Category Archives: ENGLAND

Armchair archaeologists are discovering ancient historic sites during the lockdown

Armchair archaeologists are discovering ancient historic sites during the lockdown

Volunteer archaeologists working from home are revealing hitherto uncharted prehistoric burial mounds,  Roman roads, and medieval farms, using LiDAR technology.

A probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement (red arrows) and associated field system (blue arrows) revealed by LiDAR data but hidden today beneath woodland.

An innovative project is underway integrating scientific research with the power of the public. Led by Dr. Smart and Dr. João Fonte from the University of Exeter, and working closely with Cornwall and Devon Historic Environment Record, citizens were called on to search databases of aerial images while on coronavirus lockdown and they revealed “roads, burial mounds, and settlements – all while working from home,” according to a report in the Heritagedaily.

These topographical images of the Tamar valley, that highlight hidden features and with historic maps of the area, have been cross-referenced by amateur archaeologists. Lead researchers Dr. Chris Smart also said that they “draw the archeological map of the South West’ to get a clearer understanding of the history of the regions over thousands of years.

A section of a probable Roman road. The road’s ‘agger’ – the raised metalled surface – shows as a straight pale line (red arrows). A line of quarry pits show as black spots (blue arrows) possibly used to gather material for the road

The sites were not released because of the possibility that treasure hunters could enter the sites prior to being properly given access, but they are all in the Tamar Valley. The team found parts of two Roman roads with about 30 large, prehistoric or Roman settlement enclosures, about 20 prehistoric burial mounds, as well as the remains of hundreds of medieval farms, field systems, and quarries. 

Those leading the project believe they will make many more discoveries in the coming weeks as more images are reviewed – potentially hundreds of new sites. The team, led by Dr. Smart from the University of Exeter, are analyzing images from technology used to create detailed topographical maps by the Environment Agency.

Modern vegetation and buildings can be removed from the data, allowing archaeologists to look at the shape of the land surface to find the remains of archaeological earthworks.  

‘The South West arguably has the most comprehensive LiDAR data yet available in the UK and we are using this to map as much of the historic environment as possible,’ said Dr. Smart. They are focusing on the Tamar Valley but are also looking at the land around Bodmin Moor, Dartmoor, Plymouth, and Barnstaple – an area covering 1,500 sq miles. 

The information has helped researchers to realize the region was much more densely populated during the Iron Age than previously thought.  They haven’t been selective in the images they have asked volunteers to look at either, so to find so many from a relatively random record is even more exciting. The research is adding to an evolving database of all known heritage in the South West of England and includes everything from lost field boundaries to prehistoric enclosures and everything in between. 

‘Ordinarily, we would now be out in the field surveying archaeological sites with groups of volunteers, or preparing for our community excavations, but this is all now on hold,’ said Smart. 

‘I knew there would be enthusiasm within our volunteer group to continue working during lockdown – one even suggested temporarily rebranding our project “Lockdown Landscapes”,’ he said.

‘I don’t think they realized how many new discoveries they would make.’

New archaeological sites are often found by chance, through digs before new development, so it is unusual to find so many in one go. Dr Smart said there is a large gap in the historical map of the South West, as there isn’t as much development there as in other parts of the country – so these chance discoveries don’t happen as often.  Most of the finds so far have been Iron Age enclosed settlements but they have found dozens of sites dating back to prehistory and as late as the Medieval era. 

One regular project volunteer, Fran Sperring, said: ‘Searching for previously unknown archaeological sites – and helping to identify places for possible future study – has been not only gratifying but engrossing.

‘Although it’s a fairly steep learning curve for me – being a relative novice to the subject – I’m enjoying every minute. Archaeology from the warm, dry comfort of your living room – what could be better?’

Dr. Smart is working closely with his University of Exeter colleague Dr. João Fonte, a specialist in LiDAR data manipulation and interpretation.

A probable Iron Age or Roman enclosed settlement, defined by a bank and ditch (red arrows). The remnants of the bank shows as a pale line on the LiDAR data, and the ditch as a darker line 

‘Remote sensing is a very powerful tool for archaeological prospection,’ said Fonte.

‘Whilst I normally work in Northwest Iberia, I’m really happy to collaborate in this project and share my expertise for the benefit of Devon and Cornwall’s wonderful landscapes,’ he added.  The team is also working with Cornwall and Devon Historic Environment Record teams to find a way to integrate all of this new information into their databases. It’s hoped the work can then be rolled out over more of the South West of England. When the worst of the pandemic is over the team intends to undertake geophysical surveys at a number of the newly-identified sites as part of the Understanding Landscapes project.

Dr. Smart said ‘It’s hard for us not to be able to carry out the work we had planned this summer – including an excavation at Calstock Roman fort.

‘Hopefully, this is only a temporary blip and we will be back out in the countryside with volunteers as soon as it is safe to do so.’

There is a wider benefit to using the LiDAR mapping data though. Dr. Smart hopes to be able to create a wider-reaching citizen science project that will help map more of the region’s history and create a rich record for the future. He said they were able to make use of existing maps created from a number of aerial surveys and satellite data.  These maps are generated by the Environment Agency for the purpose of flood monitoring, but Dr. Smart said the detail is also perfect for spotting historical sites.

The remains were believed to be Richard III

Archaeologists found a skeleton under a car park in the city of Leicester. The remains were believed to be Richard III

Experts from the University of Leicester said DNA from the bones matched that of descendants of the monarch’s family. Lead archaeologist Richard Buckley, from the University of Leicester, told a press conference to applause: “Beyond reasonable doubt it’s Richard.”

The earliest surviving portrait of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral. Archaeologists are hoping to find his grave under a council car park in Leicester.

Richard, killed in battle in 1485, will be reinterred in Leicester Cathedral. Mr. Buckley said the bones had been subjected to “rigorous academic study” and had been carbon-dated to a period from 1455-1540.

Dr. Jo Appleby, an osteo-archaeologist from the university’s School of Archaeology and Ancient History, revealed the bones were of a man in his late 20s or early 30s. Richard was 32 when he died. His skeleton had suffered 10 injuries, including eight to the skull, at around the time of death. Two of the skull wounds were potentially fatal.

One was a “slice” removing a flap of bone, the other was caused by a bladed weapon that went through and hit the opposite side of the skull – a depth of more than 10cm (4ins).

‘Humiliation injuries’

Dr Appleby said: “Both of these injuries would have caused an almost instant loss of consciousness and death would have followed quickly afterwards.

“In the case of the larger wound, if the blade had penetrated 7cm into the brain, which we cannot determine from the bones, death would have been instantaneous.”

Other wounds included slashes or stabs to the face and the side of the head. There was also evidence of “humiliation” injuries, including a pelvic wound likely to have been caused by an upward thrust of a weapon, through the buttock. Richard III was portrayed as deformed by some Tudor historians and indeed the skeleton’s spine is badly curved, a condition known as scoliosis.

However, there was no trace of a withered arm or other abnormalities described in the more extreme characterisations of the king.

Missing princes

Without the scoliosis, which experts believe developed during teenage years, he would have been about 5ft 8ins (1.7m) tall, but the curvature would have made him appear “considerably” shorter.

Dr Appleby said: “The analysis of the skeleton proved that it was an adult male but was an unusually slender, almost feminine, build for a man.

“Taken as a whole, the skeletal evidence provides a highly convincing case for identification as Richard III.”

Richard was a royal prince until the death of his brother Edward IV in 1483. Appointed as protector of his nephew, Edward V, Richard instead assumed the reins of power. Edward and his brother Richard, known as the Princes in the Tower, disappeared soon after. Rumors circulated they had been murdered on the orders of their uncle.

Challenged by Henry Tudor, Richard was killed at Bosworth in 1485 after only two years on the throne.

DNA trail

He was given a hurried burial beneath the church of Greyfriars in the center of Leicester. Mr. Buckley said the grave was clumsily cut, with sloping sides and too short for the body, forcing the head forward.

“There was no evidence of a coffin or shroud which would have left the bones in a more compact position.

“Unusually, the arms are crossed and this could be an indication the body was buried with the wrists still tied,” he added. Greyfriars church was demolished during the Reformation in the 16th Century and over the following centuries, its exact location was forgotten.

However, a team of enthusiasts and historians managed to trace the likely area – and, crucially, after painstaking genealogical research, they found a 17th-generation descendant of Richard’s sister with whose DNA they could compare any remains. Joy Ibsen, from Canada, died several years ago but her son, Michael, who now works in London, provided a sample.

The researchers were fortunate as, while the DNA they were looking for was in all Joy Ibsen’s offspring, it is only handed down through the female line and her only daughter has no children. The line was about to stop.

Tomb plans

But the University of Leicester’s experts had other problems. Dr. Turi King, project geneticist, said there had been concern DNA in the bones would be too degraded: “The question was could we get a sample of DNA to work with, and I am extremely pleased to tell you that we could.”

She added: “There is a DNA match between the maternal DNA of the descendants of the family of Richard III and the skeletal remains we found at the Greyfriars dig.

“In short, the DNA evidence points to these being the remains of Richard III.” In August 2012, excavation began in a city council car park – the only open space remaining in the likely area – which quickly identified buildings connected to the church. The bones were found in the first days of the dig and were eventually excavated under forensic conditions.

The spot (circled in red) where archaeologists found the remains of the 15th century monarch
The final resting place of Richard III? A body matching his description was found here buried in a shroud

Details of the reburial ceremony have yet to be released, but Philippa Langley from the Richard III Society said plans for a tomb were well advanced. She said of the discovery of Richard’s skeleton: “I’m totally thrilled, I’m overwhelmed, to be honest, it’s been a long hard journey. I mean today as we stand it’s been nearly four years.

“It’s the culmination of a lot of hard work. I think, as someone said to me earlier, it’s just the end of the beginning.

“We’re going to completely reassess Richard III, we’re going to completely look at all the sources again, and hopefully there’s going to be a new beginning for Richard as well.”

Cat’s paw print found in Roman tile at Lincoln dig

Cat’s paw print found in Roman tile at Lincoln dig

Archaeologists have discovered what could be the world’s oldest cat paw print. The imprint of four feline toes was found on a tile which dates back almost 2,000 years.

It is believed the marks were caused when the tile was left out to dry by a Roman potter and a curious cat stepped on it.

The extraordinary historical artifact was uncovered during an archaeological dig ahead of the construction of the £99 million ($130 million) Lincoln Eastern Bypass.

Archaeologists have discovered what could be the world’s oldest cat paw print embedded on a tile (pictured) which dates back almost 2,000 years. Experts are clearing the area to make way for the construction of a new road near Lincoln

The project has also uncovered tiles with imprints of a dog’s paw and a deer’s hoof.

Ruben Lopez, site manager for Network Archaeology, the company carrying out the work, said: ‘Many of us have pets and animals nowadays so you can see nothing has changed. You identify with finds like this.

‘It is exciting, this site here is one in a thousand.’ 

A team of 60 archaeologists working at the site has discovered large quantities of tiles – evidence that points to a complex of buildings being built around 100 AD.

It is believed that the tile, which was used in the complex, had just been moulded and was being left to dry before firing when the cat walked across it.

Diggers have been working at the site to ensure that any remains affected by the new road are recorded and protected.

As well as finds from the Roman era, experts have found artifacts dating back 12,000 years at the site between the River Witham and Washingborough Road, Lincoln.

They include a Bronze Age logboat, Mesolithic and Neolithic flint tools, Iron Age roundhouses and burials, and high-status Roman buildings.

The team has also uncovered part of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery, a medieval monastic grange, and post-medieval farm buildings.

Chris Taylor, company director, and senior project manager at Network Archaeology, said: ‘The evidence we’ve seen so far suggests that small communities were already living in this area around 12,000 years ago and that it has been a favoured spot for human activity ever since.

Diggers have been working at the site (pictured) to ensure that any remains affected by the new road are recorded and protected. As well as finds from the Roman era, experts have found artifacts dating back 12,000 years at the site

‘Potentially, the site could yield some very important discoveries.

‘We’ve found signs of a high-status Roman building and, more interestingly, a possible Roman vineyard, which is rare north of the Home Counties.

‘Another surprising discovery has been an as-yet-undated cemetery, including at least 18 human burials, possibly belonging to a monastic order.

The site of the dig, between the River Witham and Washingborough Road in Lincoln, is along the route of a new bypass which is going to be built

‘We’ve also found what could be the remains of a 12th-century tower, which may have served as a beacon to warn of approaching threats or as a fort around the time of The Battle of Lincoln in 1141.

‘There’s a lot more work to be done before we have the full picture, but what has been unearthed so far suggests it will be well worth the effort.’ 

The work is expected to be completed later this year and will be followed by investigations at other sites further along the route.

2 Decades of archaeological research have shed light on an Anglo Saxon community that lived in England 1400 years ago

2 Decades of archaeological research have shed light on an Anglo Saxon community that lived in England 1400 years ago

Almost a decade of excavations in the sand dunes below Bamburgh Castle revealed dozens of Anglo-Saxon burials, whose occupants are now documented in an innovative ‘digital ossuary’. This man was buried c.AD 555-670, and although he is interred in a crouched position, he is thought to have been part of Bamburgh’s fledgling Christian community that flourished in the 7th and 8th centuries. In the ‘ossuary’, he is listed under the codeword ‘Fifel’.

During the winter of 1816-1817 extreme storms swept away tons of sand and formed the vast dune fields surrounding the castle until today, on the beach below the Castle Bamburgh.

This was not the only surprising side-effect of the dramatic weather: in exposing the earlier land surface, the storm had also laid bare a number of graves tucked into a depression called ‘Bowl Hole’.

Who were these individuals laid to rest beside the North Sea? In the 19th century, Victorian romantics interpreted the skeletons as the remains of Viking raiders – indeed, on the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map for the area (1860), the site is labeled ‘Old Danish Burying Ground’. This attribution was more wishful thinking than historical fact, however, as the area around Bamburgh remained in Anglian hands even as Norse invaders annexed the southern part of Northumbria and conquered York. Instead, modern archaeological science would hold the key to unlocking the identities of the Bowl Hole burials.

Today Bamburgh’s 11th-century castle is surrounded by high sand dunes – but this dune system is only two centuries old, created by the same violent storms as uncovered the first clue to the Bowl Hole cemetery’s existence.

In 1998-2007, the cemetery was excavated by the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP), who wanted to assess whether the graves in their ever-shifting sandy setting were at risk of erosion. This long-running project confirmed that Bowl Hole was no Norse burial ground, but was one of the most northerly Anglo-Saxon cemeteries yet found, used for generations across the 7th and 8th centuries. Some 99 skeletons were excavated, together with the disarticulated bones of several more individuals – together representing the remains of at least 110 men and women, adolescents, children, and infants, offering a complete cross-section of the community who had once lived on this part of the coast.

Interestingly, there was considerable variation in how these people had been laid to rest: some were stretched supine on their backs with their heads to the west, reminiscent of the Christian tradition, while others harked back to much earlier practices, lying in a crouched position on their side, or being placed face-down. What do these varied customs mean? While some of the graves appear to reference pagan practices, the skeletons are nonetheless thought to represent some of the area’s earliest Christian inhabitants, interred at a time when burial traditions were still fairly fluid. Nor does the presence of (albeit scarce) grave goods – simple domestic items like knives, buckles, and bone and copper-alloy pins, as well as bone combs, perforated shells, and a few glass beads – rule out Christian beliefs, which in the early Anglo-Saxon period did not proscribe furnished burials.

The Anglo-Saxon cemetery was excavated between 1998 and 2007 by the Bamburgh Research Project; the remains of over 100 men, women, and children were recovered.

The 7th century was a time of momentous religious change in Northumbria when the exiled king Oswald returned to Bamburgh following his victory at the AD 633/634 Battle of Heavenfield and worked to promote Christianity in the region throughout his eight-year reign. To this end, he invited the Irish bishop Aidan to join his court and aid in converting his people. Oswald granted Aidan the nearby island of Lindisfarne as a monastic base and (according to the chronicler Bede) acted as his interpreter as the monk preached, having learned Irish in exile.

The people buried at Bowl Hole would have witnessed what is known as Northumbria’s ‘Golden Age’, a period of remarkable cultural flowering between the mid-7th and mid-8th centuries. But who were they?

Elite Individuals?

Even before analysis of the skeletons (by experts at the BRP and Durham University) began, it was clear that, as a population, the Bowl Hole individuals were unusually tall and robust, with few signs of malnourishment and relatively little evidence for disease (though some had suffered poorer health in early life), suggesting that these were high-status individuals who had enjoyed a privileged life.

But while their bodies largely spoke of good health, their teeth were terrible. Cavities, plaque, and abscesses were common, even in young people, suggesting that many of these individuals would have suffered from persistent toothache and foul-smelling breath. This decay probably stemmed from the community’s rich diet (something also hinted at by evidence of gout recorded in some of the skeletons’ toe bones) and excessive consumption of sugars, perhaps through drinking quantities of wine or meat.

It has been suggested that these apparently privileged individuals may have been associated with the royal court at Bamburgh: the Anglian fortress occupied the rocky promontory where the 11th-century castle now stands – a mass of dolerite where digging graves would have been near-impossible.

The softer sands of Bowl Hole, though, just 300m away, would have been a much more practical location for a cemetery. Indeed, ground-truthing and probing suggest that the burial ground may be much larger than the excavated area, with perhaps hundreds more graves lying beneath the dunes. Given the depth of sand covering them, though, and the fact that the dunes are today protected as part of a Special Area of Conservation and a Site of Special Scientific Interest, further excavations are extremely unlikely.

If the Bowl Hole individuals had lived at the fortress, evidence from previous archaeological work at the castle also testifies to a lavish lifestyle: analysis of animal bones suggests that the community’s diet was dominated by beef and that they were not making much use of the easily available local marine resources – further hints of prosperity.

Isotope Insights

In the two decades following their excavation, the Bamburgh skeletons have undergone extensive scientific study, illuminating the lives of the individuals they represent. Perhaps the most surprising discovery, however – the result of isotope analysis (studying chemical signatures preserved in the bones and teeth that can be linked to specific geologies) – was how diverse the population was. Of these individuals, less than 10% came from the immediate Bamburgh area. The others had grown up mainly in the wider British Isles, particularly on the west coast of Scotland and in Ireland, but others bore witness to much longer journeys from continental Europe and even further afield.

A case in point was a man in his 60s who had been laid to rest in a crouched position c.AD 559-677. At 5ft 10in (177cm) tall, he was above average height for the period, and had been in generally good health and well-nourished at the time of his death, at least as far as his bones can attest (though he had suffered the tooth decay seen in so many of the skeletons, including evidence that he had lost some teeth during his lifetime, as well as a well-healed fractured rib and some fusion of the joints in his spine). Isotope analysis suggests that this man had spent the early years of his life far from Northumbria, across the North Sea in Scandinavia. In AD 793, Scandinavian newcomers had arrived off the coast of Bamburgh in the first documented Viking raid on Lindisfarne. What had drawn this man – as well as at least four other Scandinavian men, women, and children identified among the cemetery population – to settle in Britain as much as two centuries earlier?

Labelled ‘Cwalu’ on the project database, this man was in his 60s when he died c.AD 559-677. Isotope analysis suggests that he grew up not in Northumbria, but in Scandinavia.

An equally tall but rather younger man, aged 23-25, is thought to have spent his childhood in Spain or Italy, and before his death c.536-647, he would have cut an imposing figure with his robustly muscular build. His muscle attachments had been particularly pronounced, leaving clear marks on his bones, suggesting that he was a strong individual who had led a physically active life – the project team suggests he may have been a metalworker.

Although there are no skeletal clues to what caused his early death, we can tell that this man did not enjoy perfect health in life. The root of one of his lower molars had become infected, which would have caused serious toothache, while his right big toe showed signs of damage consistent with gout. It would have been swollen and felt hot and very tender, making it difficult to walk or to have anything touch it during an attack.

Ambitious journeys like these were also reflected by the remains of the very young, particularly children who had both their milk and adult teeth. Milk teeth are formed in utero, meaning that isotope analysis can determine where their mother was living at the time that they were conceived, while adult teeth provide information on where they spent their early years. One such child, aged 9-10 at the time of their death, tells a story of their mother living somewhere far to the south of Bamburgh in a hot climate – possibly southern Spain or even North Africa.

She did not remain there for long, however, travelling with her child to a cooler but still warm climate, perhaps the Mediterranean region or the south of France, where they spent their early years. Yet, in their short life, the child had evidently travelled at least once more, crossing the Channel to end their days at Bamburgh. They were not alone: the teeth of another child, 8-9 years old, preserve the journey of their Mediterranean mother, who had raised her child in France before moving them to western Scotland or Ireland and finally travelling to Northumbria.