On Friday, hundreds of archaeologists from across the globe participated in the annual ‘Day of Archaeology’ project, recording what they were up to on the day. The result is a wonderful archive of sites, projects and people, and a great place to discover the huge range of things archaeologists do in their day-to-day work. The Day of Archaeology website now holds thousands of posts on every archaeological topic imaginable. Explore them all at dayofarchaeology.com. I had a day off, but it’s hard to avoid archaeology, so you can read what I got up to (including the strange woodland structures pictured below) via this link:
Every day thousands of motorists stop at Strensham Services, by Junction 8 of the M5 motorway in south Worcestershire. Few are aware that, 200,000 years ago, Strensham was the final stop for a very different traveller: a young adult female Woolly Mammoth, about 20-25 years old.
She came to drink from a shallow pool and died there, her remains settling into the soft mud. She was discovered by archaeologists during the construction of a water pumping station in July 1990, along with bones from at least five other mammoths and a red deer antler. Initially christened Marmaduke, she was swiftly renamed Millicent once she was found to be female.
Mammoths evoke images of icy wastes and snow-strewn plains, but the presence of cold-averse species of molluscs within the Strensham deposits tells us that Millicent lived in conditions similar to today’s British climate, during a warm period within Marine Isotope Stage 7 (243-191,000 years ago). The area around the Strensham pool was probably marshy meadow, surrounded by heath dotted with stands of trees. Millicent would have inhabited a landscape filled with a menagerie of other mammals: from familiar faces such as wolves, foxes and wild boar, to the more exotic woolly rhinoceros, cave lion, bison, and the fearsome cave hyaena.
Millicent the mammoth is just one example from half a million years of Palaeolithic prehistory in the region. Over the next 18 months, I’ll be working on a project to tell these stories. We’ll examine what they teach us about where we’ve come from and how our landscapes were shaped. We’ll also be looking at how our understanding of deep time was shaped by early discoveries, and asking questions about how we define ourselves as a species. Look out for more at explorethepast.co.uk and researchworcestershire.wordpress.com soon.
We cut the cross-dyke and slant down to the plateau’s edge, barely pausing to note the ancient boundary. Whose territory do we trespass upon? Which ancient powers do we transgress as we file through the narrow gap?
Sheep pick at the heather-strewn slopes. Far to the east there’s a smudge of spring sun. Over the Long Mynd steel-grey cloud drifts and bunches.
We are the only people in sight. For a few minutes it seems that we are a world away, explorers of a terra nullius, all angst swept deep to the valley floor.
Then we turn. More walkers appear. We plot our descent through clustered contours to the small, slatted bridge over the stream.
Cross-dyke: ancient earthworks, often located in upland areas, probably constructed as boundary/territorial markers and dating from the Middle Bronze Age to early Iron Age (c1500-500BC).
A sketch to reflect a mood. Dusk falls over Porthgain harbour, a place as fine as any to watch the sun sink. It leaves a westerly smudge. The brick hoppers stand sentinel, but they are empty now. Holidaymakers and fishermen hunch up against the evening breeze, and watch the light fade, willing it to hold a little longer.
It’ll be a long, cold night.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The famous last line from The Great Gatsby has been rattling around my head recently.
We live in interesting times. And much hinges on the past, on the stories we tell about who we were and how we got here. My job is to explore things from the past, to build narratives from those Old Things, to apply retrospective significance, and in doing so, to illuminate the present.
This matters. “Who controls the past”, wrote Orwell, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
But these past few months, my Old Things have been mute.
There’s a fine cartoon by Tom Toro: “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it”.
But I have written before that the past is never repeated; besides, there is no such thing as ‘the past’. And to assert that situation x is equal to situation y gives an easy response to those who disagree. Conditions are different, they will say, the comparison is not accurate. The test is not whether the analogy is a perfect fit, but whether it is useful.
Yet my Old Things: my potsherds, the soil beneath my fingers, the bones I lift from the cold earth… all are silent. They tell me nothing, offer no balm for these times of tumult.
I have a difficult relationship with my own past. I am reluctant to subject it forensic study, perhaps because I am not fond of the version of myself that I find there.
The same can be said of societies. We like our narratives clear, and resist challenges. Revisionism has become a pejorative term. We do not like to see our imagined foundations undermined. Historical narratives are attractive because they offer the illusion of permanence.
“The past is the only dead thing that smells sweet,
The only sweet thing that is not also fleet.” Edward Thomas, Early One Morning
We’re comfortable with visions of our past selves that emphasise an honest struggle, a purity of ideals, identities, and common purpose.
But national narratives are prone to conflating two different visions of the past: remembered glories and ideas of longevity. A case in point is the phrase “we have always been”: you’ll see it everywhere. A fortuitous set of circumstances for one nation at a point in time is not a replicable model. For all our accomplishments, there is nothing innately superior about the British or American psyche, nor are we inevitably destined to prosper. The wave we rode through much of the 19th and 20th centuries has dashed itself against the breakwater of history, and much as the likes of Trump and Farage may tell us that we can go back, it is gone. I fervently hope we can find a new path through the surf, but history is rarely kind to those who would seek to slavishly recreate past glories.
And still my Old Things are silent, and Gatsby echoes around my head. I wander, and I draw. I beat on, to a small village church.It’s old, a muddle of mismatched masonry. The porch leans, the roof curves and the deep-sunk windows peer from behind choking coniferous fronds. Its original form is lost in countless rebuilds, its style a collision of architectural trends. I don’t agree with much of what’s said within it, but I’m fond of it. It makes no sense in isolation; it is part of a network, sharing resources and visions. In its ideal form, it is a place of sanctuary, welcome and tolerance. It’s not a bad analogy for a country.
Every step you take through the churchyard draws you deeper; your tread taps the resting places of all those who passed before and lie there still. The ground itself bulges skyward with the sheer volume of burials. Borne back ceaselessly into the past. You cannot escape it. So, embrace it; history has much wise counsel to offer.
There are cyclical patterns at play. We are caught in an eddy, disturbing dormant silts of self-interest, and snagging on the rotten branches of those who promise a free pass to a better life back upstream. No such promised land exists, nor has ever done so.
Above all, be critical. History is not whatever you make of it. Not all histories are equal. Over the next few years, many will invoke histories to warn or promise. To beat on through the mire will require effort and struggle, and not merely the passing of time. The course of human history does not run smooth and straight.
On Monday afternoon, the story of an extraordinary discovery began to unfold, at the bottom of a damp pit in a field in Broadway, southeast Worcestershire.
There was little about pit  to distinguish it from the hundreds of other features across the site. A dark brown oval stain about 1.5m in diameter, it only revealed its secrets as archaeologist Jamie reached the base, and caught the first glimpse of what turned out to be a beautiful early Bronze Age ‘Beaker’.
I’ll be writing more on this discovery over the coming months. But for now I’d like to explore how it was found and excavated, and why we broke a golden rule.
In archaeological language, pit  is a discrete feature, separated from its physical neighbours and contemporary features by the sands and gravels that lie below the levels of human impact. This pit was formed by the act of digging a hole, cut deep into the underlying gravel. What we see, therefore, is the stain where the fill – the material that went back into that hole to fill it in – differs from the material that came out.
The approach usually taken for a feature of this kind is to half-section it. This involves stringing out a line, usually along the longest axis, and excavating 50% of the fill up to a clean vertical edge – the section – which is then inspected, photographed, drawn and surveyed. This gives us an opportunity to unpick exactly how the feature came to be filled in. Was it filled in rapidly with the material that had been dug out, or with refuse? Did it silt up over decades or centuries with rich organic silts? Are there signs that it was re-cut or cleaned out? It also enables us to make a decision on a feature’s significance. Is it worth excavating the other half? Or, with time and budgets limited, would that effort be better spent on another feature?
In the case of , there are some unusual elements that suggest there may have been several episodes of activity. More on that in a future post! But as Jamie reached the base of the pit, he spotted a chunk of decorated pottery, located right in the vertical section. After careful cleaning, it was clear that this was the base of a prehistoric pot. WhatsApp messages pinged back and forth from site to office, and as the horizontal bands and chevron patterns were revealed, it started to resemble an early Bronze Age Beaker.
Jamie and site director Richard instantly realised the significance. Although there was no trace of any bone, Beakers are almost always found associated with burials, and are often accompanied by specific types of artefacts. I fired off a list to watch out for – barbed and tanged arrowheads, flint knives, stone bracers… Jamie carefully cleaned around the protruding pot, and recorded the section.
Now came the tricky part. Conditions were wet, and the groundwater rising. Exposed, the pot was vulnerable. Only a couple of hours of light remained. Richard and Jamie still had no idea if the pot was intact, how large or delicate it was, or even whether we were just looking at redeposited fragment that had found its way into the pit from elsewhere.
Passing judgement on each other’s excavation techniques is something of a universal pastime among archaeologists. And field archaeology has its golden rules, drummed into every undergraduate student or willing volunteer on their first digs. “Never stand on a trowel-cleaned area”. “Trowel with the edge, not the point”. “Always work from the known to the unknown”. And crucially, “Never go digging into the section”. Don’t chase the root, or the bone or the fancy bit of pottery – leave it in section, record it, then it can come out in good time when you dig the rest of the feature from the top.
— ExploreThePast (@ExploreThePast) 12 December 2016
The video we posted on Monday showed Jamie cutting back into the section to expose the extent of the pot. Some people were horrified, and vocally so. Some doubted our competence, others our ethics. We broke that golden rule. Why?
Every competent archaeologist knows the rules. But a really good archaeologist knows exactly when to break them. The section had already been carefully recorded. Faced with rising water, fading light and a delicate vessel of unknown condition and size, Jamie and Richard chose to dig around the pot. They established its position and size, and found it to be so delicate that excavating down from the top was likely to damage it further. They protected it, then carefully removed half of the remaining fill of the pit, leaving the pot exposed on the base. It was then photographed and surveyed, before being expertly lifted, held together by the claggy soil contained within.
Sometimes it pays to break the rules. In having the experience and confidence to adapt, the excavators were able to safely recover a stunning find, and record the position of an array of other artefacts: arrowheads, knives, an antler implement… it has all the hallmarks of a Beaker burial, but no bones. Why? We hope to find out. Watch this space!
Few artefacts are as universally appealing as a pristine polished stone axe. A Neolithic extravagance, their neat forms litter the sacred spaces of the final phase of the Stone Age in Europe.
But, 5000 years after its deposition, we pick up the story of one recent discovery not in the splendid setting of a monumental tomb, but in a damp field on the edge of a village on the edge of suburban sprawl, the hum of the M5 ever-present.
It was discovered in a routine exercise, a few trenches to test some ambiguous geophysical survey results: in archaeological jargon, an ‘evaluation’. Come rain or shine, on any given day dozens of these trenches will be dug across the country, to inform planning decisions, building designs or road layouts.
On a cold October afternoon, the excavator bucket skimmed another slice of topsoil from the stubble field, and the watching archaeologist scuffed at a smooth surface exposed in the loose earth. Curiosity turned to delight as the dirt slipped easily from the edge of a flint axe.Flint is a mercurial material. Indomitably durable and sharper than a razor, this toughest of materials forms within the softest of rocks: the chalk beds that are the remnant of ancient tropical seas. It cleaves along neat and predictable planes, but the hard crests and ridges that render flint so desirable for toolmaking make it the very devil to grind and polish.
But ground and polished this axe was, and the investment in time would have been considerable: knappers tell me that experimental replicas can take up to 150 hours of graft. The grooves in stone polissoirs found in or around Neolithic settlements are testament to that labour – sandstone, sarsen, quartzite or even granite, worn smooth and grooved from years of cumulative effort.
All for the production of axes that in many cases never bit, never chopped, and were seemingly never even hafted. Our axe is made from a honey-coloured flint, the polish highlighting the flaws and mottled colouration like a fine marble tabletop. It probably originated around 100 miles to the south of its resting place, but other examples of the era travelled the length and breadth of the continent.
Which brings us back to the damp field by the M5. Sometimes axes seem to have been deliberately broken prior to deposition. Ours is complete, and it is extraordinary that in the passing years it has avoided the blows of the plough, a common cause of damage. But there is little to suggest the presence of other Neolithic activity. The field yields scattered traces of Iron Age and Roman settlement, heavily scoured by medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture, but nothing contemporary with the axe remains.
So how did our axe end up here? The clue is in the heavy, sticky soil and the adjacent pools and brook. This is likely to have been a watery, marginal place in the Neolithic. From Scandinavia to Ireland, the Netherlands to western Britain, extraordinary and beautiful axes were thrown into bogs, rivers and lakes.
Why? With their mists and mysteries, bodies of water are otherworldly places, even today. Besides the vital role and life-giving qualities of water, we think these places had significance as gateways to a world beneath our realm, and points of contact between the two. 5000 years ago, Neolithic Europeans shared not only trade networks, but aspects of spiritual belief.
And perhaps, in some ways, those beliefs aren’t so very far removed from our own. Ever thrown a coin into a wishing well or fountain?
Autumn deepens in The Human Seasons, and from a hill overlooking the city, explosions light the sky:
Autumn dusk, Streetlight dawn
5th November 2016. Half an hour past sunset, the sky still hangs light and pink-hued in the west, but the streetlamps are taking over. Their dawn casts orange orbs in front windows of tight terraces. They highlight metallic coal chute covers, like stepping stones through a bitumen brook.
Later, we cross the canal and head up the hill, my boy and I, to watch the city disgorge showers of light into a clear November sky.
Fireworks on Pitchcroft, Worcester
A few yards behind us, up on Roger’s Hill, a great cannon once poured fire into the heart of the city. 370 years ago, in the summer of 1646, Birmingham-born mathematician and astronomer Nathaniel Nye directed Parliamentarian guns with scientific rigour during the Siege of Worcester. Nye detailed his experiences and strategies, including the triangulation of targets using an early version of the plane table, in The…
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My first post for The Human Seasons – a project exploring seasonality and the archaeology of a year. The old year is ending…
Along the canal.
In brightness, an artery: a sparkling supply of life and space, nurturing the city.
In darkness, a vein: deep and sluggish, purply oozing, thick with the cares of the cyclists, cygnets, peeling hulls and wailing gulls, as it drains down to the Severn.
It slips silently between alternate states. Today my tread starts heavy. The air is dense and the willow boughs stoop. Whitening leaves tickle the nut-brown water.
I do not love this place. But it has its role in the rhythms of my life. In a calm section, flanked by factories’ booming tin walls, clouds appear in pristine reflection. It is ever a mirror for my mood, this waterway, and today is autumnal. The ducks find cover from the chill wind on concrete pontoons, amongst the last streaks of violet buddleia.
On to the docks at Diglis, where the canal disgorges passengers onto the…
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On Friday, hundreds of archaeologists from across the globe participated in the annual ‘Day of Archaeology’ project, recording what they were up to on the day. The result is a wonderful archive of sites, projects and people, and a great place to find out what it is that archaeologists do in their day-to-day work. The Day of Archaeology website now holds over 2000 posts on every archaeological topic imaginable. Explore them all at dayofarchaeology.com. This was my contribution:
I began the day by preparing to get rid of several boxes of artefacts. This goes against many people’s expectations of an archaeologist’s role. Shouldn’t we peculiar basement-dwellers be hoarding everything, clinging onto dusty consignments of mysterious treasures for all eternity? Well, maybe, but the unfortunate truth is that British archaeology faces a storage crisis. Besides, there’s a limit to how often museum curators can feign interest in the contents of a Victorian dump.
But one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and I confess to being fond of the detritus of late-19th century throwaway consumerism. In this case, the finds in question were uncovered in Evesham, having spent the last 120 years in a pit. The museum didn’t want them for their archaeological collections, but thankfully a sympathetic social history curator was only too keen to snap them up for their educational handling collections. So, my lovely assortment of ‘Virol’ bone marrow containers, beer bottles and the ubiquitous ‘Camp Coffee’ jars were handed over to their new home, and will once more sit proudly on a shelf.
One item that wasn’t complete enough to be taken was this plate, depicting the bell tower of once-mighty Evesham Abbey. I love it because it highlights a very human desire to mark significance and local identity, and its discovery just a few hundred metres from the landmark it depicts amuses me. It’s as if the tower, still standing defiant and isolated, is stubbornly outliving our attempts to immortalise it in commemorative crockery.
From one pot to another: having set up some of our volunteers and our work experience student with their tasks, I turn my attention to a site that couldn’t be further from the familiar world of late Victorian dumps. Project Officer Richard Bradley and I are working on the report for an excavation he led at Shifnal, Shropshire. It’s a fascinating but elusive site: occupied in the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, then seemingly abandoned before once again being a focus of activity in the Iron Age, about 2500 years ago. There are few finds (a common feature of prehistoric sites in this region), plenty of pits and ditches, and a tangled web of radiocarbon dates. It’s a real challenge to unpick which features belong to which periods. One issue is resolved when we identify some grotty fired clay as ‘briquetage’: coarse Iron Age salt containers used to pack salt for transportation from the brine wells at Droitwich.
What the Neolithic finds lack in quantity, they make up in quality. Tell-tale parallel worn grooves and a smoothed, ground surface reveal a block of stone to be a rare ‘polissoir’, for polishing Neolithic stone axes. And a large chunk of a Mortlake style Peterborough ware bowl, around 5000 years old, displays the unmistakable imprint of the potter’s fingernail in the elaborate chevron decoration. A pattern which, like the bell tower, serves as a mark of identity. Pots like this were produced across Britain, in a huge variety of designs but with strong regional trends in ‘fabric’ (the material incorporated into the clay during manufacture) that seem to defy purely functional explanations. Mass produced or hand-made, ancient or modern, a pot is never just a pot – it’s a window on a world-view, and in this case a direct connection to the delicate, precise actions of a craftsperson across around 250 generations.
Archaeologists are a merciless bunch. “Where’s the rest of it?” they tease Richard. Elsewhere, work experience student Kat is tasked with counting, weighing and piecing together an impressive assemblage of Iron Age pottery. You can see how she got on in her own day of archaeology post. I welcome a group of school and 6th form students, who get to work on processing some finds from an HLF-funded community archaeology investigation into intriguing early ironworking sites in the Forest of Dean. Later, as staff and volunteers trickle home, I set up some photographs, bringing together two pots separated by 5000 years, but crossing paths on my day of archaeology.
On my way out, I pause to check on a very exciting discovery, recovered by our archaeologists from a Worcestershire quarry a few months ago. It returned from its trip to the conservator yesterday, and soon it’ll be going on display for the summer at Worcester Museum, to delight children and adults alike… can you guess what it is?