Having some archaeological thoughts

This is something I wrote for an archaeology assignment… I have shared it before, but here it is again:

Charles Leonard Woolley was born in 1880 in London, and was a renowned archaeologist with a career of fieldwork in the near and middle east. He became an assistant in the Department of Antiquities in the Ashmolean Museum Oxford at the age of twenty-five but his first experience of field archaeology in the area which became his life’s work, was two years later in 1907. He joined an expedition from the University of Pennsylvania to excavate sites in Nubia (southern Egypt) and worked there for four years, before transferring to a British expedition in the same area. On this expedition he was joined by Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia. Until he was taken prisoner in 1916, Woolley worked for two years as an intelligence officer in Palestine (World War I started in 1914 in Europe) using his archaeological knowledge and skills.
After the war he continued his work in Mesopotamia and for this assignment I am going to consider the expedition he led from 1922-24, excavating the Biblical city of Ur, known as Ur of the Chaldees. Ur is a Sumerian city, inhabited since about 2600BCE; Woolley conducted excavations there for twelve years, discovering not only many artefacts, but also gaining a clearer idea of the lives of the inhabitants of the city. He discovered about 1850 graves including sixteen tombs which contained objects which led him to call them the ‘Royal Tombs’. He returned to Ur eleven times after the first expedition, but I am considering how he may have made his first reconnaissance in 1922, when he was accompanied on the dig by another young archaeologist, Max Mallowan. Mallowan later married Agatha Christy who wrote several books set in the area, including ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’ which features an archaeological dig, not dissimilar to the dig at Ur.
What methods of reconnaissance were available to Woolley in 1922? Since the first assents in a balloon in the eighteenth century it had been apparent that aerial reconnaissance was of value, initially for a military purpose. Similarly developments in photography and the portability of cameras allowed pictures of sites to be taken from the air, and one of the first archaeological aerial photos was taken in 1906 of Stonehenge.  In World War 1 with aviation technology and engineering improving rapidly, the use of photographs became vital in planning campaigns, and Woolley is sure to have used such photos which were taken over Sinai in 1916 and Gaza in 1917, for example. I have not been able to find out if Woolley had reconnaissance photos of the Ur site, but certainly the technology was available.
As an experienced archaeologist and a skilled, much practiced excavator, Woolley did not begin his ‘dig’ until 1923; he would have spent the first months of the expedition systematically reconnoitring the landscape by car, on foot, possibly on a camel. (Even before he had arrived he would have made an academic reconnaissance, using other records, maps, and documents) He would have tried to locate and record what he identified, taking photos, drawing and sketching, mapping, making diagrams and planning where exactly he would place his trenches. He may have used probes (no geo-physics then!) he may have dug small test pits, but most of all, he would have used his eyes to ‘read’ the landscape and understand its context from the contours and features, sand/soil colour and type, geology and other signifiers of archaeology he observed. He would have ‘walked’ areas to try and visually locate remains, even though they were from as much as five thousand years ago, maybe potsherds, maybe worked stone; the arid desert would have preserved some organic materials as well as inorganic, but such artefacts would only be revealed by natural excavation such as wind shifting sand during a sandstorm.
Woolley spent twelve ‘seasons digging Ur and completed his work there in 1934. However, he continued to write articles and books about his excavations in southern Mesopotamia. He died in 1960 at the age of eighty.

A year ago today…

A year ago today I shared this post… I was writing about a very exciting experience!

Beneath the Mendip Hills is a series of caves; tens thousands of years ago some of them were inhabited by people, that long ago and more other animals sort shelter within or came to die or had their bones washed into the caves by torrential rains or melting ice.
One such cave, a bone cave, is near where we live, further along the Mendip chain in a small village called Banwell. It’s possible to visit, either through making an arrangement with the people on whose land the caves are, or on one of their open days. We went recently and went down the steps cut into the rock, down into the cave. The caves are natural, created millions of years ago by the action of water on limestone.
Banwell Cave was lit by a few electric lamps, but mostly by candles which gave it a gentle, warm illumination. There is another cave, a stalactite cave which we couldn’t go into – no-one can without proper caving gear – how I’d have loved to do that! This cave was just a bog, roundish cave, and stacked neatly along the walls are piles of bones from the creatures who had died there. The eighteenth and nineteenth explorers working for the Bishop of Bath and Wells who owned the land, tidied it up for visitors – the caves, gardens and buildings, grottoes, an  osteoicon (bone house – museum) and tower, were all part of what might be called a ‘theme park’.
As you might imagine, the cave is extraordinary, and extraordinarily atmospheric. Some of the bones were in a heap and our guide picked some up and we were able to handle and hold them. Mostly bison and reindeer,  but also mountain hares, red foxes, otters,cave bears, wolverines, oxen and wolves… bones going back over 80,000 years. These bones give an interesting picture of life then; wolves for example were less hunters and more scavengers; the predominant predator species were the bears.
Our guide handed me a huge, yellowing hip bone; a gigantic bear thought by scientists to be a species of bear related to polar bears, not a cave bear, and one of gigantic proportions. These bears could be up to twelve feet tall… imagine that… a twelve foot tall carnivorous bear…
As I stood in the flickering candlelight, holding this massive hip bone, I had a really curious, almost overwhelming sensation… which I can’t really explain. It was only a momentary sense of something, and I can really understand how people can feel that objects contain power. It was an unforgettable experience.

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Look at the size of its skull :


… and a link to the cave site:



Do children still play hopscotch? We played it at junior school – there were two versions, chalked onto the playground or road; one was a line of numbered squares, single and then side by side  so you could hop then land with two feet, hop, two feet etc… I think there were ten squares, altogether. My actual memory of the rules are a bit hazy, but I think each player had a stone and would throw it onto a number hop around without stepping on the lines, and pick up the stone on the return… something along those lines (or within those lines I should say!) The other version was circular, like a snail shell, also divided into squares, but with a couple of symbols inserted at random. One symbol meant you had to hop over it, the other meant you could put both feet down. I think when you got to the centre you had to turn round and come back again. If you made it all the way back without falling over or stepping on a line, you put your initials in any square, everyone else then had to jump over, but you could put both feet down.

We did have other games, tig, skipping, some sort of singing game, but hopscotch was my favourite. I mentioned it in a story I was witting, and then couldn’t really properly remember how to play it. Apparently it’s a really old game – at first, before there were paved roads, children would mark the game out in the dirt – scratching or ‘scotching’ the outline. Some things I’ve looked at say it was an ancient British game, going back before the Romans, others say it was actually a Roman game; elsewhere there are claims it began in India or China, or that it is the last vestiges of some labyrinth ritual.

Who knows, who can ever know… my completely instinctive opinion is that children are inventive and love hopping about and balancing, and making up games, and that all over the world children invented similar games. Maybe the outline was based on something else – a pattern they saw, a mosaic, a ritual pathway, whatever, but I think kids made it up!

Walking round our village again

A few years ago I undertook a MOOC  (massive open on-line course) in archaeology. I did it all from home, no digging! We had various assignments, and here is one I very much enjoyed, which involved ‘researching’ a familiar environment with archaeological eyes!

For this assignment I went on an archaeology walk round my village. Uphill is a very small village just south of Weston-super-Mare on the coast of the Bristol Channel where the Axe flows into the sea. This area has been inhabited since Neolithic times; there were caves containing 40,000 year-old flint tools and worked and butchered bones of animals including the woolly mammoth and cave lion, there is a Bronze Age field system on nearby Walborough, the Romans are likely to have used the Axe to ship out minerals mined on the nearby Mendip Hills, and the area has been home to fishing and farming families over the millennia.
So… there is a lot of history in Uphill, but I want to explore the little village’s industrial past. If you visit Uphill you’ll think it a delightful and peaceful little village with nothing to hear but birdsong and the tide coming in. There are a few businesses here, two pubs, a restaurant, a sign-writers shop, an osteopath, the village shop… there’s the boatyard and marina and camp-site and a little tea-room. The only through traffic is going down to the beach… so really we are a quiet little place.
It wasn’t always so; there’s a wharf in Uphill which was busy for boats bringing coal and sheep from Wales, for example, and boats departing loaded with limestone and lime. There was also a quarry; Uphill is on the last of the Mendip Hills, a limestone range of undulating uplands, and limestone in past times was a valuable commodity.
Limestone was used extensively for building, and with the arrival of railways it was used for ballast (railways came to Weston in 1841); it was also made into lime by being burned in a kiln. Lime was used to ‘sweeten’ acidic arable land; it was used as a whitewash, in the steel industry and as mortar for building. It was particularly used from the mid 1700’s and limestone was quarried here in Uphill from the beginning of the nineteenth century. Not only was the limestone quarried, but lime was made in a lime kiln here at the quarry. The kiln was fed with Welsh coal, brought into Uphill from across the Bristol Channel, and no doubt the same ships took the product away.
You can’t imagine that a kiln would make much more than a roaring noise, but getting the limestone to put in the kiln was very noisy… the quarrymen weren’t just there with pick axes and chisels, they had gunpowder and later dynamite. For safety reasons the explosives were kept in a special store, set into the rock face, built of limestone and with a special metal door, known as “a sacrificial wall’ which acted as a safety valve if there was an accident, the door would blow out, rather than the powder house itself blowing up.
The powder-house probably went out of use by 1930 and now there is little left to see, just some tumbled walls and stone shelves against the cliff face, overgrown with ivy, brambles and nettles… and we can only imagine the noise of the industry, the explosions, the crashing rocks, the wagons rolling backwards and forwards, now all is peaceful in Uphill!
I chose this activity because I wanted to put into practice what I had learned from the course in a meaningful and relevant way to my everyday life; I often walk this way on winter’s mornings or sunny afternoons, out with my camera for some exercise. I did enjoy it because it put into context some of the skills that I’ve gained, observation, deduction, looking for evidence, trying to take in the whole picture not just a particular small detail.
I would like to do this again on another part of the village, maybe exploring the field system on the slopes of the hill, maybe looking at the ruined church built just after the Norman Conquest (1066) and its graveyard, or maybe trying to find the different little streams (rhynes in local dialect) and ditches which have been hidden by modern building (modern meaning nineteenth and twentieth century)

My featured image is of a real archaeological dig which happened a couple of years ago!

Writing is something different…

Although I have never formally studied archaeology, and have only very peripherally been involved in one single archaeological dig (which was very exciting!) it is something I do find really interesting, and I read a lot about it. I did do a MOOC (massive open on-line course) with Brown University which was fascinating; obviously as it was on-line there was no actual digging involved, but it taught a lot about the principles and practices (it was called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets, and unfortunately I don’t think it is still available)

Every year, as a Christmas present, my husband buys me a subscription to a magazine ‘Current Archaeology’:


In July’s issue (they always seem to come a month early) there is the usual selection of articles, letters, reviews, features, comments, news… and much more. I’m sure with every subject or interest area, each person has their own particular favourite; for me it is mainly prehistory, but there are other areas too, that time between the Romans leaving Britain and the Normans arriving, for instance. In this issue, the featured article was ‘The Rise of Viking Dublin – revealing Wood Quay’s remarkable remains’.


The article explains that the Viking era in Dublin, known then as Dyflin, lasted from about 840 to about 1170; the settlement started as pretty much a summer camp for raiding parties, a longphort, but over the centuries developed into a bustling, thriving, township. You can read all about it in the link – and an extended version if you subscribe of course!

Just as our world is multicultural, so was the own; Norse people, local Irish people, Normans from Britain, and Welsh and Scots, and what we might call Anglo-Saxons, traders and travellers from elsewhere; a Scandinavian language would have been spoken, and Irish, and no doubt a variety of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the items found was  a sheep’s bone, the scapula, and written on it in runic were the words ‘writing is something different in the soul. Amen‘ Isn’t that marvellous? Isn’t it so true? Amazing! And wonderful… and my new motto!

My featured image by the way is of the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin, not that far from Wood Quay.

Tasmanian adventure – Mawson’s huts

Our first few days in Hobart Tasmania were spent walking, walking, walking, stopping only to take photos and for the occasional coffee or beer. One of our subsidiary missions on our adventure was to explore the world of Tasmanian beer which I had read so much about, so we felt obliged to sample it widely. We also discovered the wonderful world of Australian/Tasmanian coffee, wherever we went, even in the tiniest places in the middle of nowhere we had good coffee (once we had realised that what we call an Americano is a long black!)

As we wandered along past the boats moored up in Hobart, some fishing boats, some pleasure boats, some wonderful old boats in pristine condition, we came to Mawson Place, and I vaguely remembered Mawson was an Antarctic Explorer. The Polar Research Institute is in Cambridge and I used to cycle past it every day on the way to school. Near Mawson Place in Hobart (not Cambridge, there is a Mawson Place in Cambridge), across the road in fact, is Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum, although we love museums to be honest it wasn’t a very enticing title, although there were the replica huts, standing there, like a huge garden shed. We were somewhat distracted by the fact that the museum is right next door to Lark Distillery… and as whisky lovers we had been looking forward very much to visiting that establishment… so in we went! No doubt I’ll write about Tasmanian whisky somewhere else but I will just mention that it is very fine whisky!

Actually, we weren’t really that drawn to Mawson’s Huts, and in a way and to be honest, it didn’t really sell itself… So it wasn’t until the last few days of our stay, that we had a spare hour and we popped in. The museum was due to close within the hour, so we thought we would have a quick flash round… In fact I only got to see one wall… it was so interesting, so fascinating, so well displayed that after having an introductory chat from the very friendly and helpful lady on the desk selling tickets, I got little further than finding out about some of the men on Mawson’s 1911 expedition and looking at maps… Needless to say, the next day I returned and when I told the lady on the desk that I had been so interested yesterday  but had run out of time so was here for a second visit, she let me in with my previous day’s ticket!

Douglas Mawson led the expedition, leaving Hobart in September 1911 and going via Macquarie Island to set up a camp for scientific and research purposes. He led a crew of seventeen men, the youngest nineteen the oldest forty – Mawson himself was thirty. The expedition was due to return in 1913, and in fact some of them did – however Mawson himself, and six others stayed for a second winter and returned home in 1914… the reasons for which I will retell in another post.

If you go to Hobart I really, really recommend visiting this museum – it may not look that amazing from the outside, but inside it is like a fabulous Tardis. The way the displays are arranged is so intelligent, you are led past maps and detailed biographies and photos of the faces of the eighteen men on the expedition, you read about the expedition itself and the terrible but incredible feats of endurance – and there are videos too, film from the time of the ship the Aurora leaving Hobart, and other film of the men building the huts for example. Finally, having walked round the outside of the reconstructed hut within the big museum hut, you come into an exact replica of the actual hut itself…


The real hut is still in the Antarctic, having survived for over a hundred years, and it has been conserved and looked after since the 1970’s. It is incredible to see the small living space for eighteen men who lived there for over a year, and for the seven men who remained for a second year. The way the exhibition is organised means that you can clearly understand the set-up, two sections – a living quarters and a workshop; the original building was, prefabricated in Sydney and Melbourne, and was brought by ship with the team for them to build on site.

To quote from the Mawson’s Huts Replica Museum Site:

Commonly known as the Main Hut, it combines two expedition buildings into one. The pyramid-roofed hut, measuring just 7.3m square, provided sleeping, kitchen, dining, laundry, storage and darkroom facilities for 18 men. The adjoining hip-roofed hut measures 5.5m x 4.9m and was equipped as a workshop, complete with wireless equipment and generator, lathe, stove, and benches for the carpenter, mechanic and scientists. Skylights in the living quarters’ roof provided natural light, while an acetylene generator mixed calcium carbide and water to create the acetylene gas used as artificial lighting.

There was a veranda outside the hut, a roofed veranda where various things were stored and kept…  The replica hut contains all teh artefacts still in the original, cooking equipment, gramophone, furniture, personal items, scinetific equipment, tools… Just everything!

Have a look at the museum website to find out more:


… and the original huts:


… and Lark Distillery:



Silbury… four and a half thousand years later and we still don’t know why it’s there

One of the most mysterious and remarkable places in the whole of the Wiltshire megalithic area which encompasses Avebury and further away, Stonehenge, is Silbury Hill. It is one of the few places which despite enormous amounts of archaeological research, going back over centuries and with all the latest technology, no-one really knows why it was there or what its purpose was. Nothing seems to have been buried there, there seems to be no cairn or other site beneath it. There may have been a wooden pole, maybe like a totem pole round which the structure was built, but no modern evidence of this has been found, only reports in eighteenth century newspapers.

It is the largest man-made mound in the whole of Europe; if you put it next to a pyramid in Egypt it would be just about the same height and volume, and was actually constructed at a similar time, about four and a half thousand years ago, in about 2400 BC.

It must have been a very important and significant monument – think of the amount of time and people it would have taken to construct it. the society must have been rich and peaceful at the time to be able to devote that amount of labour to building something which had no practical purpose, whatever its religious or spiritual significance.


If you are ever in the area, it is really worth visiting; you ae not allowed to walk up it, but you can walk round it, and from there it is an easy stroll to the Avebury complex.