You are currently browsing the monthly archive for April 2012.

As you may recall we’ve been corresponding with the Torch route organisers and Wiltshire Council about whether the torch could visit Avebury or stop for 30 seconds at Silbury. The organisers say it’s up to the Council but the Council hasn’t responded to us.

Which is strange, as Wiltshire Lib Dems report that
“The council thinks the visits of the torch will create a scrum of international media attention for the settlements on the route.”

Whereas the Leader of the Council Jane Scott has been reported as saying:
“We are encouraging as many communities as possible to get involved in the celebrations and line the torch route on this once in a lifetime opportunity”.

We’ve written to her again, requesting a reply. Watch this space….

“Wander at will inside the circle, indeed do whatever you wish other than touch, climb on the stones, picnic or play music, none of which is allowed!”

[ See here ]

We continue the story of Scubi’s ‘trip of a lifetime’ around the Scottish Highlands and islands, with details of his last day on Orkney…

This is my final full day on Orkney and I will be sorry to go. I thought today I would check out the main town of Kirkwall which I have not yet looked around but I would also round it up by a visit to one of Orkney’s iconic monuments.

Compared to the rest of the islands towns and villages, Orkney is a positive metropolis. It is the only place on the islands that I have got caught up in anything that could be called a traffic jam. Parking in the town can be difficult but I managed to find a space fairly central.

The high street is quite modest and as you would expect, normal shops interspersed with those targeting the tourists. Most are quite tame though and it was quite pleasant to walk up and down. I wanted to get a t-shirt or two and/or a nice ornament that would remind me of the place but I must admit to not buying anything. The t’s were either not to my taste or very clichéd and most of the really nice ornamental stuff was very much out of my price range. The craft shop I was hoping to visit near the harbour was unfortunately closed so I came away with nothing which was a bit of a shame.

Earl's Palace © C Brooks

Kirkwall has three main attractions, the Bishop and Earl’s Palaces and also the C12th St Magnus Cathedral which are all worth a good look around, although I just walked around the grounds. Set in a pleasantly kept cemetery, the cathedral with its reddy-brown brickwork looks a modern structure but at the same time there is an air of ancient times about it. It must certainly be the one of the biggest if not the biggest brick building on the islands. The palaces seem to consist mainly of ruins but have enough of their old structures to give you an idea of just how majestic they once were such as the great turrets and gateways. The walls in some places are many feet thick and the interlaced stonework construction reminded me of the many burial chambers I have visited on the island.

St Magnus © C Brooks

I may have said things like this aren’t always my cup of tea but I did get a number of nice photographs. Overall Kirkwall is a pleasing enough town with all that you could want without having been turned into some ghastly ‘kiss-me-quick’ seaside monstrosity. Also geographically it is fairly central to the island complex and is where the majority of the ferries can be accessed, but I think Finstown is more my sort of place with its quiet outlook and being within walking distances of many of the most interesting places (not that I actually walked to any of them).

Having stopped for lunch, it was time to visit my final ancient site on this trip to Orkney.

You have to pre-book at least a day or two in advance, places are limited and it is unlikely that should you just turn up on the spur of the moment that there would be any left. In the warmer months it is likely that you would need to book much earlier, possibly before you even travel.

Maes Howe has a pleasant little museum and sells the normal trinkets prior to your guided tour. I purchased an official Heritage Scotland booklet and was also given a small piece of paper showing similar burial sites in the area… all of which I had already visited on my trip.

The tour guide started the tour by saying photography is not permitted within the structure. But on being asked why (and knowing full well the real reason) they just said cards showing the interior were available to purchase in the shop, and (funny enough….or not!) therefore avoiding answering my question directly but at the same time explaining exactly why.

From the museum car park you need to negotiate the main road that separates the building from Maes Howe tomb. While you are advised about the road there is no proper crossing system (light controlled or otherwise) so if you are not very able bodied you may want to be a little careful here as some vehicles are obviously travelling quite fast.

Access to the mound is by a paved walkway and therefore normal footwear is suitable. The mound itself is surrounded by an impressive ditch but much less impressive wire fence.

If you look around from here you can see the Neolithic landscape all around you. Stenness, Brodgar, Barnhouse, and most certainly more hidden yet to be found. The importance of this area in Neolithic times cannot be doubted and this area is easily the same if not more important than Avebury or Stonehenge.

Maes Howe approach © C Brooks

You cross the ditch to the ‘side’ of the mound rather than directly towards the entrance. The lovely stone facade entrance is also surrounded by an ugly metal gated fence and yet another metal gate guards the passageway to the tomb itself.

Maes Howe entrance © C Brooks

This passageway aligns with midwinter sunset marking the end of dark months and the beginning of the new year and the sun can be seen to shine along the passageway directly into the inner chamber during this time.

Once you have negotiated all these you are advised of the need to keep your head down along the low passageway into the inner chamber and also again reminded that photography is not allowed inside.

A number of dim lights guide your way to the softly lit interior. Huge stone slabs are used along the passageway and must weigh many tons. A metal rail surrounds you in the centre, stopping you from going near the inner walls as you are herded into the middle. Like many of the chambers I have visited before, the roof rises up and in above you – this one forming a sort of cross above your head. This passage tomb is probably the largest I have been in on the islands. The upper part of the roof is painted with a distracting white to distinguish its modern renovation from the original structure. Personally I don’t think the whole of it needed painting as a simple line of marked stones would have done the same job and would not have the same detrimental effect. Huge buttresses, again made from giant slabs of stones, support the walls in the corners.

There are three large side chambers which I could probably lean into but unfortunately you couldn’t get near them to look inside.

The tour guide was quite young and obviously reasonably new to the role and the talk could have flowed a little better but this wasn’t to the detriment of what was being said which overall was very informative.

I was probably at an advantage in that I already knew a little about the mound and the surrounding area beforehand and probably a little more than the guide themselves.

A good description was given about the geographic source of the stones used to build the chamber, the tomb’s use and purpose but most statements were finished with the line “but we don’t really know” which made me smile to myself.

What struck me as the most interesting thing about this tomb are not just its size and structure but the number of ancient Norse runes carved on the stones. I believe these Futhark runes are a form of Ogham or at least they look something similar. They were carved in the 12th century, much later after the tomb’s construction. The runes are not all written in the same way and many have been encrypted by their authors. They provide a great deal of history about who and when the tomb was accessed during the time period and is very fascinating indeed.

I realise that Maes Howe is now in the money making business in a similar fashion to Stonehenge and that they need to preserve the monument for the future, but like Stonehenge it suffers that ‘look but don’t touch’ feel. And I guess this is necessary as leaving the mound open for free access to all would probably also leave it open to damage or even theft from the same. I had tried to contact the museum to see if they did a Stonehenge style ‘out of hours’ access programme but unless you were from a formal interested party then this wasn’t possible. This is a shame as I think it would be popular for people such as myself willing to pay extra for this facility and have a few minutes to absorb the feel of the place. The fact you are not allowed even to take photo’s inside is annoying as a few minutes to take a few personal pictures at the end of the tour would be harmless.

Maes Howe © C Brooks

I liked Maes Howe and its importance in the landscape can not be denied and for that fact alone it is a must see, but overall I can quite honestly say it is not the number one on my list… by a very long way.

After leaving I spent a little more time walking around Brodgar and Stenness for the last time taking in the atmosphere of the stones, the weather and the island itself before returning back to my cottage to pack for the rest of my tour.

For those wishing to catch up on the story of Scubi’s travels to date, a list of previous episodes is as follows:

  • Part 1 – Travelling
  • Part 2 – Clava Cairns
  • Part 3 – Banks Tomb
  • Part 4 – Tomb of the Eagles
  • Part 5– Crantit and Grain Souterrains, Rennibister Earth House etc
  • Part 6 – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7a – Stenness and Brodgar
  • Part 7b – Skara Brae
  • Part 8 – Broch of Gurness and Cuween tomb
  • Part 9 – The Isle of Eday
  • Part 10 – Isle of Rousay

Cuts are affecting the whole heritage sector (see Rescue’s map) but cuts to “outreach” are perhaps the most damaging since a well-informed public is crucial to stewardship. While Cadw in Wales still has a Community archaeologist (see our recent story about Tinkinswood) English Heritage’s has had to close its outreach department leaving outreach in the sole hands of those who lack funding.

Not that it isn’t excellent – e.g. see here (Brislington) and here (school outreach in Bedfordshire using archaeology techniques) but there is now less of it and as a consequence other messages about archaeology have become more influential by default. Few archaeologist would be happy for PAS’s metal detecting game or detectorists’ “show and tell” sessions to be the main message schoolchildren hear yet that becomes progressively more likely as mainstream outreach contracts. That the two messages aren’t the same could be shown by one of those “show and tell” detectorists visiting a Bedfordshire school: “Hey Mr, last week we used archaeological methods to maximise knowledge and minimise damage and treated the finds as everyone’s yet you lay claim to yours and want applause for showing them to us. If you do it for everyone leave them all here!” Of course, if the previous outreach hadn’t happened that comment wouldn’t have arisen!

We make no apologies for supporting what we could call the proper “fifties” message not the other one. Back then archaeology was seen as public property not a public goody bag and the fact that a monarch’s reign later we have 10,000 people scouring every hotspot on the basis “it’ll be mine” doesn’t change anything. Our fear however is that the proper message is being overwhelmed as funding reduces. And things are about to get worse due to planned TV programmes ostensibly celebrating “Treasure” but with only one certain effect, an expansion of acquisitive artefact hunting. There is no way that’s the image of archaeology that most archaeologists wish outreach to portray yet how can they compete? The other message is winning the battle for public attention.

But some of us can’t accept a brash new world in which votes, finance and viewing figures depend on depicting artefacts as targets of personal posession or “Treasure”. Just because no-one now gets paid to talk about the fact that the information to be obtained from the non-bling, boring, inconsequential bits of  the archaeological resource is the real treasure doesn’t mean that message is wrong. As Rescue say on their website: “It belongs to all of us” and which outreach message prevails depends on which of two possible interpretations of that statement archaeologists choose to support.

English Heritage is joining with others to make a joint legal challenge to planning permission for a wind farm that would be built within 1 mile of Lyveden New Bield, a Grade I listed building and registered park and garden – described even by the Inspector as having “cultural value of national if not international significance

So why is that good news for prehistory? Because Chief Executive Simon Thurley said:

“Our challenge to his decision is not simply about the balance of professional judgement between heritage and renewable energy.  The Inspector did not adequately take into account the contribution that Lyveden New Bield’s historic and rural surroundings make to its immense significance. In our view, therefore, he failed to have ‘special regard’ for the desirability of preserving the special interest of the listed building and its setting which the law requires of him as decision-maker in this case.”

Anything that reinforces the notion that “setting” is a vital part of cultural value and worth preserving has got to be good news for those with a particular interest in prehistoric monuments!

Prehistoric Heritage lovers visiting Cornwall this summer have some wonderful treats to look forward to. Of course, there are the copious sites to visit, from the West Penwith peninsula, across the Lizard and on to the delights of Bodmin Moor further east.

But the area’s museums also have something special to serve up this summer too.

The Penlee Gallery, Penzance

Situated in the grounds of Morrab Gardens, the Penlee Gallery is a small museum, largely given over to displaying historic works of art from local artists. However, this summer they have an addition in the Penwith lunula, a crescent shaped gold collar dating from the early Bronze Age (2500bc). It was discovered in 1783 by a John Price, though the location is uncertain, being attributed to Paul parish (where he lived), or more possibly the Gwithian area northwest of Hayle.

In a letter to a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, Price described it being found: ‘in the hundred of Penwith, in this county, by a husbandman, in collecting manure nigh the remains of a circus which from description he apprehends to be composed of earth & not stone.

A much later account, written in 1860, describes how it was first found in Gwithian, taken to the author’s grandfather (an apothecary in Camborne) to be assayed, and was then sold to Mr Price.

On Price’s death in 1797, the lunula passed to his son. By 1838, it was in the possession of Edward Trafford Leigh, a coin collector who was rector of Cheadle in Cheshire. Leigh had bought it to prevent its export to America. He sold it to the British Museum for 25 guineas in 1838 (an early example of PAS Outreach, perhaps?) – it has remained there ever since, but has rarely been on show. It returned to the Penwith area last year, when it was on loan to Penlee for a few weeks. Now it has returned once again for a more extended loan, and will be on display for the foreseeable future.

The National Maritime Museum, Falmouth

A new exhibition, running for 6 months from April at the National Maritime Museum: 2012BC: Cornwall and the Sea in the Bronze Age allows visitors to step back in time, to over 4500 years ago.

The exhibition provides a full picture of prehistoric Cornwall’s maritime heritage, confirming the county’s importance for trade within Europe at that time. A number of artefacts have been loaned from various museums, including the master copy of the Nebra Sky Disc, the oldest representation of the cosmos anywhere in the world. The gold on the disc has been identified as Cornish, coming from Carnon Down mines near Devoran. Cornisg Tin was also used in the disk’s construction, showing how well Cornwall was connected in those times.

In addition to the exhibits, visitors will be able to watch an archaeological experiment, the recreation of a Bronze Age log boat which will be taking place during the exhibition. The prehistoric boat will be built to scale using replica tools, such as bronze axes. The Bronze Age sewn-plank boat is unique to England and Wales and will be stitched together with yew tree fibres and use moss as caulking, to stop the boat from leaking.

I’ll certainly be visiting both of these in my forthcoming trip to Cornwall later next month.

You may remember the Twinstead Detecting Rally where lots of detectorists pocketed Treasure and took it home without a word to the Landowner. Well it’s happened again! Here’s what the organiser of “Amber’s Digs” (closed to the public) posted on their website the day after their recent event near Thirsk:

“I have just told the farmer that a hoard of twenty two coins were found on his field and that when the field is ploughed again there will probably be more. He was happy to have been told and I told him I will show him these coins next week as we are going back on the pasture around the farm and stubble further away. So please get them in to usyour name will be attached to your coin/coins.”

To explain:

  • On the day of the event the farmer wasn’t given the coins or even told they’d been found.
  • They were gathered together (well 22 were anyway) but then various detectorists were allowed to take them home. (Why?!)
  • How many took them home is unclear as elsewhere the organiser said “About ten” implying they’re not sure.
  • Now they’re appealing to the finders (“about ten” plus any others not known) to bring back twenty two coins (plus any others not known) to show to (not give to) the farmer at a further event next week!

Good luck with that! Surely that will strike anyone that isn’t a metal detectorists as no way to treat someone else’s property or potential national Treasure or ensure it is delivered in full to either the current owner or the Coroner? As we have said ad nauseam, if a potential hoard is found it shouldn’t be taken away (particularly in ten or more pieces to ten or more locations by ten or more people none of whom owns it!). Common sense and logic dictate it should be delivered as a whole for safekeeping to the one person that currently owns it and who can be easily contacted by the authorities.

How long must we wait until the archaeological establishment tells detectorists that is the only reasonable way to behave and warns every landowner to beware of people that tell him otherwise? There really is no excuse for official or professional silence on this. And of course, if detectorists dared to disagree or failed to comply it would blow their “only in it for love of History” claim sky high.


Update 25 April 2012:
First we note that the organiser posted on a forum that the (known) 22 coins were returned to be declared but “One new member who had never found a hammered before brought his back a little cleaner [big smiley face] than when he took it home He thought it was ok to give his a polish”
(That perhaps illustrates the “shambolic” nature of the stewardship).

Second he had posted on another forum…. “The coins will be going off soon as we have 14 days to actually hand them in, the farmer wanted to see them it’s the least we could do.” It is indeed the least they can do considering the coins aren’t their property!
(And that illustrates the “inappropriate” nature of the stewardship).

This whole incident begs a significant wider question that doesn’t deserve to be ignored: it’s a plain fact that the way Treasure and other significant finds are temporarily curated is a matter of national importance so should the temporary curator be a known landowner or multiple less known artefact hunters? The answer can hardly be in doubt, so the opinion should surely be officially expressed?  One has to wonder, if such an opinion was widely known and farmer Eric Robinson had  not allowed the Crosby Garrett helmet off his farm would much knowledge not have been lost and would the helmet now be on display in the museum?


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting


Following on from the recent good news about the Brislington Community Archaeology Project (see our article) we came across more excellent news about community archaeology, this time from Cadw’s community archaeologist Ffion Reynolds who describes a project at the prehistoric burial chamber at Tinkinswood in the Vale of Glamorgan.


{Image credit Alan Simkins, Heritage Action}

Local volunteers and students carried out renovation works and helped in investigations but then:

“We knew we had changed local perceptions of Tinkinswood but we wanted to reach younger audiences to help them value their local heritage.

As future guardians of the historic environment, we knew we had to make Tinkinswood meaningful for schoolchildren by relating the past to the present at both a practical and emotional level.

What better way than to host a “make and break” activity?

Two local schools got to make pottery vessels and then break them in the forecourt at Tinkinswood re-enacting a ritual that archaeologists think happened nearly 6,000 years ago after the tomb had been sealed, in memory of those buried within.

Those schoolchildren won’t ever look at prehistoric sites with blank faces in the future!”

To Jane Scott, Leader of Wiltshire Council

Dear Ms Scott,

The Olympic torch and Wiltshire’s heritage: an open letter
[London 2012 Customer Service CaseID#230363#]

As you may know we feel not extending support for Wiltshire Heritage Museum is short-sighted given the huge tourist revenue the County’s museums and monuments generate (see our article here). Now we learn the Olympic torch won’t visit Avebury or Silbury (see article here) which seems to be another lost opportunity to raise awareness of our prehistoric heritage so we have been corresponding with the Torch Planners about it.

We asked them: (a.) is our request for the Torch to stop for a short period at the Silbury Hill car park to be considered or rejected? and (b.) is our assertion that Silbury Hill has a massive claim to be included in a showcase of British history and achievements valid? ….. to which they have just replied:
“No, not at this stage. Local transport and police planning is already taking place around the agreed route. The route has been devised after extensive consultation with representatives in each Nation and Region. Every local authority has been given the opportunity to put themselves forward.”

So the Council has considered but rejected the idea of the torch visiting Avebury or stopping  (even momentarily) at Silbury? Again that seems short-sighted and the loss of a unique opportunity to raise awareness of Wiltshire’s prehistoric heritage. For instance, the restored ceremonial Avenue leading into the Avebury Henge is remarkably close to the width and length of the “stadion”, the track used in the original Olympic Games – yet is the best part of 2,000 years older. What better expression of the Olympic games coming to Britain could there be than for the torch to be carried down such an auspicious, 4,600 year old  ceremonial route and into the world’s largest stone circle?

We hope you can give this matter urgent consideration.

Heritage Action

Despite the financial squeeze on “Archaeology” and the planning threats to the “archaeology” that it studies, it’s a pleasure to report this good news from the superb Brislington Community Archaeology Project

“On 19th March 2012, at a meeting of the Greater Brislington Neighbourhood Partnership, Brislington’s four local councillors agreed unanimously to the recommendation of the Brislington Environment Group that there should be a geophysical survey and excavation at St Anne’s Well. A budget of £4,000 was allocated to pay for professional supervision of volunteer community archaeologists.

The excavation would not be inside the well itself, but alongside it, and will be seeking evidence to date its construction. Dating evidence is vital because although the holy well produced medieval coins etc when it was excavated in 1878, we have no stratigraphical information to prove the coins were deposited during the medieval period.

This level of interest in one of our community’s crown jewels is really a once-in-a-generation opportunity (the last time anything like this happened was the cleaning of the well in 1923). If the well can be definitively linked with the nearby Chapel of St Anne in the Wood, which was a major pilgrimage site, it could open the door to a potential major project investigating the Pilgrim’s Path.”

Three cheers for genuine amateur archaeology and councillors who understand its value!


April 2012

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