Recent Archaeomags

i-846a3cbc4464efdfecf6c7254ee54627-ba-latest.jpgFor some years I have been a happy reader of (and frequent commenter on) Current Archaeology. Now Dear Reader Marcus Smith has arranged (or bought?) a complimentary subscription for me to the other big UK pop-arch mag, British Archaeology. While CA is a private property, BA is published by the Council for British Archaeology, “an educational charity working throughout the UK to involve people in archaeology and to promote the appreciation and care of the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations”, as Wikipedia puts it.

The first issue of British Archaeology to reach me is #118 (May/June). My favourite piece in it is a feature on the osteology of Gough’s Cave, an Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic site in Somerset with excellent bone preservation. We get a fine popular illustrated write-up of painstaking labwork that makes the case that people about 12 700 cal BC used the cave not only for cannibalistic and other meals, but also for the manufacture of bowls or cups from human skulls!

Another piece on an interesting theme is a report on recent fieldwork at Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland (the site where the first excavator went crazy on the job and never wrote his multi-year campaign up). Sadly the new trenches were very small – largely flower borders! – and the results thus rather inconclusive.

I was horrified and incredulous to learn that since 2008, the rule in England and Wales has been that archaeological human bone must be reburied!? Apparently this has something to do with an 1857 law whose interpretation is currently fluctuating. Anyway, it seems that reburial will no longer be demanded as of this year. But what, then, was the practice like between 1857 and 2008?

As for the rest of the magazine issue, I’m afraid there’s a lot of depressing meta-archaeology. I’m not very interested in meta-archaeological issues except to the extent that they impact concrete examples of research into the past. And if there is one kind of meta-story I certainly do not wish to read for entertainment in a popular archaeology mag, then it’s accounts of threatened, looted or destroyed sites and finds. Therefore I flipped past BA’s stories about the Egyptian revolution and “6 Threatened Sites” (in the UK). Depressing.


Populär Arkeologi 2011:1 also has a depressing story about looting, in China, but in it Magnus Fiskesjö makes an interesting point. I recently wrote about the looted Chinese archaeology I saw on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Turns out, the Chinese themselves just barely have a cultural concept of specific archaeological context for individual objects. Their National Administration of Cultural Heritage recently changed to that name in English, but it kept its Chinese name: Wenwuju, the “Bureau of Cultural Relics”. The Chinese have been thinking about ancient material culture in terms of wenwu, “cultural/inscribed relics” no doubt for over 2000 years. The culture thus has a deeply internalised idea of archaeological sites as find mines, in comparison to which archaeology with its demands is a recent arrival from abroad. And once you have mined ore, then who really cares where it sat originally? The main issue is who gets to sell the ore.


Archaeology Southwest, which is put out by the Center for Desert Archaeology in Tucson AZ, devotes issue #24:4 to 13th century pueblo sites in New Mexico. Beautiful landscape, beautiful sites, beautiful finds, beautifully exact dates thanks to preserved wooden beams and dendrochronology. But I must say that I’m surprised at the cavalier attitude of my colleagues in the area to certain issues of interpretation.

First and foremost, here pottery style equals archaeological culture equals living ethnic identity, with no mention of what would happen if for instance a potter from one group marries into another group. Secondly, interregional similarities in pottery styles equals migration. And thirdly, visible site count equals population density, and so a drop in the number of visible sites means emigration.

Not to put too fine a point on it, and Dawkins knows I’m no fan of fashionable archaeological theory, but every single one of these assumptions was either abandoned outright or became heavily qualified decades ago in my part of the world. And we’re certainly not dealing with any continent-wide lack of insight in the US: the basic textbook I read as an undergraduate 20 years ago was by an American, David Hurst Thomas! Very good book, too. I saw it being cleared out at the department in Minneapolis a few weeks ago. Time flies.


Current Archaeology #253 (April) has excellent coverage of a sanded-over Norse settlement at the Bay of Skaill in the Orkneys and 16th century phases of Stirling Castle on the Scottish mainland. Yet I was particularly struck by a report on a small Roman roadside industrial estate or “service station” in Staffordshire. The team started digging out a well and found some nice small finds. But the well just kept going down and turned out to still hold water. At 3 m they hit a layer of oak planking and hazel rods. Below that was an almost complete cow skeleton, then meters of latrine. And at 6.5 m the whole well was filled up with perfectly preserved shoes from about AD 150! At 7 m the team gave up because they feared the whole thing would cave in on them. And yet the well continued down…

A story about Wareham in Dorset had me wincing in pain, much like the news above about mandatory reburial of human remains. In the early 90s, about 55 hectares (78 soccer fields) of “marginal heathland” there was bought by a gravel extraction firm and evaluated by a major contract archaeology firm. The unit found very little and the County Archaeologist pretty much let the area go. Instead, the local amateur archaeology society began a 15-year-long volunteer watching brief. Here’s some of what they found and apparently had to excavate all by themselves:

  • More Middle Bronze Age pottery than any other site in Dorset
  • Eight foundations of Middle Bronze Age round houses, made up of fire-cracked stone, Sw. skärvstensvallar
  • Several Late Roman pottery kilns mass-producing Black Burnished ware

In Sweden, even one far less impressive site would have been a reason to re-do the evaluation and call in professionals.


Current World Archaeology isn’t quite up my street since I am very much not a World Archaeologist. (I just feel tired and inadequate when faced with the innumerable ancient cultures around the world that I know nothing about. I’m not into reading about exotic archaeology as escapist fun, and most of them are being wrecked by looters and developers anyway.) But issue #46 (April/May) does have one story that I liked – about Sweden. Osteologist Caroline Arcini writes about a 1710-11 plague cemetery in SmÃ¥land that she has previously presented in the fine 2006 anthology Pestbacken. I found it particularly interesting that she could document the traces of a 1690s famine in the skeletons of people who had survived that disaster only to die of the plague 15 years later.


So there you have it: five good popular archaeomags. If you too read these magazine issues, tell me what you think and feel free to ask questions!


6 thoughts on “Recent Archaeomags

  1. “Mandatory reburial of human remains” is cheap. Politicians can pretend to be culturally sensitive without providing any money.

    “…bought by a gravel extraction firm and evaluated by a major contract archaeology firm.”
    I can hear the noise of money changing hands, all the way here. Or maybe they were just lazy.
    — — — — —
    “people about 12 700 cal BC used the cave … for cannibalistic and other meals”. The origin of the food culture that gave us plum pudding and haggis is revealed.

    Is there enough context to see if they were endo-or exocannibals? If there are burials nearby, it will be possible to see if they were closely related to the, ah, processed remains.

    -I have my own ideas about what to do with archaeology looters (looks at collection of cranial bowls and cups, alongside Thank You note from H. Lecter).


  2. Something for the next issues: “Neolithic humans lived a communal life: study”
    Makes sense. Hunters and gatherers have to cooperate to some exent, and as they were switching over to farming 12000 years ago the original group structure continued (while they no doubt practised some supplemental hunting/gathering) -except now they had reason to erect permanent structures. Later farmers tend to be more spread out, unless the threat from marauding bands force them together into fortified villages.


  3. Martin sez “.. But what, then, was the practice like between 1857 and 2008?”

    Well from personal experience, in the last quarter of the C20th it would be infinitely carefully excavated and drawn/photogged in situ (did you know that a well-preserved adult skeleton, if arranged in the now-traditional urban mediaeval digger’s fashion, fits perfectly in a two-gallon builder’s bucket?), equally painstakingly scrubbed, washed and dried (to remove any remaining obnoxious analysable adherents that might yield information), squinted at cursorily along with dozens, if not hundreds of its companeros, by a harassed postgrad student while laid out on a civil service utility table (the skelly, that is) to see if there are any particularly outstanding deformities or injuries, dumped in the largest size of minigrip bag or just straight into the regulation Stationery Office brown cardboard box, if they were lucky along with a manila label with some unique-to-the-excavation-director code on it, and consigned to “long term storage” (metal racking in a damp tin shed on some godforsaken industrial estate).
    I dunno, landfill eventually, when the overarching (non-archae) Govt. Dept. had a clearout?

    Mind you, the original Proprietors had “variable” attitudes. One lot we had stolen at night from the freshly-prepared-for-piccies graves by the housebuilder (sand site, utter carnage, might as well (in fact did) pack up and go home).
    And then there was Minister of the Established Church who leapt the wall of the (disused for centuries, just a grass field) med. cem., in high dudgeon at our presumptuous interference with the millennial repose of his parishioners (obviously just chucked Official Gubmint Mail straight in the bin).
    On learning that the reason for the lack of headstones was that these were (1)Very Old and (2)irremediably catholic he did a complete volte-face, and barked in shock “What?! Catholics!!? Get them out of my graveyard! Now!!
    A long, gentle, and incomprehending-on-the cleric’s-part explanation of subjects such as .. the Reformation had to follow, from our urbane and ever-civil director.
    This lot were eventually (like, years and years later) reburied in nice wooden caskets, surprisingly. Politics …

    In short, a bit of a shambles, I suspect. Like everything in this country.


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