Monday, 30 April 2012

Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts - away

It has been reported that thieves have dug a 6ft hole into an area of Olympia, where there is a known Mycenaen cemetery, in search of artefacts. This is because of the economic crisis affecting that country. The illegal digging has increased as people become desperate plus professional gangs know that there are cuts in guards at Greek heritage sites. 

But, local people are mounting volunteer guards to try to see off the robbers. Local people care about their heritage and also know that tourists come to see Greek sites. If sites are trashed they won't come. The culture ministry even reburied an early Christian basilica, found during work on a new underground railway, so that it may avoid looting. They knew that if a site became public knowledge the vulture will circle. At Pella, the ancient capital of Macedonia at the time of Alexander the Great, digging was abandoned after ten holes appeared over night.
The incredible Pella helmet

The artefacts are smuggled out by the gangs to unscrupulous dealers, auction houses (naming no names, but some well known) and collectors. Some of the artefacts can be worth millions of Euros. 

Greece has lost some 10% of its archaeologists and has just 2,000 security personnel. Museum staff have been laid off and are hit by robbers, smashing cabinets and taking metal and pottery artefacts worth millions. In one museum dead batteries had been placed in the security system! 

The Association of Greek Archaeologists, Ms Koutsoumba, stated that "we want the people of Europe to understand that when you see reports of cuts in the public sector, it's not just abstract. They are schools, nurses, monuments and museums". 

Each theft is like a surgeon taking a scalpel and cutting away bits of the brain bearing memories of the human race.  

Friday, 27 April 2012

Digging a Feature II

A Context Register
The context register has the Site Code in the top left corner. There might be several or even dozens of these sheets in a site folder and you just take the next numbers. Remember to put the fill numbers first and the cut number last. The other columns will be explained later. 

A Context Sheet
These context sheets are the only record of all features dug on the site and are thus of paramount importance. The numbers you take out are written in the top right corner box and the site code in the box next to it. The next box to the left is the site name, which could be the two or three letters representing village or road on which the site is situated. We will come to the Grid Square box later. 

DtD into June

The Digging the Dirt course is open until the 6th and 17th June for those who wish to come along on Wednesday (Dorchester) and Sunday (Bridport) evenings. Also for the site visits to two excavations! Contact me a.s.a.p.  

Thursday, 26 April 2012


As part of my 'Digging the Dirt' course I am looking at some of the great sites I have worked on in London. One of the most remarkable is the site at Spitalfields in east London. 

Spitalfields & site
The main focus was on the medieval priory and hospital of St Mary Spital and its thousands of burials. But below that level was a Roman cemetery, where one of the most important finds was made. This was a rare 4th century limestone sarcophagus in which was contained a lead coffin.

Lead coffin in sarcophagus

The scallop shells are an indication of the pagan belief of the journey to the Underworld. A layer of silt in the bottom of the coffin preserved organic materials, such as bay leaves, used to form a pillow and textile fragments of wool and silk with gold threads. 

The person interred within was a woman in her early twenties and isotope analysis on her teeth showed that she came from northern Spain. 

The skeleton in situ

She obviously came from a wealthy family, perhaps the wife or daughter of a London governor. Her face was reconstructed by the Meet the Ancestors team.

Reconstruction of the Roman 'Princess'

The artefacts from the burial were also very special. One was a unique glass phial with a zigzag pattern and of the highest quality.

Associated with this phial was a Whitby jet rod for extracting the contents. A second glass phial had a bulbous centre.

The Spitalfields woman is the most startling find from this grand cemetery just outside the old Roman Bishopsgate. John Stow, in the 16th century, reported in his 'A Survey of London', of many Roman finds unearthed during quarrying in the area. One shudders to think of how much has been lost over the years and centuries. 

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Archaeotreks Weekend

The 5th & 6th of May will be a weekend to visit Dorset for walks to archaeological sites. Book with me for 4 walks this bank holiday. Stay in recommended B&Bs and save 10%!

Contact: or 0776 869 51 62

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Divine Women BBC2

Here is a rare chance to see a programme about women in prehistory and their place in religious development, fronted by Betany Hughes (again). Hold on tight, because it really rattles along, having been given the task of condensing a huge subject into only a few hours TV. So, lets not knock it too much. I will have a look at the rest of the series and hope that all the gaps are filled, to a greater or lesser degree. Also, it is becoming easier to ignore the usual 'filler' shots of Hughes against a setting sun, or walking across a landscape, or.... etc etc. 
Golbekli Tepe carving
The first programme starts at around 12,000 BCE at the Gobekli Tepe, Turkish 'temple', site. Hughes points out a carving of a squatting female figure (which I have had to draw - I could find no images on the web, strangely), which she states is 'sexual' and perhaps the woman is being penetrated or giving birth. If it had been a man saying that one may possibly say it was a typical male interpretation. If one looks at various literature it is more likely that she is the 'fountain' of life giving waters (see other posts too). She had introduced the site as being the first evidence of 'organised religion as we know it' and that, because this was a pre-farming society, 'religion was forming human society' not the other way around. So, if you find a temple it must be organised.

So here we have a very early site (Mesolithic), possibly a temple, with a female carving, which is possibly the first evidence of 'organised' religion. Hughes had mentioned in passing that female figures have been carved from the Palaeolithic, then passed on immediately to the Mesolithic without any more reference to it.

Venus of Willendorf 24k-22k BCE

That may be in the next programmes. But that did not put the following information into context. That context is one of many thousands of years of female carvings created during the Palaeolithic and as such leaves the rest of the information in the programme 'hanging'. Also, just because the people of the Palaeolithic did not possibly leave structures (temples?) does not mean that they did not have an 'organised' religion. That would mean that Druids did not have an organised religion. 

At Catal Hoyuk, again in Turkey (directed in the field by my old colleague from Passmore Edwards Museum days, Shahina Farid), this early Neolithic site had many female figures and bulls carved and painted in the dwellings. No other mention was made of the bull connection to the female figures (important for this site and its interpretation). Shahina makes a very interesting statement about how the female burials show that they were 'skinny', whereas the female figurines are, what would now be termed, clinically obese. Shahina is, as usual in the profession, loathe to mention the G word in relation to the figurines, but the fact that they are fat and the real women thin may indicate that they are representations, not of 'ideal' real fertile women, but the goddess of all life, as at Gobekli Tepe and the figurines from the Palaeolithic. I cannot believe that Shahina has not heard of the earlier figurines, so can only surmise that she has dismissed any connection to them and her site, which she states is the 'beginning of the goddess form'. I would disagree (by a few thousand years!). 

One figure that I had never seen before, from this site, was this one: 

It shows a woman plump in front and as a skeleton behind. Striking and a bit unsettling. I was immediately struck by the similarity of the figurine I have shown before -  this one, the so called 'birth goddess': 

From Tarxian, Malta
Again, I believe that it shows the goddess as life giver and life taker, as in many cultures down the ages. She gives life and we return to her. 

I think that sometimes being a professional, with responsibilities and a fear of reputation being trashed, can suppress thinking and interpretation too much. One must always be looking over ones shoulder in case of ridicule and loss of face (and job). Luckily no one returns from the past to make fools of us all. But wouldn't it be wonderful?

Monday, 16 April 2012


For weekends away Dorset has so much to offer the heritage visitor. Please print off or send this poster to people you know that would like to have Archaeology Weekend Breaks in the southwest. 

Friday, 13 April 2012

Wareham site visit

"The excavation will be from 14th May until 10th June or longer if necessary.  I have spoken to Lilian Ladle and she will be happy to give a guided tour of Wareham following visiting the excavation on Sunday 10th June.  If we meet at 11.00 and spend 30 minutes on site then Lilian will take over finishing at 13.00 which is just in time for lunch.  There are plenty of places to eat in Wareham.  As to car parking there is a public car park 2 minutes walk from the site, but we can sort out the details nearer the date".

This email confirms the site visit as part of my Digging the Dirt course. This will be for the Dorchester and Bridport groups combined, so sign up soon!

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Pub Dig

Well, all-in-all not bad. The archaeology was interesting, in that it was a 'micro dig' which turned up some comprehensive information about a tiny garden at the back of a pub. Just goes to show what one can find in the smallest of spaces. Not sure how any digger can really state that a piece of flint is 10k years old straight after finding it! I know - the 'find' was staged for the camera. Someone must have had a good look at it beforehand. 

Not so impressed with the 'blokey' banter about handling lots of 'jugs' and there were so many beer bellies I thought I'd stumbled on a programme about childbirth. I'll give it another go. 

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Mick Aston - TV & TT

There has been some feedback on the resignation of Mick Aston from Time Team. Many people were concerned that Mick seems to think that his time at TT and Bristol University was a waste of his time and they point out quite forcefully that this is not so. They say that TT and Mick stimulated many people to get involved in archaeology and that the subject has been changed, in their eyes, from an arcane and exclusive discipline into an engaging one. Many have been enrolling on courses to learn more about archaeology or joining and even setting up societies so as to do work on and conserve their local heritage. But some have pointed out that perhaps Mick has been naive about how TV works. TV has to entertain and it has never been, primarily, an educational tool. That naivety is stretched to its limit if one thinks, viewer and participant, that the archaeologists run the show. The TV execs do that. Mick must have realised that, after 20 years working in the medium. To quote one letter to British Archaeology magazine “TV archaeologists like the living and hope that the ‘truth’ makes it through”. In other words they take the money and try their best to do a decent job, but they still take the money!

On TT generally people seem very concerned that the only archaeology programme on TV is ‘dumbing down’, there is less rigour in regards to having the archaeology at its centre and a possible “slide into the abyss of trendiness”. Why try to mend something that is not broken? Some have seen a possible conspiracy by the TV execs to dump the show by constantly changing the schedule and that they are obsessed by presentation and not content (the focus turning to presenters not subject) so that the numbers of viewers declines and that leads to cancellation. One made a political point, in that this is based on the general system of market commodities and selling, the cult of personality and celebrity and the cutting of heritage funds. 

When Time Team was set up it was based on the appeal of the subject for TV and, most importantly, getting the right people involved in making the programme who loved archaeology and worked in it. Archaeology is about research, practical discovery and developing a story of peoples lives based on the artefacts they used and the features in the landscape they created. The TV people could see that this would work if they could minimize the days of finding nothing and maximising the human story based on lots of ‘treasure’. However, TV people are in the creation/creative business. They are constantly looking to change and develop their ‘product’, to ‘refresh the brand’. ‘What do the public want?’ ‘How is the public taste changing and can we mould it?’ Archaeologists know that cultures and society change and observe it changing over time, but TV people want to change it, to increase audience figures and make more money. They do this by not giving what the public wants, but by giving them what they think it wants. For nearly 20 years Channel 4 took a hands-off approach to TT and the format changed very little. Something had to give. Bring in the trendy, out with the wrinklys. It is not change that is wrong, it is how the change is made. They tried to leave the ‘bones’ of the show intact and dress it in other clothes. This had very little to do with a falling out between individuals, as Mick Aston had left before Ochota was not rehired after one series. They just got it wrong and the guano hit the fan.    

I agree with the opinion that TT has had its day (or rather decades). A new format needs to be devised to build on the foundations set by TT so that archaeology develops and maintains its profile in the media and builds more public support for heritage research generally.

At the heart of any new programme should be a team of TV and archaeology professionals, as at TT. But, to use ugly terms in vogue at the moment, archaeologists should be the drivers and TV technicians/producers the enablers. The role of the media is to get the information out there and to construct a product that people will buy. People are investing their time and they will not watch if the programme design is dull. I had many a dull hour listening to bad teachers at university talking about a subject I love. Make a bad programme/lecture and people/students will not listen. The role of the archaeologists is to deliver the story of the human struggle to survive, to create and to destroy since first we left Africa. That is a story worth telling; an exciting story. But it must be based on the small, not just the large. By that I mean most of us have memories of being taught in school and having dates of battles and kings/queens banged into our heads. Even at ‘A’ Level I had to do the French Third Republic, the Russian Revolution and Europe Between the Wars. All great stuff but massive subjects. I grew up in south Essex and was pleased to leave. But I am currently writing a book on the archaeology of the area because it is the place where I have memories and roots. Most people feel that way about their village, city or county and are fascinated with its past. It’s personal. This should be at the heart of any new programme. Of course, people will still be interested in the ‘sexy’ big sites. But even very local sites can tell a great story, not just for the people of the area but also the nation. Many programmes can be thus made which would attract viewers, especially if local people could be involved too. Look at the Michael Wood programmes last year. Because that is the ‘third estate’ missing in archaeology – the public. For goodness sake, it’s their heritage.

Now I come to one point that bugs me. I have read that any programme should get the ‘best’ archaeologists. What criteria are we using here? I was taught by some of the best archaeologists at UCL, but some of them were lousy teachers. I have worked with some of the best field archaeologists and some of them could not string a sentence together or look you in the eye. At the moment TT shows us that TV looks for ‘boffins’, directors, managers (pretending to be diggers to get on TV) eccentrics and pretty faces, with diggers seen, if at all, just from behind (not always their best feature). Does anyone really look to diggers when thinking about who can articulate the information that a site produces? Anyone who has dug knows that archaeology is a team business and we all have different skills and abilities. Let’s use them more democratically. We need ‘faces’ that know what they are talking about and how to tell it. Let’s be honest; this includes people who are engaging and look right too. In TV you have to have an image. That’s the way it works. If Mick did not care how he looked why did he wear that jumper for 20 years? Why is Phil always in that sweaty hat? Because some TV person picked up on it from the start and asked them to carry on wearing them because it looked right.     

I really hope that someone will put together a programme that shows how archaeology and the deeper past can be exciting, engaging, entertaining and relevant to people of the 21st century and for generations to come. 

Agree or disagree - leave a comment.

Digging the Dirt course

My course starts next week at Bridport and Dorchester, so please sign up soon at either one for a great 10 weeks of archaeology. Contact me for more details:
0776 869 51 62

I will be looking at how sites are dug and showing how the processes are put into place on real sites. Plus the site visits to Wareham and Ham Hill.