Dr Matthew Symonds
It is said that nothing dates so quickly as one person’s vision of the future. Looking back at the archaeological discoveries, breakthroughs and publications over the last 12 months, though, it is hard to shake the feeling that visions of the past can date almost as quickly. Both fresh data and new insights gleaned from existing evidence are continually refining or even rewriting our knowledge of past human activity in Britain.
The arrival of agriculture in Britain around 6,000 years ago spelled doom for established lifestyles. For hundreds of thousands of years, hunter-gatherer bands had tracked migrating prey through the landscape, but their world disappeared as farming took hold. An ability to cultivate crops and control livestock triggered a revolution in human development, because it allowed enough surplus food to be produced to support people who were no longer obliged to spend their days finding something to eat. Freeing up their time permitted ever more complex and sophisticated specialist skills and knowledge to be developed, ultimately bequeathing a modern world where a startling proportion of the population has little idea how to grow, gather, hunt or process food. Even though we still reap the benefits bestowed by the arrival of these first farmers, huge gaps in knowledge remain about the everyday lives of these pioneers in Britain.
Roughly rectangular or square buildings are often seen as something that the Romans introduced to this country, but they were also popular with our Neolithic residents. In areas where timber was plentiful, these residences were typically constructed of wood, meaning that they usually survive as no more than faint stains in the soil where posts or walls once stood. Given the ease with which such fragile traces can be erased by later activity, it is unsurprising that examples remain scarce. Even the modest vestiges available for study today, though, can reveal surprisingly evocative snapshots of past life. Magnetic susceptibility survey of a house excavated at Horton, Berkshire, by Wessex Archaeology in 2012, for instance, revealed an area of enrichment at the entrance, where house-proud Neolithic inhabitants had jettisoned their sweepings out of the door. Horton was also exceptional for revealing multiple Neolithic houses scattered within the 34-hectare area examined by archaeologists.
Now, excavations undertaken by C. R Archaeology in advance of constructing a school at Llanfaethlu on Anglesey have exposed the remains of four houses built much closer together. The importance of this discovery, outlined in Current Archaeology 332, is ably illustrated by the fact that the sum total of early Neolithic houses known in Wales prior to this work amounted to three isolated examples. Inevitably, the Llanfaethlu cluster has been proposed as a candidate for the first village in Wales, while initial dates suggest activity from 3800 to 3600 BC. This means it is far from certain that all of the houses stood at the same time, although closely grouped sets of two or three houses were a feature of settlements on the other side of the Irish Sea. Holyhead on Anglesey is still a major ferry port serving Ireland, so the Llanfaethlu houses could testify to the Irish Sea acting as a highway to unite communities as early as the Neolithic period. What does seem certain is that these homes were not just places to live, as contemporary beliefs were carefully woven into their fabric. A possible shrine was set within one house, while the ‘death’ of these buildings was seemingly marked with the destruction and deposition of prized objects, including an arrowhead and axe.
A more spectacular example of Neolithic ritual activity has been forthcoming from Woodbridge, Suffolk, where Wardell Armstrong has been spearheading archaeological work commissioned by ScottishPower Renewables in order to connect an offshore windfarm to the national grid. The site is one of over 50 investigated along the 37km route taken by new power cables, providing an excellent illustration of how much new knowledge comes from major infrastructure projects. Much of the importance of Woodbridge flows from the presence of natural springs. These may well have attracted Neolithic visitors – watery places were a notoriously popular place for making offerings during the prehistoric period – while the boggy conditions have preserved rare organic remains ever since. These include a 30m wooden trackway and platform dating from c.2300 BC. ‘Some of the wood is so well preserved, we can clearly see markings made by an apprentice, before a more experienced tradesman has taken over to complete the job’, noted Richard Newman, associate director at Wardell Armstrong. ‘Initially some of the wooden posts looked like they were maybe 100 years old, and it is incredible to think that they are over 4,000 years old.’ Further finds include white pebbles that were deposited beside the track, and the skull of an aurochs (an extinct species of cattle). This had been adapted so that it could be mounted on a totem pole or even worn as a headdress; it was already 2,000 years old when it entered the earth at Woodbridge, suggesting that it was prized by successive generations.
Buildings and rituals entwined to produce the spectacular Ness of Brodgar site, which has been described as the Neolithic heart of Orkney. Long-running excavations by the Ness of Brodgar Trust and the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology Institute have exposed multiple structures that require rather less of a feat of imagination to appreciate than the Llanfaethlu houses (on Orkney, stone rather than timber was the building material of choice). Activity at the Ness – a narrow spit of land between the Stenness and Harray lochs – can be traced over millennia, but the site reached its zenith in around 3100 BC. At that time a complex of massive rectangular stone structures with curved corners, set within a stout enclosure wall, created a communal centre that drew visitors from across the island and almost certainly further afield. The buildings were arranged around a paved space that contained a decorated standing stone, which aligns with both a nearby tomb and sunrise on the equinox. Indeed, one of the most remarkable features of the Ness is the wealth of artwork that has been discovered, something that is rarely encountered in Neolithic buildings in Britain. One structure yielded 36 examples in a single week, while styles can range from deeply incised decorative schemes to faint lines. Some such stones were clearly not intended for display, as the embellished faces were concealed within the bulk of the wall. Obscuring this artwork means that it was not seen as simply pleasing to the eye, and it is tempting to wonder if these motifs symbolically strengthened or protected the structure in some way.
By 2900 BC change was underway at the Ness, and a massive, near-square edifice known as ‘structure 10’ was built over part of one of the earlier structures. Once complete, the excavators believe that this would have been one of the most impressive buildings in the British Isles. The explanation for this extraordinary new style may be even more important than the imposing superstructure, though. It has been suggested that while the earlier rectangular buildings would be well suited to serve whole communities, the new structure could better fit displays of power focused on an individual leader. If the emergence of a new mode of architecture was linked to broader social changes, it seems that it was not long before there was another radical shift. By 2800 BC the heyday of the Ness had passed and the site became a dumping ground for refuse, perhaps because society could no longer muster the resources to sustain such a complex. Whatever the explanation, the Ness was not forgotten, and in around 2400 BC people gathered at structure 10 en masse once more. During what was presumably a memorable feast, some 400 cattle were slaughtered and buried at the site, alongside a number of deer. By the time that these revels were underway, though, the Neolithic period had given way to the early Bronze Age.
BEWARE OF ARCHERS BEARING BEAKERS
Archaeologists usually take pains to stress that the shift from one ancient time period to another did not necessarily mean that everything changed overnight. Those living in Britain on the day that the Bronze Age became the Iron Age would not, for example, have immediately sought to replace existing blades with those forged from a newly plentiful and superior type of metal. It is looking increasingly probable, though, that the earlier transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age was accompanied by upheaval on a par with the arrival of farming. The appearance of metal implements in Britain is associated with the arrival of a wider package of desirable goods c.2450 BC, including archery kit and a distinctive pottery vessel known as a bell beaker. These beakers proved phenomenally popular and at their floruit can be found across much of Europe, prompting the term ‘beaker people’ traditionally used to describe the populations making and using them. Despite the wide currency of the generic bell beaker form, different regions display preferences for different shapes or decorative styles, creating a headache for those attempting to establish how the beaker package spread. Does it signify a mass migration across Europe, or did different local communities simply put their own spin on fashionable commodities that they encountered through trade and social contact with other groups?
Now, a game-changing study (that brought together dozens of specialists to sequence ancient DNA from 400 sets of human remains found at 136 sites across Europe) has been published in Nature 555. It is hard to overstate the importance of the results for understanding early Bronze Age Britain. The project sampled 226 sets of remains that could be directly linked to the beaker phenomenon, while further individuals pre- and post-dating the period were targeted in order to establish a baseline with which to compare the DNA of the ‘beaker people’. In Europe, the results indicate various processes at work, with Iberian beaker users typically maintaining the same DNA make-up as their Neolithic forebears. The clear implication there, is that the beaker idea travelled without an accompanying influx of people. Not so in Britain, where intriguingly the Neolithic population seems to have been closely related to those Iberian farmers. In this case, though, the arrival of the beakers is accompanied by the arrival of people carrying a different DNA profile. These newcomers probably reached Britain via the Netherlands, where the project detected human remains bearing a very similar genetic signature. Although the DNA reveals that there was some mixing between the local and migrant population, by the close of the beaker period little trace was left of the people whose achievements were discussed in the preceding section. In Britain, at least, their monuments have long outlived their genes. This difference would not just have lain concealed in the incomers’ DNA, as their genes reveal that they had much fairer skin than the resident Neolithic population.
Jumping forward to the Iron Age, and technology has also been shining new light on the interior of hillforts in Dorset. Today, these magnificent monuments constitute some of the most impressive prehistoric sites in Britain, with the most famous example lying just outside modern Dorchester at Maiden Castle. There, serried ranks of gigantic ramparts and ditches were constructed to equip a modest hill with an extraordinary defensive perimeter. Such a transformation could only have been achieved by a community capable of organising labour on a massive scale, but the grandeur of the defences may have been contrived to obscure a critical weakness. As the different banks of ramparts do not intersect, defenders could be isolated during an attack. What precisely such defenders would have been protecting remains disputed, as hillforts have received varying interpretations ranging from full-blown settlements to handy refuges in troubled times. Now, geophysical surveys of many Dorset examples have been published by Dave Stewart and Miles Russell in Hillforts and the Durotriges, providing a sense of what lies beneath the turf. The results show that many sites contained large numbers of roundhouses, with the 200 examples at Hod Hill – some overlapping – speaking of a lengthy period of habitation. Internal tracks, drainage systems, storage facilities and industrial areas suggest that these sites were effectively market towns with a permanent resident population. Although the hillforts appear to have been in decline by the 1st century AD, some commanded the attention of the invading Roman army in the AD 40s, who even tucked a fort into a corner of the Iron Age defences at Hod Hill.
BRIDGEHEADS, BORDERS AND BELLEROPHON
While it was the Emperor Claudius who launched the first concerted attempt to conquer Britain in AD 43, Julius Caesar famously led two earlier expeditions against the island in 55 and 54 BC. He also left a detailed account of his actions in a remarkable ancient text describing the Gallic wars. Although Caesar’s pretext for the invasion – that the Britons were aiding their Gallic brethren – does not bear detailed scrutiny, the propaganda value of his British adventure was considerable. Back in Rome, Caesar’s safe return was celebrated with an unprecedented 20 days’ thanksgiving. This rapturous reception stemmed from the Roman belief that the world was bound by an all-encompassing ocean. By projecting military force across it – as represented by the English Channel – Caesar pulled off a feat that has been likened to a Roman equivalent of the moon landing. Until recently, though, Caesar’s exploits could only be followed through the written rather than the archaeological record. That changed after lengths of ditch were investigated during excavations by Oxford and Wessex Archaeology for the East Kent access road at Ebbsfleet, which may reveal the site of Caesar’s bridgehead during his second British foray in 54 BC.
The ditch was 5m wide and 2m deep, a size that can only mean it was envisioned as some form of defence. Associated pottery dated this earthwork to the 1st century BC, a surprising result as monumental defences were not usually constructed in southern Britain during the late Iron Age. Subsequent investigation by the University of Leicester included geophysical survey – which indicated that an area of at least 20 hectares was bound by the ditch – and excavation that confirmed this earthwork was cut to uniform specifications. While the scale, design and standardised nature of the ditch are a close fit with an element of the siege works constructed by Caesar’s army at Alesia in 52 BC, a find from within the Ebbsfleet ditch provides further evidence for a Roman military presence: the tip of a distinctive Roman javelin known as a pilum. Investigating a causeway crossing the ditch revealed a jumble of weapons and body parts, at least one of which bore traces of being sliced with a blade. The local terrain fits the sparse descriptions of the landing ground preserved in Caesar’s text, but the ditch may not be part of the camp that he established at the beachhead. Instead, his account refers to an unfortunate incident when his anchored invasion fleet was caught in a storm, forcing 800 ships to be dragged up onto the shore while repairs were made. A new defensive perimeter was established to link the boats to the camp, providing a compelling explanation for the enigmatic earthwork. If Caesar’s landing ground has indeed been discovered, it should allow more of the sites mentioned in his account to be identified.
Unlike Caesar’s landing grounds, the spectacular ruins of (most of) Hadrian’s Wall were never truly lost. There, though, the situation is the polar opposite, as a border system that could not be more prominent in the archaeological record passes almost unremarked in the ancient literature. A throwaway comment in a document written 200 years or so after the border was built tells us simply that Hadrian ‘was the first to build a wall, 80 miles long, to separate the Romans from the barbarians’. Archaeologists continue to debate what this separation entailed, and over the last four decades scholars have been broadly split between two opposing camps. One sees the wall as effectively a bureaucratic soft border primarily designed to regulate and tax the peaceful movement of people, while the other envisions a hard border capable of repulsing full-scale barbarian invasions. Since 1976, when David J. Breeze and Brian Dobson’s Hadrian’s Wall was published, the regulate-and-tax model has proven most influential. Now, respected scholar Nick Hodgson has offered an alternative reading in a new book, Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and History at the Limit of Rome’s Empire, which emphasises the contribution that the wall could make to curtailing punishing assaults on the Roman province. He sees the Roman army firmly on the backfoot when the decision to build the new border was taken, following a humiliating retreat from Scotland and then a devastating war at the beginning of Hadrian’s reign. By this reading, the wall was urgently needed to shore up the military defence of northern England as a precarious security situation threatened to spiral out of control.
Your reviewer also waded into Hadrian’s Wall studies with the publication of Protecting the Roman Empire, which tackled a discrepancy that famously piqued the interest of the German historian Theodor Mommsen in the 19th century. He was intrigued by the striking difference in the scale of the artificial borders erected in Britain and Germany during the Hadrianic period. While Hadrian’s Wall was intended to feature a stout 3m-wide stone rampart for most of its course, the contemporary barrier in Upper Germany was a simple timber palisade. Mommsen saw this as a product of the two border systems being geared towards meeting different intensities of threat, but it is possible that the explanation lies in what must surely have been the primary purpose of the borders: controlling the communities already living in the frontier zones. While long stretches of Hadrian’s Wall severed established farmland worked by societies that numbered in the tens of thousands, most of the Upper German frontier lay in unpopulated terrain several days’ travel from the nearest known settlements. This stark difference in the size of the settled groups living in the shadow of the two borders may well have made a more robust frontier system seem proportionate in Britain and superfluous in Germany. Indeed, the original construction programme for Hadrian’s Wall appears to have prioritised posts in major valleys or on the approaches to possible bridges or fords, allowing traffic that was using existing routes through the landscape to be blocked or redirected to authorised crossing points. Such an approach suggests that the Roman army was deadly serious about ending traditional modes of movement into the province.
Despite the existential threat that the wall posed to existing lifestyles along its course, there is every reason to believe that the border did deliver a security dividend for those living more widely within its embrace. An illustration of the prosperity enjoyed by some individuals was recently unearthed at Boxford, Berkshire, where a newly discovered mosaic has been described as the most innovative composition to be found in Britain for 50 years. The lavishly decorated floor was excavated by members of the local community and Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, with professional supervision from Cotswold Archaeology. To date, only a portion of the pavement has been exposed – and even that glimpse is thanks to the long hours worked by the volunteers – but it is ample to demonstrate that the mosaic is crammed with a riot of scenes drawn from Greek mythology. Bellerophon’s battle with the monstrous chimera rubs shoulders with Hercules braining a centaur, while elsewhere a seated king is flanked by armed guards. Whether this vigorous medley tells a coherent story is a mystery that can only be solved by excavation of the remainder of the mosaic.
Over 1,000 years later in January 1740, more than 237 passengers and crew onboard the Rooswijk would have had opportunities to turn a profit on their mind as they set sail from the Netherlands. But it was not to be. Instead, one day into a journey that should have lasted six to eight months, the Rooswijk foundered off the coast of Kent, condemning everyone on board to a watery grave. It was only in the 1990s that the shifting sediments of the Goodwin Sands exposed the debris of the stricken vessel once more, 26m below sea level. Once the ship’s timbers shed the cocoon of silt that had protected them for 250 years, they were left at the mercy of wood-boring creatures. Historic England and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands decided to join forces to excavate, study and, in some cases, raise the remains of the Rooswijk before they were lost forever. She was no ordinary ship, as she belonged to the Dutch East India Company – known by its Dutch initials as the VOC – a powerful outfit that at its height commanded similar resources to a state. As well as ships, the VOC controlled far-flung trading posts and employed soldiers to protect them.
The Rooswijk was en route to what is now Jakarta when she sank, taking an extraordinarily valuable cargo with her. Not only was her hold brimming with the cash and kit needed to resupply, pay for and protect the company’s interests, but it is also a safe bet that the passengers and crew were weighed down with quantities of metal – especially silver – stashed about their person. All of those on board would have been keenly aware that the law of supply and demand in a global market allowed them to double their money, simply by sailing to and from Jakarta. ‘It was a crazy situation’, says Martijn Manders, maritime heritage programme manager at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands. ‘People were smuggling silver in shoes and belts – probably to hide it from their fellow sailors more than anything – and we think that by the time the Rooswijk went down maybe half of the money being transported on these ships was illegal.’ Once at Jakarta, the silver smugglers would sell their contraband to the VOC for a hefty profit, before investing in spices or porcelain. Back in the Netherlands, these commodities were worth twice the value of the original silver. The opportunity to examine an intact VOC cargo is rare – their value usually attracted salvage operations – meaning that the Rooswijk offers an exceptional opportunity to study the archaeology of globalisation.
Sadly, the desire for personal enrichment continues to drive people to desperate acts, and Hadrian’s Wall was also in the news this year for depressing reasons. The appearance of over 50 holes pockmarking a site on the former border was a tell-tale sign that clandestine metal detecting – illegal at a scheduled ancient monument – had been underway, and Historic England issued an appeal for information about the perpetrators. Frustratingly, the objects themselves are likely to have been of very low value by modern monetary standards, while the much higher potential knowledge yield from them has been lost now that they have been torn from their context without record. This looting of one of our greatest national – and international – archaeological monuments is nothing short of appalling. It also provides a regrettable distraction from the important work being done by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which allows responsible metal detectorists who are operating legally to register their finds voluntarily and ensure that we can all share in the knowledge that comes from them.
Proposals for a new tunnel within the Stonehenge World Heritage Site (WHS) have proven more contentious. The most recent public consultation on the proposal to upgrade the A303, which passes uncomfortably close to the celebrated Neolithic monument, closed on 23 April. Plenty of stakeholders have voiced concerns about matters ranging from the course and length of the proposed 2.9km tunnel, its impact on the WHS, the destruction of archaeology both within and beyond the WHS, and even the nature of the consultation process. Other commentators believe that the current proposal improves on the original plan, while doubts have been expressed that a perfect solution to the extraordinary range of issues unleashed by this exercise even exists, let alone is attainable. As the integrity of the major Mesolithic site at Blick Mead is jeopardised by the current proposals, though, it must raise questions about whether improving the setting of one key site is really worth sacrificing others for, especially when this particular problem could be alleviated by lengthening the tunnel. On 5 June, a parliamentary debate was held on the matter.
Another example of archaeologists operating in a less-than-perfect world may be found in the review of the National Planning Policy Framework. This document is crucial for embedding archaeology within the planning process, a provision that has been vindicated time and again by discoveries of national and international significance. Yet the text that has emerged from the review process has relegated some key policies to footnotes or glossary entries, prompting the Council for British Archaeology to launch a fundraising appeal for its advocacy work. Any dilution of archaeological investigation during the development process would unquestionably result in important new information about our collective heritage being lost without record.