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


Unique art in conservation dilemma

Launched by English Heritage into a blaze of publicity, a unique prehistoric engraved rock exposed by fire has become the focus of controversy, as archaeologists and conservators debate what to do with it.

In September 2003 a serious fire destroyed 2.5 sq km of turf and flora on the North York Moors at Fylingdales. The following March Paul Frodsham, archaeologist for Northumberland National Park, discovered an engraved slab protruding a few centimetres above the ground. A week later it was found by two members of the public, who uncovered the rest of the stone.

For fear of further damage to the site, English Heritage decided its location should not be published – but then used the object to head a December press release highlighting the moorland conservation work, resulting in prominent media reports.

Alistair Carty, technical director of Archaeoptics, who laser scanned the stone, described it as "exceptionally fragile due to the action of the fire". Frodsham thinks the stone should be displayed in a local museum, after full excavation to reveal its context. Neil Redfern, English Heritage inspector, argues it should stay on the moor. "It's part of that landscape", he said.

In a poll at, however, 57% of 115 respondents thought the slab should go to a museum, while only 17% thought it should stay put (the rest wanted it at home or auctioned on eBay).

Thanks to fieldwork by the late Stuart Feather, Paul Brown and Graeme Chappell (see, the area was already well known for its rock art, simple "cup and ring marks", but the complex design of the new slab is unique.

Redfern was quoted as saying it might be "some kind of map ... we can see a landscape with mountains and sky". Brown instead emphasises similarities to abstract designs on prehistoric pottery, and Frodsham agrees. "The zig-zags and triangles are most unusual", he tells British Archaeology, "and may relate to entoptic imagery generated by altered states of consciousness". Found in fire, then - and created in smoke.

The tsunami that hit Britain

As we watched the terrible scenes around the Indian Ocean, how many Europeans were aware that in 5900BC a tsunami crossed the North Sea? It was caused by a massive submarine landslide off the coast of Norway, the second Storegga slide, likely affecting the whole of the Atlantic, including the north American coast.

Archaeologist Caroline Wickham-Jones told British Archaeology, through hurricane winds in Orkney, that no evidence has yet been found for related loss of human life or settlement damage, but these will certainly have occurred. Everyone then lived from hunting and gathering; there would have been many people near the shore.

Since the last ice melted around 9500BC, Scotland, relieved of the great weight, has risen from the sea, while southern England, never burdened with glaciers, has sunk. Tsunami evidence in the south will be submerged, but in the north the then coastline is now inland.

A layer of sand up to a metre thick has been found at several locations on the east coast of Scotland. The best evidence, says David Smith of the School of Geography and the Environment, Oxford University, is on Shetland; the furthest south just below Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is now thought the tsunami's impact can also be seen on Greenland. Smith's research assistant, Sue Dawson, has found wild cherry seeds in Scottish deposits, indicating an autumn event, matching Norwegian fish bone growth evidence.

Is this the world's first snowshoe?

The iceman had snowshoes. So would you, you might think, if you were 3600m up in the Alps near the Austrian-Italian border, even in 3300bc. However, none was apparently found with him. Jacqui Wood, director of Saveock Water Archaeology, Cornwall, claims that what has been described as his pannier was in fact one of two snowshoes, the other of which was never recovered.

Discovered by a hiker in 1991, the iceman is a fully-dressed man with his possessions, including a flint dagger and copper-bladed axe. The artefacts and their association with a single person are unique. Unfortunately neither their recovery nor all of their study have been very systematic.

An article Jacqui Wood wrote for British Archaeology in 1995 led to her being invited out to Italy to talk about her work. She was then asked by the South Tyrol Archaeological Museum, Bolzano, to recreate the iceman's cloak and shoes for their opening display.

She was puzzled by the shoes. The leather soles did not look designed to be walked on, and had straps with no obvious function; there were no backs, only a net of lime bast string. Her museum replicas followed the archaeologists' drawings, which omitted several straps and slits in the sole lashings.

Recently working for a forthcoming BBC2 film about the iceman, Wood realised the shoes had missing backs, and were made to be attached to something (above). The likely remains of a snowshoe – a bent hazel pole, two larch slats and a quantity of string interpreted as a pannier frame (but with no evidence for the pack itself) – had been found 10m from the body. Wood arranged a card replica of the "pannier" into a snowshoe of standard north American shape and size.

In support of her theory she points out that the tight grass cloak would have prohibited the wearing of a backpack: if over the cloak there were no arms to hang it on, if under it the cloak would not have closed. She plans to make a working replica of the snowshoes, and present the results to the autumn European Archaeological Association conference in Cork.

The digger's lot

Gillian Anderson, Julia Sawalha and Venus Williams have all said they might have become archaeologists. New research suggests if they had, by now they would likely be looking for different jobs.

Paul Everill, a doctoral student at the Department of Archaeology, University of Southampton, has surveyed around one in 10 of an estimated total 2100 commercial archaeologists. Nearly one third said they were trying or intending to leave the profession. Over a third believe there will be an employment crisis in archaeology if nothing changes, while a further third believe that crisis has already arrived.

Archaeology contributes an estimated £100m a year to the UK economy. The profession has grown significantly as society has responded to a need to record historic remains destroyed in the course of development, when most discoveries are now made.

However, the new profession lags behind national pay rates. A 2002/3 survey revealed an average salary 78% of the then national figure of £24,500. Speaking to diggers, Everill found concern about pay, training and conditions. People described "pitiful" and "ludicrously low" wages, and "shocking" working conditions. The service was said to be "amateur".

Nine out of 10 professional archaeologists are graduates, but university training is not always suited to field archaeology, found Everill. "The majority of graduates simply can't excavate", said one respondent. "If I see one more person put a north arrow on a section drawing I'll sob".

Everill found that a large number of graduates entering the profession were also unhappy, leaving in their mid-20s when they fail to secure promotion or imporved pay.

Not all is bad. "Nothing come close to the camaraderie", said one digger.

First historic cockfighting pit found

After much puzzling over a shallow circular ditch at St Ives, Cambs, archaeologists now believe it to be evidence for the first excavated cockfighting pit, in use in the 17th or 18th centuries for the sport that was finally banned in 1835, though thought still to be practised widely.

In summer 2003 Archaeological Solutions, investigating a residential development site on Ramsey Road for Campbell Melhuish Buchanan, west of the medieval town core, found a 70cm wide penanular gully. At first excavation director Brendon Wilkins thought it might be a prehistoric house, or associated with medieval tanning and fur skinning; bones of cat, dog, polecat or ferret and rabbit were found in nearby rubbish pits. However, clay pipe fragments showed the gully to be post-medieval.

After the dig had finished, project officers Leonora O'Brien and Kate Nicholson asked local historian Mary Carter about the site. Carter discovered suggestive names: 17th century manorial rolls noted a plot known as "le Pitts", a word often associated with cockfighting, and an 18th century will referred to "the Cockpit". The gully layout and dimensions match post-medieval/early modern period cockfighting rings recorded in rule books and engravings.

St Ives was strongly Parliamentarian and Puritan; Oliver Cromwell lived there in the early 1630s. Cromwell banned cockfighting and other pastimes which disturbed "the Publique Peace, and [were] commonly accompanied with Gaming, Drinking, Swearing, Quarrelling and other dissolute Practices, to the Dishonour of God," in 1654. It was revived with the Restoration in the 1660s, but fell out of favour again a century later. The 18th century landowner, Dingley Askham, is thought to have been among the congregation of the nearby Anglican church with a reputation for deliberately antagonising St Ives's Nonconformist population.

Archaeology on-line

Ancient rock art continues to be found in Northumberland, including some well preserved carvings in a cave at Ketley Crag, Alnwick. Stan Beckensall recently presented his extensive archive of art drawings to Newcastle University, who have launched a website dedicated to the county's prehistoric art (

Valley of the First Iron Masters ( is an interactive site presenting 25 years of the Foulness Valley, East Yorks, archaeology project. If your computer is up to it, there are some impressive graphics here (see picture), though your guides "Bryn, an ironmaster" and "Marcella, a farmer's wife" are more early Ladybird than global highway. The Avebury world heritage site now has an interactive map too: find the avebury button at

In brief


For 25 years – for the last 12 while moonlighting as the Time Team leader – Mick Aston (photo, left) built up one of the country's best regarded outreach programmes as professor of landscape archaeology at Bristol University's Department of Archaeology. He retired in July last year, reports Paul Stamper, and in December a two-day conference in his honour was held at Bristol. Among a throng of students, friends and admirers were fellow television archaeologists Julian Richards (Meet the Ancestors), and Mark Horton (Time Flyers). Aston will continue his involvement with Time Team and his research on early monasticism.

World Heritage Stamps

On 21 April the Royal Mail is to issue a set of stamps commemorating world heritage sites. British Archaeology can reveal that three of these will feature archaeological monuments (Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall and Orkney's neolithic standing stones) and a fourth Blenheim Palace. Risking accusations of colonial stereotyping, each will be paired with a stamp showing an Australian natural world heritage site. Hadrian's Wall (second class) and Stonehenge (first class) could become popular posting sites for stamped postcards. The Stonehenge letter box has one collection a day, but it seems at present your card would be franked only "Salisbury".

Exploring quarries

The Ice Age Network hopes to revive a 19th century approach to the exploration of quarries, in which geologists and archaeologists looking for evidence of ancient environments and early human activity worked closely with quarry workers. The new network, financed by the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund – a conservation tax on the extractive industry – extends the "partnership principle" from the Midlands-based Shotton Project with officers at the universities of Birmingham, London (Royal Holloway), Leicester and Southampton. Using leaflets, fossil and artefact recognition sheets, and training days and field trips, project officers aim to reach 182 active English quarries where significant ice age remains may be found.

Dirty money

Commercial support for the heritage can raise moral dilemmas, as Heritage Action found at the Manchester Museum in January. They were protesting against Anglo American's sponsorship of the British Museum's travelling exhibition Buried Treasure. Tarmac, an Anglo American subsidiary, has been blamed for damaging the landscape at the Thornborough henges, N Yorks. "To sponsor 'treasure' with one hand and to destroy it with the other is breathtakingly hypocritical", said Lynn Shillitoe of Heritage Action, adding "It was a good little exhibition, actually". It is now at the Hancock Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 26 June before moving to its final venue in Norwich.

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