The world’s media reported in August that a huge timber fence was used to separate ordinary mortals from the privileged classes at Stonehenge. Josh Pollard, of Bristol University, whose team of diggers has found the post pits for a 20ft high fence snaking for nearly 3km (2 miles) around the stone circle, was quoted as describing the palisade as an ‘open structure which would not have been defensive and was too high to be practical for controlling livestock.’ The most plausible explanation, he said, ‘is that it was built to keep the lower classes from seeing what exactly their rulers and the priestly class were doing’.
Or did he? Josh says he has no recollection of saying any of those things: ‘I certainly do not envisage Neolithic society being divided along class lines, and the palisade is middle or late Bronze Age in date – all part of a system of later prehistoric boundaries dividing Stonehenge and the Normanton Down area from surrounding field systems and settlements.’
That’s a pity: a dramatic Neolithic screen dividing the landscape would have fitted nicely with current theories about the binary nature of the Stonehenge landscape (realms of the living and the dead) and would have given English Heritage the perfect excuse for barring access to the henge; they could simply have said ‘archaeological authenticity demands that we keep you on the outside of the fence’.
Internet maps wipe Stonehenge off the map.
Not that anyone will be able to find Stonehenge before long, according to Mary Spence, President of the Royal Cartographic Society. Addressing the Royal Geographical Society in August, she lamented the fact that digital mapping services have wiped heritage off the map: ‘the quirks, nooks and crannies of the landscape have vanished into the grey spaces between the roads’, she said, pointing to Tewksbury as an example (try it on Google maps: the Tewkesbury Park Golf Club is prominently marked, but there is no sign of the abbey or battlefield.)
It is ironic, Ms Spence said, that ‘corporate cartographers should be demolishing thousands of years of history’ at a time when the collective knowledge of the British landscape has never been greater. A fuss about nothing? Apparently not: sales of maps and atlases have fallen by 36 per cent since 2004 as more and more people choose to rely on the impoverished online and sat-nav versions.
Floodlit churches: any excuse for a party
If churches no longer feature on maps, perhaps floodlighting will ensure that you can’t miss them, at least when travelling by night. That, at least, was the intended result of the millions of pounds of lottery money that have been used to install floodlights at 400 of the UK’s historic places of worship. But the climate is now – literally – different, and the Church of England is advising parishes to reduce their carbon footprint by the sparing use of floodlighting. ‘Let there be light, but not too often’ is the advice given in their new green guide. Like Michael Palin, Anglicans always try to look on the bright side, so the guide suggests that occasional illumination could be turned into an opportunity for celebration – perhaps a sponsored evening to celebrate a community anniversary or event.
Floodlighting is used for a very different purpose in London’s Grosvenor Square, where the American Embassy, with its dry moat and concrete barriers, resembles a citadel rather than a welcoming symbol of the land of the free. Ask any London taxi driver what they think of its brutal intrusion into the green Georgian square and they will say, without intended irony, ‘put a bomb under it’.
English Heritage disagrees and is thinking of listing it; not for its associative values (target of anti-Vietnam demonstrations throughout the 60s and 70s) but for its architectural ‘merits’. This does not please the US ambassador who wants to put the embassy up for sale and fears that listing could halve the building’s estimated £200m value.
This same ambassador was described by former London mayor Ken Livingstone as a ‘chiselling little crook’ because the embassy refuses to pay the congestion charge. Why should Ken be surprised? The Grosvenor Estate owns the ground on which the Embassy is built and once offered to give it to the US; all they wanted in return was the restitution of land in Virginia ‘confiscated’ at the time of the War of Independence.
Viking raids: the latest theory
Moats and high monastic walls proved no defence against marauding Vikings, whose murderous behaviour made life miserable for defenceless monks and nuns from the late 8th century. Now James Barratt, of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in Cambridge, has come up with a novel explanation for the Viking age: forget drunkenness, hooliganism, testosterone, greed or gang mentality – the reason for all that rape, murder, pillage and arson was that the lads just wanted to get married and settle into a home of their own.
In his Antiquity paper, Barratt argues that the spoils of Viking raids end up in female graves: competition for a wife meant you needed to get your hands on enough silver to pay ‘bride-wealth’. No wonder some Vikings decided one day that they would just not bother going home: if what they really desired was a nice farm and a comely wife, settling in Yorkshire or Lincolnshire must have seemed a tempting alternative to a life of thuggery.
veryone seems to have gone Hadrian mad: in Newcastle they have even held a Hadrian look-alike competition, won by Durham archaeology graduate Paul Jarman, now Curator of Transport at Beamish Museum in County Durham. Paul’s prize is to be used as the body double for the Emperor Hadrian, whose life-size image will welcome visitors to the Great North Museum when it opens in Newcastle next year.
Other lucky stand-ins for people from the past include Naomi Hewitt, who runs the Newcastle-based Explore Your Environment project, who will be depicted in a fetching calfskin robe with vegetable fibre braided belt in her guise as a Mesolithic woman living in a 10,000-year old hut, and Sylvia Humphrey, Assistant Keeper of Biology at Tyne & Wear Museums, who will be depicted in ‘a half-bleached linen smock as worn by Iron Age women’.
From Diary, Current Archaeology 224