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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


First Scottish gold lunula in over 100 years

Who made them, when, and why is far from clear and a new find is unlikely to change that. But scraps of gold found by a detectorist in Dumfries & Galloway will focus attention on the mystery that is the lunula, a flat, crescent-shaped neck ornament thought to date from around 2300–2200BBC, and described by some archaeologists as a symbol of power.

This is the first lunula to have been found in Scotland for over a century. Emphasising their rarity, a piece found near Brampton, Cumbria, in 2007 was the first from Britain in 100 years; and a complete lunula recovered in Ireland in 2010 had originally been found in 1945, was then kept in a chemist's safe until stolen by burglars, and was found by police in a skip.

The unnamed detectorist found the new lunula in a cultivated field near Garlieston in March. The gold sheet, probably hammered out from a bar, is very thin (0.15–0.5mm) and decorated around its edges with incised and punched zigzags, lines and dots. Like the other Scottish finds, it is less fine than typical Irish lunulae. It had been cut up and folded, and the two pieces do not join; together they amount to just under a third of the original collar. Initial surface analysis by Susy Kirk of National Museums Scotland has shown that the metal contains 11% silver and 0.5% copper. Further analysis may indicate whether the lunula had been made of Irish or Scottish gold.

Lunulae have been found across western Europe, from Scandinavia to Portugal, but the great majority (over 80) have been found in Ireland, which is where most are believed to have been made. One from Crossdoney, Co Cavan, lay in a wooden box which has been radiocarbon dated to 2460–2040BBC. Their decoration is similar to Beaker pottery dated to 2300–2000BBC, and the designs of gold lunulae seem to have inspired jet necklaces made around 2200–1950BBC. The difficulty for the researcher is that, unlike many object types of their era, they seem rarely to have been placed in graves, nor lost or hidden on settlements, so are found alone.

Such was the case with the Garlieston lunula. The finder undertook a thorough detector survey of the field; Stranraer Museum and the Wigtownshire branch of the University of the Third Age walked the field looking for artefacts; John Pickin of Stranraer Museum excavated two test pits; and Historic Scotland commissioned Rose Geophysical Consultants to undertake a geophysical survey. No more metalwork was found, nor any evidence for why the lunula might have been buried there.

Alison Sheridan, head of early prehistory at National Museums Scotland, told British Archaeology that this is only the fifth definite Scottish lunula.

"It's a nationally significant find", she added. It has been reported to the Treasure Trove Unit in accordance with Scottish law.

Complete prehistoric swords excavated in Fens

Sometime in the first century BC two iron swords were cast into a river in what is now Cambridgeshire. Such events, with echoes of the mythical Arthur's sword Excalibur being thrown into an enchanted lake, must have been common: many prehistoric weapons have been found in old lakes and rivers. What is highly unusual is that in this case, the two swords were carefully excavated by archaeologists, and found to be almost complete, with their wooden handles and scabbards still intact.

The swords were recovered about 7m apart in the silted channel of the old river Nene at Must Farm, near Peterborough. Supported by Hanson Building Products, the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) has been investigating prehistoric riverside settlement at the farm since 2004, after significant discoveries in Hanson's quarry; News earlier reported a bronze age eel trap from the site (Jan/Feb 2011, 116).

The present excavation season began in July, and the tops of wooden stakes for fish weirs soon became visible. In the first ten days the two iron swords and three metal rings were found, as well as a bronze age sword made around 1300–1000BBC. The blade of one of the iron swords had been twisted back on itself, presumably a deliberate act, says Tim Malim of SLR Consulting, before it was consigned to the slow-moving waters at the edge of the Nene. The handle of the older sword has a delicate tin pommel, and its blade had also been broken in two.

Mark Knight of the CAU says that altogether nine swords have been found around the old river channel, including three in the late 1960s when the Must Farm quarry was first opened. Other prehistoric weapons have been retrieved from the area, most spectacularly a complete bronze age spear, with its long wooden shaft and metal tip. Disarticulated human bones are common at the same levels as the metalwork, though not in direct association.

The channel assemblage, says Knight, looks increasingly like the metalwork from the well known Flag Fen post-alignment, of similar age and also in the Cambridgeshire fens. The Must Farm channel was inside a "roddon", a ridge of hard silts from an earlier tidal creek, which seems to have been used as a causeway across the corner of the fen basin. People could have walked along the raised banks much as they crossed the basin using Flag Fen's artificial alignment or causeway, apparently making similar ceremonial or religious sacrifices.

Britain in archaeology

Mesolithic Skull

Two human skulls from east of Bridgwater (Somerset) have been radiocarbon dated to 8460–8275BC and 8445–8260BC, and thus came from the UK's first known open air mesolithic cemetery. The skulls were part of a group of human remains recovered in 1928 from the now disused Greylake Sand Quarry, Middlezoy, said at the time to have represented at least five individuals. No artefacts were found with them that might have indicated their age, but local archaeologist Harold St George Gray suggested they may have been victims of the Battle of Sedgemoor (1685). The skulls have been dated by the county council's Lost Islands of Somerset project led by Richard Brunning, who described the dates as "just the result we were hoping for". Large numbers of mesolithic flint artefacts have been found at the quarry site, which in mesolithic times would have been an island in what is now the Somerset Levels. The skulls have been displayed in the Admiral Blake Museum, Bridgwater.

DNA analysis by Ian Barnes, reader in molecular palaeobiology at Royal Holloway University of London, suggests 17 skeletons excavated in 2004 from a Norwich well are evidence for medieval Jewish persecution. Radiocarbon dated to the 12th or 13th century, the remains consist of 11 children aged two to 15 and six adults. Five of seven individuals successfully tested had a DNA sequence indicative of one Jewish family. Sue Black, forensic anthropologist at the University of Dundee's Centre for Anthropology and Human Identification, said, "We are possibly talking about ethnic cleansing" – murder or forced suicide. The study was conducted for a programme in the BBC2 series History Cold Case).

Vindolanda Roundhouse

Continuing excavation at Vindolanda Roman Fort (Northumberland) has revealed a number of stone-built round buildings said to date from the time of emperor Septimius Severus's Scottish campaign (AD208–211). Director of excavations Andrew Birley speculated that the Roman army had provided refuge for native farmers who had supported and traded with the soldiers, and were seen as "traitors and collaborators". "These are very unusual buildings", he added, "and it looks as though they may number into the hundreds".

Odyssey Marine Exploration, says CEO Greg Stem in its latest financial report (noting a near quadruple revenue increase), is "looking forward to continuing... relationships with governments". This vision may have stalled in the UK. On 19 July the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Culture Media and Sport published a report on HMS Victory, sunk off Alderney in 1744 and located by Odyssey in 2009. Odyssey had hoped to agree a deal that would allow it to profit from excavation and what it controversially called "preservation" (feature, May/Jun 2009, no 106). After public consultation, however, the MoD and the DCMS decided to respect a UNESCO Convention annex and rely for now on in situ wreck management, aided by the charity Pro Mare which will monitor the site for the coming year.

Shane McLeod, a PhD student at the Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies at the University of Western Australia, examined 14 Viking burials in eastern England, identified by grave goods and bone isotope studies and all said to be male, and found six to be female. Among the latter were three from a mass grave at Repton, Derbyshire, one with a sword and shield. "Most of the data", says McLeod, "gives the impression that Norse females were far outnumbered by males". He suggests "female migration may have been as significant as male... including during the campaigning period from 865" (Early Medieval Europe, Aug 2011).

Oldest Rock Art

On 24 July the Sunday Times published a photo (requires login) of a cave on the Gower, south-west Wales, and announced "Britain's oldest example of rock art". The engraved lines were discovered by George Nash, archaeology consultant and part-time lecturer at Bristol University, last September. Nash compared the find to Creswell Crags (Nottinghamshire), the site of the UK's then only proven ice age cave art, dated to 13–11,500BC. Others had doubts, noting similarities between the new find and engravings recently reported from Somerset caves and claimed to be mesolithic (10–4000BC). On 28 July, on his way to the Gower to collect more samples, Nash told this magazine that the first result of dating calcite above the engraving, conducted by Peter van Calstern and Louise Thomas of the Open University, had just come in at around 10,570BC ± 660 years. He believed the "speared reindeer" was "much earlier", and noted that artefacts dating to 14–12,000BC had been excavated in the cave (whose name has been withheld). The project is administered by National Museum Wales and Forestry Commission Wales, and supported by Cadw.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund announced a £374,000 grant to help save the Roman town of Venta Icenorum, at Caistor St Edmund (Norfolk). The town is one of just three from Roman Britain, including Silchester (Hampshire) and Wroxeter (Shropshire), that were abandoned and never resettled, leaving the remains unusually well preserved in rural locations; exceptionally Venta was also occupied in Anglo-Saxon times. Other grants came from English Heritage, South Norfolk council and the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, which already owned part of the site. Taking the 22ha site (55 acres) into public ownership should protect it from farming and unauthorised metal detecting.

Viking Incisors

Oxford Archaeology announced that two incisor teeth from one of 51 skulls excavated in 2009 in a mass burial pit near Weymouth (Dorset) had been artificially grooved across their front. The remains, all male, have been radiocarbon dated to AD910–1030. Earlier teeth studies revealed isotope values consistent with Scandinavian countries; it is assumed the men, many of whose bones show signs of violent death, were Vikings. Filed Viking teeth have also been found in Denmark and Sweden.

The future of archaeological research has been boosted by two openings. In June the University of Winchester (Hampshire) opened the Centre for Applied Archaeology and Heritage Management. Birmingham Archaeology (at the University of Birmingham's Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity) and MetroMOLA (part of Museum of London Archaeology) launched Birmingham-based MetroMOLA Central in July, to combine commercial archaeological services and research.

Excavations in York where new headquarters for the city council are to be built, have uncovered a Roman bath complex. The baths had been identified in the 1840s during construction of the railway station, and what was left had been protected from further development; finds included painted wall plaster. Nick Pearson, from On-Site Archaeology, described the site as "some of the best quality Roman archaeology" seen in York in 20 years.

In a confusing time for the public image of museums, a gloomy report accompanied several major openings. A Museums Association survey published in July said 58% of polled UK museums had suffered cuts, leading to reduced staff, opening hours and events; nearly half expected things to get worse. "It's a myth", said MA director Mark Taylor, "that you can cut funding without affecting front-line services". Meanwhile, long-standing developments reaching fruition included Glasgow's new Riverside Museum (£74m) and Bristol's new dockside museum, M-Shed (£27m), which opened in June; and the Museum of Liverpool, which attracted over 12,000 visitors on its first day in July (£72m), and the new National Museum of Scotland, a merger of the old Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland, which opened to praise on 29 July (£46m).

Phase 2

BA 119 Cover

A group of neolithic pots splashed with modern paint, a work by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose oeuvre we described as "deeply archaeological", featured on the First Sight page of the last magazine (Jul/Aug, no 119). When the pots went on show in London, Ai Weiwei had been arrested by the authorities without proper explanation. After 81 days' detention, he was released on June 22, thinner and quieter, and was promptly issued with an enormous tax bill.

The pioneering underwater archaeologist Honor Frost, who died in September last year (Requiem, Mar/Apr 2011, no 117), left what Sotheby's called "the greatest collection of 20th century British art ever to come to the market". The auctioneers sold it over three days in June, with an estimate of over £12m. In one sense they were right on the price: it fetched a total of more than £41m. The proceeds will benefit charitable causes relating to marine archaeology, a landmark gift. Having lost her parents in childhood, Frost became the ward of Wilfred Evill, a London solicitor and art and antiques collector, whose collection she inherited when he died.

In 2008 (News, May/Jun, no 100) we reported how English Heritage had listed a derelict 19th century atmospheric pumping house in Totnes (Devon), used to power an abandoned type of train. This helped to improve relations between Dairy Crest, who had begun to demolish the Brunel building, and others who sought to British Archaeology preserve it. Things have moved on, and now Dairy Crest is working with local groups in the Atmos Project to convert the site into a community asset, with business offices, a possible Brunel exhibition, restaurant and micro-brewery.

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As a boy I understood perfectly that history is not something apart from us, sealed off. It is in our blood, our music, our language, the buildings we pass on the way to work.
Novelist Andrew Miller introducing his list of top historical fiction, which begins with Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, on, June 29