The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 113

Issue 113

July / Aug 2010


THE BIG DIG: Links of Noltland

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

MAIN FEATURE: Digging for (Invisible) People

Eroding sand dunes are revealing an ancient landscape on a windswept and remote Scottish island.

Dig for Shakespeare

Literary critics may wonder if Shakespeare wrote all those plays, but archaeologists know where to find him.

The Varmints Show

An occasional series specifically for the website, showcasing pop music inspired by archaeology or heritage. The first of the series features Air-Raid Shelter (Pillbox) by The Human Cabbages.

More online features to follow


All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Caroline Wickham-Jones investigates real and reconstructed worlds, and Andy Burnham highlights ancient sites viewable from the roadside, including extra content.


Your views and responses


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Star Letter


Star Letter

Tim Marshall

I am spurred to write by the last two paragraphs of an otherwise fascinating and enlightening article on the Severn fishing history (May/Jun 2010), in which the writer criticises heavily the Severn barrage scheme.

Like I imagine most readers, I am sympathetic to the values underlying these criticisms – heritage and nature conservation. Within the bounds of the article, it all seems to make sense. When these values are laid alongside unsustainable schemes for ports, airports and roads, the choices are perhaps easy. But as a planner and planning academic, I was struck by the isolated nature of the comments. Surely archaeologists above all (I have a lifetime of archaeology in my bones, if little of it full time) should be aware of the historical flow we are currently in, with our high consumption life-world showing no sign of slackening its thirst for energy. Archaeology has illuminated the fate of ecologically-flawed civilisations, living beyond their resource base.

Last time there was a similar awareness of energy crisis, in the 1970s, the Severn barrage was seen off in an unholy alliance of bird protection groups and, effectively, supporters of high carbon (North Sea) and nuclear paths. Now there is another chance to promote this unrivalled option for moving to a reliable low carbon energy source. The valuable Sustainable Development Commission's 2007 report Turning the Tide (produced under Jonathon Porritt's strongly green leadership) estimated 4.4% of UK electricity consumption could be supplied by a large barrage – of course more if we cut that consumption. But I fear the archaeologists and the heritage lobby may now be lining up with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, arguing that energy conservation and wind farms will deliver us from oil, gas, coal and nuclear, and so barrages are not needed. Noone knowing much about recent energy histories and rich country politics can have faith in that. At best wind energy can offer 30%, possibly 40% of a country's electricity needs, simply because of the intermittency issue (wind only blows some of the time).

Surely archaeologists, and particularly British Archaeology as the serious voice of the field, should be joining in the debate on energy in a multi-facetted way. They should not just "fight archaeology's corner". The choices are stark: coal from Australia, gas from Russia, nuclear at Oldbury on the Severn, barrages on the Severn and elsewhere: or a really massive cut in all our energy uses, decimating our travel and consumption patterns. Such cuts would affect archaeology deeply, being a heavily mobile field. There are no easy ways out. Something has to give. Whilst I would argue for a steady and fundamental transition in our forms of energy and material production and consumption, I realise this is hardly a common view: but this wider perspective really ought to be related to values of the kind expressed in this article.

Tim Marshall, Oxford Brookes University

Sailed into oblivion?

Mike Parker Pearson, Robert van de Noort and Alex Woolf

Helen Geake's explanation of why the burial in the great ship at Sutton Hoo was East Anglian (and thus probably Raedwald) and not East Saxon (feature, May/Jun 2010), shows just how little is known of political boundaries in the early seventh century.

Rendlesham – and, by association, the nearby cemetery of Sutton Hoo – was East Anglian around AD655, when the East Anglian Christian king baptised his East Saxon rival there. Before then, the precise location of boundaries is speculative. Certain blocks of territory in these borderlands are known to have changed hands, but whether the Sutton Hoo area was one of these is not recorded.

Before AD655, we are essentially in prehistory and fall back on material culture such as dress items and grave goods to deduce political identity. All archaeologists know that material culture styles do not necessarily mesh with political territories. That Sutton Hoo was East Anglian is ultimately not provable one way or the other.

Even so, the lack of an East Anglian attribution for any of the ordinary artefacts in the Sutton Hoo ship is intriguing. Many of the simpler items in the burial – the pot, spears, combs and shoe buckles – are of styles common to Essex and Kent, not East Anglia. Geake's comments (on whether gold and garnet jewellery is Kentish or East Anglian, and geographical differences in female dress), are peripheral to the main arguments.

Geake claims that Sutton Hoo fits into an "East Anglian milieu", arguing from the Prittlewell burial (Essex) that only certain kingdoms had access to high-quality gold and garnet jewellery. Yet is it really believable that the powerful East Saxon kingdom, centred on prosperous Lundenwic (London), was somehow excluded from England's "fast set"? The gold and garnet jewellery in the Staffordshire Hoard, and other finds from Britain (including London) and the continent, show that these items of "bling" had a wide distribution – if probably only at the top of the hierarchy. The Prittlewell "prince" – more likely a retainer than a king, given the small quantities of precious metal – may simply not have belonged to this top rank.

Ultimately, the strength of a good hypothesis is whether it explains things outside its immediate frame of reference. The genealogy of the East Saxon kings provides an unexpected solution for why the Sutton Hoo sceptre takes the form of a whetstone. Unlike other English royal dynasties who claimed descent from Woden, their founding ancestor was the god Seaxnet, literally "blade sharp": what more appropriate symbol of authority than the sharpener of blades?

The verdict on whether Sutton Hoo was East Anglian (or East Saxon) is "case not proven". We can only hope that future finds, including the Staffordshire Hoard, will provide new evidence to allow us to decide between competing theories. In the meantime, let's admit that no one actually knows.

Mike Parker Pearson (University of Sheffield), Robert van de Noort (University of Exeter) and Alex Woolf (University of St Andrews)

Respect the dead

Stuart Rathbone

I was delighted to hear about the decision not to rebury the human remains from Avebury (Science, May/Jun 2010). The unreasonable claims of neopagan groups to have special rights over the prehistoric past is an issue I feel very strongly about, and one I addressed at the last World Archaeological Congress. The average human skeleton in a museum or university collection is subject to many processes. It is stored in a special place, typically quiet, cold and dark. It is taken out on occasion to be studied and to ask of it important questions, or to be shown to the living.

Occasionally the skeleton, or selected parts of it, may be removed and sent to distant locations to help other groups answer their own important questions. On even rarer occasions parts of it may be destroyed in order to gain particularly complex answers. At all times the skeleton is treated with great reverence and respect. These processes resemble the neolithic treatment of a person placed into a megalithic tomb far more than any neopagan reburial.

Stuart Rathbone

Brian Robinson

When archaeologists open a grave there are more often than not grave goods, which are then plundered. Grave goods are part of the deceased belief system, and by removing them you are failing to show respect. They were also precious personal items to the deceased – a teddy bear buried with a child might be a modern equivalent. Perhaps an even greater disrespect is shown in the removal of beloved items.

Grave goods are as much a part of the burial as are the bones, and should be reburied with the deceased. There is a danger that future generations will not differentiate between archaeologists and grave robbers.

Brian Robinson, Brentwood

Window error

Lorna Mullett

In Discovering Bosworth (May/Jun 2010), a representation of a crownedmale in a stained glass window from Penrith is identified as Richard III. If, as I think it is, the glass is that in the parish church of St Andrews, then most guides and histories say that it is Richard II. Ewanian (William Furness), in The History of Penrith from the Earliest Record to the Present Time (1894), states, "The central figure in this window is King Richard II, and the whole of the stained glass in the window was taken from a window in the old Gothic church" (the medieval nave was destroyed in the 18th century and replaced by a Georgian edifice). Richard II granted the manor and town of Penrith to Ralph Nevill in 1397, while Richard, Duke of Gloucester, in his role as guardian of the West March toward Scotland (later Richard III), resided in the castle of Penrith after he was granted the lordship in 1471.

Lorna M Mullett, Penrith

College ups and downs

Neil Price

I read with interest James Doeser's article on the state of Britain's university archaeology (May/Jun 2010), but must correct his assertion that Aberdeen's archaeology department was "threatened with closure" in the late 1980s. No such institution existed at the time, though there was a lectureship in the subject, embedded within geography. In late 2007, the university took the bold decision to establish an entirely new department, specialising in the global archaeology of the north. In the three years of our existence we have expanded to 13 academic staff, including two full chairs, offering degrees in both humanities and sciences. With research projects and field schools stretching from Scotland to Alaska, Siberia and Japan, matched by regional outreach programmes across the north-east, at least one university's confident investment in our subject is surely a cause for national optimism.

Neil Price, Department of Archaeology, University of Aberdeen

Adam Parker

I am an MA student in Roman archaeology at Leicester, where I also did my first degree. With no student loans available to me as a post-grad, no grant and no bursary, money is tight. The absence of funding for my potential PhD is equally terrifying. With career-relevant jobs that will allow me to learn being few and far between, I fear that I may end up as the poorest, most over-qualified bar tender back home in the north-east! As your article points out this situation is going to get worse. I fear as much for my own plight as for those just starting their learning in the archaeology and heritage. Hopefully few of them will be able to pull a pint...

Adam Parker, University of Leicester


Rhisiart ab Islwyn

British Archaeology is to be congratulated for its article "The future of our past" (politicians writing on heritage, Mar/Apr 2010), for articulating a pro-unionist outlook that equates Britain with England, while wilfully ignoring the diverse cultures and heritages both native and migrant within Britain.

In failing to seek the opinions of the culture minister in the Welsh Assembly Alun Ffred Jones and his equivalents in the Scottish Parliament and in Northern Ireland, the article utterly failed to recognise the devolutionist reality of modern Britain. The article implied that only three political parties intended contesting the general election, deliberately failing to notice that the Scottish National Party was the governing party in Scotland, while Plaid Cymru were in coalition with Labour at the Welsh Assembly and Sinn Fein and the DUP were in coalition in Northern Ireland. Indeed, according to public opinion polls a hung parliament was likely, allowing the smaller parties to influence heritage policy.

Rhisiart ab Islwyn, Rhondda

She asked, "Are you cursed?" He said, "I think that I'm cured". She asked, "Why pyramids?" He said, "Think of them as an immense invitation". Josh Ritter tells the story of an archaeologist who falls in love with a mummy, on So Runs the World Away.

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