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The Amesbury Archer: pilgrim or magician?

The BBC Timewatch programme Stonehenge interprets the mysterious stone circles of Stonehenge as a temple built around 2,300 BC to which people came in search of healing. The Amesbury Archer is described as ‘one of most important archaeological discoveries in Britain.' He is called the Archer because of the stone arrowheads buried with him.

Artists interpretation of the Amebury ArcherArtists interpretation of the Amebury ArcherThis man, who lived between 2470-2280 BC, died not far from Stonehenge. By then he was between 35-45, but isotope fingerprinting of his teeth showed he was born far away, probably in the Alpine area of central Europe.  Near to him lay the grave of a younger man who was a relative. This man, his ‘Companion,' had been brought up in not far from Stonehenge, but as a child he may have travelled, perhaps even to central Europe.
Years before he died the Archer suffered a traumatic injury in which he lost his left knee and this led an infection of the wound that penetrated his very bones. He lived in constant pain from this wound, and as he put his weight on his good leg it grew stronger and the damaged leg withered. A tooth abscess also ruptured his jaw, and the infection that this caused may have led to his death.
The Timewatch programme argues that the stones brought from Wales to Stonehenge - the Bluestones - had healing powers. That is why, between 2,400 and 2,200 BC, they were carried over 150 miles, across land and over sea. Did the Amesbury Archer travel from near the Alps to Stonehenge motivated to find relief, to get better?
The Archer's Cushion Stone, used in metalworkingThe Archer's Cushion Stone, used in metalworkingPerhaps the Archer sought magic. But he brought magic with him. In his grave was what at first sight looks like a small, black, stone. Its significance is that it was a metalworker's tool. And it identifies him as the oldest metalworker yet found in Britain. The gold hair ornaments buried with him are also the oldest gold objects yet found in Britain. The Amesbury Archer lived at the very beginning of the metal age in Britain.
Those skills had to be brought to Britain from across the Channel, carried by people like the Archer whose cultural links were with what archaeologists call the ‘Beaker culture'. These metalworkers had the practical skills in their hands and the knowledge of how to make metal objects in their heads.
Living at the beginning of the metal age, did the simple black stone eventually buried with the Archer give him a passport to travel through Europe? Was the status with which he was buried due to him having gained some relief from his illnesses at Stonehenge? Or was it, like many of the richest burials in continental Europe of this time, because of their new and seemingly magical skills in transforming stone to metal?
Have your say in the comments below!

The Boscombe Bowmen: builders of Stonehenge?

Radiocarbon dates do not provide exact historical dates, like 1066. They are statements of the statistical probability of a date range. The date range of the burial of the Amesbury Archer overlaps with the initial interpretation of the new radiocarbon dates for the bluestone circle at Stonehenge, which are given as 2,400-2,200 BC.
Another very important ‘Beaker culture' grave, and which has a good match with the date range of 2,400-2,200 BC given in the programme for the first arrival of the bluestones at Stonehenge, is that of the Boscombe Bowmen. This grave, a simple grave cut into the chalk, was found 1km away from the graves of the Amesbury Archer and his Companion.

Boscombe Bowmen - an artist's interpretation

The grave of the Bowmen was different because it is a collective burial; it contains the remains of at least 7 people. Like the grave of the Archer, the Bowmen's grave also contained stone arrowheads and Beaker style pottery.
The way in which the Bowmen were buried is unusual for the time. Only parts of their skeletons were present, and before then these bones seem to have been buried elsewhere. It is difficult to find close parallels for this way of burial in Britain or elsewhere in Europe.

Boscombe Bowmen - mass grave

The isotope fingerprinting of the teeth of three of the young men buried in the grave showed that, like the Amesbury Archer, they were not local. One of the few places in Britain that matches the strontium and oxygen isotope fingerprints of the Bowmen is Wales.
The igneous rocks of Armorica in north-west France provide another possible origin, experts suggest. The strontium isotopes can be matched but the match for the oxygen isotopes is not as good. However, in Armorica it is not unusual for several ‘Beaker culture' burials to be found close by and it has been wondered if this is a more likely homeland for the Bowmen? In favour of this idea is that by shortly after 2,000 BC there were close links between Wessex and Armorica?
Against the idea is the view that although some burials in Armorica may be found close by, they were still the burials of individuals and not a collective grave. These burials were often placed in Stone Age megalithic tombs that were being re-used. In contrast, the Bowmen were buried in a simple grave cut into the chalk.
More important is the key scientific fact about the Boscombe Bowmen. This is that their isotopes show that they had migrated when they were children. They can be shown to have been in one place at about the age of 5 when their first permanent teeth grew, and in another at about the age of 12 when their last permanent teeth grew. Both places were different from the place they were buried as young men. This is the best isotope evidence for migration in prehistoric Europe.
Archaeologists and scientists cannot be sure of where the Boscombe Bowmen came from. But does the new dating of the bluestones at Stonehenge now suggest that Wales is the most likely homeland for the Bowmen? When they were children, did the Bowmen make a journey in which the adults who brought the bluestones from Wales to Stonehenge had led the way? Or like the Amesbury Archer, did they come from continental Europe? Were they pilgrims from France?
What do you think? Feel free to leave a comment below (comments may take a few days to appear here, as we have to approve them manually).

Princes Channel Wreck: interim report published

Princes Channel An interim report on the Princes Channel Wreck, also known as the Gresham Ship, has been published in Post-Medieval Archaeology. The Princes Channel Wreck is a medium-sized armed merchant ship found in the Thames in 2003. We carried out a series of investigations that resulted in the recovery of the surviving hull structure and a range of artefacts in 2004.
A PDF of the published article is available for download. You can also download our Phase III report, which was prepared following recovery of the hull structure. The main Wessex Archaeology website has more details of our investigation of the Princes Channel Wreck.

Practical Archaeology Course: Gradiometer survey at Down Farm, Dorset

We recently completed a survey as part of the Practical Archaeology Course at Down Farm, Dorset. Following on from previous work, we surveyed an area south of the excavation to help place it in a wider context. This is the result of our day's work (the area was about 180m wide by 120m, and 1.3ha or just over 3 acres in size; click for a larger image):


Down Farm Gradiometer SurveyDown Farm Gradiometer Survey

The site is thought to be an Iron Age farmstead, and excavation has shown that a large ditch surrounds the settlement. Unfortunately, this doesn't appear in the geophysical survey! A modern trench for an electricity cable can be seen running from bottom-left to top-right, and some other anomalies are clear, showing as small dark blobs. The straight lines in the lower half of the results show where ploughing has disturbed the natural soil under the site, and the stronger line near the bottom may mark the limit of historic ploughing.
Until all of the information from the excavation has been entered into our computers, we can't be sure why the ditch doesn't show in the geophysical survey. It's possible that the ditch lies entirely in the area we couldn't reach because of the excavation, shown as the blue area at the top of the image. We'll keep you posted!

Techniques: Magnetometry

Gradiometer survey with barrowsGradiometer survey with barrowsThe magnetometer is the standard piece of kit that gets used on most of the sites we look at; we use one made by Bartington (one of the pictures on their website shows Ben in a yellow jacket!). It can cover large areas quickly, and can detect most kinds of archaeology from most periods. It works by sensing tiny differences in the Earth's magnetic field, which is much larger than the tiny signals produced by archaeological features, but the instruments we use are able to ignore this background field and are very good at picking up the relatively weak archaeology.
We can only detect features when there is a difference between the magnetic field occurring naturally and the fields caused by archaeology. Imagine a ditch being dug through the natural soil and rock; the ditch slowly fills up as soil from the site slides in and people throw rubbish into it; and finally the ditch becomes completely full. It is this change in the fill of the ditch from its surroundings that causes a difference in the magnetic field, which we see as an anomaly in the survey data.
This is a very different technique to metal detecting, mainly because we can look for archaeological features such as ditches and pits, but also because the only metal the magnetometer detects is iron. These ferrous objects act just like magnets and have 'north' and 'south' ends; they also tend to produce much stronger anomalies than most other things, and show as spikes from positive to negative over a short distance. Sometimes being able to detect iron can be useful, but mostly the ferrous anomalies we find are just bits of tractors and old steel cans! This also means that our clothes and shoes must be completely free of any zips and press-studs; shopping can be challenge...
We display the survey data so that negative readings are white, through shades of grey, to positive readings are black; we choose the values so that we get good contrast throughout the survey data. The magnetic background of the site shows as grey because the values lie around the middle of the display range.
The image shows part of a survey we conducted earlier this year. The two circular anomalies are barrows, or burial mounds; the larger one is about 40m wide, and the smaller one 33m wide. After we processed the GPS data we collected as part of the survey, it became clear that the barrows sit on top of a low ridge that was barely visible in the field.
Lots of positive anomalies appear inside the upper barrow and look like pits, but we can't tell from the geophysical survey alone how they are related. The slightly curved line near the bottom of the lower barrow is probably a ditch or old field boundary, but we can't say if it's from the same period. Faint stripes running at a slight angle from top to bottom are the result of ploughing; the field was under a young wheat crop at the time, but may have been ploughed for centuries. There are also some ferrous anomalies sprinkled throughout the data; these stand out because of their characteristic magnetic response.

Welcome to the Anomaly: Geophysics Blog

Bartington gradiometer in actionBartington gradiometer in actionWelcome to the blog of the Terrestrial Geophysics service here at Wessex Archaeology. As this is our first post, we should start by introducing ourselves and what we do.
The Terrestrial Geophysics service is led by Paul Baggaley, our Geophysics Manager; he's also in charge of the Marine Geophysics service. Ben Urmston is responsible for leading teams in the field, and is involved with the majority of the fieldwork.
Since going ‘live' back in January, when we began advertising commercially, we've carried out work all around the southern half of the country. Most of our work comes from new developments of houses, roads and so on. The developers have to make sure that any archaeology that might be damaged during construction is checked out and excavated if needs be.
Sometimes the areas that are being developed are huge and, for a long time, the only way to find previously unknown archaeology was to dig lots of trenches and hope that at least some might cover the archaeology. To make this job of finding sites easier and more reliable, geophysicists use instruments that can detect archaeology without having to dig it up. We apply different methods depending on whereabouts in the country we are, and what we might expect to find. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks, so we need to choose the equipment carefully to provide the archaeologists with the right information.
This blog has now been combined with our main news blog.

The New Antiquarians: 50 years of archaeological innovation in Wessex

CBA Wessex Autumn Conference: Saturday and Sunday 1st -2nd November 2008

In 2008, CBA Wessex is celebrating its 50th year. To mark this occasion, we are pleased to announce a major two-day conference "The New Antiquarians: 50 years of archaeological innovation in Wessex" to be held at the Ordnance Survey conference centre in Southampton on Saturday 1st and Sunday 2nd November 2008.

The aim of the conference is three-fold: to review the significant advances that have taken place in the past 50 years; to outline current thinking and to speculate where the next half century could lead us and to help promote our continuing outreach programme and other activities. The conference is broken down into eight sessions, covering a range of periods and specialist areas.

We are proposing, with the support of Council for British Archaeology (CBA), to publish the proceedings as a record of the event. We are aiming to bring together as many as possible of those who have made a critical contribution to archaeological knowledge and practice in the Wessex region. Confirmed contributors include Barry Cunliffe, Geoff Wainwright, Tim Darvill, Mike Fulford, Mike Parker-Pearson, Peter Fowler, Josh Pollard, Phil Harding, Martin Green and many others.

The Venue

The conference will be held at the Ordnance Survey Business Centre, Romsey Road, Southampton SO16 4GU. The venue is within easy reach of Southampton city centre, with good road and rail links and on-site parking. For site details and map, please visit the OS website.

Food, Drinks and Accommodation

Tea and coffee will be provided during the morning and afternoon breaks. Hot meals and sandwiches will be available at lunch time in the Ordnance Survey café. A wide range of local accommodation is available. A list of useful contact numbers is available on the conference website and on request.

Conference Dinner

The conference dinner will be held on Saturday evening at a local restaurant with Andrew Lawson as after dinner speaker. Cost will be £29.95/head and details and menu options will be displayed on the website or on request. Please note, numbers for the dinner are very limited and early booking is highly recommended.

Further Information

For further information on the weekend please contact:
Andy Manning, CBA Wessex Meetings Secretary
or telephone 01722 343 406
Fax 01722 337562
or write to Andy Manning, CBA Wessex Meeting Secretary C/o Wessex Archaeology, Portway House, Old Sarum Park, Salisbury Wiltshire SP4 6EB


The weekend event is organised by CBA Wessex in association with the Ordnance Survey and Wessex Archaeology.

Unknown wreck near Littlehampton (Site 5031)

Sidescan sonar image - unidentified vessel The remains of an unidentified wreck broken in two parts and lying on the port side.
The dimensions of the wreck and surrounding debris scatter measures 76m x 16m. The shipwreck is lying in 27m of water and is located to the SW of Littlehampton, West Sussex.
In August 2002 the site was surveyed with sidescan sonar and magnetometer. The strength of the magnetometer results suggested that the vessel was constructed from wood but with ferrous components associated with it, such as ship fittings or cargo. The site was not dived due to adverse weather conditions.
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Tag Clouds - what are they?

You might have noticed that with the redevelopment of our website in recent months we have introduced three boxes on to the front page of our website, each containing what appears to be a jumble of different-sized archaeology-related words.

Mini tag clouds from our homepageMini tag clouds from our homepage


And there's more on our tags page:

More tag cloudsMore tag clouds


These are known as "tag clouds" and can help you to navigate around our website.


What are they for? Why are all of the words different sizes?

Each page on our website has key words attached to them. They can be seen just above the footer:

Keywords, or tags, are attached to each page on our websiteKeywords, or tags, are attached to each page on our website


We call these keywords "tags" and they can help us to identify important topics contained in pages, and can help to make our search facility more accurate. They can also help us to group pages outside of their normal, hierarchical, structure. Tags are stored in a central database, and by listing them on a page, we can see the large number of topics contained on our website. Tags used more frequently will appear in a larger font. This gives visual clues to the quantity of information on a particular topic that we currently have on our site.

The tag clouds dynamically change as we add more content, so that changes and topics can be easily spotted.

For example, if you look at the "Explore by Place" tag cloud on our homepage, at the time of writing the county of Surrey appears in very small text. Wiltshire is in the largest font size, and most prominent. We have published only one project from Surrey, but twelve from Wiltshire. If we were to publish some more of our Surrey-based projects, and not add anything from Wiltshire for a while, then the tag cloud will reflect this by increasing the size of the word "Surrey" and reducing the size of "Wiltshire", if projects from other counties overtook.

We hope that you find the tag clouds useful, or at least as a fun way of exploring our content.

Feel free to explore our "big" tag cloud on our tags page, which includes keywords, counties and periods, or read more about tag clouds on Wikipedia.

Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time

Recent work by Wessex Archaeology in the Thames Estuary has been captured in two BBC programmes Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time. The programmes have been produced by Touch Productions and broadcast on BBC2 on Tuesday 26 August and Tuesday 2 September 2008.
Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time (BBC 2)Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time (BBC 2)
Find out more about the background to our work and involvement in the series over at Splash, our coastal and marine archaeology blog.

Thames Shipwrecks

hat-and-umbilicalRecent work by Wessex Archaeology in the Thames Estuary has been captured in two BBC programmes Thames Shipwrecks: a race against time. The programmes have been produced by Touch Productions and broadcast on BBC2 on Tuesday 26 August and Tuesday 2 September 2008.
The programmes examine a series of wrecks within the main navigation channels looked after by the Port of London Authority (PLA). The port is very busy, with major plans for expansion that include new dredging in existing channels. Since 2003, Wessex Archaeology’s Coastal and Marine section has been advising the PLA on how best to safeguard the archaeological and historical interest in wrecks that lie in these channels.
We have carried out an extensive range of investigations, including desk-based research, marine geophysical surveys, and archaeological diving. Each programme of work has been agreed with English Heritage and includes provision for reporting, handling of recovered material, and publication. Further archaeological work is being planned to accompany future wreck clearance and dredging. Here on Splash, Wessex Archaeology's Coastal and Marine website, you can find out more about our shipwreck investigations.
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