The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 106

Issue 106

May / June 2009



Breton hoard of stone axeheads is first for UK

Flint finds point to Scotland's first people

Antiquities Scheme unearths second Roman pan

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Beneath the Sea Special: Part 1
Discovery and work on HMS Victory

Beneath the Sea Special: Part 2
Underwater landscapes and the Swash Channel wreck

THE BIG DIG: Wallingford
Community research project in this historic Oxfordshire town, said to have been founded by King Alfred

The Nighthawing Report
While most metal detectorists give positive contributions to the archaological world, nobody is perfect. Pete Wilson considers tackling the rogues


Proud of all humanity – and Homophobic (Latin or Greek?)

on the web

Recommended websites
Discovering historic landscapes, and a major Gallo-Belgic pottery resource


your views and responses

CBA Correspondent

Gill Chitty introduces some recent examples from the CBA's advocacy files


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


News is written by Mike Pitts

Breton hoard of stone axeheads is first for UK

A hoard of 22 small fibrolite axeheads and fragments from St Buryan, Cornwall, the first of its kind to be found in Britain, offers important new evidence for cross-channel contacts over 5,000 years ago. The pieces are likely to come from Brittany, where there are neolithic quarries for fibrolite – a tough and attractive rock – and where such axeheads are relatively common. Only two have been found here before, both also in Cornwall.

The size of the hoard is also distinctive. The largest previously known stone axehead cache in Britain contained eight blades, and the great majority (some 50) only two or three.

The discovery came to light in February when Sam Weller, a Cornish geologist and amateur archaeologist, sent one of the axeheads to the British Museum. A consultant to a local auction house, Weller had been asked to survey a mineralogical collection offered for sale. While he was looking at the specimens in the owner's garage, he noticed a plastic lunch box. In it were the 22 axeheads.

The hoard had originally been found in the 1930s by FG Barnett, a local builder and the then owner's uncle, after the demolition of a barn; as the barn was of a traditional 18th or 19th century type without foundations, it is likely the axeheads emerged during excavation for the new building that replaced it. Barnett was a mineral collector known to be punctilious about the provenance of his pieces. Gill Varndell, curator of neolithic collections in the British Museum's Department of Prehistory and Europe, says there seems no reason to doubt that the axeheads had been hidden at St Buryan thousands of years ago.

Alison Sheridan, head of early prehistory at National Museums Scotland, says the find is "very significant". It adds to growing evidence for neolithic channel crossings, and comes at a time when questions about how farming reached Britain from continental Europe, and the nature of contacts between northwest France and western Britain and Ireland, are being actively addressed.

Yvan Pailler, a collaborator in the French government-funded Projet JADE (see feature, Sep/Oct 2007), and expert on Breton fibrolite, says this hoard of old, worn axeheads, some broken and made from a variety of fibrolites, seems unparalleled in Brittany. It might date to the Breton late neolithic (fourth millennium BC); future research may clarify this.

• see also Jadeite axe-head, Canterbury, Kent.

Flint finds point to Scotland's first people

Flint artefacts collected over 2003–06 by the Biggar Museum Archaeology Group in a field at Howburn Farm, Elsrickle, South Lanarkshire, have been identified as dating to 14,000 years ago. They constitute the oldest certain evidence for humans in Scotland, and the most northern evidence for the earliest people in Britain.

At the end of the ice age, the climate fluctuated wildly, with temperatures ranging from near today's to a brief period when glaciers regrew in highland Scotland. The land was open and scrubby, with spreading birch forest, and herds of mammoth, rhino and other animals sweeping across what is now the North Sea into a Britain that was a peninsular outpost of continental Europe.

Among the rarest immigrants into this new land were people. There are occasional groups of butchered animal bones, rare human remains and items of decorated bone or antler – and the unique engraved animal designs recently found in the Creswell Crags caves in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire – but the main signs of humans are the flint tools they left. Recognising and dating these tools depend on arcane details of technology and style that allow comparison with material found across northern Europe. In Britain, most are found south of the river Humber.

Over the winter of 2005–06, the Biggar group, led by Tam Ward, excavated a concentration of flints, believing the site was neolithic, dating to perhaps 3000BC. However, charcoal from a shallow pit was radiocarbon dated to the iron age. Torben Ballin, an independent lithic specialist, and Alan Saville of National Museums Scotland later realised that some of the artefacts were much older, perhaps dating to the early mesolithic (10,000 years ago). Since then, with help from NMS and Historic Scotland, further study has revealed a number of pieces (such as a tanged point, en éperon blades, a Zinken-like piercer, end-of-blade scrapers and burins) characteristic of the late upper palaeolithic of 12,000BC.

The Howburn comparisons, says Saville, are best made with the later Hamburgian in The Netherlands, northern Germany and southern Denmark. "To have found our first British site of this period right in the middle of southern Scotland", he adds, "is remarkable!"

Lincs Pan
Pan Squares
View of the Roman copper alloy pan from Winterton, Lincs. Four colours run in diagonal lines; the suggested original appearance of the enamel squares is shown (diameter 92mm). © PAS

Antiquities Scheme unearths second Roman pan

An enamelled pan from Staffordshire, discovered by metal detectorists in 2003, was hailed as one of the most important finds from Roman Britain in recent times; it has come to represent the success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Now another pan from this select group of objects has come to light, from Winterton, Lincolnshire.

The pan was brought to a PAS finds day in Scunthorpe last October, having been found some years before. Lisa Staves, northern Lincolnshire finds liaison officer, says the owner had not seen the Staffordshire Moorlands pan until she showed it to him on the cover of a PAS publication.

The new copper alloy pan, whose missing base and handle would have been attached by solder, bears a grid of enamel squares with four colours in diagonal lines. Ralph Jackson, curator of Romano-British collections at the British Museum, says such pans are found across north-west Europe, most commonly decorated with stylised vine designs. An example from Braughing, Hertfordshire, can be seen in the British Museum, with other UK pans and a loose handle enamelled with a hare and hound. The Winterton pan's chequerboard pattern is closely matched on an example in the Louvre, from Bingen, Germany, which has six rows of squares.

The Moorlands pan belongs to a special class thought to have been bought by soldiers stationed on Hadrian's Wall. Like pans from Rudge, Wiltshire and Amiens, France, it bears the names of forts. All the pans may have been used in religious ceremonies.

In the press

The Times

A mechanical digger pulled back a slab, and farmer and archaeology enthusiast Jonathan Hampton realised he was looking into a 4,000-year-old cist with well-preserved items made of woven materials. After punching the air in delight, he secured the site before contacting National Museums of Scotland and Historic Scotland and notifying the police. Oblivious to their importance – described as unique by one authority – police removed bones and textiles from the grave for forensic analysis, apparently because they thought they were investigating a crime scene. Police sources have confirmed that no foul play is suspected, but their actions have been described as "clumsy and "incompetent" by critics. 17 Mar.

The Argus: Brighton, Hove & Sussex

Bob White and Cliff Smith, members of the Eastbourne District Metal Detecting Club, stumbled upon the Saxon cemetery on farmland outside Lewes. They sought advice from the police and local archaeologists who decided to excavate the graves. Under the terms of the treasure act the pair may be entitled to a reward, but Mr White said: "Mine and Cliff's name will go down in the history books. To find the unknown is reward enough. That's priceless." 3 Feb. See also Hastings & St Leonard's Observer

Gulf News

Shaikh Mansoor Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, minister of presidential affairs, presented a trophy to Beatrice de Cardi during the opening of an archaeological conference in Abu Dhabi. In 1968, de Cardi and Brian Doe carried out a survey in Ras Al Khaimah, which laid the foundation of archaeology in the emirate. Each winter she comes back to work at the museum. "I enjoy watching other people excavate and visiting sights," she said. From 1949 to 1973, she served as secretary of the Council for British Archaeology. 6 Mar.

The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard

Cotswold metal detector enthusiasts got permission from the landowner to dig a one square foot hole and uncovered the edge of a mosaic. They believe it is the biggest Roman mosaic in north-west Europe. 20 Jan. See also Kemble mosaic site to be given national archaeological status (4 May)

New year find

His parents are both professional archaeologists, but on a family walk on January 1, it was seven-year-old Ben Firth who found a finely-worked neolithic flint sickle, on a public footpath in a ploughed field near Tisbury, Wiltshire. The piece is 14cm long, and in unusually good condition, with strong "sickle gloss" from use on the longer curved edge.


February was not the best time to be in the field, as England experienced the most snow in nearly 20 years. But there was work to do. The Wallingford Historical & Archaeological Society continued a programme of garden test pits for an analysis of finds over a large area of the historic town, as part of the Burh to Borough Project. Meanwhile, members of the WEA South Yorkshire Community Archaeology Project were looking for buildings removed in 1953 – at the WEA HQ in Attercliffe, Sheffield.

In brief

Uncertain future for historic hut

Unless a new sponsor can be found, the Peat Moors Centre, an open air museum near Glastonbury run by Somerset county council, will close in October to save the council money. Natural England, who bought much of the site in 2007 as part of its plans to create a Somerset Levels visitor facility, is said to be "reviewing its development options". The centre has reconstructions of sections of prehistoric wooden trackway excavated by John and Bryony Coles, and of three iron age roundhouses based on remains from the Glastonbury lake village excavated 1892–1907; there are craft and history demonstrations, and a display about peat cutting. For archaeologists the most remarkable exhibit is the site hut bought in 1910 for use by Arthur Bulleid and Harold St George Gray at the Mere lake village excavations. It was found in 1982, still containing finds, tools and a heap of newspapers dating back to 1890.

Loss to pottery studies

Archaeologists are lamenting the deaths of two internationally-known colleagues who helped raise the study of pottery above its prosaic use for dating excavations.

Vivien Swan (65), who died in January, worked for the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, but her reputation was made studying Roman pottery from northern Britain and the lower Danube. Her knowledge of styles and production centres allowed her to explore issues of production and supply, diet and ethnicity. She argued that the presence of certain vessels on the Antonine Wall indicated that soldiers had been sent to fight in north Africa before returning to Britain.

Alan Vince (56), a leading specialist in Anglo-Saxon, medieval and early modern pottery, died in February. He worked for the Museum of London's Department of Urban Archaeology, the City of Lincoln Archaeology Unit and the University of York before taking full-time to the scientific analysis of ceramics from around the world. Using the evidence of pottery excavated in London, he argued that the Saxon town had begun outside the old Roman walls (he was proved right) and that the Norman conquest made little difference to the life of citizens.

Phase 2

BA 105 cover

As too many archaeologists know from personal experience, the profession is suffering as much as any in the recession. Mike Heyworth's feature on the future of archaeology, and British Archaeology's reporting of the Institute for Archaeologists' employment survey (Mar/Apr), took the news (and BA) to a wide public, through many stories in local and national press, radio and TV, including BBC2 Newsnight. Our next issue will feature the Institute's latest survey, when we will find out what has been happening this year.

To the delight of some readers and the puzzlement of others (one or two of whom may no longer be reading this), late in 2006 BA published a feature describing the excavation of an old Ford transit van by archaeologists at the University of Bristol (Jan/Feb 2007). This was the first report on what is fast becoming a classic project, now fully described in an academic article in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal 19 (2009), 1–27. Among the six author biographies, Cassie Newland says she has also worked on the archaeology of mobile phones, transatlantic wireless systems and "the global materialities of the 19th century submarine cable industry".

James Dickson, Glasgow, wrote to suggest that "some blunder such as an accidental mixture of photos" might be responsible for the fact that a slide of a Sphagnum spore was labelled Pinus (Poor oral hygiene: a key to understanding ancient diet, feature, Mar/Apr p26). Author Karen Hardy comments that she did indeed muddle her images, and that the published photo does show a bog moss spore. We apologise for this.

Finally, sorry to Terry Manby (Letters, Mar/Apr), who lives in neither Tunbridge Wells nor Doncaster, but Market Weighton, in the East Riding of Yorkshire.

Sure, there's military checkpoints, there's bureaucracy… but in a few years this could be a viable tourist spot.
Abdul-Zahra al-Telagani, spokesman for the Iraqi Tourism and Antiquities Ministry, welcomes the first western tourists since mid-2003. Reuters

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