You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Archaeology’ category.

by Alan S

We last featured the stone circle on Stannon Moor here about 9 years ago! So a revisit was long overdue. Especially as I’d heard of a 4-stone ‘setting’ close to the circle that I’d not noticed on my last visit. I arranged to meet up once again with Dr. Sandy Gerrard along with Gordon and Janet from ACE Archaeology Club in Devon for a return visit to the circle and environs.

The stone setting is enigmatic, consisting of two pairs of stones, roughly aligned to the south-east with Stannon Moor and Louden Hill stone circles (although the circles are not intervisible). The setting is a staggered linear arrangement of four small end-set granite slabs.

The stone setting, with Stannon circle on the horizon

The northern two slabs of the setting are 1.25m apart on a north-south axis, the greater width of each of these northern slabs is set transversely to the axis of the pair. The southern two slabs are 2m apart on a NNW-SSE axis, with their northern slab 1.8m south-west of the southern slab in the northern pair. The southern two slabs are smaller than those to the north, with their greatest width roughly in line with the axis of the pair.

Taking a look around, we espied a small stone on the horizon to the south, which appeared to be in direct alignment with the two southern stones. Without the recent dry weather, I doubt we would have spotted this stone from the setting.

The southern stones of the setting, with the horizon stone arrowed.

Leaving a ranging pole as a guide we walked south where further stones, 10 or 11 in total, also appeared to line up, for a distance of around 150m. Did we have a row?

The southernmost stone appeared to have the attributes of a ‘blocking’ stone, a common feature of Neolithic stone rows. Looking roughly north-east, the blocking stone lined up with a large moorstone to point directly at the notch on Rough Tor – was this our first landscape treat? Is it an astronomical alignment?

View from the southern blocking stone toward Rough Tor.

Walking up and down the row, several other treats and tricks immediately became apparent:

  • From the north walking south, Brown Willy appears on the south-east horizon as soon as the stone setting is left behind, a view which grows the further south you travel.
  • Around 2/3rds along the row, Alex Tor to the south-west dips below the horizon, disappearing from view.
  • Walking north, there are three ‘sea triangles’ to be seen to the west, which disappear one by one as you move north.
  • From the southern blocking stone, the viewer appears to be in the centre of a landscape bowl, an omphalos moment perhaps?

This row, if that is what it is – and all the signs point that way – is not currently listed on the HER, but once the survey notes have been analysed, with field notes and measurements properly written up on our sister site: The Stone Rows of Great Britain we shall almost certainly be taking steps to ensure it is included.

Many thanks to Sandy, Gordon, and Janet for an interesting day out on the moors!

Now that Spring is finally putting in an appearance, and we move toward Summer, it’s time to start planning activities, and ways to get involved in our archaeological heritage.

To this end, the current issue of Current Archaeology magazine includes a five-page listing of digs to get involved in. Many are free, whilst others require a payment – up to 4-figures in some cases! Some are suitable for beginners, others allow students to gain academic credit toward a degree, so all tastes and needs are catered for. There is a fuller listing available on their website.

For those that are less active or unable to get out and about, our friends at Dig Ventures have created a six-week online course, tailored for absolute beginners. the course covers:

  • What happens before excavation
    • how to locate and identify archaeological sites
    • the different stages of an archaeological project
    • what happens in pre-excavation planning and research
    • what should be included in an archaeological Project Design
  • What happens during excavation
    • how to set up a trench
    • which tools to use, and what techniques are best practice
    • how to identify and record what you find
    • how to recover artefacts and take environmental samples
  • What happens after the digging is finished
    • analysis of the data and archaeological materials
    • interpretation of the site
    • making the archaeological record accessible
    • what to do with an archaeological archive

The course costs £49, is endorsed by the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) and starts on Tuesday May 1st, so get in quick and register now.

Dare we say, for the cost of a couple of decent hammies, many metal detectorists would do well to follow this course, and learn how to do things correctly, for the good of all!

By Dr Sandy Gerrard

The present can both inform and confuse our understanding of the past and help us appreciate the limitations of what we can deduce from what we see and find. When studying the past we rely on the tangible remains left by previous generations and skilfully manipulate this data to create a narrative. The passage of time inevitable erodes both our understanding of the cultural character of the people we are studying and the amount of surviving evidence.

This is especially the case with prehistoric studies where our understanding is inevitably severely compromised. Snippets of data are analysed, hypothesis created and conclusions offered. But just how reliable are these conclusions? We really can’t be sure.

Take the modern public bench. These are scattered in ever increasing numbers through the urban and rural environment. We all know what they are for and often why they are where they are. At the basic level they are all built to sit on, but there is much more to the humble public bench than this.

Thousands represent memorials to individuals as the plaques on them testify, others are carefully positioned to permit a spectacular view, whilst others are arranged neatly around places where sporting activities occur. Many others are strategically placed at the places where people congregate to utilise public transport and others are situated helpfully outside shops to provide respite for the laden down shoppers.

So the distribution of these single function items is varied and reflects a myriad of different factors, needs and aspirations many of which would be difficult to fathom out without their social and cultural context.  If one assumes that 90% are then removed leaving no trace, then the chances of understanding them is further compromised or indeed futile. As archaeologists we would look at the surviving distribution to help us understand them but we would also look at differences in their form. When it comes to public benches the variety seems endless. Different materials, sizes, shapes and layout are normal and indeed even within a limited geographical area, considerable differences in form appears to be the norm.

Do these differences mean anything? Again, as archaeologists we would probably try and seek reasons for the considerable variety in form and distribution and seek to analyse the evidence to see if it could tell us anything about them. Are they ritual?  The memorial plaques on some of them might suggest that they are. Perhaps monuments raised to commemorate certain people or events. Perhaps the horizontal surface was formed to received votive offerings. What about those without plaques? Did they have a different function or has the plaque been lost? What about associations can this help us?  Many are directly associated with litter bins. Were these bins built to receive further offerings and therefore do they denote benches of particular significance? Were those without bins used for something else or perhaps they belong to a different period?

Of course we have answers to all of these questions in the same way that prehistoric peoples fully understood the purpose and place of their structures. With the passage of time the social context of their built environment has been completely lost and we are left only with the material vestiges from which to attempt a reconstruction. Inevitably we fail and with every answer further questions follow.

We shall never really understand the prehistoric peoples who lived in the British Isles, but this should not stop us trying our best.  Providing we remember that our conclusions are merely hypothesis and that like ourselves people in the past were individuals living within a complex social system we should not go far wrong.

Raised timber walkway leading to a platform with a pair of benches. What would archaeologists make of the adjacent hearth? This pair of benches are positioned to provide sea views and the elaborate walkway to protect the sensitive natural environment. Archaeologically this site would survive as a double curving alignment of post holes terminating in a rectangular setting adjacent to a pair of contemporary hearths. Without documentation what are the chances that archaeologists in the year 6,000 AD would be able to accurately interpret this site?

 

The public benches at this location are built within a purpose-built shelter. Does this mean that these benches have a different function to the open examples? The answer of course is no but what chance would archaeologists of the future have?

 

An alignment of benches each with a view of the sea. Most are memorial benches does this imply a ritual relationship with the sea? These benches resolutely face away from the playing fields.

 

Four conjoined benches and a litter bin. Why so many together and why not four separate benches? The questions are endless and even with a full understanding of function and social context the answers are not always obvious.

 

Benches raised on an artificial mound and provided with a bin. The mound permits views of the sea. Without it the views would be hidden behind the sea wall.

 

Bench positioned with its back to the sea view. All the others areas have been positioned to provide views to the sea whilst this one has not. Archaeologists could see this as evidence that the sea played no part in the siting of the benches. They would be wholly wrong. Armed with the knowledge that this is a memorial to the owner of the model railway its position makes perfect sense.

 

Benches sited to provide pleasing views of the picturesque duck pond and mock castle.

 

A bench with no view at all. When built this bench would have views across a pond to a picturesque island. Subsequent remodelling of the area means that it no longer serves the function it was built for.

 

This bench is an integral part of the landscaping works. A recess was formed in which the bench was placed.

 

The form of the benches varies considerably. This does not reflect any difference in their purpose. We need to try and remember this when studying the past.

 

A bench that would be more at home in a back garden than in a public space. The purpose is however clear.

 


 

Figure 1. The stone row excavation. The large hollow beside the nearest stone was formed by flowing water, probably in the period immediately after the last glaciation (Scales 1m and 25cm).

In January 2012 a long line of small stones was identified amongst the prehistoric cairns on the southern slope of Bancbryn in South Wales. Survey work revealed that it led for 717m from a small cairn and terminated in a now recumbent boulder (Figure 2). In all 173 stones were identified and whilst many were recumbent most were edge set. The stone row was discovered just as the work on a new wind farm started and it was cut in two places by access roads. The timing of the discovery was unfortunate and rescue excavations carried out at the time predictably failed to reveal any dating evidence. The report produced by the excavators suggested that the feature was more likely to be of post-medieval date, but the evidence cited to support this contention was inaccurate, selective and just plain wrong.

Figure 2. Plan of the stone row showing the position of the excavation trenches.

Over a period of years, the arguments deployed by the excavators have been successfully dismantled, whilst at the same time detailed characterisation of the site and extensive research into stone rows nationally has resulted in a strong case to support its prehistoric origins. It was possible to demonstrate that this form of row is found only in SW Britain with examples recorded on both sides of the Bristol Channel (Figure 3).

Perhaps the most exciting discovery at Bancbryn was the very precise visual relationship with Hartland Point in Devon.  Work elsewhere has now demonstrated that precise visual relationships with prominent natural and broadly contemporary artificial sites is commonplace and indeed a characteristic of the longer rows.

Figure 3. Distribution of long stone rows greater than 100m long consisting mainly of small stones.

So, from the fiasco at Banbryn some good has come as it has spawned both renewed interest in this enigmatic type of site and provided a new focus permitting a better understanding of the rows.

In 2017 there was an opportunity to have another look at the Bancbryn stone row. Funding from the Section 106 wind farm agreement provided resources for an examination of a small number of sites on Bancbryn and as well as the stone row, two cairns and a solitary stone were partly excavated. A report on the work is now available and can be downloaded here. A shorter guide to the archaeology on Bancbryn and vicinity is available here. Both reports are published by Dyfed Archaeological Trust who organised and carried out the excavation work.

One of the cairns was found to have a kerb and is probably of Bronze Age date, another was probably early medieval in date, had ard marks below and surprisingly contained some Roman glass. No dating material was found associated with the stone row, but it was possible to refute the previously suggested historic interpretations and demonstrate that the surviving evidence was entirely consistent with a prehistoric date.

The lack of dating evidence, whilst disappointing, was not a surprise as stone rows are notoriously difficult to date and it is worth remembering that none of the Welsh rows have been dated either. Indeed, only the row at Cut Hill on Dartmoor has been dated with any degree of precision. Most importantly nothing was found to disprove the prehistoric interpretation, whilst at the same time the form, character and context of the row is entirely consistent with a prehistoric date. Hopefully this work will now mean that this incredibly fragile and enigmatic monument will receive the care and consideration that it deserves.

A friend of the Journal, Eve Boyle, recently documented her visit to Clachtoll Broch in North West Scotland, and has given permission for her story to be published here. So, it’s over to Eve:

Scottish Archaeology is all abuzz just now about the excavation of a broch at Clachtoll, on the west coast of Sutherland. On Tuesday, I was on the phone to Roland Spencer-Jones, chair of NOSAS, who tells me he’s spent a week digging at Clachtoll. “It’s wonderful!” he says, ”You should go”. On Thursday morning, Strat Halliday, once my boss, now retired (as if that were possible!) waltzes into my office to say he’s just been to Clachtoll “It’s fantastic! You should go.” That evening, Matt Ritchie, Forestry Commission Archaeologist, texts me – “Just been to Clachtoll. It’s amazing! You should go!”

So yesterday I drove the 270 miles north and this morning (Saturday) stood on Clachtoll. And you know what? It is wonderful, and it is fantastic, and it is amazing. And you should go!

Why?

Imagine, children, that you are gathered round the TV on a Saturday evening, watching Strictly. Dad’s in the kitchen, cooking dinner (he pretends not to like Strictly, but he’s watching it too, on the wee kitchen TV). And then (perhaps because he’s distracted by Louise Redknapp) a spark catches – your house is on fire – you all rush out – but, before the fire brigade arrive, the roof and the upstairs floor all catch fire, burn and collapse, followed by the walls, which collapse and dump hundreds of tons of stone onto what used to be your living room. Luckily, you all escaped (including sheepish dad), but the house is trashed. And, you know what? It’ll be two thousand years or more before anyone tries to dig it out and find your stuff.

And that, kind of, is what seems to have happened at Clachtoll. Set into the floor is a stone mortar, filled with grain; all carbonised; that was meant to be someone’s meal, but it didn’t happen: they all left in a hurry and the fire burned the grain, still in the mortar.

Fifteen years ago, I spent a tremendous week surveying this broch with my friend and colleague Ian Parker. We peered and poked as much as we could into what was largely a huge pile of stones. I crawled into spaces to take measurements (I was a bit more sylph-like then, but still had to be pulled out by the ankles once or twice), and we wondered what might lie under all that rubble. Historic Assynt, who lured us up there for that survey, have spent years trying to make this project happen, so it was just fabulous to be there today.

Take a bow, then, Historic Assynt, and their professional partners in this project, AOC Archaeology Group. You can read much more (and see much better photos than mine) on their websites:

https://www.facebook.com/historicassynt/
https://www.facebook.com/aocarchaeology/


Many thanks to Eve for that report. If you’ve visited an excavation or heritage site during the summer, why not drop us a line or two about it so we can spread your story?

This year’s Day of Archaeology will take place next week, on 29th July, and judging by the comments on their sign-up page will include many new participants this year!

For those that aren’t aware, the Day of Archaeology project aims to provide a window into the daily lives of archaeologists from all over the world. The project asks people working, studying or volunteering in the archaeological world to participate in a “Day of Archaeology” each year in the summer by recording their day and sharing it through text, images or video on the website.

doa-noyear

The project is run by a team of volunteers who are all professional archaeologists, and taking part in the project is completely free. The whole Day of Archaeology relies on goodwill and a passion for public engagement!

The project has been running since 2011, and last year we documented some of our thoughts on the year’s events.  It will be interesting to see if anything has changed for this year’s coverage.

By Alan S and Sandy Gerrard

In the first part of this series, we briefly examined the pre-excavation activities of a typical archaeology project. We now continue our overview of the different types of archaeological practice, and their predilection to cause damage to the archaeological record, by examining various aspects of excavation technique.

But first, what do we actually mean by the term ‘damage’? The archaeological resource is a limited and dwindling asset. Excavation is always destructive and it is therefore crucial that it is carried out as carefully and efficiently as possible. Any deposits removed during the course of an excavation are destroyed together with the information they held. It is therefore the duty of the archaeologist to ensure that as much accurate information as possible is collected. If an excavation is not recorded correctly, any information from that excavation is lost forever. Therefore it is of prime importance that accurate records are kept of what has been excavated, and where. That includes any and all finds, features and samples, from all contexts. If records are not kept, knowledge is lost, and the damage to the archaeological record is total.

Excavation

This is where the most damage is done! Let’s start by saying yes, all excavation is damaging. However the difference between a good excavation and a bad excavation is simple. A good excavation enhances our knowledge and appreciation of the past whilst a bad one adds nothing or at best very little and at worst may provide fallacious results which might seriously impair and even distort our understanding.

‘Excavation’ undertaken by metal detectorists can be without doubt one of the most damaging activities. Although there may have been some desk-based research prior to hitting the site, there will rarely be a formal methodology to the excavation other than ‘ping’/dig! Some detectorists may advise the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) of any significant (read metallic) finds but often the valuable context of the finds will have been trashed together with associated items (pottery, flints, fibres, animal bone etc) which are often discarded as irrelevant by the detectorist. Recording may comprise at best of a photo (or video) or two of the finds, and a GPS reference which may point to no more than a particular field, or parish. The loss of knowledge in these situations will be immense and of course in the long run means that many of the questions of future generations will go unanswered as a result.

MDHole

An Open Area Excavation can be the most informative and destructive in equal measures. The technique involves stripping away all of the layers in reverse to how they were formed. So off comes the turf and topsoil first and then each layer, feature and structure until nothing but subsoil or bedrock remains. Carried out properly by competent archaeologists this technique can provide more information than any other but the price can be the total destruction of the site being examined. Sometimes structures encountered are left in place but sometimes these too are removed in order to look for information below them.

Avenue Trench

Test pitting, Sampling and Trenching techniques are used by many projects as a way of mitigating the limits of any damage. Using these methods, the extent of excavation is reduced to the bare minimum needed to meet the project’s objectives. Test pits are usually 1m square excavations, whilst trenches can be any length or width and dependent upon the documented project objectives, both may be taken down as far as the ‘natural’ or bedrock level, in separate layers or ‘contexts’ to ensure nothing is missed. Section drawings and photographs are taken of the stratigraphy and any features uncovered. With larger excavations, and particularly in Rescue Archaeology situations, test pits may be extended, or repeated across an area to provide an agreed sampled percentage coverage of the site. In all cases, careful recording of each context is undertaken, and where necessary soil samples may be taken for laboratory analysis of pollen grains, snail shells, bone and insect remains etc. before the pit is backfilled at the end of the excavation. This strategy of course has the huge advantage of allowing some or even most of the archaeology to survive for future ‘better informed’ excavations in the future, but the limited nature of the work means that the results themselves will be incomplete and therefore possibly misleading.

Next time, we’ll finish off by looking at the post excavation activities.

Our friends at DigVentures are at it again, and this time it’s a doozy! You can join their search for Lindisfarne’s original Anglo-Saxon monastery…

“Our latest crowdfunded dig has arrived with a BANG! We’re on the hunt for one of the most iconic sites in British history – Lindisfarne’s original Anglo-Saxon monastery.”

In AD635, King Oswald founded a monastery on Lindisfarne and it quickly became beating the heart of Northumbria – one of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. This is where the Lindisfarne gospels were illuminated, where the treasures that decorated the altars of Europe were made, and where thousands of miracle-seeking pilgrims came to seek salvation at the shrine of Saint Cuthbert.

But it didn’t end well. Raided by the Vikings in AD793, and with their brothers left for dead, Lindisfarne’s monks picked up their holy relics and fled.

Although they eventually returned and built a new priory, archaeologists have so far failed to locate the original Anglo-Saxon monastery. But DigVentures claims to have new evidence. All they need now to complete the team is YOU!

You can support the dig from a distance from just £10, and choose any of several archaeological benefits as your reward, or go one step further (from £165) and jump into the trenches and dig with them on Lindisfarne island this July!

Don’t miss your chance to make history. Click here to be part of the team that maybe, just maybe, finally manages to locate the monastery at the heart of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria.

By Alan S and Sandy Gerrard

“All archaeology is destructive” is a cry often heard from the lesser-spotted metal detectorist trying to defend their hobby. Even Mortimer Wheeler admitted that ‘excavation is merely methodical destruction’.

But how true is this?

Whilst it’s true that some field archaeology can be destructive, it’s surely more accurate to say that all archaeology is instructive. In terms of excavation techniques, it’s certainly true to say that carefully scraping away soil to reveal the hidden mysteries contained below is more rewarding than blindly shovelling earth to grab at hoped for treasures!

So to qualify that, in this short series let’s take a brief look at some of the different types of archaeology practised today and outline what each type involves.

Desk Based Archaeology

The phrase ‘Standing on the shoulders of giants’, used by Sir Isaac Newton (but with a much earlier origin), is used to describe the practise of research by referring to, and building upon the work of others. A large part of desk-based archaeology is based upon this principle, and should involve meticulous reference to previous research, excavation reports etc. Much of this can be done using a myriad of resources including: the Archaeological Data Service, Heritage Environment Records, libraries, old maps, National and County Record Offices, museums, satellite and aerial imagery, LIDAR or 3D imaging, and extrapolating information therefrom to identify potential new areas of investigation, or to strengthen or extend existing theories. No new excavation or collection of field data is involved, but future excavation plans may result from any findings.

standing giants

Desk based analysis is often carried out to identify the potential for archaeological remains on the site of a planned development and may be used to inform planning decisions and highlight the need for mitigation. Where planning is granted and the archaeology will be destroyed or severely damaged the planning authorities should insist that a programme of archaeological work be carried out by the developer as a condition of permission being granted. In the most extreme instances where a whole site is earmarked for destruction the resultant excavation records will inevitably be the only tangible remains and this scenario is often euphemistically described as ‘preservation by record’. Desk-based archaeology is often the first stage of many archaeology projects, and of itself is not destructive – although as pointed out to me recently, reputations may rise or fall as a result of new interpretations of old data.

Field Work

The next form of archaeological investigation involves getting out and looking at the site or landscape. This is important and offers an opportunity to establish the accuracy or otherwise of the desk based work and enable a fuller understanding of the resource. Many different techniques are available and the most suitable will depend on the character of the surviving archaeology. Where obvious earthworks survive survey work makes an excellent starting point. The production of a plan showing what is there and how all the different elements fit together allows the archaeologist to better understand what they are looking at.

Where they are few or no earthworks other techniques are needed to explore the past and amongst the better known are Geophysical surveys – the ‘Geofizz’ so beloved of Time Team aficionados. Sometimes a combination of earthwork survey and Geofizz can produce extraordinary results without causing any damage to the archaeology.

A third form of fieldwork which does inevitably erode the archaeological resource and can only be carried out within recently ploughed or cultivated fields is field walking which involves a planned traverse of the site on foot, looking for any artefacts (small finds) that may have been ploughed up to the surface. The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up to record and interpret small finds, such as those uncovered by metal detectorists, activities such as informal field walking, and other chance finds. But in most cases field walking will be part of a larger project, and any finds will normally be documented as part of that project. Whilst field-walking itself is not necessarily destructive, it can lead to loss of information and ‘context’, if not properly planned and recorded.

fieldwalking

There are many types of Geophysical survey, and indeed, metal detectors are but one tool in the geophysicist’s armoury. Most Geofizz tools work in a similar way, by sending electromagnetic signals into the ground and measuring the responses to build up a picture of any features which may be hidden below. Electro-magnetic resistivity and ground penetrating radar are the most common forms, with sonar being used for underwater archaeology sites. Whilst not destructive in and of itself, Geofizz aids in the project planning process, and is often a precursor to targeted excavation – the topic of the next part of this short series.

The modern archaeological industry is built upon the premise that sites selected for destruction should be recorded before they are destroyed. Following excavation the record is then deposited and the site is  consequently “preserved by record”. At Mynydd y Betws the Bancbryn stone alignment was promised such treatment. Sadly whilst the first part was apparently completed the second was not. Carmarthenshire County Council have over the years been repeatedly asked for a copy of the excavation report and whilst most of these requests went unheeded recently a response was received.

“I have not had sight of any such report as part of my investigations, although I do not consider that it has undermined the fact that works have been carried out with due diligence within the development site, and that the condition imposed on the planning consent, and the reason for it, has been discharged in a way that is, on balance, proportionate and pragmatic”.

Basically they are saying that a report was not produced but this does not matter. What happens next time a developer says they will not fund the post-excavation. Carmarthenshire County Council have already set a dangerous precedent. For a site to be preserved by record there needs to be record otherwise the site has simply been destroyed and no amount of fine words will alter that fact.

To be clear a preliminary report was produced, but this included no photographs or drawings of the excavated areas. Instead photographs and drawings were limited to the areas beyond the excavation. How many modern excavation reports include only images of the areas beyond the area being investigated and none of the excavation itself?

Skara Brae

Would it be appropriate for a report on an excavation at Stonehenge to be illustrated exclusively by images from Skara Brae?

Archives

August 2018
S M T W T F S
« Jul    
 1234
567891011
12131415161718
19202122232425
262728293031  

Follow Us

Follow us on Twitter

Follow us on Facebook

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 9,976 other followers

%d bloggers like this: