The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 89

Issue 89

July/August 2006



Sensational new discoveries at Bryn Celli Ddu

Missing royal table discovered in Westminster Hall

Unprecedented divide over Stonehenge

DNA surprise: Romani in England 400 years too early

Drama of Shrewsbury's lost medieval bridge

In Brief


Balloon over Stonehenge
Martyn Barber considers a photo taken 100 years ago.

Discovering Scotland
Dave Cowley looks back on 30 years of air photography.

Forgotten hero
Miles Russell finds Nero in England.

on the web

Recommended websites


Views and responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office.


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Sensational new discoveries at Bryn Celli Ddu

Scotland, Ireland and England each have one: now Wales does too. New research at an ancient burial mound at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey, excavated in the 1920s with confusing results, has identified another major monument aligned on a solstice event. Steve Burrow, curator of neolithic archaeology at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, says the mound's stone passage points at the midsummer rising sun. Postholes outside, previously thought to be contemporary with the tomb (c3000BC), have been dated to over 6,000 years ago. Both discoveries have far-reaching implications.

Burrow noticed that Norman Lockyer, a scientist who in 1906 published the first systematic study on megalithic astronomy, had argued that Bryn Celli Ddu marked the summer solstice, but was ridiculed by Welsh archaeologists. At midsummer dawn last year, Burrow was inside the chamber waiting to see what would happen. It was his second time; in 2004 the sky was cloudy.

"It's stunning", he says. "First there is a sparkle through the trees, then the sun rises out, it's quite exhilarating". The rays light up a quartz-rich stone at the back of the tomb.

The alignment links Bryn Celli Ddu with a handful of other famous sites. Chambered tombs at Maes Howe, Orkney and Newgrange, Co Meath point at the midwinter sun (setting and rising respectively); a "lightbox" at Newgrange that lets in the rays may be matched at Bryn Celli Ddu. The Stonehenge Heelstone marks the rising midsummer sun, but the monument is also aligned on midwinter sunset, which some archaeologists now argue was the more important. Burrow's discovery shifts interest back onto midsummer.

A row of five postholes in front of the barrow appears to be much older. Early results from a radiocarbon programme, part-funded by Cadw, date pine charcoal from two of the pits to the mesolithic era of hunter-gatherers. An ox skeleton was buried nearby. The larger bones are lost, but others were said to have been reburied after the dig; re-excavation might recover enough to see whether the ox too was mesolithic. The only confirmed comparable structure known in Europe is near Stonehenge, where it is suggested the pits held large, possibly carved poles.

Missing royal table discovered in Westminster Hall

Westminster Palace has its King's Bench and King's Wardrobe. Now archaeologists are convinced they have found the king's table. Unlike the first, however, which is a court, and the second, another name for the medieval Jewel Tower, the new discovery really is a piece of furniture. Made to stand inside the medieval Westminster Hall, and centuries later removed during the Commonwealth (1649–60), the gothic Purbeck marble table had lain hidden for 350 years.

The discovery was made during refurbishment of the hall by the Parliamentary Works Services Directorate. Last summer, Gifford conducted a geotechnical investigation beneath the south steps and floor, both showing significant settlement (see cover photo). The first table fragment was seen then in a wall foundation exposed at the base of a 1960 engineering test pit, but Gifford archaeologist Phil Emery is only now able to report the find, after the fragment and further pieces were recovered in excavations by Gifford and the Museum of London Archaeology Service that ended in May.

It has now emerged that moulded stonework of identical form - a Purbeck marble, chamfered arched trestle with a pilaster on its outer vertical face, 0.97m high by 0.92m deep - was found in 1960. This was interpreted as part of the king's table and displayed until recently in the Jewel Tower, but the find was not publicised. Nothing of the top has been identified.

The majestic table would have stood on a dais at the southern end of the hall for use in state banquets. The earliest known reference, from the reign of Edward I (1272–1307), notes two marble tables. A new piece of Purbeck marble was bought for the top in 1307 for the coronation of Edward ii, and in 1399 cracks were mended with "three long iron cramps". In a contemporary account of the coronations of Henry VIII and Katharine of Aragon (1509), the chronicler Edward Hall refers to a nine-piece table, which would imply 10 uprights, assuming nine simplysupported top sections.

Aplan for James ii's coronation banquet (1685) shows a wall on the exact foundation line excavated in 2006. This formed the front of a remodelled dais on which is shown "Their Majesties' Table".

Emery says this confirms that the original table was broken up during the Commonwealth "as a recognised symbol of royal power. Its significance", he adds, "is underlined by the haste with which it was replaced at the restoration of the monarchy".

"This is an incredibly rare find", says Chris Thomas of the Museum of London Archaeology Service. "I've spent years researching the broad development of the palace: it's marvellous now to be able to ADd in such an exceptionally fine detail".

Unprecedented divide over Stonehenge

The government's public consultation over proposals for the A303 at Stonehenge ended on April 24, with a surprise divide in opinion amongst heritage specialists. Until April it seemed English Heritage was almost alone in wanting a 2.1km bored tunnel, supported at public inquiry. Now the British Museum, the Society of Antiquaries and the UK National Commission for UNESCO have announced their support for the plan.

However, many still object. On March 30 10 conservation and archaeology groups (including the CBA, the National Trust and Rescue: see CBA News) challenged the inquiry, saying there "could be grounds for judicial review should the preferred scheme be approved for implementation". They also suggested the world heritage site be reinscribed as a cultural landscape, a retrospective move aimed at making the "short" tunnel inappropriate.

The statement offered no road alternatives, championing the "benefits of possible small-scale, interim improvements". In April, however, the National Trust - who recently appeared to have supported at least three different versions of an on-route tunnel - proposed the A303 might be moved out of the world heritage site altogether, passing through the army settlement at Larkhill.

The issues were debated on March 31 at a packed and exceptionally heated meeting hosted by the Society of Antiquaries of London, described as "the only major sectoral seminar on the options review". John Barrett, head of the Archaeology Department at the University of Sheffield, said the short tunnel could "make available the shock of an encounter with the past", while Chris Jones, Highways Agency, said it was "fanciful or disingenuous" to suggest there were achievable road alternatives that had not been considered.

The society later announced its support for the 2.1km scheme, hoping that "the dignity and quality of visitor experience at this country's greatest prehistoric monument can be restored within a reasonable timescale". The UK National Commission for UNESCO favoured the scheme too, saying a longer tunnel might be better "in an ideal world", but would add disproportionate costs and delays.

British Archaeology has learnt that the trustees of the British Museum, in an unusual engagement, have also opted to support the 2.1km tunnel. Meanwhile, the Royal Archaeological Institute has come out against it, and the Institute of Field Archaeologists, chief executive Peter Hinton tells us, has decided to reserve public comment until the final announcement is made, expected later this year.

DNA surprise: Romani in England 400 years too early

Scientists studying ancient migration sampled Anglo-Saxon skeletons from Norwich and found a man with Romani DNA. The surprise identification challenges conventional histories of the Roma people and Romani language, thought to have originated in India and to have reached Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. The sampled cemetery dates from before the mid 11th century, at least 400 years earlier.

Anglo-Saxon buildings and graves were found beneath Norwich's Norman castle, in a major excavation at Farmers Avenue that ended 15 years ago, where the Castle Mall retail centre now stands. The excavation was directed by Jez Reeve for the Norfolk Archaeological Unit. Liz Popescu (Cambridgeshire County Council Archaeological Field Unit) analysed the results and prepared the forthcoming publications.

The Anglo-Saxon cemetery contained 89 large, rectangular eastwest graves, with some bodies originally laid in wooden coffins or on planks. Radiocarbon dates from 15 skeletons allow a range between AD890 and 1060, but pottery in grave fills suggests a more recent origin in the late 10th century; some graves had been dug through earlier features dated by pottery to the 10th-11th centuries. Most of the cemetery was covered by the castle's south bailey rampart around 1094-1121.

This was not a very healthy population, with high levels of lesions associated with anaemia, a possible case of scurvy, frequent physical traumas and several stress-related diseases of the spine and ankles/feet. The Romani individual was a sub-adult male (c16-18) in a plain grave (no 11535). A small lesion, possibly a benign tumour, grew on his tibia when he was about 10.He showed slight bilateral coxa valga, a hip deformity that may occur with partial paralysis of the legs or congenital hip dislocation. In this case, assuming there was no paralysis, neither condition is likely to have affected him much in life.

Ana Töpf and Rus Hoelzel, School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, University of Durham, sought dental pulp from 59 individuals, obtaining DNA sequences from 17. The DNA from grave 11535 was replicated in two different samples, and also by an independent laboratory with a third sample.

A mitochondrial DNA lineage has been identified amongst Roma people (all from Bulgaria), found in none of over 10,000 other human mtDNA haplotypes sampled: except the man from Farmers Avenue.

The discovery appears to contradict the accepted history of Roma migration. A low-status caste of nomads is first described in Indian texts after AD1000. Romani-speakers entered the Balkans in the 14th century, and are first described in Britain in the early 1500s.

Töpf and Hoelzel, in a report in Biology Letters vol 1.3, find the independent arrival of Roma in the UK before 1100 the least likely explanation for their discovery. They suggest Vikings may have enslaved Romani women during expeditions to the eastern Mediterranean, or formed liaisons with them through contact with Varangians, Scandinavian people who also traded with the east. MtDNA is passed on only by females.

Drama of Shrewsbury's lost medieval bridge

Shrewsbury's Welsh Bridge witnessed a scene of tempered bravado worthy of Shakespeare's Falstaff. It can now be only a matter of time before Thomas Mytton's story is re-enacted - on the stage soon to be built over the bridge's newly revealed foundations.

In 1485 the future Henry vii readied his army on the north side of the river Severn to cross from Wales to depose Richard III. Mytton, Shrewsbury's senior bailiff, stood at the Welsh Gate vowing allegiance to Richard, proclaiming Henry would enter "over his belly" - over his dead body. But colleagues had a quiet word, and Mytton lay in the road for Henry to step over. Henry went on to victory at Bosworth.

The site of this gate at Frankwell Quay was selected by Shrewsbury and Atcham borough council as an "ideal" waterside setting for a proposed New Entertainment Venue, with a 650-seat auditorium, studio theatre and other facilities. The council has received £1.8m from Advantage West Midlands for the project, which has planning consent.

Excavation February-April by the Museum of London Archaeological Services, commissioned by Arups, uncovered the foundations of two bastions and an arch, which had survived demolition in 1795 when a new bridge was built downstream. The arch had been incorporated into cellars, infilled in the 1960s when buildings were demolished.

Ian Kilby, Shrewsbury's head of conservation and design, says the council plans to preserve the remains in situ, either by burying them or exposing them beneath a raised theatre. This is possible because the Environment Agency classifies Shrewsbury's flood defences as impermanent, so new buildings have to be above the 100-year flood level, effectively raising them up one storey.

Bruce Watson, molas project officer, says the discovery "is very exciting", as Britain has only two intact fortified medieval bridges: the 13th century Monmow Bridge, Monmouth and the 14th century Warkworth Bridge, Northumberland.

In brief

Swan song

The name of Swan Hellenic, known to more-travelled archaeologists for educational cruises (and in many cases, for working holidays as guides and lecturers), may enter history next year after its last ship, the Minerva ii, is redeployed by its parent company. "This decision is a purely commercial one", said managing director Tony Dyson, ADding that Carnival Corporation are "pursuing various alternatives for the continued operation of the brand". The famed archaeological tours were developed in the 1950s out of Hellenic Travellers' Club cruises by Kenneth Swan, who died last year.

Preserving Skara Brae

Historic Scotland has begun a programme of works at Skara Brae, to be completed by October, that will reduce public access to the centre of the unique neolithic "village". Walks that run along wall-heads will be replaced by paths and a viewing platform around the edge of the group of stone houses. hs district architect Stephen Watt said the number of visitors was the cause of the changes, and that paths would never be laid on walls if the site was being opened for the first time today.

Digging code

Twelve heritage and rural land management bodies have agreed a voluntary code of practice on responsible metal detecting in England and Wales. The code lists what most experienced fieldworkers will know as common sense recommendations - such as do not trespass, respect scheduled monuments and abide by the provisions of export licensing. Some archaeologists have said they would have preferred an admonition not to work unploughed pasture: the code ADvises digging in "ground that has already been disturbed... wherever possible". However, it reflects a growing sense that detectorists are just another brand of archaeologist. Perhaps if the Institute of Field Archaeologists had also supported it, the brochure would not have on its cover a photo of an archaeologist digging an urban site in a soft hat.

• In a separate development, the DCMS has proposed the British Museum take on further functions of the Treasure Act, such as commissioning valuations.

Phase 2

First, good news. The Fovant Badges Society, supported by local MP Robert Key, says the turf-carved military badges on Fovant Down, Wilts (Nov/Dec 2005) have been recognised by the Department for Culture Media and Sport as war memorials. This will allow VAT incurred in maintenance to be reclaimed, at least until 2008, this year saving the society £3,500.

The neolithic timber building at Crathes, Aberdeen, first investigated in 2004 (News, Sep 2004), was fully excavated last year and radiocarbon dated to 3800–3700BC. The 24m-long structure, standing long enough for posts to have been replaced, had burnt grain, pottery and flint artefacts on its floor, suggesting a dwelling function.

Two caption errors in the last issue need correcting. There is no such person as David Rowan-Dean - or if there is, he is not responsible for the superb cover photo of the stone angel, taken by David Rowan, nor its copyright holder, the Dean of Lichfield cathedral. In the St Pancras excavation feature, the original station in the 1868 engraving is said to have been built over the burial ground. In fact this ground lay 300m north-west of the Barlowtrain shed (seen under construction) - the 19th century disturbance was caused by the above ground Midland Railway and the St Pancras branch tunnel (now part of the Thameslink).

Going back a bit (Briefing, Sep/Oct 2005), Peter Yeoman at Historic Scotland says we also got "slightly muddled" with our note about Whithorn Priory Museum: the newly-revealed 9th or 10th century inscription about Hwitu was not on the Latinus stone. He can advise on visits:

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