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 4 April. 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 DIGI350, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.
Following on from last month’s issue, I explore here some more of my favourite covers from issues 201-300 of Current Archaeology, covering the period 2010-2013. It is interesting to observe the energy and dynamism of the sector at this time. For those of us who were working in archaeology during these years, they were a worrying period. The economic crisis of 2008 began to bite, and it had its impact on everyone from charities, who saw their membership numbers fall, right up to major, government-funded institutions like English Heritage, who dealt with significant cuts to their funding. At the time, such concerns felt all-consuming, but, as CA has consistently shown from issue 1 in March 1967, the ingenuity and determination of our community are and always have been boundless.
VIKING STALLIONS AND ROMAN TIGERS
CA 245 (August 2010) provides a suitably dramatic cover to start with. It shows a Viking warship in full and glorious sail, in this case the Sea Stallion, a reconstructed vessel that sailed from Roskilde in Denmark to Dublin in 2010. CA’s contributing editor Chris Catling provided an action-packed review of recent archaeological evidence for the impact of the Vikings on modern-day Britain and Ireland in this issue, focusing in particular on the discovery of a mass grave of more than 50 men of Scandinavian origin, all beheaded, at a site near Weymouth in Dorset. Dated to between AD 910 and 1034, this is assumed to have been a captured, and then hastily executed, Viking warrior band (see also CA 299 for more on these individuals). Chris then travelled north to examine the role of the Vikings in and around Chester and the Wirral, where both place-name and DNA evidence provide a wealth of data on the long-term presence of Scandinavian communities.
Hot on the heels of the Vikings came stories of two different hoards of metalwork in CA 246 (September 2010) and 248 (November 2010). The first of these was the Frome Hoard; the second was the Hoxne Hoard. The former remains the single biggest find of Roman coins ever made in Britain, a massive jar containing more than 52,000 coins of the 3rd century AD, discovered by a metal-detectorist near Frome in Somerset. The finder wisely reported his discoveries to his local FLO (Finds Liaison Officer), leading to the careful excavation of the site to the highest standards. The hoard was declared Treasure in July 2010, giving the Museum of Somerset in Taunton the opportunity to acquire it for conservation and display with a grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund. It is still on display at the museum today.
The second of these two hoards is that from Hoxne in Suffolk. In this case, the find – one of the largest caches of Roman gold and silver found anywhere in the Roman Empire – was originally discovered more than 20 years ago, in November 1992, when a farmer lost a hammer while ploughing a field and asked a friend who owned a metaldetector to help him retrieve it. CA returned to Hoxne in 2010, though, to celebrate the full publication of this extraordinary discovery. The book, entitled The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery and Silver Plate, was the result of years of intensive analysis by Catherine Johns, former curator of the British Museum’s Romano-British collections.
At the time of discovery, once he realised the significance of the site that he’d stumbled on, the farmer had sensibly called in expert advice. As a consequence, it – like the Frome Hoard – was carefully excavated, allowing the circumstances of the original deposition to be minutely understood: a carefully buried wooden chest containing 29 pieces of gold jewellery, a dozen silver vessels (including the stunning cover star of CA 248: a detached silver vessel handle cast in the shape of a leaping tigress), nearly 100 silver spoons, and about 40 additional silver objects, alongside a cache of 14,865 gold and silver coins from the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. It was the latest of these coins, minted in AD 407-408, which gave the date after which the hoard must have been buried. Now safely on display in the British Museum, this hoard remains an outstanding collection of late Roman art: do go and pay it a visit if you’ve not done so before.
FULL STEAM AHEAD!
The readership of CA is proudly diverse, and one of the reasons why the magazine has thrived over its now 52 years and counting is that it covers literally any aspect of ‘archaeology’ so long as there is a good story to tell. In this spirit, CA 256 (July 2011) provides a mighty contrast to the previous cover: from a Roman tigress to a 1920s steam train (a 1926 London Midland & Scottish Railway Fowler Class 4F 0-6-0 locomotive to be precise). CA has made forays into industrial archaeology since its early days, and in this case the site was a little-known part of London’s 19th- and 20th-century heritage: the remains of the Somers Town Goods Yard, adjacent to the redeveloped St Pancras Station. In 1997, the site of the southern half of the yard was redeveloped for the British Library, but only from 2011 onwards was the northern half finally redeveloped when a medical research institute (now the Francis Crick Institute) was constructed. CA’s then-editor Matthew Symonds (he now heads its sister-magazine Current World Archaeology) visited the site to meet the MOLA team exploring it.
Leaping around in time and space for my final cover story, CA 275 (February 2013) made one of its regular trips to Scotland to learn of the latest sites and research, in this particular case focused on Orkney. The cover shows the ‘Orkney Venus’, a prehistoric figurine that is one of the most celebrated finds from the Links of Noltland. Erosion was revealing some spectacular Neolithic and Bronze Age archaeology on this section of coastline at Westray at this time, of which the Venus figurine was one of many discoveries that provided new insights into the cultural life of these communities. Long designated a Scheduled Monument and in the care of Historic Environment Scotland (formerly Historic Scotland), the settlement had been closely monitored for environmental changes since the 1980s, but by 2005 it was clear that (for reasons still not fully understood) the pace and extent of this erosion was accelerating at an unprecedented and unsustainable level, necessitating a rolling campaign of assessment and conservation works, including rescue excavations.
This potentially sad tale of rescue from the waves has had a wonderful impact on modern-day Orkney. As CA explained:
given the project’s scale and its location on a small island, community involvement was a vital element from the outset. The Westray Heritage Trust played an important role in this, collaborating with the local school to organise an excellent exhibition in the Heritage Centre… local businesses [also] report that the publicity surrounding the excavations – and the discovery of the Orkney Venus in particular – has increased tourism, and thereby revenues, by up to 40%. The local bakery has even created a figurine-shaped shortbread biscuit in honour of Noltland’s most recognisable find.
The project deservedly won CA’s Rescue Project of the Year award in 2014. Prize-winning archaeology and stomach-filling shortbread: a match made in heaven (or the site hut). I, for one, hunger after a visit to Orkney in order to sample both.
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 4 April. 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 ‘DIGI350’