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Cover of British Archaeology 117

Issue 117

Mar / Apr 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country

on the web

Historical recipies to tempt the taste buds


Our tribute to the losses of 2010

my archaeology

rancis Pryor on his accidental career


Why study archaeology, and can it reveal the past?


Your views and responses


10 big questions archaeology must answer

What can archaeology do for us?

THE BIG DIG: Winchester

St Mary Magdalen Hospital, with evidence of leprosy, TB and that Romans treated wounded soldiers

Return to La Cotte

Neanderthal butchering at this Jersey cave site

Dear Lord Chancellor

The human remains "crisis" continues, and children thank organisers

The one with archaeological evidence to support it

How the Stonehenge megaliths might have been moved

The Varmints Show

In the Varmints' fifth exploration of music and archaeology, we look at the 1990s Seattle grunge music scene.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


10 big questions archaeology must answer

What can archaeology do for us? It can find old things, explain the bend in your road and offer hours of television. It can also create history, bring past times to life and tackle profound issues about our identity and origins. For British Archaeology, Mike Pitts proposes the big questions about the human journey in Britain that need answers – ones that only archaeology can give. And four leading archaeologists offer their personal thoughts on what matters to them in their different fields. What would your questions be?

1 What species were Britain's first humans?

B&W Man Image

All 10 of these questions are about more than just Britain, but perhaps especially the first two. A few decades ago the answer to this one would have been neanderthals, or their immediate European precursors, as seen, for example, in the Swanscombe fossils (Kent). Excavations at Boxgrove (West Sussex) in the 1990s took the story back to 500,000 years ago and Homo heidelbergensis, a species thought to have evolved in Africa. But since then evidence has been found for humans in Britain over 800,000 years ago, and it is believed older remains probably exist. The Boxgrove fossils are still the oldest we have, but who made the flint tools excavated on the East Anglian coast that approach a million years old? It could have been a little understood species known as Homo antecessor, or another yet to be identified. But whatever it was (or even they were), this is the furthest north early humans have been found anywhere in the world. How they survived in the challenging environment has implications for their behaviour and intelligence, and how we evolved.

Ever-expanding antiquity Timothy Darvill

Prof Tim Darvill OBE

Prehistory is where it all began. As we benefit from new finds and better dating techniques, it's the part of Britain's past that is expanding rapidly. Major advances have revolutionised thinking, highlighting the adaptiveness of successive cultural groups after the end of the ice age; the brevity of long barrow building and use; the variety of ceremonial centres in the late third millennium BC; the great density of Beaker activity; the relatively late date (c1200BC) of the first real field systems and "farming" as we might recognise it today; and the immense diversity of communities living across Britain in the first millennium BC. This is only the start. Big issues now in the spotlight include: social connections between different parts of Britain and the continent; cultural changes around 4000BC; how cosmologies, world views, magic and ritual shaped daily lives; relationships with the natural world; recognising identity at a range of different scales; the languages spoken by prehistoric people; and the continuation of prehistoric lifeways into the first millennium AD. The "three age system" of stone, bronze and iron has yielded to scientific dating to real years. Prehistoric archaeology can at last consider dynamic societies with lasting traditions cheek by jowl with passing fashions; cultures and sub-cultures jostling for position; and both internal and outside stimulation. As the wealth of new information from development-led investigations and innovative research starts to flow, there are exciting times ahead for discovering our most ancient past.

Timothy Darvill is professor of archaeology, Bournemouth University, and author of Prehistoric Britain (Routledge 2010).

2 What were handaxes for?

Hoxne handaxe

They look simple: flattened pear-shaped stones, comfortably weighty in the hand and ringed with a sharp if slightly irregular edge. Yet since the recognition that handaxes are artificial and not natural (in 1797 in Suffolk – the relevant "axe" can be seen in the British Museum), there has been debate about what they are. The question lies at the heart of the origins of the modern mind during the past two million years: partly because handaxes were made across Europe, Africa and western Asia during a key evolutionary era between the earliest hominins and Homo sapiens; partly because, being stone, they have survived and are extremely common (over 1,000 from one site in Hampshire); but especially because their manufacture involves sophisticated thought – itself much debated. Were they tools for hunting, butchery, digging or cutting plants? Were they held in the hand, hafted or thrown like Frisbees? Were their shapes determined by sexual or natural selection, time constraints at hunting opportunities or pure technology? Were they just waste from making other tools? With some of the finest handaxes and best preserved contexts in the world, Britain is a good place to solve the handaxe mystery.

3 What was Star Carr?

Archaeology students will recognise the tongue-in-cheek question: Star Carr has been on reading lists for decades. But with good reason. The site of an excavation in North Yorkshire 60 years ago, Star Carr was a place where, around 9000BC, people like us who lived entirely off the wild did things on the edge of a lake, in a world whose plants, animals and landscapes would be familiar to us (unlike those of the preceding ice age). Peat preserved wood, antler and bone objects very rarely found, so we have an exceptionally full picture of hunter-gatherer life at Star Carr. Yet archaeologists find it impossible to agree on what it was people were actually doing there. Eating and sleeping? Repairing tools and preparing to hunt? Clearing trees and reeds to attract game? Running a mini industry using flint, bone, antler and hides? Practising unknown rituals? To understand Star Carr is to understand 6,000 years of our early history, what archaeologists call the Mesolithic – half of all the time between now and the end of the ice age.

4 Why did people give up hunting and gathering?

?Ceremonial Jadeite axe examples

"Why not?" might be the popular response. Yet over 40 years ago anthropologists argued convincingly that for some modern hunter-gatherers, life was almost idyllic – unlike the stressful, labour-intensive, disease-ridden lot of farmers. The what and when of the first "farming" in Britain (defined by foodstuffs rather than any resemblance to modern practices) are reasonably well known. Around 4000BC, new resources (wheat and barley, sheep and cattle), crafts (pots, different stone tools) and houses (large rectangular, not small round) appeared in England and rapidly spread across Britain and Ireland. Hunter-gatherer knowledge acquired over millennia seems to have been snuffed out; people stopped fishing. The technologies and foods ultimately originated in the near east, and Britain was a late adopter. But why so sudden and so thorough? Were the natives, as some archaeologists say, so impressed with the new culture that they rushed to follow it? Had the old life been nasty and brutish? Or did resource-hungry immigrants disrupt and eradicate a successful tradition, or even the hunters themselves? The answers to such questions will tell us much about ourselves, and our land.

Roman shaped Britain Michael Fulford

Prof Mike Fulford CBE

Without the fruits of archaeological investigation we would know almost nothing about the four to five centuries when Britain was either ruled directly by Rome or its affairs strongly influenced by the Roman empire. For the first time Britain was part of a world power whose influence extended deep into Africa, Asia and Europe. The significance of those centuries endures to this day in the political shape of the United Kingdom. Significant elements of our road network and many of our great pre-industrial towns and cities also originated in the Roman period. Without archaeological research we would have little understanding of some of the iconic monuments of our island from the northern frontier systems of the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall, to the spa town of Bath and the massive coastal forts of south-east England. The very limited written sources, such as Tacitus's biography of Agricola, governor of Britain in the late first century AD, merely whet our appetite for greater knowledge and understanding of our Roman past.

Michael Fulford is professor in archaeology, Reading University, and director of the Silchester Town Life Project.

5 Why was Stonehenge built?

Not long ago, archaeologists said they could not answer this, so should not ask it. Times change. Archaeologists have worked hard to develop ways of using apparently intractable data to solve such key "why" queries, and now university press offices out-compete retired engineers and astronomers with speculations about one of the world's best known ancient sites. Stonehenge theories have moved from the narrow, technical (solar observatory), through the vague (temple) to the ritually specific (a place for healing, pilgrimage or ancestors). There is a new awareness that fieldwork in the surrounding landscape, recently conducted on a large scale, can take us closer to explaining Stonehenge. Attempts so far have largely invoked religion, but as excavations are analysed and the new precision of radiocarbon dating is exploited, other factors including economics, politics and social change are likely to play a part in understanding a world able to bequeath such a unique and enduring monument.

The new medieval archaeology Paul Stamper

Paul Stamper

Medieval archaeology took off in the 1950s, so the transformation of our understanding of the surroundings and material culture of medieval people has come in my lifetime. So too with vernacular architecture, brought more into the mainstream by tree ring dating: dendrochronology is providing detailed local chronologies and, for many timber-built houses, actual years of construction. In parts of England, like Kent, we now see that huge numbers of homes survive from the middle ages; tight dating enables us to fit phases of house-building into the over-arching historical framework. Investigation of the wider medieval countryside began with identifying deserted villages and moats, and mapping ridge and furrow fields (many in fact very post-medieval). It has since progressed to wider programmes. Projects such as those at Whittlewood, Northamptonshire, and Shapwick, Somerset, explore what we can now see are the complex varieties of settlement types and field systems. But when and why did these different countrysides appear? I am particularly interested in the creation or emergence of the prairie-like open fields of the medieval midlands (the "three field system"), mostly surrounding large, compact villages. Was this a rapid and wholesale transformation of much of England at some time in the ninth or 10th century ordered by those who ruled, to raise productivity and tax revenues? Or was it an organic, copycat, process? This is not just a matter of academic curiosity: when people understand the history of the countryside their lives are enriched, sometimes enormously so.

Paul Stamper is senior adviser, Designation Department, English Heritage and president of the Medieval Settlement Research Group.

6 Who (or what) were the"Beaker people"?

Beaker Pot

Around 2500BC in Britain changes appear that began further east and had fundamental repercussions for people across Europe. Key to those changes was metallurgy. Our first copper and gold objects are associated with distinctive pots known as Beakers. Typically found in graves, these are often more or less complete and are like beacons in our prehistoric narrative: their association with a skeleton and other characteristic artefacts long ago encouraged the idea – reinforced by distinctively shaped skulls – of a Beaker race invading with new ways. That has been rejected, but recent research is revealing extensive individual migration around Europe at this time, within complex, potentially multicultural societies. New types of dress, cultural differentiations between men and women, new practices in archery, the first clear farmsteads and delineated fields, perhaps the first gods: the start of the bronze age lay the early foundations for our modern world. But we are far from understanding what occurred, and why.

7 What happened when Rome invaded Britain?

Hadrian's Wall in sunshine

What did the Romans ever do for us? Apart from baths, sanitation, roads, medicine… all things to be found here, in one form or another, for thousands of years before emperor Claudius conquered Britannia in AD43. Even wine and coins (Mediterranean introductions) preceded Roman soldiers. But centuries of Roman occupation left more than square bedrooms and mass produced pots. There was native protest at the start; among other incidents, we know of Caratacus's resistance and Boudica's revolt. Roads and fields laid out in defiance of a landscape evolved over centuries, suggest land seizure and disruption. Disciplined armies and masonry defences became part of the new order, and when Rome left in AD410, Britain could never return to its iron age past. Or could it – or had it really changed that much? The impact of Rome on Britain is much discussed. But there is little agreement about what it was really like to be there, to sink into a hot bath decorated with classical gods, and tell stories to your grandchildren about warring chiefs and Druids. Rome transformed Britain. What we don't know, is exactly how – and for how long?

Archaeology can change lives John Schofield

Dr John Schofield

It's not a new question, but one archaeologists have been increasingly asking: what can archaeology tell us about the world around us that we couldn't find out by other means? Can it inform the familiar? Bill Rathje, at the University of Arizona, thought it could. Applying archaeological techniques to homes and landfills, Rathje explored waste management, diet and recycling, shedding unique light on what we eat and discard. Forensic investigation of crime scenes was replicated in 2007 at the University of Bristol by excavating a Ford Transit van. Some asked "Why?", calling for more "sensible archaeology". Perhaps, we replied, because for the contemporary past investigation is more significant than finding. It's less what we learn about things, than what we learn about ourselves and our practices. "Archaeology can change your life" was a line I used to describe how some homeless people in Bristol felt after joining (and increasingly owning) an archaeology project in the city, mapping their own experiences of contemporary homelessness. One participant spoke to an audience at a major conference. She wouldn't speak to a single stranger 12 months before: this project has done wonders for her self-confidence. The archaeology of the contemporary past (or the present, as some prefer) is different, and of course not archaeology at all by its conventional definition. But as Rathje and others have shown, archaeology as a method, and as a particular perspective, is a way to explore the world around us. It can tell us new things and offer fresh insight. In some cases it can be life-changing.

John Schofield is director of the Cultural Heritage Management programme, Department of Archaeology, University of York, and co-editor of After Modernity: Archaeological Approaches to the Contemporary Past (OUP 2010).

8 Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

Folded Cross from Staffordshire Hoard

The Anglo-Saxons, says an English junior school website, were tall, fair-haired men who came from north-western Europe armed with swords and spears; they arrived as pagans (naming most of our weekdays), but converted to Christianity; and unlike the Romans, they never returned – many modern Britons have Anglo- Saxon ancestors. That is pretty much how early historians describe it (and some now, too). Archaeologists, meanwhile, have discovered that texts convey but a fraction of the story to be revealed by digging. The Anglo-Saxon era (AD410–1066) is no longer a dark age, but one teeming with halls, villages and towns, funerals and cemeteries, industrious farmers and some of the finest smiths ever seen (and women and children). Who these people were, however, remains a puzzle. Archaeological opinion ranges from the traditional (invaders and immigrants who largely wiped out the opposition) to a near-nationalistic vision of native Britons adopting new fashions. Excavation has shown a cultural complexity and sophistication only hinted at in texts. Understanding the times will require an equal sophistication of analysis, and full use of the data and techniques archaeology can offer.

9 Where did the countryside come from?


For many the countryside is a place for holidays, of beaches and moorlands, of mud and rain and pretty villages. It is where we go to experience stillness, away from constant urban change. Fifty years ago, archaeologists and landscape historians realised that this historic calm was an illusion: the countryside did not always look as it does, and the main cause was human interference. The country is rich with signs of earlier generations' efforts to shape it, or at least of their inadvertent meddling, and scientific evidence shows how radical change has been. Ancient farmers cleared the trees that once grew everywhere, from Dartmoor to the Pennines. A television gardener explained that an ancient squirrel could have scuttled from one end of Britain to the other, branch to branch. Increasingly, however, archaeologists are realising how complex and localised landscape history is. The idea of a "natural" environment is questioned, as we imagine hunter gatherers (present as the first forests spread after the ice age) making their own impact. Britain grew through millennia of small actions, periodically augmented by large-scale transformations. But how all this came to create what we now see, often remains to be explained.

10 Who are the British?

Victorians, Normans, Picts or Romans, there is no shortage of British names at some time or other, or in some part of the country. Some like to think they are Anglo-Saxon (but see above), others would be Celtic – though archaeologists might say Celts never existed. Few today identify with tribes named by classical writers (over 40 across Britain and more in Ireland), though some living in the territory of the Parisii (Yorkshire) might like to imagine themselves Parisii (France), who gave their name to, yes, the city of lights and love. There is no typical Briton: and perhaps there never was a typical native of Pritani, the first recorded form of our islands' name, surely an outsider's observation – the painted people. We may not be descended from a Lost Tribe of Israel, as some medieval scribes had it, but we do have a long ancestry. The richness of that inheritance is being laid open by DNA studies, which show an unexpectedly strong element surviving from earliest, pre-farming times. But the full, wonderful story of who we are will come only from a blend of archaeology, history and genetics. It is the complete archaeological question.

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