Eugenics: the sins of the father

Here follows a tale of a man I can no longer admire.

Flower Thomas (F. T.) Spackman, F.G.S. (1856-1931) looms large in the annals of Worcester’s learned societies. In the early 20th century, he published widely on natural history, geology, and archaeology. He was an energetic field investigator, and wrote an impressive catalogue of The Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings of Worcester. A fellow of the Royal Geological Society, he had a particular interest in prehistoric worked flint, an interest I share. And he was the Hon. Secretary of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club, a respected society that still exists today. He spent his working life as a clerk to the Worcester Education Committee. I discovered last week that he was also a passionate eugenicist.

I’ve been working on the history of local Ice Age collections. Sophie, an undergraduate student, is helping us to unpick these tangled networks of knowledge. She found a key paper in the Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club: a talk on prehistoric stone tools given by Worcester Museum curator W. H. Edwards. It references Spackman’s recent work, so we turned to the index. And there, among his many contributions, was an entry: Spackman, FT… Eugenics 185.

The paper on Eugenics sits between a treatise on salmon and a discussion of the water quality of the River Severn. It was read during a meeting at the Victoria Institute, home of the City Art Gallery and Museum, on Thursday, 25th January 1912. It opened with the Chairman, Mr Carleton Rea, making an addition to the botanic record of the county: a specimen of Vicia orobus (wood bitter-vetch). I mention this to highlight the banality of it all. This is not a backstreet rabble-rouser frothing on the stump; it is a congregation of naturalists: gentlemen and scholars.

Spackman takes the stand. He begins by recounting his experiences with ‘defective’ children. He talks of the heredity of undesirable traits, highlights the work of Francis Galton, and discusses key principles of Eugenics: “the project of producing a well-bred race – a race good in physique, intellect, and morals”. Then follows a warning: the birthrate of the “superior classes… [from which] the world recruits its pioneers, the first rate men” is dangerously low, whereas that of the “unfit” is alarmingly high.

He then takes aim at charity and philanthropy, who are accused of:

“aiding and abetting the feeble-minded and criminals by finding them homes… instead of, as at one time, passively ridding the country of degenerates by allowing them to die because they could not fight the competitive battle of life…”

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-1913, Vol. 5, p.187.

Then, for a moment, the tone is conciliatory, before rising to ardent patriotism. He appears, here, to be quoting Karl Pearson:

“Do I therefore call for less human sympathy?… Not for a moment; we cannot go back a single step in the evolution of human sympathy. But I demand that all sympathy and charity shall be organised and guided into paths where they will promote racial efficiency, and not lead us straight towards national shipwreck.” ibid. p.187-8

Lengthy case studies follow, demonstrating the cost to the national purse of looking after the degenerate. Various approaches are discussed; Spackman quotes — and seems sympathetic to — Dr Saleeby‘s opinion that:

“Nature has no choice; if she is to avert the coming of the unfit race she must summarily extinguish its potential ancestor, but we can prohibit the reproduction of his infirmity whilst doing all we can for the individual life.” ibid. p.189

“Doing all we can”, however, does not entail the sort of medical treatment of the vulnerable that we might expect. Instead, Spackman argues:

“You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear… in spite of environmental factors, children remain what they are born.” ibid. p.190

There is no redemption for the children of degenerates, in Spackman’s eyes. How, then, to approach the problem?

“Proposals are made for segregating the unfit, for establishing labour colonies, and for obtaining powers of detention of the lower class of defectives for life.” ibid. p.191

And then comes perhaps the most shocking passage. Having led the audience down the dark routes through this thorny problem, Spackman launches into his concluding remarks:

“But this paper is concerned only with theory and suggestion. The time is not yet ripe for putting into practice any of the sterner measures proposed for stemming the tide of racial deterioration, with the single exception of the permanent segregation and detention of the lower class of defectives.” ibid. p.191

“Sterner measures”. “The time is not yet ripe.” By 1912, the time was ripe for practices such as compulsory sterilisation,  which had already begun in a number of US states. Given that detention and forced labour camps for entire sections of the population evidently fall within the range of measures he considers on the more moderate end of the spectrum, it’s hard to fathom what Spackman has in mind. We know, with hindsight, what happens when you look into sterner measures, having begun by incarcerating large swathes of undesirables. But Spackman never had to deal with that realisation; he died in 1931.

The evening concludes with a discussion, and takes an even darker turn – a twist that paints Spackman as a man consumed by contradiction:

“The Chairman stated that he belonged to quite another school, namely those who believed in the lethal chamber and the survival of the fittest, whilst the modern school of namby-pamby philanthopists seemed to desire the survival of the degenerates and their offspring.” ibid. p.192

Something curious follows. Spackman, possibly startled by this open statement of murderous intent, launches into a defence of the achievements of the efforts to alleviate poverty in the city:

“In reply, Mr Spackman said that more was being done for the amelioration of the lot of children than had ever been attempted before… food for those children who would otherwise not get a sufficient supply was being provided by the Municipality… children were no longer to be allowed to become debilitated or diseased simply because their parents might be too poor or too indifferent… [therefore] there had been a general uplifting all round” ibid. p.192

In other words, if you improve children’s environment and alleviate the effects of poverty, they respond well. This directly and emphatically contradicts his statement, just a few minutes earlier, that “children remain what they are born.”

The meeting wasn’t well attended, by the society’s standards: just eight people were present. It may just have been a particularly inclement January evening. It is possible that some stayed away in disgust at the subject matter: eugenics certainly had vocal critics in the intellectual communities of the day.

The science behind eugenics doesn’t stack up. It overestimates the ability of selective breeding to remove deleterious traits. It underestimates the role of the environment, particularly the crucial early years of childhood development. And limiting genetic diversity is not a good outcome for the evolutionary fitness of a population, however much you may admire the resulting moral fortitude.

Eugenics does not begin or end in a labour camp or in a sterilisation programme. Eugenics gained traction and continues to prosper because it claims to identify reasonable problems that tap into certain perceptions. Looking after people who are sick, disabled, or troubled, is difficult. It costs money. We all want a healthy population, don’t we? And conditions that adversely affect health or prospects… we’d all like to see them minimised, wouldn’t we? That seems desirable. And we’d like there to be more smart, healthy people – people like us…

But without a guiding set of humanitarian values, that sound utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’ leads, inexorably, to the tyranny of the majority. Especially if, like Spackman, you place yourself at the pinnacle of human progress.

This story does not end on that January night. The figure of Spackman has been haunting me for a week, consuming every spare hour. A man whose passion for natural history, geology, and archaeology I share and had admired. 106 years to the day after Spackman’s address, I too was out giving a lecture to a local society. I often pass his house: a modest Victorian terrace, and climb the steps of the Victoria Institute where the meeting was held. I found myself wondering if he had a family. I looked, and found his son: Flower Stephen (F.S.) Spackman, born 1890. What did he learn from his father?

In 1911, F.S. was serving as a Corporal in the 3rd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment. He must subsequently have emigrated to Canada, for at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 he joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He signed up on October 26th 1914 at Saskatoon, listing his occupation as ‘student’. I can’t imagine what he went through over the next four years. He’s pictured here, 3rd from the left, front row: a Company Sergeant-Major in No. 4 Company, 28th (Northwest) Battalion. That rank — responsible for welfare, discipline and organisation of over 200 men — must have been a heavy burden for a 24-year-old. In July 1916 he received a commission in the Worcestershire Regiment. Soon after, he was wounded on The Somme.

He survived the war, and stayed in England to continue his studies, graduating from St John’s College Cambridge in 1921. He entered the priesthood. From 1929-52, he served as Vicar of Marple. He was an army cadet instructor in Cheshire from 1948 until 1955, and held the post of Canon Emeritus at Chester Cathedral at the time of his death in 1967. But where was he in the 1920s? His obituary notice notes that he was “formerly principal of the Indian Residential School at Alert Bay, British Columbia”Canadian records revealed that he was living in Alert Bay in 1928. St Michael’s Indian Residential School, shown at Alert Bay on this map, was built in 1929, expanding a school originally established in 1882. F.S. appears to have been principal of the earlier institution, returning to England when the new facility was built. He is listed as having 44 boys and 39 girls in his care in this extraordinary document: the 1925 Annual Report of the Department for Indian Affairs.

The Indian Residential Schools were appalling manifestations of colonial zeal. Their goal was the transformation of the savage child into a civilised adult. Schooling was compulsory. Children were forbidden from speaking their language, or from any expression of native identity. Upon graduating, many returned, lost and alienated, to communities and families with whom they could no longer even converse. The school at Alert Bay closed in 1975, and was finally demolished in 2015. Pauline Alfred, a pupil, recounts a system in which — stripped of her name — she was reduced to a number: 564. The ramifications of these children’s experiences echo down the generations: reflected in cycles of trauma and abuse carried forward (see, for instance, this paper by Elias et. al., 2012).

“…it is clear that Indian Residential Schools, in policy and in practice, were an assault on Indigenous families, culture, language and spiritual traditions, and that great harm was done. We continue to acknowledge and regret our part in that legacy.

Those harmed were children, vulnerable, far from their families and communities. The sexual, physical, and emotional abuse they suffered is well-documented.”

Response of the Churches to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, 2015

There were inherent contradictions in the Spackmans’ beliefs and actions. Both men were adherents to an ideology that placed their own birthright at the pinnacle of human advancement. But F.T. — having made the case for hereditary degeneracy — talks of his work for the “amelioration of the lot of the poor”. And in tracing the history of F.S., I came across a curious letter to The Times, dated 15th March 1939, reproduced in Volume 2 of Major Matthews’ Early Vancouver. It professes a concern for indigenous culture that is hypocritically at odds with his professional involvement in suppressing it:

You published on March 13 an Illustration of a very interesting Totem from the West Coast of British Columbia. But why is it described as the work of “Siwash” Indians? During my residence among these Indians I was never able to locate any tribe known officially by this name. On the contrary, if a Coast Indian was called a “Siwash” he resented it… “Siwash” is often used by white men on the West Coast (frequently contemptuously), but never by Indians themselves. Hence it is difficult to understand why it is sometimes used by scientific writers in England. Your article states that this particular Totem came from “the northern part of Vancouver Island.” The Indians who inhabit these parts are sub-tribes of the once-powerful Kwaguitl (or Kwawkewith) Confederacy. If we could know the exact place from which the Totem came it would be possible to name the tribe. There is one other interesting feature about it. The Kwaguitls usually carve the Thunder Bird with wings outspread. Folded wings are usual among the tribes farther north.

The Rev. F.S. Spackman,

Vicar of Marple, Cheshire: formerly Principal of the Indian Residential Schools, Alert Bay, B.C.

We stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. And the uncomfortable truth is that I found much to admire in both men. The humble clerk in a world dominated by gentlemen, whose boundless energy and considerable intellectual ability helped to lay the foundations of archaeology in Worcester. And the soldier-priest with his interest in indigenous identity, who rose from the ranks to become a canon. I’m painfully aware that my sympathy towards them is a product of the parallels between my life and theirs. These conversations are needed, not just about the ‘great men’ of empire commemorated in statues, but about the people we encounter and value in local histories and family stories. It is tempting to focus the debate on an abstract dichotomy: should a prominent statue stay or go? Should a civic hall be renamed? But these issues are personal. The actions of those to whom I feel connected blighted the lives of people whose stories I can watch on YouTube.

Ironically, the conflicted Spackmans — firm believers that character was born, not made — were products of their time and their environment. They learnt to worship at the altar of their own values: values predicated on a flawed science and a sense of cultural superiority. I seek to put them in human context, not to excuse their actions, but to understand how such a worldview spread like wildfire through the drawing rooms of middle England, and how it may do so again. The story of the Spackmans illustrates the transition in all its horror: the “theory and suggestion” of the father’s lecture was played out in his son’s career; communities were ripped apart: innocent children were the victims. Words and ideas are never just theory and suggestion: they lodge, they take root; they have the potential to travel halfway around the world and destroy lives. I leave the last word to a pupil at St Michael’s, who suffered for a decade within the system that F.T. Spackman’s ideology inspired, and F.S. Spackman’s mission carried out:

“We should no longer be defined by that building and that history, otherwise we’ll be doomed to pass on the same characteristics to the next generation.”

Chief Robert Joseph, 2015

If you’d like to read F.T. Spackman’s paper for yourself, it can be found in the Level 2 Local Studies Library of The Hive, open 7 days a week, 08:30-22:00: Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club 1911-13, Vol. 5 (L506). It is a fragile volume, and I’ve been unable to scan it. But I did manage to photograph the pages, so you can download this slightly wonky PDF (8mb): Spackman_1912_Eugenics.

In The Hive, you’ll also find a history of the club which offers some background to the characters mentioned here: The Lookers Out of Worcestershire, by Mary Munslow Jones (L506.04244). It does not mention Eugenics.

Thanks to all the friends and colleagues who’ve helped me shape this story over the past week. For more information on my work on the history of archaeology and natural history in Worcestershire, visit: https://iceageworcestershire.com/ 

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists' Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

Transactions of the Worcestershire Naturalists’ Club in the Local Studies Section, The Hive

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My Day of Archaeology

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:

Travelling in time | Day of Archaeology

Weathered 'tree-throws' in Hampshire woodland

Weathered ‘tree-throws’ in Hampshire woodland

Lost Landscapes

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) Rob Hedge pencil sketch

Woolly Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)

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.

Long Mynd

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?

Jonathan's Hollow, Long Mynd: Pencil and crayon sketch

Jonathan’s Hollow, Long Mynd

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).

Dusk

 

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire. Pencil sketch, Rob Hedge

Dusk at Porthgain, Pembrokeshire

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.

Boats against the current

“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 significanceand 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.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Alfrick, Worcestershire

St Mary Magdalene, Alfrick

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.

Bronze Age pots & Golden Rules

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 [1412] 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’.

Early Bronze Age Beaker being excavated, Broadway, Worcestershire

First glimpse of the 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 [1412] 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 [1412], 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.

Recording section of Beaker pit

Recording the pit (beaker visible in the section) as the groundwater rises

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.

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.

Beaker vessel in situ within pit

With water bailed out and overlying soil removed, the Beaker is exposed for the first time

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!

[For more information as the excavation and analysis progresses, keep an eye on the blog, facebook page & twitter]

Early Bronze Age beaker after lifting, Broadway, Worcestershire

Beaker safely lifted

The axe in the water

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.

Neolithic polished flint axe

Neolithic polished 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?

Gunpowder

Autumn deepens in The Human Seasons, and from a hill overlooking the city, explosions light the sky:

The Human Seasons

Autumn dusk, Streetlight dawn 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 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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Water, and the year’s end

My first post for The Human Seasons – a project exploring seasonality and the archaeology of a year. The old year is ending…

The Human Seasons

Sunday.

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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