Finally, after many delays, I have found enough time to turn my notes on the  brilliant Haunt this Place session at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference in December into a, reasonably coherent, post. The session was organised by Katy Soar and Penelope Foreman to examine the way that haunted landscapes are presented in fiction, archaeology and/or both. This was right up my street, a lot of the speakers drew heavily on the children’s authors of the late 70s and early 80s. I’ve written before about how writers like this helped make me into an archaeologist and the session showed that I am not the only one. Penelope spoke about how Alan Garner’s retellings of ancient myth were rooted in experiences of very specific parts of the landscape.  Krystyna Truscoe looked at how haunted places and things in the work of Penelope Lively and Robert Westall throw the protagonists into the past.

Image result for penelope lively ghost of thomas kempe

Proper Jackanory era cover for my personal favourite Penelope Lively

There was also an interesting, probably generational, thing going on about haunted fiction and nostalgia. The children’s fiction of the late 70s and early 80s  was admittedly a sort of golden age for this kind of ‘around the corner and into the olden days’ stuff but was also, I suspect, the point when most of the speakers were children. You could argue that popular fiction today is equally rich in this kind of imagery: Jonathan Stroud and Ben Aaronovitch come to my mind straight away. Aaronovitch in particular clearly has an archaeological advisor for his magical landscapes, a fairly important sub-plot in his latest, Lies Sleeping, turns on the theft of Roman bricks from the MOLA stores.

Stroud and Aaronovitch would both recognise the urban gothic mythos that has grown up around the Crossbones burial ground and which was the subject of Lucy Talbot’s contribution. Crossbones is the former site of a post-medieval burial ground in south London. Following a vision in 1996, the playwright and poet John Constable wrote the Southwark Mysteries, suggesting that Crossbones was the medieval burial site for sex workers from Southwark – the so-called Winchester Geese. Lucy showed how Constable’s original encounter with ‘The Goose’, the spirit of one of these women, has become the catalyst for a whole range of other spirits to be commemorated at the site. A similarly ethnographic approach was taken by Juliette Harrison to modern oral traditions about ghosts. Using six ghost stories which appear in Pausanias’ Description of Greece as archetypes, she looked at internet accounts of ‘true hauntings’ at various locations in Britain and the US. There were some striking similarities: for example, on haunted battlefields, in both the ancient and modern world, the ghosts are heard but never seen.

Martyn Barber gave a characteristically thoughtful analysis of M.R. James’ ghost stories and their connections to the developing professional discipline of archaeology. He showed how the occult binoculars used to see into the past in the story A View from a Hill can be understood as metaphors for the new technologies of scientific archaeology in the 1920s. In another interesting, but probably entirely co-incidental, connection, the ‘bone glass’ which features as a major plot device in Jonathan Stroud’s The Whispering Skull is assembled in a similar way. Both the binoculars and the bone glass are objects of supernatural power which are manufactured from bits of dead people.

The role of fictional archaeologists within classic sci-fi is also interesting. Philip Boyes showed how haunted and abandoned worlds allowed hard sci-fi authors of the 60s and 70s to bring darkness and mystery to their otherwise utilitarian visions of the future. For example, the Captain Picard-like commander of the exploratory ship in Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama is an amateur archaeologist. His point was that archaeological investigation has been adopted many times in sci-fi as a metaphor for the process of attempting to understand an alien civilisation. He also pointed out that, as in the work of M.R. James, the archaeologist’s stereotypical combination of bumbling unworldliness and unhealthy curiosity makes them the member of the away team most likely to have their face eaten off by inter-dimensional monsters. This year’s Dr Who New Year’s Day special was a case in point. As soon as it was revealed that the two people investigating the mysterious object associated with the medieval skeleton were archaeologists you knew they were Dalek fodder for sure.



I have been meaning to post a further update on the Haunt this Place session at TAG for a while because it was so fab and got me thinking about so many different things. I will still do that some time soon but just now I am only posting to ask a favour. At the top of the page you will see a new link to the Inspiring Communities project survey. This is a project that I am co-ordinating looking at the impact of UCLan archaeological fieldwork on the local communities where we work. This doesn’t just include my work in the Forest of Bowland, but also the work that Jim and Duncan are doing at Ribchester and that Seren is doing on Anglesey. If you click on the link at the top of the page you will get access to the survey and more information about what we aim to do on the project. Please read this and complete the survey

thanks very much


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.