The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 97

Issue 97

November/December 2007



Curlew care leads to lost royal residence find

Wat's Dyke dated: was it Coenwulf's dyke?

Little dig goes to big festival

Orkney finds confirm early Scottish colonisation

In Brief & Phase 2


Made in China
The exhibition that you will never forget opens in London

Viking treasure
An early inside look at the Viking hoard from Harrogate

Caribbean tragedy: under the volcano
David Miles and Julian Munby say island heritage matters on Montserrat

on the web

Recommended websites
Archaeological science, and digging up a hearth (and home)


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Dan Hull explains the CBA's pioneering initiatives in archaeological publishing


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Oriental light – Star letter

Caroline Mawer

Maybe there are lessons for Ian Hinton in church orientation (feature, May/Jun) from the investigations into mosques – which don't all face Mecca, despite the extensive body of Islamic astronomical and geometric expertise. For example, for a variety of (often, but not only, theological) reasons, some medieval mosques are intentionally aimed at the setting or rising sun at solstice; to a specific cardinal direction (including the south, southeast and west); or lined up with another building.

Then there are some documented errors: with adjustments for magnetic declination either not made at all; or made, but in the wrong direction. Geographic and time clusters of similarly oriented buildings have been suggested to give archaeomagnetic data and show changes in declination over time.

With Islam sometimes described as an urban religion, the requirements of mosque orientation may even have had fundamental effects on the morphogenesis of some (though certainly not all) Muslim cities.

Caroline Mawer,

• The writer included academic references which the editor is pleased to pass on to anyone who contacts him.

Alison Smith

Some of the variations observed by Hinton may have much to do with changing opinions as to how Christian worship should be conducted, regional customs, allegiances to authorities, the histories of individual churches and local feelings.

Many of the Saxon and early Norman churches I've visited and worshipped in did not originally have an east window behind the altar. This could be a reflection of early Christian worship in dark, hidden places such as catacombs and former temples, lit by lamps and candles which play an important symbolic role in worship to this day.

St Laurence, Bradford on Avon, is the most obvious surviving example, where the light from the rising sun contributes almost nothing to the spiritual experience and drama of the place. Later in the middle ages large windows made a closer orientation to east more desirable.

Perhaps churches in eastern Britain were orientated in deference to Roman supremacy, after the synod of Whitby in 664, while to the west and north traditional practices may have continued remote from Canterbury.

Alison Smith, Newport.

Let them eat layers

Maureen Bennell

I enjoyed the feature about badgers and chocolate cake (Sep/Oct). It is amazing how often culinary allusions crop up on site – beginners being encouraged to think of stratigraphy as Victoria Sandwich or people coming over to report they have found a toffee-coloured layer or a fill the consistency of Mars bars. Perhaps diggers are subliminally affected by working for starvation wages?

Maureen Bennell, Sevenoaks

Market forces

Jonathan R Hunn

Commercial archaeology is concerned with "development", academic archaeology with analysis and teaching. This inevitable difference should not cause undue concern. However, I felt John Hammond's sentiments (Opinion, Jul/Aug) were unduly gloomy.

Hammond sees archaeology as a "commodity... where the cheapest quote wins". This is only true some of the time. If archaeologists are prepared to take on poorly costed projects, it is no surprise that they are unable to finance "an adequate level of post-excavation work".

In modern archaeology the planning authority draws up a project brief, which is provided to the client who in turn invites archaeological organisations to quote or estimate for the work. Many organisations are only too happy to give the consultant whatever they wish, usually in the form of a fixed price quotation – if you are a local government contracting unit or a trust, the risk is borne by someone else. But the attraction of the current brief fades and is replaced by a new one, and so the cycle goes on.

Adequate provision should be made for all elements in the project design. If this isn't the case, the design is deficient; if it is approved by the planning archaeologist then they are being negligent. This can happen, though in my experience it is the exception.

Acompleted project archive is deposited with a local museum (copies go to the SMR/HER and the National Monuments Record in Swindon). These days it is a requirement of many briefs that a basic site summary should be put online using the oasis format. If this isn't being done, then something is lacking in the contractor's procedures.

Not all is well, but I would take issue with Richard Bradley's view that "the organisation of English archaeology [is] ‘disastrous'" (News, Mar/Apr 2006). An explosion of archaeological data has occurred in my generation; many individuals are slowly coming to terms with the loss of public funding and the emergence of privately funded archaeology. The former was woefully inadequate, while the latter requires us to rise to the challenge and improve the service which we give to our clients and to society in general. If we insist on providing inadequately costed projects, then we have only ourselves to blame.

Jonathan R Hunn, ASC Ltd, Milton Keynes

Restless dead

Anthony Greenstreet

Tom Woolhouse speculates (feature, Jul/Aug) that fear of "the restless dead" may have prompted the reburial of a pagan Anglo-Saxon woman by Christian Normans.

As a child, by 1940 I was aware of a spot on the north Cornish coast which my mother could never pass without feelings of misery and dread: it was a small hollow from which a spring falls over the cliff into Mother Ivey's Bay, near Harlyn Bay. In 1944 I helped an archaeologist dig two cliff-top barrows nearby, and he told me that they were associated with a settlement in the hollow – of which neither I nor my mother had any prior knowledge.

I wonder whether "the restless dead" have made their presence felt to any of your readers?

Anthony Greenstreet, Camberley


Chris Tripp

It was with great sadness that I read of the death of Peter Ucko (News, Sep/Oct). It was his enthusiasm for greater public involvement in archaeology that allowed students to take qualifications at the ucl Institute of Archaeology. At interview Peter asked me what archaeology books I had been reading. When I replied, "I dig archaeology all day, every day; the last thing I want to do is read about it at home", he had a look of horror on his face. Throughout my studies whenever he saw me he would say, "Ah, you're the chap who never reads books!" I have had many interviews for jobs over the last 30 years, but I have to say that was the hardest. Thanks Peter, you will be missed by all the students who knew you and had a passion for the theory of community archaeology.

Chris Tripp, Maiden Newton, Dorset

Lustrous stone

Peter Forsyth

Figure 1Figure 2
Click on the thumbnail images for larger versions.

While walking along a woodland path in the Farnham district, it was noticed that pebbles rather unnaturally glistened in the sunlight. One specimen was double convex in shape, 50mm by 30mm, its surface almost totally covered with cones of percussion.

Closer examination revealed that the polish was generally limited to the raised areas on one side. The local cones of percussion had been cut through with the removal of a considerable amount of material (at least in microscopic terms) to produce an alignment of furrows (Fig 1, above). The only defects in the high quality of this finish are the sectioned conical cracks and other associated pits (Fig 2). At magnifications as high as ×1500 no scores were visible – unusual even for a faceted gemstone.

The most plausible explanation would seem to be that, as railway ballast, this pebble had been wedged beneath a wooden sleeper that had been repeatedly loaded by the passage of rolling stock. This could well amount to many millions of load applications – the same loading environment that leads to the fatigue cracking of tracks.

Thus the wood, containing minute silica particles, acted as a natural lap. Extremely minute particles of flint debris would have augmented the abrasive material. One is reminded of the classic case of the polishing of flint sickles that arises from cutting straw, which also contains silica particles.

However, in those situations any flint debris would more likely be freed.

Although the precise mechanism whereby brittle materials such as glass or gemstones can be polished has long been a subject of conjecture, it is generally agreed that the rate of material removal is much enhanced by chemical action. In the case in question the environment would be wet and most probably acidic.

It is sometimes worth exploring other branches of science and engineering beyond the purely archaeological path.

Peter Forsyth, professor of engineering materials, University of Southampton

Dorset mysteries

Ron Ames

Miles Russell's letter (Jan/Feb 'Roman heads') stimulated me to recall that I have read that an encampment of the poor existed on the perimeter of Fordington, Dorset, near the river Frome which was called "Icen", and the people inhabiting it were referred to as "Icens". This doesn't appear to be near the location of the Iceni. And, if "Iceni" is a modern construction, what could be the origin of Icen? I have read one reference who attributed the source of these names to a corruption of the name "Easton". Is this plausible?

I believe the entire Fordington Manor was given, or loaned, to the eventual Duchy of Cornwall, which still owns it. Can anyone shed any light on this? Has the manor ever been excavated? Any trace found of the Icen settlement?

Ron Ames, Brighton, Colorado, USA

New generation

David Denny

I read with interest the article on Nidderdale's archaeology in primary schools (feature, May/Jun). We've been at it in Uttoxeter for three years and run weekly after school clubs for groups of 20+. We have expanded to a local middle school and have recently been approached by the high school to follow up there. It really is reassuring to know that we are producing a new generation who have developed a sense of self through local history – which is our aim. Social engineering through archaeology? We hope then that generation will protect the town's heritage – if they don't all go off to Greece to scratch in the dirt.

Next step is a North Staffs YAC!

David Denny, Uttoxeter Archaeology Society, Staffs

Humankind is losing its history for the pleasure of private collectors living safely in their luxurious houses.
Lebanese archaeologist Joanne Farchakh on the looting of Iraq's antiquities, Independent.

Please send your ideas for the magazine: we may not publish them all, but we will read and take notice. Ed

We welcome letters from readers. They may be emailed to Mike Pitts the Editor at or faxed to 01904 671384. They may be edited.

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