thinking about archaeology

Archive for February, 2017

Ancient flowers

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Knapweed and bracken growing together beside a path at Tintagel, Cornwall (photo Gill Campbell/Historic England), with remains from the hoard, including a common knapweed flower (top) and bracken (photo Portable Antiquities Scheme)

I wrote earlier about the hoard of bronze pans found near Pewsey. Ruth Pelling, senior archaeobotanist at Historic England, tweeted “My wonderful flowers – most exciting material I’ve ever worked on”. I asked her more about them, a very unusual find.

The principle plant material is grassland vegetation and bracken. Pelling counted 23 Centaurea flower heads, one of which could be identified as Centaurea nigra (common knapweed). Other remains include a few seeds each (or just one) of cowslip/primrose (probably former), milkwort, lesser hawkbit, sedges, clovers, vetches and sweet violet, fat hen, knot grass, black bindweed, buttercup and corn spurrey. Devil’s bit scabious is represented only by pollen. Pelling tells me that she suspects this is all from vegetation collected incidentally with the bracken or handfuls of grassland vegetation, which provided the actual packing.

The spring flowers (cowslip/primrose) are likely to have persisted as dried seed pods in what is otherwise a July or August flora, collected from local grassland. Analysis of pollen from soil in the vessels shows they were packed in a place with areas of disturbed vegetation, such as beside ditches, roads, paths or rivers, and confirms that the pit was dug in late summer, probably within an arable field. Radiocarbon dating of plant remains puts the year much less precisely at around AD450 give or take.

• Digital versions of the magazine are correct, but in the printed magazine, we got the Centaurea quantities wrong: the correct figures are 23 flower heads, of which one is identifiable as common knapweed.


Peter Lord talks to British Archaeology about Early Man

Peter Lord.jpgThe new British Archaeology has three great exclusives. I’ve already written briefly about two of them: new discoveries at Stonehenge, and some Roman pans buried with flowers which were preserved by the corroding bronze. Here’s the third. Last year I went to Bristol to talk to Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman. We talked about archaeology, imaginary worlds and Aardman’s next film, Early Man.

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Screengrab from Early Man website

We have every reason, on Aardman’s and director Nick Park’s track records, to expect this movie to be immensely popular. There aren’t enough archaeologists in the world to make a statistically significant difference to the audience, even if every one of them went to see it (or indeed if they all boycotted it). But I think most archaeologists will love it. A sort of ancient Britain with echoes of One Million Years BC, the Beano and Ealing comedy, Early Man will at last offer the chance for them to get enthusiastic about a film that doesn’t feature Indiana Jones. Peter Lord was a lovely host, chatting away while he modelled a clay figure.

BA153 Lant St.jpgThe magazine also feature five major excavations, from the Calanais megaliths on the Isle of Lewis, to a Roman town in Norfolk with an unusual story, and early medieval natives, immigrants and changing times in north-east Scotland – Portmahomack.

BA153 Gray.jpgI particularly enjoyed working with Alison Jane Hoare on her article about the Victorian/Edwardian archaeologist Harold St George Gray. He’s familiar to a handful of archaeologists for his work with General Pitt Rivers, and later his own excavations of neolithic sites. But he really deserves to be more widely known, and as the feature shows, there is an interesting life (with a personal tragedy) we hear little about – and there remains a story to be told. He was an extraordinary photographer, as I discovered when I arrived as curator of Avebury Museum in 1979, only a little after the National Trust had brought it Gray’s archaeological archive on a stone circles project. With the help of the National Trust and staff in Avebury Museum, I put together a portfolio of some of his photos for the magazine, most of them never published before.

With all the usual stuff, including photographer Mick Sharp’s new column and the annual Requiem feature, there’s a lot to read in the first British Archaeology of 2017.


Roman bronze pots and pans buried with flowers

vessels drawing tinned.jpgHere’s another great story from the new British Archaeology, which went live online today (February 8). Conservation of a hoard of late Roman bronze pots and pans found near Pewsey, Wiltshire, has revealed they were packed with plants, among which were bracken and knapweed flowers.

Eight mostly plain vessels had been carefully nested inside each other. There’s a bit of tinning on some of them, so I coloured the diagram silver rather than a reddish bronze.

The plants gave a rare radiocarbon date for a hoard, of AD380–550, placing its burial most probably in post-Roman (after AD410) or Anglo-Saxon times. It may be contemporary with a nearby early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Blacknall Field.

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Richard Henry, Wiltshire finds liaison officer, and Rachel Foster, assistant county archaeologist, excavating the hoard site in 2014. Photo Past Landscapes Project

Three men and a woman with metal detectors made the discovery in late 2014 (Tony Millett writing in Marlborough Online – nearly opposite me across our little street! – identifies the detectorists as “Mick Rae, Rob Abbott and their friend Dave”, and credits photos to Marina Rae).

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Some of the pans (not to scale). Photos Portable Antiquities Scheme

In an example of how the Treasure Act can have some odd results, the hoard is not legally treasure (which it would have been if prehistoric, or if Roman, of precious metal). Were it treasure, the pans would be independently valued and museums would have the chance to raise money to buy them from the finders. The finders have kept the vessels, but have given the fragile organic remains to the Wiltshire Museum: they are on display there now. What will happen to the pans is entirely in the hands of their new owners.

More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.


Stonehenge finds tell of divided society

west-amesbury-digThe new British Archaeology, which went live online today (February 8), reports significant new discoveries near Stonehenge, among them the grave of a man who might have seen the earliest megaliths erected at the site.

West Amesbury Farm copyright Judith Dobie .jpgCremated remains of over 100 people were buried at the first Stonehenge, from 3100BC – the largest cremation cemetery in prehistoric Britain. Human remains of this age are otherwise rare in the world heritage site, or across Britain as a whole. So it is noteworthy that the man buried at West Amesbury, who was not cremated, probably saw funerals at Stonehenge quite different to his own.

W Amesbury pit.jpgFive pits in the chalk contemporary with the henge’s origins contained huge amounts of artefacts. These include quantities of Peterborough pottery, in large fresh sherds, all in the Fengate style (one of these pits has more pottery in it than the whole of prehistoric Stonehenge).

Stonehenge W Amesbury pot.jpgHitherto, discussions about the people who were buried at Stonehenge – were they part of an elite? – have been one-sided, with evidence only from the site. For the first time, these pits bring another part of the early Stonehenge community into the picture – the people who did things, and were buried, elsewhere. Were they the people who cut the trees to make the pyres for the select few to be cremated and buried at Stonehenge?

The finds were made in the first stage of a major Historic England project to better understand the southern part of the Stonehenge world heritage site, little investigated in modern times.

stonehenge map.jpgOther discoveries include the remains of two men, one buried shorty after the other around 1450–1300BC, at the bottom of a ditch just south of Stonehenge. The ditch is part of a network of boundary earthworks that divided up the land around Stonehenge, apparently for the first time, in the middle bronze age. It runs north-south more or less at right angles to the A303, showing that in the bronze age at least, that east-west route did not exist. The road was created by the Amesbury Turnpike Trust about 250 years ago.

More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Council for British Archaeology members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.

All pictures Historic England (I’ve simplified the map a little). The painting is copyright Judith Dobie.


The 7 Ages of Hockney

IMG_4551.jpgImmediate thoughts on seeing Tate Britain’s David Hockney exhibition.

Oh my. It’s uplifting and beautiful. My memories of his work when we were younger – he’d paint, I’d see them in colour supplement features – made me think this show might have a bit of a gay narrative (We Two Boys Together Clinging, A Bigger Splash, men in showers and so on). But it’s larger than that. His earliest drawings, done when he was a teenager, have such perception and promise (like Lucian Freud’s very early work). At the Royal College of Art in the early 60s his work is raw, experimental, struggling with art and with life (here is the only sexually graphic stuff we see, and even then it’s coded). He matures, finds his feet and the joy of relationships. He discovers light, nature and seasons, beauty in people and landscapes. He becomes calm and wise in older age. This is not about being gay, it’s about life, a life – our life, if we had his drive and talent, the eyes to see, the confidence to be our self, and to just enjoy things, to not fuss about the past.

That Hockney’s work is representational is deceptive: it can help to look for the abstract in the scenery, it can be a mistake to assume everything is as easy as it sometimes looks. His frequent style changes and discoveries of new media are inspiring, he never loses his youthful enthusiasm. It doesn’t always lead to his best work (whenever he rails against other art or art forms, as he does with conventional photography, you are warned).  But what an achievement, a tour with force.

Hockney Bacon.jpgAnd humour. This Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (centre, 1961) made me think of Francis Bacon’s existential boxes, life trapped on a stage with its entrance and exit (on left is Bacon’s Seated Figure, 1961, and on right, a panel from Three Studies for a Crucifixion, 1962). Hockney’s box does offer a sense of hopeless entrapment, but you can’t help also thinking of tea leaves and a nice pot of tea (and you can’t imagine Bacon making jokes about how he misspelt TAE). Yet somehow the angst survives.

This is supposed to be a blog about archaeology, so here are some pictures…

IMG_4560.jpgDetail from Rocky Mountains and Tired Indians (1965)

IMG_4552.jpgDetail from  American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman), 1968

IMG_4554.jpgThere’s a roomful of lovely East Riding landscapes. There’s some great archaeology up there, and some archaeologists looking at these will feel on familiar ground. There’s a bowlful of blossom in Kilham and blossom bursting from a hedgerow near Rudston. Above is The Road to Thwing, July 2006 (2006). Below is May Blossom on the Roman Road (2009). (These are bigger than they might look here.) It’s some time since I’ve felt such sheer joy in an exhibition.
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