thinking about archaeology

Posts tagged “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.



Steve Thompson


neolithic ditches



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!

A new British Archaeology – and another 151 editions

British Archaeology 152 lo res.jpg

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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Shameless plug for new British Archaeology!

I’m really proud of the new edition, it’s a classic example of our best and most popular archaeology magazine. It leads with an exclusive feature about British mummies. Tom Booth and colleagues tell the story of how they came to realise that mummification was a common way to dispose of the dead in bronze age Britain.

We hear about an Egyptian mummy, too – or at least the possibility that Nefertiti’s remains lie at the back of Tutankhamun’s tomb – told by the man who thinks she’s there, and who has just obtained permission from the authorities to electronically scan the tomb.

Back in England, Northampton Council sold a remarkable Egyptian statue – we review the controversy and reveal the man who is thought to have brought Sekhemka to England in the 19th century.

We have an important interview with Duncan Wilson, Historic England’s first chief executive.

With excavations, reviews, news (heard the story about the new stone row near Stonehenge? We reveal it’s even bigger than you thought) and much more, this is a showcase for what’s happening and what matters in archaeology today.

Here come the Celts!

The cover of the new British Archaeology features a small part of one of the most extraordinary prehistoric treasures from Europe, still in the ground in Norfolk during excavation in the early 1990s. Inside, we hear about new forensic work conducted on the gold and silver jewellery from Snettisham, Norfolk. The Celtic theme looks forward to a major exhibition featuring Celtic arts opening in London in September and in Edinburgh next year.

The picture above (The Riders of the Sidhe) is by John Duncan (1866–1945), a populist Celtic Revival artist with echoes of Richard Dadd (apparently he could hearing fairy music when he painted). He was born in Dundee; the painting will be loaned to the exhibitions from Dundee’s Art Galleries and Museums.

Some archaeologists will no doubt carp about the use of the word “Celt” in the British Museum’s “Celts: art and identity”, which moves to the National Museum of Scotland next March under the simple title of “Celts”. I’m looking forward to seeing the show, and will write about my impressions here (it opens on September 25). In the meantime, the first of three features in the new magazine offers an early insight: four of the people behind the exhibitions introduce their controversial idea of what Celtic arts mean. I think we may be leaving behind the old debates about whether or not there ever were such people as Celts, and taking a wider, more interesting view of the world. A good thing too. Continuing the new Celts theme, a third feature considers fine metal artefacts that were taken home from the British Isles by Norwegian Vikings.

It’s not all Celts, of course. Among other things British Archaeology celebrates the 200th anniversary of a guidebook to one of the country’s best preserved Roman villas – Bignor – and an Anglo-Saxon village – West Stow – that has been brought back to life.

The CITiZAN project (they insisted I write it like that) hopes to save coastal heritage around England with a new form of rescue archaeology. In the south, the former English Heritage funded two projects that showed well preserved mesolithic sites are not as rare as archaeologists had assumed.

We hear about salmon fishing on the Dee – thousand of years ago, when the Cairngorms were covered in permanent snow fields. In Wiltshire archaeologists are back at the Marden henge, and an unusual Roman farmstead seems to have stopped a major commercial development – while Historic England excavates another Roman farmstead elsewhere in the county.

With the usual news, reviews and comment, and reports from the Council for British Archaeology – and an interview with artist Dexter Dalwood, currently showing in Tate Britain’s exhibition about history painting – this is an outstanding issue that reflects the variety of archaeology in modern Britain.

Ai Weiwei: Bringing Human Remains to London

Ai Weiwei Remains 2015Something controversial is going to kick off, and not for the first time it involves the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. Ai creates the most beautiful things. He is a highly literate artist, a political artist, a lover of craft and an archaeological artist. His works are at once quiet and modest, and noisily ambitious – there really seems to be nothing that he might not attempt, or imagine. Many people focus on his politics, which are indeed unavoidable. Ai Weiwei’s father, a celebrated poet called Ai Qing, was sent to a labour camp in the late 1950s with his one-year-old son. Ai Weiwei’s passport was confiscated in 2011; he constantly taunts the Chinese authorities, who watch his every move, and he speaks, writes and blogs about the injustices of his country. Yet politics do not define his art, which is complex, varied and rich with meanings and references. Eventually, what remains is the beauty, an embodiment of human spirit.

The Royal Academy is bringing Ai Weiwei to London, with what it calls a landmark exhibition, opening on September 19. There will be familiar and new works, small and very large, and things we have not yet been allowed to know about. Will he come himself? No one knows, but the RA has not rigidly denied the possibility. It’s very exciting.

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds. Photo: Tate

Ai Weiwei, Sunflower Seeds (2011). Photo: Tate

There is a particular work which caught my attention at the RA press briefing on June 15, where we were showed some photos (Human Remains/2015, photo at top by Ai Weiwei). Before saying more I’m going to illustrate a few other things to put it into context.

Ai Weiwei was in London in 2010 to launch his best known project here, the hand-painted porcelain Sunflower Seeds that covered the floor of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern. They were there into 2011, when other works could be seen across the city. Painted pots, marble doors and security cameras, perfectly made wooden boxes and more could be seen at the Lisson Gallery’s two Bell Street sites, and menacing bronze animal heads ringed the courtyard of Somerset House. Last year Blenheim Palace hosted a major display with a more domestic, intimate feel, which was also humorously subversive. Here are some of my photos. doors 2 doors 3 doorsCarving organic objects out of stone is a common Ai trick. This (above) is Monumental Junkyard (2007) in the Lisson courtyard. Also exhibited by Lisson is Moon Chest (2008, below), lovingly made from huanghuali, a precious tropical wood whose value in China has caused antique huali furniture to fetch prices akin to impressionist paintings (well, nearly so). The openings in Moon Chest are said to recreate the phases of a lunar eclipse.boxes boxes 2This is Bubble (2008), on the grass outside Blenheim Palace. Uncannily perfect porcelain domes reflect their surroundings. They were made in workshops which Ai has described as embodying a peak of craft and art, and that used to supply the imperial court. BubbleHere, on the bed where Winton Churchill is said to have been born, is a pair of giant huali-wood Handcuffs (2012). On the wall behind is Hanging Man in Porcelain (2009), a bent coat hanger framed in huali. Ai Weiwei at Blenheim PalaceBehind an ostentatiously laid table in Blenheim Palace (below) stands a row of gold-plated heads, like waiters ready to meet diners’ every last demand. They represent bronzes pillaged from an 18th century imperial palace, in an episode that has Elgin-marble-like resonances in China. The palace was wrecked by British and French troops in 1850, and the garden fountain heads taken away; seven of the original 12 survive. Ai recreated an entire set in 2010, from which six large editions were cast in bronze, and six smaller editions were gold plated. In February one of the latter sold for £2.8m. tableThis is part of the larger version of Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (2010), at Somerset House. Ai Weiwei at Somerset HouseAi both works with traditional materials and techniques, and appropriates old artefacts, engaging head on with the place of the past in the present like no other artist. To be more specific, he smashes and paints ancient pots, and carves up antique furniture. Below is Coloured Vases (2010, in the Lisson Gallery), pots said to be neolithic that he has smothered in bright industrial paint. potsIn Blenheim Palace, Slanted Table (1997) was a Qing dynasty table – with its legs sawn off. Below is a series of three carefully shot stills in which Ai drops a Han urn.

Ai Weiwei Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn 1995

Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995). Photos: Ai Weiwei

This how it looks on Google images: Ai drops a pot We all know that in the west, Ai could not get away with this. Of course it upsets many archaeologists (not least Paul Barford, who wrote that he “would like to see [Ai] arrested if that’s the only way he can be prevented from wantonly damaging ancient artefacts as a means of drawing draw [sic] attention to himself”, a statement we can diplomatically call controversial).

It confuses almost everyone. Ancient pots are already valuable, say curators and collectors. Why damage them? Then again, the Ai brush appears to remove antiquities from the grasps of the UNESCO Convention about illicit trade in cultural property, by turning what might be illegally excavated objects into contemporary art. Confusion is compounded by the possibility that the pots may not always be old, but sometimes (depending on your perspective) fakes or ingenious copies. Ai himself has spoken in general of the need to understand old technologies and crafts to create perfect imitations of traditional appearances. Confusion ate itself when an artist strode into a gallery in Miami and smashed a Han vase (or so it was said) that Ai had dipped in acrylic paint.

It might be easier, perhaps, if Ai explained what he is doing. Is he celebrating old crafts, or modern? Does an appropriated ancient funeral vase represent a historic injustice, a suppressed modern citizen, or misguided state manipulation of history – or even an incompetent state archaeological service? But offering simple explanations is not Ai’s way. The works themselves defy such an approach.

Their impact, however, as I wrote in British Archaeology (Jan/Feb 2015/140) is strong. We are at once shocked and elevated by beauty and desecration. Like a manic museum curator, Ai does things with historic artefacts we have been brought up, with good reason, to think sacrilegious. With the continuing destruction at world heritage sites by IS in Syria and Iraq, Ai’s threatening play with antiquities has a new resonance. “They never really care about culture,” Ai has said, “this is the nature of a communist, to destroy the old world to rebuild a newer one”.

Expect Coloured Vases (2015) at the Royal Academy. We have also been promised this:

Ai Weiwei C Straight 2008-12

Straight (2008–12). Photo: Ai Weiwei

Straight (2008–12) is a monument to victims of a 2008 earthquake in Sichuan. It is made from the mangled reinforcing bars Ai collected from the rubble of poorly built concrete schools. Apparently 90 tons-worth of the complete 150-ton work will be installed in Burlington House. Typically, there is a strong political statement here, where illicitly removed objects have been used to highlight bureaucratic graft and incompetence which the state had attempted to conceal. In the hands of a merely good artist the use of symbolically laden stuff can look lazy and too literal – we expect writers to lecture us, not sculptors. But in Straight, Ai seems to have created a stunningly moving and beautiful memorial that speaks beyond its immediate origins – shaming the RAF Bomber Command memorial recently installed down the road from the RA.

Which brings me, finally, to Remains (2015). I know this only from the RA-supplied photo at the top of this blog. It apparently consists of a loose collection of human bones, replicated at life size in porcelain. It has all the typical Ai ingredients: politics, controversy, fine craftsmanship and beauty. I suspect when it is revealed in September (it is a new work), the most talked about of those will be controversy.

The original remains, says the RA, were brought to Ai by people who thought he might like to use them in his art – I’m told he is regularly given things in this way. To quote the press information, the result “replicates in meticulous detail a group of bones that were recently excavated at a site of a labour camp that operated under Chairman Mao in the 1950s.” “The clandestine archaeological excavation,” continues the statement, uncovered “the remains of an unknown intellectual who perished under similar circumstances [to those in which Ai’s father was ‘re-educated’] in a labour camp.” I was told by Adrian Locke, who has co-curated the show with Tim Marlow, that the diggers found the bones before they were forced to move on from an incomplete exploration.

There’s enough in this work to stimulate a long article on its own. Archaeologists will immediately think of the intense, continuing debates about the complex ethics of variously excavating, storing, studying, reburying and returning ancient and historic human remains. These debates were brought to a public, rather narrow and sometimes comical head here, after the excavation of Richard III’s grave (see for instance Does handling of Richard III’s bones raise serious questions? and Richard III in court). They infuse all of archaeology, however, and concern us all. In Remains, Ai might have created something that both speaks for the debates, and in its beauty achieves a greater embodiment of intimate tragedy and universal humanity.

Archaeologists will also think, what actually are those bones? Unlike most art critics, I suspect, I know someone who could tell me, so I asked. Jackie McKinley (who works for Wessex Archaeology) first examined some bones for me in the late 90s, after I had found a “lost” collection of human skeletons in a basement room of the London Natural History Museum. Among the remains were those of a man excavated at Stonehenge in the 1920s. Jackie ascertained that he had been beheaded with a sword, and radiocarbon dating determined he had been Anglo-Saxon.

The bones in Remains, says Jackie, are indeed human. Or most of them: two of the smaller pieces turned out to be animal. Such is the precision of the porcelain copies, Jackie McKinley was able to identify not just their humanity, but what parts of the body they represent – and in one case, a stab at the age and sex of the individual. I’ve written her identifications onto the image below.

Remains 2015 (c) Ai WeiweiSo overall the collection could have come from a single grave. If it did, that grave seems to have been dug for an adult man. Does that fit the belief of the excavators? I don’t know. I am confident, however, that the work will be one hard to forget once seen. pots 3pots 2

New magazine

Cover with Spine

The new British Archaeology is now online and will be in the shops tomorrow. With Scotland’s year-long celebration Dig It! 2015 and the nationwide 25th Festival of Archaeology in July, there’s a lot happening in archaeology this summer. The festivities launch the features for this edition.

In Scotland we excavate a prehistoric ritual monument and re-invent a school garden, and in another project we return to a hoard of Pictish silver, found nearly two centuries ago, and discover over 100 new pieces. In the south we consider how the excavation of an entire Anglo-Saxon cemetery has brought unique insights into the international contacts of fifth century Britain and the origins of England. Some fine Egyptian antiquities have been found in Wigan, a historic salt works has been saved in Cheshire and a stone circle discovered on Dartmoor. With inside reports on what’s been in the news, TV and book reviews, letters and more, this magazine has all you need to keep up with the exciting world of archaeology in Britain.

Here are the opening spreads of three features, starting with Adrian Wood’s spectacular shot of Eggardon Camp in Dorset, the best argument I’ve seen for using drones for simple archaeological photography (see more at But as you’ll see in the feature, drones have more than this to offer.



ARTICLEAnd here are the news headlines:


Never write off heritage

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Second century AD Graeco-Roman temple at Hosn Niha, unchanged since first recorded in the early 19th century. Walls stand to a height of 10m. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Graeco-Roman settlement at Hosn Niha showing extensive damage from bulldozing and other illegal excavation activities. Photo University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Ancient sites really are being bulldozed in western Asia, as these shocking images show. Yet as archaeologists know, there is always much more to a landscape than what stands up on it or is visible on the surface. In a new Antiquity paper, Paul Newson and Ruth Young have looked at a severely damaged site in Lebanon and concluded there is still much there of value. Below I have simply reproduced their university press release.

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut

Map of Hosn Niha showing settlement size and areas affected by conflict era activities and recent development. University of Leicester/American University of Beirut



Researchers say it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict

  • Archaeologists from American University of Beirut and University of Leicester describe value of researching conflict-ravaged sites
  • They are investigating Graeco-Roman temple in Lebanon
  • They say sites previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation

An international archaeological team is investigating an historic site devastated by conflict in Lebanon.

They have demonstrated it is possible to obtain original and important information from heritage sites that have been devastated by conflict.

Working at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha, high in the central Biqa’ Valley of Lebanon, the team led by Dr Paul Newson (Department of History and Archaeology, American University of Beirut) and Dr Ruth Young (School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester) have described the value of exploring conflict damaged sites in the leading archaeological journal Antiquity.

Dr Newson said: “Shocking recent footage showing apparent damage to world heritage and archaeological sites at Hatra and Nimrud in Iraq include scenes of the bulldozing of irreplaceable buildings.  Aerial photographs of living ancient cities such as Homs and Aleppo in Syria taken before the war have been compared to images from the last few months, and the extent of damage to houses, mosques, and heritage structures is brutal and widespread.

“Of course the human cost in any conflict is the first and highest priority; however, archaeology and heritage are extremely vulnerable to attack and damage during conflict and conflict continues to inflict damage on numerous sites, both large and small, around the world today.“

Dr Young added: “Rather than simply ignoring sites that have been badly damaged by conflict, we have taken on the challenge of investigating a site previously considered too badly damaged by conflict to warrant systematic archaeological investigation.

“Our research at the Graeco-Roman temple and village site of Hosn Niha in Lebanon has shown that with the right methods and questions, it is possible to obtain a great deal of original and important information from sites that have suffered badly through conflict.

“Using a range of up-to-date surface survey methods we were able to answer some important questions about the site.  The first of these was an accurate assessment of site damage, what had been done and where, and the effects of various actions, be it bulldozing or clandestine looting of the site.  Through this exercise, we learned that bulldozing and other damage actions had effectively erased the heart of the settlement, but significantly sized sections of settlement beyond remained quite well preserved. From recording and collecting surface finds from across the settlement area as a whole we were able to begin to understand both the morphology and development history of the settlement.”

The authors suggest the settlement was firmly established by the 1st century CE with a dense core area and more dispersed courtyard dwellings on the periphery.  By the early Islamic period the settlement appears less robust and permanent occupation may have ended for a time.  Surprisingly, they also recovered some evidence for an early medieval re-occupation of the site, perhaps a fortified farmhouse.  They acknowledge the initial results are preliminary and that more research and analysis of the results is on-going.

Hosn Niha, along with many other sites in Lebanon was severely damaged as a consequence of decades of civil war and the associated unruliness and accelerated looting that went with this.

The authors state: “Sites that have been badly damaged by various causes may be disregarded by professionals who consider that their archaeological or heritage potential has been too badly affected to warrant any investigation.  Instead, as demonstrated by the Hosn Niha project, the opposite should become automatic: archaeologists should view conflict-damaged sites as opportunities to gain information and explore sites and regions with new agendas.

“Conflict is impacting the lives of many millions of people, and the archaeology and heritage of many nations.  All conflict-damaged archaeology and heritage can play a vital role as resources to help re-build damaged communities and offer hope of employment and reintegration to those impacted by war.  Being able to offer ways of thinking of how to deal with damaged sites, gain as much information from them, and consider them a valuable resource rather than an inevitable casualty of war is critical to moving forward, and regaining control over land and identity.”

The Central Biqa’ Archaeological Project is based at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon (AUB).  The project has been supported by the Department of Antiquities, Lebanon and the University of Leicester, and is funded by the American University of Beirut through its University Research Board (URB).

Talking archaeology

Warning – this is not a blog. It is a 5,000-word article I wrote early in 2012 in response to a request for a proposed book. Two years later the world of communications continues to move on rapidly. My hope remains that someone will find the article useful, so pending publication of the book, here is my draft.

The article considers how specialists – archaeologists, though I believe the principles apply across academic disciplines – might better reach an interested public with the fruits of their discoveries and ideas. Its conclusion is a call to “recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past.” The book is to be published in Britain, so the material and examples I quote are British; and because I am mostly a writer, the article is mostly about writing.

Communicating archaeology: the message, not the medium

Rescuing our past

On my desk are two sources in which professional archaeologists spoke to a wide public. One is a fading press cutting over 40 years old. The other is a radio programme broadcast in Australia during the week in which I am writing, available as audio on demand and as a downloadable transcript.

On August 22 1971 (seven months after the launch of RESCUE, a campaigning British archaeological body that achieved much in the 1970s to raise public awareness of archaeological losses in the course of development) the Observer published a full-page article written by two archaeologists (Barker and Fowler 1971). It is confident, strident and packed with information. We are told, for example, that “Between AD 1500 and 1950 about 300 [deserted medieval villages] were destroyed… between 1950 and 1970, 300 more were destroyed, and they are now disappearing at the rate of 20 to 30 a year.” The piece ended with what was effectively an advert to attract new paying members of RESCUE.

Forty years ago, archaeology in Britain was a smaller world than it is today, and the distinction between professional and public less complex. Barker and Fowler were younger – and angry – archaeologists taking an unusual approach (a polemic in an upmarket Sunday newspaper), but they had grown up with the idea that leading archaeologists made it their job to tell the public about what they were doing.

The BBC were soon to broadcast two films featuring Mortimer Wheeler looking back on his life (Hawkes 1982, 366), accompanied by a double-spread feature in the Radio Times (Campbell 1973). Wheeler remains one of the greatest communicators archaeology has ever seen, but other key 20th century archaeologists who had written popular books, given radio talks and appeared in television programmes were alive and active in 1971.

Stuart Piggott – described by Richard Bradley as one of British archaeology’s “three wise men”, who “more than anyone else… laid the foundations for the study of British prehistory and… taught most of the senior figures in the discipline today” (Bradley 1996) – was 61. As well as his distinguished academic publications, Piggott had written several trade books. Importantly, he expected these books to be read by both archaeologists and “the general non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1965, vii). In the preface to Prehistoric India he noted that “Much of the material presented in this book is either new and hitherto unpublished or is a synthesis made for the first time… But despite [the inevitable technical detail] it is hoped that a coherent story… has been presented to the non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1950, 9). This book was a Penguin paperback priced at three shillings, around £5 in today’s terms.

Grahame Clark was 64 in August 1971. He wrote Prehistoric Societies with Piggott, a book favourably reviewed in the Economist and the Sunday Times (Clark and Piggott 1965). The Manchester Guardian described his Prehistoric England (Clark 1940, reissued in several editions) as “an excellent and detailed introduction to a fascinating subject for the non-expert reader”; for the Illustrated London News Clark treated “an essentially learned subject in a… readable and attractive manner”. Like Piggott, Clark valued public knowledge: “If we are ever to recover the story of a common past, it can only be through the pressure of an informed public opinion” (Clark 1939, vii).

Glyn Daniel, author of The Megalith Builders of Western Europe (“Unusually clear and sensible”, Observer) and the travel guide The Hungry Archaeologist in France (Daniel 1958 and 1963), as well as detective novels (eg Daniel 1954), was 57. In A Picture Book of Ancient British Art (Piggott and Daniel 1951, vii) we see a familiar refrain: “Our aim has been twofold”, that is, to appeal to both “the serious student” and “the general reader”.

Piecing together the past

Perhaps the greatest writer of popular but learned archaeology books had been Gordon Childe. Had he not committed suicide in 1957, he might still have been alive in 1971 – he would have been 79, a year younger than Wheeler. He wrote few books exclusively for archaeologists, but his many trade books (eg Childe 1936, 1942) were influential within the profession as much as at the railway station bookshop – as Miles Burkitt said in his Nature review of What Happened in History, Childe wrote to “stimulate thought” (quoted on the 1957 Penguin edition). His little Story of Tools (1944) was one of very few archaeological publications that Childe might not have expected archaeologists to bother with.

Childe’s contribution to the Young Communist League’s vision for “spreading deeper knowledge of the development and achievements of human society” (1944)

Childe’s contribution to the Young Communist League’s vision for “spreading deeper knowledge of the development and achievements of human society” (1944)

These men were some of the great thinkers in British archaeology, excavators of internationally significant sites (Maiden Castle, Stonehenge, Star Carr, Skara Brae) and responsible for texts that defined the profession and its subject matter (eg Wheeler 1954, Piggott 1954, Clark 1952, Daniel 1950, Childe 1957). And they appeared on TV: Wheeler and Daniel were the key figures on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, the BBC’s most successful game and chat show in the mid 50s, which also featured Piggott, and even Childe (Hawkes 1982, 298–301; Lavell 1981, 119).

We are given a very different picture today by Rachael Kohn, in conversation with Karin Sowada who is an Egyptologist and specialist in Biblical archaeology. The programme was made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National (Kohn 2012), but the insights are universal. In 1971 the media were a limited range of opportunities for archaeologists to tell the world what they wanted it to think about what they were doing. In 2012 the ever-changing and ballooning mix of print, video and audio, and online blogs and gossip, intimidates archaeologists. If they had some control over presentation in 1971, in 2012, it would seem, they have almost none.

Sowada notes that the proliferation of TV broadcasters – she names the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel – has created an unprecedented demand for media content. “They need to fill their airtime”, she says, leading to “manufactured discoveries”. These might be fabricated stories, or finds that were “made some years ago but are being reinterpreted through new eyes by non-scholars who see an opportunity to make a name for themselves, sell a book, generate an exhibition, whatever”. Such discoveries need to be told at a pace, and if university archaeologists are involved, they will be encouraged “to get media attention, … to bring in money [and] perhaps partnerships with TV stations”.

But scholarship takes time, proceeding through slow research and peer-reviewed publication. “Academics”, says Sowada, “are under enormous pressure with teaching loads, research loads, their university key performance indicators are based on research output in scholarly journals and books. … The TV documentary is … an additional burden on the already overworked academics … they find it very challenging.”

Despite this, Sowada wants archaeologists to be seen more. “The one-hour television documentary is the gold standard for how people receive their information. So whether an academic likes it or not, they need to … engage much more vigorously with the media with their own discoveries … taxpayers absolutely have a right to know where their money is going and to hear the results of those expenditures.”

So should archaeologists try harder? Should they seek a return to values of the gentler media world of the 1970s and before? Or should they be doing something altogether different? And regardless of what they aim for, how can they improve the hope of achieving it?

The art of writing

Words lie behind any communications designed to inform, whether they are written, spoken or hidden in the equivalent of stage directions that steer and shape a presentation. How words are used is important. Here are a few points that have struck me as a part-time journalist and broadcaster, and editor of British Archaeology.

Bad writing distracts

Bad grammar, bad spelling and misplaced style hinder communication. It has become common online to flaunt lazy writing. But an archaeological blog replete with typos, unfinished sentences and grammatical errors fails. It fails because if it has something to say, that message will be obscured; and it fails because the sort of educated, busy reader the archaeologist might seek to reach will not read past the first sentence.

The same principles apply to print. Here are some real archaeological examples, from published and unpublished texts, starting with spelling – the message here, is read your text and do not rely on your spell checker.

“A decisive navel battle was fought near Actium.”

“A line of post-medieval tits was recorded during the excavation.”

“Rabbis have been a feature of the English countryside since Norman times.”

And finally, an old favourite:

“Developers must put the evaluation in the pubic domain.”

There has been much said about the issue of unattached participles or gerunds, often to the effect that we should no longer worry about it. Only those who do not care to be understood should take that line. The alert reader will be distracted; the lazy will not be following you anyway.

“Walking through the picturesque graveyard of Llandadarn Fawr, the urn carved on an 1843 gravestone would make any archaeologist stop and look twice.” (It would indeed, though it was probably the archaeologist, not the urn, that walked.)

“Proposed for demolition twice, the casework panel felt that the building contributed to the conservation area.” (At least at that point, the panel was still standing.)

“Before making the 105 mile journey back to the fort, English Heritage appointed a team of skilled experts … to conserve the 1,800 year old stonework.” (Despite their logo, English Heritage has never lived in a fort.)

Academics like florid metaphors. The Sun likes it straight. There is perhaps a happy medium, but if you must use metaphors, read what you have written carefully, or you will end up with this:

“It is now established that the framework of the medieval countryside crystallised over the final centuries of the first millennium AD when a united England was forged from a patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.”

In the real world, “frameworks” do not “crystallise”, and a “patchwork” is sewn, not forged. Rather than a vivid image of early medieval England, this sentence raises confused memories of school chemistry. Or again, an example that is just weird:

“… drama-led formats, in which the goalposts shift towards entertainment.”

Careful reading can reveal more subtle problems. These two examples are grammatically correct, but both give the reader an unintended, and distracting image:

“As I left to make my way to the airport my colleagues asked if I had my sick bag ready… [followed shortly by] … It’s amazing what you see from the air. Sites you think you know well throw up new surprises.”

“’Chronological and imaginative leaps’ become possible without, as *** puts it, a need for ‘a plethora of crappy reconstruction’. ‘With radio’, *** continues, ‘you can float ideas’.”

If people can not understand what you are saying, they will stop listening

 Most of us are aware that when we address people who have no special archaeological knowledge, we need to say what we mean when we use terms like liquid scintillation counting, Protruding Foot Beaker or terminus post quem. Nonetheless, it is worth saying that such terms really do need to be explained; and if we can omit the term and go straight to the explanation, so much the better.

What is harder to appreciate is that archaeologists habitually use many words they do not think of as jargon, many of them related to excavation, that a wider public would not understand correctly. Thanks to Time Team, “trench” and “geofizz” often need no introduction (though it is worth bearing in mind that for many, these words have specific Time Team-related connotations). But others such as “section”, “rob” (as in robber trench), “concentration” (a tight cluster of finds), “cut”, “parallel” (used to compare one artefact to another) and many more, may not feel like jargon, but in fact have very specific technical meanings, which are different from their everyday uses. So for example, if you are on video describing a trench section, you can get away with saying “this section” and a sweep of the arm. But without the picture, you should say what you mean by “section”, and as always with jargon, that very thought should encourage you to ask yourself if you need to use the word at all.

Clarity is power

Academics like long, convoluted sentences and obscure words. Much of the time this fondness for confusion hides confused thinking. This may be a useful service for the ambitious but less gifted archaeologist, but it repels the general reader seeking enlightenment. Obscurity can also result from unnecessary use of jargon. If you want people to read and understand your message, read it through and make it clear, or you will end up with sentences like these:

“It is often the material spreads themselves on such sites that provide snapshots for the temporality of the deposits.” (Spreads of debris can represent snapshots in time.)

“His burial post-dated the abandonment of the building.” (He was buried after the building was abandoned.)

“The new country that emerged was driven by a past master of repossessing lost pasts through a selective narratives process.” (The new country that emerged was driven by a master of historical reinvention.)

On the other hand, repetition of simple words and phrases can deaden the brain. More importantly, it may suggest to the careful writer that their text can be shortened by the removal of redundant passages – a better strategy than reaching for the thesaurus for alternative words. This was the case with an otherwise excellent text I edited (a feature on an urban excavation, of less than 2,000 words) in which the phrase “a series of” (as in “a series of large brick drains”) occurred six times, the word “room” 15 times, and “building” 40 times – including two appearances of the phrase “the building was rebuilt”.

The past was populated by real people

It is easy to get too close to your work, and to forget that the object of your research is not the excavation trench or the object in your lab, but the stories these can tell us about real people’s lives. The oversight can show:

“At least eight individuals, presumed to have been men, were buried with swords, spears and shield bosses.” (And presumably the real warriors had whole shields.)

“…evidence of flint working and the processing of animal remains.” (Next season we hope to find the site where they processed the animals.)

“The axehead has mineralised remains of the wooden shaft still attached to it.” (We might say “still” if the shaft had survived, but no mineralised remains were attached to the blade when it was in use as an axe.)

“The post-excavation analyses revealed… a group of post-holes dated to 1880–1640BC… which had been intentionally burnt down probably not long after construction.” (The writer presumably had in mind posts being burnt down, not pits.)

The world of archaeology is very small

What matters within the world of professional archaeology does not necessarily matter as much outside. Much of the criticism levelled by archaeologists at media coverage is of the form we might label the wrong offside law. In January 2012 a set of coins was launched to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. One of 29 sports commemorated was football, with a 50p piece that illustrated the offside law. Except, complained football referees, it got the law wrong – apparently a technicality introduced in 1995 had been misrepresented (Hills 2012). In similar fashion, the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers objected to artist Martin Creed’s 2012 Olympics project, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. “We think 8am is not the right time for ringing in very many towers”, said the council’s blog (Higgins 2011).

In these cases, projects designed to entertain also have the clear capacity to draw in new interest that could be encouraged by specialists. Yet they were dismissed by those with most to gain, for reasons that seem petty to the outside world. Some of the criticism aimed publicly by archaeologists at Time Team’s Big Dig or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, for example, is of this type (Kennedy 2003, Moshenska 2010).

Journalists are human beings

It is too easy and often wrong for archaeologists to blame what they do not like in the media on editors, journalists and presenters. If the latter are reporting an archaeological story, they are reliant on archaeologists to tell them what is important, right and wrong, and not to confuse them with minor irrelevances; they work under intense pressure. Clear use of words is never more critical than when you have a leading broadcaster on the phone for 30 seconds, seeking help. These comments are taken from JournAlert, an online daily newsletter for journalists.

“Well structured articles within 100 words of the word count and inside the deadline.” “A clear approach, decent grammar and honesty.” “Copy in on time and written to a professional standard.” (Answers to the question, “Name the most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out for you”. Note that these are not preferences; they are essentials.)

“If I can trust a contributor to deliver the goods and do so on time, I value them highly. If they don’t, I kill them.” (A warning from the editor of Tattoo Master.)

“I don’t like ‘time suckers’ on the phone. I don’t take many calls when I’m working, as this industry is all about deadlines and 15-hour days.” (In answer to, “Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas?”)

It may seem that an archaeologist seeking a wide audience for their excavation faces a dilemma: if editors are so busy, how do you reach them? The answer – simple to write, less so to execute – is to get to know the industry, and show it an archaeologist who can help. This takes commitment, and hard work. Somewhere along the line (it could be months, it could be years), if you get it right you will make the transformation from an archaeologist struggling to interest a news desk in a discovery, to a valued writer that editors will phone for help when they want to follow up a press release.

Quality media do not print press releases: they want to put their own spin on a story, and to be seen to be contributing. And if they have the resources to do so, they might do their own research and find another story altogether (most journalists are repelled by press offices’ attempts to spin a story to the benefit, say, of a university department). Editors have contact lists. If the list includes archaeologists who can write or speak intelligently, entertainingly and informatively when an archaeological story needs to be covered – and to length and on time, often within hours – everyone benefits. And if it does not, the absence is as much an archaeological failure as an editorial one.

As with any form of communication, writing and talking are not specifically archaeological skills. There are many publications that can help (to take but two that helped me, in earlier editions, Dick 2003 and Horstmann 1997). The three books I repeatedly use when writing are Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words (Gowers 1973), Robert Dutch’s edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (in the abridged Penguin version, Dutch 1966) and the Economist’s style guide (The Economist 2010). All are a pleasure to read, as well as to refer to.

Thinking big

The common thread in the above selective comments I would like to draw attention to, is the fault of being too close to your material. If an archaeologist writes or speaks about an invasion of pots or a woman buried with a belt buckle, uses language that obscures rather than explains, or appears obsessively concerned with issues that matter only to a few colleagues, they are unlikely to arouse interest in what they are saying. Importantly, they reveal a limited horizon, a particular danger in archaeology. The field attracts because of the grand, romantic and mysterious, but it deals mostly with the small, broken and tedious; and as Karin Sowada says, archaeology moves “at a glacial pace … it can take years to actually reach a conclusion” (Kohn 2012). Wheeler was right when he wrote, “Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows” (1954, v).

The media are in flux. New technologies and attitudes to information are shredding the simple and distinct trio of trusted brands in print, radio and television that we all remember. In such a world, it can be easy to think the key to better dissemination and communication is to understand new media. When behemoths like the BBC beseech us to use Twitter to tell them what we think, or when Facebook announces the acquisition of another 100 million users, it might seem that social networking is the essential route to spreading archaeological news.

There are undoubtedly important digital opportunities that archaeologists can take greater advantage of. If the time and effort put into lecturing and writing about archaeology and media as a topic instead went into creating pages on Wikipedia, a much enlarged new public resource would exist. The entry for “Excavation (archaeology)” has since 2007 been marked with the editorial comment, “This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve [it] …” It remains a wordy, worthy and arcane treatise with only one direct reference (an article by Lewis Binford published in 1978, that is not about excavation). Many organisations, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Institute for Archaeologists among them, have useful entries, as do finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard or famous sites like Stonehenge (despite its length, there remain significant omissions in this entry, and it will be interesting to see how it copes with the coming full publication of complex revisions to the monument’s phasing).

Many obvious candidates for Wikipedia entries, however, are substantially incomplete or missing. “Long barrow”, for example, has 650 words under the subheading “Long barrows in the United Kingdom”, followed by a short sentence under the other subheading, “Long barrows in Russia”. There is one cross reference, to a single barrow in Denmark. There is no mention of the internationally significant radiocarbon dating work by Alex Bayliss, Alasdair Whittle and colleagues (eg Bayliss and Whittle 2007), of any excavations or of the substantial evidence and research across the rest of Europe. There is a separate list of UK long barrows, which, as a Wikipedia editor has helpfully noted, is “incomplete”; only one barrow each in Wales and Scotland is described more fully, the entry for the latter giving no more than its length. The entry for “Round barrow” is significantly less informative and contains no references.

Given that many such entries are written by enthusiasts offering their time freely, the record for professional archaeologists is poor. Yet the opportunity to reach an enormous, international audience (and, for university teachers, their students) with no distribution costs, to hand the public the tools with which to write and enjoy history, is unparalleled. British archaeology is blessed with an uncountable number of organisations, from national to parochial, in one way or another concerned with fostering archaeological knowledge. It is time some of them got together, developed a strategy to exploit and add value to Wikipedia, and implemented it.

Other essential digital tools are the website and the blog. Blogs can be valuable as a running commentary on excavation or research (a good example being one that describes the conservation of two Roman altar stones from East Lothian: AOC 2012). Properly curated, a good blog is also an important and unprecedented type of historical record. Yet surprisingly few archaeological projects or archaeologists are represented by good blogs. For the professional archaeologist, a blog or website can be approached in the same spirit as an academic publication – care taken with grammar, style, facts and illustrations will repay itself. The chief difference between a journal article and a blog need be no more than reach, between a readership of a hundred or so and millions. As with Wikipedia, compared to traditional forms of publishing, blogs and websites are relatively cheap to produce, have an almost limitless audience and are ripe for well thought out strategies developed at a high level within the profession. All such digital communications can also be controlled, or largely so, by archaeologists: while they might look televisual on a screen, they are a world apart from traditional television.

Important digital opportunities, then. And at a more superficial level, tools like Twitter and Facebook can help promote projects, draw in readers and highlight campaigns. But the significant point here is that while these opportunities occur on the internet, what matters most is not the medium but the message. In an unpredictable and fast changing media world, one of the few true constants is the value of content. An article about long barrows on Wikipedia may reach a wide audience: but what makes it valuable, to the public and to the archaeological profession, is the quality of the writing and information.

Antiquity 1944

We might, then, think back to the world before 1971, when leading archaeologists were able to write well and entertainingly, and apparently commercially successfully, about broad issues such as the nature of archaeology or the sweep of ancient cultures across the world. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that most archaeologists then had the communication skills of Wheeler or Piggott, or sought to emulate them. Wheeler famously had many detractors (Lavell 1981, 118); Barry Cunliffe has told how his arrival at Oxford University in 1972 was greeted with the news that some senior university members did not consider archaeology a “serious subject”, because “some archaeologists had appeared on television” (Cunliffe 1982, 61).

Antiquity 1950

Antiquity, touted in 1927 by its founder-editor O G S Crawford as a popular journal, found only a small circulation, partly, in Kenneth Hudson’s words (1981, 103), because its editors have been “more anxious to gain the good opinion of scholars than of the general public”. Attempting to capitalise on the interest generated by Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? in the 1950s, the Council for British Archaeology failed to find “the writers who might have done it” (Lavell 1981, 120). The favourable book reviews in newspapers and literary journals such as those quoted earlier, look less impressive when it is noted that reviewers were often other archaeologists; even A Picture Book of Ancient British Art was published by a university press.

Peer-reviewed: A 1976 Pelican reprint of a 1965 book, with puffs from colleagues

Peer-reviewed: A 1976 Pelican reprint of a 1965 book, with puffs from colleagues

The rapid growth in the profession from the late 60s did not bring a proportionate rise in great communicators. When Jacquetta Hawkes defended the “humanistic values” of archaeology in 1968, she appeared reactionary to many – perhaps most – younger colleagues. Now, when we read of her horror of texts “so overburdened with unhelpful jargon, so grossly inflated in relation to the significance of the matters involved, that they might emanate from … an introverted group of specialists … [contributing] nothing that is enjoyable, generally interesting or of historical importance”, she looks far-sighted (Hawkes 1968, 256). The profession was turning inward and media coverage becoming more “highbrow” (Kulik 2007, 118–20); a decade later, “the professional archaeologist [was] moving in one direction, his public in the other” (Cunliffe 1982, 61). Today, archaeologists deem “popular writing” “simplistic”, and “resent” good story-telling by non-archaeologists, and the former are rarely taught literary skills (Clack and Brittain 2007, 28–29).

The ultimate way to engage a new and wider public, however, is not to seek to turn specialist academics, scientists, excavators and bureaucrats into prize-winning novelists. It is to recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past. It is to understand that extending archaeology’s reach does not only mean watering down what is important to archaeologists until it is consumable by the less knowledgeable, and castigating broadcasters as irresponsible if they fail to participate (Lavell 1981, 120).

This does not mean popularising archaeology, if that implies the presence of something more important that most people will have little interest in. It means doing it properly, encouraging and valuing in its own right what Childe, in particular, sought and achieved: the stimulation of thought.


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