Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Filming in Dorchester with Claire at the Town House (see previous posts on the site). Looking at bit tidied-up. The film will be available shortly.

The Past Meets Present event was an extremely pleasant day spent in great company and we were lucky with the weather - sunny and warm with the birds singing on the ridgeway. And the pub lunch was good too!

Friday, 24 February 2012


Archaeotreks is now up and running!

For those that reach this blog via my website please contact me for more details.

The first weekend of visits will be posted here very shortly.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Maumbury Rings

Maumbury Ring
Dorchester has the right to boast of its Roman past, but it very seldom does so. The Jurassic Coast is a World Heritage Site and trumpeted from the rooftops as a place to visit, but the human mark on this beautiful county needs it's champions, to show that the human past can still be seen and experienced and can teach us something. 

One such site is Maumbury Rings, which sits just outside the old Roman walled town, now nearly swallowed up in the 'burbs. 

This remarkable site has three phases of construction, originally being created as a Late Neolithic Henge, c.2500 BC and 85m dia. with an entrance to the north east. As usual with henges it had an internal ditch, but in this case made up of a series of shafts so close together as to seem continuous (shades of Causewayed Enclosures). These shafts were 10m deep! Although only 8 were excavated it is estimated that 45 were dug at the time of construction. In some of the fills were human and deer skulls, with one shaft having a very nice carved chalk phallus. 
Obviously carved by a man!
Apart from all the theories linked with maths and astronomy, sex has always been a subject that has dominated human culture for millennia and I am sure that most of our surviving monuments are linked to it by some means or other, in a physical and spiritual way.    

In the Roman period the site was turned into an amphitheatre with the entrance retained (the Neolithic bank would have been quite visible) and the ground surface lowered so as to use the material to build up the bank. An inner enclosed area in the south west corner was possibly used by performers or soldiers to change into costume. I say soldiers because this space was probably used as a ludus or training ground rather than as a place for gladiators to kill each other. Dorchester was an army town initially, as it was usual for them to do all the building work before the town was turned over to the civil authorities. They would have had a temporary fort here, but it has never been found. 

During the Civil War the site was again re-modelled as a fortified artillery platform guarding the southern approach to the town, with a ramp cut through the bank opposite the original entrance.
Into the 17th and 18th centuries the Ring became a place of execution, with 80 Monmouth rebels being condemned to hang here by Judge Jeffreys in 1685. In 1705 Mary Channing, who was only 19, was found guilty of poisoning her husband and was executed by strangulation and burning, which Thomas Hardy put into his poem The Mock Wife.    

I was taking some students around the town last year and we went to the Ring, which was, co-incidentally, being used that day for a Gay Pride festival. So we were able to see a space that was set out 4,500 years ago and still being used, only in a more positive way not seen since it was first constructed. 

Monday, 13 February 2012

Mick Aston

Mick Aston
It was with great sadness that I read that Mick has left Time Team, our only archaeology show on TV. There seems to be changes going on at TT. Mick has stated that he thought that Channel 4 were dumbing the show down and that it was becoming more like the revamped Countryfile, with certain implications being inferred from that example. The archaeology may be being sidelined to some extent. I hope not. Team members change in any organisation but it depends on who comes in. Experience, knowledge and in this case communication skills must be the rule. Please be careful when reading the press and have a look at the British Archaeology magazine website for more accurate information. 

The public have been greatly served by TT over the last 20 years. Many in the profession have little time for it. I feel that it has introduced archaeology to all ages and backgrounds with the processes of excavation and looking at material culture to the fore. I hope that it continues to do so for another 20 years.  

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

'Bronze Age' boat reconstruction

The East Anglian boat

Archaeologists and shipwrights are working together to build a replica B/A boat at the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. They will use the same tools and techniques of 4,000 years ago. Brian Cumby will not only make the boat but do so in front of museum visitors. 

He will make the planks and then sew them together using yew fibres, with the gaps caulked with moss. Such a technique was used before the use of metal nails and can still be found in areas of Norway, Finland and India. 

The largest prehistoric boats were c.16m long and would have been able to cross the narrow channel between the continent and GB. 

If you are in Cornwall from April until September pop in and visit the '2012 BC: Cornwall and the Sea in the Bronze Age' exhibition.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Crazy Horses

The Grey Mare & Her Colts are situated on the ridge above Abbotsbury village, Dorset. Originally this area would have been covered in dense woodland, but was gradually cleared from about 6,000 BC. This ridgeway forms a natural E-W causeway facilitating communication and trade away from the wet valley bottoms. 

The GM&HCs is Dorset's finest chambered long barrow and dates from around 3,000 BC. The site consists of a cairn creating a chamber, a facade and surrounding peristaliths (small lumps of stone around the edge of the earth mound - now only two remain). Unusually there is no evidence of flanking ditches. 

The mound is an elongated egg form, 75 feet by 45 feet. The chamber, at the SE end, now consists of upright stones forming three sides of a rectangular space, with a capstone (7 feet by 5 feet) now slipped sideways and obscuring the fourth side. 

There is a shallow crescent forecourt with the central stone blocking off what would have been the entrance to the chamber. 

This communal burial custom changed to the individual burials of the Bronze Age, with inhumation and later cremation under round mounds. 

The earliest examples of long mounds had wooden chambers, only later changing to the use of sarsen stones. The chambers were built and used for some time before being buried under the mounds after sealing, some of the timber ones being burnt down. The stone tradition used large blocks to seal the chamber, as here at GMHCs. The mound was then built running away from the chamber. 

The bones do not show any gnawing by rodents etc, so it is possible that excarnation (rotting) occurred on platforms before the bones were taking for deposition in the tombs. 

As usual many theories and interpretations have been put forward as to use and possible rituals. One of the most persuasive is that the mounds were symbolic of the Earth Mother, where the ancestors returned to her body after death (see previous posts). But I think that more work needs to be done to see if the long mounds were being used to point toward certain other monuments and even at points in the night sky. Other monuments at this time were definitely used in this way and it is logical that the monuments were used together and not in isolation i.e. the causewayed enclosures used with the early long barrows, the former for excarnation and latter for burial.  

Community archaeology publication

This is the publication from the 2006 conference at the Institute of Archaeology, UCL. It is an assessment of the aims, results and validity of the broad spectrum of community archaeology initiatives taking place over the last few years. The conference arose from a shared belief in co-operation between professional and non-professional archaeologists and the belief that archaeology does not have to take place in private between consenting companies. The 15 papers presented here are diverse, drawing on the expertise and experience of student archaeologists,academics, professionals, amateurs, educators and independent practitioners. The common themes to emerge include general theoretical reflections on the nature and significance of community archaeology, education, funding and sustainability, namely the dichotomy between one-off or medium term projects that are funded and long-term projects that tend to be staffed by volunteers. As well as the difficulties involved, this collection also highlights the pleasures and emotional dimensions of engaging with the materials remains of the past. The volume is available from Oxbow Books and edited by Gabriel Moshenka and Sarah Dhanjal, who I worked with in 2001 on the Museum of London's 'The Dig' when she was but a student. My contribution is on page 28.     

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Flinty Find

A sunny Sunday morning saw us above Abbotsbury village visiting the Grey Mare & Her Colts (c.3,000 BC) and Kingstone Russell stone circle. The tracks were very muddy due to the thaw over night. The previous days had been several degrees below zero.

I will go into more detail later of these two sites, but I thought that I would post the flint find found by one of my students. This object was just lying on the ground next to the GM&HC and is a nice example of a flint core used to produce several sharp knives. 

Friday, 3 February 2012

229 degrees

There are no definitive answers in archaeology, even though it is a discipline based on the material remains of the past. A pot is a pot. But what was it used for...

Look at Stonehenge. It is one of the largest examples of material remains surviving to the present day. It is in the landscape. But what was it built for? We know that when you look through the uprights at the Heelstone it marks the position of the midsummer sunrise, but does that mean that Bronze Age people worshipped the sun?

I have a couple who are students of mine and had a look at the material remains of Stonehenge and the Martin's Down Bank Barrow here in Dorset.

Looking at Stonehenge they read that the height of the horizon is 0.6 degrees behind the Heelstone. From the centre of the horseshoe-shaped trilithons an observer can see the sun rise behind the stone. So far so well documented. Of course, in the opposite direction one would be able to see the midwinter sunset too. The direction opposite midsummer sunrise is 229.3 degrees and midwinter sunset is 229.8 degrees. The situation of the monument has to be less than 1 degree in horizontal relation to the horizon or the observation of the sunrise/sunset will not work. 

In Dorset the Bank Barrow is dated to the second quarter of the of the 3rd millennium (c.2800-2500BC according to C14 from ditch fill samples - as near as damn it to this phase of SH). It has a bearing of SW-NE, similar to Stonehenge and is c.180m long. By finding out the grid reference of the ends of the BB it is possible to find out the exact bearing. When my students did the calculations the bearing was 229 degrees. Looking along in the SW direction from the BB a hill is seen, the Knoll near Puncknowle. The height of the BB is 193m OD and the height of the Knoll is 179m OD, or just 1 degree in elevation between the two. 

My students suggested that the builders sought out a flattish hill to build the BB with a feature on the horizon they could line up at 229 degrees and near horizontal to the proposed monument. The BB has to be 100m+ to accurately frame the sun (which is 0.5 degrees across - 1m in 100m length is c.0.5 degrees). The position of the sunset varies across the year but changes very little in the few days either side of midwinter. To be precise to a single day one must be able to observe a change equal to about 1/60th of the diameter of the sun.  Observing that it occurred within a two day period is easier, requiring a precision of about 1/16th of the diameter of the sun. A marker (natural or not) lying close to the midwinter sunset direction might help in deciding the day, eg if a quarter of the sun was still visible.  

I would like to do this simple survey on other monuments and check their bearings too. But what does this tell us about why such monuments were built? The only concrete evidence is that they were concerned with the setting and sunrise of the sun at certain times of the year. Why is another matter and this crosses the line into interpretation and theory. 

Bank Barrows have puzzled archaeologists since they were recognised as distinct from burial mounds in the last century. They are very much like burial mounds but with no burials. Apart from pointing in the same direction as Stonehenge why is the Martin's Down example built like a burial mound, with flanking ditches and probably has the same internal palisade structure? What is the notch at one end for (if it is contemporary)? This shape and construction technique must mean something too, just like our churches are in the shape of the cross. This question goes beyond the purely material remains that still dominate our Dorset landscape. 

Keep looking in as more surveys are done on other monuments.