Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Last year the CBA bursaries scheme, training 10 future community archaeologists, picked 9 middle class, white young women and 1 middle class, white young man. So how, exactly, will the profession attract people from all sections of the community with such a narrow demographic of CAs? This is were the funding has gone last year and will go this year. How about some support and funding, for those that need some training, that are already doing the job and shown dedication and commitment?

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Past Meets Present II

The second PMP weekend is in February. For locals, visitors and passers through. Have a stroll through the Dorset landscape and ancient sacred sites.

Monday, 23 January 2012

An evaluation

The bread and butter of most archaeologists is the watching brief and evaluation. Many of these are carried out every day and many of them find absolutely nothing. 

I was on an evaluation today for my old boss from Essex, who now runs Arrowhead Archaeology based in Dorset. The site had plenty of potential, as a rich Roman site was situated just down the lane, where literally a shed-load of pottery and features have been unearthed by a small band of amateurs. 

The owner of the site lived here, a late Arts & Crafts type house (c.1930s) and was building a new garage (under PPS5 it is the developer that pays). We dug three trenches where the footing was going to intrude into possible archaeology. For the last three years I have not dug full-time, but being on site once more, especially the smell of the turned soil, made me once again thrill to the possibilities of finding past human activity at this location. 

The soil, for me, reeks of the human past. This is where people have lived, worked and died for thousands of years and when we dig into the soil the smell, sight and feel of it assaults the senses and one is almost giddy with the idea of the living, breathing crowd of humanity that has passed over this spot for millennia. 

The digger breaks the soil.
The result?
Nothing to be found. When one is just making pin pricks in the landscape the chances of finding something can be small. But still, that smell....         

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ness of Brodgar news

This is from the website, so go to it and find out more information on this important site.

Ness of Brodgar discoveries vindicate 35-year-old theory, says prehistorian.

The remarkable archaeological discoveries on the Ness of Brodgar are proof that an elite group of astronomer priests once held sway over Orkney.
That’s according to Dr Euan MacKie, an archaeologist and prehistorian, who visited the ongoing excavations on the Ness  last summer.
In 1977, Dr MacKie suggested in a book that Skara Brae might be the home of a privileged, theocratic class of wise men and women who officiated at astronomical and tribal ceremonies in and around the Stenness rings and who were supported by the agricultural population.
At that time, Skara Brae was the only well-preserved site of its type known. Then, when the Barnhouse settlement was excavated by Dr Colin Richards, in the 1980s, the “non-domestic” elements of the village — large, ceremonial-looking buildings — allowed Dr MacKie to claim that his theory was on the way to being verified.
But, as he is the first to admit, his ideas have not been met with much enthusiasm by academics.
He explained: “I get the impression that people who are interested in Neolithic Orkney are still interpreting sites such as Skara Brae and Barnhouse as, basically, the villages of the ordinary population, and certainly there is never any reference to a priesthood or anything like that.
“However, I’ve always thought that the archaeological evidence for Skara Brae being something out of the ordinary stood up on its own.
“A fresh visit to Skara Brae, in August last year, confirmed my view that the site was not a mere farming village at all, but a residence for a community of priests connected with the major ceremonial centres nearby.
“There are three reasons for this conviction — the reconstructed hut, next to the visitor centre, is remarkably evocative, and gives one a clear idea of what the settlement was like. The monumentality of the building is what stands out. It just looks far too solid and sophisticated for an ordinary agricultural dwelling.
“Add to that the fact that there was only one house at Skara Brae used for cooking. It looks like a little settlement with one cookhouse-cum-workshop and several residential buildings.
“This suggests, to me, that the residents had their meals cooked for them, rather like monks in a monastery.
“Extremely evocative, too, were the two visible sections of the main drain. The custodian opened the wooden hatches to give me a good look and the size of the drain is staggering. It is a substantial,  dry-walled channel,  far down below the hut floors and roofed with massive lintels.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this was a planned settlement, the drain of which was presumably built first, no doubt connecting with smaller drains from some of the huts to give an extraordinarily hygienic quality to the settlement. There was nothing like this drainage system in Scotland again until the Romans arrived. Can this really be a settlement of simple farmers?”
He continued: “There’s a huge resistance to this idea. And part of the reason is that, ultimately, the notion that there was a professional priesthood in Neolithic times goes back to a book I wrote in 1977, using the evidence collected by Alexander Thom on the esoteric qualities of scores of British stone circles —  their geometry, the use of units of length used to lay out the shapes, the calendrical alignments incorporated in them — all things which, if genuine, ought to be the products of a skillful professional class of wise men.”
Professor Alexander Thom spent several decades studying stone circles across the UK in an attempt to decipher their meaning.
He discovered that not all were perfect circles — some were egg-shaped, others elliptical — but whatever the shape, they all seemed to show remarkable geometric precision.
As early as 1934, Thom had become interested in prehistoric stone circles and their astronomical associations, thereafter carrying out an ambitious project in which he accurately surveyed and carefully measured a number of megalithic sites throughout Britain.
He published his findings, in 1955, in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, and, after his retirement, published a further two articles that proposed a standard unit of measurement he claimed was employed consistently at prehistoric megalithic sites across the country.
Thom called this unit — measuring 2.72 feet (0.829 metres) — “the megalithic yard”, citing it as proof that the builders of stone circles had an advanced understanding of geometry, mathematics and astronomy.
Dr MacKie continued: “Scepticism about Alexander Thom’s work has grown over the years, and you can’t mention his name now in archaeological circles. I’ve probably been relegated to the fringes for persisting with this, which I do because I think it’s quite wrong to ignore potentially important evidence which is still piling up.
“There is a belief, strongly held by archaeologists who study prehistoric times, that the kind of society that Thom’s work seems to be pointing to — one with detailed knowledge of sophisticated astronomical and measuring techniques — is incompatible with what we know of recent and ancient preliterate societies. Therefore, it’s just easier for some to dismiss this evidence on principle, because if you don’t, then Pandora’s box is opened and out fly these alien notions of the priesthood, the elite, the amazing knowledge of geometry and Pythagorean triangles — ideas which are simply not taught in archaeological degree courses and which people therefore don’t understand.
“To be preserved over many generations, such bodies of arcane knowledge surely required a group of full-time professionals to study and pass on these subjects. But remember, there wasn’t such a thing as ‘science’ as we understand it in those days. All esoteric knowledge was seen in a religious context, so any of what we now regard as intellectual activities would have been part of religious activities.  I think archaeologists are worried that if you start down that path, where’s it going to lead to?
“The problem lies with the assumptions that underlie our reconstructions of prehistoric societies.
“The leading authorities don’t mind speculation, provided it fits into the general theoretical background. You can speculate till the cows come home if the ideas fit into the accepted framework, or ‘paradigm’ – for example, about summer festivals at Durrington Walls in Wiltshire and winter festivals at nearby Stonehenge. But if an idea doesn’t fit into that framework, then people don’t want to hear.  This is what is known as deductive thinking; the evidence must fit the  accepted ideas.
“I think the reason for the refusal to think about the priesthood is mainly due to the belief that, since the 1970s,  Thom’s ideas have been discredited, mainly through the work of Clive Ruggles. And if those ideas are discarded, where is the need for  priestly residences on Orkney or in Wiltshire?
“Yet one of the arguments in my 1977 book was that the idea of a Neolithic priesthood was supported not just by Thom’s work but by traditional archaeological evidence as well, and not just in Orkney.
“The great ditched henge monument at Durrington Walls was excavated in the 1960s and good evidence was found that it contained huge, inhabited wooden roundhouses with masses of occupation debris;   the site — and also Woodhenge nearby — was eminently suitable for a Neolithic priests’ training college, or something similar. However, despite the fact that it was the excavator himself who offered the original interpretation of roofed roundhouses,  it has become an article of faith since then that the circles of upright posts were open air temples – like wooden stone circles;   the evidence for them having been roofed buildings is rarely discussed.
“But now, it seems to me, the steady pattern of discoveries in Orkney — first at Barnhouse and now, spectacularly, on the Ness of Brodgar — is vindicating my idea of priestly residences.
“The existence of the Ness of Brodgar complex could almost have been predicted from those ideas I put in the book back in 1977, when I suggested that Skara Brae was a special site,  supporting the idea that a professional priesthood, with a body of arcane knowledge, may have existed in the British Isles in the fourth and third millennia BC.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite brave enough make that specific prediction 35 years ago!
“To me, the Ness site is a wonderful confirmation of those original ideas. But one would like some further evidence.
“Alexander Thom believed that accurate long alignments towards the sun at the horizon at important points of the annual solar cycle were marked in Neolithic-times Britain, and that this resulted in the construction of a precise solar calendar, based on a simple sixteen-fold division of the solar year. I still maintain that this is basically correct and that there’s lots of new evidence in support.
“On the Ness of Brodgar, I understand that at least two of the structures probably have solar alignments –  towards midsummer and the equinox.
“That’s very interesting in itself, but it may also give us a direct link to Thom’s solar calendar. But if it was also found, for example, that the buildings were set out according to certain measuring units and in certain proportions, then that would be a wonderful thing, too.
“However, that kind of evidence has to be specifically looked for.”
“I think everyone agrees that the complex on the Ness of Brodgar must have been for some very powerful elite.
“You don’t otherwise get that quality of construction, the elaborate buildings and the enormous amount of work that must have gone into them. You can’t begin to calculate how many man-hours were spent building the encircling wall, for example.  And I challenge anyone to deny that a Neolithic complex that had a building with a slated stone roof  was not something very special indeed.
“You can’t have all that without some individual, or group, with huge prestige organising everybody and commanding a vast labour force.
“So I don’t think there’s any doubt that some kind of elite existed and that the Ness was its centre. I favour a priestly elite — so, to me, the Ness of Brodgar is what you might call the Neolithic equivalent of  a bishop’s palace, or even of an archbishop’s palace. And it goes almost without saying that the existence of so many huge and elegant ritual sites close by — forming the ‘Heart of Neolithic Orkney’ — could support this idea.
“It looks as though there was a period of a few centuries when something spectacular happened in Neolithic Orkney in religious and ceremonial terms. This can easily be seen in the standing stones, of which there are two basic kinds.
“There are those that one might call ‘ordinary’ standing stones — of fairly modest size, somewhat irregular in shape and similar to most of the others one sees around Scotland. Then there are the ‘giant stones’ — colossal, symmetrical, thick slabs of sandstone, usually with pointed tops and weighing many tons, which have evidently been carefully quarried and dragged to their sites with a huge communal effort.
“Most of these seem to be concentrated in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. The time in the Neolithic age when the giant stones started to go up was surely that of Maeshowe, which incorporates four of them — though that site may have been built at the beginning of this period,  which inaugurated the period of maximum power of the elite in the Ness of Brodgar settlement, around the Neolithic ‘cathedral’ or bishop’s palace, or whatever one wants to call it.
“The fact that Maeshowe has built-in alignments not only to midwinter sunset but also to two other points in the prehistoric solar calendar suggests that this was also the great age of accurate astronomical observation and of the systematic use of that calendar.
“The geography of the place where this extraordinary site was built is interesting for at least two reasons. Firstly, the Ness of Brodgar is a narrow promontory, with water on three sides — assuming the causeway was built in historical times — just the sort of site that early Christian monasteries were constructed on.
“The giant walls to the north-west and south-east of the site seem, to me, to be analogous to the ditches which often surrounded or barred off those monasteries, and also, of course, to the ditch which surrounds Maeshowe and the henge monuments. This surely all points to Ness of Brodgar being a religious site of paramount importance, surrounded by an impressive  boundary to emphasise the sanctity of the enclosed space.
“Secondly, there is the simple fact that the whole promontory is naturally aligned very close to north-west/south-east — the directions of midsummer sunset and midwinter sunrise respectively. This surely cannot be a coincidence.
“The Neolithic religious elite, looking for a site for its headquarters, found there a promontory of the kind ideal for such sites throughout the ages, and also one which seemed tailor-made for their religious activities, which could have focused on sun worship, by being naturally lined upon two of the most important dates in the prehistoric solar calendar.
“Of course, the Ness site may have been chosen, for similar reasons, much earlier than the Late Neolithic, and simply elaborated then.
“The whole scale of the thing suggests a wider influence than in Orkney itself. In the 1980s, Colin Renfrew suggested that Orkney was a sort of pilgrimage centre for people from all over the British Isles, and this idea makes a lot of sense in this case: a religious headquarters which pilgrims came to visit and novices came for training – just like Julius Caesar described the druids in the Iron Age, spending 20 years learning vast quantities of verse, incorporating all their knowledge.
“I always thought it was significant that Caesar said that the druidical order was supposed to have originated in Britain and that those who wished to pursue their studies more deeply usually went there.  That’s only 2,000 years after the period we’re talking about,  and it seems very likely that some similar priestly class existed in Neolithic times.
“There may be an analogy for Ness of Brodgar in a prehistoric site I examined on Loch Fyne, in Argyllshire, some years ago — Brainport Bay, near the village of Minard. It had a fortuitous alignment of natural features pointing north-east to the midsummer sunrise where there was, amazingly, a distant mountain peak.
“This site had been considerably modified by prehistoric man, with artificial platforms, moved rocks to form a notch, and so on,  to make it more like a proper indicated alignment. Brainport Bay was used for many centuries after Neolithic times — down to the Iron Age and perhaps beyond.
“Fortunately, there is a test for this hypothesis about Ness of Brodgar. If it is correct, further examination of the alignments of the structures and of the standing stones round about may well reveal clear signs of their being directed to midwinter sunrise and midsummer sunset. A look at the map suggests that Stenness, Ness of Brodgar and Ring of Brodgar all fall quite close to that line.  I hope to investigate!
“Looking at the Ness, and the amazing complex of standing stones and stone circles which surrounds it, it is clear that there’s a real need to radically rethink our ideas about Neolithic Orkney,  and to come up with a new general explanation of what happened in those islands in the third millennium BC.
“I have offered one scenario,  but alternatives may emerge to be matched against the totality of the evidence.
“The ramifications of  the discoveries at the Ness of Brodgar will probably spread well beyond Orkney,  and it is clear that the traditional assumptions which have guided archaeological theorising about this issue in the past are no longer valid.”

The points made here have some basis, I think. One just has to ignore the 'Wise Man'. This is the 21st century (we need to get past 20th century sexism in academia) and many studies have been made to suggest that the female image was of vital importance to religion at this time (see figurines).

The Neolithic in Dorset

Sunday was the second session on Dorset Archaeology in Bridport. We looked at the various monuments, sites and artefacts in the county and pondered what they were used for.

The earliest monuments are the causeway enclosures, henges, bank barrows and long barrows, along with the very mysterious cursus monuments.

Bank barrows I have posted about previously and the similar long burial mounds. Both are related to the Earth Mother; the former is the EM in the landscape and the latter is the place where the dead and the ancestors reside, within her body.

CE examples
Causwayed enclosures are the earliest monuments we have from the Neolithic, the era of farming, pottery and monuments. These enclosures are made up of one or more roughly circular arrangements of elongated pits situated on high ground. Due to the gaps they were not defensible and various theories of use relate to trade, meetings, ritual, burial and simply enclosures for animals, with no evidence for houses or domestic refuse. High status finds indicate a place of importance to the community with only a few human burials located, mostly in ditches, with animal bones too, especially ox skulls. Massive timber palisades indicate control of high numbers of animals and humans and set close together, restricting the view into the interior of the monument.

Henges and cursus monuments are being associated with each other in the latest theory of use. Dorset has the longest cursus in the UK (10.2kl), this type of prehistoric feature being unique to the British Isles.

Stonehenge ritual landscape (Francis Pryor 'Britain BC')
In this theory prehistoric people divided up the landscape into the realm of the living and the realm of the dead, or the ancestors. The connection was through a journey, in the case of Stonehenge along the river Avon, travelling from the monument of Durrington Walls, along the river, landing at the Stonehenge Avenue of parallel ditches, until they arrived at the henge for their rituals. Then using the cursus to process into the land of the dead itself. Avebury in Wiltshire also has a similar landscape and the new finds on Orkney, at the Ness of Brodgar, show that the stone circles facing each other across the isthmus are connected by the discovery of a massive temple complex, set in between them on the narrow land bridge. The temple would have acted in a similar fashion to Stonehenge, as the place of transition. All very fascinating, but just one more theory among many postulated over the last 100 years and more.               

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hallaton Helmet

The big news this week is the display of the Hallaton helmet at the British Museum. This is a very good example of how attitudes have changed in Britain due to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The finder, Ken Wallace, was a metal-detectorist and member of a local fieldwork group, so he knew that the best action to take, when he saw a life-sized human ear in the mud in 2000, was to call in the experts, archaeologists from the University of Leicester. 

The helmet was lifted in a block of soil and taken to the British Museum for examination. It was found to be made of iron, covered with sheets of silver and decorated in places with gold leaf. As can be seen, there was a bust of a woman on the helmet, a laurel wreath and a mounted figure on the cheek piece. This shows the goddess of victory holding a wreath over the figure and considering that this artefact dates to just after the 43 AD invasion, could refer directly to the Claudian suppression of Britain. 

Along with the helmet over 5,000 silver and gold coins were found, along with jewellery and pottery. Most of the coins could be attributed to the local tribe. One coin is Roman and is the astonishing date of 211 BC, the oldest found in Britain. 

It has been suggested that the area was an open-air shrine enclosed by a ditch and palisade (not unknown, but no evidence has been put forward for this here) and the whole deposit was a sacrifice by the tribe or invading Roman army, part of which was made up of other Celtic warriors from the continent and even tribes from the south of Britain. If so this would have been a massive sacrifice by a rich individual or by the legion invading the west midlands. A gift to the gods of imperial quality. They buried three dogs to guard the hoard, just to make sure it was safe!
In this area of Celtic Britain the tribe was called the Corieltauvi and this hoard may have been made by a returning tribesman who had gone off to fight in the Roman army and returned as a conqueror. But this is just fantasy on the part of the press. Who knows? It is a wonderful find made by a regular bloke who acted responsibly so that this treasure could be enjoyed by all of us. Unlike the Crosby Garrett helmet sold at Christie's for £2 million in 2010.  

Monday, 9 January 2012

Culverwell - magic & molluscs

The first session of Dorset Archaeology at the Quakers Meeting Hall was an introduction to the Palaeolithic and the rare example of a UK Mesolithic settlement on Portland - Culverwell.  

Discovered by Susann Palmer in the mid '60s it is probably the oldest evidence for semi-sedentary occupation in England, if not Britain. Dated to between 8-8.5k years old it is a giant midden of mollusc shells with limestone and Portland stone being used to create a 'floor' drained by a natural gully. This is the earliest example of Portland stone being used in a construction and of course it is still used today. 

Stone & pebble
Remarkably, there is some evidence of ritual activity on the site. The floors have three phases and each one was marked by the depositing of a large stone, one of which was also accompanied by a small, smooth pebble. Under this was a small pit containing a pierced scallop shell, an axe of chert and another pebble, placed on its edge. Such pebbles have ritual significance in some modern aboriginal societies. 

Other artefacts found on the site included the usual microliths, 'picks' (elongated stone tools) and chopping tools. But it is the postholes for structures that are rare. Here it is suggested that huts and lean-to structures were made on this well constructed and dry floor and the people used this to then exploit the coastal and river food supply. Added to this is a number of other pierced shells for ornamentation.

The suggestion of a semi-permanent occupation of the site is underlined by the structures, hearths, the marine economy and the tools to exploit this resource, personal ornamentation and possible evidence of ritual and spiritual expression.

Over the last few years the Mesolithic is being reassessed. They were not just wandering nomads, but had semi-permanent camps, especially along the coasts, making use of a steady food supply and perhaps even domesticating dogs and other animals. 

A remarkable Dorset treasure that should be promoted and known locally and nationally.        

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

New Year

Happy New Year to all who have and will be looking in to this blog. The last two months have been very busy for hits - thanks. I am looking forward to starting my classes again and doing more walks, reporting on the archaeology of Dorset and the south west, as well as the big stories from all over the UK. Keep looking in for information and news, with videos and pics galore.

Have a prosperous 2012.

News - south west archaeology

Dartmoor National Park Archaeologists at work
Ancient burial chamber on Dartmoor restored
A prehistoric monument on Dartmoor (Devon, England) has been restored to its previous condition after a stone that had been removed for laboratory analysis was returned.
     Beads, worked leather and cremated human remains have been discovered in a cist, or burial chamber/chest, at Whitehorse hill after it was removed by Dartmoor National Park Authority's archaeology and conservation works teams. There are roughly 200 cists on Dartmoor, all hidden in the ground or inserted into barrows.
     The Whitehorse hill cist is unique as it is the only known example set within a peat mound. It was first discovered 10 years ago when one of the side stones fell out of the peat mound. Over time, the peat has slowly eroded away revealing more of the cist and its contents.
     After several failed attempts to protect it as a scheduled monument, Dartmoor National Park Authority and English Heritage decided to excavate it in order to recover any surviving archaeological and environmental information before it was lost. One of the stones that was excavated from Dartmoor has now been safely returned, while the contents of the cist remain a subject of scientific study at Wiltshire Conservation Service laboratory in Chippenham.
Edited from This is South Devon (27 December 2011)