British Archaeology, no 8, October 1995: News

Medieval arm bones lend support to left handers

A study of the arm bones of the medieval residents of Wharram Percy, a deserted village in Yorkshire, suggests that left-handedness was more common in the Middle Ages than today, and that the `natural' level of left-handedness in any given population may be higher than is usually thought.

The study found that 16 per cent of the Wharram Percy adults were left-handed, most of whom lived between the 11th and 16th centuries.

By contrast, on average only about eight per cent of people in the world today are considered left handed - judged by those who write with their left hand - ranging from as low as one per cent for some Far Eastern populations to about 13 per cent in some western countries. In developed countries the proportion has steadily risen over the past century, as cultural pressures against writing with the left hand have relaxed. In the United States, for instance, only four per cent of college students wrote with the left hand in 1928, but 13 per cent did so in 1983.

In the 122 Wharram Percy adult skeletons, left-handedness was detected by measuring the length of the humerus (upper arm bone), or humerus and radius (one of the forearm bones), on the established principle that right- and left-handedness are reflected in a slight lengthening of the bones in the dominant arm. The difference is generally only a few millimetres, and occurs equally in men and women. The study, published in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology (vol 5, 1995), was conducted by Simon Mays of English Heritage's Ancient Monuments Laboratory and James Steele of Southampton University.

According to Dr Mays and Dr Steele, the Wharram Percy skeletons may reflect the `natural' level of left-handedness in any given population. The lengthening of arm bones is thought to be caused by load-bearing tasks (such as lifting, digging and throwing), rather than by fine motor skills (such as handwriting); and according to the study, the rate of left-handedness in load-bearing seems to have remained constant in Europe from the medieval to the modern period.

They cite, for instance, a 1937 study that found 16 per cent of people with a longer left arm; and two recent studies (one on grip-strength, and the other on speed of peg-moving) that showed 15 per cent of people performed better with the left hand than with the right - figures that significantly outweigh the proportion actually writing with the left hand.

This suggests two conclusions: that handedness bias in load-bearing tasks is relatively resistant to cultural pressure; and that the prevalence of left-handed writing in Britain may continue to rise until it reaches the `natural' level.

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Council cuts put archaeology at risk

Archaeological services are at risk of major deterioration in at least two English counties - Wiltshire and Lancashire - as a result of deep cuts in their budgets. The cuts could impair each county's archaeological database, or Sites and Monuments Record (SMR), and severely hamper efforts to protect local archaeology from new development.

Wiltshire's cuts - which have been proposed for next year but not yet finalised - are related to local government reorganisation, and indicate the trouble awaiting other counties (such as Dorset, Bedfordshire, Hampshire and North Yorkshire) faced with similar organisational changes. In 1997, all these counties will lose the financial contribution of one or more major towns, which become unitary local authorities.

In Wiltshire, where a new unitary authority is to be set up in Swindon, archaeologists have been told to expect a 30 per cent budget cut for next year - equivalent to the contribution Swindon previously made to the county council budget. However, Swindon only accounted for 10 per cent of archaeological work, leaving Wiltshire's archaeologists with a major shortfall.

Duncan Coe, Wiltshire's Assistant Archaeologist, said the cuts would probably mean the loss of two out of five staff, and have a massive impact on their quality of work. `We are already working at the limit in development control. We may have to say we simply wouldn't look at any development under a certain size; or we may have to cut right back on our advice [to the MoD] over Salisbury Plain,' he said.

Although local government reorganisation does not take effect in England until 1997, Wiltshire is being asked to take cuts a year in advance, in preparation for the event. Similarly in Hampshire, where budget proposals have not yet been fixed, cuts have been mooted next year for archaeology, with a handful of senior staff offered redundancy.

In Lancashire, the threat to archaeology is perhaps even more serious. Development control work and maintenance of the SMR - already drastically under-resourced, being carried out over the whole county by less than two full-time posts - is now in danger of further deterioration, with the loss of a third of its budget following the ending of a grant from the English Royal Commission.

According to Peter Iles, SMR Officer, the SMR - which is responsible in Lancashire for development control - has always been unstable, being based in Lancaster University and receiving two thirds of its funding `voluntarily' from local district councils and the county. The remaining third, from the Royal Commission, was intended to fund a specific project, but has been used simply to keep the SMR in operation.

The Commission, he explained, decided not to renew its funding because it was not its job to finance Lancashire's development control system. Moreover, some district councils have reduced their contributions to the SMR. `What we urgently need now is for the county to sponsor the service, but it is not clear yet that they will,' Mr Iles said.

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`Best year ever' for air photography

Hundreds of new archaeological sites of all periods have been revealed this summer as cropmarks and parchmarks in fields, in what may prove one of the most productive years ever for aerial archaeology in some parts of Britain.

Bob Bewley, Head of the Air Photography Unit at the English Royal Commission (RCHME), said: `Everybody says 1976 was the year of the century for air photography, but this year was on a par with it. Also, the organisation of air photography is more advanced now than then, so we are in a better position to record sites now than we were in 1976.'

RCHME fliers have recorded at least 2,000 sites this year, a large proportion of which are new, Dr Bewley said. These include a new Neolithic causewayed camp near Peterborough, new Neolithic long barrows in Lincolnshire and Wessex, a dozen new Bronze Age round barrows near Andover, numerous new Iron Age settlements throughout England, and three new Roman camps in the north of England.

Air archaeology has also produced interesting results all over Europe this summer, according to veteran flier Jim Pickering. Monuments once thought unique to Britain, such as Neolithic cursus monuments and pit alignments, for instance, have been found in Germany and Hungary. Mr Pickering has also found possible Roman villas in the Midlands, where villas are rare.

Some parts of Britain, however, such as Norfolk and Wales, have been too dry even for parchmarks to appear, and regional fliers there have made fewer new discoveries.

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In brief

Stonehenge houses

Planning permission has been granted for three houses inside an Iron Age enclosure in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, against the advice of English Heritage and Wiltshire's County Archaeologist. The enclosure, known as Vespasian's Camp, lies at the end of the Stonehenge Avenue and was about to be scheduled by English Heritage when permission was given.

The decision by Salisbury District Council, which defies the spirit of government policy on World Heritage Sites, raises important questions. In a letter to The Times, CBA President Peter Addyman called for expanded government guidance on World Heritage Sites, and asked: `Should issues affecting areas of such extreme archaeological sensitivity be determined at national [rather than local] level?'

Geoff Wainwright, however, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, said that Salisbury DC's behaviour was rare and that existing guidance, contained within PPG15, was in general working well enough.

Manx discoveries

A Neolithic causewayed enclosure, which seems to have been defended in combat against humans or animals, has been found and excavated on the Isle of Man. Archaeologists from Bournemouth University, led by Prof Tim Darvill, found dozens of leaf-shaped flint arrowheads at the enclosure boundary, which dates from c 4000-2500BC. Also found were a later timber structure, possibly a crematorium, which contained fragments of burned bone, and an even later round house with stone foundations, set against a field boundary dating from c 1000BC.

Ancient teeth

Two new early Neanderthal teeth, a quarter of a million years old, have been found in Pontnewydd Cave in Clwyd - following closely on the well-publicised discovery of a 500,000-year-old tooth at Boxgrove in Sussex. Fossil evidence of at least four people has now been found at Pontnewydd, which is Britain's third oldest site with hominid evidence after Boxgrove and Swanscombe in Kent.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995