Archaeology

The Portable Antiquities Scheme

on Wednesday, 27 November 2019. Posted in Archaeology

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is a national programme run by the British Museum in partnership with local bodies; in Wiltshire these are Salisbury Museum, Wiltshire Museum, Wiltshire Council and Swindon Museum and Art Gallery. The primary aims of the scheme are to provide a framework by which members of the public can identify and record finds of potential archaeological significance, as well as to encourage awareness of archaeological issues and best archaeological practice. Whilst the scheme is available to everyone, from field walkers to builders, by the nature of their hobby Metal Detectorists find the majority of the archaeological artefacts we record onto our database; and it is our job to help those engaged in the hobby record as much archaeological information as they can, while also minimising disturbance of in situ archaeological remains.

Metal detecting as a hobby is actually highly comparable to fishing and, anecdotally, I have noticed there does seem to be a great deal of overlap between the two groups. Both hobbies are relatively solitary affairs which can require great deals of patience – they both also exploit a resource in our environment, but this is where the similarities begin to end. Whereas fishing is carefully licenced and managed in order to ensure that the exploitation of our river’s fish is sustainable, there is no such monitoring of the archaeological record.

Crucially, and unlike fish, the archaeological record cannot repopulate itself, once a deposit is disturbed and/or artefact removed, the context is lost for good. This is why it is imperative that detectorists behave responsibly as they exploit this resource which, ultimately, belongs to everyone.

Legally speaking, detectorists in England and Wales are only required to report objects which meet the criteria of the Treasure Act 1996, this is a very specifically worded and narrow set of criteria which frequently miss nationally important finds; a recent example has obviously been the Gloucestershire Dog hoard, but more locally this narrow definition has missed a large hoard of Roman pewter, containing a rare and well preserved tank, thankfully reported by the finder. There is more to detecting responsibly than simply making me aware of unusual finds however, and the perception that I would only be interested in nicer finds is something I often run up against.

Hoard: A Hoard of Roman Pewter vessels found by a metal detectorist in North West Wiltshire, unfortunately archaeological assistance was not sought in advance of recovering the hoard. Salisbury Museum/PAS

Unexpected archaeological discovery in Westbury

on Tuesday, 10 September 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Wiltshire Places

Exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries show how no evaluation process for sites is fool proof. What happens next shows how important cooperation and communication is, particularly for the County Archaeology Service, who are tasked with supporting development AND safeguarding heritage. The critical concept is “significance” – how important are the remains; what is their potential to inform us about the past? Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist reports:

In 2017 Wessex Archaeology excavated a new housing development north of Bitham Park in Westbury. I had requested this work as a condition of planning permission, based on limited evaluation results. Unexpected discoveries demonstrated the challenges faced by Planning Archaeologists in understanding the significance of archaeological sites based on the results of trial trench evaluation. 

The 2018 National Planning Policy Framework states that local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any “heritage asset” that may be affected by a proposal. In line with this advice, we often ask for sites to be investigated before the determination of a planning application, so that we have that information. Evaluation usually this consists of geophysical survey followed by trial trench evaluation. The Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record which contains detail on archaeological sites, buildings and finds, informs our decision making.

Archaeological evaluation can feel like a game of battleships. When geophysical survey goes well, and reveals features that look like potential archaeology, we ask for trenches to be dug and the features investigated by commercial archaeologists.  The aim is to understand the significance of the site by investigating features within the trenches, which is not always so easy:  if geophysical survey has not been carried out or is unsuccessful, then trenches are placed either systematically or randomly across a site and there is potential to miss remains. Today, the trenching is usually a 3-5% sample of the development site but in exceptional circumstances, up to 10% may be carried out.  That sample of trenching should find archaeological remains within a site and provide enough information to understand the importance, extent and significance of any remains.  Results of evaluation will then inform our advice to the planning officer on the impact of the development on archaeological remains. Remains considered to be of national significance are likely to be preserved in situ and not developed, but other remains are likely to be investigate. Early knowledge about archaeology and its potential effect helps the developers manage their risk and adequately budget for excavation costs, as well as post-excavation work and publication.  

The geophysical survey results at Bitham Park didn’t show much other than a few lines representing ridge and furrow remains across parts of the site and a few other possible linear features. This image gives an example of the greyscale plot of the geophysical survey results (magnetromotry).

© Wessex Archaeology

Geophysical survey isn’t always reliable, so I asked for trial trench evaluation prior to determination of the planning application: in some cases, later ridge and furrow can hide earlier remains. As the geophysical survey indicated, there were remains of medieval/post-medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; however, my assessment that there might be more archaeology was correct.  Archaeological features were discovered across several trenches, mostly concentrated in the western part of the site. They included ditches, gullies and pits containing small, worn pottery fragments from the early/middle Iron Age and Romano-British periods (150BC onwards). Nevertheless, the significance and extent of the remains could not be fully understood, so I asked for a second stage of evaluation to provide more data. The extra information would help me define an area for archaeological mitigation – the full excavation of important features.  The results confirmed prolonged and intensive agricultural use from the medieval period (1066- 1540). This had truncated and displaced features and artefacts from the earlier Iron Age and Romano-British periods; however, theses features included and arrangement of post holes representing a possible structure (see trench locations of two evaluation stages below).

© Wessex Archaeology

On the basis of the two evaluations I asked for an area of excavation within the vicinty of where the most significant archaeological features were recorded, in the western part of the site and along a north-south trajectory.

In advance of the housing development an initial area was stripped with contingency and here’s an aerial view of the site below, can you spot anything interesting?

© Wessex Archaeology and Thomson Environmental Consultants

The Truth about Stonehenge*

on Wednesday, 19 June 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire Places

(*or what was held to be The Truth in the Middle Ages)

At the summer solstice, Stonehenge falls under the spotlight: in the solar sense and in the cultural sense. People all over the world find it fascinating and are reminded to ponder it when the sun is at its highest. Much of the appeal of Stonehenge may be attributed to its encompassing aura of mystery, its air of mind-bending antiquity. There is much about it we don’t understand, despite the advances made by ingenious researchers, but we are not the first generations to try to account for Stonehenge. So what did our forebears believe?

According to a twelfth-century author called Geoffrey of Monmouth, the ancient stone circle now known as Stonehenge was originally brought to mount Killarus in Ireland from Africa by a group of giants. It was known then as the Giants’ Dance and had healing properties. The stones came to Wiltshire with the help of a very young Merlin, at the behest of King Arthur’s uncle, Aurelius Ambrosius, to be reconstructed as a memorial to a group of Britons massacred during the reign of the malicious usurper, Vortigern. Some decades later the structure renamed Stonehenge becomes the final resting place of Uther Pendragon.

I studied this story while writing my PhD about an illustrated medieval manuscript containing an abridged version of Wace’s Anglo-Norman French translation of Geoffrey’s history: La Roman de Brut. Even in its shortened form, the episode in which the child Merlin guides the reconstruction of Stonehenge celebrates brains over brawn, great power despite littleness of stature: 

“They grasped the stones behind, in front and sideways: they pushed and thrust them hard and shook them hard, but however much force they used, they could not find a solution.
‘Rise’ said Merlin, ‘you will so no more by force. Now you shall see how knowledge and skill are better than bodily strength.’ Then he stepped forward and stopped. He looked around, his lips moving like a man saying his prayers. I do not know if he said a prayer or not. Then he called the Britons back.
‘Come here,’ he said, ‘come! Now you can handle the stones and carry them into your ships.’ As Merlin instructed, as he devised and told them, the Britons took the stones, carried them to the ships and placed them inside. They brought them to England and carried them to Amesbury, into the fields nearby.”
 – Based on Judith Weiss’ 2002 translation of Wace’s Roman de Brut


To the medieval mind, the stone circle was a monument to human mastery of nature, as well as to the fallen Britons. Still today we measure ourselves by the power of our prehistoric ancestors to have created it. I recently created a linocut of the child Merlin guiding the reconstruction of Stonehenge. Both Geoffrey of Monmouth and Wace focus on the dismantling of the stones in Ireland, which is also the moment illustrated in the manuscript I worked on for my PhD. Instead, I depicted the moment when that iconic plain was undergoing its momentous transformation.

A New Website for Archaeology

on Monday, 18 March 2019. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

Do you have an interest in archaeology? Would you like to know what has been found in your local area, or want to know more about how people lived in Wiltshire in the past? If so, then you might be interested to access our new website that allows you to research the finds, buildings, sites and monuments that exist on the county Historic Environment Record (HER).

Remains of Clarendon Palace – A Medieval Royal Site

The Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic resource that holds information on all the currently known archaeology for Wiltshire and Swindon. This includes everything from Palaeolithic flint tools that are half a million years old to World War I practice trenches created only a hundred years ago – as well as everything in between! Using the HER can be fun and helps to guide your research, as it can tell you about the character and date of archaeological sites/finds as well as how they have been investigated and where you can find more (such as in journals, books and reports).

The new website allows people to easily search the archaeology of Wiltshire and presents data on both a map and dynamic database. To have a go, click to visit the HER homepage

Online HER homepage

The new website is easier to use than our previous one and allows you to search by the following themes:
• Unique identifier number – so you can find records you’ve accessed before…
• Keyword – to find particular find/site types – such as castles or axeheads!
• Site name – for place names you know like your parish church or famous sites like Stonehenge!
• Period – so you can see all Roman artefacts or all prehistoric archaeology we know about…
• Grid reference – if you know exactly where you want to research - whether rural or urban!

Online HER search bar

You can also browse by navigating the interactive map – which can show both Ordnance Survey mapping or aerial photography. You can pan and zoom using the tools and the grid reference of your location handily shows at the top in case you need it!

Behind the scenes at Chippenham Museum: Reconstructing Roman Ceramics

on Wednesday, 06 March 2019. Posted in Archaeology, Conservation

A number of Roman finds were recently uncovered in the back garden of Marc Allum, a specialist on the Antiques Roadshow, during excavations organised by Chippenham Museum volunteers Clive Green and Mike Stone.

Mr Allum kindly donated the finds to Chippenham Museum. The Friends of Chippenham Museum worked hard to raise funds for the conservation of one of the finds - a fine Samian ware bowl - and conservators at CMAS were privileged to undertake the reconstruction of this beautiful piece.

The Samian ware is an example of a Dragendorff type 37 bowl, suggesting it is Gaulish dating from c. AD 70-130. The bowl has intricate decorative panels with repeating motifs of Gladiators battling wild cats and a more risqué scene thought to depict the deity Bacchus.

The Samian ware was found in 51 fragments forming almost half the bowl. Due to the fine nature of the form and decoration it was decided to fully reconstruct the piece, replacing lost areas to give more complete impression of its original form.

The conservator worked hard to piece together all the fragments. Interestingly the way the ceramic had broken into layers reveals its method of construction. Samian ware with such detailed patterns was formed by pressing clay into preformed moulds. The ceramic has split along the lines of the layers that were built up.

Graham Taylor of Potted History (@Pottedhistory) has created replica moulds for the vessel and its decorative features in order to produce a facsimile using the same techniques.

Once the form of the original ceramic was determined it was possible to create an accurate profile from base to rim using measurements of the thickness of the ceramic fragments and the diameter of the base and rim, comparing these with known examples.

The profile was used to form an accurate core in clay to which the original ceramic could be secured. Plaster replacement fills were then ‘spun’ using the profile as a guide. It was decided to only replace larger areas and those smaller areas required for strength.

Walking Roundway Down: The Archaeology of a Civil War Battlefield

on Thursday, 27 September 2018. Posted in Archaeology, History Centre

We could see the enemy’s whole body of horse face about and run with speed… and our horse in close body firing in their rear, till they had chased them down the hill in a steep place, where never horse went down and up again.

Sir Henry Slingsby, Royalist Cavalry Commander, describing the endgame of the battle of Roundway Down.

Oliver’s Castle, seen from the edge of the Bloody Ditch.

Slingsby’s laconic words describe the best-known moment of the 1643 Battle of Roundway Down, when the broken Parliamentarian cavalry were chased from the field by the troopers of King Charles I. During this rout, both those fleeing and their pursuing enemies rode off the steep, western edge of the chalk down. The moment captured the imagination and that part of the down is known as the Bloody Ditch!

The rout of the Roundheads might be the most famous part of the action, but it was part of a bigger battle that was, in turn, part of a wider campaign as both sides tried to take control of the west of England. Both sides were seeking to exploit the region’s resources, recruit its menfolk, seize the horses and tax the populace, who were, often unwilling, participants in the increasingly bitter civil war that had broken out in 1643. Meanwhile, the battle took place on chalk downland that had already seen millennia of human activity, the landscape is rich in archaeological remains as a result, with barrows and a hillfort. The edge of the downs also gives superb views across the surrounding landscape and its archaeology.

In early September, we led an archaeological walk across part of the battlefield to explore and explain both the flow of the battle and the more ancient remains in the area.

The Roundway Landscape

The Wiltshire Historic Environment Record includes data for a number of later Neolithic or Bronze Age barrows. Like many other barrows in Wiltshire these occupy prominent locations with extensive views into the wider landscape. They have also, like many similar monuments, been investigated by 19th century antiquarians. Although some of these monuments are similar to others in the county, with prehistoric burials beneath and within earthen mounds, one barrow is exceptional. When it was opened in the 19th century a number of metal fixings were found that suggested there may have been a bed burial inserted into the Bronze Age mound during the Anglo-Saxon period. Bed burials are an unusual Saxon burial practice, usually reserved for women of high status, another example in Wiltshire comes from Swallowcliffe, between Salisbury and Shaftesbury, with others known elsewhere in Wessex and around Cambridge. These bed burials appear to date to the 7th Century AD and may relate to the conversion of England to Christianity, and the woman was buried with a dress pin decorated with a cross. The burials may also relate to the wider power struggles between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, including the expansion of Wessex.  The mound and the artefacts were re-investigated by Sarah Semple and Howard Williams in 2001 when they suggested that the Roundway burial might actually have included an elaborate coffin, rather than a bed. Whatever the mode of burial, the status of the deceased remains in no doubt, while the reuse of the much older burial mound is typical of Anglo-Saxon burials associated with barrows. This practice suggests not only the use of the barrows as landmarks, but also that they retained some form of mythic or folkloric power to the people of Anglo-Saxon England.

The walk also visited Oliver’s Castle, an Iron Age hillfort that overlooks St Edith’s Marsh. This monument includes a ditch and bank creating a rampart that encloses a promontory on the edge of the downs. The ramparts respect two earlier Bronze Age burial mounds. When excavations took place in the later 19th century, there was little trace of settlement, suggesting that the hillfort was, perhaps, used as a place of safety in time of danger, or that it was used for ceremonial events. In either case, the prominent location meant that views of the surrounding landscape were excellent, whether to see enemies or to be closer to the gods. The site enjoyed a later life as a sheep fold; a dew pond, providing water for sheep and probably originating in the 18th century, still survives within the ramparts. By the later 19th century, a shepherd is known to have had his hut close to the pond.

Below the fort is a site known as Mother Antony’s Well. This has been the site of excavations in recent years that have found probable Bronze Age barrows, an Iron Age enclosure, and Roman remains that included kilns used to dry grain. In addition, the Romano-British population seem to have regarded the springs in the area as special, and one had an elaborate well head that may suggest a shrine.

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