Recent Archaeomags

i-1adad3a4c44d052143e9178665c4609e-263cover-228x300.jpgBritish Archaeology #122 (Jan/Feb) has a good feature on the origins of Roman London, presenting and collating evidence from excavations in the 90s and 00s for a military camp immediately post-dating the AD 43 invasion of Britain. The editors have slapped a silly headline on the thing though, playing up a short passage about human heads deposited in the Walbrook stream as if this were the main issue dealt with in the piece.

The unsigned last page discusses the important work of Raimund Karl (in The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice Oct 2011; read it on-line), who has compared the results of the English/Welsh and the Austrian legal attitude to metal detecting and other situations where members of the public make archaeological finds. In the former case, the Portable Antiquities Scheme encourages the public to report their finds voluntarily. It was instituted in 1997, and reporting immediately exploded in volume. Year after year the PAS is seeing an exponential increase in the number of reported finds, and it’s not just metalwork either: fieldwalking flint enthusiasts are also participating very actively. Meanwhile, Austria has put a tight lid on things: if you find anything you’re legally obliged to report it within two days, only archaeology graduates can dig, and only archaeology graduates with a licence can metal-detect. The result? Reporting of the finds that are always made went down and stayed down.

“The conclusion must be that when it comes to the practice of public archaeology, openness, co-operation and education trump suppression. The law-breaking, abusive minority of English and Welsh detectorists, however should be exposed and stopped. They poison the atmosphere for everyone.”

I’d like to add that law-abiding amateur archaeologists (with or without metal detectors) are not a problem that the discipline (grudgingly) must deal with. They represent an enormous resource in free labour, political clout and local knowledge that should be celebrated and made good use of. Archaeology and heritage management has incomparably better chances of reaching their goals with the public as participants than as spectators.

Archaeology Magazine #65:1 (Jan/Feb) has a great piece on underwater archaeology at the site of the naval Battle of the Egadi Islands off western Sicily in 241 BC. The Roman’s beat the Carthaginians here, but there are no shipwrecks to be seen on the sea floor: shipworm has eaten the wood and recent trawling has bulldozed what was left. Still, there is one find category that survives: large cast bronze objects, such as ship rams and helmets. And Florida-based non-profit RPM Nautical Foundation is locating and lifting these things with the aid of remotely operated subs. They have six of the huge rams now! And every one of them pinpoints a spot where either a ship went down or a ram was dropped after a collision. Few naval battles of the 2nd millennium AD are mapped to such precision.

On thing that takes me aback however is the ads. Advertisers are usually pretty savvy about who the target audience of a given media outlet is. You won’t see ads for home mortgages or cars on the Disney Channel. And the ads in Archaeology Magazine show clearly who reads the mag: people who might want to buy collectible coins, cruises in the Mediterranean, “The world’s simplest computer … designed for seniors”, running shoes that “defy aging”, simple-to-use stripped down cell phones, hearing aids, cultured pearl necklaces and staircase lifts. I wonder if the publishers expect the next generation of senior citizens to start subscribing when they retire, or if the mag will fold when the current readership kicks the bucket. It reminds me of when Skeptical Inquirer used to run an ad in every issue inviting readers to provide for CSICOP in their wills (are they still doing that?). Doesn’t give a very forward-looking impression.

In issue #263 (Feb) of Current Archaeology, one of my favourite pop-arch mags, is a piece on a great new find from the famous Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire: a silted-up river channel with six well-preserved Bronze Age canoes, a fish-weir and some sacrificed weaponry. The canoes were left in that river from about 1300 to 700 BC, which opens for several possibilities: it’s continuity either of everyday boat management, or of boat sacrifice, or (less likely) of where the natural waterflow liked to deposit stuff that floated downstream.

Likewise fascinating is a feature on Irish souterrains, secret underground stone-walled passages dug as refuges at ordinary farmsteads in the Viking Period. An early type allowed people to escape into the open air, but later they decided that it was better to simply crawl into the passage with your kids and a spear and stay there until the Vikings left, as if the passage was just a corridor-shaped cellar. The passages zig-zag and so it was impossible for people on the surface to find the end chambers where people were hiding at short notice. Similar passages occur in Pre-Roman Denmark a thousand years previously.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

5 thoughts on “Recent Archaeomags”

  1. “recent trawling has bulldozed what was left”
    The same applies to coldwater corals, which are being destroyed all over the N. Atlantic
    — — — — — —
    Analogous to metal detectors, responsible fossil hunters should be encouraged, provided they do not ruin a site. Fossils are even more brittle than old artefacts.
    — — — — —
    “An early type allowed people to escape into the open air, but later they decided that it was better to simply crawl into the passage with your kids and a spear and stay there until the Vikings left”

    We have a “suterräng” floor under our adm building, but the name was not intended to mean anything about barbarian invaders. However, we do have a nuclear fallout shelter there, we use it to store the plastic Christmas trees. Not very heroic.

    Bin Laden would have benefited from a souterrain, but he was too cheap despite having several years to have one dug…
    (Ghadaffi not so much. He should have bought a mini-submarine, and made his way across the Mediterranean dodging bronze-age wrecks)


  2. That’s odd about the soutterains, I thought the idea nowadays, in Scotland at least, is that they were underground storage chambers for food and suchlike.
    E.g. in “Celtic Scotland” by Ian Armit, published in 1997, he writes:
    “None of the many theories on their use is entirely satisfactory and in all likelihood these semi-underground passages probably served different purposes in different times and places. They were once thought to be refuges in tiems of war, but their visibility above ground would have made them death traps for anyone hiding inside. They could not have been byres … It has been suggested that souterrains served some ritual purpose, although this seems tobe based largely on the lack of other convincing explanations, rather than on anything positive. … THe storage theory is an appealing eplanation, at least for the large souther souterrains, as if appears to fill an otherwise surprising gap in the Scottish archaeological record. ‘Four posters’, probably granary buildings set on stout timbers … but nowhere do we see the sort s of concentration that have led to the interpretation of some southern English hillfots as centres for the collection and redistrbution of grain. Souterrains may help to fill this otherwise rather puzzlnig gap.”

    Hence my confusion at the Irish claims. Even better, the above quoted text is about Scotland in the period before the Romans, i.e. well before the Vikings. Perhaps they have a different definition and history of souterrains in Ireland, I am after all no professional archaeologist.


  3. The author of the magazine piece made a pretty good argument for the defense interpretation, in my opinion. The zig-zagginess and narrowness of the Irish souterrains makes no sense from a storage point of view. And the magazine piece states explicitly that an Irish souterrain was not visible above ground.


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