ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 3, April 1995


English Heritage under fire over blue plaques

English Heritage is facing strong criticism over its attitude to local-authority `blue plaque' schemes, in particular for its refusal to press local authorities to ensure that historical information on plaques is accurate.

Last year a blue plaque was put up by Calderdale District Council (without listed building consent) on a Grade II listed pub in West Yorkshire - the Old Bridge Inn at Ripponden, near Halifax - claiming the pub was `probably Yorkshire's oldest hostelry', with an `earliest recorded date of 1307'. Denouncing the claim as having `no foundation whatsoever', Donald Haigh of Halifax Antiquarian Society wrote to English Heritage for advice and help.

Responding to Mr Haigh in several letters earlier this year, English Heritage refused to intervene. Stephen Johnson, Regional Director (North) of English Heritage's Conservation Group, said the fixing of a plaque to a listed building was `a very minor matter', and that although it was `desirable' that information should be accurate, there was no need for English Heritage to `issue general advice to local authorities that they should get their facts right'.

Andrew Saint, the senior historian in the London Division of English Heritage, told Mr Haigh that `[we] must not be seen to rubbish local initiatives', adding that `we prefer local groups and authorities outside London to devise their own design and style for any plaques scheme rather than imitate the London blue plaques, which otherwise stand in danger of becoming devalued currency'.

Bernard Jennings, formerly Professor of Regional History at Hull University and Editor of The History of Upper Calderdale, said that English Heritage's attitude was `nonsense' and `quite mistaken'. Once the facts had been brought to English Heritage's attention, he said, it should have written to the local authority informing it of the factual error, and suggesting the names of academics who might help to put the error right.

Peter Thornborrow, Historic Buildings Officer at the West Yorkshire Archaeology Service, said English Heritage's stance was a `cop out'. `They are there as representatives of the public, and for them to say it [the publication of misleading historical information] is nothing to do with them is really not good enough.'

Mr Thornborrow said that the problem of false claims to antiquity was a common one - especially amongst pubs, and in estate agency literature. And the effect was to mislead people about a subject of great importance: `The past is important to people, because without it no one knows who they are; and what people read on a building they assume is true,' he said.

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Early start for Agricultural Revolution

Evidence that the Agricultural Revolution began about two centuries earlier than was thought has been found by archaeologists specialising in animal bones at English Heritage.

One of the traditional hallmarks of the Agricultural Revolution, which brought massive improvements to European farming in the 18th century, was a new scientific approach to animal husbandry and consequent improvements in the quality of livestock.

Now a study of over 9,000 animal bones and teeth from Launceston Castle in Cornwall has shown that livestock improvements were being made by Cornish farmers, probably through selective cross-breeding, as early as the 16th/17th centuries. The study was conducted by zoo-archaeologists Umberto Albarella and Simon Davis at English Heritage's Ancient Monuments Laboratory.

The study shows that between the 15th century and the 16th/17th centuries, cattle increased in size by about ten per cent overall, sheep by between seven and ten per cent, and pigs by around five per cent. Some cattle bones (the analysis was not possible for sheep or pigs) also changed shape. Similar but less conclusive evidence has been found in Newcastle and Oxford, and at Prudhoe Castle, Northumberland.

`If you accept increased size of livestock as one of the ways of recognising the Agricultural Revolution, then here you have it in the early post-medieval period,' Dr Davis said. `The increases in size and particularly the changes in shape cannot be explained simply in terms of better nourishment. They imply the application of scientific techniques to animal breeding, and the import of foreign strains.'

The new material may have come from the Low Countries, he said, where techniques of intensive agriculture, drainage and pasture improvement were pioneered in the 15th and 16th centuries. Documentary evidence exists for the import of pied strains of cattle in the 17th century, but the trade may well have begun earlier.

The bones, excavated between 1961- 1982 by Andrew Saunders, formerly Chief Inspector at English Heritage, represent food remains, and demonstrate Launceston Castle's decline in status after the medieval period. Exotic foods disappear - such as kid, whale, dolphin, and a wide range of birds. Between 1660-1840, the castle was used as a gaol and its grounds appear to have become the town's rubbish dump.

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New paddle at prehistoric boat-yard

The discovery of a wooden paddle, thought to be prehistoric, at North Ferriby on the north shore of the Humber Estuary, confirms the site as `the most important prehistoric boat-yard in Europe', according to a leading nautical archaeologist.

The paddle, found sticking out of the beach by a local resident earlier this year, joins the remains of five prehistoric vessels, two other paddles, and what is probably a prehistoric capstan (used for hauling boats up the beach), all found at North Ferriby over the past half century. Although the new paddle has not yet been dated, radiocarbon dates for the other artefacts show the site was in use for about 1,000 years, from c 1300-350BC.

The paddle has a leaf-shaped blade, and is about 0.6m long and two-thirds complete. It is currently undergoing conservation, supervised by the Humber Wetlands Project at the University of Hull, and will eventually go on display, with other boat remains from North Ferriby, in a new gallery at the Hull and East Riding Museum.

According to Valerie Fenwick, Editor of the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology, no other site in Europe compares to North Ferriby for either the quantity or the quality of its finds. `The site was probably used as a boat-building place, and a point from which goods were ferried from North to South Ferriby across the estuary,' she said.

The new paddle indicates that the foreshore site is still `live' and producing material, Mrs Fenwick said, but, for all its importance, the site is barely protected by law. PPG16, which governs archaeology and development, does not operate below the mean low water mark, and - despite pressure from archaeologists - the site has not been scheduled.

A Code of Practice for Seabed Developers has been published by the Joint Nautical Archaeology Policy Committee - a body made up of various archaeological organisations - in co-operation with the British Marine Aggregates Producers Association and other developer bodies.

The code states that where archaeological remains are found underwater, the developer `may make provision' for an archaeological survey; and that `consideration will be given' to the physical preservation of important remains. Copies of the code are available from the National Monuments Record Centre, Kemble Drive, Swindon SN2 2GZ.

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In Brief

Irish conviction

THE PUBLIC RELATIONS officer for the Northern Ireland Council for Metal Detecting, Samuel Jackson, was convicted for handling stolen goods at Antrim Crown Court earlier this year and sentenced to 12 months in prison. He had been caught attempting to sell, at Christie's, a Bronze Age gold lunula and a 7th century AD penannular brooch stolen from the Limerick Museum in 1969.

The prosecution followed an elaborate undercover surveillance operation conducted by the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin, in co-operation with police forces in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It is not the first such operation to have been successful. In 1990, following co-operation between the museum and the FBI, an Irishman was convicted for attempting to sell stolen medieval Irish stone carvings in the United States.

Archaeology cuts

LEICESTERSHIRE Archaeological Unit will lose its public funding later this year, following a decision by the county council to cut its Museums, Art and Record Service budget by 75,000. The unit will either reform as a wholly developer-funded unit or be disbanded.

The council has agreed, however, to fund two new positions at the Jewry Wall Museum in Leicester, in order to allow some non-developer archaeology to be undertaken in the county.

White Horse date

THE WHITE HORSE at Uffington in Oxfordshire, Britain's only prehistoric hill figure, may be 1,000 years older than was thought and date from the Late Bronze Age, c 1000BC. Members of the Oxford Archaeological Unit dated the 300ft chalk carving by optical stimulated luminescence dating, which gives the approximate date of the last exposure to sunlight of buried soils. Previously, the horse was thought to date from the Iron Age chiefly because of its close resemblance to figures on Late Iron Age coins. The unit's excavations showed the figure had been regularly cleaned and repaired, and had grown marginally thinner over the centuries.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995