Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Long Awaited Archaeo-Pasts 2012!

The National Museum Wales Archaeo-Pasts conference took the audience from the Palaeolithic right through to Gothic Wales on a whistle stop archaeological tour…and we didn’t even have to leave our seats! I don’t usually do reviews so you may have to bear with me a little bit.

First up was Elizabeth Walker and a rather interesting talk about Neanderthals, in particular those found at Pontnewydd Cave, it thought that teeth found here represent 16 individuals: 7 adults and 9 juveniles with the youngest believed to be around 8 years old.  During the question session the subject of DNA studies was addressed, this was particularly interesting when Elizabeth indicated that there were talks of undertaking such analysis on the Pontnewydd populations.  This will allow for increased understanding of Neanderthal DNA and any genetic links between them and atomically modern humans.  I felt this was the most interesting element of her work, however, it was only hinted at during the actual lecture.  Much time was spent providing background information on previous excavations, which was of course interesting, but personally I would have preferred more details on upcoming projects.  An evaluation of the Red Lady was also undertaken, including interesting thoughts from the antiquarian discoverer who over the course of an evening changed his opinions on the human remains considerably.  He begun believing that it was a Roman merchant and ended with the theory that it was in fact a woman and the presence of ochre staining was indicative that she was a Roman prostitute.  We have since discovered that she is in fact a he and lived during the Mesolithic…a little bit before those Romans!

Next up was Dr Richard Bevins who presented his recent findings on the origins of the Stonehenge bluestones.  For those not in the know he explained that these stones are thought to have been moved from Wales to the Salisbury Plain where they formed part of the world famous Stonehenge.  Unfortunately this paper was very heavy on the geology and chemical components aspects which meant a great deal of it went over my head…after all I am only a baby archaeologist!  There were many images of geological features and detailed images of aspects needed to indentify a rock outcrop to the stones placed within Stonehenge.  Excitingly (well I think so), I did grasp that it is almost confirmed that the bluestones of Stonehenge are in fact Welsh and are thought to come from a small outcrop in the lowlands of the Preseli range.  There were of course more precise details within the lecture, however, I don’t feel it’s my place to share this…after all I would want to share such exciting discoveries on my own terms if I am ever fortunate to be involved in such a project.

For me the next talk was by far the highlight of the day…a lecture by none other than Prof. Mike Parker Pearson about the age old mysteries of Stonehenge!  Suddenly uncomfortable chairs were no longer an issue!  Firstly an interesting interpretation was provided for the whole of the Stonehenge landscape…provided in a funny sort of way by an ethnographic study that wasn’t.  By this I mean an individual connected to Parker Pearson originating from Madagascar suggested that it was all very simple and us archaeologists were making the whole thing far too complicate; wood was for the living and stone was for the ancestors.  This was met with a little caution due to the passing nature of the initial comments, however as studies progressed it made more and more sense.  At Stonehenge there are of course a large number of huge stones and surrounding them has been in the region of 57 cremations.  In nearby Durrington Walls a suspected settlement of a reasonably large size, cremations and burials are nowhere to be found, but the buildings are of timber.  The same is seen at Woodhenge, although not known to work elsewhere the concept seems to be working well within the Stonehenge landscape.  There is nothing to say that Britain was not regionalised at this time after all.  On a personal note I feel it is quite fitting that timber represents the transitional nature of human life, with stone representing the permanent memory of people we have known and those of distant relation who we just hear tales about.  

The second theory is also rather impressive and I’m looking forward to my copy of Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery to arrive so I can find out more.  We were treated to enough of this to make us want more.  The great debate on the movement of the stone used to construct Stonehenge is age old…was it people or was it glacial movement?  Personally I believe it was done by people and so does Parker Pearson, with glacial movement being highly unlikely due to them not quite reaching the Wessex region. Now that bit is pretty much settled here is the even bigger question and the even bigger theory…Why?

Stonehenge represents local Wessex stone and the distance Welsh stone.  These stones were brought together to form a new entity in the Salisbury Plain that we know as Stonehenge…but Why?  Well in accordance to Parker Pearson it was the coming together of two large social groupings with differing ethnic backgrounds.  He suggests that there was a group that moved into the Wessex region bringing with them farming and other social developments, probably from the region of the Low Countries.  Contemporary with this he believes that a similar social group moved into the Preseli region, probably from Western France or even the Iberian Peninsular.  The Preseli landscape has a huge amount of chambered tombs, dolmans and standing stones making the area significant to the surrounding population, which is deemed to be relatively large and powerful in order to create such monumental structures.  Add to this that the period was known to be violent, with c.6% of known skulls to have impact fractures, 50% of which were lethal.  By c.3400BC causeway enclosures such as Hambledon Hill had been fortified suggesting that violent acts were becoming organised.  This is also a point where regionalisation is known in pottery forms, suggesting self governing social groupings linked by a common material culture.  Those found in Preseli and those within Wessex are stylistically different and such appear to be very separate social groups. But you are still asking Why?

Well this was a period of social uncertainty, therefore change occurs.  Parker Pearson suggests that the two social groups were forming a bond by merging their ancestral communities on the Salisbury Plain and as a result Stonehenge was formed.  The bluestone of Preseli was used in order to represent the ancestors of those living in modern Wales and the local stone was used to represent the ancestors of modern Wessex.  This merger could arguably be the earliest instance of multiculturalism in Britain…not such a modern idea after all! This theory is very much in its’ infancy and it’s hoped that DNA studies may shed more light on the notion of ethnically variable groups being represented within the excavation cremations of Stonehenge so watch this space….

Next up was an insight into my beautiful Iron Age from the perspective of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).  I was pleasantly surprised and disappointed by this talk all at the same time… the archaeologist in me was amazed by the work done by Mark Lodwick with the metal-detectoring community in reporting their finds, but the Prehistorian in me was disappointed with the level of detail relating to Iron Age Wales…just no pleasing some people.  Mark detailed a localised metal detector find which has lead to a full excavation and associated study on a prehistoric settlement that was previously unknown to archaeologists.  All the way through metal detectorist were involved along with the local community and school groups.  This prompted me to truly appreciate what PAS does for the archaeological community and I can’t help but feel people like Mark do not receive the recognition that they deserve!

After a lunch break proceedings got all historical and I found it harder to be captivated by the lectures, this is in no way a reflection of the speakers just my interests…but I did my very best to focus to continue my review.

Dr Stephen Harrison was first after lunch with the Vikings…this got me interested; I mean who doesn’t love a Viking?  He boldly took on the challenge of re-visiting antiquarian discoveries of Viking burials within Britain and Ireland, 6 of which are known to be in Wales.  He quickly explained the nature of burials, those with swords were naturally ‘male’ and those with beads were obviously ‘female’.  I do like a bit of gender archaeology and wasn’t the least bit shocked when we were told that the antiquarians made the graves fit a type if they didn’t do it on their own with artefacts changing between graves very easily!  This made his thesis very complicated and in the little snapshot we had it was an extremely interesting paper, modern technology has made the ‘male’ ‘female’ ideas problematic and where possible bones have been given their true gender regardless of associated artefacts.  It was unclear whether Dr Harrison had stuck with the ‘male’ ‘female’ tags…I sincerely hope that he hasn’t and a new system was utilised to avoid further issue in future studies.  Gender is always a complicated issue when considering passed society as it is virtually impossible not to inflict our own ideals upon what we study.  Gender rarely manages to achieve a happy medium and I think that’s part of the appeal in studying it…

Next up was Roman Caerleon…I have grown up visiting this site and was very excited about the lecture Dr Andrew Gardner and Evan Chapman I’m did their very best and everyone else in the room was delighted with their information…but my love for the site left me wanting more.  I thought there was too much about previous excavations by other organisations and not enough Caerleon excitement.  I loved the explanation of the warehouse discovery and the details of the armour and how it had to be block excavated, I just wanted more of that and less history of excavation.

Edward Besly was next up with more Romans, this time it was all about the money as he explored Wales’ coin hoards…well 3 of them.  I could have listened to more of this too; who knew so much social history could be documented on such a tiny piece of metal?  I was amazed to learn that some 65,000 Roman coins are known in Wales…not bad considering how much resistance we gave them during conquest.  The burial circumstances were unknown but in the Newport hoard coins minted in a 150/160 year period were presented, representing 12 Emperors.  Most of these coins were like new, there was little ware and may well have come straight from the mint.  It is thought that these coins are long-term family savings, so despite being located within close proximity to Caerleon they are likely to be civil rather than military.  Across the 3 hoards depictions of numerous Emperors were present along with some depictions of their wives and heirs.  More interestingly imagery was present from Gaul, Italy and Egypt.

Last was Dr Mark Redknap and his gothic ivories… this was a difficult one for me, my interest level was particularly low for this one and unfortunately unlike the other historical lectures nothing really captured me.  Much of the depictions were religious in nature so unsurprisingly were found in or near churches and cathedrals… if the ivories had been more representative of social depictions I would probably have been a little more inspired.  I’m sure for those interested it was really interesting but for me it was a little flat.  I was however taken by the story of the Ivory that was found in Llandaff Cathedral, only half of it was known and is kept within the Origins Gallery, National Museum Wales, Cathays.  What had become of the other half was a mystery until a visit to Liverpool, sitting snug in one of their galleries lay the other half; this was indentified through style and other means.  on confirming them as a pair a cast was carefully made of each, which reunited them briefly, then each original and its missing piece was sent to its’ respective home.  This tale made me realise that you never know when your little mystery maybe resolved or how it will reveal itself.

All in all Archaeo-Pasts 2012 was an amazing day of discovery and I’m already looking forward to Archaeo-Pasts 2013! I don’t think I could have found a better way to kick off my Festival of Archaeology!  This week I am off to Oswestry Hillfort and Wroxeter’s Roman Town so watch this space…next time I promise pictures and lots of them. I’m also hoping to continue the Thanet series this week because I’m missing my beautiful Isle and I’m sure you are all waiting to see what happens next.

Bye for now and don’t forget to leave your comments and share your thoughts, it’s always good to hear from you all!

No comments:

Post a comment