thinking about archaeology

Archive for August, 2011

Tania Kovats

I just chanced across this delightful little drawing by Tania Kovats, in the Arts Council collection.

And here’s mine.


The sadness of summer passing

For something completely different, the children just put this on my desk, a complete hedge sparrow’s nest they found at the bottom of the garden. The poor bird must have died after laying her clutch, most probably here a victim of someone’s cat. Such a beautiful, delicate thing, the end of a line.

Sense prevails at Stonehenge, again

It was good yesterday to see Arthur Pendragon’s request for a judicial review about the Stonehenge burials thrown out, though not a surprise. His complaint was that he had not been consulted over the decision to grant an extension on the licence to examine the cremated remains we excavated in 2008. We were originally given two years to study these before their reburial (or, as the self-styled Battlechieftain put it, to “conduct experiments upon ancestral human remains”), and last year we were given a further five years.

Arthur’s a good speaker, and with his robes and beard makes a good interviewee. He is a colourful sideshow for the media, and for visitors to Stonehenge where he has been staging a protest for many years. But he has wasted a great deal of archaeologists’ time over this issue (which can be translated into taxpayers’ money in many cases), where there should never really be any question about what is the right thing to do. There is often more to his words than appear on the surface.

In an interview outside the High Court yesterday, Arthur said, “It’s come to our attention that all the authorities have been colluding behind the scenes to make it virtually impossible for the cremated human remains… to ever go back to Stonehenge”. (You can see another BBC report here, with a brief comment from me.)

This is not a fair description of reality. Along with some other Pagans, Arthur has had special access to behind the scenes discussions at Stonehenge, overseen by English Heritage, for several years. In correspondence with the Ministry of Justice last year, he was told that “it is proposed that once the work has been completed the religious views of the Pagans and Druids will be respected and the remains reinterred” (email from Rupert Clayton, Coroners And Burials Division Ministry of Justice, to Arthur Pendragon November 2 2010). This was a position taken by the MoJ that we were not told about (the email came to light in Arthur’s evidence to court). It is a nonsense for Arthur to talk about his being excluded by a “collusion”.

Sadly, history tell us not to expect Arthur to drop the issue now that his request for a judicial review has been rejected. He will move the goalposts and pick up a different ball, and waste more of our time.

This is the basic story of these precious Stonehenge cremations.

1. They were originally excavated by William Hawley, mostly in the 1920s, found unexpectedly in an arc at the edge of the site close to the encircling bank and ditch. We can not know precisely what he found, as the records are not that good, but we think there were around 50 burials.

2. At the time, no archaeologists or scientists took much interest in the remains, and no museum could be persuaded to preserve them. In desperation, Robert Newall reburied them in 1935 in Aubrey Hole 7

3. In Hengeworld, I estimated that the total number of people buried at Stonehenge may be around 240. There are very likely to be many more cremation burials at Stonehenge, still in the ground

4. In 2008, as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I re-excavated Aubrey Hole 7 and recovered the remains it held. Today we can learn a great deal from their study, and thereby bring these burials and the people they represent into the proper story of Stonehenge. They had hitherto been seen as almost irrelevant, and for long were assumed to have occurred at a time when there were few or no stones on the site

5. Mike was granted a licence to excavate the remains, with a condition to rebury them within two years. This was in line with a policy that the Ministry of Justice adopted in 2008, following a re-interpretation of the Burial Act 1857

6. In 2010 the ministry granted a further five years for the study of the remains

7. In the meantime, following a public campaign by archaeologists that I have written about elsewhere on this blog, the ministry revised its approach to licensing. New licenses now allow for the option of retaining archaeological human remains indefinitely. So while it is strictly correct, as the press reported yesterday, that the Stonehenge cremation burials are to be reburied in a few years’ time, we have every right to expect that in fact the license will be changed to allow for permanent retention – which of course is what we believe strongly should happen.


And just as I posted the above, I heard the excellent news that our position is supported by the British Humanist Association.

Adventures in archaeology

The new British Archaeology features Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure, a wonderful manga-style story that the BM is publishing in October. It’s written and drawn by Hoshino Yukinobu, and was originally serialised in comic form in Japan last year by Shogakukan Inc. Now it has been translated into English and brought together into a single book, and exclusive extracts in the magazine include drawings of Stonehenge, Woodhenge and some Japanese megaliths – revealing which of the two most publicised Stonehenge theories is adopted by the fictional archaeologist-cum-ethnographer (look for the magazine!).

The adventure combines artwork and narrative that remind me of my old favourites Look & Learn, Eagle and Tintin (though without the latter’s humour), with a glorioulsy high-minded approach to culture and history. We are frequently reminded that Munakata’s roots are Asian. On being told his planned trip to Wiltshire has been postponed because of police roadblocks, he comments, “They warned me to expect anything in England”. He discovers tagged tea bags, and English apples (“delicious”). But Munakata takes a strong view against repatriation. He praises the BM’s history of collecting, and fostering public access. “I am one of many Japanese scholars”, he says, “who have benefited from that generosity”. Museums are spaces where, “symbolically, fundamental truths can be displayed for all people in the world”. Wonderful! I had a little piece about this in yesterday’s Guardian.

The rest of the magazine is about real archaeology – iron age metalled roads, a newly identified dark age power base in Scotland, Jim Leary and Dave Field on the association between neolithic monuments and water, a new gold lunula find from Scotland (the first in over a century), and so on. There are some very interesting readers’ letters, Mick Aston writes about his old friend the late Philip Rahtz, and I interviewed the archaeologist and Times correspondent Norman Hammond.

Philip Beale on Radio 4

Philip Beale, the Thor Heyerdahl-like visionary with the understated sense of a British classics teacher, spoke to Sonia Deol on Radio 4’s Excess Baggage on Saturday, remembering his “Phoenician” circumnavigation of Africa that came to a successful end last year. As he says, they have just sailed the Phoenicia to Cyprus out of fear for her safety in Syria, where she was docked. Worth a listen, and it will be great to see the ship come up the Thames next summer.

I talked to Philip for British Archaeology in 2004, after his earlier voyage across the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. I’ve pasted the page in below. “I’d like to find a business that could pay some of the bills”, he said, “and then do some travel and adventure as well”. He seems to be getting there.