ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 54, August 2000


Archaeologists divide on Stonehenge solstice

Is it right to share Stonehenge with all? Or to keep the `prancing mystics' out?

So the solstice is over. The assorted thrill-seekers have gone; the druids, pagans, New Age travellers, Brazilian samba dancers in chain-mail bikinis, yuppies with picnic hampers, press photographers and others who were simply curious have all departed. Stonehenge is now (relatively) quiet again.

But what did archaeologists think of it all? Reactions were predictably mixed to the first midsummer sunrise opening of Stonehenge for 16 years.

One who disapproved was veteran prehistorian Paul Ashbee. `By allowing more than 6,000 so-called mystics and others to prance and perform there, English Heritage may well be responsible for irreparable damage,' he thundered in a letter to The Times.

He claimed that on the wet morning of June 21, the monument would have been particularly vulnerable. With people-pressure of more than two per square yard, `fragile turf', shallow archaeological layers and underlying features could have been harmed.

Dr Ashbee demanded that any damage should be fully assessed before English Heritage goes ahead with its proposed `open stones' policy at the monument. `English Heritage seems to me less concerned with the care of the monuments in its charge than with entertainment for the masses,' he wrote.

Museum of London osteologist Bill White agreed that Stonehenge should have remained closed, objecting in particular to `spurious druids' claiming special knowledge of what the monument was for. `I don't see what people dancing about and flashing lights have got to do with the real purpose of Stonehenge,' he said.

However, Duncan Coe, Wiltshire's assistant county archaeologist, said he supported opening Stonehenge for the solstice as long as people behaved responsibly. The monument had not been damaged. `In any case, how much stratigraphy is left at Stonehenge that hasn't been disturbed by antiquaries and archaeologists over the years? Virtually nothing,' he said.

Martin Brown, a morris-dancer and assistant county archaeologist in East Sussex, said that allowing some access to Stonehenge enables people to feel a sense of ownership and care for the monument. He emphasised that the event had passed off peacefully. `If people can do their own thing in a relatively quiet way, it has to be better than the heavy police presence, exclusion zones and razor wire that we've had over the last few years.'

Prehistorian Alex Gibson, a specialist in timber and stone circles, also supported opening the monument for the solstice. He said it would be wrong to regard Stonehenge as the sole preserve of archaeologists, and that English Heritage had a duty to make it accessible to all. `Monuments like Stonehenge and Seahenge mean so much to so many people. Their beliefs may seem quaint to archaeologists but they are as entitled to theirs as we are to ours.'

Even Kate Fielden of Wiltshire Archaeological Society, a doughty campaigner against year-round open access at Stonehenge, supported opening it for the solstice. She pointed out that, for all we know, many thousands of people might have thronged Stonehenge for rituals in prehistory, and that the monument can stand the pressure once a year. `I would have gone myself if it hadn't been raining,' she said.

Sixth century cemetery points to origins of Sutton Hoo

The graves of what may have been the parents and grandparents of the great East Anglian kings buried at Sutton Hoo have been found in a small hill-top cemetery some 500 metres from Sutton Hoo overlooking the River Deben in Suffolk.

Grave goods from the new cemetery indicate burials of the highest status, although they are much less spectacular than those from Sutton Hoo. They date from the later 6th century - one or two generations earlier than the great ship burial found in 1939 which is thought to have belonged to Raedwald, the most powerful of Anglian kings who died in 625.

One grave from the new cemetery contained a decorated bronze hanging bowl, a high-status item that would originally have been suspended by three cords or chains from a tripod or hook. Hanging bowls are typically found only in the richest Anglo-Saxon graves, including that of Raedwald, although their function has never been entirely clear.

Six graves contained a spear and shield; and one of these also included a sword. One shield had gilded bronze studs and decorative mounts in the shape of fish. In the female graves, excavators found two bronze ring brooches and beads from a necklace.

The cemetery consisted of both cremation and inhumation burials, many under mounds. The form of cremation burial suggests the cemetery's users were still closely in touch with traditional customs used in the Anglian homeland. Cremations under mounds are extremely rare in Britain but common in northern Germany around the River Elbe.

The new grave-field is roughly contemporary with another Anglian royal cemetery in Suffolk, a few miles north at Snape. Here a 19th century excavation revealed a ship burial and numerous weapon burials. According to John Newman, of Suffolk's county archaeological unit, the contemporary cemeteries may represent rival branches of the Anglian royal house at a time when its power was beginning to grow.

Bronze Age dagger found with jet buttons in Fife

A well-preserved bronze dagger, thought to be Early Bronze Age, has been found in a cist grave at Rameldry in Fife. The 4,000-year-old dagger has a flat blade and a hilt plate made of horn, embellished with tiny metal pins. Parts of its leather sheath were also preserved.

The grave also contained a rare set of five large jet buttons, and a sixth made of a bronze-coloured stone, alongside fragmentary skeletal remains. The buttons, about 50mm (2in) in diameter, were found alongside the body's chest and pelvis and were possibly once attached to burial clothing. One is decorated with a cross design and zig-zag pattern. Traces of a white material survive in the design, which may be a jet polish left in for decorative effect.

The grave, isolated on a hillside with panoramic views, was discovered when its capstone was dislodged during ploughing and was subsequently excavated by Louise Baker of Headland Archaeology. The skeleton was that of a man in his 40s.

More evidence of Roman PoW camp on Hadrian's Wall

New discoveries at Vindolanda fort on Hadrian's Wall have reinforced the idea that the fort may have been used as a Roman PoW camp in the 3rd century.

Back-to-back rows of native-style circular stone huts have been found in the south-western corner of the fort, adding to earlier, similar discoveries in the centre and north. Excavators now assume that the huts covered the whole fort area, which was flattened to make way for the new buildings. If so, about 300 huts could have existed, housing up to 2,000 prisoners.

According to Robin Birley, Director of the Vindolanda Trust, the huts probably date to the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, who brought an imperial force to quell a native uprising in northern Britain. Severus pushed well into Scotland during the campaign and subsequently died at York in 211. Many hostages were sent as exhibits to Rome but it is suspected that others were kept at Vindolanda.

The hut rows are unparalleled at any fort elsewhere in the Empire. Many contain hearths, but they are otherwise devoid of finds as they were regularly swept clean in antiquity.

This season's excavations at Vindolanda have also produced evidence of a second bath-house, dating to the end of the 1st century. Over 100 bricks and tiles were marked by animal footprints, including those of cats, dogs, squirrels, deer, and one huge print thought to have been made by a bear. One tile alone had 17 prints on it.

The bricks and tiles were presumably trampled when they were freshly made and lying out in the sun to dry.

Saxon royal cemetery discovered in Southampton

Graves may have belonged to dynasty that founded one of England's first towns

Part of an exceptionally rich Anglo-Saxon cemetery has been excavated in the middle of Southampton. Graves were found furnished with weapons, gold and other fine jewellery which may have belonged to the ruling dynasty that founded Hamwic, one of Anglo-Saxon England's earliest towns.

Later 7th century pottery and other artefacts from the site place the cemetery right at the start of Hamwic's existence, which was previously thought to have been founded only at the start of the 8th century. The dated objects bring the origin of the town into line with that of Lundenwic (London) and Ipswic (Ipswich), the two other later 7th century semi-urban trading centres that marked the revival of towns - at least in southern and eastern England - following the end of the Roman period.

Grave-goods from about 40 adult graves include two glass-and-amber necklaces that had gold pendants as centrepieces. One was decorated with the figure of a snake chasing its tail, and - in the words of the excavator - was `encrusted with semi-precious stone jewels' at its centre. At the feet of the owner of this necklace was a wooden casket containing a single silver token, like an unstamped coin. The significance of this evocative item remains unclear.

Another notable necklace had, as one of its `beads', a Roman silver signet ring with a carved glass intaglio. This was perhaps an heirloom, handed down the generations of an important local family since the end of the Roman period, or was perhaps a treasured chance find, possibly from the former Roman harbour at Bitterne on the opposite bank of the River Itchen.

The cemetery lay on the northeastern fringe of Hamwic, and the excavations also uncovered parts of the town. Numerous domestic rubbish pits were found with the typical range of pottery, animal bone, and the waste from bone-working and metal industries. One pit contained a knot of gold thread - presumably an accidental disposal from a goldsmith's shop. Another contained the bowl of a copper-alloy spoon, a rare find.

The relative shortage of solidly-made timber buildings and metalled streets - such as have been found elsewhere in Hamwic - suggest that this may have been a kind of shanty suburb of the Anglo-Saxon town.

The excavation, directed by Roland Smith of Wessex Archaeology, took place on the site of Southampton Football Club's new stadium. Only the area under the stands was excavated, leaving the rest of the cemetery and other Anglo-Saxon remains undisturbed under what will be the football pitch and the club carpark.

`It is a nice thought to imagine Southampton's Premiership League footballers dancing over all this surviving Anglo-Saxon archaeology', Mr Smith said.

In brief

Stonehenge man

The `lost' Stonehenge skeleton recently rediscovered in the Natural History Museum has been radiocarbon dated to between about AD 650-690. When details were first released in June it was thought to be `either Roman or Saxon'. The man had been beheaded.

According to archaeologist Mike Pitts, who found the skeleton, the date and highly unusual place of execution and burial could suggest a motive. The 7th century was a time when Christianity was spreading, and tribal leaders were regularly converting to and from the new religion. Wessex was also riven by conflict between petty chiefdoms. The victim could have been a defeated Christian chief, executed by a rival at a symbolically pagan site.

Alternatively the victim could have been a more commonplace wrongdoer. Stonehenge lies on a hundred (regional) boundary far from any settlement - just the kind of site chosen in later Saxon times for judicial executions.

Bishop's crozier

A bishop's crozier possibly thought to date from the early 7th century has been found in a peat bog in Co Offaly, 60 miles west of Dublin. The curved 4ft cherry-wood staff, inscribed with a Greek cross at one end, was thrust point-downwards into the bog from a wooden trackway, and was found still standing in its upright position.

This may represent a kind of `ritual deposition' of the cross, in an interesting hangover from pre-Christian tradition. The trackway, dated by dendrochronology to 596, ran from dryland to Lemanaghan Island which contains a ruined church and other Christian remains. The bog lies about 10 miles from the great early monastic centre at Clonmacnois.

Roman siege

A Roman re-enactment group, the Ermin Street Guard, accidentally bombarded a village house while staging a fundraising display this summer in Woodchester, Gloucestershire. Using a replica siege engine, the group pelted Christine Maltin's house with a wooden ball the size of a grapefruit, which smashed through her roof and landed in the attic. `I'm not upset about it at all,' she said later. `In fact, I thought it was a superb display, and what happened here was the highlight of the day.'

News is compiled by Simon Denison

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