Sorry for the slight break in communications. I’ve been on holiday and then, as always seems to happen to me when I have time off, I have been a bit ill over the Bank Holiday. Over the years it has been noted that whenever I make some time for family life I am then immediately and mysteriously stricken with cold-like symptoms. Normally when this happens, if you are nimble with the paperwork, you can reschedule your leave for some hopefully less bug-stricken time in the future. Sadly, it appears you are not allowed to do this with Bank Holidays.


The other thing that has happened over Easter is that we have had the decision on our bid for a research council grant for the project. We were graded 3 (out of a possible 6). This means that the reviewers thought our project was ok but they didn’t think it was exciting or urgent enough to spend any cash on. We will be going back to the drawing board on this one next week once we are all back in work. However, as I have done in similar situations in the past, I will maintain the positive tone of the post by showing a pretty picture. In this case we have my Dad most of the way up a mountain.


So it must be time to think about the summer excavation. I have been out to New Laund today to talk to John about where we want to dig. I could probably have done this over the phone but they are lambing and I wanted an excuse to drive out there and take pictures of the knock-kneed newborns.


One of this morning’s being introduced to the world. Balmy weather compared to this time last year when all the grass was either dead or still under snow.


Daniel and his dog working mothers and slightly older offspring back up towards the buildings.


They are called legs, you use them for walking with.


I did also climb up the hill to site K to look at the area where we want to dig. There are lots of geophysical anomalies in this part of the farm that look intriguing. On the basis of the digging Jasmine’s team did last year we know this area was wooded in prehistory and that a lot of stone tools were made here, probably in the shelter created by a fallen tree.

NL14 proposedThis is what the gradiometer plot from Mike’s survey last summer shows. The red square shows where last year’s trench K was. John is happy for us to open three trenches this summer, marked in blue on the plot. I think the dark feature inside trench M is probably a prehistoric pit, it looks very similar to the big postholes on the timber circle in trench H last year. We have also decided to put a 2 metre wide trench across the large ditch. This is trench P and I expect this big feature to be medieval. As I have discussed before, we think it is a boundary for the medieval deer park. The big black blob in trench N may also be something to do with the deer park, or it could be another prehistoric feature.



As you might have gathered from previous blog posts, we are suckers for machines that whirr and ping, even if we are not quite sure how and why they work. I have mentioned before that the chert tools from our sites vary enormously. Some are made from very smooth black chert, others of nasty granular grey stuff that must have been a real challenge to work and the rest are of all qualities of raw materials in between these two extremes. For his BSc dissertation Carl is trying to identify groups of raw materials, to see how many different chert and flint sources were used by Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age people in Lancashire. He is comparing chert and flint tools from two sites, the 2012 and 2013 excavations at the New Laund enclosure and another, similar sized, assemblage from the platform cairn at Moseley Height, near Burnley.

DSC_0182He has spent the last few months in the relatively low-tech environment of our artefact study room sorting the raw materials into groups based on how they look and feel.  This is the flint, which he grouped into seven separate categories, and there were eight distinguishable types of chert. The question, of course, is whether these visual differences actually mean that the rocks came from different sources. One possible way to answer that question is to look at the trace elements in the rock, different geological sources, formed under different conditions, should include different trace elements.

DSC_0184To do that he needed to take himself and the stone tools down to the analytical suite and use our portable X-Ray florescence analyser on them (it’s not just ours, I hasten to add, this is where being in the same school as a lot of analytical chemists comes in very handy). Here are Carl and Clare looking very technical next to the pXRF rig, this is the same tool that Clare used for her MSc thesis on Californian rock art pigment.

DSC_0189Each lump of rock is placed on the pXRF and then covered with a nice lead lid to keep the radiation where it belongs.

DSC_0188Once the lid is in place it is bombarded with radiation and the resulting fluorescence is measured (I’m simplifying slightly so as not to display my shameful ignorance of the physics). All the heavier elements in the periodic table fluoresce at a distinctive wavelength and so, if you run the process for long enough, you can build up a full spectrum of what proportions of each element are present in each sample. Importantly, you get this without doing anything more destructive to the finds than zapping them with X-rays for about 30 seconds. The reason the analyser is shaped like a Captain Kirk-era phaser is because, being portable, you can take it out onto archaeological sites and run the process there. This means that awkwardly fixed and heavy things, like Clare’s rock art, can be sampled in the same way. It also means that artefacts in museum collections can also be sampled without them having to be loaned to us.

DSC_0187And so, after 30 seconds or so we can see that there is a lot of silica in our rocks, who knew. More usefully, we can also see smaller spikes for all the trace elements. Carl sampled sixty odd pieces this afternoon, four bits from each of the groups of different looking rocks he identified in the artefact study room. The preliminary results are interesting. All the flint is very similar, regardless of the differences in colour. However, the chert varies enormously. Even pieces that look the same have very different chemical signals. He now has to go away and think about what all this might mean.


This week I have been taking the project on the road. I have been presenting the excavation results so far to two local archaeological societies. After my expedition to the Ingleborough Group on Monday I had a much shorter trip yesterday night to speak to the Lancashire Society. They meet in Fulwood, about ten minutes walk from my house on the north side of Preston.

This is always a fun thing to do, but it serves a useful purpose too. It is very valuable to have to explain what you are doing, why it is important and to get feedback and questions from everyone. We use these public lectures a bit like we use this blog, as a place to try out our explanations and see if they make sense and sound plausible. There is nothing like listening to yourself talking to a room full of people for making you realise when you are talking rubbish. (This happens to me at least once a year when I am teaching. I am halfway through explaining something when I make the mistake of listening to what I am saying and think ‘oh hang on, its more complicated than that, I don’t really believe that any more’.)

Not, I hasten to add, that any rubbish got talked on Monday or last night. It is about seven months since we last did any digging and we have therefore had that long to get our story straight, so both groups got a comparatively polished version.

New Laund reconstruction

Alongside my low-tech PowerPoint reconstruction of the timber circle, the big project themes all got an airing. I talked a bit about the problems of studying social memory in archaeology. In particular we looked at the question of how small-scale traditional societies preserve their memories of landscape and monuments. Why do some places get repeatedly remembered and visited and others not?

Well obviously there are hundreds of possible reasons, but we tend to focus on three in particular which are accessible through archaeological and environmental evidence. These make up the three main lines of enquiry for our fieldwork: distinctiveness; transformation and performance.


Some places probably get remembered because they are physically or geographically distinctive. This site on the summit of New Laund hill is a case in point here. It is not particularly high but you can see it from a long way away in many directions. As we discovered in our very cold survey trip last spring, people dug pits up here at some point in the prehistoric past.

Other places become memorable because people transform them and leave physical traces behind. This could be by building things, like the New Laund timber circle, but we are also interested in environmental evidence for landscape transformations like clearing woodland or planting certain crops.

Of course, these first two explanations only work if people actually go to the places. This brings us to the last reason, which is that people remember tasks or activities which were performed at these places, especially if they were done repeatedly and involved more than one person.

Beacon Fell tree throw

The large collection of worked stone tools and waste from the tree throw hollow at site K is a great example of this kind of thing. Here was a very ephemeral natural space which was marked in people’s memories by the repetition of a fairly low-key task.

All three reasons, distinctiveness, transformation and performance, were probably important in different ways at different sites. Trying to pick out the contributions of each one at different sites gives us an archaeological method for studying social memory.


I’m going back up to the Yorkshire Dales next Monday evening to give a talk about the project to the Ingleborough Archaeology Group. I had to make some new images for this lecture and these have set me off thinking about how people moved around a relatively small and congested place like the inside of the New Laund timber circle.

NL13_113One of the obvious things about working on a dig is how constrained everyone is. You need to kneel or stand in certain ways to get the job done. Where you are on site is totally dictated by what archaeology is around and what your role is at that precise moment. Here we all are last summer, packed in around the cobble surface in the entrance. Everyone is cleaning up before a record photo. Not only did we all have to fit in around the feature but, of course, there can be absolutely no standing on the bit that has already been cleaned. People have to shuffle backwards as they work and the whole thing has to be tightly choreographed so we don’t all get in each other’s way. The archaeological remains of the timber circle structured the way that we moved about the trench.

When it was standing, the timber circle itself must have had at least as a big an influence on who went where. The big posts may have blocked people’s views or framed them like a stage. The path is a reminder that the ground may not have been dry or even. We can imagine all kinds of ways that a big construction like this would have physically impinged on the people who built and used it.

timber circle finds

Yet another image of dots on a plan to try and help with that. This is the timber circle, based on the results of our two seasons of excavation and the magnetometer survey. I’ve overlaid information about where three different kinds of thing were found.The black crosses are worked stone tools and the waste flakes from making them, mostly in different kinds of chert. The red dots are fragments of cremated human bone and the black ones are where we found pieces of charcoal.

Although the charcoal and cremated bone is spread over the whole area we dug there is a clear concentration around the big posts on the north-western side of the entrance. We know that these posts were dug out and removed when the circle went out of use. We also think that most of our cremated bone is from a single burial. Therefore, we can see that burial must have been at the foot of one of the big posts, either just inside or just outside the entrance. When the posts were pulled down the remains of the burial were disturbed and scattered over a much wider area. Most of the bone is inside the circle. This may mean that the posts were pulled down from the outside, scattering earth, stones and bone over the centre of the monument.

The stone tools tell a slightly different story. There is a cluster in an irregular feature right by the western edge of the trench, which may be a tree throw a bit like the one on trench K I described a few weeks ago. If this is so it will have been earlier than the period when the timber circle was in use. The rest of the worked stone is commonest inside the circle, particularly in the area between the pathway and the north-east side of the entrance. People seem to have been sitting just inside the circle here, in a place where there are many small scoops, hollows and postholes, to make and finish chert tools.

DSC_0189This is Alima and Scott digging that area last summer. Waste flakes were particularly common around the big, flat-topped rock on the left-hand side of the photo. It is very tempting to see this as a regular feature of how the circle was used. Someone walks into the circle, between the biggest posts and along the gravel path. Just inside the entrance they turn left, perhaps into an area secluded by wicker screens bedded in the smaller post-holes. Once inside they sit down on the rock and create themselves a nice sharp, freshly-knapped blade…

I may have been reading too much science fiction again.


Today we have been on a family expedition to find the Palaeolithic. I know it isn’t lost as such, but my son is doing a school project on ‘cave dwellers’. This was announced in a letter home last week, together with the news that there would be a prize for the best one. You could argue that having archaeologists for parents might give him a bit of an edge over the rest of year 3 but there is no complacency in this house.


First catch your caves. I fixed on Giggleswick Scar, up near Settle, as there genuinely are some Upper Palaeolithic worked stone tools from Kinsey Cave. We may have gone with slightly differing objectives. Mine were that we would find as many caves as possible and, by exploring them and their landscape in early March, get a feel for the experience of being a cave dweller just after the Last Glacial Maximum.

Cave Dad

His were more about using the graffiti function on his DS3 to make humorous images of me as a cave man. Note the red ochre parka, modelled after Stephen Aldhouse-Green’s interpretation of the Paviland burial. I also seem to have acquired Jimmy Anderson’s hair and a ZZ Top beard. This was taken in Kinsey Cave, where a series of different excavations, the most recent by Bradford University, have shown that there really was activity in the Upper Palaeolithic (it has Neolithic burials, bear bones and Roman finds too).


Kinsey is hidden away at the end of its own miniature dale and partly obscured by the spoil heaps from the early excavations.


Once you get inside it is a fantastic place to imagine being Littlenose and Two-Eyes seeing off the sabre-tooth tigers. Most of the archaeology came from slightly further back into the cave, starting just about where I was standing to take this picture.


The view out from Kinsey cave. This is roughly south-west and, interestingly, all the caves with Neolithic burials in this bit of the Yorkshire Dales face in this direction. This area is one of the groups of caves surveyed for their archaeological potential as part of a joint Sheffield/Bradford conservation report in 2007. The full report is available here.


One of the conclusions in this report  was that, apart from Kinsey Cave, the other upper level caves at Giggleswick Scar weren’t very likely to have surviving archaeological deposits. But, as you can see, they look cool and you can get to them fairly easily, which is the important thing when you are experiencing the Ice Age.


I spent most of Wednesday this week on the train. I am an external examiner at the University of Worcester, which means I need to attend their exam boards and report on whether they are marking fairly and properly. Preston to Worcester and back typically involves at least six different trains in a day. Had we had the meeting a few weeks earlier I would have needed a boat too. There were glum-looking men in green fleeces poking at the track on Worcester racecourse which had obviously only just emerged from the depths. However, all this time in transit was a great opportunity to actually get some reading done.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACave burials, like this bit of a foot from George Rock Shelter at Goldsland, were probably part of a wider British Neolithic phenomena of similar burials in monuments like chambered tombs. All of these burials share some characteristics. They usually involve more than one body in the same place and the bones of different people have usually become mixed up together. This pattern suggests that burial in the Neolithic was quite a long, drawn out process and, as part of trying to understand why that might be, I have been looking at ethnographic accounts from different societies around the world. On Wednesday, in particular, I managed to read the whole of a fascinating book by Peter Metcalf and Richard Huntington called Celebrations of Death (which is now on the reading list too).

They looked at death rituals from many different societies which are linked by having different stages to the burial. These stages can be anything from three months to several years apart. The important similarity here is that the dead have to have become skeletons before it is right to put them in their final grave. Metcalf and Huntington argue that multi-stage rites like these are usually linked to what people believe about how you die. Looking at examples from Madagascar and Indonesia, they describe how people there believe that death is an extended process. The soul of the dead person needs time to be freed from its body and needs help and encouragement to travel to the afterlife.

For groups like the Berawan of Borneo then the point when you stop breathing is only the beginning of death. At that point you are only mostly dead (and, as Billy Crystal said in The Princess Bride, mostly dead is a little bit alive). The Berawan believe that at this point the soul starts to wander away from the body. Their extended burial rites work to stop it coming back into the decaying body to create something like a zombie, but also to guide and encourage the spirit on a canoe trip up-river to the land where the spirits live.

Especially interesting from our point of view are the Toradja of the Celebes and the Bara of southern Madagascar, who both have a version of this kind of burial which uses caves. The Toradja have their corpses guarded by a slave in a specially built hut until they have become skeletons. Every five years or so they then hold a mass re-burial ceremony where all the dead who are ready are gathered up and put in ancestral caves. The Bara use their caves both as the place to expose the recently dead and the place of final burial. But, like the Toradja, they have ceremonies separated by years between putting the (mostly) dead in the cave and sorting out the skeletons for final burial in family groups.

Metcalf and Huntington, as social anthropologists, are most interested in the common beliefs that underlie all these similar burials. For me, one of the interesting differences is between those burials where time and nature are left to get on with the process of separating the bones and spirit from the flesh and the ones where living people are much more actively involved in breaking up the body quickly. I suspect both kinds of burial could have happened in British Neolithic caves, depending on how much assistance the dead were thought to need on their trip from dying to final death.



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