Bateman’s Scars

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Arbor Low. Photo © Google.

Arbor Low on Google Earth

Arbor Low is a Neolithic stone circle and henge in the Peak District. The henge is the bank and ditch arrange­ment with the bank on the out­side and is prob­ably the old­est part of the monu­ment. The cur­rent estim­ate is that it was built around 2500 BC. That’s a date that’s open to a lot of revi­sion as the last pub­lished excav­a­tion was 1901–2 I think. The stone circle could be as late as 2000 BC.

There’s some odd things at Arbor Low. For example the two entrances mean that the path through the henge runs in the same dir­ec­tion as the Roman Road built over two mil­len­nia later. That sug­gests there’s some pretty deep ideas about move­ment embed­ded with the land­scape. Excavations at Stonehenge and Durrington Walls have revealed pos­sible tim­ber posts and mul­tiple phases for build­ing, often much earlier and much more com­plex than pre­vi­ously thought. So why hasn’t any­one taken a mat­tock to the site for a cen­tury? One reason is money, but another can be seen on the east side of the monument.

Some time in the Bronze Age, a chief­tain looked at the henge and decided: ‘I’m hav­ing that.’ He gathered a lot of earth, quite a bit from the henge bank, and built a round bar­row to be bur­ied in. If a tomb is a machine for remem­ber­ing, then any­one who used the site after that would be reminded that here lay someone who as power­ful enough to take one of the biggest, most ancient, sites in the region and make it his. These days we’d call it van­dal­ism and egot­ism but because it happened over three thou­sand years ago it’s part of the rich pal­impsest of the land­scape. Yet his actions made him a tar­get for the future.

The Bronze Age barrow at Arbor Low

The Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low.

Around the eight­eenth and nine­teenth cen­tury anti­quar­i­an­ism came into vogue. People were becom­ing aware that there was a long pre-biblical past and one way of find­ing out about it was to crack open some of the many ancient monu­ments that littered the land­scape. The gentry would go out for a pic­nic at the week­end and watch, while the hired work would set about a bar­row with pick-axes, spades and shovels to see if any­thing was in it. Which usu­ally meant gold. There might be a few stone tools or bones, but at this time the pre­his­toric inhab­it­ants were thought of as crude sav­ages. Rather like the people out in the Empire that they were civil­ising. But some people took more of an interest, and one of these was Thomas Bateman.

Thomas Bateman was born in 1821, and was the son of an ama­teur archae­olo­gist. His interest grew and he joined the British Archaeological Association in 1843, where he saw how to dig a bar­row. The next year he dug almost forty bar­rows. In total he opened up over a hun­dred dur­ing his life. He used the tech­niques of his time. That’s why, since Bateman’s excav­a­tion, Arbor Low looks like someone thought what the place really needed was a giant earth­work hot-cross bun.

Bateman wasn’t a bad archae­olo­gist for his time. On the con­trary, he pub­lished his find­ings. Nevertheless he used the tech­niques of his time, and dig­ging deep trenches across the bar­row were an effect­ive way to get at the arte­facts and pot­tery. Stratigraphy, the idea that the lay­ers of soil overly­ing a site could reveal some of the con­text of finds, wasn’t really recog­nised until the work of Pitt-Rivers and Flinders-Petrie towards the end of the nine­teenth cen­tury. Bateman’s tragedy is that he had the tech­no­logy, but he worked before there was a bet­ter under­stand­ing of how to use it.

Modern archae­olo­gists are aware that not only do ideas change, but so too does the tech­no­logy. Bateman’s excav­a­tions could be called van­dal­ism, but he didn’t have the bene­fit of hind­sight. Archaeology often invest­ig­ates a site by des­troy­ing it, and that can only be done once. Today we have a per­man­ent reminder in the Bronze Age bar­row at Arbor Low, which still bears Bateman’s scars.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman's trenches across the barrow. Background: The interior of Arbor Low.

Foreground: The remains of Bateman’s trenches across the barrow.Background: The interior of Arbor Low.

Stonehenge Decoded?

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I saw it and it was like the Curate’s Egg, good in parts.

The big idea is some­thing Mike Parker Pearson has been push­ing for a long while. Stonehenge is a place for the dead, and import­ant in funer­ary rites. I’ve been wary of this. An astro­nomer thought it was a giant obser­vat­ory. A Gynaecologist recently pub­lished it was a birth canal. It’s no great shock to dis­cover that a spe­cial­ist in buri­als thinks it was asso­ci­ated with buri­als. What marks out Mike Parker Pearson’s work are two key differences.

One is that he’s been patiently gath­er­ing data to sup­port his idea. While not always strongly suc­cess­ful, he’s not really had a major prob­lem with the data for­cing him into spe­cial plead­ing. The second is that his ideas explain a lot more than Stonehenge and actu­ally say some­thing use­ful about British soci­ety in the 3rd Millennium BC.
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The Drawings on the Wall

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The image is an example of the sort of shape they’re talk­ing about. You can see it big­ger at Flickr.

Well yes that may be true, but it’s not just Palaeolithic men who’d want to ven­er­ate them. Slightly more ser­i­ously art is ambigu­ous. The Minoans are known for their bull sym­bol­ism, but it’s unlikely any of the bulls would appre­ci­ate their role in the sacrifice.

Thanks to the tip from Archaeozoology and the reminder from Remote Central, I’ve been listen­ing to The Drawings on the Wall. It’s one of those series of 15 minutes doc­u­ment­ar­ies that the BBC some­times does. George Nash, who’s dis­covered Neolithic rock art, is the presenter and he does a great job. Really cave art should be one of those sub­jects that makes awful radio, just a step away from the All-England Live Mime Championship, or Harpo Marx in his own words. On the con­trary he does a really good job of cap­tur­ing the interest and pas­sion of the archae­olo­gists work­ing in the caves.

He also talks about some of the reas­ons why rock art mat­ters. It’s dif­fi­cult because he has little time to do this in, but rock art is one of the hot fields in archae­ology at the moment, not just for what it is but also for what it says about cog­ni­tion. What happened to humans that means they have art and chim­pan­zees don’t?

The second epis­ode goes out Feb 10, so you’ll want to catch it before then.

Nine Stones Close

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I vis­ited Nine Stones Close on Harthill Moor this past week­end to exper­i­ment with my cam­era. I was sur­prised how suc­cess­ful some of the pho­tos were. Initially I used the Aperture Priority set­ting on the cam­era, because I wanted plenty of depth of field. The cam­era was designed by many clever boffins, so I assumed it could do a bet­ter job with the shut­ter speed and expos­ure than I could. I know Aydin had said to use the Manual set­ting, but bal­an­cing aper­ture and shut­ter speed is a com­plete mys­tery to me.

I obvi­ously haven’t grasped the basics of the digital revolu­tion. I switched to Manual later on to give it a go and took some awful over and under exposed photos.

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What I hadn’t really grasped is that if you set the aper­ture for the depth of field you want then, with a digital cam­era, you can home in on the right expos­ure by trial and error if you have to. Additionally I had the auto-bracket fea­ture on. This was tak­ing a photo slightly above and below the set­tings I was at, which increased my chances of get­ting a good photo.
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Newgrange and the Astronomy of the Dead

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Newgrange
Entrance to Newgrange pas­sage tomb. Photo (cc) Sophie Robson.

One of the prob­lems with archae­oastro­nomy is that it’s quite hard to find an archae­olo­gical site where you can be cer­tain astro­nomy was import­ant. Even Stonehenge is prob­lem­atic. A lot of people think it was related to sun­rise or sun­set at one of the sol­stices, but there’s no cer­tainty as which one. Some people argue that it’s the mid­winter sun­set which is import­ant at Stonehenge and the align­ment towards the mid­sum­mer sun­rise is a happy acci­dent of geo­metry. As for other mega­lithic sites it’s often impossible to show that an align­ment wasn’t due to chance. Statistical ana­lysis of many align­ments cer­tainly show pref­er­ences for astro­nom­ical tar­gets, but all archae­ology is local and who is to say that, at any spe­cific site, the res­ult wasn’t due to chance?

Newgrange, a pas­sage tomb in the Republic of Ireland, is one of the most com­pel­ling sites — if you want to demon­strate an interest in astro­nomy in the pre­his­toric British Isles. It is the strongest argu­ment for an interest in astro­nomy, but at the same time one of the strongest argu­ments against read­ing ancient astro­nomy as an ancient sci­entific research pro­gramme.
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Deep History?

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There’s an art­icle on his­tory in the week’s Times Higher Education Supplement which has baffled me. It’s by Daniel Lord Smail of Harvard and its part of the pro­mo­tion of his new book On Deep History and the Brain. It’s stuck in my mind because it also appeared in New Scientist (sub) and baffled me there as well. Smail’s idea is that there is a flaw in think­ing that his­tory starts with Mesopotamia in 4000 BC. The depend­ance on Mesopotamia for the start of his­tory is, for Smail, a sec­u­lar Garden of Eden Myth. The reason I’m baffled it doesn’t match any per­cep­tion of History that I’ve come across. When I talk to people in the UK, it seems that his­tory starts with either the Egyptians or Stonehenge or, if they’ve been in the news recently, Neanderthals. Smail is talk­ing about aca­demic his­tor­i­ans, rather than the public.However, I don’t know any his­tor­i­ans who work from this pos­i­tion. It is quite pos­sible that I’m in my own little bubble.

For instance one excel­lent his­tor­ian I can listen to is Campbell Storey. I know for a fact that Campbell Storey is a fant­astic his­tor­ian because I sat through a talk of his on the his­tory of the Conservative Party in the 1980s and was genu­inely inter­ested. I’m not sym­path­etic to party polit­ics in gen­eral nor the Conservatives in par­tic­u­lar, but he was bring­ing out some inter­est­ing prob­lems in the sub­ject from a his­tor­ical, rather than overtly polit­ical, point of view. I’ll admit you simply don’t meet people like that in real life, so I could be in my own private world. What do you ask a his­tor­ian like that? There’s plenty of ques­tions you could ask, but one I didn’t ask was when he felt his his­tory star­ted. I’d be will­ing to bet a small amount of money his answer wouldn’t have been Bronze Age Mesopotamia. It’s an extreme example, but a lot of his­tor­i­ans tend to be based in a period. The ori­gins of his­tory don’t impinge on most stud­ies.
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Roman graveyard (almost) found in Copenhagen

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This is how badly I need to learn a Scandinavian language
This shows how little I under­stand the ori­ginal news story.

There’s sur­pris­ing news today. Burials of around thirty Romans have been dis­covered. This would please an archae­olo­gist any­where, but the oddity is that they’ve been found in a sub­urb of Copenhagen, Denmark. My first reac­tion is that the trans­la­tion is wrong, but the ori­ginal text reads:

Arkæologer på hem­me­lig mission

Arkæologerne fra Kroppedal Museum har fun­det en gam­mel romersk grav­plads, men afslører ikke stedets geo­grafiske pla­cer­ing, før de er fær­dige med udgravningerne.

With an online dic­tion­ary I get that as roughly:

Archaeologists on a clandes­tine mission

Archaeologists from Kroppedal Museum have found an ancient Roman grave­yard, but will not reveal its loc­a­tion before fin­ish­ing the excavation.

It’s a shame to lose the pussy­cat, but the finds seem fas­cin­at­ing.
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