Cakes, Cottages and Manky Bones

Hello!  Gabe here.  I teach archaeology-type things at UCL, but I don’t get to dig as much as I’d like to. This year I was very excited to be able to spend the Day of Archaeology at the Museum of London’s community archaeology project at Headstone Manor in Harrow, North London, where I’ve been helping out for a few weeks.  Headstone Manor is a medieval site with a rather lovely moat full of ducks – the site was a farm for centuries, and the dig is aimed at examining the remains of farm workers’ cottages.


In the morning it rained, so to protect our precious field-school participants from getting wet we ran an impromptu indoor teaching session on human remains. The Museum of London provided a skelly – a rather nice medieval male specimen with a truly horrifying spine.  As we laid him out we saw his very worn teeth, and the severe lipping and spurring (growths of bone) on the vertebrae.  The general impression was “ouch”.

Back on the trench when the rain stopped, we got back to revealing the outline of the cottage with its flint and brick foundations and the outlines of brick outbuildings, including a mysterious circular feature (see above, on the left of the trench).


Away from the cottage, we were busy planning the rather tangled set of layers, lenses and splodges in the east end of the trench, which is both nasty and confusing.  While we were cleaning it up a local resident stopped by for a chat.  I told him what we were up to, and he told me he’d never seen middle-class people working so hard – high praise indeed … I think.

Tea break!  Both me and digger Anna had made cakes for the last day of the fieldschool, so we had a classy carby break – I made cherry and almond loaf cake (Nigella’s recipe), and Anna made a delicious chocolate banana cake.


At the end of the day we gathered around the finds processing area to look at some of the stuff that’d been found during the week, including big lumps of an iron hearth, and an assortment of mostly nineteenth century finds including clay pipe, ceramics and glassware.


Finally, a review of the weeks results on the trench by site director Ian Blair.  In the picture you can see the front wall of the cottage (partly robbed out) with part of a brick floor to the left.  All in all we had a great week of fieldschool fun with a fantastic team, some lovely finds and features, and great cakes.  Still, it’s that twisted and spiky medieval spine that sticks in my mind – ugh!

Thanks to everybody on the dig!  See (some of) you next week.

Want to see the dig? There’s a FREE open day at Headstone Manor on July 20th from 12 to 4.  Pop in for some family friendly activities. Come and see some finds from the site, go on a site tour and experience medieval re-enactments.

Headstone Manor is located at Pinner View, Harrow, HA2 6PX. The closest station is Harrow and Wealdstone.

Michael Faraday: Archaeological Scientist?

Was Michael Faraday (1791-1867), the greatest scientist of his age, also a pioneering archaeological scientist?  New evidence suggests that he was, even if his contribution has long since been forgotten. 



Michael Faraday in the 1830s (from Wikimedia Commons)

Over the past few days I’ve been trying to piece together some clues to a (minor) historical mystery: was the famous and brilliant nineteenth-century scientist Michael Faraday one of the first people to use scientific methods to analyse archaeological materials?  If so, this raises some interesting questions, and may contradict some of what we think we know about early ‘antiquarian’ archaeology.

Most of my work on the history of archaeology has focused on the histories of public archaeology and of Egyptian mummy studies.  A few weeks ago in the footnotes to Thomas Pettigrew’s History of Egyptian Mummies published in 1834 I found a reference to “Dr. Faraday, the highly-talented professor of chemistry at the Royal Institution” and a note from Faraday describing his study of some crystals found inside a mummy:

“The small needle-like crystals are very curious … It burns with a bright flame, and evidently abounds in carbon and hydrogen.  It is not soluble in water, and has the odour, when heated, of a fatty matter; but then alkali acts very feebly upon it … The substance may probably be a result of slow action upon organic (perchance animal) matter”

Faraday and the Egyptian mummy scholar Pettigrew had known each other since childhood, and their collaboration might just have been Faraday doing a favour for an old friend.  Still it intrigued me.  I checked, and none of the huge pile of Faraday biographies published over the years mention him having an interest in archaeology.

I consulted with Faraday expert Professor Frank James, who pointed me to a set of letters that Faraday had exchanged in the early 1830s with John Gage of Hengrave Hall, an antiquarian who worked mostly on the history of Suffolk, as well as conducting excavations of mounds and monuments.

Gage published several article in the Society of Antiquaries journal Archaeologia in the 1830s, including several reports of excavations in Essex and Suffolk.  Having hunted these articles down, for the past few days I’ve been reading through them to try and understand Faraday’s contributions.  Gage describes excavating monuments including a Roman tomb, and sending the finds off to be analysed.  He sent the bones to William Clift, conservator at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, and the rest he sent to Faraday.

Faraday’s report is included in one of the Archaeologia articles.  It contains  descriptions of the artefacts including glass bottles, a coin, and some fatty and resinous lumps.  His report says that he boiled, burned, distilled, sniffed, crystallised, dissolved and weighed them: as comprehensive a set of analyses as mid-nineteenth century science could offer.  Not quite what modern archaeological scientists get up to (I gather), but not too far off either.  Enough to say that Michael Faraday can definitely be called an archaeological scientist – and a very early one at that.

The history of archaeology, we are taught, is one of emerging from darkness towards enlightenment: amateurish antiquarians gave way to stratigraphers and scientists, and today we’re all enlightened post-post-processualists.  Or something. Of course nothing’s that simple – we all stand on the shoulders of giants, even if it’s more fashionable to give those who came before us a good kicking.

The fact that Michael Faraday (and others such as Clift) provided specialist reports for archaeological publications in the 1830s doesn’t necessarily mean that he sparked the development of modern archaeological science: in fact his contribution appears to have been forgotten.  But it’s reminded me that the history of archaeology contains all sorts of curiosities and oddities that make it fun and worthwhile.

Gabe Moshenska, UCL Institute of Archaeology.

An Archaeological Ancestor

This afternoon I’ve been reading the private correspondence of Thomas Pettigrew, a nineteenth century archaeologist and surgeon whose life and work I’m studying.  The history of archaeology is full of colourful and odd characters, and Pettigrew is no exception: in his long and turbulent career he vaccinated Queen Victoria, co-founded the British Archaeological Association, got fired from Charing Cross Hospital for corruption, and mummified the Duke of Hamilton.  In his spare time he unrolled Egyptian mummies – more than forty in his lifetime, earning the nickname “Mummy” Pettigrew – and wrote the first scientific book on mummy studies.

The world of Victorian archaeology was a tempestuous one, and Thomas Pettigrew seems to have been involved in every conspiracy, cat-fight and slanging match that he could find.  One of his numerous enemies wrote of him that:

“Petulance, captiousness, and jealousy, are still among his characteristics.  The concoction of intrigues, the packing of meetings, and the confusion of congresses are still his delight.  The fomenting of suspicions by misrepresenting to each of his colleagues what the rest are alleged to say in their disparagement … is still his constant habit.  And ‘divide and rule’ is still his favourite maxim.”

A fascinating person to study – but I’m glad I never met him!