Thursday, 29 March 2012

Of mice and men

This weekly blog will be on a more frivolous topic before the all serious blog entry next week when I will look at the new planning guidance, out this week, and assess the response and any discussions. English Heritage was allegedly not been allowed to read the finalized text but the first impressions are more encouraging than expected. Well, a conservative party that would have seemed not to be conserving would really have been a target of Boris sighing o tempora o mores!

The latest archaeology news worldwide have brought us the scientific discovery, published in the BMC Evolutionary Biology, that the Vikings did not only terrorize Britain and settle Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland in the west, not to mention their dominance in some areas what is now Russia in the east, but also contributed to the successful spread of mice. The researcher Eleanor Jones, a population biologist at the Uppsala University in Sweden, who carried out the research as a PhD student with the Department of Biology at York, based her research on an earlier observation that a DNA variant in house mice, found only in mice in Norway, one of the Viking homelands, and northern Britain, which Vikings colonized, suggesting that the Viking settlers brought this subspecies to Britain. In order to study the Viking influence in the spread of house mice at a wider scale Jones and her colleagues first took DNA samples from wild house mice in nine sites in Iceland, one in Greenland, and four near the Viking archaeological site of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Then the team compared this DNA with ancient samples from mouse bones found at four archaeological sites in Iceland and a few in Greenland.

L'Anse aux Meadows, photo by Parks Canada

In order to study the relationships between different mice populations the researchers at York researchers compared a small fragment of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), passed down by females to their offspring. By comparing this mtDNA fragment from both modern wild mice and ancient bones, the scientists concluded that the mice travelled with the Viking ships and their settlers and their cargo to the long-term Viking colonies in Iceland and Greenland but failed to reach Newfoundland. This suggests that the site of L'Anse aux Meadows was short-lived without many ships with supplies travelling there. These results reveal the extent of human-mouse dependence and the parallel history in human-animal relations.

L’Anse aux Meadows is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the oldest European settlement in the Americas. Naturally, the native Indian settlements outdate it by tens of thousands of years and even at the site there are signs of occupancy from c. 6000 BP. The norsemen arrived c. 1000 AD. The Viking site was found by a Norwegian explorer and writer Helge Ingstad in 1960. Together with his archaeologist wife Anne Stine Ingstad they directed international excavations at the site. This multinational project resulted with the discovery of the foundations of eight long houses from the 11th century AD. Even if the site has not been considered long-lived, the finds included spindle whorls and knitting needles together with a small whetstone, used to sharpen needles and small scissors and found near the spindle whorls. There was also a great deal of slag from smelting and working of iron. These finds show a full range of household activities and hint the presence of families. The settlement was not long-lived enough for any possible house mice to affect the mtDNA make-up of local mice populations. The mtDNA team interprets the lack of mice to suggest there were no women or families at this site that would have been only a fleeting blip in the landscape history of the area.

Ringed bronze pin (©Parks Canada /G. Vandervloogt)

Logically, the settlement was not long-lived enough to be the origin of the carvers of the alleged Kensington runestone in Minnesota in the 14th century AD either. But that unlikely find is another story altogether.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Menhirs in Leicestershire?

My previous blog about a nearby archaeological site, Castle Hill at Beaumont Leys, started a good-humoured exchange in Facebook after my New Zeeland born friend asked about a standing stone in Anstey. The comments meandered and we finished with comparing the acting talents of Van Damme and Segal – with a favourable review in relation to standing stones of uncertain origin. Nevertheless, a quick search in Heritage Gateway with ‘standing stone’ as the specific search term resulted with only one standing stone from Leicestershire. However, there is a recorded boundary stone of Medieval or post-Medieval age in Anstey, on Gynsill Lane north-east of Gynsill Farm. It has a status as a Listed Grade II building.

Photo from Wikipedia

It is this boundary stone that keeps cropping up elsewhere on Internet. There is a very good photograph on Leicestershire villages by Peter Jones. The standing stone is mentioned in Wikipedia, too – in relation to lay lines. It is presented as a menhir on Megalith Portal. These last two suggestions show that we are entering now a land of enthusiasm and make-believe.

Naming something as a menhir – or even a standing stone – relates a local monument with such awesome complexes as Avebury or Stonehenge in this country or Carnac in France. For some people such monuments have spiritual meaning and value. Google ‘Carnac stones’ and see the list of the sites that come up first. Among the more scholarly entries you have a selection of Sacred Destinations, Crystal Links and Atlantis Quest. Naturally, everybody would like to see one’s own village in a more grandiose light. A menhir sounds so much sexier than a boundary stone. The language used and the potential narrative related with such a monument hints of a considerable antiquity and allow the teller to cross national boundaries.

The Anstey stone is located at the point where old ridge and furrow undulations change direction. This suggests that it is related with Medieval or post-Medieval boundaries. It is interesting to note that it was lifted to a more upright position by a farmer at the time when the A47 was to be constructed so that it was not to be erased. Thus, a standing stone or not, it has a tangible local value and appreciation.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Flag Fen Lives! with DigVentures – a wet vehicle for microfunding?

DigVentures has launched a campaign to collect funding for a major excavation through a web-based mircofunding scheme. This may prove to be one of the ways in the future to collect funding, not only for sites as famous and important as Flag Fen, but also at the local level. The reason for their excavation permit is that extensive drainage and climate change threaten to destroy and dry the waterlogged remains. The same problem is evident at Star Carr where the recent developments did raise a fervent discussion.

Francis Pryor tells about finding the hidden archaeology and the main actors present the Flag Fen Lives!

Before I looked at the project any more carefully I was just left wondering – no matter how marvellous and world-class Flag Fen is – if a full-on wet excavation is the optimum vehicle for engaging non-professionals with a new venture and taking money for it... I would have personally started with something dry but similarly fabulous. A week’s participation at the excavations at the site will cost £450 with a half-board. At this level of engagement the Venturer is given a promise of an assessment of his/hers field skills at the end of the experience and a further promise of giving him/her the confidence to use archaeological skills in the future. A full field school will cost £1300 and the Venturer is promised DVIP master classes, evening lectures and training. The day diggers are not promised the same level of training even if every day includes an induction. DigVentures suggests that this excavation is one of the best field schools out there and that seasoned pros would trade their favourite trowel for this opportunity.

It turned out that DigVentures had ended up selecting a dry-land pit alignment excavation for the Venturers to start with. The waterlogged remains will be only testpitted in order to observe their current condition. The funding target for this initial phase is set at £25,000 and the project and its appeal has managed to raise over £8,000 so far. However, partly crowd-funded projects are archaeological reality and especially American archaeology students pay for their field schools. Public excavations world-wide cost money for the participants and volunteer excavations are fully funded by the volunteers. In addition, in the days of pre-commercial archaeology many people worked for free in order to gain experience. The microfunding strategies are already used in some archaeological projects (see e.g. ArchNews 2/2/2011 and The Meander Project). The combination of a famous site, social networking, the use of charity fund raising sites and archaeological training sounds in principal exciting. DigVentures is promoted as a social enterprise dedicated to funding sustainable archaeology projects but even if microfunding route should be explored properly one has to be careful that in the future archaeology will not priced out of the grasp of normal people. Microfunding will probably give professional archaeologists more opportunities for paid work in the coming years but one has to wish that not all public involvement in archaeology will be against payment.

The Flag Fen Trust ran the Flag Fen Centre but run out of funds a couple of years ago. As a charity they needed continuous donations in order to continue keeping its exhibition centre open and conserving wooden remains. The council stepped in and the centre is now run by a charity called Vivacity that runs all council facilities in Peterborough. The Trust also organised events and introduced volunteers and members of public to archaeology and fieldwork. Therefore, this new project is a natural continuation of that work. The talks, given by a series of famous archaeologists on the impressive DVIP lecturer list, are open to public against the entrance fee of £5. The ‘big society’, the emphasis on charitable donations as a funding source for art and heritage and the cuts in the public sector will make this type of ventures more common place in the future. This is a natural step for Flag Fen and if it will lead to the digitalisation of the remaining Flag Fen archive it will be a step for good.

Digging the Dirt, Brendon Wilkins’ blog
Flag Fen Bronze Age Centre

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Knights Templar among us

Knights Templar, even if a real order founded during the Crusades, seem to belong to the murky conspiratory make-believe world around the edges of the scholarly and religious circles depicted in the novels of Umberto Eco and Dan Brown. However, the templars were among us during the Medieval period and had granges in many parts of England.

What I thought to be our nearest hill fort, Castle Hill at Beaumont Leys, is not a hill fort but a rectangular enclosure, earthworks that that belonged to a Preceptory, a monastery house of the Knights Templars. Locally the humps and bumps are considered Iron Age but when we finally visited the country park were the site lies I was puzzled by the rectangular form and with some later earthworks and different brick structures.

When back home I checked the City Council’s Scheduled Monuments list and the ADS archsearch over the Internet and found out about the true nature of the earthworks. Sadly, during the 19th century the area was used for sewerage purposes by the City of Leicester and this use damaged the preserved monuments. Already in the Medieval times the site had passed to Knights Hospitallers after the Knights Templar were dissolved. The Hospitallers exchanged the site in 1482 with the King and received the Rectory of Boston in this transaction. Soon afterwards the site fell into disuse and was for a long time pasture before the sewerage, evidenced by the brick structures.

The site has never been excavated but the University of Leicester has mapped the area. The archaeological map of the City shows that apart from the Medieval site the area has revealed a possible Roman field system and Neolithic and Bronze Age find concentration. There are also Roman and Medieval pottery finds from the area south and west from the rectangular enclosure. The site of the Preceptory has a dominant position and there is intervisibility with the Old John hill. The Brook passing the area between Anstey and Cropston on one side and Beaumont Leys on the other is not the worthy of the Soar itself but it is still a natural devide. The brook facilitated the use of the area as a sheep farm by the Knights Templar, as has been suggested. Nothing conspiratory in that land use – the revenues were needed in the operations in the Holy Land. Castle Hill was just one of many similar money-making sites for the Knights in the East Midlands (see Lewis 2006: 214).

Lewis, C., 2006. ‘The Medieval period (800-1500)’, in N. Cooper (ed.), The Archaeology of the East Midlands: An Archaeological Resource Assessment and Research Agenda, Leicester Archaeology Monographs.
Note: The Archaeological map of City of Leicester works best with IE.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Messages from a workhouse

I visited lately a former workhouse outside Gressenhall in Norfolk, now a museum of rural life and Victorian and later periods. The Victorian systems of supporting poor were different in different parts of Europe but in England the children and adults who could not provide for themselves were placed in workhouses. The system was only abolished with the foundation of the NHS after the Second World War and the last pieces of legistlation were changed in the late 1960s. The discussion around the unemployed and disabled has recently taken a turn towards a more sinister direction and the word ‘workhouse’ has been uttered by the critiques of the schemes where a young job seeker has to take a ‘work experience’ placement stacking supermarket or pound shop shelves or flipping hamburgers for major national and international firms. Thus, it was interesting to see how a real workhouse looked like.

The location was in the middle of the deepest Norfolk without any proper modern public transport connections. A large red-bricked building stood in a relative isolation. A workhouse was a product of the 1834 New Poor Law that replaced the Old Poor Law of 1601. The latter had been a network of ad hoc solutions created and governed locally at the parish level whereas the centralized system of workhouses embodied the idea of the poor as somehow morally lacking and responsible for their lot from which they could lift themselves if they wanted. The New Poor Law stated that for able-bodied persons or their families –
in fact for everybody else than the very sick and those in certain other exceptional, well-defined circumstances – all help and upkeep was declared unlawful outside well-regulated workhouses, places where they were put to work towards their subsistence.

Workhouses were set up already before the New Poor Law, most often by the parishes. However, with the new law they became compulsory and replaced the Christian-spirited duty of taking care of the vulnerable in the local community. The Poor Law Commission created Poor Law Unions in order to pool parishes together and create larger units at the local level to support workhouses. Our local workhouse was in Barrow-Upon-Soar but its buildings have mainly disappeared. Only one part of the complex is still standing and it has been transformed into a private residence. The workhouse itself served a long time as a hospital, which it has common with many other establishments, for example in Bradford in Yorkshire, where the old people allegedly did not want to go to the hospital because of this part connection.

The large building in Norfolk looks like any institution built during the Victorian period. It looks like a factory or a prison. However, workhouses were entered voluntarily when the circumstances of an individual became too difficult. The usual workhousers included the unemployed, disowned unmarried mothers, orphans, old and sick and mentally ill. Thus, the building and its location confined the poor and morally suspicious to be interned outside the main community. Foucault did call the English workhouse the English form of the ‘Great Internment’ when he discussed the subject briefly in the History of Madness; he probably kept it short since the workhouse was not primarily a mental hospital. His argument that power does not depend not on material relations or authority but primarily on discursive networks seems to fit the workhouse. The workhouses were an answer to a social problem, centrally run, widely criticized but even exploited by some poor for their own benefit. As a phenomenon it reflected the moral values and the organisational needs and pursuit of the majority in its time. Our example at Gressenhall as a building at least spatially delivered the centralized message and showed the poor their marginalized place.

History of English workhouses, see The Workhouse web site.
Workhouse and Foucault, see the Foucault blog.