And so we come to the last part of our review of the Current Archaeology Live conference, held earlier this month in London’s Senate House.
The after-lunch session is usually regarded as a bit of a ‘graveyard shift’ (a wrong choice of words possibly, given the subject matter of many of this year’s talks), but everyone was attentive on return from lunch on the second day for what was possibly the most keenly anticipated talk by many of the whole conference.
Session 7. From Medieval to Early Modern
Richard Buckley, fresh from having been presented the award for Research Project of the Year the previous evening, took a spellbound audience through “Leicester’s Greyfriars and the Search for Richard III“, a subject that by now doubtless needs little introduction or review, having been the subject of several TV and radio programs, and multitudinous magazine and web articles. Richard’s now famous quote at the start of the dig, “I’ll eat my hat if we find Richard III” symbolised the fact that the actual hope of finding him was a very long shot. The initial appeal of the opportunity to dig at Greyfriars was the chance to survey the lost friary. To set context, Richard gave a timeline of Richard III’s movements, leading up to the Battle of Bosworth and discussed the sources of detail about his grisly end. Looking at maps of the Greyfriars area, only 14% of the site was undeveloped and potentially available for excavation, and two overlapping trenches were decided upon. Bones were uncovered within the first 5m of trench 1, but covered over again until the location and orientation of the church could be identified. A third trench identified the choir, and the bones were further investigated. Curvature of the spine was a strong clue, and RC14 dating was close to the required date. Skeletal details showed a slight build, of immediately indeterminate gender, but wounds (fatal and non-fatal) which matched the historical sources. Due process was followed, and DNA matching with two identified descendants took identification to ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ level. Cue hat-eating activities!
You had to feel a little sorry for Heather Knight, up next to tell us about the Curtain Playhouse in London, having to follow such a stunning tale. But she started by comparing today’s Shoreditch, a hotbed of art and creativity, with the same area in Shakespeare’s time. All performance was banned in the City of London in the 16th century, and as ever, space was at a premium within the walls hence the theatres on the outskirts: “the original ‘fringe theatres’”. Heather gave some background to the style of Elizabethan theatres and their construction and usage. It’s possible that the Curtain, sister/overflow venue for the nearby The Theatre, saw the first performance of Shakespeare’s Henry V in 1599 – the “wooden ‘O’” mentioned in the Prologue. Whilst the rough location of the Curtain was known – even today the road is called Curtain Road – all physical traces were thought to have vanished. But when the area was marked for development, the archaeologists moved in. The first discovery was 19C cobbles – a good sign as this meant no 19C basements! They then found asymmetric load bearing walls, indicating a round building some 22m across – typical Playhouse style. Also uncovered within the narrow trench was a floor made of sheep bones. Apparently common and hard-wearing. Much of the archaeology is 2.5m below current ground level, so it is hoped more is preserved in situ below the Horse and Groom pub for future archaeologists to investigate further.
To close off this session, Pieta Greaves told us a little about her role as a Conservator on the Staffordshire Hoard, with some stunning closeup photographs of the intricate designs. Sadly, as the hoard was discovered by a Metal Detectorist, there were absolutely no clues as to it’s context, just some 205 bags of gold, silver and glass pieces. Many of the pieces were so brittle that thorns were used to clean them, rather than the more usual cocktail sticks or scalpels, to avoid damaging the fragile surfaces of the gold. It is hoped that chemical analysis of the alloys and adhesives may help identify a workshop for some of the pieces, and thus provide some context but there are too many outstanding questions, and of course, pieces are still being illegally removed up from the original site, (as we highlighted recently) which police are aware of and are investigating.
After a short question time for the session, a tea break was more than welcome before the final session of the conference.
Session 8. Operation Nightingale: Injured soldiers on the road to recovery.
Surgeon Commodore Peter Buxton introduced a short film about Operation Nightingale (ON) excavations at Caerwent and explained that the project uses archaeological fieldwork to help the recovery of wounded servicemen returning from Afghanistan. Phil Harding (CA Archaeologist of the Year) is Honorary President but Peter explained with a smile that “rumours I told the soldiers to vote for him are untrue!” He went on to explain that many MOD sites (10 World heritage Sites, 800 listed buildings, 734 Scheduled Ancient Monuments in their care) are so well protected that they contain some amazing archaeology. Many of the soldiers involved in ON have moved on to study archaeology on a full-time basis as a result of the project. The first dig for the project was Chissenbury Midden, a 3m deep Bronze Age deposit threatened by badgers. Examining the throw resulted in up to 25kg of pottery sherds, without any excavation (“the post-ex costs would have bankrupted us!”). The success of the project was summed up in the example of a soldier, mute for 4 months following injury, who started speaking whilst sorting pottery on the project. It was explained that many soldiers’ injuries, mental or physical, may not necessarily be ‘visible’ injuries but all must be rehabilitated in their own ways. Whilst the focus is on the healing process, some good archaeological work is also being done by the unit; Caerwent Roman villa and Barrow Clump Saxon cemetery (featured in a Time Team Special) were honorable mentions here. One questioner asked “are results published, or is it a military secret?” The reply was that work will be published as it’s all part of the archaeology.
But all too soon, it was time for closing comments from both Matthew Symonds, CA editor and Andrew Selkirk, editor in chief and founder of the magazine. And that was it for another year.
There were some trips organised to visit the St Mary Spital Charnel House and also the Billingsgate Bathhouse on the Sunday, but I didn’t attend these, so cannot report on them here.
Was the conference a success? Judging from the increase in attendance figures from last year, and the reactions on Twitter and Facebook I’d have to say positively yes, and I personally am already looking forward to next year’s event, although whether the Senate House will be large enough is open to debate. Book early to avoid disappointment, as they say…