Lasers at Stonehenge
Editor Mike Pitts
Early Christian graves insight at Anglesey dig
The Gwynedd Archaeological Trust (GAT) have found surprisingly well-preserved Early Christian grave mounds at Trearddur Bay, Holyhead, Anglesey.
The dune-like cemetery was marked by a chapel until it was eroded at the end of the 19th century. About 40 skeletons were uncovered in the upper layers, where the actual graves, four once marked by stones, were almost impossible to define in the wind-blown sand. No artefacts were found, but site director and GAT principal archaeologist Andrew Davidson believes these burials probably date from the 11th or 12th centuries.
Below was a distinct old land surface, through which earlier graves were dug. Above-ground features were preserved by the sand cover. The deceased were laid out straight on the base of the grave pit, about a metre deep, then encased in a stone cist. The low mound that resulted when the grave was backfilled was ringed with stone boulders; one had a row of quartz pebbles on top. 'This is new', says Davidson. 'We are seeing the graves as the original builders expected them to be seen'.
Again there were no associated artefacts, but a trial dig in 1997 recovered a partly eroded cist grave dated by radiocarbon to the 7th century AD. Cultivation marks in the old soil indicated the area was ploughed before being used as a cemetery.
The alkaline sand preserved bones particularly well, providing much of interest for the University of Lancashire Forensic and Investigative Sciences students. There were several children in the graves, including one with its mother in the Medieval cemetery. Were the diggers moved by these poignant finds to hold their own ceremonies? 'They certainly gave the skeletons names', says Davidson, 'and formed attachments during excavation, but by the time they had drawn plans, sections and elevations from every direction any emotion was overtaken by the minutiae of recording'.
Archaeologist fingered by Orwell
In 1949 George Orwell warned the Foreign Office not to trust 38 people if what it wanted was anti-communist propagandists. We learnt who they were from Timothy Garton Ash in the Guardian in June. Among them was archaeologist Gordon Childe.
While the press focussed on names like Charlie Chaplin and J B Priestley (second husband of archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes), few noticed the man considered by some to be the 20th century's greatest archaeologist, and originator of the concept of the Neolithic Revolution. What is the significance of his being in the list?
Childe's four intellectual co-travellers, philosopher John Macmurray, historian E H Carr, physicist Patrick Blackett and science writer J G Crowther, were all eminent in their field, and all had expressed anti-establishment views. But Childe?
Archaeologists mostly dismissed Childe's interest in politics and Marxism; Stuart Piggott called it an 'intellectual joke'. Did Orwell know something they did not? Peter Gathercole, Fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge, thinks he did.
'I was not at all surprised to see Childe's name in the list', Gathercole, writing a book on Childe's political philosophy, tells BA. 'He knew and was known by a lot of the people there'.
Childe never joined the Communist Party, but moved actively in broad left circles and published in the Modern Quarterly and the Anglo-Soviet Journal. His early career in Australian politics, says Gathercole, had great implications for his ideas about ancient societies.
After emphasising Childe's importance, Patrick Boylan (Guardian letter, June 24) censured Orwell for 'dismissing' Childe and Blackett [Crowther, too], as 'mere "scientific popularisers" '.
Was this a term of abuse for Orwell? 'Popularisation' was a skill linking at least four of these men. Carr and Childe wrote books sold on railway platforms. Macmurray's ideas appealed to people who were not professional philosophers (including our present Prime Minister). Crowther was the Guardian's first science correspondent. For BA, there is nothing 'mere' about 'populariser'.
Carpenter's tools found-3,000 years later
A unique Late Bronze Age hoard, probably a carpenter's tool kit, has been found near Sandown, Isle of Wight, by two holidaymakers. No wooden handles had survived, but the 11 bronze implements, dating from 1200-700 BC, are unusually well preserved. The first Bronze Age hoard to be found on the island since 1907, it is significant for the light it throws on ancient woodworking.
Brothers Dale and Glen Kirkton were looking for fossils on the beach when they found a bronze axe. Other items, recently fallen from a cliff, were located with the aid of a metal detector. Back home in Northamptonshire, the Kirktons reported the find to Portable Antiquities Scheme Liaison Officer Rhiannon Harte, who informed the Isle of Wight County Archaeology Service. The service brought the brothers back to the beach, where they identified the source of the objects, in the process locating a further axe and a gouge. The hoard belongs to the landowner, the National Trust, and once conserved will be displayed in the Museum of Island History, Newport.
Hoards of prehistoric bronze objects, often worn and broken, are common in Britain, some containing hundreds or even thousands of items. The causes of hoarding are much discussed, the main explanations being concealment by smiths or traders for safety or storage. Personal' hoards like this one are rare in England.
The new find consists of six axes, two knives (one with textile remains, perhaps from a sack), two different gouges and a broken hammer.
Work on the River Tay at Carpow (BA February 2002) has revealed more details of Scotland's best preserved ancient boat (1130-970 BC). The bow is worn by sand and water, but the Perth and Kinross Heritage Trust and CFA Archaeology, part funded by Historic Scotland, have found the buried part to be in good condition, including a vertical 'transom' board slotted into the hollowed oak at the stern end.
Transoms are typical of large prehistoric logboats: Carpow is 9.25 m long. Sean McGrail, logboat expert, suggests the design may have gone out of practice in late prehistory when oak trees of exceptional girth became rare. The Carpow vessel has been protected by sand bags while her long-term preservation is considered.
Another Bronze Age logboat (10.2 m long) is now on display in the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, thanks to support from Hanson, in whose Shardlow quarry she was found. Tree-ring analysis had failed, but new radiocarbon dates (sponsored by English Heritage) place her among Britain's oldest boats at 1440-1310 BC.
She was excavated by the Trent Peak Archaeological Trust in a channel of the River Trent in 1998-9, and conserved in York. 'It looks fantastic in the museum', Jonathan Wallis, Principal Curator (Collections) tells BA. Visitors are being asked what they would like in a more comprehensive exhibition.
The boat is notable for her cargo, six blocks of Bromsgrove sandstone, and her proximity to a lakeside causeway. The Hasholme logboat (c 250 BC), on display in her huge conservation tank in Hull and East Riding Museum, had been loaded with joints of prime beef.
Tor tower story
Cement repairs to old buildings are a conservator's nightmare, as the modern material does not 'breathe' like traditional mortars, and water damage to ancient walls is often the result. When the tower on Glastonbury Tor was repaired in 1948, the Ministry of Works advised the National Trust to use lias lime mortar (hydraulic lime). The Glastonbury builder contracted for the job convinced the local Trust representative that cement was better. The Ministry architect visited half way through the work, yet the builder (clearly a persuasive man) stuck with cement. The architect later wrote to say that yes, the cement would probably outlast all of them, but that was not quite the point.
This summer the National Trust asked St Blaise Conservation, directed by Keith Garner, RIBA, to replace the cement with lime mortar. In the course of the work, buildings archaeologist Jerry Sampson of conservation architects Caroe and Partners found new evidence for the tower's history.
Excavations by Philip Rahtz 1964-66 revealed the earliest structures on the Tor (defensive or religious?) date from the 6th century AD. A small monastery was established in the 8th-9th centuries, followed by the Medieval St Michael's Church, rebuilt after an earthquake in 1275. Glastonbury Abbey chroniclers recorded that Adam of Sodbury erected a new chapel in 1323. All but the tower was removed for building stone after the Dissolution of the Abbey in 1539.
Previous estimates for the tower's construction ranged from the 13th to 15th centuries. The Trust asked Sampson about the date. He felt the panelled tower arch was the key, the earliest in Somerset being in St Cuthbert's, Wells, linked to Wells cathedral by masons' marks and built around 1430. The 'new' 1323 chapel was probably one of many episodes of repair and extension, even the 15th century tower containing recycled fragments, perhaps part of a deliberate attempt to root the new in the past.
Substantial bell frame supports point to a heavy peal. Sampson thinks the tower was a 'sound beacon' broadcasting across the Somerset Levels, giving it a significance that may explain its survival. Sir Richard Colt Hoare repaired the tower in the 18th century, his new stones being distinguished by different lichens.
Gerhard Bersu, expelled as director of the Roman-German Commission of the German Archaeological Institute, fled here in 1937 to contribute significantly to the understanding of prehistoric Britain. Three years later he was interned on the Isle of Man as a suspect alien.
One wonders what he would have made of present archaeological interest in prisoner of war (POW) camps. The owners of the Harperley camp, Co Durham, asked English Heritage to schedule it. Knowing little of these camps, EH initiated the first major survey (soon to be published as 20th Century Military Recording Project Prisoner of War Camps 1939-48) conducted by Roger Thomas. No single list exists. Working mainly from air photos, Thomas identified about 700 sites (tell BA if you know the location of the camp supposed to be at Ormskirk, Lancashire).
Michael Wood championed Harperley in the recent BBC2 Restoration series. It was one of an English Heritage 'top five'. This is now, says Thomas, a 'top four': Camp 79 Moorby, Lincolnshire, has been demolished by its owners, after the deteriorating buildings had been used for an illegal rave.
Why should any of these eyesores be preserved? 'They are certainly not aesthetically pleasing', says Thomas, 'nor were they intended to last very long. It's not so much the buildings as what went on in them: it's immediate history, there's a human story there.'
Some may wonder how long television's affair with archaeology will last, but it is certainly not over yet. Perhaps the most ambitious project this autumn is on the Discovery Channel. During a week of Roman programming starting November 17, they premiere a ten part series called Rebuilding the Past. Shot at Butser Ancient Farm near Petersfield, Hampshire, the films chart the re-creation of a Roman villa, based on the evidence from David Johnson's excavations at Sparsholt.
The press release makes clear this is to be no dry academic study; but neither, perhaps, the test bed for the next David Starkey. 'Though he started with enthusiasm', we read, 'Project Manager Rick Wilgoss came to realise that he was out of his depth ... and due to the pressure he resigned. He admits that he "turned to drink, lost my job and now my wife has left me" '.
Then there are the workers, among whom are 'Mel Bliss (a beautiful, feisty archaeology graduate)', and Tom Neyland, 'a builder and archaeology graduate ... fired after a series of disagreements'. Dai Morgan Evans ('esteemed General Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries') invites Neyland back for 'an academic standoff'.
The 'very, very interactive website' will feature a build diary, and, Discovery's press office hopefully tells BA, 'some quite academic articles': www.discoverychannel.co.UK/rebuildingthepast. No serious archaeologist will watch such stuff. Will you?
Meanwhile, if you enjoyed ITV's spectacular Boudica (the Daily Telegraph should never again head a story 'Raunchy Boadicea', but tepee lake villages could be harder to eradicate), look out for more Romans on BBC1, in Pompeii-The Last Day and Colosseum. The latter, according to an early press release, is the 'story of a slave who became a gladiator complete with computer generated special effects', which must have confused the lions.
'There is a danger that if archaeologists are unreasonable, a developer might challenge us', says Sue Davies, new chief executive of Wessex Archaeology, one of the country's largest independent archaeological practices with 100 staff and a £5 million turnover. Most excavation in Britain is now driven by planning law, specifically policy guidance note 16 (PPG16) and its other UK equivalents, generating over £30 million a year. These notes are under review. The general feeling, says Davies, is that the present system will not weaken.
Responding to historic consultant David Baker's opinion that 'the market has proved unable to provide an accumulating local story for local people' (BA February 2002), she believes archaeologists fail if their work does not reach the public. 'We shouldn't just dig', she says, 'we need to explain why it's necessary. Excavation at a development site is fundamentally about the local community'.
Davies takes over from Andrew Lawson, head of Wessex Archaeology for 20 years, who is going it alone as writer and archaeological consultant. Wessex's recent projects include the excavation of the Amesbury Archer, the exceptional Early Bronze Age grave and subject of a BBC2 television film.
The British Archaeological Awards, to be presented in Belfast in October 2004, will be launched by Lord Redesdale at the British Museum on November 20 this autumn. If you want to learn about the awards and be welcomed by director Neil MacGregor to a special preview of the British Museum's Treasure exhibition (all for £5), contact the BAA Hon Secretary, Dr Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh EHI IJF(firstname.lastname@example.org.UK). Details of the Awards can be found at http://www.britarch.ac.UK/awards.
CBA Trustee Mike Farley was diverted by a recent paper submitted to Milton Keynes planning authority by Archaeologica Ltd, titled 'A Watching Brief at High Street Public Toilets, Newport Pagnell'. Early reports of a Buckinghamshire bog body have not been confirmed.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005