thinking about archaeology

Archive for June, 2014

Pigeon news 2

day 3

Nest building has continued for the past two days, always stopping around midday, when the birds disappear: above is how the nest looked at noon on day 3.

out to churchyard

back from churchyard

back to nest

out again

You can just see the other bird on the nest near the top


Watched by a house sparrow

Pigeon culture

nest from below

Here’s a thing. And that’s not a lazy entry, I mean it literally. It’s a half-house, a symbolic home left unfinished as a record of a moment of bonding, a useless thing in itself but an essential tool made to accompany complex thought. By a pair of pigeons.

We have a very small garden, so it’s been curious to watch a couple of these fat birds stake it out as their territory. In the spring they made a nest, but it didn’t last, and the one egg we know they laid ended up broken on the ground. Over the past couple of days they’ve been active again, perching in the honeysuckle and apparently nipping at the flowers. This morning, when she should have been getting ready for school, my daughter and I watched the two birds start a nest in a climbing rose.

While one sat in the rose, waddling around a bit and fiddling with the twigs (for no particular reason we decided this was the female), the other (we called it he) collected sticks. The rose is close to a bit of flat roof. He stood on the edge, fell off, opened his wings and went in search of a new twig – they were thin sticks, almost like grass. In a minute he’d return to the roof, stand on the edge for a few seconds, then flop over to the rose, where he’d struggle to squeeze in, hand over his prize, turn round and escape back to the roof, usually standing on the other pigeon’s back as he did so. While he was gone, she would arrange the stick.

They were still doing this when we moved on, and there was a lot of pigeon action in the garden all morning. And then it stopped. All that remained was a light foundation of twigs in the rose.

another twig

he arrives

he leaves

she fits a twig

Now you could say this was just a first attempt at nest making, in a not particularly appropriate site that was soon abandoned. Perhaps it is. But it feels like more. It feels like a material thing that was created and used in a process of ritualised and partly mechanical behaviour, a rehearsal for a real nest, a test of loyalty and DIY compatibility, an evocative – for pigeons – sticky twiggy metaphor for bonding and sharing. It feels like these birds are telling us, it’s not only people, or chimpanzees, or even crows, who use things to think with: we do, too.

in the honeysuckle at dusk

A nice guy

BBC History Skidmore

There’s an entertaining piece about Richard III in the new BBC History magazine, by Chris Skidmore (which also contains a nice review of my book, by Francis Pryor). Was he thinking of Horrible Histories?

HH 4

One of the TV series’ great features was a Measly Middle Ages pop ballad parody called The Truth About Richard III. “Tudor propaganda it‘s all absurd”, sang Jim Howick, “Time to tell the truth about Richard the third”. Then a refrain that I guess Sondheim would have been proud of:

“Can you imagine it?
I’m the last Plantagenet.”

HH 1

HH 2

HH 3

It seemed to go down well at the Richard III Society of New South Wales, where Dorothea Preis recommended it to fellow Ricardians: “…certainly we all agree with his assessment that there was a ‘special ruler – King Richard the Third’, who was a ‘nice guy’. Have a look at the clip of the ‘Richard III Song‘ and enjoy it.” I’m sure they all realised it was a spoof.

You can watch it here: Horrible Histories Richard III Song

Series 3, Episode 6, 7 June 2011
Performed by Jim Howick, composer Richie Webb
Produced for CBBC by Lion Television with Citrus Television

A canal walk, a church and a bit of Wolf Hall

I’m going to post some photos I took yesterday on a perfect day on the Kennet & Avon canal. The day before, I gave my first Richard III talk, at the National Portrait Gallery (to a full house, after which we ran out of copies of my book during the signing session…). I’d prepared for that immediately after finishing the new British Archaeology, so it was great to step out into the Brazil Day celebrations in Trafalgar Square, and the next day walk in the sun in Wiltshire.

Richard III NPG

Ricardians might wonder at this entrance to the NPG’s Early Tudors gallery. Richard III?

Like the V&A, the NPG has a great cast collection. This is Henry IV, from an original in Canterbury Cathedral

Like the V&A, the NPG has a great cast collection. This is Henry IV, from an original in Canterbury Cathedral

Brazil day

Brazil day

tow path

tow path






Bedwyn church canal 1

Great Bedwyn church

Bedwyn church canal 2

Gt Bedwyn church

Tomb chest c 1590 with effigy of Sir John Seymour (died 1536)

Tomb chest c 1590 with effigy of Sir John Seymour (died 1536)

Sir John's head rests on his helmet, which has wonderful wooden wings

Sir John’s head rests on his helmet, which has wonderful wooden wings

Remounted fragments of glass from Wolf Hall, with detail showing the crown, Jane Seymour’s device and the Prince of Wales’ feathers

Remounted fragments of glass from Wolf Hall, with detail showing the crown, Jane Seymour’s device and the Prince of Wales’ feathers

This banner hangs in the south aisle. The text is from Galatians chapter 6: “Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ./For if a man think himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceiveth himself./But let every man prove his own work, and then shall he have rejoicing in himself alone, and not in another.”

Bear ye one anothers

It seems an appropriate thing to illustrate now, in view of the British Folk Art exhibition which has just opened at Tate Britain in London. It has a Methodist feel about it, but with its fine depiction of the church was presumably made for that or one of its schools, apparently before the mid 19th century restoration.

A quick bit of online research suggests it may have been painted between 1843 and 1853, when the antiquarian John Ward was vicar (there will of course be more information about this, and I welcome any updates). As Ward himself describes in his article about Bedwyn in the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine (1860), when the west front was rebuilt in 1843 (“in consequence of the ruined condition of the former wall”), a new doorway was inserted into the north aisle and the main door enlarged (they found the buttresses had been built of recycled stone coffins, and the same thing occurred when the transepts were restored in 1854–55). The roofs were renewed 1853–54 “and made to follow the original pitch, traces of which were clearly marked on the tower”; north and south porches were removed, and a doorway at the west end of the north aisle was blocked.

Church photo Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust

Church photo on left Wiltshire Historic Churches Trust

Comparing the image on the banner with the church today, the former fits in between these two restoration events: the west wall, with its door into the north aisle, looks in pretty good condition, suggesting the view post-dates 1843; but the roofs are lower and the porch and aisle door are still there, suggesting it pre-dates 1853.


churchyard 2

Happy birthday Beatrice de Cardi


A group of tributes said it all. Outshining her card from the Queen and a congratulatory letter from British Museum director Neil MacGregor were two spectacular artefacts: an apparently solid gold ship presented by the Ministry of Culture, Youth & Community Development, and a gold and silver khanjar (a dagger “worn on a belt by men”) from HH Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, ruler of Ras al-Khaimah, United Arab Emirates.

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday at the Society of Antiquaries in London, at a party held jointly by the society and the Council for British Archaeology, the two organisations for which Beatrice worked. Born a few weeks before the first world war, she was at the heart of a string of key changes that shaped archaeology in Britain in the 20th century. Yet her research and fieldwork were all conducted outside the UK. “It’s really necessary for archaeologists not to be insular”, she told me ten years ago.

She dug with Mortimer Wheeler at Maiden Castle in the 1930s. But after the second world war, when she returned from working with the foreign office in China, she found Wheeler had given her former job at the London Museum to another bright young thing. So she went out to Delhi as an assistant UK trade commissioner, later moving to Pakistan. There she began a pattern that continued for her working career: she used her leave to investigate archaeology, in this case Indus civilisation sites – the day after she retired she was on a plane to Qatar.

In 1944 she was invited to be the Council for British Archaeology’s first secretary. Settling down in London, once she was able to take sufficient leave in the 1950s, she returned to fieldwork in Baluchistan. “There was too much tribal unrest to continue working there,” she told me. “So, I decided to hop across the border and work in south-eastern Iran, at Bampur… only to be pounced on by the Iranian secret police. I thought, I’ll look at the nearest point to Iran, and chose Ras al-Khaimah.”

The ruler of Ras al-Khaimah was keen on her work, and invited her to put up a research proposal, the outcome of which ultimately underpinned the archaeological stories at the Emirates’ national museum.

In 2008 the Independent called her “the world’s oldest practising archaeologist”, and as far as I can see she’s still in practice. Among the many awards and honours she has received, her OBE was presented 40 years ago. Yesterday she was given a gold medal by the Society of Antiquaries. Perhaps there’s something in those genes inherited from her Corsican father, Count de Cardi. Happy birthday, Beatrice.

100 cake