The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 86

Issue 86

January/February 2006



Flight of the eagles

Unearthing the ancestral rabbit

Counting the treasure

Tools for learning

Round and about in historic Leominster

In Brief


700,000 years old found in Suffolk
Full report from the scientists who found the first Northern Europeans.

Easter Island statues explained
Brett Shepardson takes issue with stories of doom - thanks to Edwardian women.

50 years on
Celebrating industrial archaeology, but what is it? Michael Nevell knows.

Evacuees Christmas and other war art
Soldiers who draw: English Heritage report on a new study of old graffiti.

on the web

Recommended websites


Views and responses

CBA News

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Flight of the eagles

Perched near an Orkney cliff edge, identified by a farmer who confronted human skulls in the flicker of his cigarette lighter, and named after the sea eagles whose bones littered the floor, the 5,000 year old chambered tomb of Isbister is a romantic place. New radiocarbon dates from the Tomb of the Eagles' eponymous bones suggest the birds were not buried by the tomb's original builders, scotching the theory that the eagle was their totem animal. Tomb of the Secondary Eagle Deposits, anyone?

Ronald Simison first explored the site in 1958, but frustrated at the lack of action by professional archaeologists, conducted his own excavation in 1976. Alerted by Simison, archaeologist John Hedges mounted a full study, prepared a technical report and wrote a popular book that cemented the tomb's new name.

For amongst the bones, which included some 16,000 human pieces, were 725 from birds, of which Don Bramwell identified 641 as white-tailed sea eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) representing at least eight birds or, thought Hedges, perhaps more than 20. Some of these were said to be in a "foundation deposit" made at the tomb construction.

Two new dates challenge this interpretation. They were obtained in a project by Finbar McCormick, Queens University Belfast, with Alison Sheridan, National Museums of Scotland, looking at animals in Scottish chamber tombs. Determined in Oxford (after preparation in Belfast), and corrected for the birds' marine diet, the dates reveal that the eagles died c2450–2050BC – up to 1,000 years after the tomb was built. There is no age difference between the bones, though one was from a "foundation deposit" and one from above the floor.

The dates confirm growing evidence that Orkney's neolithic tombs remained in use, and accessible to people and animals (though there is no doubt the eagles were deliberately buried at Isbister), for many generations.

Unearthing the ancestral rabbit

What did the Normans do for us? One traditional answer is bring rabbits. New evidence suggests that Romans might already have done this, a small animal being eaten in Norfolk as early as 50BC–100AD.

The European rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus), prized for its meat and skin, is assumed to have been introduced from the continent after 1066. They were reared in artificial warrens (often now called pillow mounds and marked by placenames such as "warren" and "coney"), and from the start were also a pest that ate young crops.

Claims have been made for the Romano-British rabbit, but it has been difficult to prove a burrowing animal to be as old as the feature in which its remains were found. Bones from an excavation at Thatcham, Berkshire, apparently sealed with early mesolithic artefacts some 10,000 years ago, were of a modern-sized rabbit and have been shown by radiocarbon dating to be recent.

Excavation in 2001 at Lynford, Norfolk, funded by Ayton Products in advance of quarrying, may have produced the definitive pre-Norman rabbit. Six bones were in a rubbish pit that also contained the only sherds of a local late iron age or early Roman pottery type, amongst extensive iron age settlement.

Recently studied by Simon Parfitt, Natural History Museum, the bones have fine cuts on them and two have their ends chopped off. "There is no doubt they are butchery remains", says Parfitt. Julie Curl, animal bone specialist and David Robertson, former project manager at the Norfolk Archaeological Unit, say the find is "of huge significance".

Two further rabbit bones have been found at Beddingham Roman villa, East Sussex. David Rudling, University of Sussex, says the bones were in late third century ad fill over a disused bath house. One bone is darkened by charcoal in the earth, and thus, says Rudling, unlikely to be intrusive. Parfitt says that at both sites the bones are from smaller rabbits of southern Mediterranean type, supporting Roman attributions.

Counting the treasure

Two annual artefact reports were published in November, by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (to March 2005) and the DCMS (to December 2003). They reveal the continuing success of the system, introduced in England and Wales in 1997 to replace the Treasure Trove Act, that is now arguably the country's greatest force for engaging the public in archaeology. The PAS misses few tricks in getting that point across, noting that 13,873 people listened to talks, that 17,219 attended events and that (perhaps being harder to count) "more than 3,623" children benefited from educational work. Hits on the website have increased from 8 million in the previous year to 21 million. Against a national background of 38% of the workforce, women constitute 58% of the PAS's 52 staff.

No wonder culture minister David Lammy (seen here promoting new PAS children's website is "extremely impressed". From March 2006 the DCMS assumes full funding responsibility for the scheme, as Heritage Lottery Fund support ends.

Archaeologists are increasingly noting also the scheme's value to scholarship. The media featured Roman and later artefacts, but valuable too are the many older finds. Illustrated here is an important copper alloy sword scabbard mount from Padstow, Cornwall (c200BC–100AD).

Tools for learning

Celebrating 30 years in 2005, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust has been giving local schools original historic artefacts. One teacher said the "Cat Kit" boxes, based on a portable museum in an old toolbox used by Ian Coulson, history adviser for Kent schools, "gave the children a first hand experience that they will always remember".

Field archaeology has changed since CAT was formed, when, as Charles Thomas wrote in 1973, "Ninety per cent of those who would describe themselves... as archaeologists [were] amateurs or hobbyists". Archaeology is now a material consideration in planning, and in universities the subject has grown substantially. The strength of the Institute of Field Archaeologists, formed in 1982, reflects the fact that now most archaeologists are paid and professional. Educational activities are becoming increasingly common.

The 60 Cat Kit boxes contain artefacts and animal bones selected from 30 years of excavation, at first in Canterbury and later throughout Kent. A booklet and website pages (at support the toolbox. Coulson and Marion Green, CAT education officer, held teacher training sessions before handing kits to schools on permanent loan. The project received £13,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Round and about in historic Leominster

An excavation in Leominster, Herefordshire, might have been no more than a memorable tale about the dangers of incautious publicity. Radiocarbon dates, however, have proved activity on the site to support road signs that greet visitors: Leominster can now justly claim 1,300 years of Christian history. It had been assumed that a foundation by St Edfrith documented to CAD660 was on the site of the medieval priory church (established 1123), but no physical remains had been seen. In August 2005 Friends of Leominster Priory, as part of Operation Leofric, a Heritage Lottery Fund Local Initiative project, mounted an excavation in the Old Buildings car park. A preceding ground penetrating radar survey by Stratascan was widely reported in the press: it was said to show the 3m thick wall of a rare Anglo-Saxon rotunda, 17m across.

Excavation revealed this to be the turning circle of the council staff car park. Also found, however, were shallow pits and gullies containing what Bruce Watson, senior archaeologist at the Museum of London Archaeology Service, describes as "vast amounts of food waste". With funding from the Council for British Archaeology, two animal bones from this waste have been dated to AD655–730. "It is likely", says Watson, "that these features relate to the occupation by the Saxon monastic community... perhaps near the kitchens".

By the time of Domesday Book (1086), this original foundation had been stripped of all resources by local earls to fund border wars with Wales. The marches area seems to have had little pottery in use until the end of the 10th century, making the radiocarbon dates particularly valuable. Without this standard means of dating, it has been difficult to prove evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement.

In brief

On the ball

The Society of Antiquaries of London might have been forgiven an advance celebratory juggle as it approaches its 300th anniversary in 2007: but in October it dropped its balls. At least, it no longer insists that its fellows vote on prospective new members by secreting wooden balls into sealed boxes, becoming, says head of communications Jayne Phenton, the "first learned society to revolutionise election procedure" by allowing fellows to vote on its website. Hand holes on the boxes conceal separate entrances into Yes and No compartments. A new fellow needs at least four white to every one black ball, Enoch Powell in 1979 being one of the society'smost heavily blackballed candidates. The word "ballot" derives from Italian for small ball.

New posts

Important appointments are in the air. Following Malcolm Cooper's arrival as chief inspector at Historic Scotland, Cadw, the Welsh historic environment division, has a new director, Marilyn Lewis, former assistant director of learning and culture at Shropshire County Council. Culture minister Alun Pugh said, "We are seeking to use the historical environment to contribute to the wider aims of the Welsh Assembly government including increasing prosperity and lifelong learning". Mike Dawson is the new chair of the Institute of Field Archaeologists, which he says "is now recognised as the representative body... by central government, professional groups and the media". The University of Oxford is seeking a new professor of European archaeology, to succeed Barry Cunliffe in October 2006. Cunliffe is only the second chair, after Christopher Hawkes, in a post established in 1946.

Roman Britain closes

The British Museum's Roman Britain gallery (room 49) and Iron Age gallery (room 50) will close for a year from January 2006 for maintenance work. Some star items will be temporarily displayed near the main entrance from March.

Stonehenge: more consultation

"Back to square one", said The Western Daily Press, reporting a Department of Transport release headed "Way forward". Minister Stephen Ladyman hoped that an "affordable, realistic and deliverable" solution to the A303 at Stonehenge could be found by early summer 2006. This would follow a 13 week consultation, to start in January, on "a shortlist of options" compiled by a steering group representing five government departments and offices, and English Heritage and Natural England. The review is driven by an increase in the bored tunnel cost from £284m at the time of the public inquiry, to £470m last July, when it was announced that the inspector favoured the proposed scheme. English Heritage is appealing against Salisbury district council's decision to refuse planning consent for a new visitor centre, which will now also be examined by public inquiry."We anticipate winning", said Stonehenge director Peter Carson.

Phase 2

Reporting Clifford Jones's request that Calder Hall nuclear power station be listed (Nov/Dec), we said the nearby Greycroft stone circle had never been excavated. Tim Padley says it has: by W Fletcher in 1949 and published in 1957 in the Transactions of the Cumberland & Westmorland Antiquarian & Archaeological Society volume 57. The finds, including parts of a stone axe and jet ring, are now at the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle, where Padley is keeper of human history (archaeology). Heritage Action, an independent archaeological conservation pressure group, has recently complained of damage to the small megaliths, allegedly by farm vehicles.

In May/Jun 2005 (News) we predicted a Hadrian's Wall Trust. A newbody to be known as Hadrian's Wall Heritage is now considering applications for a chief executive and chairman. HWH's goals are to "preserve and conserve the world heritage site, whilst also maximising its further potential to contribute to the economic, social and cultural regeneration of the communities and environs through which it passes".

Following extensive consultation about the treatment of excavated and collected human remains (May/Jun), Phase 2 the government has published Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums (downloadable from Nine national museums can now transfer human remains from their collections, as section 47 of the Human Tissues Act 2004 came into force.

Christine Finn, biographer of Jacquetta Hawkes (Jan/Feb 2005), presents I'll Dig With It (after the Seamus Heaney poem) on Radio 3, February 5. She considers archaeology and poetry, and visits a Roman dig at Newport Pagnell with poet Mario Petrucci

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