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Cover of British Archaeology 120

Issue 120

Sep / Oct 2011



All the latest archaeology news from around the country

CBA Correspondent

Mike Heyworth plans for the future


Your views and responses


THE BIG DIG: Roman roads

Digging up the Picts

Sacred waters

Manga at the museum – NOT ONLINE

7 societies

Stones and names

Win or lose


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


7 archaeological societies

As one celebrates its 40th anniversary, another its 50th and a third its 150th – and a fourth looks back on its 300th – British Archaeology honours the regional archaeological society.

When the British get interested in something, it seems, they form a society. Not in the politicians’ sense – “there is no such thing as society”, said Margaret Thatcher, who would presumably have been unimpressed with fellow prime minister David Cameron’s desire to create a “big” one – but as groups of people who share common curiosities.

It is difficult to quantify these things, but it is often claimed that Britain's archaeological societies are unique, in their numbers and in the amount of excavation and research they conduct. Writing in 1973 shortly after the formation of the national lobby group Rescue, Charles Thomas (a former president of the CBA) thought there might be as few as 200 qualified professional archaeologists, outnumbered by 100,000 "enthusiasts". Since then the profession has ballooned (over 5,800 at the most recent count, falling in the recession from nearly 7,000). But so have the enthusiasts. The CBA's recent survey found 215,000 people belonging to over 2,000 groups (Community archaeology: what next? Jul/Aug 2010, no 113).

There are several types of archaeological society, focussing, for example, on particular periods or themes, or on geographical areas, from national to parochial. In this feature we celebrate the regional societies, many of which began in the 19th century, or even before. The first county society was the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne, formed in 1813, while the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland was already three years old when it received its royal charter in 1783. The older societies often have considerable assets (if not always disposable income), in the form of important museum collections and reference libraries, and in a few cases, further historic properties.

Members' combined skills, energies and local knowledge are a precious resource that can be overlooked when the trials of commercial and university archaeology dominate professional debate. As the archaeological profession has grown, the amateur-based societies have sometimes felt threatened and sidelined. Yet their contribution to national culture over more than two centuries has been profound.

It is no surprise to find variation in membership patterns. Reflecting a common trend, for example, the number of clergymen in the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society fell from 20% in 1876 to 4% in 1930; at the same time, women rose from 2% to 22%. As new, smaller groups proliferate today, many of the older societies have seen numbers fall. "I cannot think", one correspondent told British Archaeology during the preparation of this feature, "that we are alone in wanting to attract a younger membership". Largely reliant on members' subscriptions and voluntary staff, societies' fortunes can be changed by a few talented, driven individuals.

There are links to over 170 regional and local UK societies on the CBA website. There are more. If you have not already joined one, and would like to share your enthusiasm with others, learn more about your area and take part in research, your local society is one of the best places to start. MP.

Click on the logos for the websites.

SGSSpalding Gentlemen's Society

Founded 1710, Spalding, Lincolnshire
350 members
Key activities: maintaining museum and reference library, running public lecture programme

Founded long before what we now think of as archaeology had emerged, at a time when Britain's early story was sought not in material remains but in texts (not least the Bible), the Spalding Gentlemen's Society counted among its early members Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Hans Sloane and the great antiquarian William Stukeley; Sir Joseph Banks, Sir George Gilbert Scott and Lord Tennyson were among later members. With its origins in city coffee houses, it was an attempt to establish the principles of the Royal Society outside London, and was the first provincial antiquarian association: men of means would gather to drink coffee, discuss antiquities and read the newly launched Tatler.

This spirit continues – since 2007, for women as well as men. Today the society meets every Thursday evening for informal discussions; under the founder's ruling, the only barred topics are politics and religion. Public lectures have been held almost continuously since 1889. Subjects in the coming season include excavations at Pinchbeck, the liver, and "The release of the Birmingham six – TV journalism's finest hour?"

The society built its present museum in 1911, but its collection is second in age only to that of the Ashmolean in Oxford. Its contents reflect the society's catholic interests over three centuries, and include firearms and cameras, glassware and silverware, coins, medals and stamps (the society numbers a philatelist amongst its curators), an important collection of Chinese artefacts, a 13th century illuminated Bible and a 16th century Flemish astrolabe.

CAA/CHCCambrian Archaeological Association / Cymdeithas Hynafiaethau Cymru

Founded 1846
675 members
Key activities: meetings, lectures and conferences
Publishes Archaeologia Cambrensis, monograph series

The oldest archaeological society in Wales, the CAA launched its annual journal, Archaeologia Cambrensis, in its first year. Ambitious summer meetings also date from 1846, held continuously but for interruptions during the two world wars. These week-long events, which for many are often an opportunity to return to Wales from England and beyond, focus on an area that is studied intensively from all angles, embracing prehistoric monuments, medieval churches, industrial remains, literary associations and, in the South Wales Valleys in 2009, a cholera cemetery. Though they take place mostly in Wales, they also venture further afield: the 2011 summer tour recently returned from Gascony, and last year's was in Canterbury (Kent).

There is now also an annual autumn weekend, and a biannual conference. The importance of these events is highlighted by the fact that unlike many older societies, the CAA has never had a fixed headquarters or museum. There is, however, a library, curated at the National Museum of Wales. The society sponsors an annual lecture in Welsh at the National Eisteddfod, and an essay award for school children and students. It offers research and excavation grants, but does not itself excavate.

Sussex PastSussex Archaeological Society

Founded 1846, Lewes
2,450 members
Key activities: annual conference, guided tours and walks, talks, supporting research, opening properties to the public
Publishes Sussex Archaeological Collections, newsletter

The SAS – or Sussex Past – was founded after the discovery in 1845 of the reinterred bones of the Norman William de Warenne and his wife, Gundreda, by workmen digging a cutting for the Brighton to Lewes railway line. It is the UK's largest county society, with a significant county museum and library in Lewes. It opens six further historic properties to the public, including Fishbourne Roman Palace, Lewes Castle, Michelham Priory and Marlipins Museum, Shoreham. Educational services, workshops and special events for schools and families are offered at all the properties. The society also owns a 15th century house – occupied by the revolutionary Tom Paine for six years – which it uses for offices, and the Long Man of Wilmington white hill figure.

Among many active archaeologists at the society, father and son Elliot and Cecil Curwen were particularly influential in the first half of the 20th century, conducting excavations of national significance. In 1937 members were treated to scones made with flour ground by Cecil in prehistoric querns. Other famous members have included Rudyard Kipling, EV Lucas, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Hilaire Belloc, and the infamous Charles Dawson, suspected by many to be the perpetrator of the Piltdown fraud. Next year's annual conference will mark the 100th anniversary of the announcement of his "discovery" of the missing link. This year's conference, on September 17, celebrates the formation of the South Downs National Park. Lorna Gartside

AASDNArchitectural & Archaeological Society of Durham & Northumberland

Founded 1861, Durham
350 members
Key activities: excursions, lectures and fieldwork
Publishes Durham Archaeological Journal

The "Arch & Arch" was founded after a meeting of the Yorkshire and Lincolnshire Architectural Society in Durham. While the composition of the membership has changed considerably from that of the early years (overwhelmingly male with a strong clerical element), the society's aims and activities remain broadly similar. Monthly lectures from September to June cover a wide range of topics of local, national and international interest, complemented by a programme of summer excursions throughout the area and beyond. The society advises on planning issues, and is represented in local environmental partnerships.

In recent years, the society has embarked on a variety of fieldwork activities. It is currently a partner in the Binchester Research Project, now in its third season, with many members participating in the excavation in July and August, and also in post-excavation workshops. Significantly, membership has more than doubled since the start of the project. There is also an ongoing programme of architectural survey and excavation at Hornby Castle in North Yorkshire.

As well as the journal, the society publishes a series of monographs. Most recent are Acts of Perception: A study of Barnard Castle in Teesdale, by David Austin (2007), and Roman Piercebridge: Excavations by DW Harding and Peter Scott 1969–1981, edited by Hilary Cool and David Mason (2008).

As a highlight of its 150th anniversary celebrations, the society is holding a conference with speakers of international stature on September 24, entitled Architecture and Archaeology: "A Wide and Fertile Field in which to Labour". Belinda Burke

UASUlster Archaeological Society

Founded 1938, Belfast
300 members
Key activities: lectures, workshops, field survey, field trips
Publishes Ulster Journal of Archaeology, newsletter

The society was established to support the annual publication of the third series of the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, the first having started in 1853. Now in its 67th edition, the journal is still central to the society's activities. It publishes information about Ulster's heritage and up to date reports of excavations, as well as more general articles about Ireland and the Irish Sea Province which relate to Ulster.

Members come from all walks of life and from all sections of the community, encompassing all ages from students to retired people, amateur and professional. The society actively promotes archaeology through its annual programme of eight open lectures and two workshops, hosted by the School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology in Queen's University Belfast, with speakers drawn from across Ireland and Britain.

In the summer the society organises field trips to the northern part of Ireland. There is also a long term project (now in its tenth year) to visit each of the Irish counties over a weekend. The society considers it important to introduce its members to the wider archaeological world, and runs an eight day field trip to the continent, having visited St Petersburg, Normandy, Brittany and Galicia. From 2012 this will alternate with visits to Britain – the first area being Salisbury Plain.

A very active Survey Group meets monthly to survey archaeological sites in association with the National Trust. Twenty one reports have so far been published on the society's website. Opportunities for excavation are more limited, but members have played a leading role in excavations at the Castle Ward estate in County Down to locate the "lost" Queen Anne period mansion. Barrie Hartwell

CASCornwall Archaeological Society

Founded 1961, Truro
450 members
Key activities: field trips, lectures, excavation and fieldwork
Publishes Cornish Archaeology, newsletter

The Cornwall Archaeological Society grew from the West Cornwall Field Club, founded in 1935 to discover, survey, record, excavate and preserve the many monuments of West Penwith. By 1961 its 150 members reached from the Isles of Scilly towards Devon, and the county society was formed with 250 first-year members. In 25 years this grew to a peak of over 700. Education was added to the society's mission as a registered charity, and now it offers 13 lectures a year. Its 11 monthly field trips are usually guided Cornish walks, but members have also visited Brittany and Devon. Cornish Archaeology is taken in libraries and universities across Europe, USA and Australia.

Members monitor the county's many scheduled monuments through Monument Watch, and area representatives help the county Historic Environment Service, with whom the society has always had superb relations – its parish checklists were the foundation for the historic environment record (or SMR). As well as excavating across the county, mostly at prehistoric sites, members have been trained in marking pottery, improving drawings and repacking museum collections; they are currently recording through the Portable Antiquities Scheme over 5,000 flint artefacts with GPS locations, collected by a member over a number of years. The society has recently invested in GPS and geophysical surveying equipment; by following up field walkers and metal detectorists, it has challenged many assumptions about Roman Cornwall. Cooperation with local researchers and the Battlefields Trust will do the same for the Civil War in the county.

A 50th anniversary exhibition is planned, with finds from society excavations, poems, photos and paintings, to show an active society conducting regular and special activities when like-minded people can indulge their imaginations and wonder at our ancestors' achievements and lifestyles. To quote a member's poem: "This, at least, as fellow men we owed them." Adrian Rodda

EAFSEdinburgh Archaeological Field Society

Founded 1971, Edinburgh
80 members
Key activities: geophysics, excavation, field walking, historical research
Publishes newsletter, papers and reports

The EAFS holds a lecture programme between October and May, and organises visits to archaeological sites. But its main purpose is to conduct fieldwork and to help amateurs gain experience of excavation, survey and post-excavation work. In 1975 the then East of Scotland Archaeological Association changed its name to the EAFS to highlight its active interest in fieldwork. It had begun in 1971 with excavations at the medieval Fast Castle (Berwickshire), conducted mainly on Sundays and continuing until 1986; in 2002 the published report on this site won the Pitt Rivers Award. Other such work includes excavations and geophysics survey at Cramond Roman fort and Castlehill, Penicuik, and society members have participated in several professional excavations.

In 2002 geophysical survey became a significant part of the society's activities, with the purchase of ground resistance measuring equipment. Fieldwork has been conducted for a variety of institutions, including the National Trust for Scotland, National Museums Scotland and Archaeology Scotland. Members of the society joined in with the Royal Commission of Scotland's Rural Past Project surveying and researching sites within the Pentland Hills regional park. Current projects include surveys at sites in East and Mid Lothian, and in conjunction with Falkirk Museums, several locations on the Antonine Wall. Alan Calder

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