thinking about archaeology

Archaeology

The Larkhill car burial

_MP26354.jpgThere’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.

Untitled-1.jpgWhen 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.

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Steve Thompson

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neolithic ditches

 

 


What did the world heritage site mean to people who built Stonehenge? Nothing

A303 byway copy.jpgYesterday 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.

  1. The Stonehenge road proposals

stonehenge map.jpgThe 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.

  1. 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.

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This is where the Avenue crosses the A303

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These are barrows on Normanton Down (you can make out Bush Barrow, where Tom Holland was standing in his video, as the mound on the left with a small tree on it), with the A303 on the right

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stationery at the Longbarrow roundabout

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The A303  approaches the roundabout, seen from the south; WHS to right of line (the border follows the north-south road)

2a. A detour through Larkhill

Larkhill routeLocals 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.

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  1. The southern route

Upper Woodford 2.jpg“[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.

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All of these views from Boreland Hill are looking north; here, with a long lens, you can see the A303 descending into Stonehenge Bottom

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This and below is Middle Woodford, not on the immediate new road but nearby

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Woodford Bridge

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Note wide flat floodplain beside the river Avon, a common feature all along the river here and likely to contain remains of any number of mesolithic waterside camps like that at Blick Mead

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And we get to as precise as we can be to where a new concrete flyover would need to be built to take a southern A303 over the river

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More interesting floodplain

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An unusually high and steep old chalk riverbank rising to right at Woodford Green

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Great Durnford church, beside the river

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Overlooking this lovely valley, a bronze age/iron age hillfort at Ogbury

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.

  1. Conclusion

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.


Save the Palace!

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.

The new British Archaeology is out this week. The major focus is on Westminster, and the future of the palace, Barry and Pugin’s great Victorian masterpiece.

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.

_MP26748.jpgWe 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.

MWP_2917.jpgThe 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.

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_MP26831.jpgThe 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.

_MP26867.jpgThis 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.

_MP26853.jpgWhich 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.)


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.


Ten archaeology headlines I don’t want to see in 2017 (but know I will)

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  1. Ancient Britons/people were not as primitive as we thought

Over a century ago, the Illustrated London News ran a feature about the newly excavated iron age lake village at Glastonbury, headlined, “Not the woad-daubed savage of the old history-books: the civilised ancient Briton”. When we see a headline like this, we know the writer went to school before 1911. We might guess rightly that a PR office had issued a release with a story making the claim, and worse still that the archaeologists behind the report had themselves suggested something similar. Archaeologists seeking to make their research sound important should note that the readers you want to reach know that the people who invented art, boats, farming, houses, fireplaces, language and making string were not primitive. Claiming so only makes you look that way.

  1. Neanderthals were not as stupid/brutish/macho/hairy as we thought

See above. This was neanderthal journalism (whoops, there I go) even before it was found that apparently everyone alive today originating from outside Africa has a small amount of neanderthal in their DNA. Now it’s not only stupid and lazy, but racist.

  1. *** explains Stonehenge

No it doesn’t. And anyway, it’s been said before, probably some time in the 18th century and every other Tuesday since.

  1. x-rays/lasers/drones/satellites/sonic screwdrivers discover hundreds/thousands/millions of ancient shoes/temples/civilisations

There is part of me that likes these stories. There is often good research behind the headlines: who would begrudge easy publicity for field projects that need to please their sponsors? And isn’t the promise of making spectacular discoveries what first drew many of us into archaeology in the first place? Yet on balance they don’t work for me. First, the science is over-hyped, when there is a lot of more sophisticated technology out there that is profoundly changing the way we understand the past, but is almost impossible to put into a short heading that makes any sense. Many people reading these stories must think to themselves, how hard is looking at Google Earth? Are archaeologists really that far behind the tech curve? Secondly, claims to have discovered all those things nobody knew about often forget to note that other archaeologists who might have spent half a career researching an area actually did know all about them. It’s just that their pictures weren’t quite so pretty.

  1. Archaeologists find mysterious chamber in pyramid

The real problem with this headline is the first word. Is there nothing better for an archaeologist to do in Egypt right now that doesn’t involve a pyramid that nobody is going to steal or destroy? Although on reflection, perhaps looking at pyramids is better than digging up more mummies. At last no one has to pay for the conservation and find somewhere to store everything.

  1. Viking helmets did not have horns!

That’s probably true (though I like to think there was a Grayson Bluetooth out there, in touch with his inner Viking man, who thought horns looked rather dinky, and attached a blond wig to boot), but archaeologists have been saying it for a very long time. Everyone knows! Roberta Frank dates the horn idea to 1875, when Carl Emil Doepler designed costumes for the first Bayreuth production of Wagner’s Ring cycle. “However ‘wrong’,” she concludes, “the horned Viking helmet has been a recurrent fantasy transmuting the desert of daily existence into contours rare and strange.” Or in other words, why spoil the fun? (See “The invention of the Viking horned helmet,” in International Scandinavian & Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber, ed M Dallapiazza (2000), 199–208.)

  1. Archaeology is in crisis

This is different, in that while I don’t want to read it, I know it could be true in Britain and I wish it couldn’t. The effects of relentless government cuts on Historic England have resulted in the recent departure of significant numbers of experienced, skilled staff. Central government support for local authorities is so poor that the latter often have no option but to choose between funding libraries, museums, archaeology services, hospitals and schools to the point that some of the former have to close, and even if not they are severely stretched. Significant archaeological archives could be disposed of simply became there is nowhere to keep them. Archaeological research is an international affair: the impact of Brexit is certain to be negative, and not just through the loss of EU funding. Insufficient skilled archaeologists to meet the demand from new large infrastructure projects could mean development without archaeology, an idea that might catch on. And so on.

But all is not lost. Public interest in archaeology has never been higher, and arts, heritage and culture make a very significant contribution to the British economy and the UK’s international identity. Will there be a crisis? A lot depends on how well the archaeological profession can work together to stand up and speak clearly in language politicians understand. The headlines we want to see, are “Government supports archaeology because it matters to the nation.” Because it does.

  1. *** rewrites the history books

The past is a long, big complex place. No one discovery or idea is going to turn everything upside down, nor for that matter is one archaeologist. Research is now happening on a very larges scale, and an unprecedented amount of new stuff is being discovered and understood. If books are changing, however, they are being extended and revised, or written from scratch where none previously existed, but much of what we thought we knew is always going to stay in. And anyway, with no A level archaeology, who needs history books that need archaeology any more? If books need rewriting, it’s not because of something somebody found. It’s because they were no good in the first place.

  1. Archaeologists find 2,000-year-old pot decorated with face of Jesus in kitchen of Albanian garage mechanic who used it for storing liquorice, revealing the Lord was a redhead and almost bald

Or something like that. Typically with these stories, where a find of sensational international interest falls off the back of a lorry and is fortuitously picked up by a scientist no one has ever heard of, you find that said scientist has written an embargoed book, and/or is about to feature in a film to be screened on an obscure channel and is interested in talking to anyone who would like to buy said discovery. Here’s a tip for any journalist who knows nothing about science or archaeology, but finds themself writing about a science and archaeology story that sounds like the exclusive of a lifetime (a growing likelihood in these times where journalism is less and less well paid and driven more and more by trivia). Before going to your editor with the story, talk to an archaeologist. They will help you, and you might have a sensational exposure of post-truth fakery on your hands. If it sounds incredible, it probably is.

  1. Experts say tunnel under Stonehenge could irreparably damage world heritage site

There is going to be a consultation this spring to consider options for the A303 road tunnel past (not under) Stonehenge. Will the press report this in a balanced, understanding way, or will it focus Brexit-style on the loud voices obsessed with stopping a tunnel regardless of any proper consideration of the current situation and potential outcomes? And… whoops, this one has already happened. As I write, the Guardian has exactly theses words in a headline and subhead, quoting Dan Snow and Tom Holland. These are good men both, a forceful TV presenter of military history (Snow) and a masterful writer on classical history and presenter of Radio 4’s Making History (Holland). But, pace the Guardian, neither is an expert on Stonehenge archaeology or the Stonehenge tunnel. Nobody beyond involved engineers can be a tunnel expert – we still have a great deal of detail to learn. I’m not sure what Michael Gove had in mind in his infamous dismissal of “experts”, but tabloid-style use of the word like this does nothing for public understanding or respect for specialists. You do not become an expert by making the most noise (as I’m sure Snow and Holland would agree).


Trowels at the ready

garden villages.jpgThis is a map of local archaeology, or, as the Department for Communities and Local Government would describe it, of approved new garden villages. The plans are not new – the name Welborne was chosen by local residents several years ago for a village in Hampshire – but the promise of government support for 17 new settlements is welcome. Greenfield developments have the potential for many significant archaeological discoveries. We should support the planning system and the archaeologists it brings to these sites, which together will give unique historical depth to new communities, and enhance our national heritage. And we should support the schools, universities, museums, and Historic England and all the other archaeological organisations down to the smallest local voluntary group, that inspire, educate and employ the archaeologists needed for the job.

Happy New Year!


Fog on Uffington

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Out for a walk this afternoon round the hillfort and white horse at Uffington, foggy and cold with frost patches remaining in areas of shadow and some lovely light. Despite the apparent archaeological evidence, I still find it difficult to imagine this outline of a horse to have been maintained up there since before 500BC. Yet everything about it is curious, so who knows?

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