…where it touches. This week I have trying to push on with writing up the work we did at Moseley Height, outside Burnley. I’ve blogged before about this site. It was an Early Bronze Age ring cairn which was salvaged in advance of NCB open cast mining in 1950 by Walter Bennett of the Burnley Historical Society. We went back in 2010 to see what survived on the site. Thanks to the generosity of Mike at the Towneley Hall Museum in Burnley we’ve also got access to the orignal finds and records from the 1950 excavations. This is where the urn with the possible human bone tempering came from that I blogged about in January.


This is what we found. We stripped a 20 by 30 m area in roughly the right place down to the level of the subsoil. This showed us the edge of the NCB’s open cast pit (the area of pale subsoil visible along the front edge of the trench) and also a lot of battered looking stones in more or less the place we were expecting to find the ring cairn.

RVP10 excavated area

We focused our detailed digging in the area around the cairn. The dotted lines are contours at 0.1 m intervals and you can also see lots of surviving stone and rubble from the cairn. Feature [6], the very shallow base of either a pit or a stonehole, was the only archaeological feature that survived.

So, it was there, but it is now gone. The contours still show a vague circular shape in plan, with a dent in the middle where Bennett’s main trench was, but very little of the actual monument survives. However, what we did find was a lot of very nice worked stone, both chert and flint.


This is a barbed and tanged arrowhead that Magda found on the last real day of digging. Nice to look at but also nice because these are very securely dated to the Early Bronze Age; it belongs with the ring cairn. There were also a lot of Early Bronze Age scrapers and flakes. Ross, who studied all this worked stone for his BSc dissertation, found out some surprising things about some of the other worked stone.

Causewayside Meso

These are bladelets (small blades) and two microliths, all of which ought to be about 3000 years older than the ring cairn. There was obviously a much longer history to this site than the Early Bronze Age burials. Long term activity at sites always fires the synapse in my brain that is marked ‘archaeology of memory’ (see what a good grasp I have of neuroscience). This in turn led me to thinking what else was there from Moseley Height that was earlier than the Early Bronze Age.


When we looked at the collections in Towneley Hall then I found things like this. These two are either oblique or hollow-based arrowheads, either way they are Late Neolithic. This is actually much better evidence for meaningful group memory, they are likely to be generations older than the ring cairn, rather than millennia. We can realistically imagine that the people who built the ring cairn had some broadly accurate traditions about who the people who left these arrowheads were.

CF10 ring cairn main plan

Even more usefully, Bennett left a field drawing in the archive which shows where all his small finds came from. This is my digitized version of that plan. What is particularly interesting is that all the datable finds from the cluster to the north-west of the central pit are Late Neolithic, so this may mark the position of an early deposit right at the beginning of the use of the cairn. Sam, in her dating programme for human bone from Early Bronze Age sites, found that the first burial at Hindlow Cairn in Derbyshire was a Late Neolithic cremation.


Of course, we’ve also got details of where all our finds cames from, although I am not so far on yet with splitting these up by date. What we really need to do is fit the two distributions together. This is a hard job because the only real points of contact between are two sets of records are 1) we know which way north is 2) the feature we dug as pit [6] is presumably a stonehole or pit base. Given where it is, it ought to be one of the stones on the north-west side of the outer cairn. This allows us to overlay the 1950 plan onto ours with a margin of error of about 2 metres, depending on which precise stone we think went in pit [6].


This is my current best guess as to where the ring cairn used to be. Now I have got all these lovely pictures, I really need to get on and write some words to go with them.


Twice a year we have an oppotunity to bid for Natural Environment Research Council money to pay the Oxford University Radiocarbon Lab to do radiocarbon dates. Once of these deadlines was this Tuesday, so I have been on the scrounge for money again. You need a mass spectrometer to carry out radiocarbon dates so it’s not the sort of thing you can do in any old chemistry lab. If we had to pay for them individually each date would cost about £350, so you can see why this programme is a big help for archaeological research projects like ours. A couple of years ago I was part of a succesful bid with Sam, who was then a PhD student here, to get dates on a whole series of Early Bronze Age barrows from northern Britain. Sam has lots of details about the results here on her blog but we are also working on a joint paper about them (well, to be more strictly honest, Sam has done a lot of work and now the paper has landed in my in-box for me to get on with my bit next week).

Obviously NERC are not keen to chuck their money around dating things that they don’t think are important. I’ve posted previously about how we need to establish that we are dating viable samples but we also have to sell the project as a whole. Why is it important that we date these enclosures and how will this advance our knowledge of prehistory generally?

Denise, who identified all the charcoals for us, worked really hard to get a full list of the suitable samples ready for the deadline. What this also tells us, of course, is a lot more useful stuff about the finds distributions. Instead of a load of black blobs for ‘charcoal’ were are now in a position to look at what species of tree was being burnt where on site.

NL13 Trench D and H timber circle charcoal ids

This plan shows the identified charcoal from the timber circle we dug in 2012 and 2013. The dense concentration of charcoal around the entrance we always thought was connected with the cremation burial from the same place. Now we can see that the pyre fuel seems to have been predominantly alder and/or hazel. Most of the larger, slower growing trees like oak and ash come from different parts of the site.

This also helps confirm what we thought from the archaeology that, unlike some other timber circles, none of the big posts here were burnt down. If they had been we would have expected to see a lot more oak charcoal.

The charcoal finds from all the sites Denise has looked at so far has had a lot of hazel and alder in it. Although this is not as systematic as we hope the results from the wet sieved samples will be, it does give us a suggestion that in the Neolithic this was a landscape that was mostly small trees and bushes, rather than large forest species.


I was out at New Laund this week to talk to John about plans for future seasons, but also to discuss grass and especially the lack of it. Trench R, which we are going to dig this summer, is going to be a bit bigger than previous excavations. This making him twitchy because last summer’s trenches haven’t really recovered in the way we hoped they would after we re-turfed them. This is especially galling because at the time I thought we had done the neatest job so far on the project putting it all back.


I went up to look for myself and take some photos. This last year’s trench M, not a great wicket, even by parks’ department standards. Trench N is about the same and trench P is worse. It is on a slope and the pesky cattle have trodden a lot of the turves up to eat the soil underneath. Admittedly, there is not a lot of grass growing anywhere at the moment but you can kind of see John’s point.


However signs that all is not lost, this is Trench K, from 2013, which looked similarly rough last spring and has recovered to the point where you have to know we were here to be able to spot it. I’m hoping the once the grass starts to grow a bit then some of the worst scars on last year’s trenches will have started to mend.


This is where we want to put trench R this summer. We will be digging somewhere between the two sheep-tracks in the middle foreground. The line of the inner ditch of the enclosure comes through here and there are also three or four more pits like the ones we dug last year. Our main priority is to get as big a section of the ditch exposed as possible. The more of this ditch we dig the better chance we have of understanding what went on in the enclosure. In particular it would be good to get datable charcoal from the bottom layers. So far, none of the charcoal Denise has looked at from the base of the ditches has been suitable for radiocarbon dating. We can get a good sequence from the various pits but nothing to tell us when the enclosure itself was first made.


Of course the other reason for coming out to see John in the spring is to get to see lambing. I must have been out a bit earlier last year as they are all a bit more grown up now. However, here are the rightful tenants occupying the building we use as a site hut in the summer.


It was all words and no pictures last week. This week I have been generating many finds distribution plots to even things up. These are based on the results of some work that Dan has been doing on last summer’s finds. He has been going through them and tidying up the spreadsheets. Partly this is about consistency – making sure that a piece of flint we classed a flake one day is similar to other pieces of flint classed in the same way a week later.

N20 finds by type

Even at this level we can get a lot out of this. This is all the stone tool finds from trench N sorted by type. Apart from giving a great sense of how much stuff there was in this pit complex, the other interesting thing is the way that all the blades (longer, thinner and more regular flakes) seem to cluster on the south-east side of the pit.

N20 finds by material

Looking at what everything was made of in trench N, we can see that the charcoal and burnt bone were mostly associated with the smaller, deeper pits up to the north. This plot is even busier than the last one as it includes all the other finds as well as the worked stone. In fact there was even more stuff in these pits because these plots don’t include quite a lot of things we found while sieving which don’t have such precise co-ordinates.

M finds by material

For comparison we have done the same kind of plot for trench M. One thing this seems to show is that the pit with former postholes in it [M13] has more variety of finds in it than the rest of the features in this bit of the site.

M finds by type

Although if we look at the type of stones tools and where we found them in trench M then the picture is more varied, with cores, scrapers, flakes and blades coming from all different parts of the trench. The features in both trench M and trench N should be Neolithic pits inside the probable causewayed enclosure we found last year.

P finds by material screenshot

We are still working on looking at what we found where in the outer ditch of the enclosure. This is a screen grab of the basic distribution pot in QGIS for the eastern part of the outer ditch as we excavated it in trench P. It shows the stone tools divided into flakes and blades for this area. Even though I haven’t got a nicely digitized plan to overlay this on yet you can clearly see the line of the ditch just by the increase in the density of finds.


Or (loosely translated) the once and future king. I haven’t suddenly turned into a post-Roman specialist. However, I have been thinking more about archaeology and children’s fiction. Apologies for the long interval between posts. I’ve been busy with things that were either too boring for words and/or need to remain confidential.

Children’s fiction came back into my head because I have just finished reading Here Lies Arthur by the consistently superb Philip Reeve. This is a retelling of the Arthurian myths with a brilliant twist on a device commonly used in historical fiction. The narrator, Gwyna, is the servant to Arthur’s magician Myrddin and, as you start to read, it looks as if Reeve is setting her character up to fulfill the traditional role of humble witness to stirring events – something like the narrator’s role in C. Walter Hodges The Namesake. Instead, Here Lies Arthur is more Gwyna’s story than it is Arthur’s. Gwyna and Myrddin between them weave what we can recognise as all the key elements of the Arthurian myths. Everything is fitted into a convincingly Post-Roman context and it feels entirely credible that you are hearing the tales that lie behind The Mabinogion for the very first time. Without giving away plot spoilers, everything from the Lady of the Lake to Arthur and Medrawt dying on the tragically inevitable battlefield of Camlann slots into place.

There have been many many reworkings of Arthurian myths published; why is this one so compelling? Historical fiction, whether for children, adults or ‘young adults’ (as I believe adults who are embarrassed about reading kids’ books like to be known), is essentially speculative fiction. It doesn’t stand or fall by its historical accuracy but by the internal coherence of the world in which the story is set. Historical accuracy in these things is a bit of a false goal anyway. For example, we now know that the central premise of The Eagle of the Ninth (Legio IX Hispana shamefully destroyed somewhere in Northern Britain around AD 110) is wrong, there are inscriptions which show the legion was alive and well in Holland in the 120s AD. This doesn’t invalidate the power of Rosemary Sutcliffe’s story at all. It is true in the world of the novel and that is what counts.

However, it is not the case that absolutely anything goes in a historical novel provided it is internally consistent. The story has to cohere not just with itself but with the reader’s knowledge of the period. The Eagle of the Ninth works because it is a great story but also because the level of research means that it fits with people’s expectations of Roman Britain. The tone and minor details all add together to a convincing picture of the time. Of course, how convincing you find it depends on the level of nit-picky knowledge the reader brings. I recently came across a review of children’s fiction in the archaeology journal Antiquity from 1988 in which my old favourite Littlenose got a bit of a kicking for playing fast and loose with the facts of Neanderthal life. As I have said before, given the target market of six to eight year olds with a sense of humour, I think the books are actually quite close to the major themes of Middle Pleistocene research.

Here Lies Arthur works so well because it is brilliant speculative fiction (and Reeve has a very impressive track record as a writer of Sci-Fi too) set, not so much in Post Roman Britain, as amongst and against all the existing stories of Arthur. We broadly know what is going to happen to all the characters (at least we do once we have mentally transliterated their names to work out what Roger Lancelyn Green would have called them). Reeve works with the knowledge that the broad and tragic arc to his plot is common knowledge to his readers, his genius is to create a consistent narrative that links together the chaos of often contradictory early medieval myths so we feel that, yes, this is how it once was, before the stories took on a life of their own.


Thanks to everyone who commented on last week’s post about bone tempering in one of the Moseley Height Urns. I have hidden my desk under books about pottery and am now going to try to respond to some of the questions in a bit more detail. I mentioned that bone temper is known from a few Neolithic vessels. One in particular, a Neolithic bowl fragment discovered during excavations in advance of the Market Deeping bypass, stuck in my head because I examined the pottery for that site. The Heritage Lincolnshire account of this work is available online through the splendid Archaeology Data Service but unfortunately the pot report Julia and I wrote is one of the archives which haven’t been digitized. We did this in 2000 so, unsurprisingly, I don’t have an electronic copy of my report anymore. However, I did find the pencil drawings I made at the time in the back of the filing cabinet.

market deeping_0001

This is the bone tempered sherd in question. It is part of the rim of a Mildenhall style bowl. There is another bone tempered Neolithic bowl from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire which was reported by Isobel Smith and Tim Darvill in their pottery report for the site. They list six other examples of bone tempering from sites in western Britain and Ireland: Robin Hood’s Ball and Avebury in Wiltshire (one sherd from each site); The Breiddin, Powys (possible identification of bone in a Beaker sherd); one sherd from Carrowmore; and several sherds from Creevykeel both in Co. Sligo and another Beaker sherd from the Grange Stone circle, Lough Gur, Co. Limerick. The bone in the beaker sherds was only detected because they were microscopically examined and Darvill and Smith point out that this means there may be many others that haven’t been discovered. I have added a link to the online version of this pot report to the reading list page under ‘pottery’.


All of these, even the Beaker sherds, are likely to be older than the collared urn we were looking at. Ian Longworth’s monumental ‘Collared Urns of the Bronze Age in Great Britain and Ireland’ only looks at the pottery fabric in general terms and he doesn’t note any bone tempered vessels. John Waddell and Breandán Ó Ríordáin wrote a similarly comprehensive study of the Irish material which neither I nor our library have a copy of so I can’t check in that yet. I have the same problem with two very useful volumes from 1978 on Northern Bronze Age pottery by Trevor Cowie and Alex Gibson. I have put all these things on the reading list to remind me to go shopping on Abe books for second-hand copies.

In the comments last week, Sean asked whether the bone could have been added accidentally – if the clay was being prepared in an area where bone had previously been burnt then you can see how small fragments could easily get into the body of the pot. The whole question of how you distinguish a deliberate inclusion from naturally occurring or accidentally added material is covered in great detail in Prudence Rice’s excellent Pottery Analysis: a sourcebook. In this case I think the bone is a deliberate addition because you only get the large fragments, not the range of sizes you would expect if the clay was accidentally mopping up bone ash.

Carlos picked up on my blithe assertion that lots of traditionally made pottery from around the world is tempered for what we would regard as non-functional reasons. There is an excellent review by Olivier Gosselain of belief systems around and based on pottery manufacture for African societies which includes a lot of this stuff. It was published in the Journal of Material Culture, once again the full reference is on the reading list.


Literally. We may have found evidence of crushed human bone being mixed into the clay used to make Early Bronze Age pottery. While I was looking at the Moseley Height Bronze Age pottery last week in Towneley Hall Museum I saw something that I thought was very exciting. Large white specks in the body of the pot had a very bone-like appearance. I kept quiet about this in last week’s post because I hadn’t had chance to check it out properly, however…


This is the surviving portion of Urn C. It is the bit around the rim and, as you can see, it has been fairly intensively restored since it was excavated in 1950. There are big sections where the shape has been reconstructed (or made up) using plaster of paris and brown paint. The rest of it is original Bronze Age ceramic but, to keep it from crumbling, it has been impregnated with something like PVA resin. Oddly, this means that the whole thing now feels as if it is made of plastic, which I suppose in one sense it is.

What this image also shows are the white specks of whatever it was that had been used to temper the clay. I’ve posted before about the processes of pottery manufacture and the need to add temper to clay. There are various practical reasons why you do this; it lets the steam out during firing and can improve the heat resistance of the finished pot. However, studies of modern potters in traditional societies around the world also show that it is often added for all kinds of other strange reasons. This is not to say that the temper wasn’t regarded as extremely practical by the people who used it – you can see, for example, how putting something into the mix of a burial urn that stopped the spirits of the dead from coming to eat your soul might be a high priority.


Last week, peering through the layers of resin wIth my little x20 magnification jeweller’s lens, I wasn’t quite sure what these white lumps were. Mike very generously agreed to loan us the pot so I could bring it back to Preston and put it under a microscope. On Wednesday morning Clare and I borrowed the fancy new digital microscope in the Forensic Science lab (usually used by our ballistics people to study gun cartridges) and set about trying to capture good images of the mystery tempering material.

Urn C000001

Here is one of the images from the microscope, clearly showing the bone structure in this particular fragment. Also, just as clearly showing all the shiny plastic of the consolidating resin and the microscopic particles of soil and roots now trapped in there forever.

Urn C000012

This is another fragment at slighter smaller magnification. Jim has had a look at these too and, like me, he is convinced that they are particles of burnt bone.

Burnt bone as temper in British prehistoric pottery is unusual, but not completely unknown. I know of Neolithic sherds from Hazleton North in Gloucestershire and Market Deeping in Lincolnshire, where bone was used in this way, and there are almost certainly others. We now have lots of questions about our bone tempering. Why did this pot need crushed bone in it when the other two urns from the site don’t have any? Is it cremated human bone or is it animal? (we are casting about for a non-destructive way to answer that one) and what is the relationship between the cremated bone buried in the pot and the bone temper fired into the body of the pot? We can begin to imagine all kinds of fascinating connections between the body of the pot, the body of the person buried in the pot, the food they ate and the other people buried in the ring cairn.



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