Stonehenge

Archaeological Geosemantics, the final chapter

Panoramic View of the Stonehenge Landscape from Fargo Plantation

Panoramic View of the Stonehenge Landscape from Fargo Plantation

GSTAR IV: Return of the GeoJSON

Following on from my Days of Archaeology in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (and for the last time), the bulk of my Day of Archaeology this year focussed on my doctoral research, writing up my thesis on Geosemantic Technologies for Archaeological Research (GSTAR). It’s been a busy three years but the project is nearing completion and will hopefully inform heritage management and research strategy over the coming years.

The aim of the project was to show how geosemantic technologies can be used to provide a framework for working with heritage data in a range of research contexts. To this end, I have built a demonstrator application which is based around a map (obvs!) for the Stonehenge landscape and which draws data from Historic Environment Records, museums and project archives, allowing users to ask questions across these diverse resources taking advantage of the semantic goodness of Linked Geospatial Data, thesauri and ontologies. Geosemantic ‘glue’ was used to integrate horizontally between resources (such as monuments and artefacts found within or nearby) and vertically (ie between excavation records and monument/event HER records and museum collection records).

The ontologies used were the CIDOC CRM, CRM-EH and GeoSPARQL which allow the concepts used by the various sources to be aligned whilst the terminology provided by the thesauri (published using SKOS) allow for the various terms used to document these concepts to be related. In other words, the semantic tools allow for the different sources to be made interoperable and queryable with the results displayed and interacted with on a map.

Moving forward, the approach taken and successfully demonstrated could be scaled up to act as the basis for the next generation of heritage information portals; think of the Heritage Gateway but with some additional bells and whistles:

  • the ability to undertake proper geospatial queries and analysis, even where there is no GIS data
  • spatial queries mediated using geospatial semantics, to get away from purely Cartesian views of space dependent on geometry and the problems that entails for historic information
  • complex querying across all of the participating providers, with differences in terminology ironed out

The demonstrator application is built using a range of standard web and geospatial technologies. Currently, the accessioning process for data is largely manual, built using the STELLAR Toolkit to process outputs from MODES and HBSMR, two major software packages used in museums and HERs respectively. A next step would be to automate this, which would be fairly straightforward from a technological if not a political perspective. If an automated pipeline could be implemented across all the HBSMR and MODES using institutions and organisations, this would cover an enormous amount of heritage information and, combined with a map based portal and live feeds to desktop GIS, would greatly improve the way in which we undertake all kinds of research activities, both in academic and commercial contexts.

Information from site archives was a little tricksier, as one might expect; such data does not typically get archived in a readily useable fashion unlike information found within the structured systems used for managing Historic Environment Record data or museums collections. However, with ongoing work relating to the digital capture and sharing of fieldwork information through OASIS, HERALD and the broader Heritage Information Access Strategy (HIAS), we are undoubtedly moving towards a time when this becomes not just possible but the norm. When this happens (and note I say when not if!), we can start to extend Linked Data principles more fully to our information resources, so monument records can be directly built up from linked fieldwork records, museum collection artefact records can be layered on top of linked excavation finds records and, on top of all this, our Research Agendas and Frameworks can be truly data driven, dynamic resources drawing directly on this web of Linked Data, informing and informed by ongoing research and our shared knowledge of the past, across all of our information resources.

The use of such geosemantic ‘glue’ allows for a much more intelligent approach to finding and working with geospatial information from heterogenous sources split across numerous providers. Take the following query for example:

Show me all the Bronze Age mounds where dolerite has been found during excavations and carved chalk balls were discovered nearby.

Using the HeritageData Periods thesaurus, it is possible to mediate different uses of language across sources to describe time-spans relating to the Bronze Age, using broader, narrower and/or related terms. We can use the FISH Event Types Thesaurus to find event records relating to interventions (including excavations) and draw on the project archives for these to check for finds of dolerite, potentially using geological ontologies such as GEON to mediate identifications of rock types. Using the FISH Object Types Thesaurus, it is possible to do the same for chalk balls or any other artefact type. Geospatial information may well not exist for these objects as recorded in museums collections, most likely not in the form of British National Grid coordinates at least, particularly where they were discovered in antiquity. But we do often have some basic spatial information such as an associated location (eg Stonehenge), parish (eg Amesbury) or named place (eg Stonehenge Road); in such cases we can use the Ordnance Survey Linked Data plus some of the spatial relationships defined by the Simple Features specification (used by the GeoSPARQL ontology) to perform a spatial query using these index terms via a bit of geosemantic magic. Moving forward, we can align our research questions with such resources and queries so, for example, if the dating of carved chalk balls (typically thought of as of Neolithic origin) were to change, we can use the same approach to identify contexts where such changes would have a knock on effect or where our broader understanding of deposits, sites and complexes may also need to be updated or where new research questions arise. So this may be the end of the GSTAR project, but it’s only just the beginning for the use of such approaches within the heritage sector.

Many thanks again to everyone who has helped, contributed and otherwise supported this research project along the way, particularly:

  • Doug Tudhope, Alex Lohfink, Mark Ware & Ceri Binding (University of South Wales)
  • Chris Brayne (Wessex Archaeology)
  • David Dawson (Wiltshire Museum)
  • Adrian Green (Salisbury Museum)
  • Keith May (Historic England)
  • Melanie PomeroyKellinger (Wiltshire Council)

Tours from Antiquity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Silbury Hill from West Kennet long barrow

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

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

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

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

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

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


Medieval Priories, Medieval Stones, Historic Photos, and Deep Dreaming

This week has been a busy week. Last Sunday I volunteered for the Tywardreath Priory open day as part of the Festival of British Archaeology. I am one of the archaeologists on the team in the early planning stages of a community archaeology project. It aims to search for, research, and excavate the site of Tywardreath Priory, a Benedictine priory established in the second half of the 11th century. We know the rough area where the priory ought to be, but very little is known for certain.

The open day was very successful, with over 100 visitors to the farm in the village. My role was to explain something of the history and wider landscape context of the site, and to demonstrate LiDAR data to show how the estuary had silted up, cutting off the Priory’s access to the sea.

Tom Goskar demonstrating LiDAR and landscape archaeology at the Tywardreath Priory open day. Photo by Josh Taylor.

Tom Goskar demonstrating LiDAR and landscape archaeology at the Tywardreath Priory open day. Photo by Josh Taylor.

I also showed some 3D captures of decorated medieval stonework taken from the Priory and now situated in the nearby churchyard, and how we can enhance the data to show the decorations more clearly.

For the first half of the week I have switched gear to working with historic photos. I looked at the wonderful glass lantern slides of an excavation at Magor Farm near Redruth in Cornwall during the 1930s held at the Morrab Library in Penzance. They have a fantastic archaeology collection which they hope to digitise later this year if a funding application is successful, which I will be helping with if all goes well.

Being a self-employed archaeologist it pays to widen your horizons to gain work. I’ve been honing my web technology skills and am building a website to host a collection of over 25,000 historic photos, films and audio recordings from around Cornwall. It’s going to be a great resource, complete with ways to get data out of the site in interesting ways. Lots of archaeologists are going to find it useful for desk-based research, not to mention local historians and societies.

And today, the Day of Archaeology itself, has seen me mainly writing and researching. I have an article deadline coming up for my work on 3D capture and enhancement of early medieval sculpture at Gulval near Penzance which I am co-writing with Prof. Michelle Brown an expert in early medieval manuscripts.

Earlier in the day I had a phone call from Prof. Charles Thomas to discuss some work we have done recently on the early medieval ‘Ignioc Stone’ at St Clement near Truro. We’re using 3D techniques to try to see if the accepted transcription of the inscription is correct and to see if the data can help us understand better how this tall stone was reshaped and repurposed.

As a distraction amidst writing and planning a trip to London next week to visit the Society of Antiquaries library, I have been playing with Google’s Deep Dream neural network visualisation (or perhaps, hallucination) engine. It shares some code used by Google Photos to identify the content of photographs (in itself interesting for curators of historic photographs) and produces very strange results as it recursively tries to identify then display what it ‘sees’. A riot of colourful psychedelic nonsense, or an exercise in the study of perception applicable to shamanism, hallucinogenic states and rock art? You choose. For fun, here’s one of the trilithons at Stonehenge like you’ve never seen before.

Stonehenge trilithon visualised with the Google Deep Dream neural art network.

Stonehenge trilithon visualised with the Google Deep Dream neural art network.


Digging Diaries – The House As Old As Stonehenge

Following on from the wonders of Star Carr, here’s our next video, ‘The House As Old As Stonehenge’

A digging team has uncovered the remains of a building which is over 4000 years old. It’s been found on the vast Neolithic landscape of Marden Henge situated within the Vale of Pewsey, Wiltshire.

The University of Reading Archaeology Department have been carrying out the excavations in collaboration with Historic England, the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the Wiltshire Museum.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

Happy Digging from all the team!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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……

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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.

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

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

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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 !!

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Several centuries of archaeological experience in a single trench at Whitby

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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.

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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….

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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.

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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….?

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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.

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Photographing worked flint 

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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

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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.

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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 

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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!

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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.

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The British Museum come to visit Stonehenge

Yesterday started a little later than usual as I returned at 11.30pm the previous night from a preview of the new archaeology gallery at Salisbury Museum. The new galleries are absolutely stunning – it was a privilege to be among the first to see them and to hear speeches from the HLF representative, the chairman and the director. Adrian, Jane, Stef and their colleagues have made a super-human effort to get the galleries finished and looking stunning.

The new Wessex galleries at Salisbury Museum

The new Wessex galleries at Salisbury Museum

As many of you know, I’ve been working since 2009 on the new Stonehenge visitor centre project. The new galleries at Salisbury are part of a museums partnership between that museum, Wiltshire Museum and Stonehenge (English Heritage) – all three venues have been working together to produce new galleries, telling different parts of the same story. And now all three are open, which is fantastic news. If you haven’t been to see any of these new displays – go, and go to all three!

The Amesbury Archer

The Amesbury Archer

On to yesterday then. In the morning I had an hour or so of working at home, catching up with e-mails and sorting out payment for one of my suppliers who has been making replica objects for our Neolithic houses at Stonehenge. A surprising amount of my time is taken up with such paperwork. I’m also reviewing the interviews that I took part in yesterday – we interviewed three exhibition design companies for a desperately needed new interpretation project at Tintagel Castle. That’s my project for the next year or so – a new exhibition and lots of new interpretation for the castle and island. Of the three companies two were very good, so I created a positives and negatives list for each, coming to my own conclusion about which one to appoint.

Arthur's Seat, Tintagel (I do get to work at some lovely places!)

Arthur’s Seat, Tintagel (I do get to work at some lovely places!)

At 9.30am I left to drive to Stonehenge, to meet a party of 39 staff from the British Museum – curators, keepers and exhibitions staff. They have organised a team trip to Stonehenge, and I met them, showed them around the exhibition and Neolithic houses, and then left them to walk or take the land train down to Stonehenge.

Here is Rosie Weetch, project curator for the forthcoming Celts exhibition at the British Museum, trying our interactive sarsen!

Here is Rosie Weetch, project curator for the forthcoming Celts exhibition at the British Museum, trying our interactive sarsen!

Whilst they were doing that I went to work for an hour or so in the Stonehenge offices, catching up with a few colleagues, a few more e-mails and making a decision with my colleague Rob on the Tintagel designer – I’m really pleased with the company we’ve chosen so it should be an exciting few months ahead!

After lunch I head back to the visitor centre to give the British Museum staff a short background talk on the project. It was a real pleasure to meet colleagues from the museum, with similar visitor profile and issues with huge numbers, and show off the work we have done at Stonehenge. We have some interesting questions/ discussions at the end of the day, and had some wonderfully positive feedback – great to receive from such eminent colleagues! Here are some of their tweets from the visit:

That’s the end of the day for me – I clear up the education room and head back to Bristol for some post-work Friday beers.

Thanks DoA crew – as ever this year’s posts have been inspiring and educating!

 

 

c.150 days… and counting

About 150 days until what I hear you ask? Just the small matter of the public opening of the new Stonehenge visitor centre.

If you’ve read my two previous Day of Archaeology posts from 2011 and 2012, you’ll know that this particular project fills all of my work hours, some of my weekend hours and a bit of my sleep. I’m the archaeologist writing, devising and advising on all the content for the new centre. This includes the permanent exhibition, the opening temporary exhibition, the external gallery, the landscape interpretation scheme, the audio tour… whatever we are going to be telling visitors about Stonehenge, I’ll have had some input into it.

The entrance to the new visitor centre - a lot of scaffolding and cones at the moment!

The entrance to the new visitor centre – a lot of scaffolding and cones at the moment!

So what I have been up to today? No surprise that I have been office bound (except for a lunchtime to trip to buy paella from the stalls in Queen Square outside my office – it’s the Bristol harbour festival this weekend) and juggling a few different things:

1. E-mails and a phone call about exciting discoveries at Stonehenge this week. Suffice to say that the recent dry weather has been showing up parchmarks beautifully and its been a bit of a scrabble to help get colleagues out on site to survey and photograph them. The last of these e-mails was at 10pm.

2. Commenting on my colleague Harriet Attwood’s designer’s drawings for her interactives for the education room – pulling stones, building Stonehenge, cut-away Stonehenge, dig your own barrow, etc.

3. Commenting on a new draft reconstruction from artist Peter Lorimer of the late Neolithic settlement at Durrington Walls – a few more trees, more activity and people, slightly zoomed in, and we’re there.

4. Commenting on my designer’s drawings of a map of all Grooved Ware findspots in the UK for the permanent exhibition display case – trying to choose which key sites to have photographs of (plumped for Skara Brae, Callanish, Newgrange, Thornborough Henges and Avebury to get a good geographical spread, but might have to double check my thinking on this!)

5. Collating and marking up photographs and images for our landscape panel scheme – we’ve been working closely with the National Trust to replace and improve the panel scheme in the Stonehenge landscape and we’re at design stage now, so quite a lot of back and forth about thumbnail maps, photographs, etc. This includes various e-mails back and forth with Nick Snashall, archaeologist at the Trust about panel positions and photo mark-ups – via Blackberry as she is digging at West Kennett avenue today! A large shared Dropbox folder later and our designer has lots to work with.

6. E-mails relating to: new photography, audio tour interviews, a request for images from Jane Ellis-Schon who is project curator at Salisbury Museum for their new prehistory gallery, temporary exhibition catalogue layouts, writing for the EH website…

The pressure is on. And I’m feeling it! That’s why this is only a short post and why it’s also a day late.

A journey through space and time: from Salisbury plain to the Thames Estuary

Archaeological conservation is a varied profession. One day we may shift large waterlogged timbers, the next day we may be looking at minute fibre samples under the microscope. This is what we would get up to on a typical day:

X-radiography (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/x-radiography-of-archaeological-metalwork/) forms an integral part in documenting archaeological artefacts. It allows us to look beneath surface layers and record unstable objects, such as iron. An X-radiograph (x-ray) shows the shape of an artefact, which can sometimes be heavily disguised by overlying corrosion layers. It shows the condition of an artefact, such as extent of corrosion, cracks or damage from marine boring organisms and it can show construction and decoration details, such as joints, precious metal inlays or coatings. We recently carried out quite a bit of X-radiography on finds from the protected wreck London: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ehmaritime/sets/72157634780135574/ The London (http://list.english-heritage.org.uk/resultsingle.aspx?uid=1000088) sank following a gunpowder explosion in March 1665. It is currently being investigated as it lies in the very busy shipping channel of the Thames Estuary.

Pewter Spoon from the London

Pewter Spoon from the London

 

X-Radiograph of pewter spoon

X-Radiograph of pewter spoon

But we go much further back in time. Large parts of our days have lately been taken up with conserving Neolithic and early Bronze Age artefacts for the new Stonehenge visitor centre. This is a huge project. Over 400 artefacts were assessed. More than 260 required conservation work. To read about the work see the most recent issue of Research News (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/research-news-19/).

Examination of an object using an endoscope.

One of the objects going on display at the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre being examined using an endoscope.

And once all the practical work is done we can finally sit down with a cup of tea and start writing reports. Keeping records is of utmost importance in conservation. The treatment an object receives forms part of its history and we have to document this for future generations. There may be cases when old treatments have to be reversed, because materials have aged or failed. It helps if we know which materials have been used in the past. Reports also form the basis for research and can help colleagues to find solutions to their conservation problems. A recent report example can be found here: http://research.english-heritage.org.uk/report/?15155

Ah, cup of tea!

Ah, cup of tea!


Digging in the Archives: Re-Discovering the Excavations of John D. Evans

I saw the poster for the Day of Archaeology (DoA) in our lift and thought I’d join in, looking at the importance of archives to the documentation and re-interpretation of older excavations. I planned to focus on archives related to the first century of excavations by a fairly eccentric cast of characters from the British School at Athens, at Knossos in Crete, where I am currently working. But in the event, I’ve been side-tracked in quite different directions, digging into the archives of John Evans, allowing me to dip into archaeology in five countries in one day, all without leaving an overcast London.

Last July, one of the former Directors of the Institute here in London, Professor John Davies Evans, died at the age of 86. I didn’t know John well, we had only met a few times, but we had a good talk at a workshop held at Sheffield in 2006, organised in honour of John and his excavations at Knossos in 1958-60 and 1969-70, which provide the entire framework for, and our most comprehensive evidence supporting, our understanding of the four millennia of the Neolithic period on Crete (see V. Isaakidou and P. Tomkins (eds) 2008. Escaping the Labyrinth. The Cretan Neolithic in Context. Oxford: Oxbow Books). As we talked, it was clear John was extremely pleased that his work at the site was still considered so fundamental, and he was also immensely relieved to be able to hand over the completion of its publication to others.

Fig. 1. Saliagos. Left: the islet of Saliagos; right: the main trench

I was working at Knossos on a current project when I learned of John’s death. I knew that while he had handed over much of his Knossos excavation archive, a large amount of the original documentation had not yet been collected from him. This was needed for the full publication of his excavations, and would eventually be archived in the British School at Athens.

Fig. 2. John Evans sorting Saliagos pottery on Antiparos

Via e-mail, I contacted his family, and we agreed that on my return from Crete in September, I would collect his academic papers, sort them, and determine how and where it would be most appropriate to archive them. With my Institute colleague Andrew Reynolds, and with help from John Lewis of the Society of Antiquaries, we collected all of John’s academic papers, and they have been taking up about half of my office ever since. (On the plus side, any meeting involving more than one other person has had to take place elsewhere – fa’coffee.)

Fig. 3. Excavations in the central court of the Minoan palace at Knossos

My original hope of sorting the papers over the Christmas or Easter breaks disappeared behind mountains of marking, and it was only last week, when I finished that and could take over one of our vacant teaching rooms to unpack it all, that I had a chance to find out what’s there. Now having consolidated it into some 40 boxes, in place of the odd assortment of boxes, suitcases, a filing cabinet, card and slide chests and a full chest of drawers, I now don’t have to slam my door whenever our fire safety officer walks by.

One of our recent PhD graduates who specialises in the history of archaeology, Amara Thornton, very kindly gave up her week to help me, and we’ve done a first sort of everything. So we now have an overview of the material, which allows us to approach others who we suspect may be interested in particular elements of the archive, and gives us an idea of the scale of the further detailed cataloguing which will be involved. I have no idea when we will be able to do this, and we will have to find some funding, as there will be a couple of months worth of work involved. But particularly relevant to today, are John’s excavation records, so let’s go digging in the archives, working, as archaeology usually does, from the known to the unknown.

I was familiar with John’s excavations on the tiny Greek Cycladic islet of Saliagos, co-directed with Colin Renfrew in 1964-65 and published in 1968 as Excavations at Saliagos Near Antiparos. [Figs 1-2 above] I talked a local boatman into taking me to the tiny offshore islet about 20 years ago to see the over-grown ruins, so seeing colour slides of the site under excavation was a treat. Colin handed over the bulk of the excavation archive to the British School some years ago, but John kept his correspondence and many slides, so I’ll copy a few for teaching, before I pack them off to Athens.

I was also very familiar with John’s Knossos excavations (Fig. 3 above and Fig. 4 below) from 1958-60 and 1969-70, through my own work at the site (our current project was the subject of a post for last year’s DoA by my colleague Andrew Shapland at the British Museum). The eight boxes of notebooks, finds lists, photos, and numerous rolls of plans and sections will be absolutely essential to complete the full publication of this major excavation. I’ve scanned and sent a couple of documents to Peter Tomkins in Leuven, which I know will help his current work on reconstructing the development of the Neolithic community.

Fig. 4. The deep sounding in the central court at Knossos

John is particularly well known for sorting out the sequence of prehistoric occupation on Malta, documented in his 1959 Malta in the classic Thames and Hudson ‘Peoples and Places’ series, and in more detail in his monumental survey of Maltese prehistory, The Prehistoric Antiquities of the Maltese Islands, published in 1971. [Fig. 5 below] Tucked away in the latter are extremely succinct accounts of small but strategic stratigraphic tests he did in 1953-55 in eight Maltese monuments, which enabled him to establish the cultural sequence used in his publications (and still valid) to organise the results from all previous investigations. I have found about 100 photographic negatives and some section sketches from these excavations, but so far, no detailed excavation notes, nor any plans; it is just possible he archived these in Malta, and any plans may be hiding among the many rolls of drawings which I have yet to sort through individually [Fig. 6 below].

Fig. 5. John Evans on Malta, 1954-56.

An exciting surprise was recognising several original excavation notebooks by other investigators on Malta, from 1911 to 1930, which John must have brought back to the UK to draw on for his synthesis, and over 300 early photos of sites and excavations, which should go to the archive of the National Museum in Malta. Some of these seem to have come to John from the Palestine Exploration Fund, and a note says ominously ‘Harris Colt Malta orig: throw away if not wanted 20s or 30s’ – thankfully he didn’t!

I’ve e-mailed a former student, Anthony Pace, now the superintendent for cultural heritage on Malta, to work out how best to return this material. I hope we can locate John’s excavation notes, and link these with his abundant photographic documentation. As well as photos documenting his own tests, there are some 600 negatives of pottery and other finds, only some of which were used in his 1971 volume. More significant are some 300 negatives representing site visits he made in the early 1950s, only a few of which were eventually published, which document the condition of many monuments half a century ago. Altogether, this might just be the spur for a busman’s holiday to Malta, which I’ve wanted to visit for over 30 years.

Fig. 6. Malta excavations 1954. Left: Hagr Qim trench E; right: Mnajdra trench C

What I wasn’t at all familiar with, were John’s unpublished excavations, and I spent the week dashing off to the library, doing web-searches or sending e-mails to colleagues and former students, each time I stumbled across a new paper trail. With some follow-ups this week, I think I’ve now got the outlines, and since none of them are in my own field of specialisation, they generate some of the excitement of discovery, without having to say au revoir to decent coffee.

The first surprise was an excavation John conducted jointly with Francisco Jordá Cerdá of the Seminario de Historia Primitiva del Hombre, in 1950, at the earlier Bronze Age Argaric site of La Bastida de Totana in south-east Spain. This was the last in a series of campaigns in a settlement with abundant intra-mural burials. [Fig. 7 below] I haven’t yet discovered any correspondence to indicate why John got involved, but he spent much of that year in Spain researching his PhD dissertation on the possible relations between Argaric Spain and Early Bronze Age Anatolia. The specifics of how he got involved in the project may eventually emerge from his papers, though I’ve found no clues so far.

Fig. 7. La Bastida, 1950. Left: the excavation area; right: jar burial.

An e-mail to a Spanish former PhD student, Borja Legarra Herrero, now working in both the Aegean and Spain, pointed me to the web-site of the recently resumed excavations at the site, now one of the largest field projects in Spai. There, and in interim publications, the directors indicate that in 2009 John had sent them the original excavation notebooks of his Spanish collaborator, which had been bequeathed to him in 1960, along with a photocopy of his own 1950 excavation notebook (still among his papers). [Fig. 8 below] Seemingly over-looked by John at that time, are 78 cards mounted with excavation photographs, primarily of burials in situ, identified by burial and context. These relate to the 1944-45 seasons of excavations, before John became involved in the project; there must be an interesting story of personalities and politics behind why these were sent to John, but whether we can piece it together from surviving clues at either end remains to be seen.

By chance, I had taught Roberto Risch, a co-director of the new project, during his MA nearly 20 years ago, and an e-mail out of the blue from me received a reply within a couple of hours (though he cut it short because the Portugal vs Czech Republic Euro 2012 game was starting – I guess we all have priorities).

Fig. 8. La Bastida, 1950, excavation notebook

While the notebooks John sent them have allowed members of the current project to restudy the original material for publication, they had not come across these photographs in any archive in Spain, and they have had difficulty reconstructing the contexts of individual burials. (Purely coincidentally, Borja and Roberto met at a conference in Denmark a few weeks ago, and had arranged to meet for dinner while the former is working with me, and the latter is on holiday, on Crete in August; Borja planned to bring me along, though hadn’t yet mentioned it to me – I think I’d better go via the cashpoint, just to play it safe.)

So the first of today’s tasks has been to finish scanning these photographs. Ultimately, I hope the originals will be returned to Spain for archiving with the other dig records and the finds in the newly built museum at the site. In the meantime, the scans should assist the study of the old material, which has been going on for several years, and Roberto is going to get back to me for higher resolution scans of some of the photos, for incorporation into the new museum displays.

The second surprise was a series of small notebooks, a few photographs, more negatives, a few small bags with potsherds, and a box with 1/3 of a skull, from John’s 1956 excavation of three Bronze Age barrows at Earl’s Farm Down, just east of Amesbury, ca. 6 kilometres south-east of Stonehenge. [Fig. 9 below]

John Evans at Earl’s Farm Down, 1956

Amara had her laptop with her, and a Google led to the Wiltshire sites and monuments record, which, while not seemingly aware of John’s excavation, noted the excavation of four nearby barrows by Paul Ashbee in 1956. A quick run up to the library to consult Ashbee’s 1983 publication in the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine confirms which barrows were excavated by John, so we can put them on the map. A contemporary report (by John – uncredited, but the typescript is among his papers), included in N. Thomas 1958, ‘Excavation and field-work in Wiltshire: 1956’ Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine 56:238-40) provides information on each barrow, and indicates that these, as well as Ashbee’s excavations, were undertaken for the Department of the Environment, so this seems to have been fill-in employment just before John took up his appointment as Professor of Prehistoric European Archaeology at the Institute, to succeed Gordon Childe. [Fig. 10 below]

 

Fig. 10. Earl’s Farm Down, 1956, excavation notebook

A much later letter mentions in passing that John thought the finds were all stored in the Institute. On the off chance that there were more than the few sherds he had kept with the notebooks, I fired off an e-mail to my colleague Rachel Sparks, who manages our collections, only to get her out of office message – jury duty! However, that evening I got a message back that a search of the records suggests we have material from Earl’s Farm Down which wasn’t identified as John’s excavation in our records, so has been in that special limbo all collections have for under-documented material.

So the second of today’s tasks has been to see whether this material is from the barrows, and to get an idea of the potential size of a publication project. The writing on the bags is John’s, and the recording system matches that on the few bags he kept with his notes, so that’s confirmed (see Rachel’s DoA entry). There is a fair collection of material, and with it in the box were a few more negatives, as well as a few finds from other sites which had been mis-filed in the same box. So confirmation for me, a few mysteries back to limbo for Rachel to try to sort out – but fewer than she started her DoA with, so I’d say we’re winning.

Writing-up this excavation should be suitable as a student dissertation project, possibly for publication in WAM (I mentioned it in passing to Andrew Reynolds, the editor, and he’s interested), after which the finds and records should probably be archived with other local material in the Salisbury Museum.

A third surprise was that John conducted a single season of trial tests in 1972 in collaboration with local archaeologists at the Iron Age hillfort of Segovia in southern Portugal. John’s principal academic interests were in the Mediterranean Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, so what led him to get involved in a major Iron Age and Roman site? [Fig. 11 below] Hopefully there will be some hint when I can work through the documentation and correspondence systematically.

Again, purely coincidentally, his Portuguese collaborator, José Morais Arnaud, was completing his PhD at Cambridge when I began mine in 1980, and Teresa Judice Gamito expanded the 1972 trenches in connection with her own doctoral research in the early 1980s, publishing her thesis with BAR (Social Complexity in Southwest Iberia 800-300 B.C.), which we have upstairs, though we don’t have the Portuguese journal where she reported her excavations. Her summary indicates the importance of the excavation, providing the principal regional stratified sequence from the Late Bronze Age through the Roman conquest.

Fig 11. Segovia, 1972. Left: site; right, summit trenches

The documentation for this excavation is more extensive, involving several trench notebooks, photos, plans, sections and finds drawings, which I will need more time to sort through. Because the trenches were subsequently extended, I expect John gave his collaborators copies of everything, but I’m chasing this up with José to see if we can supply whatever may be needed for their archives, to facilitate future study.

Following this trial field season, John became Director of the Institute, and administration seems to have taken over his life (a feeling all of us are now experiencing) and he stopped fieldwork; he was only able to return to working on his excavations after his retirement, as several boxes of transcribed notebooks, finds and photo lists for Knossos, along with a large box of computer disks testify (now I have to find a working Amstrad computer, to read the disks, to make sure we have copies of all the relevant files).

Sorting the Segovia records, along with more detailed cataloguing of all of John’s papers, will have to wait until sometime in the winter at earliest, when I may get another chance to unpack the boxes. So I’ve just had to figuratively back-fill my excavation in the archives, until the next season.
But as a final surprise, my query to Rachel about Earl’s Farm Down, has turned-up other materials in our storerooms, brought in by John, and checking these with Rachel is my third task for the DoA, which she has noted in her own DoA account. As well as various small bits of pottery useful for teaching purposes, given to John by excavators during his early travels in Spain, which we may be able to document more fully (presently simply catalogued by site name), two more significant collections exist. We have the human and animal skeletal material from his excavation of six communal rock-cut tombs at Xemxija on Malta. Summary reports on this material were included as appendices in John’s 1971 volume, but more could now be done to study the human remains in terms of community demography, the health and life history of individuals, and the social and ritual contexts of burial; the much smaller collection of animal bones holds much less potential. The former would repay new study, particularly in comparison with more recently excavated material, and could make an excellent dissertation project for a student on our MSc in skeletal and dental bioarchaeology.

The second collection consists of two boxes of carbonised plant remains and soil samples (to which I can add another box John had at home) from Knossos. The site is one of half a dozen representing the earliest Neolithic communities in Europe, established ca. 7000 BC. The plant remains were originally studied as part of the British Academy’s Major Research Project on the Early History of Agriculture, with John taking enthusiastic advantage of the newly developed flotation recovery technique and fine sieving in his 1969-70 excavations. The botanical samples from the two different campaigns were distributed among different specialists in the UK and Denmark.

I had hoped we could track down all of these through the paper trail of John’s administrative correspondence for the project – I wasn’t expecting to find any still in London. Checking them, they are still in bags with their context labels (Rachel and I took the opportunity to replace a few fragile bags) so their study should contribute to our understanding of early agriculture in the Aegean. I’ve notified Valasia Isaakidou of Sheffield University of this material, as she is co-ordinating the study and publication of the environmental and bioarchaeological material recovered by John at Knossos.

Finally, still completely unexplored, are some rolls of plans and a box with the documentation and a few finds from several small excavations conducted by John’s wife, Evelyn Sladdin, before she started her undergraduate degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge and met John. She published one, but the others, small Roman and Medieval digs, apparently not. I may have to pencil-in the ‘excavation’ of that multi-site box for the DoA next year.

So what’s next? My priority for the autumn and winter, to fit in around teaching, will be to catalogue the Knossos documentation, about five times as much as all the rest together, as this major excavation is actively being worked up for publication by a number of colleagues, and the full documentation is eagerly awaited. Peter Tomkins, who is writing-up the stratigraphy and pottery from John’s excavations, and synthesising this with his own extensive work with Sir Arthur Evans’ tests below the Bronze Age palace, is coming to London in September for a meeting at the Society of Antiquaries being organised to commemorate John’s career, so I hope we can start going through this material together then.

It’s frustrating to have started this ‘excavation’, but have to leave it – but then most real excavations are like that too. This has turned into a far larger, but also much more interesting task than I anticipated nearly a year ago when I contacted John’s family. From my conversation with John in 2006, when he was both pleased that his excavations at Knossos were still important, and relieved that their publication would be completed, I’m sure he would approve our excavating his archive, to make the material available to other researchers.

This Day of Archaeology marks the last attention I can give to it for some time, but has clarified what we have, and what we need to do next. Realistically, considering the job ahead (and there is a lot more to his papers than just his excavation documentation), I think it may be some time before I’ll see the floor on that half of my office again. It’s been busy but intriguing – and it isn’t often that one can dig into archaeology in five different countries in one day.

Today has also brought home forcefully three things that confront me every time I work on Knossian material: how productive and cost effective re-examining older material can be, despite the constant push to recover new evidence with up-to-date techniques; that we have a responsibility to squeeze as much information as we can out of what we dig up – it is a non-renewable resource; and how crucial it is to understand our own disciplinary history – who collected what, when and why – to understand that evidence most effectively.

I’d like to thank Judith and Mike Conway, John Lewis, Andrew Reynolds, Kelly Trifilo, Stephen Shennan, Cathy Morgan, Peter Warren, Sandra Bond, Katie Meheux and Gabe Moshenska who helped arrange for and assisted the transfer of the material to the Institute of Archaeology; Lisa Fentress, Reuben Grima, Borja Legarra Herrero, José Morais Arnaud, Anthony Pace, Colin Renfrew, Artur Ribeiro, Roberto Risch and Tim Schadla-Hall for responding to my queries; Stuart Laidlaw for scanning slides and negatives; Amara Thornton for helping me sort John’s papers and providing details about some of the colourful characters who dug on the then colonial ‘circuit’; Rachel Sparks for chasing Institute collections records, digging out John’s material from the Institute storerooms, and helping me look through it; and the DoA folks for coping with this submission.

All images from J. D. Evans archive.