British Archaeology banner

Cover of British Archaeology 114

Issue 114

Sept / Oct 2010


All the latest archaeology news from around the country


MAIN FEATURE: Happisburgh

The project leaders give us the latest findings after six years of research on the earliest humans in Britain.

The obscure ownership of archaeological material

Haggai Mor recently worked in one of the world's largest archaeological store and wondered who all the things dug up actaully belong to?

Finding Boudica's Last Battlefield

With the help of computerised terrain analysis, Steve Kaye has narrowed down the possibilities.

The Lost Anglo-Saxon Church of Westbury-on-Trym

Jon Cannon explores a crypt beneath a Bristol church and is greeted with an amazing find.

Finding Private Mather

A victim of battle in WW1 remembered by his family, is finally laid to rest.

Archaeology: What Is It For?

Martin Carver reflects on how and why archaeologists do what we do.

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' second exploration of music and archaeology, Breck Parkman is uncovering the 'Whitehouse of Hippiedom' at the Olompali State Historic Park, San Francisco.


The dark secrets of ancient peat, the decaying of Star Carr

on the web

Audio-visual presentations online and the 'Visual Essays' of ArchAtlas.

Mick's travels

Mick and Jon share the wonders of Jersey

CBA Correspondent

From CBA Publications Officer, Catrina Appleby


Your views and responses


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

Wiltshire dig raises profile of "the fourth henge"

Excavations at Marden ended on 6 August after six weeks. They were directed by Jim Leary for English Heritage at the end of a two-year project to make the henge better known – to archaeologists as well as to the wider public. Four large henges are recognised in Wessex, at Avebury, Marden and Durrington Walls (near Stonehenge, the focus of major recent excavations), all in Wiltshire, and Mount Pleasant near Dorchester, Dorset. Until the 1960s, only Avebury was widely known, with its standing stones and well-preserved earthwork; there is little to see today at the other sites, and nothing like them has yet been proven to exist anywhere else in Europe.

All originally had deep ditches within high banks, the largest at Marden and Durrington enclosing oval spaces some 400m across. Excavation by Geoffrey Wainwright from 1966–71 showed that all were built around 2500BC, at the end of the neolithic. As well as the distinctive earthworks, at least three were linked by the presence of quantities of Grooved Ware pottery, and large structures consisting of concentric post rings, assumed – like the henges themselves – to be ceremonial.

The work at Marden, which includes aerial survey by Helen Winton, ground survey by Dave Field and geophysics by Louise Martin, is emphasising the different histories of each site. One of four trenches is sited over a former large mound uniquely located inside the henge, known as the Hatfield Barrow and at 70m across a smaller rival to Silbury Hill, near Avebury; it was flattened after excavation in 1807. Field has found a previously unrecognised drawing showing the mound in 1724, the only known depiction. Geophysics has identified a surrounding quarry ditch 15–20m across, and excavation found a posthole where its centre would have been.

Near the southern edge of the enclosure is another "barrow", never before investigated, which new excavation has revealed to be a small henge earthwork about 90m across. A trench across the enclosing bank uncovered a packed chalk floor with sides of around 5m and 4m, comparable to those seen at Durrington, where they have been interpreted as houses (feature, Sep/Oct 2008). To the northeast lies a dense spread of charcoal-rich earth and debris, containing Grooved Ware, flint artefacts and a bone pin and bone awl.

"We are looking at a much more intricate system of neolithic ritual sites in this part of the world than we previously thought", says Leary. Excavation ends the present project, but he hopes a new one may be launched to continue fieldwork.

Bronze age workshops in Kent used imported shale

Excavation near Burham, beside the river Medway in north-east Kent, has uncovered debris from workshops at which simple shale jewellery was made up to 3,000 years ago, the first such manufacturing site to have been studied in modern times. No local source for the shale is known and it is thought it may have been imported from as far away as Dorset.

Settlement and fields were found dating from the middle bronze age to the middle iron age (c1500–100BC) spread across nearly 2ha. Despite many postholes there were no clear building plans, but both inhumation and cremation burials indicate people lived nearby and remains of cereals, sheep and cattle suggest mixed farming.

Almost all the shale, which was found in two areas 80m apart, dates to the late bronze age (1150–800BC). In places 30cm-thick deposits consisted of little more than flint and shale debris, with admixed pottery, animal bones and burnt flint. The 10kg of shale recovered includes 517 rough bracelets, armlets or bangles in various stages of manufacture, and 10 finished but broken examples; 7,000 pieces of debris range down to very small chips, indicating that working occurred on site.

There were also copious amounts of struck flint. Amongst over 9,000 pieces there are almost no recognisable tools, just lumps, flakes and chips: Matt Leivers (prehistoric finds specialist at Wessex Archaeology) described this lack as "extraordinary". Equally puzzling are pieces indicative of careful knapping, which, says Leivers, "seems entirely at odds with later prehistoric flintworking", which is typically unskilled. However both types occur together with late bronze age ceramics and shale-working debris. There are no signs that lathes were used, so it is assumed the shale was hand-worked with flint.

Perhaps significantly, a single piece of unworked shale was found in the hull of the Dover boat, an earlier bronze age craft built around 1550bc and capable of voyaging the English channel. Detailed geological study showed this fragment came from the region of Kimmeridge bay, Dorset, near where a bronze age shale workshop was excavated in the 1960s.

A wheel-like object or pendant from the site, of probable high lead content, is only the second such find from Britain. It is comparable to late bronze age tin wheels found in Switzerland and north Italy, and on the continent such wheels can be part of complex metal cult objects.

The excavation occurred between January and May last year, when Aylesford Newsprint built a processing lagoon at Margetts Pit, an old quarry used for landfill. The project is managed by Caroline Budd and Alistair Barclay for Wessex Archaeology.

New figurine underlies significance of Orkney dig

A second figurine, thought to be a simplified human representation some 4,600 years old, has been found at the Links of Noltland on Westray, Orkney. The first, excavated at the same site last August, was hailed as "a find of tremendous importance" by Scotland's then minister for culture, external affairs and the constitution. The little sandstone figure was thought to be unique, but the discovery of a second – this time in fired clay – raises the possibility that there may be more, at the site of a major excavation with substantial deposits still to investigate.

Peter Yeoman, head of cultural resources at Historic Scotland, said the items might be toys, though seen in an European context were perhaps "fertility objects". In which case, he said, they would be among the "earliest evidence we have of worship being channelled through physical representations of spirits or gods".

The new figurine was found on the last day of June by Sean Rice of EASE Archaeology. It was Rice who made another of the site's extraordinary discoveries, a stone building with cattle skulls set into its walls (feature, Jul/Aug). The number of skulls has now risen to 25; the figurine lay in the large refuse deposit immediately outside this building, known as structure 9. The first figurine was inside structure 8, 35m to the south.

The new find had been broken before it was lost or buried. It consists of two fitting pieces, and part of one side is missing. A scorched, thumb-sized depression on the top is thought to have been where the head was attached, which also is missing – at least for now: several small fired-clay balls were recovered last year, and one has what may be faint decoration similar to the eyebrow motif on the sandstone figure.

The clay figure's front was incised before firing with what could be a representation of clothing. On its upper left corner is a v-shape reminiscent of the shape in a similar position on the stone figure; this had been interpreted as one of two possible breasts, but they might equally be dress fasteners. Although the stone figure has become known as the Orkney venus (or the Westray wife), neither has a clear indication of gender.

The site at Noltland is managed by Historic Scotland, which has been sponsoring excavation since 2007 after a survey indicated preservation was not possible in the face of coastal erosion. Many stone buildings have been uncovered, and deep middens with quantities of animal remains and artefacts dating from the neolithic and bronze age (3000–1500BC). The lower parts of walls are still standing.

Archaeologists are presently removing rubble from inside structure 9, exposing the tops of fitted furniture including a hearth.

Frome hoard may have been sacrifice – and not alone

Alerted by Dave Crisp, archaeologists from the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Somerset County Council excavated 52,503 Roman coins – the second largest hoard of its kind, buried near Frome around AD293. Research has now established that 111 coins were found during drainage works on the same farm in 1867. Six surviving coins are very similar to those in Crisp's first discovery of 62 silver siliquae, made just two days before the second and 100m away. It is thought these 173 coins are likely to be from a single hoard buried around AD395.

The larger hoard contains a record number of coins of the British emperor Carausius (287–93): 766 have been identified, including varieties never seen before, and that is expected to rise above 800 as presently illegible coins are conserved. Careful excavation revealed that most lay together near the centre of the enclosing pot. They include five rare silver denarii – not normally found in hoards – in perfect condition.

Nearly 600 hoards buried in Britain around AD250–300 are known, a unique concentration in the Roman empire. The traditional explanation is that people hid their wealth, fearing attack from Ireland or Germany. Yet archaeological evidence suggests this was a peaceful time. Sam Moorhead, Anna Booth and Roger Bland (all at the PAS) say that the Frome hoard was so large that if the intention had been to retrieve it, the coins would have been buried in several smaller containers. This implies, they say, that the hoard was a sacrifice, in a possible continuation of prehistoric practices. The controversial theory is set out in a new guide to the hoard published by the British Museum, where a selection of the coins is now on display.

Crisp's finds were declared treasure on July 22, and will be assessed by the treasure valuation committee; he has been praised for his fieldwork. The county heritage service hopes to be able to acquire the coins to show at the Museum of Somerset when it opens in 2011. A hoard of 54,912 coins from Mildenhall, Wiltshire, buried some 20 years before the Frome hoard in two containers, is the largest known.

in the press

The Daily Mail

Norfolk Man arrived up to 950,000 years ago and made Happisburgh the cradle of British civilisation. There were several thousand of them – characterised by low foreheads, heavy brows and possible cannibalistic tendencies. 7 Jul

The Telegraph

In 1983 100 people sat down to a feast in the grounds of a chateau near Versailles. Towards the end of the meal, a whistle was blown and what remained of the banquet was buried in its entirety in a pre-dug 40-yard-long trench. Swiss artist Daniel Spoerri's guests were celebrity French new realist artists, filmmakers and critics. French scientists have exhumed the meal, with the aim of testing the latest archaeological techniques. Mr Spoerri, now 80, discovered that the bottles and plates were still intact but the tables had all but vanished. He swore that they had not used plastic cups, but these resurfaced almost as good as new. 6 Jun

The Press & Journal

Access Archaeology asked Western Isles council to provide a skip when the rotting remains of a caravan and hut created an increasing hazard for livestock on common grazings. The accommodation was in annual use for more than two decades by archaeologists excavating the ancient site of Udal, in Grenitote, North Uist. The clear-up operation amused volunteers by yielding many 20th century artefacts such as crockery, pots and pans, shovels and even a hot water bottle. Aberdeen Press & Journal, 1 Jun

Birmingham Mail

Caroline Rann, a member of Warwickshire County Council's archaeology projects group, found a medieval badge emblazoned with three lions – believed to be part of a horse harness – ahead of a building project in Coventry. "This has been hidden for hundreds of years", the expert added, "and for it to appear now has to be a sign that England will go all the way in the World Cup!" 16 Jun

in brief

Access to the past

Archaeologists are investigating the entire 6.5km route of the new East Kent Access Road: the 40ha excavation by Oxford Wessex Archaeology – a joint venture between Wessex Archaeology and Oxford Archaeology – is said to be the largest this year, with over 130 archaeologists working on the Isle of Thanet in "one of the richest archaeological areas in Britain".

Considerable resources have gone into telling people about the project and showing them what is being found. Two identical exhibitions have been touring the county since March, the archaeologists have been offering "family orientated activities" on site at weekends and there have been opportunities for volunteers to take part. Photos, podcasts and events listings can be found online and from the Wessex Archeology Podcasts blog 'Archaeocast'.

Old isles

In June VisitScotland (the Scottish tourist board) launched an online "archaeological treasure trail", with itineraries in Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles. A five-day tour of Shetland, for example, starts at the Shetland Museum and Archives, and takes in brochs at Clickimin, Mousa and Old Scatness, the neolithic complex at Scord of Brouster and the Jarlshof prehistoric and Norse settlement. Hotels and restaurants are described, though when British Archaeology visited the website, promised features such as maps, a downloadable trail and Tony Robinson's top ten treasures from the region could not be found.

Early tortoise immigrant

University of Leicester archaeologist Richard Thomas has reported on the excavation in 2003 of tortoise remains at Stafford castle, Staffordshire. A leg bone was found in a late 19th century context that also produced bones of cats and dogs, and Thomas argues that this is the earliest archaeological evidence of a land tortoise kept as a family pet (remains of terrapins and turtles had previously been found from the 17th century). Thomas's article, Translocated Testudinidae, appears in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology (from the Society of Post-Medieval Archaeology or SPMA).

In 2009 police were called to an excavation in Woburn to investigate a tortoise shell, when an archaeological consultancy thought the object was a human skull.

Battle to inform the public about world heritage

Archaeologists are highlighting the benefits of new visitor centres at the Hadrian's Wall and Stonehenge world heritage sites, as the economy puts both developments at risk. A visitor attraction at Maryport, Cumbria, was proposed in 2003. The complex includes one of the largest forts on the Roman frontier, a milefortlet, an unusually large vicus (contemporary civilian settlement) and the Senhouse Roman Museum, containing the Netherhall collection which lists 17 inscribed Roman altars found near the fort in 1870. In 2007 it was decided to site new centres at Camp Farm. This was described as an ambitious project costing £5–6m, with substantial economic rewards. It would also offer exhibition space, a laboratory for finds processing, and a use for 19th century farm buildings; new excavation – which could be seen by visitors – was seen as a research priority. Primary work has now begun, and on site work is scheduled to start in late 2011 "subject to all funding being approved" (with a budget of £11m). But money has yet to be committed, and key sponsor the Northwest Regional Development Agency is to be scrapped next year. Meanwhile at Stonehenge, the chief secretary to the treasury told parliament the government had axed the visitor centre, saving the taxpayer £25m. English Heritage noted the government had in fact committed to only £10m, and on 30 June said it would continue with the scheme while seeking new funds for the shortfall.

Phase 2

BA 113 cover

Last year (Sep/Oct) we reported that the Surrey Archaeological Society had excavated at Abinger Hall, seeking trenches ordered by Charles Darwin in 1877. Darwin was able to explain how earthworms buried the floors of a Roman villa, but the SAS was less successful in locating the site. Emma Corke, a descendant of Darwin who lives on the estate, has written to say that the society has now found both the villa and Darwin's excavations. The finds exactly fit the 19th century records – except fewer courses of the Roman walls remain. "I've a horrible feeling", says Corke, "they are in our garden wall".

The case of the Shropshire piedfort continues (Spoilheap, May/Jun). The 14th century coin look-alike was celebrated by police and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) as the subject of the first Treasure Act conviction. But in May Telford magistrates court allowed the case to be reconsidered by Ludlow magistrates, and in July the crown decided not to prosecute again. The PAS had reported that the piedfort's owner said she found it in 2008 in her garden; she was told to inform the coroner, which she failed to do, and said in fact she had found it 14 years ago with her late mother. The item's future has yet to be decided at inquest, when evidence on the find's exact circumstances will be taken.

In his review of Excavations at Mucking 3 in the last issue (Jul/Aug, Books), the editor stated that the two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries were in use during the fifth–eighth centuries. Author Sue Hirst points out that while the settlement spans those years, use of the cemeteries ended in the late sixth/early seventh centuries; it was suggested a third, later cemetery may be nearby.

Archaeology? Sienna Miller's reply to the question in the New Statesman (31 May), "If you weren't an actress, what would you be doing?"

CBA web:

British Archaeology

Jan/Feb 2005
Mar/Apr 2005
May/Jun 2005
Jul/Aug 2005
Sep/Oct 2005
Nov/Dec 2005
Jan/Feb 2006
Mar/Apr 2006
May/Jun 2006
Jul/Aug 2006
Sep/Oct 2006
Nov/Dec 2006
Jan/Feb 2007
Mar/Apr 2007
May/Jun 2007
Jul/Aug 2007
Sep/Oct 2007
Nov/Dec 2007
Jan/Feb 2008
Mar/Apr 2008
May/Jun 2008
Jul/Aug 2008
Sep/Oct 2008
Nov/Dec 2008
Jan/Feb 2009
Mar/Apr 2009
May/Jun 2009
Jul/Aug 2009
Sep/Oct 2009
Nov/Dec 2009
Jan/Feb 2010
Mar/Apr 2010
May/Jun 2010
Jul/Aug 2010
Sep/Oct 2010
Nov/Dec 2010
Jan/Feb 2011
Mar/Apr 2011
May/Jun 2011
Jul/Aug 2011
Sep/Oct 2011
Nov/Dec 2011
Jan/Feb 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

CBA Briefing

Courses & lectures
CBA Network
Grants & awards

CBA homepage