Silbury Hill

Tours from Antiquity


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.


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.


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.


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

A day of spatial semantics, digital excavation data and other things

Archaeologists tools: The laptop is now very much part of this armoury.

Archaeologists tools: The laptop is now very much part of this armoury.

Following on from my previous posts in 2011 (here and here) and 2012 (here), this year it’s a bit different. I’ve left the world of commercial archaeology to return to academia, starting a PhD in geosemantic technologies for archaeological research (GSTAR) based in the Hypermedia Research Unit at the University of South Wales with input from the Geographical Information Systems Research Unit. I also now undertake freelance digital heritage consultancy work for various clients in the public, commercial and charitable sectors through my business Archaeogeomancy.

Last Friday, the Day of Archaeology, was a fairly typical day involving some research and a bit of commercial work. I have a number of ongoing projects, a number of which required some input last Friday. And spending a bit of time with my latest daughter, three week old Florence (who has yet to show any interest in archaeology, unlike her big sister Amelia who loves ruins). One thing I rarely get to do these days is dig, my time being almost entirely filled with research, writing and other desk/computer based activities. But I still very much consider myself an archaeologist, it’s just that my tools are different. The photos I’ve used all come from my Flickr stream and are of archaeological sites, hopefully just a bit more interesting than photos of my computers…


Finds bags

Finds bags containing instances of the class Physical Object, discovered through a Finding Event

I am currently wrapping up the literature review section of my PhD and heard last Thursday that my three month review has been accepted so full steam ahead. I’ve been looking at the range of Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies out there with particular reference to archaeological and heritage applications. Within this subject area, the GSTAR project is focussing on spatial data and geosemantic techniques and builds on the preceding STAR and STELLAR projects, collaborations between the University of South Wales, English Heritage and the Archaeology Data Service.

I’ve also been working on some refinements of an ontological model, the CRM-EH, further clarifying aspects relating to the formation of archaeological features, deposits and the deposition of artefacts. Preliminary results are posted here on my blog, which I use to talk about my work in digital heritage and interesting things I come across.


In addition to my research, I am currently working on a number of exciting projects for clients. I have just deployed an archaeological information system to facilitate the interpretation of marine geophysics data based around Microsoft Access and Esri ArcGIS; this is currently in beta testing which gives me an opportunity to complete other projects including some tools, again built using Esri ArcGIS, to support data collation, synthesis and reporting/cartography for Desk Based Assessments (DBAs) including Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs).


Digging, the activity which reveals archaeological features, deposits and the stratigraphic relationships between them.

Another interesting project I was working on last Friday involves the creation of a Linked Data resource relating to the recent excavations at Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire. This site is very dear to me, having featured in my undergraduate and masters dissertations which investigated the formation of landscapes in prehistory and the spatial patterning of archaeological remains by means of movement and perception of human scale actors. This Linked Data resource relates to the later Roman activity at the site and currently comprises c.40K assertions about contexts, stratigraphy, finds and samples all held in a triple store which will be published in due course to further add to the growing number of Linked Data resources online.

An ADS Day of Archaeology

Here it is, my Day of Archaeology 2013 and after a routine check of my emails and the daily news I’m ready to begin!

Silbury Hill ©English Heritage

Silbury Hill ©English Heritage

I am currently approaching the end of a year-long contract as a Digital Archivist at the Archaeology Data Service in York on an EH-funded project to prepare the Silbury Hill digital archive for deposition.

For a summary of the project, see the ADS newsletter and for a more in-depth account of my work so far check out my blog from a couple of weeks ago: “The Silbury Hill Archive: the light at the end of the tunnel”

Very briefly, though, my work has involved sifting through the digital data to retain only the information which is useful for the future, discarding duplicates or superfluous data; sorting the archive into a coherent structure and documenting every step of the process.

The data will be deposited with two archives: the images and graphics will go to English Heritage and the more technical data will be deposited with the ADS and as the English Heritage portion of the archive has been completed it is time for the more technical stuff!

So, the plan for today is to continue with the work I have been doing for the past few days: sorting through the Silbury Hill database (created in Microsoft Access).

Originally, I had thought that the database would just need to be documented, but, like the rest of the archive, it seems to have grown fairly organically; though the overall structure seems sound it needs a bit of work to make it as functional as possible and therefore as useful as possible.

The main issue with the database is that there are a fair amount of gaps in the data tables; the database seems to have been set up as a standard template with tables for site photography, contexts, drawings, samples, skeletal remains and artifact data etc.  but some of these tables have not been populated and some are not relevant.  The site photography and drawing records have not been entered for example, meaning that any links from or to these tables would be worthless.  The missing data for the 2007 works are present in the archive, they are just in separate Excel spreadsheets and there are also 2001 data files, these are in simple text format as the information was downloaded as text reports from English Heritage’s old archaeological database DELILAH.  The data has since been exported into Excel, so, again to make the information more accessible, I’m adding the 2001 data to the 2007 database.

My work today, therefore, as it has been for the past couple of days, is to populate the empty database tables with the information from these spreadsheets and text files and resolve any errors or issues that cause the tables to lose their ‘referential integrity’, for example where a context number is referred to in one table but is missing from a linking table.

Silbury database relationship diagram ©English Heritage

Silbury database relationship diagram ©English Heritage

So, this morning I started with the 2001 drawing records. The entering of the data itself was fairly straightforward, just copying and pasting from the Excel spreadsheet into the Access tables, correcting spelling errors as I went.  Some of the fields were controlled vocabulary fields, however, which meant going to the relevant glossary table and entering a new term in order for the site data to be entered as it was in the field.

Once the main drawing table was completed, the linking table needed to be populated; again, this was done fairly simply through cutting and pasting from Excel.

The next step was the most time-consuming: checking the links between the tables, to do this I went to the relationship diagram, clicked on the relevant link and ticked the box marked ‘enforce referential integrity’ this didn’t work which meant that a reference in one table was not matched in the linking table which meant going through the relevant fields and searching for entries that were not correct.  The most common reason for these error messages was that an entry had been mis-typed in one of the tables.

That took me up to lunchtime, so what about the afternoon?  More of the same: starting work on the sample records with the odd break for tea or a walk outside to save my eyes!

As much as the process of updating the database has been fairly routine, it’s an interesting and valuable piece of work for me as it is the first time I’ve ever really delved into the structure of a database and looking at the logic behind its design.  I was fortunate in that I had attended the Database Design and Implementation module taught by Jo Gilham as part of the York University Msc in Archaeological Information Systems which gave me a firm foundation for this work.  Also very helpful was the help provided by Vicky Crosby from English Heritage who created the database and provided a lot of documentation in the first instance.

The next step once the data has been entered will be to remove any blank fields and tables and then to document the database using the ADS’ Guidelines for Depositors and then to move on to the survey data and reports.

I’m looking forward to seeing it all deposited and released to a wider world for, hopefully, extensive re-use and research!

Objects, Advice, and a Bit of Thinking…

A day in my life as an archaeologist and finds specialist for English Heritage

As one of the small team of archaeologists within the Intervention and Analysis Division of English Heritage, based at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, and working 80% of full time due to the three young herberts who more than fill a million percent of the rest of time, my days are always full, and rarely the same. Technology, determination and flexible bosses enable me to cram a fair amount into a week.

My day starts at around 5am with a reading of emails, then the next couple of hours are given over to lunchboxes, breakfasts, hens, cats, dogs, hamsters, after a smidge of yoga before the madness starts. Throughout this time I also tend to listen to the radio or the reading or the violin practice, while catching up on my Twitter feed (@Nicola_Hembrey), which is great for archaeological news (and a little bit of gossip!). Once the school runs are done I dash to the office, and I’m usually sitting at my desk with a fennel and ginger tea by 9.15am. I have a super view out over Hayling Island, and on a clear day I can hear, Table 2, your lunch is ready, from the pub over the stretch of water! I’ve been at the Fort for thirteen years and I love working within such a diverse, committed and interesting group of colleagues, although the annual ten months of horizontal rain can be a something of a trial.

Fabulous office! Sharp eyes will note the obligatory boxes of finds and X-Rays. Sadly the shelves and stacks of books, and the lovely view, are out of shot…

Yesterday I was – unusually – able to give myself over to an almost entire day of concentrating on one thing; the middle poster above is taken from the site I project manage, the Roman settlement opposite Silbury Hill, which we evaluated in the late summer of 2010, and for which the report is almost complete, hence a day of reading all the specialist contributions, and polishing up my own! I have written the artefacts report, and together with my colleague Vicky Crosby, who led the excavations, I’m working on the overview. I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking and reading in recent weeks about any ritual aspect to the site. We hope to submit the report to the local journal, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine,  in good time before the end of August deadline. The project team have been brilliant in getting this to publication so quickly – in archaeological terms at least! – while under considerable pressure and uncertainty from our recent round of restructuring.

Today, though, I don’t have the luxury of getting back to the Later Silbury report, as I have to finish off the list that I’ve been mentally carting around all week, to avoid next week spiralling away before I’m even out of this one. The illustrations need a final check. My mountain of library books needs renewing.  I’ve been asked to write a caption for a photograph for a colleague’s memorial event leaflet. I have to write the final section of my performance review. Timelog doesn’t complete itself. I desperately need to catch up on reading the Assessment Report for a project which I have been asked project manage following the redundancy of another colleague, a process which has been difficult for all of us, and the effects of which will be felt for a long while. I whizz down to our stash of outreach material, to find a few objects to donate to a project that wants to bury artefacts at sea for 25 years. I also reply to someone who is working on the update of the professional side of the EH website, after spending an hour writing comments on the pieces of text that he has sent me.

Current reading, mostly concerned with the theorising of artefacts. Books strapped up in the old-fashioned way make me very happy…

Last year I was able to write up the small assemblage of finds that came from our work as part of the Silbury Hill Conservation Project, and I was also lucky enough to revisit the finds from previous interventions in the area. The Monograph text is currently with our publications team. One of the most interesting objects was an unusual copper-alloy bracelet which came from the base of a Roman ditch, but was of Later Bronze Age or Earlier Iron Age date. This sent me off on a long thought process about the significance of heirloom artefacts – those old objects that are important to people because of their association with another person, or an idea, or a particular time in their life. It made me wonder whether getting to grips with this idea from a present perspective could illuminate our thinking about the importance of old objects in the past; something nigh-on impossible to get to grips with within the archaeological record. This led to the beginnings of a project that I’m hoping to get off the ground with a few colleagues; a public survey, with a large social media element, in which people can post details of their object, and from which we can analyse the data later. I made a phone call, to see if there had been any response yet to our proposal; nothing so far. Hopefully it will happen. Keep your eyes peeled for Objects Of My Affection.

Finally while in the office I had a quick look over my website. I’m secretary and web editor for the Roman Finds Group, a forum for all those with an interest in the subject (do check us out online; we’re really very good). I added the details of our forthcoming meeting at the British Museum in April 2013, in which attendees can visit the Pompeii exhibition as part of the very reasonable conference fee (sorry, ad over now!). I’m lucky that EH gives me a small amount of time in which I can sit on this committee.

I leave in time for the return school run, and spend the next couple of hours listening to stories of everyone’s day and making supper, while keeping my emails (and Twitter!) open from the iPad in the kitchen. It’s the best way to stay on top of things.

I then spend a while re-reading comments that I wrote earlier in the week, on a finds report within a site publication which we have funded through our grants programme, National Heritage Protection Commissions. The report had been a long time coming, but turned out to be really well researched, well thought out and well written. I can easily see it becoming a ‘go-to’ text for finds reports when it’s published. If I have the space within my deadlines I like to write my comments and then leave them a day or so before sending, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Working from home, commenting on a lengthy finds report. I don’t normally print out this much paper! Note the extremely hi-tech phone…

Finally, I respond to an email from the Activity Lead of the Ploughzone Activity Team, which has recently been formed as part of the National Heritage Protection Plan. He needs all team members to comment on a proposal. Almost all of our communication is by email to keep costs down, as we come from EH offices all over the country. I add it to my mental list for next week, and mark the email unread, to remind myself.

Later I’ll do some more reading, and thinking, if I don’t fall asleep first.

So, there it is, a typical day in the life of this (lucky) archaeologist. I seem to have got all the way to the end of this post without including a picture of either an object, or myself, which is probably something of an oversight (particularly the former!). Here’s a happy picture of me (at front, red shoes) with the gorgeous site team at Later Silbury, instead.


Nicola Hembrey, Archaeologist (Artefact Analysis), English Heritage  @Nicola_Hembrey

29 vi 2012

Communicating Archaeology

I was reminded by the blustery wet south-easterly tail wind on my cycle to work this morning that summer has yet to arrive to this part of the world. However, as an Archaeological Information Systems Manager for English Heritage based down in Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, I’m mostly office based so the weather is only an issue when I venture out to get a cup of coffee.

It has finally become apparent to me that communication is one of my main focuses. I am always asked what period or location I specialise in, the truth is I don’t take this approach to archaeology. My passion is for archaeology and archaeologists, how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the public (who’s support we depend to continue doing what we do).

So back to my day…

After arriving in my office and making a cup of coffee I turned my attention to finalising a paper I’ve been writing called ‘Can you hack (the) communication?’ I gave a presentation on this at CAA in Southampton ( (it’s a computers and archaeology conference) back in March. This paper looks at how we as archaeologists capture digital information in the field and particular my perspective on the experience of implementing a digital recording system for archaeological excavation called Intrasis to our teams. We’ve used the system now on our last few projects.

Simple location plan with trenches to south of road and Silbury Hill to the north

This is a screenshot of a map of the excavations of the Roman Settlement across the road from Silbury Hill.

As main ringleader of social media at the fort, I started receiving my colleagues’ posts for Day of Archaeology by mid-morning. That I know of two others are participating, one from our zooarchaeologists and another from @nicola_hembrey, our finds archaeologists.

Through out the day, like most days I’m keeping an eye on my Twitter feed for good content and information @hscorley. I also am keeping an eye on the @EHArchaeology twitter account which I am primary curator. This account has been active for about 3 years now and I’m amazed how popular it has become.

Looking at Twitter today, it is of course, abuzz with Day of Archaeology content. Particular praise is due to London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre (LAARC)  for the LAARC Lottery. If only I had thought if it myself. You pick a number for a shelf, they then go and find what’s on that shelf and blog about it. I like this for several reasons, not only is it interactive and raises awareness about their archive but it also means no one has to think to hard about what to write about, it’s all there just waiting to written about.

As my day wraps up I’m going to prepare to face the elements again, the wind does not appear to have shifted and despite a bit of sunlight earlier it looks like it might rain.

Hugh Corley