thinking about archaeology

Archive for June, 2010

Who then will tell the story of our last hunters?

The new British Archaeology is now in the shops, a particularly strong issue, from Spoilheap’s analysis of new MPs at the front to an interview with photographer Don McCullin at the back, and lots of news, digs and stuff in between. The Council for British Archaeology’s survey of “community archaeology” – volunteers, amateurs, enthusiasts, unpaid archaeologists – is surprising and fascinating.

It’s not the biggest thing in the issue, but I liked the letter from Tim Marshall. He questions archaeologists who bring an unthinking attitude to criticising alternative energy schemes because of their real or apparent threat to archaeological remains or landscapes – a feature in the previous issue had ended with a swipe at the proposed Severn barrage. “Surely”, he writes, “archaeologists above all should be aware of the (more…)

How much is Stonehenge really “cancelled”?

So let’s take a more reflective view of yesterday’s announcement that the proposed Stonehenge visitor centre has been cancelled, starting with what the Treasury actually said. Danny Alexander’s speech did not hold back on criticism of the former Labour government – and by association, of Alistair Darling, one of the wisest chancellors we have had – as if the recession, the collapse of banks and the national debt, were all simple matters of party politics. A written statement from HM Treasury (headed “Action to tackle poor value for money and unfunded spending commitments”) has a similar tone. “Projects have been cancelled where they were not affordable”, it begins, “did not represent good value for money, or where they did not reflect the Government’s priorities”. Attributed to Alexander is this comment: “As a result of the poor decisions made by the previous Government, I have taken the decision to cancel certain projects that do not represent good value for money.” Stonehenge Visitor Centre heads the list (more…)

Why axe Stonehenge Visitor Centre?

What is this about? After all these years of well-intentioned plans to improve Stonehenge for everyone (nearly a century if you follow it back), a popular, effective and cheap solution has been scrapped by the government in its first round of project savings.

According to the BBC, the chief secretary to the treasury Danny Alexander told MPs today that the government has cancelled 12 projects totalling £2bn “agreed to by the previous Labour government since the start of 2010”.

This is the full list, which I’ve arranged in order of money (there are also 10 projects “suspended”):

Two year Jobseeker’s Guarantee: £515m

Extension of Young Person’s Guarantee to 2011/12: £450m

North Tees and Hartlepool hospital: £450m

Rollout of the Future Jobs Fund: £290m

Sheffield Forgemasters International Limited: £80m

Local Authority Business Growth Initiative: £50m

Six month offer recruitment subsidies: £30m

Stonehenge Visitor Centre: £25m

Local Authority Leader Boards: £16m

Outukumpu: £13m

County Sports Partnerships : £6m

Active Challenge Routes – Walk England: £2m

You can see just looking down that list that Stonehenge is quite different from the others. And consider what Alexander said:

• his predecessor as chief secretary, had gone on a “pre-election spending spree in the full knowledge that the government had long since run out of money”

• “As a result of the poor decisions made by the previous government, I have taken the decision to cancel certain projects that do not represent good value for money”

• “projects had been approved [by the previous government] with no money in place to pay for them”

• “I am determined to deal with this problem head-on and ensure we never see this kind of irresponsible financial planning in government again”

What has any of that got to do with Stonehenge? It was the Labour government that cancelled a far more expensive Stonehenge scheme (estimated to cost well over £540m) late in 2007, on the grounds that it “would not represent best use of taxpayers’ money”. Labour then replaced it with the much cheaper one that was explicitly billed as being cost-effective, “temporary” and aimed at having Stonehenge acceptable for the 2012 Olympics visitors.

In May 2009 then Labour culture secretary Andy Burnham announced approval for a new visitor centre costing up to £25m.

In October 2009 English Heritage released details of Denton Corker Marshall’s architectural and landscaping designs, which received planning consent in January this year.

So at what point did the scheme to improve Stonehenge turn from something people have been working on for many decades, into a “pre-election spending spree”?

And when Burnham announced approval for this scheme, he said funding would be “provided through a range of private and public sources”. So cutting the centre does not save the government £25m, and on the face of it the claim that it does is disingenuous.

How can this be seen as anything other than about politics, not money? So the question then is, what are those politics?

More on this here.

A tale of silver bowls

Here’s a nice story from John Malam, who wrote to tell me about his allotment – in his words, “the closest I come to dirt archaeology these days”.

Winsford town council last year presented him with the Dempster Challenge Cup for his plot in Cheshire (see photos, both by John Malam). The silver bowl had been awarded by the council every year since 1926, so being an archaeologist, Malam set to and researched its origins in the local paper in the town library.

As he told the Winsford Guardian in May, “I kept coming across references to a Miss Dempster. She was a JP, and was involved with several Winsford groups, including the Amateur Theatrical Society, the Nursing association and the Albert Infirmary.”

Then he found a report from April 1926, describing how, “after a painstaking examination” of the 55 plots at Over Allotments (where his now is), the challenge cup was awarded to Joseph Bratt. The cup, the report noted, had been “given by Mrs Frank Pretty”.

That same year, the former Edith Dempster (born in Yorkshire into a family of wealthy industrialists, and then living in Cheshire) had married Frank Pretty, an Ipswich man in the Suffolk Regiment (Edith had worked with the Red Cross in the First World War in Britain and France).

Later in 1926 the Prettys bought a house overlooking the river Deben in Suffolk. Yes, this was the Edith Pretty whose husband died in 1934, and four years later initiated the excavation of a mound in her grounds that turned out to be the Sutton Hoo ship burial. So she gave a silver bowl to the people of Winsford, and several much older silver bowls – and much else beside – to the nation.

A really new stage in Stonehenge history?

I went to the annual meeting of the Stonehenge Riverside Project in English Heritage’s Bristol offices last week, and very interesting it was.

The SRP is behind much of the fieldwork that has taken place in the Stonehenge world heritage site over the past few years: that includes the work at Durrington Walls (including the neolithic “village”), the discovery of “Bluestonehenge”, the excavation of the Aubrey Hole containing the reburied human cremations at Stonehenge itself, and much else.

Excavation really has ended now, and the meeting was about last year’s fieldwork, continuing research and how the whole project (more…)

Avebury in late spring

Some photos for anyone unable to be there.

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill

beside Silbury Hill

A partridge on a barrow near the Sanctuary

West Kennet Avenue stone