thinking about archaeology

Posts tagged “british archaeology

Save the Palace!

They had probably the worst clients in history. Parliament needed a new home after the medieval Westminster Palace burnt down in 1834. Charles Barry got the job of designing and building it, and he brought in Augusts Pugin to help him. They created one of the greatest 19th-century buildings in the world, that now represents our nation and our democracy as a globally famous icon. But they had to fight to do it.

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

A Royal Commission oversaw the work. That wasn’t enough for the politicians. They couldn’t leave Barry alone. Throughout the project he was examined by committees, and publicly attacked by Lords and MPs. The House of Commons is a dark, claustrophobic place because MPs forced him into a design that valued acoustics over light and comfort: they wanted to be heard. The Treasury finally agreed to pay Barry an absurdly low fee nearly three years into construction. He was still working on the much delayed palace when he died. Only six out of 658 MPs subscribed to a memorial.

_MP26748.jpgWe have inherited one of the costs of political interference and grandstanding during the building of the Palace of Westminster: design and construction flaws. Stone crumbles, roofs leak. Failure to properly maintain the buildings over the past century has hugely compounded these problems. Parliament now faces a big decision. Does it want to abandon its history of mean-spirited, ego-driven, incompetent and meddling management, and save the palace by choosing the safest, cheapest and quickest way to do it? Or does it want put its personal convenience and profile first, spend billions of pounds more and take decades longer, while risking the safety of the buildings and everyone in them? You guess.

MWP_2917.jpgThe new edition of British Archaeology takes a detailed look at Westminster – the abbey, the palace (old and new) and the extraordinary, unparalleled richness of our spectacular world heritage site beside the river Thames. A variety of distinguished writers show how even late in the last century, the archaeology and heritage of this site had been disgracefully neglected. The abbey is catching up fast under its archaeologist, Warwick Rodwell (who contributes one of the features). Now it is parliament’s turn to do the right thing.

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_MP26831.jpgThe great Victorian Gothic fantasy known as the Palace of Westminster is home to our national government. Nestling among its spectacular corridors, halls and towers are the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Big Ben may be the most globally recognised symbol of stable democracy. The riverside location has witnessed political power, drama and history-making as far back as Edward the Confessor, before the Norman Conquest: all being well, many alive today will celebrate its continuous occupancy for 1,000 years.

_MP26867.jpgThis national icon, this glorious carnival of identity, tradition, free debate and peace, is in serious trouble. It may catch fire. It may become awash with sewage. The roofs leak, the walls are flaking, and any day the entire system of plumbing, heating, wiring, security and communications may collapse, without anyone knowing exactly why. This is the legacy of decades of underinvestment, as problems of safety, dilapidation and unsuitability ballooned under incompetent management lacking democratic accountability.

The good news is that parliament has faced up to the issue. It has commissioned thorough research, and been given a viable solution – a “restoration and renewal programme”. The bad news, but hardly a surprise, is that it will be very expensive. But unless we want to demolish the place and start again (also at enormous cost), restoration is not an option: it is a necessity. Sooner rather than later, if nothing is done, the buildings will become dangerous and dysfunctional far beyond the point when the problems can be ignored, and everyone will have to find somewhere else from which to run the country.

In March the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts reported on the restoration proposals. An independent study had come up with three plans:

Option One: this would cost £5.7 billion, and take 32 years.

Option Two: £3.9 billion, 11 years.

Option Three: £3.5 billion, six years.

_MP26853.jpgWhich would you choose? This is taxpayers’ money, to be spent on an absolutely central and living part of our heritage, and an internationally famous symbol of British identity and democracy.

It seems obvious. Who would not go for the cheapest and quickest solution – and, incidentally, the safest? Option one, the most expensive, would take so long that the whole place might self-destruct before the project was finished. It’s got to be done. We’d choose option three, six years’ work for £3.5 billion.

That is exactly what the Public Accounts committee decided. “Without hesitation,” it concluded, in case anyone wondered if it had any doubts, it recommended option three, and that work should start as soon as possible.

Theresa May has said parliament can vote on the plans. This would have happened by now, but for two incidents which underline the palace’s political and cultural power – the very reasons we should want to get on with restoration: a violent attack outside, and a debate inside on the letter which initiated our departure from the European Union. The vote will now occur after Lords and members of parliament return from the Easter recess in April.

This vote, surely, will support option three. Yet there is a strong movement against it. Several MPs, including the chair of the Commons Treasury Select Committee, Andrew Tyrie MP, have questioned the costs. Sir Edward Leigh MP wants the Lords and the Commons to continue to meet in the palace while repairs take place: in today’s Times (April 5), he claims “The majority opinion among MPs” is on his side. They want a programme that would be some sort of fudge between options one and two – with no details, no costings and little agreement among the objectors as to exactly what should be done, we might feel justified in calling this option zero, costing more and taking longer than anything on offer.

Why this madness? What the MPs do not like is that the most efficient and safest way to renew the palace – option three – includes having them all move into alternative premises while works proceed; this is known as decanting. The more they stay while works progress around them, the higher the bill and the longer it takes. Some argue that parliament would lose its eminent authority if it temporarily vacated the famous site. Others worry that once out, no one would let them back in again. Both are absurd propositions.

Most revealing, however, is the common argument that now is not the time to spend such large a sum as option one demands on “their” home – even though not decanting results in a far bigger bill. Contrary to what the objectors might seem to think, the architectural and historic glories of parliament are not just a benefit for sitting MPs. They belong to us all. To the world.

How would we be remembered? As the generation that brought back a blue passport? Or the one that, for just seven times the cost of changing the colour of a small document we try not to lose on holidays, saved the Palace of Westminster and made it safe and fit for modern, publicly engaged government?

• Writers for this feature include Steven Brindle, Tim Tatton-Brown, John Crook, Warwick Rodwell, David Harrison, Richard Simmons and a team from Historic England (Sandy Kidd, Paddy Elson & Patrick Booth), with comment from Colin Renfrew (Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn) and Tim Loughton MP.

British Archaeology is available in digital now, and in the shops on Friday. (All photos above are mine.)


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.


Paul Nash at Tate: archaeology and trauma

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Paul Nash with a megalith: photographed by Clare Neilson in the Forest of Dean in 1939, from an album in the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, and displayed in Tate

I went to see the Tate Gallery’s previous big show in London about Paul Nash in 1975, with my friend Diana Hale, then a student at Goldsmiths College, who died in November. Nash, along with an ever-growing club of artist and writers, stayed with me ever since. At first it was his landscapes. Working and living around Avebury, I’d see his tree clumps on the downs, his megaliths, and his collections of flints and wood. Later I could see more in his piles of logs than rustic scenes, and thanks to exhibitions such as (most recently) that at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2010, I imagined I could appreciate the variety in his work as a wholeness rather than a fragmented series of conflicting styles. In Tate at the new exhibition that’s there until March 15 (which naturally I thoroughly recommend), I thought back to a painting I’d seen there 40 years before.

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Imperial War Museum

It was one of three watercolours, with a dab of collage, painted in 1942 to illustrate the horror of a Nazi invasion of Britain. They have the general title Follow the Führer, and were rejected for propaganda use by the Ministry of Information, perhaps for their unmitigated darkness hovering on the edge of farce. They were in private hands in 1975, and are now in the Imperial War Museum’s collection, and owned by Tate (though none are in the current exhibition). Above the Clouds shows Hitler as a flying shark leading squadrons of fighters and bombers. I can’t find an illustration of Under the Waves, and I don’t remember it from 1975. The one that impressed me was Over the Snows. Here Hitler is a screaming face leading a surge of bleached, open-mouthed and broken skulls, across a landscape and straight at the viewer. It is deeply disturbing. In 1975 I found it hard to reconcile the image with the rural views hanging nearby.

There was always a lot of archaeology in Nash’s work, from megaliths and earthworks to his more general interest in things and landscapes. Archaeologists have written about this (such as Christopher Evans, see references at end). Sam Smiles especially, a writer and researcher into British art and visually-transmitted knowledge who teaches at Exeter University, has looked at Nash’s relationships with archaeologists and antiquity, and written a series of perceptive and well-informed articles.

Emma Chambers, who curated Tate’s show with Inga Fraser, kindly gave me a printed list of the works in Nash’s library, which is now in Tate’s archive. I was struck by the number of loosely archaeological items it contains. Nash had copies of Stukeley’s Abury, and Crawford and Keiller’s Wessex from the Air. He had four books by James Frazer. And more. But what most struck me was an offprint, signed and given to him by Stuart Piggott in 1938. The archaeologist had published the article three years before in the journal Antiquity; it is called “Stukeley, Avebury & the Druids.” Piggott owned a signed lithograph by Nash, an imaginary but realistic-looking view of the West Kennet Avenue, created for a series of educational posters for schools. It was hanging prominently in Piggott’s Berkshire cottage when he died in 1996. Nash had given it to him in 1938.

I like to imagine the two men exchanging gifts. We know from an entry in one of Keiller’s excavation diaries (thanks for this, Ros Cleal), that Keiller, Nash and Piggott were together in Avebury in June 1938, so it’s quite possible. Although he wrote little about it publicly, Piggott had close relationships with several artists of his day. Was Nash among them?

With the evidence we have, it may be impossible to say, though some material remains to be fully examined (not least the wonderful Stuart Piggott archive at the Institute of Archaeology in Oxford, where I was privileged to have a peak yesterday; Nash does not appear in their catalogue). But I do think we can see more archaeology in Nash’s work than most of us realised.

I’ve written about this in the new British Archaeology. I argue there that Nash was profoundly affected by his experience in the trenches of the first world war. He was a war artist in a greater sense than that he painted both wars. His mature life’s entire work, I think, was partly a response to war, an expression of the personal impact of its eternal ugliness. He was an artist of trauma.

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(C) Tate 2016 (left), M Pitts (right)

What does that have to do with archaeology? In 2015 archaeologists Helen Wickstead and Martyn Barber argued convincingly that one of Nash’s key works – Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) – was inspired by Maud Cunnington’s painted concrete markers at the Sanctuary, Avebury (above). This was a revelation, for Nash himself left no clues to suggest it. Maybe it’s a fantasy (if the colours match now, did they in 1935?).

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Circle of the Monoliths (1937–38) © Tate 2016/Leeds Museums & Galleries

But once you start looking for hidden archaeological references, you keep finding them. The red of the round marker (in the paintings and in the grass today) appears in other works, including three significant oils in which megaliths stand on red discs. Now we can see, perhaps, that these stones are portrayed as rising out of the ground through red portals, as Nash might have imagined them at the Sanctuary – even “real” megaliths are “equivalents” for absent histories.

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(C) Tate 2016/Private collection

In another work, shown for the first time in the Tate exhibition, three objects are arranged in a tense still-life. The painting is actually named Encounter of Two Objects (1936–37). Those two are natural stones, but the unnoticed third is something else. It might be a miniature Silbury Hill, seen from above with a conical shadow as viewed in air photos that Crawford might have had, and illustrated by John Piper in an article published in Axis in 1937 (the spread below is taken from Alexandra Harris’s book, see references). But more likely I think is a very specific item of bronze age Wessex gold, a pointed button-cover from a grave at Upton Lovell in Wiltshire. Such Wessex artefacts were the focus of a substantial research project by Stuart Piggott in the 1930s. Is that coincidence?

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Axis 1937/Harris 2010

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Silbury from above (left), Upton Lovell gold (right)

I note more in the British Archaeology article, but a key work is that watercolour with the wave of skulls, I’m convinced it’s directly influenced by Nash’s visit to Mortimer Wheeler’s excavations at Maiden Castle.

Nash and Wheeler first met when they were studying at the Slade in London; Wheeler later claimed him “a treasured familiar”, though what Nash thought of Wheeler we can only guess. Both were at Passchendaele in October 1917, Nash drawing, Wheeler in charge of a Battery in “the definition of hell”.

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Burials at Maiden Castle photographed by Nash in 1935, (C) Tate 2016

At Maiden Castle, the archaeologist interpreted a cemetery of skeletons as the remains of native defenders slaughtered by an invading Roman army. Nash’s three watercolour collages, Follow the Führer, depict Hitler leading armies of death into England. In Over the Snows, the landscape backdrop fits that of Maiden Castle, and the white hollows in the foreground – shell craters, trenches – could be chalk as much as snow. The rolling blanket of fractured skulls surely derives from Nash’s photos and memories of the excavated burials.

Returned from the first world war, Nash found consolation for death in landscapes shaped by people long gone; the trees and fields of rural England, animated by antiquity, were a sign of nature’s power to survive devastation by humanity. (And note the success today of Operation Nightingale, which runs archaeological investigations with service personnel recovering from action with the British Armed Forces; see features in British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2011/122 and May/Jun 2014/136).

When war returned in 1939, so did Nash’s demons, shown graphically in the horror of Totes Meer (1940–41), the sea a swirling mass of wrecked warplanes. In his last few years, Nash found light and colour in the symbolism of solstice and eclipse (drawing on Frazer). But at Maiden Castle, Wheeler had exposed the dead that lie beneath the mud, as the shells had done at Passchendaele. For once, the ancient landscape had thrown up the figures which Eileen Agar, with whom Nash had a powerful affair, tells us were of no interest to him in his engagement with prehistory. They were not welcome.

REFERENCES

BA 152 Nash.jpgSee my “Paul Nash: Encounters with archaeology,” British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2016/152. All editions of British Archaeology can now be viewed digitally. I wrote about the concrete markers at Woodhenge, which have been better researched than those at the Sanctuary, last year (A vote in a Wiltshire field about drainpipes).

Sam Smiles: “Ancient country: Nash & prehistory,” in Paul Nash: Modern Artist, Ancient Landscape, ed Jemima Montagu (2003). “Thomas Guest & Paul Nash in Wiltshire: two episodes in the artistic approach to British antiquity,” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology & the Image (ed Sam Smiles & Stephanie Moser, 2004). “Imagining the past: archaeological & artistic perspectives,” in Written on Stone: The Cultural Reception of British Prehistoric Monuments, ed Joanne Parker (2009).

Alexandra Harris: Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists & the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (2010)

Christopher Evans: “Unearthing displacement: Surrealism & the ‘archaeology’ of Paul Nash,” in Substance, Memory, Display: Archaeology & Art, ed Colin Renfrew, Chris Gosden & Elizabeth DeMarrais (2004).

Helen Wickstead & Martyn Barber: “Concrete prehistories: the making of megalithic modernism,” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 2 (2015).

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The trauma of war. Trails (this morning in Wiltshire) turned to entrails (Battle of Britain 1941, Imperial War Museum):

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Imperial War Museum


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

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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).


Janet Hodgson

Hodgson stonehenge 156.jpgMore sad news. Tomorrow’s Guardian paper will carry Janet Hodgson’s obituary, online now. She will have been known to quite a few archaeologists, as among other things she worked at excavations, and some of her creations were explicitly archaeological: “Piltdown Bungalow” (1993) was an archaeological trench exposing the top of a house; “The Pits” (2005) features sand-blasted impressions of excavations in Canterbury; and “My passage through a rather brief unity in time” (2010) is a short film featuring Maud Cunnington behind the camera. The latter was one of the works she created at the Stonehenge Riverside excavations, to which Helen Wickstead invited several artists for Art+Archaeology.

Wickstead wrote about the Stonehenge project for British Archaeology. The work Hodgson did there included films that jumbled archaeological process and social life, using Harris matrices and GPS mapping. Her Cunnington film was screened at Touchstone, an exhibition about Art+Archaeology at Salisbury Museum in 2010. Her work played about with the confusing nature of time, and was witty, surreal and stimulating. “Temporal landmarks”, wrote Wickstead, “are simulated and relocated. Like her installations, Hodgson’s films generate the sensation of being lost in time.” She was only 56.

At top Hodgson films at an excavation beside the Cuckoo Stone, near Durrington Walls, in 2007

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Still from TimeNap: an archaeologist’s hands refit pieces of struck flint (Hodgson)

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A screen from a presentation by Wickstead, showing Hodgson interviewing archaeologist Julian Thomas

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From the catalogue to Touchstone (Salisbury Museum)

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The University of Kent has posted an obituary, with this photo of Hodgson as Cunnington at Stonehenge:

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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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Stonehenge: Not just a man thing

digging henge view (c) Mike Pitts.jpgPrehistoric Stonehenge is shown in reconstructions as a place where men shout at each other. We might catch a glimpse of a woman or two watching on the sidelines, but the important stuff was all being done by males.

We need to get the paints out. The largest analysis of human remains from Stonehenge ever conducted reveals that exactly half those buried there were women.

How has this come about? What does it mean?

DISCOVERY

The Stonehenge dead have long been with us. Ancient cremated human remains were first found there in 1920, and throughout major excavations that ran for a further five years. Yet until now, almost nothing was known about them. How many people were there? Were they typical of the wider population, or different? Male or female, young or old, fit or poorly, these individuals were anonymous, unstudied and unavailable for analysis.

The problem was that at the time the remains were dug up, no one knew what to do with them. Scientists thought they were useless. No museum wanted to store them. So in 1935, all the bones that had been kept – from at least 59 burials – were put back. Aubrey Hole 7, first excavated in 1920, was re-excavated, and the bones contained in four sandbags were poured in and covered up.

As a consequence, despite being the largest of its kind in the country – never mind that it was also at Stonehenge – the cemetery has been overlooked. It has played a bit part in histories and explanations of the monument.

RE-EXCAVATION

Aubrey Hole 7 WEV Young 1935.jpg

Wiltshire Museum

We knew the remains had been put into Aubrey Hole 7 because of two short records. William Young, then curator at Avebury Museum, recorded the event in his diary, now in the collection of Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. As I noted in the paperback edition of Hengeworld, 15 years ago I found a letter in the Public Record Office that showed the “surplus bones” were indeed the human cremations (and not, for example, animal bones).

 

“Mr Newall arrived with the surplus bones at half-past two. There were four ordinary sand bags full. These were placed at the bottom of the Aubrey Hole, together with a stout leaden plate, which bore an inscription recording at length all the circumstances which led to their being deposited here, and the date.

 “The hole was then filled in immediately while Nr Newall was present, then after I had re-laid the turf bordering, and had put a layer of fresh, white chalk in the centre, there were hardly any indications to show that it had ever been touched. !!!”

WEV Young Diary, 28 January 1935

Excavating Aubrey Hole 7 (c) Adam Stanford.jpg

The ring of Aubrey Holes excavated in the 1920s marked with red circles. Photo Adam Stanford

In 2008 Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards and I led a team to re-re-excavate Aubrey Hole 7 (you may have seen us at work in a TV film first broadcast in 2010), one of the last excavations by the Stonehenge Riverside Project

 

lead plaque (c) Mike Pitts.jpgWe found the pit. We found the lead plaque. And we found the bones – sadly not in little tins or boxes, or even in four bags, but a dense layer of mixed fragments (so it was impossible to distinguish individual burials). We also found, as an unexpected bonus, a new burial. Perched on the edge of the Aubrey Hole was an undisturbed cremation burial (of a woman, as it turned out), that William Hawley in 1920 and Young and Newall in 1935 had missed. Which begs the question, how many more had they dug over and not seen?

ANALYSIS

excavating bones (c) Mike Pitts.jpgChristie Willis has spent years analysing the fragments of burnt bone, a monumental task. The first full results of her studies are about to be published in Antiquity (see reference at end). The new British Archaeology has a feature written by the same team, summarising these results and putting them into a bit of context.

Here I will write just about the women. It seems to me this is a big thing to think about.

Because of the fragmentation and mixing, it was very difficult to distinguish between individuals. Of 21 pieces of skull that came from different people, Christie found nine were from men, five from women. She found 24 bones from the inner ear that were also from different people, and of these she was able to say nine were from men and 14 from women. I’ve already mentioned the woman whose burial we found on the edge of the Aubrey Hole, and another female burial had been found elsewhere at Stonehenge which was not reburied for us to dig up. You cannot possibly argue with this evidence that Stonehenge was a male preserve.

SO WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?

excavating burial (c) Mike Pitts.jpg

We found an undisturbed burial beside the Aubrey Hole, which had been missed in 1920

We think burial at Stonehenge was likely to be reserved for selected people of higher status. Why?

Stonehenge is the biggest, but it’s not the only circular cremation cemetery of this time, around 3000–2500BC. But they are not common: we know of less than 20 across the whole of the UK.

Secondly, those we do know are not big enough to represent everyone in a likely local population. At Stonehenge, we know from new radiocarbon dates from 25 different people that cremation burial occurred over at least six centuries (between around 3100BC and 2500BC). At the higher estimate of 240 burials for all of Stonehenge (my personal choice), that would be only 10 people/generation (25 years). At 150 burials (Mike Parker Pearson’s choice) it’s even less, six or seven. Neither number seems remotely big enough to represent the likely catchment area were everyone buried there.

Thirdly, this one is at Stonehenge!

We can only guess as to why more women were buried at Stonehenge than in earlier generations – though our guessing is backed by more scientific evidence than you will have seen in last night’s Silent Witness. It’s probably a reflection of wider changes across Britain, associated with the origins of the circular cremation cemeteries that replaced long barrows.

These earlier barrows were closed but accessible: remains were hidden away deep inside stone or wood chambers beneath large mounds. People seem to have entered the chambers repeatedly to add burials and possibly to take out bones for ritual use.

At the bigger cremation cemeteries like Stonehenge, as much effort was expended in digging and moving stones or timber as in building a barrow (at Stonehenge, for example, we have a ring of 56 Bluestones in the Aubrey Holes, surrounded by a circular ditch and bank 100m across). But after cremation (a demanding and spectacular event) an individual got their own, simple, grave. Their bones were not put into a communal chamber where in time they were muddled up with others. They remained separate, where they could be commemorated and remembered as individuals.

It seems these individuals could be women as much as men. Perhaps we are seeing a shift from a society dominated by male lineages and hierarchies – where the family or class was more significant than the person – to one where individual status or achievement stood for more. And that wider recognition extended to women as well as men.

Another of Christie Willis’s discoveries further suggests that in the early neolithic status was partly achieved by birth – and less so in the late neolithic. She found relatively very few children buried at Stonehenge compared to remains from long barrows – and even those we can see are probably an exaggeration of the relative quantities, as smaller younger bones will have survived the cremation and mixing better than larger adult bones, and thus be easier to spot.

It’s worth noting also that long barrows tended to be sited on hilltops or high ground, away from where people lived. Cremation cemeteries tend to be on lower ground, near rivers – not necessarily precisely where people lived (Stonehenge is conspicuously clear of any domestic remains), but in similar environments and near by.

This is a complete guess, but perhaps in line with a move from a focus on male lineage and hierarchy, to both genders and individuals, this reflects a parallel shift from markers of territory and land (barrows) to commemorations of communities (cremation cemeteries). Selective access to burial places (perhaps the ashes of most people were scattered in the rivers) suggests society remained hierarchical, but it doesn’t prove it.

It has been immensely rewarding to see these remains finally re-excavated and analysed (notwithstanding Pagan protests that would have stopped us). The remains of these forgotten people will change the way we understand Stonehenge. The journey of discovery has only just begun.

BA147 Stonehenge.jpgThe excavation of Aubrey Hole 7 and the subsequent research were conducted by Mike Parker Pearson, Christie Willis and Tony Waldron (UCL Institute of Archaeology), Pete Marshall (Historic England), Jacqueline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology), Mike Pitts (Digging Deeper), Joshua Pollard (University of Southampton), Colin Richards and Julian Thomas (Manchester University), Julian Richards (Archaemedia) and Kate Welham (Bournemouth University). Our report (“The dead of Stonehenge”) appears in the February 2015 edition of Antiquity [now slated for April 2016]. The project was part-funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council and Oxford Scientific Films, with the consent of English Heritage, the Department for Culture Media & Sport, and the Ministry of Justice

 “The Stonehenge people: senior and high status… and not all men” is in British Archaeology Mar/Apr 2016/147, online today and in the shops on Friday February 5

Alan Sorrell sledge

Not so much this perhaps (Alan Sorrell 1950s)…

Kelvin Wilson stonehenge.jpg

… as this (Kelvin Wilson for Archaeology magazine in 2007)

Added Feb 3 9.20am.

Stonehenge site plan.jpg

In response to Tim Daw’s comment, I’ve added this plan below. The yellow Aubrey Holes have been excavated, but have no record of cremated human remains being found in them. I’ve also put a yellow line in the south-east marking the edge of the excavated areas there (Hawley claimed to have dug up almost everything on that side of the site north and west of this line). You can see from this how little of the bank immediately adjacent to the Aubrey Hole ring, or the area beyond the ditch, has been investigated: Hawley trenched along the ditch, but barely touched the bank. If you read anything that suggests there is some kind of astronomical significance in the location of things found under the bank, you need to bear this in mind – what we’re seeing could easily be just where archaeologists have dug.

David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Museum, has put a very interesting piece up about WEV Young’s diaries, which are in the museum’s collection.

And BBC News picks up the story. And Discovery News, and many others. The struggling-unsuccessfully-to-get-a-grabbing-but-relevant-headline prize must go to a Jezebel contributor.