thinking about archaeology

Archive for February, 2014

Our universities do wonderful things

Times Queen's Awards

Last night I watched a parade of robed chancellors, and listened to the achievements of researchers, and marvelled. Many at the event went on today to receive Queen’s Anniversary Prizes for Higher & Further Education at Buckingham Palace. So much original work across such a wide range of topics is being conducted across the UK, with results that affect all of our lives.

Guildhall 1

We were at a banquet at Guildhall in the City of London. There was only one person, apart from the Queen, named in the speeches in more that one context: Richard III. The study of his remains featured in the citations for both the School of Archaeology & Ancient History at Leicester University, and the Centre for Anatomy & Human Identification at Dundee University. It was good to see Caroline Wilkinson, who created the reconstruction of Richard’s face, and Richard III Society Chairman Phil Stone, a guest of Dundee. Richard Buckley, Turi King, Kevin Schürer and Deirdre O’Sullivan represented the Leicester team researching Richard’s remains and Leicester Greyfriars; I was one of their guests. Good wine, good food, excellent company and a marvellous building (15th century in its origins, though much altered and repaired, with remains of the city’s Roman amphitheatre beneath), with operatic interludes and a fizz of intellectual prowess – a memorable occasion!

Guildhall 2

Clockwise from the left: Kevin Schürer (Pro-Vice Chancellor [Research and Enterprise] at Leicester University, responsible for genealogical research in the Richard III project); Graeme Barker (Disney Professor of Archaeology and  Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, and formerly Professor of Archaeology at Leicester University); Michael Wood (broadcaster and historian, awarded an honorary doctorate by Leicester University after his Story of England, which featured the Leicester community of Kibworth); Sir John Chilcot (a member of the Awards Council, who chaired the inquiry into the Iraq War); Turi King (Lecturer in Genetics & Archaeology at Leicester University, responsible for the analysis of Richard III’s DNA); Michael Jephson (Secretary and Master of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace); out of frame, The Right Reverend Tim Stevens (Bishop of Leicester); Lord Grocott (Labour MP and PPS to Tony Blair, and chancellor of Leicester University, where he was once a student). Other members and friends of Leicester University are on the table beyond (between Michael Wood and Sir John Chilcot, you can see David Mattingly, Professor of Roman Archaeology and Acting Head of School of Archaeology & Ancient History at Leicester University)

Clockwise from the left: Kevin Schürer (Pro-Vice Chancellor [Research and Enterprise] at Leicester University, responsible for genealogical research in the Richard III project); Graeme Barker (Disney Professor of Archaeology and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge University, and formerly Professor of Archaeology at Leicester University); Michael Wood (broadcaster and historian, awarded an honorary doctorate by Leicester University after his Story of England, which featured the Leicestershire community of Kibworth); Sir John Chilcot (a member of the Awards Council, who chaired the inquiry into the Iraq War); Turi King (Lecturer in Genetics & Archaeology at Leicester University, responsible for the analysis of Richard III’s DNA); Michael Jephson (Secretary and Master of the Royal Household at Buckingham Palace); out of frame, The Right Reverend Tim Stevens (Bishop of Leicester); and Lord Grocott (former Labour MP and PPS to Tony Blair, and chancellor of Leicester University, where he was once a student). Other members and friends of Leicester University are on the table beyond (between Michael Wood and Sir John Chilcot, you can see David Mattingly, Professor of Roman Archaeology and Acting Head of School of Archaeology & Ancient History at Leicester University). Imagine such groups multiplied across 40 tables!

Apparently at the ceremony today the Queen asked if it was really true that Richard III was found under a car park. So now she knows.

Guildhall 4

Is new Stonehenge centre a disaster?

That’s what many seemed to think in January. The Western Daily Press called it “a £27m flop”, describing “furious visitors”, “chaotic scenes” and “queues of more than an hour”. The Daily Mail picked up the story, with a headline that summed up the apparent problem: “Moanhenge! Furious visitors criticise ‘chaotic’ new £27m centre at historic monument as it struggles to cope with crowds.”

Changing colours on admission stickers are intended to help cut down fraudulent entry

Changing colours on admission stickers are intended to help cut down fraudulent entry
The new visitor cetnre

The new visitor centre

Anyone with half an eye on social media would have been sceptical of a story line driven by people who write things like this on TripAdvisor:

“I am shocked and embarrassed by the result of their [National Heritage’s] efforts and their ignorance of what a world class facility should be.” [We can guess that the educated Philip B means English Heritage]

“Entrance charge of £14.99 is rip off!. You can not even walk near the stones now.” [You can walk as close to the stones as you have been able to since 1978, which stretches “now” to cover 36 years]

“The visitor centre is about 2 km away from the stones. With all the surrounding land around, did they really put any thought into this?” [It would have taken less time than it took to write this complete comment to discover that just thinking about what to do with Stonehenge began about a century ago, and recently included public inquiries, the employment of hundreds of consultants and – up to 2007 – £37.8m being spent by the UK government]

It was very busy at new year

It was very busy at new year. Note twice the number of staff that the old booths could accommodate

Private coaches had to be hired to supplement the land trains

Private coaches had to be hired to supplement the land trains

The visitor centre opened to the public on schedule (delayed) on December 18. Denton Corker Marshall’s striking building was complete, and fitted out with new archaeological displays, a well stocked shop – with a revised guidebook – café and toilets. New information panels were in place around the centre and stones, and beyond. Car parks (coaches and cars are now separated) were ready, the A344 was closed, and where it used to pass Stonehenge and the Heelstone, had been removed and backfilled with soil. Back at the visitor centre, a new roundabout at Airman’s Cross was working well. These were substantial changes for any site, and for Stonehenge, after all the years of talk, planning and failures, revolutionary.

Midwinter(ish) sunset

Midwinter(ish) sunset panorama

The new midwinter sunset, with a large bronze arrow on the solstice alignment and a bit of temporary mud (photo Simon Banton)

The new midwinter sunset, with a large bronze arrow on the solstice alignment and a bit of temporary mud (photo Simon Banton)

Yet clearly something did go wrong. The old, much derided facilities beside Stonehenge – car park, temporary and permanent toilets, small subsurface offices, cafe and shop – were being taken apart, but the site was a mess. The new hard surface turning circle there for the land train was too small, and the half-way stop-off point at Fargo Plantation was not ready. Newly landscaped areas, not least the A344 footprint, were still largely bare soil and mud. There was mud around the new visitor centre too, where landscaping had fallen behind schedule. Reconstructed neolithic houses, part of the promised outdoor visitor experience, were nowhere to be seen.

Not quite ready 1: the old A344 route

Not quite ready 1: the old A344 route

Not quite ready 2: goodbye underground toilets

Not quite ready 2: goodbye underground toilets

Not quite ready 3: new information panel outside the visitor centre

Not quite ready 3: new information panel outside the visitor centre




And where did the murals go? (see below)

And where did the murals go? (see below)

tunnel 2

A complex, untested new visitor experience at one of the world’s busiest and most contested heritage locations – from which the government had spitefully pulled a promised £10m soon after election in 2010 – was being opened before it was completely ready. And people wanted to see it, in unprecedented numbers – there were days during what is normally the quietest time of year at a highly seasonal site, when attendances were at the level of the previous August.


visitors 2

Richard Williams, EH’s Stonehenge Project Manager (one of a skilled, experienced team that includes Loraine Knowles, Stonehenge Director and Lisa Holmes, Stonehenge Community Projects Manager), told me that Christmas was “unbelievable… chaos, horrific”. Capacity and timing estimates for the land train linking the centre to the stones were “over optimistic”. Midwinter, newly opened and swamped with visitors: hard on those for whom theirs was a once-only visit, but overall a success more than a disaster.

Antiquity tests the land train: Chris Gosden, Chris Chippindale and Nicholas James (and me)

Antiquity tests the land train: Chris Gosden, Chris Chippindale and Nicholas James (and me)

First sight, lintels break horizon in the centre

First sight, lintels breaking horizon

The absence of any teething troubles would have been a sign that the changes were insufficiently ambitious. It will take time for the facilities to be completed, the landscape to regrow and the staff to adjust. It will also take time for visitors and tour guides to adapt and find their way around. Already changes are being planned – Williams told me they hope to enlarge the hard car parking area, and add toilets at the coach park.

The real test will come in the summer. Which is why at British Archaeology I decided to wait until then before we report on the new Stonehenge. Look out for a special feature in the July/August edition, out on June 6.

New orientation model outside the visitor centre

New orientation model outside the visitor centre

Building neolithic houses

Building neolithic houses

Luke Winter, Ancient Technology Centre

Luke Winter, Ancient Technology Centre

James Davies, English Heritage, photographer of "A Year at Stonehenge"

James Davies, English Heritage, photographer of  “A Year at Stonehenge”

It has been very, very wet: flooded Avon near Durrington Walls

It has been very, very wet: flooded Avon near Durrington Walls

August 2014: Airman’s Cross photographed in February 2014, soon after the visitor centre opened (see comment below)


cross vc

cross panel

More on those footprints

Sarah Duffy/York University

Sarah Duffy/York University

These extraordinary images of one of the best preserved Happisburgh footprints were sent to me by Simon Parfitt. They are snapshots from a rotatable 3D image created by Sarah Duffy at York University with MeshLab software. They were only recently finished, too late for the journal and press images.

James Miles and Hembo Pagi used MeshLab for analysing the 3D photogrammetric imagery of Hoa Hakananai’a; we’ve now had three peer-reviewed articles on this study accepted, and they should all be published later this year. When made with high resolution photos, photogrammetric models seem to have significant advantages over the more traditional 3D laser models, not least because they contain real colours.

Nick Ashton’s blog at the British Museum has an interesting discussion, with some good responses to evolution-denial.

And below [added later in the day] is another image, of people leaving footprints at Happisburgh in 1931 (so one wonders what might have been beneath the cliff behind them, now long gone). It was taken by Douglas Jenkins, whose wife Mary Jenkins sits on the right. The shot is really about the two shirtless men (Henry Moore standing, Ben Nicholson sitting) and the two standing women (Irina Moore left, Barbara Hepworth right). The man on the left, looking like a luggage porter who would feel more at home indoors, is one of the great underrated British artists of the last century, the painter Ivon Hitchens.

There’s an interesting story behind this photo, described on the occasion of an exhibition about Moore, Hepworth and Nicholson – poor old Hitchens hardly gets a mention – at Norwich Castle in 2009. Hepworth wrote to the Nicholsons: “Do come and stay with us at Happisburgh… I enclose a photo of the farm – the colour is lovely. The country is quite flat but for a little hill with a tall flint church and a lighthouse… The beach is a ribbon of pale sand as far as the eye can see.”

“Henry, Barbara and I”, remembered John Skeaping, “used to pick up large iron-stone pebbles from the beach which were ideal for carving and polished up like bronze.”

Photo Douglas Jenkins

Photo Douglas Jenkins

Reburials, art and DNA: another month for Richard III

Richard III’s head in York

Richard III’s head in York

What’s happened in the world of Richard III since my last post? A great deal, though that post was only a few weeks ago. I’ll round up just a few things that struck me as particularly interesting or curious.

Let’s start with a curious note, and the most recent: the BBC has just reported that human remains have been reburied at Leicester Cathedral, after they had been uncovered during the renovation work there. It is reported that “disarticulated remains” and “complete tombs” were uncovered; most remains were left in place, but “five complete skeletons” were “reinterred back into the same consecrated ground out of which they came”.

Such reburial is common, and happens on probably a much larger scale than most people realise, so lets pursue it a little. Graves or entire cemeteries can be disturbed by development, or need to be cleared if ground is deconsecrated. A recent prominent case was occasioned by major improvements at the London St Pancras railway terminus (reported in British Archaeology in 2006). The works extended into a large area of a former 18th and 19th century cemetery, of considerable historical interest with many people identified by coffin plates, already disturbed by railway works in the 1860s (when the up and coming writer Thomas Hardy oversaw exhumation). At that time remains of over 7,000 individuals were put into a large pit near the burial ground. In 2002–03 archaeologist Duncan Sayer supervised the recording of over 1,300 burials, though more were disturbed and raised in a project that attracted a little controversy for the poor access granted to archaeologists.

There are businesses that specialise in the tasks of exhumation and reburial, which as you would imagine are highly regulated. St Pancras was tackled by Burial Ground Services UK; another enterprise is Cherished Land, “the United Kingdom’s leading authority on mass exhumations”. Archaeologists working in England follow an important document called Guidance for Best Practice for Treatment of Human Remains Excavated from Christian Burial Grounds in England, published by English Heritage and the Church of England in 2005 (available here for free).

Human Remains Guidance A4

Among principles in this guidance relevant to Richard III’s remains, and to decisions taken by archaeologists planning excavation at the site of Greyfriars in 2012 (when, you will recall, they had almost no expectation of finding Richard III’s grave), are these [if this gets too much, skip down to the flag photo]:

The five “principal assumptions”:

  • Human remains should always be treated with dignity and respect.
  • Burials should not be disturbed without good reason.
  • Human remains, and archaeological evidence for burial rites, are important sources of scientific information.
  • There is a need to give particular weight to the feelings and views of living family members when known.
  • There is a need for decisions to be made in the public interest, and in an accountable way

Recommendations (selected):


Excavated human remains should be reburied, if living close family members are known and request it.

When excavated human remains are more than 100 years old and have significant future research potential, deposition in a suitable holding institution should be arranged.

Within the body of the text:

Even for remains over 100 years old, where there is no legal obligation to trace next of kin, it would be ethical to accord views of living close family members strong weight. When excavation of 18th- or 19th-century burial grounds is planned, reasonable steps, such as advertisements in local newspapers, should be taken at the start of project planning to alert local people who may be descendants of interred individuals so that their views may be heard.

The great majority of archaeological excavations, however, deal with the remains of long-dead individuals of unknown identity. It is therefore suggested that decisions regarding human remains should be guided by ethical criteria derived from Christian theology, from current secular attitudes to the dead, and from secular concepts of ethics.

The law of the Church of England [regarding CofE land] encompasses a presumption against disturbance, and any disturbed remains should be reinterred in consecrated ground as close as possible to their original resting place.

Where a specific religious or family interest in the site is recognised, [remains] should be returned for reburial after scientific studies have been completed. Exceptions may be made if there are overwhelming scientific reasons for either permanent retention in an approved museum store or for a longer period of retention before reburial, to give [further] opportunities for examination by researchers. Other remains disinterred because of ground disturbance should normally be deposited in an approved museum or archaeological store unless there are overwhelming circumstances for reburial that need to be respected.

The phrase “family members” is not defined, but it is clear that what was meant would not have encompassed an ill-defined group scattered around the world that includes up to 17 million people – not one of whom can be descended from Richard III (“we are all related to each other and to Richard; it’s simply a matter of degree”, says geneticist Turi King).

Continuing the theme for one more point, The King Richard Campaign notes that “Upon finding lost remains of missing persons we do not insist that they are buried locally to where they were originally laid in the ground but we ensure that they are returned to their nearest relatives; we repatriate the bodies of soldiers from where they fell”. This is not correct, like many claims being bandied around. Rediscovered remains of British soldiers killed in action are routinely reburied near to where found. A good example would be the exhumation of First Word War remains at Fromelles, France, conducted by Oxford Archaeology in 2009, which led to the creation of a new war cemetery just across the road (reported in British Archaeology).

As an archaeologist, and for anyone reading the document above with an open mind, one might think the debate we should be having now is not about where Richard’s remains should be reburied, but whether or not they should be buried at all.


flag note

Another curious story concerns a bit of cloth said to be from a flag carried at Bosworth. It was found in a house clearance sale “in Suffolk”, accompanied by a note (like something from a Tintin story), reading “Part of one of the colours which belonged to the army of Richard III. It was taken at the battle of Bosworth Field.” The auctioneer wondered optimistically “why such a scrap of pennant was kept. If not as a trophy from a battle then why else?” One possible answer to that lay in the estimate of £3,000–5,000, though buyers seemed a little more sceptical, and it went for £2,800.

Bosworth flag 2

Something similar came up last October. A scrap of weathered fabric said to be from Henry VII’s battle standard at Bosworth went for £3,800. This had an apparently 19th century note too, though curiously it said the cloth came from Richard’s standard. But who can tell when the things are so faded?

Onto something more positive. Things move apace around the cathedral and old school across the road in Leicester, where building and landscaping promise to transform the area of the city where Richard was buried.

At the Guildhall, funding has been secured for an exhibition about medieval Leicester, with £20,000 promised by the city council and £69,000 by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, and the Wolfson Foundation.


We have been shown some new images of the £4m King Richard III Centre at the former school, or Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery as it is apparently to be called, complete with logo as above. The images do not inspire much hope either, but it’s early days, especially with such a tight timetable.

first floor gallery


Leicestershire County Council has chosen a winner in its search for a new artwork to go in the cathedral gardens. It will be made by dallas pierce quintero, whose “practice seeks to create beautiful and bespoke designs, through an iterative development process with our clients to deliver a unique response to each individual brief” (how could an artist like Michael Sandle compete with that?). The story of Richard lll’s death will be told on 12  vertical steel plates:

steel plates

Earlier this week I was in London (having almost miraculously navigated the flooded railways from Wiltshire) to hear Turi King announce that she will lead a project to sequence Richard III’s entire genome, along with that of Michael Ibsen. This will be quite different from the DNA studies to date, which focussed on identifying the remains. The new work should tell us a great deal about the king, from his hair colour to his susceptibility to certain diseases. As the first historic, known individual to be studied in this way, the results will also have value beyond our understanding of the man himself.


Seated: Turi King and Dan O’Connor, Head of Medical Humanities, Wellcome Trust

Funding of “under £100,000” comes from the Wellcome Trust and the Leverhulme Trust, and, King told me, the distinguished geneticist Alec Jefferies, to whom King was “nattering over dinner” when the idea came up.

After I left the press briefing, I went to the Society of Antiquaries library, where I read an article in the Ricardian Bulletin by David Johnson: “Did Richard III intended [sic] to be buried in York Minster?” (Sep 2013, 35–38). He answered his question in the affirmative, arguing that when he died, Richard was building a college in York for 100 chantry priests and six altars for their use in the minster (“primarily at his own cost”, though he gives no figures). He could find no reference to a tomb or a chantry chapel, but the clincher is apparently the scale of this project – “the truly extraordinary number of chantry priests”.

I’m afraid Johnson’s scholarship, and thus his conclusions, are undermined by a claim early in his paper, which reads, “the overwhelming view that Richard should be laid to rest in the Minster [in York]”. As there has been no consultation on this, open vote or systematic survey, no one can possibly know the “overwhelming view”.

Meanwhile, Percival Turnbull (he of the Guardian letter) wrote to me from County Durham to say that his MP had proposed that Richard’s remains be buried at Barnard Castle. Richard lived there in 1476–78, says Turnbull, having acquired the castle through his marriage to Anne Neville. He made extensive improvements to St Mary’s church at a cost of £40, widening the aisles, and installing the chancel arch and rood arrangements. In 1478 he launched a process to establish a college of 12 priests, with “the enormous annual income of 400 marks”. Comparing the sizes of the parish church and the minster, and the fact that Richard lived in Barnard Castle for two or three years, I’d say on this evidence the latter is at least an equal contender for the grave.

And finally some quick notes.

Darlow Smithson Productions were commended in the Broadcast Awards for Best Documentary Programme, for Richard III: The King in the Car Park, for Channel 4.

John Ashdown-Hill wants to pay for a gold-plated crown in the style of the one Richard would have worn. “It remains our intention to give it pride of place within the reinterment ceremony”, said The Rev Pete Hobson, canon missioner at Leicester Cathedral, “as and when we’re allowed to proceed.”

The above John Ashdown-Hill has launched a new website, about John Ashdown-Hill. As I write he’s up for election as a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries.

Johnny Hewes, “born and raised in York but now living in Brighton”, has written an anthem for Richard III’s remains called Let Him Come Home. Not recommended for those with perfect pitch.

Amazon has changed the cover image for my book, but I think that’s for a retitled US edition due out later in the year.

Digging for Richard III: Out May 5

Million-year-old footprints in Norfolk

Nick Ashton, British Museum

Nick Ashton, British Museum (photo AHOB)

There’s a lot of interest in this new find, and it’s worth saying more about. Things like this really do not come along every year.

There’s a great video made by the Natural History Museum of the team recording the prints, which Channel 4 has put online, with more detail in the film on the museum’s website. These stills are from the film. They give you an idea of the conditions under which the prints were recorded.

Simon Parfitt, Natural History Museum (photo AHOB)

Simon Parfitt, Natural History Museum/UCL (photo AHOB)

As scientific announcements go, that some of the world’s oldest human footprints have been found in Norfolk seems to raise more questions than it answers. How do we know the prints are not recent? They were, after all, found on the beach. If they really are so old, how did they survive? And most importantly, what do they tell us?

Not which species made them, for sure – only fossils would reveal that, and pending the discovery of remains of similar age, we are still guessing which variety of human walked northern Europe at this time. So could these prints be little more than a gift to headline writers, invoking Robinson Crusoe at his beach footprint moment, or the young American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, dreamily imagining the eternity of the soul, memorialised by “Footprints on the sands of time”? Should we care?

In a word, yes. This is a genuinely rare moment, one to engage both our emotions and our historical curiosity.

It happened in May last year. A small team of scientists were working on the Norfolk coast at Happisburgh (pronounced Hazeburra). They knew already that important remains were preserved there, dating back nearly a million years – by far the oldest signs of humans in northern Europe. Simple stone tools and butchered animal bones, though no human fossils, had been excavated at several locations on the shore, along with everything from mammoth teeth to insects and pine cones.

These remains had allowed the scientists to reconstruct the climate, landscape and fauna in rare detail, the more significant for the area’s latitude. Before these discoveries, it had been thought that early humans would have been unable to live so far north, and in such relatively challenging conditions – with winters, for example, cold enough to mean they almost certainly wore some form of clothing.

The ancient landscape is now buried beneath metres of sand and clay, dropped by glaciers and rivers that crossed the area in later millennia. But on the coast, the North Sea eats at the soft cliffs, consuming houses and roads and exposing one of the world’s most remarkable fossil worlds, preserved by the overlying geology.

On this occasion, the team were conducting a geophysical survey, to see if they could trace the ancient landscape, inland under the cliffs and then out to sea, where up to a point, it should be easier to study – though the loss of an expensive underwater survey explorer has not helped progress there.

It was a sunny day. Five men were walking along the beach. They were all from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB). This was a research programme about to come to the end of its 13 years, based at the London Natural History Museum but involving 60 scientists scattered across over 20 institutions and several countries. Its achievements form the subject of a landmark exhibition soon to open in London.

Simon Parfitt is AHOB’s leading animal specialist, based at the Natural History Museum and UCL. He was on the beach that day. He told me how Martin Bates, a University of Wales archaeologist who specialises in Britain’s submerged landscapes, suddenly “stopped in his tracks”. Bates gazed down at an expanse of hard, grey mud riddled with water-filled hollows. “These are human footprints”, he said.

He should know. Brothers Martin and Richard Bates (also there that day), and their father Denis, a retired geologist, had for some years been studying footprints exposed by the tides at Borth on the north Welsh coast. The Borth prints are thought to be bronze age, some 4,000 years old. Yet the global scarcity of footprints of such an early age as anything at Happisburgh would have to be, meant the others took some convincing. Surely these prints were recent?

“No,” said Martin. “The sediment’s too hard.” As he stood on the mud into which bare feet appeared to have sunk, his heavy boots made no impression. They didn’t look like anything they had seen that could be natural. But if they were prints, could they really be human?

A fortnight later they came back with Sarah Duffy, from York University, to record the surface using multi-image photogrammetry. With a few carefully taken high-resolution photos, and clever software, they would be able to create a 3D model of the surface which they could examine at leisure. It was a good move. With the weather changed to high seas and lashing rain, there was now little chance of studying the prints on the ground.

They had brought a hose to connect to a nearby standpipe, so they could sluice out the sand with which tides had filled the hollows. But a new cliff fall the day before had taken out the mains supply. As the light faded and the tide rose, they set up a human chain to bring buckets of water in from the sea. They left tired and bedraggled, still unsure of what they had found. A week later they returned to laser scan the prints, but by then they had all but disappeared. Nothing now survives.

Except Duffy’s photos. Once she had analysed them, helped by Isabelle De Groote of Liverpool John Moores University, there was no room for doubt.

Nick Ashton, an archaeologist at the British Museum and senior member of the AHOB project, is the lead author of the scientific paper describing the prints in the online journal PLOS ONE, due to be published later today. [Now online here.] He told me they could see 49 clear human footprints – though there were likely to be many more, less well preserved – including one with toes. The shapes and sizes of the prints tell us something about who made them. Ashton thinks there were probably five individuals, among them both adults and children. They ranged in height from 3ft to 5ft 8in (1m to 1.73m). They were heading south, probably close to the edge of a wide river known to have been flowing there out to sea.

Geological studies show that the hardened estuary mud that preserved the prints is the same age as the deposits nearby where they had earlier found the stone tools and fossil animals. The prints must be at least 800,000 years old, and possibly as much as 970,000. Chris Stringer, director of AHOB and research leader in human origins at the Natural History Museum, told me that without fossils they cannot determine which human species left its distinctive mark at Happisburgh. His best guess, from fossils of similar age found in Spain, is Homo antecessor, a contender for the first type of human to reach Europe from Africa.

Remarkable as they are, why do they matter? A key reason is that they prove that land surfaces have been preserved – literally, the ground on which early humans walked. These are extremely rare, but very precious, for in the right circumstances, they hold signs of early human behaviour. These might be moments such as the making of a tool, or the butchering of an animal – signs not just that these things happened, but of how they occurred, the nearest we can ever get to seeing an ancient mind at work. The international significance of the Norfolk sites has been raised to a new level.

The prints also, of course, tell us something direct about a group of people – a family, perhaps – wandering along the riverside. And the emotive power of the prints, the thought that at that place, for a few moments, individual humans gathered, thought and looked – what might they have seen? Did they talk? – will inspire scientists as much as the general public. And, as the team that found the prints must be thinking, perhaps grant givers too.

* Nick Ashton writes about the footprints in the latest edition of British Archaeology magazine.

“Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story”, opens at the Natural History Museum on February 13.

“Hominin footprints from Early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK”, by Nick Ashton, Simon G Lewis, Isabelle De Groóte, Sarah M Duffy, Martin Bates, Richard Bates, Peter Hoare, Mark Lewis, Simon A Parfitt, Sylvia Peglar, Craig Williams and Chris Stringer. PLOS ONE February 7 2014

These photos show another site at Happisburgh under excavation, and in better weather!

Hapisburgh a

Happisburgh b

Oldest footprints outside Africa

Happisburgh prints (c) AHOB Martin Bates

Photo AHOB/Martin Bates

Happisburgh has done it again! Already the location of the oldest human artefacts in northern Europe, and the furthest north any signs of early humans have been found, now the Norfolk coast has given us human footprints – nearly a million years old. They are by far the oldest outside Africa. As Nick Ashton (British Museum) writes in the new edition of British Archaeology, only those at Laetoli in Tanzania (3.6 million years) and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya (1.5 million years) are older. No human fossils have yet been found of this age in northern Europe, so we’re guessing which species made them: Chris Stringer (Natural History Museum) thinks Homo antecessor is the most likely candidate. More on this here.

You can read about this discovery in British Archaeology, along with a preview of the exhibition at the Natural History Museum which features the find, and much more (and which opens on February 13). I spoke to Chris Stringer about the show, and to Alfons Kennis, one of the Dutch twins who made the extraordinary life-sized models, one neanderthal, one early modern human – two ultra-realistic, stark naked men.

Cover with Spine

The magazine also goes to the British Museum. The first part of the BM’s new extension, under construction since 2011, opens in March with an exhibition about Vikings. I went to see the installation of its first exhibit – the conserved remains of the world’s largest Viking ship. And Astrid Kähler writes about the Dragon Harald Fairhair, a Viking longship launched last year, in the largest project of its kind ever undertaken. Ahead of its arrival in Britain and the US, we hear how it feels to be among the crew.

Broadcaster Dan Snow talks about the importance of history in his family, and first world war archaeology: “The history that we’re taught in schools is so riddled with myths and particular points of view, that I think archaeology can provide that extraordinarily objective, quite new connection with the past.” Dan Snow is the Council for British Archaeology’s new president.

There are also features on Northampton Castle, Gertrude Bell, Eastbourne Ancestors, and more, and Requiem, our annual tribute to archaeologists and lovers of antiquity who died in the past year.

If you are not already a member of the Council for British Archaeology, or a subscriber, you can find British Archaeology in Smiths, at the Apple Store and online. See

British Museum Vikings

British Museum Vikings

And here’s something else that caught my eye in the work-in-progress Viking gallery – altogether a fabulous space – an information panel awaiting its moment, quietly chattering away to itself.

light box

A year in the death of Richard III

Logistics note

Exactly a year ago, as I write, I was getting lost in Leicester. I never did get to the bottom of it, but my satnav struggled with the city’s layout, and drew me into a suburban housing estate when I was hoping to find the university. I didn’t know it then, but I would return to Leicester many times over the following nine months, and learn to abandon the satnav once I entered the centre. The university, it seemed, was off the radar.

Well not any more! I made it to the Richard III press conference, just. And how pleased I was that I had. It was one of those things you never forget, superbly staged and managed, pure theatre in a way that formal theatre can too easily miss. And by that I don’t mean it was hollow, or a clever fabrication. As I wrote at the time, “we were being shown a substantial research project that was a case study in how archaeology works at its best, from questioning and planning, to fieldwork, analyses and conclusion”.

The organisation, of course, was well hidden, but just consider the text at the top, the opening words of a long “logistics note” that dealt with issues like parking for satellite trucks, catering, who can and cannot register to be let in, and what can and cannot be revealed. Masterful!

Thinking back over the year, I came up with these favourite three incidents.

1. Best exhibit: The display of Richard III’s remains at the University of Leicester, February 4 2013. 

Richard III, Leicester

This was an immensely powerful and curious thing. There was a note in the press conference programme – easy to miss, there was so much there – that read, “There is an opportunity for journalists to bear witness to the remains and evidence. No photographic or recording equipment is permitted in the room but journalists are invited to accompany University staff over to view the remains. Report to the Help Desk in the foyer.”

The portentous wording evokes the mood of the day: everything felt dramatic. And it was meant to be taken literally. We were led outside and round the block, into the library building, upstairs through four floors (from which we could see students working at keyboards, but no books) and round a corner into what felt like a forgotten service room. We were briefed in this room (I remember perhaps five of us). “No recording equipment” meant just that: no photos, no filming, no writing, phones off, silence. Then we were taken into the adjacent room (apparently a careers service seminar room) through double doors. There was a notice on the first door that read “Silence, No Photography”. Nothing else. Not a hint of what lay beyond. I was asked not to photograph the notice.

You’ll understand that all of this is from memory. I see Richard’s skeleton laid out on a table on black velvet, under a clear case. It looks like some of the university’s photos – released for the first time that morning – in a sort of expanded anatomical arrangement, so that bones do not rub against bones. There are, I think, two chaplains, and at least two security men. It’s a temple, a shrine. It reminds me deeply of Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, his diamond-studded platinum human skull, exhibited with heavy security against a black ground in a dark room in London down a Piccadilly back street; a work about wealth, power and the relentless sweep of death.

2. Best joke: Guardian Letters Sep 16 2012.

Richard III, Leicester

The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September) may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.

Percival Turnbull, Barnard Castle, County Durham

3. Best TV moment


“So what we’re actually seeing here”, says Jo Appleby, in one of the two Channel 4 films, “is that this skeleton in fact has a hunched back.”

Philippa Langley’s jaw drops. That is not a turn of phrase, her jaw actually drops. “No,” she says, quietly. She straightens up. “No,” again.

This is the scene when Philippa Langley is shown, apparently for the first time, the fully uncovered remains of Skeleton 1 – later proved to be the remains of Richard III – in the Leicester car park, as they lay in the ground.

But can we ever know what really happened? It was staged by a Darlow Smithson crew, rightly keen to capture Langley’s reaction. Appleby would have been briefed, cameras arranged, the director would say something like, OK, Philippa, you can now have a look, and presenter Simon Farnaby was ready to steer the conversation. Three cameras waited: Darlow’s two, and a third in the hands of the university’s Carl Vivian. Darlow caught the falling jaw. Vivian thinks Langley knew what she was doing, she was playing to the camera. I suspect if you were to ask Langley now, even she could not be sure. Did she stage the dropping jaw? Did it reflect how she felt? What was real, and what was fiction? The past year, caught in a few frames.

Digging for Richard III: Out May 5



Here’s a lovely thing. It’s a poem about an ancient place, by Mark Edmonds and Rose Ferraby – or as Mark describes it, “words by me, images by the two of us” – in the form of an illustrated book. It’s mostly the story of the making of a stone axe 6,000 years ago. A quarry high in the Lake District draws the maker up to find the right stone, where the axe is roughed out, then carried back down and finished; the description attempts to convey that this means more to the maker than the mere winning of a useful implement. Interleaved with this is the briefer story of (one assumes) a knowledgeable archaeologist who finds up there an abandoned, unfinished axe; he thinks he can beat the problem that defeated the neolithic knapper, and at the end succeeds. He descends with the axe, “Six thousand years in the making.”

It’s beautifully done, textured papers, colours, words and designs expressing Mark’s love of stone. He sent me the book from Orkney, where, he tells me, he’s hunkered down from the storms studying the neolithic stonework recovered last year at the extraordinary excavation site on the Ness of Brodgar.


Some of the imagery is reminiscent of Richard Long, surely the early British prehistorian’s favourite living artist. [After I wrote this blog, Mark Edmonds told me “there’s also a thread through Ian Hamilton Finlay and the Concrete Poets that I suspect was an influence. As for the endpapers, they are pure homage to John Piper!”] In one spread, conversation (TALK) threads through a clatter of knapping and thought (TRIM/LOOK/RING/ACHE); in another, the knapper works with frantic intensity (TAP STRIKE TAP STRIKE). In a third (seen above), plant names map the contours of the climb, from sea pea and sea kale to roseroot and alpine clubmoss. This reminds me also of a pollen diagram, familiar to archaeologists and archaeo-botanists but, I suspect, to few others. There are several of these specialist references that will reward archaeologists. A short introduction helps set the scene, but perhaps one day Edmonds and Ferraby will tell more about these hidden stories.


Here’s one. Since the 1940s, archaeologists and petrologists have been studying the materials from which neolithic axes were made. It soon became apparent that they could be arranged into groups of like rock. Some of these were easily matched to known quarries. Quarries for a few more have since been located. Many, however, remain elusive, and debate continues as to exactly what some of these groups mean. At the start the groups were numbered. One of the biggest, a fine, green tuff that works particularly well and was enormously popular three or four thousand years ago, was labelled Group VI. Most of the rock that was quarried in the Lake District is Group VI. Hence Stonework, published by Group VI Press, and (where you can buy it)


There is quite a tradition of archaeology and books-as-things, as evocations of the past in the present, as gifts. Here are some more.


Segsbury Project, by Simon Callery (English Heritage/Henry Moore Foundation/University of Oxford 2003) documents Callery’s work with archaeologists at the excavation of Segsbury hillfort.


The Dig

The Dig, photos by Guy Hunt (Blurb 2009), a gift of fond memories for the excavators at the Prescot Street dig in London.



Skeletons: London’s Buried Bones, ed Emily Jo Sargent (Wellcome Trust 2008), accompanied an exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, with stories and photos about Museum of London Archaeology’s excavations of human remains.



This reminds me of the book that came with Hirst’s diamond skull, For the Love of God: The Making of the Diamond Skull, by Damien Hirst  (Other Criteria 2007). Unlike the others, this book has real specialist reports by archaeologists, including one from the Oxford radiocarbon lab.

Chapman family

And that takes me to this: Works from the Chapman Family Collection (White Cube 2002). This did not just accompany an exhibition, but was an integral part of it. The artefacts were superb ethnographic wooden sculptures, curiously African yet not quite placeable. The book (and the press releases) proclaimed how the family had built up the collection over nearly a century. It was absolutely beautifully, convincingly done. It was a conceit, a fake, a dig at collectors and dealers (mounted by Jay Jopling, an influential dealer), part of a continuing riff by the artists on cultural invention and re-reading (compare their Goya etchings with added Micky Mouse faces in Insult to Injury) and both disturbing and very funny. All the works had great big references in them to McDonalds. Pleasingly, it was acquired by Tate Britain (though there were six worrying years when it might have disappeared into a private collection).

Chapman family2