Along with about four hundred colleagues, I was at the Theoretical Archeology Group conference in Chester towards the end of last month. This is a yearly happening, Chester was the 40th, which I have blogged about before. The conference functions as both a leading forum for intense academic debate and as the discipline’s Christmas do. Given the timing at the start of the Christmas break, I normally tend to treat TAG as primarily a social occasion (a bit like my son’s attitude to school, can’t think where he gets it from). This year, however, I had a book to plug. Neolithic Cave Burials: agency, structure and environment is due out early in 2019 with Manchester University Press and so I felt I should make more of an effort in the academic sessions.


When the call for papers came out in September I thought it would be a really great idea to do two papers in two different sessions based on different chapters of the book. I did not feel so enthusiastic about doing this at the beginning of December, when the actual papers had to be written, Still, it’s all sorted out now.


Here am I on the first afternoon of the conference, talking about what cave burials can tell us about how and why the Neolithic began (photo by Caradoc Peters). This was part of the excellent Rethinking Transitions session organised by two UCLan PhD students, Nate and Rob, looking at how we identify transitions between periods and how we deal with the archaeology that crosses these boundaries. Rob and Nate had put together an excellent mix of speakers covering everything from the African Midde Stone Age to post-Roman Spain, including UCLan and Sheltering Memory alumnus Mike, now a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, talking about the Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age transition in Northumberland.

Tuesday, the second day of the conference, was the only day when I wasn’t giving a paper, so I was free to go along and listen to the brilliant Haunt this Place session, which I’m going to blog about next week because it set of whole chains of ideas in my head. After all that excitement I’m afraid I have nothing to report about Tuesday afternoon because at that point my old bad habits kicked in and I went to explore the Christmas market on Northgate Street instead of doing any work.


On Tuesday night it was the obligatory TAG party. For many years the resident DJ at these things was the late great Sara Champion. When I was a PhD student in Southampton, Sara was a leading light in the regular Friday night alchotherapy sessions (a semi official staff/student pub-crawl/bonding session). These always seemed to end in intense musical discussions, often involving supercilious incredulity from us gobshite students that her son’s band of Radiohead impersonators would ever get themselves a record deal. In this, as with much else, Sara had the last laugh. After Sara’s death the TAG party seemed to lose its way musically for a while, a sequence of ill-advised live bands was only relieved by Will Champion bringing his mum’s old record boxes out of retirement at Southampton TAG. However, since last year’s event in Cardiff, the mantle has been brilliantly taken up by John Schofield – archaeology professor, also York based DJ and John Peel looky-likey. The person doing frankly inappropriate Morrissey-with-a-bunch-of-gladioli style dancing to Another Girl, Another Planet may have been me.

In recognition of the fact that Tuesday night was party night, sessions on Wednesday morning started at 9.30. I missed this fact in the programme and so was sitting in the venue for my second session at 9.00 vaguely wondering where everyone else was. Paper number two was part of a session organised by Andy Gardner, Manuel Fernández-Götz and Guillermo Díaz de Liaño on ‘Flat Ontologies’. A flat ontology, just in case you aren’t completely up to speed with this sort of thing, is any description of the world which treats people, objects and the environment as equally capable of doing stuff. This is something of an enthusiasm of mine. I’ve blogged before (here, here and oh look, here too) about how it is not just the people carrying out the burials which create cave rituals but also the decomposition of the bodies and the geochemical processes in the caves. I’ve also devoted a lot of the new book to this argument so it was good to have such a ready-made forum to try out a very condensed (12 minutes plus questions!) version of it.




As promised, further information about our Hodder Valley River Walks episode, which will be broadcast this Monday, 10th December, at 7.30 pm on BBC1 in the north west region. If you live outside the region then sadly you will see a different episode about a diffferent river (sadly for me anyway). Obviously, in that case you should immediately have recourse to your freesat box where you will find BBC1 North West somewhere in the high hundreds on the channel numbers. Or you could watch it on iPlayer.


The BBC North West press office have kindly sent me a better photo of me and Stuart Maconie dressed to go down the pit. The also sent a video clip for promotional purposes, proving once again that, despite stern instructions to the contary from my son, I still move my head about too much when I am talking on the TV. This is available to view on my twitter feed here.



I was back up to Whitewell on Tuesday this week to help with a programme in the forthcoming River Walks series for BBC 1. I’m not supposed to reveal too much about the content at this stage but it was a great excuse to leave behind my marking for a day and go and potter about John’s farm and look at animals when I wasn’t doing my bits of the filming.


One of the dogs has had puppies


There are now geese (I am aware this is starting to look like a very old-fashioned ‘On the Farm’ picture book)


And, slightly more left-field, two homeless goldfish have taken up residence in the horse trough in the yard.


The yard was also insanely busy for part of the morning. There was a shoot on in the wood, so the Range Rovers of the punters, the Subaru trucks of the keeper and beaters, and the BBC’s Mercedes made for the world’s most expensive traffic jam. Tangled up with all this, at the back of my photo, are a bunch of year six teachers and kids from Nelson on a farm visit. Worlds collide.


Most excitingly of all, presenting for the BBC was Stuart Maconie, writer, broadcaster and all round good egg, whose BBC 6Music shows are eagerly listened to in our house. I may be being comepletely delusional but I think I managed to maintain a calm and professional demenour through the day’s filming. I cracked a bit at the end though and got the obligatory fan shot on my phone.

Our episode of River Walks will be on BBC1 in the north west on the 10th December. As we get more details nearer the time I will post them here.






Just an excuse to put up this lovely atmospheric, if slightly low-res, shot. We were over at my parents for August bank holiday weekend, the house was a bit full and our kids are still young enough to think that camping in the garden is a good game. This meant we were the ones who got to sleep outside. I had just finished settling the little one down in her tent, about an hour and a half after bedtime, when the clouds shifted and revealed this beautiful harvest moon. They had been rattling about combining in these fields all day and rightly didn’t trust the forecast for Sunday so they had the tractor lights on and were still going through the night. Therefore, I was able to get harvest moon and harvest (well ok, bailing) in the same shot.


Heaning Wood Bone Cave in West Cumbria is a prehistoric burial cave with a long history of research. Ian Smith has recently shown that the human bone from the site was Early Bronze Age while the large assemblage of different species of animal remains were Early Neolithic.


Cave explorers in the mid 20th century got into the Cave this way through an extremely tight squeeze further along this horizontal passage but, by the time Ian was carrying out his research, improvements in the average British diet meant that no one was capable of entering the cave that way.


This was probably the prehistoric entrance to the cave. It was discovered in the 1970s by the landowner and has been cleared and explored by Martin Stables. This shows that the cave was more of a vertical shaft than previous suspected, which fits well with the pattern I identified in my upcoming book for Late Neolithic and Early Bronze Age cave burials to be in vertical shafts like this. I have been helping Martin with the survey and recording of the cave. As you can imagine, producing a measured drawing of a constricted and irregular shape like a cave can be quite challenging. In the past I have used a total station to do this kind of thing, which involves a lot of time underground but is relatively quick on the computer afterwards.


For more on site speed and accuracy of survey I did the Heaning Wood survey with our Faro Focus laser scanner. This shot shows the machine set up at the choke point in the vertical shaft where most of the human and animal bone built up. Behind the tripod you can see the shaft heading off down into the bowels of the earth. This also gives a good sense of how tight the space is, this was taken from the ladder on the way back up the entrance shaft. The scanner works by bouncing its laser off the cave wall and logging the position of many millions of points to build up a 3d model of the cave. To do this it has to spend about 30 minutes spinning around on the tripod and while it is doing this you can’t be in sight of the scanner (otherwise a ghostly blurred image of the surveyor turns up in the final computer model). When you set the machine off it gives you about 30 seconds to get out of range, this is fine if you are scanning a room (we also use this scanner in crime scenes) but scrambling out through a narrow vertical tube in this time is more of a challenge.

Heaning scan screen shot corres view

Even so, the survey is the easy part. I did three overlapping scans of the cave interior to cover any blank spots. Clare and I then spent about three hours in the imaging lab trying to make sense of the data. When you get the numbers out of the scanner these different scans have to be registered and linked together to create the 3d model of the cave. This is what the raw scan data looks like. Within the two scans on screen here you can see various control objects that I added into the cave to help the scanner link the different scans together. These include white plastic globes and checkerboard patterns. The software compares the measured distances between these points to build up a grid of similar distances. This view shows how Clare and I made sure that the software was linking the right control points together. It normally does this automatically but some times, and this was one of them, its gets confused. The issue this time was that two of the globes were close together and only one showed in each scan. The software decided they were the same point but, of course, they weren’t.

Heaning scan screen shot scan 1

Once this little issue was fixed these two scans snapped together nicely. This view shows the merged model with the first scan highlighted to show which bits of data came from where. We are now at the stage where we have a nice 3d model of the main bit of the cave we can rotate and examine.

Heaning scan screen shot2

This view shows the width of the chamber quite nicely, while also giving a sense of the depth of the vertical shaft.

Heaning scan screen shot

On the other hand, this view clearly shows up the depth of the deep fissure beyond the point where most of the bone was found. This really shows well how a 3d scan like this can give you a much more nuanced understanding of a cave than even the most accurate plan.





One of the reasons that posts on this blog have been a bit intermittent over the last two years is that I have been working on a book for Manchester University Press on Neolithic Cave Burial. I theory this ought to mean that I had loads of ideas to share on the blog. In practice, any spare time when I used to sit down to sling together feeble puns and random jottings has been taken up with proof-reading or fiddling with illustrations. It has also meant a bit of a break from fieldwork, which was always the main source of material for the blog. However, it is nearly done now. Recently, as part of getting the illustrations straight, I realised that I needed better quality photos of some of the sites in the Yorkshire Dales. Whenever I go to the Dales for archaeological purposes it always seems to pour with rain, like this and this. Most of my photos were therefore more atmospheric than informative. So, I stuck a digital SLR in the car and took myself off to Giggleswick to try and get some better pictures.


First stop, Langcliffe, and a layby unexpectedly crowded with school minibuses unloading pack-laden 6th formers on their Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expeditions. As I was only carrying a camera and a map I beat them up the hill and was able to take uncluttered shots of the view from Jubilee Cave. Jubilee is an important site as it is one of the few cave sites with evidence for individual primary burial in the British Neolithic.


Stephany Leach’s analysis of the human bone from within the cave showed that an adult man was buried beneath one of these rock ledges sometime in the later part of the Early Neolithic. This is what we would describe as a ‘primary burial’; that is one where the whole body was placed in the ground soon after death and not moved or interfered with afterwards. Most people who were buried in caves in the Neolithic had more complicated funeral rites than this. I took all the photos I needed at Jubilee, annoying many sheep who were using it to shelter from the sun, tried and failed to photograph some curlews and then set off back down the track past the gasping and labouring queue of teenagers.

The other caves I wanted to photograph were both close(ish) together on Common Scar, near Giggleswick: Sewell’s Cave and Cave Ha 3. Cave Ha 3 is easy to find as there are a whole lot of rock-climbing routes on the crags around it. If you park in the layby at the north end of the B6480, you can follow the clinking sound of climbing kit being sorted up any number of unofficial pathways to the Cave Ha complex.


This is Cave Ha 3, which is really a small rock shelter just to the east of the main Cave Ha itself. There were four people buried at this site, again in the later part of the Early Neolithic. This is another collection of human bone which was studied by Stephany Leach. The funerary rite here was what is known as successive inhumation. The bodies were placed at the back of the shelter and left to decompose. However, as there as an active layer of tufa forming in the cave at the time the bones became coated in this quite quickly, in some cases before becoming completely disarticulated.

The last site on my list, Sewell’s Cave, is at the other end of the scar. At this stage of the trip I made a slight route-planning error. There is a nice broad ledge running along the base of the Cave Ha complex and I thought that, rather than climb back down to the road and have to climb back up, I would just follow the ledge along the escarpment until I got to Sewell’s Cave. This does not work. The broad ledge quickly becomes narrower and more exposed, making for slow and nervous going. I backed up  and tried to bash my way through the woodland instead but this is almost worse. The scar is still pretty steep and the only handholds are vegetation, most of which is either brambles or nettles, and, of course, if you are up to your eyebrows in dense undergrowth it is really difficult to keep any sense of where you are going.


I got there in the end but I have no guidance to offer on the best route to this site, apart from don’t try to do what I did. Sewell’s Cave, which was excavated by the local Pig Yard Club archaeological society in the 1930s, had evidence for another different kind of funerary rite in the Early Neolithic. All the human bone was found clustered together  against the northern wall of the rock-shelter (on the left hand side in this photo). Stephany Leach was able to show that all this bone was from disarticulated skulls. She suggested that this cave was the final resting place in what is known as a secondary burial rite. These people must have been buried or exposed somewhere else when they first died and then, once the bodies had decomposed the heads were removed and brought to their final burial place in Sewell’s Cave.

Stephany Leach’s research on the human bone from these caves is published in her 2008 paper which is on the reading list.


I’ve been in North London for the last week, celebrating various birthday related things. While my eldest went roaring off up the M1 in his auntie’s red MX5 to the Harry Potter Studio Tour for his birthday (don’t worry, she was driving), I was rattling over to Dalston Junction on the Overground to do a porcelain course with Jo Davies for mine. I’ve been making pottery for almost as long as I have been studying it as an archaeologist. I started working with clay at Southampton Student’s Union as a Wednesday afternoon diversion whilst I was a PhD student. At the time I wanted to understand hand building and bonfire firings, because that was how the Neolithic pottery I was studying was made.


Since then, however, I have got much more interested in making wheel-thrown pieces in glazed stoneware. Over the years I have developed a style of making which is probably best described as robust. Being a part-time night-class potter is a very good way of never getting out of any bad habits you have ever picked up and stoneware lets you get away with a certain amount of chunkiness in your handles and bases. Lots of my stoneware pots, like the one above, look as if they would be best used in an eighteenth century tavern brawl. Porcelain is a very different, less forgiving, material than stoneware. Last year I did a three day porcelain course with Jo at West Dean College in Sussex (which has a history and ambience worth a whole post on its own), trying to move on from my ‘Gin Lane’ aesthetic. As a follow on from this, I spent my sessions in Jo’s studio last week working on being a bit more delicate in my throwing.

While I was making mugs, and Jo was unpicking the glitches in my technique, we were talking about pottery and the connection between making things and memory. Learning to make things is a really good example of the kind of bodily ‘muscle memory’ that Paul Connerton refers to as ‘habit-memory’. There are loads of examples of this kind of remembering in all craft processes. What is interesting about this kind of memory is that it is a three way process involving your body, the physical thing you are trying to do and feedback from the person teaching you. When you are making something you can see and feel if it is working. This means that the habit-memory of learning to make something is directly connected to the physical form of the actual thing you made.


We were also talking about materials and memory in pottery, particularly about this bone tempered Collared Urn from the Moseley Heights ring cairn I wrote about a couple of years ago. There is a temptation to think about this pot as special in some way, because it is tempered with what may be cremated human bone. This seems like a very good example of a memorial object. This pot preserves the memory of a person because it contains ground up bits of their body. However, most Bronze Age urns are tempered with ground up bits of other pots. These pots would have been directly connected to the actions of the person who made them. I don’t think we can assume that the pot tempered with the remains of someone’s bones is any more directly ‘memorial’ than one which is tempered with the remains of their actions.

At this point Jo asked if I knew the work of Julian Stair, which I didn’t. Being a diligent student I went away and looked him up later. The first thing my reading showed was that I absolutely should have heard of him, a major exhibition –  Quietus – was commissioned by mima (which is in my hometown of Middlesbrough) and one of its other venues was the National Museum of Wales (where I used to work and where 90% of the pots I studied for my PhD are kept). Quietus used ceramics to explore the containment of the human body after death and included Memorium: an installation in which audio visual memories of one person’s life were projected around a bone china urn which contained and was tempered with his ashes. Apart from the congruence between Memorium and the Moseley Heights urn, there is a lot of interesting overlap between archaeology and Stair’s writing on objects and memory. I need to read a lot more of this, but to start with I have put a paper of his on craft and the body on the reading list.