thinking about archaeology

Archive for October, 2016

The journeys of Hoa Hakananai’a

 

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Photo OGS Crawford/Antiquity

They are small steps compared to crossing part of the Pacific and the whole of the Atlantic, but Hoa Hakananai’a has moved around since it arrived at the British Museum in 1869. I’ve been looking through some old copies of Antiquity, and I came across this photo. It was taken by OGS Crawford for an article by Henri Lavachery, and published in the March 1936 edition.

It’s the best photo I’ve seen of the statue in its original exhibited site, under the front colonnade of the British Museum. On the evidence of these photos, it seems to have been moved there from another outdoor site. It later went out to the ethnographic branch in Burlington Gardens, and was in the Great Court before reaching its present site.

 

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Photo British Museum

The lantern slide in the British Museum’s Katherine Routledge collection (above) shows the statue with its back to a wall. It’s undated, but was probably taken early in the 20th century; it has pigeon droppings over the head and shoulders, suggesting it had been there for a while.

 

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Photo British Museum

This photo with what look like Christmas trees and the museum’s totem pole, shows the statue to the right of the front entrance, facing in. The BM’s notes say the print is a copy of an original believed to be in the British Library, and it has a handwritten note saying it was taken in about 1935. The trees, apparently, are “Bay trees introduced by Director Sir George Hill”.

We can see the trees in Crawford’s photo, confirming it was taken around the same time (Hill was director of the museum 1931–36). Taken together, these two show it was standing at the top of the steps, between the two pillars on the east side of the entrance, as below:

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The Blick Mead tooth conundrum

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Blick Mead dog tooth: photo Jeff Veitch

I wrote a long blog about Stonehenge the other day, featuring the road tunnel and a dog tooth from Blick Mead. David Jacques commented on the latter, and gave a link to the Buckingham University press release on the story. It confirms that Peter Rowley-Conwy, of Durham University, said “the dog would have been roughly the size, shape and possible colour of an alsatian.”

Most usefully, it has a link to Durham University’s website, with a response to the press coverage. This includes a further link to a very helpful poster about the isotope study: “Stable isotope analysis of the Blick Mead dog: a proxy for the dietary reconstruction of mesolithic hunter-gatherers,” by B Rogers, DR Gröcke, K Gron, J Montgomery, P Rowley-Conwy and D Jacques.

A single domestic dog tooth, they say, was found at Blick Mead “in a context which produced faunal remains which have been radiocarbon dated to 4989–4808 cal BC”. I’m not clear where that (over-precise) date comes from – it doesn’t match any published determinations – but it sits in the region where most of the site’s dates lie, between about 7,500 and 6,250 years ago. This is the only dog remain yet found at Blick Mead.

As the title says, the poster is mainly about diet. The idea is that domestic dogs eat similar food to the people they hang out with, so the dog’s diet should give an idea of what the folk at Blick Mead were eating. The tooth dentine was incrementally sampled, so as to compare parts of the tooth that grew at different times. Carbon and nitrogen stable isotopes were similar at all points, suggesting no great change in diet during the dog’s life. Values for both are described as being significantly lower than those for mesolithic dogs at the Yorkshire sites of Star Carr and Seamer Carr. They interpret the figures for the Blick Mead dog as indicating that it ate meat, and gnawed bones or ate freshwater fish, and possibly less marine food than the Yorkshire dogs – summarised as “terrestrial mammals with a possible inclusion of freshwater fish”.

The result of oxygen isotope analysis is also described. The enamel produced a “drinking water value” of -8.1 per mill. Compared to such values for modern Britain, this is too low for the south-west. A warmer climate in mesolithic Britain, say the authors, would have caused a higher value, not a lower one, so on the face of it, it seems safe to say that this dog grew some way north of Blick Mead – in fact, judging by the map they feature (see below), from a limited area of Yorkshire and the East Midlands, or from eastern Scotland. The tooth is a permanent premolar, which, they say, forms after weaning is finished.

So perhaps the Vale of York doesn’t sound so bad after all as a home for the Blick Mead puppy. There is, however, a proviso. Aurochs teeth (not otherwise mentioned in the poster) “produced even lower” oxgen-18 values: so low, they are “largely incompatible with modern Britain”. Does this mean the aurochs at Blick Mead grew up outside Britain altogether? Bearing in mind that by the time hunter-gatherers were camping out at Blick Mead the English Channel had long been breached, this seems unlikely, to say the least.

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Oxygen isotope map, adapted after Rogers et al

So how do we explain the “incompatible” low oxygen values? The answer, they suggest, may lie in the fact that the necessary equations “were developed using human remains rather than aurochs or dog remains, which may fractionate water differently possibly making oxygen-18 values appear lower than expected.” Body size could also be a factor, they say.

This is really interesting work. However, it seems clear that more research is needed before we can conclude anything firmly from the oxygen isotope data alone. On the available evidence, we certainly can’t say with any confidence exactly where the dog grew up. Bryony Rogers had previously told me they are progressing with strontium isotope analysis. We await those results with further interest.

 


Another chip at the bluestone problem

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The Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrop, with excavation in 2015 at left; rhyolite chips found near Stonehenge precisely match part of this outcrop, now confirmed by uranium-lead dating (photo M Pitts)

A new study of Stonehenge bluestone is out. It’s short and densely written, and not dramatic. But it confirms the direction of current work which suggests that many of the Welsh bluestones came from north of the Preseli hills, rather than the top or to the south as traditionally believed (HH Thomas identified Carn Alw as a source for these particular stones, see map). The significance of this, as argued earlier by Richard Bevins and Rob Ixer, is that while Carn Alw might allow for ice transport of stones at least part of the way to Wiltshire, the nearer the sources move downslope towards the coast, the less supportable that becomes. And Mike Parker Pearson may have another quarry to look for.

Bevins, Nicola Atkinson, Ixer and Jane Evans describe their work in the Journal of the Geological Society. Before, the Fishguard Volcanic Group in north Pembrokeshire had been dated geologically only by fossils. They have now dated two types of rock by uranium-lead analysis of zircon crystals (like radiocarbon dating, but for much older stuff). They compare these with dates similarly obtained from pieces of stone from Stonehenge.

One rhyolite sample came from the Craig Rhos-y-felin outcrop, known as a possible quarry for Stonehenge bluestones, and two from outcrops at Fishguard Old Harbour on the coast. The Stonehenge samples were both excavated in 2008, one (previously thought to come from Craig Rhos-y-felin) by Tim Darvill and Geoff Wainwright, and one (petrographically identical to bluestone 48, and previously thought to have come from an unknown location in the Fishguard Volcanic Group) by Mike Parker Pearson’s team.

The Craig Rhos-y-felin sample came out at 462 million years old, the same age as the rhyolite sample from Darvill and Wainwright’s trench, confirming the archaeological identification.

The other two, from the coast, are a little older, at around 464 and 465 million years old. Interestingly, the archaeological sample (which can be linked to stones 38, 40 and 46 at Stonehenge as well as 48) is also around 464 million years old. Not from Craig Rhos-y-felin, then, but, say the scientists, probably from Fishguard outcrops exposed across the low ground north of Mynydd Preseli. “This region”, they conclude, “provides an obvious target to search for further Neolithic quarry sites.”

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Map of north Pembrokeshire, simplified from Bevins et al

See “U–Pb zircon age constraints for the Ordovician Fishguard Volcanic Group and further evidence for the provenance of the Stonehenge bluestones,” by R Bevins, N Atkinson, R Ixer & J Evans, Journal of the Geological Society 2016.


The strange case of the dog in the Stonehenge tunnel

It had been pretty quiet in Stonehenge media land. We had an excavation at Durrington Walls in August that got a bit of attention. This was thin stuff compared to the coverage given last year to the geophysics sensation that the dig overturned, though what we now have is far more significant (and so features in the new British Archaeology).

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Don’t believe everything you see online. This graph of media interest in Stonehenge, made by Google Trends, shows the relative coverage given last year to a theory based on a geophysics survey, and an excavation this summer that ground-truthed the survey and found something different

Then suddenly within a few days of each other in early October, two stories took off, and people were asking me what was going on? I had no idea, so it’s taken me a bit of time to catch up behind the scenes. This is what I found. (Quick summary. What was going on? Nothing much.)

Let’s start with the tunnel. Secret excavations. Solstice sunset view ruined. The government wants to concrete it over. The whole purpose and meaning of Stonehenge destroyed… A blog on October 6 set off an explosion of online indignation. Why didn’t I know about this?

The blog was by Tim Daw, the man who built a neolithic burial mound in north Wilshire for the recently departed. He noticed people excavating south of the A303 at Stonehenge. He drove down a byway to have a look, and realised the site was in line with the setting midwinter sun as seen from the monument. The dig meant “where the western tunnel portal will be has been decided”. The portal, being in line with said event, means the sun, dropping big and red through the centre of Stonehenge in late December, will be drowned out by street lights.

 

 

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Tim Daw’s illustration: the midwinter solstice alignment through the stones meets a tunnel portal in the woods. Note the current A303 on the surface, just beyond Tim’s Stonehenge line, where road traffic passes day and night, usually at night with headlights

Heritage Action put it like this: “Hard to believe, but true. Even though Historic England, English Heritage and the National Trust say they are committed to ensure that ‘only schemes which protect and enhance the World Heritage Site are progressed’ it has just been revealed that Wessex Archaeology are secretly test digging at the very spot where the entrance to one version of the route would be and it’s at the very place where it would do maximum damage to the significance of Stonehenge.’ They could have said that as HE, EH and the NT want to protect and enhance the world heritage site, it’s unlikely they would’ve wanted the tunnel portal there. But where’s the fun in that?

The BBC turned it into this headline: “Stonehenge solstice sunset view ‘will be ruined by tunnel’.”

 

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Images Stonehenge Alliance

Stonehenge Alliance went ballistic on Twitter and Facebook, looking like the archaeological wing of Donald Trump’s social media campaign. They even got Tom Holland in a photo holding up their new leaflet (above), which features misleading imagery worthy of Putin-supporting trolls. Please, Tom, tell me this was a set-up job?

There can’t be many who don’t know a road tunnel may be built at Stonehenge (past, not under). But, notwithstanding all the fuss, no one knows anything about it. That’s because a decision to build a tunnel has not been taken. Its route is not known. Where the entrances might be has not been decided. Nor has how many lanes of road there would be, which brand of wine will be cracked at the opening or if anyone will be allowed to set up strawberry stalls inside it. Remember all this whenever you hear someone complain about what the tunnel will do. They’re making it up.

The place to go for what we do know is Highways England. This huge organisation is not brilliant at communication. An expected press announcement seems to be stalling from one week to the next. But it’s the best we have, so worth listening to.

There’s no question that Highways wants to upgrade the A303 as it passes Stonehenge. Its vision is “to make the A303 a free-flowing expressway, allowing mile-a-minute journeys.” Stonehenge, Amesbury and Berwick Down is one of nine schemes to effect this, with an estimated cost of £864–£1,321m – the huge range there (nearly half a billion pounds) is a hint as to how much is still undecided. The project timeline for Stonehenge begins in 1989, and ends, “to be confirmed 2020: Start on site”.

There’s not much more to say, but what there is is significant. From the timeline:

2015–2016   Route identification
TBC Early 2017   Have your say: public consultation on all route options
TBC Summer 2017   Announce our preferred/recommended option
TBC 2018   Submit planning application

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So all this stuff about portals and midwinter sunsets is premature. Currently routes are being identified – not decided on (the picture above showing proposed routes is from my earlier blog on the topic). There will be a public consultation next year. The decided route then has to get planning consent, when there will be more opportunity for scrutiny. If I was an objector, I’d wait until next year. At least I’d know what it was I was objecting to, always a help in these things.

Why were archaeologists digging in a field south of Stonehenge?

Highways needs its plans to be approved by Icomos (a conservation outfit that advises Unesco). Put another way, Icomos probably also cares about where a tunnel portal might be, and my guess is it will probably ask Highways. It’s tough in road planning, but I don’t think Highways would be able to secretly put a tunnel portal just where the sun sets at midwinter. The eagle-eyed people at Icomos would notice.

To put its case to Icomos, Highways needs evidence, which includes descriptions of what survives of archaeological interest below the soil. To get this, Wessex Archaeology was contracted to conduct yet another evaluation. In this particular case thirty trenches were dug over a wide area south of the A303. If each trench was a sign of where a tunnel would end, we’d have a portal that reached half way across the world heritage site. And note that “evaluation” is not the same as “excavation”: the idea is to dig down until you come to undisturbed remains, and then stop. Done well, little if any archaeology is touched.

So if we don’t know if or where a tunnel will happen, how can it be said that it threatens “our chance of piecing together the jigsaw to explain why Stonehenge was built”? This is what David Jacques said when he was quoted in the Guardian. His concern is with the portal at the other end, to the east, where he thinks it will damage the site of his excavations at Blick Mead. All evidence to date suggests that a tunnel wouldn’t be anywhere near the site (see map above), so why the fuss?

David’s colleague Andy Rhind-Tutt, chairman of Amesbury Museum and Heritage Trust, says “Blick Mead is without doubt one of the greatest national discoveries ever made in the Stonehenge landscape.” The latest addition to the list of discoveries is a tooth. It got a lot of attention in the media, but that simple fact is almost the only thing about the story that I’m happy not to question.

Blick Mead is important, and has considerable potential, as I explained in a feature I wrote for British Archaeology last year. To date, however, we have not had a single peer-reviewed publication about the dig or anything from it, despite the fact they began excavating there a decade ago. That’s not great for an excavation, especially in a world heritage site – but it happens. What’s not acceptable, I think, is to fail to offer your work for scientific scrutiny if you make exceptional claims for it, and regularly take them to the public, who are undoubtedly interested.

Francis Pryor writes about Blick Mead in his new book (see below). He says the artefacts are in situ; that the site has produced the largest collection of wild cattle bones yet found on a British mesolithic site; that the mud turned the flints bright pink; that it features the longest proven occupation of a British mesolithic site; that dates prove it was occupied at the same time as large posts were erected near the future site of Stonehenge. But no evidence has yet been offered to prove any of those claims.

Francis’ book was too late for the tooth. This, we are told, is evidence for “a 250-mile trip from York to Wiltshire made 7,000 years ago by a Mesolithic hunter-gatherer and his dog” (Guardian) – “evidence of the earliest journey in British history” (BBC). A leader in the Times announced, “A Mesolithic Alsatian from Yorkshire is now Stonehenge’s earliest recorded visitor.” Yet the only solid evidence we were given for this is a photo. Yup, it’s a tooth.

Prehistoric dog tooth find - Stonehenge

Photo University of Buckingham

The argument is that the tooth is a domestic dog’s; that stable isotope analysis shows the dog grew up in the Vale of York; as the tooth was found in Wiltshire, the dog must have walked there from Yorkshire; the tooth was found in a mesolithic context at Blick Mead, so the journey occurred 7,000 years ago; and that is the oldest demonstrated journey in British history.

Is the tooth from a wolf or a dog, and if the latter, what did it look like? Did a dog walk to Wiltshire, or did a person carry a tooth – perhaps in a necklace? Published mesolithic radiocarbon dates from Blick Mead range from 9,500 years ago to 6,250 (note at the nearest this is over a thousand years before Stonehenge began, so pace the Times leader writer, no mesolithic dog visited it). So, given the apparent lack of stratigraphy at the site which means items can be dated only by typology or direct carbon dating, has the tooth been dated, and if not why 7,000 years ago? And the key question: do the isotope data show the beast grew up in Yorkshire?

First I asked David Jacques, as site director, for information. He declined.

 

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Maps I prepared for British Archaeology, showing areas around Amesbury and Newbury with contours at metres above sea level. From a hunter-gatherer perspective, they have a lot in common. At present, we know more about the Mesolithic from sites around Newbury, where activity over a longer period has been demonstrated than seen at Blick Mead, and where better preserved sites have been investigated. Significant mesolithic sites are marked by red dots: pits on Stonehenge Down (“car park postholes”, D), West Amesbury (C), Blick Mead (A), Countess West (B), Victoria Park (G), Greenham Dairy Farm (F) and Thatcham (E)

Then I asked Bryony Rogers, a research student at Durham University supervised by Janet Montgomery, who worked on the isotope analysis. She was very helpful, and what she told me was more or less what the media had reported, but with a little more detail and no hype. I learnt the tooth was a lone find. So it was not attached to a jaw or skeleton to prove a whole dog, as opposed to a tooth which might have been carried.

Bryony’s main focus was on reconstructing diet, she told me. Her data show the dog was not eating marine food, and was most likely consuming aurochs (wild cattle) and other large herbivores with the possible inclusion of freshwater fish. The dog’s diet “remained relatively constant across the time period represented by the tooth”. This is the first time that this technique has been carried out on a dog and on a sample of this age, she says. Pioneering stuff.

They also looked at the tooth enamel: this is where various stable isotopes might throw light on the creature’s migratory history. Oxygen, says Bryony, is not consistent with the dog drinking water local to Blick Mead when it was a puppy. “We suggested that the dog came from the north-east of the site,” she said, “but did not specify York as an origin. We are currently carrying out strontium isotope analysis to try and get a better understanding of the dog’s origin, as these oxygen results could also suggest an origin of higher altitude.”

The phrase “north-east of the site” rang a bell. This was exactly how Paul Budd, Jane Evans and Carolyn Chenery described the home of the beheaded Anglo-Saxon man buried at Stonehenge. They interpreted oxygen and strontium data to suggest he had grown up in an area “primarily to the north and east of the monument” (see “An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge,” Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Magazine 95 (2002), 131–46, and my book Hengeworld).

The Anglo-Saxon man’s potential home territory was quite limited, and did not reach further north than Cambridge. Is it possible, I asked Bryony Rogers, that the Blick Mead dog grew up in the same area?

She said it was.

“It could be a possibility for the dog to have moved from a similar locality,” she wrote in an email. Now strontium isotopes may show the dog came from much further north. But until the analyses are done, and we have that evidence, all we can say is that the dog was not local. “We can’t say how far it travelled to the site on this evidence alone,” concludes Bryony.

Suppose it did come from Yorkshire. Would we then have the oldest demonstrated journey in British history? The key word is “demonstrated”. Hunter-gatherers can cover very wide distances over the course of a year. But do we have any evidence for this from the British mesolithic? How about the final palaeolithic, older still?

In 2012 Paul Pettitt, Marcy Rockman and Simon Chenery published a peer-reviewed article in which they claim to chemically characterise surface flint outcrops in various parts of England (Quaternary International 272/273, 275–287). Applying the analyses to artefacts made in the Creswellian era, 12–13,000 years ago, they found “some flints [had been] transported over distances ranging from the local to >200km”. More than 200km sounds like a journey to me. The mesolithic hadn’t even begun then.

The good news, is that we have been promised a peer-reviewed book on Blick Mead, edited by David Jacques and called Blick Mead: Spring Excavations. It will contain an article by Bryony Rogers, K Gron, J Montgomery, DR Gröcke & P Rowley-Conwy, “Aurochs hunters: the animal bones from Blick Mead”. Peter Lang expect to publish it early next year.

 

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Photo: Salisbury Journal

Meanwhile, we’ve had some more gentle news from Stonehenge. In late September, locals in Wylye were able to watch the latest Stonehenge replica being built. Shoots for the forthcoming Transformers: The Last Knight, gave Arthur Pendragon an opportunity to complain that setting off explosive effects in front of some polystyrene megaliths ten miles down the road from Stonehenge (and out of sight) offended the ancestors. It’s a good thing the ancestors don’t keep up with politics, or they’d be really miffed. The movie’s set to be released in June next year, to add a bit of needed colour to the summer solstice events.

Speaking of colour, over at the Society of Antiquaries’ newsletter (Salon, which I edit along with British Archaeology), a Fellow wrote in about Victorian flower shows at Stonehenge. He was reading Richard Davenport-Hines’ biography, Universal Man: The Seven Lives of John Maynard Keynes, and was surprised to learn that the great economist’s grandfather had put on displays of dahlias at Stonehenge in the 1840s. Apparently Sir Edmund Antrobus, who owned the stones, was president elect of the Salisbury Plain Dahlia Society when John Keynes snr was honorary secretary. They conspired to move the annual flower show from Everleigh to Stonehenge. As you’d expect, attendance rocketed. John “dahlia” Keynes had to issue a notice commanding that “no vehicles, booths, or standing pitches” should be put within 50 yards of the stones.

Back in 2016, “Hundreds of druids and pagans” at the site for the September equinox sounded like a very low-key affair – and quite posh, judging by the Mail Online’s photos. English Heritage now opens the stones up for full public access for the equinoxes as well as the solstices. While the solstice case is quite compelling, there is no evidence that people in 2500BC were any more aware of an equinox than they were of Christmas or April Fool’s Day. But why not?

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Photo Daily Mail

 

And a couple of books are out to add to the Stonehenge canon. Jane Brayne’s long-awaited – by those of us in the know – comic book inspired by the Amesbury Archer is finally done and self-published. It’s a lovely thing which I highly recommend: my daughter and I enjoyed a long Sunday breakfast in bed reading it together. Jane tells me you can find it in the shop at Stonehenge; I interviewed her for the new British Archaeology. The other title is Francis Pryor’s Stonehenge: The Story of a Sacred Landscape, nicely made by Head of Zeus, in a smallish gift format with tinted paper and much full-page art and photography. The text is a useful introduction to where we are now, in an ever-changing story (see above) of competing ideas and new evidence.

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Below: map added October 20 in response to Tim Daw’s comment.

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DNA to Durrington Walls: New British Archaeology

British Archaeology 151.jpgI’m excited about the new British Archaeology. It looks good, and it’s full of interesting things. On the cover is a symbol of the revolutionary changes sweeping through archaeology, led by fast-moving developments in science. It’s a story of ancient DNA.

The DNA of living people is widely used to investigate ancestry, but there are problems with interpreting the results. These were avoided when, for the first time, three separate projects considered identity and migration in England using ancient DNA from excavated skeletons. In all 32 individuals were examined, of iron age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon date. In a major feature, with the help of key scientists and archaeologists involved, we review the discoveries and the science behind them.

Skipsea castle.jpgOur lead news story is about the great iron age mound in Yorkshire, up to now assumed to have been raised as a medieval motte. Only excavation will reveal what was really going on (and given the scale of the mound, that’s a real challenge). But we must speculate, and doing so takes us to northern France and central Germany, where a handful of mounds of comparable size and date – mostly excavated long ago and less well preserved – covered truly spectacular graves. My piece gives the Skipsea Castle details and the continental background.

Mike Parker Pearson and Vince Gaffney write about their Durrington Walls dig. It trashed last year’s spectacular theory – and brought in an equally dramatic new one.

BA151 Black Loch.jpgFurther north, in Wigtownshire, excavations at Black Loch are changing our preconceptions about iron age settlement and architecture. Anne Crone and Graeme Cavers report on the Scottish answer to Must Farm.

Archaeologists are concerned about an unintended side-effect of green waste spread on fields, threatening historic research (and metal detecting). James Gerrard and Martin Cooke’s feature comes with a comment from the green industry, by John Pitts, who, um, happens to be my brother.

BA151 Adela Breton.jpgAdela Breton is a really interesting character, a highly driven independent Victorian artist who recorded wonders of ancient Mexico. A plaque was recently unveiled on her house in Bath, calling her “adventurer archaeologist artist”. Who was she? Why has she been commemorated? Sue Giles, who has curated an exhibition about her work at Bristol City Museum, introduces the remarkable Adela Breton.

BA151 Battle Abbey.jpgAnd finally, Battle Abbey. On October 14 950 years ago, William of Normandy defeated Harold near Hastings. Confident that the abbey was built where Harold died, English Heritage has developed the site to help visitor understanding, as Roy Porter explains.

And then there’s all the other stuff – reviews, Briefing, Spoilheap, CBA news, Greg Bailey on TV, letters and so on. In the shops now!