Thursday, 27 September 2012

Beaumont Leys, a suburb already in the Iron Age?

One of the most interesting things archaeologically about the Beaumont Leys estate is not necessarily how it stands for the modern architectural ideals that went slightly sour, but how it is a site of ‘aggregated’ Iron Age settlements. No isolated farmsteads here, but a sinuous linear boundary and north from it the remains of nine or so roundhouses, some of them comfortably c. 10 m in diameter.

The sites at Beaumont Leys (© Leicester City Council and MapInfo)

There were signs of earlier visits during the Neolithic and Bronze Age in the form of occasional sherds deposited in otherwise Iron Age structures. This site is one of the hut sites at Beaumont Leys presented in the City Council MapInfo Historic Environmental Record (HER). This is not even the only area with a site of this type but there is another one, excavated around the same time in Humberstone and published in the same volume (Thomas 2011). Nevertheless, visiting Beaumont Leys every week and normally just seeing the shopping centre or the petrol station makes it delightful to know that there is more to the reputation of this estate.

Linear feature on Google Maps

Now the main archaeological site is the site of an Office depot and your average industrial estate warehouse building with a huge car park, virtually approachable in Google Street View. The astonishing fact is that in Google Maps the excavation is still visible and you can follow with your own eyes the linear boundary (see above) rounding up the site on the southern site. In your mind’s eye you can almost see ‘Asterix’ and ‘Obelix’ walking into the roundhouse of the village druid while keeping the troubadour at an arm's length.

Game model of the Gaulish village (linked image from Eclypsia game pages)

Thomas, J., 2011. Two Iron Age 'Aggregated' Settlements in the environs of Leicester. Excavations at Beaumont Leys and Humberstone. Leicester Archaeology Monographs 19.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

Darkness in the sun

Jersey beach

There is one part of the UK that was under Nazi occupation. The Channel Islands along the French Coast were occupied for almost five years between 1940 and 1945. The beautiful beaches in Jersey are dotted with watch towers, and the public can visit bunkers and tunnels at different locations on the island. The other islands have similar monuments but for family reasons I keep visiting Jersey.

The island provides wide sandy beaches with dunes and moorland. On a fair day the sea is blue and turquoise, and you have the vineyards and agricultural land inland with cattle herds and endless rows of potato. For a long time the occupation heritage was not discussed much but lately there has been a lot of activity in order to gather more information from the dwindling population who can still remember those times and to make people aware of the past.

The Channel Islands Occupation Society has looked after the building works since the 1960s but a Cambridge researcher with Guernsey roots has been studying the different aspects of the Occupation legacy and its materiality lately. Dr Gillian Carr has four current research projects, running or about to start, devoted to the archaeological evidence from this period. Her first project discusses the heritage of the Second World War and the German Occupation on the islands, whereas the second project looks at the material culture of the prisoners of war during that period. The third project explores the more comfortable aspects of the occupation, namely protest and resistance against the occupiers. Her fourth project will be on the archaeology and heritage of forced and slave labour as part of a European research project related to the Atlantic Wall.

This research activity and the related exhibitions, conferences and seminars allow revisiting this dark period at a moment, when enough time has passed for the collection of its memories to become urgent but also more palatable. The monuments around Jersey always tell a walker about the heritage of the island. However, the megaliths of Jersey remind of a more positive distant past that does not require reminding people about past deportations and other horrors.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

Landscape of car parks

Serious heritage ‘outlets’, historic houses and famous sites, do not only have to present their famous contents but also cater for the needs of the visitors. A large majority of sites are not conveniently by the centre of a town as the Ashby Castle is. The English Heritage parking area is minuscule and intended for disabled visitors. The visitors use the general parking areas in this market town.

Chatsworth car park (image: Google)

The largest of sites have huge marked parking areas and extensive facilities to provide food and shopping opportunities, not only for the convenience of the visitors but also in order to raise revenue for the sites. One of the huge professional operations is Chatsworth in Derbyshire. The recent BBC series hints the huge extent of the facilities but only a visit to the buzzing gardens and a look at the Google Earth imagery shows that the car parks – even if covered partly by trees at spacious intervals – cover an area larger than the house itself and its rose garden.

I must be in a minority in not opposing to the roads by Stonehenge. But then the fame of Stonehenge had created this immense mental perception that was duly trashed when the public bus was approaching this destination. The famous site looked much smaller than the extent it had grown in my mind. Nevertheless, people have needed to cross this landscape for ages and the roads have been there for a long time. I can understand that it improves the asset of Stonehenge to try to strip the immediate landscape of these ‘modern’ layers and allow admiring the viewlines, but at the time I was thinking that the earlier plan to dig a tunnel to save a short stretch of a sight of a road was not really realistic. No matter how marvellous opportunity that plan would have given to archaeologists who would have had to excavate along the tunnel line and could have made extensive scientific studies of soils and paleoenvironment. You could hear the brains of the paleoarchaeologists to make plans.

Cars are part of our current culture and the heritage sites have to be managed. Thus, the car parks are here to stay and if they are not next to the site, they will be somewhere nearby, even if out of sight.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Looking for a bad king

Shakespeare and in a much lesser part Josephine Tey have a lot to answer for in creating the modern perception of king Richard III. The king famously perished in the battle of Bosworth (also mentioned in this blog), in 1485 while in Shakespeare’s play (Richard III, Act 5, scene 4, 7) he uttered the famous words “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!”. After his death he was taken back to Leicester to a Franciscan Friary in the city.

Now a University of Leicester archaeological team is digging in the city's Greyfriars car park where they think he may have been buried. The precise location of the burial has been long lost but with the modern methods they hope to pinpoint the right location. The project team says that their work is “the first ever search for the lost grave of an anointed King of England”.

This was headline archaeological news presented with some Bosworth re-enactors giving a play battle in the car park. Richard Buckley, the co-director of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services, revealed the real archaeological aim behind the news-grabbing quotes. The main thing is to find the foundations of the Greyfriars church and place it in the matrix of the Medieval town.

The trial trench (photo: University of Leicester)

A ground-penetrating radar was looking for the lines of the foundations in the car part and now the team has two weeks to reveal any structures. So far they seem to have found what they were looking for - the church, not the body, yet. However, one element of the project has to be pointed out. Somebody had been ploughing through the archives and tracked down a full female line of the descendants of Richard III. A male descendant had been found, and on cameras he took a swap in order to give a DNA sample for the team. However, nobody praised the traditional historical ancestry research, which was required for any more modern analyses.