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Cover of British Archaeology Issue 63

Issue 63

February 2002



Glastonbury lake village and prehistoric tracks ‘drying out’

Rare Bronze Age metal working site found on Eigg

Log boat from Tay estuary dated to the later Bronze Age

Archaeologists uncover history of the Royal Arsenal

Hidden collection of cross slabs at Co Durham church

In Brief


Commanders and Kings
Tony Wilmott on how post-Roman kingdoms were formed

People of the Sea
Barry Cunliffe on the lure of the sea from earliest prehistory

Great sites
Julien Parsons on 19th century excavations at Belas Knap


On defleshing, ancient roofs, plague and conservation


David Baker on regulation of developer-funded archaeology

Peter Ellis

Regular column


London Under Ground edited by Ian Haynes, Harvey Sheldon and Lesley Hannigan

Northumberland: the Power of Place by Stan Beckensall

Archaeology and the Social History of Ships by Richard Gould

Prehistoric and Roman Essex by James Kemble

Landscape Detective by Richard Muir

A Fortified Frontier by Iain MacIvor

CBA update

favourite finds

Memories of Callanish. Aubrey Burl had a ‘eureka’ moment in pondering Callanish.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Glastonbury lake village and prehistoric tracks ‘drying out’

All waterlogged sites in Somerset moors face destruction

All known waterlogged archaeological sites of national importance in the Somerset moors will be destroyed by the end of the century if current rates of peat wastage continue, according to a study carried out by archaeologists at Somerset County Council.

The sites that may be lost, all of them Scheduled Ancient Monuments, include the famous Glastonbury Iron Age lake village, two other prehistoric wetland settlements, 11 prehistoric trackways, and a Roman or medieval causeway. Also at risk of destruction are at least 38 non-scheduled archaeological sites in the moors where waterlogged remains survive in situ.

The ten-year investigation, led by archaeologist Richard Brunning, was completed shortly before English Heritage launched their own national report, Monuments at Risk in England's Wetlands, on 'World Wetlands Day' in early February. The Somerset study found that all the scheduled sites in the moors exist within 90cm of the ground surface. Peat wastage in pasture fields, however, is occurring at rates of between 44cm and 79cm a century, while the figure for arable fields could be around 2m to 3m a century - the rate established for the Fens.

Moreover, wastage rates are likely to rise over the next few decades as a result of climate change. By 2050 Britain is expected to be on average 2° C warmer than now with hotter and drier summers when most wastage occurs.

A number of waterlogged scheduled sites were examined - including the Neolithic Abbot's Way track and the Iron Age settlement at Meare - and all showed signs of damage as a result of desiccation, with decay of organic material. The only site that appears secure is the section of the Sweet Track that benefits from a pumping system.

Undrained, heavily waterlogged peat is up to 90 per cent water. When it is drained it shrinks, and the ground level lowers because of the loss of water and the decay of organic matter. Over the past two centuries several waterlogged archaeological sites have been discovered when peat wastage revealed oak wood. Examples include the Bronze Age pile alignments of Harters Hill and Ivythorne and the dug-out canoe known as 'Squire Phippen's big ship' found in the mid-19th century. In some areas, such as Glastonbury Heath, about 4m of peat cover has been lost since medieval times.

Although the prospects seem bleak for Somerset's waterlogged remains, the study suggests that disaster can be averted if certain measures are adopted by local farmers and conservation bodies. These include wider spacing between drainage ditches, irrigation of seriously threatened sites, and rescue excavation of sites that cannot be saved. Elsewhere, though, such as in the intensively-farmed arable Fens, remedial measures could be more difficult to put in place.

Rare Bronze Age metal working site found on Eigg

A Bronze Age metal working site, one of only about 30 known in Britain, has been excavated at Galmisdale on the island of Eigg. The site - in the shelter of a large earthfast boulder - was found by chance when an islander, Brigg Lancaster, was trying to bury his cat.

Digging deep, Mr Lancaster struck archaeological layers. Having some experience of metal working, he recognised the fragmentary remains as crucibles and clay casting moulds. A team of archaeologists from the Scottish Royal Commission happened to be surveying the island at the time and visited the site, which was later excavated by Trevor Cowie of the National Museum of Scotland.

Moulds for at least two socketed axes and a knife were found - dated typologically to about 1000-800 BC - as well as a blue glass bead, a small bronze offcut and quantities of charcoal. According to Mr Cowie, the site could represent the visit of an itinerant smith to a Bronze Age village, marked by hut circle remains nearby.

Also found at the foot of the boulder was a cache of over 40 flint flakes and tools thought to be of Neolithic or Early Bronze Age date, testifying to the importance of the boulder as an enduring feature of the landscape over several millennia. Excavations will probably continue this summer.

Meanwhile, among the discoveries made by the Royal Commission survey of the island was an Iron Age roundhouse giving access, perhaps once by steps, into an underground cave, possibly an oracle site. The cave, extremely difficult to reach in a cliff of scree, contained two 'double-decker bus-sized' slabs of rock facing one another - like the 'thighs of a mother goddess', according to the Commission's surveyor David Cowley - with some bits of walling between to create a squared-off area Iron Age underground ritual sites, such as Mine Howe in Orkney, recall the importance of the 'gods of the underworld' in Iron Age society.

Log boat from Tay estuary dated to the later Bronze Age

A log boat found last autumn by treasure hunters working with metal detectors in central Scotland has been radiocarbon-dated to the later Bronze Age, between about 1130-970 BC.

The hollowed-out boat remains where it was found, partly-embedded in mud and reeds in an intertidal zone of the Tay estuary near Perth. The visible section, thought to be the prow, is about 15ft long and the whole craft is probably twice that length.

It is the second-oldest dated log boat in Scotland. The earliest, found at Catherine Field in Dumfriesshire, dates from the early Bronze Age, while the next oldest, from Loch Arthur in Dumfriesshire, dates from 101 BC. Altogether about 150 log boats have been found in Scotland, and the majority of those dated were found to be medieval.

No tool marks survive on the surface of the boat as a result of repeated scourings by wind, sand and water. But according to Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust archaeologist David Strachan, the boat is smooth inside and has retained its shape - unlike the 30ft log boat currently on display in Dundee Museum, dating from about AD 500 and found in 1895, which has dried and twisted.

By the time the Tay log boat was carved out, boatbuilders in Britain had already been making superior plank-built ocean going boats for at least 1,000 years. Log boats were therefore not regarded as particularly valuable items, according to log boat specialist Bob Mowat at the Scottish Royal Commission. 'When people got fed up with using them, they'd turn them into a log coffin or a feeding trough, or just chop them up for firewood,' he said.

A new set of radiocarbon dates has been established for the three Bronze Age sewn-plank boats from Ferriby on the Humber Estuary, as reported in the latest Antiquity. The oldest (about 2030-1780 BC) now stands as the oldest known plank boat in western Europe. The others date to between about 1940-1720 BC and 1880-1680 BC.

Archaeologists uncover history of the Royal Arsenal

Three years of excavations at the Royal Arsenal, Woolwich, in London - the nation's principal arsenal and armaments factory between 1671 and 1967 - have produced huge quantities of evidence for military-industrial processes from the early modern period to the mid-20th century. Furnaces, casting pits, crucibles, gun moulds and evidence for steam engines have all been found along with finished products such as cannon balls, iron cannon and bullets. The excavations, which also uncovered a Roman cemetery, were triggered by the removal of contaminated ground as part of a regeneration scheme.

Some of the more intriguing evidence relates to the Government's adoption of industrial technology in the 19th century. Following the Napoleonic wars, the military seems to have been reluctant to adopt the new materials and power sources that were revolutionising British transport and manufacture. This is typified at Woolwich where gun-turning lathes were still powered by horses in 1842.

This lethargy changed after the Crimean War and a spate of mid-19th century invasion scares. At the Arsenal, a wide range of industrial innovations begin to be seen. Excavations revealed, for example, three massive steam hammer bases made to produce revolutionary Armstrong-type wrought iron guns after 1856. These guns were far more powerful than cast iron guns of equivalent bore, allowing a ship to fire over the horizon for the first time.

Armstrong-type guns were used on the mid-19th century iron-clad frigate hms Warrior, which survives in Portsmouth - a ship whose launch is said to have rendered the world's wooden fleets obsolete overnight. The new technology, found at the Arsenal, is historically significant because it precipitated the arms race that culminated in the First World War, as rival nations sought to manufacture ever more powerful propellants and explosives and ever-tougher metal compounds for armour.

The excavations, directed by Dave Wilkinson and Rob Kinchin-Smith of Oxford Archaeology, centred initially on the sites of the Royal Laboratories (built 1694-6 for ammunition production) and The Great Pile, a complex of gun-finishing workshops and storehouses of 1717-20 attributed to Nicholas Hawksmoor. Excavations have also focused on the lost ranges of the Grand Store (1806-13), the Old Forge (about 1856-8) and the Central Power Station, built about 1890.

Amongst a huge number of artefacts found were four 10m-long rifled liners from 12 inch naval guns of the 1880s; a number of obsolete 18th and 19th century large cast iron cannon, many turned on their ends and reused as foundations for machines or buildings; and mid-19th century lithographic printing blocks reused as kerbstones, with illustrations of various types of ammunition for a military manual.

More recently, excavations have revealed the first glimpse of Prince Rupert's Fort, a 40-gun (later 60-gun) battery built about 1667-8 to defend Woolwich dockyard from the Dutch.

Hidden collection of cross slabs at Co Durham church

One of the largest collections of medieval cross slabs, or stone grave covers, ever recovered from a parish church has been found in the ruined shell of St Brandon's, Brancepeth, near Durham, which was destroyed by fire in 1998 (BA February 1999).

Over 70 complete cross slabs have been recovered so far, and about 30 more are expected. Most were found reused in the clerestory, where it is thought they were hidden by the church's 17th century 'romanising' rector, John Cosin, to prevent their destruction at the hands of Puritans. Cross slabs - along with other 'idolatrous' symbols in churches - were routinely smashed up by Cromwell's Puritans during and after the Civil War. In a church at Eston in Teesside, for example, grave covers were found broken and reused in different walls.

Among Brancepeth's 12th and 13th century cross slabs, two are thought to belong to the Norman nobleman Geoffrey Neville, founder of the Neville family, later Earls of Westmorland, who were based at Brancepeth castle. Many of the slabs depict a sword, representing a male grave, or shears, the badge of office for a medieval 'housewife' representing a female grave. According to Peter Ryder, project archaeologist at the church, the carved symbols reflect a continuity of pagan Anglo-Saxon burial practices when the objects themselves were typically included in the grave.

Some slabs at Brancepeth, however, contain unusual combinations of symbols, such as keys with a sword - keys are more often shown with shears. Intriguing combinations elsewhere include a chalice (usually representing a priest) with shears on a cross slab over a female grave at Helmerby in Cumbria - seemingly indicating a female priest.

Other discoveries at the Grade I listed church - which is undergoing a £2.85m programme of restoration - include wall paintings in a red and white foliage design in the 15th century Lady Chapel, and evidence of the church's Anglo-Saxon origins.

In brief

Sheffield Castle

Excavations in Sheffield by the archaeological consultancy arcus have revealed remains of the city's 13th century castle lying underneath a pair of covered markets built in the 1930s which face redevelopment. Two evaluation trenches have produced remains of castle walls, one with a doorway and steps leading down to an undercroft, as well as quantities of medieval pottery, clear glass from leaded windows and floor tiles. The castle was demolished by Parliamentarian forces during the Civil War in 1648.

Government policy

In December, the Government published its policy statement, The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future, following on from English Heritage's earlier consultation paper on the historic environment, Power of Place. For full analysis, see CBA Update.

Sutton Hoo

A major new £4m visitor centre opens next month (March) at Sutton Hoo, the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial site on the Suffolk coast. The centre, developed by the National Trust largely with Lottery funding, will contain a full-sized replica of the ship's burial chamber and artefacts, a treasury of finds made during the 1938/9 and 1991 excavations, and other facilities. For further information, call 01394 389700.

Prehistoric Pompeii

A prehistoric version of Pompeii has been discovered at Nola near Mount Vesuvius in southern Italy. Italian archaeologists found a Bronze Age village destroyed by fire and mudslide, caused by eruption of the volcano probably in 1750 BC. All wooden structures were destroyed but the internal spaces of the buildings were filled with mud, creating a 3m-high 'reverse cast' of the village.

Items found include the bones of hams, a hat decorated with the teeth of wild boar and a cage which had been raised 6ft off the ground - probably to protect it from dogs - containing the remains of pregnant goats. A kiln was found with a pot inside, in the process of being fired. A man and a woman whose skeletons were excavated nearby five years ago are now thought to have been trying to escape the eruption.

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