Day of Archaeology 2015 | Catching up with the past

Hi, I’m Spence, a freelance archaeologist in England who hovers between commercial fieldwork contracts, supporting community archaeology projects, analysing prehistoric lithics assemblages, and editing the odd journal (e.g. CBA Yorkshire). I’ve a penchant for the Mesolithic period and the intriguing transition to the Neolithic, especially in north-east England where, by the end of the summer, I’ll have thirteen new radiocarbon date determinations for ongoing research (and publication in due course) for the North York Moors; there’s only one recent one today. I’ll perhaps leave that for the 2016 DoA though I am giddy with excitement.


Marden Henge open day

Marden Henge open day

Like some other posts, today is not the usual—although the nature of free-lancing makes for a diverse suite of activities—since the weather is dire and I’m between commercial projects at the moment. That said, July has been a great month to visit some UK Festival of Archaeology events such as the exciting excavations by University of Reading at Marden Henge in Wiltshire. The bigger henge, located between Avebury, Durrington Walls and Stonehenge, is actually about ten times the size (area) of Stonehenge and offers students the chance to hone their fieldwork skills on an annual training excavation. I also managed to drop into the last season of excavations at Roman Binchester in County Durham—utterly astounding Roman archaeology. What’s great about all these events, whether excavations, museums, re-enactments, is the wonderful public turnout. For an archaeologist it’s also like “coming home to the family”, always with indulgence by the project teams who go out of their way to explain what’s happening and why.

Back to today, forward to the past

Lithics! We found evidence for at least Late Mesolithic-Early Neolithic activity (informal photo) with evidence too for Early Mesolithic activity in the direct catchment

So, oppressed by the weather (not that it would stop most commercial fieldwork), and a little under the weather, I’m catching up on a small project that saw field-walking with volunteers earlier in the year. What that means, indoors, is analysing and recording the lithics (mostly flint tools and debitage, and the odd bit of natural of course), their attributes, metrics, and taking photographs as part of a permanent record of what was recovered—both as part of our mini-project and by previous collectors and field-workers who have been generous enough to contribute their finds for recording as part of a cohesive archive.

Light and dark

One of the challenges is that I can’t readily, at this stage, reveal the location of the work. The farmers, like many in the region and nationally, have been plagued by folks who have walked their land without permission, removing finds that will never be publicly shared and so never inform us all about past activity in our region. It’s a place until now, a mix of upland and lowland, that has remained a relative ‘blank sheet’ in terms of evidence for human activity from the end of the last glacial period (Holocene) through prehistory and up to the post-medieval period. The landowners, while absolutely passionate about their interest in the archaeology of their area, are therefore sensitive about public dissemination that might encourage the less savoury activities  of  ‘treasure-hunters’, a minority of folk, who operate in the dark zone and never share their discoveries, even to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). Part of our project has been to work with the landowners to mitigate these sensitivities while both being able to feed back our findings to them as well as placing information in the Historic Environment Record (HER) in such a way as to inform future planning and conservation decisions and bona fide research.

Unashamed exploitation of pensioners: mam making flags

This is an area where there is a constant stream of developer applications that are increasingly invading the greenbelt, and so the accuracy of the HER is critical as part of the planning process. Needless to say, what we have found ourselves, together with previous as yet unrecorded fieldwork, does provide a narrative (remember the blank sheet) of human presence from at least the Late Mesolithic into the Neolithic and Bronze Age, pre-Roman Iron Age, Medieval period (12th-15th century pot) right up to the clay pipes, golf ball and a rather lurid red shower cap of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Our aim is to provide a framed finds-case with objects across ten thousand years of activity, a report for the landowners, an academic-quality report, a HER record submitted via OASIS, and an archive (paper, digital and finds) for the local archive-accepting museum (a rare thing these days). We’re mindful of how many finds—alluding to landowner sensitivities—are never recorded, and I know of very many in my research area. Our ‘blank sheet’ landscape is actually full of activity, and risk!

Methods and standards

Line-walking at 2m intervals, flagging all finds: “if in doubt, bag it”

What we did achieve, by way of best practice in fieldwork (here fieldwalking) is 100% coverage of two very large lowland fields, after ploughing and weathering. Line-based fieldwalking at 2m intervals saw the flagging-and-bagging of finds and then their recording with GPS and Total Station to 3D centimetre accuracy and plumbed into the OS National Grid. We can now see clusters of lithics, for example, that might—with permissions of course—merit some further activity such as test-pitting and, in a semi-wetland context, environmental sampling.

Fashionable surveying courtesy of our friends at Solstice Heritage

Unfortunately, the previous fieldwork was on the look-out for later prehistoric and Romano-British material and didn’t have the recording resolution of our current work. Hence, things like prehistoric lithics have only been recording by a general field-location or Grid Reference (albeit with “clusters” of finds noted). We’re now able to place those observations into a far more detailed record using GIS mapping. Moreover, and based on future potential, we can look confidently at new research questions and fieldwork activities that will add a richness to the ‘blank sheet’ where, in reality, every period is attested. How we do archive and communicate that, without encouraging the ‘dark side’, is an interesting journey. What we have done I hope, by way of example in the whole project planning and participation—from research aims through to archive and dissemination—is encourage the well-meaning fieldworkers in our area to buy-in to the benefits of systematic recording and, with our greenbelt at such risk, the importance of placing finds at least into the HER database.

Upland espionage


The spoils of flinters

While well-meaning fieldwork in agricultural areas can see the removal of all or some of the archaeological record without sufficent recording (often only recorded by field and resulting in massive private collections), we’ve a few shady characters who operate in the uplands (moorlands) too—the flinters. Sometimes, but rarely, and by involvement in systematically-conducted fieldwork projects, it is possible to convince these folks of the importance of good recording, expert oversight, or even leaving their finds where they are. Whatever is encountered is always going to be a sample of a sample of a sample. However, the unrecorded removal of artefacts—often cherry-picking the choice pieces in the case of lithics—prevents us even being able to characterise what might be going on, archaeologically. Leaving a small mound of debitage, having removed ‘nice bits’, and doing so without landowner permission, is still all too common.

One message?

If I have one message, as part of this year’s Day of Archaeology, it is to try convince everybody that, beyond the legal aspects of doing anything on somebody else’s land:

  • Our Heritage is ultimately shared, very fragile and loses meaning if it doesn’t have context
  • Understanding our local human past helps build a Shared Narrative
  • That our shared narrative supports a Sense of Place for a community, in space and in time, a value of Our Place
  • That value in Our Heritage makes Our Place attractive to live in, visit, invest in, develop and protect
  • Offers opportunities for Community participation, at any interest level, in projects and activities, and a sense of Wellbeing

Happy Day of Archaeology!

Mesolithic Spence

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