Editor Mike Pitts
All Cannings Cross
In September John Barrett (Sheffield University) and David McOmish (English Heritage) began to investigate the curious late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age world around the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire, with an assessment of All Cannings Cross.
This iconic, enigmatic site was first identified by Maud Cunnington in 1911. Puzzled by the many hammerstones in a ploughed field, Cunnington excavated below the chalk scarp falling into the vale at All Cannings Cross Farm. A layer of dark earth, up to 55 cm thick, was crammed with pieces of pottery and animal bones, and tools of bone, bronze and iron.
It provoked immediate interest, not just because of the nature of the deposit (‘quite out of proportion to the probable length of occupation’) but also because of the date, which Cunnington estimated at 500 BC. Here, she said, was the first evidence for Britain’s earliest users of iron, perhaps Celtic immigrants themselves.
More recently apparently similar deposits have been recognised at Potterne and East Chisenbury (the latter as a low, 140 m wide mound), also near the Pewsey vale’s edge, and characterised as Final Bronze Age middens. Cunnington found structural features at Cannings including rectangular chalk floors, spreads of burnt clay, posts, hearths and pits. Exactly what was happening at these sites, and how they were formed, remains a mystery: words like feasting, ritual and power feature strongly in the debate (though immigrant does not).
New excavation, soil coring and field walking confirmed Cannings’ remarkable status. Some of Cunnington’s trenches were located – records are vague on their location – and chalk rubble covering a mass of animal bone and pottery was exposed; other finds include a bronze knife or chisel. In one core the Bronze Age deposit was seen to lie above earlier soil washed from the nearby chalk slope, beneath which was a prehistoric pit; a possible Neolithic pit was found in one of the excavations. Also sealed by the ‘midden’ were two Middle Bronze Age ditches.
During a break one of the team, walking fields the other side of a small chalk ridge, located a large spread of dark, greasy soil with artefacts like those at All Cannings Cross, seemingly an identical site.
‘This is a challenge’, says Barrett, pausing between one group of visitors and another. ‘You become mesmerised by the quality of the data. We have to get to grips with these sites’. McOmish is equally pleased. ‘This is amazing archaeology’, he says.
They are keen their work should excite not just archaeologists. ‘We have to engage with the wider community’, says McOmish, who plans to talk to local villages and schools over the winter. ‘The public will queue to see an excavation and visit ancient remains’, says Barrett, ‘yet the academic description of results, however elegantly presented, does not deliver the same value. We need to understand more clearly how this loss occurs’.
A dig diary is available here.
Did Stubbs see Ice Age art?
You may have missed last summer’s best British archaeology exhibition – in Kentucky. Objects from over 60 lenders, including the British Museum and the national collections of Scotland and Wales, depicted the British horse, while outside ponies towed a reconstructed Iron Age Wetwang chariot (Mk 2) past stables housing an equine star of the movie Seabiscuit.
Prehistoric and Roman horse fittings, the Torrs Iron Age bronze pony cap and a reconstruction of the Lakenheath Anglo-Saxon horse grave, led to the present with assorted horse regalia and paintings, via a stunning 15th century walnut Norwich altarpiece and Henry VIII’s horse armour. One of the most striking sights was the first: hanging side by side, as never before, the Palaeolithic rib from Robin Hood Cave (Creswell Crags) engraved with a horse’s head, and a painting by George Stubbs set in the same landscape.
Stubbs discovered the Crags in the 1760s, and set several works there. Art historians speculate that he may have known the caves contained fossil extinct animals such as horse, bison, lion and rhino (amongst other animals Stubbs painted were elk, zebra and leopards). This seems unlikely. William Buckland and John McEnery were still struggling with the concept of extinct British animals in the 1820s; the cave excavations that revealed the fossils, stone tools and engraved rib were begun by Magens Mello and Boyd Dawkins in 1875. Stubbs’ likely ignorance of the caves’ contents is now the more poignant that an Ice Age ibex has been found painted on the wall (BA, September).
Bill Cooke, director of the Kentucky International Museum of the Horse, and his colleagues would like All the Queen’s Horses to be seen here. The greatest challenge, says Patricia Connor, is finding a large enough venue. In the meantime her excellent catalogue can be obtained from Kentucky (email@example.com).
Debate about whether to move the fragmentary 5th century BC Parthenon frieze from London to Athens is about politics, not archaeology or public access. So it is good to see Greek culture minister Evangelos Venizelos, who presented the UK with a virtual tour of the British Museum’s marbles in his otherwise empty museum being built at a reported cost of £29m, also supporting the critical Athenian Acropolis restoration project.
An exhibition of striking documentary photographs by Socratis Mavrommatis (at University College London until 12 December) put the curation of Britain’s ancient monuments, which can involve detailed attention to lichens and how short to cut the grass, into perspective. Captions alone spoke for the conservation challenges: ‘splitting of marble caused by swelling of rusting iron components’; ‘cracks made by cannon-balls and bullets’; ‘traces of bombshell from the siege of Morosini’; the Temple of Athena Nike ‘during its dismantling (2001)’ and ‘after it was completely dismantled (2002)’. Images illustrated the damaging effects of ice, heat, vegetation, atmospheric pollution, earthquake and … Lord Elgin’s saw.
On 26 October the Sunday Times magazine celebrated Piltdown with a cover story. Hugh Miles, grandson of Joseph Weiner, the man who did most to expose the fraud 50 years ago, accused Charles P Chatwin and a gang of colleagues in the palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum. The ‘selfish’ and ‘dictatorial [boss] Arthur Smith Woodward’ had inspired a campaign of revenge in which Chatwin, Martin Hinton and others sought to ‘jeopardise his reputation’. Miles’ principal evidence was after-dinner chat from Kenneth Oakley, a key scientist in the exposure, six years before he died.
If Oakley knew this plot, why did he not tell others? Why hint at it to a few, risking ill-informed gossip, something already upsetting him as researchers accused an ever-growing band of suspects, at times unjustly claiming Oakley’s support?
Giles Oakley has taken a keen interest in his father’s work, sorting books, manuscripts and tapes (researchers should stop seeking a confessional tape, he says, it never existed). British Archaeology asked him about this new theory.
‘I was not impressed’, he says. ‘I don’t know what my Dad said at this dinner party (with a ‘shaking hand’...), but it was certainly not his style to announce something like that in a melodramatic way. If he had ever come to such a definitive conclusion, he would have said so, if not to me then certainly to his old friend John Wiseman, whom he’d known since the mid-30s and who became the executor of his will with me. At the time of the BBC Chronicle programme in 1973 my father mentioned in a roundabout, undogmatic way that Chatwin had been somewhat evasive and embarrassed to talk about Piltdown. This was much less than a direct accusation, and when his friend criticised him for passing on what amounted to little more than hearsay he agreed to it being cut from any repeat showing of the film.’
So who was it?
‘I never heard him claim to have proof of anyone’s guilt. He was just fascinated to know who might have done it. I think he was reasonably convinced Dawson was the main culprit. I think he also accepted that there might well have been one or more others involved, but would have been very reluctant to make an unsubstantiated accusation.’
Viking woman dies in Yorkshire
Political exile or economic migrant, a woman who died at Adwick-le-Street near Doncaster, South Yorkshire, shows vividly that Britain has long been a multicultural land. Aged 33-45, she was buried beside a track in the late 9th century in the standard garb of a free-born Scandinavian: full-length chemise under a strap dress fastened by a pair of oval brooches. By contrast, local Anglo-Saxon women would have worn long-sleeved gowns from neck to foot.
The brass ‘tortoise’ brooches decorated with cast fretwork filled with animals and human heads, are common in Viking Scandinavia, where they were made, but this is the first pair found in England since 1867.
‘This is a very significant find’, says Penelope Rogers of the Anglo-Saxon Laboratory, York. ‘There is absolutely no doubt she is an authentic Scandinavian’.
Paul Budd (Durham University) confirmed Rogers’ conviction with analysis of two molars, whose strontium and oxygen isotopes indicate the woman’s homeland was Norway, perhaps the Trondheim area.
‘This find shows that Vikings weren’t just pillaging’, says Peter Robinson of Doncaster Museum, where the remains will be displayed thanks to £1800 from the Resource/V&A Purchase Grant Fund. ‘We have now got proof that Vikings did settle in Doncaster’.
Does her latch-key confirm she had a local front door? Not necessarily, says Rogers, for such keys were a symbol of marriage. Greg Speed of Northern Archaeological Associates, who excavated the grave in advance of sewer works by Yorkshire Water Services, wonders if she had not long been in England, noting she died close to a Roman road.
Also in the grave were a bronze bowl, possibly imported to Norway from Ireland, and an iron knife. Her brooches hint at troubled times: worn and repaired, they are not a proper set.
Hoards and cemeteries
With its fifth annual report (due as we go to press) the Portable Antiquities Scheme can be seen maturing into more than just an identification and recording service. Among the scheme’s aims are to raise awareness of the value of well-contexted finds, and to increase opportunities for active public involvement in archaeology, not least by strengthening links between metal-detector users and archaeologists. In other words, it seeks to turn collectors into informed archaeologists. An amateur revolution is underway.
Between October 2001 and March 2003, Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) worked with 61 metal-detecting clubs and amateur groups, gave 193 talks and organised 135 ‘finds days’ and displays. The website received over 1.8 million page requests; the online database boasted 47,600 records. This was achieved by 12 FLOs covering about half of England and all of Wales: by the end of 2003 the full complement of 32 FLOs will be in place (of whom Wales has one).
Single finds combine into bigger stories. In the Vale of Glamorgan the number of known Late Bronze Age hoards has doubled, five of ‘Ewart Park’ tradition (c 950-750 BC) containing between them over 250 pieces. ‘Never before have we been able to work on such an impressive body of new hoard discoveries at the same time’, says a delighted Adam Gwilt (Curator of Bronze Age Collections, National Museums & Galleries of Wales). In Kent three Anglo-Saxon cemeteries and a possible trading site have been identified from coins and metalwork.
Tessa Jowell (Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport) said in July that ‘the Portable Antiquities Scheme … has proved to be successful and we ought to try to ensure that we can fund it in the long term’. So she ought.
At a prestigious gathering in the Museum of London on 16 October Simon van der Byl, Quarry Products Association DG, praised the Aggregates Levy Fund in an impassioned speech – but not quite in the way one imagines the event’s organisers had hoped. The levy, a tax on the extraction of sand, stone and gravel, came into force in April 2002, to complement the impact of quarrying with community projects. The sums are huge: in less than two years, English Heritage, English Nature and the Countryside Agency have distributed over £29 million (compare, for example, English Heritage’s entire government grant in 2002/3 of £115,156).
‘We have absolutely no hesitation in saying the fund is good news’, said van der Byl: but, he continued, the levy is bad. Government research was seriously flawed, and without detailed objectives it was questionable the scheme was achieving net environmental gains; by drawing in new, non-taxable extractive minerals, it had increased quarrying; it was inefficient in increasing recycling and it was damaging UK industry’s competitiveness.
Fortunately Elliot Morley, Minister for Environment & Agri-environment, was on hand to listen and to defend the fund. At least that’s what the press release said. Others could have been forgiven for thinking it was the Rt Hon Morley who was at that very moment elsewhere pronouncing on GMOs.
The best preserved part of the Marden, Wiltshire henge monument, with substantial bank and ditch remains, was on sale in the summer. For a guide price of £1.1 million a lucky archaeologist could have their own stake in Neolithic Wessex adjacent to the river Avon. Who bought it? As we go to press no one is telling. ‘We are very happy with what we’ve been offered’, say agents Wooley & Wallis. (For the record, the henge came with an 1846 Grade II house, a Grade II three storey mill complete with fittings, dairy, bake house, cart shed and store building.)
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005