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


News is written by Mike Pitts

Archaeology at Bristol University threatened?

One of the UK's best-known centres of archaeological teaching and research, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Bristol University, has been told to cut four academic staff. Cassie Newland, a Bristol research student, says this constitutes "a staggering 25% of the full time teaching staff, which is far higher than the 10% university-wide level of redundancies". Students conducted a protest excavation outside the university's Senate House, saying the cuts were unsustainable.

Archaeology has been studied at Bristol since 1876, but the present department, which describes itself as the country's only centre combining archaeology and social and biological anthropology, was formed in 2004. It has 16 teaching staff and 336 students, including 25% of the Arts Faculty's postgraduates. The department's work has been prominent in British Archaeology. Articles on the remains of Long Kesh/Maze (Sep/Oct 2005), the excavation of a transit van (Jan/Feb 2007) and the archaeology of urban regeneration (Mar/Apr 2009) are among reports from Bristol research students. Reader in archaeology Joshua Pollard is a director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project (features Sep/Oct 2008, Jan/Feb 2010), and In view columnist Greg Bailey also teaches and researches in the department. Mick Aston, who writes for every issue of BA, is a retired professor of the department, and like visiting fellow Alice Roberts and reader in archaeology Mark Horton, is well-known to television viewers (the latter as the archaeological consultant on the amusing but controvesial BBC's Bonekickers).

In a letter to students dated 17 May, the Dean of Arts, professor Charles Martindale, says the university "simply has no choice but to reduce the size of its staff base in order to remain financially sustainable". Perhaps foreshadowing actions in other archaeology departments, he adds that "in the short term the position is likely to worsen still further". Rejecting claims of disproportionate reductions in archaeology and anthropology, he notes that in recent years other subjects have been reduced in size, "in some cases [to] a greater extent".

It seems likely that the cuts, approved by senate and council, have been partly guided by increasingly complex and significant national university assessments (feature, May/Jun 2010). In the Guardian's university guide 2010, archaeology at Bristol ranked 17th among 27 departments across the country; Bristol's theology department (10th out of 36), has been asked to lose one staff member, while drama (13th out of 84) has to lose two.

Finds at the week-long protest dig in May, otherwise part of a project for the university's Estates Department, included microliths, Victorian toys, a tin tree name-tag from the former Botanic Gardens and a clay pipe dating from the 1640s; remains of a Civil War fort were excavated nearby last year.

Wealthy man in Roman Gloucester was migrant Goth

British Archaeology can reveal details of research on a late Roman skeleton first announced last October. Artefacts found with a man excavated in 1972 suggested he had come from eastern Europe in the fifth century AD. Scientific analysis of his teeth has shown he was a native Goth. He had probably come to Britain in the service of the Roman empire, and died holding high office aged around 40.

Supported by the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, David Rice, archaeology curator at Gloucester City Museum and Art Gallery, submitted two of the man's teeth for analysis. Oxygen isotope composition suggested he spent his early childhood in a cold region of eastern Europe (Hungary, western Romania or eastern Poland), and his early teens in a colder region further north or east. Carbon and nitrogen isotopes further indicated that the man's diet was lower in animal protein than most Roman and medieval people's in Britain and Europe, and that this did not change in his lifetime. The study was conducted by Carolyn Chenery and Jane Evans at the NERC Isotope Geosciences Laboratory at Keyworth, Nottingham.

"Burial 1" had been excavated by Henry Hurst in 1972, in a late Roman cemetery in Kingsholm, outside the city of Glevum (Gloucester). Hurst interpreted a building as a mausoleum, in which, some time after its construction, the body of an adult male had been lain with equipment that included unusual silver fittings. He suggested the man was an early fifth century native Briton, but later agreed with Catherine Hills that comparison to metal styles found in the Crimea made it more likely he was an eastern European who had arrived with the Roman army.

Barry Ager, from the Department of Prehistory and Europe at the British Museum, says the buckles and strapends are of fifth century types made by Goths, Alans and Huns in the region of the Crimea, the northern Black Sea coast and the lower Danube. The man's apparent high status, says Ager, points to him having been a senior military officer or high-ranking civil servant. New study of the bones by Teresa Gilmore puts his age at about 40 (not 25–30 as once thought). She says his unusually large head and distinctive bones at the back of his skull may relate to his ethnic origin.

Carolyn Heighway, director of Past Historic, comments that the "Kingsholm Goth" is distinguished in being a first-generation immigrant. At the late Roman cemetery at Lankhills (Winchester, Hampshire), amongst a group of burials with Danubian grave goods, some of the people were shown to have come from the Danube region, while others were from other parts of eastern Europe or were local. "Populations were as diverse in origin as they are today", says Heighway. "What you wore was not [necessarily] an indication of where you were born."

The artefacts are now on view in Gloucester Museum, and will feature in new displays to open in 2011.

Puzzle of mesolithic campsite in Co Londonderry

People have been in Ireland for only 10,000 years – compared to hundreds of millennia in much of the rest of Europe. But waterlogged deposits (which preserve organic remains) and excavation associated with new roads and building, mean that Ireland's first, mesolithic, settlers are becoming well studied. Finds include fish traps and baskets, cremation burials, lakeside platforms, a possible wooden trackway and indications of a variety of hunting and fishing practices.

Yet new discoveries from late in this era are rare, making what appears to be structural evidence at Eglinton, Co Londonderry, Northern Ireland, particularly interesting. What are described as the remains of two semicircular huts and a fence were excavated by Northern Archaeological Consultancy Ltd in 2001/02 at Woodvale Road. There were no artefacts, but charcoal has been radiocarbon dated to 4520–4350BC, centuries before the first farmers. Study of the dig has only now been completed. Site director Christina O'Regan hopes for "useful feedback which may lead to a reevaluation of the enigmatic site".

Cornish stone could show ancient ship

A small piece of engraved slate from Paul parish, West Penwith, Cornwall, has been tentatively interpreted as showing a prehistoric or medieval vessel in a scene with surf and nets. The engraving is unique in Britain.

The stone is about 45mm across, and seems to have been broken since it was engraved. It was found by Graham Hill whilst fieldwalking in 2008. From previous discoveries at the site, he was hoping to recover late neolithic pottery and flintwork (3000–2500BC), and he recognised the engraving as being suggestive of that date. He lightly cleaned the piece in water so as to preserve dirt in the scratches and to avoid damaging them.

He showed the stone to finds liaison officer Anna Tyacke, and his sketch of it to local archaeologist Matt Mossop, who agrees it could represent an important early depiction of a square-rigged vessel. The design, says Mossop, appears to show a furled sail on a single mast, with an additional spar – an arrangement well documented for Viking craft. A small structure could be an anchor beside the steeply-swept curve of the prow, with surf and spray beneath, or a support for a steering oar at the stern. The zigzag lines are reminiscent of prehistoric boat and raft depictions from Egypt and Mesopotamia, where they are commonly interpreted as reed-raft bindings. The motif is also common in north Europe from late mesolithic art through to modern times, and could represent decorated gunwales of almost any era.

Mossop says Hill has found a variety of artefacts in the vicinity, including mesolithic backed flint bladelets (8500–4000BC), early neolithic Hembury Ware (4000–3000BC), ground stone axes, transverse flint arrowheads, a stone Beaker wristguard and Grooved Ware pottery (3000–2200BC), as well as early medieval "grass-marked" pottery (7th–11th centuries AD).

Graham Hill has been fieldwalking in west Cornwall since 2004. He has built up a large collection of well-recorded artefacts, described by Mossop (feature, this issue).

in the press

The Scotsman

Having unearthed piles of pistol balls, grape shot and musket balls, Glasgow University's Dr Tony Pollard believes that the 1745 Battle of Prestonpans took place 500m from the originally-recorded site. He said: "Although this was a battle with lots of eye-witness accounts, it was also very brutal and over quite quickly. It seems that in the excitement some of the witnesses got it wrong." There are plans to display the findings in a visitor centre. 20 Apr

Spiegel Online

California has named the remains of the Apollo 11 mission a state historical resource. Astronauts left more than 100 items on the moon on July 21 1969, including four urine containers and a moon-landing step. "It's about time that we acknowledged the importance of these sites for mankind," says Beth O'Leary, an anthropologist and cofounder of the Lunar Legacy Project. Moon archaeologists fear that the Sea of Tranquility will be transformed into a fairground for space tourists. 18 Mar

The Guardian

Four Roman sculptures are to be withdrawn from auction by Bonhams. Dr David Gill, reader in Mediterranean archaeology at Swansea University, said that they bore soil traces that indicated they were excavated during illegal digs. The style of the busts suggests they were dug up in Syria or northern Greece. The statue probably originates from Italy. Bonhams said that it sends catalogues to the Art Loss Register to ensure that only items with clear provenance are sold. However, Dr Gill said that the register only dealt with stolen items, and not antiquities from illegal excavations. 28 Apr

London Evening Standard

China has sentenced four grave robbers to death. They were part of a 27-member gang who used explosives and heavy machinery to steal from a dozen 2,500-year-old tombs in the province of Hunan between 2008 and last year. More than 200 artefacts were stolen, although an investigator said all were recovered. 14 May

Residents dig east Oxford

The Heritage Lottery Fund has given over £330,000 and the University of Oxford's John Fell Fund nearly £50,000 to a community archaeology project that will be run by the university's Department for Continuing Education, working with other institutions in Oxford. The three-year project starts in October, and will take advantage of open spaces and green areas to explore the archaeology of the city's eastern districts. Already known to be there are iron age, Roman and Viking settlements, a medieval leper hospital with its original chapel, Civil War siege works (Oxford was the Royalist capital), and a rich industrial and modern heritage.

Vikings back

In February, Time Team presenter Tony Robinson opened the Jorvik Viking Centre, York, after it had undergone four week's closure and a nine-month £1m redevelopment. The new galleries feature a recreation of the original Coppergate excavation beneath a glass floor, and a capsule ride around the reconstructed city of Jorvik: visitors can hear seven Viking age citizens (aka animatronics voiced by York students) speaking in Old Norse. The first to tour the new centre, Robinson joined members of the York Young Archaeologists Club and Madeleine Phillips, from London, who won a competition for a 25th anniversary coin: her design features Audmula, a cow from Norse mythology that licked the good giant Buri from a block of ice.

in brief

Scottish bill published

The historic environment amendment bill (Scotland) 2010 was published on 5 May, aimed at changing provisions in historic buildings and ancient monuments legislation. The draft bill was welcomed last year by heritage and planning bodies as simplifying processes without weakening controls. The non-governmental Built Environment Forum Scotland praised the bill, asking that all public bodies should have special regard to the historic environment and that local authorities should seek expert advice.

Back to work

British Archaeology has reported how the fall in construction hit commercial archaeology, with significant job losses and practices closing. The Institute for Archaeologists now records stability in the job market, with short-term business confidence growing. Among some major contracts is a £250,000 tender awarded to Headland Archaeology for investigations on the shore of Belfast Lough at Greenisland, where the Northern Ireland Roads Service has commissioned Scott Wilson Group PLC to widen 2.5km of the A2, part of a £55m project to develop the link between Belfast and Carrickfergus. In October, Oxford Wessex Archaeology (a joint venture between two of the UK's two largest archaeological organisations) began work on the Isle of Thanet, Kent, where 6.5km of roadworks is crossing an exceptionally rich archaeological area. Funded by the Department of Transport and the county council, the £87m East Kent Access Road will improve connections between local towns, motorways and the Channel Tunnel. Archaeologists will excavate the whole route in the largest excavation in Britain this year, covering some 40ha. Road builders are VolkerFitzpatrick Hochtief.

Historic Records online

The National Monuments Record has over a million photographs and documents relating to historic buildings and archaeological sites going back to the 19th century. Previously accessible only by visiting English Heritage's public search rooms in Swindon, the catalogue can now be searched at Some of the images can be viewed online, and copies of all records can be ordered for a fee.

Phase 2

BA 112 cover

In the past year, we have reviewed 84 books, but most archaeological titles nonetheless (and not in all cases undeservedly so) fail to receive such treatment. So here are three books worth noting you might otherwise miss.

• As promised in the feature on the excavation of neolithic ritual monuments at Catholme, Staffordshire (Mar/Apr 2009), the report was soon published and is now available: the archaeology of Catholme and the Trent-Tame confluence are described in Where Rivers Meet, by Simon Buteux and Henry Chapman (CBA RR161 £15, ISBN 9781902771786).

• Nicholas Saunders' Killing Time: Archaeology and the First World War, was well-reviewed (Sep/Oct 2007), and is now available in an updated paperback, with an informative new chapter on recent developments (History Press £14.99, ISBN 9780752456027).

• Another book liked by our reviewer was A Tour in Search of Chalk, by A Pedestrian (Mar/Apr 2006). There is now a sequel, by the same author masquerading as an early 19th century letter-writer whose travels evoke a world of well-known early antiquarians. A Tour in Search of Flint through Parts of South Wiltshire in 1808, by A Pedestrian (now identified as Nick Cowen) is another enjoyable diversion (Hobnob Press £8.95, ISBN 9780946418756).

Just as archaeologists located the correct site of the Battle of Bosworth (feature, May/Jun 2010), Leicestershire County Council's Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre opened an updated gallery with artefacts from the field. The display also explains the processes of battlefield archaeology, and how Bosworth was finally pinned down to a small swamp (see also Letters, for a correction).

We were pleased to see Nature (April 8 2010) quote Gary Lock (feature, Jul/Aug 2008) in a piece about archaeological "grey literature". You read it here first

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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