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Giovanna Fregni



April 25th, 2011


Today we started out a little earlier. The goal was to see all of the Stonehenge landscape and get an understanding of it before we went to the monument itself.

The first stop was Woodhenge, a circle built of timbers. There was some debate as to whether it was a massive grain storage structure, or a ceremonial monument. There’s nothing to say whether or not it had a roof, or anything other than various sized pillars set upright into the earth. For anyone not into archaeology, the monument might be a bit of a disappointment, since the pillars are represented by short stumps of varying diameters. I found it a confusing arrangement. When walking between the pillars at times it ran as a spiral and others were concentric circles. Going anti-sunwise led outward for a bit, but then it reached a point where the posts were larger and the path continued in the same circle. There were also some paths blocked by pillars. Whatever its function, the henge does control movement within the circles. For a contrasting view, I took out my phone and found the site on Google Earth, and could look at the path I was walking from a bird’s eye view as I walked around. The strange things you can do with technology.

I hung out there longer than the others, who walked across the road to Durrington Walls. This is a massive area (17 hectares) surrounded by a bank and ditch. It was here that Mike Parker Pearson found the settlement of the people who would have built Stonehenge. According to him, this was the land of the living, made of wood, as opposed to Stonehenge, the land of the dead. Wood, like living creatures, allows for change and mobility. It decays and needs renewing, where stone is durable and unchanging. There are other theories out there, but this one has always appealed to me, and seems to satisfy many criteria set up in the landscape.

But it was a beautiful day, and Durrington Walls was green and seemed full of life. I felt like running around or rolling down the slope. It just felt good to be in wide open space with everyone spread out.

I noticed that rabbit holes are much bigger here than in North America, making it more plausible that a young girl could fall into one. There were badger sets, too.

The soil here was fairly thin, and it could have been that the banks were covered in chalk, the same as Salisbury Hill, making it a gleaming bowl for the village. The chalk walls might also have served to make the place a bit brighter in the dark winter months. I found a couple bits of broken pottery (all modern) in a small cut out area. For fun, I gave them o Kevin, telling him that I’d found a couple pieces of rim sherd and a base. One did have a bit of blue decoration.

Next we toured the landscape. This was facilitated by a fair amount of road construction that forced us to take detours and drive in spirals to find our way. Kevin was leading in the car, and we came to rely heavily on my phone’s sat-nav capabilites.

We saw many barrows from the car. They make them much bigger down here. The ones up in Yorkshire (along with the stone circles) are rather small compared to what is in the south. Not that I don’t appreciate Yorkshire monuments.

We stopped for a bit and hiked through a small forest to a group of mounds. There we could see variations in their construction. All of them had been dug by antiquarians (an advantage of having smaller mounds, many of them have gone unnoticed) and had the characteristic slump at the top. We climbed to the top of one and got a good view of the landscape around us.

The final stop of the day was actual area around Stonehenge, including the cursus and the Avenue.

As always, King Arthur Pendragon, a self styled Druid and protector of the monument was there. He’s an interesting person (in the Minnesota sense of the term) who wants to see an end to British rule of the monument and free access for everyone. That’s not bad, but then there would be no provision for maintenance, or protection. While the rules seem extreme now, without an overseeing authority, there’d be little to prevent people from chipping off bits or climbing on the stones as they used to do. Lichens, some thousands of years old, would be scraped away, or destroyed by the acids from human hands.

Stonehenge is also the place of ravens. They are nearly tame, taking food from visitors and nesting among the stones.

After lunch and an expensive stop at the gift shop, we walked out into the fields to find the cursus. It’s easier to spot on areal views, but a bit more difficult to spot on the ground. Kevin found the low ridges and pointed out how extensive the earthwork was. Originally these were thought to be Roman chariot race tracks, but instead they are Neolithic structures. But while there are some explanations for most monuments, there are none to explain the cursuses found around Britain. The sides are too low to contain livestock, or to be used as a trap for animal herds. The cursus runs perpendicular to the Avenue, and so doesn’t lead to Stonehenge, and the low rise of the land obscures the view of the henge at times.

Now that we were at the opposite end of the field, we could begin the walk up to Stonehenge, the way that it was meant to be approached. It was small in the distance, and sometimes not visible, but grew larger and more prominent as we came closer. We could understand how people in a procession would feel, approaching on foot at a slow pace, building up the anticipation.

But sadly the Avenue is bisected by the A303 and we could only come as far as the fence. The road is closed now, and I’d learned from one of the guards that it will be taken out and he Avenue restored. I’ll look forward to walking the whole distance one day.

Since Kevin excavated there as part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, he was able to point out the area where the excavations showed where the massive sarsen stones were dressed and carved before being moved into the circle.

We spent some more time walking around the fields and taking in the landscape and its monuments.

We all got together for dinner at the Indian restaurant again. It was a massive group.

I was feeling pretty wiped out by all the hiking and walking. There’s a considerable amount of thinking involved in going through these sites. Much of what we look at is no longer there, but while staring at the landscape, we try to see the activities and structures as they were when they were new and in use. In the case of Stonehenge, that changed considerably during the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age with the circles being reconstructed and rearranged before it fell out of use.

We all made an early evening of it since we had to be up at 5:30 in order to be in Stonehenge at 6:30 the next morning.

April 22nd, 2011


This was a vacation for me, but a working holiday for Kevin Cootes. The reason behind the trip was for him to lead a group of A level students through the Wiltshire Neolithic landscape. I met a few of the people the night before, but In the morning I was introduced to the rest of the class who would be riding on a bus from site to site. It was a perfect spring morning, and after a little sorting out, we were on our way, through construction, to Avebury.

There’s nothing that can really prepare you for the Neolithic landscape. You can read and study all you want, but it cannot convey the sheer magnitude of the monuments and the scale of what people created there.

The Avebury stone circle is the largest in the world. It encircles the village and opens onto the West Kennet Avenue that leads off to the Sanctuary. I was sorry that I wouldn’t be able to walk that way, but it was a couple miles. After a briefing by Kevin, we wandered around the outer and inner circles, and tried to understand what it was all about.

Kevin was an excellent leader and font of knowledge. He worried about being able to answer all the questions that the students might throw at him, but he was well prepared, and impressed everyone. Once he finishes his PhD, he’ll make a great lecturer.

Sheep and lambs wandered around the circle with us, taking no notice of all the tourists. People came from everywhere, and I heard groups speaking in Japanese and German. Kevin pointed out the Tolkien tree, a huge, old alder with an enormous tangle of exposed roots. The story is that he would come out here to sit and look at the stone circle while working on The Lord of the Rings. If that’s so, I can see how the West Kennet Longbarrow would be an inspiration for the hobbits’ adventure in the barrows.

We had lunch, and visited the gift shop. I never got around to seeing any more of the town, or the museums. I will need to go back some day…

We wandered a bit more, considered alignments with other monuments and avenues. It’s hard not to speculate and form all sorts of ideas about the landscape here. There are just so many strange and awesome monuments here. They defy modern, logical explanation.

The next stop was Silbury Hill. I’d seen it from the road, and now we had a chance to see it close up. The hill is entirely man-made of tonnes of piled up chalk and earth. Back in the day it would have been covered with gleaming white chalk. It was easily visible from Avebury and the West Kennet Longbarrow. The odd thing is that Silbury Hill seems less impressive close-up than from a distance. It’s an odd illusion, similar to that of seeing St. Peter’s from the Sabine Hill in Rome. No climbing is allowed, so after a talk and photos, we went on to the West Kennet Longbarrow.

The Longbarrow is a chambered tomb, with niches and crypt-like side chambers. Back in the day, people would come and visit the dead, interring more, and often rearranging the bones. Nowadays, people leave offerings of flowers, and other tokens. It is a powerful place, stretching away under the ground, and sited along the top of a ridge, so that it is visible for miles. We could see it from Silbury Hill, and the hill was easily visible from the Barrow.

There were few other visitors here, or at Silbury Hill for that matter. It is too bad that so many people only go to Stonehenge and Avebury, and miss all the connecting parts of the landscape. Just as important as the ceremonial monuments, are the places where people lived and moved. From analysis done on artefacts and human remains, we know that then as now, people from great distances came to visit this region, and the landscape was developed deliberately to function in a way that made sense to the people who lived then. 

The final stop on the day’s tour was The Sanctuary, the site at the end of the West Kennet Avenue. This was another timber circle, but is also thought to have been covered.


Because Kevin and I were in Kevin’s car and separate from the coach, there was some confusion over dinner. Felicity, the lecturer for the class got a ride with Kevin and me. We thought that the others were going to the Indian restaurant in Amesbury, and headed that way. But first we made a stop at the site of Blue Stone Henge. Kevin was part of the Stonehenge Riverside Project run by Mike Parker Pearson and the University of Sheffield, and got to excavate here. Blue Stone Henge was rather a surprise, a large stone circle composed of the spotted dolerite that makes up the inner circle of blue stones at Stonehenge. Parker Pearson’s theory is that the dead were ferried along the river Avon from Durrington Walls and then landed here. After crossing through this stone circle, they would continue on to Stonehenge. But then, who knows how many more monuments lie buried in this landscape?

We didn’t find the others at the Indian restaurant, but had a good time and ate far too much. Afterwards we went across the street to the pub where we found they had a mini air museum. There’s a society devoted to the Spitfire, models, newspaper articles, and a history of military aviation. The region around Salisbury plain is largely used by the military, and the fields are used for tank and gunning practice. While driving around we saw plenty of barracks, and occasionally military helicopters flew overhead, following the Neolithic roadways.

After a pint, we went back to our rooms and got ready for the next day.


April 16th, 2011

The day started out with a whirlwind tour of Chester. Any town in Britain with “chester” or “cester” in it indicates that it was once the site of a Roman fort, and Chester can boast of a lot of Roman heritage. There is an excavated arena with a Shrine to Nemesis, and an original hypocaust (now located under a pota
to shop). Kevin raced me from one area to another pointing out markets, the town layout, medieval sites, modern sites, and always more Roman. We walked along the city walls and walked past the pub where Charles I conducted his affairs during the Civil War. We had to get back on the road far too soon, and on the way we drove past the Cheshire Cat pub, the original.

The Chester plain flattened as we headed farther south. Now I know why I was asked if I had found any of the lowland type metal hoards here. It would fit the pattern. But as we continued, the landscape became more dimensional. We stopped briefly in Shrewsbury to look for a Virgin mobile phone store and for Kevin to check the charity shops for more ceramics. Shrewsbury’s claim to fame, besides being the home of Brother Cadfael, was the birthplace of Charles Darwin.

Along the way Kevin told me about family road trips to visit aunts and uncles in South Wales. There was always a stop at the Lazy Trout diner. So, of couse we drove past and stopped. It is amazingly like an American diner that you’d see in smaller towns that were bypassed by the freeways. The food was British, but the diner seemed slightly out of place, although I noted that a motorway is almost indistinguishable from an American interstate or an Italian autostrada.

The next stop was in Pewsey to visit Kevin’s aunt and uncle. Pewsey is a very small town and they live in a medieval house that has a shop below. The house is filled with objects they’ve collected or have been given over the years. I sat quietly in a too comfy chair and tried not to doze off as Kevin talked about family and old times.

We had to get on the road again. The side trip to Pewsey took us far out of the way, and Kevin wanted to get as much driving done as possible before it got dark. We got turned around in the small towns, and got lost for a bit, but were saved by the wonderphone and google maps. I acted as navigator, trying to figure out how to get all the features on the phone to work. Problems were compounded by construction, but we finally found our way to the motel in Amesbury.

Kevin showed up at 7 am, and we loaded my stuff into the car and headed out of town. I realised that we were driving through the same landscape that I see from the park at the end of my road. We went through the Rivelin Valley and heading towards the reservoir, driving through the Snake Pass, and headed through Glossop. Kevin put in a cd of Meatloaf. Some road trip music is universal, and it reminded me of Kate Worley's rule that any music left in a glove box long enough will eventually turn into The Best of Queen. The scenery was amazing and after a gorgeous ride through the Peaks, we looked down on Manchester spread out in front of us. There we turned and  Kevin headed into a small town in North Wales to pick up some sandwiches. What I didn’t realise was that the first stop on vacation was the excavation where Kevin is the finds officer. I still have some North American ideas of distance, so I hadn’t realised that I was always so close to Wales and the Isle of Man.

The excavation site was amazing. It’s near Poulton on this side of the stream separating England from Wales, and spans all periods from prehistory to Medieval. I was set to work in a section with a couple circular ditches, while others worked at a Roman section.The site has a reconstructed roundhouse, a home made wood henge, and boasts an authentic WWII landing strip. There’s also a medieval cemetery being excavated that’s next to a chapel. Despite all that, the search continues for the Cistercian monastery that was the primary reason for starting the excavation. Most of what I did was clean up a trench, but it felt good to get a bit messy and work in the warm sun. Yes, it’s t-shirt weather. I also got to impress people with the new wonder phone and its metal analysis applications. Unfortunately, on Saturdays the work only goes until early afternoon, so we took off for Kevin’s place in the Wirral. We crossed the Mersey and were there in about twenty minutes. Kevin’s place has an amazing view of Liverpool.
Kevin collects pottery, and his house is full of Wedgwood and other pieces of ceramics he’s collected. He had to work that evening, so  hung out. I really intended to get some marking done. But I realised how many years it’s been since I just stretched out on a couch
and watched TV.
I went out in the evening to see Kevin at work where he tends bar at the social club.  The Wirral is a nice village. The evening was balmy and people were out talking and walking around. It’s the closest I’d seen to a passaggiata in Britain. It’s a comfortable and congenial place.
I’d seen social cubs (I live down the street from one), but never been inside. They are a holdover from much older days, where everyone is smartly dressed and go out to enjoy an evening of cocktails and dancing. They used to have live bands, but now there is recorded music. Kevin tends the bar and tells jokes all evening and everyone seems to have adopted him there. Bingo is played (and it’s much different than Bingo in the US, you have to fill the whole card, not just one line) with much ritual and cultural references that I had to ask about. People asked me about America and politics, curious about the recent problems with the government shutting down. It was a pleasant and fun evening, but
the club is slowly aging and dying away. it will be sad when it’s down to the last few people and the place changes or closes. An entire culture will have passed away.

Day 2:
It was a laid-back morning. We went off to a boot sale, the British equivalent of a flea market, and the only alternative to rummage sales. Despite arriving late, I managed to find a couple decanters to put in the fresh batch limoncello in. I also got a good deal on a sturdy tabletop tripod
that will make photographing museum collections much more efficient. One vendor gave me a horse brass with a sheaf of wheat on it. It was a gorgeous day. I got to see more of the Wirral. Once back at Kevin's I gave in and spent the rest of the day marking papers, writing, and indulging in television. Except for the TV part, it was pretty much like a day at home in Sheffield.

April 11th, 2011

Vacation Day 1: The Wirral and an unexpected excavation

(photos to be added later)

Kevin showed up at 7, we loaded my stuff in the car and headed out of town. I realised that we were driving through the same landscape that I see from the park at the end of my road. We went through the Rivelin Valley and heading towards the reservoir, driving through the Snake Pass, and heading through Glossop. Kevin put in a cd of Meatloaf. Some road trip music is universal. The scenery was amazing. After a gorgeous ride through the Peaks, we looked down on Manchester spread out in front of us, and then we went into Chester. Kevin headed into a small town in North Wales to pick up some sandwiches. What I didn’t realise was that the first stop on vacation was the excavation where Kevin is the finds officer. I still have some North American ideas of distance, so I hadn’t realised that I was always so close to Wales and the Isle of Man.
The excavation site was amazing. It’s near Poulton on this side of the river separating England from Wales and spans prehistory to Medival. I was set to work in a section with a couple circular ditches, while others worked at a section that was Roman. The site has a reconstructed roundhouse and a wood henge. There’s also a medieval cemetery being excavated that’s next to a chapel. The search continues for the Cistercian monastery. Most of what I did was clean up a trench, but it felt good to get a bit messy and work in the warm sun. Yes, it’s t-shirt weather. Also got to impress people with the new wonder phone and is metal analysis applications. Unfortunately, on Saturdays the work only goes until early afternoon, so we took off to Kevin’s place in the Wirral. We crossed the Mersey and were there in about twenty minutes. Kevin’s place has an amazing view of Liverpool.
Kevin collects pottery, and his house is full of Wedgwood, and other pieces of ceramics he’s collected. He had to work that evning, so  hung out and watched tv, and really intended to get some marking done. But I realised how many years it’s been since I jst lied on a couch watching tv.
I went out in the evening to see Kevin at work where he tends bar at the social club.  The Wirral is a nice village. The evening was balmy and people were out talking and walking around. It’s the closest I’d seen to a passaggiata in Britain. It’s a comfortable and congenial place.
I’d seen social cubs (I live down the street from one), but never been inside. They are a holdover from much older days, where everyone is smartly dressed and enjoy an evening of cocktails and dancing. They used to have live bands, but now there is recorded music. Kevin tends the bar and tells jokes all evening and everyone seems to have adopted him there. Bingo is played (and it’s much different than Bingo in the US, you have to fill the whole card, not just one line) with much ritual and cultural references that I had to ask about. People asked me about America and politics, curious about the recent problems with the government shutting down. It was a pleasant and fun evening, but
the club is slowly aging and dying away. it will be sad when it’s down to the last few people and the place changes or closes. An entire culture will have passed away.

Day 2:
It was a laid-back morning. We went off to a boot sale, the British equivalent of a flea market and the only alternative for rummage sales. Despite arriving late, I managed to find a couple decanters to put in the fresh batch limoncello in. I also got a good deal on a sturdy tabletop tripod and was given a horse brass with a sheaf of wheat on it. This will make photographing museum collections much more efficient. It was a gorgeous day. I got to see more of the Wirral and then spent the rest of the day marking papers, writing, and indulging in television. Except for the TV part, it was pretty much like a day at home in Sheffield.

March 26th, 2011




I got up at 5 am, just before dawn on the equinox. That gave me time to do a short bout of Tai Chi at dawn before starting a long day. I find that rather than blowing off a day of practise, the stretching and movement helps make life easier when I have a day of lugging around equipment.

It’s a beautiful spring morning. The train was packed and I crammed myself into a seat with all my gear. I wrote some notes about defining hoards and played a game of chess on the new smart phone while the woman next to me read a book about Lady Gaga.

I’d wanted to see this particular hoard for two years now. Back when I started writing my masters dissertation, I was supposed to write on the Roseberry Toppng hoard. But just before I began, the curator left Weston Park Museum and shut down all access to materials for research. I made a mad effort to find another hoard, and found this one on the database of the Portable Antiquities Scheme Unfortunately it wasn’t to be. I couldn’t find the hoard’s current location in time and had to write on something completely different.

After a short wait, I was on the train headed towards Birmingham, but changed again at Tamworth. As we headed south, the land started to get flatter. Outside of the train stations and the roofs on houses distinguish this region from small industrial towns in the upper Midwest. Or maybe after a couple years the landscapes are blending in my head. There are occasional hills in the distance, not too high, but they stick out in the low rolling landscape.

This hoard was found by a detectorist in Northampton and ended up being bought by the museum. A great relief, since the Portable Antiquites Scheme released it to the finder, who would have the option of selling it all on EBay. The hoard is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the hammer and ingots. These are rare in Britain.

After a few minutes waiting on the platform in Tamworth, I was on the last leg of the trip. These cross-country trains are amazingly fast, and almost frightening as they rocket past the station. It makes the Trans-Pennine Express seem quaint as it chugs along through the Peak District.

I feel as if my thesis is being hand written in notebooks and on my little netbook as I travel from place to place.

When I arrived, Northampton was just waking up and the shops beginning to open. I saw a sign for the River Nene, off to the right. The river flows down to Peterborough and Flag Fen. All of my hoards are connected in one way or another to waterways or wetalnds.

The Northampton Museum and Gallery was a short walk from the station. Since it was closed today, I rang the bell and was let in. I met Paul Robinson and we went upstairs to his office where a desk had been cleared and the hoard was neatly stacked in three boxes. The place was quiet except for the occasional phone call and music playing in another office.

I spent as much time as I could allow on the hammer. It was unremarkable in every way, except for the fact it is a hammer and it is in a hoard. The face was smooth except for the pitting caused by being in the ground for about 2500 years. Despite being buried for so long, all the objects were in remarkably good shape.

I got through the first box of artefacts and we quit for lunch. I got a chance top stroll around for a bit, trying to decide on a café. A bacon, brie and cranberry chutney sandwich in a window made the decision for me. I wandered a bit more and admired the blossoming cherry trees in the city centre. Northampton is a nice town, and one that few people would think of visiting. I learned later that it was famous for manufacturing shoes and elevators. 

I got back to work with the ingots and axes. Paul took little notice of me as he worked at his computer. The museum is the local one and not the regional one where most archaeology would go. Its focus is pretty much on shoes and local history, so it is odd that the hoard did end up here. Friends of the museum gathered the money to buy the hoard from the finder for a modest sum, which then would be split with the landowner according to law. And so here it is, stored in ethifoam and archival boxes. Some of the spearheads and axes are in wonderful condition. They would make an impressive display, including one spearhead bent into a curve.

I finished right on time at 5 pm. I thanked Paul for letting me spend time with the hoard and making space for me, and then set out into Northampton. The day went quickly and now the city was shutting down. At lunchtime I bought a loaf of bread, and figured it would be nice to have some cheese to go with it for dinner on the train. I passed a Polish grocery store (no English here!) and went in. The woman at the counter was astonished that I only wanted a small piece of cheese, only about 100 grams. She kept picking up massive kilos of it and I kept directing her to smaller ones. Then there was more confusion as I bought one sausage. I compensated by buying a massive poppy seed pastry.

The next train out would be in about an hour, but there was an earlier one that I could take that went through Birmingham and then on to Sheffield. The woman at the counter explained that I would have more time at Birmingham that way. I don’t know what that advantage would be, but I got on to the nearly empty train and enjoyed the space to spread out. The cheese is a kind of Finnish Gouda with small holes, like Swiss cheese. The polish sausage was amazing. Crunchy skin and juicy inside. I’d missed that and hadn’t had it since I left the States.

It was a long, but comfortable trip back. I read notes off of my laptop, played with the new phone, and ate my Northampton Polish buffet. I was back home by 9:30 with a new pile of data to sort.

March 11th, 2011


Archaeology days are one of those British institutions that should be imported to the US, but I’m not quite sure if they would fly. Britain is a place where people, even non-academics, still go out to lectures for the enjoyment of it. And in Britain almost every town has an archaeology day. It’s like a mini conference where people speak about the latest excavations going on in the area, new research, or just generally interesting things about archaeology.

I came along the Dearne Valley Archaeology Day to give Tom Barnard a hand. I’d been at his dig since January and was looking forward to talking about the medieval metallurgy and slag we found there.

Since I got a ride from Tom, I was early enough to help set things up (and also had first crack at Colin Merrony’s book stall).

After coffee and socialising we settled in to listen to the first session of talks. Tim Cockrell started the day with a talk about the archaeology of identity in Cyprus. Five thousand years ago, during a relatively brief period, people were buried with cruciform pendants carved from a greenish form of picrolite, a for of steatite (also known as soapstone). Because the cemeteries were used by multiple settlement groups, in the past, they could have signified individual members of different groups. In a more modern context, the crosses have new significance as symbols on Cypriot coins, and are used to create a communal identity for a divided country.

Roger Doonan gave the next paper, and spoke about helmets. As humans developed, skulls became increasingly vulnerable, and Roger’s paper described the technological development for cranial protection. In 2600 BC, Ur provided the first depictions military helmets. With this began the first arms race as weapons technology became ineffective and had to improve in order to overcome the protection provided by helmets. As this progressed, more specialised helmets were evolved. Helmets were continually redesigned to improve the wearer’s ability to hear and see while their head was encased. Helmets became increasingly complex through Attic and Roman times, and up into Anglo Saxon and Viking periods. But with the advent of firearms, helmets fell out of use until the advent of harder steels (A South Yorkshire innovation). Helmets became simplified in appearance, but more complex in their metallurgy. The development of the different types of steel made mass production possible, providing effective helmets that protected heads in the First World War. In an added note, Sheffield industries employed the use of camels and elephants, as all the horses had been sent off to war on the continent.

After a break (where I put my time into adding to my pile of books), Bob Johnston spoke about the water powered grinders of the Rivelin Valley. The area is now a picturesque nature trail, but in the mid 19th century the Rivelin River powered twenty wheels on a three mile stretch. Despite that, the area was both woodland and industrial, and a place where people from the city (townies) could come and have a tea in the countryside. The university has an ongoing excavation there at the Holme Head Mill, and the public was invited to visit the excavation during open days in June or July.

Chris Cumberpatch followed with a discussion of the history medieval pottery of South Yorkshire. Analysis and study have shown that the standards and sequences are more complex than the accepted models. Chris’ work shows that the accepted framework has collapsed and that new ideas of pre-conquest relative dating need to be employed.

In addition, Chris put out a call for museums to preserve archives and artefacts. Many museums are getting rid of these as a means for short term savings. All of our research depends on being able to return to objects and records, to re-examine and re-evaluate them. The destruction of the archives not only destroys the ability to do continued research, but also destroys valuable heritage. He urged everyone to contact their MPs and museums. Further information about the situation can be found at Rescue, The British Archaeological trust www.rescue-archaeology.org.uk. Print copies of the organisation’s newsletter were also available.

After a buffet lunch we heard Angela Walker speak on flotation techniques and her work in Romania, charting the progress of agriculture from Turkey through Greece, and Bulgaria during the Neolithic.

Colin Merrony followed with a report on the goings on at Wombwell Wood. The area consists of ancient enclosures, hengiform monuments, and field systems on the coal measures. The scheduled monument backs up to residential houses where residents have slowly been extending their back gardens onto the henges. In the twenty years between surveys, almost half the site is gone. The landowner is buying property around the site and the ‘quiet attrition of the archaeological record’ will likely pave the way for the landowner to develop the area. There was much discussion of the issue and a hope that both residents and local groups would be made aware of the destruction of the heritage site.

After the final break we heard from Alex Sotheran speaking on archaeology of the Great War. His group No Man’s Land specialises in excavation of WWI sites. The most recent work was commissioned by the BBC at the location of the Battle of Somme (1915 and 1916). The site was chosen because the poet, Wilfred Owen was there. While some of the archaeology was lost to the plough, there were standing supports for barbed wire still in situ. Of the 70,000 missing from those battles, 122 bodies were found, some of whom had been identified. One man, a German, was found with a local piece of Neolithic worked flint in his pocket. He was identified only as coming from a Stuttgart regiment. In an amazing sequence of synchronicity, a relative of the soldier contacted Alex’s group after the Stuttgart paper ran an article on the excavation. She happened to be in Stuttgart and saw the article while she was travelling with a theatrical group that was performing a play based on Wilfred Owen’s poetry.

The final paper was given by the day’s organiser, Tom Barnard, who started what was going to be a simple excavation in his back garden for his undergraduate dissertation. While working in his garden he began  finding knoggins (the knob ends of long bones) and off-cuts that were probably from a small knife handle works. Since then it has grown into a complex site examining the origins of the medieval farmstead of Osgathorpe. After doing geophysics, he found that the medieval cottage was surrounded by a bank and ditch. The section of ditch that was excavated yielded a complex series of re-use including iron smelting and white charcoal manufacture.

The day was a great success. In addition to the papers presented, new contacts were made, and information about local heritage was shared. I came away with a pile of reports for South Yorkshire archaeology.

I would think that these sorts of events would be great for the various towns and communities in the US. Rather than having lecture series at universities or museums, they are held in community centres and local halls with a mix of both commercial and academic archaeology. A community archaeology day is not only an educational experience, but also makes community members aware of their heritage. The result is that archaeology becomes less the stuff of fiction, and more of what is part of everyday life.



The Bowes Museum



This was the first trip out with the XRF looking at hoards. For this trip I was headed up north to Durham county to the Bowes Museum to look at the Gilmonby Hoard. In addition to a lot of axes and spears the hoard includes tools, fragments of cauldrons and metalworking debris. Petra and I got up early, got to the station and headed to Darlington. We had a nice walk from the station into town where we could catch the bus to the museum. Along the way we admired the cemetery and I told Petra of my adventures in Darlington, now nearly four years ago. The museum was 17 miles from town and a bus was supposed to go straight there. Well except that it didn’t. We managed to catch the milk run that took about an hour. Then it dropped us off in the town of Barnard Castle. The driver didn’t know where the museum was, but said he thought that it was at the bottom of the road. We walked down and found the castle. It was interesting, but in ruins, and definitely not the place we were looking for. We asked some people who lived in a house that was almost attached to the ruins where we could find the museum, and learned it was a ten-minute walk from there. I realised then that I was far too citified, because I would have taken a cab. That is if there were any to be taken. Later we learned that there was a bus that did run directly from Darlington to the museum, but it only runs three times a day.

We made it to the museum, a grand and imposing place that rivals Chatsworth. Unfortunately, Karen Barker, the curator and all the storage was back down all those stately steps to the gatehouse. There, it was far less stately and more like our on labs at Sheffield. Karen had the artefacts out and everything set up for us. It was comfortable and well lit, plus we could have endless cups of tea!

So we got a late start, but I got Petra set up doing the recording while I photographed and worked the XRF. We worked straight through, stopping to change batteries now and then. We stopped for a late lunch and walked down to an impressive café and gallery. The town did have many touristy type shops, but we didn’t expect a full-blown gallery with poetry nights.

Back at the museum we kept going. The museum director came by to watch the portable XRF in action. We talked about bronze hoards, metals, art, and how XRFs work. Usually if they have analysis done, it is for paintings. They take the smallest flake of paint possible and then send it up to Newcastle where they analyse it using XRD.

Petra managed to get ahead of me, and since we didn’t want to have too many boxes open at once, she took a break to look at some Anglo Saxon skeletons. They weren’t in very good shape, but the curator showed her a couple skulls that thrilled her. One had an oddly elongated cranium, and appeared to have been handled a lot. It could be that at one time it was part of a teaching collection. But the best was a skull with some mummified skin still attached to the face, and an amazing trauma that looked like an upward sweep of a sword to the lower back of the cranium. The upper half of the hole looked as if the bone had been broken away, rather than the cut continuing up and shearing away the back of the skull. It’s somehow comforting to know that the guy never saw what hit him and must have died instantly.

Back to work, and we had half the collection done. I’d tried to avoid the axes, spears, and swords, so I could concentrate on tools and casting debris, but because we needed to keep the stuff organised according to the boxes they were in, there was no avoiding doing everything we came across. At the end, we tried to concentrate on finding the boxes with some of the tools listed in the catalogue. But they weren’t there. It could be that they had been on display at one point, and then when they were taken off they were put somewhere else (there are many empty bags that the curator is trying to link up with missing contents).

Like most museums, this one is understaffed and underfunded, and one person has to coordinate everything and try to organise everything that’s gone on for the last 100 years or so. She has a couple volunteers, and they apply for student placements (the equivalent of interns in the US), but next month Karen goes down to two days a week. In addition she has to go on the road to talk about collections care. I have to say that the metals were kept in fantastic shape. Each object in a plastic bag with an ethafoam inset, and all in plastic storage bins with sacks of silica gel and an RH monitoring strip. Whoever set it up knows their metals. There was less than 10% humidity in each bin.

So no silver swan this trip. We didn’t get to see anything in the major museum, although we learned that there is very little archaeological stuff on display, and there was no mummy, only a mummified hand (can this be a proper museum? I must check for a polar bear!). I do want to go back to record the rest of the hoard, but I hope in the meantime the other artefacts might be found, but that might be a long shot. On the other had, this was a good first time out. I know now how long the process takes and we got it pretty streamlined. I’m ready for the next hoard, but this weekend will be spent sorting through and organising all the data...

December 21st, 2010

TAG 2010



The annual conference of the Theoretical Archaeology Group is one of the more unusual conferences in the field. And in the spirit of the event, I decided it would be more appropriate forego sequential narrative and treat the weekend as an assemblage, and a rather random one at that. This is in part inspired by a paper I went to where Fiona Coward explored the use of social networking programs to plot associations between burial groups in Palaeolithic and Neolithic graves. I thought the way she used networking systems made a lot of sense and I’m considering how to adapt it for my own use to plot types of hoards and their associations. By adapting the data used in the program, relationships can be plotted not only through their associations, but also temporally and geographically, as well as mapping the chaîne opératoire. She’s now working on modifying the program to interface with GIS, so it presents a realistic geographic relationship between groups, rather than straight lines.


The Road Trip

This was a road trip where Ryan, Toby, and I piled into Derek’s wonderful red VW Polo with the green door. Toby had been appointed to Twitter the entire event for Assemblage. So it began when we got on the road and continued to the cold end.

Various parts of Derek’s car froze at inconvenient times. But thanks to a cricket match we had a late start. That resulted in the sun having extra time to thaw the boot, so we didn’t have to travel all the way to Bristol with our luggage in our laps. On the way back it was the lines for the windshield washer fluid that froze. Apparently this never happens in Britain, and so parking lots were filled with people going back and forth to the coffee shop, getting hot water to pour on their windscreens. Derek was cleverer than that and used the hot water to thaw the lines, which also unfortunately involved him siphoning the washer fluid to get it started. He figured it would take about four minutes for the fluid to freeze again, and despite trying to keep pumping it to keep the lines free, the water still froze. I neglected to mention that the truck stops were stripped of any antifreeze or washer fluid. Water from the coffee shops was the only sources for fluids. We still had cups of hot water, so Derek rolled down the window, threw water on the windscreen, and then turned on the wipers. It worked well except for the water that flew back in his face. At various points through the trip, I wondered what would happen if the majority of Roger’s PhD students were wiped out in a tragic auto accident.

There was singing, dramatic reading of abstracts in Russian accents, mince pies that contained no mince (but were good nonetheless), and the comfort that no matter where I go in the world, truck stops are all the same. There will always be copies of Auto Trader and men’s magazines, various bizarre car accessories, bad coffee and overpriced snacks.


Observations and Conversations

“Children are the new gender” as gender studies are waning as a subject for archaeological theory, studies of children are coming to the fore.


In discussing archaeology and memory, it was mentioned how Roy Batty’s speech in Bladerunner can be seen as an archaeological statement, and how we too have seen things that others wouldn’t believe.


The cost of twenty-five beers = the cost of one year’s subscription to Antiquity.


I seemed to have developed a sense of bravado that I don’t recall having had previously, and it’s getting worse. Perhaps it was fuelled by the fact that I had Jessie’s membership, and so I had her name on my namebadge. I could act up as much as I wanted and give her all the blame. On Friday afternoon there was a session about schemes that combined art and archaeology. Here professional artists described their work, and in some cases, how they included the public to join in the creation of works of art. I was becoming increasing uncomfortable listening to people from a world I used to move in, with its edge of self-importance and the emphasis on the quantity of grants one gets[1]. The session ran long and there was only time for a couple questions. I cruelly shot for their weak spot and asked, “By having workshops where public actively participates in creating works of art, how does one define who is an artist and who isn’t?” The one answer I recall in the flustered response was that it was a matter of consensus; if enough people call you an artist then you are one. The time ran out and I think many were relieved to be away from that question. If I’d had a follow-up, I would have asked how one is defined as an archaeologist. That one would have gone much easier. Archaeologists have a far different view of their profession and are not nearly as exclusive or defensive. Archaeology is a working class profession. Working class artists are craftsmen.

 But what did they say in these papers on art and archaeology?

James Dixon asked whether art was thought about enough, or if it was thought about too much, and what is good art anyway? At the turn of the century artists went to exotic lands in the search for primal art. Then in the 1960’s the ethnographers took over, changing the interpretation from an artistic view to one that was a scientific view. He felt that archaeologists need to ask more about art, is it good? And why? I would wonder what barometer we could use to decide what was considered “good” in past societies, and if “good” art was at all the intent of prehistoric people in the first place. He did place good art in a category that was one that included participation, outreach, and understanding, but that the act of being artistic obscures what art is. The act of participation becomes more important than the piece produced. He ended with two ways for us to look at art: That we need to be less accepting of art, and that artists should be treated as grown-ups. This made me recall the uncomfortable part of being a part of the art world. Would any other profession be cast in this sort of light? Would anyone say that archaeologists, engineers, or doctors need to be treated as grown ups? Artists are always “the other”. As if they were struck by the gods at birth and given talent that others were denied. In a large part it is the fault of artists, who for generations have built the stereotype that theirs is a refined and hierarchical world that few may understand. They are above craft and technology. To paraphrase Robert Pirsig, it could be a job for archaeologists to search for the point where art and technology diverged.

Next Paul Evans looked at various types of participatory art forms, from a project where people planted 7,000 oak trees, to prehistoric stencilled hands in caves, to a recent workshop in Rumania where people stencilled their own hands onto a mural. He recommended a recent (2009) book by Dennis Dutton: The Art Instinct. He described it as a Darwinian interpretation of art, sequential art as storytelling, and art as cross cultural understanding. It’s one that I’ll look for and I would be interested in contrasting its view of sequential narrative with Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics.

Eva Bosch showed a beautiful time-lapse video of how the sun travels through a room in Catalhöyük, functioning not only as a sun clock, but also as an afternoon puppet theatre! She spoke about how art really could only be studied live and in situ, and that drawings can never convey an accurate copy of an artefact. Even a camera produces a dead image.


Papers about creativity were for the most part held the next day in the Bronze Age craft session. Again, this emphasises the divide between art and craft, although the division of having creativity and innovation as part of the craft session is an interesting note. The art programs we saw dealt with Palaeolithic and modern western art with a more art historical approach. But it’s as if once technology advanced beyond a certain point, there was no more art, and from that point prehistory is filled with craft. Today metalwork is not art unless it’s a sculpture. Jewellery and functional items don’t qualify as art. Textiles, woodwork, and pottery also suffer the same designations. Are Neolithic cup and ring carvings art or mere designs? What about the carved stones at Newgrange? If an object is interpreted as having a ritual function, is it still art? Would modern artists say that the Neolithic is a phase in which humans moved from being artists to being craftsmen? In the modern world art and craft are neatly divided, but what about in the distant past? This division between art and craft is a modern western construct that should be used with extreme caution when trying to interpret prehistoric art and does play into various areas such as the interpretation of artefacts and designations of hoard types.



And books, there are always too many good books at these things. Oxbow Books had some wonderful deals. So did BAR. Ryan managed to get to them first, while I plundered Oxbow. We both did well, but took serious hits to our budgets. I will probably regret not picking up the copy of the reports on Fiskerton and a couple other books, but then I concentrated on ones that were marked down severely and wouldn’t be there for a second chance. The others I let go might be available through the library.

At the last minute I broke down and bought a copy of Tim Taylor’s latest book, The Artificial Ape. So far it’s more recreational reading for me than anything else. But I know eventually there will be a discussion on technology that will make me fill the book with scribbled post-it notes.


The Hostel

We stayed at the Bristol Backpacker’s Inn. Very nice, with a 24 hour pub in the cellar, and the most wonderful showers I’ve enjoyed in years. The bed was extremely comfortable, too. And heat! Glorious heat! I woke up sweltering under the thick duvet. The downside was that they had the worst coffee I have ever experienced in my life and the dartboard had only one dart.

Casting workshops

This was probably the most exciting part of the conference for me. Holger Lonze of Umha Aois conducts two week casting workshops in Ireland using Bronze Age technology. People who join in work with a mentor as they get their feet on the ground and for two weeks an international community gets together to explore sustainable metallurgical practice. It is living experimental work that investigates environmental, economic and social development. Could this resemble seasonal exchange sites such as the Meare Villages and Runnymead? But this is more specialised. He was one of the few people who understands that casting is a fraction of the time that is required to produce a finished metal object and the workshops seek to find ways to design castings to minimise finishing tasks, such as removing sprues. The workshops provide the opportunity to live and move in the context of primitive metalwork. He described a brilliant recipe for mould making, but had a problem with cracking crucibles. As soon as I could I spoke to him about exchanging recipes for moulds and crucibles, and finding out how I could join in. Later I dragged him over to meet Roger. We spent a good part of the evening talking about metallurgy, practice, casting techniques, sailing, and the beauty of using blowpipes to skim charcoal and dross off the molten bronze before casting. Holger was glad to hear about my work on recycling and tin loss.



The Bristol Accent

I spend almost all my time in the north and so was confronted with the Bristol accent for the first time. Before I ever came to Britain I was aware of the socio-political aspects of accents here and try to pay attention to what’s conveyed by them. But when asking where to find the ladies room, I found myself staring at the woman giving me directions. I’d never heard anyone speak like that before. As the weekend went on I became fascinated by hearing everyone’s accent. Derek explained to me later that the actor who played Long John Silver in Treasure Island used a Bristol accent for the role and the association between Bristol/West Country accents and pirates has been cemented ever since. It does sound a bit like a celebration of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

 Back to the Bronze Age

I was looking forward to Saturday’s first session not only because it was chaired by Joanna Sofaer, but also because it centred on Bronze Age craft.

There were interesting contrasts in the papers, bringing up debate about the dividing line between innovation and creativity. After the previous evening, I felt as if I was back in my comfort zone.

Lise Bender Jørgensen spoke about how skills are passed from one generation to the next. In doing work following Helen Wallaert’s 1999 studies of village pottery production, she learned that there was little verbal communication, and that skills were learned by sensual observation, not only watching, but listening, touching and physically connecting with the object. The only verbal communication would be harsh criticism. There was no room for innovation. Innovation was seen as an error. Tradition and exact replicas were emphasised. She included an anecdote about a masters class with Pablo Casals, in which he had a student repeatedly copy his performance of a piece, until the sound and phrasing were exact. When the student had perfected Casal’s technique, Casals launched into variations. It was only when the student had accomplished this and mastered his instrument that he could go on to improvise. She noted that the same processes were used to teach weaving. It was interesting to learn that Bronze Age textiles were high quality with little variation, but Hallstatt textiles showed variation and creativity.

Sarah Coxon had a different view of creativity in the archaeological record and asked if creativity was a psychological or socio-cultural phenomenon. Creativity and innovation are linked, but they are not the same thing, and by focussing on tradition and social stability we ignore the roles of creativity and innovation in shaping material culture. By concentrating so much on typologies and sequences, we frequently ignore singular items that represent a one-off product. By ignoring these we limit our understanding of material culture and miss the opportunity to witness innovation and the process of creativity.


Joanna Sofaer spoke briefly about the Creativity Project and the Archaeology of Craft, identifying high quality objects as being designed to show skills. The craft is in the making of the object, a verb rather than a noun. I will be interested to find out more about this project.

Sophie Bergerbrant’s paper was about defining craft and how craft work is a collaborative process. Using linen production, she described how it involves multiple skilled people to produce cloth, following the chaîne opératoire from the people who grow flax, to those who ret it, prepare it, dye it, spin it, and weave it into finished cloth. In addition, textiles are an often ignored material that gives insight into past societies. While wool textiles could be produced by an unsettled populace, vegetable fibres are the product of a sedentary society.

Rob Lee spoke about woodcraft and metallurgy as craft. Before a craftsman can begin any project several decisions have to be made: the selection of materials, tools, and in the case of woodworking, the particular type of wood and its condition. He noted that woodworkers in the past would not necessarily use types of wood that were easily at hand, but went to lengths to obtain the right type of tree, and of the right age. But even though wood is worked into other objects, the need for tools facilitates specific tools to be made. Fragments of a saw blade represent communications between the woodworker and the metallurgist to design tools. The depth and spacing of the saw teeth indicated specific uses for the saw. Details that would have had to have been worked out between the craft workers. Wide scale variations in tools indicate a range of techniques and materials. Of note was the use of a ridge stop in chisels. It would appear that a ridge stop would be useful to keep the woodworker’s hand from sliding down, but some ridges are too small, and must serve another purpose. That purpose, even if it is unknown to us represents communication between craft workers working in different media.

Helen Loney explored innovation through negotiation. While repetitive training and practiced skill trains the body, this type of practice makes it difficult to change styles. This is compounded when considering complex objects (wheels were one example) might have more than one creator, making collaboration a necessary part of the process. She pointed out the reciprocal relationship between metallurgists and woodworkers. In creating objects of multiple materials, they would not only collaborate on the creation of the object, but also collaborate on designing the tools needed to execute it.

Expanding beyond the usual definitions, Rhiannon Pettitt explored the question of how craft is defined, and if cremation could be considered a craft.

 Druid"s egg

Roger and authenticity

The final day had more theoretical based papers than earlier. And the final session I went to concerned authenticity and archaeology. It was asked what role experts should play in democratising community heritage. Don Henson spoke about how the past is represented at Southwark and pointed out that heritage – what is handed down - is not a thing, but a relationship, and that this relationship is key.

Roger was the final speaker. I was disappointed that Toby was also speaking at the same time and couldn’t hear his paper, too. The abstract Roger submitted was daunting and we wondered how he would present something so abstract, moving from Postmodernism, Heidegger, to the use of authenticity to guide practice, and challenge the way in which archaeology is presented. He began with describing a friend who had embarked on his own journey of self discovery, travelling through Britain and exploring heritage  sites and archaeology. What he found were rigid interpretations and authoritarian control. He rejected academia, but despite Roger’s association with it, they became friends. On one occasion Roger had the opportunity to smelt iron at a music festival that was located in a recreated medieval village. It was there that the young man declared that this was an authentic experience. As far as archaeology went, it was about as inauthentic as it could be. A prefab concrete Iron Age furnace in a prefab medieval village during a modern music festival… But yet there was engagement, practice, and an understanding the processes and movement that were part of a metallurgists life in antiquity. There were opportunities to explore, examine, experience, and ask questions that were never available on the signboards at heritage sites. He asked “can the idea of humanness be used as a moral imperative which guides practice” and how humanness could become central to archaeology and resource management.


TAG produces more questions than answers. I came away enthusiastic about contacts I’d made, things I’d learned, and a new energy for my own work. There are so many things to do and so little time. I felt ready to get back home and get back to work. Well, after a bit of a rest.


The quiz and Party

One of the features of TAG is the quiz and the Saturday night party. We tanked at the quiz. Horribly. The first prize was a subscription to Antiquity. That we felt was patently unfair. The losers should get the subscription since it was obvious they hadn’t had the opportunity to read the current issues as thoroughly as the winners.

The party was held in the union pub and ballroom, that had a copious dance floor. There was a glam rock band and a light show, but everyone save two women dancing up front stood stock still holding their beers, watching the band. The bar area was packed and people there were moving from conversation to conversation. I was introduced to many people, shouting above the din of the music or the din of voices. Curiously, as the night went on the beers got cheaper. We were all annoyed at having to pay £3 for a pint, but by midnight the price was eventually reduced to £1. Afterwards several of us moved on to The Woods, a pub on the way back to the hostel. The place was packed, but I was pleasantly surprised to be handed a bottle of Anchor Steam. It was a bit of the homeland for me. Roger and I shouted into each other’s ears for a bit until everyone decided to head home, but not before indulging in the ritual kebab.

Italian Programs

There were scattered papers on Italian archaeology that interested me, including ones on the Terremare and the Bronze Age.  The first one I saw was on the influence of Marxist communism and the intellectual left on academic archaeology. The author moved between the changing politics, but did explain the background of Italian archaeology beginning with Pigorini’s iron fisted control of the field and the various schools of thought that followed him. As in Germany, archaeology was co-opted during the Second World War, but not as disastrously. The post-war political environment didn’t help reshape Italian identity, and the country was divided between the Catholic right and the communist left, with archaeology still rather bruised from being used as a political tool from the 1860’s onwards.

A nice quote that I hadn’t heard before was that in 1937 Patroni (a member of the Fascist party) declared the Terremare culture as the “rudest of communists” and that they were incapable of being the precursors of Roman civilisation, as Pigorini had postulated. Italian archaeology has had constant growing pains but while current thought views the past as a Marxist system, it was a modified Marxism that never resembled that of the Soviet Union’s version.

In the Bronze Age crafts session, Paola Bianchi explored how metallurgy was practiced in Bronze Age villages, including spatial organisation, and the relationship between the village and the metallurgist (a subject close to my own heart). Using 40 sites, she plotted population increases and used pottery sequences to develop chronologies. She noted that there was a significant reorganisation of villages between the Late Bronze Age and the Early Iron Age. Earlier in Beneceto, metalworking was done indoors, where in Poviglio there were small outdoor production sites. Later, both textiles and metallurgy were practiced together in specifically designed buildings. I was interested to note that they found that ore was smelted in the same crucibles as were used for casting. It made me feel good to hear new work in Northern Italian Bronze age studies. The Terremare have a fascinating material culture and I look forward to hearing more.


The programs in general

TAG runs several simultaneous sessions, so it’s impossible to get to more than a third of them. I’d hoped to duck out of some sessions to quickly take in another paper (I did so want to hear about the Broadward Hoard), but the scheduling was not clear enough to make it easily understood when events were happening. Still, there was great variety and discussion. There were some that I find difficult to describe or discuss, such as Melissa Beattie’s PhD examining a memorial to a fictional TV character. This was her first year presentation, so she hasn’t gone beyond gathering initial data.


Lack of sobriety

It’s a conference, and an archaeological conference. That it is a theoretical archaeological conference ups the ante by quite a bit. We got a slightly late start because of the cricket match, and some side trips to pick up flyers and a passport, so we were keen to get moving. Toby was wise and brought the mince pies to share. We stopped once for coffee and a snack around noon, but other than that we drove straight through. Once we dropped off our stuff and got to the conference, we plunged right into the presentations. Having skipped lunch I thought it would be a good idea to get dinner before we went to the wine reception. We thought about that as we wandered to the students union (Some distance away from the building where the conference was being held, although we did take a rather circuitous route). The consensus was that students unions always have food and we could eat there. Unfortunately not at Bristol’s students’ union... There was a shop where we could buy some pot noodles, but since there was no way to cook them, the thought of crunching them down didn’t sound very appealing. We are all old enough to know that it’s not a good idea to start an evening of drinking after not eating all day, but somehow that logic escaped us. Somewhere in my nutrient-deprived brain, I recalled that I have been putting on too much weight, and missing a meal might help in the weight loss department. Despite that I was able to have intelligent conversations with friends and colleagues, and enjoy the usual networking that goes on.

The wine ran out somewhat early and then we were faced with the cash bar. After a round or two there, the party moved on to a pub. I abandoned my friends for a bit to sit with Parker Pearson because he bought the last of the mince pies and offered them to us (the only food to be had).  Mike is still convinced that I am a masters student.

Pubs are open much later than in Sheffield. This is my excuse for not having a good handle on the time. At some point we decided to head home. Originally this involved a plan for a cab, but first we went in search of food. There was a small grocery where Toby seriously considered a banana, but then Derek steered us to a kebab van. Note that kebabs in Bristol are much more like the gyros I’m used to in the States with less meat and more lettuce, tomato, onion, etc. Not realising we were just uphill from the hostel, we took a cab home. Then we went to the cellar pub to round off the evening for a game of dart.

Amazingly I woke up at 8:30 the next morning and was in reasonably good shape. Derek is right. Kebabs before bed are a magical thing.


, the buildings and the mineral collection

The university building where the conference was held was a magnificent Victorian Gothic Revival building, full of stained glass, minutely detailed woodwork, and ornamentation. At times I couldn’t help staring at the ceiling or the coats of arms on the walls. It’s designed to impress and it does. Why can’t we have a Twenty-first Century Victorian Gothic revival full of craft and attention to detail? Crenulations wouldn’t hurt either.

The building also hosted a mineral collection. Just past the reproduction of a Camarasaurus leg. It was a nice collection, including many cut gems, and minerals of the Mendips (reminding me that once again I was within shouting distance of Meare, but with no way to get there…).


Mike Woods, Kibworth and cold

Friday night, the documentary filmmaker, Michael Woods did a presentation on his series, Story of England. I had seen the series, and enjoyed it (and recommend it to anyone who enjoys history or archaeology), especially how he engaged the entire city in doing archaeology and research. But towards the end he spoke about older adults recalling how tough things were in their youth, and how he was amazed by their stories of waking up to find frost on the inside of their windows! Toby and I looked at each other. Apparently he hadn’t had the same grad student experience that we were enjoying.

Still, the series is worth watching, following the place from it’s earliest material culture into historical times and on up to recent history.



Around the middle of December I become ill at ease, irritated and depressed. My subconscious mind blocks the reason, but I soon remember that Lee’s birthday is on the 19th. The best way I've found to cope with it is to surround myself with friends and drink heavily until I find myself back in balance again. Most of my friends have no idea of what’s going on, or even that I am going through this. TAG was the perfect way to find my rudder again and move forward with my life. I feel recharged and ready to implement what I got out of the conference.

[1] I noticed that the artists tended to mention their supporting grants during their presentation. Unless there is a specific reason to do so earlier, archaeologists will mention grants on the last slide as part of their thanks to all who contributed to the project. It’s a small observation on part of how a group validates their work and its worth.

October 26th, 2010

Why archaeology?


Let's hear it for archaeology


Including archaeology in the curriculum might fire learners' interest in ways that conventional history can't always do

  • ac solomon
  • archaeology

    Archaeologist Dr Nicky Milner works on the stone age site at Flixton, near Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Photograph: Lorne Campbell/Lorne Campbell/Guzelian

    History matters. Michael Gove wants to shake up the school history curriculum and instil "narrative British history" in students. With the very different figures of Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama both reportedly on board, the big question is: what kind of history will it be? Despite their differences, these scholars seem united around teaching narrative history. The thornier issue of using it to teach "Britishness" will be debated at a conference this week. But whatever prevails, it seems school history will still comprise "historian's histories".

    Perhaps that's another reason why school history is still perceived as boring. My school history was, as one Ciffer puts it, about "maps and chaps". One might add "laws and wars" and "lords and hordes".

    Of course it's changed (televisual treatments? Add Mary Seacole and stir?). But there are other exciting routes to the past. History is about inquiry as well as narrative. How histories are built is as important as the story, and no historical discipline demonstrates this better than archaeology. Yet, it features little in the debates. Perhaps that's because, despite sterling efforts by Tony and the Time Team, most people don't really know what archaeologists do, or what archaeological histories are.

    Despite being a history devotee, I fled from it as my undergraduate major and switched to archaeology – though in an early fit of professional disillusionment I pressed one of my professors on what archaeology was "for". He replied that it provided the best liberal arts education available. I'd go further: it's a gateway to many worlds of scholarship (including "hard" science) that offers an encompassing and gripping account of the human journey in time.

    Archaeology isn't digging; or rather, when it is, it's very much part time. It's history from the ground up; a method for building knowledge, moving from the often cryptic material traces of yesteryear – be it bones, stones or cannon balls – to historical narratives. The real work, and fun, is in the post-excavation interpretation process.

    Because archaeology is multiple histories entwined – social, economic, political, cultural, technological, religious – it involves engaging with many disciplines for tools to apply to the questions. My work on hunter-gatherers takes me into anthropology, geology, zoology, art history, literary/cultural studies theory, sociology, analytical chemistry and "history" (using texts and archival materials). Archaeological research has practical, holistic and problem-solving dimensions and range that I never found studying history.

    The immediacy of sitting in remote painted caves, excavating the bones of the long-dead or just holding a handaxe, has endowed me with a powerful sense of what history means. There's something about what Sylvia Plath called "the thinginess of things" that is different from discourses in historical documents. There is a poetry of the past that, for me, is uniquely triggered by direct encounters with the material products of mentalities that are truly "other", yet also humanly shared. This is more than "What does it feel like to be a Roman centurion?" (decontextualised history, according to David Cameron). It's about how we can even begin to know that, and about the mirror it holds up to our own historically bounded awareness. In some ways, historical narratives are only journey's end.

    A prevailing paradigm in archaeology emphasises cognition and "mind". Like most archaeologists, my research is interdisciplinary, using texts (recorded myths, accounts of indigenous medicine, historical records) and art and artefacts to understand both the cultural and historical consciousness that shaped past peoples' ideas and actions.

    The artworks I study were almost certainly magic things, never the commodities that "art" implies today. Among them in my research area are images of European soldiers and settlers that situate the later examples in world history. My work takes me from an enchanted world of spirits and supernatural happenings to studying global economic and political transformations. As historians, anthropologists and scientists all in one, we can be tellers of compelling, different stories: new narratives that would enrich the curriculum, as Clive Gamble has suggested.

    It's a dull child who can resist the romance of archaeology. It has a fascination factor that the Horrible Histories have to rather contrive. Cheap hook aside, using archaeology more as a thread in the history curriculum might fire learners' interest in ways that conventional history can't always do. It's probably even possible to do "an archaeology of Britishness" – but aren't there more interesting questions?

    • AC Solomon posts on Cif as ACSolo

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