The old lost road through the woods

One of 2018’s finest films and one its most haunting novels touched on problematic returns to nature. What can archaeologists learn from these two, beautifully realised, works?

The importance of the maker’s perspective has become a well-worn path for archaeologists and curators in recent decades. Buoyed by the resurgence in nature writing and a booming gift experience market, craft-skills have become a popular way to engage modern audiences in aspects of pre-industrial life. From Ray Mears to Kirstie Allsopp, the importance of making has gained an impressive momentum. But where is it taking us?

Television programmes showing how we can live off the land – survive and then prosper – naturally provide public archaeologists and curators with food for thought: here are things that we can not do, but people who lived thousands of years ago could – do not underestimate them or over estimate us. And that is fine and good, until we start to question our own relationship with nature, comparing ancient with modern, us with them: ‘If only we could live the way our ancestors lived…’, ‘We have lost sight of nature…’, ‘We use to be closer to the land…’, are all expressions of the same sentiment that Kipling mastered over a century ago:

‘You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods …
But there is no road through the woods.’

While those perspectives hold truths, they are overly romantic and nostalgic, carrying the potential for regressive compulsions. The problematic desire to ‘go back’ to nature was the subject of two of two impressive works of art in 2018: Debra Granik’s feature-length film, Leave No Trace, and Sarah Moss’s short but lingering novel, Ghost Wall. Although they share many similarities – both having a troubling father/daughter relationship at their emotional core, for instance – they also offer very different perspectives on how to trace a line from the past, through nature to modernity.

In Ghost Wall, Bill – a bus driver by day – takes his wife and his seventeen-year old daughter, Silvie, on an experimental archaeology field-trip to Northumberland organised by a well-intended professor of pre-history. Bill’s insistence on authenticity and connecting with ‘our’ pre-historic ancestors at every opportunity is portrayed by Moss as the mechanism of Bill’s control over, and abuse of, his family – to devastating effect. In Leave No Trace, a father suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder brought on by his experiences in the US military, attempts to live off grid and beyond the nets of modernity. As the film unravels it becomes clear that this lifestyle is not right for his daughter whose individuality and agency has been forgotten.

If the harshness and discipline of the past defines Bill’s parental role in Ghost Wall, the forgiving beauty, solace and calm of the forest is what ultimately permeates through both father and daughter in Leave No Trace. Towards the end of the film they find themselves in a makeshift settlement deep in a wooded grove; a place that manages to capture the essence of the natural world without foregoing what is characteristically human: people, music, some technologies and the comfort of more things than we can comfortably carry, things that are as  embracing as they are entangling.

Appeals for an unadulterated past, one untainted by modernity, politics and technology is attractive for some reasons. They may seem more ‘neutral’, ‘true’, and ‘authentic’. But, paradoxically, they can represent denial and suppression, the rejection of agency and the flow of time in favour of connections between static points in time. But there are also dangers in romanticising conditions that do not benefit the health, education and equality of a society at large.

If archaeologists and curators are to make best use of their opportunities to engage with the past in the present through environmental issues and self-sufficiency and sustainability, a careful path has to be found through the woods. It is one in which the appreciation of nature is not tinged with nostalgia or bottled within a vacuum, but is instead allowed to merge with the contemporary world and its many problems, challenges and potentials. It is a hard path to trace, as Granik and Moss have shown us so hauntingly.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Laura Purseglove, Graham and Lynda Taylor for the conversations on this and related topics. The verse from The Way through the Woods was published by Rudyard Kipling in 1910. The Ghost Wall, written by Sarah Moss, was published by Granta inn 2018. Leave No Trace was released in 2018, it was directed by Debra Granik and written by Granik and Anne Rosellini and was based on the novel My Abandonment by Peter Rock.

Image: Mugdock Woods in December 2018 (author’s own photo).

The stuff of thought: Virginia Woolf and pre-historic objects

The collecting and classification of prehistoric objects have long distracted minds inclined to other careers and ambitions. The ‘gentlemen’ collectors of the 19th century in Britain were doctors, lawyers, soldiers, and men of God. As medical superintendent at Wiltshire County Asylum, Dr John Thurnam (1810 – 1873) spent a considerable proportion of his free time thinking about the funerary barrows he would dig, and the meaning of the objects he recovered.

William Greenwell (1820 – 1918), the canon of Durham Cathedral, amassed hundreds of prehistoric objects (including over 1,500 bronze artefacts), paying considerable sums to obtain prize pieces: £15 for a fine Bronze Age sword from the River Thames at Battersea (the equivalent of over £1,200 in today’s money).

What brings these varying paths together – sometimes to the exclusion of good sense, profit and rationality – is the subject of Virginia Woolf’s short story, ‘Solid Objects’ (1920). We meet two promising, young politicians, Charles and John, strolling purposefully along beach:

‘…nothing was so solid, so living, so hard, red, hirsute, and virile as these two bodies for miles and miles of sea and sandhill.’ (85).

From the offset, Woolf blends subjectivity and objectivity in portraying material things: a stranded pilchard boat has ‘ribs and spine’; a walking-stick is animated by a lunging gait, its swaggering movement appearing to speak the words: ‘…You mean to tell me…You actually believe’ (85).

While Charles skims stones, John excavates a pebble of beach glass ‘…worn of any edge or shape…it was almost a precious stone. You had only to enclose it in a rim of gold…and it became a jewel.’

Orange sea glass is the rarest and most difficult to find

As Charles pursues his political ambition, John becomes increasingly obsessed with finding and collecting things: ‘

Anything, so long as it was object of some kind, more or less round…anything – china, glass, amber, rock, marble…even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird’ (88).

Soon he neglects his duties, misses meetings, and becomes consumed by his new passion.

The porous and pre-historic nature of John’s interests are reminiscent of the important, formative years of archaeology in Britain during the 19th century, when natural wonders such as the ‘Tolmen’ of Constantine, Cornwall, were as valued and awe-inspiring as ancient humanly made monuments (see Christopher Evan’s thoughtful 1994 paper on this subject).

Tongue, Richard; Tolmen at Constantine, Cornwall; Society of Antiquaries of London;

Most of the objects that John collects lack anything that would reveal their original context or function. It is the speculation that drives his passion: a piece of iron found beneath a furze bush on Barnes Common could be from an alien planet, the ‘cinder of a moon’ (90).

As any hopes of a political career finally vanish, Charles confronts John: he has squandered his talent and potential, he has given up, pilfered his life away. The story might well have ended there, the reader assured of who is right. But Woolf is not so sure: ‘extraordinary doubts possessed [Charles]; he had a queer sense that they were talking about different things.’ (92).

What can Woolf mean? John is surely the exemplar of the collector gone too far, their objectivity lost in the subjective pursuit of more and more stuff? Politics, on the other hand, may be the purest expression of the willing loss of subjectivity in the pursuit of the democratic ambition of being an objective, representative of the people. More deftly than many of the tomes written about materiality and material culture, Woolf’s story provokes us to think deeply about the relationships between culture and nature, objects and landscapes, people and their environments, objective and subjective positions. Woolf puts it best:

‘Looked at again and again half consciously by a mind thinking of something else, any object mixes itself so profoundly with the stuff of thought that it loses its actual form and recomposes itself a little differently in an ideal shape which haunts the brain…’ (88)

There are moments when pre-historians may feel in league with Charles. Recently, I was asked, ‘what would you need to know to, you know, really know what this object meant…’. To which the answer is: a text from a time without writing, a time machine, to be granted access to a long dead person’s mind, or to possess the confidence – or hubris – of a politician: to presume to know.


Acknowledgements: Opening image by Laure Prouvost @ Galerie Nathalie Obadia, Image © Araso

References: Woolf, V. [1944] 1973, A Haunted House and Other Stories, London: Penguin Modern Classic

The art and archaeology of death: Taryn Simon’s ‘An Occupation of Loss’

Grave goods fill our museum collections, often standing as proxies for diverse themes from the life and times of past cultures. One difficulty lies in ‘seeing’ the frameworks in which grave goods were made and deposited beyond the ragged line of the grave pit itself. The mourners who placed personal possessions – and who may have made them especially for the occasion – are all too often absent. These things have been on my mind of late, owing to the Grave Goods Project.

It was all the more powerful, then, when Artangel’s latest project, An Occupation of Loss, created by Taryn Simon, concerned itself with the performative dynamics of the funerary ritual in the western world.

Just off Islington Green, beneath modern apartments that rehash the wooden ‘O’ of Shakespeare’s Globe, is a subterranean cavern of concrete, constructed over three levels. We’re led down at night, taking position by balustrades overlooking a central stage or pit, dressed with two poles of light, reaching to the heavens.

‘An Occupation of Loss’, London, by Taryn Simon, photo copyright:Hugo Glendinning/Artangel/Taryn Simon Projects

The temptation is to strike up, in a mocking falsetto:

‘Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.’

But before you can, instruments herald the arrival of the performers, and they are immediately disarming. Professional mourners drawn from across the world by Simon and the Artangel team, they come two-by-two, sometimes three, as if entering an arc or a morbid, alien zoo. They take their positions, scattered across the levels and alcoves of the space and proceed to lament, to mourn, to wail and sour the space with the utmost performances of loss and anguish. The visitor is free and can wander and engage, to feel under-dressed, insufficiently understanding, as the languages and customs of the world unfold in a death dance.

A terracotta pig-shaped rattle from Cyprus, copyright: Trustees of the British Museum

As archaeologists, we are fascinated by the things that so rarely survive: the clothes, organics, and, of course, the sounds of the past. We glimpse these things, the small bottles for unctuous liquids that purified the bodies of the mourners and the dead alike. The piggy-shaped rattle that may have warded off evil spirits at the graveside. But here are the instruments and oils brought to life in repeated gestures, slapped knees and tugged fabrics that act to animate the static things in museum cases.

The sound of each group competes for your attention. You cock your head, hoping that the cacophony will somehow harmonise, but the sound-waves remain jagged and unfitting sherds. Then there is silence. The mourners march off, a distant door slams, and you are left in the pit staring upwards for the stars.

There is no need to be upset: they were just performers, you remind yourself, acting like exhibits, dredging up the emotion required. Yet, if we opened our minds to the mute grave goods in the great museum exhibitions of the world, would we hear anything more harmonious – or real?

An Occupation of Loss is at Corner of Islington Green, Essex Road from 17 April 2018 – 28 April 2018

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Marina Doritis, Laura Purseglove and Thomas Kiely.

Remember Thomas Hodgson: The Victorian asylum and the history of British archaeology

A few years ago, while looking through a drawer at the British Museum, I came across a hand-drawn map showing the eastern part of Yorkshire. It intrigued me and stayed on the fringes of my thoughts. When Amara Thornton asked if I’d like to contribute to UCL’s History of Archaeology network, my mind wandered down the roads that criss-crossed the Yorkshire Wolds, passed place names in a spidery hand. A clue to its significance was written in the bottom right-hand corner of the map sheet:

‘Drawn for Dr. Thurnam
by T. Hodgson,
Surveyor 1849’

The map of east Yorkshire, drawn for Dr. Thurnam by T. Hodgson, surveyor, 1849 (Trustees of The British Museum)

Dr. Thurnam was, of course, John Thurnam, one of the most influential English archaeologists of the Victorian period. He is remembered for his archaeological digging and writing, and for his study and treatment of mental health. He left The Retreat, an institution near York famed for its progressive attitude to psychiatry, to take up a new role at ‘Wiltshire County Lunatic Asylum’ in 1849. Thurnam’s collection of antiquities were acquired by the British Museum following his death, in 1873. Presumably the map arrived at the same time, although there is no record to confirm this.

Dr John Thurnam (1810 – 1873), archaeologist and medical doctor during his time at the Retreat (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/1/8/7/21/2)

The ‘German Ocean’ for the North Sea confirms the map’s age, tinted greenish-blue fading to orange-brown at its fringes. The land of the chalk Wolds is strangely unfinished and flat by comparison, dotted with place names, including several with 19th century archaeological significance: ‘Dane’s Dyke’, ‘Dane’s Graves’, and ‘Arras’. At Driffield a barrow (‘tumulus’) is picked next to a tiny cross-section through the mound.

There are small, green paddocks, each containing a series of smaller circles. The key to deciphering these was an excellent, recent account of the short-lived activities of the Yorkshire Antiquarian Club (c.1849 – 1860), written by Stephen Harrison (2010). Thurnam had been a key figure in the Club and the map’s green circles corresponded neatly with the sites excavated by its members between 1848 and 1849. But the name of its maker, ‘T. Hodgson, Surveyor’, does not feature in connection with the Club.

Detail of the map of east Yorkshire, drawn for Dr. Thurnam by T. Hodgson, surveyor, 1849 (Trustees of The British Museum)

In search of more clues, I turned to Thurnam’s time at The Retreat. Fortunately, the Wellcome Library and the Borthwick Institute for Archives had recently digitised the asylum’s papers for the period 1792 – 2000. Among them I found the hand of Thomas Hodgson, land surveyor – and patient. He had been a Quaker by religion and a land surveyor by trade, from Naburn, York, he had married but had been diagnosed with ‘mania’ and been admitted to the Retreat repeatedly between 1842 and his death in 1869 (MS RET/6/19/1/73).

I found his beautifully realised plan of the Retreat estate, drawn in 1849, the same year as the British Museum’s map of east Yorkshire. Its serene colours and calmness are testaments to his personality and skill but also visual translations of the very ethos of the institution, as captured by a visitor in 1798:

‘This house is situated a mile from York, in the midst of a fertile and smiling countryside; it is not at all the idea of a prison that it suggests, but rather that of a large farm; it is surrounded by a great, walled garden. No bars, no grilles on the windows.’ (De La Rive, cited by Foucault [1961] 2001, 229-30)

Plan of the Retreat Estate and Buildings by T. Hodgson (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/2/1/16/3)
Detail of plan of the Retreat Estate and Buildings by T. Hodgson (Borthwick Institute for Archives/Wellcome Library: RET/2/1/16/3)

Hodgson’s letters are also preserved in The Retreat’s archive, still in his beautiful hand but lacking the composure and calmness of his maps. There are anxious and angry words, underlined and rewritten, over and over.

A key element in the treatment of Hodgson and other patients by Thurnam at the Retreat and, later, in Wiltshire, was the role of distraction and outdoor pursuits, walking and working out of doors (see Digby 1985, 43; Steele 2000, 1-2, 13). In an attempt to understand his patient’s minds, Thurnam also turned to the newly developing ‘science’ of phrenology, measuring the skulls of his patients (Digby 1985, 113). Around 1849 he began to apply the same techniques to the human remains recovered from archaeological excavations. Hodgson’s map of east Yorkshire represents an example of Thurnam’s two vocations and the way in which they overlapped in surprising – and often untold – ways.

Thomas Hodgson, land surveyor, should not be overshadowed by his status as patient or by his dapper Victorian doctor, nor was he was an isolated instance. By tracing the biography of the objects in Thurnam’s collection and consulting relevant archives, it’s been possible to start acknowledging the intertwined contribution of Thurnam and his patients to a formative period in the history of British archaeology.


Digby, A. 1985, Madness, Morality And Medicine: A Study Of The York Retreat 1796-1914, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Foucault, M. 1961 [2001], Madness and Civilization, A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, London: Routledge

Harrison, S. 2010, The Yorkshire Antiquarian Club 1849–c.1860, Bulletin of the History of Archaeology, 20(1), pp.38–48

Steele, P. 2000, Down Pans Lane : the history of Roundway Hospital, Devizes, 1851 – 1995, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire

Acknowledgements: Thanks are due to Lucy Cummings; Gaetano Ardito, David Dawson, Lisa Brown, Francesca Hilier, Jennifer Wexler, Amara Thornton and Angela Grimshaw.

From the Isle of Wight to the Yalu River: metalwork ‘waste’, migration and meaning

‘These objects are powerful, because the textures, content, information or the stories behind them are all immensely rich and complex…I found it difficult to transform these objects in my own way. I thought that working on the objects meant consuming or exploiting them, and felt uneasy when thinking about approaching them.’ – He Xiangyu, interviewed for Ocula 

In one of the formative texts of British Bronze Age studies, the archaeologist and geologist, Sir John Evans, divided metalwork deposits into three principal groups: ‘personal’, ‘merchant’ or ‘founder’ hoards. The last of these referred a person who makes or casts metal, ‘in which lumps of metal and the jets or waste pieces from castings were found’ (1881, 459). Since Evan’s day, the explanations for why ancient people buried their valuables have changed – sometimes dramatically – to include ideas of ritual, sacrifice and exotic goods assembled in the course of complex ceremonies. Still, it is a struggle to coax life from casting waste, those ‘lumps of metal’ without the outlines of a ‘real’ object. Turning them over, another meaning of ‘founder’ comes to mind, that which establishes, the prime mover, from the Latin fundare, from fundus ‘bottom, base’. But these are not ‘raw’ materials – they are objects with stories of their own.

Scrap bundles of copper used to barter for essentials by those crossing into China from North Korea, from He Xiangyu’s ‘Evidence’ at White Cube Bermondsey (Author’s own photo)

An exhibition at the White Cube Bermondsey helps to rethink how we view these unloved lumps of metal. Evidence by He Xiangyu (7 February – 8 April 2018) contains more elements and ideas than I can do justice to here. Most exciting – for the archaeologist or pre-historian – are the small bundles of copper, comprising many strands of different origin pressed together into small handfuls of sinewy metal. They are arranged in a line around a white walled room. Beneath each, in pencil, a weight in grams is written. Originally from Kuandian, in North East China, He Xiangyu was inspired by North Korean defectors who swam the Yalu River to reach Chinese soil. Risking their lives in the crossing, they brought their copper bundles, something to trade on their arrival. In order to engage with the powerful stories these bundles tell, He Xiangyu reproduces their production, a process that he filmed and that forms an integral part of Evidence.  Hands are shown pressing and distorting the copper to form a small bundle that fits in the palm. No great skill or dexterity is needed but the finished product is humanised. More than that, the finished product is somehow less than the Kuandian bundles, with their more eclectic and mixed assemblage of copper strands.

Rows of scrap bundles of copper used to barter for essentials positioned around the middle of the room, the artist’s replica pieces are positioned on the floor of the gallery, from He Xiangyu’s ‘Evidence’ at White Cube Bermondsey (Author’s own photo)

Through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure process, many Bronze Age ingots and metalworking waste found by metal detectorists have been recorded in recent years. They are often the quickest to describe and measure. But that doesn’t mean they are the least important. Sometimes there are clues about objects that were melted down in order to make them or about the object to which they were surplus. On the surface of an ingot from Isle of Wight we traced a ghost of a socketed axe skimming its surface. Effort was taken to make objects and to recycle them. As He Xiangyu says of Kuandian bundles, they ‘are powerful, because the textures, content, information or the stories behind them are all immensely rich and complex’ (interviewed for Ocula ).

A Late Bronze Age (c.1000 – 800 BC) ingot from the Isle of Wight. The shape of a partially melted socketed axe can just be made out on the surface of the once molten mass (PAS Unique ID: IOW-622CD9) (PAS/The British Museum)

There are, however, some important differences between the bundles from China and the ingots examined at the British Museum. One is their weight. The Kuandian bundles are light enough to press against the body and swim across the Yalu River. Heavy enough to help remake their bearers lives. The Bronze Age ingots – many from the last few centuries of the period (c. 1000 – 800 BC), are far heavier. They are more like anchors, reaching down into territory that was increasingly occupied, contested and segregated as the Bronze Age came to a close.

For the metalwork of the first metal migrants we have to go back, over one thousand five hundred years earlier. It may be no accident that their metalwork was worn lightly, in the hair or sewn to clothing, easy to bundle and to bring. These differences can be explained  in terms of commodities and access to raw materials. On the other hand, He Xiangyu’s work reminds us to consider the weight of their metal content alongside their potential for meaning.

Acknowledgements: Photos of He Xiangyu’s work were taken by the author on a visit to the White Cube gallery, Bermondsey in March 2018. The work by Evans (1881), cited above, is ‘The ancient bronze implements, weapons, and ornaments, of Great Britain and Ireland’ (London: Longmans, Green & Co). Thank you to Laura Purseglove.

Unlived lives: what pre-history can tell us about ourselves

‘History is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened.’

This thought-provoking quote, by Hugh Trevor-Roper, is an epigraph to Adam Phillips’s Missing Out (2012), a work of psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It is a flawed and frustrating book in many respects, but its prologue speaks to anyone interested in the stories we tell about pre-historic people.

According to Phillips, much of our mental life is taken up by the many lives we are not living. The things we are missing out on, the things we envy and covet, the things we have lost or no longer carry. We learn to live double lives: between the lives we actually live and those we would like. The latter can become all-encompassing, eclipsing all else. In Philips’s words, our lives can ‘become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed…The myth of potential makes mourning and complaining feel like the realest thing we ever do…’ (2012, xiii). Invoking Freud, Phillips argues that the frustrations that these unlived lives bring us are critical to desire and to human life. They create a feedback loop: ‘wanting is what we do to survive, and we only want what isn’t there…’ (2012, xiv).

Phillips’s writing has relevance for how we think about the study of what we call ‘pre-history’. It also has bearing on our interpretations of pre-historic objects, especially those that were valuable and yet deposited on purpose.

The cover of Phillips’s (2012) book, ‘Missing Out’

The study of pre-history has long been appreciated as an interpretive and imaginative exercise. Not for us Plutarch’s Roman Lives or Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Our interpretations are, therefore, always likely to be short of accounting for lived lives, even if scientific techniques are taking us closer. What do we do then? I would argue that pre-historian’s interpretations are meditations on the lived and unlived lives of past people. I would also argue that in the course of a century of thought, many pre-historians have become increasingly adept at reading the multiple narratives within the archaeological record. Of course, that is not to say that these are past people’s own ‘parallel lives’. There are, however, several occasions when the two may have overlapped in important – and sometimes unappreciated – ways.

One such occasion concerns the funerary context. Here what we see and read is not necessarily (or even likely to be) the identity of a unique individual, but, rather, the expression of ideal and potential identities and multiple social relations and ‘lives’ lived and unlived. Much has been written on the complexity of pre-historic funerary practices, but much is still conflated and under-explored in terms of the multiplicity of and the frustration expressed through funerary practices and grave goods.

A Beaker burial from Nether Criggie, Aberdeenshire, reimagined by British Museum artist Craig Williams (copyright: Craig Williams)

Another occasion concerns valuable objects intentionally deposited. Take, for instance, the Middle Bronze Age hoard from Hollingbury Hill in Sussex from the British Museum’s collections. This assemblage is made up of objects that signal widespread connections (including the widespread use of torsion twisted bronze torcs across Continental Europe) as well as super-localised identities: the four Sussex Loop bracelets, are, as their name suggests, near exclusive to the county.

The Hollingbury Hill hoard, Sussex, arranged as it was found in 1825 (Trustees of the British Museum)

There are many similar ornament hoards from southern England, very few have ever been found with the burial of a body. They do not fix on a single ‘self’. But they were often deposited in a formal fashion: each object is carefully located in relation to others. They speak of journeys made, short and long, of possibilities and potential identities. They are careful expressions of something. But what?

In Phillips’s view, the things we fantasise about are the things and people – the parallel selves and others – that are absent in our lives. To keep these appetites in check requires a way of expressing – or venting – our frustrations. That redressive action also sharpens our appreciation for what remains. The deposition of valuables during pre-history can be seen as sophisticated expressions of this difficult but essential balancing act.

It is a cliché that pre-historians ‘make things up’, because they’ll ‘never know’ what past people’s lives were really like. That’s only a problem if you fail to grasp the importance of the many unlived lives that inform every thought and action.

Acknowledgements: I am very grateful to Craig Williams for permission to reproduce his illustration of the Nether Criggie Beaker burial.

Why were Bronze Age objects buried at a Roman British temple?

A new book has just been published by the British Museum, written by Ralph Jackson and Gilbert Burleigh. It’s the account of the discovery of 27 gold and silver objects that were buried within the temple at Ashwell in Hertfordshire during later third or fourth century AD, and of the campaign of excavations at the site. There was a silver figurine, a suite of gold jewellery and many votive plaques. Some of the plaques were inscribed with votive dedications to a previously unknown goddess called ‘Senuna’. It’s a wonderful discovery and a remarkable account.

Jackson & Burleigh’s new book, from the British Museum Research Publication series

I was lucky enough to study the Bronze Age objects from the site: a collection of tools and weapons that were gathered together and deposited in the temple during Roman times. They don’t belong to a single Bronze Age ‘hoard’ but rather result from a much more extensive – and interesting – process of collection and (re-)deposition.

A selection of the diminutive Middle Bronze Age spearheads from the site of Ashwell, Hertfordshire (the scale in cms) 

The Bronze Age finds are naturally a sub-plot to the wonderful Roman British objects. But, seeing them in their final context, I was reminded of the difficult relationship between the periods we refer to as ‘historic’ and ‘pre-historic’. I was also reminded of J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980). When the narrator of that book sits down to write the history of his nameless and anachronistic frontier town, he immediately and knowingly deceives:

‘We lived in the time of the seasons, of the harvests… We lived with nothing between us and the stars…This was paradise on earth.’

A magistrate and amateur archaeologist, he is appalled by his capacity and compulsion to deceive future readers. ‘I wanted to live outside of history’, he ruefully concludes, setting aside both his historical account and his attempt to decipher a series of ancient wooden tablets excavated from the ruins of a nearby town. Like a life-changing pulse of humility, the  value of the undeciphered script is revealed to be precisely its lack of power. It is one of the great novels of Coetzee’s Nobel prize-winning career. It is also a great meditation on the potential of pre-historic studies to address biases implicit in our ‘westernised’ perspective.

Coetzee’s (1980) novel

At the temple in Ashwell, the Bronze Age objects chosen by Roman British worshippers form a curious little group. They do not make chronological sense: some are from the earliest centuries of the period, others are from the latest. The people who carefully collected and deposited them had little interest in the typology and classification that we impose of the past. One property connects many of the objects though: a tendency towards smallness. The smallest spearheads and axes, modest knifes and daggers. The tendency towards the diminutive is a well-known feature of Roman votive offerings. These are ancient objects reimagined in and for Roman minds.

These ancient objects probably ‘meant’ very little to Roman British people – in the sense of their ability to ‘read’ the past in the ways that we often clamour for in our museums and books. For Coetzee’s magistrate, and for the bronzes buried at Ashwell, there is power and humility in recognising the value of things that remain silent and unsaid. Even – but really because – they leave us, ‘feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way long ago but passes on along a road that may lead nowhere’.

Acknowledgements: The full account of the Bronze Age objects appears in the published volume which is available here. Thank you to Ralph Jackson for the opportunity to contribute.

What can a pressed flower tell us about ancient DNA?

‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.’
(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 4)

Artists have used the motif of the weed and wild flower to explore the tensions between wild and the domestic domains, both metaphorically and literally. King Lear wears a crown of weeds and wildflowers. The ‘Flooers of the Forest’ are – in many respects – the eponymous riff of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932). Bob Dylan’s Bluebelles blaze in his weird, refracted Highlands (1997), just before Robert Burns sings with the Boston town Blues.

The best have found a way of combining the poetry of the local, unloved and familiar with the global and transcendent. A similar tension is central to many key accounts of the changes that took place from early pre-history onwards, as people increasingly domesticated and altered their landscapes.

In recent days, Kenny Brophy has drawn attention to a plant impression on the inside of the neck of a Bronze Age Beaker pot from a burial excavated within the ceremonial landscape of Forteviot in Perth & Kinross, which he is writing-up for the SERF project. The identification remains uncertain but tantalising (see the Twitter thread here). It does appear to have been a wild plant and it does appear to have been an intentional act.

A rim sherd from a Beaker pot found at Forteviot, Perth & Kinross, showing the impression of a plant inside the neck of the vessel.

By coincidence, I was recently working with another Beaker pot from the British Museum store, from the burial of a woman under a barrow at Goodmanham in East Yorkshire. Placed centrally on the belly of the pot is an impression of a Naked Barley grain. It is also very likely to have been the result of an intentional act, as experimental archaeologist and pre-historical potter,  Graham Taylor, has made clear.

The impression of a Naked Barley grain on the surface of a Beaker vessel from Goodmanham 99, East Yorkshire (BM registration 1879, 1209.1199).

There are many well-established connections between Beaker pots and associated funerary rites along the East coast of Northern Britain. This extends from the motifs and form of the pots themselves to the (gender-specific) body posture and orientations of the bodies in the grave. That relationship is well-established and stable isotope analysis for mobility is beginning to add flesh to the bones.

In this light, two plant impressions seem barely worthy of a footnote or even a tweet, especially when contrasted with the contents – and media coverage – of a recent paper in Nature that presented the results of a study of ancient DNA from bodies accompanied by Beakers. The results seem unequivocal, in so far as ancient DNA can be taken as a measure of ancestry.

Screenshot of how The Guarian reported the ancient DNA paper in Nature.

It is a juggernaut of a paper, almost overwhelming in its impact. If handled incorrectly, it threatens to scramble our sight of the people we are studying. But from the small impressions of plants and crops we can glimpse an alternative view: of the experiences of being-in-place, growing familiar with the wild flowers of Perthshire, muscles and sinew aching in fields of rolling barley on the Yorkshire wolds.

Anyone living 4,000 years ago would have likely lived closer to the land, knowing it more intimately after a month than we will in a whole lifetime. No Beaker person can be reduced to a typological ‘network’ or the results of a DNA profile, nor would any of the scientists involved in the Nature paper ever seek to suggest that. A fuller – and thoroughly exciting – picture is to be found in the tension between the recent DNA results and a closer reading of interactions with place and personhood through material culture.

In the character of his conflicted heroine, Christine Guthrie, the Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon captured that balance:

“… two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

The same could be said for the challenge facing pre-historians discussing the Beaker ‘invasion’ theory today: make to weave or fail to find the productive tension that leads to a deeper understanding.

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Kenny Brophy, Benjamin Gearey, Ruth Pelling, and Graham Taylor for Twitter-based discussion of the two pottery impressions.

The story of a Bronze Age hammer

In my mind’s eye I can picture the hammer kept in the small cupboard beneath my parent’s staircase in Glasgow. It’s well used, a faded sticker below the head  presumably gave instruction or warning – about fingers and nails or small inquisitive children. It is both a general and a particular object: interchangeable but wholly recognizable.

Tools have a symbolic power, perhaps because of their ambiguous role, serving  in comfortable, everyday tasks and in urgent acts of violence. The notion is well explored in Alan Spence’s play Sailmaker (1981). A toolkit that once belonged to Davie, a redundant Clydeside sailmaker, is discovered by his 11-year old son, Alec, wrapped in a soft canvas bag. In Spence’s hands the tools stand for the pernicious  tensions of 1960s Glasgow: between creativity within an obsolete shipbuilding tradition and violence within a cruelly deindustrialised city. There is meaning in the potential of tools, the sense of an ending: what finished glories have they helped launch? These themes are of course familiar to anyone interested in pre-history.

Alan Spence’s (1981) play Sailmaker

In the British Museum stores, I showed metalworker Neil Burridge a small Bronze Age socketed hammer, recovered from the Thames at Barnes (BM registration WG.1757). He immediately identified the unusual markings on the surface of the hammer as being wood grain: the longitudinal arrangements of 3,000-year-old organic fibres. Of course the hammer itself is made of copper alloy, but the model used in the stages of its production would have been carved from wood, and judging from the grain, not a very fine-grained species.

Socketed hammer from the Thames at Barnes (WG.1757) (above) and a wooden model showing the similar longitudinal markings of wood grain (below)

The observation raises some interesting points about the Bronze Age and how we study it. The first relates to the task-scape of Bronze Age people: in their hands this hammer could be wielded for any number of activities, from construction to metalworking and, indeed, woodworking and boat-building. The anthropologist and museum director Alexander Fenton studied the way that words and expressions, tools, equipment and techniques all become entangled with one another and within the daily and seasonal round of farmers in his native Aberdeenshire.  His work offers glimpses of the rich tapestry into which pre-historic tools were woven.

Alexander Fenton’s (1987) study of the entangled role of objects within the seasonal round of rural Aberdeenshire

The recent discoveries at Must Farm have shown just how important the wooden world was to communities in the first ages of metal – and how interconnected different material may have been. Every functioning axe needed a handle and the finished product was more than the sum of its finely crafted parts. Mark Knight has spoken eloquently of connecting tools to the signatures they left – and work has shed new light on the number of axes used to shape the wooden monument known as ‘Seahenge’. The metalwork only gains its full value when placed back in a fuller context.

The second point is how often archaeologists are consumed by the particular at the expense of the general and the general at the expense of the particular. We apply typology because it gives us structure but then overlook the individual characteristics of use and production that shed light on the biography of objects. At the same time we are consumed by all things bronze in the Bronze Age but neglect the rich worlds of wood and organics. This situation is changing thanks to spectacular recent discoveries of the White Horse Hill cist and Must Farm. It’s harder for older collections that lack such rich contextual details. But there are opportunities and glimmers. As Alec discovered in Sailmaker, our agency relies on what we make of the tools that we inherit.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Neil Burridge for his insights and providing the image of a wooden replica.

Twenty years of Bronze Age ‘Treasure’ in England and Wales: What have metal detectorists done for us?

The Treasure Act celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and numerous events were organised by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to mark the occasion across England and Wales.

I found myself being asked to summarise what we have learnt from 20 years of Bronze Age ‘Treasure’ cases (those finds dating to c.2500 to 800 BC). In theory it was a relatively easy brief to fulfil. Many finds reported through the ‘Treasure process’ have become key objects in museum collections across the land. In the British Museum, the Ringlemere Cup and the unique goldwork hoard from Woolaston in Gloucestershire are key recent Treasure acquisitions. Both finds are also linked to fieldwork that has illuminated the context of their deposition. The same can be said for many regional and local museum collections: the ‘Near Lewes’ hoard in Lewes Castle and Barbican House Museum, the ‘Near Wylye’ hoard in Salisbury Museum, the ‘Tarrant Valley’ lunula in Dorset County Museum and the East Cambridgeshire ‘great gold’ torc in Ely Museum. The list continues to grow and stimulate new projects and ways of thinking about museum practice and PAS object recording, including the use of 3D in recording finds, some of which are returned to their finders (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A Bronze Age Sussex Loop Bracelet from the ‘Near Lewes’ hoard, by The British Museum featured on Sketchfab

But beyond the important impact of special finds – about which so much could said – I started to wonder about the broader, cumulative value of two decades worth of data.

The number of Bronze Age Treasure finds reported has risen substantially over the course of the last 20 years (Figure 2), especially after 2002, when a new Designation Order meant that prehistoric base metal finds (or ‘hoards’) of two or more objects were considered to be Treasure alongside precious metal finds.

screen-shot-2018-02-28-at-11-47-35-e1519823955873.pngFigure 2: Histogram showing the number of Bronze Age Treasure cases reported between 1997 and 2017 (the case numbers for 2016 and 2017 are yet to be finalised)

As in many jobs, the quantity of work and email that reaches museum curators can be challenging. It is tempting to be reactive without pausing to reflect or take stock. In December 2017, I began to do exactly this. With the help of colleagues from the British Museum, I extracted and started to review 20 years of Treasure cases from the PAS database: 464 cases were reviewed, all of which were public at the time (i.e. they had successfully gone through the Treasure process and been declared Treasure). Some single finds of precious metal, others were hoards of several hundred objects.

My research question was relatively simple: what is the date spread of Bronze Age finds recorded as Treasure. What ‘phases’ and sub-periods of the Bronze Age do they belong to? Ask any Bronze Age specialist about this and they’ll likely reply that the quantities of deposition rise in the course of the period: from a trickle of copper and gold in the earliest centuries (the ‘Chalcolithic’ and ‘Early Bronze Age’), through to a steadier flow of deposition during the Middle Bronze Age (especially the so called ‘Taunton’ and ‘Penard’ periods) as hoarding became the dominant mode of expression, and then reaches a peak during the final phase of the Bronze Age, when many of the largest so-called ‘scrap’ hoards were deposited. But ask the same specialists to describe the curve of deposition in detail or account for the changes in empirical terms and the question becomes rather harder to answer using up-to-date data. The database of Treasure finds can surely help in this regard? It should be straightforward. Or so I thought.

As in any multiuser database, inconsistencies have arisen. There have been differences of opinion over the date ranges applied to sub-periods within the Bronze Age and in when to apply them. Individually these inconsistencies are not a big problem for researchers but when trying to look across the dataset they make attempts to plot deposition much harder. In cleaning the data I edited around 75% of the records to bring them into line with one another and to refine them based on up-to-date thinking. Several can be further refined and this work is in progress, but the overarching results are shown in Figure 3. Several finds can only be assigned to a range of periods and the arrows beneath the X-axis indicate these vagaries.

Check.pngFigure 3: Histogram showing the date by period of Treasure cases reported between 2007 and (December 10th) 2017 (date periods are based on Rohl & Needham 1998)

This histogram allowed me to make some quite straightforward but intriguing points based on quantified data:

  • The earliest periods of copper bronze have indeed been represented by a low number of finds.
  • The Ewart Park copper alloy ‘spike’ during the Late Bronze Age is even greater than I suspected.
  • The Penard and Wilburton to Ewart Park goldwork ‘spikes’ are far more notable than I had appreciated.

That said, so much more remains to be said and to be teased out:

  • What types of object make up these ‘spikes’?
  • How to the single finds (not accounted for by the definition of Treasure) fit into the picture?
  • What are the distributions of finds and how does the picture vary regionally?
  • More to the point: what are the social, economic and ritual factors that underpin these changes?

But that’s for the next stage of my work. For the time being 20 years of valuable data has received a spring clean.


Thanks to Rosie Weetch, Daniel Pett, Jennifer Wexler, the Portable Antiquities Scheme team at the British Museum and to all Find Liaison Officers involved in recording and reporting Treasure finds to date.