The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 98

Issue 98

January / February 2008



Major new galleries open in Cardiff

Popular scheme threatened: culture change needed

Cultural icon: Phil Harding or Jonathan Ross?

Roman governor in Scotland

Bones of our forefathers

Secrets of Silbury poet revealed

Medieval archaeology comes of age

In Brief & Phase 2


Drapers Gardens
First insights into striking discoveries from Roman London

Detecting the past
Let the rally begin: we consider new detecting developments

First iron age furnaces
Rachael Hall describes extraordinary remains from Corby

on the web

Recommended websites
Fringe archaeology, and a new website from Heathrow.


Views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Lynne Walker reports on the CBA's recent historic building casework


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Dissolving heritage

Stuart Nisbet

The effects of the volcanic devastation on Montserrat's built heritage are spectacular but not unique (feature, Nov/Dec). On nearby St Kitts the sugar industry recently failed after 350 years and uncontrolled tourist development now threatens the island's heritage.

The debt of Britain to these tiny islands is subtle but immense. From the late 17th century the younger sons of many of Britain's middling gentry were sent out as sugar apprentices and returned home as sugar millionaires. Many towns and parishes in Britain are still dominated by the names of supposedly benevolent merchant-landowners, who participated directly in slave-grown sugar, tobacco or cotton.

The abundant remains in the islands have direct physical and cultural links, and mirror the estates at home, often right down to their names. The product was different, but the principles of agricultural improvement were the same and were economically supportive.

The challenge is to recognise and record our physical and cultural links with the islands before it is too late.

Stuart Nisbet, Glasgow

The editor would be pleased to hear from anyone with concerns – or good news – about archaeology anywhere in the world where Britain has or had once an interest.

Dating Star Carr

Petra Dark

I read with interest Nicky Milner's account of her recent excavations at Star Carr (feature, Sep/Oct) but her references both to the timing of my own involvement in the site, and the results of my research, are not quite accurate. My analyses of pollen and charcoal were undertaken in the 1990s, not the 1980s (see Star Carr in Context, by P Mellars & P Dark, McDonald Institute 1998; with subsequent chronological adjustments arising from revisions to the radiocarbon calibration curve published in 2000 in Antiquity 74, 304–7). This may seem a minor point, but the difference is significant because the intervening decade saw considerable advances in high-resolution pollen analysis and quantification of charcoal from lake sediments, the application of which to Star Carr provided the first evidence for a direct effect of the occupation on the environment, as well as new perspectives on the chronology and seasonality of the site. The results suggested two phases of human activity during which reed-beds fringing the lake were repeatedly burned, the first phase lasting around 80 years and the second about 130 years, separated by an interval of approximately a century.

Petra Dark, senior lecturer in archaeological science, Reading University.

Roman arch?

Fred Bowler

I would like to bring to your attention the Roman arch in St Andrew's Church, Corbridge, Northumberland.

The church was built by the monks of Hexham in 674, on top of a Roman arch which can be clearly seen, forming one of four sides of a tower. The other three sides are roughly built, but the Roman arch is perfectly built of square stone blocks, each pillar rising to about 12 feet high [3.5m] to a spring stone which stands out from the main pillar about 5 or 6 inches [c15cm]. The arch rises to a keystone, then back down to a spring stone on the opposite pillar. The whole arch is very imposing.

Recently at my request the local paper asked the director of the Vindolanda Trust Robin Birley for his opinion. He said, and I quote, "It is extremely unlikely that it survived from Roman Corbridge, from the end of the Roman occupation right through until the Saxons began building the church, because nothing else did".

In the church literature it is said to have been removed from Corstopitum, and built on this site half a mile away. I don't believe that, as it is perfectly built. At ground level on the pillars to a height of 3 or 4 feet [c1m] there are deep incisions obviously cut by the wheels of carts and chariots passing through over the years. This could not have been done when it was a church.

I would like you to investigate this for me as it would be nice for England to have a Roman arch.

Fred Bowler, Prudhoe, Northumberland

Digging Sutton Common

Adrian M Chadwick

It was gratifying to see the feature on Sutton Common, one of the most important late prehistoric sites in northern England (Sept/Oct). However, authors Robert Van de Noort and Henry Chapman make several serious omissions in this piece.

Although 20,000 square metres was stripped of topsoil, less than 10% of all of the archaeological features recorded were actually excavated, most only half-sectioned. The photographs of tiny sections across features such as the eastern entrance ditch terminals and the mortuary structures show just how minimal this sampling was. More artefacts would have been found if more features had been excavated. Late prehistoric pottery in the region probably had restricted use; it is often in organic-tempered fabrics that are fragile and friable in acidic soils. Why English Heritage and curatorial archaeologists permitted such an inadequate sampling strategy is the real mystery of Sutton Common.

Interpreting such sites as communal foci and socially significant places rather than defensive redoubts or elite residences is welcome, but the use of the term "marsh-fort" – coined by Derrick Riley in his book, Early Landscape from the Air (Collis, Sheffield 1980) – negates this. The forthcoming publication is a positive step, but it is regrettable that the excavations were not undertaken by people more familiar with South Yorkshire's archaeology and the complex nature of late prehistoric inhabitation practices.

Adrian M Chadwick, Hunter's Bar, Sheffield

Icen in the nick

Stephen Mottram

Ron Ames (Letters, Nov/Dec) may not realise that a royal manor can be agricultural land. Fordington Manor enclosed the Roman town of Dorchester until c1876, when the Duchy of Cornwall was able to terminate the last of its tenancies and secure enclosure. Dorchester grew into the area of Fordington Great Field and today, the Duchy's Poundbury Estate continues the job and carries out a great deal of archaeological excavation.

TThe name Icen is not confined to the river Frome, and in Dorchester, Icen Way is a modern name for Gaol Lane. Mr Ames's poor of Fordington resemble the Victorian occupants of Mill Street, part of the Manor. When the vicar, Henry Moule, wrote to Prince Albert about the plight of these people he got no response.

Stephen Mottram, Barnstaple

Church whims

Guy de la Bédoyère

"Something must have caused the church-builders to align their churches differently across the country, but neither setting out errors, nor any of the physical, topographical or environmental elements surveyed here, can explain it" (Ian Hinton feature, May/Jun).

No they can't. What Ian Hinton, Caroline Mawer and Alison Smith (Letters, Nov/Dec) are all speculating about simply cannot be answered by archaeology and it is, sadly, an example of the discipline's limitations. One only need look at St George Bloomsbury where, thanks to extant records, we do know what happened, and why St George was rebuilt in the second decade of the 18th century on a site much longer from north to south than from east to west. That was simply the way it was. Vanbrugh produced a plan with an altar on the "north" (actually, north-west), succumbing to the circumstances. Hawksmoor's plan, however (executed), placed the altar in an "eastern" (north-eastern) apse despite the axis, and put the entrance in the "west" tower.

But in 1781 the church's interior was rearranged, because despite its liturgical correctness (notwithstanding the fact that the supposed east end is actually on the north-east), the layout was simply very inconvenient. The west entrance was blocked and the altar relocated to the north. The church today is now an incongruous mix of two entirely different alignments driven by the site, the whims of two architects and the sensibilities of the parishioners, neither of which strictly accords to the "accepted" format of east-west design.

The truth is that the reasons for any individual church's state lie in the trackless wastes of unrecoverable circumstances, fancies and whims of time past. One can only wonder at the potential this church might have had for endless reams of inconclusive archaeological speculation about the curious schism of the Bloomsburyites who feared the rising sun and instead worshipped the rising of the Big Dipper, and armed with their magnetic compasses expelled the orthodox worshippers before setting out to inflict their own form of morphogenesis on London's streets.

Guy de la Bédoyère, Grantham

The fact remains that in his feature, Hinton appears to have identified an as yet unexplained national pattern in medieval church alignments independent of local factors. Ed

PAS vital

Adam Daubney

I just thought I'd keep you updated regarding another find. I've just got back in from a finds day, at which a lady brought in a near-complete first/second century cremation urn with human remains, that workmen found whilst digging a soak-away in her front garden. It's quite a vessel, and shows again just how vital the Portable Antiquities Scheme is as a conduit between the public and the world of archaeology. One of the bones in particular shows cut marks, which I can't determine whether are from the diggers' spades or something more sinister...

Adam Daubney, Lincolnshire finds liaison officer (FLO), Portable Antiquities Scheme

The government might begin by properly funding one of the great historic identifiers of the British Isles: not Stratford's Olympics, but Salisbury's Stonehenge.
Tristram Hunt after the launch of History Matters, Guardian.

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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