Excavating the CA archive: cover photos from issues 301 onwards

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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 2 May. 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 DIGI351, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

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

In this final column exploring the stories behind Current Archaeology cover images, I am bringing things right up to date by examining covers from issue 301 (April 2015) onwards. Despite the challenging environment for archaeology in recent years, with particularly worrying cutbacks in local-authority heritage services, there has still been some amazing work and some spectacular sites and finds to celebrate. Having just passed issue 350, CA has been – and hopefully will long continue to be – at the forefront of presenting both breaking news and updates on old favourites from the trowel’s edge. Not bad going for a magazine that was started around Andrew and Wendy Selkirk’s kitchen table back in the summer of 1966, as they set out to tour excavations in Britain in a beaten-up old camper van.

The stunning mosaic excavated in the west range of Chedworth Roman Villa featured on the cover of CA 305.

The cover of CA 305 (August 2015) provides a glorious photo of investigations underway on the mosaic floor of Chedworth Roman Villa’s west range. Chedworth is an atmospheric spot to visit at any time of the year. It has been in the care of the National Trust since 1924, and was one of the first ever ‘archaeological’ sites that I visited as a schoolchild, whetting my early appetite for the subject. Although Chedworth was discovered some 150 years earlier (in 1864), and has been on public display nearly continuously since (making it one of the earliest ‘heritage tourism’ sites), the National Trust initiated a major project in 2010 to learn more about its remains. The result, as CA 305 examines, is an enthralling archaeological detective story, matching 19th- and 20th-century documents with 21st-century tools and techniques.

Every so often an archaeological site comes along that resonates with the wider public and gains serious traction in the popular press. In early 2016, one example in particular was the big news story: the spectacular survival of the burned and abandoned Bronze Age settlement at Must Farm. CA 312 (March 2016) featured the site on the cover, exploring its remains with the help of the excavation team from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, who had been given emergency funding from Historic England. When I return to this issue of CA, having been lucky enough to visit Must Farm myself, I am struck by the immediacy of the narrative and the sheer visceral power of this site. There is little wonder why it struck a chord with many people and the press. For all the thousands of years that separate our communities, the surviving domesticity of Must Farm along with the impact of the disastrous fire that inadvertently both destroyed and preserved it speak strongly to the empathetic soul in all of us, for whom a similar personal tragedy seems all too possible to envisage in an often uncertain age.

It was a different type of settlement that was showcased on the cover of CA 312: the Bronze Age site Must Farm, with its well-preserved burned wooden remains.

For its cover story, CA 313 (April 2016) turned its focus to a very different survival of a no-less-enthralling prehistoric settlement: that of Duropolis, near Winterborne Kingston in Dorset, which at the time was being investigated by a team from Bournemouth University. In CA 313, the project’s directors, Miles Russell and Paul Cheetham, describe how their search for Late Iron Age / early Roman activity in the area from 2012 onwards led ultimately to the excavation of the settlement of Duropolis. As they explain, ‘the fieldwork of the Durotriges Project forms an essential component of all undergraduate archaeological training at Bournemouth University… If it is sometimes an exhausting process, with anything up to 200 people participating daily, it is never less than rewarding. In 2015, however, the results were greater than we could ever have hoped for. Both sample trenches revealed that the area had originally been far more densely occupied than we suspected. Although only three roundhouses were clear on the geophysical survey within the trenched areas, the footprints of at least 16 discrete buildings were revealed.’ It is some of these roundhouses, sitting boldly in the stripped-back chalk, that feature so beautifully on the cover of CA 313.

On the cover of CA 313, students chalk up finds at the Iron Age settlement of Duropolis.

If the three previous cover stories have explored as their focus the continuity of settlement in different parts of Britain, then for my final two cover stories I turn to a different narrative: that of travel and communication. CA 317 (August 2016) sets the ball rolling with the story of 405 Roman wooden writing tablets that miraculously survived thousands of years of development and re-development – not to mention the high explosives of the Blitz – to be rediscovered by a team from MOLA on the site of the new Bloomberg headquarters in central London. This area is now better-known for the Roman Mithraeum excavated by W F Grimes in 1954, which was re-installed and opened to the public in late 2017 (see CA 334). The larger excavations underneath the building hugely enhance our understanding of not just Roman London, but also of the wider Roman world of which the city was an interconnected part. With 87 of the tablets deciphered at the time of the article in mid-2016, CA was given a behind-the-scenes tour by the curators and conservators involved. Some of the tablets are now on display at the Mithraeum, which is well worth a visit if you’ve not been so far (it’s free, but you do need to pre-book: see www.londonmithraeum.com/temple-of-mithras/).

An ornate Viking-style beast head recovered during excavations at Wood Quay in Dublin appeared on the cover of CA 328.

For my final cover story (at least for now), I turn to a favourite topic of mine (and, I also happen to know, of the current CA editor Carly Hilts’): the Vikings. CA 328 (July 2017) explored the discoveries made in Viking Age Dublin, especially around the modern government administrative centre at Wood Quay, reporting on the final publication in 2016 of the findings from this site. Carly herself led us through a sometimes torturous tale of discovery and destruction on a site that in many ways is emblematic of all that is good and bad alike in archaeology over the last 50 years. As CA explains, between 1974 and 1981, a vast swathe of this area had been excavated, spanning most of the town’s Scandinavian occupation. This, however, was not as happy a story as it ought to have been, with what can only be described as official indifference to the significance of the site being callous even by the standards of its age. With an administration more interested in getting its new office building completed (a notorious piece of brutalist architecture both loved and loathed from the minute of its completion), a series of campaigns and legal challenges calling for more time and official support for the excavations culminated in a protest march 20,000 people strong in mid-1978. The campaigns, alas, were ultimately in vain, but at least won some vital time for the most pressing rescue excavations to be concluded. If the story is a sad – and sadly familiar – one, the final publication is well worth it, and a fitting tribute to the Viking spirit and creativity. And happily, Dublin today is far more engaged in its Scandinavian origins, having built especially strong links with partners in places like Roskilde with its famous Viking ship museum. Modern-day archaeology is thankfully made of such teamwork.


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 2 May. 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 ‘DIGI351’

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