Gateway to Rome
Seahenge timber circle heading for reburial
"No audience and no political will" for public display of Bronze Age monument
The 4,050-year-old posts and upturned oak tree of Seahenge timber circle, excavated a year ago from a Norfolk beach amid widespread public disquiet, are almost certain to be reburied because no museum has agreed to take long-term care of them and put them on public display
The circle, which reappeared in 1998 at Holme-next-the-Sea as a result of coastal erosion, was hailed as one of the most evocative archaeological finds of the century. Its 'rescue' excavation in late 1999 by Norfolk Archaeological Unit, funded by English Heritage, was justified on the grounds that the circle was in danger of destruction within a few years by the sea, snails and rot.
Archaeologists argued that the information contained within the timbers should be deciphered before it was lost forever. Others insisted the circle was 'sacred' and should be left to decay in peace. The remains were taken to Flag Fen near Peterborough to be cleaned and studied. English Heritage, now sensitive to local public feeling, guaranteed they would eventually be returned to Norfolk. It also undertook to pay for conservation, estimated at £40,000, on condition that the circle's long-term future in a museum could be secured. Yet no museum has stepped forward, and the conservation money has not been spent.
Last month, Norfolk's Museum Service, Holme Parish Council and the Holme Timber Circle Forum (an umbrella group of archaeologists and local representatives) made it clear they wished the timbers to be reburied close to their original location. English Heritage is now studying how reburial will affect the timbers' long-term survival, but is likely to acquiesce.
David Miles, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, said that if no local museum wanted the timbers there was probably no other option but reburial. He emphasised this was a normal dilemma in archaeology. "My life [as an excavator] has been full of grouses about local museums not taking my material. The only difference here is that this case is taking place in the glare of publicity."
Maisie Taylor at Flag Fen said she regretted that no museum had taken responsibility for the timbers, but that reburial was preferable to allowing the timbers to decay. "Without conservation, they will deteriorate very rapidly, particularly as we move into warmer weather in the summer."
Vanessa Trevelyan, head of Norfolk Museum Service, said that to display the circle in its entirety a new museum would have to be built, for which there were neither funds nor an audience in Norfolk. "The display would require public subsidy for the rest of its life and there is no political will for that."
Study of the timbers has revealed not only a felling date (2049 and 2050 BC) but also the wide range of woodworking tools - 30 - available at the very beginning of the use of bronze tools in Britain.
New timber circle appears at Seahenge
A second timber circle and a second, separate tree stump appeared last month on the beach at Holme-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, where Seahenge came to light in 1998. The new circle is bigger than Seahenge and has been interpreted as the remains of a Bronze Age burial mound. Archaeologists, nervous perhaps of reigniting public fury over their treatment of 'sacred' sites, have decided this time not to dig the monument from the beach.
Revolutionary steel factory excavated in Sheffield
According to James Symonds, Director of Sheffield University's archaeological consultancy (ARCUS), the site at Millsands was perhaps the world's first 'integrated' steelworks, where iron was first converted to a low-grade form of steel known as blister steel and later converted to high-quality steel in crucibles. Previously, the two processes had always taken place on separate sites.
Evidence has been found of furnaces and crucibles used for both stages of steelmaking, including one first-stage 'cementation' furnace in a highly unusual design. This underlines the extent to which factory owner John Marshall was experimenting with steelmaking techniques from the 1760s onwards. Marshall's reputation spread across Europe and documents show that his company was the victim of industrial espionage by rival steelmakers from continental Europe.
Another firm that had its origins at Millsands was Vickers, later famous for manufacturing armaments. In the 18th century the firm ran Sheffield's water-powered corn mill, but later built a rolling mill specialising in casting steel, including steel bells. The waterwheel placement that powered the factory has been found on the site in excellent condition. In the wheel pit, large quantities of faulty cutlery blanks had been dumped, together with 18th and 19th century pottery and clay pipes. Miscellaneous refuse such as oyster shells apparently from an eating house were also located nearby.
Mercian watermill found near Welsh border
One of the earliest watermills yet found in Britain has been excavated at a quarry a few miles north of Hereford. The late 7th or early 8th century structure has been dated by dendrochronology and may have originally belonged to a Mercian royal estate at Sutton St Nicholas nearby.
The remains appear to represent the base of the wheel pit for a vertical waterwheel. They were associated with fragments of several millstones and one very large stone had been reused to repair a wall. A jointed piece of timber, possibly part of a waterwheel paddle, has also been found. Tree rings could not give a precise date for the mill but indicate that it was built sometime after ad 683. The mill was excavated near the village of Wellington by a team from Worcestershire's archaeological service led by Robin Jackson.
About 5,000 mills were listed in the Domesday Book of 1086, but mills may have been much rarer in the Middle Saxon landscape - certainly very few early examples have survived. A vertical-wheeled mill is known from the royal site of Old Windsor in Berkshire dating from the late 7th century, and a later Saxon mill has been excavated from Tamworth, the Mercian capital. An early 7th century horizontal tidal mill came to light last year near Belfast (BA June 2000) associated with a monastery.
Offa, king of Mercia between 757-796, owned a palace at Sutton only a few miles from the site of the mill. It was here that he arranged for the murder of the East Anglian king Aethelberht, who is said to have travelled west in order to be betrothed to Offa's daughter in 794.
Criminals' skulls and chemistry experiments
An 18th century rubbish pit with contents ranging from dissected human skulls to crucibles used in early firework experiments has been excavated in the centre of Oxford.
The pit was discovered at the back of the original Ashmolean Museum (now the Museum for the History of Science), where late 17th and 18th century medical undergraduates took lessons in anatomy and chemistry, and where anatomical specimens were placed on display. The pit is thought to represent a clear-out of unwanted material when the university's anatomy department moved premises in 1767.
Excavations by Graham Hill of Thames Valley Archaeological Services uncovered more than 2,000 human bones of both sexes. Some had been dissected, while others contained drill holes for wire indicating they had been placed on display. The specimen collection as a whole appears to have been a teaching display on the growth and development of the human skeleton, as all ages are represented, from foetuses to children, adolescents, mature adults and the elderly.
Most skeletons are thought to have come from executed criminals, the sole legal source of anatomical material before 1832 (BA October 1999). Documents confirm that fresh corpses were passed to the anatomy school from Oxford and Abingdon gallows in this period, an event that regularly sparked riots and even running battles between medical undergraduates and outraged relatives.
The corpses of children and foetuses are more likely to have been bought from bereaved parents or body-snatchers. According to human bone specialist Bill White of the Museum of London, who has studied the collection, a gang from Lambeth, London, ran a trade in children's corpses in the 1790s, where the price was determined by how tall the child had been- 6s for the first foot of height, followed by 9d per inch for the rest of the body.
The bulk of the animal bones came from dogs, but other native domestic and farm animals are included, and also exotics such as the North American raccoon and the manatee, an aquatic mammal from Africa. The animal remains seem to represent only dissection material and were not used as specimens for display.
The chemistry equipment found in the pit included numerous crucibles, as well as flasks and possible acid bottles. Residues of zinc and lead may suggest experiments in pottery glaze manufacture. It is recorded that Josiah Wedgwood, for example, maintained a strong interest in laboratory science and was associated with the Ashmolean chemist Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808). Other crucible residues may suggest fireworks experiments - topic of much interest among 18th century chemists. These include barium sulphate and strontium sulphate which produce coloured effects when ignited.
Some of the contents of the rubbish pit will be exhibited in the History of Science Museum when it reopens later this year after refurbishment.
Mesolithic hunting camp found on Scottish mountain
A hilltop Mesolithic hunting camp has been excavated in an unpopulated area of Perthshire west of Aberfeldy. The site, at 2150ft, is perhaps the highest Mesolithic camp known in Britain and affords commanding views over Loch Tay and the surrounding area.
Large numbers of Mesolithic stone tools and weapon points were found, with toolmaking waste to show that some tools were knapped, retouched and repaired on site. The majority were made of local quartz, although some flint tools had been brought to the site and abandoned.
Charcoal from a campfire has produced a radiocarbon date of between about 7200-6700 BC. The Mesolithic hunters may have carried the firewood from lower slopes up to the campsite, which today stands far above the treeline.
The camp - half way up the 3984ft Ben Lawers - stands on one of the few accessible routes between Glen Tay and Glen Lyon to the north. According to the excavator, John Atkinson of Glasgow University's field unit (GUARD), the route is still used today by herds of deer, and the site is likely to have been an ideal location for picking off straggling beasts on their journey over the mountain range some 9,000 years ago.
The excavation formed part of a three-year pilot project of excavation and survey in the mountainous landscape north of Loch Tay. The project, involving archaeologists from Glasgow University, the National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Royal Commission, also discovered some 50 new Neolithic rock art panels, and excavated a Neolithic chambered cairn, a beaker burial, two later prehistoric roundhouses, an early Christian cemetery, and a post-medieval longhouse dating from about 1700. In addition the area contains dozens of earthwork post-medieval settlements which were abandoned in the 18th and 19th centuries.
An application for funding to continue and intensify the survey is currently with the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Mary Arden's House
A combination of documentary research and dendrochronology has shown that Shakespeare's mother Mary Arden never lived in 'Mary Arden's House' - the timber-framed building in Wilmcote, Warwickshire which has been visited by millions of tourists since 1930. Instead, she lived next door in Glebe Farm, a house bought by chance 40 years ago by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to protect 'Mary Arden's House' from development. The research by Nat Alcock of Warwick University has shown that Glebe Farm had once been owned by Agnes Arden, second wife of Robert Arden, Mary's father. Main structural timbers in the house were felled in 1514, while the earliest in 'Mary Arden's House' were not felled until 1569, some years after Miss Arden had moved to Stratford to marry Shakespeare's father.
Large quantities of 15th and 16th century pottery from all over Europe, Turkey, Iran and China, Italian glassware and coins from Mexico have been found at Limehouse on the north bank of the Thames in East London. According to excavators from Pre-Construct Archaeology, the finds came from an area where a number of privateers are known to have lived between about 1580 and 1650. The goods are thought to represent the cargoes of ships looted on the high seas. Also found were a cannon ball, a piece of silver jewellery and bones from a tortoise and a bear, probably from North America.
In a mark of the new respect in which industrial archaeology is held in conservation circles, UNESCO declared the former coalmining and ironworking area around Blaenavon in South Wales a World Heritage Site in December. The blighted landscape of derelict mineshafts, tunnels, furnaces, foundries and rusting machinery has been regarded as an eyesore for much of the 20th century but now joins such plum tourist attractions as Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall. Blaenavon ironworks opened in 1789 with three blast furnaces fed by local coal. Remains on site include canals, railways and a 3km mountain tunnel.