thinking about archaeology

Archive for May, 2013

The peers in the car park

Richard III dig University of Leicester

Buried in the new Antiquity between pages 519 and 538, the 13th of 14 research papers, is one about a grave. It doesn’t feature on the cover (that honour goes to a photo mosaic of ancient buildings in the Libyan Sahara), and there’s nothing to flag up what will undoubtedly be one of the journal’s most-consulted articles. It’s the first peer-reviewed report about the Richard III dig.

Some complained earlier in the year when the team announced the key results of the project to the press ahead of peer-reviewed publication (see my earlier blog). But by any standards – and though a small dig, this is a complex project involving many specialists and disciplines – this is fast. The dig closed in mid September. Antiquity received the submission five months later in mid February – exactly two weeks after the press conference – and, at least in this respect, recognised the public interest by seeing it through to print so fast. It’s reminiscent of the days of pre-commercial archaeology when “interim excavation reports” were much anticipated, and published rapidly in academic journals.

The report, of course, is about more than a grave. One of the interesting things is how the authors address the public interest. They recognise that the Richard III Society (who commissioned the dig) and the archaeologists who actually did the fieldwork, were after different things – the king’s grave, and insights into medieval Leicester.

“To some extent”, they conclude, “academic research questions coincide with the questions of our non-specialist partners and the wider public, but they are not identical. However, that does not mean that we as archaeologists should dismiss the questions of wider audiences as not worth asking.”

“Projects developed in this way may become more common in future as non-specialists increasingly become users, stakeholders and participants in academic research.”

This is big stuff.

Antiquity has made the report free online. It’s all very well done. For the non-specialist stakeholder (who sounds like, and could even be, an unskilled kitchen worker – try saying it out loud), there’s nothing dramatically new. But archaeologists will like the calmly presented detail, including these diagrams of the king’s grave (very lightly edited).

grave plan Antiquity

Grave section AntiquitySee: Buckley, R, Morris, M, Appleby, J, King, T, O’Sullivan, D & Foxhall, L. 2013. ‘The king in the car park’: new light on the death & burial of Richard III in the Grey Friars church, Leicester, in 1485. Antiquity 87, 519–38.

Photo University of Leicester, diagrams Antiquity Publications.

Stonehenge is changing

car park loo

The other day Vinci project manager Simon Clark very kindly showed me around the works at the emerging new visitor centre at Airman’s Cross. It’s well on it’s way, though even looking at it like this it’s still difficult to believe it’s really happening, so complex has been the route. Here is what it looked like, with, first, a couple of shots of the old (present) site. There are subtle changes here if you know what to look out for, like this hedge cut down:

car park hedge

Here is a view in the new Denton Corker Marshall building, looking out from the ticket booth:

visitor centre with Simon Clark

Inside it’s very spacious, from the top below, retail area and then part of the museum:

visitor centre with Simon Clark

VC musuem

Here are some views of the undulating roof:

visitor centre with Simon Clark

visitor centre with Simon Clark

visitor centre with Simon Clark

And a view from the roof (you can just see some of the Winterbourne barrows in the distance):

visitor centre with Simon Clark

The front wall, with its forest of erratically aligned supports:

visitor centre with Simon Clark

And then there are the plant rooms, bus park ticket office, stores, offices and so on – not to mention the huge landscaped parking areas – that will help to make this a completely different experience from the old facilities for everyone who works there or visits:

visitor centre with Simon Clark

visitor centre with Simon Clark

visitor centre with Simon Clark

And soon this will be history, the A344:


Adding a couple of photos May 20 (see comment below). This shows works at Airman’s Corner (on the same day as the above photos). The first gives an idea of how much ground has been moved in an area that looks flat (look for the old surface below the road sign), and the second part of an old concrete road surface unexpectedly revealed beneath the modern road, removing which added to the time the works took.


Is this the greatest Stonehenge film ever made?


Glyn Daniel (BBC)

Perhaps not (though no obvious other candidates spring to mind) but it’s worth asking. What it certainly is, is quite different from any Stonehenge film you will see made today. In fact it’s so different, the very comparison is an object lesson in thinking and communicating about the past, and in broadcasting history.

I’ve just watched Paul Johnstone’s 30-minute 1954 film for the BBC TV series Buried Treasure, called, simply, Stonehenge. It’s in black and white, of course, and it mixes studio talk with outdoor film sequences. It’s powerfully different from a modern film.

Now, we get ordered to believe – to the accompaniment of dramatic but stale film sequences and lots of noise, as if someone had opened the Stonehenge cupboard and everything had fallen out on us – that a new film will change the way we think about Stonehenge; that it shows a new explanation that kills dead everything else.

Then, we got a Cambridge don in a bow tie – not a sunset or megalith in sight! – saying, in immaculate diction, “Good evening. Our programme tonight is about a monument which is one of the wonders of the prehistoric world of western Europe – Stonehenge.”

Not “the”, but “a monument”… not “the”, but “one of the wonders”… not “the world”, not even “Europe”, but “western Europe”… No sensationalism here, as the programme strikes out confidently in a style that blends a Cambridge tutorial with the darker recesses of Radio 3.

It’s quite wonderful! For the “ordinary viewer”, as presenter Glyn Daniel used to call us, the film gives something that no other film about Stonehenge I’ve ever watched does: that is quite simply, an idea of what Stonehenge is. Not a health spa, a celebration of ancestors, an astronomical computer, a monumental lichen-spattered vagina – but Stonehenge. We get to see the way the stones are carved, with details of joints and faces, models showing how it was built, experiments in moving stones, all for no reason other than these are things we might like to know about. It’s extraordinary.

Imagine this was a natural history film, made in 1954. Not an inappropriate thing to do, as David Attenborough was even then helping to make Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, an archaeological quiz show also presented by Glyn Daniel. In the same year, Attenborough presented the first Zoo Quest films. These too mixed outdoor filming and studio talk. When we watch Attenborough today, the sounds and pictures around him are radically different, and breathtaking – but otherwise, the films are really quite similar. They show a distinguished communicator describe the world with knowledge and enthusiasm. Somewhere since 1954 television ceased to trust its audience to find ancient worlds, in their own rights, interesting.

Richard Atkinson

Richard Atkinson (BBC)

Stuart Piggott (BBC)

Stuart Piggott (BBC)

To be fair, Johnstone’s film has its moments of longeur. We see Richard Atkinson and Stuart Piggott talk to Daniel. None of them is quite sure how they should behave in a studio, they look nervous and self conscious. Daniel plays the eager but ignorant presenter, but you never quite believe it when he says, in effect, golly, professor, I didn’t know that – you suspect that actually he did (as he did).

For archaeologists who know Stonehenge well, or knew these men when they looked less youthful, or indeed didn’t know them at all, this film has many moments to treasure.





In the outdoor sequences, we get several glimpses of the excavations that Atkinson and Piggott were directing, and of which we still know less than we should.



We see the newly discovered dagger carving, looking so fresh we wonder how on earth noone had seen it before?

We see Stonehenge in the round before the major restoration work that began in 1958. We see a boggling piece of experimental archaeology, in which – I couldn’t believe it when I first saw it, and now I can watch it over and over I still wonder if I’m seeing what I think I’m seeing – a man takes a prehistoric stone maul excavated at Stonehenge, and with it bashes a fallen sarsen megalith, at Stonehenge, to show us what a lot of effort it takes to create a pool of stone dust. And look, there is the newly powdered white dust.


Fallen sarsen 12 joins in an experiment in stoneworking (BBC)





And, to confirm our modern prejudices about British archaeology in the 1950s, the question “Why?” – “Why was Stonehenge constructed?” – is asked 24 minutes into a 30-minute film. Piggott takes exactly two minutes to answer, and back to the don. But really, in his succinct, clear way, Piggott says just about all we still say today. Not forgetting, of course, that it had nothing to do with modern Druids.

Buried TreasureOn the dust jacket of Paul Johnstone’s book of the series, Buried Treasure (Phoenix House 1957: does anyone know who the man above on the left is, in the book’s frontispiece?), it says: “Most television programmes are here and – it is their nature – are gone. A few deserve the permanence of book form. Buried Treasure is one of these…” But thanks to the BBC, the Stonehenge film is also preserved, and we can watch it, along with many other delights, on their archive pages, gone no more.

So how important is this dig to Stonehenge?

Vespasian’s Camp

Stonehenge just featured on TV in the first film in The Flying Archaeologist series, “Stonehenge: The Missing Link” (online till May 27) . The series is presented by Ben Robinson, who’s a proper archaeologist – he’s a principal heritage at risk adviser at English Heritage (you might have noticed lots of other EH staff on screen, he lets his friends in too). Sometimes his enthusiasm carries him away with the significance of what he’s describing (are ploughed out long barrows really so special?). It’s nice to see all the sights, though, including in this film, the recent Marden dig and the source of the river Avon, even if the flying conceit begins to wear thin after a while. Air photography has told us very little specifically about the Stonehenge landscape in recent years, where it’s been overtaken by newer technologies including geophysics and lidar.

The “missing link” in the title is the dig down by the Avon below Vespasian’s Camp, not far from Stonehenge (see clip above). Here is a wonderfully important site, and all credit to those who found it and are researching it. Yet one of the extraordinary things about the site (I’ll say straight away I haven’t yet seen it) is that its real significance has been understated. You don’t often get that these days.

It’s a spring with copious remains of hunter-gatherer activity (mesolithic) from around 8–7,000 years ago. Partly because of the wet conditions, bone seems to be common, and really well preserved. The likelihood of there being preserved houses in the area is strong. This is extremely rare for this era, and so important to help us understand that world.

Yet whenever the site is mentioned, it seems, it’s linked to Stonehenge, as if it needs the prop. The Times ran a piece last year titled “Tracing the origins of Stonehenge”. Here’s one in the Independent in 2011, subtitled “How students found evidence to change the way we think about Stonehenge”. “Now evidence is emerging”, it says, “that the Stonehenge area could have been an important centre for prehistoric people several thousand years before the giant stone circle was actually built.”

Stonehenge car park

Well, anyone who’s been shown the white painted disks on the surface of the Stonehenge car park (you can see one of them above, photographed a couple of days ago) knows that such evidence has been around for decades, and unlike the site by the river, it’s evidence that can at least be argued to have some relevance to the stones – it consists of pits that held enormous pine posts, that could hardly have had any practical use, 9–10,000 years ago. There is a bone from Stonehenge itself with a carbon date that suggests it’s probably mesolithic (see my blog here); and more recently Darvill and Wainwright’s 2008 dig found pine charcoal which was dated to around 9,000 years ago, in the centre of Stonehenge. We know there were people on Salisbury Plain, and on the future site of Stonehenge, in the mesolithic. We don’t need Vespasian’s Camp to tell us that.

What we do need is to find out more about what was going on at Vespasian’s Camp in the mesolithic. That’s a story potentially of international significance, not important just to a bunch of stones over the hill. It doesn’t need Stonehenge.