The past, now

Cover of Current Archaeology 311

In a previous life I was quite into archaeology, young fogey that I was then (old fogey now, of course). My experience includes working on a multi-period hillfort (South Cadbury, Somerset), a Roman villa (Bratton Seymour, also in Somerset) and an early medieval church and Welsh medieval farmstead (Llanelen, Gower). The first lasted a week, the second three years, and the last twenty-one years (from the first recce in 1974 to publication in 1995) with some small investigations subsequently.* The first dig I was involved in coincided with early issues of Current Archaeology, to which I started subscribing, and with very few gaps I have continued to receive the magazine ever since — despite no longer being actively involved with excavation.

It began as a bi-monthly in 1967, becoming monthly exactly forty years later and changing its size once or twice.** Entirely funded from subscriptions (no advertising at all) it encouraged growing loyalty in its readers, to the extent that it now claims some 17K subscribers around the world. Though I’ve since passed on the bulk of my back issues — partly down to downsizing because of moving and partly because theories and techniques and data inevitably move on — I still keep the last year or two of issues to remind myself of where the art of archaeology is now.

I say ‘art’ because, despite the massive use of science, technology and statistics in this field, a lot of archaeology’s success is down to the experience and expertise of the excavation directors: it’s not a skill one can merely apply by numbers, though order and precision is essential of course. Also, archaeology is primarily about humans, their relics and their remains, and humans are rarely consistent across time and place. No one size fits all.

So, the magazine aims to “bridge the gap between the amateur and the professional in archaeology”. This means that mainly professional archaeologists write the feature articles in a language that a non-specialist but intelligent reader can follow. News and views and reviews are also included (hence the ‘current’ appellation), often with light-hearted observation thrown in (forget the po-faced stereotype of the academic historian or amateur nerd).

Issue 311 is particularly interesting from my point of view. There’s news about the site of Glastonbury Abbey (a traditional burial place for King Arthur) which recent research both confirms was occupied in the Dark Ages and throws doubt on the antiquity of so-called Dark Age graves (which in the 60s Radford claimed could include Arthur’s). There’s also a feature on British migration in Roman times, showing from the distribution of Romano-British brooches that insular Celts travelled extensively not just in Europe but North Africa and the Levant. And more work has been done on the origin of the bluestones of Stonehenge (Merlin was popularly supposed to have raised the pillars at this ancient monument), linking them to Craig Rhos-y-Felin in Pembrokeshire. Amongst the range of periods covered (from the Romans to Shakespeare’s home, from the late Bronze Age to the Industrial Age) there’s also room for the iconoclasm and wit of contributing editor Chris Catling, who casts his gimlet eye on such issues as how to pronounce Shrewsbury (posh or contemporary? authentic or orthographic?), mummification in Britain and Horace Walpole’s link to what’s claimed to be Shakespeare’s skull.

I think I shall be subscribing for some time to come.

* Not three or twenty-one years in a single span, of course! Usually two seasons of one or two weeks, or even just a long weekend, were the norm each year.

** This is the second in a very occasional series of reviews of anything that doesn’t fit comfortably into the category of ‘book’. This includes periodicals, journals, magazines,minizines and any other non-bookish reading matter that grabs my fancy.

12 thoughts on “The past, now

  1. What an interesting life you’ve led! I used to fancy being an archaeologist – if my grasp of science hadn’t been so poor! But being the first person in hundreds / thousands of years to see something – that’s a magical idea.
    I know it was populist (and some would say, a flawed concept) but Time Team was my favourite programme for its 20 year life span. All that rummaging around in mud, finding bits of pot, with reconstructions by the fantastic Victor Ambrus, an illustrator whose work I remember fondly from my childhood – it was an ideal programme for me.
    A fascinating sounding publication.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wasn’t much good at the science angle or systems analysis, but the uncovering — not just of treasure but even of levels of occupation with discarded rubbish — was quite satisfying, along with attempts to slot them into bigger and bigger pictures (the geographical and historical contexts, I mean, Lynn).

      Time Team wasn’t a flawed concept, though some were very sniffy about it. They had to submit a business plan for each limited investigation, a plan which had to be justified in terms of the likelihood of retrieving significant information about a site. That, plus inspiring a new generation of specialists along with informing and responsibly entertaining a viewing public and I can’t see that any negatives sufficiently outweighed the positives.

      And I too grew up with Victor Ambrus, and was pleasantly surprised to see he was still going! I even think he was once featured in one issue of this magazine. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I suppose it was the three day limit on Time Team that many thought was questionable – archaeology not usually being known for its speed! I think it was inspiring: an archaeology programme that survived for twenty years – there can’t be many of those around. And they chose some great personalities too – I remember us stumbling across the late Mick Aston on a visit to the newly refurbished Yorvik museum and being quite star struck! And Victor Ambrus’s work was lovely – sort of sketchy and ghost like. He’s 80 now, though I’m not sure if he’s still drawing.

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        1. That 3-day window wasn’t one unknown to archaeologists, who are forever doing ‘exploratory’ trial trenches to check if their suspicions are correct — I’ve been involved in the odd few, often conducted over a long weekend.

          The late lamented Mick Aston — the number of weekend courses at the University of Bristol I’ve been to, before he became a TV star, where he enthused while very much being au fait with his specialisms. With Tony Robinson I have an indirect connection — when Emily used to teach piano in Bristol for a while he often brought one of his daughters for lessons at our house, though it never coincided with me not being at work …

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          1. Enthusiasm was what was so brilliant about Mick Aston – on TV at least. Nice to hear he was the same in real like. And I have a fondness for Tony Robinson, from Blackadder to the present 🙂

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    1. OK, some info-dump here, Lynne! The medieval church was in ruins almost down to its foundations, and had been adapted as a farmhouse in the 12th or 13th century until abandoned after the Black Death (as the pottery sequence and local legend suggest) in the mid-14th century.

      Local legend and placename evidence (Llanelen, ‘St Helen’s church) had implied earlier origins, and below the stone foundations we found graves and postholes for a wooden structure. A small assemblage of finds (re-used Roman glass phial, Anglo-Saxon bead, a scrap of Viking metalwork) all pointed to a 7th-century date for the original foundation. The report was published in The Archaeological Journal, with a shorter version in the Journal of the Gower Society, Gower (Schlesinger, A & Walls, C, with J Kissock, C Lovegrove, K Pollard and N Wright 1995, Excavations at Llanelen, Llanrhidian: an early church and medieval farmstead site, Gower, 46, 58-79.).

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      1. Thank you so much for the info-dump 🙂 I will google and see what I can find, the very thought of what happened to it to have been adapted as a farmhouse and then abandoned after the Black Death, has my imagination working overtime. We have a lot of lost villages and churches here, abandoned after the Black Death, one very close to us and I just can’t help but think if it had never happened would there be a busy town there now. 🙂


        1. Yes, Lynne, hard to imagine how things would have been if all those DMVs hadn’t resulted after 1348-9’s disaster; certainly the political landscape may well have been different if peasants hadn’t gained more economic clout with the workforce more than decimated.

          It’s not known why Llanelen was abandoned as an ecclesiastical site by the 13C — isolation? poverty? — but its lack of mention in a late 13C papal Taxatio, the evidence of pottery sherds and cooking hearths in the nave and the blocking of the chancel arch confirms the change in use.

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          1. I have spent a little time looking it up, I wanted to see the size, a two cell church and quite small. Could be as you have said isolation, might have even been a very small priory type building, one man and then in the end, the priest were never replaced. Then decades later used as domestic dwelling, with another building built nearby, a small farmstead. A small settlement rather then a village. I like the idea of the sailors bringing the plague with them, always some truth somewhere in these folklores. There is not a lot of evidence to it being a village…..but a very interesting way to spend a couple of hours on miserable Sunday afternoon, thank you for that 🙂

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            1. You’re very welcome, Lynne — that slow but steady recovery of the history of the site, through excavation and research, is what makes such investigations for me so satisfying.

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            2. I have never participated in any excavation, but I do love the research, I love take a chunk of stone walling and rebuild it, sometimes into something quite amazing 🙂

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