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Wrecks on the Seabed: Ecology

Ever wondered about the plants and animals that live on shipwrecks? What sorts of effects do these critters have on archaeological remains? Can the types of flora and fauna that chose to colonise a particular wreck tell us anything about the stability of the site, for example?

These are some of the questions that Wessex Archaeology hopes to answer in the exciting new ‘Wrecks: Ecology’ project.

The project will investigate whether archaeological information from wrecks can also provide information about the plants and animals that inhabit them, and from this, say something about the environmental processes at work off the East Sussex coast.

Understanding the ecology of wrecks will improve the management, conservation and monitoring of these heritage sites. It will also improve archaeologists’ ability, when considering seabed developments, to better assess their potential positive and negative impacts on historical wrecks.

Visit the project website for more information.

The ‘Wrecks: Ecology’ project is funded by the Aggregate Levy Sustainability Fund (ALSF) through English Heritage.

Massive hoard of Bronze Age axes from Dorset

One of the Bronze Age axes discovered in DorsetOne of the Bronze Age axes discovered in DorsetThe site of one of the largest hoards of Bronze Age axes ever found in Britain has been investigated by Wessex Archaeology.

At a site on the Isle of Purbeck in south Dorset, metal detector users found hundreds of Bronze Age axes in late October and early November 2007.

The axes, though not made of gold or silver, seem certain to qualify as Treasure when the Dorset Coroner holds an inquest into their discovery. Revisions to the original Treasure law mean that prehistoric objects of bronze can be classed as treasure, opening the way to a reward for the metal detector users and the landowner.

The metal detector users could hardly believe their luck when the discovery of one complete bronze axe and a fragment of another led them to identify three hot spots close by. The hotspots proved to be hoards of axes. Having reported the finds to the government funded Portable Antiquities Scheme, the detectors returned the following weekend. And promptly found another hoard containing hundreds of axes. In total at least 300 axes were found.

Following a request from the British Museum, who will give expert opinion to the county Coroner as to whether finds should be defined as Treasure, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, a team from Wessex Archaeology undertook a follow up excavation.

Find out more on the Bronze Age Axes project website.

Video of the Boscombe Down Roman coffin

In December we announced the discovery of a Roman stone coffin at Boscombe Down in Wiltshire. Inside were the remains of a woman cradling a child in her arms. The unique environment within the coffin had allowed the preservation of the leather and cork slippers of the lady, as well as the child’s calf skin shoes. This was an exceptionally rare find.
Finding a complete coffin with lid intact, and witnessing the removal of the lid was a momentous occasion for all of the archaeologists working on the site.
Fortunately, we were able to capture these exciting moments on video to share with you. This short film begins with our osteoarchaeologist Jacqueline McKinley removing soil from around the coffin, the first look inside the coffin with an infra-red camera, to the removal of the lid and the careful excavation and planning of the remains inside.
A shorter (10 minute) version is available on YouTube.

Chief Executive Awarded OBE

A ‘delighted’ Sue Davies, Chief Executive of Wessex Archaeology, was awarded the OBE in the New Years Honours List for Services to Heritage.

Sue’s fascination with discovering things goes back to her childhood. Born in Wales, her father had studied in archaeology, so family outings involved trips to Hadrian’s Wall and Stonehenge, and she started going on digs during the school holidays. Her long association with Wessex started when she studied archaeology at Southampton and, apart from a few years working on a UNESCO-funded project on Carthage, she has worked here ever since.

While she was at Southampton, Sue helped local archaeologists from Andover and Romsey at the weekends and when local charity Wessex Archaeology was set up in 1979 she was one of the first employees. She led a series of excavations across the region including major projects as Dorchester town centre was redeveloped and started what has turned out to be a long running involvement in the attempts to find a solution for Stonehenge.

Sue became Chief Executive in 2003 but as well as building up the company to the point where it has a staff of over 200, she has served on various organisations that have helped establish the young and emerging profession of archaeology. She served as the Chair on the Institute of Field Archaeologists, who made her an Honorary Life Member in 2005, and she is currently the Chair of the Culture Committee for the UK National Commission for UNESCO which advises the government on matters relating to culture and world heritage, work which takes her to Paris and Brussels.

Commenting on the honour, Sue said ‘I am really pleased, but this isn’t about what I have done. It is about the work of all my colleagues who have helped establish archaeology as something that matters to people. People value their past. Discovering things is exciting, but you have to have a good team and good system. Over the last 25 years we have gone a long way to building, right across the UK, one of the best heritage systems in Europe.’

Local MP Robert Key who serves on the Board of Directors of Wessex Archaeology and speaks up for archaeology at Westminster said ‘I am thrilled for Sue. Like her, I was fascinated by archaeology when I was a child. My career took a different path, but I am proud that one of the top archaeological organisations in Europe is based in Salisbury. I know from first hand experience that Sue’s honour is thoroughly deserved.’

Remarkably preserved Roman remains from grave

Boscombe Down Roman stone coffin with burialsBoscombe Down Roman stone coffin with burialsA remarkable Roman burial has been found at Boscombe Down, Wiltshire. When archaeologists lifted the lid off a three tonne stone coffin they were surprised to discover that the coffin had not filled with soil.
Instead, they looked down on the skeleton of a woman who was cradling a young child in her arms. A unique environment had been created inside the coffin. This had slowed down the processes of decay so that, even after 1800 years, the woman’s deer skin slippers still survived.
Woman’s deerskin slippersWoman’s deerskin slippers
The slippers had cork insoles and a fur lining and are the best preserved examples in Britain of this sort of luxury shoe which was imported from the Mediterranean. The child was buried wearing calf skin shoes which are unique in Britain.
The woman also wore a necklace of Whitby jet round her neck, and on her right ankle was a bronze bangle. By her head was a small lustrous pot imported from France which would have contained drink for her journey to the next world.
Beads from jet necklaceBeads from jet necklace
Everything points to the woman having been of high status. Almost 300 graves have been excavated at Boscombe Down in five separate cemeteries. Although many contained wooden coffins, this is the only one with a stone coffin. Dating to around 220 AD, the burial is the earliest in its cemetery and the later burials clustered around it. Many of the people in the other graves were buried with hobnailed shoes or boots for their journey to the next world and local copies of the imported pot are common finds.
Boscombe Down Roman stone coffin being excavatedBoscombe Down Roman stone coffin being excavated
Dr Andrew Fitzpatrick of Wessex Archaeology said ’The preservation of the shoes is remarkable. Because the processes of decay were quite slow we also have traces of cloth that have been preserved by a chemical reaction with the metal bangle. We even have traces of the puparia from which the coffin flies that infested the body hatched. Squeamish but fascinating!’
The coffin goes on display in Salisbury Museum on Monday 17th December where the finds from the important Bronze Age burial of the Amesbury Archer, which was found a few hundred yards away in 2002, can also be seen.
Further information can be found at the project homepage.

Anchors Aweigh! New scheme to promote South West’s Marine Heritage

Wessex Archaeology has just launched a new project to promote the region’s marine heritage. This has been made possible by a £50,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Archaeologists are inviting the public to join them to Time Travel by Water into the past on a voyage of discovery.

The project aims to bring school children and community groups across Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Gloucestershire right up to date with the new ways marine heritage is being explored and some of the amazing new discoveries.

Time Team TV celebrity Phil Harding, whose ‘day job’ is with Wessex Archaeology said ‘I am excited by this project. Most people think of marine history as being about galleons and doubloons. That part of seafaring history is important, but an amazing range of other work is being done: on wrecks, in harbours, and all along the coast. Some of the most hi-tech kit you will ever see on an archaeological project is the scientific survey gear marine archaeologists use. Now you don’t need to get your feet wet to see below the sea.’

In the two-year project, archaeologists will create time travel learning packs that can be used in classrooms and on the web, but a big element will be visiting community groups and schools so that they too can travel back in time. A new Education and Outreach Officer will organise themed exhibitions for those audiences, as well as lectures to local societies.

Euan McNeill, who is leading the project, commented, ‘In the last few years there has been an upsurge in the amount of work done on marine archaeology. This ranges from surveying the submerged landscapes that Britain’s first pre-historic settlers walked on; to WWII aircraft crash sites. Great historical events like the Armada are famous, but the sea has always been important in the South West and has helped shape its history. Linked inland by rivers, canals, roads and railways, the influence of the sea is never far away. This project allows everyone to time travel with us and we are delighted that the Heritage Lottery Fund is supporting this project.’

Nerys Watts, HLF Regional Manager adds ‘Over the centuries, Britain’s seafaring has helped shape our diverse society today. Many journeys that became globally significant set sail from the South West and so the HLF is pleased to support Time Travelling by Water. As more and more people appreciate just how significant their heritage is, it helps to make sure that we can preserve it and pass it on for future generations to enjoy.’

For further information contact:

Euan McNeill

Wessex Archaeology

Portway house

Salisbury SP4 6EB

Tel: 01722 326867

Archaeocast 10: A Saxon Cemetery at Collingbourne Ducis

Archaeocast visits the site of a Saxon cemetery as it is excavated in the village of Collingbourne Ducis, in Wiltshire UK.
Listen to Project Officer Kev Ritchie explain how archaeologists use machinery to help us strip off the topsoil and identify hard-to-spot graves. Sue Nelson explains what it is like to dig a skeleton, and Neil Fitzpatrick talks about Saxon cemeteries and what one might find inside a Saxon grave.
Periglacial stripes revealed by the machinery stripping the topsoil. The yellow paint marks the location of a possible grave.Periglacial stripes revealed by the machinery stripping the topsoil. The yellow paint marks the location of a possible grave.
This podcast really reflects what it is like to work as an archaeologist on a busy building site, and the recording contains louder sections where machinery is used nearby.

26:34 minutes (24.33 MB)

Archaeocast 10 now online

The latest edition of our archaeology podcast, Archaeocast, is now online.

Archaeocast 10 was recorded during the excavation of a Saxon cemetery in the Wiltshire village of Collingbourne Ducis, where over 70 graves including some rare cremations and spectacular grave goods were uncovered.

Listen to Archaeocast 10 over at our Events Blog, or subscribe to the Archaeocast RSS feed.

Discoveries dredged up from the Low Countries

The BMAPA/English Heritage Finds Protocol applies to aggregates dredged from UK waters and landed on the Continent. Following a number of useful reports, the ALSF Protocol Awareness Programme has been extended across the North Sea to Holland and Belgium.


The Stonehenge Landscape in 3D

We have recently finished creating a short animation for the exhibition “Making History: Antiquaries In Britain, 1707–2007” at the Royal Academy in London. The three minute video demonstrates “Stonehenge revealed through digital technologies”.

It incorporates a fly-through of the Stonehenge landscape in 3D, based upon Environment Agency LIDAR (airborne 3D scanning) data, high resolution panoramas, and a new animation of the prehistoric dagger and axe carvings on Stone 53 at Stonehenge itself, from data collected by Archaeoptics Ltd.

During production of the animation, we turned the LIDAR data into a solid 3D model of whole landscape surrounding Stonehenge. Aerial tours of the most famous sites and monument groups were animated in HD (720p) resolution. What is exciting is that much of the upstanding archaeology, from well-preserved barrows to the subtle earthworks of prehistoric field systems, are clearly visible.

To do this, we had to work out how to use the data at 1:1 for our animations (for this kind of task it is often necessary to reduce the complexity of the data by half or quarter (1:2 or 1:4) due to enormous memory and processing requirements). This we achieved, and using lighting techniques we have been able to show the archaeology of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site as it has never been seen before.

An often asked question about the animation is about why the landscape is a neutral colour rather than a photorealistic texture. This is because we need to see the underlying form of the ground and natural colour can detract from what we are interested in seeing: the subtle features where people once 'worked' the ground into burial mounds, pathways, fields, etc. It is because many archaeological features are hard to see on the ground in normal daylight that we do the reverse (unusual lighting positions on a non-naturalistic textured landscape) to see the shadows and highlights of the earthworks themselves.

This video focusses on the LIDAR data of the Stonehenge World Heritage site, including all footage as shown in the Royal Academy plus some of the footage that didn’t make the final cut. The version below is low resolution; to watch the footage in HD, head over to Vimeo.

Read more about Wessex Archaeology's work in and around the Stonehenge World Heritage Site, and view a zoomable version of the LiDAR. Find out more about the Stonehenge WHS LiDAR dataset on the English Heritage website.

A Virtual Stonehenge Landscape from Wessex Archaeology on Vimeo.

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