Timothy Taylor: Humans are products of their own technology

From the moment our ancestors began making primitive tools, Homo sapiens and technology have existed symbiotically, argues the author of The Artificial Ape. Without it, we would be very different creatures

Robin McKie

The Observer,            Sunday 5 September 2010


Timothy Taylor is an anthropologist and archaeologist based at Bradford University. In his new book, The Artificial Ape, he argues that the moment our apemen ancestors began chipping at lumps of stone to create their first tools, they released a force – technology – that has played a pivotal role in shaping the human species. Such innovations have altered the way we nurture our offspring, prepare our food, use our strength and establish cultures. We did not invent technology, this 50-year-old scientist argues. Technology invented us.


So what insights do we get into human nature when we look at the role of technology in our evolution?


There is a perception that technology – from the industrial revolution to the computer age – has suddenly put us into a new world, one that is a bit scary. We worry that computers might take us over, for example. But it was ever thus. The genus Homo is a product of the realm of technology. It underpinned our evolution and turned us into a highly intelligent creature. That is why I describe Homo sapiens as an artificial ape.


When did this process begin?


We can see from the archaeological evidence that by 2.6m years, our australopithecine apemen ancestors had learned how to chip at stones and make tools. Before then, they had used stones to cut things but now they were actually shaping bits of stone to suit various uses. That was the crucial moment, the one that triggered a social revolution.


In what way?


Well, one important development would have been the construction of the first slings for carrying around newborn babies. Without them, women would have expended more biological energy carrying their children in their arms than they would have used on providing them with milk, on lactation. But now, if you had tools to make spears, you could kill animals and remove their skins with the knives you had learned how to make and [from the skins] you could make a sling with which to carry your baby.


The implications of this development were enormous. It meant that babies could continue to develop outside the womb after birth and that their brains could continue to grow. They were not constrained by the size of their mothers' pelvises and could grow bigger and bigger for years. It gave us scope for intellectual expansion. We could give birth to children who were intellectually underdeveloped but whose brains could continue to develop outside the womb.


We can only infer that, of course. The skins or viscera that might have been used as slings have long since decayed.


In addition, though, tools provided us with the weapons we used to kill animals whose meat provided the protein-rich diets that were necessary for our brains to expand over the eons. Thus technology let loose processes that led to us evolving larger and larger brains. It does not explain why we developed big brains, but it shows how technology created the space in which that expansion could occur.


We haven't looked back since then?


Well, no, not quite. In fact, brain size has decreased slightly over the past 30,000 years and I think that has a lot to do with technology. By that period in our evolution, a caveman no longer needed to remember how many mammoth tusks he was owed by another caveman. He could mark that on the walls of his cave with paint. We had reached the stage where we had learned to use symbols. So technology has recently started to take away a little of our need for large brains. Indeed, we are now outsourcing our intelligences at a greater and greater speed, with the development of powerful personal computers, for example. So I would predict that, in the long run, humans are going to continue to get less biologically intelligent. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however.


Consider the example of eyesight. On average, it is probably deteriorating for our species. If I had to survive by being able to spot a deer and then shoot it down with a bow and arrow, I probably wouldn't be here. But I can not only see deer, I can see microbes and distant galaxies – using microscopes and telescopes – because of my symbiotic relationship with technology. So in many ways my eyesight is better than a caveman's or a hunter-gatherer's, but only in terms of me being a biotechnological creature. Through that my power has extended. That is why I talk about us being the weakest ape in the innate sense but, with technology, the strongest.


Should we be worried about our growing dependence on technology?


The answer is yes or no, depending on your optimism or pessimism. It could be that in the distant future Earth will become uninhabitable for humanity and if the technology to help us leave does not exist, we may eventually succumb to a dusty death. For example, without technology, we will not have the means to deal with the next huge meteorite that heads our way. On the other hand, with technology, we might make things so unpleasant down here that we really damage the planet and render it unfit for humans. It is a very finely balanced issue.


One fact is clear though. The thing is out of the box. There is no back-to-nature solution for us. It is too late. We are going to have deal with technology and learn to take charge of it in future.


The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution by Timothy Taylor is published by Palgrave Macmillan (£17.99)



Prehistoric baby sling 'made our brains bigger'

By David Keys, Archaeology Correspondent

Monday, 6 September 2010


The most important aspect of human evolution was facilitated not by Darwinian-style natural selection but by a crucial technological device invented by early Stone Age women, shows research by a leading British prehistorian.


Timothy Taylor of Bradford University claims that increased brain size was made possible by the invention of the baby sling, a development which enabled slower growing, physically and mentally immature offspring to survive and flourish.


"In effect, kangaroo-style, early female human ancestors became marsupial, carrying their immature youngsters outside their wombs," said Dr Taylor, who has published his research in a book called The Artificial Ape. "The invention of the baby sling, which allowed more babies to successfully mature outside the female body, instantly removed the barrier to increased head and brain size."


Before the invention of the baby sling, dated by Dr Taylor to at least 2.2 million years ago, when human ancestor head size suddenly began to increase, physically mature infants were more likely to survive, because caring for slower-developing immature ones was difficult, uneconomic and often dangerous. Mothers holding their infants were more vulnerable to attack from predators or other humans than those using baby slings. They were also less able to perform other more economically productive tasks.


Most importantly, the invention of the baby sling artificially lengthened human gestation, said Dr Taylor. Formerly, gestation ended at birth with the most physically mature babies surviving as they needed to be carried by their mothers for less time. But their head and brain size was strictly limited by the width of their mother's pelvis.


"Courtesy of the baby sling, our ancestors got smarter," he added.



Prehistoric bone hats found in Inner Mongolia

16:30, September 06, 2010     


Recently, archaeologists found prehistoric hats of human beings who lived 4,600 years ago from an ancient tomb site at Tongliao City of Inner Mongolia. Experts said it was the first time this kind of hats, which were made from bones, have been found in the same period of prehistoric culture.


As of now, archaeologists have found and cleared near 400 ancient tombs dating back 4,500 years ago around the site, and more than 1,500 objects of pottery, jade stone, horn and clam shell were excavated.


The newly-found bone hats were tightly cramped on dead bodies' heads and had the obvious shape of hats. After inspection, every such hat was made from 15 or 16 animal bones, and the length and radian of those are all very delicate.


Archaeologists have found four complete such "bone hats" from those 400 ancient tombs.


By Wang Hanlu, People's Daily Online



Ancient African Cocktail: Beer and a Shot of Antibiotic

By Wynne Parry, LiveScience Senior Writer

posted: 09 September 2010 04:00 pm ET


About 1,500 years before the modern world discovered the antibiotic tetracycline, North Africans were fermenting and consuming it, probably for most of their lives, according to a chemical analysis of the bones of people who lived along the Nile.


The ancient human remains were recovered near the Sudanese-Egyptian border, where species of tetracycline-producing bacteria inhabit the soil. This region, in Northeastern Africa, was once known as Nubia. Much of it is was flooded when the Nile River was dammed.


The practice of brewing beer was widespread in the region, including in Ancient Egypt to the north, and the researchers think the Nubians fermented Streptomyces or related species with their grain to brew a thick, sour beer spiked with tetracycline. And everyone, from about 2 years old and up, consumed it.


The researchers suspect the Nubians added the bacteria knowing its benefits, though they likely didn't realize the compounds were antibiotics.


"It wasn't a one-time event, because it was all throughout their bones," said Mark Nelson, senior director of chemistry at Paratek Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and an expert in tetracyclines. He performed the chemical analysis on bones from several individuals, which revealed significant amounts of tetracycline.


This finding has been decades in the making. The first evidence emerged in 1975, when George Armelagos, now a professor of anthropology at Emory University, was studying the bones and found that under ultraviolet light, a fluorescent yellow-green band appeared on the bones. The phenomenon was known to be evidence of exposure to tetracycline among modern people, but at first Armelagos dismissed it.


A few years later, a graduate student of Armelagos saw the same fluorescent band on bones from the ancient Nubians, and pointed out that tetracycline is a naturally-derived drug. That's when Armelagos realized he had seen what could be evidence of ancient antibiotic use.


"My heart stopped," said Armelagos. "It's like if you were unwrapping a mummy and you saw Ray-Ban sunglasses."


The modern world discovered tetracycline in 1948, about 20 years after the first antibiotic, penicillin, was isolated, according to Nelson, an editor of "Tetracyclines in Biology, Chemistry and Medicine" (Birkhäuser Basel, 2002).


After years of searching soils for micro-organisms that produced compounds toxic to disease-causing bacteria but safe for humans, a soils microbiologist named William Albrecht found a bronze-colored colony of bacteria in a Missouri hay field. Dubbed Streptomyces aureofaciens, it yielded the first tetracycline, called auereomycin, which, to researchers' delight, inhibited the growth of a wide range of bacteria. Auereomycin became the first broad-spectrum antibiotic, according to Nelson.


But Armelagos' initial report, in 1981, that these ancient Nubians may have intentionally used tetracycline, sparked controversy, he said. Critics claimed the yellow-green label originated after the people died, as the result of decay.


Armelagos said attempts to extract the tetracycline from the remains were unsuccessful, until Nelson offered to help out. Nelson, a medicinal chemist, used a colorless, poisonous, and highly corrosive acid – hydrogen fluoride – to dissolve the bones and essentially extract the tetracycline to prove it was the source of the label.


"This is the first real, definitive demonstration that this is tetracycline," Armelagos said.


There was also the question of whether these people intended to consume the tetracycline, or if the label came from moldy grain eaten out of necessity.


"When we first found this, I just assumed that they were consuming this as a famine food," Armelagos said. But he has found that 90 percent of this group of Nubians had bones labeled with tetracycline, and that the evidence for the antibiotic was so extensive that the exposure was unlikely to have been accidental.


The ancient Egyptian practice of brewing beer, documented through archeology and ancient art, is believed to have been a long-standing practice in the region at the time. Brewing beer using fermentation mixtures containing Streptomyces, which excrete tetracycline, appeared to be the only way these people could have produced the quantity of the antibiotic necessary to explain the fluorescent signal, according to Armelagos. So they likely intentionally added the bacteria to their fermenting brews.


Evidence of tetracycline, though in smaller amounts, has also been found in Egyptians, Jordanians and Christians to the south, he said.


In addition to producing an alcoholic buzz, this ancient beer spiked with tetracycline would have cleared up bacterial infections and their symptoms, like diarrhea, as well as killed off harmful bacteria in the brew. Although it's not yet clear how much tetracycline the people consumed regularly – Armelagos thinks it's more than the dosage required to prevent acne – it appeared to have some side effects, including reducing bone loss among older women and increasing iron-deficiency.


The brew would not be appealing to modern beer drinkers.


"We talk about this as a beer; it's not a Heineken or Bud Light," he said. Armelagos had his graduate student brew it once, describing the result as a sour porridge.


"They said it's not bad. That's, I think, the best you can say about it," Armelagos said.


Their work was published in the September issue of the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.



2000-year-old pills found in Greek shipwreck


Updated 10:57 10 September 2010 by Shanta Barley


In 130 BC, a ship fashioned from the wood of walnut trees and bulging with medicines and Syrian glassware sank off the coast of Tuscany, Italy. Archaeologists found its precious load 20 years ago and now, for the first time, archaeobotanists have been able to examine and analyse pills that were prepared by the physicians of ancient Greece.


DNA analyses show that each millennia-old tablet is a mixture of more than 10 different plant extracts, from hibiscus to celery.


"For the first time, we have physical evidence of what we have in writing from the ancient Greek physicians Dioscorides and Galen," says Alain Touwaide of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.


The box of pills was discovered on the wreck in 1989, with much of the medicine still completely dry, according to Robert Fleischer of the Smithsonian's National Zoological Park, also in Washington DC.


Fleischer analysed DNA fragments in two of the pills and compared the sequences to the GenBank genetic database maintained by the US National Institutes of Health. He was able to identify carrot, radish, celery, wild onion, oak, cabbage, alfalfa and yarrow. He also found hibiscus extract, probably imported from east Asia or the lands of present-day India or Ethiopia.


"Most of these plants are known to have been used by the ancients to treat sick people," says Fleischer. Yarrow staunched the flow of blood from wounds, and Pedanius Dioscorides, a physician and pharmacologist in Rome in the first century AD, described the carrot as a panacea for a number of problems. "They say that reptiles do not harm people who have taken it in advance; it also aids conception," he wrote around 60 AD.


The concoctions have also thrown archaeobotanists a few curve balls. Preliminary analyses of the ancient pills suggest they contain sunflower, a plant that is not thought to have existed in the Old World before Europeans discovered the Americas in the 1400s. If the finding is confirmed, botanists may need to revise the traditional history of the plant and its diffusion, says Touwaide – but it's impossible for now to be sure that the sunflower in the pills isn't simply from recent contamination.


Drugs described by Dioscorides and another Greek physician known as Galen of Pergamon have often been dismissed as ineffectual quackery. "Scholars and scientists have often dismissed the literature on such medicines, and expressed doubt about their possible efficacy, which they attributed only to the presence of opium," says Touwaide. He hopes to resolve this debate by exploring whether the plant extracts in the pills are now known to treat illnesses effectively.


He also hopes to discover therian – a medicine described by Galen in the second century AD that contains more than 80 different plant extracts – and document the exact measurements ancient doctors used to manufacture the pills. "Who knows, these ancient medicines could open new paths for pharmacological research," says Touwaide.


The team presented their findings yesterday at the Fourth International Symposium on Biomolecular Archaeology in Copenhagen, Denmark.




Last updated at 20:48, Thursday, 02 September 2010


THE first Roman watermill to be discovered in Cumbria has been unearthed in an archaeological dig on the edge of Cockermouth.


The discovery, behind the Lakes Homecentre, signals that the River Derwent, on the banks of which it stood, was an important part of Romano-British life in Cockermouth.


The watermill, thought to date back to the first or second century, is the last and most exciting find of the project led by Grampus Heritage and Training, which finishes today.


The project, which began in August, was sponsored by Bassenthwaite Reflections.


Mark Graham, an investigation archaeologist who has led a team of volunteers, said that the find sheds new light on the area’s early Roman activity.


“This is the second Romano-British watermill which has been found in the north,” he said.


“The first was found in Haltwhistle in 1908.


“It is amazing that we found this as our last discovery on the site and it has changed what we thought about Roman Papcastle.


“It is clear to see now that the settlement extended into Cockermouth and that the river actually flowed through this site, making it an important part of life back then.”


He said that the team used instruments to detect buried walls, but it was two pieces of wood sticking out of the ground which led to the discovery of what may have been a wooden channel leading to the water wheel.


Foundation stones compatible with a mill and fragments of a structure that may have supported the wheel have also been found.


Mr Graham said that the team would like to carry out further excavation work once funding has been granted.


He added: “We found several timber buildings, coins and fragments of pottery after the floods, which led us to start the excavation.


“We know there are many more exciting finds to unearth.


“The surveys have brought up a huge building around 50 metres wide on this site, which could be a bath house on the Papcastle side and an iron smelting area.


“I would like to try to find remains of the bridge, which I think could be on the west side of the site but we would need more funding before we could carry out another dig.”


Volunteer Mick Fairfield, 59, said: “We think there may have been a double wheel, which would make it a unique find for this period.”


First published at 19:28, Thursday, 02 September 2010

Published by http://www.timesandstar.co.uk



Rare Roman suit of armour found at Caerleon dig

13 September 2010 Last updated at 16:53


Archaeologists digging at a site in south Wales have uncovered an entire suit of Roman armour and some weapons.


The rare discovery was made during an excavation at the fortress of Caerleon in south Wales, one of Britain's best known Roman sites.


Dig leader Dr Peter Guest of Cardiff University said the suit was only the third or fourth to be found in the UK, and the first in Wales.


"It's very important for the study of Roman Britain," he said.


Dr Guest, senior lecturer in Roman archaeology at Cardiff's school of history, archaeology and religion, explained that a number of objects were first spotted last week on top of a floor in one room of a warehouse on the Priory Field site.


"We have been working on one of the rooms at the warehouse for six days," he explained.


"It's been a long, slow process of careful excavation but we are finally there now."


Dr Guest said the suit was found alongside a number of copper and bronze studs and hinges.


"It's in a pretty good condition considering Roman armour was usually made of iron and that does not survive very well in wet, cold soil like we have in Wales," he said.


"It's turned into rust but it still retains its outline."


The find has been "very important" for the Caerleon excavation, said Dr Guest, as it adds to the sum of knowledge about the Roman legion that was based here.


A team of curators and conservators from the National Museum of Wales has spent the day removing from the site 30 blocks of soil containing the objects.


The final detailed excavation will be carried out in the museum's laboratory in Cardiff.


"At the moment it's all in a bit of a jumble and it's going to take us a long time to separate all the pieces and see exactly what we have got," added Dr Guest.


"It's going to be a long and very delicate process of careful and more detailed excavation over a period of maybe one to two years."


The six-week dig at Priory Field is being carried out by a team of students from Cardiff University and University College London.


Caerleon (Isca), which dates from AD 75, is one of three permanent legionary fortresses in the UK.


It was built to house 5,500 Roman citizens and was occupied for between 200 and 300 years.


The other fortresses at Chester and York are mostly buried and difficult to excavate.



Rare Roman lantern found in farmer's field

LONDON | Wed Sep 1, 2010 12:46pm BST



An intact Roman lantern made of bronze, believed by experts to be the only one of its kind in Britain, has been unearthed in a field by a metal-detecting enthusiast.


The unique artefact which dates from between the 1st and 3rd century AD was discovered by 21-year-old Danny Mills at a detecting rally near Sudbury, Suffolk.


Mills reported the find to local archaeologists and the landowner later donated it to the regional museum.


Conservator at Colchester and Ipswich Museums, Emma Hogarth, who restored the object said it is a rare and exquisite example of craftsmanship.


Archaeologists say the British Museum in London holds only fragments of similar finds and its closest complete double was found at the Roman city of Pompeii in southern Italy.


Suffolk is known to have been dotted with plush Roman villas and country estates in the 2nd century and experts speculate it could have been used by a rich landowner to move between his villa and its outhouses at night.


The lantern resembles a modern hurricane lamp and the naked flame would have been protected by a thin sheet of horn -- now decomposed -- that had been scraped until it was translucent.


"What is particularly amazing about the lantern is that the chains it was suspended from still look and move like any modern chain and had not corroded into a metal lump," said Hogarth.


The lantern has recently featured in an episode on the BBC's current "Digging for Britain" series and can be seen at Ipswich Museum.


(Writing by Stefano Ambrogi; Editing by Steve Addison)



Saxon boat uncovered in Norfolk's River Ant


A Saxon boat has been found during flood defence work on a Norfolk river.


The boat, which is about 9.8 ft (3m) long and had been hollowed out by hand from a piece of oak, was found at the bottom of the River Ant.


Five animal skulls were found near the boat, which has been taken to York for treatment to preserve it.


The Environment Agency had commissioned work to take place between Horning Hall and Browns Hill when the discovery was made last month.


Once preservation has been finished the vessel will return to Norfolk, where the Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service want to display it at Norwich Castle Museum, an Environment Agency spokeswoman said.


Environment Agency project manager, Paul Mitchelmore, said: "This is the latest in a number of remarkable finds on the project.


"We are pleased that the Environment Agency has been able to uncover items that contribute to the knowledge of the rich history of the local area."



Egyptian papyrus found in ancient Irish bog

September 6, 2010


Irish scientists have found fragments of Egyptian papyrus in the leather cover of an ancient book of psalms that was unearthed from a peat bog, Ireland's National Museum said on Monday.


The papyrus in the lining of the Egyptian-style leather cover of the 1,200-year-old manuscript, "potentially represents the first tangible connection between early Irish Christianity and the Middle Eastern Coptic Church", the Museum said.

"It is a finding that asks many questions and has confounded some of the accepted theories about the history of early Christianity in Ireland."

Raghnall O Floinn, head of collections at the Museum, said the manuscript, now known as the "Faddan More Psalter", was one of the top ten archaeological discoveries in Ireland.

It was uncovered four years ago by a man using a mechanical digger to harvest peat near Birr in County Tipperary, but analysis has only just been completed.

O Floinn told AFP the illuminated vellum manuscript encased in the leather binding dated from the eighth century but it was not known when or why it ended up in the bog where it was preserved by the chemicals in the peat.

"It appears the manuscript's leather binding came from Egypt. The question is whether the papyrus came with the cover or if it was added.

"It is possible that the imperfections in the hide may allow us to confirm the leather is Egyptian.

"We are trying to track down if there somebody who can tell us if this is possible. That is the next step."

O Floinn said the psalter is about the size of a tabloid newspaper and about 15 percent of the pages of the psalms, which are written in Latin, had survived.

The experts believe the manuscript of the psalms was produced in an Irish monastery and it was later put in the leather cover.

"The cover could have had several lives before it ended up basically as a folder for the manuscript in the bog," O Floinn said.

"It could have travelled from a library somewhere in Egypt to the Holy Land or to Constantinople or Rome and then to Ireland."

The National Museum in Dublin plans to put the psalter on public display for the first time next year.

(c) 2010 AFP



'Birth certificate of Scotland' unearthed by archaeologists

Published Date: 09 September 2010

By Frank Urquhart


IT IS one of the most evocative sites in Scotland's turbulent history - the place where Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots before his victory over the English at Bannockburn.


The ancient mound known as the Moot Hill in the ground of Scone Palace was once the site of the "lost" abbey of Scone, founded in 1114 by Alexander I, where Scottish kings are believed to have assumed the mantle of power on the Stone of Destiny.


It was revealed yesterday that archaeologists studying the historic site have been able to use radiocarbon dating to push back the origins of the ancient seat of ecclesiastical and royal power to at least 1,000 years ago, in a remarkable breakthrough that has been hailed as uncovering the "birth certificate of Scotland".


The critical dating evidence came from scientific analysis of carbon samples retrieved during excavations of a massive ditch that once surrounded the Moot Hill.


Dr Oliver O'Grady, the archaeologist who has been leading the excavations at Scone for the past five years, said: "The radiocarbon dates confirm Moot Hill as one of Europe's extraordinary survivals, unique in Britain and the first assembly-mound in Scotland to be scientifically dated.


"The lab results are in a sense nothing less than a birth certificate for Scotland."


Dr O'Grady said the radio- carbon dating, carried out by the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre laboratories in East Kilbride, had proven beyond doubt the genuine antiquity of Scotland's ancient inauguration mound.


He said the findings had put paid to the legend that the hill was created by the soil brought to Scone in the shoes of nobility who came to pay homage to Robert the Bruce at his crowning in 1306.


The radiocarbon dating had been based on the samples of burned wood recovered from the base of ditch which surrounds the mound. Dr O'Grady said: "The analysis shows that Moot Hill likely dates to some point between the late ninth century and early 11th century."


Significantly, the new dating evidence also matches the earliest historical accounts of royal ceremonies being held at Scone contained in a tenth-century chronicle, dating from the reign of King Constantine II, which began in 906.


Dr O'Grady said: "It will probably be debated amongst archaeologists for time to come as to when the hill was first used for a crowning ceremony.


But it is very striking that the date that we've got is so close to the first genuine historical record of Scone in the chronicles of the kings of Alba.


"From a point of probability, until I have other evidence, it seems entirely plausible to me to suggest that King Constantine II, or at least one of his successors, was responsible for the creation of this mound.


"And that should be seen as a very significant moment in Scotland's history because they are no longer identifying themselves as Picts and they are gathering, as its says in the text 'in the manner of the Gaels' and they are holding their most important royal ceremonies on that mound."


Hill that was centre of power for centuries:


c 700-900 - Scone established as power centre of the Pictish province of Gowrie.


906 - Meeting of Constantine II at Scone with Bishop Cellach of St Andrews.


1114 - Founding of new monastery, with building works continuing over many decades.


1249 - Alexander III inaugurated on Stone of Destiny in abbey cemetery.


1296 - Stone of Destiny (along with other treasures and documents) are removed to Westminster by Edward I.


1298 - Abbey attacked.


1306 - Robert Bruce crowned King of Scots at Scone.


1360s - Abbey in poor state, young canons instructed not to frequent taverns.


1371/1390 - Robert II and III both hold parliaments on Montem (Moot Hill) of Scone.


1400s - Pilgrims attracted to shrine of St Fergus in the abbey church.


1437 - James I assassinated at Blackfriars in Perth.


1551 - Major church repairs.


1559 - Abbey sacked by Protestant reformers.


1606 - Abbey lands granted to David Murray, Lord Stormont.


1618 - Parish church built on Moot Hill.


1631 - 1st Lord Stormont dies, buried in mausoleum on Moot Hill.


1651 - Charles II last king crowned on Moot Hill.



Hunt is on for lost remains of bishop who wrote Declaration of Arbroath

Kenny Hodgart

5 Sep 2010


Somewhere within the precincts of a ruined 12th century abbey in the Ayrshire town of Kilwinning, the mortal remains of the man who wrote the Declaration of Arbroath are thought to lie.


Nobody is sure exactly where, but archaeologists think they are about to find out.


A team led by Rathmell Archeology has begun a series of excavations aimed at unravelling the secrets of mediaeval monastic life in the town.


Locating the bones of the abbot, Bernard of Kilwinning, who drafted one of the most significant documents in Scottish history, would be the biggest find of the excavation.


Thomas Rees is the archaeologist heading up the project. He said: “He could be under newer masonry, under more recent graves in the churchyard or even under the current 18th century church, in which case we won’t find him. But he is here somewhere.


“Chasing specific graves is very challenging and attributing identity to an unmarked grave is problematic. You’re certainly not going to do a CSI job on remains that old.”


Fiona Watson, an archeology student at Glasgow University taking part in the dig, said she came across human remains under the abbey’s nave but that they were “probably post-Reformation”.


She added: “With Bernard you’d expect to find certain accoutrements along with the burial that would give you a clue as to his status.”


Bernard, who died in about 1331, was head of the Tironesian monastic order at Kilwinning.


He became Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, then later Abbot of Arbroath, before being handed the bishopric of the isles.


“He is a huge figure in Scottish history there’s no doubt about that,” said local historian Gardner McLachlan.


“The Declaration of Arbroath is hugely significant globally because it’s the first document that enshrines the idea that the people of the country are sovereign, rather than the governing monarch or anyone else.”


Although a shell today, Rees said of the abbey that “in its time it was an incredible church, similar in scale to Paisley or Glasgow cathedrals”.


Besides bones, the team – which has £90,000 worth of support behind them from the Heritage Lottery Fund and the regeneration company Irvine Bay – has so far found mediaeval and post-mediaeval pottery, a slate inscribed with a Morelles board (a counter-based game played as far back as 1440BC) and has located the line of the arcade, the covered walkway around the church’s cloister.


There is a Facebook site detailing progress and local people are encouraged to drop by at the site – one woman even brings along home baking for the dig team every day.


“To an extent it’s a lost chunk of Kilwinning, right in the middle of Kilwinning,” said Rees.


“A proportion of residents know the heritage of the burgh, but others are almost baffled to find that all this is here. But there have been really good visitor numbers.


“It’s a starting point from which we can help to improve people’s understanding and perception of this town, which is a real challenge.”


The history of Kilwinning Abbey


1162-1168: Abbey established by Tyron- esian monks, dedicated to local saint, Winning.


1286: Bernard, later Chancellor of Scotland, becomes abbot.


1320: Declaration of Arbroath, believed to have been drafted by Bernard, sent to Pope John XXII.


1562: John Knox visits Kilwinning to find Reformed church at former abbey. The first minister is a monk.


1774: Present-day Abbey Church built.


1814: New bell tower built next to ruined abbey.