The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 81

March/April 2005



Unique art in conservation dilemma

The tsunami that hit Britain

Is this the world's first snowshoe?

The digger's lot

First historic cockfighting pit found

Archaeology on-line

In Brief


A-hunting we will go - the extreme sport of hedge-laying
Jonathan Finch runs with hounds and finds more than foxes

The great stone circles project
New project has already made surprising discoveries


Views and responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Silbury Rain

From Thomas Welsh

Reading the article about Silbury Hill ('A green hill long ago', Jan/Feb), I was surprised to find no mention made of acid rain. Historically the rainfall probably ran off the summit rather than percolate downwards, but disturbances in more recent times have made it easier for water to seep down from the top (polystyrene backfill of the hole will certainly assist this process). Added to this, the pH of rainfall has been significantly lowered in the last three decades, making the power of water to dissolve the chalk greater. Small natural 'pipes' created by this solution would expand into cavities, the eventual collapse of which probably produced the hole in 2000. However this cavity was probably near the top of the mound. The idea that subsidence round passages near the base caused a collapse entirely within the summit is harder to understand.

Thomas C Welsh, School of Applied Science, University College Northampton

  • As the feature explained, the summit collapse was caused by a shaft dug from the top in 1776; the fear is that old excavations at the base will cause new internal collapses

Seeing TV was enough

From Hilary Daniels

Can someone please explain to me the purpose of Archaeology in view? A review of forthcoming archaeological/historical programming would have a use – flagging up shows worth watching or avoiding. Devoting space to describe why a programme shown five months previously was toe-curlingly awful does not. For example, those of us unfortunate enough to have seen the first episodes of EXA: Extreme Archaeology do not need telling and, frankly, would rather not be reminded. This is no more than a project for the Bristol students. Worthy, no doubt, but not the best use of two pages of BA.

Hilary Daniels, Mere, Wiltshire

From Henry Trigg

Archaeology in view is a rare chance to read intelligent discussion of the medium so important to archaeology, never mind the rest of our lives.

Henry Trigg, Hull

Colour photos

From Eric Houlder

I note the photographic archive for the 60s Brougham Roman cemetery dig ('Pyromania', Jan/Feb) is all black and white. Those of us using colour in the 50s and 60s will remember a bias against it from older practitioners. Maurice Cookson [Sir Mortimer Wheeler's photographer] had been trying out colour in the mid-50s, so presumably Wheeler was already using slides. Yet in 1969 I heard of a meeting at which a well-respected archaeologist fulminated against the use of colour in a publication on the grounds that 'black and white was good enough for Rik Wheeler'.

Eric Houlder, Pontefract

Nebra Bridge

From David de Vos

I read an article on the Discovery website ( about the Nebra bronze age disc [reporting Letters, Jan/Feb]. It is suggested that the golden bough at the bottom of the disc, instead of being a sunship, could depict a rainbow. The article refers to the biblical flood and the rainbow afterwards.

I know another source in which a rainbow is mentioned, the Edda [myths written down by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson cAD1220]. Bifrost was a rainbow bridge of three colours that linked earth and heaven. As the sun and moon are closely related to the (ancient) gods, could the disc depict a bridge to the gods (sun and moon)?

The goddess Iris was the winged goddess of the rainbow and also the messenger of the Olympic gods. In Nordic mythology Heimdall was the messenger of the gods, who sat guard at the rainbow bridge. The names and sexes may differ, but the function and depiction stays the same. A bridge to the gods, and its messenger.

This same shape can be found in the second building stage of Stonehenge [Q and R Holes]. This is also boat or rainbow shaped. I find it remarkable that the shape and function are quite the same as the Nebra disc, only on a bigger scale and with the time function integrated in the bough.

David de Vos, Rotterdam

From Euan MacKie

Interpreting the golden arc on the bronze disc from Nebra as a rainbow is an interesting idea yet the boat hypothesis still seems more convincing to me. The disc's rescuer, Harald Meller, has published a detailed study comparing the arc with many other, much more clearly boat-like images on bronze age metalwork and on rock surfaces from northern Europe (Archäeologie in Sachsen-Anhalt 1/02, 2002). Certainly there are no suggestions of a prow or stern on the disc "boat" yet the similarities are striking, particularly the numerous tiny, slanting parallel lines projecting from the top and bottom of the golden arc.

Many of the other images also have longitudinal parallel lines which surely represent the planks of the boat rather than the bands of a rainbow. Perhaps the boats represent the ancient southern constellation Argo, the Ship (now divided into three smaller ones), though the symbolism remains obscure. However Argo, while sometimes visible from the Mediterranean, cannot be seen from northern Europe.

Mythological interpretations have to be speculative but some astronomical ones can at least be tested and the Nebra disc bears some clear sky symbols like the crescent moon and the sun (or full moon). In such a context the golden spots really ought to be stars. The only detailed English account by Meller that I am aware of is in National Geographic (January 2003), which summarises W Schlosser's astronomical interpretation (Archäeologie in Sachsen-Anhalt 1/02, 2002). This relies on three subtle facts. First that the two lateral golden arcs subtend angles of 82 degrees from the disc's centre and, second, that at the latitude of the find spot on Mittelberg the annual cycle of sunrise and sunset along the horizon is also about 82 degrees. The third is that distant peaks visible from Mittelberg mark sunset at midsummer and on May 1st/August 1st, suggesting that the site was a solar observation point incorporating accurate long alignments of the kind proposed by Alexander Thom. Yet no-one has analysed the disc with Thom's hypotheses in mind. I suspect that when this is done the results will be of great interest.

Euan W MacKie, honorary research fellow, the Hunterian, Glasgow

Battle research

From Tony Pollard, Iain Banks and Neil Oliver

Although fully supportive of Glenn Foard's call to take British battlefields seriously as archaeological sites ('Field offensive', November), we would like to respond to a couple of points.

On the one hand the article appears to be fairly dismissive of television archaeology, but on the other credits it as 'almost the only current source of funding for UK battlefield archaeology'. This is not really the case, as demonstrated by other ongoing projects, including the fieldwork reported at Edgehill, which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, no matter how 'shoestring' the budget. The article also overlooks the contribution television has made to the nascent discipline of battlefield archaeology. Just as Time Team has given the general public a good idea of how something as esoteric as 'geophys' operates, so series like Two Men in a Trench, Secrets of the Dead and Battlefield Detectives have raised the profile of British battlefields and, in the public's eyes, given battlefield archaeology a recognised standing alongside more familiar manifestations of archaeological endeavour. But these programmes have done more than this. The article tells us that a targeted research programme is needed on a sample of battlefields from the 11th to the 17th centuries; though by no means negating the need for further work Two Men in a Trench has in fact already laid the groundwork for this. Over two series, the BBC programmes focussed on the sampling and evaluation of no less than 12 British battlefields and other military sites, ranging in date from Bannockburn in 1314 to a second world war airfield (the latter of which is now likely to be scheduled due to the quality of archaeology established during the project). The results of this work, in addition to the programmes and two books for the general reader, will be published in 2005 as an archaeological monograph, and it is hoped that then the contribution of what presently stands as the most comprehensive field evaluation of British battlefields to date may gain some acknowledgment. All in all, we feel that advances have already been made and there are reasons for optimism about the future of battlefield archaeology in the UK.

Tony Pollard, Iain Banks and Neil Oliver, University of Glasgow

Lost seal

You reported the discovery of the earliest known papal seal in the Frome Valley, Herefordshire (News, November). Coincidentally I recently came across a report in an old local journal of the finding of a rather later lead bulla of Alexander III (1159-81), who followed Nicholas Breakespeare of Abbots Langley, amongst rubble cleared from a building site in Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire in 1966. This seal was examined and identified by a youthful Keith Branigan (now professor at Sheffield University). Its finder, a young man called Howard Davies who then lived locally, retained the bulla. It (and his) present whereabouts are unknown these many years later, perhaps some curator can throw light on its present location?

David Harding, Friends of the Croxley Great Barn, Herts 01923 779284;

Stony stare

From AG Massey

The flint 'core' in the photograph [below] was found near one of three round barrows revealed as crop marks during an aerial survey of the Eastwell area, north-east Leicestershire, in 1978. It is a geode having a small U-shaped cavity crammed with tiny quartz crystals. During the act of removing two flakes the 'eyes', outlined with sparkling crystals, would have sprung into view as if by magic – probably to the surprise/terror of the knapper. Although the core is quite small (3.5 x 2.5cm) the face on it is unmistakable and one cannot help wondering if it was ever used in shamanic practices. The red material in the holes, which make the 'eyes' that much more malevolent, is probably some of the local iron-rich soil rather than pure red ochre; but certainly it is jammed in very tightly.

AG Massey, Loughborough

We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.

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