Tours from Antiquity

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Stonehenge from the Heel Stone looking towards the Slaughter Stone (foreground)

I have recently refound my love of giving guided tours through a company that aims to provide archaeologist guides around the most famous Neolithic sites of Wiltshire. Unlike the big tour buses, who herd their charges to the Stonehenge bus armed with an audioguide to explain the construction and purpose of this unique five thousand year old monument, Tours from Antiquity aims to provide a “real-life” archaeologist on small tour groups full of discerning travellers.

The power of TripAdvisor cannot be underestimated. Edward Shepherd, who set up Tours from Antiquity and has been leading tour groups on his own for the last five years, has needed to take on some help (including me) this year as his business reputation grows on the platform. There is demand from tourists who want in depth, detailed and accurate information about these amazing Stone Age sites. What also helps are the small group sizes (no 60-seater buses where half the group is talking over the tour guide), an early start to avoid the Stonehenge mania and providing more of a context for Stonehenge by taking in more of the World Heritage Site. On my tour on the Day of Archaeology, we got there and got out well before the queues started to build. It’s great that Stonehenge is so popular, but if you don’t like crowds, you’ve got to get there early.

I do love digging and discovery in museum collections, but I adore talking to the wider public about archaeology, when they’re interested. My tour group on the Day of Archaeology was made up of people from the US, Canada, Argentina, and India, and I’ve also had people from Singapore, China, Sweden, Norway, France, Spain, Australia and New Zealand. All this international interest in Stonehenge! I would have liked to have talked to some Brits, but I guess they get to these sites under their own steam for the most part.

The act of talking to people about the archaeology challenges me to find a narrative, a reason for things, that is often missing from the standard literature (with its talk of ritual curation of the landscape into blah, blah, blah). It makes more sense when talking to actual people to have a story, a thread to hold on to in the flood of information. It’s no good telling people a load of disconnected facts. It’s easy to connect Durrington Walls and Stonehenge by their respective avenues and alignments on the solstices, for instance. Another strand in my story is the development of archaeology from William Cunnington and Richard Colt-Hoare to Maud Cunnington to Mike Parker-Pearson and Nick Snashall. The group loved to hear about the recent ground penetrating radar work by the University of Birmingham that might have located buried stones under the Durrington Walls bank.

It can be dangerous, though, to tell too neat a story as if its the truth. So I’m careful to point out the various interpretations, and the limitations of what we can do with the evidence, too. I think there was an expectation from most of the members of the tour group that, as an archaeologist, I would also throw out certain theories without hesitation. Some of the visitors came pretty well-informed already, and had adopted a little of the old-fashioned scorn of fringe archaeology that characterised some of the previous generations of archaeologists. I know I don’t speak for everyone in archaeology when I keep an open mind about the survival of Neolithic practices into historical times, and look outside the strict boundaries of archaeological literature for ideas (anyone who has listened to my podcast knows I love Bernard Cornwell’s theory of Silbury Hill). Ley-lines and aliens can take a running jump, though. There is a limit. We saw another tour group making a crop circle in a field just north of West Kennet long barrow, and I’m afraid I couldn’t control my dismay.

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Silbury Hill from West Kennet long barrow

The other thing I felt I needed to be careful about was the chronology. While many of these monuments were being constructed/used at vaguely the same time, there is the danger of presenting the ‘story’ as if there were two competing tribes trying to outdo each other on a day for day timetable. A lintel goes up at Stonehenge one day, the next day the people up at Avebury raise Silbury Hill by another ten metres. Maybe not.

I have always found that talking out loud about the archaeology helps my brain work. I’ve had a few ideas for research projects. One guy on my tour on the Day of Archaeology asked me whether there was a time of year for burying the dead under round barrows and whether the body would be buried then and then the mound built later when people had time in the agricultural year. While radiocarbon dating couldn’t detect this kind of short time scale, I need to look in the literature for pollen date of the primary burial and the encircling ditch to see if this indicates quick burial and barrow-digging at leisure.

I was able to direct my tour towards Salisbury Museum to see the Stonehenge and Amesbury Archers having mentioned them earlier in the day, a bit of bluestone potentially from Stonehenge, finds from Durrington Walls. Only one guy took me up on that suggestion, though, most people preferring to see the cathedral and have a rest from the Neolithic in the middle of the day.

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The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum, buried with wrist bracers, arrows, early copper and bronze implements, beakers, shale belt ring, boar tusks and more.

Over the course of the day (which starts at 7.30am) I got to bond with my tour group over a mutual interest in prehistory, and the beauty of this tour is ending in the Red Lion pub inside Avebury stone circle and henge, with a pint of Avebury Well Water, the local brew, still chatting about the nature of the past, conservation, oral history and so much more. By the end of the day I’m always sad to see them leave, knowing we won’t bump into each other again, apart from perhaps a nice review on TripAdvisor. I just hope I’ve been a good enough ambassador for these World Heritage Sites.

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The Red Lion pub inside Avebury henge and stone circle, one of a kind


An archaeologist’s holiday

Exterior of the architect designed building containing the replica cave

Exterior of the architect designed building containing the replica cave

When you go on holiday as an archaeologist, you end up finding and visiting the archaeology around your holiday destination or, as I did, you build your entire holiday around going to see archaeological sites. I have watched Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, I have read Mordicai Gerstein’s The First Drawing and I have trawled through the images on the Bradshaw Foundation. When the Caverne du Pont d’Arc was opened earlier this year, a replica of the famous ‘Chauvet’ Cave in the Ardèche region of France, I knew that I’d be dragging my family there this year and that’s where I found myself on the Day of Archaeology 2015.

The original cavern was only found in 1994 by cavers, among them Jean-Marie Chauvet who the cave is often named after. Due to the damaging affects of tourists visiting caves found in earlier decades, such as Lascaux in the Dordogne region of France, the decision was made very early on to create a replica of the cave for visitors. It was a huge project that cost over 55 million euros and I was excited and nervous, hoping that it would be well spent and worried that it would be a damp squib.

I needn’t have worried. The replica is incredibly impressive, from the outside as well as in. The architecture of the exterior of the replica is monumental and reflects the angular formations of the cavern walls. It has been built on a hilltop a couple of miles from the original down in the valley of the Ardèche, and commands a breathtaking view of the mountains of the Cévennes. As far as I could tell, the entire cave system is recreated, instead of just a section of it, as at other cave replicas.

Panorama of the view from the top of the hill where the replica has been built

Panorama of the view from the top of the hill where the replica has been built

The cave was worked on some 36,000 years ago and has the earliest known cave art in Europe. (In contrast, Lascaux was painted about 17,000 years ago. As much time passed between Chauvet and Lascaux as between Lascaux and today!) It has cave paintings in both red ochre and charcoal, as well as cave engravings. It has paintings of bears, lions, horses, giant deer, woolly mammoths and woolly rhinos. The artists have observed these animals closely and for many years. It has an engraving of an owl with its head turned all the way round. The images are, for the most part, executed with great skill. They appear to move as some animals are given more than one set of legs that would have flickered back and forth in the torchlight. The earlier part of the cave is generally done in red ochre, while the later paintings are all mostly black.

Bear skull placed deliberately on a stone, image from Bradshaw Foundation’s website

The cave was also occupied by bears around the same time, who have left their marks all over, in the hollowed out hibernation nests they made for the winter, the rubbing along the walls where they passed and the claw marks on the walls to mark their territory. They died in there, too, and the people who came to paint the walls also moved the bones. Some long bones seem to have been shoved into the earth on end to act as markers, and several skulls were arranged on a bed of ochre around a natural pillar of rock on which another skull was sat.

Cave lions and a woman’s legs and vulva, image from the Bradshaw Foundation’s website

By the final gallery I was nearly in tears with the beauty and power of the place. All throughout I had been translating the guide to my five year old daughter and getting her to find certain animals and look at the expression of the sad lion. I had abandoned my English language audioguide, which didn’t have the detail I wanted, which the live action tour guide did, which I managed to mostly follow in French. I was particularly pleased to point out the child’s negative handprint (created by spitting paint on the back of the hand pressed on the cave wall) and footprint on the soft earth floor, and the cruder paintings that have been speculatively suggested to be the work of children. I even explained to her the image of the woman’s legs and vulva in the final gallery, as some teenage boys giggled to themselves, but this is the deepest part of the cave, the most magical. Women, then, are apparent in the cave both here and at the start where women’s handprints probably accompany men’s.

In the museum accompanying the cave, however, women are almost completely absent. I felt completely let down by this, which is totally in contrast to the evidence in the cave. In an introductory video four male hunters, who don’t seem to do very well as they compete against cave lions, stumble upon a cave and an elderly man envisions the animals upon the walls and starts to draw with charred wood from the fire. In the gallery of mannequins afterwards, it is the men again who are engaged in placing their palm prints on the walls, while one woman and one child are engaged doing something else with their heads down. It needs a bit more work to coax the whole story out, I think.

The replica Caverne du Pont d’Arc is spectacular. The real thing is off limits to everyone but those who are studying and conserving it so that it can survive another 36,000 years. The paintings at Lascaux are now damaged beyond repair by the damp and the tramping of hundreds of feet through the cave, disturbing molds which started growing on the cave walls and destroying the beautiful art. We don’t want the same to happen at Chauvet, so the replica is as good as it gets for this archaeologist as for us all.

Back to the prehistoric future

It’s so nice to be doing archaeology again. My training was in archaeology (specifically the prehistory of north-western Europe) but after graduation I drifted into museum education, which turned out to be perfect for me in every way except one: there was very little archaeology. I ended up teaching and writing about the Tudors, Victorians and World Wars a lot. What archaeology there was in these topics was shunted aside by the overwhelming pile of historical documents and images.

But now (oh happy day!), archaeology is going to be taught in English museums in a big way. Not just as a fun add-on to a school’s day out, but as central to understanding the newest school topic in town: Changes in Britain from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.

Today I spent the afternoon at an event held by the Surrey Museums Engagement Officer Haidee Thomas at Brooklands Museum. Teachers and senior school leaders were asked along to find out how to embed the contribution of museums and cultural organisations into their planning in history, geography and the arts. I sought out the museums offering prehistoric resources, as did many teachers who are currently baffled by the requirement to teach 800,000 more years of history.

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Extract of the National Curriculum for England

The museums with prehistoric collections were creating handling boxes of real and replica Palaeolithic handaxes, Neolithic axes and arrowheads, Bronze Age palstaves, and Iron Age coins. It’s going to be amazing for kids to feel real ground stone axes, an original from Farnham Museum had been set in a new handle so kids could get an idea of how it was used. Elmbridge Museum had a real lava stone grinder in their handling box, which was clearly well used. Surrey Heritage’s box explores the production of a flint tool from the nodule to core, to flake and finished hafted tool. Chertsey Museum already runs archaeological digs in the museum and out at schools, and aims to create an Iron Age walk around Queen Anne’s Hill, which has a hillfort on it.

Comparing a broken original handaxe with a complete replica

Comparing a broken original handaxe with a complete replica

In a most interesting discussion with Farnham Museum, we tied learning about hunter-gatherers with the Forest School movement that is taking off in UK schools. Learning how to make fire, know what resources the natural world can provide, and what skills prehistoric people had as well as their rich cultural world can all be delivered alongside a Forest School programme.

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The best thing about the day was hearing from teachers and museums that teaching local prehistory was going to be high on everyone’s list. The wonderful thing about prehistory is because it was such a long period, there’s something found near everyone. Whether it’s a stray arrowhead that was found down the road, or the round barrow that’s up on the hill nearby, it ties archaeology in with children’s lived experiences. I can’t wait for the new academic year!