The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond


News is written by Mike Pitts

Britain’s oldest string found off Isle of Wight

A piece of string made from twisted plant fibres has been excavated at a submerged hunter-gatherer camp off the coast of the Isle of Wight. At 11cm long and over 8,000 years old, the string is by far the oldest yet found in Britain.

A 50m high clay cliff forms the modern coast at Bouldnor, near Yarmouth, but 200m offshore is a second, submerged cliff that rises from a once dry land surface 11–12m below ordnance datum. The flooded surface dates from the time when the Solent was forming, the sea channel that now separates the Isle of Wight from mainland Hampshire. In 2004 the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology, directed by Garry Momber, found evidence for a mesolithic camp on this surface, beside signs of a former streamand amongst the fallen trunks of an ancient forest.

To study the site, divers cut blocks of sediment from the surface in 25×25cm steel boxes, and removed them for analysis. The string was found when the clay from such a box was wet sieved after excavation. It is awaiting analysis in English Heritage’s Portsmouth laboratories. Two samples (of root and twig) obtained 2.5m from the string find spot and from the same layer have been dated to 6220–5980BC.

Finds from along the surface include a pit containing burnt flint, hearths, flint artefacts in fresh condition, hazel nut shells and pieces of timber that have been described as a “platform-like structure” (radiocarbon dated to 6240–6000BC), a decayed fragment of a “possible logboat”, the “base of a split post” and a “pointed stake”.

Karen Hardy, ICREA research professor, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, says that though remains of ancient cordage are rare, evidence for its use in the formof items such as fishing net weights and impressions in pottery are widespread; possible beads as old as 300,000 years suggest the technology may have been one of the first that humans developed. The oldest actual string comes from Israel, at 19,000 years ago and, in Europe, from the painted caves at Lascaux at 17,000 years ago. Its many uses, says Hardy, together with its complex preparation processes,made string one of the most prominent materials in the lives of ancient peoples.

Bouldnor is one of only two excavated prehistoric sites in UK marine waters. The other, also mesolithic, is in Brown’s Bay, Tynemouth, where two phases of rolled flint artefacts have been recorded, but no organic material. While waterlogged mesolithic sites with organic remains including occasional fibres and netting are relatively common in Scandinavian countries, at present Bouldnor seems to be unique in Britain. The land surface is eroding fast.

The work at Bouldnor has been aided by the Leverhulme Trust, the Royal Archaeological Institute and English Heritage. A BBC news film of the site made in 2007 can be seen at

Antiquities scheme saved: time to go to sea?

An independent review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme has praised its efficiency and achievements. Funding, which had been frozen and was further threatened, is to be reinstated.

A year ago, British Archaeology highlighted dangers to the scheme (News, Jan/Feb 2008). Roy Clare, chief executive of core sponsor the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), dubbed the PAS “inefficient” and told BA that it would benefit from more “corporate” management within the MLA. The PAS, claiming it was highly efficient, was forced to cut staff and services.

In the face of international support for the scheme, the MLA commissioned an independent study from consultant Kate Clark. Her 44-page review was published on November 19, at the launch of the treasure annual report. Clark praises the success of the PAS in increasing knowledge of the past, and engaging members of the public. She concludes that the PAS is “well-liked, delivering genuine partnership and good value for money”, but “is under-resourced”. Hedley Swain, director programme delivery at the MLA, told BA that in response it has raised PAS funding through new efficiencies within the MLA itself, and is seeking increases in partners’ contributions.

Most of the PAS’s money comes through Renaissance, the MLA’s £150m scheme to boost England’s regional museums. Clark notes that while a review of Renaissance has identified concern with “vision, leadership, mapping of achievements, additionality,... quality of work and lack of commitment to partnership”, these “are not weaknesses for [the] PAS”. Gail Boyle (Bristol City Museum) is quoted as saying that the local PAS officer, “in terms of outreach”, has “out-Renaissanced Renaissance”. Stephen Minnitt (Somerset County Museums Service) says he has seen “little direct benefit” from Renaissance, while he “daily sees considerable benefits from [the] PAS in terms of visitor numbers, publicity, acquisitions and events”. British Archaeology believes it is time to look to a future where the PAS – as suggested by leading archaeologists and supported by the museum’s director, Neil MacGregor (News, Mar/Apr 2008) – becomes a function solely of the British Museum. With significantly increased funding, it could address more ambitious aims, both improving the quality of its recording (for example, the review notes the importance of high quality photography) and through education, conferences, publications and research, raising the levels of engagement and debate.

There is also a significant area of British heritage that, with extra money, could be brought into the scheme: that of the sea. It is widely recognised that underwater archaeology is a problem. While the potential for knowledge and public interest of submerged land surfaces, wrecks (see Books) and other structures is huge, costs and logistical issues are challenging. The situation where divers and collectors take “souvenirs” is comparable to that on land 10 years ago. Experience suggests that all would gain if the reach of the PAS could be extended underwater.

British Archaeology further suggests that Roy Clare, whose judgment and proposals concerning the PAS have now been seriously questioned, should consider his position.

Also at the treasure report launch, the Headley Trust released news that it is to fund four internships at the PAS for three years, for finds liaison officer training. The trust recently established a scheme to help museums buy archaeological finds (News, Sep/Oct).

Consultation on ancient human remains ended Jan 31

Neolithic Child

“Charlie”, the remains of a Neolithic child excavated on Windmill Hill, Avebury, in 1929, is among items that Druids wish to rebury. Photo by Mike Pitts

In 2006 the Council of British Druid Orders asked the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, Wiltshire, to hand over prehistoric human bones for reburial. Sebastian Payne, chief scientist at English Heritage, and David Thackray, head of archaeology at the National Trust, are now holding a public consultation on the future of these remains. They are following the DCMS’s Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (2005), which was inspired by repatriation requests from Australian indigenous communities. It is seen as an important test case that will affect national debate on a contentious issue: do archaeologists and scientists have the right to determine the fate of human material of unknown ancestry?

Paul Davies, CoBDO’s reburial officer, says the display and storage of such remains is “immoral and disrespectful”, and, with reference to the DCMS guide, that mtDNA provides “an unbroken link between our ancestors and people today”. This, it is argued, gives CoBDO the spiritual authority to seek reburial. “It is time to remember who we are”, says Davies: “the ancestors reborn”. By contrast, Davies argues that retention of the remains by archaeologists, “against the wishes of [CoBDO] on the basis of non-existent research techniques that may or may not be developed”, suggests “guardianship is being used by the museumas an assumed authority over spiritualm atters”.

During lengthy negotiations, the NT allowed CoBDO to hold two “beautiful healing ceremonies” in the museum, which the council sees “as a positive step forward”. Six groups of material have been requested, some of them including associated Beaker pottery. No indication has been given as to where or how the remain smight be buried if handed over.

Amongst detailed comments from CoBDO and archaeologists on the consultation web pages (National Trust or English Heritage), Simon Mays, human skeletal biologist at English Heritage, says “the skeletal remains [in Avebury museum] are of international importance”.

In the press

Manchester Evening News

Matthew McClelland decided to do a spot of gardening in Chorlton, only to find a skull. A police investigation swung into action and forensic scientists discovered a second jawless cranium. But testing by an Oxford University forensic expert revealed they were 2,054 and 2,144 years old. GP Carl Bracey who sold the house two years before the macabre discovery made a bizarre confession. Dr Bracey, a teenager on holiday on the Sinai peninsula, brought them back to England, taking them to university and medical school. He buried the skulls in the garden because his wife had banned him from bringing them to their new home. They have now been repatriated to Egypt. 30 Sep 2008 See also 15 Jun 2007.

The Daily Telegraph

Niall Sharples, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University turned out his predecessors’ desk and discovered thousands of tiny gold pins in a film canister labelled Bush Barrow. The artefacts were part of a dagger buried with a warrior chief, near Stonehenge. In the 1960s, the gold was taken away for examination by professor Richard Atkinson, a Cardiff University archaeologist well known for his work at Stonehenge. 22 Oct 2008

The Independent

The shadow schools secretary has attacked how history is taught, saying lessons should make pupils proud of our past. What are 10 of the important dates children should know?
• 3100BC – Stonehenge. Amanda Foreman, biographer of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire.
• 54BC – Caesar arrives. Dan Snow, historian and television presenter.
• 43 – Roman invasion. Alison Weir, biographer of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Queen Isabella.
• 43 – Roman invasion. Tracy Borman, learning director at English Heritage.
• 1066 – Norman Conquest. Andrew Roberts, conservative historian.
• 1215 – Signing of Magna Carta. Tristram Hunt, writer, broadcaster and lecturer in history.
Only Amanda Foreman gets it half right: we have selected the oldest historical date recommended for school use by six historical writers.
4 Oct 2008.

In brief

Heritage survey

English Heritage launched its annual survey, Heritage Counts, on October 30. It notes higher participation among all adults, black and ethnic minorities and people with limiting disabilities or illness, despite a decline in EH funding. Recognising a “scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions from human actions” are causing global warming, it focuses on climate change. To decrease carbon emissions, it says, changing people’s behaviour is as important as improving buildings’ performance; the latter can be achieved without destroying the value of older examples. Nonetheless, it says, parts of the historic world will be lost to climate change. The report can be downloaded from Heritage Counts.

No windfarm on Orkney

Following a public inquiry, Scottish ministers have refused planning consent for three wind turbines at Merranblo, Stromness, which would have been visible from monuments such as Maeshowe. The islands council had allowed the project against its own planners’ advice, saying the turbines would benefit the local economy and provide renewable energy, dismissing the visual impact on the Neolithic Orkney world heritage site. News items: Wind Watch, Orkney Today, Scotland TV.

Oxford takes Cambridge

Oxford Archaeology has taken over Cambridgeshire’s county field unit (CAM ARC) to form Oxford Archaeology East; OA describes itself as the largest archaeological practice in the UK. “Work is looking scarce for next year”, replied corporate communications officer Lorraine Lindsay-Gale to BA’s query about the building recession, “and the company is shedding all un-funded posts” – including hers. Meanwhile Cemex is to close its cement plant at Barrington, Cambridgeshire. Archaeologists had protested about the plant’s proposed expansion (feature, May/Jun 2006).

Heritage bill stalled

Further recession victims could be the heritage protection bill and the draft cultural property (armed conflicts) bill, brought together into a single proposed act. Culture secretary Andy Burnham said “new priorities” meant the heritage bill was unlikely to be included in the Queen’s speech. English Heritage welcomed the extra time to prepare for the changes.

King of the castle

Long-term excavations used to be significant features in British archaeology, producing important research and developing field techniques. They were also training grounds for future archaeologists, creating long-lasting networks – thus placing them firmly into the profession’s academic and social history. Such a project was Hen Domen, Powys, one of Britain’s best-known castle excavations, which began with Philip Barker in the 1960s and ended 30 years later with Bob Higham. On September 6 over 50 members of this influential project gathered to reminisce about their experiences.

March on

In September the University of Exeter and the Devon Archaeological Society held a conference in honour of Bryony Coles and Valerie Maxfield, both of whom were retiring after 36 years of teaching and research at the university’s Department of Archaeology. Coles is known for herwork on prehistoric wetlands, including the Somerset Levels, the flooded landscapes of the North Sea and the archaeology of the European beaver. Maxfield has a career in the archaeology of the Roman empire, in particular of frontier provinces. This challenge to conference programmers was met head on with the theme From Desert to Wetland, with the Ermine Street Guard taking care of the riffraff.

Phase 2

BA 103 cover

Details of David Hinton’s delightful book on the Alfred Jewel were wrongly listed in the last issue: it was published by the Ashmolean on Feb 1 2008, at £7.95, pp112 hb, ISBN 9781854442307. Reviewing Phillip Lindley’s Tomb Destruction & Scholarship (Shaun Tyas), Paul Stamper called it a “fascinating and scholarly” work. But, he said, the author failed tomention the transfer of the Earl of Rutland’s tombs to St Mary’s Bottesford, Leicestershire, and the archaeological evidence for the movement of bodies at the Dissolution. We are happy to record that Lindley did indeed refer to these events – and illustrated them. Apologies all round.

Many of the shortlisted entries to the 2008 British Archaeology Awards, held at the British Museum on November 10, can be found in your back issues or on our web pages. These include winners for the best book (Homo Britannicus by C Stringer, Books Jan/Feb 07), best ICT project (the CBA’s Community Archaeology Forum, On the web May/Jun 07), best discovery (Jan Meulmeester and Hanson Aggregates Marine for handaxes from the North Sea, News, May/Jun 08) and best project (Heathrow T5 by Framework Archaeology, feature Mar 04 and On the web, Jan/Feb 08).

We reported on a carved chalk pig in News. Several media features described it as Britain’s “earliest known depiction of a hedgehog” – a reminder of why you read BA first. And poet Jackie Kay presented an interesting feature on Radio 4 (Nov 19) about the SS Mendi, billed as a “story...virtually unknown here”. But you read BA Mar/Apr 2008, which featured the tragedy on the cover.

“[At any new] building development, the archaeologists are usually allowed in first. With little new ground being broken, demand for archaeologists is falling”. RBS economist Geoffrey Dicks predicts a recession, Mail on Sunday, May 18 2008