Excavating the CA archive: cover photos from the first 100 issues

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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 6 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 DIGI346, 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

In my column on the ‘great excavation’ of Shapwick (CA 345), I included one of my all-time favourite Current Archaeology cover photos, that of CA 151 (February 1997), where a then broken-legged Mick Aston (injured tripping over a holy well!) is shown on site in Shapwick along with some curious local cattle. Over the years, CA has featured some memorable cover photos, and in my column in CA 321 (December 2016), I picked some of my favourites from the first hundred issues of CA between 1967 and 1986. I will pick up this ‘cover stories’ thread again over the next few columns, commencing here with some more of my favourites from the first hundred issues, and the stories behind them.

The sandstone slab of the Twentieth Legion, shown as it appeared on CA 18. Discovered in 1969 at Hutcheson Hill on the Antonine Wall, it has remarkable carvings, including enslaved Britons and a boar, the symbol of the legion.

Nearly 50 years ago, CA 18 (January 1970) reported on a find that made front pages beyond the archaeological press: the discovery, in June 1969, of a splendid sandstone slab of the Twentieth Legion, at Hutcheson Hill on the Antonine Wall (since acquired by the Hunterian Museum, Glasgow). The slab, commemorating the emperor Antoninus Pius (AD 138-161), builder of the Antonine Wall, has unusually fine carvings, including enslaved Britons, a boar (the emblem of the Twentieth Legion), and a female figure for whom various identifications have been suggested – Victory, Britannia, or perhaps even the emperor’s wife Faustina. All in all, this was precisely the type of intriguing find, still occasionally made up and down the country, that whets the archaeological appetite of the media and the public alike.

Some six years later, CA 54 (January 1976) featured another Roman find on its cover that had again hit the wider press: the Water Newton Hoard. Nowadays, with the Portable Antiquities Scheme embedded in society and successful displays of artefacts designated ‘Treasure’ drawing crowds to museums both large and small, we have become perhaps a little complacent about such discoveries, but by any standards this find was stunning. The hoard of nearly 30 silver vessels (since acquired by the British Museum) was discovered during ploughing at Water Newton, Cambridgeshire, in what had once been the Roman town of Durobrivae. The cache was important not only in terms of its size but also because it was of early Christian origin (a chi-rho monogram decorated many of the finds), dating to the 4th century AD – at the time of the hoard’s discovery, no definitively ‘Christian’ materials pre-dating the 6th century AD had been securely identified in Britain. Subsequent examinations of the vessels led to the suggestion that they may have been used in a local church as liturgical silver for the Mass – if so, this was the earliest group of such Christian silver yet found in the Roman Empire.

The cover of CA 56 features an aerial shot of the medieval settlement of Goltho, taken from a tethered balloon.

CA cover stories feature sites small and large alike: in contrast to the previous two highly focused examples, CA 22 (September 1970) is a wonderful low-level ‘aerial’ shot of a larger site, that of Navan Fort in Northern Ireland. There, excavations led by Dudley Waterman were revealing that the huge mound that forms the most prominent feature of the site covered, not, as expected, an ordinary burial, but rather the remains of a huge wooden circular structure that had been deliberately burnt when the mound was constructed. CA 47 (May 1975) then provides perhaps an even more dramatic cover photo of a much less well-known site: another low-level ‘aerial’ shot, this time of a ring ditch at Roxton, Bedfordshire, on the banks of the River Ouse. This site – in fact one of five ring ditches and other features identified through aerial photographs within a permitted gravel extraction area – was fully excavated by a team led by Alison Taylor and Peter Woodward during 1972-1974 in advance of the site’s commercial development, a classic piece of rescue archaeology from this era.

The technique also employed at Irthlingborough barrow, as seen on the cover of CA 106.

In terms of even larger-scale landscape archaeology, CA 46 (January 1975) featured an old favourite of CA: Francis Pryor’s fieldwork at Fengate (home to remains that were later better known as Flag Fen), with the sheer scale of work here on the flat landscape dramatically depicted on the cover. But perhaps an even more impressive landscape photo comes in CA 56 (April 1977), showing a site once as well known as Flag Fen in terms of the scale of its volunteer workforce’s output, but since that time rather forgotten: the medieval settlement of Goltho in Lincolnshire. Goltho’s prominent earthworks were, at the time, among the best preserved in the country, and were scheduled monuments, but when notice was given that the land was needed for agricultural purposes, an excavation was arranged by the Medieval Village Research Group (who also led the fieldwork at Wharram Percy, see CA 49, September 1975, and CA 340, July 2018) and the Department of the Environment, led by the legendary Guy Beresford. CA 56’s cover photo was taken by Beresford, some 30m above the final stages of the excavation, when a Romano-British farmstead was revealed underlying the Saxon manor house. He used, as I understand it, a small tethered balloon of the type that is shown, flying above Irthlingborough barrow, on the cover of CA 106 (September 1987).


Those of you who follow me on Twitter (@joeflatman, if you’re interested) know that – following Mortimer Wheeler’s maxim that ‘the archaeologist is digging up, not things, but people’ – I am a particular fan of photos of archaeologists at work, not just of archaeology. CA 60 (February 1978) is an excellent example of the former, depicting archaeologists on an exceptionally unusual site – a previously unknown Mesolithic settlement on Hampstead Heath in north London, at that time a short stroll from Current Archaeology’s original HQ. As CA explains, ‘the discovery of a major Mesolithic settlement on Hampstead Heath, one of London’s major open spaces, was as unusual as it was welcome, and the excavations were begun in 1976 by the Hendon and District Archaeological Society… the site was first discovered by Alec Jeakins, a member of HADAS who, walking through the woods one Sunday after lunch, saw a flint flake lying in the middle of the path… by the start of the excavation in May 1976, over 150 worked flints had been picked up. Thus it was vital to mount a rescue excavation as soon as possible.’ Let the moral be: those of you given to going for a walk after lunch on a Sunday afternoon, go easy on the lunchtime drinks, and keep your eyes peeled for finds even in ostensibly familiar locations.

Hengistbury Head, on the Dorset coast, was one of the largest Upper Palaeolithic sites known in Britain when it was featured, under excavation, on the cover of CA 89 in 1983.

In terms of good heritage locations for walks on a Sunday – or, indeed, at any other time – the site that featured on the cover of CA 89 (October 1983) is a firm favourite of many. Renewed excavations at Hengistbury Head, an atmospheric coastal headland in Dorset with a rich story dating back into deep prehistory, were, in the 1980s, uncovering one of the largest Upper Palaeolithic sites known at that time in Britain. Substantial parts of Hengistbury had been excavated by Barry Cunliffe in the 1970s, focusing more on the later prehistoric, Iron Age, and Roman trade settlements. But in the early 1980s new phases of fieldwork had begun, led by Nick Barton, then of the Donald Baden-Powell Quaternary Research Centre in Oxford. Again, like the site on Hampstead Heath, the location was initially identified by a keen-eyed local. In this case, Herbert Druitt had drawn archaeologists’ attention to the rich surface finds of flint artefacts, leading to initial excavations in 1957 by Angela Mace, and later work in 1968-1969 by John Campbell.

As CA noted, ‘Since the prehistoric deposits lie on a very unstable cliff-top on the Hengistbury promontory there is considerable urgency to complete the work (see cover photo). Some 45m of land have been lost to the sea over the last 75 years alone and the cliff-face has already been eroded away to within a couple of feet of the areas under excavation’. Subsequent post-excavation analyses confirmed the Upper Palaeolithic date of these artefacts, with six thermoluminescence results from heated flint of around 12,500 (±1,150) years ago. In the next few issues of CA, I’ll explore my favourite covers from CA 101-200 (1986-2005), 201-300 (2006-2015), and 300 onwards (2015-). Do let me know your own suggestions for your favourite covers down the years.


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 6 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 ‘DIGI346’

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