Joe Flatman delves into half a century of reports from the past.
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From the very first edition, Current Archaeology has maintained some distinctive characteristics. Chief among these are the cover-story photographs and associated back-cover maps locating the sites featured in each edition. In my second article examining the CA archive, I’m focusing on some of the stories behind these iconic cover images. To do that, I’ve picked out some of my personal favourites from the first 100 editions, covering the years 1967 to 1986. Do let CA know about your own favourites from the more than 300 covers that exist, and any anecdotes that you may have associated to them.
Sadly, the photographer of my first cover is no longer with us. Philip Rahtz, one of the greats of post-war British archaeology, passed away in 2011. CA 2 (May 1967) featured his 1964-1966 excavations at Glastonbury Tor, Somerset, with the cover photo taken by Rahtz himself of work under way at the very summit of the Tor. Rahtz’s fieldwork revealed evidence of occupation from the 5th to the 7th century AD around the later medieval church of St Michael, including a metalworker’s forge, two burials oriented north–south (and thus unlikely to be Christian) and fragments of 6th-century Mediterranean amphorae, all pointing to the high social status and international connections enjoyed by the occupants of the Tor.
The photographer of my second cover, which graced CA 17 (November 1969), is less well known: Peter Sandiford. Sandiford has a long history of collaboration with other archaeologists, especially Peter Drewett of London’s Institute of Archaeology. In this case, Sandiford’s excellent photography showed the excavation of the great ditch of the Neolithic henge at Marden in Wiltshire’s Vale of Pewsey, halfway between the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site. This was one of Geoffrey Wainwright’s many excavations of prehistoric sites during this period. Wainwright cut a modest trench across the north entrance, revealing remains of timber post-holes along with grooved ware pottery similar to that from nearby Durrington Walls. The finds are held at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, where there is also a small display.
CA 20 (May 1970) boasted a dramatic aerial photograph showing the excavations at Winchester Old Minster, to the immediate north of the current cathedral. These were then being led by Martin Biddle, another of the celebrated names of post-war archaeology. Biddle led a series of excavations across Saxon and medieval Winchester between 1961 and 1971. His sites feature regularly in the magazine. Later in the same issue, there is the first ever interview – of Martin Biddle – to be published in the magazine. The interview format has been periodically repeated in CA since then, and some of these interviews and interviewees will be the subject of a later column.
A rather different approach to cover photography can be found in CA 26 (May 1971): no digs this time, but instead contemporary ‘heritage at risk’ in the shape of the Newport Arch at Lincoln. This was the north gate of the Roman town, and it had been hit by an errant fishmonger’s truck late one night in May 1964! The archaeologist Christina Colyer, who became the first director of the Lincoln Archaeological Trust in 1972, used the story as part of an excellent article on Lincoln’s Roman history. According to contemporary reports, ‘rocks from the arch cascaded down on the vehicle, which became jammed under the arch’; Lincoln’s city engineer and surveyor was sent for, and their team spent the night numbering the stones, making sketches, and taking photographs so that full information would be available for the reconstruction that followed. This quick thinking ensured that the arch remains in place to this day. Regrettably, Colyer passed away in 2008, having left archaeology to live and teach in France.
As a maritime archaeologist by training, I was keen to get a ‘wet’ story into my favourite covers, but in the early days of CA such stories were few and far between. CA 51 (published in March 1976 but dated July 1975; there were production delays for a period in the mid-1970s) provides the closest fit, with an arresting image of a diver excavating the lower levels of a Roman well at the multi-period site of Garton Slack, East Yorkshire. It was excavated by a team led by T C M Brewster as part of a much larger series of excavations between 1965 and 1974 in the area known as Wetwang Slack.
Although primarily known for its prehistoric archaeology, the Roman farmstead at the site includes the well that features on the cover of CA. Brewster records that:
the well, which was 95 feet deep, had been cut with a large boring drill more than 3 feet 6 inches in diameter… The well was excavated with a hand pulley for removing debris… Beyond 84 feet the water level was kept down by a powerful electric pump, removing 17,000 gallons per hour. The final excavation, in 13 feet of water, was undertaken by a skin diver.
For the unnamed diver, this was surely a rare and nerve-racking piece of excavation.
As the introduction to the article accompanying the CA 90 (January 1984) cover comments: ‘at first sight the new town of Milton Keynes might well be a candidate for the most boring archaeological site in the country’. But the cover of CA 90 is, in my view, a splendid thing. It shows excellent archaeology (a neatly excavated Iron Age and Saxon settlement in the Pennyland district to the north-west of Milton Keynes city centre), some solid archaeological fashions (check out the wild hair and anoraks, de rigueur in British archaeology for so long), and also, crucially, the reasons behind much archaeology then just as now: housing development.
My last cover story is another dramatic photo of an unusual site and unusual location. CA 93 (August 1984) featured fieldwork inside Pontnewydd Cave in Denbighshire, North Wales. Excavated by a team from the National Museum of Wales led by Stephen Aldhouse-Green (then Keeper of Archaeology and Numismatics), their work unearthed a total of 19 teeth belonging to an early form of Neanderthal – alongside stone tools and animal bones, some of which show signs of butchery – deep inside the cave. These are at present the oldest human remains known from Wales, dating back some 230,000 years. Amazingly, the site survived use as a Second World War munitions depot, with the present-day wall across the cave’s entrance dating to that time – surely making it a candidate for the longest ‘phasing’ of any archaeological site in the world.
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman