ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


Odd man out: Neanderthals and modern humans

New research shows that Neanderthals were far more sophisticated than was thought ten years ago. Still, modern humans wiped them out in the end. Paul Pettitt reports

Neanderthals were not modern human beings - but they looked like modern humans; they behaved in many ways like modern humans. They lived alongside modern humans, sometimes bred with them, often fought with them, and were perhaps eventually killed off by them.

The Neanderthals' story gains its enduring fascination from the fact that the period of their existence - about 120,000-28,000 years ago - was the only time when another kind of human species has shared the Earth with modern humans like us. And the story is gradually being filled out as new evidence comes to light.

A couple of decades ago it could be said that there were three main gaps in our knowledge of Neanderthals - where they came from, how they disappeared, and what they did in between. Today, things have certainly changed. From the beginnings of rigorous study in the late 1940s, an impressive arsenal of new scientific techniques is now employed on Neanderthal remains, and archaeologists have made great headway in elucidating their origins, behaviour and extinction.

Today's techniques would have been unimaginable in 1856 when the first Neanderthal fossils were discovered during limestone quarrying in the Neander Valley near Düsseldorf. Yet analysis of DNA and stable isotopes, CAT scans, AMS radiocarbon dating, bone histological studies and other techniques - not to mention improvements in the standards of excavation and recovery - have brought about some of the most profound insights into Neanderthal behaviour. We can now understand much about the way they lived, the food they ate, and the environments which they made their own.

Distant kin

In 1997, DNA was successfully sequenced - to everyone's surprise - from the original Neanderthal specimen. It must surely rank as one of the greatest advances in palaeoanthropology, as it provided for the first time a glimpse of the genetic make-up of an extinct human species.

The procedure is highly complex, involving estimation of the extent to which the Neanderthal DNA had been damaged over time, and amplification of a short length of mitochondrial DNA. The result indicated that the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans was about three times the average difference among modern humans, and about half the difference between modern humans and chimpanzees. This implies overall that Neanderthals diverged from the modern human lineage some half a million years ago.

This was the time of Homo heidelbergensis in Europe, of whom 'Boxgrove Man' is perhaps the best-known example. This species gradually evolved into Neanderthals by about 120,000 years ago. Meanwhile in Africa, a similar grade of human to Homo heidelbergensis evolved into fully modern humans, who left the continent about 100,000 years ago, reaching Europe some 50,000 years later.

Taking the long view, the 100,000 years or so of Neanderthal existence saw little significant change in their behaviour - as one researcher once memorably said: 'Every day was the first day of their lives'. However, we do see some small modifications at about 60,000 years ago - the beginnings of burial, a more strategic approach to hunting, some change in technology. It is tempting to suggest this was the result of their first contact with modern humans, but we don't really know why these changes occurred.

Even so, recent advances in research have shown that their lifestyles were far more sophisticated than was imagined only a decade or so ago.

Take hunting, for example. It used to be thought that Neanderthals only used simple sharpened wooden spears; and had not discovered that sharp stone points hafted onto a wooden spear are much more likely to deliver an immediately mortal blow. (This is because the razor-sharp edge of the flint point lacerates the victim far more effectively than wood, while wood to some extent plugs the wound.) Indeed, the use of resins for hafting was thought to have originated in the comparatively recent Mesolithic (10,000-6,000 years ago).

In the very early Neanderthal period, about 100,000 years ago, we do have evidence for a sharpened wooden spear in the stomach cavity of an elephant from Lehringen in Germany. However, the negative imprint of a stone tool on birch resin recently discovered at Königsaue in Germany - one fragment of which may preserve the remains of a Neanderthal finger impression - indicates the use of hafting for stone tools well over 40,000 years ago. At Starosel'e in Crimea, microscopic resin-starch grains and wood fibres adhering to stone tools originate from resin-fixed hafts, while fragments of feathers adhering to the tools indicate that birds were butchered there over 40,000 years ago.

Similarly at Umm el Tlel in the Syrian desert, two scrapers were hafted to wooden handles with bitumen over 50,000 years ago. From the same site, a Levallois point was found embedded in the neck bones of a wild ass, demonstrating once and for all that Neanderthals eventually came to employ a sophisticated, composite weapon technology.

Moving beyond hunting, exceptional preservation of 50,000-43,000 year old archaeology at the Abric Romani rockshelter in Spain has provided remarkable glimpses of Neanderthal 'domestic' life. Cavities near hearths containing preserved wood fragments may indicate the stockpiling of wood for cooking and lighting. Natural fossil casts - known as 'pseudomorphs' - of three logs directly on top of a hearth point to the use of a tripod for cooking, while the pseudomorph of a log nearby may imply seating by the fire.

A number of enigmatic wooden implements are apparently associated with the hearths, two of which were probably digging sticks. A number of flat oval pieces may have actually been dishes. Add to this the recovery of selective marine shellfish cooking at Vanguard Cave, Gibraltar, and a picture of Neanderthals as sophisticated diners emerges.

This does not detract from the traditional view of Neanderthals as successful hunters of large game. New analyses of faunal remains, such as at Wallertheim in Germany and Mauran and Le Portel in France, reveal how Neanderthals were capable of using strategic points in the landscape to bring down game. Narrow, funnel valleys and dead ends were typically chosen, where migrating herds would be naturally slowed down or brought to a halt.

At Mauran, the remains of some 400 bison suggest Neanderthal groups returned to the site time and again - perhaps over a century or longer. Moreover, we now know that prime-of-life adult animals were selected - not those enfeebled by youth, age or illness. Neanderthals were carnivores par excellence. Study of the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen in fossil bone indicates the source of Neanderthal dietary protein, and fossils from western Europe to Uzbekistan reveal a similar pattern - in quantity of meat consumption, Neanderthals compare with hyaenas. For a Neanderthal it was meat for breakfast, lunch and tea - mind you, modern human diet of the period was hardly any different.

Broken bones

Neanderthals lived fast and died young. We know this from studies of fossil bones. Death often came in infancy or early adulthood, coinciding probably with the dangerous events of being weaned - when infants ceased to have the immunity protection of mother's milk and began to range about on their own - and joining the hunt at about age 12-13. Neanderthals rarely lived beyond their early thirties.

It would be rare for a Neanderthal to get through his or her early twenties without breaking at least one bone, and the size of muscle insertions on their bones indicates habitual exertion. We find broken bones even in four or five year olds.

This massive muscularity and physical trauma applies to both males and females. Among Neanderthals it seems there was no sexual differentiation of labour. This is one of the classic differences between Neanderthals and early modern humans - modern human women were more 'gracile' with smaller, lighter bones and less powerful muscles.

Despite the physical toughness of their lives, it appears that Neanderthals had a strong sense of community - they cared for members of the group who were injured or infirm. Recent study of the tissues of the original Neanderthal's forearm, for example, shows that it had broken and remained unusable for decades, much reducing his ability to contribute to society. At Shanidar cave in Iraq, one male had a crushed right leg, ankle and foot, a blow to the skull that had probably blinded him in one eye and a right arm that was severed above the elbow. His injuries had healed; he remained part of the group.

Equally interesting is the evidence for burial. We know of at least 30 deliberate Neanderthal burials - some claim there are twice that - possibly suggesting a sense of mourning for lost group members and even some intimation of an afterlife. Ongoing work in the Neander Valley, at the original cave site where Neanderthal remains were first discovered, has shown that there were at least two individuals buried there, suggesting the possibility of a kind of mortuary centre. However, the 19th century quarrymen's dynamite blasted the place to bits, and most of the evidence has been lost forever.

Neanderthals favoured the cold, open environments where game such as bison and reindeer grazed. It seems that individual groups ranged over fairly restricted areas. Study of the stone used in tools shows that 99 per cent was sourced within one hour's walk from the group's main cave, and the remainder from within about 30km - a day's ranging. Very rarely, you find a tool from up to 100km away in western Europe, or 200km away in eastern Europe - possibly a chance find of a tool dropped by another group passing through the region.

This is another way in which Neanderthals differed markedly from contemporary modern humans, who employed a much wider range of materials from across Europe - such as seashells from the Atlantic and mammoth ivory from southern Germany. These they probably acquired through established exchange networks with other groups.

Neanderthals, by contrast, probably ranged mostly around their caves and campsites. Only rarely do stone tools move over 100km, suggesting that their activity was localised and territorial. The notion of territory may even have first developed with Neanderthals in this period.

What, then, of the Neanderthals' coexistence with modern humans, and their final disappearance?

In the Balkans, two Neanderthal fossils from Vindija cave in Croatia were dated last year by the accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) radiocarbon method to between about 28,000-29,000 years ago. They are the youngest dated Neanderthals yet known.

Datable fossils aside, a rough indicator of the timing of Neanderthal extinction in any given region is the last appearance of Middle Palaeolithic technology. This, broadly, was the toolkit dominated by flakes, scrapers and points, which was eventually replaced by Upper Palaeolithic blades and a greater stylistic range.

From this, it seems that the process began some time before 40,000 years ago in southern Central Europe, radiating out from there over the succeeding 12,000 years or so, leaving Neanderthals surviving in pockets beyond 31,000 years ago in areas such as southern Iberia, southwest France, areas of the Balkans, Crimea, parts of the Russian Plain, and perhaps Britain too although here the evidence has yet to be found. In these topographically varied areas, containing a mix of, say, upland, forest and riverine environments, it seems to have been possible for Neanderthal groups to survive in relatively restricted territories.

Whether or not modern humans spreading out across Europe played a role in Neanderthal extinction is of course a major question. The dates for the latest persistence of Neanderthals and the arrival of modern humans varies considerably from region to region; in Siberia, for example, the two seem to have overlapped for up to 10,000 years, but there seems little or no overlap in southwest France.

What are we to make of such variability? Perhaps the two co-existed for several centuries or millennia in topographically varied regions capable of sustaining both species in distinct environments - and in these regions they interbred. The 24,000-25,000-year-old part-modern-human, part-Neanderthal Lagar Velho boy found in Portugal in 1998 (see BA, June) provides the clearest evidence that this had happened extensively at least in Iberia.

Love and war

But if Neanderthals and modern humans made love in Iberia, they made war in France and Germany. Some scholars have argued that the aggressive subject matter of the earliest art is the signature of a violent and aggressive modern human colonist - ranks of advancing lions at Grotte Chauvet in south-eastern France, for example; or the lion-headed man carved from a mammoth tusk at Höhlenstein-Stadel.

By the time modern humans appeared in France around 34,000 years ago, they had developed art; they had exchange networks extending from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, and on to central Europe; they were technologically sophisticated and well- organised. These were intelligent people, quite capable of sitting around a fire and logically planning the conquest of a region.

It must have seemed, in some areas, that Neanderthals had little to offer modern humans - except competition. In these areas, the attitude may have been to kill first, ask questions later. For too long we have regarded the extinction of Neanderthals as a chance historical accident. Rather, where Neanderthals and modern humans could not coexist, their disappearance may have been the result of the modern human race's first and most successful deliberate campaign of genocide.

Paul Pettitt is the Senior Archaeologist at Oxford University's Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and a Douglas Price Junior Research Fellow at Keble College. He is a specialist in Palaeolithic archaeology

Return to the Sanctuary

In a tale of espionage, forgotten diaries and missed evidence from earlier excavations, Mike Pitts offers a new interpretation of the mysterious Sanctuary at Avebury

If you have visited the Sanctuary, a small double stone circle near Avebury in Wiltshire, you will know there's not much to see. It is Avebury's Stonehenge - a bleak field beside a fast road, with free parking for resting lorry drivers and lost sales reps.

It's easy to forget it wasn't always thus. This was the scene of bitter rivalry and espionage, of visionary quests and the tragic myopia of social class - and of a hastily concealed body: a cruel world played out in microcosm. And that was just the archaeologists.

The Sanctuary stands at the end of the West Kennet Avenue, two parallel rows of megaliths that meander between chalk hills, reaching the great stone circles at Avebury nearly two miles to the north. William Stukeley, the 18th century antiquary who named the Sanctuary, described the total demolition of its stones in 1723 and 1724.

Local archaeologists Maud and Ben Cunnington, excavating for the stone circles in 1930, found also six concentric rings of post holes, a collection of artefacts and animal bones, and the remains of an adolescent buried with a Beaker pot against a small megalith. They refilled the site, laying out the plan in concrete stumps. The archaeology was done.

Well, not quite. What exactly were the holes for?

Maud herself imagined a ceremonial arrangement of poles, a little Stonehenge in wood. 'It is not necessary to picture these timbers as merely bare posts', she said in a public lecture soon after the dig. 'They could have been coloured and adorned in many ways, perhaps even carved into various forms'.

Only a year later her nephew Robert Cunnington, a Royal Engineers-trained surveyor who prepared the excavation plan, suggested instead that a giant roof spanned the whole site. But it was the great archaeologist Stuart Piggott who turned opinion round.

Fresh from the excavation of an Iron Age village at Little Woodbury in Wiltshire in 1939, where he had worked on the uncovering of a massive post-built round house, Piggott looked at the Sanctuary with new eyes. Instead of a confusion of standing posts, he saw three successive roofed buildings, each of the second two larger than the one that came before. The third building contained the inner stone circle within its walls.

Sites comparable to the Sanctuary have since been discovered (most recently by English Heritage at Stanton Drew in Somerset), but the arguments about what they all looked like continue. And we keep going back for inspiration to two originals, the Sanctuary itself, and Woodhenge near Stonehenge (which the Cunningtons had dug just before). If only we could get more information on them - both were rapidly published, but both have no archive.

Except the Sanctuary does have an archive - we just didn't know it. The foreman, Willy Young, was a prolific diarist. In February last year, at the suggestion of Ros Cleal, the curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum in Avebury, I looked at his diaries in the library of Devizes Museum. This astonishing collection of anecdotes, archaeological information, and the heavily edited version of one man's life is spread over 88 volumes. Like any personal record, it needs handling with care. But Young's little known scrapbook autobiography will, I believe, come to be appreciated as a key document in the history of English archaeology. It is one of the most valuable items on the shelves of Devizes Museum.

The diaries begin (with the words 'Rain prevented us from digging') in 1930, the year of the Sanctuary excavation. There are 50 pages of detailed site notes.

There is no immediate relationship between Young's numbering of the 162 excavated pits and the labels on the published plan. The key to unravelling this is a single decorated pot sherd. We know where it came from, and Young drew it in his diary. In time, I was able to establish which pits Young describes.

Unfortunately, many are not represented in his diary. To save on wages, he was not brought to site until labourers had found stone holes, and much was already gone when he started work. He only described features he excavated himself.

Yet this newly discovered record is astonishingly informative. Here we find more detail on pit fills and finds (including a possible jet bead), insights into how the site was dug, lists of visitors, and so on. On one occasion, the Wiltshire Archaeological Society came on a tour. The skeleton had just been found. So as not to distract from the serious business of archaeology, Maud ordered the bones covered, and they were quietly excavated the next day.

Correspondence between Young and Alexander Keiller, living in London before his purchase of Avebury Manor, adds to the picture. Keiller had not yet begun his famous excavations at Avebury, but had previously dug at nearby Windmill Hill - with Young as his site foreman. He was dismayed that he was not digging the Sanctuary himself, and in some particularly unpleasant letters, left Young in no doubt about his feelings.

Of course, Keiller wanted to know everything. At Windmill Hill, he had for various reasons incurred the wrath of the Cunningtons, and they now forbade him from visiting their site at the Sanctuary. We know that by the end of 1930, at the latest, Keiller was paying Young to write the diaries, and he also paid later to have them expensively bound. Annotations in the diaries in Keiller's handwriting show that he had full access to their contents. I believe that Keiller commissioned the diaries, as a result of his rancour over the Sanctuary excavation. We owe this record, then, to a bitter dispute between rival archaeologists.

Several aspects of the 1930 excavation were confusing. I couldn't reconcile the layout of the post holes in the centre of the site as mapped by the Cunningtons, and as described by Young. There were other contradictions. The diary had several more post pipes - dark, circular features marking the positions of decayed posts - than appeared in the publication. Sometimes it even implied the existence of extra holes. And then there was the time that Young went to London to hear Stuart Piggott talk.

On 7 February 1940, Young and fellow amateur archaeologist Denis Grant King took the train from Swindon to Paddington, to hear Piggott deliver his famous paper on timber circles. It had been a particularly cold spring, and somewhere near Reading, the two friends saw army lorries massed in the snow. 'There must have been literally thousands of them', wrote Young, 'parked together in long rows'. They later arrived at the Society of Antiquaries in a blacked-out London.

After Piggott's lengthy delivery, Young was asked by the Chair to open the discussion. He stood up, commended Piggott for his scholarship, and sat down. But inside he was seething.

'One point in particular', he later wrote, 'I totally disagreed with. This was his maintaining that the double post holes at the Sanctuary [which occurred in two of the rings] were the result of re-placements carried out during the gradual growth of the hut, thus flatly contradicting the evidence which came to light when those post holes were excavated'. They had thought of this at the time, he said, and cut longitudinal sections. These 'proved that the two posts in each particular case had been erected at one and the same time'.

This was completely new evidence, of key significance for the interpretation of the site. Who was right? And how could we make sense of the contradictions between Young's plan and that in the published report? There was only one way to move forward. We'd been arguing about the Sanctuary at our desks for too long. We needed to get out and dig.

My own small excavation at the Sanctuary last summer was in many ways a magical event. The day I turned up to backfill, when it was all over, there were two women seated in the grass outside our security fence. They had thrown some herbs over the top, and one bunch had fallen into an excavated pit. We talked, and I brought them inside to show them what we had found. I offered to split the herbs, and put a piece at the bottom of each pit. So my final poking about was done with a strong smell of lavender filling the Neolithic post holes.

Excavating a small square in the centre of the Sanctuary has transformed the site for me. For those of us who worked there, there was an inevitable sense of drama. Some of us had known about this place for all of our careers. Its status was iconic.

For visitors, too, the chance to see what lay under the turf was sometimes a source of excitement. And not just for the many archaeologists who came. From the local Druid-cum-antique-motorbike-mechanic who arranged a blessing for us at the start, to the two women at the end, the excavation brought something new and enchanting to what was already a place of meaning.

Anyone who has worked on a dig, however small, will know what I mean. It doesn't have to be a World Heritage Site; just as much a hole in a back street. The earthy smells, the movement, the noise, the sense of touching other people's lives as the ground opens up. Such things are what draw people to archaeology. The challenge is to reconcile that pull with academic ways of telling the past.

There are actually two sets of diaries in Devizes Museum. One is longer than the other, and the shorter seems to be a digest which Young wrote in parallel. There are also scraps of a third set of diaries in Avebury Museum - the original draft that I had imagined must have once existed. Written in pencil on pieces of loose paper, are a few days' notes that, by good luck, include the single post hole section drawing that appears in the longer fair copy.

This draft has something that the other versions do not - a plan of the sectioned post hole. At first we thought that it held the key to the contradictions between Young's plan and Cunnington's. But when we finally dug out the holes, we found something different again. These post holes had a life of their own.

The published report gives no hint that features had cut through each other, with an implied sequence. We saw above how Young contradicted Piggott on this point, and Avebury Museum has further evidence that Maud Cunnington herself believed the 'double post holes' to be single phase pits.

A copy of the journal in which the report appeared, and which had once belonged to Robert Newall, is in Avebury Museum. (Newall was William Hawley's assistant at the important Stonehenge excavations in the 1920s.) He wrote a comment in the margin, quoting Maud in a letter sent to him in 1931. Someone had suggested to her that the oval post holes held two posts supporting lintels.

'It seems quite a good idea', she wrote. 'I can't think why none of us hit on it before?'

But when we found the tops of the pits at the start of the excavation, it was difficult to believe that each had held a post simultaneously. Some undoubtedly had been dug across others. And according to a virtual reality model of the Sanctuary by Jennifer Garofalini of Southampton University, which contains structural suggestions based on my reading of Young's records, a forest of posts was portrayed so close together that physical movement among them - important in recent reconstructions - would have been almost impossible. Cunnington and Young, it seems, cannot then have been completely right.

I hoped that there might still be some Neolithic fill in the pits, mistaken for rock in 1930. I was right. One of the double post holes had a step on the bottom, 50cm high. Like Young and Maud Cunnington, initially we thought it was natural. But we were all wrong. This step turned out to be Neolithic pit fill, almost pure, hard-packed chalk. When I dug it out, there was still a step, half the height of the original. The next day I found that this too was in fact prehistoric packing.

My fellow director Josh Pollard, of the University of Wales in Newport, and I have thought hard about this. What does it mean? I suggest that to create the recorded evidence, a series of pits - at least five altogether - must have been excavated and refilled in this one double post hole.

Were all these dug to hold posts? Only the deepest pit at the eastern end of the hole had evidence for a timber, in the form of a dark pipe 25cm across. And how do we reconcile Young's conviction that the entire filling of this hole was in fact simultaneous?

Perhaps a series of circular pits was dug and refilled in rapid succession - so fast that the clean chalk thrown back in left little sign of this repeated excavation. If each pit held a post, these were later removed. Only the last timber was left to rot in place.

This could hardly have occurred beneath a heavy thatched roof (so Stuart Piggott was wrong, then, too), confirming the growing feeling amongst archaeologists that these sites were displays of free-standing posts. But more than that, this extraordinary process of pit regeneration forces us to look at the Sanctuary in a completely new light. It suggests that the old way of seeking 'phases' misses the point. There were many phases, there was one phase. This was not a building like a cathedral, architectural styles succeeding one another over centuries. It was not a monument at all - it was a process.

The important thing was the ceremony, the activity. Going out into the wildwood to find the trees, felling them, dragging them to site, carving them, digging the pits, hauling the things into place. And this process was so important that to allow it to continue, the posts had to be removed and the pits filled. Then the cycle could begin again. Maybe the confusion of a near continuous reworking of pits and posts - perhaps over no more than a generation - lies behind the discrepancies between different records.

At the end of a huge processional way - the West Kennet Avenue - what could be more appropriate than a place of ritual, movement and effort? Perhaps the present state of the Sanctuary, an airy waste populated by eccentrics, visionaries, past spirits, and the occasional excavator, is nearer an ancient truth than any of us imagined?

Mike Pitts, former curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury, is an archaeologist and author. More information on the Sanctuary and other new research at Stonehenge and Avebury will appear in his book 'Hengeworld', to be published later this year by Century

Great sites: Bignor Roman villa

Martin Henig returns to the site that first proved the wealth and sophistication of late Roman Britain

The Napoleonic War disrupted travel across Europe, and Britain's aristocratic antiquaries - who had played a prominent role in recording the classical remains of Italy - were now forced to focus their attention on home ground.

By lucky coincidence it was exactly in this period that a ploughman, turning the soil at Bignor near the South Downs of Sussex in July 1811, uncovered a mosaic pavement depicting the rape of Ganymede that marked the site of one of the grandest late Roman villas ever found in the British Isles.

A local landowner, John Hawkins of Bignor Park, was himself a traveller and cosmopolitan intellectual. As soon as he heard of the discovery, he sent word to his friend Samuel Lysons, an experienced antiquary. Lysons's eight-year excavations at Bignor marked the summit of his career. He died in 1819, the year after excavations drew to a close.

Bignor Roman villa is one of the great sites of Roman archaeology in Britain. It transformed our understanding of the Roman period, being the first site that conclusively proved the existence of a fabulously wealthy 'country house' culture in Roman Britain, whose architecture and art were a match for anything found in continental Europe or in the Roman near east.

Previously, scholars - whose understanding of Roman imperial history was founded on classical texts - had regarded Britain as little more than a rough frontier zone. Since Lysons's time, too, there have been periods in which the art and culture of Roman Britain have been belittled. Professor RG Collingwood's ignorant diatribe in his Roman Britain (1936) was especially influential.

Yet now many historians are reverting to Lysons's view of the elevated nature of high society culture in Roman Britain. Guy de la B&eacu'doy&egra;re wrote recently in this magazine of the 'golden age' of late Roman Britain (BA, July). Those of us who share this view return time and again, for one of our principal sources of evidence, to Bignor.

The excavations themselves caused a sensation. After the revelation of the great mosaic pavement representing Ganymede, other mosaics, fountains and hypocausts came to light, and room after room as the palatial villa was uncovered. Fashionable London was abuzz with talk of the new discoveries.

Lysons's excavation technique was fairly simple. Using teams of labourers, probably from Hawkins's estate, he dug down until he reached a mosaic pavement and peeled off the soil, working from room to room until he had uncovered the entire groundplan of the courtyard villa.

Yet for all the simplicity of his approach, lacking the mechanical and electronic gadgetry that we now seem to find indispensible, Lysons's work set a standard that has rarely been matched. His recording of mosaics and the villa's groundplan was detailed and meticulous - as well as exquisitely beautiful.

Above all, unlike so many contemporary and later antiquaries - such as the German businessman Schliemann who dug at Troy and Mycenae later in the century - Lysons's work was not merely a treasure hunt. He found a few valuable objets d'art at Bignor, such as a gold signet ring and a head of Fortuna, but these he recorded accurately, and valued more for their context than as treasure. The head is now lost; but such is the quality of Lysons's drawing that, for scholars at least, the sculpture in a sense lives on.

His work was not perfect. Lysons did not fully understand stratigraphy, and he mistook the date of the villa. We now know that after 2nd century beginnings, Bignor's most sumptuous final phase dates from the 4th century. This was a period sometimes known as the Constantinian renaissance, in which artists reverted to the styles of the early imperial era. It was partly the highly classical style of the Bignor mosaics, with their mythological scenes on a grand scale, that confused Lysons into dating the villa to the 1st century.

Yet it was a good guess. Lysons knew, from his understanding of the Roman policy of fostering client kingdoms, that there ought to be at least one grand palace belonging to a native ruler near Chichester - the capital of the Romanising Regni tribe - soon after the Conquest. Just such a Flavian palace was discovered a century and a half later at Fishbourne.

As it is, we now regard Bignor as the home of members of the native local ruling class, no doubt the descendents of the very people for whom Fishbourne was built three centuries earlier.

The lasting value of the Bignor excavation lies in Lysons's revelation and interpretation of the mosaics. In this he was, and probably remains, without peer. Very few scholars, in fact, have taken the art of Roman Britain so seriously or understood its quality so well. Lysons showed that the classical archaeology of the province was well worth taking seriously. He therefore influenced all succeeding generations of archaeologists whose interests centred on the Roman period, especially the Roman villa.

In other respects too, the Bignor excavation was an inspiration for the modern age. Lysons's popular guidebook was one of the first to any archaeological site. And the long-term survival of the site was ensured by the erection of charming structures over the mosaics, which have themselves now become important listed buildings. In this respect, his work at Bignor renders Lysons a founding father of conservation as well as of archaeology.

Martin Henig lectures in Roman Art at Oxford University

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