A couple of weeks ago, Current Archaeology magazine once again held their annual conference, Current Arcaheology Live!, at Senate House, in London. And once again, we were fortunate enough to be present to live tweet the event, bringing you all the news as it happened. Many of the talks could merit an article here in their own right, so this brief review will be posted in several parts.

Senate House - Wikimedia Commons

Senate House – Wikimedia Commons

The conference is an opportunity to both look back over the previous 12 months, and to look ahead. As editor Matt Symonds mentioned in his introductory piece for the conference program, interest in World War One is running high in advance of the centenary of its outbreak, and 75 years ago, as World War Two was on the horizon, the Sutton Hoo ship burial was excavated. Both these events were to be covered in the conference, as well as the annual Current Archaeology Awards, voted for by the magazine readership.

But first things first. As usual, the conference talks were split into themed sessions on a roughly chronological timescale, and so Friday morning’s session was entitled ‘In Search of the Prehistoric‘, overseen and introduced by Julian Richards (of Meet the Ancesteors fame, a label he’ll never be rid of!) The session comprised of three talks, the first, by Dr Chantal Conneller, telling us about ‘Star Carr: throwing new light on early mesolithic settlement‘.

She described the work being done at Lake Fixton (location of Starr Carr), where the ‘lake’ is filled with peat, giving excellent preservation conditions. We heard how a hewn aspen log platform was uncovered in the 80’s and how the current excavations are hoping to answer some of the many outstanding questions before the site is lost as the peat dries out. Although Flixton is known as a mesolithic centre, it’s only the site at Star Carr itself that has so far produced such unique finds – the antler frontlets possibly being the best known. It’s now thought that these were possibly deposited in the lake, as a sign of respect or thanks to their prey. Feildwalking and test pitting has significantly extended the Starr Carr site, with evidence of occupation appearing well beyond the bounds of the original excavations. More antler frontlets have been found, along with a concentration of bone and lithic fragments, thought to be within a post built hut – possibly the earliest ‘house’ known in Britain! This leads to the idea that the site was used for much longer than first thought, possibly for (that word!) ritual use – a place people returned to again and again. Open days will be held throughout August this year at Flixton island, as Star Carr is on private land, and not accessible to the public at any time. It sounds like the Open Days will be well worth a visit. More information can be found on the project web site at www.starcarr.com and the excavation was covered in issue 282 of Current Archaeology magazine.

Professor Julian Thomas then told us about the ‘Halls and barrows on Dorstone Hill, Herefordshire‘, where early Neolithic enclosures and sites were identified from aerial photography. Excavations in the 90’s found a possible enclosure, but this latest dig showed burnt clay sealed under the turf, surrounded by a collapsed stone bank. On investigation, the bank had been revetted by a timber palisade. The mound was not defensive in nature, and the burnt clay (now found to be daub), suggested a a building burnt in situ. Further structural elements such as post holes flanking a central aisle were then found, suggesting a long hall. What seems to have been found was a hall, deliberately burnt, transforming a house of the living into a house of the dead. The resulting mound was then capped with turves, pined into place with stakes, the fabric of the previous building thus being incorporated into the long mound. A series of later stone cists were found on the north side suggesting later use of the earlier monument. Various stone tools; a stone arrowhead with impact damage, a stone axe head and flint tools have been found at various points on the site. It was evident that the site had been used, from the early Neolithic through to at least the early Bronze Age. More details of the excavation can be found in issue 285 of Current Archaeology magaine. Digging recommences in July, Open Days will be announced nearer the time.

To close off the prehistoric session, Dr Vicki Cummings then gave a fascinating talk about a personal favourite subject of mine: ‘Building the great dolmens of Britain and Ireland‘. Vicki’s talk focussed upon Portal Dolmens, very few of which have been excavated. Those which have have been dated to 4000-3000 BC, some of the first British monuments. Garn Turne was the focus of a case study, looking at how the dolmens would have been constructed, as this example is though to be incomplete, having collapsed during construction. See Current Archaeology issue 286 for details of the Garn Turne dig. The presentation included an impressive photo collection of portal dolmens. Many are found in Cornwall and Wales but by far the majority are in Ireland. The point was made that excavations of such monuments usually focus upon the chamber, and not so much on the portal entrance. Common points from all the examples: the capstones are important, in general, the smaller the capstone, the greater the angle. The capstones (anything up to 160 tons) are usually finely balanced upon no more than 3 uprights, the point of contact often being as small as 1 square cm. The question was asked about functionality. Are dolmens more about ‘ostentatious displays of large stones’ rather than creating chambers that can be used? Garn Turne suggested a quick guide to building a dolmen:

  1. Find an outcrop.
  2. Dig a pit around it. That’s the capstone!
  3. Shape the capstone (flatten the underside by tilting it to work the stone)
  4. Lift the capstone, using chocks.
  5. Replace supports with uprights.

Vicki takes questions (via Julian)

Apart from a short announcement from Julian Richards about the upcoming Wessex Archaeological Field Academy (see the website coming soon), that was it for the first session of the day, a lot to take in, and time for a cup of tea.

The tea break was used to take a first look at this year’s ‘Archaeology Fair’, a selection of stalls from various archaeolgical suppliers. The bookstalls in particular proved very popular during all the breaks, and I spent far more than I had budgeted for across the two days.

The morning continued with the second session entitled ‘Researching Roman Britain‘, introduced by Matt Symonds. Neil Holbrook kicked off the session, with ‘Developer archaeology and the Romano-British countryside: a revolution in understanding‘. This talk looked at the breadth of Romano-British sites across the UK, pointing out that life c=should not be judged just by some 2000 Roman villas excavated so far – mainly concentrated in the south of the country. There were also over 100,000 farms across the length and breadth of the country populated by the other 98% of the population. The point was made that excavating a Roman site isn’t always a case of ‘remove the turf, find a mosaic’. Everyday life was much harsher than villa life. In the last 20 years there have been around 9000 rescue digs which have turned up something Roman, but there is often no time/resource to analyse these finds. The Roman Rural Settlement Project is now looking at the data from these rescue digs, with over 2100 sites recorded by the project to date. The project aim is to remap Roman Britain, showing the success of the Empire’s ‘British Project’, and making all information available on the Internet. LINK (Google ‘Roman Rural Settlement Project’)

Dr Miles Russell then took the stand to update us all about ‘The Durotriges Project: tribe and prejudice in later Iron Age Britain‘. The Durotriges were an archaeologically distinctive tribe, good for study with their unique coins, pottery and the fact that on the whole they buried their dead, rather than cremate. Mortimer Wheeler’s “war cemetery” with evidence of hasty interments got a mention, along with quotes from his archaeological report which read more like something from an adventure novel with their picturesque accounts of Roman attacks against Maiden Castle. With Niall Sharples suggesting (1991) that Maiden Castle may not have been a viable settlement when the Romans arrived, the project aims to re-evaluate and reassess the transition from a Durotrigan to Roman lifestyle, and was featured in Current Archaeology issue 281

Finally, before breaking for lunch, Operation Nightingale discussed their work at Caerwent, ‘Romans, Rifles and recovery: Operation Nightingale excavations at Caerwent military training area‘. As with their previous presentations here, the talk was split, with Sgt Dairmaid Walshe outlining the Operation Nightingale’s importance as a recovery process for injured soldiers. The major project is based at Caerwent, and Phil Abramson told us a little about the site (which includes a scheduled monument) and how during the work the Process is as important as the Finds. The Process includes all aspects of the project, from planning through excavation to finds processing and post-ex documentation. Soldiers and civilian volunteers can be involved at all stages, which raised the thorny question: Community Archaeology, or cheap labour? There is no single answer to this, unfortunately, but the pendulum is swinging toward the former rather than the latter. Dave Hart, a former Lt Corporal then told us how he was wounded in Afghanistan, but also came to love archaeology in Kabul, and has been involved in 10 Operation Nightingale projects to date. You can read more about the project in Current Archaeology issue 282

And so then we broke for lunch. Stay tuned for the next installment!

Part 2
Part 3