Category Archives: Further Afield

Finds from the River Thames: The Thames Water Collection

Jill Greenaway spoke to the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group on 6 November about this collection which she curates at Reading Museum. Around 500 items were discovered from the non-tidal part of the Thames, from its source in Gloucestershire up to Teddington Lock, in a period which covered from 1911 to 1980.

An historic agreement with the Thames Conservancy Board (TCB) is allowed for all archaeological items found in this upper section of the river during dredging to be deposited with the Museum on indefinite loan.

Then, in 1996, Thames Water, successor to the TCB, donated the collection to Reading Museum.

Additionally, the collection of river based finds by George W. Smith has bolstered the collection. The speaker told how, after the extensive floods of 1947, a programme of deep dredging was launched which added to the yield.

However, it is likely that many more items were missed. The dredger crews only recovered what they recognised as being of interest and so much may have passed unnoticed. Another problem was identifying the locality as no careful recording was done as the dredger made its passage along the river.  ‘Above or below’ a bridge, lock or riverside pub was as close as they normally got. Thus, no evidence could be deduced from the finds with any accuracy, such as crossing points on the river.

Finders were rewarded with ten shillings for items handed in but this was a sum that was not increased from when it was instituted in 1932!  We were reminded that, in the days before municipally-organised rubbish disposal, rivers were often used as dumps which helps to explain the eclectic nature of the items ranging from Mesolithic flints to Victorian ginger beer bottles.

The most important part of the collection is the large quantity of beautiful Bronze Age and Iron Age metalwork weaponry. Similar discoveries, from the London section of the Thames and other English rivers flowing into the North Sea suggest a prehistoric cult of ritual offerings made to river gods.

However, the speaker was sceptical of the claim that the 23 skulls in the Collection necessarily related to burial rites pointing out that accidental river fatalities – and criminality – over the last 10,000 years may have been equally responsible.

by Jeff Griffiths

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The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum bought the Queen of the Night in 2003 to celebrate its 250th anniversary. It’s a baked clay plaque nearly half a metre tall and was made in ancient Iraq (Babylonia) sometime between 1800 and 1750 BC.

As a giggle I should tell you that they tried to buy it as early as 1979 but wouldn’t pay the £70,000 asking price. The owner, Mr Sakamoto must have been some negotiator as they eventually paid £1,500,000.

However, it is a magnificent and worthy piece, now sadly tucked away almost out of sight in a corner of room 56. The first record of the plaque was in 1924 in the hands of a Syrian dealer, by 1933 it had found its way to the British Museum and soon became known as “The Burnley relief” after its owner. It came to the public’s attention in 1936 in a feature article in The Illustrated London News and was given the somewhat dramatic name “The Queen of the Night” when the British Museum acquired it.

We will probably never know exactly where it came from but it shows stylistic similarity with the sculpted head of a male god found in the biblical city of Ur. It is so close in quality, workmanship and iconographical details, that it could well have come from the same workshop. The necklace is virtually identical.

The figure on the plaque was originally painted red. She wears the horned headdress characteristic of a Mesopotamian deity and holds a rod and ring of justice, which are symbols of divinity. Her long multi-coloured wings hang downwards, implying that she was a goddess of the Underworld. It comes as a surprise to us today that, if you look at her feet you see the talons of a bird of prey. The background to the plaque was originally painted black, suggesting that she was associated with the night. She stands on the backs of two lions and a scale pattern indicates mountains.

More surprising is the way she would once have looked. Today we are used to seeing ancient artefacts without paint on them but this wasn’t how they were originally seen. Almost all of them were painted in the often brash and gaudy colours of the paints that were available at the time.

Queen of the Night in its original Colours
© Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has analysed the traces of the paint on the plaque and reconstructed its original colours in Photoshop.

Who was the Queen of the Night? Nobody knows, but there are several contenders:-

Lilith is the Hebrew name of a demoness from the Bible. According to legend she was Adam’s first wife and flew away after a quarrel. The name Lilith was connected to that of the Mesopotamian demoness Lilitu, one of a triad of demons. Lilu was the male demon who haunted open country and was especially dangerous to pregnant women and infants. Lilitu was his female counterpart. She was believed to cause impotence in men and sterility in women. Lilitu was also associated with owls.

There is, however, a problem with this identification as Lilitu was a demoness and not a goddess, whereas the Queen’s headdress and the rod-and-ring symbols she holds unambiguously indicate her status as a goddess.

Ereshkigal was the “Queen of the Great Below” and ruled the Underworld from the beginning of time. In ancient Mesopotamia, this was the place where all the dead were gathered.

Ereshkigal was certainly entitled to a horned headdress and the rod-and-ring symbol and was probably permitted to hold two rod-and-ring symbols as well. The dark background, the lowered wings, the owls with their association with death and the scale pattern are all features that are associated with the Underworld. However, Ereshkigal was an unpopular subject due to her link with death.

Ishtar was a Mesopotamian (Akkadian) goddess of sexual love and war. She was associated with Venus and was sometimes depicted with wings rising from her shoulders. As a goddess of war she generally wears an open robe allowing her freedom of movement. In her right hand she holds either the double-lion-headed mace, the rod-and-ring symbol, or the leash of her roaring lion on whose back she rests one foot. In the third and early second millennium BC she was almost always depicted full-face, often with a necklace and with two locks of hair hanging above her breasts. She had cult centres throughout Mesopotamia, as well as hundreds of minor shrines. Ishtar, was also goddess of harlots.

The size of the plaque suggests it would have belonged in a shrine, probably set into a mud-brick wall. Such a shrine might have been a dedicated space in a large private home or other house.

According to some scholars that shrine may have been located inside a brothel. Well, at least that would explain her name! by Gerry Palmer

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Hardicanut’s Moat in Burnham Beeches and a Speculative Parallel with Warren Wood

Local folklore has it that Hardicanut (Canute’s son and the king of England from 1040 to 1042, also known as Harthacnut) had, as one of his lodges, the intriguing double enclosure in the woods at Burnham Beeches.  After all it’s called Hardicanut’s Moat (as well as Harlequin’s palace and Hartley court).

I would like to talk a little about this intriguing Viking king, but first it is interesting to look at the double enclosure itself, as there are good physical parallels between it and our dig at Warren Wood (albeit on a smaller scale as our entire enclosure is roughly the size of their inner enclosure).  The date range for the construction of both enclosures is the same (see Warren Wood news and article).

Hardicanut’s Moat lies in ancient woodland that was probably once a part of the Royal Windsor forest; the inner enclosure covers one and a half acres, and the outer another eight.  The outer moat and ditch form a somewhat wonky fat diamond shape and the inner enclosure is sub-rectangular and sits at an angle to it.

Hardicanute's moat in Burnham Beeches
After DD and MM Miller, Records of Bucks 1978

The inner enclosure’s ditch is broken by a few gaps, though these are probably not original.  No buildings have been found within the enclosure (but as it is scheduled they may simply not have been found yet).  However, the inner enclosure is divided by several banks and it has been suggested that one may exist between two of these.  There is also evidence of a well (though I couldn’t spot it with the naked eye) and a suggestion of a second building (possibly a kitchen / brew / bake house) nearby.

There are other slightly raised areas, which may be building platforms.
Pottery and building materials are common and easy to spot laying on the surface (especially around the entrance way).  But, sadly these are modern, some probably dating from a local 19th century pottery kiln and others even more recent, from the time the Beeches was used as a vehicle depot for the D-day landings.

Hardicanute’s Moat
Hardicanute’s Moat - taken before the clean up

The ditches and banks of the outer enclosure are much smaller and in poorer condition than those of the inner.  They are believed to have enclosed an area to keep domestic animals, probably pigs and deer, as well as an area for vegetables or grain.  Evidence implies that much of the degradation of the outer banks and ditches has been in the last hundred years.

This leads to the obvious speculation that the outer enclosure at Warren Wood could also have been used for animals or crops.  Warren Wood’s inner enclosure, with its mass of flint and roof tiles, as well as its pottery is an obvious parallel to the probable dwelling in the Burnham Beeches inner enclosure.

Hardicanut’s moat is believed to date from between C12th and C14th, which ties in neatly with the new 12th to early 13th century pottery dates from Warren Wood.  This was the golden age of building moated houses – though surprisingly they were often a fashion item rather than for defence.  There are literally dozens of them in Buckinghamshire, two more lie within Burnham parish alone.

Sadly the date puts the enclosure around two hundred years after the death of Hardicanut, and so it seems that local folklore has played us false!  However, Park Lane lies just 100 metres west of the enclosure and, together with Green Lane and it formed the boundary between Burnham and Dorney.  Green, in a boundary name, is said to derive from the Old English Gemaere and indicates a Saxon origin.  So it is still, just, possible that there is a link to a time before our Viking after all!

This tenuous link was enough to set me off on the trail of Hardicanut, though I no longer believe he had a hunting lodge nearby.  Anyone who has the bad taste to die while making a toast at a wedding, is always interesting to investigate!

Hardicanut – King of England

Coin of Hardicanut
Coin of Hardicanut

Having dispelled the local story that Hardicanut ever lived in Burnham Beeches, I have to say that this is a good thing as, unlike his father Cnut (also spelled Canute) he and his brothers were not pleasant people.  When Hardicanut became king he had his half-brother’s (Harold) body disinterred from Westminster, publicly beheaded, thrown in a sewer, retrieved and then thrown into the Thames.

To be fair, Harold had not only usurped his place as king of England, but had tricked their younger brother, Prince Alfred, into capture and had six hundred of his men barbarously tortured and killed.  Alfred was then stripped naked, tied to a horse, taken from Guildford to the Isle of Ely, where his eyes were torn out and he died miserably a few days later.

Hardicanut was the son of Cnut and Emma of Normandy (who had previously been married to Æthelred the Unready and had held out against Cnut’s invasion after her husband died).  Though Hardicanut was made King of Denmark when his father died, it is unclear why he didn’t also become King of England, though it is possible that it was arranged for him to rule south of the Thames while his brother Harold would reign to the north.  Certainly the penny coin shown supports this as it was struck around at this time.  However, Harold became overall regent.

Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway
Hardicanut meeting Magnus of Norway

Fear of invasion from Magnus of Norway probably kept Hardicanut away from England, and two years later in 1037,Harold was accepted by the English as their king.  Having come to an agreement with Magnus, Hardicanut and his mother Emma planned an invasion of England but delayed it as Harold became ill and died.

Hardicanut was welcomed to England with open arms, (probably because he came backed with 62 warships at a time when the English navy had only 16!)  However, as these “peaceful” invaders needed payment, a geld of £21,000 was levied – a huge sum of money for the times.

Although the English were used to a king ruling with a council, Hardicanut ruled as a ruthless and feared autocrat.  He caused great hardship in 1041 by increasing taxes in order to to double the size of the navy at a time of a poor harvest.  His tax gatherers were so harsh that people in Worcester rioted and killed them.  Hardicanut reacted by imposing the legal but unpopular punishment of “harrying” and ordered his earls to burn the town and kill the population. Fortunately most fled.

After a reign of just two years Hardicanute died from a seizure at a riotous drinking bout in Clapham to celebrate the marriage of the daughter oh his Thane, Osgod Clapa. Collapsing whilst making a toast, he never spoke again and died a few days later.  As he had never married and had no children, he was succeeded by another half-brother, Edward the Confessor, restoring the Saxon line for the next quarter of a century.  Hardicanute was buried at Winchester Cathedral where he still lies along with both Cnut and his mother Emma.

By Gerry Palmer

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Why is there a Neolithic Channel Islands monument in Henley? – and other questions

Archaeological conferences come up with some odd things, few more so than one on the Prehistory of the Channel islands that I just attended. The “Big Question” was to try to fix one of the “Big Problems” in Archaeology – why did the start of the Neolithic age take around 1200 years to cross the Channel from France to the UK? A smaller question was “Why is there large a Neolithic Channel Islands tomb in Henley?”

Mont de la Ville
Mont de la Ville in Henley

On the outskirts of Henley, just past the drive to Templecombe, is a thick hedge. 150 yards behind this, on private land, is a very impressive and totally genuine Neolithic Passage Grave from around 3,000 BC. There is only one tiny thing wrong with it – it was moved from Jersey lock, stock and standing stone, in the late eighteenth century.

On 12th August 1785, the militia was levelling a hilltop to act as a parade ground, in an area that was later to become Fort Regent, in the strategically placed capital of St Helier. The soldiers “discovered” a megalithic monument that came to be called the “Mont de la Ville”. (Actually, although this story has been generally accepted, it turns out that a Philip Morant read a paper about this tomb to the Society of Antiquaries in 1761, nearly twenty five years earlier!)

At that time General Marshall Conway was retiring after spending several years as the Lieutenant Governor of Jersey. The islanders decided to present him with the tomb, which was thought to be a Druid temple, as an unique gift of gratitude. Upon discovering that he would have to transport it at his own expense, he was somewhat reticent to accept. Indeed it was only when Horace Walpole wrote to him, “Pray do not disappoint me but transport the Cathedral of your island to your domain on our continent,” that he finally agreed.

In March 1788 the stones were taken up the Thames to Conway’s house outside Henley and the monument was re-erected on a hill overlooking the river. The tomb consists of a covered passage leading into a circular unroofed chamber with a number of cists, each with a capstone, arranged around the edge. No known prehistoric finds were uncovered at the site during the removal.

HERM & the Neolithic Question

It is easy to see why people would be interested in the Channel Islands – they were a half way along several of the main trade routes between France and the UK. The timing of Neolithic changes there could nudge us in the direction of an answer. Indeed, that’s why two of the UK’s most senior archaeologists – Professor Barry Cunliffe (Oxford) and Professor Chris Scarre (Durham) have been working there for many years.

  Neolithic Tomb,  Herm
Neolithic Tomb, Herm

One of the most interesting papers at the conference covered an excavation of some of the 16 Neolithic tombs on the tiny Isle of Herm. The excavations also covered the ground between tombs, where the team found a large and very clear area of ard marks (from ancient ploughing) traced in the soil. Some of the tombs are very early and include pottery from the late 5th Millennium BC. Surprisingly, none of them show much resemblance to tombs from the same period across the water in France. Indeed some seem to be unique. I visited Herm back in 2002 and 2004 and the photo shows one of the unusual tombs we found there.

The conference also covered the finds and provisional conclusions from other excavations, covering several islands over the last few years. The most recent discovery had been made just five days before! Two tentative conclusions were drawn, though only one related directly to the Neolithic question:-

The Neolithic didn’t happen overnight, nobody woke up one day and decided to give up hunter-gathering for farming. It was a slow and gradual process, with different aspects, such as arable farming, livestock domestication, permanent settlement, pottery production and social changes all happening at different times. This created a wide blurring over time and implies that the Neolithic question is perhaps too simplistic to have a meaningful answer.

This led to a profound second thought on the basic process of archaeology, where many theories have become widely accepted only to change completely on the basis of a few new finds. So, perhaps the amount of evidence we have, which is often based on chance and unrepresentative excavations in too few places, creates a limit on how accurate any conjectures might be. This highlighted the fact that any current answer to the Neolithic Question was probably formed on far too little evidence to be sound. Indeed the evidence that was used to pose the question in the first place may not be too sound either!

By Gerry Palmer

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Los Millares – the biggest town in Europe – 3000 BC style

Los Millares - the biggest town in Europe - 3000 BC style
Los Millares - the biggest town in Europe - 3000 BC style

Los Millares is huge – the largest known European fortified copper-age town /settlement – it not only covers 5 acres of a plateau behind three concentric lines of stone defences but it also included thirteen outlying forts on nearby hilltops – presumably for defence.

The site is old, it was inhabited for nearly a thousand years (3200 – 2250 BC), yet was abandoned just 250 years after the Pyramids were built in ancient Egypt!

Near Almeria on the southern coast of Spain, the area is well worth a visit (it is not too far from the Alhambra and stunning Arab castles and remains). Walking around the site it is easy to spot 5,000 year old pottery shards and marked stones which abound across the site.

Los Millares ceramic pot
Los Millares ceramic pot

Los Milares was based around its copper workers and includes an extensive cemetery of eighty individual passage grave tombs, some with up to 100 burials in them.

Los Millares was built in three phases, each stronger and more impressive than the last. The fortification is often compared to that at Jericho

In the first phase, (early copper age 3,200-2,800 B.C.), the three interior walls were built. Then, as a second phase, (middle copper age 2,800-2,450 B.C.), the innermost wall was demolished and the outer wall constructed, together with most of the small forts. Finally, (late copper age 2,450- 2,250 B.C.), sees the introduction of bell beakers, which are a type of pottery that was produced on a large scale in the village. This was a time of gradual decline, probably brought about by running out of trees to burn for smelting the copper.

The fortified citadel at the very top of a spur has only been partially excavated but shows six metre thick walls built above steep (and if you get vertigo like me, scary) slopes, a deep hollow area , is interpreted as a water cistern, but it has not been excavated.

A cluster of simple dwellings lay inside the citadel, as well as a complex and substantial building containing evidence of smelting. Another large and very unexpected rectangular stone building is believed to have been the equivalent of a village hall, and was presumably used for both meetings and general entertainment. Surprisingly, as no post holes were found in it, it may not have been roofed, possibly meaning it was mainly used in the evenings away from the fierce heat of day.

Although Los Millaries was built because of the plentiful local supply of minerals, the question of how metal smelting was discovered at this time has often been asked. For thousands of years Neolithic man had been using metallic ores for their distinctive colours for painting, decoration and pottery – including the yellows and reds of ochre, ores of iron, and the blues and greens of malachite, azurite and other copper ores. It is likely that, one day, a very surprised potter was a little heavy with the application of a copper paste and, after firing the vessel noticed small nodules of shiny copper at the bottom. The rest is history.

By the time the town was established almost all of the surface ore would have already been used-up so shallow ditches were dug which then led on to the small mines that are locally plentiful.

Strange Burials practice at Los Millares

Los Millares' strange buirial practice
Los Millares' strange buirial practice

Unusually, burials seem to have been sorted not into family groups, but split into four social ranks.  At the top rank are graves with metal weapons, ceramic symbolic decorated ivory items and many idols. These tombs are close to ceremonial areas. Next come tombs with abundant metal objects, ivory and stone with ritual enclosures, niches. Next, tombs have metal elements but scarcely any decorated pottery and no other prestige goods.  The last and lowest class of tombs have fewer metallic objects and ceramic decorations. Over eighty tombs are visible outside the settlement, mainly with corbelled roofs.  Similar Tholos (tombs) are common in Mycanaean remains in Greece and Turkey.

By Gerry Palmer

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Princess Ukoka – the ice mummy

“Princess” Ukoka’s tombGo to Google Earth and enter 49.299748, 87.562505, then zoom in to the circular formation and you will find the 2,400 year old tomb of “Princess Ukoka” who is buried in Tchu – an extremely remote Siberian valley. She is just 10 feet away from the disputed Russian–Chinese border and her tomb was excavated in 1995. Now zoom out slightly and roam the valley – particularly to the west – and you will make the exciting discovery of a plethora of ancient circular tombs, sometimes linked in rows and sometimes alone. Some are marked by photographs, several are not.

Siberian landscape
The local area

You have found the tombs of nobles from the ancient nomadic Pazarik culture, which was closely related to Herodotus’s famed Scythian warriors, who were, in turn, almost certainly the basis of Amazon women warriors. The Scythians, with their fabulous gold burials, lived slightly to the west of here, though several are buried in this valley.

Ukoka’s tomb was almost perfectly preserved as, like the other tombs in the region, it filled with water that turned to ice in this region of permafrost. As excavators melted the ice tomb was found to be simply stunning.

Scythian jewellery From the Hermitage MuseumShe had an elaborate three foot high headdress and was found covered in fur and adorned with silk and gold leaf ornaments. She was in wooden (larch) framework (3.3m x 2.3 m) and the floor was covered with felt. There were dishes of meat, one piece with an iron knife stuck in, plus flat-bottomed ceramic jugs, There were arranged effigies of the upper part of a wolf’s snout with Capricorn’s horns.

Six sacrificed horses lay in the northern part of the pit, all with plaited tails, wooden harness ornaments and felt covers for saddles – all perfectly preserved. The cloth was still soft to the touch and her boots would still have been wearable. The seams of her yellowish silk shirt were trimmed with thin red cord, while its hem, neck, the edges of the sleeves and the centre of the shirt were decorated with red ribbon; her red and white woollen skirt had a thick red belt. O­n her legs she had long white felt stockings decorated with patterns of felt appliques on the upper parts.

Excavators found the polished surface of a bronze plate that had been rubbed with mercury, to make the surface shine like a mirror. Amulets, beads, bronze pendants and a “vanity case” with an horse hair brush, blue and green powder, a peculiar pencil made from a rod of iron rings with a vivianite slate (used for ritual face painting) were all found, as was a stone saucer with coriander seeds.

Ukoka showing her tattooed armUkoka was obviously a special lady – not a princess (we know their tombs are different) – but wealth with high social status; possibly a spiritual leader, an healer, a story-teller or a fortune-teller? She had tattoos o­n her arms from her shoulders to her wrists and hands. She was carefully embalmed and was around 25 when she died from unknown causes. Stunningly, even the soft contours of her body had changed little since she was laid to rest in the 5th century BC. A two inch hole in her skull was found to be post-mortem.

She was probably not a warrior or a concubine as she, unlike several other women in the area, had no weapons and was buried not as an adjunct to a man but alone. Sources say that Pazarik women were not allowed to marry until they had killed an enemy male. DNA evidence implies she was related to the Eastern Slavs and was probably Caucasian, though some say she may have had certain Mongolian features. There is so much more that could be said about Ukoka, but space here, unlike in her tomb, is sadly limited.

By Gerry Palmer

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The Orkneys – and the archaeologyt of the Isle of Rousey

With more than 166 sites of archaeological interest, the tiny island group of Rousay, Egilsay, Wyre and Eynhallow in the Orkneys are astonishing. They are home to the greatest density of chambered Neolithic tombs in the world – including one that’s two storeys tall. Rousey is the largest of these islands and is just 5 miles across! Wyre is around 1000 yards long, but much thinner, and Eynhallow is just 75 Hectares. Having visited Rousey this April I am still stunned. Here, though just covering a few of the sites, is why.

Midhowe

Set on the forshore directly overlooking one of the most dangerous tidal races in the world, Midhowe (named as the middle of three brochs and not to be confused with Orkney’s Minehowe) is the “great ship of death.” It is the site of both a major Neolithic cairn (burial mound) and a well preserved broch. A broch is a type of Iron Age drystone hollow-walled structure only found in Scotland and it represents some of the world’s most sophisticated examples of drystone structures.

Midhowe Chambered Cairn
Midhowe Chambered Cairn

Midhowe Chambered Cairn

Neolithic Midhowe is the world’s largest known “stalled” cairn and is exceptionally well preserved with 12 pairs of stalls set on either side of a central passageway, most tombs of this type have four or less. The walls still stand over eight feet high and though the structure of the original roof is unclear, it was probably made from flat slabs some 10 feet above the ground. The cairn was open for burials and re-burials, from around 3300 BC to 2100 BC – soon after the first farmers appeared in the Orkneys around 4000 BC. It is a massive 108 feet long.

The barrow is supported by three concentric stone casing walls that overlap each other to form a step-like structure. Some of the stones in the walls are laid out in a decorative style that resemble the patterns on the pottery of the period. Unlike other tombs of this type, it had a horned forecourt on one side of the barrow that may have been a ceremonial area that would have been capable of holding hundreds of people.

The remains of at least 25 individuals were found in the tomb. Several of the skeletons were in a crouched position on shelves, their backs to the side wall and heads resting against the supporting pillars. Other groups of bones were heaped into the centres of the shelves or swept under them, suggesting that earlier burials had been removed to make way for more recent ones. A few skulls were present, and in one instance long bones had been piled together and the skull placed on top.

Bones from a variety of animals were also discovered including ox, sheep, skua, cormorant, buzzard, eagle, gannet, and carrion-crow.

Midhowe Broch

Midhowe village
Midhowe village

Set behind a rock-cut ditch, Iron Age Midhowe Broch was built around 2000 years after the adjacent Midhowe Cairn and was by far the largest building of a small but well laid out village. It may have been built by a powerful extended family to demonstrate their influence and control over the area. Like all brochs, it would have been built to be easily defended against attack, and although the inhabitants may have indulged in their own raiding parties at times, they would probably have been more wealthy farmers rather than others.

To me the most unexpected finds at Midhowe were Roman Samian ware pottery shards. Although the islands were never invaded by the Romans (who actually did subdue mainland Scotland but then withdrew of their own accord!) there are records that Orcadian emissaries made a formal submission to the Roman Emperor Claudius at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD. It is also said that, to avoid possible devastation by the advancing Romans, the canny Orcadians actually arrived from the south.

The majority of finds during the excavation were domestic items, tools, whetstones, quern stones etc. However, bronze jewellery was also found and hints at the wealth and status of the people living there. Evidence also implies that a bronze-worker was based at Midhowe. However, as only a small quantity of metal working debris was uncovered, he was probably a travelling artisan.

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb
Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb

This round cairn is about 30 ft in diameter and is a very rare two storey cairn, though there was originally no interconnection between floors and they had separate entrances. The lower chamber is reached by a 19ft passage and is 12 x 5ft in area by just five feet high, divided into four cells with upright stone slabs. The upper chamber is reached by an 11ft long passage, and is divided into two compartments. The cairn is built on a hillside so each passage is at ground level, one uphill, the other down.

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb
Taversoe Tuick Chambered Tomb

The upper chamber contained the bones of at least three people set on stone shelves, including one in a crouching position. There were three heaps of cremated bones in the passage which had subsequently been blocked. The upper chamber had the cremated bones of an adult and a child, which were probably put there late in the tomb’s use, with earlier remains being removed. Archaeologists also found large amounts of pottery along with flint and stone tools but none of the animal bones which typify other Orkney burial cairns.

Just six feet away is a tiny second cairn which held well-preserved pottery vessels, it is thought this cairn may have been ceremonial. It is just big enough for a person to get comfortably inside. I know, I tried.

Blackhammer stalled cairn with a modern roof
Blackhammer stalled cairn with a modern roof

Blackhammer Cairn

This stalled Cairn dates from around 3,000 BC and is divided into seven compartments by pairs of upright stone slabs. A horrible concrete modern roof covers the original structure, which is some 40 feet long and has, like Midhowe, a distinct decorative design incorporated into its outer facing. The stones making the outside wall were slanted to form a triangular pattern, similar to Unstan ware pottery, one of the two contemporary types.

Two male skeletons were found inside the tomb, one in the most westerly compartment, the other lying in the entrance passage. Again the tomb had probably been cleared of earlier burials.

Finds included – stone and flint tools, the remains of an Unstan-style bowl, a finely-made flint knife, two scrapers and five flint splinters. Scattered throughout the cairn were bones of sheep, ox, red deer, geese, red deer, gannets and cormorants, many of which showed signs of burning.

Knowe of Yarso Cairn
Knowe of Yarso Cairn

Knowe of Yarso Cairn

This 50ft long Neolithic stalled cairn is divided into four compartments. Its walls are made in the then local tradition of a double stonework skin, one slanting over and overlaying the top of the other.

The bones of 29 people were found here, with 17 skulls carefully arranged beside the wall in groups facing inwards. The bones were disarticulated but organised. 36 deer bones were also found.

Other finds included flint knives and pottery shards. Many of these showed scorch marks – as did some of the upper stonework in the chamber, so fires were probably lighted inside the chamber as part of the funerary rites. The tomb was in use from 2900 BC until around 1900 BC, based on finds and current dating techniques.

Wyre

This island lies just a stone’s throw across the water from Rousey, and is steeped in legend and history. It is home to Cubbie Roo’s Norse Castle and a Norse Church. Little remains of the castle (we met the friendly owner-farmer in a pub and he told us that he uses its diminutive remaining walls to shelter fertilizer). The castle is mentioned twice in the Icelandic Orkneyinga Saga but has never been excavated. It was built by Kolbein Hruga, one of the landed magnates established here by Earl Thorfinn and dates from around 1150 AD.

St Magnus Church on Egilsay
St Magnus Church on Egilsay

Egilsay

The small island of Egilsay is dominated by St Magnus Church, where Earl Magnus was murdered in 1117, a deed which eventually led his nephew into building the Orkneys’ magnificent Cathedral of St Magnus in Kirkwall. (Aside: nearly a thousand chairs for this cathedral were bought from High Wycombe in 1910 for 9/11d each – most were recently sold off by the cathedral – at a profit, ! A few are still in daily use there). The Egilsay church is one of only two remaining examples of the distinctive round-towered churches built by the Vikings.

Eynhallow
Eynhallow

Eynhallow

The tiny and now uninhabited Eynhallow — the Norsemen’s Eyin Helga, or Holy Island, has a special place in Orkney tradition and folklore. At the centre of the island are the ruins of a chapel, which may have formed part of an early Christian monastic settlement. The photo below shows Eynhallow, and was taken from a tiny open ferry with wild waves that totally covered us with salt and water as we said our farewell to the Islands.

By Gerry Palmer

 

 

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Blackbeard’s death

Blackbeard was by far the most successful pirate who ever lived, he was eventually killed by Lieutenant Maynard in November 1718. His ship was recently found and is being excavated (His anchor was retrieved just last week – on May 27th). Maynard reported his success to the public with the following letter in British Gazetteer on April 25, 1719. The spellings are his own.

This is to sequent you, that I sailed from Virginia the 17th day with two Sloops and 54 Men under my command, having no Guns, but only Small Arms and Pistols. Mr. Hyde commanded the little Sloop with 22 Men, and I had 32 in my Sloop. The 22nd I came up with Captain Teach, the notorious Pyrate, who has taken, from time to time, a great many English Vessels on these Coasts, and in the West Indies; he went by the Name of Blackbeard, because he let his Beard grow, and tied it up in black Ribbons. I attack’d him at Cherhock in North-CaroIina, when he had on Board 21 Men, and nine Guns mounted. At our first Salutation, he drank Damnation to me and my Men, whom he called Cowardly Puppies, saying He would neither give nor take Quarter. Immediately we engag’d, and Mr. Hyde was unfortunately kill’d, and five of his Men wounded in the little Sloop, which, having no-body to command her, fell a-stern, and did not come up to assist me till the Action was almost over. In the mean time, continuing the Fight, it being a perfect Calm, I shot away Teach’s Gib, and his Fore-halliards, forcing him ashoar, I boarded his Sloop, and had 20 Men kill’d and wounded. Immediately thereupon, he enter’d me with 10 Men ; but 12 stout Men I left there, fought like Heroes, Sword in Hand, and they kill’d every one of them that enter’d, without the loss of one Man on their Side, but they were miserably cut and mangled. In the whole, I had eight Men kill’d, and 18 wounded. We kill’d 12, besides Blackbeard, who fell with five Shot in him, and 20 dismal Cuts in several Parts of his Body. I took nine Prisoners, mostly Negroes, all wounded. I have cut Blackbeard’s Head off, which I have put on my Bowspright, in order to carry it to Virginia. I should never have taken him, if I had not got him in such a Hole, whence he could not get out, for we had no Guns on Board ; so that the Engagement on our Side was the more Bloody and Desperate.

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Professor Chris Stringer – on the early human occupation of Britain and Europe

Professor Chris Stringer
Professor Chris Stringer by courtesy of the Natural History Museum, London

Some AiM members were fortunate enough to attend an extraordinarily good Hedgerley Historical Society lecture by Professor Chris Stringer from the Natural History Museum. Chris is a world authority on the early development of humankind and a leading light in the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOP) – see www.ahobproject.org. In fact, he wrote the book on it – Homo Britannicus, which sets out the project’s conclusions. (And excellent it is too!)

Here, in very general outline, is the story he told. Britain offers one of the richest records of early human history anywhere in the world. Our geographic position, which is reasonably northerly and on the edge of the Atlantic, has led to extreme changes of environments, plants and animals over the last 700,000+ years. For some, but by no means all, of the time we were connected to Europe by a land bridge, and this has made the evidence harder to understand.

AHOB has brought together a mass of archaeological, palaeological and contextual evidence (such as DNA and isotope analysis) and has built a much clearer history of our past.

But before I go into details, look at the graphic on the next page. The white line between the red (warmer) and blue (colder) is the average UK temperature and clearly shows the warm interglacial and the colder glacial periods. Early Britons had to cope with these extreme changes of climate, and at least seven times they failed to do so – and died out completely!

There are two big factors that have influenced history over this time – the climate and the presence or absence of the land bridge, and much of our story depends on them. Britain and the British people of today, are new arrivals – products of just the last 12,000 years.

Until a few years ago the oldest human occupation site known in Britain was Boxgrove in Sussex, which dates to 500,000 BP (Before Present). Findings from Pakefield in Suffolk a few years ago pushed this back to 700,000, and last year’s excavations in Happisburgh, Norfolk, took the date back by at least another 100,000 years, making these the earliest known northern Europeans. There are five separate sites in Happisburgh, which are dated to between 840,000 and 950,000 years.

Heidelbergensis, Sapians and Neanderthal skulls
Heidelbergensis (top), Sapians (left) and Neanderthal (right) skulls

The Happisburgh people lived on the bank of the ancient river Thames (whose outfall was then in East Anglia) close to cold pine forests, with few edible plants or animals to be found. Winters were harsh and there were added dangers from rhinoceroses and hyenas on the prowl. The tools found here are similar to those found in Spain dating to 1.2 million years ago (and where signs of cannibalism were found).

The country was sparsely populated over the next 200,000 years, with only a few known sites. The next major period of human activity coincides with Boxgrove, when evidence becomes more widespread – over 400 hand axes have been found. From the human remains that were discovered, including teeth and a tibia, we know that the Homo Heidelbergensis people living here were robust and, again, showed signs of cannibalism.

Boxgrove was followed by a major ice age. In Europe, Homo Heidelbergensis slowly evolved into the Neanderthals, but in Africa they evolved separately to become our ancestors.

The next warm period was around 400,000 years ago and is known from the human site at Swanscombe in Kent. Over 100,000 hand axes have been found from this period. The animals that roamed Britain matched those found on the Continent, so there must have been a land bridge, but by 300,000 years ago there was only a partial animal match, suggesting that by then we must have been cut off.

Chart reproduced by courtesy of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB)
Chart reproduced by courtesy of the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain project (AHOB)

Surprisingly, the following 100,000+ years showed a gradual but steady decrease in the number of sites found, and by 180,000 BP they vanish entirely from the records.

There followed a warm period when Britain was, in some ways, a paradise. A pleasant climate, rich plant life and an abundance of animals provided conditions that were ripe for the easy life. There was just one thing missing – people! Not one piece of evidence has ever been found for human occupation over this 120,000 year period! The country was cut off, with people only on the other side of the Channel.

Reconstructions of the English Channel over this period show that the Thames and the Rhine joined to become a single major river, which created a massive lake in what is now the English Channel, before flowing south-west and out to the sea. Eventually, the lake overflowed catastrophically and in just a few days cut a deep, steep sided channel that drained the lake and separated us from the Continent once more.

The resurgence of humans came around 60,000 years BP, which is shown by some 50 stone tools found in Norfolk that are all of European design. The Neanderthals ranged widely across Europe – including as far north as Byzovaya in Siberia, home of the recently announced find of more than 300 stone tools from the Arctic Circle.

The main theories for the extinction of the Neanderthals are whether a climate change to which they could not adapt, or a “Competitive Exclusion” by humans (Homo Sapiens?), led to their disappearance: evidence is growing in favour of exclusion. A recent academic paper showed that the southerly contraction of the Neanderthal range in south western Europe was not due to climate change or a change in adaptation, but to the expansion of the modern Human (Homo Sapiens’) sphere of influence. And as around 2.5% of our DNA is Neanderthal, we must also have met and interbred with them.

One last surprise came from the Denisova Cave, also in Siberia. It seems that we and the Neanderthals were not alone but there was a third species of humans around until 40K BP! To read more you will have to check out the story on the next page!

By Gerry Palmer

 

 

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Atlantis: Plato’s lost continent

Atlantis: Plato’s lost continent

A common element to all cultures is the desire to tell stories:  they serve as explanations and warnings, and a promise of better things to come.  One of the most familiar stories tells of an ancient sanctuary filled with wonders (the glittering gold of El Dorado, the apples of Avalon) – a sanctuary that’s now lost to us.  Sometimes – as with Shangri-La, and Arthur’s Camelot, the stories say they will return in the hour of our greatest need.  Sometimes – as with the Garden of Eden – they’re lost forever, taken from us as punishment for our sins.   One of the greatest of all legends concerns the lost city of Atlantis.

Under Alexandra’s harbour
Under Alexandra’s harbour

Atlantis is reputed to have had an ancient and mighty seafaring island-nation located in front of the Pillars of Hercules, nowadays associated with the Straits of Gibraltar. Its people were descended from Poseidon and a mortal named Cleito and lived good and pure lives, though eventually their mortal blood corrupted them.  The Atlanteans amassed a mighty empire and invaded Athens.  As punishment for the attack the Gods sent earthquakes and the sea swallowed Atlantis – which vanished in a single day and night.

The earliest record of Atlantis comes from two of Plato’s discourses: Timaeus and Critias, both written around 360 BC.  In them, Solon, an Athenian statesman from 600 BC, travelled to Egypt, where the priests told him the history of Atlantis, which they said existed 9000 years earlier.

Like all the stories of lost worlds, Atlantis may be just that – a story.  Even in ancient times, many people didn’t believe it was real, but simply a tool Pluto used to help his arguments.  However, parts of many ancient stories could have a basis in fact.  Troy is accepted as being more than mere myth, and it’s postulated that the Buddhist legends of Shambala can be traced to the city of Tsaparung.

With the changes in sea levels that have occurred, as well as natural disasters, it’s almost inevitable that entire cities will have been “swallowed up by the sea”, as Pluto says Atlantis was.  In fact, we know it’s happened: we have evidence of great floods (another popular mythical topic!) and underwater remains have been found all over the world, including Alexandria, Yonaguni-Jima, and in the Gulf of Cambay in India (although some of these remain controversial).   The location of the ‘real’ Atlantis has been discussed for millennia and has attracted its fair share of theories, ranging from the truly ridiculous, (space aliens or an island off Sweden), to the surprisingly plausible.

One popular theory concerns the underwater Bimini Road in the Bahamas, a somewhat odd choice of location for the Mediterranean legend of Atlantis.  The Bimini Road is a half mile ‘pavement’ of rounded stones in a long straight line.  Some claim it’s the remains of an ancient road, or a collapsed wall, or even the top of buildings.  It’s thought likely, by scientists at any rate, that it is just an unusual but natural rock formation, as there’s no evidence whatsoever of tool marks or ancient human interference.

One much more reputable idea was the ‘Spartel Bank’ theory.  The ‘facts’ provided by Plato about the island’s location and geography, the date of the civilisation, and the method of its destruction were analysed and studied, and a match was found with ‘Spartel Bank’, an island in the western part of the Straits of Gibraltar that sunk around 11,600 years ago, at roughly the time Plato gave for Atlantis.  From a geological point of view, all of the facts seem to fit – but there’s a problem.  Plato’s dialogues talk of both Athens and Atlantis as advanced classical societies, with agriculture and art, temples and aqueducts, ships for international trade and craftsmen who worked with silver and gold and bronze.  Although we can’t say anything for certain about Atlantis, Athens – along with everywhere else that’s known to have existed – certainly didn’t have an advanced society at this time.  Cattle and horses weren’t domesticated; there was no large architecture or large settlements, no ships, no roads, and no bronze work.  So Plato’s date can’t be accurate.
This means Spartel Bank can’t have been Atlantis – by the time such societies existed (around 4,000-2,600 BC), the island had long since vanished.

Sonar of the  “Atlantis Plain”
Sonar of the “Atlantis Plain”

A few years ago it was suggested that Atlantis was located between Cyprus and Syria, at a depth of about a mile.  Maps of the seafloor of the eastern Mediterranean were studied and over 50 ‘matches’ with the physical description in Plato’s works have been claimed.  Subsequently, sonar images of the sea floor showed what looked like some of the man-made canals that were present in Atlantis, but these were later shown to be natural formations, many hundreds of thousands of years old.  Due to the depth of the ‘Atlantis Plain’, further excavation is too difficult.  It is still claimed that Atlantis was located here as, even if structures are natural, it would still be an ideal spot for settlement, (at a mile underwater I hope they could hold their breath!).

A much better ‘fit’ is Akrotiri – a Minoan settlement on the Greek island of Santorini.  The settlement, which has been excavated since 1967, was destroyed by Thera (a volcano on the island), which erupted in the middle of the second millennium BC – so the society was advanced enough to match Plato’s description.  And we know that the Egyptians, who told the story of Atlantis to Solon, were in contact with the Minoans as there are Minoan frescoes at Avaris, Egypt’s capital city under Hyksos rule in the early second millennium BC.

The exact timing and size of the Thera eruption is currently under debate.   Recent estimates say that the volume of ejected material was around 100 km3 – some four  times bigger than Krakatoa in 1883.  Geological evidence suggests that the main eruption was preceded by a smaller one a few months earlier, which led to the settlement being evacuated before the main eruption.   A tsunami, probably more than 50m high, followed the explosion, possibly destroying coastal cities such as Palaikastro and devastating the northern coast of Crete.  The Minoan Empire did not fall immediately as there is archaeological evidence of their civilization above the Thera ash layer, but it was not long afterwards that the decline began.

Theran wall painting
Theran wall painting

As at Pompeii, Thera created an extremely well preserved ancient settlement.  Best known for its superb frescoes, Akrotiri has yielded impressive buildings with at least three storeys and drainage systems, as well as the usual pottery and furniture.  Unlike Pompeii, however, the evacuation of the site before the main explosion meant that many of the more precious (and moveable) objects were removed – so far, only a single piece of gold has been found and that was hidden under a floor!

Theran fishermanThe two storey West House is associated with weaving owing to the large number of loom weights found there.  It is beautifully decorated, with images of fishermen and priestesses, ikria and flowers, as well as the truly magnificent ‘Miniature frieze’, which shows a long and important sea-voyage.  The exact nature of the story told in this frieze is unclear – it shows five towns, pastoral scenes in the Greek countryside, wrecked ships and drowned men, detailed images of harbours and buildings, Aegean soldiers with their boar-tusked helmets, and exotic lands, filled with wild and mythical beasts.   The style of the paintings is interesting as it shows many parallels with Egyptian art, including different scenes shown on different registers or levels.

The impressive House of the Ladies had three storeys, two staircases and a light well (the only one found in Akrotiri so far), and was probably the private home of a wealthy citizen.  The building is famous for its paintings of female figures, possibly engaged in a ritual act, but it also contains an unusual image of Pancratium, or Sea lilies, that are painted much larger than real life.

Theran wallpaintingOf course, it’s impossible to say whether the destruction of the settlement on Santorini was the foundation for Plato’s Atlantis, but it is certainly a plausible basis for the legend.  A great empire, a city destroyed by ‘an act of the gods’, the fall of a civilisation: it’s easy to spin a yarn from those ingredients.   And, whether or not Atlantis ever really existed, it seems likely that we will go on searching for it for some time to come.  Stories of lost or hidden utopias have persisted throughout recorded history – the idea of finding them is simply too tempting to give up.

By Sophy Palmer

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