Digging up art
Bronze bog hoard
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Editor Mike Pitts
Third Neolithic longhouse found in Scotland
A trial excavation at Crathes, south-west of Aberdeen, has shown that a cropmark first recognised in 1976 represents a large Neolithic timber building. Any houses are extremely rare in southern Britain, but this is the third of this type to be found in Scotland, all destroyed by fire. The find will encourage further debate about the function of a range of Scottish Neolithic wooden structures thought to be dwellings, stores or ritual sites.
The 10 day dig took place on the National Trust for Scotland’s Crathes Castle Estate, to ascertain the nature of the building and an adjacent pit alignment in a field where damage could occur from such as event marquees and vehicles. Hilary Murray, co-director for Murray Archaeological Services, said the site was in exceptional condition, despite ploughing and being ‘awash with rabbits’.
The 9 m by 22 m structure could have been a substantial roofed building. Intense fire had burnt the outsides of massive posts resulting in their precise sizes and positions being indicated by rings of charcoal. Two pits in the centre were lined with burnt branches, and remains of a carbonised wooden bowl were found. Pits in the alignment also contained charcoal, but no artefacts.
Pottery and stone tools show Crathes to be approximately contemporary with two similar structures dated to 4,000-3,500 bc. At Balbridie, just across the River Dee to the south from Crathes, was a building 12 m by 24 m, also spotted from the air in 1976 and until excavation thought to be a Medieval hall (feature, July 2002). A very similar structure was recently excavated near Callander, Perthshire (News, December 2001). At Balbridie fire had preserved quantities of wheat and barley grains, as well as flax seeds and crab apple pips, and burnt hazelnut shells were found at Balbridie, Callander and Crathes.
Rare Medieval track excavated
Prehistoric timber trackways are well known, but in June archaeologists excavated an unusual Early Medieval track at Llancynfelyn near Talybont, Ceredigion. Radiocarbon suggested construction between AD 900-1020, and dendrochronology dates the felling of three trees to AD 1080-1120. Substantial evidence for industrial activity and a possible major lead processing and smelting complex were found at one end of the track, which may have been built to transport ore from the nearby mines at Llangynfelyn. Cambria Archaeology (supported by Cadw and Birmingham University) says much interest was shown in the excavation by local people and media. The trackway was revealed by agricultural draining on the edge of Cors Fochno (Borth Bog).
Decorated shears trimmed Celtic hair
Unique engraved copper alloy shears have been found at an Iron Age site in Essex. Well preserved but missing the tips of both blades, they were excavated at a small settlement dating to c 20 bc-ad 70, around the time of the Roman conquest. They are likely to have been hair scissors: classical writers noted Celts took considerable care of their hair, and men of their moustaches and beards.
The find was made at Hamperden End, Henham during the laying of a Transco gas pipeline between Cambridge and Matching Green in 2002. Derek Cater, project officer for Network Archaeology, told British Archaeology that the shears were near the bottom of a ditch separating two circular gullies thought to have enclosed roundhouses.
The shears lay horizontally, aligned with the length of the ditch, suggesting they may have been placed as a sacrifice, perhaps having been deliberately broken. Valuable metal items such as swords are not uncommonly found broken and deposited in wet places. At Flag Fen, near Peterborough, a complete pair of bronze shears were found inside a carved wooden case, the only previously confirmed non-iron shears of this date from the UK. Twice the size of the Essex pair and undecorated, they were said to resemble sheep shears but to be fine enough for human use.
JD Hill, curator of the British Museum’s Iron Age collections, says polishing and nicks on the blades show the Essex shears had been well-used. He compares the engraved designs to the ‘Mirror Style’ of La Tène art, found on copper alloy mirrors, sword scabbards and a spearhead made between the 2nd century bc and the 1st century ad.
Mirrors, which are occasionally found in rich graves, and shears would both have been needed by a small elite increasingly concerned with their appearance. Describing the Gauls in France, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (c 90-21 bc) wrote that noblemen ‘shave their cheeks but let their moustaches grow free enough to cover their mouths’. Boudica had long red hair, and hair colouring was said to be popular.
Iron Age 'bender' in Margate
A large oval pit dug into chalk at Trinity Square, Margate, is thought to be a sunken-floored Iron Age hut, unique in Britain. Around the edge, stakes were placed in holes that lean towards the centre, suggesting a structure like a modern ‘bender’.
Part of the hut’s chalk floor sank into a large backfilled cylindrical pit, and had to be re-laid. Three posts stood on the floor. To the south-east was a stepped entrance leading down into the hut, which had niches cut into its edge. A similar example is known in Cordoba, southern Spain.
Two articulated adult skeletons (sex and exact age to be determined) were found lying above the floor and beneath a thick layer of charcoal and burnt wattle-impressed daub. Paul Wilkinson of SWAT Archaeology speculates that when the hut’s inhabitants died they were ‘laid out’ in their home, which was then fired and allowed to collapse over their bodies. What remained of the structure was then deliberately filled in.
Nearby were a further five cylindrical storage pits, in which were found a few human bones and pieces of fine pottery bowls dating from c 550-400 bc. Adjacent post hole groups suggest a timber palisade enclosed a round house on the hilltop, a good vantage point overlooking a valley to the west and the sea to the north and east. Finds from other pits indicate settlement continued until 300 bc.
The excavation was conducted in April in advance of development.
Barrow saved from walkers
Archaeologists in Wales have conserved a Bronze Age barrow on top of the Black Mountain, at Fan Foel, the highest point in Carmarthenshire. They had to climb 45 minutes there and back every day. ‘It was a spectacular place to work’, said Gwilym Hughes, director of Cambria Archaeology, ‘with views to Devon, Pembrokeshire and mid Wales. But it was very, very windy – the weather was dreadful’.
Monitoring erosion of the barrow for two years, archaeologists had noticed that the surrounding stone kerb was disappearing. The greatest threat came from a walkers’ cairn in the centre, which recently acquired a Tupperware ‘geocache’ box. Visitors to the box were eroding the turf, and picking up stones from the barrow to add to the cairn.
Believing that associated cremation burials might be lost, archaeologists cleared the barrow to the top of the original earth mound, which was only 50 cm high. A half intact burial, consisting of fragments of an urn and burnt bone, was found in the kerb. Within the mound but to one side was what is believed to be the primary burial, a stone-walled cist that contained a ‘Food Vessel’ type pot with cremated bone, two flint scrapers and a possible flint knife blade.
After excavation of vulnerable features, the site was covered with geotextile and prepared for grass regrowth. The project was funded by Cadw and the Brecon Beacons National Park.
Thanks to support from developer and county council, the Roman villa at Shillingstone, Dorset (News, June) was excavated by AC Archaeology. No mosaics survived: one had been removed when a Roman granary was built. 2,000 attended an open weekend at the villa revealed by building, midst calls for the site to be left exposed for educational visits. However planning consent had been granted, and much of the villa will be preserved beneath low-cost housing. It may be the Anicetis in the Ravenna Cosmography, a list of Roman place names.
Liverpool win and loss
As predicted (feature, May) Liverpool’s commercial and maritime quarters were ascribed World Heritage Site status at a Unesco meeting at Suzhou, China, on 2 July. The proposed landmark ‘Fourth Grace’ building, to have housed a new Museum of Liverpool and archaeological resource centre, has been dropped.
Minister's supportOn 26 May minister for the arts Estelle Morris spoke at a debate secured by Richard Allan, MP. ‘I have been hugely impressed by [the Portable Antiquities Scheme]’, she said, ‘and I am determined to ensure that it continues’. Metal detectorists help us ‘understand where we have come from as a nation and race and where we might be going … [They] have dug up ... things that have helped to inform the rest of civilisation about itself.’ The Solicitor-General replied to Allan’s questions about a collecting case (News, July), that while no further case action was needed, the CPS would consider developing guidance on unauthorised artefact removal at a scheduled site.
Heritage protection reviewedLike the heritage they are designed to protect, safeguards have accumulated over generations, are fragmentary and full of mystery. A good English clean-up is needed, said the Department for Culture Media and Sport. It proposes to combine protective measures in one listing, devolve management to English Heritage (which welcomes the ideas) and encourage greater openness. Historic Environment Records will become statutory, and abolishing class consents will stop plough destruction of scheduled sites.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005