The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 95

Issue 95

July/August 2007



Compassion revealed in Quaker finds

Did comb dress Celtic beard or horse's mane?

Consultation continues over future of Scotland's heritage

Popular Scottish hillfort is probably Pictish

In Brief & Phase 2


Archaeology: The Blair Years – How did we do?
Enough of politics, here's the real legacy of the last decade

In Holy Union - Gothic ivories reunited
Mark Redknap describes his eureka moment

Building a New World - Digging up Jamestown
Geoff Egan says the Virginia colony can tell us about Britain

on the web

Recommended websites
Virtual landscapes and research on Hadrian's Wall


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth on education and training in archaeology


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Archaeology: The Blair Years – How did we do?

Seahenge, ice age art, a Roman circus at Colchester and metal detecting heroes – or poor pay, cuts to English Heritage and Hidden Treasure on TV. What did the last ten years mean for you? British Archaeology digs up some memories.

Around the time you are likely to be reading this, Tony Blair will be stepping down after just over 10 years of leading the country.We have lived through a period of extraordinary economic stability, such as – with problems from the price of housing to climate change rolling in – most of us are unlikely to see again. What has archaeology gained – and lost? Where were the great excavations and finds? Are archaeologists still the only ones who understand prehistory, or do Liverpool dinner parties rock to the latest long barrow joke?

This is not meant to be a balanced survey, just a few things that appealed to the editor – with help from recent magazine contributors. Send in your own memories or comments, and I will print the best. How, then, did we dig the Blair years?

Treasure and Time Team

Blair did not mention Grooved Ware or La Tène knobbed bracelets at his Tate Modern speech last March. And many in the arts world (stung by news of money being transferred from arts and heritage to fund the 2012 Olympics) were cynical about his claim to be a champion of culture. Yet those with long memories will know how much has changed: in film, theatre, music and much more, Britain is seething with activity and talent. In heritage and archaeology, we have never had it so good. It could be said that this was the decade when archaeology in Britain came of age.

Ten years ago, after generations of campaigning, a successful structure was in place for field archaeology, driven by ppg16, the influential planning guidance introduced for England and Wales in 1990. This defined archaeological remains as a "finite and non-renewable resource", which developers would need to address, at their expense, by following planning conditions. Consultants, local government curators and contract archaeologists handled, as now, the bulk of archaeological fieldwork – and constituted the largest employment sector. In 2002 the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund was introduced, bringing significant commercial funding also to research and conservation.

Also in 1997 local sites and monuments records (SMRs: soon to become historic environment records, or HERs) were not compulsory, but a firm part of the scene. Much of an enormous backlog of unpublished excavations – though not all – had been dealt with. The list of scheduled sites had mushroomed, and the types of site drawing attention had widened, to include hedgerows, trackways, artefact scatters and military remains, and at least a start had been made on extending research and legislation down the shoreline.

At universities archaeology was a popular subject, where prospective students would know little about history before 1066, but a lot about three-day excavations and geophys: Channel 4's Time Team, still with us and among the most popular series on UK television, began its fourth series in January 1997. Later that year BBC2 launched Meet the Ancestors, which too attracted viewers in millions. The demand for television archaeology rapidly outpaced the supply, and in the coming decade we suffered Extreme Archaeology, Two Men in a Trench and the boggling idiocy of Hidden Treasure – all signs of the huge public interest and goodwill that archaeology continues to attract.

After decades of lobbying, the Treasure Act 1996 replaced the common law of Treasure Trove (an "archaic nonsense") in England and Wales. The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up in 1997 by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (the former Department of National Heritage, renamed by the new secretary, Chris Smith – who took the UK back into UNESCO – because "heritage looks to the past"). By the decade's end the PAS covered all of England and Wales, drawing large numbers of amateurs and professionals into contact, and transforming relationships between metal detector users and archaeologists (though some still balked at the culture minister's depiction of the former as "unsung heroes"). For part of its existence it was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has now awarded over £3.6bn (some of it to natural heritage) across the UK since 1994. Free national museum entry in England, phased in over 1999–2001, has helped visits to rise more than 250% since 1997. The DCMS has allocated nearly £150m to Renaissance, a project that is funding new training, developments and posts in England's regional museums from 2002 to 2008.

A public past

Of course not all is well. English Heritage's funding has been cut, and its archaeological resourcing is suffering. Historic Scotland's archaeology budget has dropped in real terms. Pay and career prospects for professional archaeologists continue to bottom national surveys. The large scale of excavation is threatening an archive storage crisis. Higher and further education opportunities in archaeology are not as strong as they were, and prehistory remains doggedly aloof from school and citizenship education.

But it is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the new public engagement. Tessa Jowell, who replaced Smith at the DCMS in 2001, encouraged arts and heritage practitioners to consult widely and court inclusivity – leading to further demonstrations of public interest. The dominant position at universities, museums, commercial consultancies and academic societies has been to welcome a new public, and with verve.

As we enter the next decade, we can expect to see the work of the last to become more apparent. As Richard Bradley has said so strongly (Mar/Apr 06), there is a vast archive of semi-published commercial excavations with the potential to rewrite our prehistory. There are signs that this process has begun. Major potentially positive changes to heritage legislation will be implemented (May/Jun 07). The working of the Treasure Act and the PAS will mature, and bring yet more rewards. This autumn there will be an unprecedented exhibition about British antiquity at the Royal Academy. National Archaeology Weeks are flourishing and memberships at the cba and Young Archaeologists' Club are rising. There are problems and things do go wrong, but our past, for the moment, seems to be in safe hands. How long that lasts is, mostly, up to us.

Early Humans

In 1998 a butchered bison bone was identified from Happisburgh, Norfolk; excavations in 2003 found 500,000-year-old flint artefacts – the first signs of hominins from the organic-rich Cromer Forest-bed after over a century of intensive search. In December 2005 Nature announced that excavation at Pakefield, Suffolk had proved flint flakes to be 700,000 years old, extending early human presence in northern Europe by 200 millennia. British Archaeology was the first to follow, with a major report (Jan/Feb 06).

Early art

"I have waited to find ice age cave art in Britain for more than 25 years", wrote Paul Bahn (Sep 03), "and that dream has finally come true". In 2003 Bahn, Paul Pettit and Sergio Ripoll found animal engravings at Creswell Crags, Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire, Britain's first and the furthest north in Europe.

Postglacial hunters

For 50 years the British mesolithic – 6,000 years of hunter-gatherers between the end of the ice age and the first farming – was represented by little more than an exceptionally preserved but enigmatic lakeside dump at Star Carr, North Yorkshire (where new work continues). Then excavations at Howick, Northumberland in 2000 and 2002 uncovered the first post–built mesolithic house (7800BC), with hearths, artefacts and food remains accumulated over years, filling the hollow floor; the oval structure was rebuilt twice. Avery similar house was excavated in 2003 at East Barns, East Lothian (8000BC), followed by a row of 12 large pits at Warren Field, Crathes, Aberdeen in 2004–5 of similar date. Two large post pits at Bryn Celli Ddu, Anglesey are also mesolithic, as may be a buried wild ox (Mar/Apr 07).


Excavation on Boscombe Down, Wiltshire in 2002–3, caused rethinking of Stonehenge, Beaker burials and migration c2400–2200BC (Sep 04). Aman (the "Amesbury archer" or "king of Stonehenge" – though doubts about the stones' chronology may undermine this association) was buried with some 100 artefacts, including copper knives, gold ornaments, five pots and 15 flint arrowheads. Nearby another man, probably related, had gold in his mouth, and a third grave contained adults and children and eight Beakers. The then new technique of tooth enamel analysis pointed to central Europe as the archer's birthplace – the first demonstrated ancient immigrant – and other locations for that of others. A major study of UK Beaker human remains is now in progress.

Meanwhile June's battles around a forbidden Stonehenge (Jul/Aug 05) were replaced from 2000 with free dawn access on midsummer day, a triumph of public ownership. The old debate about changing the roads, however, so near to conclusion, seems again to have foundered as commentators squabbled.


Discovered in 1998 and announced here (Dec 98), a ring of oak posts preserved in peat at Holme, Norfolk caught the public imagination. Erected in spring 2049BC, it was fully excavated and the timbers retrieved, offering unique insights into the appearance of ancient funerary structures.


In 2001 archaeologists excavated the remains of a chariot (450BC) near Edinburgh – the first such UK grave found outside Yorkshire, and the first assembled vehicle; a piece of tooth was all that was left of the traveller (Apr 01). Asecond iron age chariot with its wheels on – or cart, as specialists decided to call it – was found in 2003 at Ferry Fryston, West Yorkshire (400BC). The bones of a man and pork offerings lay between the wheels; careful excavation and good preservation gave new insights into cart construction. In the 2ndC AD at least 250 cattle were slaughtered over the old burial mound. Teeth analysis indicated that, like the man, they were not local (May 04).

Romans and Vikings

A 2ndC AD enamelled copper alloy pan (with missing handle) was found at Ilam, Staffordshire in 2003, bearing the names of forts on Hadrian's Wall; other words may refer to the wall itself (Nov 03). This is one of the most significant objects ( there were 57,556 in 2005/6) reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme, set up in 1997 to record material not covered by the new Treasure Act. It employs 36 finds liaison officers across England and Wales, and has been praised for improving knowledge and outreach, and breaking down barriers between archaeologists and detector users. After brooches were found at Cumwhitton, Cumbria England's first Viking cemetery was excavated (Nov 04).

Anglo-Saxon graves

In 2003 an exceptional Anglo-Saxon grave (AD600–650) was found at Prittlewell, Essex, the only complete British kingly tomb to have been excavated in modern times. A man had been laid in a plank-lined chamber with furnishings and treasures, including a folding stool, a lyre, ornate glass and metal vessels, drinking horns decorated with gold leaf, a gold buckle, coins and two small crucifixes, and a silver baptismal spoon. Objects indicate connections across Europe (May 04).

In 2002 Seamus Heaney opened a National Trust visitor centre at the Sutton Hoo Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Suffolk with a full-scale reconstruction of the famous ship's burial chamber, and a walk round the mounds.

Other museum developments included Norman Foster's eternally breathtaking Great Court at the British Museum (launched in 2000, and still to find its full role) and the new Weston Park Museum, Sheffield whose archaeology galleries, like Sutton Hoo, were immediately swamped with visitors. The National Museum of Scotland opened in Edinburgh in 1998. Its displays, introduced by substantial sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi, took an exciting and imaginative thematic approach to Scotland's story, in keeping with the striking architecture. Now both need refreshing.

Petrol stations

As well as petrol stations (Oct 98), in the past 10 years British Archaeology has featured world war two and cold war remains (Sep 98, Mar/Apr 05) , zoos (Dec 02), battlefields (Nov 04), Long Kesh/Maze (Sep/Oct 05), and the excavation of a Transit van (Jan/Feb 07). Archaeologists are also engaging with contemporary art, bringing artists to excavations and creating their own performances. Archaeology has embraced the new.

Written by M Pitts, with thanks to B Ayers, R Bland, J Cook, T Darvill, B Fagan, R Hingley, K Parfitt, D Parham, P Pettitt, JD Richards, W Rodwell, A Sheridan, C Stringer, A Taylor, B Vyner and C Wickham Jones.

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