English Heritage

Archaeology at Tintagel… on the edge of a cliff!

[I begin with two things – a confession and an apology. Firstly, the day I’ve chosen to describe in my Day of Archaeology isn’t actually the 29 July – as that day I was happily walking the south-west coast path and sitting on a beach in Cornwall. So I’ll be describing my day on Tuesday 26 July instead. Secondly, apologies as it’s being posted so late – the holiday is the reason for that too!]

Tuesday wasn’t a typical day in my role as Senior Properties Historian at English Heritage, but as I struggle to describe a typical day that’s nothing unusual. The day was spent at Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, where there are currently excavations being carried out by Cornwall Archaeology Unit, on our behalf. I drove down in the morning to meet a couple of TV crews – one from BBC Spotlight and another from the ITV local news, who had both been invited to cover the story of the excavations. After re-reading our press release and having a quick chat with our PR manager, I gave a couple of interviews about why we were carrying out the project, and took the crews up to the excavations to meet the archaeologists and show them the site.

Looking across to Tintagel Castle headland from the mainland.

Looking across to Tintagel Castle headland from the mainland.

I’ve been involved with Tintagel Castle for a couple of years, working on a complete overhaul of the interpretation and visitor information on site, alongisde various improvements to the cafe, shop and ticket points. We installed a new permanent exhibition in the visitor centre in 2015, and added a range of interpretation panels and artistic installations to the site at Easter 2016. My role was to carry out the historical and archaeological research, write the text, commission the reconstructions and models, and also to work alongside artists and interpretation colleagues to deliver the rest of the project.

The new exhibition at Tintagel installed in 2015.

The new exhibition at Tintagel installed in 2015.

So, what are we doing now at Tintagel? This is the first year of a five year research project which aims to find out more about the early medieval (post-Roman) settlement on the site. Occupied between the 5th and 7th centuries AD, this extraordinary defended site had somewhere in the region of 100 buildings scattered across the headland. It was linked to a trading network connecting it to the Mediterranean world – more imported amphora and fine tablewares, as well as fine glasswares, have been found at Tintagel than anywhere else in western Europe. We assume that this was an elite, possibly royal settlement, occupied perhaps by the rulers of the kingdom of Dumnonia. But there is much that we don’t understand – when exactly was the site occupied? What sort of activities were being carried out on site? Was it a seasonal settlement? What did the buildings look like? Were they stores, workshops or houses? Although excavations took place at Tintagel in the 1930s by C. A. Raleigh Radford, this was largely clearance work to display the building remains to the public and many of the records were lost when Radford’s Exeter house was bombed in the Second World War. A small amount of work was carried out in the 1990s by Glasgow University but it was restricted to the area already disturbed by Radford.

Site C, a range of buildings excavated by Radford in the 1930s and again by Glasgow University in the 1990s.

Site C, a range of buildings excavated by Radford in the 1930s and again by Glasgow University in the 1990s.

Cornwall Archaeology Unit (CAU) have been commissioned to carry out this research work which involves two seasons of excavations, plus post-ex analysis and publication following. This year’s archaeological work is an evaluation of two key areas of the site to establish the nature of the post-Roman remains and to identify one of the two areas for more in-depth archaeological work next year. The two areas were chosen as they were likely to preserve good archaeological stratigraphy and were undisturbed by medieval activity or later archaeological work. The first area is on the southern terrace where a small trench was opened as part of the Extreme Archaeology series in about 2003 – remember that? It had some dramatic footage of Alice Roberts dangling off a rope but actually the terrace is very accessible and not that scary to work on! The second area is on the eastern terraces, not far from the visitor steps up to the chapel area of the headland.

Whilst the TV crews were filming the archaeology and interviewing colleagues, I had a chance to look at the trenches for the first time. As I write the excavations are still ongoing, but early results look very interesting, with walls and areas of paving, and lots of finds including amphora fragments and pieces of glass.

Staff and volunteers from CAU hard at work in one of the southern terrace trenches.

Staff and volunteers from CAU hard at work in one of the southern terrace trenches.

Once the media interviews were over, I went up to the mainland courtyard to check on the set up for my talk to visitors. We have been hosting events for our visitors all week to tie into the excavations – regular talks from the site team in the morning and then a programme of talks from different specialists in the afternoon, as well as hands-on activities for children. Various staff and volunteers from CAU have also been on hand to talk to visitors about the archaeology at the trench edge. Of course, this is one of the busiest times of year being the summer holidays, so it takes quite a bit of time to get up and down the steps to the headland due to the sheer numbers of people – this narrow and steep route is the only way on and off the castle, at least for the time being!

My talk is entitled ‘Tintagel: where history meets legend’ which is also the title of the exhibition. I’m trying to explain to visitors how history and legend at Tintagel are completely intertwined – you can’t understand one without the other. My audience is typical for Tintagel visitors at this time of year – lots of families, children and a few attentive dogs. I try to explain how the site has became attached to the tradition of King Arthur and also introduce them to the other key legend at the site – the love story of Tristan and Iseult, and weave in the history of the site too. They all listen wonderfully and then I get lots of questions about the castle, the archaeology project and King Arthur. Various people come up afterwards to ask more questions about the site, including one teenager who wanted advice on becoming an archaeologist.

After a late lunch, I head back up to the castle to see how the panels and installations were being received by visitors – it is lovely to stand near a panel that you have written and hear people read it out to their children and see them engage with the sculptures and reconstructions.

An interpretation panel at Tintagel Castle

Visitors reading one of our new interpretation panels near the Great Hall. This one has the remains of a medieval feast in bronze on the top.

I also wanted to take some more photographs of the archaeology in action and speak to the volunteers. We had been planning to have lots of social media coverage but unfortunately broadband has been down at Tintagel for several days and there is no mobile signal, making it difficult to upload posts! Luckily one of the volunteers is a dab hand with photogrammetry and has made some brilliant 3D models of the trenches. He is also happily filming everyone with a handheld camcorder for the BBC’s Digging for Britain.

Unexpectedly I have a spare morning before my second talk to visitors tomorrow afternoon, and my offer to help in the trenches is seized upon by the team – luckily I have packed my trowel. It’s not often I get to actually do real archaeology – this will be a first in 11 years in the job!

Planning the trench - what a view!

Planning the second trench on the southern terrace – what a view!


In some corners of England….

An important thing needs to be said on this Day of Archaeology…. Archaeology means many things to many people. Its birth and life-blood lie in an area of the world currently riven by conflict. As I write there is news that monuments are being destroyed in Syria and Iraq and once again bombs are falling on Gaza. More than just damage to sites, innocent people are dying…there is no justification for this. I fervently hope that at least the international community of archaeologists, of all creeds, race and nationality can work peacefully together, recognising and celebrating our common humanity.


Bombs falling on Gaza

In previous years I have been away for the ‘Day of Archaeology’ – Bulgaria in 2012 and Norway last year. But for most of this year so far, I have been in the UK working for English Heritage….and lots of interesting things have been happening as well. So this time round I want to mention some of the archaeological avenues and alleyways I have recently travelled ….

Firstly I presented my Masters dissertation back in January. It seemed to be a long time in the planning but relatively brief in the time it took to actually write and illustrate. It will be a Christmas and New Year that I will never get back, but overall fairly painless. My theme was the use of GIS as a primary recording tool in archaeology.


The main thrust of my thesis was a discussion of the use of digital archaeological recording systems, in particular the Intrasis programme developed by the Swedish Antiquities board. The system is used widely in Scandinavia and by English Heritage in the UK. I used some examples from recent field work I have carried out, to compare and contrast digital data collection with more traditional (and largely) analogue practices. I also looked at some of the reasons given by archaeological professionals who expressed resistance to adopting digital methods. Basically my conclusions were that we should wholly embrace digital methods, but that there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Analogue methods are tried and tested and in some circumstances more practical in both application and efficiency. Archaeology should embrace the best of both methodologies.


Use of traditional and digital recording methods

Fortunately my examiners deemed it sufficient. (I should add that other digital recording systems are available, but none that are as well advanced and practiced as Intrasis).

The first part of my English Heritage year was spent writing a publication draft for an intended monograph on archaeological work carried out at Chiswick House, London over the past 30 years.


Chiswick House London

This was an interesting project trying to tie together a lot of different projects by a number of different archaeological contractors (not just English Heritage). The publication follows a programme of archaeological excavations in 2008 and 2009, undertaken as part of the Chiswick House and Grounds regeneration scheme, a project funded by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. The publication project will hopefully come to a successful end in 2015…for now my work is largely completed.

The opportunity to work for English Heritage means I am nominally based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, a late 18th defensive fort guarding the mouth of the Solent and the Royal Navy dockyard at Portsmouth.


English Heritage offices at Fort Cumberland Portsmouth

The archaeology departments of English Heritage and its predecessor organisations have been based here since the 1970s. Weekends give me the chance to explore some of my earliest memories of Portsmouth (I lived here as a child) and also to follow the up and down progress of my favourite soccer team (Portsmouth FC or Pompey). Fort Cumberland is a huge site only fragments of which are in use by the English Heritage archaeology team. Occasionally bits fall off the old buildings and occasionally older parts of the site are uncovered……


A recently uncovered 19th century gun emplacement on the outer edge of Fort Cumberland

In March I had the opportunity to get out of the office and do a bit of field work with an English Heritage team at Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire. Archaeological work has been ongoing on at Whitby for most of the last 3 decades and this small excavation led by Tony Willmott was intended to answer a few questions that earlier works had thrown up. In particular the uncovering of a stone founded structure in the middle of the Anglian cemetery, that may be the remains of an early chapel.


Stone founded structure in the middle of the Anglian cemetery, Whitby

…..Whitby is a very evocative site, especially in the fog..


Whitby Abbey in a sea fog

There has been some speculation in recent months in both the archaeological and UK national press as to whether there are enough professional archaeologists currently available to meet the challenge of imminent superstructure projects (the HS2 rail link in particular). At Whitby we bucked the trend completely in that regard, where the accumulated archaeological experience of our 10 person crew exceeded 300 years!! And I wasn’t even in the top 5 !!


Several centuries of archaeological experience in a single trench at Whitby


The famous English Heritage site teapot….if enamel could talk that teapot could tell a tale or tw

Virtually straight after Whitby I was back in the field on another EH project, this time  in West Wiltshire. This was part of the National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS), a project where we were undertaking archaeological evaluation on features recognised by aerial photography and map survey.


West Wilts archaeology

I won’t go into detail about this project as its results are still being analysed, (My Day of Archaeology work is looking at records from the excavations right now)…. other than to say that it gave the opportunity to look at the number of different period and type sites to the west of Salisbury Plain. It has been intensive but interesting work. It clearly got all too much for one digger who admitted that he had dreamt I was assaulting him with a wheelbarrow, something that would be highly unlikely to happen in real life….


What do archaeologists dream about? Wheelbarrows as instruments of abuse apparently….

…Being out in Wiltshire for the past 10 weeks gave me the opportunity to wear another EH hat and act as a steward for the summer Solstice celebration at Stonehenge. English Heritage allow free access to the stones over the night of the Solstice and within reason folk are able to pretty do as they wish providing of course that it doesn’t affect the monument or its setting.


Celebrating the solstice Stonehenge, June 2014

It was great fun and I recommend it to anyone (Not least as it saves you the cost of an extremely expensive entry ticket to Stonehenge)….

…who knows where next years blog will come from. I am returning to Wiltshire in a couple of weeks to assist on a university field school, but after that….?


A Life in a Day

Last year I quit my job in the city, moved back home, and made the decision to move back into archaeology. It was a very difficult decision to make as I had to give up the life I was used to in London, but I feel it was the right one. I’m very passionate about community archaeology, and I believe it is important for people to be aware of the landscape and history around them as this helps to increase the understanding of their heritage and identity. I also believe that so many skills can be gained through participation, both practical and personal.

When I first left my job I was so nervous I’d be unable to find any volunteer roles, and I’d be sitting around not working at all. How wrong I was! I’ve been very lucky to be involved in a range of amazing projects and the experience I’ve gained has been invaluable.

As my main interest is community archaeology I tried to focus on getting experience in that, both in how community archaeology works behind the scenes, and general experience of working with the public. I’ve been involved in a range of projects over the last few months. Rather than focus on one day, I’m going to give an overview of each of them, along with a link to their websites so you can find out more.

The first place I got involved in at the beginning of the year was the Portable Antiquities Scheme. My nearest branch is in Winchester, with the Winchester Museums Service. I had experience working with finds on excavations, but I rarely got to see anything other than pottery and animal bones, so the experience has been so important. The scheme is a funded project to record archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Most of the finds are bought in by metal detectorists, but not all. It has been really successful in encouraging good practice in finders and land owners, and many finds have been recorded on the database, including the location of where they were found. I am one of the many volunteers round the country who help to photograph and record these finds. I feel very fortunate to be able to handle these items, and learn more about them.


Photographing worked flint 


Editing the image on the computer, ready to put on the database

As well as recording items, I’ve also been on training courses during my time with the PAS. I’ve had a day course on Roman coins at the British Museum, and a really interesting session on Roman brooches, and the different types. The Portable Antiquities Website is: http://finds.org.uk

I then got involved at Stonehenge, signing up to be a Neolithic House Interpreter. I took all the training, and then the opportunity came up to work on building the houses too. It was a fantastic experience, as it really gave me insight into how these buildings could have been built originally and the range of materials available. It was great to look at the archaeological evidence from Durrington Walls, and really think about how these buildings were first built, and how they were used. I also really enjoyed daubing, using a mixture of chalk, water and straw to cover the walls, it’s very therapeutic! The houses were built under the guidance of the Ancient Technology Centre, more information can be found here – http://www.ancienttechnologycentre.co.uk


Putting the daub onto one of the Neolithic Houses

The volunteers have also received training on fire training (very important in a house made of wood and straw!), bread making, flint knapping, and clothing and organic materials. This is so beneficial and has really helped when speaking to visitors onsite.


As the houses only opened at the beginning of June, I’ve only done a few sessions as a house interpreter, but the knowledge gained on the building of the houses has really benefited. I feel I can really explain to the public about how the houses were created. I’m also very proud of the houses and the team that worked on them, they are beautiful structures. More information can be found on the Neolithic Houses blog – http://neolithichouses.wordpress.com 


These are the two main projects I’ve been involved in, but I’ve also had the odd day here and there. I helped to survey the roof of Hampton Court Palace, which was a bit scary balancing on the wooden beams! I’ve also done some work with the East Oxford Project helping to sort finds from test pits, and attending a really interesting pottery weekend run by Paul Blinkhorn. I additionally spent a day in the Natural History Museum in Oxford moving small mammal skulls, and repacking them into more suitable containers!


Balancing on a beam in the dark Hampton Court attic!

So, although I’d absolutely love a proper paid secure job (it’s exhausting fitting in the babysitting and gardening!) I feel very privileged to be involved in all these projects, which is why I wanted to write about all of them. There is such a range of work going on around the country, and it’s very exciting.


Now where did I put that data?

For someone who has been tasked with helping my team improve how we look after the data from our archaeological research, it’s a sad state of affairs that I just spent a half hour trying to find my Day of Archaeology login details. As I failed to take part last year; this means a small piece of information from just 2 short years ago was nearly lost for good. Not necessarily the most important piece of data, but it does go to show that if you do not look after data at best you waste time trying to find it, and at worst it will be lost for good. Repeating research is not a luxury that archaeologists typically have; usually it is impossible (you can’t re-dig a site), and even if you could it’s not cost effective to pay to do the work twice, so we have to make sure we are looking after it and when the time comes others can use it.

So until I spent a half hour looking for my password and login details, this is what I’ve spent most of my Day of Archaeology doing.

Our project is called Archaeological Data Archiving Protocol (ADAPt), my organisation English Heritage likes its acronyms (the less said about that the better). However, as acronyms go ADAPt is a pretty appropriate name as it is what we need to have happen. We can no longer count on our archives team to just swoop in at the end of projects and pull it together into a sensible set of files and collection of boxes to be submitted with a report to the local museum. In the digital age data management and care must be a shared responsibility from the beginning of all of research by the whole team.

I hope I’ve convinced you; now just to convince the rest of my team to do the work, on top of all of their other responsibilities.

Wish me luck,


It’s not all glamorous – some of us drink our tea in offices, not trenches

I am a cliche. I got into archaeology because of Indiana Jones and because I liked to visit old castles when I was a kid, running round pretending I was a knight or some such.

After undertaking a degree in the subject at University, I quickly learned my image of archaeology was wrong; however the fiery passion that was ignited in my youth, based on intrigue, adventure and imagination stayed with me, and I learnt that the reality of archaeology and heritage could be just as exciting, only in different ways.

I imagine many of today’s posts will be about muddy boots, interesting fieldwork using new technologies and amazing finds (or rather mundane finds as is often the case!). There are however a fair amount of us who would describe ourselves as archaeologists that never set foot in the field (basically because we just dont like getting dirty – something else I discovered at university!)

I currrently work as a Training Delivery Officer in the Capacity Building Team at English Heritage and our aim is to provide the heritage sector with the knowledge, information and skills needed to better understand, protect and manage our heritage. So whilst I am, for the most part, office-bound, I like to think it is for a worthy cause!

Today I have been working on two separate, but not unrelated, tasks.

Firstly, part of my job involves co-ordinating English Heritage’s programme of collaborative PhDs. One of the main schemes we are involved in is the Collaborative Doctoral Partnerships (CDP) scheme and offers a small number of AHRC funded studentships that are jointly supervised by a specialist member of English Heritage (EH) staff and an academic from a UK university.

Offering collaborative doctoral awards gives students the possibility to combine academic work with the acquisition of practical skills and work experience outside the university context. It also provides us with focused research advancing the protection of the historic environment and heritage through the National Heritage Protection Plan (NHPP).

CDP projects we have offered have covered a diverse range of topics, with titles such as: “Defining the Potential of Ploughzone Lithic Scatters for Interpretation of the Final Palaeolithic and Mesolithic Landscape”, to “Interpreting loss of data from metal artefact decay (rates, reasons and conservation management implications)” to “Religious Heritage in Transition: Sikh Places of Worship in England”.

This morning I have been writing up notes from a meeting I attended yesterday with a Consortium of CDP holding organisations where we discussed, amongst other things, the joint specialist training programme we are running for CDP students across the country, as well as hearing from the AHRC on the future of the scheme.
You can find out about EH’s collaborative research opportunities on our website: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/training-and-skills/work-based-training/collaborativeresearch/

The bulk of the day so far however has been spent with a colleague in our National Planning and Conservation department designing a training course that is aimed particularly at Heritage Champions and other elected Members in Local Authorities, to really get them to understand some of the key concepts around managing our heritage; and identifying and developing practical exercises for them to get to grips with how these are applied in the real world. This course will form part of the HELM training programme, which is a Capacity Building programme aimed at decision makers in local authorities, regional agencies and national organisations whose actions affect the historic environment. You can find out more about EHs training offer on our website http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/training-and-skills/

Probing, Plans, and Palaces – Archaeology in Archival Research

Last year was the first time I took part in Day of Archaeology. I was three weeks into my new position at English Heritage. Although I hadn’t fully learned the ins and outs of what I was going to be doing, I was so excited to have managed to not only to bag a job within the historic environment sector, but with English Heritage! Fast-forward a year and my enthusiasm still hasn’t waived – I still love doing research, learning new things about the history of England, and vastly improving my knowledge of the Geography of Great Britain. Furthermore, I still feel immensely pleased with myself for managing to not only get a job in the field I studied, but a one I enjoy doing.

I still however, get told that it “must be a shame not to do a job in what you studied – but at least you got such a good job…” much to my annoyance. So here I am, one year on, doing Day of Archaeology to tell everyone what I do, and convince them that while I may not get muddy, survey buildings, or go out in the field, my role is just as relevant in archaeology.

English Heritage Archive N060669

Figure 1: In the archival holdings (© English Heritage)

I work in the archive, and undertake research for the public and am the first point of contact. Our archive holds information on historic buildings and archaeological sites throughout England. We have over 12 million items in our special archival facility in Swindon, ranging from architectural, aerial and archaeological photographic collections to our historic plans and measured drawings.

Wharram Percy Medieval Village N070612

Figure 2: One of the many aerial photographs in the archive – Wharram Percy (© English Heritage)

My day starts like any other day in an office – checking and responding to emails, turning on the phones for the morning (as we deal with members of the public), and getting our public search room ready for visitors. A big part of my day is undertaking research of our archival holdings for a range of clients, ranging members of the public or heritage professionals to people from the media. Whether searching for someone’s house, searching for plans of a particular English Heritage property, or searching for vast cathedrals or public buildings, one day is always different from another.

Today for example, I am looking for photographs of the Palace of Westminster. These are the type of enquiries I enjoy, as we tend to have quite a lot of material and as a result is something I can get my teeth into. I also love looking at sites like this because of the large collection of 19th century photographs we hold in the archive. I love looking at old photographs, as they are like snapshots frozen in time. So much history has been lost, and to have so much of it captured in a single picture never ceases to amaze me. As we continue to make a photographic record of the historic environment, I enjoy looking at the record of the past as well as capturing new ones because we can learn so much.

BL05552 Westminster Hall, 1885

Figure 3: One of the reasons I love historical photographs – Palace of Westminster c.1885 (Reproduced by Permission of English Heritage).

My day in archaeology does not end at simply researching in my position at English Heritage – I am also Secretary for the Institute for Archaeology’s Buildings Archaeology Group, which I volunteered for to keep up my knowledge of Buildings Archaeology (which is what I studied for my postgraduate). During my tea and lunch breaks, and on my daily commute I spend my time tweeting from the BAG twitter feed and organising the committee. Usually I am organising the meetings by typing minutes or agendas, but today I am helping to coordinate training events and our session for the next IfA conference. I am also trawling the internet for buildings archaeology in the news, ready for our upcoming newsletter.

So this is my day in archaeology; probably not as muddy as others, but equally fascinating and I’m looking forward to many more to come…


(Note: the words, thoughts, and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent any organizations mentioned in this post.)

Busman’s holiday?

Last year when I posted for the DOA I was on holiday and this year I am… on holiday again. This implies that I have a lot of time off but the reality is that this is just pure coincidence. Plus things have changed for me, a lot, in the past year. A year ago I worked jointly between local government and academia: now I am solely employed by the government heritage agency English Heritage. A year ago I mostly worked on archaeological sites; now I work on sites ‘across the asset range’ as they say, from prehistoric monuments to post-war office buildings, and everything in-between. A year ago I was also living a quiet [ish] life with my wife; now I have a lively and noisy 3 month old baby girl.

Anyhow, on this DOA I was actually on a busman’s holiday – i.e. a holiday that seemed a lot like work at times. My parents came to visit their granddaughter and we decided to go and visit the new Cutty Sark Museum in Greenwich, somewhere that I have long been meaning to visit since it re-opened in 2012 but had yet to get round to. It was a busman’s holiday because it touched upon many of the issues that I deal with daily in my job in English Heritage’s designation department: ultimately it involved questions of significance, authenticity and public engagement. The poor old Cutty Sark has had a hard time over its life – most recently, when a fire caused major damage in 2007. Since that time the vessel has been painstaking repaired and a new museum created around its dry-dock in Greenwich, to much public interest but intense critical debate. The historic ships people have questioned the ‘repairs’ to the old, and extremely badly damaged vessel – asking questions about its authenticity when so much of the original vessel has been lost and ‘repaired’ with new, and also asking questions about its new supporting latticework that lifts the ship to hang in mid-air and support its weight. Meanwhile, the architectural people have questioned the ‘greenhouse’ surrounding the lower decks of the ship, protecting it from the environment while allowing easier access and interpretation – their views have not been kind in many cases, comparing the new museum as akin to a suburban greenhouse at the gentlest and calling it cultural vandalism – this is within a World Heritage Site don’t forget – at the harshest. The museums people have then had a go as well, questioning every aspect of the display and interpretation of the ship, and especially its balance of use of space, airing, inevitably, worries about commercialisation – i.e. too much shop and cafe, not enough museum?

My opinion? Well, I went with trepidation, fearing that I’d dislike a lot of what I was about to see, hence the delay in visiting (I live less than an hour away so have little excuse), but I really enjoyed myself. Partly, this was the company: my wife and daughter and my parents. And I *do* take the points of the architectural critics on board: from the outside in particular the greenhouse protecting the ship is ungainly at best and makes it hard to appreciate the fine lines of the ship. But the pragmatist in me is aware that the ship *had* to be better protected from the elements or face total loss (something that at the time of the fire in 2007 I actually thought would be the best solution – let the poor ship ‘die’ in the fire after a long and dramatic life and be done with it). Moreover, once inside the museum, I was really impressed – a good balance of information for all ages and interests; a lot to see and do (i’ll be back once my daughter is older, 3+ at least, to have a proper explore with her); and a good balance of museum and commerce – including what has to be the most dramatic cafe in all of the London museums – and what’s wrong with a nicely air-conditioned museum cafe asks this new dad for one? And most importantly, as an archaeologist, I was impressed at how the ‘hanging’ of the ship on its supporting latticework really worked as an educational tool. You get to see inside and also right outside of the ship from all angles, something that no other historic ship museum that I know of currently enables. To be able to stand right under the keel and bows of this incredible racehorse of the seas and appreciate her impossibly fine lines – more akin to those of a racing yacht than a cargo vessel – is genuinely awe-inspring, and heritage needs to inspire all of the awe it can muster in these current troubling times…

Archaeology for all

The 2013 Day of Archaeology falls within the 2013 Festival of Archaeology, run across the United Kingdom by the Council for British Archaeology. This year we have had even more events run by even more organisers, and we have reached out to even more people, particularly via the extensive media campaign which runs alongside the Festival. In fact on the Day of Archaeology our day starts very early with a slot on the BBC Radio 4 Farming Today programme as part of a theme running all week. In my interview, broadcast earlier in the week, in my role as the Director of the CBA I was able to promote the key role that farmers have as stewards of the historic environment on their land.

Having just got back from spending two long days in south Wales at the launch of the Cadw Community Archaeology Framework at Castell Coch, and at a meeting of the Welsh Culture Minister’s Historic Environment Group, it would have been useful to spend a day in the CBA office in York, but I was scheduled to head down to meetings in London. Covering the whole UK, as the CBA endeavours to do, means a lot of travel and increasingly means dealing with diverging heritage systems and legislation in each part of the UK.

On the Day of Archaeology itself, I first had a lunchtime meeting in London with Kate Pugh, the Chief Executive of The Heritage Alliance, to discuss the future business of the National Heritage Protection Plan Advisory Board, which I chair. The coming year will be particularly important for the Plan as the initial five year Plan runs to 2015 and we’ll need to start consultations about a new iteration of the Plan for the period after that, with the added complication of the proposals to restructure English Heritage kicking in around the same time. Hopefully the Plan is becoming increasingly embedded within the sector with an increasing number of organisations developing action plans  to map their activities on to the Plan’s measures.

After lunch, both Kate and I headed over to the offices of English Heritage in Waterhouse Square, for an informal consultation session on the plans for the future of EH. This was a very helpful session, prior to the launch of the formal consultation in September, and we were briefed by senior colleagues from EH on the proposals and given an opportunity to ask questions and share our initial thoughts which will guide the shape of the consultation and the new structures which will emerge.

On the train home it was a chance to catch up with all the emails that pour in every hour of every day (it seems!) and plan for the weekend ahead, attending a committee meeting of CBA North in Newcastle on the Saturday morning, and then heading over to Hadrian’s Wall and a visit to Escomb Saxon Church on the way back to York.

Archaeology for All – the vision of the Council for British Archaeology – is a fully inclusive, diverse, 24 hour a day operation!


Uncovering the Mysteries of a Bronze Age Burial

This is the second year Wiltshire Conservation Service has taken part in Day of Archaeology. This year I thought I’d blog about the work I’ve been doing on an amazing Bronze Age cist burial.

The burial cist was excavated in August 2011and was located on Whitehorse Hill, northern Dartmoor, on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.   The work was carried out by archaeologists from the Historic Environment Projects Team, Cornwall Council, led by Andrew Jones, with assistance from English Heritage (EH) and Plymouth University specialists.

Cist in situ

The cist was first discovered over 10 years ago when what appeared to be its end stone fell out of the peat mound which had been concealing it.   Since that time the peat has slowly eroded away from the sides and the top of the peat mound and after several attempts to protect the cist, a Scheduled Monument, the decision was taken by the Dartmoor National Park Authority and English Heritage to excavate it in order to recover any surviving archaeological and environmental information before the site and its context were lost.  This was the first excavation of a Dartmoor cist for nearly one hundred years.

During the late afternoon, three days into the excavation, the stones of the cist were dismantled and the large cover stone (measuring 0.8 x 0.6m) removed.  This revealed a burial deposit lying in situ on the base stone of the cist. Visible remains included bone fragments, a shale bead and what appeared to be hair or fur. Two sharpened wooden stakes were also discovered outside the cist, one lying horizontally against one of the side walls and the other still vertically placed into the peat against one of the end stones.

Located within peat at 600m altitude on one of Dartmoor’s highest tors, the cist offered high potential for good preservation of any remaining contents. It was at this point that I was contacted to carry out a microexcavation of the cist – little did I know the extent of what would be found inside!

The level of preservation inside the cist has been fantastic and the objects I have found have far exceeded all our expectations. The occupant of the grave was cremated and the bone wrapped inside an animal pelt. Grave goods include a woven band with tin rivets, a basketry bag containing a flint, two sets of wooden studs and nearly 200 shale, amber and tin beads. There is also an object made from leather and woven plant material which is so far proving to be a bit of a mystery. The craftsmanship that has gone into making these objects is pretty mindblowing and it is clear that their owner was someone of importance.

Back of woven bag (flipped over)

The project team are gathering the results of analysis that has been carried out and we hope to be able to share the results later on this year. Of particular interest is DNA analysis of the pelt, which we hope will reveal the species of the animal skin used to wrap the cremation. Meanwhile, I have been working on the conservation of the objects which is still ongoing. Today I’ll be working on cleaning and consolidating the woven band and checking on the pelt, which is being dried under controlled conditions.

Removing fur-hide layer2

The project has provided an opportunity not only to try and discover who the occupant of the grave might have been, but to also give a unique insight into life in the Early Bronze Age and I am extremely privileged to have been involved. The objects will be going on display at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in 2014 so check their website for more details www.plymouthmuseum.gov.uk. I’ll also be posting updates on Twitter @helenwcons and on our blog www.wshc.eu/blog.

The project was jointly funded by the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and English Heritage, with contributions from a number of other local funders.

Writing About Bones

Although we are zooarchaeologists, not a single archaeological animal bone has passed across our desks this week! Instead we’ve been working on sector support projects. Today we have been working on the Animal Bones and Archaeology Guidelines. This is one of the English Heritage guidelines for best practice in archaeological science, which we will be publishing in 2013. The Guidelines will provide advice about how to ensure that due consideration is given to the information potential, recovery and analysis of animal bones from archaeological projects, from the start of a project to final archiving of animal bones, and publication. It covers general project management, field and laboratory procedures (sampling, assessment, analysis and archiving of animal bones), and general methodological (for example, taxonomic identification or biometry) and specialist taxonomic sections (eg. small mammals and amphibians, bird bones, fish). The specialist sections have been written by colleagues working in a range of universities, and archaeological units, along with some sections we’ve written ourselves. They have all now mostly been submitted and we are beavering away on management and procedural sections. We are planning on holding a preliminary review of the Guidelines at the next PZG (Professional Zooarchaeology Group) meeting planned for Saturday, July 14th, so working hard to get it all pulled together in time!

English Heritage Environmental Archaeology Guidelines Cover

The ‘Animal Bones and Archaeology’ guidelines will be part of the series of English Heritage guidelines for archaeological science.

For us the PZG is one of the highlights of our role within zooarchaeology. It’s an interest group, which we’ve helped coordinate from its inception about seven years ago. It now has about 80 members, all animal bone specialists working in the commercial, academic and public sectors (have a look here if you’d like further information on the group). We meet twice a year to study a particular topic, often taught by members themselves, with anywhere from around 15 to 25 members attending. The meetings consist of seminars and practical hands-on work, short presentations of particular case studies, of work recently completed or in progress by members (employer agreement permitting!), and we also hold a mini taxonomic workshop, during which we review the identification criteria for distinct taxa and run blind tests, just to keep us on our toes!

Photograph of three shetland rams

Shetland rams at Lerwick Market, photographed by Sebastian Payne

We are hosting the forthcoming PZG, so another of today’s tasks was administration and planning for the meeting. Its taxonomic workshop will focus on distinguishing sheep and goats’ bones and teeth – they are more similar than you might think! Over the years, focused studies have identified several criteria, which can tell them apart, so today we have been compiling worksheets which draw together relevant references that we’ll use at the workshop to test out the criteria on some our reference skeletons. In the afternoon of the meeting we’re planning a visit to the Iron Age farm at Butser, where Peter Reynolds originally set up different experiments in Iron Age husbandry.  We’ll have a tour of the structures and activities, and in the evening Butser is also holding the Lughnasa festival.  Who says you can’t combine work and play!