Thursday, 30 June 2011

Guest speaker

For our last Wednesday evening class in archaeology we had a guest speaker from Wessex Archaeology talking to us about the commercial world in which they work. WA are a not-for-profit registered charity (as are most big units in the UK) and have a policy of public engagement along with all the other work they do. Excavation is only 10% of their work, along with consultancy and working with planners and developers in the Historic Environment framework of the UK (and much more).

The fingerprints - Roman tile

  The last session is a visit to the Hellstones above Abbotsbury next Wednesday evening. We have looked at excavation techniques, the large sites I have worked on over the past 21 years and had a hands-on session processing artefacts (the Roman fingerprints being the highlight). But being able to dig on a real site was a big bonus. Thanks to the National Trust for allowing us to work at Golden Cap unearthing the Bronze Age barrows there, along with the arrowhead!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

"Should commerce come before archaeology"

Here is an interesting item on yesterdays PM show, Radio 4, 5.35pm. Those that can access BBC iPlayer press the 'radio' link and listen to the points being discussed.

Archaeology will come increasingly under attack over the next few years. We have already lost the majority of public service, local council run units. Now the legislation defining developer led rescue archaeology will be in the firing line. Local politicians will have their strings pulled by those in Westminster, to gage public opinion on what would have been, only a short while ago, outrageous statements trying to put back heritage related work in the community 20-30 years. Once again, if this is allowed to go unchallenged, our archaeological heritage will be destroyed without record on the majority of developer sites, as they were pre-PPG16. Public support for archaeology is now vital. Write to Eric Pickles to let him know - commerce should NOT come before archaeology.     

Sunday, 26 June 2011

New news - old news

I was given a report concerning the mound in the grounds of Marlborough College. Recent coring took place led by English Heritage archaeologist Dr Tim Leary who pronounced: "This is an astonishing discovery: the Marlborough Mound has been one of the biggest mysteries in the Wessex landscape". Although used as a base for a Norman castle (a ready made motte) and then part of a garden for the great house, it has now been confrimed that it is roughly the same age as Silbury Hill (c.2,400 BC), 6 miles away.

However. I quote Henry Colt-Hoare, son of the famous archaeologist of the 19th century Sir Richard Colt-Hoare, who noted of the Marlborough hill that it was "a huge pile of earth and inferior only to Silbury Hill. Each are situated on the River Kennet... and I have no doubt but that in ancient times each had some corresponding connection with the other". Also I quote H.C. Brentnall from the Wiltshire Archaeological Magazine, Vol. 48, p.141, who had found a "pocket of red deer antlers... from 2-3 feet within the mound... prolonged contact with the chalk of the mound had thoroughly impregnated them and rendered them very brittle" and thus came to the conclusion that it was prehistoric.

Not such "an astonishing discovery" then.  

Thursday, 23 June 2011

News News News

The Forestry Commission undertook clearence work of Norway Spruce in Puddletown Forest and uncovered a section of Roman cobbled road 26m wide. Part of the 1st century Ackling Dyke, the section is to be preserved and signed so that locals and visitors can walk in the footsteps of Legionaries and Romano-British tribes-people.

The Institute for Archaeologists published figures showing a fall of 7.6% to 5,827 working archaeologists in the six months to 1 January 2011. In the commercial field 13.1% lost their jobs since July 2010. The IfA expect the situation to get worse and some units to cease trading altogether.

A scheme has been launched in Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Somerset to combat heritage crime. It relates to damage to historic sites (see my 'Stonehenge' blog), artefact theft and unlawful changes to, or destruction of, listed buildings. It has been denied that the heritage police have to grow beards, wear sandels instead of boots and carry trowels instead of batons.

Wednesday Class

Last night I took my class through the process of excavating a wall to show the correct sequence of digging a series of layers and a strucutre. We also looked at disinterring a skeleton. This poses some difficult questions for archaeologists and the public. None of us like the thought of disturbing the dead, no matter what religion we follow or none. Past people were just like us and we wouldn't like to be dug up at some point in the future. And then there is the question of displaying bodies in museums. Many millions of people have gone to the British Museum and seen the Egyptian mummies or the Lindow Man bog-body. I find it difficult to defend the showing of bodies in museums because, to be blunt, it is all about morbid curiosity. Modern people have very little contact with the process of death and the dead, but for our ancestors it was a present, every day reality. So modern people have a heightened need to be close to, but also removed from, death. That is not a good enough reason for showing dead people in museums.

For archaeologists it is more cut and dried. If we didn't dig them up before the developers built there structure the bodies would end up destroyed or just moved without record. We can then look at the pathology etc and store them until re-interment. However, there is legislation being proposed that would make it mandatory to re-inter after two years; not very useful for specialists trying to gain some insight into populations of the past that can take many years, if not decades.


Tuesday, 21 June 2011


My partner has just sent me a text message as she passed Stonehenge on the London bound bus. She said that the site is covered in litter after the mid-summer 'celebrations'. Setting aside the question of how relevant modern use of the site is by 'new-agers', 'druids' or people who wish to see this site as somehow a spiritual centre for them, if anyone leaves this unique structure in any way sullied, degraded, soiled or damaged they have forfeited any legitimate right of access. I believe that everyone, without prejudice, has the right to access their heritage, however they see it. But rights bring responsibilities. This space is a community one and we all have a responsibility to look after it. No less is it incumbent on English Heritage and the National Trust to lobby the government(s) that have allowed a World Heritage Site to be neglected and fought over, with little outcome, for so many years. If that is the lead that governments take some people will continue to use Stonehenge as a dustbin.

Monday, 20 June 2011

But what is it?

A long grassy bank with a knotch at one end. No burial(s) and no stone chambers. Our little group of heritage hunters climbed the steep slope from Long Bredy on a breezy and showery Sunday to ponder this strange monument called by archaeologists variously a Bank Barrow, Barrow-Bank, Ridge Barrow or Ridge Mound situated on Martin's Down ridge. Identified by O.G.S. Crawford in the 1930s it is a long, parallel-sided mound, uniform in height and width and flanked by ditches, currently 0.7m deep. Almost impossible to date accurately this type of monument is generally stated as Middle Neolithic, or around 5,000 years ago. Only a handful exist in the UK and Dorset has most of them. This one, Maiden Castle, Broadmayne and one possible example at Pentridge. This Bank Barrow is surrounded by later Bronze Age Round Barrows. Please leave comments as to what you think they are for. I think that they are representations of a mother goddess in the landscape.

My next walk is a visit to the Grey Mare & Her Colts + Kingston Russell stone circle, above Abbotsbury, on the 3rd of July. Meet at 10.30am north east of Abbotsbury village [SY 588 867] at a lay-by in front of a gate with hardstanding. Find the monument on the map and follow the marked path back to the road and that is it.   

Friday, 17 June 2011


When professional or amateur diggers work on a burial site it is not just the possibility of grave goods that can quicken the heart. Many barrows can be seen in the landscape of Dorset, resting places for our ancestors for the past 3-4,000 years, and when it is imperiative that we save as much information as we can before some of them are destroyed by the hand of man or nature, it is not just a technical and scientific process that we are undertaking. This is the chance to preserve a persons remains into the future and for diggers to come into direct contact with that man or woman. They did not leave us a written record of who they were but they can still speak to us by what they left behind. They can speak to us across time.

Here, one of my students has the remains of the funeral pyre in his hands; the remains of a fire lit thousands of years ago to send one of our ancient family into the next world, as they would have believed. How they would have seen the next life is impossible to know fully, but the ritual surrounding the burial means that it was important to the community to say goodbye according to established religious ceremony. Not gold or precious stone, but treasure none the less.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Washing the smalls...

It is a brave fieldwork manager, of any archaeological unit, that has to inform a digger that they are between sites at the moment and "wouldn't it be nice to do some pot-washing". Being shy types diggers are not prone to profanities, but this can try the spirit of even the most dedicated archaeologist. Perhaps even turning them to drink instead of returning to hearth and home to read some Jane Austin at the end of a hard day. For, although a vital and neccessary job, pot-washing can be just this side of tedious, especially after the first few seconds or so. Meeting a digger that has been scrubbing away with a toothbrush at yet another bag of Roman tile after days and weeks, the staring eyes and whispered "kill me now" are an indication of the level that these wretches have sunk.

So I had my students pot-washing this week.

I am teaching archaeology for Love Learning in Dorset, The Olive Tree, Bridport (see the website at And do you know, I think they enjoyed it. It has been my experience that many people are glad to just be able to touch the past in this way. Us 'old lags' forget just what an exciting feeling that is. Because the unique thing about archaeology is the immediate contact every one of us has with the past. We are not just reading about it but are in physical contact with it. It involves the senses as well as the brain. People have asked me what is the most interesting thing I have found? My answer is... a smell. I was digging on a site in the City of London and we hit a burnt layer, quite thick and containing 17th century material. I took a pinch, as one did with snuff, and the smell of burning was there - the smell of the Great Fire of London in 1666.

One of my students had such an experience. Washing a piece of floor tile he noticed some marks on the surface. There were three unmistakable fingerprints. They were made by someone nearly 2,000 years ago. A good example of artefacts being only a means to an end - to be in contact with real people and find their stories.          

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Tombs and temples

My walk for the 3rd of July is to not one, but two monuments; The Grey Mare & her Colts and the Kingston Russell stone circle. Northeast of the village of Abbotsbury is a layby, grid reference 588 867 or if you find the tomb marked on the map just follow the path back to the road. 10.30am as usual.    

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

More Golden Cap pictures

Here are some more pics of the GC site. As you can see it was probably the most spectacular archaeological site in the UK! The sweep of the Dorset countryside to one side and the sea to the other. Of course, in good weather... I don't look too happy; we had moved dozens of barrows of rock by this time. The arrowhead made it all worthwhile. Typically though, the person who had been working in the area of the find had to go home and the NT head archaeologist then found it within five mins!

My walk at Long Bredy - come off the A35 then a left until you see the sign for St Peter. Sunday 19th, 10.30am. Some limited parking only.

Stay tuned for details of the 3rd July walk.

How many more of these?!

The arrowhead - oooohhhh

Look - a big stone! After several tons of chert...

Monday, 13 June 2011

Dorchester walk

The weather here in the west country was appalling, with driving rain all day. However, people turned up for the Roman Dorchester walk - we are a hardy race! We decided that we should curtail the walk to the Town House, the best example in the UK, so well worth a visit in any weather. The foundations are substantial and the mosaics superb, with one being unique in the Roman Empire. This spurred people on to continue the walk by having a look at the remains of the town wall (again unique outside London) and the fountain marking the site where the aquaduct came into Dorchester from the dam set up near Frampton. No pictures I'm afraid as the sight of bedraggled heritage hunters would have been very sad.

The next walk is at Long Bredy on Sunday June 19th to look at the Neolithic Bank Barrow and Bronze Age roundbarrows.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Students dig Golden Cap

Due to coastal erosion the National Trust had permission from English Heritage to dig the Bronze Age burial mounds on top of Golden Cap. They were two miles from the sea when constructed but now their fate is to drop into the sea, probably within a couple of decades. So we have to preserve them by record before this happens. I took my students for a visit and they decided to stay and lend a hand or six! Now that the site has finished I can tell you that a beautiful barbed and tanged arrowhead turned up only a few days later. After twenty one years in the job I have never seen one pop up on a site.

This is not the GC arrowhead but very much like it. My photo was not very good. Must set Macro next time!

My walk on Maiden Castle went very well, even if we had to brave high winds. Luckily the rain kept off. But it illustrated why people would not have lived up there permanently. Much better to live in sheltered valleys with water and fields to grow crops. 'Hillfort' is an unfortunate name. They were less to do with being a fort and more to do with status and protection of the tribal resource by the head family(s). Also for occassional rituals. I also showed my intrepid visitors some artefacts, as it is not very often that non-archaeologists get to touch pots etc that are thousands of years old. Come along to my next walk for your chance to touch the past.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Hi all. This is the first Xcavate! blog run by me, Chris Tripp. This incorporates all the work I do in community archaeology - walks and talks, workshops and adult education. I hope to detail here all the information if you wish to get involved with archaeology in Dorset and the southwest through Xcavate!

Chris Tripp BA(Hons) MA PIfA
Here are a few pics of past events.

A very wet and windy day on Eggardon Hill near Bridport.

The long barrow of The Grey Mare & Her Colts, near Abbotsbury, Dorset.

Kingston Russell stone circle above Little Bredy, Dorset.
My students dug here. A National Trust excavation of Bronze Age burial mounds on Golden Cap, Dorset. 

My next walk will be in Dorchester, meeting in the library car park at 10.30pm, Sunday 12 th June. Hope to see you there.