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Cover of British Archaeology Issue 64

Issue 64

April 2002



Anglo-Saxon 'planned town' revealed this month in Whitby

Mesolithic camp found at bottom of the Solent

Sacred pool ringed by toem poles in Scotland's ritual glen

Prehistoric bunker guards its secrets to the very end

Finds from Chester: an elephant's leg to Jupiter's face

In Brief


Guns of the Armada
Colin Martin on the results of excavating Armada wrecks

Invisible Vikings
Dawn Hadley on how the Danish settlers became English

Great sites
Peter Rowley-Conwy on the Neolithic house at Balbridie


On Roulston Scar, small finds, grave goods and boiled bones


George Lambrick on new developments at Stonehenge

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Dangerous Energy by Wayne Cocroft

Bloody Marsh by Peter Warner

Vernacular Buildings in a Changing World edited by Sarah Pearson & Bob Meeson

Dying for the Gods by Miranda Aldhouse Green

The Vikings in Wales by Mark Redknap

CBA update

favourite finds

Gwilym Hughes on a piece of Ming china found in Africa


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Anglo-Saxon 'planned town' revealed this month in Whitby

House platforms, artefacts and a cemetry near the abbey

Several years of intensive and often dangerous excavations by English Heritage on the eroding headland near Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire culminated in the opening of a new Lottery-funded visitor centre on the site this month.

The excavations revealed that Anglo-Saxon settlements surrounding the royal abbey founded in 657 were far more extensive and well-planned than had previously been thought. An area of sloping ground north of the abbey, thought to have originally measured about 20 acres before centuries of cliff erosion, had been organised like a 'new town' and was covered in man-made terracing to provide level ground surfaces for houses.

Structural remains included pits, postholes and an area of burnt remains within a stone curb dated archaeomagnetically to the 8th century.

Some of the more colourful Anglo-Saxon finds were removed last year from the eroding cliff face by a long-armed JCB digger, where it was considered too dangerous to excavate by hand. These included loom weights, a glass bangle and part of a small 8th century funerary cross inscribed with the words 'Pray for . . .' in Latin.

Among later finds were two small jet crosses, probably pendants, from the time of the medieval abbey. One of these had been completely missed by the archaeologists on site, and was found in a spoilheap by a young boy who visited Whitby Abbey for National Archaeology Days last year. A similar cross had been found nearby during excavations in the 1920s.

Hundreds of 9th century winkle shells were found in the cliff face, along with fish bones, charred grain and butchered animal bones, providing evidence of the mundane diet of the Anglo-Saxon population.

One of the first clues to the size of the settlement was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, found in the mid-1990s. It contained more than 1,000 individuals some distance south of the abbey.

The full story of the excavations is revealed in the new visitor centre which sits within the derelict shell of 17th century Cholmley's House. The house was built by a descendant of Sir Richard Cholmley who acquired Whitby Abbey in 1541 following the dissolution of the monasteries.

Mesolithic camp found at bottom of the Solent

Part of a Mesolithic campsite about 8,500 years old has been excavated from the bottom of the Solent, off the north coast of the Isle of Wight. It is thought to be the first fully-submerged stratified prehistoric site to be investigated within British waters.

The camp, at the foot of a cliff, dates from a time when the Solent was dry land before sea levels rose following the melting of the ice caps at the end of the last Ice Age. Worked and burnt flints, and partial remains of a Mesolithic meal, were found within the well-preserved fallen timbers of an ancient forest some 300 metres offshore and about 13 metres underwater.

The drowned ancient forest was discovered in the 1970s when fishermen dredged up timbers and peat, which were later dated to the Mesolithic period. But the survival of artefacts remained unknown until divers from the Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology (HWTMA) found flints freshly excavated by lobsters that had burrowed into the soft clay at the bottom of the cliff.

Excavations at the site produced over 300 worked flints of early-middle Mesolithic type. Most were waste pieces from flint-making, but included one large flint core and two heads of 'tranchet' axes, removed from their shafts ready for resharpening. According to Garry Momber, Director of the HWTMA, the positions of the flint pieces suggested they had been thrown over the flint-knappers' shoulders into a waste heap. Associated with the flints were two vertebrae from a freshwater fish - not yet identified - which appear to represent the remains of a meal.

Lying around the flint artefacts were dozens of fallen oak trees - radiocarbon dated to between about 6615-6395 BC - the victims of rising sea levels which reclaimed the dryland valley of the Solent in this period. Some of the trees were immaculately preserved, with whole hazelnuts still attached to branches, and fine root systems surviving amid layers of peat.

Sacred pool ringed by toem poles in Scotland's ritual glen

An early Bronze Age timber circle containing an inner ring of totem poles set around a deep, sacred pool is thought to have once stood at the head of the Kilmartin Valley in Argyll, site of one of Scotland's richest concentrations of prehistoric ritual monuments.

Post-excavation analysis of the pits and postholes found when the site was excavated in the 1990s (BA November 1997) has concluded that the timber circle was far more unusual than was initially thought. The circle stood on a terrace overlooking the valley; and at its heart was a large hollow nearly 7 metres wide and 2 metres deep. Now full of peat, the hollow must have contained standing water over a long period of time.

Around this pool was an inner ring of post-holes, thought to have once held totems. At the base of one was a cremation burial under a stone. From the outer ring of 30 oak posts, some 47 metres in diameter, a timber-lined processional avenue appears to have snaked down to the valley floor.

Clare Ellis, in charge of post-excavation at the Edinburgh firm AOC Archaeology, said the pool was likely to have been a 'votive pool' - a phenomenon thought to be unparalleled at any other known stone or timber circle in Britain. No metalwork was found in the pool, but offerings of 'organic materials' such as sacrificial animals could have been made, from which no evidence has survived. Traces of wood in the pool may have belonged to a fence.

In and around the timber circle were six contemporary cyst burials. In one, a woman in her 20s or 30s was buried with a decorated food vessel. The decoration on the pot had been created by pressing a fingernail repeatedly into the wet clay.

Traces of much earlier monuments were also found underlying the circle. One end of an early Neolithic cursus - a ritual procession monument - was uncovered at the edge of the terrace, a place with a magnificent view across the Kilmartin Valley. The massive structure, some 45 metres wide, was defined not by banks and ditches but by hundreds of close-set oak posts. By the time the circle was built some 1,500 years later, these posts had no doubt disappeared; but the memory of the sacred importance of the site had probably survived. Also found were a number of late Mesolithic cooking pits containing charcoal dated to about 4,500 BC, perhaps marking the site of an overnight camp.

Surviving monuments in the Kilmartin Valley include a 'linear cemetery' of Bronze Age cairns, several standing stones, a stone circle and numerous elaborate rock art panels.

Prehistoric bunker guards its secrets to the very end

A massive prehistoric underground bunker - or souterrain - has been excavated near Dundee. But no-one, including the excavators, has any idea what precisely it was used for because it was swept clean before being abandoned and filled to the ceiling with topsoil in the Roman period.

The enigmatic structure, at Ardownie near Monifieth, was found to have two curving passage-like rooms set side-by-side, about 60 feet and 30 feet long respectively, and each about 12 feet wide, lined by upright stones on each side. The longer room had a corbelled stone roof. Linking the two rooms was a short passage, less than 3ft high. To move from one room to the other, visitors had to crawl on their hands and knees.

Whoever built the bunker was anxious to protect whatever was stored inside. Around the inside of the doorway was a loop of clay that seems to have acted as a water-excluder, and surviving in the clay surface was the impression of the wooden door that once hung there. The bunker could be locked from the outside by sliding a wooden beam behind the door, along two ingeniously-designed concealed stone slots in the walls to either side.

A number of souterrains are known in eastern Scotland and elsewhere - although few are as large or as well-preserved as the new example. Yet despite several excavations in Scotland their purpose remains obscure because they have yielded so few finds. Most seem to have been deliberately backfilled towards the end of the Roman period in Scotland - although whether their destruction was linked to the Roman withdrawal is unknown.

The Ardownie bunker conforms to the pattern. Excavators from the Centre for Field Archaeology in Edinburgh, led by Alastair Rees, found only one significant artefact in the tons of topsoil used to fill the bunker - the enamelled handle of a Roman patera - a long-handled 'cup' used for pouring libations, dating from about 200 AD. The enamel carried a scene of hunting dogs chasing a hare.

Finds from Chester: an elephant's leg to Jupiter's face

A medieval elephant's leg bone and evidence of a late 16th century armoured jacket are two among numerous intriguing finds of Roman to early modern date that have been raised in a major excavation in the centre of Chester.

The site was occupied, in the medieval and early modern periods, by workshops and gardens lying behind street-front properties, and many finds came from cess and other rubbish pits dug into these backlands. The area was built over in the 18th century.

The elephant's leg, radiocarbon dated to between about 1290-1410, was already about 200 years old when it was thrown into a cess pit in the 16th century. Archaeologists suggest it may have been a curio brought from abroad by a merchant; or may possibly have belonged to a beast from the royal menagerie at a time when the English army was stationed in Chester before campaigning in North Wales.

But what began as a curio must have become a burden, says Anne Thompson of the excavators Gifford & Partners. 'Perhaps the lady of the house just got fed up with dusting it over the years and chucked it in the bin.'

The Elizabethan armoured jacket, or 'jack-of-plate', was also old when it was thrown out in the 17th century. A canvas doublet reinforced with over 1,000 small overlapping iron plates, each jack-of-plate was a unique piece of clothing. And the excavated evidence - small, corroded iron plates with details of the stitching - could allow the new example to be remade. Jack-of-plates became obsolete in the later 16th century because they offered no protection against musket balls.

A pit - possibly an 18th century cess-pit, or the rubbish-pit of a horner's workshop - was found lined with cattle-horns as a revetment. One of only a handful of such pits known in England, it shows an enterprising use of novel building materials at a time when towns saw increasing numbers of cattle brought in on the hoof for slaughter. Other finds examined by Chester Archaeology include a rare Roman roof ornament - an antefix - representing the god Jupiter-Ammon, an amalgam of Jupiter, Zeus and Egyptian Amun. The antefix probably adorned the gable end of a major public building. A Roman street surface with stone-lined drain was also uncovered nearby.

In brief

Earliest humans

Hominids are now thought to have first reached Britain before 600,000 years ago, at least 100,000 years before the time of the people of Boxgrove, who were previously credited with being our earliest inhabitants.

The new evidence comes from finds - including two flint handaxes, a flint blade and bison bones bearing butchery marks - made around the East Anglian coastline over the past two years. They have been provisionally dated by geologist Jim Rose of Royal Holloway College, London.

Cloth of gold

A fragment of medieval textile from the coffin of a young woman buried at St Peter's, Barton-on-Humber in north Lincolnshire has been found to be part of a cloth of 'gold velvet' - an immensely valuable fabric typically worn only by royalty and the most senior members of the church.

Penelope Walton Rogers of Textile Research in York found that the garment contained three types of gold thread including one in which gold and silver alloy was laid on very fine strips of animal gut and spun around a linen thread - a technique used in Italy and Germany in the 14th and 15th centuries. Even in its day this type of fabric would have been immensely rare and precious.

The identity of the young woman in the coffin, and how she came by such a splendid garment, remains an intriguing mystery.

Bronze Age toy

An enigmatic toggle-shaped bone artefact found on Bronze Age and later sites all over northern and western Europe has been identified as a noisy children's toy of a type still used as recently as 100 years ago in parts of northern Scotland.

The toy, known in Orkney and Shetland as a 'snorie bane', or snoring bone, was made out of pig's bone from the trotter, perforated, threaded with sinew, and spun to make a rattling noise. Catherine Smith of the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust found that numerous identical drilled bones had been found in excavations in the Northern Isles, Scandinavia, Germany and Spain. Previously, however, no archaeologist has had a clear idea of what they might have been.

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