I went to see the Tate Gallery’s previous big show in London about Paul Nash in 1975, with my friend Diana Hale, then a student at Goldsmiths College, who died in November. Nash, along with an ever-growing club of artist and writers, stayed with me ever since. At first it was his landscapes. Working and living around Avebury, I’d see his tree clumps on the downs, his megaliths, and his collections of flints and wood. Later I could see more in his piles of logs than rustic scenes, and thanks to exhibitions such as (most recently) that at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010, I imagined I could appreciate the variety in his work as a wholeness rather than a fragmented series of conflicting styles. In Tate at the new exhibition that’s there until March 15 (which naturally I thoroughly recommend), I thought back to a painting I’d seen there 40 years before.
It was one of three watercolours, with a dab of collage, painted in 1942 to illustrate the horror of a Nazi invasion of Britain. They have the general title Follow the Führer, and were rejected for propaganda use by the Ministry of Information, perhaps for their unmitigated darkness hovering on the edge of farce. They were in private hands in 1975, and are now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and owned by Tate (though none are in the current exhibition). Above the Clouds shows Hitler as a flying shark leading squadrons of fighters and bombers. I can’t find an illustration of Under the Waves, and I don’t remember it from 1975. The one that impressed me was Over the Snows. Here Hitler is a screaming face leading a surge of bleached, open-mouthed and broken skulls, across a landscape and straight at the viewer. It is deeply disturbing. In 1975 I found it hard to reconcile the image with the rural views hanging nearby.
There was always a lot of archaeology in Nash’s work, from megaliths and earthworks to his more general interest in things and landscapes. Archaeologists have written about this (such as Christopher Evans, see references at end). Sam Smiles especially, a writer and researcher into British art and visually-transmitted knowledge who teaches at Exeter University, has looked at Nash’s relationships with archaeologists and antiquity, and written a series of perceptive and well-informed articles.
Emma Chambers, who curated Tate’s show with Inga Fraser, kindly gave me a printed list of the works in Nash’s library, which is now in Tate’s archive. I was struck by the number of loosely archaeological items it contains. Nash had copies of Stukeley’s Abury, and Crawford and Keiller’s Wessex from the Air. He had four books by James Frazer. And more. But what most struck me was an offprint, signed and given to him by Stuart Piggott in 1938. The archaeologist had published the article three years before in the journal Antiquity; it is called “Stukeley, Avebury & the Druids.” Piggott owned a signed lithograph by Nash, an imaginary but realistic-looking view of the West Kennet Avenue, created for a series of educational posters for schools. It was hanging prominently in Piggott’s Berkshire cottage when he died in 1996. Nash had given it to him in 1938.
I like to imagine the two men exchanging gifts. We know from an entry in one of Keiller’s excavation diaries (thanks for this, Ros Cleal), that Keiller, Nash and Piggott were together in Avebury in June 1938, so it’s quite possible. Although he wrote little about it publicly, Piggott had close relationships with several artists of his day. Was Nash among them?
With the evidence we have, it may be impossible to say, though some material remains to be fully examined (not least the wonderful Stuart Piggott archive at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, where I was privileged to have a peak yesterday; Nash does not appear in their catalogue). But I do think we can see more archaeology in Nash’s work than most of us realised.
I’ve written about this in the new British Archaeology. I argue there that Nash was profoundly affected by his experience in the trenches of the first world war. He was a war artist in a greater sense than that he painted both wars. His mature life’s entire work, I think, was partly a response to war, an expression of the personal impact of its eternal ugliness. He was an artist of trauma.
What does that have to do with archaeology? In 2015 archaeologists Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber argued convincingly that one of Nash’s key works – Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) – was inspired by Maud Cunnington’s painted concrete markers at the Sanctuary, Avebury (above). This was a revelation, for Nash himself left no clues to suggest it. Maybe it’s a fantasy (if the colours match now, did they in 1935?).
But once you start looking for hidden archaeological references, you keep finding them. The red of the round marker (in the paintings and in the grass today) appears in other works, including three significant oils in which megaliths stand on red discs. Now we can see, perhaps, that these stones are portrayed as rising out of the ground through red portals, as Nash might have imagined them at the Sanctuary – even “real” megaliths are “equivalents” for absent histories.
In another work, shown for the first time in the Tate exhibition, three objects are arranged in a tense still-life. The painting is actually named Encounter of Two Objects (1936–37). Those two are natural stones, but the unnoticed third is something else. It might be a miniature Silbury Hill, seen from above with a conical shadow as viewed in air photos that Crawford might have had, and illustrated by John Piper in an article published in Axis in 1937 (the spread below is taken from Alexandra Harris’s book, see references). But more likely I think is a very specific item of bronze age Wessex gold, a pointed button-cover from a grave at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. Such Wessex artefacts were the focus of a substantial research project by Stuart Piggott in the 1930s. Is that coincidence?
I note more in the British Archaeology article, but a key work is that watercolour with the wave of skulls, I’m convinced it’s directly influenced by Nash’s visit to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle.
Nash and Wheeler first met when they were studying at the Slade in London; Wheeler later claimed him “a treasured familiar”, though what Nash thought of Wheeler we can only guess. Both were at Passchendaele in October 1917, Nash drawing, Wheeler in charge of a Battery in “the definition of hell”.
At Maiden Castle, the archaeologist interpreted a cemetery of skeletons as the remains of native defenders slaughtered by an invading Roman army. Nash’s three watercolour collages, Follow the Führer, depict Hitler leading armies of death into England. In Over the Snows, the landscape backdrop fits that of Maiden Castle, and the white hollows in the foreground – shell craters, trenches – could be chalk as much as snow. The rolling blanket of fractured skulls surely derives from Nash’s photos and memories of the excavated burials.
Returned from the first world war, Nash found consolation for death in landscapes shaped by people long gone; the trees and fields of rural England, animated by antiquity, were a sign of nature’s power to survive devastation by humanity. (And note the success today of Operation Nightingale, which runs archaeological investigations with service personnel recovering from action with the British Armed Forces; see features in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2011/122 and May/Jun 2014/136).
When war returned in 1939, so did Nash’s demons, shown graphically in the horror of Totes Meer (1940–41), the sea a swirling mass of wrecked warplanes. In his last few years, Nash found light and colour in the symbolism of solstice and eclipse (drawing on Frazer). But at Maiden Castle, Wheeler had exposed the dead that lie beneath the mud, as the shells had done at Passchendaele. For once, the ancient landscape had thrown up the figures which Eileen Agar, with whom Nash had a powerful affair, tells us were of no interest to him in his engagement with prehistory. They were not welcome.
See my “Paul Nash: Encounters with archaeology,” British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016/152. All editions of British Archaeology can now be viewed digitally. I wrote about the concrete markers at Woodhenge, which have been better researched than those at the Sanctuary, last year (A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes).
Sam Smiles: “Ancient country: Nash & prehistory,” in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed Jemima Montagu (2003). “Thomas Guest & Paul Nash in Wiltshire: two episodes in the artistic approach to British antiquity,” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology & the Image (ed Sam Smiles & Stephanie Moser, 2004). “Imagining the past: archaeological & artistic perspectives,” in Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments, ed Joanne Parker (2009).
Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010)
Christopher Evans: “Unearthing displacement: Surrealism & the ‘archaeology’ of Paul Nash,” in Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology & Art, ed Colin Renfrew, Chris Gosden & Elizabeth DeMarrais (2004).
Helen Wickstead & Martyn Barber: “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).
The trauma of war. Trails (this morning in Wiltshire) turned to entrails (Battle of Britain 1941, Imperial War Museum):
The new British Archaeology has a great mix of stuff, with its usual features, reviews, news, the interview (Taryn Nixon), Bill Tidy’s cartoon and so on. And we have a new column, from the great archaeological photographer, Mick Sharp, who will be writing in every edition about visiting sites with his cameras. I’m really proud of the wide range of places and topics, and of all the contributors who have brought so much to this issue.
The front cover features a wooden Anglo-Saxon coffin – one of over 90 preserved in an early Christian cemetery, as never seen before. From London comes the surprise discovery of a Roman fort, which helps explain why the city is where it is.
We ask what happened to all the missing dead from prehistoric Britain (giving me an opportunity to bring out some of my old Kodachromes). How did people in Scotland over 4,000 years ago decide which pots to put in their graves? And what lies behind the plaster mask on a skull dug up in Jericho 60 years ago? The Jericho skull features in a temporary display at the British Museum which opens on Thursday (December 15). You can see the skull online in 3D in Dan Pett’s Sketchfab rendition.
I particularly like Colin Haselgrove’s overview of a huge and long-lived project designed to explain expansive earthwork fortifications at Stanwick in Yorkshire. I saw the site (or parts of it) for the first time earlier this year, when I was nearby for the funeral of Percival Turnbull – he launched the field project with Haselgrove back in the 1980s. Befitting them both, the feature is a perceptive, inspired analysis of late iron age Britain as much as the description of a dig. The new monograph behind it will be much read.
I’ve written a feature for this edition myself, inspired by Tate Britain’s Paul Nash exhibition. I’ll say something about it in another blog.
The Council for British Archaeology has digitized the entire back run of British Archaeology. We were the first archaeology magazine to offer a full digital edition as well as print, and now you can dig back to number one, and everything in between, without having to wade through mountains of uncontrollable paper. One great benefit of this is the search facility, which allows you to look for any terms within all editions, a significant step up from a conventional index. I will always enjoy the feel of leafing through a proper printed magazine, and its presence as a thing. But for work I find the online index a real boon. We are not of course a peer-reviewed journal, but great care goes into fact-checking and keeping up with what’s going on: issues become more precious as they age, as records as much as news.
Digital access comes with the package for CBA members, and is also available to anyone associated with subscribing institutions, including universities, government departments, colleges and libraries. You can subscribe separately, via iTunes or online at the Exact website. Even if you haven’t paid a thing, you can nose around through the archive looking at front covers and the first few pages of every edition. Or you can just nip round to the newsagent.
I was down at Larkhill this morning to visit a large excavation. The Ministry of Defence is building a new housing estate for soldiers and their families, and Wessex Archaeology has found all sorts of interesting things, among them the edge of a new causewayed enclosure, which you’ll be able to read about in the new British Archaeology, out next week.
It was cold, and there’d been a hard frost. Early at Stonehenge you could see scoring in the turf running parallel to the edges of the Avenue earthwork, most clearly between its banks, but also outside them. It’s a curious effect. The Stonehenge Riverside project excavated grooves that run like this in the soil, and interpreted them as natural periglacial structures left over from the ice age, that – because they are aligned on the solstice axis – were partly responsible for where Stonehenge is: neolithic people saw the grooves pointing at the rising midsummer sun and thought, this is where we want to build Stonehenge!
Meanwhile, Tim Darvill and colleagues think the grooves are relatively modern wheel ruts. Their respective evidence is summarised in this diagram. Area 8 (enlarged at left) is a geophysics plot showing lines within the Avenue but not quite parallel to the ditches; these, say Darvill et al, are wheel ruts.
Trench 45 (enlarged right) is the Riverside team’s excavation in 2008. The periglacial stripes, they say, are deeper than many others recorded in the local chalk, and much deeper than the cart tracks which they agree with Darvill et al are what we can see in Area 8. They think there are natural ridges (blue) and a trench (green) on the exact alignment of the Avenue close to Stonehenge, and it all adds up to a “remarkable coincidence of a geological landform on a solstitial axis”.
I’m not totally convinced by any of this. The alignment coincidence seems too remarkable to me, at least without more evidence to back it up (which would include a full understanding of exactly what these alleged geomorphological features are, how and when they formed, and why they are where they are). And if the grooves in Trench 45 are periglacial stripes, could it be that they are bigger than normal because the area within the Avenue was less ploughed up in recent centuries – which would account for the slight doming effect of the Avenue relative to the surrounding land? On the other hand, the interpretation of the geophysical lines as wheel ruts needs to be supported by excavation. Unsurfaced tracks across chalkland do not typically develop regular, parallel ruts to match the grooves we see in the geophysical surveys.
Down at Larkhill, they’d exposed a nice area of periglacial stripes. These are distinctively narrow, close together, long and thin (running downslope from top left to bottom right):
As always, at Stonehenge as elsewhere, fieldwork throws up as many questions as it answers: but the new questions are better ones.
“Stonehenge, Wiltshire, UK: High resolution geophysical surveys in the surrounding landscape, 2011”, by Timothy Darvill, Friedrich Lüth, Knut Rassmann, Andreas Fischer & Kay Winkelmann, in European Journal of Archaeology 16 (2013).
“Stonehenge’s Avenue and ‘Bluestonehenge’”, by Michael J Allen, Ben Chan, Ros Cleal, Charles French, Peter Marshall, Joshua Pollard, Rebecca Pullen, Colin Richards, Clive Ruggles, David Robinson1, Jim Rylatt, Julian Thomas, Kate Welham & Mike Parker Pearson, in Antiquity 90 (2016)
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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).
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.
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’.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Below: map added October 20 in response to Tim Daw’s comment.
I’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.
Our 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.
Further 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.
Adela 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.
And 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!
Press day at the V&A in London, for its new exhibition, “You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966–1970”. Will we see Martin Roth, celebrating five years as director and now soon to leave? (“Martin intends to devote more time”, said Monday’s press release, “to various international cultural consultancies and plans to spend more time with his wife Harriet and their children, in Berlin and Vancouver”; but the gossip is all about disillusionment with Brexit, and the referendum “war rhetoric”).
If he was there, I missed him. But I did hear two quite slick, carefully prepared speeches from key sponsors Levi’s and Sennheiser. Is this all about selling jeans and “audio technology”? Is this what Woodstock was for (Martin Scorsese’s film screening big above their heads as they speak)? Where are Art not Oil when you need them?
Actually, thankfully, not here. At the end of his talk, CEO Daniel Sennheiser says something that is not in the company press handout. (It has things like this: “With music being the uniting element of the world’s youth at the time, Woodstock was much more than just a music festival – it embodied an alternative way of life. This special concert atmosphere is recreated with a 14.1 AMBEO installation that uses upmixed audio material from the period.”) Sennheiser tells us (in my words) that the 60s were not just about style and music, but about ideals and hope, of visions for change. As we watch “two baby boomers slug it out across the Atlantic” (I think that’s what he said), perhaps we can learn from them, and think about changing things now.
Roth hits a similar note in the catalogue foreword. In 1970, he starts, he was a teenager living in West Germany. Students were questioning their parents’ role in the Nazi era. He wanted to change the world. He still does. “Now I run a national museum and have the opportunity to revisit the utopian vision and revolutions that took place” in the later 60s.
“But which developments from that time”, he concludes, “have perhaps not gone far enough? And what can we learn from those heady days when anything seemed possible?”
That’s not why I cried (I clapped). That happened earlier, as I listened to the music and sound tracks and looked at all the stuff – books, posters, videos and things, so much stuff, not least a continuous thread of album sleeves from John Peel’s record collection. This was the wallpaper of my school days, much of it still around me in my home, and more in my head. It’s what I loved and was inspired by: the songs, the designs, the protests and politics, the visons and the promise of a young generation “taking control”. And look at us now. That is what made me cry.
But back out in the London streets, the sun shines on people eating and laughing around tables on a wide, now pedestrianised but not long ago dangerous fume-thick road. I descend into a functioning and very busy underground train station. I step into a bright, clean train full of people with phones and tablets. A couple of men embrace. Buskers play. Out in Paddington Station, bright and spacious and full of food and shops, the accents and languages are endlessly variable (and that’s just the English). So much is so much better now than it was in the 60s and 70s.
And so it could be again. A very striking thing in the V&A show is the use of graphics, poetry and performance at that time. We cared then about peace and love and community, about a brighter future for a better world. But we did it not with figures and logic, with government reports and peer-reviewed articles. We did it with passion and emotion! We didn’t write press features complaining that people are too stupid to see that global warming is happening, and is terrifying. We sang songs! We didn’t explain in intricate detail how politicians who want the UK to leave the EU are insane. We marched and took our clothes off! We put posters on our walls! “WAR IS GOOD BUSINESS”, reads one, over a photo of Michelangelo’s Pieta: “INVEST YOUR SON.” “ABORTION IS A PERSONAL DECISION”, another: “NOT A LEGAL DEBATE”. With powerful design and colour.
That’s what’s really missing now. We do care. But we need to learn from Trump, and Johnson, and Farage, and all the folk with the good tunes. Look at the 60s. Facts matter, a lot. But you don’t change things only with facts. Bring back the passion. And even with the very sad departure of Martin Roth, the museums and galleries of our capital city are run by able, not so old, ambitious people with global visions from around the world. That feels, perhaps, quite 60s.
Archaeologist Percival Turnbull has died from a sudden stroke, a great shock to his friends and colleagues. He had been a partner in The Brigantia Archaeological Practice in Barnard Castle since 1995, and was, as Tony King says, a stalwart of archaeology in northern England. Val, Tony and I were fellow undergrads at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. I took the photo above in the Guildhall Museum (Percival stands with a 19th century wheelwright’s bellows) in 1972, when we were sent out across London in pairs with a Gandolfi camera during our photography training. In good antiquarian style Percival’s face is blurred in a very long exposure.
Maev Kennedy has it spot on in her post: “RIP Percival Turnbull, a gentleman, a scholar, a cynic, a big brain and a razor sharp wit”. He was his own man, a very bright mind navigating modernity and antiquity with an open, questioning mind. Maev quoted him in 2009 in the Guardian, in a nice piece reviewing the state of British archaeology in depressed times (Percival’s default mode, one might sometimes have thought). “Percival Turnbull”, she wrote, “is philosophical and borderline optimistic. ‘I do think that we’ve lost as well as gained: lost much of the community of purpose that united us as archaeologists; the extraordinary special local knowledge and other expertise which had been built up in many places; the sheer fun of it all. On the other hand, I don’t expect ever again to spend an evening washing string so that it could be re-used’.”
His wit was always there. In 2012 I credited him with the best joke about the Richard III dig, expressed in a letter to the Guardian at a time when people were questioning who the skeleton really was. “The identification of bones found in Leicester as those of Richard III (Report, 13 September)”, he wrote simply, “may be supported by the telling absence of any trace of a horse.”
There is a good story from 2008. Outside his local pub because of the smoking ban, he was puffing on his pipe when the landlord opened a door beside him. He promptly spotted a fragment of medieval cross slab grave cover in the wall. As ever, his mind alert.