Sunday, 18 October 2015

22 years of Whitby headland and other RAI stories

Burlington House in London

This week I was pleasantly surprised when one of the venerable learned societies, the Royal Archaeological Institute, chose me as their new Social Media and Communications Officer. I have posted for the very first time onto the RAI Facebook page, but further action will require establishing an action plan and liaisoning with other officers in order to be properly informed about the existing practices and needs. We will also have to agree on policies and strategies. Nevertheless, if my first encounter was representative, I will have many pleasant meetings ahead.

The Finnish Embassy in Belgrave, London

My day started with a quick nip to the Embassy to order my new passport. The old one expires inconveniently in mid-January, which means that one has in practice to take care of the paperwork before Christmas. Since the end of the year seems quite busy, I decided to do it now when I was heading south anyway, so when we come to London during the Christmas break from school, I can pick the new one up. Of course, the flights in between have been booked with the old one.

The Royal Archaeological Institute has its headquarters in Burlington House, in the Society of Antiquaries. The interview was on the day of their monthly meeting, so I could attend it as well. Especially, since the talk was about the every goth’s favourite place, the Whitby Cathedral. Or not so much about the cathedral, but Tony Wilmott presented the different excavations and interventions English Heritage... I mean Historic England... has carried out there on the headland after the 1924/1925 Peers excavations after the bombardment of Whitby in 1918. Nothing much happened before 1976 when Rahtz actually checked the original excavation maps and compared them to the Peers summary map.

The RAI President Tim Champion addresses the audience

Peers was looking for early Christian monastery cellae and draw onto his map only a selection of suitable squarish walls. He left most of the palimpsest of different walls and structures out of this neat map with the consequence that Rathz considered the map as a misinterpretation and as such he thought it would be difficult to imagine any better example of such than this ‘interpretation’. The many interventions by EH/HE since 1993 have revealed new information of the earliest phases of the abbey recorded as Streonaeshalch by Bede, originally founded in 657 by Osby. The Danes really brought the place down in the 9th century, so that the bones of the saints kept there were moved to Glastonbury in 944 and the new Gothic cathedral rose only in the 12th century. However, in the 13th century, the long process with events of collapses started.

Sorting the technology

The current research and conservation has to deal with eroding headland. Apparently, c. 400 metres of cliff has disappeared and with it the Roman signal station that must have been along the coast, deducted from the others on the shoreline. The various attempts to get the car park and toilet sorted have been hampered by archaeological remains and sudden collapses making the car park in times an exclusion zone. However, the heroic research efforts have revealed Bronze Age round houses, Roman background noise and Anglian and Medieval property boundaries. Now they hope that different measures have consolidated the headland.

The other finds from the headland are quite spectacular. There are signs of a long curved boundary ditch that accommodated an Anglian cemetery. The cemetery seems to have been relatively large and the fragments of epitaphs found in early excavations. A primary cremation dates to a period between 610 and 680, determined with a C14 dating. There is also an Anglian road with ruts and stone foundation of a building. The area of the monastery and cathedral is neatly defined by Medieval ridge and furrow visible in the 1990s geophysical survey. HE hopes that the new geophysical survey planned will reveal more features. The later 17th century house of the Cholmely family revealed a large stoned garden. What a treasure box of archaeology. Sadly, none of the images featured a goth. Nevertheless, the experience and the list of this academic year's lectures suggests that a membership in the RAI will be beneficial to my archaeological general knowledge on the British Isles.

The day was success also otherwise. Between the interview and lunch and the 4.30pm tea I managed to pop to the British Museum to marvel the Sutton Hoo room. I also learned a lesson. Actually, two. The lesson one: do not try to take a selfie with an old smart phone without a camera on the front. The lesson two: do not take a selfie, if you are not 20 any more, ‘big-boned’ and slightly sweaty after speed walking around the museum. I should have buried the result, but for the general education, see, learn and be very, very horrified. The hamster chins is not a good look. You cannot even see the helmet properly!

The photo from the start of the term drinks party in the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at Cambridge is more like it. Especially, when it came after a long successful day in the libraries:

Royal Archaeological Institute

If you are interested in knowing more about the activities of the Royal Archaeological Institute, check the web site. There is the lecture programme and information on the trips. Apparently, in July they visited Stockholm. The conference on maritime archaeology took place this weekend and there is more to come. The membership fees are very reasonable, considering you can access to the Library of the Society of Antiquaries and get a newsletter and the Archaeological Journal as well. The younger members have a special price, too.

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