Current Archaeology Live is an annual event hosted by Current Archaeology magazine. The event is now in it’s fifth year, and thanks to a competition held by the magazine, I was lucky enough to win a free ticket to this year’s event, held in the prestigious Senate House in London.

Senate House - Wikimedia Commons

The two-day event comprised of four themed sessions per day, of three talks each. On the Friday this was followed by an Awards ceremony, and party. Due to domestic commitments, I was unable to attend the Saturday morning sessions. As an experiment, I decided to ‘live-tweet’ the sessions I attended to our Twitter feed, using the hash tag #calive2012. I found this hard going at times, but fun. All tweets concerning the conference can be easily found by searching on Twitter.

The hall filling up before the start

After some admin announcements and introductory remarks to an audience of some 3-400 people, the sessions kicked off with:

Session 1 – Stonehenge and Megalithic Monuments

Professor Timothy Darvill opened with an interesting talk on “Stonehenge and Preseli: it’s only Rock ‘n Roll” in which he discussed the geology of the Preseli area, and compared this with the layout of the different types of stone used on Salisbury Plain. At the same time, the ‘glaciation’ theory of stone movement was scientifically and vehemently rebuked.

Daniel Lee then gave a fascinating talk entitled “The past stares back: recent excavations at Banks and other Neolithic chambered tombs in Orkney”. He described the discovery of the tomb at Banks and the extensive work, sometimes in difficult environmental conditions, to uncover exactly what was there. This included otter sprait (poo!) at all levels of the excavation, showing the monument was possibly open to the elements for a considerable part of its usage.

Finally, Julian Richards presented a short talk on West Kennet Long Barrow, including some (now hilarious) archive video from the 50’s which highlighted the enormous strides that have been made in excavation standards since then.

After a short break for tea, the second session took us through to lunch.

Session 2 – Re-excavating Roman Urbanism

This session was very much about describing the latest excavation news from different sites, and even for a non-Romanist such as myself, was nevertheless interesting.

Professor Mike Fulford presented on “Silchester: into the Iron Age, a Roman town before the Roman conquest?” and described the latest findings from Silchester which included some of the pre-Roman streets and the buildings thereon.

Dr William Bowden then described the growth of Caistor St Edmund in “Town life according to the Iceni: recent excavations at Venta Icenorum”.

Finally for this session, Tony Wilmott spoke about “Richborough: A Roman harbour town”, but I’m afraid I missed this talk.

Being just across the way from the British Museum, many of the attendees, including myself, took the opportunity to take a brief look around during the break for lunch. The presentations continued apace in the afternoon.

Session 3 – Rescuing the Past

Richard Mortimer gave a fascinating, energetic, amusing and educational talk about “Clay Farm, Trumpington, Cambridge: Middle Bronze Age strip fields, enclosure and settlement”. Rescue archaeology prior to a large housing development as the City of Cambridge expands. The highlight of the conference for me personally.

Professor Andrew Fitzpatrick spoke on “From the Minch to the Channel: highlights from Wessex Archaeology”, highlighting in a round Britain tour the scope and challenges of rescue archaeology in all its forms.

Finally, Sadie Watson provided an overview of rescue archaeology in the centre of the City with “London’s Temple of Mithras: Excavations 1954-2012 and new opportunities to study the Roman landscape”. She explained that the current ‘temple’ is largely a reconstruction, in the wrong place and very little original material, but that much of the original site has potentially survived, is being investigated and a that new ‘reconstruction’ is planned.

Session 4: Keynote Speech

The final session of the day was the keynote speech by Professor Mark Horton on “The Impact of Archaeology”, describing many of the attacks that archaeology has suffered over the last 12 months. Covering closure of university departments, museum closures (including one example where the contents were just ‘thrown in a skip’, sadly my local museum), withdrawal of funding and easing of planning laws, but also with examples where major investment such as the M Shed in Bristol have proved successful. His talk ended with a plea for everyone to get involved with Rescue, the British Archaeological Trust.

After the talks, came a drinks reception with the chance to mingle and network, and then the awards. These were as follows:

  • Book of the Year: Joe Flatman with ‘Becoming an Archaeologist’
  • Rescue Dig of the Year: SCAPE, for ‘Sea of troubles: Scotland’s eroding heritage’
  • Research Project of the Year: Archaeological Research Services, ‘Massacre at Fin Cop’
  • Archaeologist of the Year: Tony Wilmott

This was following by a party which allegedly continued into the small hours…

Day 2 began (somewhat gingerly, I’m told!) with two sessions which I was unable to attend, ‘Vikings in the Irish Sea’ with the following sessions:

  • Dr Stephen Harrison: New findings from old finds: the Irish Viking Graves project.
  • Dr Eamonn Keily: Finding the Viking fortress of Linn Duachaill.
  • Dr Hannah Cobb: Swords and Seascapes: the Vikings and more in Ardnamurchan, Western Scotland.

And ‘Bodies and Battles':

  • Malin Holst: Towton Revisited – the human remains.
  • Dr Piers Mitchell: Weapon injuries and disease in the Crusades.
  • Tim Sutherland: Treasure or treasured? Who is protecting our historic battlefield heritage?
  • Dr Nicholas Saunders: Bodies in Conflict: materlialities of absence in First World War archaeology.

Of these, I’m told Tim Sutherland highlighted some appalling metal-detecting statistics. If anyone who was there can provide details, either in the comments or via email, we’d appreciate it.

I did arrive in time for Session 7, which was handed over to sister publication Current World Archaeology with the theme ‘ceramics, Coins Cargoes and Emporia: Ancient Trade in the Mediterranean, but didn’t attend any of the talks:

  • Professor Andrew Wilson: Trade and per capita growth in the Roman economy.
  • Professor Simon Keay: Rome’s Mediterranean Ports.
  • Dr Philip Kenrick: “Only Arrentine will do!” The trace in italian Sigillata pottery.

And so after another break for tea and biscuits, we came to the final session of the two days:

Session 8: Living in the Iron Age

Dr Rachel Pope’s talk almost didn’t take place when session host, Frank Hargrave, unwittingly ‘stole’ her script. But back on track with script restored, she kicked off the session with “Right. The bit you’ve been waiting for, the proper archaeology: British Prehistory!” which proved popular with the audience. “Prehistoric Roundhouses: everyday life in Iron Age Britain” described the changing fashions in roundhouse design and clustering over 3000 years of usage, identified from over 4000 known examples and improvements in C14 dating techniques. Funding is now required for the creation of a national roundhouse database, if any philanthropists are reading…?

Julia Farley then described “Coins and Conquest in Late Iron Age Britain”, explaining how earlier imported Gallic coins were melted and reused as a show of power and influence, coin-making requiring high levels of resource. The regional differences in coin design, usage and hoarding were also discussed.

Finally, to close off the conference, Frank Hargrave gave a talk on “Shrines, temples and Sanctuaries; an Iron Age Mystery”. The finds of pig bones from feasting at Hallerton were compared to modern day feasting rituals in Nepal, and the concept of Sacral Kingship, with religious rites being led by an elite was also covered in some depth.

But finally, all good things must come to an end, and Matt Symonds, editor of Current Archaeology thanked all those that had helped to make the conference such a success, and hoped to see us all again next year.

I have to say that, as my first event of this type I was impressed by the breadth of the topics. I learned quite a lot, which as a non-academic is hardly surprising at such an event, but I was also surprised at how much of the material was familiar to me too.

Maybe there’s not that much difference between the academics and us ‘ordinary people caring for extraordinary places‘ after all? Many thanks once again to Current Archaeology magazine for making it possible for me to attend.

Update: An edited version of this review, including Tweets from the day, can now be found on Storify.