British Archaeology, no 30, December 1997: Letters

Owning the past

From Dr Stuart Wrathmell

Sir: ‘Who Owns the Past?’, asks Andrew Selkirk in an Adam Smith Institute pamphlet, which you reviewed last month (‘Blasting away in all directions at once’, November). Surely the Institute could answer the question itself, and with chilling simplicity: the people who own the past should be those who are prepared to pay the most money for it.

We could envisage our historic environment being divided up thematically or geographically, and tenders being invited for franchises to explore it, and to retrieve information including finds from it. I do not see much room in this scenario for the independent but impecunious enthusiast; no doubt American and Continental universities and institutes would win the most valuable franchises.

And if Mr Selkirk were to complain that our past already belongs to someone - to all of us - the answer is simple: so did the railways, gas, water, electricity, and the rest.

Yours sincerely,
11 November

Ancient picnics

From Mr Andrew Sewell

Sir: In his article (‘Ancient attitudes to ancient monuments’, November), Howard Williams is influenced by the number of secondary burials in barrows, and suggests that the only interest for later peoples in these monuments was as sacred places.

Some barrows here in Wiltshire do indeed seem to have been re-used for burials in the Roman period, but others - particularly those in prominent positions with splendid views - show up odd sherds of Romano-British domestic pottery, suggesting the remains of a picnic outing. Surely 2,000 years ago people were rather like us: a bit mystified by the curious remains, but equally inclined to see them as an obvious site for a family outing.

Yours faithfully,
11 November

Lateral thought

From Mr John Clarke

Sir: The fact that there seems to be one reader who, like me is a ‘lay person’ in archaeology (Letters, October), prompts me to record my amateurish solution to an artefact puzzle which I experienced recently.

I had walked up the footpath on Lodge Hill, near Princes Risborough in Buckinghamshire, to see what I could find, having read that it was a Neolithic site. I was greeted with large notices warning me off private property, so I sadly wandered down again, until I came across a farm track cut into the lower slopes.

At this point, some years’ experience in field geology came to the rescue. I was aware of the phenomenon of soil-creep, by which over centuries or millennia the surface material on a slope slowly moves downhill. So I studied the soil, flint and chalk fragments exposed in the bank on the uphill side, and struck lucky. The little two-inch piece of white flint, directly below the old settlement, almost asked to be picked up.

Examination showed it to be just one centimetre wide over much of its body, with the lower edge nicely wedge-shaped and saw-toothed. But there was one thing wrong. When I took this in my right hand and made as if to cut with it, it was most awkwardly shaped. Nothing seemed to fit. So I transferred it to the left hand, and - miracle! - the depression on the left perfectly fitted my thumb, the flat top was shaped for maximum comfortable pressure, and on the other side, a smooth groove took my middle finger as if tailor-made for it. So, of course, it was made for a left handed person.

But was it? Rather a useful coincidence, when I’d read that nearly all our ancestors were right-handed, like me. So I asked myself that it would have been used for. And one sensible answer for such a small and almost delicate tool was flaying - cutting the skin from an animal’s body. But I was still worried about the seeming left-handedness of this tool. And then light dawned. A bloody skin is mighty slippery, so to grasp it in one hand while the other hand cuts, means the grasping hand should be one’s strongest, with the firmest grip. So you hold the slippery skin in your strong right hand, and cut under to remove it from the body with the left hand. And that’s the hand my little tool fits perfectly.

Yours sincerely,
6 October

Battlefield history

From Ms Carolyne Kershaw

Sir: I dispute Dr Carman’s assertion (Letters, September) that my earlier reply to his article ‘Interpreting the landscapes of battle’ revealed ‘an a priori view of what would be considered - appropriate - military behaviour [in the past] ’.

It was my point that good or poor use of terrain by military commanders is not a function of cultural conventions in a specific time period or geographical region, but of applied human intelligence (or lack of it). In Dr Carman’s original article he presented a view that intelligent use of terrain was something that developed through history, beginning only during the medieval period, a view with which I disagree.

Dr Carman, in his call for the preservation of battlefields for research (his own particular interest in them) has also neglected to consider battlefields as heritage. Surely the sites of certain battles have a similar importance as ‘heritage’ as cathedrals or castles. No-one would consider demolishing Caernarfon Castle to make way for housing, but house-building on the field of Tewkesbury receives planning permission.

Where are Europe’s equivalents of Gettysburg, a battlefield preserved as a national monument? I am not aware of any site in this country receiving remotely similar treatment, except Culloden. Surely a few important battlefields could be limited to agriculture and recreation, with key features being treated in a similar way to listed buildings, and appropriate provision made for research?

Yours sincerely,
18 September

Wharves and tides

From Mr JD Mettam

Sir: In your news item ‘Waterfront "used at Synod of Chelsea" ’ (September), the archaeologist Mike Webber is quoted as saying that the vertical waterfront is a sign that water levels were constant in the Middle Saxon period, with the implication that sloping revetments (or a beach) would be needed where there are increasing tidal ranges. The opposite is true. A ship lying against a sloping face on a falling tide is likely to be damaged or capsized as it grounds on the slope. With any appreciable tide a vertical face is required, which could be a line of piles in front of a slope.

Yours faithfully,
23 September

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