The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 110

Issue 110

Jan / Feb 2010



Burnt mound theory tested to perfection

Dig find proves flowers placed in bronze age graves

UK's first complete Roman lantern found in Suffolk

Research continues as Saxon hoard is valued at £3.3m

in the press

in brief & phase 2


Newhenge: Latest discoveries and interpretations from the Stonehenge Riverside Project team

Dig the beat: Exploring pop music from an archaeological perspective, including additional online content

THE BIG DIG Mellor: A hillfort in the garden: This long-running research excavation near Stockport, Greater Manchester, is now ready for publication

The Peat Men from Clonycavan and Oldcroghan: Findings of the Bog Bodies Research Project at the National Museum of Ireland, with Bibliography


your views and responses

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones looks at archaeological gifts

Dan Pett summarises the website set-up and technologies for the Staffordshire Hoard


faux pas


Sebastian Payne asks what cremation burials can tell us

in view

Greg Bailey is impressed by Open University broadcasting

CBA Correspondent

Lynne Walker and Sue Morecroft look at the past year of listed building casework

my archaeology

David Attenborough remembers the early days of television


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Star Letter

Not Sutton Hoo

Star Letter

Nick Corcos

The discovery of the stunning Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon metalwork is an occasion for rejoicing – there is absolutely no doubt that it immediately ranks as one of the most significant caches of its kind known to British archaeology. However this fact alone has not lessened my strong and growing unease about the way the find is being promoted to the non-archaeological world in terms of its wider historical implications – and specifically, the now much-repeated idea, from archaeologists (who really ought to know better) and others, that it is "more important than Sutton Hoo". It seems to me that our profession has allowed itself to become far too caught up in the general media gold-fever surrounding the discovery, to the extent that normal scholarly objectivity and caution have given way to comparisons which are deeply inappropriate and misleading, and which serve merely to confuse a non-specialist but fascinated public.

Staffordshire is an unparalleled and fabulous hoard, the art history of the period is immensely the richer for it, and of course comparisons with Sutton Hoo in that specific sense are absolutely appropriate; but the operative word here is hoard. There is no context for

the find, historical or archaeological, and at present even the date of burial is uncertain. It was buried, presumably in a secret, isolated spot, in a hole in the ground. As BA reports, the surrounding area was, effectively, archaeologically sterile. In terms of what it actually tells us about the nature and development of elite society at that time, how can a comparison with Sutton Hoo be justified? A site for which we have not only a well-explored and understood archaeological context, which extends into the wider landscape around the primary burial in Mound 1, but which can also plausibly be fitted into the known historical framework provided by Bede? Both sites, of course, can also be tied into the literary context of Beowulf, but again, Staffordshire, unlike Sutton Hoo, is not blessed with arguably the single most magnificent ship burial to survive from early medieval Europe. As archaeologists we forget, I think, at our peril, that context really is all.

We all need to calm down, take a deep breath, and get a bit of a grip. The discovery is important enough in its own right without misguided and misleading comparisons with what remains, by far and away, our single most significant archaeological discovery of the early medieval period.

Nick Corcos, via email

Selling out the past?

Christopher Sparey-Green

Is the editor beginning to have doubts about the "unsung heroes" of British archaeology who are apparently revolutionising our understanding of the past (From the editor, Nov/Dec 2009)? Findspots of treasure are necessarily kept vague for fear of yet more interference with the historic landscape and to control the new craze.

Secrecy may hinder study of our new-found riches, but there is a bigger problem – the over-emphasis on gold, treasure and monetary value. Much of this can be laid at the keyboard of the press, but the reporting of the Staffordshire hoard in archaeological circles seems equally over-hyped: perhaps Mercian trophies looted and broken up by later Viking raiders for the bullion and jewels, but hardly equivalent to the scientifically-studied royal burial ground at Sutton Hoo.

Talk of the "professionalism" of the Staffordshire detectorist (feature, Nov/Dec 2009) is also overdone. Persistent, yes, and lucky in choosing a recently deep-ploughed field containing an astonishing scatter of unusual finds from a still-unexplained context. Such detectorists are "pathfinders" to object collections, but the problems thrown up (literally, in many cases) by their hobby are illustrated by the news of the hoard from Mylor, Cornwall (News, Nov/Dec 2009). "It's not all about money", comments the archaeologist; very true, he does not get the funds to record and research the new find, no, the money goes to the landowner and the person experiencing the excitement of discovery. The finder (under no moral or legal obligation to do more than report his find) merely gets his picture in the newspaper and then banks the cheque.

Archaeological research in this country seems now to be directed by casual treasure-seekers for fear that important finds will be lost to the black market. We seem to have sold out the study of the human past to the hunt for ancient wealth at a time when, in the parallel universe of commercial archaeology, the real professionals argue about pay rates as they compete for project funding from the construction industry.

Christopher Sparey-Green, London SE1

Sue Pearce

I am prompted to write to you by the piece about the Mylor bronze age metalwork hoard (News, Nov/Dec 2009). Jane Marley, of the Royal Cornwall Museum at Truro, is absolutely right. As funding becomes more and more difficult, more museums will find it a struggle – or indeed impossible – to raise the money to carry out the scientific analyses which the finds generated by the Portable Antiquities Scheme need, if they are to be understood well, and published adequately.

There are a number of ways forward, but an obvious one is to make a provision within the scheme itself, at least where treasure cases are concerned. Would it not be possible to build a sum for further work on the find into the valuation, when this is arrived at? This sum would, presumably, be deducted from the money received by the finder and landlord, but they are likely to be well-rewarded still. The percentage would then be available for use in due course by the museum where the find ends up.

Mullen's predicament is mainly the result of the current economic situation. But he seems also to have embarked on his degree and his job hunting with quite unrealistic expectations, for which he must not blame the university.

Sue Pearce, Professor of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Hanbury alabaster

Philip Lankester

I always enjoy Mick Aston's articles in British Archaeology. Aston is a man who walks the ground and frequently draws attention to little known features. The "bang" and resulting crater at Fauld, included in his article on alabaster (Mick's travels, Nov/Dec 2009), were unknown to me, although I have been interested in medieval alabaster products for some years. With some diffidence I offer one small correction. The alabaster military effigy at Hanbury is identified by Aston as "probably that of Sir John de Hanbury who died in 1303". In an article in Church Monuments (vol 7 (1991), 3–18) Claude Blair concluded that this identification and date first appeared in the Methuen Little Guide to Staffordshire of 1910, and appears to be without any foundation.

We in Victoria have just lived through our worst fire year ever, with the prediction of worse to come, and whilst we have had a royal commission into this tragedy, it has to be said that the refusal of the Victorian government to exercise fuel reduction practices together with banning of cattle gazing in the High Country did not help the situation. Since the cattle have been banned, there has been a proliferation of blackberries, thistles and other weeds growing in areas that were once prime grazing country, similar situation as Dartmoor with its gorse bushes which, once dry provide excellent fuel for fires along with heather and peat.

There seems to be a worldwide need to change things (perhaps in order to justify one's position in a useless organisation), things that have endured for thousands of years without harm or hindrance, and this change is rarely to the benefit of anyone, least of all the landscape and the people who work in it and with it.

Blair convincingly argued basis of certain details of the armour and spurs, that the effigy dates to about 1340 and most probably commemorates Sir Henry de Hanbury who obtained a license to endow a chantry in Hanbury church in 1345. Blair noted that the effigy is identified as Sir Henry's in William Burton's (d 1645) unpublished history of Fauld (British Library, Add Ms 31917, f92). The later dating of the Hanbury effigy places the alabaster effigy of Edward II at Gloucester (c 1330, and mentioned by Jon Cannon in the article which follows in the same issue) more plausibly in the vanguard of using this material for monuments. Old ideas of the date and identity of monuments tend to acquire increased authority by frequent repetition and it is quite possible that the Hanbury effigy is still labelled with the old name and date in the church. Perhaps one of your readers can tell us.

Aston also mentions the Gylbert panel at Youlgreave and your readers may also be interested to know that the panel was the subject of an article in Church Monuments in 2006 (vol 21).

Philip Lankester, York

The Silbury myth buster

Jim Leary

"Bluestone" has been mentioned a lot recently, and with the recent work at Stonehenge and Silbury Hill, I thought it would be useful to help bust a little myth that seems to resurface every now and again. During Richard Atkinson's excavations on the summit of Silbury Hill (1969–70) he found a fragment of rock "apparently identical with one of the varieties of Stonehenge bluestone". This stone is currently on display in the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury. In The Bluestone Enigma by Brian John (reviewed Books, Nov/Dec 2009) the Silbury bluestone fragment is mentioned again; he evens claims (slightly over-excitedly) that "over a thousand bluestone fragments" have been found at Silbury. However, this one stone fragment is hornblende schist and therefore not of a type normally described as bluestone; it was examined sometime between 1972 and 1983 by the implement petrology committee, and the results were published over 20 years ago (Stone Axe Studies volume 2, ed T Clough & W Cummins, CBA 1988, available to download from ADS). Hopefully myth busted.

Whilst I'm on the subject of busting Silbury myths, Atkinson also thought he had found the preserved remains of winged ants from the organic centre of Silbury Hill. If he did, none survives in the archive; nor were any recovered from the recent work either (feature, Jan/Feb 2005). He used these ants to suggest that the construction of the Hill must have begun towards the end of July or August, due to the fact that ants only have wings for a short period around this time. This suggestion has been enthusiastically taken up, from Dames's idea of Silbury as a harvest hill, to the gatherings of women on the summit during the August full moon. A pagan festival is celebrated on the hill on the first of every August. But as Mark Robinson has previously pointed out (in Sacred Mound Holy Rings, by A Whittle, Oxbow 1997), the ants, whether at the winged stage or not, are just as likely to have been lying dead in deposits long before becoming incorporated into the mound. The sad truth is we do not know the season in which any phase of Silbury was constructed.

Jim Leary, archaeologist (prehistory), English Heritage, Fort Cumberland

Still on the bottle

Ian Evans

Your coverage of the Greenwich witch bottle (News, Jul/Aug) has prompted me to report on research in Australia into the extraordinary concealment of shoes, garments, dried cats and other objects in sealed voids in old houses and other buildings. I've been engaged in this research for the past five years for a PhD thesis at the University of Newcastle (NSW).

The practice was highly secret (with no known contemporary documentation) and yet occurred throughout the Australian colonies, almost certainly from the commencement of European settlement in 1788 up until the 1930s. The objects are mundane: it is only their placement and the large body of finds that suggest that something rather unusual was taking place.

Other magical practices do not appear to have made the long voyage to Australia: apotropaic marks in old buildings have not been found here and, so far as is known at this stage, we do not have witch bottles, written curses or the skulls of horses in our old buildings. Otherwise there does not appear to be any significant variation in concealments between the UK and Australia. Subfloor and attic voids, chimneys, fireplaces, doorways and windows are preferred hiding places.

Concealed shoes and other domestic artefacts found in Australia are often those of children – suggesting, perhaps, a belief that the power of the good and the innocent would defeat evil.

Ian Evans, Mullumbimby, NSW, Australia


I am a working archaeologist, and also a practising Wiccan witch. I can tell you that the practice of making witch bottles is very much alive in the 21st century! I have made two witch bottles over the past 15 years or so, both of which are buried at outdoor locations, as opposed to being sealed in the walls of buildings. I know of many other Wiccans who have made them too. If anyone wants to see witch bottles for themselves, then visit the wonderful Museum of Witchcraft at Boscastle, of which I am obviously a great fan, but it is an amazing and interesting place for anyone to visit!

Sam, Dorset

Mark Andrews

I wrote to your regarding the discovery of a modern witch bottle (Letters, Sep/Oct 2009). Upon further interview of the male by my constables they discovered he was desperate to bury the bottle in a specific location in the Town of St Marys, Ontario. I was not aware of that when I first wrote to you.

Mark Andrews, Ontario Provincial Police

Other jobs included chopping down trees and assisting on archaeological digs – small fry for a man of his intelligence.
Dominic Carman on BNP leader Nick Griffin's career path, Daily Mail Oct 23

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