Tag Archives: archaeology

Mediaeval Mayhem blog tour

To my great delight, it’s my turn today: but I would urge you to read the backlist and bookmark the page for future posts, because each story has been fascinating. I hope people enjoy mine as much 🙂


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The Giant’s Grave, Penrith, Cumbria

I have been distracted from the 12th Century recently by a visit to a Suffolk church – or rather, by the intriguing single large stone opposite it. The stone looks for all the world like a Viking or early Christian hogsback grave marker, and has very clearly been shaped. But there are no hogsback stones in this part of the UK; they are only to be found clustered in the Northwest and Scotland. So what is it? And what’s it doing here? – the stone is not native, it’s been imported. This lovely blog post was of great help in researching that liminal phase as the Vikings became good Christians, for the short story that demanded to be written.

The Journal Of Antiquities

OS grid reference: NY 5165 3016. A short walk in an easterly direction from market Square and king street (A6) in the centre of Penrith is the ancient church of St Andrew, a Saxon foundation. At the north-side of the church stands a slight mound on top of which are two pillar-crosses and four hogback gravestones – collectively known as the Giants Grave. These stones are said to have been placed over the burial site of Owain Caesarius, legendary and heroic king of Cumbria during the early 10th century, who was said to have been a giant of a man. Also in the churchyard is the Giant’s Thumb, a damaged Anglo-Norse wheel-headed cross dating from 920 AD.

The Giant’s Grave, Penrith.

The two tall and slender pillar-crosses standing 15 feet apart are now heavily worn and it is difficult to make out the carvings on them, but they have been dated to around 1000 AD and are Anglo-Norse in…

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Magical Gozo

xaghra-twins-figurine-frontOn most maps, Gozo is (at best) a mere speck next to big sister Malta. Sometimes the whole archipelago is missing.

And yet, 6,000 years ago, the islands were home to the most amazing culture, building unique stone temples for both the living and the dead, and carving some fabulously well-endowed statues.

A skip in time, and Bronze Age peoples camped in the ruins, creating curiously slim, big-headed figurines.

Another tick of the clock, and two empires converge on the islands – the Greeks moving east, and the Punic people moving west from Carthage in Tunisia. The boundary line was the islands – Gozo is rich in Punic temples, and Malta has Greek ones.

The Knights Hospitaler made their home on Malta. Mostly they ignored Gozo; they built a chain of small castles to try and protect the people (and a magic mushroom) from pirates, but all their pomp and pageantry was on Malta.

The Knight’s heritage is a strong vibe across the big island. There, the tourism industry is tremendously important, and sites are carefully preserved, interpreted, and presented as a neat package. A little too preserved, for my liking – and sometimes horrendously crowded.

Gozo’s wealth of history is just as deep. Less preserved – with the exception of the Gigantea temple complex – but so much more accessible. It’s possible to touch the stones of a Neolithic temple, to walk around it and see how it fits with the rest of the landscape, and to soak up the atmosphere in your own time. Our guided tours may well be the only people around!

It was the weather and the flight time from the UK that first drew me to Gozo – but it’s the amazing history that has drawn me back time after time. It would give me a great deal of pleasure to show you some of my discoveries; I’ve partnered with a couple who run a stellar B&B to put together a package of welcoming accommodation, delicious food, and some of my favourite walks; Gozo at its most memorable.

But be warned; Gozo can steal your heart. Homer’s Odysseus spent seven years in willing captivity here; the magic will touch you too!

Click here to see details of the walking holiday: Walking Through Thyme.

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Easter traditions – painted eggs

Easter eggsEvery year, my family hard-boil eggs, and paint them with watercolours whilst they’re hot; it’s a Russian tradition. They’re rubbed with butter to make them shiny, and to preserve them for a few days. The eldest female gets to paint an all-red one, representing the Virgin Mary.

Then we have egg fights – highly formalised; the aggressor gets one blow with their egg onto the end of yours. If either egg cracks, it’s turned over; then the other person gets a turn. If both ends of your egg crack, you lose, but you get to eat it; if you have an uncracked end, or even two, you win, and you need a new opponent before lunch! The Virgin Mary is the last egg to be fought with.

Decorating techniques are often highly individual – personally, I like colour blocks and jagged lines, having the artistic ability of a dead duck; my father’s eggs were swirly purple abstract art, and my animation-trained elder daughter goes for realism. We did catch my younger daughter one year painting extra layers on the ends of hers, just to reinforce them; egg fighting is very competitive indeed, not for the faint-hearted!

Imagine my delight when I found this super article on egg painting through the ages – not only are there designs which I shall shamelessly nick on Sunday, but how fabulous to be taking part in a tradition dating back to the Paleolithic!


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Field walk, Moores Lane, East Bergholt

Just to complete the story – this is what the lovely volunteers who got my lecture on how to identify a flint tool – complete with the supersized example from the blog post below – achieved 🙂

Field walk report, field adjacent to Moores Lane development


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The Making of a Roman Silver Cup

What a fabulous, fabulous thing! And the artistry involved! Just wow.


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The Heritage Trust

The Making of a Roman Silver Cup. Getty Museum

Ancient Roman silversmiths developed their craft to the highest levels of refinement and beauty. Applying fire and basic tools to the shaping of precious metals, many of their sophisticated techniques are still used today. This video illustrates the making of a stunning silver cup that has survived from the first century, A.D.

This cup is on view at the Getty Villa from November 19, 2014 to August 17, 2015 in the exhibition Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville.

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What lies beneath: new discoveries about the Jericho skull

How fascinating, that the skull was plastered at all – and that we have found several of them, implying many more have been lost in the intervening 9,000 years! Even more interesting, that the lower jaw was removed. You can see problems in plastering with this great flappy row of teeth – and if you bound it, the binding would show above the plaster. The people who did this clearly knew what they were doing, with different densities of clay inside and outside the skull; ergo, had done it before – perhaps many times. Even the fact that most of the plastered skulls we have are male could merely be an artefact of the thousands of years of danger; more gracile skulls would be more easily damaged.
So, as a writer, I’m free to speculate as to why, and what they looked like. I imagine a loved one’s body being laid to rest on a sky-platform, exposed to the elements and chance predators for the year it would take the family to return to that spot; then the cranium carefully rescued and treated to its plaster coat, complete with lips and ears. Equipped with those, you can speak and listen… Were they painted, too? Would you add, say, a distinctive scar or mole to the plaster, or once dead, was everyone the same?
I think that, given a nomadic lifestyle, these people would have been left as markers of territory, able to curse any stranger who wandered by without permission. Can you imagine climbing a hillside, rounding a corner, and coming face-to-face with rows of skull-people, their blank eyes seeing both you and the other world simultaneously? Enough to send you screaming!


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British Museum blog

Alexandra Fletcher, curator, British Museum

It’s always a problem for museum curators to find ways of learning more about the objects in their care without damaging them. For human remains, it’s even more complicated because there are additional questions of care and respect for the dead that have to be carefully considered before any research can be done. However, by studying their remains we can find out an enormous amount about the people of the past; about their health, their diet and about the religious practices they carried out.

The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell. The Jericho skull shown with face forwards. The eyes are made from shell.

The so-called Jericho skull is among the oldest human remains in the British Museum collection. Thought to be between 8,500 and 9,300 years old, it is one of seven Neolithic plastered human skulls found together by Kathleen Kenyon during excavations at Jericho in 1953. The site is…

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Today’s archaeology news

My browsing this morning has brought me a super trio of archaeological items, that I thought I’d share with you!

In strict age order; some astonishing Neolithic finds in Ayia Varvara Asprokremnos, Cyprus – the most complete stone human figure ever found is very evocative, but you’d also be rewarded for scrolling down to the picture at the bottom. A casual throw-away is the piece of Neolithic jewellery they have a reproduction of. My image of Neolithic bling, what with recent tattoo articles, is getting a lot more colourful!


Next we move into the start of the Bronze Age in Bogota, with some write-up and some intriguing shots of the finds. Thank heavens for sharp-eyed construction workers!


And finally, part of my quest to develop my own bucket list of places my soon-to-be-e husband would never want to go to – a bit of Ancient Greek, and the city of Jerash in Jordan, possibly founded by Alexander the Great. Of course, there’s one or two other sites in Jordan too 😛


Such a wonderful world, across all its ages 😀


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British Museum trip – various viewpoints

I am attempting to organise the various aspects of my life, by using separate notebooks for archaeology/detecting and writing. The trip to the British Museum last Friday was a classic example of when that doesn’t work; too much crossover! I’ll try again here.

Having discovered that the BM is open until 8:30pm on Fridays – 6 glorious hours of wandering around one of the best museums in the world, for free, after a morning meeting – I shall have to repeat the experiment as often as possible 🙂

I am particularly worried ab0ut rivets at the moment; it’s too easy for something like a shield boss to deteriorate in our locally very acidic sandy soil, and for the copper alloy rivets to be the only remaining evidence. Plan A was to visit the Sutton Hoo exhibits (Room 2, ground floor), then go upstairs to rooms 49-51, Roman through Early Mediaeval, with a detector’s hat on. Look what Basil Brown achieved, with those beautifully laid-out rows! Unlike him, though, I get my rivets tumbled in plough soil, and so it’s important I know what I’m looking at, and I wanted to see the evolution of rivets through time.

Alas, to my eye, a rivet looks like a rivet looks like a rivet. Clearly this is my deficiency, because there is a whole (as ever, very expensive) textbook devoted to the subject; but there appears to be one design that hasn’t altered appreciably in 3,000 years. I’m just going to have to dump every rivet I find on the Portable Antiquities Scheme and let them sort them out 🙂

To recover from this set-back, I went to the cafe. There, I made the first error in notebook apartheid; I have a couple of pages of notes on the interaction between two young women, following on directly from the rivets. For some reason, they were sitting very still, hands in laps, with only their eyes animated; it struck me that it was a pose very proper to a pair of nuns, and the notes are around status and dominance games linked to eye size…

Then the organisation attempts failed again, as I wanted the larger writing notebook to take some sketches of buckles. I am now equally as worried about buckles as rivets; again, the design hasn’t changed appreciably since Saxon times. I got really into the detail of the Saxon workmanship; here are some notes in the writing notebook, so I don’t lose them!

  • A seax is about 10″ long, this one very crudely made at the cutting edge, but the flat edge decorated beautifully. It was a woman’s; would a man’s be different?
  • Pins for a woman’s veil were needle-fine. An actual needle was about 3″ long and thicker!
  • Bronze rings appeared in all sorts of contexts, from 1-3″ across (probably ought to be worried about them too)
  • 10 shallow silver bowls found at Sutton Hoo, for serving food; decoration is unique circular devices at bottom, cruciform arms patterned out. Bowls 9″ in diameter, 3″ deep. Lovely!
  • Small rings attached to the handle of a sword denote different allegiances
  • The wings of the bird on the helmet look like boars – which would make most of the major Celtic animals represented?
  • The roof height of a typical Saxon hall was 5m! 2 stories – not bad! Would mean that churches were not as impactful as I’ve been imagining.
  • Drinking cups were tiny, only a couple of inches high. Emphasises the difference between ale drinking for thirst and “serious” drinking…
  • Saxon sword bosses were quite small, but the Bronze Age ones were much bigger. Would be interesting to know how that affected function, and use of the boss itself as a striking weapon.
  • You can make a wire torc by wrapping the wire around a springy dogwood or alder twig – then burning away the wood to reveal the heart space inside the gold! I bet that was a magical, ceremonial moment.

Then the last note of the day was back in the detecting notebook – a comment on the changing representations of Christ over time. Pre 1100, the feel was around the strength, invulnerability and majesty of the Christ figure, even on the cross; after that date, there was a deliberate shift, by church policy, to images designed to invoke pity. That should definitely have been in the writing notebook, because presumably the shift was still happening in Wimer’s time – that’s a lovely subtle way of depicting a church, or an individual, as old-fashioned or following new-fangled ways!

Finally, I met up with an old friend, Terry Mummery, and (still thinking early mediaeval) asked his permission to share a lovely pic he took of St Eustace’s reliquary. I’m fascinated with reliquaries and the stunning beauty of the work involved, and this one is just after Wimer’s time, made in 1210. The BM writeup is here, but I prefer Terry’s photo – it gives you a much better idea of how attractive and pleasant the object is. With the skull fragments within, its approachability would make it such a powerful object to the Mediaeval mind – you could really feel like you were praying directly to the saint. I’ve also just noticed that the rivets holding the precious metal sheets together are the standard sort…

Eustace reliquary


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Archaeology from a computer chair…

Nowadays, many of the sexiest discoveries in archaeology are being made through the route of remote sensing – where the archaeologist uses false colour satellite imagery to make sites pop out of the ether.

Here’s a lovely example, where Dr Sarah Parcak displays what is very likely to be the city of Tanis, Egypt’s capital between 1,000-1,400 BC. She found it whilst sitting in her lab in Alabama…


Of course, this discovery must be ratified on the ground – satellite imagery can’t yet provide hard dating evidence, such as pottery shards – but it’s a stunningly cost-effective use of diminishing archaeological budgets. The false colour imagery is sufficiently flexible to sometimes provide 3-D site maps, allowing a dig to be positioned almost with pin-point accuracy.

This business of knowing exactly where you want to dig has an ethical plus, too. It’s a truism that archaeology always destroys what it uncovers. Well, not if you’re doing it from space; and even the targeted on-the-ground corroboration minimises damage.

I’m not aware of too much false colour imagery available to amateurs – but Google Earth can provide plenty of fun!


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