I was out at Thornton earlier in the week to talk to the Wyre Archaeology Group about the discoveries we have made on the project and coincidently we have just had the first unofficial results from the radiocarbon dating programme. At the moment the dates don’t have lab numbers but they were all carried out by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Lab and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council’s NRCF scheme and we are very grateful for their support. As mentioned in previous posts we submitted bits of charcoal and bone from various features to try to build up a history of when the site was in use.


This is [N06] the first feature that we have good dates for, the latest of a complex of intercutting pits inside the Whitewell enclosure and seen here being excavated by Phil and Kayla in July 2014. There were two layers in this pit and we managed to get a date from both of them. The lower fill built up sometime between 2271 and 2033 BC and charcoal was still going into the upper fill around 300 years later, as we have a date from that layer of between 1746 and 1618 BC. These dates belong at the beginning and end of the Early Bronze Age in Britain. We have always thought that [N06] was later than most of the other archaeology in this area, because the fill of it was visible as a charcoal spread from much higher in the sequence than some of the other pits. I think that this date shows that the complex as a whole was in use for a very long time, as we have a single late pit apparently in use for most of the Early Bronze Age. If the Whitewell Enclosure is a causewayed enclosure it should date to around 3600 BC, the use of the pits on the same hill clearly lasted for much longer than that. This is excellent news for our major project aim of trying to understand long-term landscape use and how people remembered special places.


We also had some samples in from the presumed Late Neolithic henge and timber circle on the next spur of New Laund Hill. These included the single surviving piece of animal bone from that site (juvenile pig jaw) that Christina excavated with great care from the very sticky clay at the base of the henge ditch in 2012. This ought to have given us a very good date for when that ditch was originally dug but sadly, there was not enough collagen surviving in the bone to get a reliable result.


We had two samples from this post-hole in the timber circle. One was a chunk of the cremation that was placed there after the post was put up and we are still waiting for that result to come back. The other was a small piece of hazel charcoal from base of the post-hole, which ought to tell us when the post was first erected. This date was entirely unexpected, given that timber circles are supposed to be either Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. That piece of hazel was burnt sometime in the Middle Iron Age, between 396 and 209 BC.

There are two possible explanations for this. Either we have found a very large round-house on the top of a hill, which is just coincidently full of earlier prehistoric types of worked chert, or, and I think I favour this explanation, the hazel charcoal has been accidentally displaced downwards into a much lower level than it was in originally. We did find some crucible fragments and charcoal in this general area at a much higher level which could well be Iron Age. If this is the case then my prime suspect for this is the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris. Thanks to many conversations with Kevin and Chris, UCLan’s resident earthworm specialists, I have seen impressive evidence of the depth that these animals can burrow. A single worm digs a vertical burrow with chambers which can be more than a metre deep.

Lumbricus terrestris

The (potentially) guilty party. The date we still have pending on the cremated bone from the top of the post-hole will be interesting. If that is Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, which is more in line with our expectations, then we will assume the hazel charcoal was intrusive. If that is Iron Age too then the worms are off the hook (sorry) and we have to come up with a new interpretation for our timber circle.


Although I am a cave archaeologist, unlike some of my colleagues, I have never been a caver. When I go into a cave it is to dig stuff up and I generally don’t go in that deep or down very small holes. This is fine, except when the archaeology happens to be a long way down a very small hole. This weekend we have been working with some caving colleagues to excavate Late Iron Age and/or Roman human remains from a cave near Carnforth and I have been right at the very feeble limit of my caving skills.

Di, one of the caving team, discovered the front part of a human skull while digging at the end of a narrow passage last spring. She reported it to Lancashire Constabulary, who had it radiocarbon dated and discovered it died sometime in the first two centuries AD and therefore was slightly too old to be a live enquiry. We then took the bone to Preston, cleaned it up and discovered that is was the frontal bone (basically the face bit) of a young child between 3 and 4 years old. The aim of this weekend’s dig was to find out how the skull got into the cave and if anything or anyone else was with it.


The passage where the find was made ends in a series of pools, dammed by flowstone curtains. This photo shows the view across them looking back towards the way out. What we needed to do was divide this area up into 30 cm blocks and excavate the sediment out of each block in 5 cm layers. Working like this means that when we sieve the mud we know where everything we find comes from. Sieving took place at the surface and to get the sediment out to be sieved involved a long chain of bodies.


Di, because she made the original find and had the skills to get in and out of the chamber, did the actual digging and recording on site. She put all the sediment into 10 litre lidded sample buckets and passed them out to me.


This is as far into the final chamber as I could get. I leant round the corner like this and passed archaeological advice in one direction and waited for Di to pass buckets of mud and finds in the other. I labelled them and took them backwards behind me to a slightly wider fissure where I could turn round and pass them on.


This is Andy, waiting for the next bucket. He then had to crawl about 15 metres to pass them on to Simon at the entrance.


Once Simon got hold of them he then loaded them onto the fantastic Tyrolean ropeway which would carry them over the big drop into the main cave entrance and down to the streamway where they could be sieved and sorted.


Josh and Tom spent all day getting very wet indeed sieving very intensively. By late afternoon they had gathered both an admiring audience and an alarming backlog of buckets. This is actually the hardest part of all. It is cold, wet, backbreaking work while everyone else is having all the fun digging or playing with rope tramways.

Thanks to everyone’s hard work we successfully removed all the sediment from the end of the passage. We discovered most of the rest of the original cranium and also quite a bit of animal bone. Because we didn’t find either the jawbone or any of the rest of the skeleton we are assuming that the original burial was much nearer the surface and that the cranium was later washed into the depths of the cave.


Final shot of the day. Di emerging from the passage entrance as the last one off site.


Along with what seems like 3000 other archaeologists I have been in the west end of Glasgow last week for the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference. If you were trying to get into a pub on Byres Road on Friday night to watch Scotland play Georgia and couldn’t see the telly for intense looking people jabbering about metalwork or state-formation processes now you know why.

Unlike last year at Istanbul, when I gave a paper but was only there in spirit, I actually managed the two and a bit hours on the train up from Preston. Lindsey Buster and Eugene Warembol had organised a follow-up session to their Istanbul one last year. Once again this was on human remains from caves but looking at evidence from all periods across Europe and beyond. We started at 8.00 in the morning (I was on at the relatively civilised time of ten to nine) and had almost seven hours of information and discussion about dead people in caves.

Part of the joy of this sort of session is seeing the amazing range of discoveries people have made. Highlights this time included a jaw-droppingly well preserved 14th century burial of an archer from Mongolia excavated by the German Archaeological Institute in Ulan Bator. However, one of the things that seemed to strike everyone in the session (almost all of the closing discussion revolved around it) was how strikingly similar a lot of the evidence was from all periods and regions.


Some of these similarities come about because, by definition, cave burial rituals share some fundamental structures. They all draw on the things that caves themselves can do to dead bodies: wash them away, cover them with flowstone, mix them up like a tumble dryer and make a handy space to have them eaten by bears and wolves. They are also structured by what happens to dead bodies as they get deader – basically the bits fall off in a fairly pre-determined order (pause to let osteoarchaeologists clutch their heads and roll their eyes at my over-simplification). Of course both of these constraining things are essentially universal. Human decomposition and karst geomorphology both work in the same way wherever you are in the world.

In our closing discussion we were debating how useful it is to generalise about cave burial and how much it helps to focus on the differences between rites in different places. I am not usually a big fan of generalisations in archaeology, so I slightly surprised myself during the discussion by putting lots of emphasis on the universal processes in the previous paragraph. However, we shouldn’t think of people carrying out funerals in caves as being forced by environmental and biological constraints to choose between a very restricted set of rites. Instead we need to remember that these people chose to make use of the powerful opportunities offered by the combination of geomorphology and decomposition. After all, cave burial is usually only one option out of many available to people at any given time in the past.


Wildlife of the day. Hedgehog caught stealing the chickens’ grain when I went down to shut them up the night before I left for Glasgow.


We were very lucky at Whitewell to have lots of interested groups of visitors while we were excavating. We had formal visits like the Festival Bowland event and casual drop-in groups of hill-walkers wondering what all the inverted people were doing in the hole behind the electric fence. Every time this happened someone, usually me because I was the person on site least likely to be doing some essential part of the archaeological process,  would give a site tour and a bit of an explanation as to what a causewayed enclosure was. One question that a lot of people asked was why was there so much Neolithic activity around New Laund Hill?


This is the view north from the summit of the hill on the day of the Bowland Festival walk. We are looking down over the site of the timber circle (between the sheep and the small rowan tree on the plateau everyone is walking towards) and the henge (which enclosed the whole plateau). The photo also shows the upper part of the Hodder valley heading north really clearly. When we were giving tours we always said that this valley must have been an important routeway in the Neolithic period. The hill would have been visible from a long way away up and down the valley. It was a distinctive place along a well-frequented route. It was also being transformed from early on in the Neolithic as people dug pits on the side of it. Its distinctiveness and these transformation led to it becoming the site of first the gatherings at the causewayed enclosure and then the more formal ritual monuments of the henge and timber circle. At least, that was the story we told the punters this year.

Now I am back in the office and have time to look at maps and satellite images of northern England I have spent some time looking in a bit more detail at where these possible Neolithic routeways might go. All this is highly speculative, of course, but based on our blithe assertion on site that the big river valleys like the Hodder and Ribble act as routeways I have drawn lots of Dad’s Army style arrows all over the north.


One thing that this has shown is that, if you were coming from the west along the RIbble and heading for Yorkshire, then you might well use the Hodder as your main route east instead of the Ribble. Both will get you up into the Pennines and into Swaledale (take this route for East Yorkshire and good flint sources) and Teesdale (take this route for the Vale of Mowbray and Scandinavia).

Heading north-west through the Trough of Bowland would, in theory, give you a route up into the Lakeland fells and to the stone axe source at Langdale. However, unless you had another reason for visiting Whitewell, there would have been lots of more direct routes from almost anywhere to the Lakes.


Wildlife of the day – very small moorhen chicks going for their first swim on the Lancaster canal yesterday. Taken on my crappy old phone so apologies for the image quality.


I had an email a few weeks ago from Fleur Schinning in the Netherlands about research she is doing on blogging and archaeology there as part of her master’s thesis. As part of her work she is looking at English language blogs from the UK and US, because as she notes  – in these countries blogging seems widely accepted and used a lot as a tool in creating support for archaeology, and I have come across some very interesting and successful blogs

She goes on to say that public archaeology has been developing considerably in the Netherlands for the last couple of years, but there is still a lot of room for new ideas and innovations. She would like to be able to explore how blogging in archaeology contributes to public archaeology and to question the bloggers and readers of these blogs. I promised her that I would host one of her questionnaires on Sheltering Memory and now that I am not busy digging I am following this up properly.

Fleur’s questionnaire can be viewed here: http://goo.gl/forms/z3BAUTyYUL. Please use it to feedback on what we do and on archaeological blogging in general. All participants also have a chance to win a small prize; six issues of Archaeology Magazine.

Thanks in advance


We are all done now with the fieldwork for another year. We spent today putting the turf back on all three trenches, tidying and cleaning and then driving everything back to Preston. Thanks very much to Clare who drove the kit van while I drove the bus.


After the mess the cattle made of our re-turfing last year we made even more of an effort to fit the giant grass and thistle jigsaw back together properly this time. This included chopping up many small slices of turf to wedge in any visible gaps and then, once it was all in place, lining up to stamp it all down. Sadly neither video or still images exist of us line-dancing across the trench, all doing choreographed bunny hops.

The wildlife of the day was a shrew we found hiding in the turves, unfortunately no picture of that either as it was much to quick for me.


End of dig group shot at about 2.00 today of the last survivors. From left to right: Beth, Chelsea, Sammy, Katie, Debbie, Me, Rob, Scott, George, Phil and Danny. Thanks to everyone on the project this year for all your fantastic hard work. It is due to this that we have had such a successful season.

I now have a week off. My brother is coming up tomorrow and we are going to take all the kids and go and get in the way at Ribchester, where they are now two days away from finishing.


The last two days have been dominated by the need to get everything recorded before we had to start backfilling this afternoon. Of course, getting everything recorded means that all the digging must be finished first. We were not at that stage on Wednesday morning. The end of any dig is always a bit like this but this year we were a bit further behind than I would have liked, mostly because it has been so wet. This has had two effects, soil colours have shown up really well most of the time, so we have seen more stuff to dig. It has also made us slower at digging it.


Sampling and recording going on by the limestone pavement on Wednesday morning. George is trying to decide what precise colour of mud he is looking at by using a Munsell standard soil colour chart. This is basically a £200 version of the cards you get in DIY shops to show you paint colours. Except in a Munsell book they are all called things like ‘pale yellowish brown’ rather than ‘Mocha Sunrise’.


In the northern-most trench we were trying to finish digging the fills in the second phase of the ditch and get it cleaned up and recorded. I hoped to do this by dinnertime, so that we could crack on with digging the first phase. We were nearly there when two simultaneous spanners were thrown in the works just after this photo was taken. The total station had a minor nervous breakdown and stopped logging data. Fortunately it carried on measuring so Danny was able to write down the co-ordinates manually. At the same time it started to absolutely bucket down with rain, all over the lovely, almost completely clean surface.


Everyone trying to dig and record at the same time after the rain on Wednesday. By this time Danny and I had got the data logger working again too. Each feature we find needs at least two record drawings, photographs, spot heights taking and many context sheets filling in. Context sheets are the pro-forma records we use to describe each individual past event we think we can identify in the archaeology. All these jobs have to be done in a prescribed order too, so a lot of the challenge of the final stages of a dig is working out who should be doing what and when to prevent any unnecessary delays.


This is what the main ditch segment looked like this afternoon once all the fill had been removed. This was taken at about 1.40, only two plans and two sections to draw, about five context sheets to complete and 50 odd levels to take at this stage, before…


Tractor time, and the now traditional photo of me slicing up grab-bags as part of the tractor-assisted backfilling, Phil took lots of video of this too and we think this will swing the decision and get us on the main BBC4 Digging for Britain programme or rather than be relegated to the YouTube channel.



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