and effort required to create A’a, and the extremely significant role he was designed to fulfil – to hold the bones of a deified ancestor – in conjunction with the early date indicated by radiocarbon dating, prove that the figure must have been very carefully treated and preserved.”

Other discoveries of the project include the identification of the wood as sandalwood, not the local pua as had been assumed – causing some controversy on Rurutu, as sandalwood is not native to the island.

The first find, within minutes of Adams seeing the carving in store, was a feather from a Kuhl’s lorikeet. They later found some human hair, scraps of barkcloth and two further feathers. “In Polynesia,” wrote Adams in BA, “these are all items with rich cosmological associations and imbued with the presence of the divine. Red feathers, in particular, functioned as a kind of cosmological currency with which chiefs could assert their status and legitimacy: a chief who could manipulate the appropriate networks to acquire feathers at key moments in the ritual calendar, held political sway on the island. It makes perfect sense for a red feather – a valuable currency – to be discovered within a god image such as A’a.”

Even in storage, museum collections have endless and unexpected stories to tell.

Photo at top British Museum.


150th New British Archaeology out

Maiden Castle

Tessa Machling, on the Prehistoric Society’s Facebook page, kindly recommended the new British Archaeology on the strength of its Must Farm reporting, so I’ll start this post about the new magazine there.

This edition has our last “live” coverage of the extraordinary excavation of the bronze age village, which has now ended. Regular readers will have noticed that I eschewed an early feature on this site in favour of running news stories; this is the fourth. I’ve never done this before, and I cannot recall any excavation that has had such a strong narrative, moving so fast to uncover enough new material to merit double-spread reports every two months.

To conclude this phase of Must Farm, I’ve also interviewed site director Mark Knight for My archaeology. I expect we’ll hear more from him: Knight’s an unusually gifted field archaeologist, with a keen eye on the ground as well as an astute interest in the wider picture. I’ll continue to follow site progress, and in due course we’ll run a major feature. Without doubt some of the best stories will emerge during post excavation. British Archaeology will be here to report them!

BA 150.jpgOn the front cover is a bronze age grave from Scotland, heralding a feature about the Beaker people. A once popular theory imagined continental immigrants sweeping across Britain 4,000 years ago, bringing new ideas and technologies – even their heads looked different. Could it be true? A major scientific project may have the answer.

We visit Bearsden, a Roman fort in the Glasgow outskirts: at one of the most northern posts in the Roman empire, soldiers had to adjust to local supplies – they had imported olives and figs, but no sponges in the toilet (though look out for the drawing used in some other publications that was sent out by Historic Scotland’s press office, showing squaddies sitting cheek to cheek with sponges at the ready… I do wonder about some of these visualisations. How will archaeologists in two millennia, if there’s anyone still here, depict us in a museum? Picking our noses? Waxing?).

More Roman, and prehistoric, finds have been excavated ahead of a major road project in the north of England, along Dere Street.

At the British Museum, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Elgin collection: we consider the eventful shared history of sculptures and museum.

BA150 Elgin.jpgThe medieval Black Death killed millions, but measuring its precise impact has proved a challenge; thousands of garden-diggers think they have found an untouched source of information.

And of course there is much more.

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BA150 cardiff adventures.jpgIt’s nearly two months before the next one, but prepare for some more striking prehistoric archaeology! Meanwhile you can find out how to obtain the magazine here – or look for it in the shops. Digital subscribers have immediate access to back editions (all those Must Farm stories…). I was on Maiden Castle in Dorset a few days ago, hence the photo at the top – not in the magazine (yet).

Paul Nash: A Private World


Abbott and Holder are selling some terrific Paul Nash photographic prints. They were shot by Nash in the 1930s and 40s, and include well-known images of dead trees, a lovely ploughed field and archaeological sites. They are asking £9,250 for 25 prints, from an edition published in 1978 by Fischer Fine Art, as A Private World: Photographs by Paul Nash. If that doesn’t come off, they will sell them separately. Here are a few:

First are two images of the White Horse at Uffington, c.1937 (top and below):


This is a “Monster Field”, at Carswall’s Farm, Gloucestershire, 1938:


The “Avebury Sentinel”, 1933:


My last selection was apparently described by Fischer, or this description was perhaps given it by Tate, as “Rock recessed in grass (Portland?)”). But it’s actually another Avebury shot. Nash visited Avebury in the late 30s when Alexander Keiller was in full flight, ripping up trees and hedges, knocking down houses and raising megaliths, and setting them in concrete. Nash didn’t like it. But he took this photo. It appears to show the edge of a sarsen megalith in the medieval pit into which it was thrown: the dark colours suggest burning, which could mean it was buried and burnt in the 18th century, but that usually resulted in the stones being broken up. There should be photos of this stone in the museum in Avebury, taken by Keiller, which will reveal its story; it is now presumably erect.


In some ways the Private World selection tells us as much about John Piper (who made it) as Nash – here there are no aeroplanes (active and wrecked), people or cars that are so distinctive of the large collection of Nash’s negatives at Tate Britain. This includes two more of those “Portland” stones, at Keiller’s Avebury excavations:



There are couple of quasi-abstract images at Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle in 1935, and these two fabulous shots at the “war cemetery”:



And (serious archaeological alert), a young “Lance Sieveking in bathing trunks”.

All photos, of course, are by Paul Nash, and the rest of the set of 25 can be seen on Abbott and Holders’ website.

Pigeon post

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Two years ago a pair of pigeons made a nest and brought up two squabs in the rose outside my study window. I didn’t see them last year, but this year, about a month late, they returned (I assume it’s them), and built a new nest in the same place. I call the bird on the nest patient pigeon: she just sits there without moving, one eye on me and one on the garden. She seems happy with my taste in music.

The other day she made an uncharacteristic loud, happy cooing noise and when I went to look I saw her with an egg. Later it rained, and she hunkered down. A couple of days later I saw the second egg, as she worked at refining her nest.

wet pigeon

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Two years ago we were fascinated by the nest building, and I posted several photos. The last post consisted of daily shots. I’d planned to continue this as the squabs grew up and left the nest – which they did, hanging around the garden like pets for longer than seemed healthy. I took the photos, but work intervened and I didn’t get around to editing and posting them. I’ll do so if anyone’s interested. This was 2014:

June 27: Pigeon culture
They start to build a nest

June 29: Pigeon news 2
Nest construction continues

July 1: And now we have an egg
The first of two

July 26 2014 Growing squabs
Photo a day from July 3 to 26, showing appearance of two squabs

Boris Anrep National Gallery mosaics

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I posted photos in my earlier blog about Boris Anrep’s National Gallery mosaics, but I didn’t know much about them. I now have a copy of the gallery’s out-of-print guide. Here are some better-informed details that visitors might find interesting pending a new guide, and at the end a few words about a portrait Mary Beard acquired in 2008. I bought the guide online from Anytime Books, and was pleased to find the kind seller had included a separate fold-out leaflet, published in 1993. The plans here come from that.

The floor mosaics, writes Lois Oliver in the guide (2004), were created between 1926 and 1952. They were not his first works in Britain: Augustus John had promoted his talents, and his first commission came in 1914 for a mosaic floor at a house in Chelsea – Anrep so pleased the society hostess whose home it was, she later asked him to decorate her walls too. A 1919 mosaic in John’s Chelsea house showed him perched on a pyramid of wives and children. In 1923 he completed a floor in the Blake room at the Tate Gallery.

Anrep’s National Gallery work was all done in his Paris studio. He set out in 1926 to make The Labours of Life (west vestibule) and The Pleasures of Life (east vestibule), featuring respectively subjects such as commerce, engineering and science, and swimming, dancing, cricket and hunting (some of his choices, says Oliver, were “idiosyncratic”: he put music and theatre with labours).

The Awakening of the Muses followed, on the half-way landing, a larger work with an arrangement of scenes. Finally, on the floor of the north vestibule, Anrep completed the set with The Modern Virtues, which he began after the war in 1945.

He continued to work well into his 70s, says Oliver, his “last great work” being “an important cycle” for the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in Westminster Cathedral (1962).

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Now for Mary Beard’s portrait (above), about which she blogged after she and her husband bought it at auction. Said to be an oil of Anrep, it was signed L Inglesis but otherwise came without information. No one was quite sure who the painter was (there are several good comments on the blog). The pose bears an interesting comparison to one that Henry Lamb caught of Anrep in a portrait of 1919 (below, from the NG guide), which sold at Christie’s in 1995 for £2,300 (Beard and Cormack paid £50 for theirs), and is now at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. There are separate pencil sketches of Boris and Helen Anrep.

Lamb Anrep.jpg


From Artnet

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