thinking about archaeology


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.

BA150 MAS.jpg

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

patient pigeon.jpg

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

fixing nest.jpg

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).

Beard Anrep.jpg

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

floor plan.jpg

life east-west.jpg



Beatrice de Cardi

Corsica 1978.jpg

My obituary for Beatrice de Cardi has just gone live on the Guardian website, and I guess will be in the paper tomorrow. I have written a longer version for the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon), which fellows will receive next week.

She was an astute and discrete lady. I suspect we will start to find out all sorts of things about her that few knew, and collectively that very likely no one person fully understood. She kept her work in the UK and the Middle East quite separate, but there’s a third area that may turn out to be at least as interesting: Corsica.

Through her father Count Edwin de Cardi (1875–1935) she was, it is said, the last in line of an aristocratic Corsican family; she was herself a Countess, though she never used the term. In the past few days I’ve not seen anything in which she mentions Corsica, and it didn’t come up when I interviewed her in 2004. So I was intrigued when I heard that one of her requests for her funeral was a Corsican liberation song.

So here, for Beatrice de Cardi, are two images of Corsica I took in 1978: the megalithic alignments in the maquis at I Stantari; and protest graffiti.

I Stantari 1978.jpg

And then there was her mother, a would-be opera singer from Pennsylvania. The Museum of London has some of Christine’s clothes, including this evening gown (left), and (right) an “opera cloak, satin, velvet, lace, ostrich feather, Jacques Doucet, early 20th century”, too delicate to unpack.



Photos: Museum of London






Beatrice de Cardi 1914–2016

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi, distinguished and honoured archaeologist, founding secretary of the Council for British Archaeology, with a career that ranged from Mortimer Wheeler’s personal secretary to significant fieldwork in the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Gulf and Baluchistan, died this morning, aged 102. A dear and dignified lady. Expect many tributes.

Below is an interview from British Archaeology in 2004.

Beatrice de Cardi 2004

For Jo Cox

And all she fought for and believed in.


Lawrence Johnston’s gardens at Hidcote, Gloucestershire, June 18 2016.

The New Tate Modern – and what it made me think about the British Museum


Listening yesterday to Nicholas Serota talk about Tate’s vision, and how that had led to the new extension which opens to all, for free, in two days, I thought of the British Museum. I couldn’t stop doing so, as Lord Browne (Tate chair) followed Tate’s director, and then Sadiq Khan (London’s mayor), Frances Morris (Tate Modern director) and finally Ed Vaizey (culture minister).


Twenty years ago, said Serota, this was a derelict power station. Now it offers a new view of the world, not just about art, but about the city, about London and what art can do for the community. This shows what we can achieve when we remain open to ideas and to the world, said Browne, in a barely veiled dig at a backward-looking little England currently making all the noise. Vaizey said the same, while managing to sound as if he was unaware of an impending EU vote: Tate is a statement of a confident Britain that looks out to the world.

Now is Tate’s moment and I don’t want to make it about the British Museum. I will return to the BM at the end, but most of this blog will be photos I took yesterday – I hope you can pick up some of the excitement I felt just about the new building and the spaces and views it creates.

It was like being in a great cruise ship before the first passengers embark. Unscuffed stairs and landings that will fill with people and noise. Silent, sparkling cafes where reputations will be made, memories created and lives changed. Empty rooms like levels in a softly furnished multi-storey car park. Great expanses of galleries, where anything might happen. And not just any cruise ship. The long angled windows, the swish of the automatic doors and a curious hum on some of the landings: we were on the Starship Enterprise, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new art, to boldly go where no gallery has gone before.

There are 11 floors (11 floors!) in the Switch House, from the basement to the top – and you can walk from 0 to 10 up deliciously designed stairs, which change their attitude as they rise. Entrance from the south is on the level of the bridge across the Turbine Hall, which now unites the two sides of an enormous museum. There is a real quality in the simple detailing and the acres of fine wood (despite the scale, there are more intimate corners than in the old wing, now named the Boiler House). But what most impresses are the huge spaces, many of them outside the galleries, and the heights, and the playful opportunities given to light which variously sweeps, glares and hides among the concrete frames and piers. There is nothing remotely comparable in a public building in London.

I’m going to open with the view out to the east, starting on the first floor. It was pouring heavily at that point, but by the time we’d reached the top it had cleared and the sky was rich and grey.




And then around the top, the Viewing Level.








Now some spaces.







Space enough for Will Gompertz to interview Jacques Herzog in the background (architect with Pierre de Meuron – the two men sat in the front row for the press speeches without saying a word), and another team to talk to Sadiq Khan in the foreground


A new bridge connecting the 4th floors offers a terrifying view down the Turbine Hall (that installation on the ground beyond Ai Wei Wei’s newly installed tree is the array of empty seats after the press speeches)









And finally a bit of art.





There were some things completely new to me that I liked a lot. Below is a room for a Romanian artist, Ana Lupas, showing her The Solemn Process (1964–2008). This must be a tiny part of what she made over decades. Working with straw and clay and rural craftspeople using traditional techniques for housing and fencing, she created wreaths and columns that look ritual and ethnographic, but apparently have no prior meanings. She photographed the installations, and over time and social changes, they decayed and she turned to more craftsmen to encase remains in metal. The solemn process apparently refers to the farming cycle. Land art meets pagan ritual, and folk and agriculture museum.


Next, Untitled (Ghardaïa), at the back of a gallery called Living Cities. By Kader Attia, born in France to Algerian parents, it’s a scale model of the historic city Ghardaïa in the M’zab Valley in Algeria. It’s made entirely of couscous. On the wall behind are photos of architects Le Corbusier and Fernand Pouillon, with a copy of the ICOMOS document that recommended the Vallée du M’Zab for world heritage site listing, and (the main text) explained why, dated December 1981. The ancient buildings inspire 20th century European architects, but while Le Corbusier and Pouillon watch the city, it dissolves and falls until it’s rebuilt with new couscous (prepared, we are to imagine, in a domestic Algerian kitchen). Tate’s “summary” describes further French-Algerian links in the work and the artist’s life. Ghardaïa itself is one of a cluster of five fortified villages with powerful medieval roots, topped by a minaret and grain stores. Concentric rings of houses embody a principal of social equality.



And my last, Louise Bourgeois’ cabinet of curiosities, the first display of Artists Rooms from Anthony d’Offay’s gift to Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Wonderful things. In a smaller room at the back is a voluptuous marble figurine (Femme), accompanied by a document hand-written in a fantastic mix of French and English talking about motherhood, femininity and death.



If you’re an archaeologist, you might have noticed where this is going. I selected these three works because I really liked them. They have clear archaeological resonances. That is no coincidence, but it’s not because I’m an archaeologist. So much contemporary art is like this. Modern artists and archaeologists are engaged in the same basic project: to understand who we are, where we came from and what it means to be human. We do it in different ways, but there is much overlap. Many archaeologists are would-be artists. Artists are frequently engaged with archaeological projects in this country. A prominent example in recent years is Drawing Stonehenge, where a number of artists were brought together by Helen Wickstead (an archaeologist who teaches in the School of Art and Design History at Kingston University) to respond in the field to excavations as they were taking place. I featured this in British Archaeology in 2008 (July/August); the flag below is part of Mark Anstee’s work about the Stonehenge Cursus.


Attia’s couscous houses reminded me of Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope. They had a one-year residence with the Cambridge Archaeological Unit at the North West Cambridge development. They and a team of volunteers built a scale model village out of cob (a traditional building material of mud and straw), on the site of large-scale excavations which uncovered remains of prehistoric and Roman villages, based on the development’s masterplan. Tomorrow, Today, wrote Guthrie in British Archaeology (May/June 2015), engaged with “the site’s present nature, and the fleeting, unique archaeological access to the past, as well as encouraging reflection on human transience and future communities.” And, she said, they got very muddy and extremely cold. This future vision, one of the largest art and archaeology projects yet seen, was left to weather and was then backfilled. Soon it will be built over.

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From left, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope with archaeologist Christopher Evans. Photo Cambridge Archaeological Unit

Places like the New Tate Modern, said Lord Browne, are places where we form a common identity. Where we come to be informed and to be challenged. Referring to St Paul’s across the river, he compared London’s beating heart to its cultural cathedral.

The old power station is a site for weekend family visits, said Sadiq Kahn. Tate is re-imagining the museum, seeing the potential for change, putting people at the heart of what it does and leading the world. He even noted how it embedded culture in the planning system.

Most significantly, Frances Morris observed that since Tate Modern opened, art and the world have changed. The collection has to change too, she said, bringing in more countries, more diversity and more women. Expect our galleries, she said, to look very different in ten years.

All this is what archaeology does, and does well and does around the world – but particularly so, I suggest, in the UK. Archaeology informs and challenges. It entertains. It affirms and shapes identities, locally and globally. And fundamentally, it changes. Our understanding of the past changes daily, as research and excavations create new stories, make new finds. The questions we ask about the past change too, as discoveries and the world around us stimulate new ideas, and different people bring their own interests and curiosity. Archaeology is fundamentally creative and dynamic.

I love the British Museum and everything it stands for. But I think it would be fair to say that the sentiments of the previous paragraph are far from the way the museum presents itself to the world. It hosts one of the most successful archaeological projects, uniquely British and admired around the world, for combining research and public engagement and sometimes off-the-wall enthusiasm and eccentricity: the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Yet PAS thinking does not run through the rest of the BM. The museum has not shown convincingly that it wants to continue supporting it.

It’s too long a topic for now, but there are ways for the BM to continue on its current route while taking on the vitality of Tate Modern, and representing the dynamism and engagement of what is really going on in archaeology today. Not easy! But worth a shot.


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