Thursday, 29 November 2012

A Personal History with just a fleeting mention of Sutton Hoo

Pamela Smith has now organized ‘Personal Histories’ sessions for some time. With these she tries to capture at least part of the oral history of archaeology by videoing and recording the sessions with her helpers. She started at Cambridge in 2006 with a panel remembering the 1970s and new archaeology, continued with women and gender archaeology a year later, and has lately been having at least one big session a year. Recently there have been sessions at the CAA conference in Southampton discussing and remembering the beginnings of computer archaeology and one at UCL, where the Institute of Archaeology is not only the largest department in the country but also had a big anniversary, so the project has truly become national. The videos of the sessions have been presented in different TAGs and the big session is like an annual tradition with its tea parties at Cambridge.

Carver on November 28 - on the left and right 40 years apart

This year the big event did not happen, but yesterday we had a smaller do, where Martin Carver was remembering his career. It became soon clear that the session was meant as a kind of career booster for the undergraduates, since as Carver reminded us, ‘if I can make it, anybody can’. He does even not have a degree in archaeology, but only a diploma. Nevertheless, in his generation this is not unusual. Degrees and PhDs where not so important when money was tight and archaeology was not professionalized or organized into heritage industry. What counted was, and counts still today, is the experience, results and publications.

Carver did discuss his research intensively together with his freelance digger and youth programme years at the urban excavations, but Sutton Hoo was mentioned almost passing. He emphasized that it was run as a business proposal with a research strategy with members and people coming to dig during their summer holidays. He also had BBC crew making a Chronicle programme and we did see David Attenborough on one of the photos. The longest Sutton Hoo story involved the lack of skill the modern sailors of a reconstruction Viking boat had in comparison to their forefathers. That trip in question ended with all down in the cold sea after the boat capsized.

What became clear was how important Carver’s military career had been for his archaeological career, although he seemed to downplay its importance. He spent over 10 years stationed in different parts of the crumbling empire and managed in one place abroad to put out a small archaeological exhibition – and he suggested that army time and visits to different countries did not affect his later career choice... Nevertheless, the most lasting legacy of the army life was the routine in planning, strategy, organisation and giving workable orders. At the time when archaeology was to a large extent an academic ad hoc pursuit, as he himself suggested, his concise documents and structured plans must have become as a revelation. No wonder the Sutton Hoo project was such a success and a professorship loomed.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Gastronomic archaeology

This year the Annual McDonald Lecture was given by Professor Mary Beaudry on a topic of gastronomic archaeology. Professor Mary Beaudry works at the University of Boston where she is running a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy. This degree combines archaeological and anthropological study with scientific study of food stuffs and nutrition. She gave an outline of her holistic approach. After all she is a historical archaeologist/anthropologist.

Professor Beaudry

She did not use the word, but she clearly considers a dinner party as a performance in a scene. In any case she distinguished four elements in a dinner party: a location (scene), material culture (sub-assemblage), food and people. Location does not include only the archaeological context but also bodies, ambiance and smells. People do not include only the participants, but in the case of 18th and 19th-century dinner parties also the servants/waiters/personnel. Material culture helps to create an assemblage of practice that is not only involved in use but consumption.

Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm (photo via link to Boston University)

She has excavated a series of historical homes in north-western United States in Massachusetts. She discussed in her lecture the case study of the pantry excavations at Spencer-Peirce-Little Farm in Newbury, Massachusetts, originally built around 1690. This extended building was owned by a series of not-so-successful characters during the early Independence. They wined and dined, but did not go very far. However, the totality of the evidence, including the functionally categorised china collection and their diaries with all hovering grammatical and spelling mistakes, was very compelling. They had a steady dribble of guests, family and friends, with roast piglets and veal legs on offer – the former also in evidence in the bone assemblage. These meats apparently were served with roast vegetables in a British manner.

A fitting lecture before the traditional buffet of nibbles, sandwiches and tartlets served with wine and orange juice.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Golden news

The recent weeks have seen a series of archaeological news in the national or international arena. These news do not have much common – naturally, apart from being the results of an archaeological digs. We have seen gold from Bulgaria, mammoth bones from France and a giant from Rome. The most glittering of these is of course – both literately and actually – are the golden objects from a tomb in Bulgaria. These Thracian finds have promptly connected with Alexander the Great. It seems to be all in the family!

One of Thracian objects (link to Daily Mail Online)

The site of the ancient Getic burial complex, in the past area of the Gaths, situated near the village of Sveshtari, approximately 400 kilometres northeast from Sofia. The gold came from the largest of 150 burials. These finds could be, as suggested by Diana Gergova, the chief archaeologist at the site, related to the funeral of the Gath ruler Kotela, one of the father-in-laws of Philip II of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. It seems the lure of finding the known named persons from the past is alive and well.

Digging 'Helmut'

The mammoth was found near Paris in France while the archaeologists were excavating ancient Roman remains in a quarry near the town of Changis-sur-Marne. The mammoth has been promptly named ‘Helmut’. Mammoth finds are not that rare; the distribution and extinction of this animal has been studied with the finds from Scandinavia and Estonia and Helmut was the fourth almost full mammoth skeleton from France alone. However, Helmut was definitely in contact with humans as suggested by the flint implements found at the same location. Two tiny flint flakes were found among the bones indicating that cavemen cut into the body, but clearly did not kill the animal with these pieces. Nevertheless, these finds are evidence of mammoth – human interaction 100 000 – 200 000 years ago. The chief archaeologist Gregory Bayle says: “We're working on the theory that Neanderthal men came across the carcass and cut off bits of meat.”

A bone with gigantism from Fidenae (by Simona Minozzi, Endocrine Society)

National Geographic has published the oldest skeleton find with gigantism, the condition that makes the sufferer to grow into a considerable height. The skeleton was excavated already in 1991 from Fidenae, one of the modern suburbs of Rome that was the location of one Archaic Latin cities. This skeleton has only been properly studied recently. Nevertheless, this area had a considerable rural settlement in the Roman period and as it was located on the Via Salaria its probable roadside or villa location was a natural choice for a Roman cemetery. He was 202 cm tall – approximately 35 cm taller than his average contemporaries in the 3rd century AD.

These are all exotic, attractive finds that feed anyone’s imagination. However, there is a serious scientific content with each news item, be it the interregional contacts between the Mediterranean and the other areas, the human – animal interaction or the history of human pathology. In these days Twitter and Facebook deliver the news even wider than the traditional newspapers and broadcasting companies. While trying to find out, if Priddy Circles had been discussed in Twitter, I found a plethora of retweeted tweets with the Roman giant instead.

Mammoths in Sweden: Ukkonen, L. Arppe, M. Houmark-Nielsen, K.H. Kjær, J.A. Karhu: ‘MIS 3 mammoth remains from Sweden—implications for faunal history, palaeoclimate and glaciation chronology’, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 26, Issues 25–28, December 2007, 3081–3098
Mammoths in Estonia: Lougas, P. Ukkonen, H. Junger: ‘Dating the extinction of European mammoths: new evidence from Estonia’, Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 21, Issues 12–13, July 2002, 1347–1354

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The draw of places – the consecutive reuse of landscapes

A desktop study can reveal something different from the underlying archaeology that is only fully understood during an excavation. The Medieval earthworks at Eye Kettleby suggested Medieval activity in an area of designated development. These ‘humps and bumps’ had already been mapped in the field and from the air photographs in the 1980s, and large quantities of flints and Anglo-Saxon pottery were later recovered during a field survey in the 1990s. These finds suggested activities inside a wide period between Mesolithic and Bronze Age and a later possible Early-Middle Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Nevertheless, the main feature of the published excavation (Finn 2011) turned out to be ‘ceremonial’ enclosures defined by ditches with Bronze Age cremations and with an Anglo-Saxon settlement in the northern area. This shows how the expectation of find something typical, such as an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, defines the initial interpretation.

The area today in Google

The area is bordered in the south-west by a stream but the river Wreake runs farther in the north. The area was at the time of the excavation relatively flat, but there were indications that the carr in the west was filled in during the Medieval period in order to level the area. The flint finds representing the earliest intervention in the area corresponds to blade technology with a few mainly end scrapers dated roughly to the Mesolithic/Early Neolithic. Later layer of flints belong to the Neolithic/Early Bronze Age blade technology with a higher number of scrapers and retouched flakes. Most of the flint finds from the carr were debitage, but there was a Neolithic flint axe, of orange flint and probably exotic, which could have been deposited with intention.

There were a couple of Neolithic pits but the main feature was four enclosures, two round ones and two oval ones. The circular enclosures were in the middle and those oval ones on both sides creating a somewhat elongated shape. The cremations concentrated inside the enclosures. The scientific dates of the Early Bronze Age cemetery are around 2100 and 1800 BC. The circular enclosures do remind ring ditches around the barrows in Leicestershire as is pointed out by Finn. The site was reused as an ‘Urnfield’ cemetery at a slightly later date towards the Middle Bronze Age with 8 separate groups of cremations. Some of these were between the enclosures, some farther away and three groups inside three of four enclosures. The oval one in the east remained empty. The dates from the urned cremations hover around 1500-1600 BC with a wider spread with the unurned ones.

During the Late Bronze Age the site was in both settlement and funerary use. There were pit alignments with animal bones to create boundaries into the area, which had signs of houses with ditches and post-holes and a hearth pit. The Late Bronze Age finds included a socketed bronze axe, spindlewhorl and loomweights. This earlier ceremonial space was at least partly truly domesticated at this point.

The monumental enclosures here did not lie in isolation but as part of a busy Bronze Age landscape with ring ditches and barrows dotting the Eye/Wreake river valley, not to mention flint scatters and possible Late Bronze Age settlements. Interestingly, there is a pit with a considerable deposit of fired clay and pottery that suggests that the destruction of the Late Bronze Age building was deliberate. Brück has suggested that the short-lived settlements were a sign of generational shift. At least these signs of deliberate dismantling are more common than just present there at Eye Kettleby.

Finn, N., 2011.Bronze Age Ceremonial Enclosures and Cremation Cemetery at Eye Kettleby, Leicestershire. Leicester Archaeology Monograph 20.

This site in the online databases:
Heritage Gateway (multiple records)
Archaeology Data Service

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Priddy Circle verdict: how much is a monument worth?

This week brought the sentencing of the case of the partial destruction of one of the Priddy Circles in the Mendips in Somerset. A retired businessman who had bought the farm house near the Circles had hired a contractor to do some building work across one of the monuments. This work led to the partial filling and destruction of one of the Circles. This week the landowner was ordered to pay up to £37,000 for restoration work, given a fine of £2,500 and told to pay legal costs of £7,500.

'Bulldozed' Priddy circle (photo from Telegraph)

How has the archaeological community responded to this sentence? RESCUE has not notified this news on its web page. BAJR does not have it in its archaeology news even if the actual destruction can be found through their search engine in the Past Horizons blog (under English Heritage). Neither is this news on the news page of the Council of British Archaeology or English Heritage. English Heritage has released a press release, though, flagged elsewhere in the blogosphere. I was unable to find it on the English Heritage web pages. I myself noticed the news from that always reliable archaeological source – the Daily Mail Online. It has also been notified by the local paper in Somerset.

Heritage Action blog has dissected the verdict and referred to the EH press release. Their verdict of the verdict is that the fine for destroying a unique Neolithic monument was a joke. They refer to a recent sentence were a fine of £2,600 was handed for installing uPVC windows in a listed farmhouse. It is clear that even if there is a price for the restoration work, the scale of sentencing was lenient – considering the relative wealth of the guilty party. English Heritage states that "English Heritage is very pleased that Mr Penny has agreed to pay for repairs to the monument and other mitigation works at a cost of around £38,000... ...In sentencing the judge was clear that had it not been for Mr Penny’s agreement to pay these substantial mitigation costs, the fine would have been significantly higher".

The judge considered the cooperation of the accused throughout the process a factor that led to a more lenient sentence and lower fine. English Heritage is happy with this verdict as a showcase that they "can and will prosecute in cases of serious damage and unauthorised works to Scheduled Monuments". English Heritage considers as a positive sign the recognition from the part of the defendant and the court that the Priddy Circles are of great importance and that they agree that this was a serious offence.

Is £2,500 a lot? The damaged section is perhaps one quarter of the area of one circle. There are four Priddy Circles, and thus, the damage was done to a 1/16 of the Circles. The site has been compared to the Stonehenge and if this can be taken for face value, one could cheekily suggest that serious damage to Stonehenge might result with a fine of £40,000 – if the accused shows remorse and agrees that Stonehenge is of great importance. And the sum would only be this high, if the damage would cover all parts of the monument...