The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 105

Issue 105

Mar / Apr 2009



Welsh find may be key to mysterious mounds

Sissinghurst Castle has Elizabethan pavilion

Engraved stone found at ancient ritual site in Cheshire

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


THE BIG DIG: Catholme
Henry Chapman on extraordinary prehistoric earthwork remains in Staffordshire

The bad teeth dividend
Karen Hardy reports important new evidence in how poor oral hygiene is key to understanding early diets

Wroxeter (Viroconium)
Roger White on 150 years since the first dig at Roman town

Shopping and Digging - NEW
James Dixon explains an unexpected archaeological story behind the changing faces of our towns


Pension advice from an archaeologist – theory you can trust


Our fourth annual celebration of antiquity lovers who have died in 2008

on the web

Recommended websites
The new CBA website and Caroline Wickham-Jones goes in search of world heritage sites


your views and responses

Archaeology in Britain

Mike Heyworth takes stock in very difficult times with a special focus on the crisis


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


News is written by Mike Pitts

Welsh find may be key to mysterious mounds

A rare early bronze age wooden trough and water channel may hold the key to understanding one of Britain's commonest yet least understood ancient sites, known to archaeologists as "burnt mounds". Waterlogged conditions at Porth Neigwl, northwest Wales, had preserved not only the timbers, but residue from the trough's last use – a small pile of burnt stones and charred debris.

Burnt mounds typically consist of heaps of stones and charcoal several metres across, sited beside water and containing hearths and a basin. They are common throughout Britain and Ireland, but despite many excavations, their function remains elusive: theories include saunas, breweries and sites for cooking or ritual drug taking.

The new mound was found by archaeological experimenter David Chapman (Ancient Arts), who saw material eroding from a beach cliff on the tip of the Lleyn peninsula, an exposed location known to surfers as Hell's Mouth. Stone artefacts suggested it was a neolithic occupation site dating back some 5,000 years. In March last year the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, funded by Cadw, conducted an evaluation excavation. It turned out to be a classic burnt mound, radiocarbon dated to 1610–1420BC and unusually well-preserved by a major fluvial or estuarine event that had sealed it with clay.

The trough was made of separate slabs of oak on the sides and base, held in place and sealed at the corners by shaped stakes. The channel or launder, which would have taken water from a stream, was made from a split and hollowed log on which marks left by the axe that shaped it could still be seen. The trough was lifted with help from National Museum Cardiff, for conservation and possible display.

George Smith, senior archaeologist at GAT, tells British Archaeology that preliminary sampling of carbonised and organic material from the mound has identified cereal chaff, grains of emmer wheat and other cereals, and other seeds. As the mound was in a marshy area, it is more likely the cereals were brought to the site for processing than grown locally.

Sissinghurst Castle has Elizabethan pavilion

A new survey has revealed that the Priest's House at Sissinghurst Castle, Kent, was an original part of the Elizabethan mansion. It had traditionally been thought of as accommodation for a priest who attended a chapel consecrated in 1639. It now appears to have been conceived and designed as a garden pavilion for luxury entertaining in the 16th century.

Sissinghurst Castle, a once spectacular house built by Richard Baker 1560–70, acquired its militaristic name after use as a prison camp in the seven-years war (1756–63). It is today internationally known for its gardens, created in the 1930s around the house's remains by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Only parts of the Elizabethan entrance range and tower were thought to have survived, making the pavilion, which uniquely stands fully intact, a significant addition.

The National Trust recently commissioned an archaeological survey and watching brief before minor repairs to the Priest's House's exterior. Peter Rumley, who conducted the survey, tells British Archaeology that his reassessment is based on study of both the building and historical documents.

Protected by a series of curtain walls and a dry moat, the banqueting house was well placed for prospects into the Weald, the forested clay lands of Kent and East Sussex: "the ultimate fashionable building accessory", says Rumley, "from which the Baker family could enjoy the view in comfort, entertain and dine".

Ironically, Sackville-West and Nicolson, who slept elsewhere in the castle, themselves used the Priest's House for eating in. Their two sons stayed there, and it was Nigel Nicolson's home until his death in 2004. Photos show the Elizabethan tower, the pavilion partly concealed by later building, and one of three squints.

Engraved stone found at ancient ritual site in Cheshire

An engraved piece of limestone, which archaeologists are comparing to carved chalk plaques found near Stonehenge, has been found at Poulton, Cheshire. Part is missing, but it can be seen that it had been grooved on both flat faces. It was found with cremated human bone, pig bone and coarse local bronze age pottery (1200–800BC), on the base of the second of two ring ditches. A ring of posts had been standing in the ditch.

The ditches, 5m apart, are each about 14m across, and oval in plan with two entrance gaps. These align on a hill to the north-west and a cleft in the sandstone ridge to the south-east. Ring ditch 1 had an external bank and 18 small silver birch posts (as suggested by pieces of charcoal) on its inside, with a kerb of river cobbles just inside the posts. Cremated bone was found in the ditch and at the bottom of post pits around the south-east entrance; the bone may all represent one person.

Ditch 1 had been preceded by an isolated birch post ring 18m across, with an oak post in the centre. It is undated, but its style – like that of the stone plaque which may be in a derived context in ditch 2 – seems to be late neolithic (3000–2500BC).

The excavations are conducted by the Poulton Research Project, a charity that set out to find a Cistercian abbey in 1995. A chapel and 400 graves have been uncovered, but, project director Mike Emery tells British Archaeology, "Nothing like this prehistoric material has ever been found in Cheshire before. It's an amazing site".

In the press

BBC News Home

Archaeology work has started ahead of the building of a road through protected countryside in Dorset. The road will provide extra access before the 2012 Olympic sailing events. An area of the Ridgeway was fenced off in preparation for the 50,000 square metre excavation by Oxford Archaeology. Miles Butler, Dorset county council director for environment, said, "An investigation of this size hasn't been done for many years". Sep 24

The Daily Telegraph

Since 1998, English Heritage has seen its budget fall by nearly half, from £8m to £4.1m. Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary, said the government underestimated the importance to the tourism trade and society in general of Britain's heritage, and promised that a Conservative government would return an extra £40m to the Heritage Lottery Fund. "With more and more of our wonderful heritage under threat the government must act before some of our best loved sites are left to rot", he said. Dec 27

Wrexham Chronicle

A hoard of Roman coins found by mental detectorists in a field near Ellesmere was declared treasure trove at a Shrewsbury inquest. The 13 bronze coins were dated between 180 and 200 AD. Yes, it was the Chronicle's typo, Dec 11

The Sunday Mercury, Birmingham and West Midlands

Archaeologists have long questioned how an unidentified man entombed in a 1,700-year-old mummy at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery met his death. The elaborately-bandaged Greco-Roman mummy, with gilt terracotta studs, was donated to the museum in the 1920s by Albert Phillips, a Birmingham bedstead maker who often travelled to the Middle East. It was sent to Stafford Hospital to undergo a full CT scan. Robert Loynes – an Egyptology enthusiast and former orthopaedic consultant – recommended the unusual experiment when he discovered that an earlier X-ray had spotted a mysterious metal object. Dec 15

In brief

Recession hits diggers

The Institute for Archaeologists has published figures showing dramatic job losses in commercial archaeology, with employers representing 93% of staff expecting the situation to worsen. An estimated 345 archaeological jobs were lost between 1 Oct and 1 Jan – more than the total profession until the rise in employment from the 1970s, at universities and especially due to legislation that requires developers to pay for pre-construction investigation. In response to the question, "Do you expect any archaeological practices to cease trading in 2009?", 84% of businesses said "Yes".

Full marks

The growing strength of archaeological research at British universities was highlighted in the 2008 research assessment exercise, a rating system by which the funding councils will allocate future grants. In every area measured, archaeology in 2001–07 seemed to be better than before. A total of £72.3m in research grants was received (£41m 1996–2001), new buildings and facilities opened in over two thirds of the departments, and 767 PhDs were awarded. "UK archaeology has enhanced its position as a key field straddling the humanities and sciences", said the December report.

New rally guidance

In January the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Society of Museum Archaeologists launched a guidance note on metal detecting rallies. Supported by the two largest commercial rally organisers, the recommendations include giving at least 12 weeks notice of a rally to the local historic environment record and finds liaison officer: known sites can then be identified and proper preparations made for the recording of finds, which often reach very large quantities. Details can be seen on the Portable Antiquities section of the CBA website.

Future of heritage science

The national heritage science strategy will issue a series of reports over the coming months, each with a one-month consultation period. The reports, commissioned in response to a House of Lords request, will be posted online.

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.

25 years

Cadw, the Welsh Assembly government's historic environment service, is 25 in 2009. With strident symbolism, the heritage minister for Wales, Alun Ffred Jones, announced that much of £2m of new funding would be spent on improving access to the monuments of historic Welsh princes. Owain Glyndwr will be especially honoured: four sites associated with him where work will occur, include Parliament House, Machynlleth, where he founded his independent Welsh "gathering" in 1404 and was crowned Owain IV. Two Cistercian abbeys will also benefit. Photo shows a steel bridge being installed at Caernarfon Castle, which now soars over the castle ditch, replacing an external stone staircase.

50 years

In December Gloucestershire archaeologists celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cirencester excavation committee. The immediate impetus in 1958 was the construction of a new health centre; the following year Roman walls and mosaics were being uncovered on the site. As towns across Britain were rebuilt in the 50s and 60s, there was no system to deal with the destruction of historic buildings and archaeology. The loss was severe, but local people rose to the challenge: in Cirencester students joined volunteers on rescue digs across the city. The CEC became Cotswold Archaeology in 1989, now a major archaeological contractor.

Phase 2

BA 104 cover

The last issue of British Archaeology went to press very shortly after the Portable Antiquities event at the British Museum (News, Jan/Feb). Undaunted, the editor thought you would not wish to wait another two months for the news, and rapidly put together a story. In his haste, however, he took illustrations from a press release and failed to check some details. The Anglo-Saxon gold roundel from Hampshire was printed upside down: the Hand of God normally reaches down from the sky, and rarely up from a molehill. We would also have given Roman emperor Antoninus Pius (r 138–161) the wrong dates. In this case, however, an observant printer rang up to point out the error, and it was corrected. That's British Archaeology, put together by people who know (mostly).

Unfortunately neither of us noticed another mistaken date. A dagger and axes were carved on stones at Stonehenge as much as 1,000 years after they were erected... not 10,000 years (Bush Barrow feature, Jan/Feb).

John Schofield's feature on the archaeology of the Greenham Common peace camps (Jan/Feb) caught the interest of the Guardian, which ran two pieces, the second on the front page (also noting there several other projects featured in the magazine over the past four years), and of Radio 4 Women's Hour.

Treasured Places, 100 years of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (Briefing, Nov/Dec), now has an online exhibition of photos and illustrations at Creative Connections, a touring exhibition of community art inspired by the RCAHMS, will be in Dundee till Feb 14, Peebles (18 Feb–21 Mar), Falkirk (25 Mar–7 Apr), Findhorn (11–29 Apr) and Stromness (4–18 May).

ANYA RACZYNSKI: I was a student of archaeology. DEXTER: Not much bloody use.
BBC1 drama Survivors (after "a virus wipes out most of the world's population, how would any of us cope?") passes judgement, Dec 22

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage