We have been busy with lots of disconnected odds and ends on the project this week. Dan has washed a very large quantity of mud (part of getting the soils samples ready to go to be analysed in Lancaster next week), I have sent and answered many emails and looked at lots of spreadsheets but none of this necessarily makes great material for a blog post.

I did have a good trip to Ormskirk on Friday night. I went to give a talk to the West Lancashire Archaeological Society about Neanderthals, Before I got my present job at Preston I was a post-doctoral researcher in Wales, working on the later stages of a very long running research project on Pontnewydd Cave. The final results of this project were published just about the time I started this blog. Archaeologically, it is easily the most significant and important thing I have ever been involved in. In fact, I suspect that whatever I find in the rest of my career, my little bit of the Pontnewydd project will remain as my major contribution to archaeology.

PN area F

This is the inside of the main cave at Pontnewydd being excavated during the early 90s. Stephen Aldhouse-Green, who ran the project, excavated at Pontnewydd for over 20 years. The cave is in the Vale of Clwyd, in North Wales. Sometime before 225 000 years ago, early Neanderthals used the area outside the cave to make and use their stone tools. They also, we think, used the cave as a place to leave dead members of their group. There are 21 human teeth from the cave: all that is left, after all that time, of between five and sixteen different Neanderthals.

When I first arranged to do the Ormskirk talk I intended to focus on the Pontnewydd excavations, with a bit of a background about what a Neanderthal was. Looking over the slides I used, about 70% of my talk turns out to have been background of one kind or another. Revising all this stuff before the talk (and you do need to revise, human evolution is one of the fastest moving and most contentious fields in science) brought back one of my own personal pointless irritations.

This has nothing to do with academic debates but everything to do with children’s fiction. When my son was small, like many kids, he loved his dinosaurs. Stories and toys for pre-school children still regularly have dinosaurs and cavemen together. Despite a stern parental veto on the Flintstones chronology some of this stuff has crept into the house. High on the list of shame are a Ravensburger puzzle and a board game¹ (allegedly educational toys from Germany) but my personal bete noir is our copy of Dinosaurs Love Underpants. Not only does it conflate 65 million years of evolution but it has an annoying noise-making button built into the book which the little one has just discovered the use of.


Since I am aware that this is not one of the burning issues of the day, I will rescue the positive tone of the post by providing a plug for the excellent Cave Baby by Julia Donaldson. This is a brilliantly illustrated picture book with an entirely Quaternary fauna and fantastic pictures by Emily Gravett.


¹Fairness compells me to admit that it is a very good board game, with cunningly compulsive reversed gameplay. It’s called Dodge a Dinosaur.

One of the least onerous parts of my job used to be to run an archaeology and anthropology field trip to southern Kenya. The reason I am thinking about Kenya is because I am going to Ormskirk next Friday. I am giving a talk about Neanderthals to the West Lancs Archaeology Society and I decided to draw on something I saw out there to explain a debate about Neanderthal behaviour.

fag lighting cropped

I do this kind of personal experience based pop-ethnology much too much. Colleagues and students have learnt to their cost that there is almost no anthropological debate that I don’t think is usefully enlivened by the phase well, in Kenya the Maasai/Chagga/Wataita (delete as appropriate) have an interesting practice… Often the insight offered is not revolutionary. For example, Julia and James demonstrate the traditional Maasai method of lighting a rollie using a firestick and dried cattle dung as tinder. Neanderthals almost certainly did not light their fags like this.


In this particular case, the (possibly) relevant thing I learnt from going to Kenya concerns elephants. At Lynford in Norfolk, about 67 000 years ago a vast quantity of mammoth remains ended up in a swampy river channel alongside many stone tools made by Neanderthals. The Neanderthals were clearly eating the mammoths, but as is often the way in these cases, there is a lively debate about whether they were hunting them or scavenging mammoth carcases. Mark White has suggested that the mammoths were being deliberately driven into the swamp to, as he phrases it, ‘disadvantage’ them and allow the Neanderthals to attack sick or weak elephants in the group. The sheer quantity of mammoths at the site requires some explanation beyond just accidental drowning. The idea being, I assume, that lumbering great elephants are much easier to attack when they are stuck in the mud then when they are roaming freely about the steppe.

cropped swamp elephants

Except, as this group of modern African elephants up to their tusks in water in Amboseli National Park shows, they don’t seem the slightest bit disadvantaged by being in a swamp. They look a lot happier than any group of Neanderthals struggling to keep their heads in the air would in the same place. I think, as with the later example of the Poulton Elk, the Lynford mammoths were probably trying to escape active human hunters by making for the water. However, in this case a lot of them didn’t make it.

I once asked James, thinking about this very problem, how you go about killing an elephant with a spear. (The Maasai are well-known to have a prohibition on eating bush-meat and can therefore be seen to know this sort of thing without attracting too much suspicion from the Kenya Wildlife Service). Admittedly he was talking about the modern Maasai spear, which is a 2 metre long mild steel javelin with a head like a carving knife on steroids, but he said that you need to throw the spear at a weak spot at the base of the trunk. This is not something that I would care to try to do personally: apart from anything else, elephants are such cool beasts. However, I think it is safe to assume that every Neanderthal who ever lived was both harder and less squeamish than me. If mammoths were hunted using the methods James described then almost all the damage would be to soft tissues rather than bone, which might explain why positive evidence for hunting injuries is so scarce.


We are in the money, probably. I heard this afternoon that we were successful in our bid to get someone to examine our charcoal and pollen. I say probably because I heard from someone who was in the funding meeting that our bid was approved. We are not supposed to get the official results via email until Monday.

Presuming that our state of modified rapture is justified, this means that next week and the week after we are going to have to crack on with processing the last of the soil samples we took this summer. As it is a while since we used the flotation tank, I suspect that this will mean that there will be a trip to the builder’s merchants in the near future to replace the bits that have mysteriously vanished since it was last used. We’ll also be using our outdoor space under the canal arches for this job for the first time, new lights and water supply and everything. This is at least under cover but I have a feeling that it will be a bit chilly.


I have been marking undergraduate fieldwork reports all this week too. About half of these are based on our dig at Whitewell, so I’ve been looking at a lot of photos of various features being excavated. One common theme to almost all of them is that Mike is always there in the background, keeping a beady eye on people as they go about the task he has just taught them, and looking remarkably like Paul Holywood prowling around the Bake Off tent. Have Josh and George foolishly put the sugar in all the layers?

Urban wildlife of the day was the gigantic autumnal spider that one of the cats brought in to play with in the warm at ten to seven this morning. The first I knew about it was when my daughter appeared from the living room with it clutched in her toddler powergrip saying ‘Spider!’ very loudly. I was just thinking ‘Good, she’s not scared of spiders then’ when it recovered its wits enough to bite her on the finger. I exacted summary justice on the spider, disposed of the evidence outside and applied anti-histamine cream and sympathy. Since then she has been looking at the much smaller spiders in the hedge with a considering and vengeful eye.


I seem to have spent most of this week in pursuit of either money or favours. Not for myself, you understand, but purely for the greater good of the project. A research funding opportunity has come up within the university to allow us to bid for more support and so I have spent a lot of the last two weeks writing an application for that. I could try to claim that this was why there was no post last week. However, if I am honest that had more to do with half term and spending time eating ice cream and chips in Blackpool.


If we get it, I have decided to use this money to get some of the analysis done on preserved plant remains of various kinds. There are different kinds of these samples. Bulk soil samples, like the ones being collected in this picture by Katie and Jack, should hopefully pick up 5 litres-worth of all the preserved macroscopic plant remains in that layer. Once you have your tub of soil you pump water through it to make the plant remains (which are generally lighter than soil) float out so you can catch them in sieves. We have already done this with most of the samples, which leaves us with a small collection of tiny bits of charcoal from each layer we sampled.

Of course, we also have lots of bigger chunks of charcoal which we identified on site and picked up with the other small finds. A big part of the bid I have just submitted is to get the money to pay and archaeobotanist to identify all the plant species in this charcoal. As we already understand (we hope) the archaeological relationships between all the layers then this should allow us to see how the charcoals on site change over time. This should include both the wood that people are collecting and deliberately burning on site as well as other local planty bits which happen to have got into fires and got burnt.


All of this will tell us quite a bit about the landscape and environment around the caves and enclosures we work on but, as it relies on things getting charred to preserve them, it will inevitably be only a partial picture. Our third possible source of plant remains is fossil pollen. You sample for pollen in a different way, digging a continuous block of soil out of a section, like this one at the back of Fairy Holes Cave. If you are lucky, then the soil conditions have been damp enough to preserve a representative sample of all the pollen which was drifting around on the breeze at the time the layer formed. If you sample at enough points down the column it should be possible to look at how the local vegetation changed through time.

The other bonus to all this analysis of plants is that, once we know what kind of charcoal we have, then we will know if we can apply for money from the Natural Environment Research Council to have it radiocarbon dated. Radiocarbon labs are understandably reluctant to date charcoal unless they know exactly what it came from. Trees live a long time, so for a charcoal date to tell you anything meaningful about the date of a pit then you want to be dating a little twig that sprouted the year it was buried, rather than a chunk of the middle of an oak that was already 150 years old when it went in the ground.


More thinking through pictures this week. Next summer, provided John is happy for us to carry on digging up his pasture, then we are going to try to excavate some of the innner ditch segments and interior of the Whitewell Enclosure. In an attempt to still keep some kind of focus on the wider study area I’ve decided that it would also be good to do some targeted areas of gradiometer survey in the spring. There are two areas in particular that I want to look at. Trying to locate these surveys has brought me back to working on the landscape zones that I set up last spring.

Beer garden

To re-cap, these are supposed to be parts of the study area which have similar physical characteristics. If we sample an equal amount of each of these zones then we should be evenly covering the whole study area. This is the flat land enclosed by the bend in the Hodder opposite the Inn at Whitewell. As you can see from the screen grab I have also got on with the essential task of thinking up whimsical shipping forecast style names for these territories. This is Beer Garden because you can see it from the pub. I want to survey here because I think that there will be a thick layer of river silt over any prehistoric archaeology. This will make it harder to get at but should ensure that it is well-preserved.

Reed Barn

To the north-west of Beer Garden is Reed Barn (named after the farm smack bang in the middle of it). This is at a slightly higher elevation and isn’t as flat but there should still be lots of river silt here too. Mike did his master’s dissertation looking at how investigate precisely this kind of landscape in the Ribble Valley, so I’m hoping we can apply some of his methodologies here.

Mouse Hole

To the west of the zones where we have already done lots of work there is another flat(tish) bit of land. This is the area which included Mouse Hole, one of the caves we dug in 2011, but the whole flat plateau behind is covered in dolines. Geophysics here might tell us quite a lot about how the cave systems work but also, hopefully, reveal other unknown archaeology. The other thing you can see in this image is how we have parcelled out the rest of New Laund Hill. By a process of contraction, the plateau that includes Fairy Holes, the Whitewell Enclosure and Temple Cave has become the Arthur Rackhamesque Fairy Temple. To the north of that is Television. This is not me coming over all New Wave. Apart from sheep there are two obvious features in this zone, one is a big lime quarry (and you find them all over the study area) and the other is the TV mast that means the farm has any terrestrial reception at all. Above that is Timber Circle, because there is one there. Beyond Timber Circle the hill falls off down to the valley floor. This zone is all steep and north-facing, hence North Face. This has left us with a long thin, east facing buffer state between the rest which I have imaginatively called New Laund.


Thinking about causewayed enclosures (I have been doing this a lot as I continue to write up the work we did in July) has made me think in particular about the original type-site for these monuments, Windmill Hill in north Wiltshire. Not that Windmill Hill is a particularly good parallel for the Whitewell Enclosure: its a long way away, bigger, more circular, has animal bone preservation and lots of pottery. However, since it was first excavated in the late 1920s, Windmill Hill has had a central role in defining what the Neolithic in Britain is. Entirely coincidently, it has also had a big role is defining who I am. I’ll have a go at explaining the archaeology first.

The work in the 1920s was directed by Alexander Keiller. Keiller deserves a post all to himself, but he’s probably best summarized as an archaeological Hugh Heffner crossed with William Randolf Hearst. One of his employees was a young Stuart Piggott, who would go on to be Abercrombie Professor at Edinburgh and one of the 20th century’s most distinguished Neolithic specialists. Piggott’s first major contribution to archaeology was to sort the confusing mass of Neolithic pottery into two styles, one of which could be shown to be earlier than the other. He did all of this, at least in the first instance, by noticing a gap in the sequence in the outer ditch fills at Windmill Hill. One style of pottery only occurred in deposits older than the break and the other only occurred in the layers above.


This is the outer ditch, being re-excavated in 1988. It is no exaggeration to say that, until the widespread use of radiocarbon in the 1960s, that single relationship underpinned the dating for the whole of the British Neolithic.

Keiller was highly energetic, but he wasn’t great at keeping his attention on a job until it was finished. Consequently, after his death, Isobel Smith was given the Windmill Hill archive and the task of publishing the site. To clarify a few confusions in the record she also did her own season of excavations at Windmill Hill.


The narrower slot in this photo is the re-excavated remains of her cutting across the outer bank, once again in 1988. One of Smith’s great contributions to Neolithic studies was her insight that causewayed enclosures could be explained as seasonal meeting places for dispersed populations: somewhere they could come to feast, do each other down in deals over cattle or stone axes and chat up people who weren’t their cousins. This explanation has been extremely influential ever since.

Windmill Hill was next excavated in 1988 by Alasdair Whittle of Cardiff University, as part of a project investigating the Neolithic sequence of North Wiltshire. This dig too had major implications for our understandings of the British Neolithic, it was ultimately one of the things that lead to the recent AHRC funded Gathering Time project, which has re-dated the whole of the Early Neolithic of Southern England.


It had an even bigger influence on me. I was a Cardiff undergraduate in 1988. By that time I had about four months excavation experience, absolutely all of which was on Early Medieval monastic sites, a vague interest in the Iron Age and a strong desire not to dig up any more Saxon monks. Alasdair let me supervise excavations on the outer bank, which was the first time I had been in charge of anything bigger than a section drawing, and we found preposterous quantities of Early Neolithic pottery, flint and bone, as well as a pit containing the almost complete remains of an Early Neolithic man. By the end of the second week I was convinced I wanted to be a Neolithic specialist.

I had also met Julia, and we’ve been together ever since, which has to be the best way an archaeological site can transform your life.


The Sheltering Memory project was devised to look at the links between monuments and natural places in prehistory. We know a (comparatively) large amount about prehistoric monuments so we came to dig here in the hope of getting some good evidence from natural places, particularly from caves. Since then, it sometimes feels, we have done nothing but discover new prehistoric monuments.Peterson_figure_1

This is the location of all the sites on New Laund Hill – exported from the GIS and tidied up a bit in Adobe Illustrator to make a publishable map. The black things are ditches, pits and other assorted holes in the ground, the grey thing is the henge bank. As you can see, there is a fair bit going on. If we begin at the beginning then the earliest parts of the site are likely to be some of the pits on the same ridge as the Whitewell enclosure.


This is the big pit in trench N. At least some of the stone tools from this area look to be Mesolithic so I think that some of the pits were dug before the start of the Neolithic. Around about 4500 BC mobile bands of hunter gatherers may have camped on that bit of the hill. These pits were what they did with their rubbish after they moved onto the next site. They were also a way of marking this particular site and laying claim to it.


Here is the Whitewell enclosure from above. As I said last week, this is probably Early Neolithic. Of course, on January 1st 3650 BC everyone didn’t suddenly wake up and start farming. The enclosure here probably grew up from the earlier tradition of digging pits on the same site. People were still moving around, staying at this spot for part of the year or coming back at particular anniversaries. The outer circuit of ditches ran through trench Q, at the front left of the picture, back almost as far as the woods before turning and running back along the front edge of Fairy Holes wood, behind our gazebos and through trench P.


This is the outer ditch in section in trench P. As you can see, it is not particularly impressive. Its a bit deeper in trench Q but it would still have been quite ephemeral. I think that the reason there are three different, probably incomplete circuits in this enclosure is because, in a monument like this, what was important was not the finished banks and ditches, but just getting everyone together to dig around the hill.

New Laund reconstruction

Around 1000 years later, towards the end of the Neolithic, the much more substantial New Laund enclosure and timber circle were built on the next ridge up. Although we still think this was acting as a focal point for dispersed and mobile groups of people, it seems to have been a much more permanent structure.


This is the outer enclosure ditch in the rain at the end of our excavations in 2012. At four metres wide and cut deep into the limestone bedrock, this was clearly a visible permanent barrier.


Similarly, the timber circle posts in these holes in trench H  were obviously part of a monument which was designed to last. Despite this, there is still continuity with the earlier sites. The posts in were removed and there are outlying posts and double lines in some places which suggest that building and re-building was still an important part of how the monument was used.


One of the puzzles about all these, apparently Neolithic, monuments is the complete lack of any pottery. We do however have one Late Neolithic pot sherd from our excavations at Fairy Holes cave. This came from just behind where Dan is measuring in this photo. Why Late Neolithic people left pottery in the cave, but not apparently at the henge or timber circle is a bit of a puzzle. Especially as both Fairy Holes Cave and the timber circle seem to have been used for cremation burial.

Urn and Crem bone

In the cave, thanks the our finding cremated bone alongside this collared urn sherd, we know that this was happening in the Early Bronze Age. Presumably by this date there were clear connections between monuments and natural places at Whitwell.



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