Archive for September, 2011

Round Barrows – That’s where Bronze Age people buried their dead init! Nuff said”. Factually correct, if a tad simplistic, but of course the potential for learning more about society from studying these monuments it could be argued is still in its infancy. The landscape of Cranborne Chase has been at the forefront of British prehistory and archaeology since the middle of the 19th century, it having one of the densest concentrations of prehistoric monuments in north-west Europe.

image credit: High Lea Farm excavation © Bournemouth University

image credit: High Lea Farm excavation © Bournemouth University

In 2003 John Gale embarked upon a seasonal campaign of excavations at the little known and apparently flattened barrow group at High Lea Farm near Hinton Martell north of Wimborne. The fieldwork was completed in 2009 and the analysis currently under way is discovering information which suggests that we still have a lot to learn about these ‘familiar’ monuments of the Wessex landscape.  

John will also be incorporating some early results of his recent survey work at the Clandon Barrow in west Dorset which has a bearing on the lecture title.

 A lecture in the Salisbury Museum Archaeology Lectures (SMAL) series. SMAL lectures are held on the second Tuesday of each month from September to April (2011)

A talk by John Gale, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, Bournemouth University.

Link: http://www.salisburymuseum.org.uk/what-s-on/lectures/188-the-knowlton-prehistoric-landscape-project-–-we-know-a-lot-about-round-barrows-dont-we.html

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The results of our readers’ vote for Britain’s best building are in. Did your favourite win?

And the winner is...Durham Cathedral is the readers' choice for Britain's best building

And the winner is...Durham Cathedral is the readers' choice for Britain's best building

When we asked which British building you thought deserved to take the final place in our Britain’s best building series, we got a wonderful response and a vast range of suggestions from the very old Stonehenge to the not even finished Shard. But there was one building that was nominated time and time again. Napoleon471 said it is ‘the most beautiful building in the UK’ . gabbyannie commented that it’s “quite wonderful in the daytime, but transformed into a breathtaking sight after dark” and Rosiebriar declared that “the magnificence of its setting high on the peninsula, the grandeur of its architecture dating from 1093, World Heritage status and the endorsement by Dr Bill Bryson all commend this greatest of British buildings.” After three days of voting, the readers’ choice for Britain’s best building is Durham Cathedral. You picked wisely: there are few finer buildings of any period in Europe.

With its commanding setting on a headland high above the River Wear, Durham Cathedral is unmissable, and magnificent. Its architecture is at once powerful and poetic, a monument to the Norman invaders who created it from 1093. But, although clearly designed to dominate the region, the muscular cathedral is most beautiful when you step through its west front and face the length of the incomparable nave. Such beauty and such tragedy, too; here, 1,700 of the 3,000 Scottish soldiers imprisoned by Cromwell within these unbreachable walls died from wounds, disease and starvation; and here, meddling Georgian architects came to mess about with the venerable fabric. And yet, Durham Cathedral has survived and, today, is probably in better shape than it has been in hundreds of years.

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Three very different national histories are marred by their refusal to admit neighbours into the narrative, writes David Cannadine from the Financial Times.

“There are,” John Julius Norwich notes with pardonable exaggeration in his lively and engaging volume on the subject, “a thousand histories of England, ranging from the scholarly to the popular, the impartial to the tendentious, the consistently riveting to the utterly unreadable.”

The Venerable Bede was the first in the field with his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in AD731. Almost 1,200 years and much more history later, another Northumbrian, G.M. Trevelyan, produced the defining account of the national past, not only for his generation but for the next as well. Yet few histories of England have ever attained the canonical status of Bede or Trevelyan, and the best put-down to what has all too often been a formulaic, parochial and self-satisfied genre remains 1066 and All That by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman. In a bravura display of historical comedy, they unrelentingly sent up the conventional national narratives built around dates and dynasties, which categorised all people and events as either “good” or “bad”, which chronicled England’s pre-destined rise to being “top nation”, and which lamented that history came to a “full stop” when that pre-eminence was given up at the close of the first world war.

Sellar and Yeatman published their incisive masterpiece of historical hilarity in 1930 but it would be another 50 years before the no-longer-deniable decline of Britain as a great power, and the growing demands for devolution in Wales and Scotland, combined with the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland, encouraged a fundamental rethink of the traditional English national narrative – a reappraisal beginning in 1984 with the Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, developed by Hugh Kearney in his “four nations” history of the British Isles, and brought to broader public attention either side of the millennium by Norman Davies in The Isles: A History and by Simon Schama in his television series History of Britain.

As they saw it, the history of England was no longer the right way to define, approach or understand the national past: instead, they urged a more complex and nuanced treatment, exploring the relations between England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, recognising the constructed and contingent nature of “Britishness” and paying appropriate attention to the constant interactions between the British and continental Europe and the wider world beyond. Thus understood, the English past was merely one specific component of a much bigger history and multilayered narrative.

“We are told that Hampshire is ‘older’ than France – but what exactly does that mean, and do the French know or care?”

But if the three books under review here are any indication, English history has carried on regardless: for their authors are wholly unengaged with or unimpressed by the scholarly rethinking and upscaling of what constitutes our national past that has by now been going on for three decades and more. John Julius Norwich would shed no tears if Scotland became independent and he focuses exclusively on England because writing its history in one hundred places was just about possible, whereas dealing with Britain as a whole with the same number was not.

For Simon Jenkins, too, England is the subject of his concern. Wales, Scotland and Ireland are separate countries with separate histories, which have only occasionally connected with England: Wales was “a thorn in the side of Norman monarchs”; Scotland had an unrivalled “capacity for causing trouble” for the English; while after the Act of Union, Ireland was “a curse on British political leaders”. And although he had thought of including the histories of Wales, Scotland and Ireland, Peter Ackroyd also concentrates on England, on the grounds that a broader approach would run the risk of “their seeming to become merely extensions of England” – which is exactly how he treats them anyway.

So here, once again, are three little England histories: 1066 and All That, but without the jokes. In A Short History of England, Simon Jenkins provides a brisk and confident narrative from the Saxon dawn beginning in 410 to David Cameron exactly 1,600 years later. He focuses on high politics: kings and queens, war and peace, with (as might be expected of a National Trust chairman) occasional allusions to landscape, churches and country houses. There is nothing here that is new and his account is devoid of context, analysis or explanation, falling back on such banalities as “England had a genius for opportunistic social change” and “new forces were now coming into play”. The Black Death, the “rising middle classes” of Tudor and Stuart times, and the Industrial Revolution are dismissed in little more than a few lines. The marriage of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer is thought of more importance than the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species or the Indian Mutiny. If the book has a theme, it is the growth of parliament, but this is insufficiently developed. In the conclusion, we are told on one page that no extra-parliamentary movement has ever acquired political traction but, soon after, we learn that progress in England has always been the result of social, economic and political change welling up from below. It is impossible to make sense of such contradictory signals.

Peter Ackroyd’s Foundation is not only on a larger scale than Jenkins’ brief canter across the centuries, it is also the first of a projected six-volume history of England, which will test the stamina not only of the author but also of his readers. In this opening instalment, he takes us from pre-Stonehenge times to the death of Henry VII in 1509. As with Jenkins, the narrative is built around the reigns of kings and queens, and their interminable quarrels, and even Ackroyd’s talents as a storyteller are taxed when he takes us through the Wars of the Roses, where everyone seems to have been called Henry or Edward or, alternatively, Norfolk or Suffolk, or Gloucester or Salisbury. These chapters stress chance, contingency and unintended consequences, and he interleaves them with accounts of the ordinary lives of ordinary people: religion, family, education, crime, medicine and so on. According to Ackroyd, it is in the deep continuity of ordinary people’s lives and circumstances, rather than in the chaos and confusion of royal politics and dynastic quarrels, that the essence of English history and national identity is to be found. But he offers no convincing explanation as to how or why this has been true or could be true; and he seems unaware of the fact that the job of the historian is at least as much to investigate and question identities as to support and create them.

Like Jenkins, Ackroyd adopts a traditional style of exposition, and tells us little that is new, whereas John Julius Norwich adopts a wholly novel approach, whose obvious indebtedness to Neil MacGregor’s recent History of the World in 100 Objects in no sense diminishes his own book’s interest. In A History of England in 100 Places, he takes us from Stonehenge to the Gherkin, via Offa’s Dyke, Bodiam Castle, Blenheim Palace, Ironbridge, the Albert Memorial and the National Theatre; but he also includes such unexpected places as Brick Lane Mosque in London, Old Sarum in Wiltshire, the Liverpool houses in which John Lennon and Paul McCartney grew up, and Greenham Common. In these short histories, Norwich succeeds in conveying the complex texture and endless fascination of English history in ways that elude both Jenkins and Ackroyd. He has wise things to say about, for example, the general ghastliness of medieval life and medieval monarchs, the splendours of the King James Bible (“the only world-class masterpiece ever created by a committee”), the limitations of the English educational system, and the inexcusable destruction of Dresden by the allies during the second world war (though he does harbour a particular – and unexplained – animus against Queen Anne).

Despite their differences of scale and approach, dates and names and kings and queens loom very large in all three of these books. Ackroyd takes us through English history from the Saxons to the Yorkists reign by reign; Norwich prints a list of monarchs from Offa to Elizabeth II; and Jenkins not only has his own table of English sovereigns but also adds the names of all prime ministers from Sir Robert Walpole to David Cameron, along with his choice of 100 key dates, which he regards as “the finger-posts of history”, and as “the most important turning points in the national story”.

No one would deny that names and dates, narrative and chronology, are important in our past or in that of any other nation. But as these lists serve eloquently (and inadvertently) to show, without context and explanation, so-called “finger posts” and “turning points” can be as meaningless as the names and numbers in a telephone directory. When some politicians call for a “return” to history taught around kings and queens, they need to be reminded that such calls have repeatedly been made for the best part of a century, and that all too often, the cult of names and dates can be a substitute for teaching or learning history, rather than opening up the real thing itself.

In addition to their excessive stress on kings and queens, all three authors go too far in asserting the singular importance and identity of England. Ackroyd tells us that Hampshire is “older” than France (but what exactly does that mean, and do the French know or care?). Jenkins insists that England’s history is “the most consistently eventful of any nation on earth” (he does not seem to have heard of China or Iran). And while writing his book, Norwich was constantly struck by “how unlike the English are to any of their neighbours” (though most of their neighbours would probably say the same thing about themselves).

But while these claims to exceptionalism seem overstated and, indeed, inappropriate to the middle-ranking European power that Britain has for several decades been, all three authors are to be congratulated for offering relatively even-handed accounts of the national past, and for avoiding the sort of cheerleading propaganda that some politicians are also again urging. Each of these books describes extraordinary achievements and (on occasions) admirable and exemplary lives. But they also describe poverty and suffering, cruelty and destruction, duplicity and aggression on a scale that calls to mind what is happening in the most impoverished and war-ravaged parts of the world today.

By focusing as they do so specifically on the history of England, all three authors are in ignorant or deliberate denial of a generation’s scholarship that has done so much to make us aware of the many and more complex interactions between England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, between Britain and France, Scandinavia and Germany, and between Britain and the wider world beyond. A national narrative that gives no more than walk-on parts to the rest of the British Isles, to continental Europe, to the British Empire, and to those places that were never coloured red, is in too many ways a contradiction in terms.

Little England has always been part of a bigger world and, for good or ill, English history has taken place in many parts of the globe beyond its boundaries and its shores. It was Rudyard Kipling (among other things the author of a distinctly tendentious national history) who once inquired: “What do they know of England who only England know?” As these three books inadvertently make plain, there are two very different answers to that question. The first is “a considerable amount”. But the second is “not nearly enough”.

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge professor of history at Princeton University. His ‘The Right Kind of History’, co-authored with Jenny Keating and Nicola Sheldon, is published in November by Palgrave Macmillan

Foundation: The History of England, Volume 1, by Peter Ackroyd, Macmillan, RRP£25, 352 pages

A Short History of England, by Simon Jenkins, Profile, RRP£25, 384 pages

A History of England in 100 Places: From Stonehenge to the Gherkin, by John Julius Norwich, John Murray, RRP£25, 512 pages

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No comprehensive guide to our islands’ buildings should exclude Hadrian’s Wall or Stonehenge

Jonathan Glancey’s introduction to the Guardian’s Guide to British Architecture encourages a reading of architecture and an immersion in its language (Architecture: an autobiography, 10 September). The buildings “tell tales of people who have lived, loved and worked inside them”. The stories of buildings’ birth, life and death, their design and fabrication, use and abuse, rebirths and ruin, are indeed the narrative that describes a society and its architecture.

Yet the guide as a whole surely misses the deep and longer story of British architecture. Joseph Rykwert’s seminal work The Idea of the Town views the myths and rituals of many previous civilisations; Glancey only allows a brief view of “eight millennia” of architecture with a mention of “the cities and ziggurats (towers) of ancient Sumeria, now hidden from the world in the deserts of southern Iraq”.

Surely Britain is allowed its ancients: does the history of architecture only start with the arrival of Christianity, the dominant force in architecture? Surely it should include places deep in our psyche and defining the last six millennia. Where are the precise fabrications of Stonehenge, and the domestic and environmental connectivity exhibited at Skara Brae? Where are the Romans’ technical marvels, Hadrian’s Wall, and their integrated plumbing and heating?

Are we witnessing an editing moment similar to the TV series Civilisation; or perhaps these Unesco world heritage sites are seen as just buildings, like Nikolaus Pevsner’s bicycle shed – and therefore written out of the story? They were important enough for John Wood, the designer of the Circus in Bath, to survey Stonehenge; and earlier Christopher Wren, a great baroque master, allegedly visited and marked the stones. Peter Ackroyd, in his Hawksmoor novel, develops a narrative that connects Wren at Stonehenge to the death of Wren’s son at the Pyramids of Giza.

Glancey compares the reading of literary greats to the reading of buildings, yet he misses the sensory duet between body and buildings, exemplified by Georges Perec, who combined mathematical and literary puzzles across the life of a Parisian apartment block in Life: a Users Manual. My own favourite from Dickens is a body landscape duet from Great Expectations as Magwitch turns Pip in Cooling churchyard, creating a large-scale metaphoric Thames rotation, moving London west to east.

For me as an architect and tutor, the longer view of British architecture, with civilisations waxing and waning in the face of creative and destructive environmental change, wields salutary lessons.

We can take fictional futures that use the deep and modern past such as those of China Miéville, JG Ballard and Italo Calvino. Digging beyond Calvino’s Invisible Cities, one arrives at the architecture of Cosmicomics, and a fascination in new and rare materials, scientific concepts that become mythical in the Italian’s hand – they are hinted at in your guide’s article on new materials.

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Two children have found “rare” specimens of a fossilised sea creature at the Cotswold Water Park.

Another Rieneckia ammonite was found in the park several years ago

Another Rieneckia ammonite was found in the park several years ago

Emily Baldry, five, from Chippenham, discovered the Rieneckia ammonite during a fossil hunt organised by the Cotswold Water Park Society on Sunday.

Hugo Ashley, from Poulton, and his grandfather also found an ammonite cadoceras, and another Rieneckia ammonite.

A society spokeswoman said Rieneckia ammonites were “extremely rare”.

Ammonites were free-swimming molluscs of the ancient oceans, living around the same time as dinosaurs.

‘Quite phenomenal’

Society spokeswoman Jill Bewley said: “The chances of finding something like this [Rieneckia ammonites] are really, really slim.

“It’s the proverbial needle in a haystack so to hit upon something like this is quite phenomenal.”

After Emily hit upon the fossil with a spade, her father and palaeontologist Dr Neville Hollingworth helped her dig out the block of mudstone the 162.8 million-year-old object, which had spikes to ward off predators, was encased in.

A range of other fossils, including many ammonites, were also found during the hunt, in a sand and gravel quarry within the water park.

Ms Bewley said that once work to expose the Rieneckia ammonite, which measures about 40cm (16in) in diameter is complete, it will go on display at the Gateway Information Centre along with a range of other fossils.

She said Dr Hollingworth found another Rieneckia ammonite in a similar quarry in the park several years ago.

The 42 sq mile site of the Cotswold Water Park, which has 150 lakes, is on the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border.

During the Jurassic period, 165 million years ago, the area was a warm shallow sea.

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A 2,000-year-old mass grave full of dismembered bodies and skulls has been discovered at an ancient burial site being dug up to create a road for the 2012 Olympics.

Archaeologists excavating the Weymouth Relief Road, on Ridgeway Hill near Weymouth, believe the pit of corpses comprises Iron Age war casualties massacred by the Roman Army.

The road is being dug as part of transport links for the Olympics. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

“We have counted 45 skulls so far in one section of the pit, and several torsos and leg bones in separate sections,” said David Score, Project Manager for Oxford Archaeology.

“It’s very early days but so far, after a visit to the site by our head of burial services, the skulls appear to be predominately those of young men.

Torsos and bones feature. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

“At the moment we don’t fully understand how or why the remains have come to be deposited in the pit, but it seems highly likely that some kind of catastrophic event such as war, disease or execution has occurred.”

Score’s gory finds on the £87 million transport route to the proposed “Olympic Village” are an unprecedented follow-up to the discovery of 12 skeletons at the site in January, when he predicted the team “could find anything” while stripping the soil back.

Archaeologists have been working at the site for months. Picture courtesy Oxford Archaeology

“It is rare to find a burial site like this one,” he added. “There are lots of different types of burial where skeletons may be aligned along a compass axis or in a crouched position, but to find something like this is just incredible.”

Dorset County Council said the development was “extraordinary”, and Head of Highways Andy Ackerman warned the public to stay away from the six-metre pit, which has been fenced off.

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A major excavation is under way to explore the unclear history of Britain’s largest Iron Age hill fort.

The Ham Hill Iron Age hill fort site spreads over 80 hectares making it the largest in Britain

The Ham Hill Iron Age hill fort site spreads over 80 hectares making it the largest in Britain

The purpose of the Ham Hill site in Somerset is not known but researchers are now hoping to gain a deeper insight into life 2,000 years ago.

A joint team from the universities of Cambridge and Cardiff have begun a dig at the 88-hectare site to learn more.

Work is due to continue until September 2013 by which time the team hope to have a clearer map of its interior.

Niall Sharples, from Cardiff University, said: “It’s a bit of an enigma. Ham Hill is so big that no archaeologist has ever really been able to get a handle on it.

“People think of these places as defensive structures, but it is inconceivable that such a place could have been defended.

“Thousands of people would have been required; militarily, it would have been a nightmare.

“Clearly, it was a special place for people in the Iron Age, but when did it become special, why, and how long did it stay that way?”

Researchers believe the site may have been a monument and was somehow meant to create a sense of community, collective identity, or prestige.

‘Communal identity’

Christopher Evans, from the Cambridge archaeological unit, said it was a rare opportunity to tackle the site’s big issues on the scale they deserve.

“We don’t know if the site’s development was prompted by trade, defence or communal identity needs,” he said.

“Equally, should we be thinking of it as a great, centralised settlement place – almost proto-urban in its layout and community size?”

One of the key aims of the current excavation will be to pin down the rough date of the hill fort’s construction.

Smaller scale digs at the site have produced a number of finds, including human remains, the skeleton of a dog, pottery, iron sickles and the remains of a house.

‘There is also a wonderful pearched right on the top of Ham Hill tat serves a mean ‘Ploughmans’ and a great pint’ – Somerset tour guide

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