Saturday 31 December 2011

Vikings, Monks and Saxon Gold

A round up of the latest updates from some of the news stories featured on Clas Merdin.

Dorset Viking Mass Grave Update
Construction of the Weymouth Relief Road provided an opportunity for Oxford Archaeology to undertake archaeological investigation of Ridgeway Hill and Southdown Ridge.

The first excavation in 2008 revealed one of the main themes of the Ridgeway was its use as a burial site. Finds included a Bronze Age round barrow, four cist burials and three later Romano-British burials in addition to an Iron Age settlement. A group of five quarry pits contained crouched burials dated to the Neolithic period c. 4000 - 2400 BC. The quarry pits were first thought to be dated from prehistory, but it is now thought more likely that most, if not all, date from the Roman period, suggesting that chalk from the pits may have been used in the construction of the nearby Roman road. One of these pits had been used for the mass grave of over fifty Vikings raiders.

In June 2009,  a digger uncovered a burial pit of skulls and decapitated bodies during earthwork movements on Ridgeway Hill. Excavations uncovered a mass grave containing 54 headless bodies and 51 skulls. Many of the executed men suffered multiple wounds all thought to relate to the process of decapitation with evidence of fatal injuries to the skull and jaw as well as the upper spine.

Archaeologists were puzzled as to why there were more bodies than heads. This is probably due to some of the heads being taken away to be displayed as trophies or mounted as warnings to other would-be raiders. Further analysis of the skeletons has revealed:
  • The injuries on the skeletons indicate evidence that the decapitations had taken several blows, with one individual receiving six blows to the neck.
  • Initial results of carbon dating had indicated that the date of the burial was between 910 – 1030 AD. Further analysis of these results has now narrowed the probable date range down to between 970 and 1025 AD.
  • It has been suggested that the mass grave was probably the result of the conflict with invading Vikings that took place during the reign of the Saxon King Ethelred the Unready, 978 to 1016 AD, which resulted in a short-lived dynasty of Danish kings, including the famous Canute, occupying the English throne for some twenty years.
  • One of the Vikings buried in the pit had teeth that had been deliberately filed with horizontal grooves carved into two of his front teeth. The purpose of this practice is unknown but several similar instances have been recorded from contemporary burials in Scandinavia. Such filing may have been seen as a mark of honour to show their status as a warrior and may have given a new meaning to the expression 'cutting your teeth in battle'.
Filed teeth of one of the decapitated Vikings
All the finds from the Weymouth Relief Road site will be offered to Dorset County Museum in Dorchester.

>> Mass Viking Execution in Dorset

Glastonbury Abbey Symposium
A one-day symposium hosted by Glastonbury Abbey explored new research into excavation archives 1908 – 1979. Previous studies of the Abbey’s pottery had identified early Roman, Anglo-Saxon, medieval and later material, but new finds indicate activity on the site as early as the Iron Age period which archaeologists had not realised were represented in the excavated pottery.

The study has shown that Middle Iron Age, Late Iron Age, late Roman and Post-Roman wares are also present. The new identifications show that the history of occupation on the site is much more prolonged than had been previously thought, extending back to the third or fourth centuries BC with new evidence for the the early Christian period from the late 4th or 5th centuries.

In 1981, Ralegh Radford, Director of Excavations at Glastonbury Abbey from 1951 – 1964, published an interim report suggesting a series of churches, a Saxon enclosure ditch, potentially the earliest cloister in Britain, and craft-working activities including unique glass furnaces. Several attempts at full publication were never completed. However, following Radford’s death in 1999, his excavation archive was deposited with the National Monuments Record at Swindon, making the publication of a full report a feasible proposition.

Research by the Archaeology Department at the University of Reading, funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council revealed that the Abbey site had a much longer history than previously known, stretching back into prehistory and the Dark Ages.

Analysis of excavated pottery established precise origins of some of the artefacts, revealing very unusual trading patterns at the Abbey in the late medieval period, the most distant coming from Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, with connections to such exotic places as Tuscany, Valencia and Seville.

>> Rediscovering Glastonbury Abbey Excavations 1908 – 1979


Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg?
The Pillar of Eliseg, a scheduled ancient monument under the stewardship of CADW located near Valle Crucis Abbey, was erected upon a mound of unknown date and although the site has never previously been subject to modern archaeological investigation it is thought to have a prehistoric provenance

In September 2011 it was reported that archaeologists with Project Eliseg have been trying to establish if there any truth in Trevor Lloyd's 18th century story that the mound contained a stone cist with a skeleton along with pieces of silver, or if it is pure legend. Significantly, the site lies in an area rich in Bronze Age burials and finds, and graves of the 6th and 7th centuries AD, cut into earlier Bronze Age burials sites, are testified elsewhere in Wales.

Last year's excavations focused on the mound following a geophysical survey which indicated it appeared likely to be a Bronze Age kerb cairn. Archaeologists from Bangor and Chester University admitted the latest finds, cremated remains and bone fragments, had complicated the picture regarding the site's historical significance and make it worthy of further investigation. However, an initial search for a ring-ditch and burials placed around the mound and excavations in the surrounding field all proved negative.

Excavations during September 2011 concentrated on the west side of the mound and explored an area of possible antiquarian activity. The top of the monument appeared to have been subject to considerable disturbance, yet conclusive evidence of an antiquarian excavation proved elusive. Below this upper-layer,  the archaeologists encountered primary cairn material including spreads of charcoal and at least two cist-graves. Frustratingly, the team were unable to find a single prehistoric or early historic artefact in the primary cairn material.  Consequently, the 2011 season did not complete the excavation of the trench so the decision was made to leave the excavation of the cist-graves and the lower levels of the cairn material to a future season planned for September 2012.

>> Bronze Age finds at Pillar of Eliseg


Fall of Rome 'recorded in trees'
An extensive study of tree growth rings says there could be a link between the rise and fall of past civilisations and sudden shifts in Europe's climate. After studying data from 9,000 wooden artefacts from the past 2,500 years, researchers found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.

Ulf Buntgen, a paleoclimatologist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape, co-author of the Journal of Science report “2500 Years of European Climate Variability and Human Susceptibility”, said, "Looking back on 2,500 years, there are examples where climate change impacted human history," 

Scientists have developed oak ring width chronologies from Central Europe that enable the dating of artefacts, historical buildings, antique artwork and furniture. After examining the growth rings preserved in wooden artefacts they were able to reconstruct annual weather patterns permitting chronologies of living and relict oaks that may reflect distinct patterns of summer precipitation and drought; trees form broad rings in good growing seasons when water and nutrients are in plentiful supply, but conversely in unfavourable conditions, during periods of drought for example, the rings grow in much tighter formation. From tree ring data they were able to develop a chronology covering the past 2,500 years, with prosperity levels in past societies linked with wet and warm summers.

The data suggests that the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period appears to be linked to increased variation in climate during the period 250-600 AD. A distinct dry period in the 3rd century is reflected in a period of serious crisis in the western Roman empire marked by barbarian invasion, political turmoil and economic trauma in several provinces of Gaul.

>> Did climate change contribute to the abandonment of Cadbury - Camelot?


The Staffordshire Hoard on display in US
Fresh interest was generated in the Staffordshire Hoard when it was announced that 100 artefacts were to be displayed in the National Geographic Museum in Washington, D.C. From October 29, 2011 – March 4, 2012, scheduled to be the only U.S. appearance of the Anglo-Saxon Hoard.

The Hoard fascinates general public and Anglo-Saxon scholars alike wherever it goes with long queues wherever is is displayed. Thousands of people have so far visited the US exhibition, with attendance of more than 1,000 on the first weekend, second only to the Terracotta Army exhibition. The popularity of the Hoard has led to fresh approaches from other US venues to exhibit part of the Anglo-Saxon treasure. Funds raised from a touring display will enable the Hoard owners, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, to resource further research into the treasure.

The Hoard was discovered on July 5th 2009, when Terry Herbert, a metal detector enthusiast, discovered the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, in a farmer's field in Hammerwich, Burntwood, near Lichfield in Staffordshire. The treasure found in farmer Fred Johnson's field was a cache of gold, silver, and garnet objects from early Anglo-Saxon Mercia and valued at £3.3 million. The Staffordshire Hoard is considered to be as significant as the finds from the Anglo-Saxon royal burial site at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

The Hoard was found to contain more than 11 pounds of gold, which accounts for nearly 75% of the metal found of some 3,500 pieces representing hundreds of complete objects. The items that could be securely identified presented a striking pattern; more than 300 sword-hilt fittings; 92 sword-pommel caps; 10 scabbard pendants - all military hardware. It is also noteworthy that there were no coins or women's jewellery, amongst the collection; three religious objects appeared to be the only non-martial pieces. Intriguingly, many of the items seemed to have been bent or broken. The Hoard then constitutes a pile of broken, elite, military hardware hidden 13 centuries ago in a politically and militarily turbulent region.

Nicholas Brooks of the University of Birmingham said "This is a hoard for male display....bling for warrior companions of the king."  But, he added, "the source is a mystery."

>> Staffordshire Gold Hoard at National Geographic

The Staffordshire Hoard Battle Site:
>> Part I:  The Spoils of War
>> Part II: The Warrior Elite


Further evidence of Anglo Saxon activity in Mercia featured in the news this year:

Anglo-Saxon Skeletons found under Patio
In November a couple were shocked to discover a number of bodies under their patio during construction work at their home in Ratley, south Warwickshire. Builders digging up the patio when the discovery of at least four bodies was made and called archaeology experts from Warwickshire County Council.

The council’s archaeology manager, Stuart Palmer, said: “The discovery of this previously unsuspected burial ground is an extremely rare and important addition to what has previously been an archaeologically invisible period of Warwickshire’s history.” 

The village of in Ratley is near to Edgehill, consequently the skeletons were initially thought have been victims of the the battle of Edgehill, where Royalist forces clashed with Parliamentarians in 1642 at the start of the English Civil War.

Analysis has revealed that the remains of at least four bodies which included two adult females, a young male and a juvenile aged between 10 and 12, predated the civil war by at least 800 years, with radiocarbon dates from two of the skeletons indicating that they died around 650-820 AD in the middle Saxon period. The skeletons are thought to be part of a much larger cemetery

During the middle Saxon period England was divided into a number of kingdoms and it is thought Ratley may have been a frontier war zone between the kingdom of the Hwicce and the eventually dominant kingdom of Mercia.


Anglo-Saxon skeletons re-buried in Bicester
Between April and November 2010 twelve skeletons were found under the car park of a church in Bicester, Oxfordshire, by builders constructing the John Paul II Centre in the grounds of the Church of the Immaculate Conception. Archaeologists exhumed the remains and believe the skeletons date from late Anglo-Saxon period, between 700 and 950 AD. Early indications suggested that the bodies were buried according to Christian tradition of the time, facing east. Some of the more complete skeletons that were found, were put on display in the church for the press to view.

The car park is thought to cover part of the site of a former Anglo Saxon church dating from between 410 and 1066AD, believed to be on or near the site of the current St Edburg’s Church in Church Street, with its Saxon cemetery originally thought to be west of the development, but excavations have revealed the cemetery extending further east.

The skeletons are largely female and over the age of 35, with the remains of just one male discovered. Isotope analysis revealed they were originally from the UK and had a lot of fish in their diet. Results from carbon dating indicate a much earlier date of around 650 AD for the human remains,  providing important evidence for the town’s Anglo-Saxon origins.

Once scientific analysis was complete the Church intention was for the twelve skeletons, exhumed from what is thought to be an old Christian burial ground, to be interred in the memorial garden of the Church of the Immaculate Conception, alongside the community centre, to respect the original burial rites.

However, local archaeologists disagreed with the reburial and wanted the bones put in a museum. James Lewis of Thames Valley Archaeological Services said: "As archaeologists we'd much rather they had gone into a museum, which would be available for future analysis. There are other ways of showing respect other than reburying."

The archaeologists' took their case to the Ministry Of Justice but it was ruled the bones were not of national significance and so could be buried and the twelve Anglo-Saxon skeletons were interred in October. Speaking after the ceremony the Auxiliary Bishop of Birmingham, William Kenney, said of the Anglo-Saxon deceased: "These are the remains they have left on earth and they should be treated with dignity."

The remains inside the coffin have been buried in plastic bags in case archaeologists need access to them in future.

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Wednesday 28 December 2011

New Glastonbury Thorn for Queen's Diamond Jubilee

One year on the Glastonbury Thorn fails to recover

The Glastonbury Thorn September 2011
On 9th December last year it was widely reported that the Holy Thorn of Glastonbury had been vandalised, mindlessly hacked down during the night, the most baffling event of the year.

The tree on Wearyall Hill was claimed to be a descendant of The Holy Thorn associated with the Legend of Joseph of Arimathea, who on arriving in Britain after the crucifixion landed at the Isle of Avalon and climbed Wearyall Hill and thrust his wooden staff into the ground where it took root and grew into the Glastonbury Thorn, nearly 2,000 years ago.

For those who find this legend a little hard to swallow there is the alternative suggestion that the Thorn was brought back from the Crusades and propagated by the monks of Glastonbury.

Oliver Cromwell's Roundheads cut down the tree during the English Civil War, but local people managed to salvage the roots of the original tree, hiding it in secret locations around Glastonbury. Its descendant was then replanted on Weary Hill in 1951 which survived nearly sixty years until that December night last year. Fortunately other cuttings were also grown and planted around the town, including the Abbey.

We visited Glastonbury in early September and before  returning home walked up Wearyall Hill in the pouring rain to see if the Glastonbury Thorn was recovering from its plight.  Although in a sorry state after its ordeal there were signs of fresh growth sprouting. Even so it should have made a better recovering than this some nine months after the attack, but there was still hope while it was putting out fresh growth, although alone on that hill it did seem rather vulnerable.

Shoots of Recovery September 2011
I decided not to publish any photographs at the time and draw the attention of souvenir hunters or further attacks. You can imagine my disappointment barely a week later when the Daily Mail published the story saying the local council had given up hope of recovery after some of the new growth has now been removed by suspected trophy hunters who will use them to try and grow their own Holy Thorn.

Local councillor John Coles said it will be replaced with a new one grafted from the original branches which were hacked off.

'Mr Coles said, “People don't realise the damage they are doing. I am forever removing these ribbons because they block sunlight to the trunk.”

He added, “we've had people pulling things off - the new growth and bark on the trunk. We think it would have survived if it was just left alone. There is still life in the trunk but we doubt that it will ever recover. It is very sad but we think the best thing is to replace it.”

The new tree has been grafted by experts at Kew Gardens and is likely to be planted nearby to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012.

Holy Thorn of Glastonbury Vandalised - Arthurian Review of 2010, Clas Merdin,  28 Dec 2010
Killed off after 2,000 years - Mail Online 19 September 2011

Pictures: the Author

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