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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…
Current Archaeology Live is an event hosted annually by Current Archaeology magazine since 2008, and incorporating the Current Archaeology Awards. Again, as last year, I attended and live-tweeted the event.
After a full first day, attendees arriving at Senate House found the entrance they had been told to use for Day Two was off limits – the Muppets were filming in the building for the day! So a quick leg stretch was required to circumnavigate the building to an alternate entrance. Despite this, the conference timetable was adhered to – kudos to the organisers.
Session 5. The Making of Medieval England
After a recap of last year’s award winners, Duncan Sayer started the day, taking us through Anglo-Saxon Oakington, northernmost of a cluster of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in Cambridgeshire. Analysis of the graves showed no patterning according to age or gender, but there were lots of children interred. One couple buried together were shown – she was much the taller of the two, so much so that her knees were bent to fit her into the grave cut. However, analysis of finds showed a pattern of clusters of long and round brooches, suggesting two separate plots. Amusingly, two horse burials were uncovered, until one was found to have horns! A woman buried with a cow was a first.
Alexandra Knox then took us through the recent excavations at Lyminge in Kent, site of an Anglo-Saxon Timber Hall. A monastic abbey site, previous excavations have identified two distinct phases of occupation in the area, with no overlap. Evidence from excavated Sunken Floored Buildings (SFBs) shows that the area was important prior to the estalishment of the abbey there. The big find of the 2012 season though was the Great Hall, of double plank in trench construction and preliminarily dated to around AD600. Christianisation of the area is reflected in both the settlement shift and the diet – from mostly pigs to mainly sheep/goat, though over 10000 fish bones have been uncovered, some 10 miles from the (then) coast. Other finds have identified Middle Saxon Lyminge as a centre of production. Textiles, metalworking, bone working etc.
Finally for this session, Neil Faulkner returned to the stage, taking as his subject ‘Monarchy, Church and Great Estate, the making and remaking of an Anglo-Saxon village’ – Sedgeford. Neil made the point that while with Roman sites it’s easy to identify their function: town, fort, villa etc., no such typology exists for Anglo-Saxon sites. What is a monastery, what does a manor look like? He then discussed how far the social structures described in Anglo-Saxon written sources can be seen in archaeology. Sedgeford is a long term investigation of settlement and land use, for instance: Middle A-S Sedgeford is mainly located south of the river, with Medieval Sedgford to the north. Why the move? Many questions still unanswered, though the impact of the creation of petty kingdoms etc. needs to be considered – dynamism of society reflected in the archaeology?
After such a thoughtful talk to close the session, it was time for a coffee break and more browsing round the Fair stalls looking for some bargains.
Session 6. A Tale of Two Cities: Pompeii and Herculaneum
The World Archaeology session returned to Roman matters with three talks covering “two ordinary towns with a spectacular end”. Paul Roberts of the British Museum was up first to introduce the upcoming exhibition on the two cities, “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum”, which promises to ‘provide vivid insights into ordinary Roman life’. Pompeii had a population of between 12-15000, Herculaneum was smaller. Up to 50% of the population of Herculaneum were of slave origin. The exhibition focuses on the home; for instance, a fresco of a baker and his wife was shown where she holds a stylus and tablet appears to show her doing the accounts for the family business. Many other images were shown in a slide show, including how a large mosaic had to be tilted to fit through the doors of the museum for the exhibition, and a bronze statue of Empress Livia squeezed through with just 2cm to spare. Tricky stuff. The exhibition reminds us that the artefacts aren’t just objects, they were someone’s possessions, like the carbonised baby’s wooden cradle, and the carbonised table that also appears in a wall fresco.
Andrew Wallace-Hadrill then guided us through Herculaneum, where just 5 hectares have been excavated to date, about a tenth of the area dug so far at Pompeii. Although both cities were wiped out by the volcanic eruption, there were doomed in different ways. Pompeii was suffocated by the initial ash, but Herculaneum was covered by the pyroclastic flows. Different ends, different effects (the organic material was preserved much better in Herculaneum), and different excavation methods are required for a total of ’450 million truckloads’ of material covering the two cities. In Pompeii, pumice pebbles can be excavated, but Herculaneum is covered in solid rock. Much more difficult to excavate! But Herculaneum is in decline through neglect – hence the Herculaneum Conservation Project, but water management is a big problem, with regular flooding so reconstructing the drains is important as the Romans knew how to keep their city dry.
Sarah Court then took to the stage, all the way from Italy, to tell us more about the outreach aspects of the Conservation Project. The excavations initially created generations of local employment, but the area around Herculaneum is now very poor with high unemployment and very little tourism so far. The Project is involving the local community again, giving them a sense of pride and ownership in an area that could again be engulfed by another eruption at any time! Many locals feel that tourism is the only hope for their town, and local schoolchildren are being used as ‘ambassadors’, in a ‘peer learning’ scheme.
The session was closed with a Q&A section, where debate centred around the possible ‘Disneyfication’ of the area and moves to prevent this happening whilst still providing a sustainable future for the region. After which, the conference broke off for lunch before the final sessions of the two day event…
To Be Continued.
We continue our review of this year’s Current Archaeology Live conference, held on March 1-2 at Senate House, in London.
After a pleasant lunch in the cafe in the park at Russell Square, I returned to the melee at the Archaeology Fair. The second-hand bookstall was proving popular, as were all the other stalls ranged around the room. But all too soon the bell summoned us back to the lecture room for the afternoon sessions.
Session 3. Researching Roman Britain
Now, I’m far from being a Romanist – it’s all far too modern for me! – but I found much of interest in this session. Are those damn Romans assimilating me into their empire? Matt Symonds was certainly in raptures during this session!
First up was Keith Parfitt, from Canterbury Archaeology Trust, to tell us about a Rescue Dig at Folkestone Villa. The villa was first excavated by Winbolt in the 1920′s and last dug in 1957 when it was backfilled. The site is now in danger from coastal erosion – where it was recorded as far as 200 feet from the cliff edge, parts are no more than 8 feet from the edge! As Keith said, “cliffs don’t crumble, they go in chunks”, so the next collapse will likely take some of the villa with it. It’s possible the villa may once have been a trading post, as much as half-a mile inland. There have been some fascinating finds, both at the site and at the bottom of the cliff on the shoreline below, including a beautiful Iron Age gold coin – a photo of which drew gasps from the audience, and a lovely signet ring gem, found trodden into the gravel in the yard of the villa.
Andrew Birley then attempted to summarise 5 years work at Vindolanda in 25 minutes… Vindolanda contains a long sequence of forts on a single site – as many as 11 – with other forts nearby too, so an impossible task to fit it all in, but he made a brave attempt. The last 5 years have concentrated on the 3rd century site, where two pieces of painted glass, excavated in different areas of the site were found to fit together perfectly. Amazing stuff. Many of the finds at Vindolanda are so well preserved because of its isolation – there were no medieval settlements here to rob out the stone, although some Saxon strap ends built into the fabric of the wall indicate the length of the occupation. One sombre find was the grave of a murdered Roman child, born in North Africa and buried under the garrison floor. Among other finds have been some pieces matching parts of the Crosby Garrett helmet – suggesting mass-production of components?
To finish the session, Ian Haynes told us about recent work at Maryport, Cumbria. In particular looking at new ideas about the largest collection of Roman altars in Britain and a reappraisal of the 1870 pit discoveries. It is now felt that the altars were not ritually buried as originally thought, but may have been used to support the timber posts of later buildings.
Session 4. Keynote Speaker
After a tea break, Neil Faulkner introduced the Keynote Speaker, Martin Carver (who has previously featured in our Inside the Mind series). Martin’s talk, entitled ‘Around the World with a Pointed Trowel’ took us on a whirlwind tour of archaeological digs in different countries: Turkey, Senegal, Sweden, Iceland, Cambodia, Japan etc. showing that different terrains can’t be excavated by standard means and techniques. Each site has unique problems to overcome, such as the comparison of excavation techniques used for permafrost versus a jungle terrain or the use of ‘CSI archaeology’ to analyse chemical properties of soil to identify the usage of different parts of a site. Moving on to talk about the social context and problems of looting, local communities need to feel important to value their heritage and stop looting. Closing thoughts from Martin Carver: every site has its own personality. ‘Design, not dogma, is what makes archaeology happen,’ and ‘Local archaeological societies are local experts and must be included in archaeology design’.
After a short break, during which everyone decanted into the Fair hall, it was time for the awards. Firstly the World Archaeology Photo of the Year winner was announced: Sophie Hay was the worthy winner.
Then a special award, The Royal Archaeological Institute presented a special award for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, for the best report on archaeological achievements in the last 60 years. The worthy winners were Cornwall Archaeological Society, for their work at Carn Brea.
The Current Archaeology Awards, voted for by the magazine readership were then presented. The winners were as follows:
- Book of the Year: Roman Camps in Britain, by Rebecca Jones
- Rescue Dig of the Year: Folkstone: Roman Villa or Iron Age oppidum?
- Research Project of the year: Richard III: The search for the last Plantagenet king.
- Archaeologist of the Year: Phil Harding
The awards were in the form of flint arrowheads, which particularly pleased that well known knapper, Phil Harding
And that was that. Drinks and nibbles were accompanied by some wonderful medieval music by Duo Parva Antiqua as the first day of the conference came to a close. Back tomorrow for more!
To Be Continued.
Current Archaeology Live is an event hosted annually by Current Archaeology magazine since 2008, and incorporating the Current Archaeology Awards. Once again, this year’s event was held in the prestigious Senate House building in London, reputed to be one of the inspirations for Orwell’s ’1984′ from his time working here. I was fortunate to be invited along once again this year to ‘live tweet’ the event across the two days.
As previously, the format across the two days was roughly chronological, kicking off with the Prehistoric, moving through Roman and Medieval sessions up to Early Modern, with sessions on Rescue Archaeology and World Archaeology thrown in for good measure.
Session 1. In Search of the Prehistoric
Matt Symonds gave the customary Health and Safety speech after welcoming everyone, and introduced Julian Richards of Meet the Ancestors infamy, which as he said “was a very long time ago now”. Julian then passed the stage to Nick Card who told the audience all about the ongoing excavations on the Ness of Brodgar, including spectacular geofizz results, and Aerial-Cam photos of the site. It seems, even where test pits were dug away from any known anomalies archaeology was still present! Radio-carbon dated to around the same age as Stonehenge, some of the structures have been very impressively preserved – walls up to 1m high still complete, and a boundary wall that was over 6m thick in places – wider than Hadrian’s wall some three millennia later!
The second speaker was from an excavation in complete contrast: Mark Knight told us about the ‘deep space archaeology’ at Must Farm, in Cambridgeshire. The excavation of this largely Bronze Age site is taking place several metres below the current sea level, near to Flag Fen. Unlike Orkney, there is no stone here, but several log boats have been found, perfectly preserved in the anaerobic sediments. Whilst previous Fenland archaeology has concentrated on the relatively ‘high’ ground in what is essentially a flat area today, extraction of clay for brick-making has allowed a view of the previous, earlier topology, and this is now being investigated. Tracking the beds of old rivers, wattle and stake fence lines have been found, with thousands of animal hoof prints preserved in the mud alongside. Fish traps and spears with metal blades have been among the finds here, along with a total of nine log boats so far, from just a 250m section of old watercourse. In fact, the scale of varied, well preserved finds, including evidence of repair work on traps, fences and boats suggests that this use is typical along the length of the old watercourse, and not just a fluke.
To finish off the prehistoric session, Niall Sharples of Cardiff University spoke of his experiences at the recent excavations at Ham Hill, ‘the largest hillfort in Britain’. Ham Hill is four times the size of Maiden Castle, at 88ha., but little is known so far of its chronology. Much of the hill has been quarried away (starting with the Romans), or wooded, but part of the northern ramparts have been excavated, and show a possible neolithic origin with flint rubble. Much Bronze Age metalwork was found, suggesting consolidation work on a pre-existing ‘important place’, later with massive 3-phase expansion in the Iron Age. Looking at the possible population, a total of 54 grain storage pits have been found, estimates put the total occupancy at around the 1500 mark. The summer of 2013 will see the last season of excavations for now.
A coffee break allowed the first glimpse of the ‘Archaeology Fair’ – a series of stalls affording an opportunity to purchase a selection of books, archaeology-related jewelry and tools, and to speak to various providers of archaeological services. The Fair proved to be very popular over the two days.
Session 2. Rescuing the Past
This session included three talks about rescue digs, in London, Ipswich and Ireland. First up was Don Walker talking about the finds at St Mary Spital, in London, a cemetery site of mass fatalities in use between 1120 and 1539. Expecting to find around 4000 skeletons, almost 11000 were excavated, and the final total may have been as high as 18000. The cemetery included 143 mass graves, where the bodies had been interred neatly, not just thrown in. Examination of the bones showed two main phases of mass burial. Lack of trauma and radiocarbon dating ruled out battle casualties and the Black Death. One possible cause is a starvation event, which leaves little conclusive evidence in the bones. Historical sources record odd weather patterns and pestilence in the mid 13th century – harvest failure causing starvation? There is evidence for a volcanic eruption around this time bringing climate change.
Next up were Richard Brown and Andy Shelley, to tell us about the excavations at Stoke Quay in Ipswich – a 25 week excavation and post-ex fully supported by the developers. Stoke Quay is south of the Orwell, and medieval Ipswich was mainly to the north, so Stoke Quay could be considered as suburban. Most previous excavations in Ipswich (over a 30 year period) have been to the north of the river, so this waas a good opportunity. What was found was not only a Saxon cemetery with over 1100 bodies, but also a much earlier barrow cemetery too – a possible ‘burial landscape’, “similar to nearby Sutton Hoo, but without the riches”. Low value grave goods were found, including Seax and wooden staffs, over 100 boxes of pottery fragments and more than 500 boxes of animal bones. The excavation has provided an ongoing research potential for the evolution of Ipswich and study of burial rites across a wide period.
Finally, leading into lunch, Ronan Swan from the Irish National Road Scheme (NRA) spoke about the archaeological investigations carried out by the unit. With a vast range of over 15000 sites in the country, the three main approaches are preservation by avoidance, preservation in situ, or by record. Which is useed is determined by a host of varied factors. In the last 20 years, the Irish road system has expanded dramatically, and this has offered many archaeological opportunities. As it’s so difficult to avoid sites in Ireland, archaeologists were included in the road design teams. A quick slide tour of four sites was given, showing the range involved: Mesolithic fish traps found below Neolithic burnt mounds in Neath, Edercloon, Co Longford found wooden trackways in use from the Neolithic through to the Iron Age, Mitchelstown in Cork uncovered Bronze Age pottery, and Johnstown in Meath, a multi-period site with burials from the late Iron Age through the medieval period. In a nice ‘show and tell’, a model of a Mitchelstown pot with an odd face on it was passed around the audience. The model had been produced using a 3D printer, and a cast of the pot was also available to view.
The Show and Tell brought the morning sessions to an end, and we broke for lunch after Matt had thanked the morning’s speakers, and cracked an awful joke about the pot being the original ‘ugly mug’!
To Be Continued…
In which we conclude our look back at the past twelve months and come up to date.
The ongoing story of the earlier desecration of Priddy Henges encountered more delays, whilst news reached us of the destruction of a possible henge and later settlement in Hertfordshire and we looked at three different approaches to museum closures.
Several of our recent series continued throughout the month: we got Inside the Minds of James Gossip and Tim Darvill, continued questioning the Scheduling System and had some further thoughts on Priddy.
Pip Richards gave a guest round-up of the summer dig at Carwynnen Quoit, and we reprinted what we think is a classic essay written for us by our member Tombo in 2004 soon after Heritage Action was formed.
On a more unsavoury front, we reported on recent threats made to our Chairman by members of the metal detecting fraternity.
We also started a new series, ‘Postcards from a World Heritage Site‘ presenting short vignettes from and about the Stonehenge and Avebury areas.
Well, that brings us up to date in our look at the highlights from this year, and we hope you’ve enjoyed reading as much as we’ve enjoyed producing the Journal this year. Keep following us next year for more news, views and stories about our ancient heritage, and the threats to it.
We continue our look back at some of the stories that we’ve highlighted during 2012.
We kicked off the month with an article about the Young Archaeologists Club and their appeal for funds. Sadly, with the ongoing cuts more branches than ever are in danger (Southampton Archaeology Unit has recently been identified as a victim of government cuts) so please give them your support where you can!
We highlighted the Tangible Benefits of Time Team style community archaeology and raised a question about the possibilities for a ‘Heritage Crime’ app for smartphones. Despite some useful comments, we’ve seen no tangible results of that discussion as yet. Has anyone got something they would like to tell us on that front?
We wrote about the newly restored Devil’s Quoits at Stanton Harcourt, looked at some often overlooked sites that are Hidden in Plain Sight and continued our Olympic Campaign to get the Torch to stop at Silbury Hill.
Heritage Crime was covered with the announcement of a series of talks on the ARCH initiative, a hammer attack on the Lia Fail standing stone at Tara in Ireland and we advised on How to Report Dumped Rubbish or Damage.
July is always a month of meetings and get togethers, many as part of the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology. There was our very own Megameet, held every year in Avebury and well attended again this year, the Megalithic Portal event in the Peak District with one of our own leading a guided walk up to Gardom’s Edge, and a talk at the Thornborough Henges.
In addition to the above highlights, as ever we also continued our usual coverage of news items about archaeological heritage and crime, metal detecting and planning inconsistencies.
As the year draws to a close, it’s traditional to look back at what has been, and possibly to look forward at what’s to come. 2012 was a busy year for the Heritage Journal, so join me as we look back and recall some of the highlights, month by month…
Our series looking at Local Archaeological Societies, begun in December 2011 was now in full swing with 4 areas covered throughout the month. We also peeked ‘Inside the Mind of…’ Mike Heyworth, Director of the Council for British Archaeology as part of an occasional series which has continued throughout the year.
We celebrated 25 years of Meyn Mamvro magazine and gave some advice on What Not to Do at Heritage Sites which proved a very popular article. We continued the write up of Scubi’s Scottish Adventure series, which had commenced some six months previously. But the big news story which was to continue throughout the year was the discovery of a threatened stone row at Mynydd Y Betws.
We continued with our in-depth look at the situation at Mynydd Y Betws, and finished off the Local Archaeological Societies series.
A personal highlight for me was attendance at the Current Archaeology Live conference, having been lucky enough to win a ticket in a contest on Facebook!
We gave some advice on How to Best Preserve Ancient Sites and How to Become an Archaeologist, the latter as an introduction to the DigVentures team’s attempt at crowd-funding a dig at Flag Fen later in the year.
Richard Mortimer and Carenza Lewis played nicely for ‘Inside the Mind’, and we provided a brief insight into the history of Heritage Action.
This month, with the Olympics on the horizon we campaigned for the Olympic Torch to stop for a photo opportunity at Silbury Hill. Alas, our pleas fell on deaf ears, and a chance to highlight an iconic British monument was lost.
Raksha Dave and Rachel Pope featured on ‘Inside the Mind of…’, where Raksha’s responses turned out to be our most popular post of the year according to the WordPress statistics on the site!
As usual, we also continued our campaign for responsible and ethical metal detecting throughout the year, as well as our regular news items, travelogues and opinion pieces.
…to be continued in Part 2.
The Halloween goodies have been packed away, the firework shops that spring up in October are starting to close down again for the year, so that means it’s time for the next round of consumerism to take hold.
At this time of year, I like to browse the Archaeology ‘New Arrivals‘ on Amazon and make a reading list covering the British prehistoric era. I’ll admit some of the more esoteric titles can be mind-numbingly expensive, but that’s what families are for, aren’t they?
Top of this year’s list for me has to be “Britain Begins” by Sir Barry Cunliffe, probably the No. 1 expert on the Iron Age. Britain Begins is nothing less than the story of the origins of the British and the Irish peoples, from around 10,000BC to the eve of the Norman Conquest. Before the development of the discipline of archaeology, people used what scraps there were, gleaned from Biblical and classical texts, to create a largely mythological origin for the British. Britain Begins explores the development of these early myths, which show our ancestors attempting to understand their origins.
Next is the intriguingly titled “The Megalithic Empire” by M J Harper and H L Vered. I can do no better than quote the blurb on the Amazon web site:
Nobody knows how long distance trade was carried out in Ancient Britain, though it is known from the archaeology that everything from stone axes to bronze swords were moved around on a huge scale. This book shows how it was done using an ingenious system of menhirs, obelisks, dolmens, cursuses and chalk figures all linked together by stone circles. The organisation responsible for the upkeep of this network is identified and this Megalithic Empire is shown to have operated not only in the pre-literate era of the Bronze and Iron Ages but again in the Dark Ages.
An older book from 1992, now available in e-book format (at a horrific price!) is “Late Stone Age Hunters of the British Isles” by Christopher Smith. I’ve not read the original, but secondhand copies seem to be available on Amazon, and this will no doubt be a cheaper option for those with shelf space to spare. Covering the Upper Palaelithic and Mesolithic periods, the book departs from the usual stone tool typology coverage and reassesses the archaeological evidence within a wider context.
Avebury welcomes many thousands of visitors every year. Most walk from the car park to the circle, visit the Barn and Manor then depart. “Beyond the Henge: Exploring Avebury’s World Heritage Site” by Bob Trubshaw takes the visitor away from the circle, and is a guide to four different walks of between one and six miles which take in all the significant surviving archaeological sites within the area. Three of the walks focus on the Neolithic and Bronze Age monuments while the fourth walk explores Avebury’s Anglo-Saxon and medieval origins.
Whilst Avebury is clogged with tourists, slightly further west is the enigmatic complex of Stanton Drew, thought to be older than the circles at both Avebury and Stonehenge. Gordon Strong has spent many years exploring this underrated site, and his “The Sacred Stone Circles of Stanton Drew” presents the archaeology, local folklore and views of antiquarian commentators, as well as his own unique take on the site.
Some years ago, I holidayed in Ireland and spent some time visiting many of the megalithic structures in County Cork. “Iverni: A Prehistory of Cork” by William O’Brien presents a general study of the prehistory of Cork and looks at the archaeology of some 8,000 years of human life, from the end of the Ice Age to the arrival of Christianity in the fifth century AD.
Finally, no list would be complete without a TV spin-off, and this year, although it’s outside our usual time-frame of interest, it has to be Neil Oliver’s “Vikings“. Neil has the capacity to be both entertaining and annoying, but the book, without shots of him constantly striding across the screen should hopefully be the former rather than the latter.
Are there any must-haves that we’ve missed? If so, please let us know via the comments.
Note: All book links above lead to Amazon.co.uk and potentially will provide us with a small commission, which goes toward upkeep of the site.
We have been asked by another website to supply a brief history of Heritage Action and the Heritage Journal and we thought, as we approach our ninth anniversary it would be appropriate to publish it here.
As it says on our ‘About Us‘ page:
Heritage Action is a rallying point for anyone who feels ancient heritage places deserve greater protection. We believe this generation holds its heritage in trust for future generations and we think it is right to promote an appreciation of the value of these places, highlight threats to them, and encourage the public to become involved in responsible but vigorous action to preserve them. We are not a bureaucracy or a commercial organisation, simply a collection of ordinary people throughout Britain and Ireland who are unified by a common concern. If you value these places you are already one of us!
The organisation began life as a collection of individuals on an online forum on The Modern Antiquarian website, set up by Julian Cope after the publication of his book of the same name. Several of us got together for a meeting in July 2003 at Uffington White Horse at the suggestion of our much-missed friend Rebecca van der Putt (“Treaclechops”).
We soon discovered we all had similar ideas about ancient sites and the need for a grass roots voice promoting their appreciation and preservation and by November 2003 Heritage Action was born.
At this time some high profile sites were suffering badly – Silbury Hill was in a parlous state of collapse, and the surroundings of Thornborough Henges were about to be further quarried. Heritage Action were vociferous in their attempts to ensure that these sites were looked after properly and that the public shouldn’t be marginalised, even suggesting at a very early stage and in the face of official dismissal that grouting should be the preferred method of stabilising Silbury Hill – a method that English Heritage some years later came to accept as appropriate.
Initially the group was intended to be a rallying point for those interested in protecting sites in danger, the idea being that local campaigns would provide the impetus, while Heritage Action would show the depth of feeling for endangered sites across a wider area, providing templates for letter campaigns and other advice. It became apparent though that harnessing sufficient local support was often problematical (other than in exceptional cases such as the Thornborough campaign run by our member George Chaplin which was calculated to have directly reached four million people). We concluded that in many cases our most effective role is in raising awareness of sites since public awareness is the best protection of all. This strategy is encapsulated in what we believe is a wonderful article by one of our early contributors called ‘Reclaiming Prehistory‘.
Erosion of the archaeological resource
At the same time, there had been a number of major finds by metal detectorists but also an unrecorded depletion of the archaeological resource which we felt was unfair, avoidable and plainly wrong. We created the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter to give a broad demonstration of what is happening and it continues to do so. No-one has yet come up with a serious challenge to it and it has been treated as a significant and credible measure in several academic articles.
Thus our current day twin planks – Raising awareness of our pre-Roman heritage and campaigning against the depletion of the wider resource by metal detectorists and others came into being.
Megameets and Minimeets
In 2006, another picnic was mooted, this time to be held in Avebury during the summer, and deemed a ‘Megameet‘. These informal gatherings, which usually involve discussions and a short ramble to nearby sites of interest, are well attended and 2012 will see the 7th such meeting, which now traditionally is held in the NE Quadrant in fine weather, and in the bar of the Red Lion if inclement. Another recent tradition of these meetings has been the bookswap, where unwanted books of archaeological interest are able to find new homes. In addition, ‘minimeets’ have been held elsewhere outside of the main megameet on an ad-hoc basis, notably in Cumbria and Cornwall.
To the Present, and Beyond!
In 2009, we relaunched with a new web site, the ‘Heritage Journal‘ which continues to this day to document sites in danger, argues against anything other than ethical metal detecting and aims to educate new readers about the prehistoric sites of Britain with ways to learn about and enjoy them whilst minimising damage.
We are ‘ordinary people caring for extraordinary places‘, why not join us?