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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.

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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.

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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.

Rick

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rick

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Rick

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

Rick

Julia, who is the power behind the excellent Histories of Archaeology Research Network blog, has a particular research interest in how archaeological field practice and technique was developed in the early 20th century. For a long time she has had the vision of a research project to compare the techniques of different past archaeologists. Her idea was to get a site and dig different bits of it in different period styles using the site manuals and archives of the day to guide you.

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John gave us the OK to open another trench on Thursday. Looking at this photo of us clearing off the topsoil in the new area it appears we have adopted the Wheeler/Kenyon system of gridded boxes, which was the cutting edge of archaeological practice in the late 1930s. As long as we remember to keep recording in metric units all should be well.

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Today was the annual guided walk that we run as part of Forest of Bowland AONB’s Festival Bowland event. Thanks to everyone for their enthusiasm and the great turn out. We started out down in Rob’s finds shed to look at the different kinds of worked stone we have been finding this year and to talk about enclosures and their role as seasonal gathering places. We then walked up the hill to look at our ongoing excavation. While I was down at the barn the team had found a re-cut in the top of the enclosure ditch. This is really good evidence for seasonal re-use of the site, showing how the partly silted up enclosure ditches would have had to be re-defined when people came back to the enclosure for each season’s gathering.

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We then walked on round the hill to Mouse Hole Cave, which we dug in 2011. When we got to the site this morning as part of the tour I was delighted to see a whole lot of animal bone eroding out of the upper cave fills. We will come back to this site next week and excavate and record this properly.

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We also took everyone up onto the New Laund Enclosure, the Late Neolithic henge and timber circle we dug in 2012 and 2013. Timber circles, of course, don’t survive as visible monuments and, as we don’t have any of the nifty Ministry of Works concrete posts that you see at sites like Bleasdale or Woodhenge, I made some of the group pretend to be large oak posts in the appropriate locations.

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After all that explaining we took the afternoon off so that we could go and visit the other UCLan excavation going on at the moment, on the Roman fort at Ribchester. Here is Duncan standing on one of the fort roads while he explains the exciting evidence they are finding for post-Roman activity within the fort walls.As you can see, their trench is just ever so slightly bigger than ours.

Wildlife of the day was a pair of sparrowhawks in the trees behind the dairy while we were on our way up for the guided walk.

Rick

Mairead, Dan and I went up to site on what felt like the last day of winter, but was in fact early June, to try to sample for preserved pollen. It is fair to say that looking for surviving pollen on site has not been the smoothest part of the project so far. We originally took lots of samples from features we dug, reasoning that any pollen would then be easy to date and link to the archaeology. The only problem with this plan was that when Mairead came to look at these samples then the pollen wasn’t well enough preserved to tell us anything reliable about the prehistoric environment.

Plan B, which we started to put into operation the other day, was to take an auger to the various boggy places around New Laund Hill in the hope of getting a sequence of bog close to the archaeology that dated back into prehistory. An auger, by the way, is a giant version of the thing gourmet judges use to test cheeses with. You poke it into the mud and it comes out full of sediment for you to examine. It has a T-shaped handle to aid the pushing and extra-sections, as on a chimney sweeps’ broom, if you want to go deeper.

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We poked away at many promisingly boggy locations around the hill but found that they were all dolines choked with limestone and clay, making a very hostile environment for pollen survival. At this point we had to move to plan C. This involved quizzing John as to where the nearest peat bog was and, when it turned out to be at the other end of Dinkling Green Farm, cadging a lift for us and all the kit in the Land-Rover.

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When we got there it turned out to be worth all the bouncing about. Mairead and Dan used the auger to find the deepest part of this bog. Once we were sure there was good preservation and more than a metre’s depth of peat they were able to move up to this device here, the Russian corer. The auger is good for looking at sediments but the advantage of the Russian corer is that it gives you a 50 mm diameter column of sediment served on a plate. It has a much wider head than an auger and has a closing stainless steel flap. Once it is in the ground you can, by turning the handle half a turn, shut the flap and trap a column of sediment inside. With the corer out of the ground you can carefully open the flap and ease the sediment into something like a plastic gutter and a whole section of the peat bog is nicely sealed up to be sampled at leisure in the warm and dry.

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The head of the Russian corer is only 0.5 m long so, like the auger, it comes with many additional sections to add depth (now you see why we were so keen on a lift in the Land-Rover). This is the lower of the two sections through our peat. The grey clay on the right hand side probably dates to the immediate post-glacial period, around 10 000 years ago. About 150 mm up the core you can see the transition where peat has started to form on the top of this clay. Dead plant material then continued to build up over the next 10 000 years to create the peat bog and, hopefully, trap lots of pollen to tell us about changes in the local environment.

With Mairead’s help, Dan will be working on this for his MSci dissertation over the next year, so I will be able to keep you posted with results as he gets them.

Rick

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.

Rick