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