A couple of weeks ago, Current Archaeology magazine once again held their annual conference, Current Archaeology Live!, at Senate House in London. And once again, we were fortunate enough to be present to live tweet the event, bringing you all the news as it happened. Many of the talks could merit an article here in their own right, so this brief review is being be posted in several parts.

During lunch in the Friday, there was a minor incursion when a small group of protestors gained access to the building, despite the best efforts of security. They walked up and down the corridors, yelling through a megaphone which was so distorted in that their message was somewhat lost. This disturbance delayed the afternoon session by 10-15 minutes when the protestors eventually dissipated.

And so the afternoon session, entitled ‘Rescuing the Past‘ began. Much to my delight, this session coninued the morning’s theme of covering the prehistoric and Roman periods, looking at some specific rescue archaeology projects and their results.

The first talk in the session returned to the early Mesolithic with Fraser Brown telling us about ‘Settling Man: an Early Mesolithic house and Bronze Age vilage, Ronaldsway Airport, Isle of Man‘. The planned expansion of the airport, as well as creating land where once was sea, involved the largest archaeological investigation on the island to date. The area around the airport was found to be archaeologically rich – “like building on Salisbury Plain” was how Fraser described it. Two of the major finds were a Bronze Age linear settlement almost 1km in extent, and a Neolithic house which produced many wonderful finds of stone axes, pottery etc. These sites were originally discovered in the 1940’s when the airport was originally constructed, but have now been revisited using today’s techniques. In addition, Mesolithic pits and scatter were found to the east, eroding out of the cliffs. Some 1700 ten-litre buckets of spoil were excavated to be processed, allowing for a full 3D reconstruction of the finds. Analysis of the finds has shown a Mesolithic structure to be 10000 years old, where carbon deposits suggest the house burned down. Returning to the Bronze Age settlement, ceramic distribution maps suggested a centralised midden between three houses. This has been interpreted as a possible foundry.

Next, Alistair Barclay told us about ‘Kingsmead Quarry, Horton: early Neolithic houses and other discoveries‘. I had previously attended an Open Day at Horton but this time round the focus was very much put on the four (possibly five, count ‘em!) Neolithic houses discovered at the site, rather than the gold bling. Four million pounds has been spent on Rescue Archaeology at Horton to date, and it’s quite rare to find one neolithic house, let alone multiple houses. The houses were of two types, gulley and post constructions. The earlier gulley houses had some finds, but no hearth material. However, they were much deeper at one end, suggesting that the structures were possibly load-bearing. Could they have had a second storey? Or at least an upstairs sleeping/storage area? Intruiging. The later post houses were much less interesting finds-wise, but the houses bear an uncanny resemblance to some found hundreds of miles away (at Lismore Field). Evidence of travel/contact between the two groups possibly? Radio Carbon dating has proved problematic, but a date of some 3700BC (Early Neolithic) has been put forward. Of course, it’s not possible to talk about Horton wihout mentioning the later Beaker burial – inhumation from this period is rare in the Thames Valley, inclusion of gold grave goods is rarer – and the Beaker lady managed a bit more time in the spotlight.

Finally in this session, Sadie Watson from Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) told us about ‘The Walbrook: recent discoveries from the banks of Roman London’s river‘. Comparisons with Pompeii (see Current Archaeology issue 280) will naturally tend to dull the shine of any discoveries, but the excavations at the Bloomberg site on the banks of the Walbrook have produced a stunning amount of Roman finds. In fact, less than 1% of all the finds there to date are non-Roman! The river banks have provided a good state of presevation, whilst 50 yards away, the gravel offers no chance of preservation at all. the finds included a huge military assemblage: shoes and boots, armour, cavalry gear etc. along with large numbers of fist and phallus amulets. A slideshow showed the breadth of some of the finds to be analysed in full, including a curious decorated leather panel. But the star finds were some wooden writing tablets, including a rare inked tablet, which are very slowly being deciphered. The project has a web site at walbrookdiscovery.wordpress.com.

All too soon it was time for a tea break, before the keynote speech, ‘Archaeology, a very dry field‘ given this year by Dr Francis Pryor, and dedicated to his colleague Mick Aston.

A brace of Time-Teamers, at Teatime

A brace of Time-Teamers, at Teatime

Francis’ talk featured his two favourite subjects; Farming and Flag Fen (and a lot more besides!) He firstly took us quickly through his sheep farming year, then applied what he knew about these farming techniques to interpretation of Bronze Age field systems at Flag Fen. There was a remarkable fit between the two, but he pointed out that you also have to take into account ancient belief systems in order to be able to interpret the site correctly. He believes that intensive farming (up 1000 sheep) went on at Flag Fen, and outlined the possible economic impact on trade this would have led to, with metalwork from very disparate areas having been found there. All in all, a very entertaining talk to round of the first day of the conference – and he even managed to get in a huge plug for his latest venture, an archaeological detective novel!

Following the Keynote speech we moved across the corridor once again for a drinks reception, entertainment by a brass quintet of HM Guards musicians playing a selection of pieces with a WW1 theme, and the awards ceremony. The Current Archaeology Awards are special in that all the winners are voted for by the readership, from a shortlist of possible candidates in each category.

This year’s winners (with hearty congratulations to them all) were announced by Julian Richards, as follows:

  • Book of the year: Julian Bowsher, Shakespeare’s London Theatreland
  • Research Project of the Year: Return to Star Carr
  • Rescue Dig of the Year: Sands of Time: Links of Notland
  • Archaeologist of the Year: Richard Buckley
The award winners, with Julian Richards

The award winners, with Julian Richards

And so ended the first day, though many stayed for more drinks, and I believe a restaurant meal was arranged for the more hardy souls. But I had a commute to face in order to be bright-eyed and bushy tailed for the following day.

More to come…

Part 1

Part 3