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For those looking to take an interest in our ancient past, now is the time to enrol for courses beginning in October. Those who do not have the time for a full time course but are interested in furthering their knowledge of pre-Roman Britain may be interested to know that the University of Exeter are offering a range of online distance-learning Archaeology courses.  None of the below are ‘credit-bearing’, so will not count towards a formal certification, but there is enough material in each of the 20-week courses to provide a solid foundation for more formal studies.


Introduction to Prehistory in Britain

“An introduction to prehistory, discussing common perceptions of this age and showing how archaeology can tell us how prehistoric man lived. This online course introduces students to prehistoric archaeology in Britain, and covers the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age.”

Neolithic Prehistory in Britain

“This course will cover the Neolithic period in Britain and Ireland, broadly between 4500BC – 2000BC. The course first sets the scene with a summary of the previous Mesolithic Hunter Gatherer lifestyles and the development of farming which reached Britain around 4100BC and started slightly earlier in Ireland.”

Ancient Britain in the Bronze Age

“This online course introduces students to the Bronze Age in Britain (2500-700BC), a time when the stone-working inhabitants first learnt and developed the skills of refining metal for tools and other objects.”

The Iron Age in Britain

“This online course explores the Iron Age in Britain, from 700BC until the arrival of the Romans in AD43. We will begin with a look at the Late Bronze Age (LBA) and consequent Iron Age as concepts, their chronology in terms of current research, and some discussion of the ‘Celts’, before a short overview of the LBA background and changes in landscapes and societies in this period.”

All the above courses commence on the 8th October, run for 20 weeks of study with a mid-winter break (15 for the Neolithic course), and cost £145 each – the price of 3 or 4 pints per week. Other courses  at Exeter cover later periods such as the Roman and Viking eras.

If you know of similar online courses, or have experience of attending such a course, please let us know in the comments.

From Wikipedia:

Experimental archaeology employs a number of different methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches in order to generate and test hypotheses, based upon archaeological source material, like ancient structures or artifacts. It should not be confused with primitive technology which is not concerned with any archaeological or historical evidence. Living history and historical reenactment, which are generally undertaken as a hobby, are the layman’s version of this academic discipline.

One of the main forms of experimental archaeology is the creation of copies of historical structures using only historically accurate technologies. This is sometimes known as reconstruction archaeology; however, reconstruction implies an exact replica of the past, when it is in fact just a construction of one person’s idea of the past; the more archaeologically correct term is a working construction of the past.

A popular construct of experimental archaeology is one in which our ancestors spent a lot of their time: the Roundhouse. Various designs, from different time periods have been used, from the Bronze Age through to the post-Roman Saxon period. Comparing some of the efforts, it sometimes seems that the only common factor in the design is the ’round’ shape!

Many of these efforts can be visited by the public, others are ‘locked away’, only available for private hire, or no longer exist.

A comprehensive list of extant roundhouses would be almost impossible to create, but the Roundhouse
Project has made a good attempt at a list. Here are a few that we’re aware of:

Anglesey – Llynnon Mill

Completed in 2007 these two reproduction Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age Roundhouses now form part of a living museum on the Llynnon Mill site near the village of Llanddeusant on Anglesey. Open from Easter to late September, an admission charge applies.

Cambridgeshire – Flag Fen

Two roundhouses here, one Bronze Age, the other Iron Age within the Flag Fen Archaeology Centre grounds near Peterborough. Admission charges apply.

Cheshire, Mellor

In 2002, students from the Ridge Danyers Sixth Form College were involved in a European Community Culture Programme, The Mnesonyme Project, to reconstruct an Iron Age Roundhouse on the site, which remains in place, providing an evocative reminder of how the area might have looked during this period. Accessibility is currently unknown.

Cornwall – Bodrifty

The Roundhouse is an “authentic and atmospheric replica, based on the largest (‘Hut A”) in the scheduled Bodrifty Iron Age Settlement just three fields away. The construct is available for let as a holiday home with a difference!

Dorset – Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne

The Iron Age roundhouse here had stood for 26 years, but last year (2011) the decision was made to
rebuild it. Thatching was due to be completed earlier this summer and the new building should now be
available for use once again. Also on site are 5 other ancient building reconstructions, including a
Viking Longhouse and Neolithic Log Cabin.

Essex – Hadleigh Country Park

Since 2000, the Country Park at Hadleigh has run a ‘living education’ programme based on the Saxons –
Hadleigh is of Saxon origin meaning “clearing in the heath”. Site staff wanted to expand this work to cover other periods in history and at the same time provide a much-needed building to give school groups a sheltered working environment. Many options were considered, but the wish to build something dramatic and unique to the county led to the proposal to build a replica Iron Age roundhouse.

Hadleigh’s roundhouse is based on a floor plan from an archaeological excavation at Little Waltham,
near Chelmsford.

Hampshire – Butser Farm

Ever since Butser Ancient Farm has been running, there has always been a ‘great’ round house, based on  an archaeological excavation. The first one was on Butser Spur, set up in 1972, based on a house named  ‘The Balksbury House’ from Balksbury Camp, an Iron Age plateau enclosure situated on the outskirts of  Andover. In 1976 a second site, known as ‘The Pimperne House’ and based on an excavation on  Pimperne Down, Dorset was started in the valley bottom nearby, at Hillhampton Down. This was dismantled in 1990.  In 1991 the project moved to the Bascomb Down Site, where it still continues. The Longbridge Deverel House’, built in 1992 was based on an excavation at Cowdown, in Wiltshire. The house was dismantled in 2006. In 2007 work started on ‘The Little Woodbury House’ (House1) from Britford, near Salisbury, Wiltshire.

Oswestry – Park Hall

In 2009 a reproduction of an Iron Age roundhouse was built at Park Hall to complement the development of the nearby Old Oswestry Iron Age Hillfort. Visitors can view the Roundhouse and its interior at any time (Admission fee to the park applies). Interpretation boards and artefacts offer an insight to the life of Iron Age people.

Pembrokeshire – Castell Henllys

Castell Henllys (Welsh, “castle of the old court”) is an important archaeological site in north Pembrokeshire, Wales, between Newport and Cardigan. This Iron Age hillfort has been the subject of an ongoing excavation for more than twenty years, accompanied by an exercise in reconstruction archaeology whereby experiments in prehistoric farming have been practised. Four roundhouses and a granary have been reconstructed on their original Iron Age foundations.

If you have a favourite replica roundhouse, why not leave a comment and tell us about it? And if you’re visiting one of the sites above, or anything similar this month, please fill in our brief survey.

With the DigVentures project in full swing, I felt it was time to pay Flag Fen a personal visit and see what was going on there for myself. We set out from London early on Saturday morning, and arrived just in time for public opening (10:00am) to find the car park full to bursting!

Site Plan of Flag Fen Archaeology Park

Inside the visitor centre, the staff were friendly and helpful, sorting out a electric scooter for my partner, who was then able to join me on my perambulation around the site. A tour group were preparing, and I spotted Brendan Wilkins (Project Director of DigVentures) and said hello. He explained that questions were welcomed on site, the many volunteers (Venturers) being only too happy to explain what was going on in the various trenches and test pits. Raksha Dave (Project Manager, DigVentures) was also there, and I told her how her response to our ‘Inside the Mind’ series is one of our most visited pages here on the Journal, which pleased her immensely. Also in the building was Francis Pryor, discoverer of the Flag Fen site, who was leading a special organised morning tour.

Having had a cup of tea and brief chat with Raksha and Lisa Wescott-Wilkins (Managing Director of DigVentures), we headed out onto the fen grounds to see for ourselves what was going on. The field school for the project runs from 23rd July – 12th August, so two weeks into the project, the trenches and test pits are well established.

The first (main) trench is to the south-east of the site, across the line of the wooden causeway. As I approached, one of the diggers was showing some recent finds from the trench to a young family including a 7-year old girl who was fascinated by the archaeology on show – a future YAC member perhaps? Post holes, and other features including the line of the main causeway were pointed out and explained, and a lot of hard work was obviously being undertaken in the background by the Venturers.

A tiny flint (microlith) recently uncovered in the main trench.

I moved on to the nearby test pit, where discussions were under way on the best way to possibly lift some of the fragile timbers which have been exposed by the excavation.

A view into the test pit, showing uncovered timbers

After a look inside the Preservation Hall, which includes a display of some of the finds from the area along with some interesting interpretation boards, we’d hoped to look at the second trench, but this was covered by a tent which was closed off, so we moved on to look at the reconstructed Bronze Age roundhouse, which had obviously been used by the Venturers for some evening entertainment judging by the lingering smell of wood smoke, which all made it very evocative of a much earlier time.

One of the Interpretation boards in the Preservation Hall at Flag Fen

At this point, disaster struck as my camera batteries refused to function any further! Added to this, the next part of the route around the site across the arena and alongside the mere, was all ‘off path’, and quite dangerous for the electric scooter which dipped and tilted several times on the uneven ground – a warning for any other disabled visitors hoping to visit this part of the site.

Outside the Iron Age roundhouse, another reconstruction showing the difference in styles between the two ages, was another test pit. This was much deeper than the first we saw, attempting to find the edge of a ‘platform’ which the causeway crosses. Unfortunately, nothing has yet been found in this pit and we moved on to the site museum.

Unfortunately, it looked as if many of the interpretation boards and displays were being updated and replaced, which is good news for future visitors who will have much better access to the latest information. Outside the museum is a reconstructed Roman Herb Garden, sited on the path of a Roman Road which runs alongside the much earlier wooden causeway.

Having finished most of our circumnavigation of the site (but missing the Big Dig Tent! How did that happen?) we headed back to the main visitor centre, and just in time as the heavens opened with a downpour of biblical proportions! Trapped in the visitor centre, we undertook some retail therapy and took the opportunity to ask Francis Pryor to sign a copy of his 2005 book about the site, Flag Fen: Life and Death of a Prehistoric Landscape. In turn, he took the opportunity to mention his more recent e-book about the site, Flag Fen: A Concise Archæoguide, so we came out even on that one 🙂

Eventually the storm broke, and we returned to the car, wondering about the possible damage done to the trenches by such a downpour which had partially flooded the carpark in the space of some 10-15 minutes.

So what did we bring away from the site? An admiration for the dedication and enthusiasm of all the volunteers and amateur archaeologists taking part, many taking part in a dig for the very first time. A perception that crowdfunding really can work as a concept. And the realisation that every excavation, though essentially destructive by it’s very nature, can add to our knowledge of the distant past. That’s especially true in the case of Flag Fen as so little of the site has been fully excavated, and while the site is slowly drying out, the irretrievable loss of further knowledge this would cause is a very real possibility. Did you know that the earliest recorded wheel was found at Flag Fen, purely because of the anaerobic conditions found in the wetlands there? What else can the site tell us before it’s too late?

Do visit the DigVentures and Flag Fen web sites (see links above) for more information, and try to get along to the site for a personal visit that I think you’ll find both educational and rewarding.

Found primarily west of the Hayle River in Cornwall, and on the Isles of  Scilly, Courtyard Houses as a ‘type’ have been recognised by that name since about 1933. They date from the Iron Age and were in use for several hundred years, through the Romano-British period.

Each house follows a distinctive design: a paved entrance into an area with 4 or sometimes 5 distinct ‘rooms’ leading off it. Anti-clockwise from the entrance, these are usually: a small round room, a long narrow room (sometimes divided into two), a large round room opposite the entrance, often containing a fire hearth, and finally a bay area. There may also be a smaller oblong ‘storage’ room next to the entrance. The central ‘courtyard’ also often includes a stone water channel, usually paved over. The outer walls are often quite thick in places, and the overall shape of each house is an oval.

Whilst each house is unique, they all conform to this general basic pattern, allowing some suppositions to be made about their construction and use.

The large round room is accepted as a general living room, used for food preparation, dining and sleeping. The long narrow room is usually quoted as stabling for livestock (which I personally doubt – some of the rooms are far too narrow), and the bay area may have been covered by a lean-to roof, again for livestock shelter. In excavations, very few finds have been found that were not concentrated in the large round room, or immediately adjacent to it.

Looking out from the rear of the large round room in a house at Chysauster. © AlanS

In many of the large round rooms, as well as a fire hearth, hollowed out stones have been found. It has been suggested that these are either quern stones for grinding, or the base for a supporting pole for the roof.

Hollowed stones at Chysauster. Querns, or roof support bases?

Whilst the perceived wisdom is that the side rooms would have been roofed, and the central courtyard open to the air, Jacqui Wood (Cornish Archaeology 1997) put forward a theory that the entire structures may have been covered with a single roof, and raises the possibility of an upper floor gallery.

The houses usually occur in settlements rather than singly, and many are accompanied by a ‘fogou’; a Cornish Soutterain or underground passage. At Carn Euny, the main fogou is accompanied by a spectacular beehive hut storeroom and is entered from the main house of the settlement. At Chysauster the fogou is set downhill a short distance from the nearest house.

The North entrance to the fogou at Carn Euny © AlanS

There are as many as 40 possible settlements in Penwith alone, several of which are disputed or destroyed. Carn Euny and Chysauster have been excavated are both open to the public.

Carn Euny (taken from and © Google maps)

Chysauster (taken from and © Google maps)

Further information:

Carn Euny – Cornwall Heritage Trust
Carn Euny – Historic Cornwall
Chysauster – Historic Cornwall
Romano-British Settlements – English Heritage (PDF)

A week ago we asked Wiltshire Council to reassure the torch planners at Locog that pausing for a moment at Silbury would involve no difficulty whatsoever. We’ve heard nothing so we’ve sent this :

Dear Councillor Scott,

The Olympic torch and Wiltshire’s heritage

Are you yet able to reply? There is still time to arrange a short pause at Silbury and here’s proof, a major climb down by Locog after complaints by councillors in Saltash and Plymouth. If they can achieve a huge late change like that surely you can secure a laughably miniscule one at Silbury?

It is becoming daily more evident that other counties are siezing the chance to use the torch to proudly showcase their heritage places. So it’s frustrating that (apart from Stonehenge, only recently added to the route) Wiltshire is set to ignore it’s defining attribute, it’s prehistoric heritage, to the extent that next Wednesday the plan is for the torch to be driven in a closed vehicle straight past the incomparable Silbury Hill at 60 miles an hour! It’s hard to see how that is consistent with stimulating Wiltshire’s economy and tourism.

May we therefore enquire whether you have made further representations to the organisers in the last few days, as we requested? We look forward to hearing from you.

Heritage Action

By Graham Orriss

A few years back, at one of our excellent Summer Megameets, one of the regular attendees led a guided walk for a few of us to what my memory recalls was a cairn circle, not half an hour’s walk (it may have been a lot quicker – I don’t remember!) from Avebury’s main, enormous circle.

As we emerged from the trees, through a gate and into a field, I was amazed that, although I’d been to Avebury dozens of times previously, I’d never seen – or even heard of – this fairly large and prominent feature! Ok, it’s off the beaten track, but just next to a footpath, so close to the massively visited main circle, and extremely easily accessible.

Checking the map, and attempting to retrace the route we took, I believe it was this one: Penning, or Avebury Down Stone Circle.

Penning Stone Circle © AlanS

Avebury is full of these “hidden in plain sight” gems. I remember gleefully pointing out The Longstone Cove (aka Adam & Eve) to some friends who’d also previously visited the area many times, but overlooked these extremely-obvious-when-you-know stones each time they drove past (as we did for ages before discovering them!) When one becomes aware of these sites, it makes you wonder how you ever missed them in the first place, as they now seem so conspicuous.

Another example is Rempstone stone circle, which, to be fair, is largely hidden in the trees, but at least one stone is (or at least was!) completely visible as you drive past. Again, once you know it’s there, it’s hard NOT to notice it. Not far up the road toward the Sandbanks-Poole chain ferry is the Studland stone row. Another one that is easy to drive straight past until you know it’s there and realise how visible it is.

Hidden in the undergrowth behind a ‘Private Woodland’ sign, one of the Rempstone Circle stones. © AlanS

The same applies to Nine Stones of Winterbourne Abbas, except this time it’s right beside an extremely busy stretch of road, and must be passed by hundreds – if not thousands – of cars every single day. I don’t know how obvious they are to the everyday passer-by, but I still remember seeing them for the first time (way before the trees were chopped down) and being amazed we’d not noticed them before. And then, just a mile up the road, is the almost completely buried Broadstone.

The Nine Stones of Winterbourne Abbas on the A35 near Dorchester. © AlanS

Ancient sites are prolific in certain parts of the country, but in others are not so. Many times have I been searching for a site in vain, only to ask a local if they are aware of the whereabouts, and the local is unaware of the existence until that conversation! Sometimes its’ existence is a lot more obvious than others but if the locals don’t even know of these places (presumably they take them for granted as they see them every day or have grown up with them) is it likely a visitor will pick up on it as it stands out more to them? Or does it just blend so well into the background that it’s not obvious until it’s pointed out?

How many other ancient sites are there that we walk past on a regular basis, that we have no idea existed until someone else points them out, which are now – as far as we’re now concerned! – impossible to miss?

Word has reached us of a newly discovered stone row on the site of a proposed wind farm in Wales. Unconfirmed reports say the row at the Mynydd y Betws wind farm development had been “missed” by archaeologists researching the site prior to work starting. This is somewhat worrying given how clearly visible the row is in the photos and that it has now been damaged by work taking place.

Bancbryn stone row

There are two roads scheduled to cross the stone row but work has now stopped in the area around the row pending clarification by archaeologists working for Cambrian Renewable Energy Limited, the company building the wind farm. We are watching for further updates with worry as this country’s recent record with important sites discovered during development isn’t exactly glowing, see Rotherwas Ribbon et al.  Preservation in situ under a road isn’t an option as far as we are concerned.

JCB yards from Bancbryn stone row

For any subsequent articles put Mynydd Y Betws in our Search Box.

 

We’ve raved in the past about the DVD/Book combination that is ‘Standing With Stones’, and the book made our recent Winter Gift Giving list of recommendations.

Back in 2009 at the conclusion of the project, Rupert Soskin gave us an interesting insight into his personal journey whilst making the film.

Stocks of the original DVD have now run low, but in an attempt to satisfy demand whilst replenishment takes place, the entire DVD is now downloadable from their web site, either as a single file, or in geographic sections at a reasonable cost per section.

If you’ve not yet seen the film, it’s not to be missed.

A feature in yesterday’s Salisbury Journal reports that –
 
ENTHUSIASTS are being offered a brief chance to view a major hoard of Bronze Age artefacts unearthed at Tisbury. From [today] November 16 until Saturday, November 26 more than half the 114 items, which were found by a metal detector enthusiast, will be displayed at Salisbury & South Wilts Museum in Cathedral Close before leaving the city for expert evaluation [at the British Museum].
 
Archaeologists are already puzzling over how the objects, centuries apart in origin, came to be buried together. The museum’s collections manager Jane Ellis-Schön said: “It’s really quite strange, because some of these items are 1,000 years older than others, yet we believe someone buried them together at the same time, about 2,700 years ago, for a purpose.”
 

See also here.

The Merrivale complex is situated approximately 4.5 miles east of Tavistock, off the B3357. There is a car park at (approx) grid reference SX553750 from which the complex can be easily accessed.

The complex consists in the main of a pair of stone rows (head roughly south of south-west from the carpark to be sure of finding these), a stone circle and an outlying standing stone. Several burial cairns and kistvaens scatter the area. To the north of the road is the remains of a much later tin-mining settlement and a modern quarry (which closed in 1997). The area of the stone rows to the south of the road is also known as the ‘Plague Market’, supposedly since provisions for Tavistock were left here during an outbreak of plague.

The two stone rows run roughly parallel, E-W and each consist of pairs of stones. There are blocking stones at the end of the rows, and the southern row is bisected by a kistvaen. A small leat runs between the two rows. The pairs of stones that make up the rows are set 3-4 feet apart allowing a visitor, should one choose, to walk between the stones along each row.

Merrivale Stone Row. © AlanS

Merrivale Stone Row with central kistvaen © AlanS

To the south of the avenues is a large kistvaen, the ‘lid’ of which was broken in two by a farmer sometime in the past who made a gatepost out of it. Numerous tors are visible from the site, including King’s Tor and Staple Tor.

Merrivale Kistvaen © AlanS

The stone circle, consisting of 11 stones some of which have been added in 19thC restorations, lies some 150 yards south of the western end of the rows. A fine menhir, some 12 feet or so in height lies a further 50 yards south, close to a modern field wall.

Merrivale Stone Circle © AlanS

Merrivale Menhir © AlanS

There is an in-depth description of Merrivale and the surrounding landscape on the Legendary Dartmoor web site. For those who wish to delve deeper into this fascinating area, and the wider regions of Dartmoor, we cannot recommend this website highly enough.

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