Excavations at British sites are Revolutionizing Prehistoric Studies and Revealing Secrets of the Past
You might say British archaeology is in a golden age, especially with excavations and discoveries at two sites that are adding great knowledge of the prehistory of the islands. One site, from about 2500 BC, is on the Orkney Islands, off Scotland’s northern coast, and the other, from about 1000 BC, is not far from London.
The excavations at the two sites coincide with a two-week British Festival of Archaeology that wraps up this weekend.
Though they are separated by many years and about 650 miles (1,050 km), the two sites are providing insights into what life was like in the British Isles before there were written language and historians to record the lives of the people.
In the Orkney Islands are a settlement, monumental stone circle and temple complex called Ness of Brodgar that has been under excavation since 2003. For about 4,500 years, the earth held the secrets of an ancient people who worshiped, farmed and lived there. Over the years archaeologists have been extracting those secrets and now want to share them with the world. (See here for a website about Brodgar.)
The site in England, at Whittlesey in Cambridgeshire, was a settlement of roundhouses that burned, perhaps in an attack by hostiles, and fell into the river, where the silt preserved the settlers’ stuff so well that some are calling it Britain’s Pompeii.
A bronze socketed ax was one of many Bronze Age tools found at Must Farm, a site that dates back about 3,000 years and is the finest site of that era ever found in Britain and one of the finest in Europe. Photo by Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
And though they are so far removed from each other in time—one site is from the Neolithic (Stone Age), the other from later Bronze Age—the sites hold some similarities. The ancient people of both sites farmed, kept animals, had pottery and tools.
At these sites and at a thousand other places across the width and length of the British Isles, the Council of British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology is being celebrated in the last two weeks of July.
“The festival showcases the very best of archaeology, with special events right across the UK, organised and hosted by museums, heritage organisations, national and countryside parks, universities, local societies, and community archaeologists,” says the council’s website .
The festival’s Facebook page announces events about the Dark Ages, the Iron Age, the Roman era and many other historic and prehistoric features and eras of the British Isles.
Before all those eras came was the new Stone Age and its Ness of Brodgar in the Orkney Islands. The site is in part a temple complex of 21 buildings and covers an area of over 6 acres. It consists of the ruins of housing, remnants of slate roofs, paved walkways, colored facades, decorated stone slabs, and a massive stone wall with foundations. It also includes a large building described as a Neolithic ‘cathedral’ or ‘palace’, inhabited from at least 3,500 BC to the close of the Neolithic period more than 1,500 years later.
Excavations at the Ness of Brodgar on mainland Orkney (genevieveromier photo/ Flickr)
The Ness of Brodgar is on the largest island of Orkney, called The Mainland. It includes a henge and stone circle known as The Ring of Brodgar. It is the third largest stone circle in the British Isles after Avebury and Stonehenge. Built in a true circle, the Ring of Brodgar is thought to have been originally composed of 60 individual stones, though presently 27 are intact. The stones themselves are of red sandstone and vary in height from 7-15 feet. The stones are surrounded by a large circular ditch or henge.
Excavations have discovered thousands of artifacts at the Ness of Brodgar, including ceremonial mace heads, polished stone axes, flint knives, a human figurine and miniature thumb pots. Archaeologists have found beautifully crafted stone spatulas, highly-refined colored pottery, and more than 650 pieces of Neolithic art, by far the largest collection ever found in Britain.
Far to the south, about 120 km (75 miles) north of London in Wittlesey is the Must Farm archaeological site, where that possible arson occurred. An archaeologist discovered the site in 1999 when he saw wooden stakes or palisades sticking out of the mud and silt, which preserved them and many other artifacts as well. Scorching and charring of the wood from when the settlement burned also helped to preserve some of the material.
While the entire site is fantastic, with its nine log boats found nearby, five roundhouses and many important artifacts, two of the most important finds were textiles and vitrified foods. Also, beads, likely from the Balkans and the Middle East, showed there was long-distance trade in Britain, where the Bronze Age began about 4,000 to 4,500 years ago.
The purpose of this tiny, finely made pot from Must Farm is unknown. Photo by Cambridge Archaeological Unit.
The Must Farm website states : “We’ve found everything from textiles and boxes to wheels and axes. The Must Farm settlement has one of the most complete bronze age assemblages ever discovered in Britain and it is giving us an unprecedented insight into the lives of the people there 3,000 years ago. Two artefact types we haven’t discussed are metalwork and textiles, both of which offer another important layer of detail to the homes we are excavating.”
The British Archaeological Council’s Festival of Archaeology continues through Sunday. For more events, see the Facebook page or council website linked to above.
Featured image: The Ring of Brodgar. Photo source: geography.org.uk
By Mark Miller
Complete History of Stonehenge Excavations
1611. King James I investigated Stonehenge "to see 'The stone which the builders refused.'"
King James Version, 1611
1616. Doctor William Harvey, Gilbert North, and Inigo Jones find horns of stags and oxen, coals, charcoals, batter-dashers, heads of arrows, pieces of rusted armour, rotten bones, thuribulum (censer) pottery, and a large nail.
Long, William, 1876, Stonehenge and its Barrows. The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volume 16
1620. George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, dug a large hole in the ground at the center of Stonehenge looking for buried treasure. (Diary)
1633-52. Inigo Jones conducted the first 'scientific' surveys of Stonehenge.
Jones, I, and Webb, J, 1655, The most notable antiquity of Great Britain vulgarly called Stone-Heng on Salisbury plain. London: J Flesher for D Pakeman and L Chapman
1640. Sir Lawrence Washington, knight, owner of Stonehenge, fished around Bear's Stone (named after Washington's hound dog). Bear's Stone profile portrait a local 17th century attraction. (G-Diary)
The Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, Volumes 15-16
1652. Reverend Lawrence Washington, heir of Stonehenge, commissions Doctor Garry Denke to dig below Bear's Stone, reveals lion, calf (ox), face as a man, flying eagle, bear (dog), leopard, and hidden relics. Bear's Stone (96) renamed Hele 'to conceal, cover, hide'. (G-Diary)
1653-56. Doctor Garry Denke auger cored below Hele Stone 'The stone which the builders rejected' on various occasions. Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, bone, concrete discovered at 1-1/3 'yardsticks' (under flying eagle). Elizabeth Washington, heir of Stonehenge.
Denke, G, 1699, G-Diary (German to English by Erodelphian Literary Society of Sigma Chi Fraternity). GDG, 1-666
1666. John Aubrey surveyed Stonehenge and made a 'Review'. Described the Avenue's prehistoric pits. (the 'Aubrey Holes' discovered by Hawley, not Aubrey).
Aubrey, J, 1693 (edited by J Fowles 1982), Monumenta Britannica. Sherborne, Dorset: Dorset Publishing Co
1716. Thomas Hayward, owner of Stonehenge, dug heads of oxen and other beasts. (Diary)
1721-4. William Stukeley surveyed and excavated Stonehenge and its field monuments. Surveyed the Avenue in 1721 extending beyond Stonehenge Bottom to King Barrow Ridge. Surveyed the Cursus in 1723 and excavated.
Stukeley, W, 1740, Stonehenge: a temple restor'd to the British druids. London: W Innys and R Manby
1757. Benjamin Franklin observes Bear's Stone (96) lion, calf (ox), face as a man, flying eagle, bear (dog), leopard, and Hele Stone 'hidden' relics below them. (Diary)
1798. Sir Richard Hoare and William Cunnington dug at Stonehenge under the fallen Slaughter Stone 95 and under fallen Stones 56 and 57.
The Ancient History of Wiltshire, Volume 1, 1812
1805-10. William Cunnington dug at Stonehenge on various occasions.
Cunnington, W, 1884, Guide to the stones of Stonehenge. Devizes: Bull Printer
1839. Captain Beamish excavated within Stonehenge. (Diary)
1874-7. Professor Flinders Petrie produced a plan of Stonehenge and numbered the stones.
Petrie, W M F, 1880, Stonehenge: plans, description, and theories. London: Edward Stanford
1877. Charles Darwin digs at Stonehenge to study 'Sinking of great Stones through the Action of Worms'.
Darwin, Charles,1881, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on Their Habits. London: John Murray
1901. Professor William Gowland meticulously recorded and excavated around stone number 56 at Stonehenge.
Gowland, W, 1902, Recent excavations at Stonehenge. Archaeologia, 58, 37-82
1919-26. Colonel William Hawley extensively excavated in advance of restoration programmes at Stonehenge for the Office of Works and later for the Society of Antiquaries. Hawley excavated ditch sections of the Avenue, conducted an investigation of the Slaughter Stone and other stones at Stonehenge, and discovered the 'Aubrey Holes' (misnamed) through excavation.
Hawley, W, 1921, Stonehenge: interim report on the exploration.
Antiquaries Journal, 1, 19-41
Hawley, W, 1922, Second report on the excavations at Stonehenge.
Antiquaries Journal, 2, 36-52
Hawley, W, 1923, Third report on the excavations at Stonehenge.
Antiquaries Journal, 3, 13-20
Hawley, W, 1924, Fourth report on the excavations at Stonehenge, 1922.
Antiquaries Journal, 4, 30-9
Hawley, W, 1925, Report on the excavations at Stonehenge during the season of 1923.
Antiquaries Journal, 5, 21-50
Hawley, W, 1926, Report on the excavations at Stonehenge during the season of 1924.
Antiquaries Journal, 6, 1-25
Hawley, W, 1928, Report on the excavations at Stonehenge during 1925 and 1926.
Antiquaries Journal, 8, 149-76
Pitts, M, Bayliss, A, McKinley, J, Boylston, A, Budd, P, Evans, J, Chenery, C, Reynolds, A, and Semple, S, 2002, An Anglo-Saxon decapitation and burial at Stonehenge. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 95, 131-46
1929. Robert Newall excavated Stone 36.
Newall, R S, 1929, Stonehenge. Antiquity, 3, 75-88
Newall, R S, 1929, Stonehenge, the recent excavations.
Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 44, 348-59
1935. Young, W E V, The Stonehenge car park excavation. (Diary)
1950. Robert Newall excavated Stone 66.
Newall, R S, 1952, Stonehenge stone no. 66. Antiquaries Journal, 32, 65-7
1952. Robert Newall excavated Stones 71 and 72. (Diary)
1950-64. A major campaign of excavations by Richard Atkinson, Stuart Piggott, and Marcus Stone involving the re-excavation of some of Hawley’s trenches as well as previously undisturbed areas within Stonehenge.
Atkinson, R J C, Piggott, S, and Stone, J F S, 1952, The excavations of two additional holes at Stonehenge, and new evidence for the date of the monument. Antiquaries Journal, 32, 14-20
Atkinson, R J C, 1956, Stonehenge. London. Penguin Books in association with Hamish Hamilton. (second revised edition 1979: Penguin Books)
1966. Faith and Lance Vatcher excavated 3 Mesolithic Stonehenge postholes.
Vatcher, F de M and Vatcher, H L, 1973, Excavation of three postholes in Stonehenge car park. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 68, 57-63
1968. Faith and Lance Vatcher dug geophone and floodlight cable trenches. (Diary)
1974. Garry Denke and Ralph Ferdinand set out to confirm Sir Lawrence Washington, knight and Reverend Lawrence Washington's revelation (G-Diary). Auger cores 1.2m (4ft) below Heel Stone 96 (under face as a man). Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, bone, concrete confirmed. No coal in cores. Stonehenge Free Festival.
Denke, G W, 1974, Stonehenge Phase I: An Open-pit Coalfield Model; The First Geologic Mining School (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). GDG, 74, 1-56
1978. John Evans re-excavated a 1954 cutting through the Stonehenge ditch and bank to take samples for snail analysis and radiocarbon dating. A well-preserved human burial lay within the ditch fill. Three fine flint arrowheads were found amongst the bones, with a fourth embedded in the sternum.
Atkinson, R J C and Evans, J G, 1978, Recent excavations at Stonehenge. Antiquity, 52, 235-6
Evans, J G, 1984, Stonehenge: the environment in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age, and a Beaker burial. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 78, 7-30
1978. Alexander Thorn and Richard Atkinson. NE side of Station Stone 94. (Diary)
1979-80. George Smith excavated in the Stonehenge car park on behalf of the Central Excavation Unit.
Smith, G, 1980, Excavations in Stonehenge car park. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 74/75 (1979-80), 181
1979-80. Mike Pitts excavated along south side of A344 in advance of cable-laying and pipe-trenching. In 1979, discovered the Heel Stone 97 original pit (96 original Altar Stone pit). Survey along the Avenue course identified more pits. In 1980, excavated beside the A344 and discovered a stone floor (a complete prehistoric artifact assemblage retained from the monument).
Pitts, M W, 1982, On the road to Stonehenge: Report on investigations beside the A344 in 1968, 1979, and 1980. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 48, 75-132
1981. The Central Excavation Unit excavated in advance of the construction of the footpath through Stonehenge.
Bond, D, 1983, An excavation at Stonehenge, 1981. Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 77, 39-43.
1984. Garry Denke (and Hell's Angels) seismic survey. Auger cores 1.2m (4ft) below Heel Stone 96 (under lion head). Gold, silver, brass, iron, wood, bone, concrete reconfirmed. No coal in cores. Stonehenge Free Festival.
Denke, G, 1984, Magnetic and Electromagnetic Surveys at Heelstone, Stonehenge, United Kingdom (Indiana University of Pennsylvania). GDG, 84, 1-42
1990-6. A series of assessments and field evaluations in advance of the Stonehenge Conservation and Management Programme.
Darvill, T C, 1997, Stonehenge Conservation and Management Programme: a summary of archaeological assessments and field evaluations undertaken 1990-1996. London: English Heritage
1994. Wessex Archaeology. Limited Auger Survey.
Cleal, R M J, Walker, K E, and Montague, R, 1995, Stonehenge and its landscape: twentieth-century excavations (English Heritage Archaeological Report 10). London: English Heritage.
2008. Timothy Darvill and Geoffrey Wainwright set out to date the construction of the Double Bluestone Circle at Stonehenge and to chart the history of the Bluestones, and their use.
Darvill, T, and Wainwright, G, 2008, Stonehenge excavations 2008. The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 89, September 2009, 1-19
Mike Parker Pearson, Julian Richards, and Mike Pitts further the excavation of 'Aubrey Hole' 7 discovered by William Hawley, 1920.
Willis, C, Marshall, P, McKinley, J, Pitts, M, Pollard, J, Richards, C, Richards, J, Thomas, J, Waldron, T, Welham, K, and Parker Pearson, M, 2016, The dead of Stonehenge. Antiquity, Volume 90, Issue 350, April 2016, 337-356
2012-13. Stonehenge A344 road excavated and removed. (Diary)
Complete History of Stonehenge Excavations
Mishkan 1.2m below Heel Stone
@ Stonehenge, United Kingdom