thinking about archaeology

Books IV: an offprint

This is one of my most precious offprints, with a story to tell. It is Maud Cunnington’s report on her excavation of the Sanctuary at Avebury in 1930, from the Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine (now Wiltshire Studies).1

I returned to the Sanctuary myself in 1999, when we re-excavated a very small part of the area dug by Maud. It was well worth while: we found more flint artefacts, including arrowheads (which Josh Pollard described for my report) in our small trench than Maud did on the whole site! And the insights we gained, drawing partly on previously unstudied diary entries of the time which the dig helped to make sense of, allowed me to interpret the Sanctuary in a new way. 2

One of the delights of our little dig was the pleasure Isobel Smith took in it. She lived in a cottage in Avebury at the time, and she gave me this offprint and the photo. She died, aged 92, a few years later.

When Isobel wrote her PhD on English neolithic ceramics at the London Institute of Archaeology in the 1950s, the pottery from Avebury was key to her research – especially that from Keiller’s excavations on Windmill Hill, but also including the collection Maud had retrieved at the Sanctuary. The thesis, which was never published but even now could still be printed with benefit, was profound and wise. I discovered it in the library at the Institute when I was an undergraduate, and read it through more than once.

Within weeks of finishing the thesis, Isobel was housed in Avebury by Keiller’s widow and writing up his excavations. She worked on this closely with William Young, Keiller’s excavation foreman, who had earlier been foreman at Maud’s dig on the Sanctuary where he had kept the invaluable diary that prompted me to re-excavate part of the site.

This offprint had apparently been given by Maud in June 1931 to Mortimer Wheeler, who would have been digging in St Alban’s at the time; he later became the Institute’s original director, handing over to Gordon Childe in 1946. My memory is that Isobel told me it was Wheeler who gave her the offprint. Both of their signatures are on the cover.

Inside are the neat, pencilled annotations Isobel made when she was writing her PhD. This part of the site plan marks out the artefacts found in different pits, using abbreviations like RC (Rinyo-Clacton), Ptd (petit tranchet derivative arrowhead) and Pet (Peterborough pottery) from then current jargon.

The postcard had been given to her by Young. It is a photo of the burial Maud found at the Sanctuary, accompanied by a Beaker pot. It was one of those many groups of human remains that had been thought by everyone involved (including Isobel) to have been destroyed in the London blitz in 1941, and which I had found (while I was writing Hengeworld, as the book describes) in a Natural History Museum store.

Young’s diaries are now mostly in the museum in Devizes.

References

1 “The ‘Sanctuary’ on Overton Hill, near Avebury”, by ME Cunnington, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 45 (1931), 300–35.

2 “Return to the Sanctuary”, by M Pitts, British Archaeology 15 (2000), 15–19.

“Excavating the Sanctuary: new investigations on Overton Hill, Avebury”, by M Pitts, Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 94 (2001), 1–23.

Hengeworld, by M Pitts (Arrow 2001)

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