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 March. 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 DIGI349, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.
In my last two columns I picked some favourite covers from issues 101-200 (1986-2005) of Current Archaeology. I continue this series in the next two columns, focusing on CA 201-300 (2006-2015). Current Archaeology readers of this period and onwards benefited from the wider shift in publishing that had taken place in the early 2000s, when the cost of using colour in magazines dropped dramatically. The CAs of the 2000s are thus full-colour, 60-page editions that seem light years away from the magazine’s humble black-and-white, 20-page origins. But while much had changed in publishing and archaeology alike, the sites and stories range as widely as ever. Here are some of my personal favourites.
The cover of CA 203 (May/June 2006) presents a wonderful example of the type of site that the magazine has a long history of reporting on: the discovery, excavation, and conservation of a hoard of Celtic weapons near Hull. In late August 2002, three metal-detectorists identified the site, and after discussing it at their local metal-detecting club, did precisely the right thing: reported it to the archaeology team of their local authority. Working at high speed over five days, the Humber Archaeology field unit, together with conservators from the York Archaeological Trust, excavated what turned out to be one of the finest examples of Celtic art ever discovered. The outcome was a wonderful story for all concerned. The final tally of weapons comprised a carefully laid pile of five swords, each in a bronze scabbard, and a bundle of 33 iron spearheads and Roman-style pilum heads, tied together with leather bindings. Intriguingly, contextual pottery dated the hoard to the third quarter of the 1st century AD. With the Roman army not crossing the Humber until AD 71, the cache may pre-date the Roman conquest of the area, and represent a trading collection, possibly even the display range of a travelling armourer.
As contrasts go, CA 213 (December 2007) couldn’t be more different in terms of sites and cover images from the previous example. I hope I am not the only person (meaning no offence to those who appear in the photograph) who considers this cover to be a great opportunity missed for an iconic prog-rock album cover. To explain, CA 213 proudly shows archaeologist Mike Emery and his team at an atmospherically misty recreation of Poulton Henge in Cheshire, a site explored by the team when the outstanding prehistoric archaeology of the area became apparent after geophysical surveys of 2001-2002. The main focus of the site was a Middle to Late Bronze Age ring-ditch that had clear evidence of use in funerary rites thanks to substantial remains of charcoal and cremated bone, with occasional fragments of pottery. But the team also showed that the site had much earlier origins in the later Neolithic (c.3000-2300 BC), when an initial timber circle had been constructed. In order to better understand and interpret the site, an experimental reconstruction was built nearby, and it is that structure which is the source of the wonderful cover image.
ASHES TO ASHES
CA 203 and 213 both tell stories of great outcomes from unexpected discoveries. CA 226 (January 2009), in contrast, provides a tale of discovery in much less happy circumstances, after a fire ravaged 2.5km2 of Fylingdales Moor in Yorkshire in September 2003. Fanned by a strong wind and fed by an expanse of mature heather, the flames were unusually strong and stripped the moor back to its bones, leaving behind a blackened landscape and destroying the blanket of peat that had accumulated over the area. This stripping unexpectedly revealed some of the most important but least-known prehistoric archaeology in Britain. Before the fire, the North York Moors National Park Historic Environment Record contained entries relating to 152 sites or features, and around 30 decorated rocks. But the fire led to the identification of almost 200 new decorated rocks, as well as the unusually distinct detail of construction of the Bronze Age field boundaries and clearance cairns. While representing a wonderful bounty of data, these new sites were, however, immediately at just as much risk as the wider ecology of the moor. As CA explained, ‘the ashy remains of the vegetation and the underlying upper levels of peat were washed – often blown – off the moor at an alarming rate, with the mineral soil following soon after. Burial mounds and other monuments that had for centuries been consolidated by root mat were now destabilised and at the mercy of rain, wind, and frost. A strategy for the urgent recording of the archaeology and the regeneration of vegetation was put in place.’ Thankfully, the moor has since regenerated and stabilised, and the awful events of the fire have become part of the archaeological palimpsest. But, as CA showed, it had been a close-run thing.
A different story of death and destruction featured on the cover of CA 230 (May 2009), which shows the tip of an arrowhead embedded in a human vertebra that was found in a burial at Tulloch of Assery in Caithness. This site was one of many explored in a fascinating discussion of ritualised violence in the Neolithic by Martin Smith, a forensic anthropologist at Bournemouth University who had recently published a book on the subject (co-written with M B Brickley), entitled People of the Long Barrows: life, death and burial in the Earlier Neolithic. Ranging widely across Neolithic sites around Britain, Smith and Brickley’s work draws from archaeology, anthropology, and ethnography to understand the context of warfare and violence during the Neolithic, and what the remains from archaeological sites can tell us about social interactions in the period. The essay in CA 230 is not one of the best-known articles in the magazine, but it is well worth searching out as a truly fascinating in-depth read of a type that does not appear frequently in CA.
LEARNING FROM LANDSCAPES
The cover of CA 232 (July 2009) features the arresting sight of a rusting tank, one of many used for target practice at the Ministry of Defence’s Otterburn Training Area in Northumberland. The then-editor of CA, Lisa Westcott-Wilkins (now CEO of DigVentures) paid a visit to learn how MoD archaeologists manage 23,000 hectares of moorland that boasts one of the greatest concentrations of multi-period archaeological and historical landscapes in the north of England, while also enabling generations of soldiers to intensively train in live-fire exercises (the area was first used for military exercises in 1911). The extent of these sites and the pace of discovery at Otterburn is stunning. As Lisa explained, ‘when CA first covered the Otterburn Training Area [issue 64 in December 1978], there were 650 recorded archaeological sites, including 16 scheduled ancient monuments; since then, the numbers have risen to over 803 recorded sites, including 75 scheduled monuments and 5 listed buildings’. And what sites these are: a rock-cut Roman shrine depicting the warrior god Cocidius; a well-preserved medieval village, abandoned after Scottish raids in 1600; and an illicit 17th-century whisky still are but three of the examples that the article explores.
For my last cover of this month’s column, I turn to another stunning landscape: Alderley Edge in Cheshire, which featured in CA 238 (January 2010). CA’s contributing editor Chris Catling explored the fieldwork by a team of archaeologists from the Alderley Edge Landscape Project (AELP) as it was reaching its conclusion. The project had been born in the late 1990s, when a spate of unconnected archaeological discoveries led the National Trust (which owns much of the area) and the Manchester Museum (which holds many artefacts recovered over the years) to realise that they needed to find out more about Alderley Edge in a consistent and coherent manner. Seek out the full report of the project (The Archaeology of Alderley Edge, 2005) in your local library for a rewarding read, especially in conjunction with long-time local Alan Garner’s literary take on it all (Approach to the Edge: a personal view, 1998). And if you’re ever in the neighbourhood, the National Trust also provides a useful series of guided walks to help explore the rich natural and cultural heritage of the area. Do so, if you can – it is one of the most wonderful landscapes in the country.
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 March. 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 ‘DIGI349’