thinking about archaeology

Archive for September, 2015

You have to see new British Museum show, even if that means travelling the world

“Celts: art & identity” opens at the British Museum tomorrow. After a quick press tour today, I can only say, wow. Wow! I will go again and look more closely when I can, but my immediate reaction was sheer joy. This is really worth going out of the way to see.


First, there’s a lot of nice stuff to look at – really nice stuff, with many iconic artefacts of their kind. The BM has a good collection of its own that is used to good effect. They’ve borrowed many things as well – from 17 UK institutions and 10 international museums, says Neil MacGregor in his foreword to the catalogue – in a way that the combined forces of National Museum Scotland and the BM would be hard to beat for material of this subject matter.

Second, the show takes a tired, familiar but enduringly popular concept – Celts – and makes it feel new. Remarkably, the idea was born as long ago as 2003, in a discussion led by JD Hill and Sam Moorhead. Even more remarkably, somehow during the extended development of the idea it took a radical direction.

For two generations archaeologists have been steadily arguing themselves out of the box that held Celts, to leave them, from an academic’s perspective, out of the story altogether. You can see how and why that happened, but from a wider perspective it never really made sense. For most people “Celts” is a very loose term, used as the classical authors who coined it did – as a vague reference to other people in the north and west of Europe at a particular time some 2,000 years ago. Which is what we get here – the art and craft of western Europe in the last five centuries BC.

But that’s just the start (or the first large part). We move on through Roman times, early Christianity and into the Celtic revival of the last few centuries. This would have confused, even alienated some leading archaeologists over 40 years ago (the famous over 40 years ago when it is said the last British exhibition devoted to Celtic art was held, of which more below). People like Stuart Piggott and Glyn Daniel were as fascinated by recent cultural interests in the ancient past as they were by the prehistoric past itself. But there was always a lingering sense – in Daniel’s case, often overt – that modern manifestations of Celts, Druids and the rest were a bit of a joke; it was wrong. Thanks to the BM showcasing it all in one long gallery, here we can just enjoy everything for its own sake. The juxtapositions add interest to each of the parts. Ancient Celticity positively glows in the presence of modern.

Finally, the designers have learnt well how to use the space of this still new gallery. With hindsight, we can see that the main problem with the opening show, “Vikings: Life and Legend” (which the lamented Brian Sewell called “a disaster”), was the ship. The BM had borrowed a fantastic recreation of an entire Viking longship. It was fabulous. And it took up half the gallery, so that everything else had to be crammed into little cases packed close together, around which large crowds ground to a halt.

There are some grand things on show here, not least JH Foley’s triumphant marble statue of Caractacus, borrowed from the City of London, and an impressive show of Celtic crosses (all right, they’re not all real, but they look great). But there is a also much space, room for a very large number of people to wander and look around. For the objects to shine.

The floor plan, and drapes over the earlier part of the exhibition, have a kind of Celtic swirl to them. I love these evanescent fabrics – whatever they are – hanging from above, lit like aurora borealis. When you are in the Celtic revival section, you can see them in the background, rising from the invisible ancient Celtic artefacts like ghosts in the dark.

This theatricality by Real Studios reminded me of a very different display of Celtic art, but one that was equally dramatic: Early Celtic Art, held like the new show in London and Edinburgh – but the other way round. It began during the Edinburgh Festival in 1970, and came down to the Hayward Gallery in London. I was at school at the time. Already enamoured by Celtic art, I hitched from the south coast to Scotland to see it. The university had put on a small conference, where I met Stuart Piggott. Could he sign my catalogue? Of course, what’s the date? I said I didn’t know. Piggott saw I had a newspaper under my arm. “Always”, he said, “use the evidence you have around you.”

The relatively small show had some lovely things. It was dark (like the BM), and spooky. A tape played the sound of cawing crows. There were festoons of what looked like black wool. You felt only one step away from falling into a bog. I thought it was great.

It had the Gundestrup cauldron, featured on the cover of the catalogue (a lovely thing on textured paper with black and white plate inserts). Actually, that was a bit of a swizz, as the cauldron was a replica.

Now, in the British Museum, like Julian Cope, I can see the real thing, surrounded by all its children.

What has the mesolithic got to do with Stonehenge? Not a lot

I’m editing Greg Bailey’s column for the next British Archaeology, and one of the broadcasts he reviews is BBC2’s Horizon film, First Britons. I enjoyed it, some nice film at interesting sites with a strong narrative. As a specialist in British prehistory, I’d take issue with a few details (and one or two larger points), and of course there are very different ways of telling the story. But I didn’t feel anyone who knew nothing about the subject would come away seriously misled.

One thing stuck in my memory that I thought I’d check out before the film comes off iPlayer (which it does in 10 hours as I write). At the end of the film, we see David Jacques walking about in the middle of Stonehenge. He refers to bones of wild animals excavated there. It’s good to draw attention to these, as they are often overlooked – but are strange, and must have meant something. Here is Jacques’ entire delivery:

“In a sense Stonehenge is built on the mesolithic, the foundations to it are in the ditch. We have bones here that are redolent with mesolithic meanings, just the sort of bones that we are getting actually in the Blick Mead spring: wild deer, wild boar, they’re put in strategic places. So this place is chock-a-block full of mesolithic meaning and symbolism.

“People in the neolithic would have needed a past just as much as we do. They wouldn’t have wanted a blank slate, and so stories about ancestors and what they did would have made this place special and vivid.

“On the face of it it looks like mesolithic people were wiped out in some way at the advent of farming. I think it’s much more likely that they did what they’d been really good at in the past, which we’ve got very clear evidence for. They’re really good at adapting, and they’re adapting around a new set of circumstances and situations.”

What are these bones? There are no identifiable mesolithic artefacts at Stonehenge.

In Hengeworld I compared animals bones found at Stonehenge and at Durrington Walls (this was published in 2000/2001, so before the major excavations of the Stonehenge Riverside Project had got underway). Having established a link between cattle and ancestors (bones of large cattle in funerary contexts) and pigs and the living (remains in contexts suggesting feasting), I wrote:

“At Durrington Walls nearly two thirds of the animals were pig, and less than a third cattle. Of the bones saved from the ditch around Stonehenge, the figures are reversed: two thirds were cattle, and less than a fifth pig. But there’s more than that. We saw how radiocarbon dating at Stonehenge revealed the remarkable fact that a collection of bones from the ditch was already some two centuries old when buried. There were two jaws, a tibia and a skull. The tibia (leg bone) was from a red deer. The other were cattle. Even older was a bone found in the pit holding one of the sarsens in the circle – some six millennia. It’s difficult to imagine people looking after ancestral bones for several thousand years, then burying them, but it’s possible; perhaps this old bone had been found in the ground, an ancestral animal from the world of the ancestors. This bone was probably also cattle.

[It may actually have been mesolithic. The date is nearly 1,000 years older than anything else from the site, apart from a recent date for charcoal that is even older and undoubtedly mesolithic (7200BC). See charts here.]

“There is another difference between the two collections. At Stonehenge there were an unusual number of wild animals. Out of nearly 90 cattle from Durrington Walls, there were only three aurochs, the huge wild cattle still present out there in the neolithic forest. From the far smaller collection of bones at Stonehenge there were four or five from aurochs. The size of the bones from Stonehenge also suggested larger animals, probably bulls, were chosen in preference from the domestic herd. Again, there were more wild boar at Stonehenge, animals notorious for their strength and ferocity.

“… the occurrence of immature pig skeletons at Stonehenge is interesting. Parts of four young piglets were found in the ditch, two near the southern entrances with the ancestral cattle bones, and two to the right of the north east entrance (near where the human body was later buried). Only one of these was found in the lowest [primary] silts, the others appearing to date from Phase 2. Nonetheless, the pattern is striking: the animal of life represented by new-borns, the ancestors by large, and often wild, mature creatures.

“If we include all the identified cattle bone from the bottom of the ditch – a row of teeth suggesting a decayed jaw, and a further nine bones – we find these, like the dated bones, are at or near the south entrance. Without radiocarbon, we cannot tell if these other bones are also older than the ditch or contemporary with its excavation – the state of some of them suggests they may not be so old – but either way, the association of the south entrance with cattle is reinforced.”

There is a contemporary neolithic context for wild animal bones at Stonehenge, that reaches back to the long barrows of the earlier neolithic. And it’s not just pig and cattle (and all those red deer antler used as digging tools). Also from the ditch there is a bone from a wolf, and part of the skeleton of an immature fox.

There is likely to have been more. These identifications were made in 1995 by Dale Serjeantson from what survives from William Hawley’s excavations in the 1920s, and it’s more than likely that even at the time not everything there was saved. We could learn so much from some new vary careful excavation of another segment of ditch.

Blick Mead datesCurrently there is no evidence that mesolithic people were at Blick Mead after 4250BC (most of the carbon dates are between about 7500 and 4750BC, see feature in British Archaeology May/Jun 2015/142). The mesolithic era ended at 4000BC. The ditch around the stones at Stonehenge, where the animal bones come from, was dug in 3000BC, a thousand years later.

Full marks to Jacques for drawing attention to the animal bones at Stonehenge. And it seems likely that, as he suggests, part of what was going on at Stonehenge was connecting to tradition and memory. But do we need to invoke the mesolithic?

A thousand years is a long time. We don’t today consciously base our rituals around things that happened before the Norman Conquest, ignoring all that went on since; our version of Christianity is something that developed in the past few centuries, at most, and our world is one that traces many of its social roots to the time of the industrial revolution. And we can read about what happened a thousand years ago: in the neolithic, the past was a matter of personal memory, which seems unlikely to have been rich with anecdotes about mesolithic hunting. We need to explain the bones at Stonehenge. But we don’t need the mesolithic to help us do that.

Coneybury pit

Plan of pit at Coneybury henge, from Stonehenge: The Story so Far, by J Richards (English Heritage 2007)

A pit was excavated in 1980 by Julian Richards at Coneybury henge, closer to Stonehenge than Blick Mead, that contained huge amounts of early neolithic debris, radiocarbon dated to around 3800BC. Ros Cleal identified parts of at least 41 separate pots, and there was an extraordinary collection of animal bone. Most of the remains identified by Mark Maltby were cattle (masses of butchery waste) and roe deer, but there were also red deer, pig, beaver and brown trout. Some of the cattle bones in the upper pit fill were big enough to have come from aurochs. We are more likely to find understanding of the animal bones at Stonehenge in finds such as this than the mesolithic.

Ai Weiwei in London is the most exciting thing since Sensation. Here’s why

Eighteen years ago the Royal Academy held “Sensation”. It showcased the work of young British artists, many of them then little known outside specialist circles. They had, argued the RA’s then president, Sir Philip Dowson, contributed to turning London “into the capital city of contemporary art”. The exhibition was controversial and very popular, and changed the way many thought about art and society in modern Britain. It launched grand careers.

On Saturday the Royal Academy opens “Ai Weiwei”. In many ways it is like “Sensation”. It shocks, with horrific videos and realistic models of people in disturbing situations. There are large repetitive sculptural forms laid out across the floor. Graphics on the walls parody conventional forms, and furniture is displayed in unexpected ways. The artist is not well known in his own country. If yesterday’s press event is anything to go by, it will be extremely popular. It is inspiring, uplifting and moving.


But the show is not “Sensation”. At the latter, no artist’s name appeared on the front of the catalogue. It featured instead a wealthy collector, Charles Saatchi. Saatchi (with Norman Rosenthal) arranged works from his own collection and artists he supported. “The patronage of art and artists is an essential activity that enables art to flourish and to be accessible to everyone”, said Dowson. We are proud to be associated with Charles Saatchi, said the sponsor, the auction house Christie’s.

“Ai Weiwei” is devoted to a single, middle aged Chinese artist. The selection and layout were chosen and designed by the artist, not the curators, the admirable Tim Marlow and Adrian Locke. Across the works there is much that shocks or provokes, but there is no posturing. The provocation comes from the subjects that Ai is responding to, and the stories he tells.

In “Sensation” artists expressed the traumatisation of the self-obsessed, confronting prejudice, injury, confusion and death. Ai is moved by corruption and injustice. By the deaths of thousands of children. By his own incarceration and torture. These are not hypothetical fears turned into style objects by collectors and dealers: they are the reality of his world. This is what I think makes his work uniquely heroic.

It is also deeply historical. Every work in the exhibition draws on Chinese history and culture. They do this both in a literary sense, referencing events and values, and physically, by using antiques, antiquities and the debris of incidents, and traditional materials and craft skills.

And it is all quite beautiful. Look at this.

TREE (2009)

CAO (2014)

STRAIGHT (2008–12)



Tim Marlow being interviewed

Tim Marlow being interviewed




Thirty jars said to contain the powder ground from neolithic pottery

REMAINS (2015)

I wrote about this work at some length in an earlier blog. What’s interesting here is that in the flesh, as it were, you can see how the bones have clearly been burnt. It looks as if the bodies had been inefficiently cremated.

S.A.C.R.E.D (2012)

This work consists of six half-scale sealed rooms, through the walls of which you can spy on Ai Weiwei in prison with his guards. Through the arch at the back you can just see the case holding REMAINS.

Finally, another work made with antiquities, 3,600 neolithic stone blades collected on the back of the largely unrecorded archaeological destruction of Chinese urban development. This is not in London, but at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, in “M+ Sigg Collection – Chinese Art From The 1970s To Now” (closes September 20).

STILL LIFE (1993–2000)

Photo Manchester Evening News

It reminds me of my PhD research in the UK, when over 16 months visiting 95 museums, I drew 1,919 neolithic ground stone axe blades!

Are we rewriting the history of Stonehenge – again?

Durrington Walls 2015 (1)Let’s see what we’ve got. I can’t claim to know much more about the newest Stonehenge story than any other journalist. The discovery of a stone row at Durrington Walls was first announced a year ago, almost to the day. We were given little data then, however, and I seemed to be the only one who noticed! So what do we know now?

  1. What do they say they have found?

Durrington Walls 2015 (2)Evidence that there was once a row of up to 90 standing stones about 3km north-east of Stonehenge, west of the road between Amesbury and Durrington,. The stones, probably local sarsens, ran for at least 330m. At the east end the row stops short of the line of a modern road, and apparently does not continue beyond; at the west end it continues to the edge of the survey area, so may extend further there.

At the eastern end up to 30 of these stones (the largest of which is 4.5m x 1.5m x 1m) are still there, having been pushed over and buried beneath the bank of the Durrington Walls henge. Elsewhere “the stones are fragmentary or represented by massive foundation pits”.

The row could be contemporary with the sarsens at Stonehenge, or be earlier in date.

Electromagnetic induction data showing central dry valley through the henge

Electromagnetic induction data showing central dry valley through the henge

This row followed a curving natural depression to the north, apparently artificially accentuated by a chalk-cut scarp. The scarp and stones delineated “a C-shaped ‘arena’ … [which] may have surrounded traces of springs and a dry valley leading from there into the Avon”, close by to the east.

  1. What is their evidence?

The blue is not water, just where there are no survey data thanks to a hedge and a road

The key evidence for this comes from “a cutting-edge geophysical and remote sensing survey at an unprecedented scale and resolution”. The survey began in July 2010, and (I gather from Nick Snashall, National Trust archaeologist) was concluded two weeks ago at Durrington Walls, after spending a total of about 120 days in the field. Techniques employed include magnetometry, ground-penetrating radar, electromagnetic induction, earth resistance survey and terrestrial 3D laser scanning.

This is the survey that caused much interest on TV last year, and earlier in the press in 2011: the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project, conducted by the Universities of Birmingham and Bradford, and the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Ayrchaeological Prospection. The listed technologies refer to the entire survey. Images of Durrington Walls are attributed to ground penetrating radar (showing the whole stone row), electrical resistivity tomography (showing a buried stone) and electro-magnetic induction (showing landscape topography). The images are impressive, but not much detail has been released.

  1. How do they know the features are stones?
Durrington Walls 2015 (4)ed

Electrical resistivity tomography volume models across a buried stone (scale in metres)

On the evidence we have been given, the geophysical evidence for a row of large features is compelling. Less certain is what those features are, though again they seem to have evidence that suggests something solid is underground, and stone would be an obvious candidate.

They say the stones are probably sarsen for two reasons. First, there is a lone sarsen stone still on the surface in a field across the road, known as the Cuckoo Stone. Secondly, anything up to 4.5m long is just too big to be the other type of Stonehenge megalith, bluestone. They are joining up dots that are quite a long way apart, so really this is an open question.

  1. How do they know how old the row of stones is?

DuringtonGPR22The argument for the age of the row depends on evidence that the stones are buried beneath the henge bank. The digging of the ditch that threw up the original bank is quite loosely dated to around 2500BC. So if the stones were buried when the bank was first thrown up, they must have been lowered around or before 2500BC. The sarsen circle at Stonehenge is dated to about the same time.

We have not been shown evidence for why they think the stones are buried beneath the bank (rather than, for example, buried down through the bank), though we might expect that to show in GPR plots.

  1. What else might they be?
Durrington Walls 2015 (9)

Detail from GPR, lower image 90m long

Rows of large pits – often referred to as pit alignments, of unknown purpose – are not uncommon in prehistoric Britain, dating mostly between the early bronze age and iron age; so not as old as Stonehenge or Durrington Walls.

The area has been close to active military works since before the first world war, so an unknown military structure is not impossible. There seems to be no evidence for that, however, and old maps show nothing anywhere near the alignment.

[Next two paragraphs added 11am September 8]

Another possibility is that they might be something natural. Could they indeed be sarsens, but a geomorphological rather than an artificial feature (with the pits where they had been dug out)? That would be rather neat, a local source for the big stones at Stonehenge, much discussed but hitherto lacking in real evidence.

The way the line more or less follows the contour of the valley edge is perhaps suggestive, but this is not how sarsens are usually found: here, for example, we’d expect them to be in the valley bottom rather than up on the side, and more scattered than linear. So perhaps an in situ chalk formation, following the line of the strata and falling down into the rock from the near-surface exposure? Could those “stones” be some kind of massive nodular formation in the chalk? That would seem to go beyond what we know about chalk. But if they are megaliths, that does the same for archaeology. So it would be useful to hear from scientists who know about the chalk.

  1. Will the history of Stonehenge have to be rewritten?
Durrington Walls 2015 (11)

Lidar (grey base map) and electromagnetic induction data, overlain by green circles marking the putative stone row

Not yet.

There’s no denying they’ve found something, and any explanation that does not involve the long history of Stonehenge looks like special pleading. This is a genuine challenge to how we think about these sites, and potentially a major discovery and a stunning achievement for the research team.

Without excavation, however, we will never get to the bottom of what it is they have found – what the pits are, what the solid things are, and how old they are.

But for now, this is how they think it looked:

Phase 1 from above

Phase 1 from above

Phase 1 oblique

Phase 1 oblique

Phase 1 on the ground

Phase 1 on the ground

Phase 4

Phase 4 (stones buried by the henge)

All illustrations in this post are from the Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes Project

Digging for Richard III now in paperback

Digging for Richard III pb

It’s revised and extended too. While the king’s remains were being prepared for reburial earlier this year, I was updating my book about their excavation. With the help of those involved, I made many changes and clarifications throughout the text. Apart from the full excavation report, all the scientific research is now published in peer-reviewed journals, which allowed me to tie up the final details. And what was a ten-page Epilogue is now 27 pages, an entirely new chapter that picks up the story where the hardback ended, with the announcement that the remains had been formally identified. The book now ends with the debates and arguments, the extraordinary judicial review (which I attended), and the reburial ceremonies (I was privileged to witness the first service in Leicester Cathedral).

Uniquely, this book covers the full range of events and views around the compelling excavation – which, it would be fair to say, divided some of those who made it happen. If you want to know yet more, it is fully referenced with pages of footnotes and an index. If you just want to know the story, and enjoy a good read, Digging for Richard III is for you: a “dramatic thriller” (Booklist), “as gripping as any detective fiction” (Publishers Weekly), and “beautifully and knowledgably written, moving and funny… a real page-turner I wasn’t able to put down… wonderfully entertaining” (Family Tree magazine). The Ricardian Bulletin thought its “dramatic narrative retains the audience’s attention… [in] a balanced and informative review”, while archaeologist Francis Pryor found its “gripping detail… original and intriguing”.

And to cap that Thames & Hudson have produced a small, chunky book that feels good in the hand and costs less than a tenner.