What connects Berkhamsted, Salford and Edinburgh with remote forests on the Pacific coast? Sixteen totem poles, traditionally carved in cedar.
They are informed by beliefs, values and artistic conventions that evolved on the north-west coast of Canada and America and reach back into the 19th century and earlier. Like all traditional poles, they have nothing to do with totems (an European misnomer), but use a mix of crests and mythical beasts and people, inviting us to consider important issues of culture change and continuity, the history and future of First Nations in north America, and our own ancient past in Britain.
I have written about these great works of narrative art in the new British Archaeology. The six older examples, including two in the British Museum’s Great Court, were probably made between the 1850s and 1870s. They were taken by collectors and dealers from abandoned villages or disintegrating communities in the earlier years of European settlement. The other ten were carved in the second half of the last century: the first was a gift from Canada to the Queen in 1958, and stands in Windsor Great Park.
I went to see one in Hertfordshire when I was writing the feature. It has a wonderful story, which you can read about in the magazine. The pole stands – truly – with its back to a canal in the grounds of a private housing estate in Berkhamsted. I was fortunate to be invited in by a friendly resident, so I was able to take some detailed photos. Here are a few.
The figures on the pole (above, from the top and left to right), are Raven, bringer of first light and people; the sun (or a man wearing a sun mask), who grasps a copper over his front, a shield-like symbol of wealth (he originally had three rays attached to each side of his face, you can just make out the slots on the right); Dzunuk’wa, whose pursed red lips identify her as the woman who leaves the forests to eat children; and Sisiutl, a human-faced serpent whose two additional reptilian heads with extended tongues rise up either side around Dzunuk’wa.
I’ve pasted together a few photos to show the whole of Sisiutl, unwrapped:
• “Where the Thunderbird Lives: cultural resilience on the Northwest Coast of North America” is at the British Museum until August 27. This is, astonishingly – given the strength of its collections, and the extraordinary stories the region has to tell – the museum’s first exhibition on the topic. Many pieces are said to be displayed for the first time in the Museum’s history, and it’s well worth a visit. The display is disappointing, however. It lacks ambition, and it really could do with more information about the objects and the people who made them. For the technicalities of some of the art, if you want to know more, Bill Holm’s classic text has been re-issued and can be found in the museum shop (below left).
The Berkhamsted pole was carved by Henry Hunt: I wrote a short blog a few years ago about a card by him I picked up in an antique market (above right).
The Queen’s great pole, carved by Mungo Martin, is still in Windsor Park. But she is showing a collection of smaller gifts in Buckingham Palace during this year’s summer opening. This carving (left, 78cm high) is among the exhibits. A gift from the city of Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in 1971, it features the thunderbird of the British Museum show’s title.
The house model with a pole out front (right) can be seen at the BM. This model, made by John Gwaytihl in the 1890s, is based on a real house, Bear House of Kayang on Haida Gwaii. The pole (85cm high) is remarkably similar to the bigger real one in the Great Court. You can see this below, on the right standing in Masset on Graham Island, Haida Gwaii, and on the left as drawn by TA Joyce and interpreted as telling a story of a lazy son-in-law. The pole (12m high) was made around 1850, and acquired by the BM in 1903.
They had probably the worst clients in history. Parliament needed a new home after the medieval Westminster Palace burnt down in 1834. Charles Barry got the job of designing and building it, and he brought in Augusts Pugin to help him. They created one of the greatest 19th-century buildings in the world, that now represents our nation and our democracy as a globally famous icon. But they had to fight to do it.
A Royal Commission oversaw the work. That wasn’t enough for the politicians. They couldn’t leave Barry alone. Throughout the project he was examined by committees, and publicly attacked by Lords and MPs. The House of Commons is a dark, claustrophobic place because MPs forced him into a design that valued acoustics over light and comfort: they wanted to be heard. The Treasury finally agreed to pay Barry an absurdly low fee nearly three years into construction. He was still working on the much delayed palace when he died. Only six out of 658 MPs subscribed to a memorial.
We have inherited one of the costs of political interference and grandstanding during the building of the Palace of Westminster: design and construction flaws. Stone crumbles, roofs leak. Failure to properly maintain the buildings over the past century has hugely compounded these problems. Parliament now faces a big decision. Does it want to abandon its history of mean-spirited, ego-driven, incompetent and meddling management, and save the palace by choosing the safest, cheapest and quickest way to do it? Or does it want put its personal convenience and profile first, spend billions of pounds more and take decades longer, while risking the safety of the buildings and everyone in them? You guess.
The new edition of British Archaeology takes a detailed look at Westminster – the abbey, the palace (old and new) and the extraordinary, unparalleled richness of our spectacular world heritage site beside the river Thames. A variety of distinguished writers show how even late in the last century, the archaeology and heritage of this site had been disgracefully neglected. The abbey is catching up fast under its archaeologist, Warwick Rodwell (who contributes one of the features). Now it is parliament’s turn to do the right thing.
The great Victorian Gothic fantasy known as the Palace of Westminster is home to our national government. Nestling among its spectacular corridors, halls and towers are the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Big Ben may be the most globally recognised symbol of stable democracy. The riverside location has witnessed political power, drama and history-making as far back as Edward the Confessor, before the Norman Conquest: all being well, many alive today will celebrate its continuous occupancy for 1,000 years.
This national icon, this glorious carnival of identity, tradition, free debate and peace, is in serious trouble. It may catch fire. It may become awash with sewage. The roofs leak, the walls are flaking, and any day the entire system of plumbing, heating, wiring, security and communications may collapse, without anyone knowing exactly why. This is the legacy of decades of underinvestment, as problems of safety, dilapidation and unsuitability ballooned under incompetent management lacking democratic accountability.
The good news is that parliament has faced up to the issue. It has commissioned thorough research, and been given a viable solution – a “restoration and renewal programme”. The bad news, but hardly a surprise, is that it will be very expensive. But unless we want to demolish the place and start again (also at enormous cost), restoration is not an option: it is a necessity. Sooner rather than later, if nothing is done, the buildings will become dangerous and dysfunctional far beyond the point when the problems can be ignored, and everyone will have to find somewhere else from which to run the country.
In March the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts reported on the restoration proposals. An independent study had come up with three plans:
Option One: this would cost £5.7 billion, and take 32 years.
Option Two: £3.9 billion, 11 years.
Option Three: £3.5 billion, six years.
Which would you choose? This is taxpayers’ money, to be spent on an absolutely central and living part of our heritage, and an internationally famous symbol of British identity and democracy.
It seems obvious. Who would not go for the cheapest and quickest solution – and, incidentally, the safest? Option one, the most expensive, would take so long that the whole place might self-destruct before the project was finished. It’s got to be done. We’d choose option three, six years’ work for £3.5 billion.
That is exactly what the Public Accounts committee decided. “Without hesitation,” it concluded, in case anyone wondered if it had any doubts, it recommended option three, and that work should start as soon as possible.
Theresa May has said parliament can vote on the plans. This would have happened by now, but for two incidents which underline the palace’s political and cultural power – the very reasons we should want to get on with restoration: a violent attack outside, and a debate inside on the letter which initiated our departure from the European Union. The vote will now occur after Lords and members of parliament return from the Easter recess in April.
This vote, surely, will support option three. Yet there is a strong movement against it. Several MPs, including the chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, have questioned the costs. Sir Edward Leigh MP wants the Lords and the Commons to continue to meet in the palace while repairs take place: in today’s Times (April 5), he claims “The majority opinion among MPs” is on his side. They want a programme that would be some sort of fudge between options one and two – with no details, no costings and little agreement among the objectors as to exactly what should be done, we might feel justified in calling this option zero, costing more and taking longer than anything on offer.
Why this madness? What the MPs do not like is that the most efficient and safest way to renew the palace – option three – includes having them all move into alternative premises while works proceed; this is known as decanting. The more they stay while works progress around them, the higher the bill and the longer it takes. Some argue that parliament would lose its eminent authority if it temporarily vacated the famous site. Others worry that once out, no one would let them back in again. Both are absurd propositions.
Most revealing, however, is the common argument that now is not the time to spend such large a sum as option one demands on “their” home – even though not decanting results in a far bigger bill. Contrary to what the objectors might seem to think, the architectural and historic glories of parliament are not just a benefit for sitting MPs. They belong to us all. To the world.
How would we be remembered? As the generation that brought back a blue passport? Or the one that, for just seven times the cost of changing the colour of a small document we try not to lose on holidays, saved the Palace of Westminster and made it safe and fit for modern, publicly engaged government?
• Writers for this feature include Steven Brindle, Tim Tatton-Brown, John Crook, Warwick Rodwell, David Harrison, Richard Simmons and a team from Historic England (Sandy Kidd, Paddy Elson & Patrick Booth), with comment from Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) and Tim Loughton MP.
British Archaeology is available in digital now, and in the shops on Friday. (All photos above are mine.)
I wrote earlier about the hoard of bronze pans found near Pewsey. Ruth Pelling, senior archaeobotanist at Historic England, tweeted “My wonderful flowers – most exciting material I’ve ever worked on”. I asked her more about them, a very unusual find.
The principle plant material is grassland vegetation and bracken. Pelling counted 23 Centaurea flower heads, one of which could be identified as Centaurea nigra (common knapweed). Other remains include a few seeds each (or just one) of cowslip/primrose (probably former), milkwort, lesser hawkbit, sedges, clovers, vetches and sweet violet, fat hen, knot grass, black bindweed, buttercup and corn spurrey. Devil’s bit scabious is represented only by pollen. Pelling tells me that she suspects this is all from vegetation collected incidentally with the bracken or handfuls of grassland vegetation, which provided the actual packing.
The spring flowers (cowslip/primrose) are likely to have persisted as dried seed pods in what is otherwise a July or August flora, collected from local grassland. Analysis of pollen from soil in the vessels shows they were packed in a place with areas of disturbed vegetation, such as beside ditches, roads, paths or rivers, and confirms that the pit was dug in late summer, probably within an arable field. Radiocarbon dating of plant remains puts the year much less precisely at around AD450 give or take.
• Digital versions of the magazine are correct, but in the printed magazine, we got the Centaurea quantities wrong: the correct figures are 23 flower heads, of which one is identifiable as common knapweed.
The new British Archaeology has three great exclusives. I’ve already written briefly about two of them: new discoveries at Stonehenge, and some Roman pans buried with flowers which were preserved by the corroding bronze. Here’s the third. Last year I went to Bristol to talk to Peter Lord, co-founder of Aardman. We talked about archaeology, imaginary worlds and Aardman’s next film, Early Man.
We have every reason, on Aardman’s and director Nick Park’s track records, to expect this movie to be immensely popular. There aren’t enough archaeologists in the world to make a statistically significant difference to the audience, even if every one of them went to see it (or indeed if they all boycotted it). But I think most archaeologists will love it. A sort of ancient Britain with echoes of One Million Years BC, the Beano and Ealing comedy, Early Man will at last offer the chance for them to get enthusiastic about a film that doesn’t feature Indiana Jones. Peter Lord was a lovely host, chatting away while he modelled a clay figure.
The magazine also feature five major excavations, from the Calanais megaliths on the Isle of Lewis, to a Roman town in Norfolk with an unusual story, and early medieval natives, immigrants and changing times in north-east Scotland – Portmahomack.
I particularly enjoyed working with Alison Jane Hoare on her article about the Victorian/Edwardian archaeologist Harold St George Gray. He’s familiar to a handful of archaeologists for his work with General Pitt Rivers, and later his own excavations of neolithic sites. But he really deserves to be more widely known, and as the feature shows, there is an interesting life (with a personal tragedy) we hear little about – and there remains a story to be told. He was an extraordinary photographer, as I discovered when I arrived as curator of Avebury Museum in 1979, only a little after the National Trust had brought it Gray’s archaeological archive on a stone circles project. With the help of the National Trust and staff in Avebury Museum, I put together a portfolio of some of his photos for the magazine, most of them never published before.
With all the usual stuff, including photographer Mick Sharp’s new column and the annual Requiem feature, there’s a lot to read in the first British Archaeology of 2017.
Here’s another great story from the new British Archaeology, which went live online today (February 8). Conservation of a hoard of late Roman bronze pots and pans found near Pewsey, Wiltshire, has revealed they were packed with plants, among which were bracken and knapweed flowers.
Eight mostly plain vessels had been carefully nested inside each other. There’s a bit of tinning on some of them, so I coloured the diagram silver rather than a reddish bronze.
The plants gave a rare radiocarbon date for a hoard, of AD380–550, placing its burial most probably in post-Roman (after AD410) or Anglo-Saxon times. It may be contemporary with a nearby early Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Blacknall Field.
Three men and a woman with metal detectors made the discovery in late 2014 (Tony Millett writing in Marlborough Online – nearly opposite me across our little street! – identifies the detectorists as “Mick Rae, Rob Abbott and their friend Dave”, and credits photos to Marina Rae).
In an example of how the Treasure Act can have some odd results, the hoard is not legally treasure (which it would have been if prehistoric, or if Roman, of precious metal). Were it treasure, the pans would be independently valued and museums would have the chance to raise money to buy them from the finders. The finders have kept the vessels, but have given the fragile organic remains to the Wiltshire Museum: they are on display there now. What will happen to the pans is entirely in the hands of their new owners.
More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.
The 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.
Cremated 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.
Five 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).
Hitherto, 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.
Other discoveries include the remains of two men, one buried shorty after the other around 1450–1300BC, at the bottom of a ditch just south of Stonehenge. The ditch is part of a network of boundary earthworks that divided up the land around Stonehenge, apparently for the first time, in the middle bronze age. It runs north-south more or less at right angles to the A303, showing that in the bronze age at least, that east-west route did not exist. The road was created by the Amesbury Turnpike Trust about 250 years ago.
More details in British Archaeology. The digital magazine can be viewed now. Council for British Archaeology members and subscribers will be receiving their magazine in the post, and it will be in the shops on Friday.
All pictures Historic England (I’ve simplified the map a little). The painting is copyright Judith Dobie.
The 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’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!
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.
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!
On 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.
The 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.
It’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).