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…