Archeology in Britain

Have you ever read about an archeological dig and wondered how history’s layers get buried? Is the planet stealing soil from someplace and using it to hide the past? Do we keep the same amount of soil but does the wind blow all those layers of dirt over the past’s leavings? And if it does, why doesn’t it unbury an equal amount of history someplace else?

A book I stumbled across recently–Digging Up Britain: a new history in ten extraordinary discoveries, by Mike Pitts–finally answered the question for me, at least in part. A city, Pitts tells us, accumulates people–people who weren’t born there; people who don’t live there. While they’re there, they work, they trade, they eat, they drink, they sleep, and they do much of that within walls if they can. 

Most of those activities involve physical objects, so the city brings in wood and stone for its buildings, and tiles, slates, or reeds for its roofs. It brings in food for its, um, food. Okay, the rhetorical pattern’s breaking down here. We’ll sneak away without anyone noticing. It brings in leather and metal and fabric (or the raw materials to weave fabric) and everything else that you can think of and I haven’t.  

Irrelevant photo: The north Cornish coast

“Goods are also exported and people leave, but with time and decay, the city gains more than it loses. One generation’s walls become the rubble foundations for another’s. Every leather offcut, rusted nail, broken cup and lost penny finds its way into the teeming earth. Slowly, imperceptibly, the ground rises, covering the traces of the past.”

Well, yes, now that he’s planted the picture in my head, it’s a screamingly obvious one. The cause isn’t space dust. It’s people moving stuff from one place to another and wandering off without it. 

 

London

Pitts goes on to talk about some of London’s biggest ground-lifting events. Roman London had two fires that can still be spotted in layers of red earth. One of those would’ve been set during Boudica’s rebellion, when she burned London and two other cities to the ground. Then, when 1666’s Great Fire of London finally burned itself out and it was time to rebuild, stone was hauled in and a new city rose on the leveled remains of the destruction.

The biggest leveling of walls, though, was the blitz–the bombing of London during World War II–and when Pitts reaches this point, he focuses on a small area where two excavations found particularly rich Roman artifacts: On the night of May 10, 1941, bombing “disrupted” 8,000 streets, killing more than 4,000 people and seriously injuring 1,800. It wiped out most of the block he’s interested in, where there’d been 350 businesses “crammed into a warren of high Victorian terraces and narrow alleys.” They included cafes, a bookseller, a tailor, a dentist, accountants, and a postage stamp perforator.

Who knew there even were postage stamp perforators? I assumed that got done by some sort of machinery working where and when the stamps were printed. Or that someone with pointy little teeth came along and–

Never mind. Not much was left of the street, and in 1952, when it was redeveloped, the area was opened to archeologists just before an office building went up on the site. The digging had uncovered an underground temple to Mithras, and it was taken apart, and reconstructed (badly) above ground and facing the wrong way. And then in 2012, when the 1952 building was torn down and something newer and shinier was about to be built, archeologists got in there again, only with more time to do their job. What they found was “like a library of random news from across Roman London.” The area had been used as a dump, and archeologists love dumps. It turned out to be “the most productive single excavation of a British Roman site in modern times,” and included a horde of wood-and-wax tablets recording, for the most part, business transactions. It gave them a glimpse into the city before it had the grand public buildings we associate with Roman towns. This was a town in its early stages. 

The success of that second dig was made possible by a change in the relationship of archeologists and developers.

 

Archeologists and the construction industry

One of the major ways the past gets uncovered in Britain is that someone comes along with heavy-duty construction equipment and starts digging. They’re not hoping to find, say, a Roman villa or a Bronze Age settlement. In fact, they’re hoping not to. They want to build a parking ramp or a shopping mall. 

Until 1990, archeologists were dependent on the goodwill of the developers for access to their sites. Before that, if a developer stumbled into something of archeological importance, and if they didn’t sweep it under the metaphorical rug fast enough, archeologists had to rely on a mix of diplomacy, goodwill, and the public pressure set off by media coverage to get access. Because archeologists mean delays, and delays cost money.

In a showdown between history and national heritage on one side and money on the other, it’s not often that history and heritage win, but they did win when the foundations of Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre were discovered by accident. A media storm set off a celebrity storm, which in turn set off a wider public storm, and under that pressure a delay was organized and the new building eventually went up over the theater’s foundations, which are now covered in water to keep the ground from cracking.

 

Irrelevant but interesting bit of information 

Exploration of the theater’s foundations brought us the news that hazelnuts were the popcorn of Shakespeare’s day. The shells were everywhere. 

 

The relationship changes

After the battle to save the Rose, things changed, and it kills me to say anything good about Margaret Thatcher’s government but I’m going to have to: they’re the ones who introduced Planning Policy Guidance 16–Archaeology in Planning, called PPG16 by its friends and admirers. 

PPG16 is a guidance paper that requires anyone building anything that needs planning permission–and in Britain, that’s just about any building at all–to consider its  impact on archaeology. According to Heritage Daily, PPG16’s impact was unintentional, but lovely, so I don’t have to be particularly nice about Thatcher’s government: they didn’t mean to do something good; they were just trying to shut everybody up.

Heritage Daily  describes the events at the Rose as an omnishambles, with “leading actors, including Sir Ian Mckellen and Dame Peggy Ashcroft, facing down the developers’ bulldozers, standing alongside archaeologists, the general public and local children waving placards declaiming, ‘Don’t Doze the Rose.’

“Faced with this highly public demand that the historic site be protected, the Environment Department, under Secretary of State Nicholas Ridley, proved utterly incapable of formulating a coherent policy to dig the developer Imry Merchant and the Government out of the mire. “

In the end, they cobbled together a system that had local and national governments, developers, heritage professionals, and the public working together to preserve whatever could be preserved in place, and to record, and sometimes move, whatever couldn’t be. It didn’t make developers or free-market purists happy, but it did keep politically damaging incidents like the Rose from happening again. 

 

The impact on archeology

All this meant archeology had to change. The profession came into this period as a mix of local heritage organizations, professors, and museums. None of them were equipped to meet the schedules or use “the same language as the architects and developers whose plans the system was designed to facilitate,” Heritage Daily says. 

After PPG16, “Archaeology as a discipline found itself putting on a suit, becoming a profession and sitting down in planning meetings with architects and developers to discuss fitting in an excavation alongside the other building site preparation and ground works.”

“It’s not perfect, but . . . once PPG16 and the concept . . . was in place, pipeline surveys and large scale infrastructure projects like Heathrow Terminal 5 and HS1, the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, did offer the chance to develop practice and sample large transects of landscape to sometimes startling effect.”

Some years ago, not far from where I live, a new sewage line uncovered enough Cornish history that the archeologists involved organized a presentation in the village hall, and it was packed. That was my first hint of the working relationship between archeologists and the construction industry, and I was impressed.

One of the finds they talked about was a series of Christian and pre-Christian burials. You could tell them apart because the Christians were buried so that they’d be facing east when they rose on–what is it? Judgment day? Whichever. If it happens, I’m sure someone will have set an alarm clock, so I don’t need to worry. Anyway, they were supposed to rise from their graves and be facing east. The non-Christians, on the other hand, were buried with grave goods–things they’d used in life and would, presumably, want in the next one. Or maybe the goods were a way for the living to grieve and pay tribute. Who can know at this distance in time? Whatever the reason, that’s how they buried their dead. 

But the archeologists had found a few people who were hedging their bets–or at least whose descendants were. They were buried facing east but also with grave goods. Whichever way the afterlife played out, they’d be ready.

In Pitts’ last chapter, he mentions an enlargement of the A14 (that’s a road) near Cambridge that’s been a particular gift to archeology. They’ve uncovered ancient villages, industrial zones, religious monuments, 15 tones of bones and artifacts, pottery kilns, field layouts and more, all of which could so easily have been dug up, scattered, and lost to history.

Archeological finds and treasure from a country knee deep in history

The last few years have been good ones for British detectorists.

For British whats?

Detectorists. Those people who wander around with glazed eyes, waving metal detectors above the ground and listening to them beep. They’re looking for buried treasure. Or the tops that people break off aluminum cans. The metal detectors, as opposed to the detectorists who wave them, aren’t discriminating. They’re like gun dogs that point not just at game birds but also at feathered hats, feather dusters, and feathers tattooed on people’s arms. Metal is metal. Let the humans sort it out.

Irrelevant photo: camellia buds.

More people have turned to metal detecting in recent years and they’re uncovering some serious archeological finds, which are making their way into museums. The increasing interest is due in part to–of course–a sitcom. Reality limps along behind the representation of reality. And that, my friends, is what passes for real life. 

In 2018, 96% of the treasure dug out of the British earth was found by people with glazed eyes and metal detectors.

Okay, they don’t necessarily have glazed eyes. It just sounds better that way. And treasure has a narrow official definition–coins; precious metals; that sort of stuff–so archeologists have found plenty of other stuff, but it appears in a different column on the sreadsheet.

A 1996 law that required finders to report treasure also allowed them to split any profits with the landowner, and that’s meant that they’re likely to actually report their finds instead of squirreling them away somewhere or selling them through shady antiquities dealers in back alleys.

Sorry. I don’t know any antiquities dealers, shady or otherwise, so I’m falling back on cheesy stereotypes there.

So when we count up the reasons new people are being drawn to metal detecting, the sitcom isn’t the only one. We can add potential profit. 

A very small and random selection of what’s been found lately: 

  • More than a thousand silver coins in a field behind a pub in Suffolk. The best guess is that they were buried there during the Civil War. 
  • And 69,347 Iron Age coins in a field in Jersey. They date back to 50 B.C., give or take a few months. 

But enough about treasure. It’s the smaller part of the historical riches waiting to be discovered. Let’s talk about archeology.

 

The neolithic era

In Yorkshire, archeologists have uncovered a saltern–an industrial-scale salt-making site–that dates back 6,000 years. Or to put that another way, it predates Stonehenge. It’s the earliest one that’s been found in Britain.

The pottery that’s been found there shows traces of milk, indicating that the people who built it were settled, growing crops and raising animals. And the scale of the saltern says that they were selling salt, not just making it for themselves. 

“It changes how these people are seen,” said Steve Sherlock, the archeologist who led the dig. They were “people who are undertaking a level of industrial processing and distributing.” 

Because of salt’s use in preserving food, the people who produced and distributed it would have been among the wealthier groups of their time. 

Neolithic salterns have been found in Europe–especially Poland and the Balkans–but this is the first found neolithic one found in Britain, possibly because rising sea levels and coastal erosion have swallowed the others. They have a habit of being coastal, since seawater has a habit of being salty.

The pottery found at the site matches a type introduced by people who migrated from what’s now northern France at around 4000 BC. The saltern technology may well have come with them.

 

The bronze age

With the old stuff out of the way, let’s move south to Stonehenge

A major road, the A303, runs alongside Stonehenge, and for years there’s been a fight over whether to dig a two-mile tunnel and run the road through it. Opponents argue that it will do lasting damage to a world heritage site and that millions of artifacts will be lost. On the other hand, once the tunnel’s built, you’ll be able to take a selfie at Stonehenge without a big red bread truck showing up in the background. Which makes it all worthwhile.

After an assortment of court challenges and the use of a lot of newsprint, the opponents lost and the work’s been started. The current stage involves 1,800 test pits, 400 trial trenches, 150 archeologists, 18 months, and some uncounted amount of mud. Construction on the tunnel itself won’t start until 2023. 

Is the tunnel a good idea? Probably not, but what do I know? As long as they’re digging, though, they’re finding some interesting stuff. Let’s not ignore it just because we’re sulking. They’ve found graves, pottery, burnt flint that suggests metal or leather working. (No, I don’t know what the connection is either.) It’s probably too early to know what this tells them about the site or the people. 

 

The iron age and the Roman era

In Oxfordshire, the excavation of a hillfort turned up an iron age settlement that dates from 400 to 100 BCE, not to mention a Roman villa built at the end of the third century CE or the beginning of the fourth. They were found when the Earth Trust, which cares for the hillfort, decided to redevelop its visitor center.

Because no place that welcomes visitors is complete without a visitor center. Where else will people spend their money?

The site was occupied from the bronze age through the Roman era, so the trust hadn’t just planned to just plow through with heavy equipment–they figured they’d find something interesting–but they also hadn’t expected anything quite so rich. What they found included well-preserved iron age pots, Roman bone combs, surgical instruments, and lots of pottery shards. It seems like pottery shards are always in there somewhere.

Chris Casswell, the dig’s head, said, “It’s a substantial iron age settlement. It’s probably no surprise because we’re right at the foot of Wittenham Clumps, an enormous hillfort. The settlement probably continues well into the landscape beyond where we’ve looked.

“Normally we go out and do geophysics, which gives an image of what might be under the ground. But on this site, it didn’t show up any of this. . . . So it’s completely unexpected.”

The Roman villa is still partially buried, and there are at least two Roman cemeteries and stone-built ovens for drying grain.

And in case you’re wondering, the bronze age came before the iron age because copper and tin, which make bronze, melt at lower temperatures than iron. It took humans a while to pull together the technology to melt iron. I had to look it up too.

 

The medieval period

King’s College in Cambridge tore down some 1930s-era student housing and found an early medieval graveyard

According to Bede’s Ecclessiastical History, which was written in the eighth century, Cambridge was abandoned in the fifth century, when the Romans left. A lot of Roman towns were. But take that with a grain of salt. Dr. Caroline Goodson, a professor of medieval history, said, “We already know that Cambridge wasn’t fully abandoned. But what we’re seeing now is a greater and clearer picture of life in the post-Roman settlements.” 

They’re finding lots of goodies in the graves: bead necklaces, swords, pottery, glass, bronze brooches, short blades, mostly from the early Anglo-Saxon period–say 400 to 650 C.E. And because the soil’s alkaline, the bodies are well preserved, so they may be able to extract information about people’s diets and DNA, which should give them information on migration patterns. 

Goodson’s best guess at the moment is that the people were the descendants of Roman Britons along with more recent migrants from Europe. 

“They are no longer living as the Romans did,” she said. “They’re eating differently, dressing differently, and finding different ways of exploiting the land.”