It was a cold and wet day in Norfolk yesterday when I visited Houghton Hall, where Richard Long has a new exhibition in the house and in the grounds.
I talked to the artist about his inspirations and the ancient landscape references in his work, which you will be able to read about in a future edition of British Archaeology (not all is what you might expect!). I loved the show and the setting, and will return in the summer with my family.
There’s a lot to be said for displaying contemporary art in country houses. It’s more in keeping with many of their builders’ pleasures and aspirations than the fake clutter scattered around National Trust houses, and they make terrific locations: expansive quiet grandeur encourages slow contemplation and lengthy engagement. Long’s Houghton Hall display would be impossible in an urban context (as would Ai Wei Wei’s at Blenheim). If you think it sounds or looks interesting, this is really not one to miss.
There are indoor installations, two small indoor galleries, and works outdoors, all but one of them new. Other artists are presented by permanent works in the grounds as well. And if you like electronic music, you can enjoy it all during a three-day festival in August.
There’s a copy of that little foldout (standing stones in Penwith) in Sam Smiles’ exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, also well worth seeing (“British Art: Ancient Landscapes”, until September 3, and see his article in the current British Archaeology).
Below is a sign to a work by Stephen Cox (these notices are wonderful in themselves):
And there is a lovely shed by Rachel Whiteread:
There’s a nice piece in the Guardian by Maev Kennedy about the first world war training trenches found by archaeologists at Larkhill. The cultural significance of historic military remains should not be underestimated. They are numerous and varied, and have enormous power to engage people in different ways with events we should never lose touch with.
When I visited the site last year, apart from the neolithic enclosure (of great interest in the context of Stonehenge of course) I was struck by a sports car that seemed to have been entombed whole in the 1930s. It was a sunny, frosty day, and you could make out “Pirelli” on the tyres. Long ago Forbes Taylor filmed a black hearse-like Rolls driving into a grave, watched by black-veiled young women in short black skirts, for a TV programme that featured the Sutton Hoo ship burial. No ritual at Larkhill: Si Cleggett tells Kennedy he thinks the sports car might have been stolen from an officer by mutineering squaddies.
Here’s a little thing really worth seeing if you are in central London. The British Museum runs a series of Asahi Shimbun Displays in a small gallery immediately to the right of the main south entrance. They are thoughtful, simple shows of contemporary art and antiquity, and always worth a quick pause (though for now the entrance security tent can take the edge off “quick”). The room is easily missed, and has been quiet whenever I’ve visited. I dropped in today to see the current display, Moving stories: three journeys, which closes on April 30.
It’s a powerful, contemplative experience. On one side you can watch three short extracts from a film in which the late Édouard Glissant, a Martinique poet and philosopher, talks about how migration (in these excerpts, mostly a traumatising experience) drives a creative cultural “multiplicity”. He likes borders, he says, because they separate worlds of distinctive interest, but the concept needs rethinking.
On the opposite wall are photos illustrating all the pages of a book (present in a nearby case) by an Iraqi artist living in the Netherlands, Sadik Kwaish Alfraji. He calls the graphic, melancholy work Ali’s Boat, after an 11-year-old nephew he visited in Iraq in 2014. The young man drew him a boat, and wrote across one corner, “I wish this boat takes me to you.” Alfraji’s response was a series of sketches and writings addressing the illusions and dangers of migratory dreams.
And in between the two is a box of a tunnel. On the floor is projected a full-scale image of footprints in the hardened, million-year-old mud of Happisburgh beach in Norfolk. Sarah M Duffy’s record photos have been animated so that as you stand among the prints, the tide comes in and you can no longer see toes, then retreats leaving little puddles in the prints which look like elongated windows into the past, clouded and rippling.
Yesterday I walked in the landscape around Stonehenge.
In a recent short video headed The Stonehenge Tunnel Begins, Tom Holland stands on Bush Barrow, near Stonehenge and one of the country’s iconic prehistoric monuments, and addresses the camera.
He describes “vans and lorries employed by the Highways Agency who are testing out the ground for what is planned to be a four-lane road tunnel.”
We see barrows – bronze age burial mounds – on Normanton Down, and Stonehenge in the distance. The only noise is wind in the grass.
“All this landscape will be seriously compromised,” says Holland. “The sense of incipient desecration is completely devastating.”
I too care about this landscape. I can be as emotive about it as the best. But I also care about “truth”. Tom Holland’s video, doubtless expressing passionately held and well-meant views, is manipulative and misleading.
Between where he stands and Stonehenge is a very busy road. The film is shot in such a way that we cannot see or hear it – we are vaguely aware of some soft focus vehicles in the distance apparently driving over downland. The proposed road tunnel – it remains a proposal under discussion, work on it has not begun – would not be visible from Stonehenge, or from Bush barrow. The video presents an unbalanced view on an important issue that deserves better.
Not wishing to add more than necessary to what is already out there on this subject, I want to show some pictures, all taken within the past 12 months – mostly yesterday. This is the reality of the Stonehenge world heritage site.
- The Stonehenge road proposals
The Highways Agency recently concluded a public consultation about proposed alterations to the A303 road that passes Stonehenge. HA favours a tunnel past Stonehenge slightly south of the current road (above, Option 1), with open dual carriageway continuing to the west (one of the two green routes; there already is dual carriageway to the east). In the map above, the pink route is the existing A303; white spots mark that section which would be removed if either of the first options were to be adopted. Option 2 (F010) is a new road outside the world heritage site to the south and east.
Nothing has yet been announced or apparently decided, but public responses indicated four main positions:
1 Do nothing. (As I did yesterday sitting in a traffic queue).
2 Build a longer tunnel that starts and ends outside the world heritage site (supported by the Stonehenge Alliance). Option 1 in a big tunnel.
3 Move the A303 outside the world heritage site altogether, with a detour to the south (supported by a group who referred to themselves as “senior archaeologists who have carried out internationally recognised research within the Stonehenge WHS within the last ten years or more”). Option 2.
4 Support the HA proposal, but with serious reservations about the western portal that could be accommodated by changes that would almost certainly include extending the tunnel to the west (supported by the National Trust and Historic England). Option 1 with unknown revisions.
I last blogged about this subject in more detail here, and more recently summarised the state of play in the Society of Antiquaries online newsletter, Salon. My purpose here is simply to show what the roads, and the proposed southern route, look like now.
- The A303 inside the world heritage site
You might miss it from a lot of the presentations, but the A303 is a busy, dangerous, noisy road passing close to Stonehenge and through the centre of the world heritage site. It is there now.
These photos follow the route from east to west, starting at Amesbury.
2a. A detour through Larkhill
Locals and regular A303 drivers in the know sometimes avoid the jams around Stonehenge by taking a small road to the north that passes through Larkhill, a growing military community with young families, shops, schools and a church. Yesterday that road was itself jammed.
- The southern route
“[The Highways Agency’s] option for the surface road beyond the southern edge of the World Heritage Site (option F010) is the only one which does not have a severe impact on the WHS. Therefore it must be taken. The others have dreadful consequences for the world’s most famous archaeological site and its landscape setting.” So say (their emphases) these archaeologists:
Mike Parker Pearson, Umberto Albarella, Mike Allen, Barry Bishop, Nick Branch, Christopher Chippindale, Oliver Craig, David Field, Charly French, Vince Gaffney, Paul Garwood, David Jacques, Nicholas James, Joshua Pollard, Colin Richards, David Robinson, Peter Rowley-Conwy, Clive Ruggles, Julian Thomas, Christopher Tilley, Kate Welham.
There are many distinguished researchers and writers here (and longstanding friends and colleagues). Which goes to show that being an expert about the past does not necessarily make you an expert about the present. The southern route would be completely mad.
In these photos, I follow it from the west. Out there yesterday I experienced some of the most peaceful and beautiful landscapes that Britain has to offer. As an archaeologist I also knew that I was walking close to the some of the best preserved (and least explored) prehistoric earthworks in the world heritage site, around Lake and Wilsford. Where the new dual-carriageway A303 would go, just south of the world heritage site border, has been little researched by archaeologists, if at all. We don’t know what might be there.
We start at Druid’s Lodge. The southern route would go more or less through the middle of all these photos.
That’s as far as I got. If you look at the map above, you can see Ogbury fort outlined in red at bottom centre. We’re about halfway along the proposed southern route. Perhaps someone else would like to walk the rest with a camera.
Of course we all respect Stonehenge and its landscape, and want the best for it. Who on earth doesn’t? When you hear or see accusations that people don’t care, you know the speaker or writer is not thinking straight.
But the world heritage site border is a line on a modern map that has nothing to do with antiquity. It wasn’t there in the neolithic. It’s a reflection of what archaeologists knew about Stonehenge in the early 1980s – recent archaeological research, the historical accidents of survival, and modern history. The settlement of Amesbury is excluded because it’s a modern town, not because the place had no meaning in the neolithic. A large, significant early neolithic causewayed enclosure at Larkhill, is not included, although it may sit astride the border, because no one knew it was there until last year.
So to obsess about preserving the world heritage site on the one hand, and not to care a jot about the land outside on the other, is perverse and unthinking.
Take two extremes. We could tunnel and dual the A303 exactly on its present route (Julian Richards has more or less suggested this). Or we could build an entirely new, and much longer dual carriageway with a new bridge flying over the river Avon.
On the one hand, no cars would be driving where there are now none. No new landscape would be divided up and changed. A considerable amount of road would disappear.
On the other hand, several kilometres of entirely new road would be built across some of England’s most beautiful and peaceful rural landscape, close to quiet and idyllic riverside villages and over the river Avon, which we think (many of those archaeologists above say so) was a key part of the Stonehenge ritual world.
Why would you choose the latter, not least when you know that we have no idea what undisturbed archaeology lies on the route and would be destroyed?
And this doesn’t touch on the people who use the roads. The people who currently shortcut through Larkhill, and would be even more likely to do so, in larger numbers and through other villages as well, when faced with a long detour to the south.
Stonehenge has a long and honorable history of throwing up entertaining, eccentric and bonkers ideas. The A303 southern route belongs with aliens, ley lines and diluvial floods. And they don’t damage the countryside.
The new magazine has our biggest ever feature, on the Westminster world heritage site: distinguished writers review the extraordinary history and archaeology of the abbey and the palace, and we urge parliament to move out to allow the palace restoration-and-renewal programme to proceed as soon as possible. I’ve written a separate blog to introduce this.
And there’s room for much more:
- a major, history-changing excavation of a Roman settlement in the north of England, at Scotch Corner
- Tim Loughton MP (above left) reveals he was on a student archaeological trip in central America when he first met Jeremey Corbyn MP
- an exceptional bronze age hoard from near Dundee, with wood, sheepskin and textile remains as well as a gold-decorated spearhead – and the UK’s largest neolithic timber hall from the same site
- we discover Britain’s traditional totem poles – did you know there are 16? (And that’s not counting the many new-fangled versions of the Scottish Totem Pole project). I’ve posted some pictures of one of my favourites separately (above right)
- and we hear of the potentially devastating impact of Brexit on UK archaeology.
Plus all the usual columns, reviews and more.
Without British Archaeology, you’re out of touch with British archaeology.
What connects Berkhamsted, Salford and Edinburgh with remote forests on the Pacific coast? Sixteen totem poles, traditionally carved in cedar.
They are informed by beliefs, values and artistic conventions that evolved on the north-west coast of Canada and America and reach back into the 19th century and earlier. Like all traditional poles, they have nothing to do with totems (an European misnomer), but use a mix of crests and mythical beasts and people, inviting us to consider important issues of culture change and continuity, the history and future of First Nations in north America, and our own ancient past in Britain.
I have written about these great works of narrative art in the new British Archaeology. The six older examples, including two in the British Museum’s Great Court, were probably made between the 1850s and 1870s. They were taken by collectors and dealers from abandoned villages or disintegrating communities in the earlier years of European settlement. The other ten were carved in the second half of the last century: the first was a gift from Canada to the Queen in 1958, and stands in Windsor Great Park.
I went to see one in Hertfordshire when I was writing the feature. It has a wonderful story, which you can read about in the magazine. The pole stands – truly – with its back to a canal in the grounds of a private housing estate in Berkhamsted. I was fortunate to be invited in by a friendly resident, so I was able to take some detailed photos. Here are a few.
The figures on the pole (above, from the top and left to right), are Raven, bringer of first light and people; the sun (or a man wearing a sun mask), who grasps a copper over his front, a shield-like symbol of wealth (he originally had three rays attached to each side of his face, you can just make out the slots on the right); Dzunuk’wa, whose pursed red lips identify her as the woman who leaves the forests to eat children; and Sisiutl, a human-faced serpent whose two additional reptilian heads with extended tongues rise up either side around Dzunuk’wa.
I’ve pasted together a few photos to show the whole of Sisiutl, unwrapped:
• “Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America” is at the British Museum until August 27. This is, astonishingly – given the strength of its collections, and the extraordinary stories the region has to tell – the museum’s first exhibition on the topic. Many pieces are said to be displayed for the first time in the Museum’s history, and it’s well worth a visit. The display is disappointing, however. It lacks ambition, and it really could do with more information about the objects and the people who made them. For the technicalities of some of the art, if you want to know more, Bill Holm’s classic text has been re-issued and can be found in the museum shop (below left).
The Berkhamsted pole was carved by Henry Hunt: I wrote a short blog a few years ago about a card by him I picked up in an antique market (above right).
The Queen’s great pole, carved by Mungo Martin, is still in Windsor Park. But she is showing a collection of smaller gifts in Buckingham Palace during this year’s summer opening. This carving (left, 78cm high) is among the exhibits. A gift from the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in 1971, it features the thunderbird of the British Museum show’s title.
The house model with a pole out front (right) can be seen at the BM. This model, made by John Gwaytihl in the 1890s, is based on a real house, Bear House of Kayang on Haida Gwaii. The pole (85cm high) is remarkably similar to the bigger real one in the Great Court. You can see this below, on the right standing in Masset on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, and on the left as drawn by TA Joyce and interpreted as telling a story of a lazy son-in-law. The pole (12m high) was made around 1850, and acquired by the BM in 1903.
They had probably the worst clients in history. Parliament needed a new home after the medieval Westminster Palace burnt down in 1834. Charles Barry got the job of designing and building it, and he brought in Augusts Pugin to help him. They created one of the greatest 19th-century buildings in the world, that now represents our nation and our democracy as a globally famous icon. But they had to fight to do it.
A Royal Commission oversaw the work. That wasn’t enough for the politicians. They couldn’t leave Barry alone. Throughout the project he was examined by committees, and publicly attacked by Lords and MPs. The House of Commons is a dark, claustrophobic place because MPs forced him into a design that valued acoustics over light and comfort: they wanted to be heard. The Treasury finally agreed to pay Barry an absurdly low fee nearly three years into construction. He was still working on the much delayed palace when he died. Only six out of 658 MPs subscribed to a memorial.
We have inherited one of the costs of political interference and grandstanding during the building of the Palace of Westminster: design and construction flaws. Stone crumbles, roofs leak. Failure to properly maintain the buildings over the past century has hugely compounded these problems. Parliament now faces a big decision. Does it want to abandon its history of mean-spirited, ego-driven, incompetent and meddling management, and save the palace by choosing the safest, cheapest and quickest way to do it? Or does it want put its personal convenience and profile first, spend billions of pounds more and take decades longer, while risking the safety of the buildings and everyone in them? You guess.
The new edition of British Archaeology takes a detailed look at Westminster – the abbey, the palace (old and new) and the extraordinary, unparalleled richness of our spectacular world heritage site beside the river Thames. A variety of distinguished writers show how even late in the last century, the archaeology and heritage of this site had been disgracefully neglected. The abbey is catching up fast under its archaeologist, Warwick Rodwell (who contributes one of the features). Now it is parliament’s turn to do the right thing.
The great Victorian Gothic fantasy known as the Palace of Westminster is home to our national government. Nestling among its spectacular corridors, halls and towers are the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Big Ben may be the most globally recognised symbol of stable democracy. The riverside location has witnessed political power, drama and history-making as far back as Edward the Confessor, before the Norman Conquest: all being well, many alive today will celebrate its continuous occupancy for 1,000 years.
This national icon, this glorious carnival of identity, tradition, free debate and peace, is in serious trouble. It may catch fire. It may become awash with sewage. The roofs leak, the walls are flaking, and any day the entire system of plumbing, heating, wiring, security and communications may collapse, without anyone knowing exactly why. This is the legacy of decades of underinvestment, as problems of safety, dilapidation and unsuitability ballooned under incompetent management lacking democratic accountability.
The good news is that parliament has faced up to the issue. It has commissioned thorough research, and been given a viable solution – a “restoration and renewal programme”. The bad news, but hardly a surprise, is that it will be very expensive. But unless we want to demolish the place and start again (also at enormous cost), restoration is not an option: it is a necessity. Sooner rather than later, if nothing is done, the buildings will become dangerous and dysfunctional far beyond the point when the problems can be ignored, and everyone will have to find somewhere else from which to run the country.
In March the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts reported on the restoration proposals. An independent study had come up with three plans:
Option One: this would cost £5.7 billion, and take 32 years.
Option Two: £3.9 billion, 11 years.
Option Three: £3.5 billion, six years.
Which would you choose? This is taxpayers’ money, to be spent on an absolutely central and living part of our heritage, and an internationally famous symbol of British identity and democracy.
It seems obvious. Who would not go for the cheapest and quickest solution – and, incidentally, the safest? Option one, the most expensive, would take so long that the whole place might self-destruct before the project was finished. It’s got to be done. We’d choose option three, six years’ work for £3.5 billion.
That is exactly what the Public Accounts committee decided. “Without hesitation,” it concluded, in case anyone wondered if it had any doubts, it recommended option three, and that work should start as soon as possible.
Theresa May has said parliament can vote on the plans. This would have happened by now, but for two incidents which underline the palace’s political and cultural power – the very reasons we should want to get on with restoration: a violent attack outside, and a debate inside on the letter which initiated our departure from the European Union. The vote will now occur after Lords and members of parliament return from the Easter recess in April.
This vote, surely, will support option three. Yet there is a strong movement against it. Several MPs, including the chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, have questioned the costs. Sir Edward Leigh MP wants the Lords and the Commons to continue to meet in the palace while repairs take place: in today’s Times (April 5), he claims “The majority opinion among MPs” is on his side. They want a programme that would be some sort of fudge between options one and two – with no details, no costings and little agreement among the objectors as to exactly what should be done, we might feel justified in calling this option zero, costing more and taking longer than anything on offer.
Why this madness? What the MPs do not like is that the most efficient and safest way to renew the palace – option three – includes having them all move into alternative premises while works proceed; this is known as decanting. The more they stay while works progress around them, the higher the bill and the longer it takes. Some argue that parliament would lose its eminent authority if it temporarily vacated the famous site. Others worry that once out, no one would let them back in again. Both are absurd propositions.
Most revealing, however, is the common argument that now is not the time to spend such large a sum as option one demands on “their” home – even though not decanting results in a far bigger bill. Contrary to what the objectors might seem to think, the architectural and historic glories of parliament are not just a benefit for sitting MPs. They belong to us all. To the world.
How would we be remembered? As the generation that brought back a blue passport? Or the one that, for just seven times the cost of changing the colour of a small document we try not to lose on holidays, saved the Palace of Westminster and made it safe and fit for modern, publicly engaged government?
• Writers for this feature include Steven Brindle, Tim Tatton-Brown, John Crook, Warwick Rodwell, David Harrison, Richard Simmons and a team from Historic England (Sandy Kidd, Paddy Elson & Patrick Booth), with comment from Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) and Tim Loughton MP.
British Archaeology is available in digital now, and in the shops on Friday. (All photos above are mine.)
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.
The 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.
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.
The 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.
I 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.
Here’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.
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).
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.