Really, really, really, really old stuff!

This is the third time I’ve taken part in the ‘Day of Archaeology’, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so please do take a look at my previous blogs “Day in the life of a HERO” and “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Suffice it to say, I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer for Leicestershire County Council – for more information do look at the Leicestershire & Rutland HER page on our website!

I have started off today by thinking about the Palaeolithic. I think it’s fair to say that the Palaeolithic doesn’t come up all that often in archaeology. There are chance finds of Palaeolithic date – such as hand axes that are found in fields – but there aren’t a lot of sites, as such. To find the Palaeolithic you usually have to dig quite a big hole, since it’s usually deeply buried!

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that on the HER we have a list of period dates, and it seems that the Palaeolithic ones are painfully inadequate. (I attended an HER meeting this week and it was brought up there). In the East Midlands Research Framework (2012), which you can download here, it gives the following periods and dates (kya means ‘thousand years ago’):

Period 1: Cromerian and Intra-Anglian (950-450 kya)

Period 2: Pre-Levallois (450-250 kya)

Period 3: Levallois (250-150 kya)

Period 4: Mousterian (60-40 kya) -> Neanderthals!

Period 5a: Early Upper Palaeolithic (40-27 kya) -> Modern Humans

Period 5b: Late Upper Palaeolithic (13,000-9,500 BC)

Now, I don’t know about you, but dates of 950,000 years ago kind of blow my mind! The gaps in the chronology, by the way, indicate glaciation periods when no-one lived here (the most recent being the Dimlington Stadial).

There are a few Palaeolithic sites that have been investigated in recent times in Leicestershire/Rutland, all from different periods, and all very different in character. The earliest is at Brooksby, then there’s one at Glaston, and also Bradgate Park.

Activity on the River Bytham, at Brooksby Quarry (Period 1)
HER Ref. No. MLE21117

Something this old really does make your brain hurt when specialists start talking about it. There are all sorts of mysterious scientific analyses that can be carried out. It’s just so ancient! These weren’t humans like us. They were making tools from stone, not flint.

Brooksby Quarry

Brooksby Quarry

The River Bytham was a huge river that flowed west from Lowestoft, along which humans may have travelled into Britain. It has left behind sand and gravel deposits that are now being quarried, giving us a brilliant opportunity to learn about this period of time.

So far hundreds of artefacts have been recovered by ULAS, many of which are very fresh and don’t seem to have travelled far. These include cores and flakes made from local quartzite pebbles. Early humans must have been living alongside the river and making tools, which is pretty exciting!

Hyena den at Glaston, Rutland (Period 5a)
HER Ref. No. MLE9061

This is another site investigated by ULAS, back in 2000. Evidence of a hyaena den was recorded, which contained bones of woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, wolverine, early horse and hyenas. This is the first open air hyena den excavated, and a flint leafpoint provides evidence of human activity in the vicinity – rare evidence for a temporary hunting camp. You can read more about the project here (which is where this rather good picture came from!).


Glaston hyena den

Creswellian site at Bradgate Park (Period 5b)
HER Ref. No. MLE9435

This site was first discovered in 2001 and test pitting was carried out earlier this year, again by ULAS! Basically, thousands of flints have been recovered from an eroding footpath in the park. These flints are evidence for human activity on site – it has been suggested that the site was a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer passing through Little Matlock Gorge. The exciting thing about this site is that it is in situ – there are deposits that are associated with the flints. At the moment it’s not clear what further work will be carried out on the site, but it’s certainly a nationally important site!


Bradgate Park test pitting

So, that’s a quick dash through some of the oldest archaeological sites on the Leicestershire & Rutland HER. You can look at these, and other records, via the Heritage Gateway. Records cover everything up to now, so we’re covering about a million years of human activity!

Obviously it’s not possible to be an expert in everything throughout those million years, so forgive me if I’ve made some terrible errors when writing this. I’m not a Palaeolithic expert. Today, on this Day of Archaeology, I just found it interesting.  🙂


We can be heroes, just for one day

Hello!  If you’re reading this perhaps you want to know what it’s like to be a HERO (Historic Environment Record Officer), just for this one day.  (I know it’s a bit tenuous but I wanted a quote for my title and I love David Bowie, so…!)

I last blogged as part of the Day of Archaeology in 2011.  If you want to read my blog from back then please read a day in the life of a HERO.  There’s a fair bit there that I don’t really want to cover again, like how I became a HERO.  I think today I’ll just blog about what I’m up to.

View from my office, County Hall, Leicestershire

View from my office, County Hall, Leicestershire

I work for Leicestershire County Council in the Historic & Natural Environment Team (part of Planning, Historic & Natural Environment, so we sit with various planning officers). The other people in my team consist of a war memorials project officer, conservation officer, 2 planning archaeologists and our team leader – we’re also in the same team as several ecologists. There used to be more of us but due to the ubiquitous cuts that’s the team at the moment.  The conservation officer and our team leader don’t work full time, also because of the cuts.  So they’re not here today.

I’m in charge of the Historic Environment Record for Leicestershire & Rutland, which is basically a database that attempts to record all known archaeological remains and historic buildings in the county.

The first job of the day is to check the Heritage Gateway upload that I set running last night. About 70% of our HER records are available on-line through the Gateway (our Heritage Gateway update page details what’s on-line at the moment). Yesterday I added some new records (and edited some old ones), so I thought I’d better upload them!  The new records include a rather interesting medieval cruck-framed house, 5-7, Market Place, Whitwick (MLE20894) that is due to be demolished as part of a scheme to build a new Co-op.  (It’s not listed.) Our planning archaeologists have been commenting on the scheme, hence the reports that have provided me with new sites.

Then it’s time to do some fun map regression!  I love the part of my job that’s basically detective work, though sometimes it’s infuriating not to get definitive answers to questions…  Yesterday the Principal Planning Archaeologist brought several things in Ashby-de-la-Zouch to my attention.  First is an early ‘tramway’ that ran from the Ashby Canal to Ticknall.  This was on the HER already, but the mapping wasn’t quite right.  Then there are a whole bunch of industrial sites dating from the C18th-C20th.


Historic maps (1735, 1837, 1888) and HER extract for Ashby-de-la-Zouch

The sites are (the links will work when I’ve done the next Gateway upload!):

The next job is something that brings in money – a commercial data search.  Searches are requested by land agents and solicitors as well as commercial archaeology units, to help inform land purchases, planning decisions and as part of fieldwork.  For a fee, I send various digital files (maps, GIS files, gazetteers etc) out containing all the archaeological sites and historic buildings on the HER.  (Non-commercial enquiries are free.)  Interesting sites in Appleby Magna, where this search was for, include Moat House (MLE10939), a C16th house that sits within a moat.  The moated site, along with formal gardens, fishponds and village earthworks, is a Scheduled Monument (National Heritage List Entry No. 1011458).

As a fun Friday afternoon activity I think I’ll go through a book I’ve just bought (another HER officer recommended it to me).  It’s called ‘Actions Stations: Military airfields of Lincolnshire and the East Midlands’, by Bruce Barrymore Halpenny.  We’ve been trying to put World War I sites onto the HER in advance of the First World War Centenary next year and I’m hoping it can add a bit more information.

Short 184 Seaplane

First World War Short 184 seaplane built at the Brush Works, Loughborough

Reaching the end of the day, the book doesn’t contain much First World War information (I’m up to ‘L’ in the gazetteer), but it does have some information about the Brush Works at Loughborough (MLE8697), which built aircraft in both the First and Second World Wars, and Loughborough Meadows (MLE15968), where they test flew their planes. The updated information will be on the Heritage Gateway after my next upload.

As you can see, for an ‘archaeology database’ the HER contains quite a few records that are pretty modern, as well as things like castles and medieval houses.  It certainly makes for an interesting job, learning about all sorts of different things on a daily basis!  You never quite know what the day will hold…

Leicestershire’s 2 Month Old Archaeology Officer

It’s two months since I started as Archaeology Officer for Leicestershire County Council and I’m finally starting to find my feet.  It’s the job I’ve always dreamed of and I feel very lucky to be doing something I love but have to admit to feeling overwhelmed with how much I have to learn!

I was previously working exclusively with the a collection of Late Iron Age and Roman material known as the Hallaton Treasure and was based at Harborough Museum in the beautiful town of Market Harborough, Leicestershire.  This was an amazing job promoting and interpreting a mysterious collection of objects including over 5000 Iron Age and Roman coins and a Roman cavalry helmet.  However, as it was an externally funded project I knew it wouldn’t last forever and so when the opportunity came up to apply for a new post, I jumped at it.

I am now responsible for the county’s archaeology collections, so although I still get to play with the Treasure, there is a huge amount of material I need to get to know a whole lot better which is fun and daunting at the same time.  My role also includes community archaeology – promoting best practice, providing support and linking community groups with the collections which we hold.  Thankfully my previous role brought me into contact with many of these wonderful local groups and so there are many friendly faces who have been helping me out during these first two months.  I am also lucky to be working with our Finds Liaison Officer, Wendy Scott, who has been helping me settle into my new job.

Today I’ve been doing run of the mill stuff: checking emails, liaising with archaeological contractors, preparing for a launch event for the Leicestershire and Rutland Festival of Archaeology (the biggest regional contribution to the Council for British Archaeology’s nationwide event thanks to a fantastic network of heritage groups and enthusiastic indivuduals), working on press releases, trying to make time to do a bit of sorting in the store.

A small area of the archaeology section of our museum store.

Something cropped up which I haven’t dealt with before and sent me into a temporary panic.  An archaeological contractor (we are a repository for archaeological archives created as a result of the planning process) had found a human cremation and needed to know some details for the exhumation notice – what would happen to the remains after they had been studied.  The result was that we would make a decision on the merits of retaining the remains in our collection after the whole site had been studied and we could assess their importance.  The ethics of the treatment of human remains from archaeological excavations is an interesting area and one which I need to learn more about, fast!

My day also included a very geeky conservation with two colleagues regarding how to allocate accession numbers to the Hallaton Roman helmet which is actually at least four helmets from one deposit.  Many parts are still in the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research as they have been analysing and conserving the parts for us.  A very boring conversation but important nonetheless.

My day ended with lugging a huge display case into my car, ready for a display at Burrough Hill Iron Age hillfort on Sunday.  This is a University of Leicester dig at the highest point in Leicestershire, an amazing spot.  I’m providing a display of material we hold in our collection from digs dating back to the 1960s and 1970s, including a massive Iron Age storage jar.  Nice to be able to take it back to where it came from for the day!

Iron Age storage jar found at Burrough Hill hillfort from Leicestershire County Council’s archaeology collection.

A Week in the Life of a FLO (And Her Helpers)

A week in the life of a FLO – Wendy Scott, Leicestershire and Rutland FLO and Rebecca Czechowicz, FLA.


I added records to the database from an elderly long-term finder. We visited him at home last week and recorded objects found many years ago, before the scheme started here. We obtained accurate locations using maps and had a chat about his best find, a small but significant Viking coin hoard –The Thurcaston Hoard.


More inputting  (it never stops!).  In the run up to the Festival of Archaeology, myself and my manager have a meeting with our press office to plan our press releases. This year we have 73 festival events to promote, including a launch event at Kirby Muxloe Castle with EH (14th July), an event to promote a new Iron age coin hoard going into Harborough museum with coin striking activities (17th July).

We are also plugging two Leicestershire objects being in the final 10 of Britain’s Secret Treasures, an ITV programme highlighting the 50 most important finds made by the public (16th-22nd July).

We have help from a volunteer today. James Kirton is helping us to get all the amazing Bosworth Roman objects onto the database.  Amongst hundreds of brooches, we have 99 horse and rider brooches! Along with coins and other objects; all found as part of the Bosworth battlefield survey.


We have an appointment at Oakham Museum to meet a finder to record her many objects. Rebecca measures and weighs whilst I photograph and identify all the objects. Handily this co-incides with an invitation to visit Time Team filming at Oakham castle. We met up with Danni, FLO for Devon who works for Time Team, and local detectorist Dr Phil Harding who was detecting the spoil for them, to see what they’d found. A local journalist asked the other Dr Phil Harding if he actually did the digging! He was posing for a photo with a spade at the time,  so he replied “What do you think I do with this?”

Our Dr Phil detects the spoil whilst the other one supervises his trench.


Downloading and editing photos and researching objects from our recording yesterday, ready to add them to the database.  I have spoken to the finder of the IA hoard. We are arranging a photo opportunity for the press next week, prior to the event and I needed a quote for the press release. I also spoke to colleagues about one of our museums purchasing a treasure case, a medieval finger ring, for their collection. In the afternoon we were all distracted from work by a violent thunderstorm, with flash flooding and hail the size of golfballs!


Day of Archaeology! Today I am getting on with recording the objects we identified yesterday. I am also preparing leaflets and flyers for the Festival. Before I leave I will be gathering material for a weekend event. Sunday is the annual open day at Burrough Hill fort, Leicestershire’s best Iron Age fort. The University of Leicester are conducting a five year research project there.  We will have the latest finds along with other Iron Age and Roman objects from the area found by detecting and field-walking. We have Iron age Warriors, coin making and I will be on hand to record anything that people bring along.

With the exception of Time Team being in my area, this is a pretty average summer week. There are always more objects to record and input, events to organise and promote and people to see. . . . .


Day in the life of a HERO

My name is Helen Wells and I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer (HERO) at Leicestershire County Council.  There are archaeologists here in both the Museums and Planning sections – I’m based in the latter.  I do work with the Museums archaeologists though, including Wendy Scott (the Portable Antiquities Scheme officer).  My job is basically to look after a database of all the county’s known archaeological remains and historic buildings.  It’s a fascinating job – I’ve been here since 2004 and I’m still enjoying it!

Before I start describing my day, I thought I’d give a bit of background about how I became a county council archaeologist.  (more…)