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Every year, up and down the country, field schools provide the opportunity for students and volunteers to ‘get their hands dirty’ by becoming involved in real archaeological excavation work. It can be tough, rough, uncomfortable but ultimately satisfying work, and the benefits it brings to the rest of us in terms of the increase in knowledge of the past are innumerable.
Many of these exploratory or research digs are run by universities or local archaeology societies, and often include an Open Day near the end of the season, for interested memmbers of the public to see what’s been going on and why, what’s been found and how it’s been interpreted.
For those of us who are geographically separated, or maybe not quite so mobile or flexible as we once were, many of these digs provide regular updates via their site diaries, published in blogs online. This provides a degree of outreach, and allows inclusion of many people in the project who may not be able to physically take part or visit. To this end, here’s a very brief overview of some of the 2014 digs that have caught our eye this summer.
Run by the Faculty of Science & Technology at Bournemouth University, the Durotriges Project is an archaeological investigation studying the transition from the late Iron Age to the early Roman period in southern England.
Caerau (Cardiff University)
Now in it’s 18th (and final) year, the dig at Silchester has been directed by Prof. Martin Fulford. Visitors are always welcome – there’s even an iPhone app available!
Since 2009, an international team has been excavating the Roman fort and town at Binchester and surveying its place in one of the richest archaeological landscapes in the world.
This year’s fourth season at Ipplepen in Devon, run by the University of Exeter, will return to the Roman road and associated burials revealed in 2011, and a complex series of enclosures and structures thought to be part of the largest Romano-British settlement in Devon outside of Exeter.
The Vindolanda Trust has been accepting volunteers on to its excavations since its foundation in 1970 and over 6400 people have benefited from this challenging experience so far.
The Lyminge Archaeological Project is an ambitious programme of village-core archaeology. It is directed by Dr Gabor Thomas of the University of Reading.
DigVentures run crowd-funded digs, this is their second year at Leiston Abbey in Suffolk.
Overseen by Dr. Neil Faulkner, the Sedgeford Historical and Archaeological Research Project (SHARP) is one of the largest independent archaeological projects in Britain, and firmly rooted in the local community.
by Katharine Range
A Google search among the interwebs won’t yield much on this site (trust me), and truth be told, there is barely anything to see at the site. You may wonder why I even bothered. Well. I think that even sites like these, that are difficult to access and difficult to discern, are still worth noting and acknowledging. Britain is chock full of archaeology and history that is unknown to most people and largely taken for granted. Under every garden shed and cookie-cutter home; under every Tesco and village pub, lies the prospect of evidence of millennia of history. It’s a tantalizing image.
Billingborough is a small village located just south of the A52 midway between Grantham and Boston in Lincolnshire. The first record of the village, so named, is in the Domesday Book of 1086 and is recorded as Billingeburg. It had a mill and half a church. The name is taken from the Old English group name “Billingas” which means the family and followers of Billa, and “burh” which means the stronghold of the Billingas. But Billingborough has a much more lengthy history than the early Middle Ages.
Excavated in 1975-78 minimal evidence was found of activity at Billingborough Fen, which is just south of the town’s Cow Gate, from the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age. However, substantial remains of a Middle Bronze Age (2nd half of the 2nd millenium B.C.) ditch and bank enclosure were found dating to about 1500 BC. A number of postholes seem to indicate structures, though what type is difficult to determine due to extensive Medieval ploughing. Ditches and pottery were also found. The enclosure is the most extensively and completely excavated site of its type in the area. The settlement was later abandoned, most likely due to marine flooding.
After about 500 years, the site was again occupied in the late Bronze/Early Iron Age and was used extensively for salt-making. This site is one of the earliest known salt-making sites in the country and a number of features associated with this industry were identified.
“There were four pits containing ashy deposits and briquetage fragments as well as several hearths. These were some gullies which may have been surviving evidence from structures, perhaps temporary shelters or windbreaks. One of the pits appeared, during excavation, to contain an in situ clay structure which disintegrated on excavation. Several scatters of salt-making debris were found across the site. The pottery that was found was not distinctive in form or fabric and was present in only small amounts. It is of a style that dates it probably, to the Bronze Age to early Iron Age. The analysis of the small amount of animal bone (cow, sheep/goat and pig) showed that most of the animals present were exploited for their meat. The development of salt marsh to the east of the site at this period would have provided ideal grazing for sheep, in particular, and meat may have been salted and perhaps traded with settlements in the region”. ( Chowne, Peter; Cheal, Rosamund; and Fitzpatrick, A. P., 2001, Excavations at Billingborough, Lincolnshire, 1975-78: a Bronze-Iron Age settlement and saltern site).
Other sources also identify traces of iron-working and bronze smelting.
Occupation grew more intense toward the last centuries of the 1st millenium B.C. as evidenced by two other enclosures associated with the settlement. During the 1st century A.D., a Romano-British field system was superimposed over the old enclosures. Well-preserved artefacts, including large amounts of pottery, were found representing all phases of occupation. Because of sequence of occupation and the quantities of pottery found, Billingborough Fen has become essential as it generated a recognized pottery sequence for Bronze/Iron Age pottery types and has been used extensively by other conservation and archaeological entities in the area and further afield.
Human bones were also unearthed, comprising one nearly complete female skeleton and one partially complete. One more interesting tidbit. There were also a number of skull fragments. Some had been cut and polished into bowl shapes and are all associated with the Iron Age phase of occupation. They come from several different people and would seem to indicate some type of ritual use. There are comparable examples of this phenomena at All Cannings Cross in Wiltshire and, closer to home, from the Iron Age site at nearby Helpringham. (1st Annual Report of the Trust for Lincolshire Archaeology – October 1985)
This last is quite tantalizing, but in fact all of the wealth of information and artefacts found at this site show the importance of conserving and recording even the most visually insignificant site. Under this flat, unassuming fen, lay layer upon layer of occupation covering about 3500 years, the artefacts of which were used to set a pottery sequence standard used by other archaeologists. Obvious and enigmatic sites are dramatic and visually pleasing, but sometimes I find these unassuming places more intriguing because they are shrouded in so much more mystery and so plentiful while yet unknown. quietly waiting to yield up their story.
There are just two months to go before this year’s Day of Archaeology, which this year falls on July 11th.
The idea behind the Day is for those working, studying or volunteering in archaeology to submit photographs, videos and written blog posts covering the work they’ve been involved in during the day. In this way, a picture can be produced, showing the vast range of work being undertaken across the world in all fields of archaeology – it’s not just about the digging, after all! In this way, those behind the project hope to raise public awareness of the archaeological profession and it’s relevance and importance to societies around the globe.
Now in it’s third year, the Day was first mooted by Matt Law and Lorna Richardson whilst attending a Day of Digital Humanities conference in March 2011. Others were brought on board, and the first Day was held on July 29th, 2011. Run entirely by volunteers, participation in the project is completely free. The whole Day of Archaeology relies on goodwill and a passion for public engagement.
So. If you are involved in an archaeological project in any capacity – working, studying or volunteering – please consider taking part this year and help make the project a success. It’s simple to register as a participant and contributions can be as long or as short as you want. Here at the Heritage Journal we certainly look forward to reading the posts from this year’s event!
And. If you’re not involved in archaeology, but are intrigued to know what goes on during an archaeologist’s ‘typical’ day, why not keep an eye on the project web site and Twitter feed? You might just learn something interesting!
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”!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 now “give 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 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.
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.