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

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  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

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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?

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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.

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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?

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Paul Nash at Tate: archaeology and trauma

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Paul Nash with a megalith: photographed by Clare Neilson in the Forest of Dean in 1939, from an album in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and displayed in Tate

I went to see the Tate Gallery’s previous big show in London about Paul Nash in 1975, with my friend Diana Hale, then a student at Goldsmiths College, who died in November. Nash, along with an ever-growing club of artist and writers, stayed with me ever since. At first it was his landscapes. Working and living around Avebury, I’d see his tree clumps on the downs, his megaliths, and his collections of flints and wood. Later I could see more in his piles of logs than rustic scenes, and thanks to exhibitions such as (most recently) that at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010, I imagined I could appreciate the variety in his work as a wholeness rather than a fragmented series of conflicting styles. In Tate at the new exhibition that’s there until March 15 (which naturally I thoroughly recommend), I thought back to a painting I’d seen there 40 years before.

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Imperial War Museum

It was one of three watercolours, with a dab of collage, painted in 1942 to illustrate the horror of a Nazi invasion of Britain. They have the general title Follow the Führer, and were rejected for propaganda use by the Ministry of Information, perhaps for their unmitigated darkness hovering on the edge of farce. They were in private hands in 1975, and are now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and owned by Tate (though none are in the current exhibition). Above the Clouds shows Hitler as a flying shark leading squadrons of fighters and bombers. I can’t find an illustration of Under the Waves, and I don’t remember it from 1975. The one that impressed me was Over the Snows. Here Hitler is a screaming face leading a surge of bleached, open-mouthed and broken skulls, across a landscape and straight at the viewer. It is deeply disturbing. In 1975 I found it hard to reconcile the image with the rural views hanging nearby.

There was always a lot of archaeology in Nash’s work, from megaliths and earthworks to his more general interest in things and landscapes. Archaeologists have written about this (such as Christopher Evans, see references at end). Sam Smiles especially, a writer and researcher into British art and visually-transmitted knowledge who teaches at Exeter University, has looked at Nash’s relationships with archaeologists and antiquity, and written a series of perceptive and well-informed articles.

Emma Chambers, who curated Tate’s show with Inga Fraser, kindly gave me a printed list of the works in Nash’s library, which is now in Tate’s archive. I was struck by the number of loosely archaeological items it contains. Nash had copies of Stukeley’s Abury, and Crawford and Keiller’s Wessex from the Air. He had four books by James Frazer. And more. But what most struck me was an offprint, signed and given to him by Stuart Piggott in 1938. The archaeologist had published the article three years before in the journal Antiquity; it is called “Stukeley, Avebury & the Druids.” Piggott owned a signed lithograph by Nash, an imaginary but realistic-looking view of the West Kennet Avenue, created for a series of educational posters for schools. It was hanging prominently in Piggott’s Berkshire cottage when he died in 1996. Nash had given it to him in 1938.

I like to imagine the two men exchanging gifts. We know from an entry in one of Keiller’s excavation diaries (thanks for this, Ros Cleal), that Keiller, Nash and Piggott were together in Avebury in June 1938, so it’s quite possible. Although he wrote little about it publicly, Piggott had close relationships with several artists of his day. Was Nash among them?

With the evidence we have, it may be impossible to say, though some material remains to be fully examined (not least the wonderful Stuart Piggott archive at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, where I was privileged to have a peak yesterday; Nash does not appear in their catalogue). But I do think we can see more archaeology in Nash’s work than most of us realised.

I’ve written about this in the new British Archaeology. I argue there that Nash was profoundly affected by his experience in the trenches of the first world war. He was a war artist in a greater sense than that he painted both wars. His mature life’s entire work, I think, was partly a response to war, an expression of the personal impact of its eternal ugliness. He was an artist of trauma.

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(C) Tate 2016 (left), M Pitts (right)

What does that have to do with archaeology? In 2015 archaeologists Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber argued convincingly that one of Nash’s key works – Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) – was inspired by Maud Cunnington’s painted concrete markers at the Sanctuary, Avebury (above). This was a revelation, for Nash himself left no clues to suggest it. Maybe it’s a fantasy (if the colours match now, did they in 1935?).

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Circle of the Monoliths (1937–38) © Tate 2016/Leeds Museums & Galleries

But once you start looking for hidden archaeological references, you keep finding them. The red of the round marker (in the paintings and in the grass today) appears in other works, including three significant oils in which megaliths stand on red discs. Now we can see, perhaps, that these stones are portrayed as rising out of the ground through red portals, as Nash might have imagined them at the Sanctuary – even “real” megaliths are “equivalents” for absent histories.

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(C) Tate 2016/Private collection

In another work, shown for the first time in the Tate exhibition, three objects are arranged in a tense still-life. The painting is actually named Encounter of Two Objects (1936–37). Those two are natural stones, but the unnoticed third is something else. It might be a miniature Silbury Hill, seen from above with a conical shadow as viewed in air photos that Crawford might have had, and illustrated by John Piper in an article published in Axis in 1937 (the spread below is taken from Alexandra Harris’s book, see references). But more likely I think is a very specific item of bronze age Wessex gold, a pointed button-cover from a grave at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. Such Wessex artefacts were the focus of a substantial research project by Stuart Piggott in the 1930s. Is that coincidence?

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Axis 1937/Harris 2010

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Silbury from above (left), Upton Lovell gold (right)

I note more in the British Archaeology article, but a key work is that watercolour with the wave of skulls, I’m convinced it’s directly influenced by Nash’s visit to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle.

Nash and Wheeler first met when they were studying at the Slade in London; Wheeler later claimed him “a treasured familiar”, though what Nash thought of Wheeler we can only guess. Both were at Passchendaele in October 1917, Nash drawing, Wheeler in charge of a Battery in “the definition of hell”.

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Burials at Maiden Castle photographed by Nash in 1935, (C) Tate 2016

At Maiden Castle, the archaeologist interpreted a cemetery of skeletons as the remains of native defenders slaughtered by an invading Roman army. Nash’s three watercolour collages, Follow the Führer, depict Hitler leading armies of death into England. In Over the Snows, the landscape backdrop fits that of Maiden Castle, and the white hollows in the foreground – shell craters, trenches – could be chalk as much as snow. The rolling blanket of fractured skulls surely derives from Nash’s photos and memories of the excavated burials.

Returned from the first world war, Nash found consolation for death in landscapes shaped by people long gone; the trees and fields of rural England, animated by antiquity, were a sign of nature’s power to survive devastation by humanity. (And note the success today of Operation Nightingale, which runs archaeological investigations with service personnel recovering from action with the British Armed Forces; see features in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2011/122 and May/Jun 2014/136).

When war returned in 1939, so did Nash’s demons, shown graphically in the horror of Totes Meer (1940–41), the sea a swirling mass of wrecked warplanes. In his last few years, Nash found light and colour in the symbolism of solstice and eclipse (drawing on Frazer). But at Maiden Castle, Wheeler had exposed the dead that lie beneath the mud, as the shells had done at Passchendaele. For once, the ancient landscape had thrown up the figures which Eileen Agar, with whom Nash had a powerful affair, tells us were of no interest to him in his engagement with prehistory. They were not welcome.

REFERENCES

BA 152 Nash.jpgSee my “Paul Nash: Encounters with archaeology,” British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016/152. All editions of British Archaeology can now be viewed digitally. I wrote about the concrete markers at Woodhenge, which have been better researched than those at the Sanctuary, last year (A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes).

Sam Smiles: “Ancient country: Nash & prehistory,” in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed Jemima Montagu (2003). “Thomas Guest & Paul Nash in Wiltshire: two episodes in the artistic approach to British antiquity,” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology & the Image (ed Sam Smiles & Stephanie Moser, 2004). “Imagining the past: archaeological & artistic perspectives,” in Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments, ed Joanne Parker (2009).

Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010)

Christopher Evans: “Unearthing displacement: Surrealism & the ‘archaeology’ of Paul Nash,” in Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology & Art, ed Colin Renfrew, Chris Gosden & Elizabeth DeMarrais (2004).

Helen Wickstead & Martyn Barber: “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).

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The trauma of war. Trails (this morning in Wiltshire) turned to entrails (Battle of Britain 1941, Imperial War Museum):

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Imperial War Museum

A new British Archaeology – and another 151 editions

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The new British Archaeology has a great mix of stuff, with its usual features, reviews, news, the interview (Taryn Nixon), Bill Tidy’s cartoon and so on. And we have a new column, from the great archaeological photographer, Mick Sharp, who will be writing in every edition about visiting sites with his cameras. I’m really proud of the wide range of places and topics, and of all the contributors who have brought so much to this issue.

BA 152 fort.jpgThe front cover features a wooden Anglo-Saxon coffin – one of over 90 preserved in an early Christian cemetery, as never seen before. From London comes the surprise discovery of a Roman fort, which helps explain why the city is where it is.

BA 152 dead danebury.jpgWe ask what happened to all the missing dead from prehistoric Britain (giving me an opportunity to bring out some of my old Kodachromes). How did people in Scotland over 4,000 years ago decide which pots to put in their graves? And what lies behind the plaster mask on a skull dug up in Jericho 60 years ago? The Jericho skull features in a temporary display at the British Museum which opens on Thursday (December 15). You can see the skull online in 3D in Dan Pett’s Sketchfab rendition.

BA 152 Jericho skull.jpgI particularly like Colin Haselgrove’s overview of a huge and long-lived project designed to explain expansive earthwork fortifications at Stanwick in Yorkshire. I saw the site (or parts of it) for the first time earlier this year, when I was nearby for the funeral of Percival Turnbull – he launched the field project with Haselgrove back in the 1980s. Befitting them both, the feature is a perceptive, inspired analysis of late iron age Britain as much as the description of a dig. The new monograph behind it will be much read.

I’ve written a feature for this edition myself, inspired by Tate Britain’s Paul Nash exhibition. I’ll say something about it in another blog.

The Council for British Archaeology has digitized the entire back run of British Archaeology. We were the first archaeology magazine to offer a full digital edition as well as print, and now you can dig back to number one, and everything in between, without having to wade through mountains of uncontrollable paper. One great benefit of this is the search facility, which allows you to look for any terms within all editions, a significant step up from a conventional index. I will always enjoy the feel of leafing through a proper printed magazine, and its presence as a thing. But for work I find the online index a real boon. We are not of course a peer-reviewed journal, but great care goes into fact-checking and keeping up with what’s going on: issues become more precious as they age, as records as much as news.

Digital access comes with the package for CBA members, and is also available to anyone associated with subscribing institutions, including universities, government departments, colleges and libraries. You can subscribe separately, via iTunes or online at the Exact website. Even if you haven’t paid a thing, you can nose around through the archive looking at front covers and the first few pages of every edition. Or you can just nip round to the newsagent.

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Cold stones

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I was down at Larkhill this morning to visit a large excavation. The Ministry of Defence is building a new housing estate for soldiers and their families, and Wessex Archaeology has found all sorts of interesting things, among them the edge of a new causewayed enclosure, which you’ll be able to read about in the new British Archaeology, out next week.

_MP26303.jpgIt was cold, and there’d been a hard frost. Early at Stonehenge you could see scoring in the turf running parallel to the edges of the Avenue earthwork, most clearly between its banks, but also outside them. It’s a curious effect. The Stonehenge Riverside project excavated grooves that run like this in the soil, and interpreted them as natural periglacial structures left over from the ice age, that – because they are aligned on the solstice axis – were partly responsible for where Stonehenge is: neolithic people saw the grooves pointing at the rising midsummer sun and thought, this is where we want to build Stonehenge!

_MP26331.jpgMeanwhile, Tim Darvill and colleagues think the grooves are relatively modern wheel ruts. Their respective evidence is summarised in this diagram. Area 8 (enlarged at left) is a geophysics plot showing lines within the Avenue but not quite parallel to the ditches; these, say Darvill et al, are wheel ruts.

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Adapted from diagrams by Darvill et al and Stonehenge Riverside Project

Trench 45 (enlarged right) is the Riverside team’s excavation in 2008. The periglacial stripes, they say, are deeper than many others recorded in the local chalk, and much deeper than the cart tracks which they agree with Darvill et al are what we can see in Area 8. They think there are natural ridges (blue) and a trench (green) on the exact alignment of the Avenue close to Stonehenge, and it all adds up to a “remarkable coincidence of a geological landform on a solstitial axis”.

 

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Adam Stanford’s wonderful photo of Trench 45, from the Antiquity article

I’m not totally convinced by any of this. The alignment coincidence seems too remarkable to me, at least without more evidence to back it up (which would include a full understanding of exactly what these alleged geomorphological features are, how and when they formed, and why they are where they are). And if the grooves in Trench 45 are periglacial stripes, could it be that they are bigger than normal because the area within the Avenue was less ploughed up in recent centuries – which would account for the slight doming effect of the Avenue relative to the surrounding land? On the other hand, the interpretation of the geophysical lines as wheel ruts needs to be supported by excavation. Unsurfaced tracks across chalkland do not typically develop regular, parallel ruts to match the grooves we see in the geophysical surveys.

Down at Larkhill, they’d exposed a nice area of periglacial stripes. These are distinctively narrow, close together, long and thin (running downslope from top left to bottom right):

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As always, at Stonehenge as elsewhere, fieldwork throws up as many questions as it answers: but the new questions are better ones.

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“Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK: High resolution geophysical surveys in the surrounding landscape, 2011”, by Timothy Darvill, Friedrich Lüth, Knut Rassmann, Andreas Fischer & Kay Winkelmann, in European Journal of Archaeology 16 (2013).

“Stonehenge’s Avenue and ‘Bluestonehenge’”, by Michael J Allen, Ben Chan, Ros Cleal, Charles French, Peter Marshall, Joshua Pollard, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, David Robinson1, Jim Rylatt, Julian Thomas, Kate Welham & Mike Parker Pearson, in Antiquity 90 (2016)

The journeys of Hoa Hakananai’a

 

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Photo OGS Crawford/Antiquity

They are small steps compared to crossing part of the Pacific and the whole of the Atlantic, but Hoa Hakananai’a has moved around since it arrived at the British Museum in 1869. I’ve been looking through some old copies of Antiquity, and I came across this photo. It was taken by OGS Crawford for an article by Henri Lavachery, and published in the March 1936 edition.

It’s the best photo I’ve seen of the statue in its original exhibited site, under the front colonnade of the British Museum. On the evidence of these photos, it seems to have been moved there from another outdoor site. It later went out to the ethnographic branch in Burlington Gardens, and was in the Great Court before reaching its present site.

 

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Photo British Museum

The lantern slide in the British Museum’s Katherine Routledge collection (above) shows the statue with its back to a wall. It’s undated, but was probably taken early in the 20th century; it has pigeon droppings over the head and shoulders, suggesting it had been there for a while.

 

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Photo British Museum

This photo with what look like Christmas trees and the museum’s totem pole, shows the statue to the right of the front entrance, facing in. The BM’s notes say the print is a copy of an original believed to be in the British Library, and it has a handwritten note saying it was taken in about 1935. The trees, apparently, are “Bay trees introduced by Director Sir George Hill”.

We can see the trees in Crawford’s photo, confirming it was taken around the same time (Hill was director of the museum 1931–36). Taken together, these two show it was standing at the top of the steps, between the two pillars on the east side of the entrance, as below:

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The Blick Mead tooth conundrum

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Blick Mead dog tooth: photo Jeff Veitch

I wrote a long blog about Stonehenge the other day, featuring the road tunnel and a dog tooth from Blick Mead. David Jacques commented on the latter, and gave a link to the Buckingham University press release on the story. It confirms that Peter Rowley-Conwy, of Durham University, said “the dog would have been roughly the size, shape and possible colour of an alsatian.”

Most usefully, it has a link to Durham University’s website, with a response to the press coverage. This includes a further link to a very helpful poster about the isotope study: “Stable isotope analysis of the Blick Mead dog: a proxy for the dietary reconstruction of mesolithic hunter-gatherers,” by B Rogers, DR Gröcke, K Gron, J Montgomery, P Rowley-Conwy and D Jacques.

A single domestic dog tooth, they say, was found at Blick Mead “in a context which produced faunal remains which have been radiocarbon dated to 4989–4808 cal BC”. I’m not clear where that (over-precise) date comes from – it doesn’t match any published determinations – but it sits in the region where most of the site’s dates lie, between about 7,500 and 6,250 years ago. This is the only dog remain yet found at Blick Mead.

As the title says, the poster is mainly about diet. The idea is that domestic dogs eat similar food to the people they hang out with, so the dog’s diet should give an idea of what the folk at Blick Mead were eating. The tooth dentine was incrementally sampled, so as to compare parts of the tooth that grew at different times. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes were similar at all points, suggesting no great change in diet during the dog’s life. Values for both are described as being significantly lower than those for mesolithic dogs at the Yorkshire sites of Star Carr and Seamer Carr. They interpret the figures for the Blick Mead dog as indicating that it ate meat, and gnawed bones or ate freshwater fish, and possibly less marine food than the Yorkshire dogs – summarised as “terrestrial mammals with a possible inclusion of freshwater fish”.

The result of oxygen isotope analysis is also described. The enamel produced a “drinking water value” of -8.1 per mill. Compared to such values for modern Britain, this is too low for the south-west. A warmer climate in mesolithic Britain, say the authors, would have caused a higher value, not a lower one, so on the face of it, it seems safe to say that this dog grew some way north of Blick Mead – in fact, judging by the map they feature (see below), from a limited area of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, or from eastern Scotland. The tooth is a permanent premolar, which, they say, forms after weaning is finished.

So perhaps the Vale of York doesn’t sound so bad after all as a home for the Blick Mead puppy. There is, however, a proviso. Aurochs teeth (not otherwise mentioned in the poster) “produced even lower” oxgen-18 values: so low, they are “largely incompatible with modern Britain”. Does this mean the aurochs at Blick Mead grew up outside Britain altogether? Bearing in mind that by the time hunter-gatherers were camping out at Blick Mead the English Channel had long been breached, this seems unlikely, to say the least.

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Oxygen isotope map, adapted after Rogers et al

So how do we explain the “incompatible” low oxygen values? The answer, they suggest, may lie in the fact that the necessary equations “were developed using human remains rather than aurochs or dog remains, which may fractionate water differently possibly making oxygen-18 values appear lower than expected.” Body size could also be a factor, they say.

This is really interesting work. However, it seems clear that more research is needed before we can conclude anything firmly from the oxygen isotope data alone. On the available evidence, we certainly can’t say with any confidence exactly where the dog grew up. Bryony Rogers had previously told me they are progressing with strontium isotope analysis. We await those results with further interest.

 

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