Archaeological find may lead to rewriting of history

By Robin McKie


LONDON: Scientists have uncovered a landscape of buried buildings and villages representing more than 6,000 years of British history.


Anglo-Saxon settlements, Roman houses, Bronze Age graves and Iron Age homes - covered by thick layers of sand and loam - have been pinpointed using hi-tech magnetic sensors and air reconnaissance surveys.


The discovery, at West Heslerton in northern England, suggests the British countryside may have been far more intensively occupied and farmed than previously realized. The surveys have also directed archaeologists to make several significant finds, including a 1,300-year-old brooch scrawled with letters that are the oldest known form of writing in English.


Archaeologists believe the Heslerton Parish project could lead to a shake-up in our understanding of the nation's history. "Take the Dark Ages," said project leader Dominic Powlesland. "Our work shows they never really existed. Civilization didn't disappear in Britain when the Romans left. Buildings were in continuous use and farms operated quite successfully between the Romans leaving and the Anglo-Saxons taking over."


But the discovery - rated as one of the most important archaeological finds in Britain - is under threat. Farmers are being urged to start digging up land to plant potatoes for the nearby McCain French fries factory.


"This is the archaeological equivalent of finding the Domesday Book - then having it burned before your eyes before you get a chance to open it," said David Miles, chief archaeologist of English Heritage. "This site is as important as Stonehenge or Avebury. The graves, burial mounds, and houses have been left untouched by mechanized farming which has wrecked so much of the rest of our archaeology. What they can tell us is of immeasurable importance."


In an attempt to halt the site's destruction, urgent talks have been set up between English Heritage and the UK Department for the Environment, while project leaders and local farmers have also begun discussions.


The remarkable secret was revealed after councillors gave the go-ahead for a mineral extraction scheme in the middle of the site. Archaeologists carried out a survey before quarrying began and discovered an entire early Anglo-Saxon village and cemetery, preserved by sands that had blown from dunes in nearby wetlands.


Archaeologists - backed by the state-funded conservation body English Heritage - mapped the area to try to discover other settlements. First they used aerial reconnaissance photographs, then moved on to exploit new techniques for measuring magnetic variation underground. "When you make bricks or pots or plates, you cause tiny magnetic particles in the clay to line up to the lines of Earth's magnetic field," said Powlesland. "You can then detect the magnetic anomalies they produce underground."


After walking hundreds of kilometres with their instruments, archaeologists produced a map of buried roads, buildings and graves, and found that the 5 sq km site was criss-crossed with settlements and trackways.


These were then dated by drilling to retrieve samples. From this, they created a map of the different settlements and discovered that the drifting sands had sometimes covered a site during the Roman era, Anglo-Saxon times or the Bronze Age.


"We are not dealing with a single site," said Miles. "We are dealing with an entire three-dimensional landscape that covers 6,000 years of our history and prehistory. This place is unique."


It is the preservation of the buildings that causes special scientific excitement, say researchers. "Most Bronze Age burial mounds in this country have been broken into or cut up," said Powlesland. "In the past, it was assumed they were graves built only for important people and leaders.


Our surveys of the intact ones down there suggest it is more likely they were burial places for extended families. This is a vast untapped resource. We have to ensure that its most important parts are saved so that we can excavate and study them carefully. It would be tragic if this place was wrecked for a few potatoes." -Dawn/The Observer News Service.



Ghost fleet 'shows Pisa was an ancient Venice'

By Bruce Johnston in Rome

(Filed: 22/11/2003)


The chance discovery of a Roman "ghost fleet" buried in mud just outside Pisa has led experts to conclude that the city was built on a lagoon much like an early Venice.


Archaeologists believe that traces of a community dating back to a pre-Roman era, a sort of "Etruscan Venice", may lie beneath the ships.


The end of the lagoon civilisation may also offer clues to the fate of modern Venice - the waterways were silted up by violent floods over a long period.

"The situation in Venice is not just similar to that of Pisa, but is practically identical," said Prof Stefano Bruni of the University of Ferrara.


The find first came to light five years ago when a bulldozer involved in work to build railway offices beside the San Rossore station on the outskirts of Pisa came across an ancient wooden ship 30ft below ground. A large archaeological dig which was started under Prof Bruni's direction later found four ships dating from various Roman periods.


The number of vessels, which were found in remarkable condition, rose to six, then nine, and finally 21, including what experts believe may be a Roman warship. They date from 200BC-AD500.


The ships will soon be housed in a new museum in Pisa's old shipyards, Giuliano Urbani, Italy's culture minister, announced last week. "It will not just be a building," he said. "It will also be a kind of historical space which will develop in tandem with the stages of recovery and restoration of the ships."


The extraordinary finds have produced much new data about Roman shipbuilding techniques, cargoes, classical trade and naval life. Some of the ships were adapted for river and sea navigation.


Various archaeological teams are analysing material found, including navigational instruments, human remains, wicker baskets, clothing, oil lamps and scraps of leather. But equally important, the experts say, the discovery has caused the entire geography of the area, and its relationship with the rest of the Mediterranean, to be redefined.


Prof Angelo Bottini, the archeological superintendent for Tuscany, said the digs had not brought to light the existence of a mere port separated from the sea. Rather, they showed there had been a "network of river and maritime landing places, in which the sea and the rivers were in dialogue".


This network included lagoon islands and wetlands where freshwater combined with salt water. "To compare Pisa and Venice is therefore not rash," he said, "even if we must exercise caution." The discovery of the ships had also confirmed claims by ancient sources that before Pisa was a Roman city it had been Etruscan and Hellenic.


The extraordinary state of preservation of the ships was due to what Prof Bottini called the "traumatic sequence" of floods over the centuries after the 5th century AD. "It deposited sand in such a violent way that it didn't have time to oxidise the wood," he said. But while this had preserved the ships, it also meant that the wood, when exposed to the air, had to be re-hydrated to stop it falling apart. The procedure was incredibly slow.


Once the ships were discovered, experts were able to establish that there had been a lagoon system, thanks to investigative work of the terrain earlier to protect the Leaning Tower of Pisa.


Prof Bruni said: "By re-examining aerial night photos taken at the time with special thermal film, we realised that the River Auser [one of Pisa's two rivers] had completely changed its course.


"We used the data to help reconstruct the landscape as it would have been in Etruscan times, and found that then there was a situation similar to Venice. Now Pisa is 10km [about six miles] from the sea. Then, it was 3.5km, and was a delta."