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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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
We are all done now with the fieldwork for another year. We spent today putting the turf back on all three trenches, tidying and cleaning and then driving everything back to Preston. Thanks very much to Clare who drove the kit van while I drove the bus.
After the mess the cattle made of our re-turfing last year we made even more of an effort to fit the giant grass and thistle jigsaw back together properly this time. This included chopping up many small slices of turf to wedge in any visible gaps and then, once it was all in place, lining up to stamp it all down. Sadly neither video or still images exist of us line-dancing across the trench, all doing choreographed bunny hops.
The wildlife of the day was a shrew we found hiding in the turves, unfortunately no picture of that either as it was much to quick for me.
End of dig group shot at about 2.00 today of the last survivors. From left to right: Beth, Chelsea, Sammy, Katie, Debbie, Me, Rob, Scott, George, Phil and Danny. Thanks to everyone on the project this year for all your fantastic hard work. It is due to this that we have had such a successful season.
I now have a week off. My brother is coming up tomorrow and we are going to take all the kids and go and get in the way at Ribchester, where they are now two days away from finishing.
The last two days have been dominated by the need to get everything recorded before we had to start backfilling this afternoon. Of course, getting everything recorded means that all the digging must be finished first. We were not at that stage on Wednesday morning. The end of any dig is always a bit like this but this year we were a bit further behind than I would have liked, mostly because it has been so wet. This has had two effects, soil colours have shown up really well most of the time, so we have seen more stuff to dig. It has also made us slower at digging it.
Sampling and recording going on by the limestone pavement on Wednesday morning. George is trying to decide what precise colour of mud he is looking at by using a Munsell standard soil colour chart. This is basically a £200 version of the cards you get in DIY shops to show you paint colours. Except in a Munsell book they are all called things like ‘pale yellowish brown’ rather than ‘Mocha Sunrise’.
In the northern-most trench we were trying to finish digging the fills in the second phase of the ditch and get it cleaned up and recorded. I hoped to do this by dinnertime, so that we could crack on with digging the first phase. We were nearly there when two simultaneous spanners were thrown in the works just after this photo was taken. The total station had a minor nervous breakdown and stopped logging data. Fortunately it carried on measuring so Danny was able to write down the co-ordinates manually. At the same time it started to absolutely bucket down with rain, all over the lovely, almost completely clean surface.
Everyone trying to dig and record at the same time after the rain on Wednesday. By this time Danny and I had got the data logger working again too. Each feature we find needs at least two record drawings, photographs, spot heights taking and many context sheets filling in. Context sheets are the pro-forma records we use to describe each individual past event we think we can identify in the archaeology. All these jobs have to be done in a prescribed order too, so a lot of the challenge of the final stages of a dig is working out who should be doing what and when to prevent any unnecessary delays.
This is what the main ditch segment looked like this afternoon once all the fill had been removed. This was taken at about 1.40, only two plans and two sections to draw, about five context sheets to complete and 50 odd levels to take at this stage, before…
Tractor time, and the now traditional photo of me slicing up grab-bags as part of the tractor-assisted backfilling, Phil took lots of video of this too and we think this will swing the decision and get us on the main BBC4 Digging for Britain programme or rather than be relegated to the YouTube channel.
The kids were meant to be back up on site this week but the weather was not Nintendo DS friendly. Like a lot of archaeologists I am not sure how I feel about my children becoming archaeologists in their turn. Entirely selfishly, I think that they might fancy something a bit more remunerative to keep me when I retire. It may be that they would also like something with a bit less rain.
For most of Monday conditions were so horrible that all you could do was follow the procedures mechanically, get the job done and wonder if this was really a great career choice. A bit late for me as I have been doing it for 30 years and am conspicuously lacking in skills in any other area of work but definitely a day for thinking ‘Don’t follow me down pit son’. Phil, Sammy and Katie are nobly plugging on with their ditch segment in the pouring rain and hopefully not seeking a transfer to history.
The limestone pavement got a lot of attention on Monday too, one thing about cleaning a stone surface is that it stays workable in even the heaviest downpour. The way that the limestone is weathered here is really good evidence that this was an exposed pavement in prehistory. There is a lot of rounding and solution hollowing which could only have occurred if the rock was exposed to the elements. It looks as if people used the pavement as a working surface, just on the inside of the enclosure ditch.
However, the job is usually its own reward. Late on Monday John found these two chert blades in the pit or ditch segment he is digging. What is special about these is that they fit back together. They are two pieces that were removed from the block of chert one after another. The fact that we have found them both in the same feature tells us that this stone tool manufacture was happening here, right in that feature. If they had been made somewhere else it is highly unlikely that both re-fitting pieces would have found their way into the same hole. John is holding in his hands the evidence for a single moment in time about 5500 years ago.
Today we have had a bit more clarity, both with the weather and consequently with the archaeology. George and Scott have defined the upper fills of two more ditch segments just outside the limestone pavement. They have also found a lot of worked stone and some substantial pieces of charcoal. The large feature Scott is mattocking may be the other end of this…
Which John is having a go at the other end of. He had another fine chert blade in here today which may also fit with the two he found yesterday. These bits of ditches are on a slightly different line than the big segment that Sammy and Katie are recording, which is more good evidence for the episodic way that the enclosure was created at each gathering.
Even further outside are these two pits that Chelsea and Debbie got nicely cleaned up by the end of today. The deep one by the far section was earlier. This was filled up before the large shallow one in the foreground cut through it. The finds bag in the bottom of the deep pit has more fragments of what may be prehistoric pottery in it – we will see once we have got all the mud off it.
Is over. Thomas was pasture topping all day Thursday so I took a final shot of our mutant thistle with the approaching tractor of doom in the background before it got sliced down.
The home-made aerial camera was back in action on Thursday morning too so that we could take some record photos of the excavated segments of the inner ditch. Phil and Katie have completely removed the primary fills of the bit on the left of the shot. They spent the rest of Thursday drawing the two sections and a plan.
This is also the part of the ditch where I found the two smallest crumbs of pottery known to man. These have now been very skillfully cleaned by Beth and I have had a chance to have a look at the kind of clay and inclusions. I am fairly confident that they are Early Neolithic, which would be a very good fit with our suggested date for the causewayed enclosure, especially since they come right from the base of the ditch. After that, I got optimistic and thought we had two more fragments, one from the big pit Kade, Chelsea and Debbie are digging and one from John’s feature – we will need to wash these new bits to see how convincing they really are.
Today was Chris’s last day on site for this year so a big thank you is due to him for all his volunteer hard work. Also for the big Booths bag full of doughnuts he brought up to share around.
Mike had the day off from his proper job with Oxford Archaeology and was up on site today. He also delivered the magnetometer back so Scott can do some more geophysical survey next week. He brought his daughter because, as you can tell from this photo of all ages digging the limestone pavement inside the ditch, today was the first day of the school holidays in Preston.
The pavement itself is looking extremely interesting. The depth of soil preserved in the grikes between the limestone suggests that it was exposed for a long time. We are finding masses and masses of worked stone in this area. I think that Alex’s idea that there was a working surface in this area is extremely likely. We are going to finish removing all the deposits and finds in this area and get the limestone pavement really clean before we dig the ditch segment we think is in the currently empty part of this trench next week.
Wildlife of the day was a grasshopper George caught on the edge of this trench during the morning (don’t worry, it was safely released into the wild again once he had shown it to the kids).