Thursday, 29 September 2011

The Quest for Immortality

I am doing a talk on burial rituals in prehistory at the Weymouth business park on the 18th of October. This is the leaflet. Contact Claire to book a place. Some tea/coffee and nibbles will be provided.

Claire Whiles: 01305 839394

hope to see you there.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Any Old Iron?

Where is that roundhouse? Yes, I am going on a diet.

We all have a tendancy to dwell on the treasures and fabulous artefacts of the past. People from all over the world will travel to Egypt to see the pyramids, but very few then take the trouble to visit the villages where the people who made them lived. Likewise the press will trumpet the Shropshire Hoard or the latest news around the saga of what we should do with the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. But artefacts that are well-made and used every day can be just as moving and the ordinary places where people lived can be as exciting as a grand hillfort or Roman villa.

Ringmore map with Iron Age fields to left.

On Saturday we band of Heritage Hunters travelled to the village of Turnworth to climb the hill to the Ringmore Iron Age settlement. This is one of the very few places that still exist on our crowded island where you can walk down a trackway, see a round patch where a roundhouse stood and the fields where people worked over 2,000 years ago. In our mind's eye we can see someone, around 500 BC, unhitching a plough, stretching off the cramps in their shoulders after a hard days work and heading off home for a meal and a drink.

That house would have been a substantial, weatherproof building to withstand all that could be thrown at it throughout a British year of storms, gales and snow and in the summer a cool place to rest from the heat of the day. Such houses can still be seen today, where they have been reconstructed from excavated ground plans. It was soon noted that certain rules have to be followed:
  1. don't put an opening in the roof - this will act like a chimney and draw the fire up into the roof and burn the place down
  2. space is everything - there is no need for a central post as this is the strongest part of the structure, with the roof at 45%.
At 15m diameter the space created is substantial. The smoke-stained thatch above you soars up in the manner of a cathedral nave and floor space for dozens of people. These structures could have lasted 40-50 years, if they had wanted to stay in one location and probably repaired, re-thatched and even wholly rebuilt when patching-up was not feasible.

We did take a long time tramping over the wet grassy pasture, trying to work out what was where, as indicated on the National Trust map downloaded from their website. Many comments along the lines of "no, no, no, that bank is this one (pointing to the map), so the roundhouse must be here (pointing to the ground)" were exchanged. Dave's "yeeees" meant "you're wrong".

Eggardon Hill with hillfort to right - Dave's photo 

Sunday saw me back at Eggardon Hill, once more blasted by wind and squally rain. The magnificent view once more occluded by cloud. But my intrepid band was up for seeing one of the best disc barrows in the UK and, in my opinion, the best hillfort. The central barrow is surrounded by a huge 43m in diameter bank and ditch with a small added bowl barrow set onto the bank to the SW. It is estimated that there are c.2,000 barrows in Dorset, most having been ploughed flat. Many of the surviving examples have been 'knocked about a bit' by retired colonels and clergy during the barrow digging craze in the 19th century. Hopefully they did not find the central burial of our barrow and our ancestor(s) rest there still. When newly built what a white beacon it would have presented to the villagers below.

On to the hillfort and it is unfortunate that they have been so named. 'Fort' conjures up cowboys and indians or mediaeval castles with soldiers holding out against a seige from an enemy army. The 'Celtic' cultures had a tradition of the individual fighting warrior and had no 'armies'. They had to assemble a hoard when facing the Romans but it stood little chance against an organised force with a centralised command structure. The fact that Vespasian (a future Emperor) 'rolled up' the hillforts, with his II Legion Augusta, indicates that these places were not effective for defence against such a foe, and why build such huge ramparts and ditches to keep out small bands of raiding warriors? It is better to see hillforts as primarily status objects incorporating a use as market places, religion and ritual sites and as a symbol, both practical and symbolic, for the head family as protecters of the tribal resource.

As anyone visiting Eggardon will admit, it is not a place one would want to live permanently. So, they should not been seen as settlements either. With no water, and fully exposed to the weather, it was much better to live in the sheltered valleys. But even into the 20th century people would gather on tops of hills for markets and fairs (Tan Hill Fair) with little idea as to the origins of this tradition.

Overlooking the Marshwood Vale and Askers Valley Eggardon is still a dominating presence. D-shaped in plan it covers 14.5 hectares and is a multi-vallete hillfort (3 sets of banks and ditches), with the southern section having to be rebuilt when it collapsed. One can imagine the Celtic swear words when that happened. The interior is pock-marked with c.500 pits, these being for grain storage, some reaching 9 feet in depth. Lined and capped with clay they were air tight so that the grain remained fresh. Some roundhouses can be seen as faint circles when the grass is low. Industrial activity is evidenced by iron objects that were 'finished off' on site i.e. smithing not smelting. The remains of a shale bracelet, worked on a lathe, dated to the 3rd century BC.

Two Bronze Age barrows existed here, untouched by the hillfort users. One was destroyed by ploughing on the north side under one parish, the other surviving in the south parish. This was dug in 1965, not something we would do today due to scheduling protection. Made of flint sitting on a red clay surface (cremation fire?) 6 vessels were found with the cremations of an adult and child.


Canon ball
Walking along the southern ramparts, we fought the howling wind to return to the cars. But a special mention should be made of Paul and his artefacts. From out of his pocket he drew a round piece of iron which he siad he had found near Eggardon. Being in an area of chalk and Upper Greensand Beds this was obviously human made. A canon ball! Could it be Civil War? I would like opinions. But next he held up a small finds bag and in it was a beautiful arrowhead found in the Valley of the Stones near Portesham. Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age? As they say 'it's still out there' if you look around.            

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Past Voices no. 3 - coin

Trade is my game.
Useless in character - you cannot eat me, wear me or use me as a tool, except for exchange.
I have two faces on an eternal circle.
I am stamped with the image of Emperor and Empress, god and goddess, animal and crop.
I am common copper, moon-like silver, immortal gold.
I have been between finger and thumb, from owner to owner, bitten and tested, but I am what I am and you can ask for anything in exchange - almost.
What will I buy?
Wine to drink, brought from across the sea, sealed in majestic amphora.
Fish-paste, to add enough interest to the blandest meal.
Hunting dogs, killers all.
Slaves from the market to clean and cook and to beat.
Finally I am sacrificed, thrown into a world of water, an appeasement.
Or buried, returning to earth to await a retrieval that never arrives.
Or so I think.
Metal cuts through soil - a blinding light and once more I am between finger and thumb, cleaned, bagged and labelled.
People come and see me to pay homage.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Iron Age weekend?

I have had some interest in this weekends walks, so if you want to come along let me know a.s.a.p. (or by Friday). Pray to whatever god/goddess you believe in for good weather. My contact information is below.

Hello to all those who have look at this blog from around the world! Amazing. Keep in touch and follow the wonderful archaeology we have in the UK and especially Dorset. More to come and with pictures too.

I will post a video soon, which I am doing for my forthcoming website.

Look out for information on forthcoming adult education courses I am setting up.

Friday, 16 September 2011

National Planning Policy Framework

The government is pushing ahead with plans to loosen planning controls on housebuilding on greenfield sites. Good news for archaeology = more sites? No.
Even under the Major government the proportion of homes built on 'brownfield' sites went up from 55% to 80%. This new proposal with reverse the trend.
Builders will switch from brownfield to greenfield because it is cheaper to build on virgin land (and more profitable). Most excavations are carried out on brownfield sites due to there having been a continuity of settlement at certain locations (near rivers, valley bottoms, estuaries etc.). Most of our cities towns  and villages are ancient locations. They are in a constant state of redevelopment. That is where the work is. The ethos of archaeologists is that if the site is not to be destroyed leave well alone - it's called 'preservation in situ'.
This will not mean more work for archaeologists but it will mean more profits for developers and the destruction of more of our countryside as they switch from costly brownfield to cheap greenfield. Thus no actual increase in house numbers.
Also the price of housing remains high, which is what developers and government want. Restricting supply supports hefty margins and profits and as most voters own their homes they want the capital appreciation, whatever the social cost, and will vote accordingly.
Even the National Trust chairman Sir Simon Jenkins called the framework "a c**p document".  

Past Voices no.2


I am sharp.
A sharpness so sharp a surgeon could use me still.
The first to be used after waiting for million upon million of years.
Then struck and like a stone in a pond ripples spread and I flake.
A few touches here and there I am shaped for the job.
To pierce the hide of fleeing deer, arrow straight, glued and tied to wooden shafts.
Or scrape clean fat from skin, to bore holes for sinew, so that winter cannot kill.
To chop and cut and shape a dwelling.
Discarded when job is done I wait for a short time - a few thousand years.
A river frees me, a sharp eye is caught by a glint, a hand once more caresses my skin.
Blood is spilt once more.
I am sharp.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Dorset Treasure

This is a report of the hoard found in 2008, just in case you missed it at the time. A good case of how this hoard relates to the Treasure Act even though it was of bronze. This can be confusing for anyone finding metal artefacts. Another tick for Dorset as being one of the richest counties for archaeology in the UK.

"The site of one of the largest hoards of Bronze Age axes ever found in Britain has been investigated by Wessex Archaeology.
At a site on the Isle of Purbeck in south Dorset, metal detector users found hundreds of Bronze Age axes in late October and early November 2007.
The axes, though not made of gold or silver, seem certain to qualify as Treasure when the Dorset Coroner holds an inquest into their discovery. Revisions to the original Treasure law mean that prehistoric objects of bronze can be classed as treasure, opening the way to a reward for the metal detector users and the landowner.
The metal detector users could hardly believe their luck when the discovery of one complete bronze axe and a fragment of another led them to identify three hot spots close by. The hotspots proved to be hoards of axes. Having reported the finds to the government funded Portable Antiquities Scheme, the detectors returned the following weekend. And promptly found another hoard containing hundreds of axes. In total at least 300 axes were found.
Following a request from the British Museum, who will give expert opinion to the county Coroner as to whether finds should be defined as Treasure, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a team from Wessex Archaeology undertook a follow up excavation".

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Past Voices no.1

In archaeology many professionals have a heavy workload and many sites to excavate and report on. It is amazing how many people have walked past sites I have been on and been surprised that we are not students, part-timers or volunteers. We work 5 days a week, 12 months a year, in all weathers. As a result it can turn into a bit of a grind. It is possible to lose sight of the real reason we do the job - we are passionate about how people lived in the past. The only way to find out is to look at the artefacts and interpret them. This can answer questions such as how they were made and how they were used. What would they say if they could speak?

I am going to put together my own thoughts on this by taking various artefacts and giving them a voice. As all interpretation is subjective these voices are expressed through me. But I hope that by reading them you may be able to see past the purely material and reach the person beyond who made these artefacts. These lines are not meant to be poetry. I am not a poet. But dry prose would not bring them to life. It's a mix. Hope you enjoy them.


Here I am, a small piece of clay, a creation of the mind, the hand pressing, shaping, cutting, placing.
Surface of red with a grey body; one of many.
Ages of feet passed over me.
The family have crawled, tottered and walked on me.
Food and drink spilled on me.
Happy cries, fearful cries, hugs and fights - I support them.
I am one of many.
If I am missing it is to the detriment of all.
A scar on the face of a carefully crafted creation of the goddess.
Two thousand years have passed - but here I am.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Iron Age Weekend

Iron Age roundhouse that would have stood at Turnworth

The weekend after next I am following an Iron Age theme by going to the Turnworth settlement (24th) and Eggardon Hill (25th) once more, so that those that have been to the latter can join me at Turnworth. It is well worth the drive to Turnworth, as this site is a rare surviving space where you can still walk down tracks and see where the roundhouses once stood over 2,000 years ago. You drive to Winterborne Whitechurch and turn left for Turnworth. After going through the village the lay-by is on the left. I will be wearing my hi-vi, so you can't miss me! But do ring or email to confirm, as it is a bit further to go and I would be very glum if no one turned up by 10.30am. I will be there if I get at least 4 people.
T. 0776 869 51 62

Wearing woad is optional.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Weymouth weekend

Just a reminder that the Past Meets Present weekend is 21st October to 23rd October. We will be guiding around Weymouth, Abbotsbury, Dorchester, Maiden Castle, the South Dorset Ridgeway and St Catherine's Chapel, plus a talk by yours truly on the Saturday night. Although aimed at people who live outside Dorset we have a 'locals' whereby the fee is only £5 per walk and £12 for the Saturday evening talk (including refreshments). So if you are a 'local' sign up now!

Call me on 0776 869 51 62 or go to

"If you would understand anything observe its beginning and its development" Aristotle

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Gladiator School Found in Vienna

Here is a report:
"Archaeologists working at the "Archaeological Park Carnuntum" in lower Austria claim to have located and excavated a huge amphitheatre used to train gladiators. The Associated Press has reported that the ruins, which archaeologists are describing as "a sensational discovery", were located through the use of ground radar measurements. These measurements indicated that in size and structure the ruins rival both the Ludus Magnus, the largest gladiatorial arena in Rome, and the Colosseum, the largest amphitheatre ever built in the Roman Empire. More detailed information has yet to be released, but since the Colosseum had a capacity large enough for 50,000 spectators it can be assumed that this amphitheatre is of a similar size. A statement made on Tuesday by the Carnuntum archaeological park gave no indication as to when the find was located and excavated, although presumably it was discovered some time ago if excavations have already taken place. The site will be presented to the media on Monday".
The i newspaper states that this is the "first gladiator school found outside Italy" and that the schools centre was "dominated by a circular area equipped with wooden benches for spectators". Sound like anywhere? Yes, we have Maumbury Rings, described as a ludus, or training arena for the army and probably near the elusive fort of Roman Durnovaria. I feel a letter coming on. 

Monday, 5 September 2011

September & October Walks

Archaeology Walks for Autumn
Ø 11th September       The Nine Stones      stone circle
Ø 24th                           Turnworth                Iron Age settlement
Ø 25th                           Eggardon                  Iron Age hillfort
Ø 8th   October            Clandon Barrow      Bronze Age
Ø 9th                             Maiden Castle          Iron Age hillfort
Ø 16th                           Hell Stones               Neolithic tomb
Here is the list for the next few weeks. I will be putting more details here of individual walks as they come along and if you are on my email list you will get one of those too. I'm very excited at the prospect of visiting these sites and look forward to seeing you at one or more.

Nine Stones

Part of the Nine Stones B/A circle

Sorry for the short notice but I have a walk to the stunning Nine Stones this coming Sunday. If you haven't been sent an email we meet up at Winterbourne Abbas at 10am at the Little Chef. My full itinerary will be coming shortly for the next few weeks and way into October! Please don't forget that Past Meets Present will be taking place from the 21st October in Weymouth. Book now to avoid disappointment.