ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 51, February 2000


Experimental work

From Ms Lucy Harrad

Sir: I found Jacqui Wood's contribution to the article on experimental archaeology extremely enjoyable ('Making a spear and the Iceman's outfit', November), but I disagree with her conclusions about gabbroic pottery.

The question is whether ceramics known as gabbroic pottery, including Trevisker ware, include gabbro-rock minerals added as a temper, as Ms Wood suggests, or are made from clay weathered from gabbro rock on the Lizard. There are a number of reasons why Ms Wood's suggestion is unlikely.

She claims that gabbroic clay is 'unsuitable for ceramics'. Clay weathered directly off the gabbro rock on the Crousa Downs is very thin, but material from the gabbro rock deposited in the shallow valleys near the Helford river system and by the coast at St Keverne may be much more suitable for a potter.

Thin-sectioning of the pottery and binocular microscope analysis by Professor Peacock, whose research first recognised gabbroic clay as a source for ceramics, and later by Henrietta Quinnell, demonstrates a characteristic mineral assemblage. This is entirely consistent with gabbro rock, particularly in the absence of minerals found all over the rest of Cornwall (the granites). It is therefore logical to assume that this clay has weathered from the gabbro.

If the clay were derived from the Trevisker area in North Cornwall and gabbro rock added as temper, as Ms Wood argues, the clay should contain its own weathering products (degraded granite); but this has not been noted in thin-section. If the gabbro was added as a temper from burnt friable rocks, the inclusions should be burnt and oxidised; but again this has not been observed.

Trevisker ware is not found only at Trevisker but all over Cornwall in the middle to later Bronze Age. Ceramics from one clay source found over a wider area are observed in many archaeological periods, and are usually seen as indicating trade. Gabbroic clay is exploited not only in the Bronze Age, but from Neolithic times right through to late Iron Age wares. This is not a brief phenomenon brought about as a by-product of cooking methods.

It remains a mystery why these clays were considered so important. However, it would be far more perplexing if people were undertaking trips of many miles in order to collect gabbro rock for cooking, when granite is available all over Cornwall.

Yours sincerely,
Lucy Harrad
Research Laboratory for Archaeology, Oxford
12 November

From Dr Roy Blackman

Sir: I was pleased by the feature on experimental reconstruction. However, I was puzzled by the inset feature on crushed rock temper, which Jacqui Wood argued came from stones heated and reheated for cooking. Surely, if the people in question could fire pottery at such a high temperature to need temper-inclusion, they could cook in these pots and did not need pot-boilers and a water-filled trough? If so, some explanation of why the two cooking techniques existed together is necessary.

Yours sincerely,
Roy Blackman
Woodbridge, Suffolk
9 November

From Mr Nick Wright

Sir: I read with great interest John Lord's contribution to the experimental reconstruction article, on overcoming the problem of making a prehistoric vice. I have been making copies of prehistoric tools and weapons for some time, but I approach this problem in a different way.

Being brought up with our knowledge of modern tools and methods, it seems natural to place the object to be worked on in a vice, and then work on it with the tools. Rightly or wrongly I turned this concept upside down, fixing the tool and working the object around it. To achieve this I knap a suitable flake, and drive it into a stump with a soft hammer. If the stump splits, I bind it with strips of hide or sinew. This allows the object to be worked on with both hands, and with more freedom of movement than is otherwise possible. Using this method I have made several bows, arrows and spears.

For working on antler and bone, I use a length of ash about 3ft long by about 2in in diameter, sharpened to a blunt point and with a split on the top, which is strapped using hide thongs. This will hold burins and small denticulate flints. I can then hold this between my knees in a sitting position, and work on the antler or bone using one or both hands - a very comfortable way to work.

Yours sincerely,
Nick Wright
Looe, Cornwall
8 November

Old boundaries

From Mr Andrew Sewell

Sir: I refer to your item on the discovery of a parish boundary on the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border which coincides with the line of a Bronze Age boundary ('Parish boundary that may date from the Bronze Age', November).

It is usually assumed that current boundaries were established in post-Roman times, and in that age without maps the practical problem was to define the boundary between neighbouring parishes, in essence between neighbouring landowners. The key to this was agreement over recognisable landmarks.

To take my own parish of Aldbourne in Wiltshire, for example, the northern part is defined east and west by sections of Roman roads, and the northern boundary by an ancient way south of the Ridgeway, known as Socera Weg - the 'secret way' used by thieves.

On the southern side, key points are an outlier of the Littlecote villa estate and a small native farmstead. Today, there is nothing to see on the ground, but in Saxon times the remains of buildings and the associated ponds probably survived. This boundary is also marked for much of the way by the ancient equivalent of a barbed wire fence - a ditch and bank thrown up to restrict cattle, with a quickthorn hedge planted on top, which quite rapidly reinforces the barrier.

I suggest that there is no direct relationship between the Bronze Age pits described in the article and the boundary as such; but that at the time the boundary was defined, some kind of structure survived - either the hedge mentioned in the article, or another structure - and that this was acceptable to both parties.

Yours faithfully,
Andrew Sewell
9 November

Locating 'Beowulf'

From Mr Karl Wittwer

Sir: In view of the recent extended correspondence in your pages on the location of the action of Beowulf (Letters, March, May; and article, November 1998), readers may be interested to know that the most recent edition of the English Place-Name Society's Journal (31, 1998/99) contains an article researching Hartland, the Devon estate left in Ælfred's will, in which R Coates suggests that Heort-ig or Heortig may have been an earlier name for Lundy.

This is, of course, the same as the name of the Isle of Harty in Kent, which was the focus of your recent debate. On the strength of this, would any reader of British Archaeology be interested in proposing that the action of Beowulf was located in the Bristol Channel?

Yours faithfully,
Karl Wittwer
Maidstone, Kent
15 November

Listed buildings

From Mr Richard Hollingdale

Sir: I read with interest your article concerning Barrington Park ('Please may I demolish my listed home?', November). All aspects contribute to a building's history and should be preserved equally. As you said yourself, what would some of our best cathedrals be like if they were restored to their original phases?

Barrington Park should be treated the same. The welfare of a historic building should come before the current owners, no matter how long their family have been residents. Such an idea of continued ownership is foolishly romantic notion and should not cloud the judgement of such important issues, especially when the decisions made may be irreversible. If the owners cannot afford to continue living in Barrington Park they should have to accept the financial realities that many other home-owners have to face in less historic locations every day.

Yours faithfully,
Richard Hollingdale
Whitstable, Kent
20 November

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