ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 1, February 1995


Brains found in medieval skulls

Fifteen medieval human brains, shrunken but still recognisable and `spongey' to the touch, have been found inside skulls in graves at the site of the Augustinian Friary in Hull.

The waterlogged conditions at the site also preserved oak coffins and one of the finest collections of medieval everyday clothing yet found, including several complete tunics.

The brains, which probably date from the 15th century, have shrunk to about a quarter of their original size. Several still have twin lobes and neural folds preserved.

According to Sonia O'Connor, a Conservator at the York Archaeological Trust, the brains were a surprise because soft tissue rarely survives even in waterlogged conditions. `They would probably not have been found if one had not simply slipped out of a skull as it was being handled,' she said.

The brains will be analysed for traces of DNA, evidence of pathology, and for clues to how exactly they were preserved. Medieval brains have been found at only a handful of other sites in Europe. The oldest known brains are 8,000 years old and were found in Florida.

The excavation at the friary produced 244 skeletons dating from the 14th to the 16th century, belonging not to monks but to Hull's medieval townsfolk. Some were surrounded by an unusual red material that could be decayed body tissue, and one seemed to have traces of skin and hair.

The most spectacular item of clothing found at the site was a complete leather `girdle' on a female skeleton (a belt looped round the waist with a long strap dangling to the ankles), a court fashion garment in the late 13th and early 14th centuries which has not previously been found in such good condition.

The excavation, directed by Dave Evans of the Humberside Archaeological Unit, has provided a rare opportunity to study an urban religious house in its entirety. Most town-centre sites are examined only a portion at a time, but here the church, the cloisters, the east range and much of the west range have been uncovered.

Founded in 1316, the friary was dissolved in 1540 and subsequently built over. Preliminary analysis suggests it was first built in wood, as a temporary measure to last the 30 years or so during which the `permanent' friary was built in stone. The wooden structures, including living quarters and a church, survive as traces of timber on low brick sills, together with limestone padstones on which wooden roof-posts rested.

At least one street of domestic houses was cleared to make way for the friary, which was laid out near the market-place in the centre of Hull. It consisted of a row of timber-framed buildings laid out in regular plots, constructed probably no earlier than 1290 - less than 30 years before its enforced demolition.

Return to Table of Contents | Return to the CBA Homepage

Dating gives clue to Stonehenge

A scientific technique that can date rock is being used to throw light on one of the enduring mysteries of Stonehenge - how the monument's bluestones came to Wessex.

It now seems probable that the bluestones, which form an inner ring at Stonehenge, were quarried and brought by hand to Wessex from their outcrop in the Preseli Mountains of Pembrokeshire.

Some archaeologists have long been puzzled by the four-tonne stones, reluctant to believe that Stonehenge's prehistoric builders travelled over 200 miles to get them, when perfectly good rocks - such as the sarsens that form the monument's outer ring - were available nearby. Instead, it was thought the igneous bluestones must have been brought to Wessex by icesheets thousands of years earlier.

However, preliminary tests using chlorine-36 dating, conducted by David Bowen, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff, have shown that at least one igneous rock at Stonehenge was first exposed to the air 14,000 years ago.

It must have been brought to the site by hand, Prof Bowen said, as no icesheets have reached Wessex since then. The rock fragment, though not a bluestone, was found by Prof RJC Atkinson in the 1950s and is now held in the Salisbury Museum.

In addition, chlorine-36 tests on the bluestone outcrop in South Wales have suggested that people quarried there 5,000-6,000 years ago - two millennia before the stones were erected in Wessex.

When a rock is first exposed to the atmosphere, by quarrying or erosion, it begins to acquire the isotope chlorine-36 at a rate that can be measured - thus allowing the first exposure of the rock to be dated.

Permission has been sought from English Heritage for a fragment of one of the Stonehenge bluestones themselves for testing. Only then will a conclusive date be established.

Return to Table of Contents | Return to the CBA Homepage

New Neolithic villages on Orkney

Two of the oldest villages in Britain with surviving walls and other structures have been found next to each other on Orkney.

Neolithic villages are extremely rare in Britain, only surviving with structures above ground at a tiny handful of sites in the far north. They survive there because the houses were built almost entirely of stone.

The earlier of the two newly-discovered villages, at Stonehall Farm, dates from c 3800-3300BC, and is matched in date by only two other known Early Neolithic settlements in Britain, both of them on Orkney - Knap of Howar on Papa Westray and Pool on Sanday.

The later village dates from c 3300-2500BC, and seems to be similar in style, size and state of preservation to the famous Late Neolithic village of Skara Brae, 11km to the west.

The earlier site consists of two adjacent buildings found by excavation, and several more buildings found by geophysical survey, loosely scattered but belonging to the same settlement.

The buildings were dated by their architectural similarity to Knap of Howar and to Early Neolithic stalled burial cairns - rectangular buildings with internal `stalls' formed by upright stone slabs. The similarity shows that the region's earliest farmers built their homes and tombs to the same design.

The houses, discovered by Dr Colin Richards and Dr Richard Jones of Glasgow University, were originally built with inner and outer stone walls packed with clay. Most of the stone, however, had been removed - probably to build the later village nearby - leaving only the clay infill still standing, and collapsed walling. An intact threshold slab was found, together with hearths and the remains of upright slabs snapped off at the base.

The later village, forming a mound about 70m by 80m in extent, seems to have been built as a conglomerated settlement of round houses largely joined together, as at Skara Brae.

Preliminary excavations have located stone walls with ash heaps and domestic rubbish piled against the outside. Large amounts of Grooved Ware pottery have also been found, including pieces of a rare type only known from one other site in Orkney at Bamhouse 5km to the west. Further examination of the pottery could throw light on links between the two villages.

As excavations continue, the two sites may provide evidence for the little-known transition period between the Early and Late Neolithic periods in the area. They already indicate a change from rectangular to round houses; and the gradual evolution of the tight-knit village.

Settlement began as scattered, isolated farms and became loose villages with houses about 20m apart (as at the earlier new site). After that, closely-packed villages of free-standing houses became more popular (as at Bamhouse), and finally villages were built with their houses joined together.

Return to Table of Contents | Return to the CBA Homepage

Historic textile mill may lose engine

A rare example of an intact traditional spinning-mill, near Wigan in Greater Manchester, is under threat from a proposal to remove the original mill engine from the building.

The early 20th century, listed Grade II* Leigh Mill, with its surviving engine house and engine, is still used as a factory and now manufactures carpets. The owners, Leigh Spinners Ltd, applied for permission to remove the original engine to create more storage space.

Their application went to public inquiry in November, and John Gummer, the Environment Secretary, is expected to decide the matter later this year.

Speaking at the inquiry on behalf of the CBA, Ron Fitzgerald, an industrial archaeologist, said the importance of the 1923 engine was enhanced by its `extremely rare' survival in its original context. `Out of 238 listed mills in the north, only six engines survive,' he said.

Britain's contribution to the Industrial Revolution lay in the development of technology, he said, especially the steam engine; but conservation legislation mainly protects buildings rather than the machinery they were designed to house.

At Leigh Mill, the horizontal crosscompound jet condensing engine was the last big engine of its type made by the manufacturer Yates and Thom, and may have been designed specifically for the mill.

PPG15, the recent planning guidance document on the historic environment, states that the Government has `committed itself to the preservation of historic buildings, and that some are sensitive even to `slight alterations'.

`This is true not just of great houses . . . but also for industrial structures with surviving machinery,' the document says. It remains to be seen whether Mr Gummer will heed his own department's advice.

A listed, early 19th century mill in Halifax, Garden Street Mill, has been saved following the Government's rejection of an application to demolish it. The CBA opposed the plan at a public inquiry last year.

Return to Table of Contents | Return to the CBA Homepage

In brief

Awards 1994

A RETIRED GP and amateur archaeologist,
Dr Chris Salisbury, was named archaeologist of the year in the 1994 British Archaeological Awards. Dr Salisbury, who also won the Pitt-Rivers Award for the best amateur project, has for years researched the gravel quarries of the River Trent, and recently discovered the remains of three medieval bridges near Castle Donington.

Keith Lawman, a digger-driver from Scunthorpe, won the BP Award for most `archaeologically responsible' action by a non-archaeologist, for reporting a hoard of Anglo-Saxon tools he had unearthed to his local museum.

Norfolk Archaeological Trust and Kent Archaeological Rescue shared the Virgin Award for best presentation of a site, respectively for the Roman town of Caistor-by-Norwich and Crofton Roman Villa in Bromley; while South West Water won the Heritage in Britain Award for securing the long-term preservation of Danes Castle in Exeter.

The amateur air archaeologist Jim Pickering was given a special award in recognition of his lifetime's work. Dr Clive Gamble of Southampton University and Dr Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum won the Book Award for In Search of the Neanderthals; and Norman Hammond, The Times's veteran archaeology correspondent, won the Press Award.

Lewes Archaeological Group won the IBM Donation for best use of computers in archaeology, and Pontefract & District Archaeological Society won the Ironbridge Award for their adaptive re-use of the historic Counting House in Swales Yard, Pontefract.

Channel 4's Time Team won the award for best broadcast archaeological film. The Young Archaeologists' Club awards went to Matthew Lovat of Hull (age 9-12 category) and Eloise Enters of Newbury (age 13-16 category).

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison.

Return to the British Archaeology homepage

Return to the CBA homepage

© Council for British Archaeology, 1995