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


Here are three statements on what it means to be British.

• "Though the ancient dead are buried, it is the very blood they brought here that runs in us… They were absorbed into the life that was here before them, and themselves became islanders of a land that moulded the thoughts, the feelings, the behaviour of them all into a whole which is our British way of life and our tradition."

• "Modern research… clearly proves an unbroken genetic link between people today indigenous to Europe and our long dead… It is time to remember who we are – the ancestors reborn."

• "The indigenous people of these islands… the English, the Scots, the Irish and the Welsh… the colour is irrelevant… the people who've been here overwhelmingly for the last 17,000 years, we are the aborigines."

These are, on one level, uncontentious assertions of ethnic continuity with the past within the British Isles. A closer reading, however, is more troublesome. All three seem to imply that to be truly British, or at least to claim allegiance to a regional nationality, you need to have ancient British blood.

We live in a nation where 1 in 10 of the population was born outside the UK (11.0% to year end 2008, some 6.75m people: source ONS). It is a fair guess that many of these immigrants will have had children here who also have no "ancient British blood", and such figures are currently rising. So who would exclude nearly 7m people from a claim to identity and nationality in their own country?

You may have recognised the third quotation, not least if you were one of the record 8m viewers of Question Time on BBC television on October 22. It was Nick Griffin, MEP, one of a panel of five answering questions from the floor and leader of the far-right British National Party, who would be known as aboriginal British.

And the other two statements? The first was arguably written by a committee, but archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, theme convener of the People of Britain pavilion in the 1951 Festival of Britain exhibition, would certainly have had a hand in it. The second comes from a statement published by the Council of British Druid Orders in 2008, in a consultation on a request for the reburial of prehistoric human remains.

Griffin is swelling party support with a veneer of public respectability, but skin colour clearly is an issue. When we talk about being British, says the BNP's website, "we talk about the native peoples who have lived in these islands since before the Stone Age and the relatively small numbers of peoples of almost identical stock… who have come here and assimilated…. When whites take partners from other ethnic groups, a white family line that stretches back into deep pre-history is destroyed." (One's tempted to wonder – there being no humans before the stone age – if deep down Griffin sees himself as a macaque monkey, but this is no joking matter.)

The apparent communality of views between modern Pagans, traditional archaeologists and an ignorant and offensive political party must make us sit up and think (ancient Germans, wrote Hitler, are "our ancestors"). What's going on?

Since Grahame Clark posited an archaeological "invasion neurosis" in 1966, the earlier tradition of ascribing cultural change to the arrival of new peoples has been abandoned, to the point that ancient immigration is widely seen as trivial, even with old stalwarts such as the first farmers or the Anglo-Saxons: mass ethnic continuity is implied, and sometimes uncritically assumed. Meanwhile modern DNA studies on samples selected to avoid the effects of a century or more of population movement also headline continuity.

Archaeologists and geneticists are conducting valid, fascinating research, but it can be misunderstood. Heritage professionals have been working hard to change a reluctance amongst some ethnic minorities to engage with archaeology and history. If we define the past as an extension of ancestry – explicitly in the case of Pagans, who can refer to "aboriginal peoples" in ways not unlike Nick Griffin – is it any wonder that recent immigrants may find no part in the story?

Debate about migration and cultural diffusion and the unity or variety of the human mind, goes back into the 19th century, embracing eugenics and racism along the way. Archaeologists today show little interest in population levels or migration, yet these are fundamental to a proper understanding of ancient as much as of modern communities. And if archaeologists shy from addressing these complex issues, be sure that others have stronger stomachs.

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