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Here is our contribution to Doug Rocks-Macqueen’s blogging carnival - Blogging Archaeology.

The carnival is aimed at Archaeology bloggers (is that us?) and starts with two questions, part of which we’ve covered before in a post which outlines our history.

Why blogging? – Why did you, or if it was a group – the group, start a blog? 

As a group of disparate and geographically separated individuals with an interest in Britain’s prehistoric places of interest – “Ordinary people caring for Extraordinary places” – we wanted a united voice that could reach out to other ordinary people – members of the general public – and make them aware of the heritage wonders to be found hiding in the fields, moors and woods of Britain, in the vain hope of providing such wonderful places a modicum of protection from the vagaries and self-interests of the planners, developers and others. It seemed to us that the more people were aware of what we have to lose, the more they would be prepared to defend it when threatened.

As our audience grew, it became clear that the ‘ordinary people’ we had hoped for weren’t actually our primary readers. Along the way we have picked up many readers from academia and professional archaeology outfits, heritage organisations and more. As time has gone on, with over ten thousand hits per month, five thousand Twitter followers and hundreds more subscribers to the blog, our viewpoint has widened to include some of the more professional and political aspects of the archaeology world, although remaining within our original prehistoric Britain field of interest.

Why are you still blogging?

It’s our humble opinion that the audience we now have includes some of the top ‘movers and shakers’ – people who are in a position to make a REAL difference to the UK’s protection of its heritage. If we can persuade them of the need for change, by highlighting sites under threat, then there’s a chance that things eventually WILL change.

It’s that chance, however small, that convinces us that what we’re doing is the right thing to do. So far, no-one has demonstrated that what we say and do is wrong or harming our heritage (e.g. the Artefact Erosion Counter, for which no-one has yet suggested more accurate figures). Until they can, we’ll continue the fight to save our extraordinary places. 

To read other blogs participating in the carnival, search Twitter for the hashtag #blogarch.

English Heritage is to mobilise a volunteer Heritage Army – “the first crowd-sourcing project to tackle heritage at risk”. The idea is to get volunteers to carry out surveys of England’s 345,000 Grade II buildings “to enable thousands of passionate heritage fans to get more actively involved.”

Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “Today we are announcing a win / win proposition. For English Heritage it means we will eventually get, for the first time, a complete picture of the condition of all England’s listed heritage. We can use this information to decide how best to deploy our national expertise to help owners and all those tackling heritage at risk on the ground. And we’ll have a grass-roots network to spread understanding and appreciation of local heritage so that less of it becomes at risk in the first place.”

It certainly fits with something we’ve been suggesting for years regarding prehistoric monuments – there is already a passionate, knowledgeable army of enthusiasts out there who regularly visit those, even ones in inaccessible places. Many of them keep EH informed of their condition but a more formalised system including phone apps would certainly improve protection at minimal cost.

However Rescue News made an important point (on Twitter) :

“Involving the volunteer public in assessing Heritage at Risk is a great idea. But they should NEVER replace qualified professionals!” And of course, doing that may well be in the Government’s mind. They also made a sharp retort to Planning Minister Nick Boles:

“not making it easier to demolish those beautiful places and heritage assets we all value would be a help too”!

Hundreds of new historical sites, which have never been recorded before have been revealed with the help of LIDAR – a laser beamed from a plane which can penetrate the forest canopy.


New Forest. © 2013 David Baker

Each find has be verified by a visit by a team of archaeologists and volunteers from the New Forest National Park Authority  to make sure it really is what it looks like on the map – which isn’t always the case (one feature turned out to be an elaborate den constructed by children!) – but most turn out to be genuine archaeological finds.

“”We have found an Iron Age hill fort not previously know about,” explained Lawrence Shaw, heritage mapping and data officer, “It was under complete tree cover.” Elsewhere in the 350 sq mile forest a group of Bronze Age burnt mounds have been found (features often found with a trough inside where hot stones were put to heat water or cook food) – “The density of these is probably the highest anywhere outside Ireland,”

So far, about 35% of the 3,500 identified features have been checked. Over the next seven years, the team hope to have the whole area mapped and features added to Hampshire’s Historic Environment Record.

See more here

I visited (and wrote about) the Norton Community Archaeology Group’s (NCAG) Open Day last year. The weather for thIs year’s event last weekend could not have been more of a contrast! Whereas high factor sunblock and sunshades were the order of the day last year, waterproofs and galoshes were a definite requirement this year as the rain was light but continuous the whole time I was there.

My timings were all out (I thought the event started earlier than it did), so preparations were still under way among the hardy volunteers when I arrived on site. I am therefore deeply indebted to Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, North Hertfordshire District Council’s Archaeology Officer, who took time out of his busy schedule to give me a little one-on-one time and explain a little of what has been found this year.

The main trench across the henge ditch

The main trench across the henge ditch

There were three main features within the excavation immediately apparent, the largest of which was the trench shown above. This was cut across the line of the henge ditch and bank, and most excitingly, some evidence has been found of a possible earlier causewayed enclosure. Keith had previously suggested that the henge monument was of an early ‘formative henge’ type, but the discovery of a possible causewayed enclosure is icing on the cake.

At the eastern entrance to the henge, compressed chalk pits have been found, ideally sized for inhumation, but with no significant finds within them.

The chalk pits at the eastern entrance to the henge.

The chalk pits at the eastern entrance to the henge.

Whilst the possible causewayed enclosure is icing, there’s a cherry too! A neolithic ‘plank house’ feature has also been identified, close to the ditch.

Excavation of the plank house feature

Excavation of the plank house feature

Mike Parker-Pearson has recently visited the site and corroborated Keith’s interpretation of the findings, which makes this quite an important site, possibly nationally important, as the easternmost henge found to date.

Preparations for the Open Day were ongoing, and with the site due to close down on Sunday, Keith was getting heavily involved in what work remains, so I thanked him once again for his time and left him to it.

Investigations on site have been ongoing for a few years now – Full site diaries can be found on the NCAG blog and wider information about the group can be found on the main web site – but there will sadly be no dig next year, as Keith will be involved in another project elsewhere. Scandalously, it appears that the site may be given over to allotment use. The Group Chairman, Chris Hobbs introduced himself to me as I was leaving and stressed that he hopes to find out more about the potential plans for the site in the coming weeks.

Keith (in shorts), directing operations in the rain.

Keith (in shorts), directing operations in the rain.

So while the Stapleton’s Field site obviously has much more of a story to tell (and an interim report will be published in due course), the future is uncertain – it’s a case of watch this space.

Note: Apologies to all involved for any inaccuracies in my account above, I was working from memory rather than notes.

All pictures above © Alan S.

Massive funding cuts, loss of Green Belt, community incentives, fewer buffer zones, settings breached, the list goes on. The government seems profoundly heritage-unfriendly. But at least we still have English Heritage which “champions our historic places” on our behalf. But noticeably less lately, why wouldn’t it? Less money, less people, less power, less intervention, less mandate. Plus a parallel philosophical change , “conservation creep” whereby conservation no longer means protecting from change and is now the process of managing change”. It all looks suspiciously like a watchdog being forced into the role of a lapdog by a developer-friendly government.

The latest evidence comes from EH’s Improvement Plan for Planning Services. EH is still said to be there to prevent substantial harm to the significance of designated heritage assets” yet staff must nowgive priority to projects and advice on managing change in the historic environment that deliver wider benefits, i.e. that achieve influence beyond the immediate matter or that inspire public confidence in the benefits obtained from the historic environment“. Not exactly championing or protecting then. In fact the key theme of the document is that EH must ensure “that its advice and decision-making is focussed on promoting sustainable development. The whole document is worth a read but these stand out:

Action 14 – English Heritage will continue to develop links with key developers whose interests affect the historic environment. We will undertake joint events and training with development interests as appropriate and as resources permit.
Action 15 – English Heritage will deliver a named relationship manager at Director level for the largest 25 developers.
Action 17 – EH will appoint an additional member of staff to provide further bespoke advice on the growth potential of heritage assets.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has authorised me to say: "Grr"

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has authorised me to say: “Grrr”

The new Planning Guidance for renewable and low carbon energy contains a number of implications for heritage. Here’s one we think is crucial: “Community initiatives are likely to play an increasingly important role and should be encouraged as a way of providing positive local benefit from renewable energy“

Let’s not be coy. They mean bribes. They’re already in use and work like a dream. They’re rather clever: the Government is criticised for the system being skewed in favour of the developers and Griff Rhyss Jones neatly summarised the complaint this week: “The Parish Council and all the locals turn it down, and then the District Council turns it down … and then an inspector arrives from the Government and promptly allows it through…..” But now it’s going to be different. No need for an Inspector to frustrate local wishes because quite often they’ll have said yes in exchange for a new cricket pavilion. The Government won’t be the bad guys, they’ll have nothing to do with it, honest, they’re just champions of local decision making. Everyone’s a winner and Dave’s your friend.

To us it seems wrong that many landscapes – and the settings of heritage assets – aren’t going to be given at least a chance of being fairly judged on their merits, and sometimes saved. Cricket pavilions carry a lot more weight at local level and the greenest government ever has failed to point out something damnable about local “bribes”. It’s this: those monuments may not be merely of local significance but regional or national significance – so what about the rest of the public who are also stakeholders in the monument and it’s setting and are far more numerous than the locals as well as less biased and less bribed? Don’t they get a say? Clearly not. Which is why we described the system as “rather clever”. No such thing as Society if all you need to do is slip some yokels a few quid.

A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said:  ‘This represents a significant increase in protection for England’s heritage and landscape, ensuring that the local environment and local amenity is given the protection it deserves.” He was later detained under the Hypocrisy Act. 


h act

 See also Part 2


Let’s start with an archaeologist. Charles Mount took the opportunity of last week’s Day of Archaeology to provide an insight into the state of Irish Archaeology in a contribution titled “Picking up the pieces”. He says the end of the Celtic Tiger boom has meant that

Irish archaeology has been blighted by economic failure, imposed austerity and the failure of the commercial archaeology model. Those of us who are left are trying to pick up the pieces, but the loss of collective knowledge and experience will never be made good. Many excavation archives generated during the boom years now sit in store rooms with no one now to write them up and bring them to publication”. Data from many sites “may never see the light of day”.

And now the politician. Mr Mount’s account reminded us of our article in June 2009 about Mr. John Gormley, T.D., Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. He was once the author of The Green Guide For Ireland but was also the man who presided over the building of the M3 at Tara and who refused to prevent the destruction of the newly discovered National Monument at Lismullin. When launching three Codes of Archaeological Practice he made this amazing false claim that seems to underly a lot of government posturing on both sides of the sea:

“development and conservation can go hand in hand”.

He never explained how, and no wonder. Anyway, he is out of politics now and archaeologists like Mr Mount have been left with the reality and to pick up the pieces.

Ten years ago today, at the suggestion of our much-missed friend Rebecca van der Putt, a diverse group of ordinary people interested in prehistoric sites met at an extraordinary place for a picnic.

Site of original ritual gathering. 28 July 2003

Site of original ritual gathering, 26 July 2003

From that first meeting grew Heritage Action which subsequently morphed into The Heritage Journal which aims to promote awareness and therefore the welfare of ancient sites. It has perhaps filled a gap as it seems to have struck a chord with many people, both professional and amateur. 140 archaeologists have contributed articles to it and it is currently followed by more than 4,500 people on Twitter (including Nelson Mandela!).

We can’t claim the Journal always says things that everyone agrees with – that would be impossible bearing in mind how many individuals contribute content to it but we can claim two things – first, that everyone that puts it together or writes anything in it has their heart in the right place when it comes to ancient sites and second that anyone with an interest in prehistory who reads it regularly is likely to find at least something to pique their interest. At least, that’s the aim. The guiding principle is to try to make it like a magazine, updated nearly every day and with articles that are as diverse as possible. If you don’t like Stonehenge you could scroll down or use the search box to read about the last black bear on Salisbury Plainthe Hillfort Glow experiment,   the stony raindrops of Ketley Crag,   the policeman who spotted three aliens in Avebury  or indeed that the Uffington Horse may be a dog!

Now that we’ve reached this milestone (which coincides with this year’s Day of Archaeology - do please join in there too, if you can!) the question arises – where does the Journal go from here, and for how long? It’s a matter for conjecture for it depends entirely on the efforts of contributors and the wishes of readers.  A number of veterans from the original picnic are still involved and we’ve also been joined by a number of excellent new contributors but we’re always on the look out for still more. Please consider helping (an article, many articles or a simple news tip-offs and a photograph – whatever you like) as it’s a worthy cause that is only truly valid if it’s a communal entity with multiple public voices. In addition, any suggestions for future innovations or improvements will be gratefully received (brief ones in the Comments or longer ones at

Better still, we’ll shortly be holding a pow-wow and lunch (details to be announced) to discuss how the Journal should progress from now on. You’re more than welcome to come.

Soon to be displaced as kings of the hill?

Soon to be displaced as kings of the hill?

Thanks to the internet there are disinterested duck farmers in Dohar who will tell you that Silbury Hill was started in August because flying ants were found in turf at it’s base (August being the usual month of their emergence, nuptual flight and demise). The conflicting news – that no flying ants were revealed in the recent investigations or in a recent re-analysis of Prof Atkinson’s 1960s archive [other than a blurred photo of a slide (now lost) of some wings labelled as from Silbury's base] – has been a lot slower to travel. As has the reality that the mortal remains of flying ants can remain intact within turf for many a month. So the ants have managed to maintain their position as the poster boys of the Hill. Until now….



It seems that earthworm faeces can be used to measure past temperatures. Scientists from the universities of Reading and York report that calcium carbonate nodules produced by worms and dug up from archaeological sites give a unique measure of the ancient local temperatures. The data can be sensitive to variations in time, as well as being geographically specific and the scientists are currently focussing on samples recovered from Silbury Hill. (Of particular interest might be the dark base layer speculated by Jim Leary to have been produced by worms).

Whether this “new terrestrial palaeothermometer” as it has been termed will eventually suggest Silbury was commenced in August or at some other time of year is yet to become clear but it seems that the 110,000 results you get by typing Silbury ants into Google could soon be eclipsed by Silbury worms!

The Dover Bronze Age Boat, when first discovered in 1992 during a road-building scheme and construction of an underpass, sparked several frantic days of rescue excavations to save it from destruction.

It was dated as being some 3500 years old (cue museum curator joke “I guess that makes it 3521 years old now then”). The boat was made using oak planks sewn together with yew lashings. This technique has a long tradition of use in British prehistory; the oldest known examples are from Ferriby in East Yorkshire (upon which the recent Falmouth Log Boat reconstruction was based).

Unfortunately, as the remains of the boat continued under a nearby building, the entire boat could not be rescued as part of the excavation, leading to speculation as to it’s true size. In total 9.5 metres of boat were excavated for preservation. At it’s widest point, the boat was 2 metres wide, ample room for two rowers to sit abreast.

In its buried situation, the boat was in an anaerobic environment, which meant that the wood was largely preserved. However, once uncovered, like the timbers of the Mary Rose and the ‘Seahenge’ timber circle,  the wood started to decompose.

However, this process seems to be well understood, the timbers were kept in a waterlogged state and shipped to the Mary Rose Trust  in Portsmouth for conservation. The preserved timbers were eventually returned to Dover for reassembly and display in 1998.

In March of 2012, a project was launched to build a half-sized replica of the boat, using mainly tools which would have been available at the time of the original (1550 BCE). Sadly, unlike the Falmouth project which launched successfully in 2013, the Dover boat did not fare so well.  It would seem that the Falmouth project learned valuable lessons from the Dover experience.

The Dover Boat Reconstruction in progress

The Dover Boat Reconstruction in progress

The replica boat has since been ‘on tour’ in museums in France and Belgium, but has now returned to the UK where a Kickstarter project has recently been launched to raise funds to enable the replica to be ‘reworked’ to make it more watertight. The project will only be funded if at least £5,000 is pledged by Wednesday Jul 31, so visit the Kickstarter page, watch the video and make your pledge!

The eventual hope is to see it ply along the Kent coast, and possibly even across the Channel, as it no  doubt used to do all those years ago. A new exhibition ‘Beyond the Horizon’ has also opened recently in Dover Museum. It celebrates the cross-channel connections of 3,500 years ago, when the coastal communities in Kent probably had far more in common with communities on the other side of the channel than with most of the rest of Britain.

Update: The original goal of £5000 funding pledges has now been reached, with more than a week to go to the end of the funding period. Additional ‘stretch’ goals have now been added, with additional benefits for funders if these new goals are reached. See the KickStarter page for current details . 

Useful links:
Wikipedia article
Current Archaeology magazine article
Canterbury Trust publication


April 2014
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