Current Archaeology #254 (May) has a pretty funny 6-page feature by Spencer Smith of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales. He claims to have found the site of a Surrey manor house that saw the birth of the last Prince of Wales who was actually an independent Welsh prince: Owain Lawgoch, Owain of the Red Hand (b. c. 1330, d. 1378). But reading the article, I found that it is actually a long piece of special pleading to explain why Smith did not find the desired remains on site! The whole thing was prompted by a TV documentary, where of course you have to put a spin on your non-results. Says Smith: “But where was the manor house? Before filming could begin, the site had to be found. … Funding was then provided by the series producers to research and direct an archaeological excavation.”
For years up until 1995, the fields of Church Farm in Tatsfield, Surrey, were metal-detected by amateurs. One of their finds is a 14th century horse harness pendant with Owain’s family crest. This was one indication used to place excavation trenches for the TV series (though it isn’t clear from the article with what sort of accuracy the object’s find spot is known). But: “there was a surprising absence of building material coming to light … heavily robbed-out foundation … some flint walling material … Some evidence for a made surface”. They didn’t even find Medieval nails! Some pottery can be dated exclusively to the 14th century though.
Here comes the best part. Having found very little, Spencer Smith argues that he was digging on the right spot but that the building had been meticulously taken apart and moved from the site, leaving few traces, because Owain was a politically dangerous character! This of course means that if in the future someone opens a test pit somewhere in a village with a historically documented presence of a Welsh prince and finds nothing, then they can claim to have found his manor house and expect Smith’s support for their view.
To my mind, the fieldwork results reported here suggest that the small excavation trenches were near but not in Medieval house foundations, with nothing to suggest that the houses’ owners or inhabitants were anywhere near princely status. The fieldwork results are in fact completely banal, and without the demand for a TV story, nothing would ever have been written about them.
If I were the editor of CA, I would have passed on this one.
Current Archaeology #255 (June) has a long feature on a particularly irritating piece of 1990s symbolic determinism, viz the idea that Medieval castles were built more as idealised stage sets for aristocratic life than as fortifications. According to this school of thought, Medieval lords had castles built because they had been listening to poetry about what a lordly Medieval life was like, and thus wanted their own little Camelots. It surprises me to read this now, 15 years after the idea was really popular among hip theoretical archaeologists. (I first came across it regarding Glimmingehus in Scania.) And though the article documents that the real castles are indeed quite like the fictional ones, it does not offer any strong arguments to suggest that the fiction inspired the castles rather than the other way around. I certainly wouldn’t have liked to send troops wading across the artificial meres at Dunstanburgh.
Far more interesting is a piece about the Derbyshire hillfort of Fin Cop, where tiny excavations across the bank and moat have turned up evidence for a massacre in the 5th century BC – all women and children. If the density of war dead in the trenches is typical for the entire moat, then it contains dozens or hundreds of people. This has not seen before at similar sites, which may be due simply to the local geology – Fin Cop happens to be on a rare patch of rock that preserves bone. A previous consensus regarding a peaceful and ritual use for these sites may now have to be reconsidered. (On a proof-reading note, the blown-up quotation on p. 25 has been misedited to completely belie the gist of the article.)
And don’t miss Chris Catling’s understated criticism of the UK government’s “Big Society” political slogan on p. 48. “BS”…
In Populär Arkeologi 2011:2, Anna Wessman reports on her recently defended doctoral thesis (on which my friend Howard Williams was the opponent) about the Levänluhta spring site in SW Finland. The spring is full of human bones and artefacts of the mid-1st millennium, and it has generally been considered as a sacrificial site. But Wessman shows that the actual artefact finds are typical of burial sites at the time. Levänluhta may simply be an unusual burial site, wet collective inhumation instead of the typical dry collective cremation. More fieldwork is on the way, and I will follow it with great interest. (Tarja Formisto’s 1993 PhD thesis about these bones contains something rather unusual: a piece of latter-day ethnic craniometry!)
Anne Westermark and Jimmy Axelsson Karlqvist report on another wet site with Iron Age human bones: in Motala, right around the famous Mesolithic deposits by River Motala ström. There are many Mesolithic human bones there too including skulls once raised on poles in a lake, but the new ones date from the 3rd or 4th century BC. Interesting indeed!
Skalk 2011:2 has a good feature by my Academy boss Lars Larsson and Arne Sjöström on the bogs of Ringsjön, with pictures of two lovely and very rare Mesolithic finds. One is the bone head of a flint-edged fish spear in situ, only the bog chemistry has obliterated the bone: all that’s left are the flint microliths and the resin that glued them to the bone point. The other is the front end of a hazelwood arrow with microliths glued to it with resin – and this is the first time we get to see exactly how those microliths of various shape were used. Here, a lanceolate one formed the point and four triangular ones formed barbs. Carbon-dated to the Late Maglemosian, c. 7600 cal BC.
And I find this bit fascinating: the study of the Mesolithic lake settlements in these bogs is entirely dependent on industrial peat extraction, because they’re under >4 m of post-Neolithic bog peat! The Mesolithic scholars can only work where the machines have removed those meters of peat.