The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 103

Issue 103

Nov / Dec 2008



New insights into Viking Orkney

Aubrey Hole find could change Stonehenge's meaning

Child buried with unique carved pig

Dress pin

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Vikings in north-west England
Genetic and placename study reveals legacy - now expanded

THE BIG DIG: Avebury
After six years, was it worth it?

Heritage proterction
Have we learnt the lessons of Iraq?

35 years of the Matrix
Edward C Harris reflects on his idea

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones expores online games and Lorna Richardson describes free web utilities


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Don Henson says archaeology has a strong future in education


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


News is written by Mike Pitts

New insights into Viking Orkney

Excavation at Skaill, Sandwick, Orkney, has revealed stone walls of Viking buildings, some preserved to their full height, with the hoof prints of animals in the floor of a longhouse. Project director David Griffiths said the finds were "extraordinary".

The Birsay-Skaill Landscape Archaeology Project, funded by Historic Scotland and the University of Oxford, began in 2003 with a geophysics survey inland of an area of coastal erosion around the Bay of Skaill; excavation has occurred since 2005. Radiocarbon dates have shown the site was settled cAD1000–1200, and OSL dating indicates it was buried by storm sand in the mid 15th century.

Parts of three buildings have been found. This August the central section of a large longhouse with an intact floor was uncovered. The byre end has a stone walkway and is divided from the western dwelling end (upwind of the animals) by a wall. Complete walls are waist-height. They would have been turf-backed, and supported a wooden and turf superstructure. The dwelling walls in particular are very well-made, with box benches on the sides. There is a lintelled doorway, 50cm high, perhaps for small animals or ventilation. A flight of stone steps rises from the longhouse to another building.

Among finds are quantities of iron metalworking debris and iron nails and rivets, bone pins and combs, whetstones, amber and glass beads, steatite bowls and a Hiberno-Norse ringed pin in almost mint condition. One horizontal and nine vertical tally marks had been scratched into the wall beside a longhouse bench. "I imagine someone sitting there one night", says Griffiths, "perhaps playing a counting game or scoring the number of seals killed".

Historical records suggest Orkney was first visited by Vikings in the eighth century; by the end of the 13th century the islands were under Norwegian control. The Orkneyinga Saga, written in the 13th century about earlier events, describes several identifiable locations. Among these is Birsay, Thorfinn's power base north of Sandwick, where excavation in the 1970s revealed settlement from the 9th to 12th centuries and exposed the foundations of several houses similar to the buildings at Skaill.

The Skaill settlement, however, is not noted in the saga. The only previous contemporary find in the area is Scotland's largest Viking silver hoard, found in a rabbit hole in 1858 and dating from the later 10th century. The project's success has encouraged Griffiths to consider expanding the scale of excavation, for which he will be seeking further funding.

Aubrey Hole find could change Stonehenge's meaning

Aubrey Hole

Aubrey Hole 7 partly re-excavated, with a lead plate exposed on top of the cremated human bone reburied in 1935 (scale 1m)

Excavation of an Aubrey Hole, one of 56 pits in a circle surrounding the famous megaliths at Stonehenge, has revealed that it probably once held a standing stone. Archaeologists suggest other pits in the ring also held stones, making this one of the largest and earliest-dated stone circles in the country. Stonehenge is traditionally seen as having begun as a chalk and timber monument,with the first stones appearing centuries later. The new claim would have megaliths present throughout its existence.

Aubrey Hole 7, first excavated in 1920, was re-excavated in 1935 by William Young and Robert Newall, for disposal of the ancient cremated human bone recovered in extensive excavations in the 1920s. The third excavation of this pit, directed in August by Mike Parker Pearson, Mike Pitts and Julian Richards for the Stonehenge Riverside Project (see feature, Sep/Oct), was designed primarily to retrieve this bone, thought to include remains from some 50 burials.

The material covered the pit bottom in an undifferentiated mass, but the bone itself (estimated to weigh 25–30kg) is in excellent condition, and promises to reveal much about the people represented. In the course of excavation, a tumour pathology was noted, and features that will help identify the minimum number of people, and sex and age.

Despite having been twice excavated by archaeologists, the pit base still preserved crushed chalk comparable to that seen in stoneholes elsewhere on the site. Though now regarded as postholes, when found in 1920 the Aubrey Holes were first thought to have held stones. William Hawley recorded that three of them had compressed chalk indicative of a heavy weight having stood in them, and the new find suggests others may have comparable signs that were missed.

Parker Pearson notes the Aubrey Holes are similar in size to other pits known to have held Welsh bluestones. The recently announced date for the arrival of bluestones at Stonehenge of c2300BC, if accepted (it conflicts with dates of 26–2400BC for the subsequent erection of sarsens), would then mark the re-siting of the Aubrey stones, first erected soon after 3000BC.

The standard history splits Stonehenge into structural and functional stages, from the earliest consisting of the circular earthwork and the ring of posts in the Aubrey Holes, to the latest, a succession of megalithic arrangements; in between these, the site is envisioned as a cremation cemetery. However, the first three radiocarbon dates for human cremation burials, obtained in May from the only bones then available for study, range from 3030–2890BC to 2470–2300BC. It may be that both standing stones and cremation burial were prominent aspects of Stonehenge's meaning and purpose for at least a millennium.

Aubrey Hole

Opening lines of the inscription on the lead plate from Aubrey Hole 7

Chalk pig find

Roughly carved out of chalk, the pig has a snout, two large ears and four stumpy feet (seen from below in lower view). Length 55mm

Child buried with unique carved pig

A tiny chalk pig has been found in the top of a pit that also contained the bones of an infant in a pot. The carving, thought to be unique, may have had a ritual significance or have been a toy. The style of the plain pot suggests a middle iron age date (c450–100BC).

The infant was one of three found in an alignment of pits cut into an older ditch west of Stonehenge. The site was amongst the larger excavations in this season's Stonehenge Riverside Project (see feature, Sep/Oct). It was designed to investigate an area of possible neolithic settlement, and a palisade ditch first exposed when the pedestrian subway at Stonehenge was built in 1967.

Archaeologists found large quantities of neolithic flintwork suggestive of settlement in the area around 3000BC, but nothing else of this era. The palisade trench was previously undated, but it was assumed also to be neolithic, probably contemporary with Stonehenge's earlier phases. In the event, the newly-excavated sections of the trench (identified by geophysics) revealed only a 3m length of insubstantial posts. The rest of the palisade had apparently been removed by successive re-excavations and backfillings in the late bronze age (1150–800BC). Josh Pollard, codirector of the dig with Paul Garwood, says the fence enclosed a huge area around Stonehenge and a number of barrow cemeteries, excluding them from settlement. It remains undated, but, Pollard says, "I suspect it's bronze age, perhaps 1500–1000BC".

Dress pin

A copper alloy pin has been found with a length of over 20cm. It was in a worn condition when it was lost or discarded in a ditch which was excavated at Kingsmead Quarry, Horton, Berkshire (see News, Sep/Oct). It is of a type known as a Picardy pin, typical of the middle bronze age (1400–1100BC). It is thought such highly decorated pins were meant for display, and may have been worn to fix a cloak or other type of clothing. They are found in Britain and elsewhere in northern Europe, along with bronze and gold ornaments such as rings and bracelets, beside a well-established range of tools and weapons (the metalwork era is known as the ornament horizon). They might have been made in France or Britain.

In the press

The Times

Britain is about to sign the UNESCO convention making it illegal to sell anything from under the water that is more than 100 years old. The instinct to regulate is justified, but prohibition is unworkable. Maritime archaeologists are paralysed by lack of funds and the clock is ticking for our shipwrecked history. Odyssey Marine Exploration has recently set up shop in Falmouth, and has been searching the approaches to the Channel for wrecks. They should be looked on as partners, not pariahs.
Frank Pope, Times ocean correspondent. Sep 6

Setting aside the ethical concerns of partnerships with commercial salvors, which are considerable (roughly the equivalent of harpooning whales for research) and the international obligations to conserve heritage that the UK has, there are some additional practical problems. Very few archaeological sites contain anything of any financial value.
David Parham, Bournemouth University. Sep 9 (see also Aug 29)

The Northern Echo

Contractors restoring St Helen's Church, in St Helen Auckland, County Durham, were stunned when they discovered a bottle with a piece of paper still inside. The message, which states it was written in 1866, gives details of the church restoration and the people who carried it out. Jul 24

The Daily Telegraph

[An] employment tribunal said it was an "insult to the integrity" of Dr Paul Buckland, a professor of environmental archaeology, that other staff at Bournemouth University had intervened to re-mark papers he had already graded. Kevin Moloney, chair of the Bournemouth branch of the University and College Union, said: "This is an important decision because it confirms the supremacy of academic judgement in the battle to maintain standards". Aug 20

The Guardian

Now it can be told: the infamous 1966 Bogle invasion of Stonehenge, a story that went around the world, was a Manchester student rag-week publicity stunt which went spectacularly wrong since nobody outside the gang of plotters had the faintest clue what it was all about. Aug 11

In brief

England heritage jobs

The Department for Culture Media and Sport claimed the implications of the draft heritage protection bill were "pretty cost-neutral" – or more precisely, said the Country Land and Business Association, £50–100ma year. English Heritage has backed their own claims for higher costs, by advertising for 30 posts, at least 18 of them new, to shape the "real improvements in how the historic environment is cared for" (Guardian, Sep 17; offers closed Oct 5). In September EH announced that seven trainee historic environment managers had been appointed to a new scheme: there had been nearly 400 applicants.

Roman calendar find

Part of a calendar has been found at the Roman fort of Vindolanda, close to Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland. The 8cm long copper alloy strip was excavated at the site of two large granaries. It bears the complete word September (we still use the Latin term), and letter codes for the Kalends (first day of the month), the Nones (fifth day), the Ides (13th day) and the autumn equinox. Fifteen holes would have held a small peg moved every two days; the strip has been reconstructed as part of a ring c25cm across marking a full year. Though dates appear on the famous wooden tablets from Vindolanda, this is the first calendar of its type found in Britain, and it may be unique. It is soon to be exhibited at the Vindolanda museum.

Militant Druids

A scheduled pagan event at the Stonehenge Aubrey Hole excavation (see above) was disrupted by a breakaway Druid group led by Frank Somers, and no ceremony occurred on site. Somers, said to be an IT company director and member of Celtic rock band Dolmen, sought to control the excavation. Ronald Hutton, professor of history at Bristol University and historian of modern Druidry, told BA that this was a new and unwelcome development. "Druids have attacked archaeologists", he said, "simply for going about their professional duties in a traditional manner". English Heritage granted consent for pagan ceremonies before both excavations at Stonehenge this year. Directors Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright (of Bournemouth University) sang along at the first.

Game on

The Thames gravels are famous for supporting a rich prehistoric landscape whose story has been revealed through quarrying. Industry also destroys that landscape, so the reconstruction of a major neolithic monument there is a very special occasion. The Devil's Quoits at Stanton Harcourt, Oxfordshire, had mostly disappeared by the end of the middle ages. An airfield was built over it in 1940, and it was further damaged by quarrying. Now, in a scheme initiated in 1988, the 74–79m ring of 28 stones (originals and replacements) and enclosing henge earthwork, have been rebuilt by Oxford Archaeology and Waste Recycling Group Ltd.

Lessons from loss

A fire devastated Fylingdales Moor in the North York Moors National Park in 2003. A positive outcome was the exposure of a huge quantity of previously unknown prehistoric and more recent remains, including a unique engraved bronze age stone slab (see News, Mar/Apr 2005). Rapid archaeological recording and mapping was followed by a programme of moorland regeneration, now considerably advanced. As vegetation begins to hide the archaeology again, English Heritage has awarded £26,900 from its Historic Environment Enabling Programme for consolidating the new information and seeking lessons from the disaster. Archaeological consultant Blaise Vynerwill lead the project.

Phase 2

BA 102 cover

We illustrated the huge marble head of Hadrian being excavated at Sagalassos, Turkey (see feature, Sep/Oct) that, with his equally huge foot, can be seen at the British Museum's exhibition until Oct 26. Less than a week after the issue was published came news (on the website of our fellow American magazine, Archaeology) that another colossal head had been found at the site – of Faustina, wife of Hadrian's successor Antoninus Pius (emperor AD138–61). Excavations by the Belgian Katholieke Universiteit Leuven suggest several such statues of the Antonine dynasty stood around a massive cold room in a bath complex. It was partially destroyed in an earthquake radiocarbon dated to cAD540–620.

David Breeze and Rebecca Jones were both pleased to report very strong interest in their offers of free Roman publications (see Antonine Wall feature, Sep/Oct). The answer to Jones's question was Edward Gibbon (not, as one reader thought, William Stukeley).

"I do enjoy British Archaeology and value its steady stream of news and comment", writes Grace McCombie of Newcastle upon Tyne, adding, "I'm especially delighted by the news that for amere £7 I can buy an archaeology degree from Leicester!!" Which indeed is what a News piece said (Jul/Aug), in an example of what Ernest Gowers called the boiled baby ("If the baby does not thrive on raw milk, boil it"). Sadly it was a book, not a degree that cost £7. A literary reminder for us all, not least the editor.

The excellent Society of Antiquaries Making History show is on tour, opening in Salisbury on Oct 4, Stoke-on-Trent on Jan 17, then Sunderland and Lincoln.

Miss Carroll will even answer questions on chat shows as Lara, after taking a crash course in archaeology. She said: "I've always wanted to be an action hero". New Tomb Raider Lara Croft model Alison Carroll prepares for work, Daily Mail, Aug 11

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