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We’re sometimes asked which of our articles have been most popular. It’s a good question. Some attract a readership of only a few hundred while some take off and are read by very many thousands. So we thought we’d revisit the ten most popular, starting today with number 10, Crop Circles and Aliens, which we published in October 2009.
Crop Circles and Aliens
I looked away for a second and when I looked back they were gone.
“Quick lads, he’s not looking, lay down in the crop!”
No, we don’t believe in them either but the following news article in the Telegraph brightens up a rainy day…
A police officer contacted British UFO experts after seeing three aliens examining a freshly made crop circle near Avebury, Wiltshire. The sergeant, who has not been named, was off-duty when he saw the figures standing in a field near Silbury Hill, and stopped his car to investigate. However, as he approached the ‘men’ – all over 6ft tall with blond hair – he heard “the sound of static electricity” and the trio ran away ”faster than any man he had ever seen”. The officer returned to his home in Marlborough, Wiltshire, and contacted paranormal experts and told them he had spotted a UFO…
Photograph taken with thanks from Wikipedia Commons
by Dr Sandy Gerrard
Today the glossy guide books that you can purchase at the “honey-pot” heritage attractions contain loads of perfect photographs accompanied by a few paragraphs explaining what there is to see and what it might mean. Such publications don’t tout controversy and are very much a product of establishment thinking. This was not always the case and in the “olden” days back in the 1950’s the authors of the so called “Official Guides” produced by the Department of the Environment sometimes used them as a vehicle to vent their spleen.
A wonderful example of this can be found in the “Ancient Monuments in Orkney” Official Guide published in 1952. The description of the Stones of Stenness stone circle on page 21 is remarkable and speaks for itself. “It consists of four erect monoliths together with a spurious dolmen-like structure which dates only from 1906 and is the result of an unfortunate ‘restoration’ of fallen stones by the then Office of Works, misled by certain archaeological ‘experts’ of that time.”
Fairly hard hitting stuff and not the sort of thing you are likely to read in today’s sanitised publications for the general public. Just goes to show that government experts don’t always get it right.
We wrote a piece a few months ago about the heavy-handed management and ‘brandalism’ occurring in the name of ‘visitor engagement’ at Tintagel in Cornwall. Now, following recent archaeological excavations at the site, the BBC web site is proclaiming ‘The royal residence of 6th Century rulers is believed to have been discovered at the legendary birthplace of King Arthur.’
So, a known cliff castle site has uncovered evidence that it was used as a castle. Oh, and a medieval storyteller used the location as the setting for a story about the birth of a mythical figure. Knock me sideways! Is there nothing English Heritage/Historic England (which name do we use these days?) won’t do to increase the cash flow at what is undoubtedly already one of Cornwall’s major cultural attractions? At what cost to the integrity of the site?
Thankfully, we’re not the only people thinking along those lines. Dr Tehmina Goskar, a consultant curator and heritage interpreter with over 16 years experience (we featured her partner Thomas in an Inside the Mind article a few years ago) visited the Tintagel area earlier this year. Her critique of the experience makes for some interesting reading and raises some very pertinent points.
The key issues … are apposite not just to the situation at Tintagel but more widely concern methods of interpretation of Cornish history, medieval history, and the ways in which sites with multiple protective designations are treated by heritage agencies.
It’s a long piece, but for those of the TL;DR generation, there is a useful 10-point summary of the main points included at the start. We heartily recommend that anyone with any interest in site interpretation, Cornwall or tourism in general read the piece, and take home some of the lessons learned.
Co-ordinated by the Council for British Archaeology, the Festival offers hundreds of events nationwide, organised by museums, heritage organisations, national and country parks, universities, local societies, and community archaeologists.
Now obviously we can’t listeverything that’s of interest to our readers here, but the random selection below gives a flavour of the range of prehistoric events (many aimed at families) available across the country – other time periods are available. If you’re looking for a great day out you could do much worse than search the list on the festival web site to see what’s happening in your area.
- Southampton Archeovillage Activities Day (Hampshire)
- Boden Fogou Open Day (Cornwall)
- Avebury Walk and Talk (Wiltshire)
- Marden Henge Open Days (Wiltshire)
- Sheffield’s Prehistoric Past (Sheffield)
- Archaeology summer school- what is archaeology? (Tyne and Wear)
- The archaeology of osidian and flint (Norfolk)
- Guided walk of Breedon Hill (Leicestershire)
- Archaeology without a trowel (Berkshire)
- Before the Romans showed up at Silchester : Life and landscape at the Iron Age Oppidum (Berkshire)
- Flint workshop at The Hive (Warwickshire)
- Scarborough Museums Trust Festival of Archaeology (N Yorkshire)
- In their footsteps: Guided tour of Prehistoric Penwith (Cornwall)
- Buried treasures: Megalithic monuments, Penzance (Cornwall)
- Iron Age roundhouse open day (Nottinghamshire)
- Bay Archaeology Festival: Rediscovering the Bay’s Old Ways, Morecambe (Cumbria)
- Hopesay Iron Age hillfort – the archaeological heritage of the south Shropshire hills (Shropshire)
Many of the events in the festival will incur a charge and/or require prior booking, but many are also free, so please check before setting out for an event.
Enjoy the Festival!!
Neil gained a first class degree in archaeology from Newcastle University in 1984 before starting work in professional archaeology. He went straight from University to direct excavations on Hadrian’s Wall for English Heritage for a number of years beforemoving on to Exeter Museum where he worked on Roman finds. He was appointed Archaeological Manager at Cotswold Archaeology in 1991, and is is now head of the salaried staff as Chief Executive, responsible for ensuring that Cotswold Archaeology remains a successful and innovative company delivering high quality work. He sits on a number of Committees, including the Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers (formally SCAUM); the Archaeology Committee of the Roman Society and the Publications Committee of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology at Reading University.
The Ten Questions
What sparked your interest in Archaeology/Heritage Protection?
I became interested in the Romans as a kid, and remember that walking along a stretch of Roman road near Cambridge with my father made quite an impression on me. It was pretty much just the Romans then, although my interests have broadened considerably since. I thought Hadrian’s Wall was incredibly evocative as a child, and still do today.
How did you get started?
I decided to study archaeology at Newcastle University (because it was near Hadrian’s Wall) , but as I wasn’t quite sure what it would be like as a subject. I hedged my bets and opted for a really strange mixed degree in my first year: ancient history; archaeology and chemistry. I was told that no-one had ever done such a combination before (and probably hasn’t since!). At the end of my first year I was sure that archaeology was what I wanted to do, but I thought I would benefit from learning some more about digging. So I took a year out and went on excavations over the winter in St Albans (really cold), and then Germany and then Israel (really hot). It was great fun. I went back to Newcastle, finished my degree, and then by a couple of lucky breaks quickly ended up running digs on Hadrian’s Wall. After a spell in Exeter I ended up in Cirencester, and for the last 25 years I’ve run Cotswold Archaeology. From very small beginnings we now have a staff of over 180 archaeologists working out of offices in Andover; Cirencester; Exeter and Milton Keynes. I am very proud of what my colleagues have achieved.
Who has most influenced your career?
I owe a lot to a number of people who helped me along when I was young, and indulged some of the arrogance of youth. Charles Daniels fired my interest in archaeology at University with his infectious enthusiasm. Paul Bidwell gave me first big break, and working with him taught me an incredible amount about not only how to excavate, but equally how to interpret the findings. His approach has influenced me ever since. When I came to the Cotswolds I was lucky that Alan McWhirr, who had worked for over 30 years in Cirencester, was so welcoming and encouraged me to collaborate with him on bringing his work to publication.
Which has been your most exciting project to date?
It is very hard to pick one – but the recent discovery in Cirencester of a Roman tombstone dedicated to a lady called Bodicacia is a moment I’ll never forget. I’ve also really enjoyed leading the Roman Rural Settlement Project over the last 10 years – a great opportunity to gather together all that has been found in commercial archaeological investigations since 1990 and ask the simple question: what does this tell us about Roman Britain that we didn’t know before?
What is your favourite British archaeological site… and why?
Hadrian’s Wall. It is where my serious interest in the Past begun – and somewhere that I’d like to renew my interest in some day.
What is your biggest archaeological/heritage regret?
That so many really well conducted archaeological digs on the 1960s, 70s and 80s are unpublished. All the blood, sweat and tears expended on projects that no one now knows next to nothing about. This is particularly true of many major historic towns and cities – places like Bristol and Winchester, for example. The knowledge loss is huge. It is for that reason that I am really pleased to be starting out on a project with Professor Stephen Rippon at Exeter University called Exeter: A Place in Time. This project combines delving back in to unpublished archives of digs done in the 1970s and 80s, along with with the application of cutting edge science. We are hoping that we will be able to use the information gathered to write a new archaeology of Roman and medieval Exeter. I’m excited by the prospect.
If you could change one thing about current heritage protection legislation, what would it be?
I’d like to raise the standard of field archaeology in the UK. There are some excellent organisations which produce consistently high quality work – but some fall below this standard. Even now too many reports are unpublished within a reasonable period of time. The current system of managing archaeology within the planning process works reasonably well, but it is fragile. To be successful it requires people to not only do the work, but also to stipulate it within local authorities. And the latter are under real pressure at the moment from Government cuts. What I would really like to see is some incentives for investigating organisations to turn out really top quality work rather than just a base minimum standard – and that doesn’t have to mean simply more money – sometimes better value could be obtained by thinking more flexibly and trying new approaches.
If you were able to address Parliament for 30 seconds on archaeology what would you say?
Don’t underestimate how much interest there is local history and archaeology – it is crucial to a sense of community cohesion and shared experience. And we only get one go at it – once it’s gone, it’s gone.
If your career hadn’t worked out, what would you be doing now?
I guess I would be a manager somewhere dull, but with archaeology as my hobby (which it still is now).
Away from the ‘day job’, how do you relax?
One of the disadvantages of moving in to management is that you become a desk jockey, so I relish any opportunity at the weekend to get outside – in the garden or a tramp across the Gloucestershire countryside with my wife. I also like cricket and follow Gloucestershire – a sunny day at the Cheltenham cricket festival with a drink in hand is a great thing to look forward to every summer.
As always, we’d like to express our thanks to Neil for taking time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions.
Previous articles in this series can be found here, or by using our Search Bar, and the term ‘Inside the Mind’.
If you work in community archaeology or heritage protection and would like to take part, or have a suggestion for a suitable and willing subject, please contact us.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We continue our look at the ‘Neolithic M1‘, which stretches from Holme-next-the-Sea in Norfolk across country to Lyme Regis in Dorset.
..winding with the chalk hills through Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Wiltshire, it runs south-westwards from East Anglia and along the Chilterns to the Downs and Wessex; but the name is mysterious. For centuries it was supposed to be connected with the East Anglian kingdom of the Iceni: Guest confidently translated it as the warpath of the Iceni, and connected it with the names of places along its course, such as Icklingham, Ickleton, and Ickleford.
Excerpt From: Thomas, Edward, 1878-1917. “The Icknield Way.”
Today, the Icknield Way is part of the Greater Ridgeway long-distance path, but the actual extent of the original Icknield Way is open to debate. The acknowledged trail stretches from Knettishall Heath to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire, but stretches of the trail south of here are also marked on the O.S. map variously as the Chiltern Way, Ridgeway and Icknield Way. Indeed, there is an Icknield Farm just NW of Goring where the path appears to terminate.
Starting our journey from Knettishall Heath, on the heath itself a kilometre or so to the east is Hut Hill, upon which stands a well-preserved bowl barrow, which stands to a height of about 0.5m and covers a roughly circular area with a maximum diameter of 32m. Further east is a similar barrow in Brickkiln Covert, whilst just a couple of kilmetres to the West, and north of the Little Ouse river stand the Seven Hills tumuli at Rushford. These are oddly named as only 6 barrows remain in this cemetery area.
The trail heads west from here, before dropping south through the ‘King’s Forest’ to West Stow, where a reproduction Anglo Saxon village (and museum) is sited. We visited here in 2014. Another Seven Hills barrow cemetery is located a couple of kilometres west at Rymer though this one has not fared as well as the one at Rushford, with only faint traces of four barrows remaining.
From West Stow the trail crosses the River Lark and heads southwest, toward Newmarket, and skirting the town to the south. The modern long distance path deviates from a natural line here to follow the modern roads (and bypass the town) but in prehistoric times I have no doubt that a straighter track would have been the preferred route. Throughout this section, there are various early medieval earthworks; Black Ditch, Devil’s Dyke etc, all crossing the trail at approximately right-angles. It’s been suggested that these were territorial markers, demarking portions of the old route. There are very few prehistoric burial sites on this stretch of the trail, though there are several moated houses, many dating back to medieval times.
Continuing southwest, we cross the River Granta at Linton, and a short distance east are the enigmatic Bartlow Hills – an early Roman barrow cemetery quite unlike any other I’ve seen, in that the barrows seem disproportionately tall compared to their circumference. The highest of the hills is 15 metres tall, but these days the site is shrouded by trees and it is easy to miss them.
From Bartlow, the modern trail heads west toward Royston, departing somewhat from what would have been the original route, and crossing the River Cam at Great Chesterford, just south of Ickleton village and the Roman Road which is now the modern A11 road. We’ll halt at Royston for a while, and pick up the trail in the next installment.
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.
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.
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.
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.