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


Compassion revealed in Quaker finds

The rare excavation of a dissenting burial ground in Cambridgeshire has revealed remarkable insights into an early Quaker community. Extremely unusual pathological conditions were observed, including in one man the successful amputation of both feet and in another severe spinal deformity. A hole had been worn through a third man's teeth big enough to seat his smoking pipe.

The cemetery was excavated last autumn by Oxford Archaeology at an Environment Agency flood alleviation scheme on the river Great Ouse in Hemingford Grey, St Ives. Records indicated that people had been buried there between 1687 and 1721.

In keeping with Quaker practice, which eschewed interment in consecrated ground, graves did not follow standard Christian orientation, but were aligned parallel or at right angles to the river, head to toe and with no visible markers. All bodies had been laid in simple coffins, and in several cases copper alloy pins indicated the use of burial shrouds.

Of the 16 individuals recovered, nine were identified as male and five female, ranging in age from an 18–25-year-old male, to a woman and a possible man both over 50. One mature adult woman had lost all her teeth before death.

One upper and two lower teeth in the jaw of a man aged 35–45 had been so worn by the repeated clutching of a clay pipe stem as to present a near-circular hole. This man would likely have rarely been seen without his pipe.

Both tibiae (main lower leg bones) of a possible male aged over 50 had been amputated in a straight line above the ankle. Regrowth of bone had fused the tibiae and fibulae, showing the man had survived the operation. Very few historic or ancient amputations have been recorded: patients often died before bones healed sufficiently to leave observable indications. In this case it is thought diseased feet may have been the cause.

Scoliotic spines have also rarely been seen in excavations. The vertebral column of a 25–35-year-old male had been distorted into a tight s-curve, and several ribs had fused to each other, the spine or both. The cause may have been a birth defect or rickets (or both), suggesting the condition began in childhood.

The community showed unusual care and compassion towards its members. Oxford Archaeology's Sharon Clough and Louise Loe, who examined the human remains, say that the amputations and the idiopathic scoliosis would both have shown clear deformities and have caused discomfort for a considerable time. The assemblage will be retained for future research.

Did comb dress Celtic beard or horse's mane?

A metal comb is the latest surprising object to have been shown to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It was found in a ploughed field without any associations, but the style of the decoration suggests it dates from the first century ad. It could have been for dressing horse hair, or for human use.

The comb was found last summer near Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire by Russell Peach, who brought ice cream tubs full of metal objects to his local finds liaison officer. "Most of it was not worth recording", says Angie Bolton, FLO for Warwickshire and Worcestershire, "but this was lying on top of one of the tubs with bits of tractor beneath it".

The comb was cast with its decoration, which is similar to that on chariot fittings and the backs of copper alloy mirrors made around AD25–75. Analysis by Mary Davis, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, shows the metal to be tin bronze (12–14% tin, with no lead but a small amount of arsenic), typical for this date. One of the outer prongs appears to have broken off, and the break ground smooth so the comb could continue in use.

Sara Wear, an iron age specialist at Warwickshire Museum, says it is similar in shape and size of prongs to modern horse-related curry combs. Sally Worrell (PAS finds advisor) searched for published iron age combs made in bronze and found one (from the Saône and Loire province, France) which has much finer teeth. Bolton says horse-related finds of this age, such as bridle fittings, are relatively common in Warwickshire.

A few bone combs from Britain are comparable, however, not least one from a crannog (an artificial island built as a safe location for a house) on the Clyde at Langbank, Renfrewshire. Alison Sheridan, National Museums Scotland, suggests this might have been a beard or moustache comb, and too fine for horse use. The two combs both have a single suspension hole and remarkably similar decoration.

North Europeans at this time took considerable care of their appearance, and mirrors and razors are relatively common. Diodorus Siculus wrote that some dyed their hair, and described a variety of male shaving styles. Tacitus said one tribe was distinguished by hair "combed sideways and tied in a knot", while Julius Caesar said Boudica's red hair fell over her shoulders.

Consultation continues over future of Scotland's heritage

Launching the latest stage of the Scottish Executive's new Scottish historic environment policy on March 8, minister for tourism, culture and sport Patricia Ferguson emphasised the significance of heritage to tourism and to Scotland's identity, using the word "our" 11 times in her speech at Edinburgh Castle. SHEP 1, as it is known, proposes three "key outcomes": a heritage protected and enhanced for the benefit of all; increased public appreciation and enjoyment of heritage amongst Scotland's inhabitants and visitors; and recognition of heritage's importance "as a key asset in Scotland's economic, social and cultural success". Sustainable use of the historic environment, Ferguson added, can make a major contribution to the reduction of Scotland's environmental impacts.

SHEP 2, on policy for designation of nationally important ancient monuments, was published in 2006. Consultation is closed on SHEP 3 (about gardens and designed landscapes), but is open on four new documents. These cover scheduled monument consent (consultation till Jun 22), conservation and access to properties in care (Jul 6), the listing of historic buildings (Jul 20) and listed building consent (Aug 3). Comment is also invited on a review of the operation of Historic Scotland's investment programmes (Jun 30).

These papers are aimed at organisations concerned with the historic environment, including the Scottish Executive and Historic Scotland (which unlike English Heritage, is directly accountable to ministers). As relevant documents in the statutory planning and environmental impact assessment processes, they have executive significance. They can be downloaded from Contact details for responses are at

Scotland has committed to generating 40% of its electricity from renewable resources by 2020, much of which will likely come from offshore stations. A strategic environmental assessment is underway for wave and tidal energy, which includes a chapter on the marine and coastal historic environment where there is much of potential archaeological significance. Consultation continues to June 22 (

Popular Scottish hillfort is probably Pictish

New radiocarbon dates have thrown light on an uncertain era of Scottish history.

Mither Tap, the most prominent peak on Bennachie mountain with views across Aberdeenshire, is ringed by two walls. Amongst natural debris and tumbled constructions, wall-faces and traces of a parapet walk can be seen in places on the main outer defence, which has a single entrance extension. Circular house foundations have been recorded near the collapsed inner wall.

The site differs from typical prehistoric hillforts of the region (for example, its walls have not been vitrified by fire), and it was thought likely to be historic. Last November Headland Archaeology undertook a watching brief on work to a footpath through the fort, and recovered two charcoal samples. These have been dated to AD340–540 and 640–780.

Bruce Mann and Ian Shepherd, archaeologists at Aberdeenshire council, are pleased to have the fort's early historic date confirmed, a rare occurrence. "We have still to understand the precise role in the early landscape that Mither Tap played", they add, but the peak's "iconic significance was surely recognised from earliest times".

Nearby flat ground is one of the favoured locations for Mons Graupius, the site of a pitched battle described by the Roman historian Tacitus. In AD83 or 84 a large native assembly was said to have been slaughtered there by the invading army.

The area is also known for an unusual number of ogham-inscribed Pictish stones, perhaps implying the fort too is Pictish. Mither Tap is not mentioned in contemporary texts, but to the west, at Dunadd, Argyll it is recorded that a fort was twice attacked, in AD683 and 736, in battles between Picts and Scots.

Today Mither Tap, which is near Inverurie, is a popular walking destination. The watching brief occurred during conservation and path improvement work by Highland Conservation Services for Forestry Commission Scotland and Pittodrie Estate.

In brief


There is much anecdotal information (often unsubstantiated) on damage to archaeological sites caused by unauthorised digging, and significant numbers of illicit British antiquities are traded on eBay and elsewhere (feature, Jan/Feb). Archaeologists say that nighthawking, as illegal metal-detecting is known, does occur, sometimes backed by sophisticated organisation and equipment. However, cases are rarely prosecuted, and with little good intelligence on the scale of the problem, it has been difficult to persuade the relevant authorities that this is a matter worth more attention. So English Heritage, Cadw, Historic Scotland, National Museums of Wales and the Portable Antiquities Scheme are funding a survey that will cover the whole of the UK, and the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, to report in 18 months. Oxford Archaeology will be soliciting information through online and paper questionnaires.

Journal online

The Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society has placed all but the most recent 10 years' of its transactions online ( Everything published between its foundation in April 1876 and 1995 can be searched and downloaded for free. David Smith, chairman, thinks this may be the first well-established county archaeological society to achieve such archival access.

Tara road hold-up

The contentious stretch of the Irish M3 close to the historic hill of Tara, Co Meath is now under construction. A circular enclosure defined by a double ring of stake holes 80m across, with a 16m diameter ring inside, has been discovered on the road's course 2.5km north-east of the hill, at Lismullin. Campaigners, who have long fought against the road, described the structure as "similar to Stonehenge but made with wood", but Archaeological Consultancy Services said it is badly ploughed and undated, and the closest parallels are with late bronze age/iron age ritual enclosures and early historic royal sites. Questions are being asked as to why the feature was not found in preconstruction mitigation. As we go to press it is under protective plastic.

Mound opened

On May 11 the steel door that slammed shut on the BBC tunnel into Silbury Hill, Wiltshire in 1969 was opened at the start of works by Skanska Civil Engineering. These will clear the tunnel of its loose fill and supporting structures, before repacking it entirely with chalk; refill the crater that appeared on the top in 2000; and fill small craters on the hill's side. To archaeologists' delight English Heritage chose the repair option that would guarantee ecological stability within the mound and allow access to the interior for the first detailed record (feature, Jan/Feb 05). Film clips and weekly PDFs will report progress at

Phase 2

Even as the editor was preparing to annul the river Lune ford at Lancaster, the story entered phase 3. Peter Iles, Lancashire county council, had reported that a new millennium bridge gave views revealing a stone and timber structure on the river bed that looked like a Roman ford (News, Sep/Oct). However, new developments, he said candidly, meant he was "almost certainly wrong".

A dendrochronology sample had been identified as softwood, but not the "normal Roman imported softwood", making a relatively modern date more likely. Iles was barely able to admit to being "very disappointed and not a little embarrassed", when another message arrived in his office. Samples of "concrete" laid along the tracks did not look modern. Perhaps, volunteered the archaeologist, it was Roman maritime concrete? More later.

It may have won (the result is announced between this issue's printing and your reading this), but if not, at least it made the Gulbenkian prize shortlist: Sheffield's Weston Park Museum's £19m transformation (Briefing, May/Jun) did well to highlight the possibilities of innovative archaeological displays.

Bristol University archaeologists made news with their excavation of a Transit van (feature, Jan/Feb). A film of the project was premiered at the Contemporary and Historical Archaeology in Theory conference last November. Now In Transit is to go online, and if all goes well, will be viewable on the Archaeology Channel at

Roger T Grange has kindly sent an award-winning film about the New Smyrna Museum's Florida excavations. The DVD will go to the first to remind the editor of the title of Grange's British Archaeology feature (May/Jun).

Somewhere on the desk is a 400,000-year-old flint hand-axe. It's probably my most prized possession.
Novelist Will Self, Guardian Review April 7

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