Excavating the CA Archive: prehistoric archaeology

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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, starting 6 July. 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 DIGI329, 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

This column is the first in a series that will explore how the magazine reported on different historical eras: first prehistoric, then Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Viking, Medieval, Early Modern, and Modern. Given his longstanding commitment to prehistory, this first column is dedicated to the memory of Geoffrey Wainwright, whose death in April 2017 was widely reported.

In a career spanning more than 50 years, Geoff was a well-known and highly respected individual- as well as at times highly feared. He was instrumental in making the discipline what it is today in terms of practical approaches, philosophical perspectives, and political structures alike; all those involved in archaeology today have been impacted by his forceful character, even if unknowingly so. For those of you wishing to know more about his career, the recent obituaries in the broadsheets will give you a flavour, but for Wainwright in his own voice, go instead to CA 100 (June 1986) and CA 200 (November 2005): in each case, he was one of the personalities interviewed in celebration of those magazine milestones.

Geoff Wainwright and his influential work in prehistory featured in CA many times over the years. He is pictured here on site at Walesland Rath in CA 2 – his first appearance in the magazine.

Geoff was an early and regular contributor to the magazine. He first appeared in CA 2 (May 1967), excavating in his beloved birthplace of Pembrokeshire in south-west Wales. There, he led the rescue excavation of Walesland Rath, an Iron Age enclosure. By then he was already working for the Ministry of Works. (This organisation eventually morphed into the national heritage agencies presently known as Historic England, Cadw, and Historic Environment Scotland, and with whom Wainwright spent the bulk of his career.) He reappeared just three issues later, in CA 5 (November 1967), with the cover dedicated to his excavations at Durrington Walls henge in Wiltshire (just a couple of miles north of Stonehenge). This was a site that Wainwright returned to repeatedly over his life as part of his exploration of the prehistory of the Stonehenge region.

CA 17 explored Geoff Wainwright’s work at Marden Henge. The cover shows what was at the time the revolutionary use of a JCB to strip away topsoil.

Wainwright was back on the cover of CA 17 in November 1969, this time at Marden Henge, also in Wiltshire. The cover shows the then-revolutionary approach of using a JCB to strip away topsoil in preparation for the excavation, which was focused on the north-eastern entrance to the henge. This is now standard practice on many excavations, both ‘rescue’ and ‘research’, but in 1969 it certainly caused a stir: Wainwright was criticised for his alleged carelessness in machining out potential evidence to get down to the crucial prehistoric levels.

Extending prehistory

Of course, plenty of other prehistorians feature in the earlier years of CA. A fine example of a lesser-known site and excavators appeared in CA 47 (November 1974), showing work under way at Roxton in Bedfordshire, right on the banks of the River Ouse. A Bronze Age ring-ditch was being excavated by Alison Taylor and Peter Woodward during 1972-1974. In words that will sound familiar to many present-day archaeologists, CA reported that ‘aerial photographs had shown five ring-ditches and other features within a permitted gravel-extraction area. All five were mostly or totally excavated’; one of these ring-ditches is shown to stunning effect on the cover of CA 47.

The wetlands special issue: CA 172 focused on prehistoric wetland sites, with a cover depicting the arduous work of diggers lying face down on damp planks.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a series of internationally significant prehistoric sites feature in the pages of the magazine. CA 133 (March/April 1993) covered the discovery and excavation of the Bronze Age Dover Boat, which was followed up in CA 287 (February 2014) and again in CA 295 (October 2014). Located deep down inside a coffer dam, this was one of the most -extraordinary prehistoric discoveries of recent times in Britain, transforming our understanding of both prehistoric maritime technology and Continental connectivity. In advance of road developments in central Dover, the dig was also a triumph of ‘rescue’ archaeology. In a different but similarly ‘damp’ vein, CA 172 (February 2001) remains one of my favourite CA covers. This ‘wetlands special’ shows the arduous work of excavating sites on the Somerset Levels, with diggers lying face down on damp planks. (Try lying like this for a prolonged length of time, if you have not experienced it: it is exhausting.) CA 172 saw Geoff Wainwright back in action, interviewed alongside the dynamic partnership – both professional and personal – of Bryony and John Coles, before exploring a superb array of prehistoric wetland sites.

CA 160 (November 1998) provided an update from a location that is every bit as challenging as the Somerset Levels: the Upper Palaeolithic deposits at Gough’s Cave, Cheddar. As the report noted, ‘major new dating programmes, often using material from 19th-century excavations, have now provided a new framework for the late glacial period’. An even more crucial Palaeolithic discovery came from Boxgrove, Sussex, thanks to the chance identification of human remains by archaeologist Mark Roberts; CA 153 (July 1997) reported on the excavations undertaken there, and there was a follow-up in CA 288 (March 2014). Meanwhile, CA 167 (March 2000) reported on yet another challenging environment, this time involving challenging politics too: many readers will doubtless remember the furore surrounding the excavation of the Bronze Age timber circle eroding out of the peat beds of a North Norfolk beach that became popularly known in the media as ‘seahenge’.

Discoveries at Happisburgh (CA 288) extended the known span of human activity in Britain to almost one million years.

Six years later, in the spring of 2006, CA returned to the Norfolk coast and to a much-earlier site with a name that resonates to this day for rather happier reasons: Happisburgh. CA 201 (January/February 2006) reported on this newly discovered site, and it is worth quoting the then-editor Neil Faulkner’s comments in full, for they make clear its extraordinary significance: ‘Barely ten years ago, experts still believed hominids arrived in Northern Europe only after the Great Anglian Glaciation of c.450,000 BC. Then came Boxgrove, the site of a grassy plain buried by glacial debris on what is now the South Coast, where hominids had hunted and butchered large mammals half a million years ago. But now there is Happisburgh and Pakefield. Here, too, are handaxes and butchered bone. They are being eroded onto the Norfolk beaches from the “Cromer Forest Beds”. Yet this level is dated two Ice Ages earlier than Boxgrove – making the hominids a staggering 700,000 years old … the discovery of the earliest hominids in Northern Europe’. A return to Happisburgh in CA 288 (March 2014) extended the span of human activity in Britain to almost one million years. Such an impressive increase in the length of human prehistory seems like an excellent place to end this all-too-brief review of CA’s coverage of the subject. Thankfully, people like Geoff Wainwright were around to lead, interpret, and encourage in this extraordinary period of discovery that has transformed our understanding of the deep past of the British Isles. More recently, Geoff also got to see the amazing work under way at Must Farm, the headline prehistoric site of the 2010s – see CA 263 (February 2012), CA 312 (March 2016) and CA 319 (September 2016). More sites must surely follow, and what tales they will tell!

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 6 July. 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 ‘DIGI329’.

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