thinking about archaeology

British Archaeology

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.


A new British Archaeology – and another 151 editions

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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.

BA 152 fort.jpgThe 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.

BA 152 dead danebury.jpgWe 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.

BA 152 Jericho skull.jpgI 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.

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DNA to Durrington Walls: New British Archaeology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The age of A’a

OcLMS.19 left hip figure

Good to see Martin Bailey write about A’a in the Art Newspaper yesterday. We reported this story in British Archaeology in June, when British Museum curator Julie Adams wrote about the new research she led into the wonderful, unsettling carving from Rurutu taken to London by British missionaries in 1821. This and Hoa Hakananai’a (delivered to London in 1869) are arguably the two most spectacular items in the British Museum’s early Pacific collections, which are stronger than the current displays reveal.

Bailey headlines the carbon dating of A’a (actually some time between AD1505–1645, rather than “around 1505”), which like a date obtained some years ago for an Easter Island wooden carving is significantly older than art historians had it. As Adams wrote:

“Even at the younger end of the range, this is still dramatically earlier than had been imagined; it is a major finding that requires a complete reevaluation of our understandings of Pacific art. It makes it clear that A’a was created using stone tools, rather than metal, and that the people who created it were extraordinarily skilled carpenters. It also challenges our perceptions about how long objects may have survived in a tropical environment. The skill and effort required to create A’a, and the extremely significant role he was designed to fulfil – to hold the bones of a deified ancestor – in conjunction with the early date indicated by radiocarbon dating, prove that the figure must have been very carefully treated and preserved.”

Other discoveries of the project include the identification of the wood as sandalwood, not the local pua as had been assumed – causing some controversy on Rurutu, as sandalwood is not native to the island.

The first find, within minutes of Adams seeing the carving in store, was a feather from a Kuhl’s lorikeet. They later found some human hair, scraps of barkcloth and two further feathers. “In Polynesia,” wrote Adams in BA, “these are all items with rich cosmological associations and imbued with the presence of the divine. Red feathers, in particular, functioned as a kind of cosmological currency with which chiefs could assert their status and legitimacy: a chief who could manipulate the appropriate networks to acquire feathers at key moments in the ritual calendar, held political sway on the island. It makes perfect sense for a red feather – a valuable currency – to be discovered within a god image such as A’a.”

Even in storage, museum collections have endless and unexpected stories to tell.

Photo at top British Museum.

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150th New British Archaeology out

Maiden Castle

Tessa Machling, on the Prehistoric Society’s Facebook page, kindly recommended the new British Archaeology on the strength of its Must Farm reporting, so I’ll start this post about the new magazine there.

This edition has our last “live” coverage of the extraordinary excavation of the bronze age village, which has now ended. Regular readers will have noticed that I eschewed an early feature on this site in favour of running news stories; this is the fourth. I’ve never done this before, and I cannot recall any excavation that has had such a strong narrative, moving so fast to uncover enough new material to merit double-spread reports every two months.

To conclude this phase of Must Farm, I’ve also interviewed site director Mark Knight for My archaeology. I expect we’ll hear more from him: Knight’s an unusually gifted field archaeologist, with a keen eye on the ground as well as an astute interest in the wider picture. I’ll continue to follow site progress, and in due course we’ll run a major feature. Without doubt some of the best stories will emerge during post excavation. British Archaeology will be here to report them!

BA 150.jpgOn the front cover is a bronze age grave from Scotland, heralding a feature about the Beaker people. A once popular theory imagined continental immigrants sweeping across Britain 4,000 years ago, bringing new ideas and technologies – even their heads looked different. Could it be true? A major scientific project may have the answer.

We visit Bearsden, a Roman fort in the Glasgow outskirts: at one of the most northern posts in the Roman empire, soldiers had to adjust to local supplies – they had imported olives and figs, but no sponges in the toilet (though look out for the drawing used in some other publications that was sent out by Historic Scotland’s press office, showing squaddies sitting cheek to cheek with sponges at the ready… I do wonder about some of these visualisations. How will archaeologists in two millennia, if there’s anyone still here, depict us in a museum? Picking our noses? Waxing?).

More Roman, and prehistoric, finds have been excavated ahead of a major road project in the north of England, along Dere Street.

At the British Museum, 2016 is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of the Elgin collection: we consider the eventful shared history of sculptures and museum.

BA150 Elgin.jpgThe medieval Black Death killed millions, but measuring its precise impact has proved a challenge; thousands of garden-diggers think they have found an untouched source of information.

And of course there is much more.

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BA150 cardiff adventures.jpgIt’s nearly two months before the next one, but prepare for some more striking prehistoric archaeology! Meanwhile you can find out how to obtain the magazine here – or look for it in the shops. Digital subscribers have immediate access to back editions (all those Must Farm stories…). I was on Maiden Castle in Dorset a few days ago, hence the photo at the top – not in the magazine (yet).


Beatrice de Cardi 1914–2016

Beatrice de Cardi in 1966

Beatrice de Cardi, distinguished and honoured archaeologist, founding secretary of the Council for British Archaeology, with a career that ranged from Mortimer Wheeler’s personal secretary to significant fieldwork in the pre-Islamic cultures of the Arabian Gulf and Baluchistan, died this morning, aged 102. A dear and dignified lady. Expect many tributes.

Below is an interview from British Archaeology in 2004.

Beatrice de Cardi 2004


British Archaeology goes underwater

Cover with SpineThe new British Archaeology came out last week, and is in the shops now. Here’s a peek inside.

As three UK universities are rated the best in the world for the study of archaeology, and the government emphasises the global reach of British arts and heritage, our front cover features an outstanding international project led by British specialists: the discovery and excavation of an early 16th wreck off the coast of Oman.

We challenge British antiquities dealers with a proposal that could put them at the forefront of tackling international heritage crime.

We tell the story of a pioneering experimental museum in 1930s suburban Barnet, much of whose collection now distinguishes a museum in Queensland.

We consider the empire-wide origins of interior design in Roman London.

With features on children in archaeology and flax preparation in Northern Ireland, some striking letters and the usual news, reviews and other regular columns, this is another edition of British Archaeology packed with topical interest

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