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 7 February. 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 DIGI348, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.
In last month’s column I highlighted some of my favourite covers from issues 101-200 (1986- 2005). Now I pick up where I left off, continuing my explorations of this era through the pages of Current Archaeology, and roving in time from the 3rd millennium BC to the 18th century AD, and in space from northern Scotland to the south coast of England.
PALACES AND PIG IRON
CA 140 and 141 (November 1994 and January 1995) present an extraordinary contrast between two pieces of historical archaeology that reflect the realities of archaeological fieldwork and funding in mid-1990s Britain. Hampton Court Palace’s aristocratic privy garden (CA 140) could not be more different from the distinctly humble, but no-less extraordinary, wooden waggon-way at Bersham in North Wales (CA 141). The former site was at that time at the end of a comprehensive exploration and transformation, part of the restoration of the palace after the disastrous fire of March 1986. The damage to the buildings and gardens alike were taken as an opportunity to use archaeological evidence to help give a much better sense – and guide the associated redesign – of the palace before the Victorian planting schemes had come to obscure the original grand vistas and geometrical plans. The latter, by contrast, was the location of the unexpectedly ground-breaking excavation of the oldest ‘rail way’ in the world, near Wrexham. The discovery of a 40m length of wooden ‘rail way’ (for use with horse-drawn carts) at Bersham – uncovered during a redevelopment of the industrial complex into a mixed-use heritage/ commercial site – came as a surprise to all concerned. Likely to date to the middle of the 18th century (although no direct dating evidence was recovered), the tracks had been preserved because the wood had been carbonised by the industrial waste covering the site. They included a primitive set of points, which were lifted for eventual display.
LIONS AND CASTLES
Issues 155 and 156 (December 1997 and March 1998) took the magazine into Scotland to visit two wonderful sites: Cramond, on the western fringe of Edinburgh, and Glenochar in South Lanarkshire. From Cramond came the dramatic discovery of an extraordinary piece of Roman monumental sculpture: a sandstone lioness some 1.5m long, with her paws on a man’s shoulders and his head in her mouth; her lower jaw angles as it takes a bite out of the unfortunate individual. Found by Rab Graham, who at that time ran the small ferry across the River Almond between the village of Cramond and the neighbouring Dalmeny Estate, the statue lay directly below the steps from the ferry in the intertidal zone. It was excavated over the course of a few days, as the tides allowed, before being lifted by crane. It was declared Treasure Trove, and allocated jointly to the City of Edinburgh Museums and Galleries and the National Museums Scotland in an unprecedented agreement for joint public display.
For CA 156, the magazine headed deep into the southern borders of Scotland, to a ‘bastle’, a small fortified manor house (the word is analogous to the French bastille). Such bastles – sometimes called Pele, Peel, or even Pile Houses – were known in Northumberland, but not at this time in southern Scotland. After the discovery of the first example in the area, at Windgate House near Coulter, the Biggar Museum Trust combined with the Lanark and District Archaeological Society in 1981 to launch the Bastle Project in Clydesdale (now South Lanarkshire). Over a dozen more bastles were then identified, and one of the finest of these was that at Glenochar, the site dating from the early 17th century and in an excellent state of preservation.
DRUIDS AND DRAMA
From the Scottish borders to the saltmarshes and landscapes of south and east England, CA 167 (March 2000), CA 169 (August 2000), and CA 176 (November 2001) shifted the focus to Seahenge in Norfolk, Langstone in Hampshire, and Silbury Hill in Wiltshire. As CA 167 explained, the story of Seahenge, the Bronze Age timber circle found at low tide off the north Norfolk coast, was the most dramatic and certainly the most controversial archaeological event of 1999. Following its discovery on the foreshore, it was excavated completely and all the timbers were removed to be studied on dry land. But was this really necessary? Many Druids felt that it was not – and were vocal, and indeed physical, in making their opinions heard, leading to tense stand-offs on the site between protestors and excavators that made front-page national news on more than one occasion. In CA 167, the lead investigators Mark Brennand and Maisie Pryor explained how it was that the timbers had been preserved for so long, as well as why they were being so rapidly destroyed and thus had to be recovered.
In a similar vein of protest, CA 176 (November 2001) presented the more familiar sight of Silbury Hill, looking distinctly photogenic under a low winter sun and light snowfall. All, however, was not well at this iconic prehistoric site. As CA explained, on 29 May 2000, a deep hole had appeared at the top of the mound. The unfolding saga received widespread media coverage, and debate on why Silbury Hill was built was – albeit temporarily – replaced with two modern mysteries: why did it collapse, and crucially to the public, media, and the government of the time, what was English Heritage (EH) doing about it? The answer to the first question rapidly became clear. EH, who had agreed temporarily to take management of Silbury back from the National Trust (NT), had been monitoring known movements in the structure closely for some time, and had an archaeologist and engineer on site the day after the collapse. Subsequent examinations demonstrated that the main cause of the collapse appeared to have been the shaft dug from the summit in the 18th century, which we now know was not fully backfilled. (The working theory is that it was capped with chalk suspended on a wooden frame, which eventually decayed and collapsed.) EH then commissioned a major seismic study of the whole of the hill, the first of its kind on an archaeological monument, prior to careful stabilisation works – though not before several unauthorised visits occurred (including one that necessitated a rescue from the local fire brigade) amid tremendous local furore, including a protest by an affiliation of pagan groups on 19 May.
In contrast to the media attention paid to prehistoric Seahenge and Silbury Hill, Langstone Harbour in Hampshire has, rather unfairly, rarely featured in the mainstream media, but the long-term project researching its prehistoric to modern-day heritage did feature as CA 169’s cover story. While the archaeological potential of this area had been recognised since at least the 1960s, it was only in the early 1990s that the importance and value of intertidal archaeology was being fully realised. At the same time (and perhaps not coincidentally), Planning Policy Guidance Note 20 on coastal planning (since subsumed into more recent planning guidance) was in draft, and archaeology in the intertidal zones, previously out of the jurisdiction of County Council planning controls, was now on the agenda. The then county archaeologist of Hampshire, Michael Hughes, had the foresight to set up a project to examine the archaeology of Langstone Harbour, funded by the County Council (those were the days!). So, in 1993, the Langstone Harbour Archaeological Survey was born. CA 169 summarised that fieldwork, which in later 2000 was published as a CBA Research Report entitled Our Changing Coast: a survey of the intertidal archaeology of Langstone Harbour, Hampshire, a book that rightly won awards and accolades for a project that remains a model of its kind to this day.
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 7 February. 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 ‘DIGI348’