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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

Wednesday morning, to be precise. I set off on a trip into the uncharted territory otherwise known as the East Riding, to collect some flint samples. This wasn’t quite the epic trek it would have been from Preston because we were over in Scarborough for New Year.

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The samples are for Vicki and Matt’s PhD student Aine, who is using a range of different spectroscopic techniques to look at which trace elements are present in prehistoric flint tools. The idea is that the trace elements in different flint outcrops ought to vary enough to allow her to identify which flint sources were used to make the tools. She has already sampled a whole range of flint tools but she also needs samples from as wide a range of flint sources as possible. Hence my trip down into the East Riding, and specifically to the chalk cliffs around Flamborough Head.

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This is the sample site Aine had chosen, North Landing, just to the north of  Flamborough Head itself. It is a tiny north-east facing cove with what must be a delightful beach in the summer. At ten o clock on the last day of the year it was deserted except for a very few hardy dog walkers and me.

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Down at sea level it was exactly as cold as it looks in this photo. My job was to walk along the cliffs looking for outcropping flint, pick up as many loose bits as possible and link the samples to identified parts of the outcrop.

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As you can see in this photo there are bands of flint showing in the chalk at the base of the cliffs on the north side of the bay. These layers are very pale grey and opaque. They are quite chert-like in overall appearance and the bits I picked up didn’t look to be very good quality. I collected them anyway, although I am not confident that they would have made good stone tools.

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There were some much finer, black flint nodules lying around on the beach but it wasn’t until I looked in the debris from this recent cliff fall, also on the north side of the bay, that I spotted where this flint was coming from. I picked up lots of glassy black flint from within this pile of mud and chalk. There was clearly a band of the finer grade flint right up at the top of the chalk. I got lots of bits of both types of flint, hopefully Aine will be able to make sense of it all.

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I had a Frank Sutcliffe moment on the way back up the slipway, cobles in the morning light awaiting their turn at the shoals of herring.

Rick