Iron Age

Bones, teeth, isotopes and the Festival of Archaeology

Another year another Day of Archaeology! Big up the team that keeps this initiative going and sorry to hear that this may be the last!

My 2017 Day of Archaeology is typically varied. I’m a Lecturer in Archaeological Science at Cardiff University and am in the midst of a very busy summer! First up, writing, writing, writing. I’m working on a paper for a new Historic England project at West Amesbury, in the Stonehenge landscape. The site is only a couple of miles from Stonehenge and is Middle Neolithic, so a few hundred years before the stone circle’s heyday. We know that Stonehenge and nearby sites like Durrington Walls drew people and animals from far and wide in the Late Neolithic, but we know much less about the earlier phase. I did some isotope work on cattle and pigs from the site and results suggest that they were all from the local area, so perhaps the Stonehenge area was not such a hub in the Middle Neolithic. More information on the project can be found here:

Next up, a quick meeting with Katie Faillace, a dental anthropologist from the USA who is starting a PhD at Cardiff in October. She is coming in to look at some unusual teeth we have from a newly excavated cemetery in North Wales. They may have a very unusual trait that is rare in UK populations – but I’m eager for a second opinion!

After that I’m dashing up the road to the National Museum of Wales to give a family friendly and interactive talk on human bone analysis in archaeology, as part of the 2017 Festival of Archaeology.

The rest of the afternoon will be spent in the lab, preparing human bone samples from the Iron Age hillfort at South Cadbury, Somerset for thin section analysis. This involves cutting small pieces of bone, mounting them in resin and then cutting very thin sections to analyse under a microscope. By looking at how bacteria have attacked the bone, we can learn how the bodies were treated after death. The image aboveshows a poorly preserved bone, with lots of bacterial attack. This is very important for Iron Age Britain as we still don’t really know what people did with their dead. We don’t find many human bones and when we do they are often very unusual – odd fragments, skulls or other parts of the body, often deposited in disused grain storage pits. I’m working on this with two students, Lois Turnbull and Selina Trout, who are funded by the Cardiff Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme (CUROP), see the link for more information.



Talking torcs…two years on!

Almost to the day two years ago, we blogged here about a day spent at the National Civil War Centre looking at the Newark torc. What started out as a replica commission has, over the last two years, turned into a wider investigation into the technology and method of manufacture of later Iron Age gold torus torcs and which has produced results that no-one, least of all us, expected to find. It seems fitting to share a summary of these results here, two years after our quest began.

The Newark torc

When asked to replicate something, one of the first things you have to do is to try to understand how it was made – the accepted theory for these types of torcs is that wires were hammered and twisted into a neck ring, before having the hollow terminals cast on to the wires, using a process called lost wax casting.

However, having looked at the Newark torc, we both felt that the cast-on terminal construction method was unlikely as a fault in the process – common in such a difficult manufacturing method – would potentially force the entire procedure to be re-started. In such a precious and rare metal as a high-content gold alloy, this would clearly be undesirable. So our initial thought was that the terminals were cast separately, before being soldered to the neck ring. But it would only be by looking at torcs that we would find out what was really happening.

The Newark torc is complete which, although making it very beautiful, means it is very difficult to see inside and we could not test whether our ‘terminals cast separately’ theory was borne out in the evidence. What we needed was a torc of a similar type….but broken! A quick search soon provided such a thing, in the shape of the Netherurd torc terminal. Found in Peebles in 1806, and housed in the National Museum of Scotland this lone terminal had been removed from the neck ring in antiquity and offered the chance to look inside it. So, off to Scotland we went!

The Netherurd Torc terminal

We expected to see dendrites, dribbles and other signs of casting. What we did not expect to see was evidence of repoussé- many indentations on the interior showing the opposite of the relief decoration on the exterior! The Netherurd terminal was not cast, or cast on: it was made from gold sheet, hammered into shape with the decoration added from the rear before being finished and chased on the surface of the torc. In addition, there was evidence of seams marking the joining of several metal sheets, which appeared to show that it had been constructed from a donut shaped piece of sheet gold which then had a central ‘apple core’ (we do like our food metaphors!) of material added to create the central hole. Only after this was the collar fixed to the terminal, and the complete terminal then soldered to the wire neck ring.

A working model of the opened Netherurd terminal, showing its method of manufacture.

This was not at all as we expected. Furthermore, if Netherurd was made of sheet, were any of the others? Newark we could not be sure of but it soon became apparent we needed to look at more torcs! So it was back to London and to The British Museum to look first at Sedgeford, and then at the Snettisham Grotesque Torc.

The Sedgeford terminal

Examination of Sedgeford made clear that this torc was cast and it looked as if the terminals were cast on. However, recent x-ray work by Dan O’Flynn of the British Museum Science Department has shown that in fact the Sedgeford torc was manufactured using separately cast terminals, attached using a very precise fixing method of snuggly fitting cast sections secured by rods and possibly, although this has yet to be confirmed, without the use of solder.

The Grotesque torc from Snettisham

The Grotesque torc, although known to be sheet is assumed to be much earlier than the other hollow torus torcs. However, it too showed evidence of a donut construction method, with a centrally added ‘apple core’ as seen in Netherurd. So we now had Netherurd and the Grotesque showing the same technique, Sedgeford as cast, and Newark as still uncertain.

At this point, we were offered help by the Materials group at The National Physical Laboratory, who subjected the Newark Torc to X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT). Although the results, due to the difficulties of working with such a dense material as gold, were not as clear as we’d hoped, there was enough evidence to show that the Newark torc was also constructed in sheet, with 3D microscopy showing evidence of metal smearing over the area where we would expect the ‘apple core’ join to be.

Detail of the Snettisham Great Torc

The list of sheet work torcs kept growing: Netherurd, the Grotesque and now Newark. Where next? The next obvious torc target was one of the grandest gold torcs in the world: The Snettisham Great Torc. Weighing it at 1084g of 22kt gold, this torc was found by farmhand, Tom Rout, on the Ken Hill estate in Snettisham in 1950. Having recently installed new x-ray equipment at the British Museum, it was agreed that the Great Torc would be examined.

And this brings us bang up to date with this year’s Day of Archaeology. Yesterday, we went to the British Museum to see the Great Torc x-ray results and they were better than we could ever imagine: The Great Torc terminals are definitely made from sheet gold, with repoussé decoration, and were also constructed using the same ‘apple core’ and donut method predicted by Roland and I in 2016.

The Snettisham Great Torc. (Image courtesy of Jody Joy and The British Museum).

This brings the total to three previously unrecognised sheet work gold torcs (Netherurd, Newark and the Great Torc), a fourth whose sheet construction method is now understood (the Grotesque) and a fifth torc (Sedgeford) whose cast terminals seem to be more cleverly achieved than was previously assumed. So where now?

For us, what started as a simple question with an apparently simple answer has turned into an ever increasing list of questions with research implications far beyond the Newark torc. The answers to these questions are likely to have knock on effects on the current thinking regarding Iron Age metalworking technology, trade/exchange and dating. In addition to the technological aspects we have also been investigating the decoration and tooling on the torcs and have found further intriguing results which would appear to suggest that the Netherurd and Newark torcs were made – not just in the same workshop – but also by the same craftsperson! In torcs found some 200 miles apart in Nottinghamshire and Scotland, this is unexpected and very exciting.

We are currently in the process of writing up our findings for peer reviewed publication, are preparing conference papers and are continuing to investigate various other aspects of these fabulous torcs. We suspect, if we post here again in two years time, we will have much more to tell – but we also suspect that these enigmatic objects will be posing yet more questions for us for many years to come.

And who knows, one day we may even get to do what we originally planned…and replicate the Newark torc!

Tess Machling & Roland Williamson


Entirely self funded, we have benefited hugely from the generosity and kindness of many people over the past two years: the curators of the various torcs – Glyn Hughes, Fraser Hunter, Julia Farley, Jody Joy, Tim Pestell and John Davies are greatly thanked. In addition, we are extremely grateful for the kind and generous help given by the Materials team at NPL -Rob Brooks, Tony Fry, Hannah Corcoran, Stephen Brown and Eric Bennett. Dan O’Flynn and members of the Science Department at the British Museum have offered great assistance in carrying out the x-rays of the Sedgeford and Great Torc and are thanked for their help.


Heritage and Identity: Setting up a new Public Archaeology project…

Despite a broken ankle, life goes on. Today I am working on the set-up of a new project I have just started at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, in London, UK, with colleagues Prof. Richard Hingley and Dr. Tom Yarrow from the Archaeology and Anthropology Departments at Durham University.

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Broken but scooter-aided researcher (me) goes to work.

This is a really exciting new adventure, especially in these times of heated debate over what it means to be English, British, European or (as I regard myself) simply (?) a world citizen with roots in all those great and diverse places where you are lucky enough to have family, friends and colleagues.

The project is called ‘Iron Age and Roman Heritages: Exploring ancient identities in modern Britain‘, and is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council for a period of three years. Through this research we are hoping to understand how Iron Age, Roman and Early Medieval pasts live in present-day Britain. How are they researched, variously used, performed and interpreted by different individuals and groups, and why? What are the implications?

The project is divided in two parts which will run in parallel until 2019. One is based at UCL, where I will be focussing on the analysis of digital heritages (Dan Pett, from the British Museum, Andy Bevan and Mark Altaweel, from UCL, are also helping!); the second part, led by Richard and Tom in Durham, is centred on offline ethnography.


Boadicea at Westmister Bridge, London, England.

During the project, we will also invite whoever might be interested in participating in our research to do so online, through the MicroPasts crowdsourcing website, which is indeed still up, running … and busy! In October, I will visit Daniel Lombrana-Gonzales and his team, in Madrid, and, together, we will create a new crowdsourcing application to aid the analysis of web data. People will be able to login and identify (via tagging) the aspects of Iron Age and Roman pasts that appear in a range of texts that are published online like newspaper or magazine articles, for example.

So, stay on the look, we’d love you to join the team!




Just how are archaeologists made?

The world of professional archaeology is a varied and wonderful thing but sometimes it’s easy to get absorbed into the daily grind and forget what it was that got you into archaeology in the first place. Sometimes though, there are times when that spark re-ignites and you walk home with a bounce in your step, unburdened by the weight of those planning applications you have to comment on or reports that are waiting patiently to go into the Historic Environment Record. I’ve experienced one of those times recently during the supervision of a work experience placement. It came during the handling of objects notably, a flint tool of possible Palaeolithic date. When describing the manufacture of this object and the fact that we were only a handful of people to have touched it in thousands of years, made me remember why I love the subject so much. Seeing inspiration dawn and the glow of excitement re-ignites the embers of that spark and you realise just how privileged you are….

 Here at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, we’re lucky to be able to offer work experience placements across the Service for students who are studying from A levels right up to higher education. It’s a somewhat unique experience as we combine archaeology and archives so students can get a broad knowledge of the diversity of roles. For the past three weeks, Kat Webber, an A level student, has been with us working on a variety of projects throughout the Service. Here she describes her experience during her time with us…

Sacrificing four weeks of my last ever school summer holiday perhaps seemed a little daunting three weeks ago. However, as I sit here now, in the comfortable archaeological niche in the basement of the Hive (Worcester library), it is a with disappointed frown that I realise next Monday will be the start of my last week here. Of course, I am tired; even with all the unsympathetic glares of more seasoned workers as I go on about my long 10-til-4 shift, concentrating for a whole day (especially so when the hottest day of the year was spent in an office-like greenhouse, three floors up, typing records into the HER system) is hard work.

I wouldn’t ever complain though, this opportunity has surpassed my expectations ten-fold.

Archaeology, as I found out at a young age having experienced the wonders of Indiana Jones, is not all cursed hidden treasure and precarious chases on the tops of speeding trains, (though I still have a week left, so you never know). What I didn’t realise though was its true extent, far beyond that of the movies. It’s about preserving, displaying and expanding history; it’s about public outreach, conservation and filling in the unknown, about problem solving, people and waiting an aggravating amount of time for a GIS map to load.

To me, ‘History’ holds the most elusive agenda in modern life. Yes, there are reaches of science that boggle even the brightest, space travel and time are too almost foreign to our species – and the future is one big scary unknown (being a student on the verge of leaving home I know this more than most). The past, though, is something that has actually happened and yet we know so little about. A whole different type of speculation.

That is why, while holding the remnants of a Neolithic decorated pot in my suitably dusty hands, I was almost brought to tears. The idea that 5000 years ago someone, so much like us but so far away, went out of their way to create such a beautiful, intricate (ironic) legacy. Not once would they have believed that so far in the future I would stand, awestruck by their design, with my thumb in the grooved pattern made by their own. This was a person who wouldn’t have even comprehended such a future. To think that their imagination was as powerful a force as to survive through eons, it’s both enlightening and harrowing.

My time in Finds has been extraordinary to say the least. From the 2000 year old roman pottery that, wonderfully, still holds the traces of the maker’s fingerprints, to the magnificent presence of an almost whole mammoth tusk found in my very own Worcestershire (even in the windowless and a little cramped confines of the storage rooms, I could imagine the size and power of such a beast as if it were right in front of me.) These last two days processing and bagging Iron Age pottery from a recent site, even this has been incomparable. Getting distracted by large trays of pot fragments and attempting to recreate segments like a three dimensional monotonous jigsaw where you don’t know which pieces you have or don’t.

Most of my time, however, was spent with the Historic Environment Record department upstairs. This is where archaeology meets present tense. When a company or organisation wants to build somewhere it must be checked for archaeological potential, which of course makes a lot of sense, yet many people simply don’t appreciate the work that goes into it. A lot of work – DBAs or WBs (I have learned a lot of abbreviations), the steps that go to protecting our past are prolific.

Archaeologists, I think, are a separate group of people. They see things through the eyes of archaeological knowledge, of course, but from my experience they are also more aware, individual and wistful. I may be a little biased, of course, in planning to study Archaeology and Anthropology at university. I have asked so many questions and all have been answered with a smile and a laugh. Along with the amazing experiences, that smile and laugh is something I will be taking with me when I leave.

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Talking torcs in Newark

Our day of archaeology was spent at Newark English Civil War Museum examining the Iron Age Newark torc. This torc, which was discovered by a metal detectorist in 2005, has recently been bought by the museum and has rightly returned to the town where it was found.

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With an eye to replicating the torc, we had the very great pleasure of being able to examine the torc up close and even to hold it. It is a truly beautiful thing. Apparently showing signs of wear on one side (the silver in the electrum has become prominent), it is unexpectedly heavy and…even more surprising…very springy. It would clearly have been easy to get onto your neck although I’m not sure I’d have fancied wearing it for too long as I fear it would have caused neck ache!

The photos show Roland William examining the torc…..and demonstrating the ancient art of torc manufacture through the medium of fruit!

A truly memorable day… 🙂

Tess Machling & Roll Williamson

Crafting Stories of the Past: Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project 2015

Two weeks today the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project was packing up and leaving Perthshire, Scotland.  Trenches in various locations around the small village of Dunning had been excavated, recorded and were ready to be back-filled by machine.  SERF is both a multi-period research project and an archaeological field school run by the University of Glasgow since 2007.  This year we had over 50 participants helping out with fieldwork which revealed evidence from the Early Neolithic, Iron Age, Medieval and Modern periods.

Today the SERF team is sorting through the variety of materials that have come back from the field, piecing them together to create stories about the past.  Dr Dene Wright, director of the excavations of the Early Neolithic pit complex at Wellhill, has been making sense of the records (drawings, context sheets, notes and photographs), and completing his data structure report.  During this process a final check is done to ensure that all the records correspond to one other, when they don’t amendments are made and further notes are taken.  Dene can then draw links between features, compare the results from this site to others, and then put into words an initial interpretation for the site, situating it into wider narrative.

But, of course, there is still work to be done which will impact on how the site is interpreted.   Post-excavation processing is just beginning.  Gert Petersen (Laboratory Technician), pictured here with student Ilia Barbukov, has just started to sort through the residue materials from the flotation of soil samples.  The residues are carefully examined for carbonised wood and grains, bone, and any other artefacts.  These will then be sent to specialists, such as palaeobotanists, for further identification and analysis.

Now is also the time to sort through our finds and get them ready for specialists. This year we retrieved a record number of pottery sherds (relative to other SERF years).  Wellhill produced just under 200 pottery sherds, many of which came from a pit that also yielded our first fragment of a polished stone axe.  A variety of pottery sherds also came from our hillfort excavation at Dun Knock.  Although all the pottery was first thought to be of Iron Age date,  sherds from one of the ditches were unusual for this time period and may be much earlier.  This is where our specialist, Dr Ann MacSween, will come in and examine the whole assemblage.  Today all the sherds have been cleaned and were laid out in the lab ready for inspection.

For me (Dr Tessa Poller) today was also about interpretation and pulling together the evidence from the hillfort excavations at Dun Knock.  Like Dene I have a data structure report to write and much of my time has been collating the records from the site director Cathy MacIver.  The SERF hillfort programme, which has investigated ten forts over the past nine years, has also been piloting a digital visualisation project.  In collaboration with Dr Alice Watterson and Kieran Baxter this project is about exploring how archaeologists formulate and communicate interpretations, utilising digital media and visualisations as tools in this process.   Today I had a meeting with Alice to discuss progress, look over footage recorded in the field, suggest further work and to pull together a structure for a paper we will be presenting at the EAA conference in Glasgow.  Exciting ideas flow as this is all new to me and there are lots of creative potential.

Although we may not be in the field for long, there is always work to be done on the SERF project and more fantastic findings to be made.

Aerial view of the Neolithic pits at Wellhill 2015.

Aerial view of the Neolithic pits at Wellhill 2015.

Dr Dene Wright collating records for Wellhill.

Dr Dene Wright collating records for Wellhill.

Gert Petersen and Ilia Barbukov sorting through soil residues.

Gert Petersen and Ilia Barbukov sorting through soil residues.

Prehistoric pottery from SERF excavations.

Prehistoric pottery from SERF excavations.

Dr Alice Watterson collaborating on a digital visulisation project.

Dr Alice Watterson collaborating on a digital visulisation project.

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Iron Age textiles on bronzes

Today I’m writing up my analysis of Iron Age textiles represented on the sheet bronze artefacts of northern Italy. These buckets, belt buckles and scabbards are called situla art and date to the 6th century BC. The miniature figures embossed and engraved on the bronzes are enjoying themselves feasting, drinking and riding their fine horses. The textiles are recorded with tiny points and tool marks. I’m finding ways to calculate their quantity and quality because I want to understand the textile economy.


Modern copy of the Montebellunas situla

The photo shows a reconstruction of a bronze bucket at Montebelluna museum in north Italy. The other photo is me trying my hand at embossing a figure. I was on a field visit there earlier in the year.

It’s great to get a quiet hour or two over the summer to read. This afternoon I was reading Peter Wells book on “Image and Response in Early Europe”, where he talks about the way people respond to this kind of art by tracing around the shape of the object with their eyes then focusing on the detailed areas. The figures on the shiny bronzes would certainly have attracted attention.

The same can be said of the textiles themselves, and there is evidence that large, intricately patterned and multi-coloured textiles were particularly prized in the early first millennium BC.

I’m a Research Associate at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London. Some of my papers can be downloaded here. For more about the ERC PROCON textile economy project click here or check us out on Facebook. If you have any questions get in touch, I like to hear from fellow enthusiasts.

Where art meets archaeology: Finding artefacts for an art exhibition of excavations at Calleva Atrebatum

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog:

Nicole Beale

Sarah is a volunteer at Hampshire Cultural Trust and has been working with Lesley (who is not in today so we couldn’t get a snap of her!) to prepare a display on some of the material from 1970s and 1980s excavations at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester).

Sarah – A Trust volunteer

The pieces will be on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke, another Trust managed museum, from the 15th to the 29th August and will accompany a special exhibition ‘Silchester: Life on the Dig’ which is made up of works by Silchester’s Artist in Residence for 2014, Jenny Halstead.

The exhibition will be on display in numerous other locations in the south, but the Silchester objects that Sarah has been selecting will be exclusive to the Willis Museum.

Sarah and Lesley need to choose a representative sample of objects, but also to identify objects that are appropriate for display, because they have an interesting feature, are not too fragile, and in the case of some of the tiny coins, large enough to see!

They picked out a selection of coins, there is also a glass bead that will be included in the display.

Coins! Lots of coins!

I don’t know what I love more, the coins, or the envelopes that the coins are stored in

Lovely coins

The glass bead

Sarah is holding a whetstone that is a fragment of sandstone, originally used as a roof tile, and then reused as a whetstone to sharpen chisels.

Sarah is holding the whetstone

The whetstone

The Samian bowl is very attractive and caught the eye of both of them when they were selecting items. It has all sorts of animals, including a deer, a goat, a hare, a boar, a bird, a dolphin, around the outside of it, and Sarah and Lesley thought that it would be fun to find out a bit more about the decoration. The bowl was made in Lezoux in the 2nd century AD.

The Samian bowl

A boar and a hunting dog?

A hare

The pair also found some nice details on some of the tiles in the stores, including one that has a clear dog print on it.

Some of the tiles and brickwork from Silchester

Naughty dog

Finally, just before re-packaging the items to be sent over to the Willis Museum, Sarah needs to type and print labels that will go on display alongside the objects. This task can be quite time consuming as it is nice to be able to provide a little contextual information for each object, and so some research must be done for some of the less common artefacts.

The objects will be on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke:

Nicole Beale

Taking the Iron Age to the Romans: Researching Iron Age finds for an open day at Rockbourne Roman Villa

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog:

Nicole Beale

Two of the Trust’s volunteers, Peter and Jane, have spent the morning working through a collection of artefacts from a late Iron Age site near to Rockbourne.

Peter and Jane checking objects against the archive inventory

The site was excavated in the mid-1970s as part of a British Gas pipeline being installed, and our intrepid volunteers have been doing some detective work to try to make connections between the objects from the stores here at Chilcomb and the paper archive which was published some time ago.

Objects need to be located and then checked. This is also a great opportunity to re-pack some of the more fragile objects.

Rockbourne Roman Villa is run by the Trust and this weekend will be hosting a family fun day. The event organisers want to celebrate the area’s Iron Age connections, and so the team at Chilcomb have been set to task to find objects to showcase on the day.

In the first few boxes, they had already found some great objects to be taken up to Rockbourne for visitors to see.

Lots to work through!

In one of the boxes, Jane unpacks a huge tankard. It’s much larger than we had all expected and lots of jokes about the serious business of beer-drinking in the Iron Age ensue.

Jane finds an Iron Age tankard

The huge tankard

Unpacking the tankard

Next, they unpack fragments of a kiln lip. On the underside there are clear finger-marks, left from where the clay had been quickly shaped.

The kiln rim

The pair spend some time focussing on the profile of a Late Iron Age large pot that is in several parts, and manage to piece it back together. It will provide a great prop for showing younger visitors how archaeologists can infer pot shapes from diagnostic sherds.

Hang on a minute, I think there’s a good profile here…

Does this go here?

Now we’ve got it!

Tucked into one of the boxes is a nice example of a spindle whorl and also a small box which contains a bronze pin, probably from a brooch.

The brooch pin (you can just see the spindle whorl under Jane’s right hand)

A big pot!

Still plenty left to unpack and check

Peter and Jane

We’ll create labels for all of these objects and then transport them up to Rockbourne in time for the event on Sunday. Do come along if you’re in the area.

More about the event:

Nicole Beale