Thursday, 29 December 2011

Digital landscapes at Leicester

The New Year will bring new activities and this February I hope to get a WEA on digital archaeology going. I hope that enough adult learners will enrol I am myself so excited about this. It will bring together several themes I am really interested in – namely landscape archaeology, computer-assisted mapping and community archaeology.

The government is making noises about cutting red tape at the same time as it wants to empower communities. As a village resident I am waiting with horror the consequences to the already jammed rush hour traffic the new development towards Groby will bring to our village. Let’s hope that the archaeology of the area will be checked properly since I found out only after the planning consultation had started that the fields of our village have not apparently been fieldwalked and that the developer has bought the land. One can only keep eye on the progress of the plans and the safeguards that will be in place, if any. A provision for professional work by an archaeological unit will hopefully be among them.

Knowing where to look for archaeological information and how to create plans and maps with free software and free satellite images is an important asset for any office archaeologist – no matter if they are professionals, students, part of an archaeological group or just needing tools for private study. It is also important to know where to look for different archaeological organisations, such as the Council for British Archaeology or National Trust for information and networks, and if they offer any additional web content.

Leicestershire has a marvellous asset in its professional archaeologists – not the least in its community archaeologist Peter Liddle. However, with the continuous cheese slicing to cut public spending there will be only so much they can do. Naturally, the existing archaeological groups can help but often they are already very involved in different activities. Thus, it is important that those with an interest in heritage keep an eye on developments, both in technology – that can truly empower although not necessarily in the way the government wishes – and in our own backyards so that we do not lose our past. The National Trust with other organisations is already looking alarmed and probably we all have to if we want to look after the Charnwood forest and other riches in our area.

Beginners guide to archaeology and heritage will start on February 20, 2012, at 12:30pm (six two-hour sessions) with the 101 Hinckley Road branch. Fee: £40.20 (FREE for unemployed and people on benefits; T&C apply). You can get more information and enrol over the Internet [link not valid any more].

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Winter solstice

Today is December 22, 2011, the Winter Solstice, the probable original reason for us having Christmas in the middle of winter, to replace Roman Saturnalia and other pagan celebrations that are related to this date. If there is any archaeological landscape, which can be associated with Winter Solstice – or any solstice – it is the Stonehenge landscape. The actual direction from which the sun rose or to which went down at any past moment or the visibility of any other star is a matter of archaeo-astrological calculations, carried out in case of Stonehenge with prior knowledge by Clive Ruggles and published in 2001. It may well be that the stones were raised in order to celebrate astrological event(s), if not the ancestors, buried in and around the enclosure, as Mike Parker Pearson suggests. The strong directly visible veneration and evaluation of this landscape as a religious landscape is a recent phenomenon, related to the needs of modern pagan religion.

David Field’s and Trevor Pearson’s Stonehenge World Heritage Site Landscape Project report published in 2010 gives a thorough plan of this landscape in the state it exists today. In order to consider the relationship between different phases and different features inside and outside the circle and the related earthworks AND winter solstice would require thorough astronomical calculations together with the complete deconstruction of this monument. Nevertheless, one can suggest that the earthworks and the stones as they are preserved underline the importance of south-western–north-eastern alignment. This emphasizes the direction of the Woodhenge, although the Avenue seems to curve to a totally different direction. However, if one arrived along it and stopped at the so-called Heel stone the slope towards the south-west was rising, as if to raise something on show either inside the circle or to bring the circle to frame something more clearly.

The photo from last year in E. Duffy's blog

The importance and the emotional effect of the event of seeing a rising sun through the gaps between the stones is without doubt. The beautiful photographs and long treaties on the Celtic aspects of pagan religion are evidence of this. Similarly, the mental importance of this landscape at Winter Solstice and throughout the year is evident from the number of projects, reports and articles devoted to it in archaeological literature and the discussions among the archaeological community.

Pollard, J., and Ruggles, C. L. N., 2001. 'Shifting perceptions: spatial order, cosmology, and patterns of deposition at Stonehenge', Cambridge Archaeological Journal 11(1), 69–90.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Landscape for a treasure?

Recent news has provided us with the latest treasure found with the help of a metal detector. This time the find was made on a field in the outskirts of Silverdale in Lancashire. The treasure contained a 201-piece silver hoard from AD900 and revealed the name of an unknown Viking king of northern England in Northumberland called Airdeconut, not to be mixed with a later well-known Scandinavian and English ruler Harthacnut. Silver arm-rings, brooch fragments, ingots and all but one of the coins had all been found in, or underneath, a lead container. Whoever placed the items there apparently did not make it through the traumatic experience that led to the hoarding in the first place. The person never returned and a metal detectorist was able to find it with his Christmas present.

The picture on the British Museum web site

This find included coins of Anglo-Saxon, Anglo-Viking, Frankish and Islamic types, including coins of Alfred the Great (871-99) and his god-son the Viking leader Guthrum, who became king of East Anglia with the baptismal name of Athelstan. It is the proof of the wide contacts the elite in Danelaw had but the news tell very little of the place where the hoard was buried. Nevertheless, this is often the case with the treasure finds partly to protect the find spots, which often are under emergency excavations shortly after the find. This was the case in Staffordshire with the now famous Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard found in farmland in Hammerwich parish, near Lichfield in Staffordshire. After recognizing the importance of the find, English Heritage and Staffordshire County Council funded an excavation that was carried out between 24 July and 21 August in 2009, just after the original find was made in July. However, following the excavation the finder Mr Herbert found a few more pieces, but a final search that September, by a specialist police remote sensing team, found nothing else on site, which suggested the entire hoard has now been recovered. This shows how the secrecy is important, at least initially, since there may be an extended period of recovery.

A sword pyramid on the Staffordshire hoard web site

Similar secrecy needed to be maintained at Hallaton in southern Leicestershire, where the local archaeology group (Hallaton Fieldwork group) with its metal detectorist member was essential in both finding and excavating the treasure alongside The University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) with the help from the English Heritage. This treasure is a local pride and unlike the previously mentioned treasures reveals details of the later days of pre-Roman Iron Age. The joint effort discovered more than five thousand silver and gold coins, the remains of an ornately decorated Roman silver-gilt helmet and some silver finds the function of which is not clear. Hallaton is one of the most important Iron Age sites in Britain, now interpreted as a shrine.

A part of the Hallaton treasure

Here we know more about the context and dissimilarly to the Silverdale and Staffordshire treasures this was definitely a structured deposit. No a trace of a grave, building or anything else have been found at the Staffordshire hoard site whereas the Hallaton hoard is part of a complex. According to the archaeologists studying the finds the hoarding was made between around 50 BC and the Roman invasion of AD 43 in an open air shrine. This was located on a hilltop and was probably enclosed by a ditch with a palisade to one side. The Hallaton Helmet was found just outside the palisade together with a pig’s jaw and 1170 coins and even more coins beneath it. The find spot at an archaeological site, detailed study of the find together with further project funding have allowed interpreting this site and allow exploring its landscape.

  • A selection of objects and coins from the Silverdale Hoard will be on display at the British Museum in Room 2, from Thursday 15 December through the New Year.
  • The Hallaton Helmet will be on display for the first time at Harborough Museum with Roman cavalry and infantry in attendance on Saturday January 28, 2012.
  • The inaugural meeting of the Friends of the Hallaton Treasure is planned for February 2012.
  • Tuesday, 13 December 2011

    Wonders of the world

    I had a joy to teach a small group of enthusiastic adult learners a week ago in Madingley Hall just outside Cambridge. I was running a residential course on the Seven Wonders of the World and we travelled in time to the Hellenistic period and the empire of Alexander the Great. We very pleasurably looked at the seven buildings or art works around the eastern Mediterranean and explored at the reasons of these wonders were built.

    The ruins of Temple of Zeus in Olympia

    We stuck to the conventional list of the Great Pyramid, Hanging Gardens of Babylon, Statue of Zeus at Olympia, Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Colossus of Rhodes and the Pharos of Alexandria. This meant concentrating on locations and landscapes mainly along the Anatolian coast. Not to mention to marvel the apparently imagined location of the Hanging Gardens.

    At the end of our journey we put our heads together and listed important archaeological sites and finds that were there during the Hellenistic times but also those we know were not there but are now known to have been important. We did consult the criteria of UNESCO for the World Heritage sites but ultimately we listed the sites we happened to remember and fancied so it was more for fun than a really serious scientific exercise. However, we considered their after effect and enjoyed the whole voting process.

    I am relatively proud of our choice although I must admit we set our sights because of our interests relatively closely to the Mediterranean and Europe. Our list composed of:

  • cave paintings in France and northern Spain
  • Stonehenge
  • Pyramids at Giza
  • the walls and ziggurat of Babylon
  • Knossos
  • Acropolis
  • Pompeii.

  • We ended up choosing Acropolis on the basis of the general importance although several of us preferred the landscape and ambiance at Delphoi.

    Thursday, 1 December 2011

    What is a ceramiscene?

    Recently, while finishing the Romanisation of a Faliscan Town project that aimed at analysing the Roman material from the Nepi Survey, I and my Roman pottery expert Philip Mills suggested a new concept ‘ceramiscene’ (see Mills and Rajala 2010a,b). ‘Ceramiscene’ is defined as the landscape that is created, manipulated and experienced by the manufacturing, usage and disposal of material of deliberately fired clay; this definition that excludes more friable materials such as mud brick and daub. This concept is clearly a specific view of Ingold’s (1993) taskscape that emphasizes the experience of a landscape through social every day actions. A ceramiscene can be taken on its own terms, but it can also be developed with the parallel studies of the other antique landscapes of production, use and disposal, such as the ‘lithoscene’ (lithics) or ‘sideroscene’ (iron).

    This landscape is naturally not directly observable but it is an end product of a research project. Most of the material preserved from Roman times is ceramic based – ceramic vessels and ceramic building materials. An assemblage collected during a surface survey in the Mediterranean, such as the Nepi Survey c. 45 kilometres north-west from Rome, is usually dominated by ceramic materials. Therefore, we argued that the ceramics is a key proxy for Roman action within the landscape. The ceramiscene also ties the concepts of landscape, consumption and discard together.

    The methods of ceramic analysis applied were fabric and functional analysis. After the separation of different wares (e.g. amphorae, black gloss, white wares), they were grouped into different fabrics. In addition, all rims and/or handles of pottery vessels were defined into different functional categories (e.g. amphorae, flagons, jars, storage jars, mortaria, bowls, dishes, lids). The fabrics could provide information of different sources used in different parts of the area whereas the proportions of different functional categories suggested statuses of different sites. In those areas where the distributions of different fabrics, different producers, overlapped with geographically definable districts, the ceramiscene could be presented in detail and used in explanation and interpretation.

    For an example of a ceramiscene representation, in this case a ware distribution at selected sites, see this map:

    This way of approaching ceramic materials in a landscape worked well in central Italy. However, since it is a theoretical construction, it is perfectly well applicable in Britain or other areas as well. It should not be restricted to the study of Roman ceramic material but be applied in the study of Medieval and later wares as well.


    Ingold, T. 1993. The temporality of the landscape. World Archaeology 25, 152–174.

    Mills, P., and Rajala, U., 2011a. Interpreting a ceramiscene landscape – the Roman pottery from the Nepi Survey Project, in D. Mladenović and B. Russell (eds.). TRAC 2010. Proceedings of the Twentieth Annual Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference, Oxford 2010, 1-17.

    Mills, P., and Rajala, U., 2011b. The Roman ceramic material from the fieldwalking in the environs of Nepi, Papers of the British School at Rome 79, 147-240.