Old ruins, new world
Lest we remember
Editor Simon Denison
Thank you, Saddam
Bob Bewley on how the Iran-Iraq War led to the discovery of a complete collared urn and to a career in archaeology
My favourite finds were essentially just a few grotty pieces of prehistoric pot which I discovered in 1983 in Cumbria because of the Iran-Iraq War.
I was supposed to be doing a PhD on the Palaeolithic of the Zagros Mountains and literally the month I was due to go out there Iran and Iraq declared war on each another. So I was in Cambridge, and I'd got no tutor because he'd sadly just died, and I'd got no subject, and I thought, What am I going to do? The only other thing I'd worked on was northern Cumbria, so I decided to do a survey of the aerial archaeology of the county.
One cropmark I looked at was at Ewanrigg near Maryport. A trial excavation in 1956 had said this was a Romano-British farmstead but I wondered if there was more going on in the area, and decided to fieldwalk the site. As always in Cumbria you find very little. But in the next field there was a paler patch at the summit of a little hill, and there I found these fragments of decorated prehistoric pot sitting on the surface. The farmer was in the middle of ploughing, and was hitting the prehistoric layers. I knew the pottery was fresh because you'd only need one or two seasons of rain for it to just crumble back into earth.
I then got in touch with the Inspectorate (the forerunner of English Heritage), and got a grant to excavate this site, which turned out to be a Bronze Age cremation cemetery. It was the first excavation I'd directed on behalf of someone else, and most of the team were recent undergraduates.
As soon as we cleaned off the ploughsoil, the black ash-filled cremation pits stood out very clearly. You could actually see that they'd buried the dead while the ashes were still hot because the sand and gravel around the outside had been burned, changing colour to red. It was quite an exciting moment. And I turned round to the other diggers and said, Right who's going to excavate this? And they said, You are. So I said, Why me? And they said, Because it's your dig. We don't know what's in there! They didn't want the responsibility if anything went wrong.
We didn't know what to expect with the first pit. It could have been something really boring - just a pit full of ash. But I scraped away all this black stuff, and the first thing I saw was a bit of pottery and I thought, Oh well at least there's a fragment of pottery, but then the fragment turned into a rim, and the rim turned into a complete pot. In fact the pit contained a collared urn, a thing called a tuyère and a drinking cup, and the urn was full of the charred remains of some poor individual who had died in about 2000 BC. So that day nobody did any work - they just sat round and watched these things unfold. And it was great, because I'd never done anything like that before, and nor had they.
The tuyère was just a hollow tube made of clay, but I sent it to the British Museum and they analysed it and said it was part of a Bronze Age furnace, the mouth of the bellows. So one interesting question was, Was the cremated person here connected to metal working?
At the summit of the hill there was a cyst burial that had been robbed, probably by antiquaries in the 18th or 19th centuries looking for artefacts. They had smashed up the pottery and left the bones - which turned out to be female. One theory I had was that this was a matriarchal society, with a woman buried in the cyst surrounded by her extended family in 25 cremation pits around her.
The site led directly to my career at English Heritage because having had the grant, I read the terms and conditions and they said you must submit a report within three months of the end of the excavation. So I thought, fair enough, and I wrote the report and thought no more of it. Then an advert came up saying, Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments wanted, and I applied for the job and got it. When I asked why I'd got the job, my boss said, Do you know you are the only person who has ever submitted a report on time after getting a grant from us? He said: 'I was impressed by that.'
Bob Bewley is Head of Aerial Survey at English Heritage
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005