Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.
A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 3 January. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI347, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.
In last month’s column, I picked some of my favourite covers from the first hundred issues of Current Archaeology, the years 1967-1986, a period that has come to be seen by some as a ‘golden age’ of rescue archaeology, and by others less happily as a desperate scramble to gather sufficient resources to stem the tide of destruction. Continuing with this theme, in this and next month’s column I will explore the stories behind some of the covers in issues 101-200, the years 1986-2005. This was a tumultuous time for archaeology; in hindsight – although no one fully realised it at the time – it was a transitory period between the 1980s quasi-planning controls (with their roots in the 1960s and 1970s ‘rescue’ movement) and the emergence of fully ‘commercial’ archaeology as a consequence of PPG 16 (Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning), published by the government in March 1990. It is the waning of one age of archaeology and the birth of another, as seen through the pages of Britain’s foremost archaeological magazine.
CUTTING THE CLOTH TO SUIT THE PURSE
As an example of the unexpected circumstances in which archaeologists sometimes find themselves during the course of their work, the cover of CA 101 (August 1986) takes some beating. It shows a waterproofed Birthe Kjølbye-Biddle explaining the fieldwork then under way at St Albans Abbey, Hertfordshire, to the robed duo of Robert Runcie (Archbishop of Canterbury between 1980 and 1991) and the Catholicos of All Armenians (the leader of an eastern branch of the Catholic church at that time visiting the United Kingdom). At St Albans, Birthe and her husband Martin Biddle were searching for the remains of the Saxon church that underlies the later medieval abbey, working in advance of the construction of a new chapter house.
Between dealing with visitors, they found the remains of the medieval chapter house, Saxon burials, but – surprisingly given the location within the Roman city – no Roman burials. They then searched a different area of the medieval cloisters, where they found Roman burials but no Saxon structures. Moving from one environmental extreme to another, CA 102 (November 1986) depicts a suitably attired surveyor high in the Lake District’s Langdale Pikes above Mickleden on the site of the Neolithic ‘axe factories’ first identified there in the 1930s. In response to serious threats – including scree running, rough-out collecting, and illicit excavations that had heavily eroded many of the sites – a team from the Cumbria and Lancashire Archaeological Unit and the National Trust set out to record and survey the sites to enable the National Trust to set up a management policy for the area. The axe factories remain some of the most important prehistoric sites in the UK and are subject to careful environmental monitoring to this day.
A GLINT IN THE EYE
In my last column, I featured two ‘treasure’ finds. CA 119 (March 1990) has a superb cover story in this vein, showing the glorious Derrynaflan silver and gold paten (the dish on which the Communion bread is offered). It was part of a larger hoard discovered in 1980 near Killenaule, Co. Tipperary, in the Republic of Ireland. While the objects themselves date to the 8th/9th century, the hoard is thought to have been hidden at some point in the 10th to 12th century. After a landmark decision in the Irish Supreme Court, it was declared Treasure Trove and passed to the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin. The hoard featured in CA at this time because it formed the centrepiece of a touring exhibition, entitled The Work of Angels: masterpieces of Celtic metalwork, 6th-9th century AD, that travelled between London, Edinburgh, and Dublin across 1990 and 1991.
CA 125 (July/August 1991) then showcased a perhaps even more spectacular ‘find’: the skull of the Deal Man, a remarkable burial discovered adjacent to a ‘pit-shrine’ (a deep pit that contained a Celtic statue) and other ‘ritual’ features on the site of a new housing development. The burial – with a sword, shield, and, most remarkably, a decorated bronze headband (not a helmet: it appears to have been some sort of crown or headdress) – was and remains outstanding: never before had a British Iron Age grave produced so many examples of Celtic art. They date to the La Tène II period (around the 1st century BC). Impressively, in those days just before PPG 16, the excavations were undertaken by the Dover Archaeological Group, an amateur society.
TRAVELS IN TIME AND SPACE
CA and its readers love sites big and small alike – but, generally, the more dramatic the better. My next two examples fit the bill comfortably, but in very different ways: Bronze Age mines in Wales on the cover of CA 130 (August 1992) and a Viking Age boat burial on the cover of CA 131 (October 1992). The CA team visited the former in early 1992 to learn more of the research being undertaken in an extraordinary feat of what we would now call ‘entrepreneurial archaeology’. As CA explained,
the Welsh Development Agency… proposed to cap the shaft down which access had been obtained and to bulldoze over all the remains of the 19th-century mineworkings… Tony Hammond pleaded for a stay of execution and persuaded them to cap the shaft 40ft down to allow access to the early workings as well as inserting a manhole cover for those who wished to explore the Victorian workings 500ft below. At this point, Tony dreamed his big dream: to set up a company to explore the Bronze Age mines and present them to the public… on 31 March 1990 [they] gave up their jobs to found the Great Orme Mine Company. They built a Visitor Centre more or less by themselves, with the all-important public conveniences adjacent, and erected a temporary hall for the video. Meanwhile, they bulldozed away quantities of 19th-century spoil to reveal the main Bronze Age entrances. Eventually, on 23 April 1991, they opened to the public.
The Great Orme mines had long been written off as being Roman in date at their oldest extent, and it was only more recently that radiocarbon dating had demonstrated their Bronze Age origins. Nine radiocarbon dates recovered from the mine by the early 1990s range from 1800 to 600 BC – an impressive continuity of Bronze Age usage. And what is so surprising is their sheer extent, going a quarter of a mile into the hillside and some 60m down. The mines remain open to visitors to this day, thanks to Tony Hammond’s vision and drive, and the efforts he made back in the 1990s.
CA 131 featured a very different but no less dramatic site that is sadly, in contrast to the previous example, no longer with us except in the written record: the exceptionally unusual survival of a Viking Age boat burial at Scar, on the north coast of Sanday, one of the Orkney Islands. Discovered and excavated because it was eroding out of the sea shore, the site was originally noted by a farmer who informed local archaeologists that human bones were washing out of the dune face, together with iron rivets. Given the site’s potential, an excavation was hastily arranged and financed by Historic Scotland (now Historic Environment Scotland), on what turned out to be a boat burial of which about one third, in all, had already been eroded away by storms. In the central chamber, the bodies of three people were found: a male, a female, and a child. The excavation took place in November and December 1991 in some haste, and rightly so: two days after the excavations were completed, there was a big storm that finally washed away much of the remainder of the site. The rescue excavation had not come a moment too soon.
In the next issue of CA, I will return to top cover stories, this time from CA 101-200, including further forays into Scotland and more coastal archaeology. Watch this space and, in the meantime, do write in with your own favourite covers from down the years.
DISCOVER OLD ISSUES
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 3 January. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI347’