inktober

Inktober is an annual drawing challenge: a drawing a day, throughout October, following a particular set of prompts. This year, I followed Dr Katherine Cook’s archink series, each the title of an archaeology-related book. Some of the sketches discuss the books themselves, others explore concepts or objects loosely inspired by the title, related to my work and research.

I hope you find them interesting and/or informative. If you’d like to use or adapt any for your own purposes, feel free. You can save images from the gallery below, or scroll to the foot of the post to download a PDF of them all. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Weathering (ano)the(r) storm

It’s been a long time since I last wrote. Forgive me; there’s been a lot going on. But this is something that matters to me. The University of Worcester has decided to cease the teaching of archaeology, and to make its archaeologists redundant.

For nine years, I’ve worked for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, in The Hive: a hub that houses the University of Worcester’s library. There’s rarely been a time during that period when our service hasn’t been under threat. There will, no doubt, be further hard times ahead once the financial impact of COVID is felt by local authorities, a year or two down the line. But right now, higher education is the canary in the coal mine. It is the university staff who face redundancy, and Worcester’s woes are not unique.

I’ve spent a lot of time with the University of Worcester’s staff and students. Statistically, their results are impressive: a student satisfaction rate of 100%, and one of the most impressive graduate employment records around. But I believe that the best measure of the success of a department is the quality of its students. Many have passed through my door, eager and willing to learn the rudiments of finds work. Plenty of my colleagues began their careers at Worcester, and I have encountered many more of their graduates elsewhere in the sector. I can honestly say I’ve never met a bad one. And that is entirely down to the passion and care of their brilliant staff; their level of personal investment in their students should be the envy of larger departments.

Looking back, is there cause for regret? Undoubtedly. Our input into the department dwindled to a trickle over the years, a casualty of austerity. The Council could no longer subsidise teaching work, and the Uni wouldn’t pay. My own aspirations for closer relations were often dashed against twin cliffs of University and Council bureaucracy. But in the last few years, a new appetite for collaboration has gathered pace, centred around an interest in the unremarkable: projects to peel back the layers of life in and around Worcester across millennia, through the domestic detritus recovered from fieldwalking and test-pitting. The sort of deeply unfashionable work through which a university could, if it so wished, become enmeshed in the lives and stories of the city it calls home.

But Worcester, it seems, has little time for such niceties. In its boundless ambition, wrapped up in a programme of acquisition and expansion, and of gleaming new facilities, archaeology has no place. Enrollment had been suspended, pending a restructure of the courses. But only a week ago, I was chatting to two of the staff about their efforts to mould a programme that the university could support. Now the axe has fallen. No right of appeal, no lengthy consultation, no redeployment.

A demographic dip notwithstanding, there has been no long term decline in the numbers of prospective students. Looking ahead, recruitment will be more challenging. But the closure of Worcester is not an indication of a subject in terminal decline. Rather, it is the result of a market-driven approach to Higher Education that is bent on weeding out the less profitable. Between them, Worcester’s staff have dedicated more than a century to teaching and researching archaeology. A market that cannot find a place for that expertise is not a market that is functioning effectively.

The loss of archaeology at Worcester has bigger ramifications for the sector than student numbers alone suggest. It has always been a department that attracted a much more diverse demographic than most. It was a haven for mature students; for local people with caring responsibilities; for the first in their families to enter higher education; for those with huge potential but fewer academic qualifications; for the neurodiverse; and for anyone who longed to learn more about how the world beneath their feet shaped the world we inhabit today. In a profession that is unhealthily homogeneous, it has been a force for social mobility. And for a profession that struggles to train and retain staff, it has been an invaluable source of passionate and capable archaeologists. Our subject is all about understanding human behaviour: Worcester has consistently taken the life experience of its students and spun it into a web of expertise that has enriched our sector.

It is often argued that archaeology is important because it underpins the planning system. No archaeologists = no-one to complete the requisite surveys or excavations in advance of development. This argument is predicated on acceptance of the existing system. If your aim is deregulation of the planning system, then a shortage of archaeologists is no longer an issue to be tackled, but a means to an end. Much is also made of archaeology’s STEM credentials, in efforts to cater to the government’s stated preference for such qualifications, but to my mind the beauty of archaeology is its position at the crossroads between science and the humanities, with all the resulting tension. Staff shortages and STEM credibility have their place in the list of arguments for the importance of archaeology degrees like Worcester’s, but they’re not enough.

So why is archaeology worth fighting for? Well, it’s enormous fun. Honestly. There are few more rewarding things than digging a hole and finding stuff in it. Or piecing together clues to unpick the history of a house. Or pulling together all the evidence to make a map that reveals a landscape in a whole new light. But beyond that, none of the challenges that humanity faces can be solved by shiny tech alone. Archaeology is about understanding how people respond, change, adapt. How they react to crises. How they persist, endure, or thrive.

Much of the University of Worcester’s rapid property acquisition in recent years has been on the northern outskirts of the Roman town. It’s driven welcome regeneration of a tired area, but the University should remember that its growth is — quite literally — built on the city’s archaeology. Excavations on its City Campus site showed that the site was occupied as the town grew in the later 2nd century, buoyed by the flow of revenue from Imperial coffers in exchange for Worcester’s iron. But a century later, it was abandoned. The town shrunk, as the empire descended into a 50-year economic and political crisis, born of its own hubris. There’s probably a lesson in there.

Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site
Archaeologists excavating Roman remains on the University of Worcester City Campus site

Archaeologists: be more visible. Share what you do, hot off the trowel or straight from the screen. I’m rubbish at this – I get so consumed by the work I fail to step back for 5 minutes and share it. I know permissions are a pain, but get it sorted. If it’s too much hassle, hire an outreach officer. Oh, and above all, treat your staff well. Show people there’s a future in this. Otherwise, if this decline continues, we’ll all be pushing wheelbarrows til our knees give out and we’re carted off to a museum ourselves.

And right now? Sign the petition. Make a noise. Show the University of Worcester that you care about the future of our discipline. #SaveArchaeologyAtWorcester

Change

At this time of year, I’d usually be at the Theoretical Archaeology Group conference, getting my annual dose of theory. But this year I can’t make it, due to parenting commitments. I’m sorry to miss it, as it sounds like there have been some brilliant sessions. But I’m following from afar, and reflecting on a funny old year. In the Spring I finally got my knee put back together. As a finds archaeologist it amuses me that my left leg is now partly ceramic! I’ve had some time off, seen many good colleagues made redundant, and gone back to work part-time.

And last month I got a few more letters after my name: MCIfA. Member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists. I should be delighted. I am, in a way. It’s nice to be recognised by one’s peers, and I put a lot of work into the application. But it comes with a sense of responsibility, too.

It took a lot of work: collate a portfolio; compile a list of over 200 examples of my reports, papers, lectures, and resources; draw up a statement of competence; and update all my professional development records and plans. But I got it done. Almost immediately, I fell into a complete panic. I went through the CIfA yearbook. I looked at all the MCIfAs. Surely I didn’t belong in their company? And I saw all the people I respect and admire who aren’t at that grade. If they weren’t, what right did I have to presume that I belonged? I almost convinced myself that they would reject me, that I should apologise and withdraw my application.

They didn’t reject me. And it is satisfying that a group of people, who don’t know me, took a look at my work and thought I’d earned those letters.

But professionally, archaeological institutions have been mired in controversy lately. Earlier this year, ripples from across the Atlantic were widely discussed in UK archaeological circles. The Society for American Archaeology badly mishandled a situation in which an archaeologist banned from his university for sexual misconduct was permitted to attend their conference. And then, on this side of the pond, came a weekend in which members of the Society of Antiquaries voted against the ejection of a convicted abuser, and a young researcher received an award for her work on sexual harrassment to a soundtrack of laughter from the audience.

Given that our whole discipline is devoted to recognising change in patterns of human behaviour, we’re remarkably myopic when it comes to ourselves. I’ve seen a good many comment pieces on the working life of an archaeologist, but in truth no-one has hit the nail on the head for the British/Irish workforce quite so well as Stuart Rathbone in this article. It rang painfully true, and still does. Many great people, brilliant in many respects but curiously inept in others. Low rates of union membership and employees with little collective bargaining power. And a set of working conditions that bakes-in poor health and precarity, within which abuse can thrive.

It’s not just in commercial archaeology: museums, planning departments, HERs — anywhere you’ll find archaeologists you’ll find a maze of temporary posts, staff ‘acting-up’, recruitment freezes, overwork, and poor pay. There’s a perception among many of my generation that things are, at least, substantially better than they were 30 years ago. That may be true for some. But for the striking MOLA archaeologists, pay in real terms is 30% less than it was in 1989. In my own local authority, pay across most grades has fallen below 1989 levels once you account for inflation. And that’s before you even factor in the cost of housing, which has leapt by 69% above the rate of inflation in that period.

These situations create the spaces in which the rotten fruit can poison the barrel. Power inequalities and precarity lead to chronic under-reporting of abusive behaviour. If your contracts are measured in weeks, you don’t want to rock the boat. Perpetrators of abuse can move freely between organisations without much scrutiny. Academia was once the promised land, to which one might hope to escape to the promise of a healthy salary and a degree of permanence. But, as the striking university staff of the UCU can testify, conditions for the majority of the peripatetic early career academics who carry so much of the universities’ teaching load are every bit as hand-to-mouth as the rest of the sector.

It gladdens my heart to see many organisations investing in staff. There’s a new breed of small, dynamic outfits who recognise that the work they do can only ever be as good as the people they employ to do it; a workforce of archaeologists with security, stability and professional development will move mountains. But too many still view staff as at best a commodity, and at worst an expensive liability.

It feels, in short, like the time is ripe for a new generation to step up and lead. But to be brutally honest, it’s hard work just keeping afloat. Many of my generation of archaeologists have exerted so much just to tread water that the prospect of a battle for the soul of the profession is daunting. I don’t honestly know how long I can afford to stick around, especially with the prospect of workers’ rights joining the bonfire of the environmental protection regulations which underpin much of today’s archaeology sector. There seems little doubt that the government will pursue economic growth through a feast of deregulation. A rising tide raises all ships, the doctrine goes. But as I skirt the floodwaters of the River Severn on my way to work, it’s not much help if you’re holed below the waterline.

Swans on the swollen Severn

Swans on the swollen Severn

But while I’m here, and now I have those letters after my name, I’ve got a responsibility to do what I can to set the tone and set the course for those that come after. There are many who view organisations like CIfA as too compromised, and will not join. That’s a position I respect. But my view is that the culture of an organisation is set by its membership, and if change is to take root, it has to be championed from within.

Join your union. And if you’re one of those people to whom I look up, and you’ve been putting off your CIfA paperwork, dust it off over Christmas. I don’t know how much longer any of us have got in this game, but while we’re here, let’s look out for each other.

TAG

Just before Christmas, I headed up to Chester on my annual pilgrimage to TAG – the Theoretical Archaeology Group Conference. Hosted by a different University Archaeology department each year, the conference attracts around 400 archaeologists, chiefly from Europe and the USA, with a high proportion of speakers in the early stages of their careers.

The majority of delegates are based within — or affiliated to — universities. But there’s also a sprinkling of independent researchers, public sector archaeologists, commercial archaeologists… and those, like me, whose work and interests straddle multiple categories. In fact, at this year’s TAG, over 180 different institutions were represented.

Cartoon depicting TAG sessions

Cartoon summary of my TAG DEVA experience

So, what’s it about? TAG covers a huge range of topics, and every period from deep prehistory to the far future. It aims to take a critical look at the theory that lies behind what we do, and how we do it. Archaeological theory is sometimes considered by many students and practitioners of archaeology to be bewildering at best, and downright impenetrable at worst. There’s also often a perception that we’re still locked in the debates of the later 20th century, between the scientific turn of the New Archaeology that emerged in the 1960s and early 70s (processualism), and the post-processual approach that took shape in the 1980s, which acknowledged the subjective nature of all archaeological interpretations.

Theory? Arrgh!

Archaeologists’ aversion to theory is compounded, outside of academia, by an assumption that it’s a bitter battleground in which warring tribes hurl lightning bolts between ivory towers, leaving the humble dirt-archaeologist or pot-botherer to go about their business unaffected. But, as one hugely influential archaeological paper (David Clarke’s Loss of Innocence, 1973) famously stated: “practical men (sic.) who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences are… usually the unwitting slaves of some defunct theorist”. Besides, archaeological theory is currently pretty lively, collaborative, and full of fresh and useful ideas.

However, it’s difficult to keep up with current debates without institutional access. Most archaeologists working outside of academia — in developer-funded fieldwork, or local authorities — do not have access to relevant academic journals, and find it tricky to take time out to go to conferences. Employers are sometimes happy to subsidise conference attendance for professional development. But TAG is often viewed with suspicion – perceived as lacking practical relevance. As conferences go, TAG is great value; even so, faced with funding it themselves, and attending in their own time, many colleagues are put off.

What are they missing? Well, the theoretical debates that most interest me at the moment are centred around what has been variously described as the ontological turn, or the material turn. Approaches under these banners are often described as relational, or post-human. I’ve written previously about one of these, commonly known as New Materialism. But that’s just one of a number of related theoretical perspectives. What they all have in common is an acknowledgement that if we really want to say something useful about how humans have lived, and the worlds that we have inherited, we have to dismantle the blinkers imposed by the way we see the world.

For the last few hundred years, in the West, our ideas about being and existence have been shaped by dualisms: mind vs. body, nature vs. nurture, natural vs. artificial, genetic vs. environmental, human vs. animal, reason vs. emotion, head vs. heart, sacred vs. profane… dualisms are everywhere. And they’re not very helpful. The world is more complicated than they suggest. Tim Taylor’s paper explored the way that we become products of our own technology: “bio-tech symbionts”. I’m soon to have an operation to reconstruct my knee, using a complex mix of organic materials and manufactured parts. Where, then, will I draw the line between which parts of me are natural, and which are artificial? The two work in tandem; neither will function without the other. Besides, consider every other ‘artificial’ mechanism by which I’ve survived and grown to date: medications both organic and synthetic, or both; technology through which I’ve learnt, produced, been diagnosed… the separation of elements into dichotomies like ‘natural’ vs ‘artificial’ doesn’t work. So, how can we find a framework for looking at systems involving human behaviour without falling back into comforting binary oppositions?

Agency

Towards the end of the last century, practice theory and the concept of agency were harnessed to archaeological theory. Agency is the ability to have an effect, to modify or reinforce a set of relationships or state of affairs. It is not just confined to humans, nor to living things: objects can be assigned agency, too. Agency is locked in a continuous feedback loop with the structure of the system within which the agents exist, leading to cultural reproduction – the ways in which systems are maintained or adapted over time.

Agency has, in one way or another, influenced pretty much all of the major trends in archaeological theory over the last 20 years. I can’t hope to do those debates justice in a blog post, but Oliver Harris and Craig Cipolla provide a brilliant, infectiously accessible summary of these in their recent book: Archaeological Theory in the New Millenium. If you got lost at post-processualism, or never caught the theory bug, do read their book. In fact, read it anyway: I love theory and it still taught me loads.

One of my undergraduate theory teachers was John Robb. He and Marcia-Anne Dobres edited the book on agency in archaeology. It’s been a formative and hugely influential concept for me. But I do have to admit that it’s a counter-intuitive concept to grasp. Maybe the term carries too much cultural baggage, and leads us too readily to anthropomorphise.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m not good at explaining it, but it’s sometimes too forceful, too deliberate. I’m typing this on my phone, when I should be going to sleep. Does my phone have agency? Undoubtedly – too much. But what about the mug on the table beside me? Well, yes, but it’s more subtle. That mug is special, made by my favourite potter, in a place that means a lot to me. I have had it for almost 10 years. It is only used for my last drink of the evening. The mug, in that way, habituates me. But to say it has agency implies a certain direct force, which risks flattening the nuanced mesh of relations between objects, places, and people, through which my interactions with the mug are governed.

Beyond Agency

As Oliver Harris pointed out in his paper, a quirk of the English language is that the very expression ‘object agency’ seems an oxymoron: an object is something acted upon. But our understanding of the importance and vulnerability of fragile, interconnected environmental and social systems increases almost as fast as their degradation plunges us towards ecological and political instability. We are linked, networked, enmeshed: however you wish to phrase it, humans are inextricably involved in the world around us, as we have always been.

So it was interesting to see a number of approaches explicitly moving beyond Agency, to consider ways in which — starting from a level playing field, or flat ontology — we can better examine the role of non-human things. Helen Chittock, discussing wear, repair, and composite artefacts in later prehistory, talked about the “conspicuous accumulation of visible histories”. The concept of Affect, introduced by Harris, is one promising tool; ‘Affect’ can be imagined as lines of force, describing how bodies — both human and non-human, living and not — press into other bodies.

Variety

Another great session explored relational approaches to studying the worlds inhabited by hunter-gatherers, with some breath-taking case studies. Ivana Živaljević told of the shimmering cloaks of fish teeth, mirroring the pearly appearance of the spawning Danube-traversing Black Sea roach (Rutilus frisii), donned by the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Iron Gates Gorge; Izzy Wisher spoke on Palaeolithic beads made from perforated deer teeth; Anya Mansrud on halibut-fishing in Mesolithic Norwegian rock art; and Worcester’s Caroline Rosen and Jodie Lewis looked at the significance of a tufa spring to the people and animals who returned to it across 2000 years.

A lively session on approaches to typology brought a fresh focus to a tired topic: every paper was concise, thoughtful, and well-delivered. It challenged us to not only consider the groups to which archaeological objects might belong, but also where they sit in a process of change: to look at what things are doing rather than what they resemble.

There was a wealth of other sessions on offer, too: on public heritage, feminist archaeologies, the nature of expertise… the range is always broad.

Creative comics

But the highlight of TAG, for me, was a session organised by John Swogger on Comics, Communities, and the Past. Some great case studies from Magic Torch Comics, John himself, and the University of Manchester got our imagination fired up, then as we heard the story of a Mesolithic barbed antler point from the Manchester team, we were encouraged to live-sketch a comic.

Mine began with the deposition of the point in a shallow lake in spring. A deer comes to drink from the lake, absorbing the power of the tool. Later the deer sheds its antlers, which are recovered, transformed into another barbed point for winter fishing expeditions, before the cycle is begun again with another deposition.

15-minute cartoon: Life-cycle of a barbed antler point

15-minute cartoon: Life-cycle of a Mesolithic barbed antler point

It was a thoroughly inspirational session, and inspired me to while away a couple of hours on the train home with my own version of the conference in comic-form. Aside from the difficulties of sketching on antiquated clattering carriages and freezing platforms, it was an enjoyable way to recall and process.

TAG is at UCL, London, on the 16th – 18th December this year. If you’re able to attend, it’s well worth going. It’s a gathering of people who share a passion for shining a light under the dark rocks of archaeological practice, and casting a critical eye over what lies beneath. TAG is a tribe: a maddening, provocative, welcoming, brilliant assemblage, and one I’m glad to experience.

The Giant Wombat in the Basement

There’s a giant wombat in the basement of Worcester Museum. It’s there because Henry Hughes was bored of banking. It was the starting point of a story that has led me, via mid-19th century Brisbane and the learned societies of Victorian England, into some of the darker corners of the British Empire.

In 1838, the young and ambitious Henry Hughes left his job in Worcester for a new life in Australia. He was accompanied by the Isaacs family, including two brothers whom Hughes had known well in Worcester, Henry Edward and Frederic Neville. Hughes and the two Isaacs brothers — just 22 and 18 at the time of their arrival in Australia — bought a farm in Hunter Valley, and settled awhile. But it seems that this agricultural idyll failed to satisfy their thirst for adventure. Spurred by tales of fortunes to be made on the frontier, they sold up and headed along the coast, to the northern limits of New South Wales. They reached the Darling Downs — just west of what is now Brisbane — in 1841, despite having been robbed by armed outlaws along the way. Along with a handful of European settlers, they carved a life for themselves in the lush grasslands along the Condamine River, beyond the edges of their civilisation: a Terra Nullius.

Except, of course, that it wasn’t. The land into which they poured their herds of sheep and cattle was no wilderness. The fences they hammered into the stiff clay were stakes in the beating heart of a landscape that had been inhabited for 3000 generations. The first Europeans arrived in the Darling Downs in 1840. Four years later, 26 properties had introduced 150,000 sheep onto the grasslands[1]. Known as ‘squatters’, the earliest settlers had no claim to the crown lands they occupied, but by the time that the Darling Downs were carved up the term had acquired a perverse legitimacy, applied equally to legal settlements. On the back of a booming wool trade, some squatters became staggeringly wealthy, leading to the birth of a landowning class known as the ‘squattocracy’.

For most, however, it was not an easy life. Nonetheless, Hughes and the Isaacs seem to have prospered. That we know anything of their lives at this time is largely down to Hughes’ friend Henry Stuart Russell, who wrote an account of The Genesis of Queensland[2]. It documents frontier life in the Darling Downs, from first explorations to the area’s eventual secession from New South Wales to form the state of Queensland in 1859. The book is dedicated to Hughes; Russell’s affectionate portrayal of his friend reveals a man of wit, generosity, and — in later life — considerable political skill. Russell paints a vivid picture of his first encounter with Hughes and Henry Isaacs. Expecting a pair of prim English gentlemen, he was astonished to be confronted with:

“two individuals seated, each on a keg, smoking. Little, apparently, over twenty years of age; covered with dust; shirt sleeves tucked up to the elbows; doubled up by the heat of work; straw hats, ribandless, and once perhaps of a lighter tinge, heavy boots, which knew not blacking-brushes; each with a silver tankard in hand, a short clay pipe in mouth, there they stood laughing”[3]

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs

Gowrie Station, Darling Downs. By James Gay Sawkins, ca. 1852

They christened their station ‘Stanbrook’, after the Stanbrook Hall Estate near Worcester. It was soon renamed ‘Gowrie’, a corruption of the Aboriginal name for a local freshwater mussel: ‘Cowarie’. They stocked it with cattle. A watercolour painted some ten years after the station was established[4] shows a neat white stockade, a timber homestead with a steep pitched roof, and wild hills rising in the background. Two translucent figures on horseback canter across the pasture. By this date, Hughes had taken up the adjoining station — named Westbrook — though the men remained firm friends and business partners.

Frederick Neville Isaacs, in particular, was a man of rare skill, who adapted rapidly to his adopted homeland and became a skilled bushman. But he was also a man with considerable intellectual and scientific interests. He was an early member of the Queensland Philosophical Society, along with his sister, Elizabeth Coxen. Elizabeth had been 13 years old when the family emigrated. Having initially remained with their father in Sydney, she moved to the Brisbane area in the mid-1840s. She spent some time living with her brother at Gowrie. She, too, became a member of the Philosophical Society, and Gowrie evidently fuelled a lifelong love of natural history. In 1851 she married Charles Coxen, a squatter who rose to become a renowned naturalist, founder of Queensland Museum, and local politician. Elizabeth, who long languished unfairly in her husband’s shadow, was a brilliant scientist in her own right, and was probably the first woman in Australia to work as a natural history curator[5]. Gowrie was no rural backwater: it was a place where a voracious appetite for learning and discovery was shared and celebrated.

As such, the station attracted eminent visitors. The Darling Downs was a launching point for a succession of pioneers, heading north and west into the bush. In 1844, the charismatic and controversial Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt spent some time with the Worcester emigrants, staying on Gowrie station before an overland expedition to Port Essington in the far north of the continent. Frederick Neville Isaacs accompanied Leichhardt on a number of expeditions until the explorer’s mysterious disappearance in 1848[6].

During his first stay at Gowrie, Leichhardt was delighted to be shown some remarkable fossils excavated by Hughes and the Isaacs during the construction of the station[7]. They included examples of giant kangaroos, but the star find was a near-complete specimen of one of the most extraordinary creatures ever to have inhabited Australia: a three-tonne wombat named Diprotodon. This Ice Age colossus, three metres long and two metres tall at the shoulder, is the largest known marsupial.

Diprotodon optatum (2)

Diprotodon grazed the Australian bush for around 1.5 million years. How did such an animal evolve and thrive? Around 5 million years ago the global climate started to become cooler and drier. By 2.6 million years ago, the planet was entering the geological period synonymous with the last Ice Age: the Pleistocene. In a cooler climate, animals show an evolutionary tendency to increase in size, leading to an abundance of ‘megafauna’: animals with an adult body weight of over 44kg. Bergmann’s rule[8] suggests that larger animals have a lower surface area to volume ratio than smaller animals, so they radiate less body heat per unit of mass, and therefore stay warmer in cold climates. Geist[9] and others disagree, arguing that it is more linked to food resources, and ‘productivity pulse’ — the availability of nutrients per animal in a cold-shortened growing and feeding season. The ability to survive periods of food scarcity may be enhanced by bulk; a larger animal can store and survive on fat reserves. Whatever the cause, confined to their continent, Australia’s marsupials grew big. When the first humans made the immense 100km sea crossing from mainland southeast Asia around 60,000 years ago[10], they would have encountered many of these beasts, though their days were numbered. Tales in Aboriginal mythology of giant creatures such as the bunyip have often been thought to be an echo of collective memory of encounters with extinct megafauna[11].

The cause of the decline of the Australian megafauna is still debated. It seems likely that humans played some role, but were not the only factor: increasing aridity was making food resources scarcer[12]. The Diprotodon probably went extinct around 40,000 years ago. But the bones’ perfect preservation in the Gowrie soil convinced Leichhardt that they might still exist in the continent’s unmapped interior. Leichhardt appears to have exhorted Isaacs to send the specimens to his homeland for study, knowing they would excite interest within the burgeoning natural history circles of England.

The first Diprotodon specimens had been described by Richard Owen just six years earlier. Owen was brilliant; a vicious and driven man, but an outstanding naturalist. He founded the Natural History Museum, coined the term ‘Dinosaur’, and sparred ferociously with Charles Darwin. And the finds from Gowrie did attract his interest. He published them in 1859: describing and illustrating specimens of Diprotodon, giant kangaroos of the Macropus genus, and another genus of giant wombat named Nototherium. The fossils are described as being “contributed by Mr Hughes, from freshwater deposits of Darling Downs.”[13]

Despite the passage of over 150 years, some of those fossils still exist. I first encountered them in a battered cardboard box in the basement of Worcester’s City Museum and Art Gallery. They had been erroneously labelled, decades ago, as ‘Pleistocene: South America?’. Entombed in a forest of acid-free tissue paper, we unwrapped them like giddy but cautious children. And there they were: just as they were illustrated in 1859. A double-ridged tooth the size of a matchbox. A jaw, Owen’s name still visible on a label that seemed as aged as the fossil itself. A strange jumble of bones, incomprehensible to the uninitiated, but brought to life by the sorcerer Owen.

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis

Tooth and upper jaw fragment of Diprotodon australis, within Worcester City Museum and Art Gallery. Coin diameter = 23mm

There were more wonders in the box: bones of Dinornis, the heavy-footed moa, a colossal bird that grew up to 3.6m tall, endemic to New Zealand. Owen first identified the genus in 1839 from a fragment of femur[14], to a chorus of vocal doubters, who pointed out that if it were a bird, it would be unfeasibly large. But Owen was insistent, and when further specimens arrived from the Antipodes in 1843, he was proved right. We unwrapped a toe-bone: dark, branching, the texture of an old oak. It is an object of disquieting otherness, even today. Its impact in 1850s Worcester must have been extraordinary.

This small city was, in the mid-19th century, an intellectual hothouse. The Worcestershire Natural History Society, established in 1833, swiftly amassed a considerable collection. It found a home in 1835, when the Museum of the Worcestershire Natural History Society opened on Foregate Street. A driving force was the remarkable Dr Charles Hastings, who had founded the British Medical Association down the road at Worcester’s Infirmary three years earlier. The imposing classical columns housed a bewildering variety of curiosities. The earliest surviving accession registers comprise roughly seventy pages covering material accepted by the museum between 1837 and 1854. Within the first few entries, there are bird eggs and beetles; geological specimens from local quarries; an entire fossil tree weighing almost a tonne; a cast of a dodo’s head; a selection of Mexican insects; samples of lava from Mount Etna; and a fragment of mortar from the steps of the Parthenon.

Into this mix of odd bedfellows came the specimens from Gowrie, courtesy of Henry Hughes. But how and when did they arrive? I hunted through the registers, and found the entry:

1848 June… 17 Australian Bird Skins 1 Ormthorinus paradoxus… upper portion of Skul (sic) of Native 4 Native bags 6 war weapons portions of dress & ornaments and a number of Fossil bones mostly Jaw bones with teeth discovered in Australia presented by Mr Hughes who brought them over.”

“Upper portion of Skul of Native”. Hughes appears to have briefly returned to Worcester in 1848 with a macabre cargo. Besides the fossils, bird skins, duck-billed platypus, and an assortment of aboriginal artefacts, he brought back a skull. A human skull. An Aboriginal skull.

It is not clear from the descriptions whether the skull was archaeological, or of more recent origin. With over 50,000 years of Aboriginal settlement in Australia, it may have been ancient, uncovered along with the other fossils during those early years at Gowrie. But many of the remains acquired by institutions in the 19th and early 20th centuries were acquired in murky circumstances: stolen — and in some cases allegedly killed — to order[15].

Hughes and the Isaacs, part of the earliest wave of squatters on the Darling Downs, were in frequent and often fraught contact with local aboriginals. One encounter, in January 1845, saw a group of aboriginals spear and scatter a number of Gowrie’s sheep and cattle. In response, the local squatters rallied twenty horsemen to drive them off. In 1847 Frederick Neville Isaacs attempted to establish a new station at a place named Dullacca. His obituary later recorded that he was “very quickly driven from it by the blacks”[16], and forced to return to the relative safety of Gowrie. Isaacs employed a native tracker named Billy, who helped him to keep the local Aboriginals at bay, notwithstanding an episode where Billy was almost speared[17]. Employees of other stations were less fortunate: among those killed was one of Hughes’ Westbrook staff.

It may have been his experience with Billy that led him to become a vocal proponent of the idea of a ‘Native Police’ force. In November 1848 he wrote to the Sydney Morning Herald, refuting the suggestion that Aboriginals had been poorly treated, and arguing for the formation of a local ‘Black Police’ to protect the land and assets for which the squatters were paying the Crown. The first such native police force, a paramilitary organisation comprising units of mounted aboriginal troopers commanded by a white officer, had been established in 1837 in Port Phillip District on the south coast. Isaacs got his way. Between 1848 and 1915, the local force for which Isaacs campaigned — known as the Native Mounted Police Force — became notorious for extrajudicial killings and violent reprisals against local Aboriginals[18]. By using Aboriginal troops from areas distant to those in which they served, the Native Police units sought to take advantage of Aboriginals’ superior tracking skills, to keep the wage bill low (supplemented by freely available alcohol and tobacco), and to minimise the chances of reprisal attacks against white settlers.

Isaac’s assertion that Aboriginals were not poorly treated is hard to credit. Aboriginal grievances were well-founded. Their lands had been enclosed and transformed, their delicate ecology trampled under the hooves of the hundreds of thousands of heads of livestock turned out onto the fragile grasslands. Gowrie and Westbrook were held in the 1850s to be “two faultless and flower-carpeted ranches, the best for sheep and cattle this wide Australia holds”[19]. But those sheep and cattle were to prove disastrous, eventually destroying that flower carpet. The Aboriginals had managed the Darling Downs for millennia with an annual burning when the grasses were ripe and dry: a process known as ‘firestick farming’, it encouraged vigorous growth and maximised species diversity, ensuring a productive landscape that met Aboriginal food requirements. All of this was catastrophically disrupted by the grazing of livestock, the erection of fences, and the partition of the land into units under a system of ownership that was utterly alien to the Aboriginal way of life.

In the light of these violations, it is easy to see how Aboriginal resentment sometimes boiled over. But of all the violent episodes in this turbulent time, it is the poisonings that are most shocking. They were all-too frequent around the time that Hughes and the Isaacs were carving their path at Gowrie. Russell discusses one of the most notorious, which took place in February 1842 at Kilcoy Station, approximately halfway between Brisbane and the cluster of stations on the Darling Downs. Several white shepherds working for Sir Evan Mackenzie became increasingly alarmed by the presence of large groups of Gubbi Gubbi Aboriginals who were requesting flour, tobacco, and sugar. To rid themselves of this nuisance, they laced a batch of flour with strychnine. Up to 60 of the Gubbi Gubbi died in agony[20]. The effects were related in graphic detail to Henry Stuart Russell by an escaped European convict named James Davis, who had made his home among the Gubbi Gubbi[21]. Although widely reported in the Australian press, no charges were ever brought. Sir Evan Mackenzie escaped with a caution.

Such actions led to reprisals; the Aboriginal belief in collective responsibility meant that many settlers suffered for the actions of others, expanding the cycle of violence. Russell notes that Hughes and the Isaacs knew and had entertained the victims of the infamous Hornet Bank Massacre in 1857, in which 12 people, members of the Fraser family and their employees, were killed. The action, likely a response to the killing of 12 Iman Aboriginals for spearing cattle and the poisoning of an unknown number of others with a strychnine-laced Christmas pudding, sparked a vicious response which almost annihilated the tribe[22].

In such an atmosphere, with death a constant presence and a viciously antagonistic attitude towards Aboriginal people, it is not hard to understand how Hughes and the Isaacs had scant regard for the physical remains of the indigenous population. Whatever the origins of the skull, Hughes and the Isaacs placed so little value on Aboriginal culture that they saw fit to send body parts halfway around the world, to be catalogued with no more ceremony than a few ‘portions of dress & ornaments’.

I do not yet know what became of the skull. To those not familiar with historic museum collections, this may sound surprising. Unfortunately, it is not unusual. In the 170 years since Hughes brought it back, the museum collections have declined, moved, been revived, changed ownership, and suffered all manner of indignities. The collections of the Worcestershire Natural History Society had, by the late 19th century, faded from their heyday in the 1840s to 1860s and fallen into disarray. They were eventually moved to the new Victoria Institute, which opened in 1896. Much of the collection still resides there, but some has been moved to a succession of out-stores. Some records survive, but many more do not. There were the challenges of the Second World War, too, during which the fate of museum collections was understandably low on the list of municipal priorities. In a bid to clear space for war work, aisles of artefacts were dumped on the street. Their fate is unclear, but at least some are thought to have ended up in landfill.

There are practical issues, too. After 170 years, labels can become illegible, or detached. Transcription errors are perpetuated and magnified. Documentation can become a game of Chinese whispers, leading to cases like the ‘South America’ label on the box of Australian fossils. Worcester’s museum collections are now in excellent hands, but to unpick such a tangled web across hundreds of thousands of objects — spanning nearly two centuries — is a colossal task.

At some point, the skull was evidently separated from the rest of the material. Owen’s 1859 publication does not mention it. There is no record of repatriation. The uncertainty over its location is a source of spiritual danger, both for the descendants of the individual and for the land itself. This is equally acute whether the individual was tens of thousands old, or recently deceased. In Aboriginal culture, the living navigate the land by the knowledge of the resting places of the dead[23]. Their presence within the land itself is an anchor; their absence from the land is a curse:

“Our belief is that when our people’s remains are not with their people and in our country then their spirit is wandering. Unless they go back home the spirit never rests.” Aboriginal elder Major Sumner[24]

I have written before that we stand on the shoulders of flawed giants. Henry Hughes, Frederick Neville Isaacs, Henry Edward Isaacs, and Elizabeth Coxen were remarkable people. We cannot, and should not, overlook their qualities; it is precisely because they are admirable in so many other ways that their failure to accord Aboriginal culture the respect it deserves is so stark. They were active participants in an episode of human history in which the values of the European enlightenment failed catastrophically to comprehend the land and people they encountered, with appalling consequences. The missing skull, all the more powerful in its absence, bears witness to the dark origins of scientific endeavour and natural history collections. It cannot be ignored.

Museums across the country are filled with objects that are the gateway to stories like this. They highlight the complexities of the human condition. The best and worst of us is contained within them. How did a society that could transport those fossils halfway across the globe — and identify the beast to whom they once belonged — fail so utterly to appreciate the humanity and society of the people they met, in that continent of wonders? The giant wombat in the basement stares back at me. Its presence is a challenge and a warning, across half the world and 50,000 years: dig deeper, and tell of what you find.

This post is based on personal research into Worcester’s Ice Age collections, undertaken whilst working for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service on the Lost Landscapes project. Many thanks are due to the staff of Museums Worcestershire – particularly Deb Fox, Garston Phillips, and Kerry Whitehouse – for their help and encouragement. It is to Museums Worcestershire’s great credit that they are committed to frank and open discussions about the difficult history behind some of their early acquisitions, and we are currently discussing ways in which more of these stories can be told. Any ideas or suggestions gratefully received. Thanks are also due to members of the Royal Society for Biology West Midlands and the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, and the Megathread, for being a receptive, constructive, and supportive sounding board for this research.

Footnotes:

Click number to return to place in text

↑ 1 Ian Parsonson The Australian Ark: A History of Domesticated Animals in Australia (Clayton: Csiro Publishing, 1998)

↑ 2 Henry Stuart Russell The Genesis of Queensland (Public domain, 1888). Available at: http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks13/1305181h.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

↑ 3 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 4 James Gay Sawkins, watercolour, ca. 1852. Public domain. Available at: https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135205733/view [accessed 28 April 2018].

↑ 5 Judith McKay and John M. Healy, ‘Elizabeth Coxen: pioneer naturalist and the Queensland Museum’s first woman curator’, Memoirs of the Queensland Museum–Nature 60 (2017), pp.139-160. Brisbane. ISSN 2204-1478 (Online)

↑ 6 See Darrell Lewis, Where is Dr Leichhardt?: the greatest mystery in Australian history, (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2013).

↑ 7 Ludwig Leichhardt, Journal of an overland expedition in Australia: From Moreton Bay to Port Essington, a distance of upwards of 3000 miles, during the years 1844-1845 (London: T. and W. Boone, 1847). Available at: http://setis.library.usyd.edu.au/ozlit/pdf/p00050.pdf [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 8 Carl Bergmann, ‘Über die Verhältnisse der Wärmeökonomie der Thiere zu ihrer Grösse’, Göttinger Studien 3 (1) (1847), pp. 595–708.

↑ 9 Valerius Geist, ‘Bergmann’s rule is invalid’, Canadian Journal of Zoology, 65 (4) (1987), pp.1035–1038.

↑ 10 Giles Hamm et al., ‘Cultural innovation and megafauna interaction in the early settlement of arid Australia’, Nature 539 (2016), pp.280-283.

↑ 11 Pat Vickers-Rich et al. (eds), Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia(Lilydale: Pioneer Design Studio in cooperation with the Monash University Publications Committee, Melbourne, 1991).

↑ 12 See: Judith Field and Stephen Wroe, ‘Aridity, faunal adaptations and Australian Late Pleistocene extinctions’, World Archaeology 44 (2012), pp.56-74.

↑ 13 Richard Owen, ‘On a Collection of Australian Fossils in the Museum of the Natural History Society at Worcester; with Descriptions of the Lower Jaw and Teeth of the Nototherium inerme and Nototherium Mitchelli, Owen; demonstrating the identity of the latter species with the Zygomaturus of Macleay.’  Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 15 (1859), pp.176-186. https://doi.org/10.1144/GSL.JGS.1859.015.01-02.37

↑ 14 Gowan Dawson, ‘On Richard Owen’s Discovery, in 1839, of the Extinct New Zealand Moa from Just a Single Bone’, BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History. Ed. Dino Franco Felluga. Extension of Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net. http://www.branchcollective.org/?ps_articles=gowan-dawson-on-richard-owens-discovery-in-1839-of-the-extinct-new-zealand-moa-from-just-a-single-bone [accessed 29 April 2018].

↑ 15 Jillian Mundy, ‘Remains back in safe hands’, The Koori Mail, 23rd September 2009, p.9 https://aiatsis.gov.au/sites/default/files/docs/digitised_collections/the_koori_mail/460.pdf

↑ 16 The Brisbane Courier, Tuesday 18th July 1865, p.2. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/1275400

↑ 17 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead, Kingsthorpe’ Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland 18 (9) (2004), pp.406–419.

↑ 18 Jonathan Richards, The Secret War. A True History of Queensland’s Native Police, (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2008).

↑ 19 J. Stewart, ‘Gowrie Homestead’, p412.

↑ 20 Centre for 21st Century Humanities, University of Newcastle, ‘Colonial Frontier Massacres in Eastern Australia 1788-1872’ (2017) https://c21ch.newcastle.edu.au/colonialmassacres/detail.php?r=5014 [accessed 28 April 2018]

↑ 21 Russell, The Genesis of Queensland

↑ 22 Gordon Reid, Nest of Hornets: The Massacre of the Fraser Family at Hornet Bank Station, Central Queensland, 1857, and Related Events (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1982).

↑ 23 Lindsay Murdoch, ‘Stolen spirits brought home to be at rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 2011. https://www.smh.com.au/national/stolen-spirits-brought-home-to-be-at-rest-20110719-1hnbv.html [accessed 25 April 2018]

↑ 24 Paola Totaro, ‘Bringing home the dead so their spirits can rest’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 2009. https://www.smh.com.au/national/bringing-home-the-dead-so-their-spirits-can-rest-20090512-b1w9.html [accessed 29 April 2018]

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).

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?

A history of the pot in 5000 years | Day of Archaeology

via A history of the pot in 5000 years | 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 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.

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, c.1900

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, discarded around 1900

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.

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

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?

Mystery find - watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Mystery finds – watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!