One of the many inspired things in Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch is a long list of celebratory antics for football supporter’s New Year, which should be held in May, on the evening of the Cup Final. People who work in education have their own special New Year too, at least in the UK, where almost all academic institutions start their new teaching intakes in September. We started teaching this week and so I have been celebrating by giving my lecture notes for the coming semester a much needed brush up.

Nowadays, of course, all these notes are PowerPoint presentations. I don’t really see the value of a PowerPoint presentation unless it has got a lot of pictures in it. Mostly with my teaching this is not a problem; archaeology is a very visual subject after all. However, one of the courses I have been tweaking this week is Archaeological Theory. Some of the lectures there are a bit tricky to illustrate. For example, what does a paradigm look like exactly?

My stock solution to this problem is to use Google Image search to turn up photos of the great and good of academia. These I then use to brighten up the slides – I’m not sure how precisely looking at a photo of Thomas Kuhn helps students understand paradigm shifts but it deals with my fear of text-only slides. All these portraits, of course, come from one of two sources. Either publisher’s blurbs for books or university web-pages. What I have noticed this week is that the real superstars in the Pannini Album of academia always pull the same pose for their publicity shots, even over a thirty or forty year career.

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There is often a head/hands combination thing going on. Pierre Bourdieu favoured the hand supporting the chin, presumably because otherwise his mouth flopped open in astonishment at the dazzling brilliance of the concepts in his head.

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By contrast, Paul Feyerabend needed to use his hand to keep the enormous contents of his brain from leaking out.

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Louis Althusser often used a pipe in what was either an Inspector Maigrait or, surely much more plausibly, an Eric Morcambe tribute.

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Bruno Latour is clearly much too busy using his hands to talk with to ever put them anywhere near his head.

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Oh no! Someone has spilt Michel Foucault’s pint.. …again.

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Continental thinkers are obviously more relaxed about having ‘smartarse’ as their job description. By contrast, the Anglophones are determined to show that they are not just a dazzling intellect. Lewis Binford takes the golf buggy for a spin.

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Julian Thomas dressed for machine watching at Stonehenge.

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David Clarke gets on with some DIY at Great Wilbraham.

Normal service should be resumed next week.

Rick

Last week I didn’t go to Istanbul. Obviously, I haven’t been to Istanbul on many previous occasions too, but last week the European Association of Archaeologists conference was taking place there. The EAA is one of the major academic conferences for archaeologists in Europe (there’s a clue in the name). When the venue was announced about a year and a half ago the glamour of the East enticed us all to such an extent that we spent many coffee breaks planning a mass UCLan presence at the conference.

If you want to speak at an academic conference like this then a certain degree of advance organisation is needed. First of all you need to propose an outline version of the paper you want to give to the organising committee. It also has to fit into one of the themed sessions that are part of the conference (unless you are so organised as to be able to propose a whole session’s worth of papers). Once the papers are proposed they are accepted by the organising committee and you can get on with making sure you register for the conference on time.

Given all these hurdles it’s not really surprising that by the time registration closed for the EAA the proposed mass UCLan presence had reduced down to two of us giving two papers. By the time the conference actually started it was just me and, because of the previously mentioned work/life balance thing, I didn’t actually go. Lindsey, who was one of the session organisers for ‘Caves as Ritual Spaces in Later Prehistoric Europe’, very kindly agreed to read my paper for me.

‘Do caves have agency?’ was the title of my paper. ‘Agency’ is a concept we have loaned from sociology and cultural anthropology. It describes the ability that people and things have to influence other people. In its original formulation, by the sociologist Anthony Giddens, agency is the contribution of active, thinking individuals which helps create the structures of society. Agency has also been used in anthropology, particularly by Tim Ingold, who would see it as something that animals and landscapes can also have.

In my cave research I have been very interested in the idea of environments and natural places have the power to influence people in quite profound ways. The idea I had when I agreed to do the EAA paper was that I would be able to explore the theoretical background to all the different kinds of agency theory. I hoped this would both let me come to a conclusion about how plausible it was to say that caves had agency but also think about some of the practicalities of what that might mean for archaeological evidence from caves.

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I came to the conclusion, heavily influenced by Bruno Latour’s book Reassembling the Social, that, provided we carefully sidestep the thorny question of whether something needs to have intentions in order to act (geological formations not generally being known for having opinions), then it is useful to think of caves as acting on people. In particular, the physical properties of the cave, the associations between all the different finds in the cave and how these thing change over time, can help us understand the way that caves structured people’s actions in the past.

Rick

It’s only six weeks since I promised a more detailed post on the results of this summer’s excavations ‘in a few days’. Sorry about that. The life part of the work/life balance has been getting some much needed attention over the summer. However, now is the time to focus on work again, so I am going to go back to blogging instead.

I realise that I described the results of this summer’s work fairly thoroughly in my last post but one, so I will try to concentrate in this one on giving some interpretation and context. There are two main components to the archaeology we have been investigating this summer.

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First, there are the medium and large bowl-shaped pits we excavated in trenches M and N. This is the big one in trench N. Pits of this shape are typical of the Neolithic period in Britain, many large clusters of them have been excavated all over the country, particularly on excavations in advance of quarrying. There is a very good summary of the archaeology of these pits in Regional Perspectives on Neolithic Pit Deposition, edited by Julian Thomas and Hugo Anderson-Whymark, which includes all the papers from a Neolithic Studies Group conference in 2010 ( I have put the full details of this on the reading list page).

As always in archaeology, there are lots of complex regional variations but the over-riding theme is that these pits mark areas where people lived. We believe that most of the population was still at least partly mobile at this date so these are unlikely to have all been permanent  settlements (and the pits are often not found near houses). Where the soil conditions allow good preservation then archaeologists see complex patterns of associations between, stone tools and waste, animal bone and pottery. It is likely that these structured dumps of rubbish were put into the pits at the end of each temporary occupation of that particular part of the landscape.

Our soils are quite acid (despite the limestone bedrock) and so no animal bone survives from the pits but we have found a lot of stone tools and tool making waste. We also found lots and lots of charcoal but, surprisingly, no pottery. Despite the lack of pottery I am reasonably convinced that our pits are examples of this sort of thing: dating, if I was to stick my neck out, to the Early Neolithic.

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The other big discovery of this summer was, of course, the series of shallow ditches running around this part of the hill. This is one of them after excavation in trench Q. They are nothing like as impressive as the Late Neolithic Henge ditch further up New Laund Hill. They are shallow, sometime discontinuous (at least they are on the gradiometer plot) and there seems to be at least two circuits one inside the other. If this ditched enclosure is also Neolithic (and that is what the finds from trench P seem to suggest) then it might be related to a kind of monument called a causewayed enclosure.

Actual causewayed enclosures are Earlier Neolithic circular sites which were surrounded by rings of non-defensive ditches with lots of gaps in them (hence causewayed enclosure). They are most common in southern England, where they seem to have been a central place for people to meet and exchange all kinds of things. There is another Neolithic Studies Group volume, also on the reading list, edited by Tim Darvill and Julian Thomas with some good papers on these sites. What we have is not a causewayed enclosure, it is the wrong shape, and in the wrong bit of the country, but it may have been used in a similar way.

Wildlife of the day has to be Toads because I have to go back into work tomorrow.

Rick

We got to work this morning, on the penultimate day of the project, to find that the swallow fledglings in our barn have grown up and left home. If you read a metaphor this clunky in a novel you would fling the book away in despair. Sometimes, I suppose, life really does have to be like a box of chocolates.

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Today was tractor day. We have all been working like crazy to get all the sites completed so that Tom could help us backfill them. This will just be a short post with lots of pictures and then I will post some more considered thoughts on the results from each trench over the next few days.

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The largest archaeological task we still had to complete at the start of the day was to finish digging and recording the giant pit in trench N. Once we had dug out all the surviving fills we had left so we could draw the sections we needed to clean up the base of the pit, which Kayla is just finishing in this photo, before adding all the final spot heights to the plan.

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Once all this was completed and Tom had hoisted all the spoil back into the holes it needed a lot of spreading about with shovels.

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A bit of trampling and then a lot of re-turfing. Despite the complicated grass and thistle jigsaw we managed to get all the grass back on the trenches by the end of the day.

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We made another use of the big pit over dinnertime to grab a group photo. Thanks to everyone for all their fantastic hard work over the last four weeks. Left to right: Chloe, Tom, Connie, Scott, Kayla, James, Josh, Sammy, Laura, Katie, Chelsea, Mike, George, Ashley, James, Alex, Phil, Jack and Mike.

We found our mascot tiny toad again, hiding in the turves as we put them back, to be wildlife of the day.

Rick

Yesterday we got our magnetic powers back. Our gradiometer is still away being fixed but the replacement hire machine turned up on Monday. Mike, Scott and James have been using it to complete the survey of the pasture.

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Here is all the data, fifty seven 30 x 30 metre grids in total, after Mike and James processed it and I have located it onto the mapping in QGIS. This year’s trenches are marked in blue and you can see that the ditch we found in trench P (bottom left of the plot) continues around the hill. It then seems to curve up to the north, about level with survey point 24, before returning along the other side of the hill to where we put trench Q. Excitingly, there also seems to be another circular ditch inside the bigger one. This would just cover  the higher bit of the hill. Inside the ditches we can see many similar anomalies to the ones which we dug this year. These are all likely to be prehistoric pits too.

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We have even better evidence that the ditch continues around the hill from trench Q. Cut into the natural glacial clay here we have found a small v-shaped ditch with a silty upper fill. This is almost identical to the shape and fill of the rock cut ditch in trench P on the other side of the hill. Although it has quite a lot of charcoal in it, it doesn’t have anywhere near the density of worked stone we found in trench P. This may be because this part of the ditch is much further away from the big pit clusters, and hence the centre of the occupation area.

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The giant pit in trench N is a very good example of the kind of thing some of the other anomalies in the magnetic data probably represent. This one seems to have had quite a long period of use, with layers of filling visible. You can see the difference between a dark brown upper fill and a much lighter deposit at the base in the section behind Jack’s boots as he helps finish a final clean of this. I, meanwhile, was standing on the grab bags photo-directing to get the best possible shot of all these layers in their pit. I suspect this feature will finish up on the cover of this year’s interim report.

Mike saw two weasels playing on the way up the hill from the barn this afternoon. This was going to be wildlife of the day but is probably pipped by the trench Q selfie (if you call it a selfie when you take it on a Nikon D90 digital SLR).

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Apologies to Ravelry for stealing their pun for the title, and to James, whose job it normally is to make the puns on site.

Rick

Well, probably, given my general track record in this area, but we seem to be moving in a smooth and orderly fashion towards the end of the dig. Obviously, until every last bit of the site is excavated we won’t know if there are going to be any last-minute surprises to complicate our final week. However, we seem to be on top of all our paperwork, the weather is being remarkably benign (i.e. its not raining but the ground is damp enough for us to see soil colours) and everyone has worked tremendously hard.

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We are already just finishing up in trench P, as Katie and Jack sample the ditch sediments. We will also be taking a soil column from the opposite section to look for fossil pollen tomorrow and then trench P will be completely excavated, recorded and sampled.

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Unsurprisingly, given we only started digging it on Thursday last week, we are not anywhere near finishing trench Q. This is the trench we put in so we could see if the anomaly that runs around the hill on the magnetometer survey is actually part of the same prehistoric ditch we found in trench P. The hillwash and topsoil above any possible prehistoric features are particularly deep on this part of the hill but thanks to lots of hard work, we believe we have come down on to the top of another small ditch very similar to the one on the other side. It seems to be cut into the natural bedrock on the right of the photo and to extend just less than halfway across the base of the trench. We have had some worked stone and charcoal in this area, but not a great amount so far.

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This is trench N, looking very like an illustration from a 1950s excavation manual on how to dig a pond barrow. We have left standing baulks of sediment between the quadrants of the large pit. This should allow us to draw two cross-sections through the deposits which fill the pit at right angles to each other. Once this is done and we have sampled these sediments we will then be able to complete the digging of this pit by removing the standing baulks. Although this pit is quite shallow we have also discovered two smaller, deeper pits at the northern edge.

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Josh and George are filling out a context record to describe the sediment filling one of these pits, which you can see in the section behind Josh’s boots. We now realise that we have completely over-dug the other one, just visible behind Carol and Phil. This was a genuine archaeological feature, which probably was about as deep as the one being recorded now, but the natural subsoil which formed the base of the pit was so loose and damp that charcoal and worked stone kept falling into it. We therefore kept assuming that this loose stuff full of finds was still the fill of the pit and kept taking it out. In the end, the fact that there was no obvious difference between what we thought was the fill of the pit and the sediment which made up the sides and base made us see that we had gone down too far and we stopped.

This sort of thing happens all the time. It is an inevitable result of the fact that to find out if something is real or not you generally have to dig it. Sometimes you dig it and it’s not real and then you are left with a hole in the natural. It is a lovely cool damp hole, Mike found the wildlife of the day, another tiny toad, in it this morning. A toad, in the hole, do you see what we did there?

Rick

 

There is a lot written in archaeology and anthropology about the short-term settlements of Hunter-Gatherers and Nomadic pastoralists. Our own impact on the landscape has been steadily growing over the three weeks we have been working here. Like the prehistoric people who left the remains we are excavating, we now have a structured camp with regularly demarcated zones of activity. Thanks to John’s shopping trip to Argos we even have some ephemeral stake shelters to hide from the sun under.

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This was the view from the top of the hill yesterday afternoon, it was too hot to go up there again today. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the way we have spread out over the hillside, the dig site is hidden by the slope of the hill. Apart from trench Q, on the left of the picture, almost none of the dig area is visible as you walk up from the valley until you are almost upon it. Presumably the prehistoric habitation we are uncovering was similarly well hidden.

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Connie and Chelsea have finished drawing the cross-section through the deposits in their pit in trench M. Now they get the fun of digging out the rest of it.

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In trench N, the big feature is starting to make sense. It is a broad, but not particularly deep, pit which is filled with different layers of dumped material. All these layers have a lot of charcoal and stone tool making waste in them. Presumably they also once had quite a lot of other things in there which don’t survive. Our thinking at the moment about this is that it is the place where all the debris from each season of occupation on the site was cleared away and dumped. On the north side we have identified another smaller pit. Ashley is just cleaning it up in the photo while George interprets the evidence.

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We are just left with the recording to do on trench P. Katie and James have been drawing the long sections and are pausing to explain the process to passing visitors. They have been cleaning the sides of the trench again to do this and in the process have discovered traces of another posthole or small pit cut into the top of the ditch. That now makes three in this section. None of the posts would have been very big, but then the ditch wouldn’t have been very deep either. I think this probably means that we should think about this boundary or enclosure as something which persisted for a long time and was modified. It started out as a ditch cut into the limestone and later on was re-emphasised by having posts put up in it.

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Of course, all this would make much more sense if we could look at the enclosure boundary in more than one place. Therefore we started a new excavation, trench Q, yesterday. We only really have a week to deal with this in so it has to be small but hopefully perfectly formed and precisely located right on top of the enclosure ditch on the other side of the hill. Cat, Chris, Tom, Alex and James have been chopping through the topsoil and hillwash to try and get down onto the surface of the clay subsoil, which is where we expect the top of the ditch to show up.

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Don’t they seem to grow up fast nowadays. The fledglings that hatched last Saturday have turned from voracious perpetually open beaks to recognisable, if slightly grumpy looking, young swallows in less than a week. Big thanks to John for another round of excellent choc ices and Chris for a splendid supply of doughnuts.

Rick

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