The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 93

Issue 93

March/April 2007



Police station had old rifles in foundations

Why did hunter-gatherers dig row of pits in Scotland?

Child's boot and bible found in chimney

Oldest cremation burials

Demand to rebury 'Druid' child

In Brief & Phase 2


Let the games begin!
Dan Garner and Tony Wilmot found footprints and a sword at Chester amphitheatre

The nomads of Wessex
Andrew J Lawson finds inspiration in central Asia

Heating flint in Boston Spa
Malcolm Barnes describes an intriguing community experiment

on the web

Recommended websites


Views and responses

CBA news

Headlines from the CBA office


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Police station had old rifles in foundations

A remarkable gun haul, including rifles of the type used in the Anglo-Zulu war and one that may have come home with the allied withdrawal from North Russia in 1919, has been found in the foundations of an old Suffolk police station. It offers a chilling insight into the types of weapon in public circulation in the 1920s.

Suffolk county council Archaeological Service had its eye on the site of the former prison and adjacent station in Ipswich, planned for residential development, as some Anglo-Saxon pottery kilns had been found nearby; urns and human bone were recorded when the prison was built in 1786.

"I was visiting the site", Mark Sommers tells British Archaeology, "to see how deep the foundations of the police station were, and to assess how much damage was being done by their grubbing out. The rifles had been recovered by the machine operator the previous day".

Taff Gillingham, Suffolk Regiment Museum historian and proprietor of Khaki Devil, military advisors for film and television, says that several guns were probably destroyed before the driver realised what was happening. "That's not the half of it boy", one local told him, "there's much more there".

Even so 74 guns were recovered, all much corroded. They fall, says Gillingham, into two distinct groups. The first contains some 30 Martini-Henrys from the 1870s and 80s, classic armaments from the 1879 Anglo-Zulu war; several show two Board of Ordnance arrows head-to-head, a government disposal mark. Gillingham thinks these may have come from an armoury in the prison, demolished when the police station was rebuilt in the 1930s. Some of the rifles were in concrete from the station foundations.

The rest, says Gillingham, are "a real mixture": a variety of 19th century Martini-Henry carbines (used by police and cadets), Winchesters ("wild west guns"), Boer war souvenirs, an 1850s three band Enfield musket, a first world war German carbine, a Canadian Ross and others including a Mosin Nagant rifle which Gillingham suggests was brought back from Russia in 1919. This second group, he says, may consist of guns handed in by the public and buried during the years after the government illegalised "war trophies" in 1926.

The Suffolk Archaeological Service will further evaluate the site. As part of the development the old county hall, a listed building which was set against the front wall of the former prison, will be converted for residential use.

Why did hunter-gatherers dig row of pits in Scotland?

Archaeologists were astonished when radiocarbon dating showed a row of 12 pits, thought to have been dug by neolithic farmers less than 6,000 years ago, were over 9,500 years old.

A timber building at the Warren Field, Crathes, south-west of Aberdeen, identified in a trial excavation as neolithic (News, Sep 2004) was fully excavated in 2005 and dated to 38–3700BC; intercutting postholes and changes to the internal structure suggest it might have been up for a considerable time. A nearby line of pits, with a neolithic date obtained from the upper fill of one in 2004, had been assumed to be contemporary: but more dates suggested the pits were much older and created by mesolithic hunter-gatherers.

The implications were so startling that further samples were analysed. With the help of Historic Scotland, a total of 17 radiocarbon dates has now been obtained, confidently dating the pits to c8000–7500BC. Shannon Fraser, an archaeologist at the National Trust for Scotland, tells British Archaeology these results were "tremendously exciting".

The pit alignment runs northeast/south-west along a ridge for 60m. Seven pits up to 2.5m across were sectioned, and found to contain charcoal at the bottom. The pits had refilled naturally, and were still visible as hollows 4,000 years later when they were partially redug by neolithic people who deposited further quantities of charcoal. Only the largest pit contained artefacts: a few flints from both mesolithic and neolithic levels, and stone axe fragments in the final deposit.

Why the pits were dug is a mystery. The neolithic reopening, says Fraser, is "incontrovertible evidence of people reworking the past", as neolithic people used the site of mesolithic activity.

Archaeologists have been surprised by mesolithic radiocarbon dates at several sites: traditionally our early hunter-gatherers were thought not to build significant structures. Near Stonehenge four pits c2m across were dug c8500–7500BC; three contained pine charcoal and evidence for posts. At Thornborough, Yorkshire a pit 2.6m in diameter dated to 5550BC is one of 17, of which some may be natural, spaced over 79m in two rows. And at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey (first published in News, Jul/Aug 2006) two pits with substantial pine charcoal were dated to the 7th millennium BC; an undated ox skeleton may be contemporary.

None of these pits contained artefacts, but all were once assumed to be neolithic. When the first Stonehenge dates were obtained in the 1970s, the excavators were suspicious, but a mesolithic context was confirmed by further determinations in the 1990s. The Warren Field excavations were conducted by Murray Archaeological Services.

Child's boot and bible found in chimney

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up primarily to encourage archaeologists and metal detector users to help each other in the quest to learn more about our past. Finds liaison officers hold finds days across England and Wales at which members of the public bring artefacts for identification and recording. Not everything is found with a detector, however, and just before Christmas Adam Daubney, Lincolnshire flo, was surprised to see a child's ankle boot holding a miniature bible. It had been found over 20 years before by David Phenton, whilst renovating two workman's cottages built in Ewerby in 1880 (now one house), in a chimney cavity.

The leather boot is heavily worn. The book, known as a "mini mite" or "thumb bible", was published in Glasgow by David Bryce and Son in 1901. Bryce mini mites, which came in tiny metal hinged cases (of which part survives) containing a magnifying glass, are regarded by specialists as marking a high point in miniature book production and said to be the smallest complete bibles ever printed, 30mm wide and 12mm thick.

The boot and bible were likely placed in the flue to protect the child, or its family, in a late survival of a tradition of repelling evil spirits and witchcraft known to reach back into the middle ages. Other typical items found in chimneys are glass bottles, mummified cats and written charms. Most shoes are found single rather than paired, and nearly half of them belong to children. Dated by the bible to the 20th century, this deposit is a particularly recent instance of an anti-witchcraft shoe amulet.

Oldest cremation burials

Controversial radiocarbon dates that indicated some human cremation burials to be mesolithic have been confirmed. Three pits containing the burials were found in Co Limerick in 2001, during excavation before construction of a rising main beside the river Shannon at Hermitage. The most impressive pit, c60cm wide and 30cm deep, had a hole at the bottom which still preserved signs of the post it had held, with the cremated remains of a probable adult male laid around it and a burnt ground stone axe. The body, wrote Tracy Collins and Frank Coyne of Aegis Archaeology in the magazine Archaeology Ireland in 2003, had been "expertly cremated, demonstrating that the people... were familiar with the complex processes involved". Anearby area of burning and heat-reddened clay could be the site of the cremation pyre.

Some distance away were further cremated remains in two separate pits. Charcoal from each of the three pits was radiocarbon dated to the mesolithic, between 7550 and 6370BC.

Despite two burnt flint microliths (mesolithic implements) in the first pit, some archaeologists found it difficult to accept the dating: the finds, said Collins and Coyne, "turned perceived notions of the early mesolithic period in Ireland on its head". Buried remains of Europe's hunter-gatherers are rare, and no cremations of these people had been found in Ireland before. Although in Ireland (unlike Britain), ground stone axes were made in the mesolithic, they were as elsewhere especially popular with later neolithic farmers. Fragments of another 11 such axes were found at the site.

Now the dates have been confirmed with new analyses on the human bones themselves. The first cremation has been dated to 7530–7320BC, and another to 7090–7030BC. These finds once again challenge our prejudices about the nature of mesolithic culture.

Demand to rebury child

The debate about curating ancient human remains, which to date in Britain has largely concerned recent and historical material, is set to enter a new phase. The Council of British Druid Orders has asked that "Druid ancestral remains" in Avebury museum, Wiltshire, including a prehistoric child displayed since 1938, be reburied. This is thought to be the first time that either the National Trust, who run the museum, or English Heritage, responsible for the museum's national collection, have received such a request. Sebastian Payne, EH chief scientist, says they will follow the process set out in recent DCMS guidance. "Lindow Man", says COBDO, "is another candidate for reburial".

In brief

Coin find

An exceptional hoard of c3,600 Roman coins has been excavated at Snodland, Kent after local finds liaison officer Andrew Richardson was alerted to the discovery made by a developer machine-trenching a site. The copper alloy coins, dating from AD330 to 348 and likely buried after a currency reorganisation marking the establishment of Constantinople as the capital of the eastern Roman empire, were contained in a pot supported between tiles in a small pit. Staff from Maidstone Museum and local detectorists aided the excavation.

Henge decision

In January Tarmac's "downsized" plans to extend gravel extraction at Ladybridge Farm, near the Thornborough henges, were approved in the face of aggressive campaigning. Local group TimeWatch gave North Yorkshire county council a 10,000 signature petition demanding no more quarrying within a mile (1.6km) of the monuments. But their archaeologist Bob Sydes, after detailed study, concluded there were "no archaeological grounds for refusing this application", calling for "agreement on timetables for publication and the integration of archaeological work" in the area. Some excavation in the heavily quarried landscape has been of unthreatened sites close to the henges.

Uncertainty at Wiltshire Heritage

Just before Christmas the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, which maintains the Wiltshire Heritage museum, library and gallery in Devizes, heard from the county council that their grant for 2006/7 (£24,500) would not be renewed in 2007/8. One of the oldest of its type in the country, the society was founded in 1853 and has been at its current premises since 1873. Its Stourhead collection, finds from excavations around Stonehenge by William Cunnington and Richard Colt Hoare (1803–10), is recognised as one of the most outstanding groups of prehistoric artefacts in Britain. The society said the grant withdrawal threatened the future of the museum.

Curse in Leicester

The University of Leicester Archaeological Services has unveiled a Roman curse tablet found in excavations on Vine Street in the city. The lead sheet, dating from the second or third centuries ad, had been inscribed for Servandus, whose cloak had been stolen, naming 18 or 19 suspects and invoking the god Maglus. Richard Buckley, ULAS co-director, said the names were a mixture of common-placeRoman (eg Silvester and Germanus), Celtic (eg Riomandus and Cunovendus), and Roman names found in Celtic-speaking provinces (eg Regalis). The tablet, unusually well preserved, "dramatically increases the number of personal names known from Roman Leicester".

Phase 2

There was plenty to interest the media in the last issue (Jan/Feb), with the Stonehenge manuscript and the excavated Transit van being well covered (the van – allegedly – reaching The Star). The Times gave a good spread to the eBay survey by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, who were interviewed on radio and TV (and see Letters). We will hear more about the Sevso silver. A parliamentary early day motion, calling on the Marquess of Northampton and the Hungarian government to put all evidence to independent experts, while halting any proposed sale, is gathering signatures.

Tim Darvill, whose new book on Stonehenge was criticised for saying Hengist killed 480 rather than 460 lords (Books), writes that – according to "L Thorpe's highly regarded translation for the Penguin classics series" – Geoffrey of Monmouth said 480. Christian Heck (and, indeed, the editor) went for 460. Anyone care to help?

A confusion (the CBA offices are in York and the editor in Wiltshire) resulted in a photo of a house on Every St, Nelson in CBA news being wrongly described: the CBA's view was that the proposed alterations were too radical for a conservation area.

Alan Crosby, joint author of the North-west title in the new English Heritage landscapes series protests at our reviewer's claim that "conurbations such as... Liverpool are more or less omitted" (Books). "That is simply not the case", he rightly says of his title. If anyone is here at fault, it is the editor for asking someone to review eight long books at once. Nearly half their volume, says Crosby, is devoted to towns and industry. Apologies.

Finally, and more positively, we have picked winners in the prize draw for the hundreds of readers who responded to our survey. The top prize of five titles from the CBA books catalogue goes to D Black in Somerton. Fifteen other winners will receive a total of 20 CBA books.

There is a strong and desperate need for resourcing, because heritage has lost out in recent years, and a crisis is approaching.
John Whittingdale, Westminster Hall debate on heritage, January 25 2007

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