Monday, 29 October 2012

Prittlewell: 'The King of Bling'

Southend-on-Sea is the largest town in Essex and Prittlewell is an ancient settlement that has now been swallowed up by it. It became famous in its own right in 2003 when diggers from Museum of London Archaeology found the most important site of the last 70 years, due to a road widening scheme. I gave this weeks talk on the site.

The site had been excavated in the 1920s when the rail and road workers uncovered a Saxon cemetery:
 In this instance what was uncovered was of greater importance than anyone could have thought possible. The remains of an undisturbed tomb from the 7th century AD:
 The tomb was 4m square, the largest found in the UK, and one of the first finds was the copper bowl hanging from its peg (the top right hand of this photo). Around 110 objects were lifted over a period of ten days.
These gold crosses were an indication that this person was Christian but still buried in a pagan way:

A unique find was this folding stool, seen in manuscripts but never in reality until this site uncovered an example:
This plain but beautiful gold belt buckle is similar to the more ornate example from Sutton Hoo:
 A startling survival is the remains of a lyre, the most complete example found from this period in the UK:

The most stunning finds, in my opinion, are the blue glass beakers, which give us an insight into the craftsmanship of Anglo-Saxon glass makers at this time:

The quality of the artefacts, both local and imported, make this the tomb of a great noble or even a king. The candidates for his being a king are Saebert (died 616 AD) or Sigeberht II 'The Good' (murdered 653 AD). The dates of the finds indicate that the latter is more likely.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Dorset Diggers II

On Saturday the Dorset Diggers met at Maiden Newton to have a look at the structure. Although it is on the early 20th century map it could have been reused during WWII after all. It has a mixture of brick types (19th & 20th century) and what looks like a stone doorstep:

The wall nearest the group has an aperture in it which has been roughly brick up; so its original purpose could not have been a water trough. So, this is well worth looking at.

We then went to the cafe to discuss setting ourselves up as a constituted group so that we can look at fund raising, for various bits of equipment etc. Now we need to write up desk top and risk assessments as well as doing some more research generally. Hopefully we can begin excavation sometime in the New Year.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Silbury Hill

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill; what can one make of this great lump of earth standing out like a chameleon's eye ball in the southern English countryside? What are the facts?
It is around 4,750 years old and has been knocked about so much that it was in danger of falling into itself until English Heritage undertook some conservation a couple of years ago. This was due to a vertical shaft being dug into it in 1776 and a horizontal one in the mid 1800s. Then Flinders Petrie had a go in the early 20th century. Silbury Hill was starting to turn into a Swiss cheese.
The EH work allowed some archaeological investigations to take place; so every cloud has its silver lining. Dr Jim Leary found that the earlier interpretation by RJC Atkinson, that SH had three phases of construction, was wrong by a factor of 20 or more.
Three phases?
Jim proposed an incremental approach with as many as twenty phases over a hundred years. Indeed, the first phase seems to have been the stripping of topsoil and the earth beaten down flat by hundreds of feet (ritual?). The next phase was a mound made up of nearly all the geological materials from the surrounding landscape. It is also interesting that this mound was surrounded by elongated pits, just like the causewayed enclosure monuments. The ditches were even revetted with stone. They seemed to be just as important as the mound. 
The mound we see today is 40m high and covers an area of 2 ha. It is estimated that it would have taken 18 million work-hours to shift 248,000 cubic meters of chalk and earth. 
In many cultures it is the process of construction that is important, not the final outcome. Also the location is important. The hills position is associated with water, being near the Swallowhead spring of the River Kennet.
The Swallowhead
One of the most startling discoveries during the survey of the surrounding land was a large Roman settlement, covering 24 football pitches. Many mounds have Roman burials in them and they may have seen this gigantic mound as sacred themselves.   
Another amazing discovery is that of a letter written by Edward Drax, who oversaw the Cornish miners digging in 1776. It was found in 2010 in the British Library. He had found a cavity, 12m deep and 15cm wide and stated that "we have already followed it about 20 feet and we can plumb it above 12 feet more". Drax interpreted this cavity as "something now perished must have remained in this hole to keep it open". David Dawson, director of the Wiltshire Heritage Museum, said: "It tells us that in one of its earliest phases some kind of totem pole was erected on the mound then subsequently additions to build up the hill were piled around that timber".   
SH attracts many people, to see one of the most remarkable monuments in Europe. But this can also be a problem. Two people abseiled down the cavity that opened up due to erosion, thus not only putting their lives at risk, and others that may have had to rescue them, but added to the destruction of the monuments by doing so. 

Such a reckless act of vandalism shows us that we must protect our irreplaceable heritage at all times.  

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Maiden Newton Archaeology

Visited the Dorchester History Centre and had a look at the 1902, 1830 and 1777 maps. The WWII structure is on the 1902 map! So, a Victorian feature, probably agricultural. But we still don't know what its function was. More later.