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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.

Sheepbone flooring, © MOLA

Sheepbone flooring, © MOLA

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.

Carbonised crib from herculaneum, Cradle picture © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

Carbonised crib from Herculaneum, © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei

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.


March 2013

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