Bones of 500,000 animals found at military site

Maev Kennedy, arts and heritage correspondent

Monday May 6, 2002

The Guardian


Other archaeologists find gold or silver, Roman temples or Viking longships. David McOmish found a pile of sheep bones, the size of a hill.


A week later a file of Chieftain tanks would have lumbered through the hill, and would have destroyed an extraordinary piece of history, one of the most startling of thousands of sites newly identified in the first comprehensive survey by English Heritage of the military training lands on Salisbury plain.


Mr McOmish is an archaeologist at the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, now part of English Heritage, and one of the three authors of the survey. He believes that at East Chisenbury they have found a 2,600-year-old ritual feasting area, established on the site of an even older abandoned settlement.


Finds included pottery bowls with traces of food, and human skulls suggesting that the Iron Age people brought their ancestors to join the feast.


It was the hill itself, however, that was the astounding discovery. It still stands several metres high, and covers an area of 2.5 hectares. It consisted almost entirely of sheep bones. From the trial trenches they dug, he believes it contains the remains of at least 500,000 sheep.


"The vast number of animals consumed must suggest a startling level both of human population and of stock keeping," Mr McOmish said.


"This is a site which obviously had a ritual importance to them, to which people regularly returned for special occasions. I think we have to imagine a great annual fair where deals were done and matches made."


The survey, mapping 5,000 years of archaeology on an area the size of the Isle of Wight, will be slightly overdue in its publication this week. It was in 1901, 10 years after the army began buying up thousands of acres, that an inventory was first suggested "of the tumuli and other objects of antiquarian interest on Salisbury Plain".


In the 1970s, Wiltshire county archaeologist Roy Canham recalled, the training lands were regarded as a no-go area for archaeologists. Occasional horror stories filtered out such as the Bronze Age barrow marked with a red warning flag, which was mistaken by the troops for the target - the mound was destroyed.

"There has been a complete change of heart since then on the part of the military establishment," he said. "It's fair to say that I now have far more anxieties about the survival of archaeology outside the training area."


Knook hillfort, where the survey has shown that the wriggly ditches built 2,500 years ago follow the bound aries of even more ancient Celtic fields, has now been fenced off. Trees keep tanks away, and a new road, completed 18 months ago, was expensively re-routed to keep it well away.


Stone carries prehistoric carvings

Near the Potomac, amateur finds anthropological treasure

By Fredrick Kunkle




They look a little like doodles, whimsical Chinese characters or graffiti carved into rock by a Stone Age tagger. The ancient markings are almost imperceptible until Gary D. Eyler, an Alexandria picture framer and collector who discovered them while hiking a Potomac River tributary nearly 20 years ago, runs his finger over the tiny, human stick figures incised in stone.


ONE IS POISED to hurl a spear. Another seems to have already chucked a spear using an atlatl, a hooked, sticklike device that propels a dart or spear with greater force.


The third figure stands splay-legged, holding the atlatl, or perhaps a pouch, or a dead animal, with one hand and pointing, or perhaps grasping a faintly drawn spear, with the other.


Viewed together, the figures seem to convey an animator’s step-by-step illustration of the art of spear-throwing, a sort of cartoon for cave dwellers etched on a lichen-encrusted rock. Below, Difficult Run twists and splashes through a polished stone gorge in a brown-and-white ribbon of foam.


       Eyler, who has made a livelihood of buying and selling documents and manuscripts from the Colonial era, has visited the site countless times over the years, and he still can barely contain his excitement.


       “You can see what a cool spot this is, for guys to say, ‘Man, this is Zen right here,’” said Eyler, 40, for whom the spot carries a special aura. “But this is the earliest depiction of human figures in the area. It’s man’s first art, and it’s on our back door, which is even neater.”            


                  He suspects that he’s not the only person to have happened on the carvings. “Someone’s bound to be sitting with a fire here and be staring at the rock and go, ‘Wow!’”

       Though prehistoric rock carvings with human figures are almost unheard-of in the eastern United States, some anthropologists who have studied the site, located a few miles from the nation’s capital near Great Falls in Fairfax County, believe the petroglyphs are genuine artifacts dating back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.


       “I think they do represent a scene frozen in time,” said Stephen R. Potter, a regional archaeologist for the National Park Service who has studied the carvings. He worries about publicizing the site — and The Washington Post is not giving specifics — because it may attract vandals.


       The carvings, cut into the face of a metagranite boulder with a stone tool, are unique because they were only the second such find in the Potomac River valley and because human representations are rare in the Middle Atlantic states, Potter said. The only other such carving found in the area was a stylized fish located across the river in Maryland. Like many petroglyphs, the human figures are difficult to date because they lack contextual clues, such as nearby pottery shards, or organic material that could be radiologically tested, he said.


                                           The images are small — each an average of three inches high and two inches wide — probably because of the difficulty the artist encountered carving in such hard rock. Potter said he thinks that the images are the work of one artist and that they record a group hunt.


       “For all these reasons, it’s very special and exciting,” he said.


       Others have argued that the petroglyphs offer new evidence that aboriginal people used the atlatl in prehistoric Virginia. The device, typically associated with Australia, also was used by Aztecs, who gave it its name, as well as Mayans and Inuit.


       W. Jack Hranicky, a member of Virginia’s Rockart Survey, has suggested that early Americans also might have used the elevated site as an observatory or for religious ceremonies tied to the winter solstice.


       Writing in the Quarterly Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Virginia, Hranicky said the rock’s large, flat facade is illuminated year round, except for a few days in December around the winter solstice.


       Hranicky hypothesized that priests might have used the stone as a calendar that recorded the sun’s lowest point. Or perhaps priests reinforced their claim to domination over the natural world by conducting ceremonies in which they pretended to control the seasons by “hiding” the sun, he said.


       With scriggles of shoulder-length blond hair flying everywhere and a ring of stubble on his boyish face, Eyler looks more like someone skipping spring classes than an amateur anthropologist leading the way to a prehistoric find. Dressed in baggy black shorts, a Key West T-shirt and sneakers (no socks), he stoops on the washed-out trail to examine white hunks of quartz that, he hopes, might be arrowheads.


            ‘I always told my wife I’d love to discover something worth a million dollars. But now I can’t get it home.’



Picture framer and collector Eyler was doing something like that 18 years ago when he spied the petroglyphs. After reading about other petroglyphs in a National Geographic magazine article, Eyler notified Potter, who consulted with other experts. Potter said he was amazed that Eyler spotted them.

       “You had to have a set of eyes to look for these things,” Potter said.


       Eyler, who grew up in a military family that moved around, said it was routine for him to find petroglyphs while living in Hawaii. Looking at the rock carvings on Difficult Run, he suggested that the sequence commemorates an awesome hunt by three hunters who were working cooperatively. Eyler also believes that they contain the image — still unauthenticated, Potter said — of a stick figure with a bow and arrow. And he marvels at the handiwork they represent, and how they emerged, cut by cut.


       “I think people on the East Coast and everyone in the metro area should know about it,” he said.


       Eyler, a Mount Vernon resident who runs a frame shop in Old Town Alexandria, has made a livelihood collecting manuscripts and documents from early American history by discovering the hidden value of items put up for sale at auctions and estate sales and on eBay. But this, he said, is his greatest find.


       “I always told my wife I’d love to discover something worth a million dollars,” he said. “But now I can’t get it home.”


       © 2002 The Washington Post Company


The best of British

The Times

Notebook: Archaeology



The British Archaeological Awards are on us again: the biennial contest, which has prizes for almost everybody involved in archaeology — from schoolchildren to bulldozer operators and even journalists — aims to showcase the best of British archaeology. Nothing is excluded if it embraces the material remains of the human past: award-winners have included a book on the Neanderthals by two academics, another on the archaeology of Shakespeare’s theatre, a study of Second World War pillboxes by a retired civil servant, and a prize for the operator who spotted a series of ancient timber bridges while excavating a gravel pit. Entries close on June 30, and the man in charge is Richard Brewer at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff (02920 573247).


The Society of Antiquaries is also sponsoring an annual prize to be awarded to the top candidates in the GCSE and A-level archaeology exams, as a way of encouraging more pupils to study archaeology and more educational institutions to offer these courses. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top pupils in each exam to help them to fund travel and research, and to their educational institutions, to help to provide teaching resources.


As a way of promoting the award — which may be called the Leland Prize, in memory of the Tudor antiquary John Leland — several prominent archaeologists, including the society’s president, Professor Rosemary Cramp, and the television luminaries Julian Richards, of Face the Ancestors, and Mick Aston, of Time Team, both Fellows of the society, have agreed to sit the GCSE exam at a specially staged press event in the autumn. Their respective rankings in the exam will be revealed to the world, but not their absolute grades.


The magazine Current Archaeology has launched a separate award: in concert with the Royal Archaeological Institute it has set up the Dissertation Prize for the best thesis by an extramural student. This year’s winner is Martin Cook, of Birkbeck College, London, who wrote about Romano-British drinking glasses and their apparent temporary replacement by cheaper pottery and pewter vessels in the 3rd century AD. The glassmakers fought back with a range of cheaper and lower-quality wares, and recaptured some of their lost market. Some things don’t change.


Final voyage of Christopher Columbus

The Times

Notebook: Archaeology



Science may finally solve another dispute, over where Christopher Columbus is buried: longstanding doubts about his last resting place will be tested by DNA sampling. Columbus died in 1506 at Valladolid in Spain, two years after his fourth and last voyage along the coast of the Americas (he never landed on the mainland itself), and was buried in the Carthusian monastery of Seville.

His bones were then removed to Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, near where Columbus established the first European town in the New World in 1492. In 1795 Napoleonic troops seized the Dominican Republic and the symbolic bones were hurriedly shipped to the neighbouring Spanish colony of Havana on the neighbouring island of Cuba. When Cuba fell to the Americans in 1898, the bones were once more moved, this time back to Seville, where Columbus was buried in the cathedral alongside his son, Ferdinand, beneath a splendid monument.


Or was he? Doubts had arisen in 1877 when a lead box was found beneath paving in Santo Domingo Cathedral inscribed “Illustrious and enlightened male, Don Cristóbal Columbus”. The box contained 41 bone fragments and a bullet, possibly the one left in a wound that the explorer suffered in his youth. The bones taken to Havana and now in Seville are, some experts suggest, those of Columbus’s son, Diego, who was buried alongside his father. So for more than a century both Seville and Santo Domingo have claimed to possess the real Christopher Columbus.


Tests are now to be conducted at the Laboratory of Genetic Identification in Granada, Spain, using nuclear DNA to establish family links and the male line, and mitochondrial DNA, inherited exclusively through the female line, to decide which bones are the father, which his son’s.


Offa’s Dyke has been causing trouble again. The earthwork, known to the cognoscenti as the largest man-made structure in Britain, runs down the Welsh border from near Chester to the Bristol Channel; it has traditionally been associated with Offa King of Mercia in AD 757-796, and is thought to be an emphatic frontier marker. Its age has been disputed, however: recently Alfred Smyth, a medieval historian, argued that it dated to not long after the Roman withdrawal from Britain — to King Arthur’s time rather than King Offa’s.


Now, however, it seems that Offa converted to Islam, and had to stave off neighbouring rulers encouraged by the Pope to dethrone him, according to Dr Mustafa el-Kenany. The evidence for this, the website why-islam.com/kingoffa reports, lies in a golden coin issued by Offa which “displays the declaration of Islamic tawheed (unity)”. Offa’s earlier coins had his image on the front and a cross on the back: later coins omitted the cross. The gold dynar, the website says, is dated AD757 and has an “inept” Arabic inscription conveying that “Muhammed messenger of Allah” was sent with the religion of truth, and that “There is no God worthy of worship except Allah”.


Offa was buried on an island in the Ouse at Bedford, a small town on his eastern frontier, instead of in a cathedral: “This can also be considered as evidence of Offa’s embracing of Islam”, the website claims. King John’s attempt to find the body and rebury it more grandly was because he also considered conversion, thus attracting a papal interdict; the Offa’s Dyke Association (www.offasdyke.demon.co.uk) remains sceptical.


Unfortunately the coin is not mentioned in any reference works, nor by modern Arab historians; and the British Museum, the website alleges, has removed it from display. The Elgin Marbles may not be Neil MacGregor’s only headache when he takes over the museum this summer.

•  One of the most impressive publications on Roman Britain is about to see the light of day. David Neal and Stephen Cosh have assembled all the known mosaic floors, and illustrated them with meticulous drawings, coloured-in tessera by tessera. Since many of the tesserae are smaller than a fingernail, this has taken more than a decade. The four volumes will come out over the next two years: Volume 1 of Roman Mosaics of Britain is being celebrated with a special presentation at the Society of Antiquaries’ Summer Soirée on June 20. www.illuminata.co.uk


•  Shakespeare’s Globe is well supplied with restaurants and toilets; one of several ways in which it differs from its Elizabethan precursor, which stood a hundred yards to the east. Tudor and Jacobean playhouses were notably short of such facilities, although Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair has an episode with a chamber-pot suggesting one solution to the latter problem.

Studies of soil samples from excavations at the original Globe Theatre site have now cast an interesting sidelight on the matter: a ditch which formerly marked the eastern boundary of the parcel of land on which Shakespeare and his co-owners built their “wooden O” suggests use as a sewer.

Butchered cow and sheep bones suggest the remains of meals, as do some of the broken pottery vessels: playhouses often had an adjacent booth where snacks could be bought. Charred grains may be from overdone bread thrown away, the London Archaeologist reports. Seeds from marrow and pumpkin, crops introduced from the Americas only a few decades earlier, could be from stewed or fried vegetables served with the meat. Rocket seeds may have been from salads, or from dyers using the plant for its yellow pigment, while hops suggest brewing near by.

All of these could be from discarded food remains, but since seeds often pass through the human gut undamaged, they could also be from the contents of chamber-pots slopped into the ditch, or from direct use of the ditch itself by patrons: scraps of cloth found in the deposits may have been Tudor toilet tissue.

London Archaeologist Vol 9 No 11: 300-308; www.londonarchaeologist.org.uk


Secret vault discovered in Old Town (Edinburgh)



A SECRET chamber which lay untouched for at least 300 years beneath an Old Town street has been uncovered by workmen.


Now archaeologists have been called in to investigate the find in Old Fishmarket Close, which experts believe could date back as far as the 16th century.


Scottish Water workmen were digging up cobbles on the road between the High Street and Cowgate when they broke through into the 20-foot-high chamber.


One of the workmen said: "We thought we were digging into solid ground but then the ground suddenly gave way, and we had broken through what appeared to be an arched roof into a room below.


"We had a good look down and it was about four or five metres high, and quite long. We thought we had discovered another Mary King’s Close. Obviously we had to stop work and now the council has been called in to find out what this chamber could be."


Archaeologists from the City Council have started an investigation into the underground chamber, which lies just behind the site of the old Scottish Parliament.


Experts believe the vaulted chamber could be part of a network of underground rooms which runs throughout the Old Town.


Gordon Stewart, a director with Mercat Tours, which leads visitors around underground vaults beneath South Bridge, said: "This could be an old vaulted cellar from a tenement block, maybe from the 16th or 17th century. These vaults were quite sturdy and often when a tenement block was built over, they just kept the vaults in place. This could have happened when they built Old Fishmarket Close.


"It could also be an undiscovered cellar from a nearby building, such as the old parliament building."


Mr Stewart added: "We have discovered all sorts of things in the other vaults further along. We found an old jeweller’s workshop and an old cobbler’s workshop.


"You never really know what you could find under Old Fishmarket Close, of course. This was the stamping ground of Burke and Hare for instance. In the 17th century, the lowliest cellar could be used as a hovel for the poorest people in society, especially the Highlanders and Irishmen who came to the city. You might find evidence of habitation of some sort, such as animal bones lying around.


"It is fascinating that a piece of history has been lying untouched like this for many years. There is a lot of development going on around Old Fishmarket Close so it is good to see a part of the historic Old Town re-emerging."


Edinburgh’s Old Town has become famous for its underground chambers and caverns. Mary King’s Close beneath the City Chambers is the most famous, with tourists flocking to see the underground street which was sealed off in the 17th century.


The newly-discovered vault is next to a site which is being developed at a cost of £6.5 million. Construction crews started work in December on the site between Cowgate and the High Street.


The Tron Square development will include 60 modern flats, office space, a restaurant and a purpose-built facility to replace the existing Cowgate Nursery. It is not known whether the newly-discovered historic chamber will have any effect on the development.


Architects working on redevelopment of the nearby Court of Session at Old Parliament House were also investigating the discovery.


A spokesman for the architect firm MPM Capita said: "Obviously, with this find being so close to the Court of Session it was important to see if it might have any impact on the redevelopment."


Thursday, 9 May, 2002, 11:23 GMT 12:23 UK

Public have say on historic loo


Details of a major project to restore a medieval toilet uncovered in a north Wales townhouse are due to be announced at a public meeting on Thursday.


Last year, builders renovating a doctor's surgery in Denbigh discovered it was home to one of the most important loos in the country.


A late medieval lavatory - called a garderobe - was found behind the plaster on the top floor of the four- storey building at the Bronyffynnon Surgery in Bridge Street.


The project formed part of the £6.25m regeneration project for the repair and re-use of historic buildings within the town centre's conservation area.


The 16th Century find was made after builders stumbled across an unusual feature next to a fireplace.


Historic buildings consultant Richard Morris was called in and indentified a toilet of significance had been revealed.


"We certainly weren't expecting to find anything of this importance," he said.

Famous bard


The Georgian style building was originally believed to date from the 1790s.


But following this discovery, a report was commissioned and the findings indicate the timber in the property was felled in 1581.


The building was once home to William Williams, a famous bard and Eisteddfod adjudicator, known in literary cirles as Caledfryn.


A plaque on the outside of the building refers to the historic Welsh literary connection to the building.


Denbigh Townscape Heritage Initiative project manager Nathan Blanchard said: "The significance of Bronyffynnon lies in the fact very few similar houses of this size and the features within have survived in Wales.


"And while not the oldest in Denbigh, it is among the most unique in Wales and considered comparable in interest as Plas Mawr in Conwy and the Tudor Merchants House in Tenby."