Excavating the CA archive: archaeological science

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Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, from 7 December. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI334, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.


Joe Flatman
Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

Archaeological science is nowadays an absolute ‘must have’. With advances in technology across the board, the range of types and uses of archaeological science have grown and grown. Even quite small projects these days call on techniques like radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology to back up their findings, and bigger projects deploy cutting-edge science as standard: the Richard III project (see CA 272 and 277) or the excavations at Must Farm (CA 312 and 319) are two recent examples that spring to mind.

Current Archaeology and the emergence of scientific approaches

As with so much of British archaeology, the 50-year history of Current Archaeology allows us to track the development of what was, at the start of the magazine, a distinctly niche area of work. CA is especially lucky in that it had from its early days an individual nearly as dogged as its founders, Andrew and Wendy Selkirk, who was keen to promote archaeological science: John Musty. More recent arrivals to CA may not recognise this name, for sadly John died in September 2000. But for 18 years, between CA 75 (February 1981) and CA 165 (October 1999), John’s ‘Science Diary’ featured in – and was a much-valued component of – nearly every issue of CA (see endnote).

Andrew Selkirk outlined how the ‘Science Diary’ came into being in his obituary for John in CA 170 (October 2000): ‘he approached us with the idea of writing regularly for Current Archaeology, and between us we worked out the concept of a science diary. At first I was a little sceptical, but it was a great success and there were many readers who wrote to tell us that the Science Diary was the part of the magazine that they turned to first.’

The first ever ‘Science Diary’ appeared in CA 75.

This obituary also outlined just what an extraordinary individual John was: the son of a postman growing up in wartime rural Wiltshire, he won a scholarship to the local grammar school. He went from there to the then highly secret Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment at Porton Down while studying for a BSc in Chemistry at Southampton. Archaeology came to him first as a hobby in the 1950s, and led in time to an MA in Archaeology from Bristol. Eventually, in 1966, John began a whole new career as head of the new Ancient Monuments Laboratory (AML) – in time, this became part of English Heritage and, most recently, Historic England. Only on retirement from the AML in 1980 did he then begin his third career as CA’s science correspondent.

While CA published other scientific reports periodically – there are, for example, references to the impact of radiocarbon dating in CA 18 (January 1970), and to the emergence of dendrochronology in CA 71 (April 1980) and CA 73 (August 1980) – it was the 18 years of the ‘Science Diary’ that formed the bulk of the magazine’s reporting on the subject until the use of such techniques became mainstream in the 2000s. For the rest of this column, therefore, I will be picking some of the choicest nuggets of news from the diary down the years.

‘Science Diary’ reports

The first ever ‘Science Diary’ in CA 75 (February 1981) made clear that ‘it will consist of a series of contemporary topics which seem worthy of mention but inevitably represent a personal choice’. The bar was set high: CA 75 reported widely on work then under way by the Leakeys at Laetoli in Tanzania (dated at that time to 3.6- 3.75 million years BP, and providing the earliest evidence then known of and bipedal gait); on the death of Willard Libby, the inventor of radiocarbon dating; on experiments in the conservation of iron from archaeological excavations; on the use of experimental earthworks; on archaeometry; and on what was then computerisation of archival documentation standards.

CA 93’s cover featured the Middle Pleistocene hominid site at Pontnewydd, North Wales.

Thirteen months later, in March 1982, CA 83 reported on international news on Homo erectus finds from Chesowanja in Kenya and Neolithic discoveries at Tata in Hungary. Closer to home, Musty also reported on finds from the Middle Pleistocene hominid site at Pontnewydd, North Wales, later to feature on the cover of CA 93 (August 1984). Excavated by a team from the National Museum of Wales between 1978 and 1996, the excavations unearthed what are to this day the oldest human remains known from Wales.

By October 1985, CA 98 was reporting on exciting finds and new techniques alike. The new discovery was the remains of Lindow Man, the preserved body uncovered in a peat bog at Lindow Moss near Wilmslow, Cheshire, in August 1984 by commercial peat-cutters, which joined the similar discovery of a woman nearby the year before. ‘Science Diary’ reported on the use of the relatively new technology of MRI scanning to analyse these bodies – nowadays in the care of the British Museum. The new technique mentioned was thermo-luminescence (TL) dating, one of the method’s first appearances in mainstream archaeological reporting.

‘Science Diary’ celebrated ten years of reporting in CA 123 (February 1991) in style, with John Musty posing the opening question: ‘How does one best preserve a large number of 7,000-year-old individuals rescued from a waterlogged site?’. The answer (I summarise) was that, at a site near Titusville, Florida (dated by accelerator mass spectrometry to 7442 BP), both polyethylene glycol (PEG – most famously used to help preserve the timbers of the Mary Rose) and the acrylic emulsion Rhoplex were tested on the remains of 168 articulated and disarticulated individuals buried in peat, and that the latter gave better results. Elsewhere in the diary, John reported on the history of remote sensing, especially resistivity surveys. (Did you know, for example, that as early as 1946 Richard Atkinson attempted resistivity measurements at Dorchester on Thames?) The diary also gave an update on the development of thermo-luminescence dating mentioned above.

End of an era
The last ever ‘Science Diary’ appeared in CA 164.

Finally, in CA 164 (August 1999), the last ‘Science Diary’ was published in a bumper volume that ranged as widely as ever. This last report included an update on palaeoenvironmental sampling along Hadrian’s Wall; plans for the move of the Ancient Monuments Laboratory to Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth (where, under a different guise, it remains to this day); experimental archaeology of the most adventurous type by the Royal Armouries in their programme of ballistic testing of replica ancient weapons (in case you are wondering, a Mary Rose replica arquebus fired a missile at more than 1,000mph, whereas a replica longbow only achieved 100mph: definitely not one to try at home); and, fittingly, a return to the Leakeys at Olduvai in Tanzania, where John had begun the column 18 years earlier. He then came back one last time, for a review of his time at the magazine, in CA 165 (October 1999).

If any readers have stories to share of contacts with John – perhaps former colleagues from the Ancient Monuments Laboratory or even at Porton Down – do please let CA know; we’d love to publish your reminiscences and photos.

Endnote: The ‘Science Diary’ first ran in CA 75, periodically in CA 78, 80, 83, 86, 89, 90, 91, 93, 94, 95, 98, and 99, and then in every issue from CA 101 to CA 165. The magazine has recently boosted its science coverage once more with the ‘Science Notes’ column in ‘News’, launched in CA 333.

Discover old issues

Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 7 December. Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI334’.

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