Tagged: archaeology

Who Doesn’t Love a Plague Pit? (most people except for me!)

Sorry for my radio silence on this blog recently, but in my defence I have a stack of awesome new content because I was in Europe for research and fieldwork. So this post is dedicated to my first dig of the 2015 season – Thornton Abbey!

The Thornton Abbey Project has been running for several seasons now and is a field school for my beloved University of Sheffield. However you can also score yourself a spot on the excavations upon application via their website, and its always a very multinational excavation. This season there were Brits, Canadians, Americans, Hungarians, Indians, Francophones, Icelanders and of course… Australians! To read more about the Thornton Abbey project click here. The project leader is Dr Hugh Willmott from Sheffield, a great man, who begun this project to find the post-medieval manor theoretically built in the grounds by one of the families who owned it post-dissolution… the manor is yet to be found, sorry Hugh!


the fortified gatehouse of the abbey

Thornton Abbey is in “rural” (what passes for rural in the UK) Lincolnshire and what is left of the Abbey is open to the public as an English Heritage run site with the surrounding paddocks privately owned and tenant farmed. We were digging in the fields surrounding the Abbey, where the older church turned Abbey Hospital (or so we think) were located and where some other associated buildings once stood – very much a case of finding a series of small walls (youtube clip).


see… a series of…


… not so small walls…

Here is my extremely brief run down of the site’s history:

  • Some early Anglo-Saxon activity and possibly Roman wares found, not too sure about intervening years until the Norman period (bad Anglo-Saxonist that I am…)
  • Priory founded on the site in 1139 by William le Gros, Count of Aumale, Augustinian/black canon house
  • 1148 raised to status of abbey
  • 1180 le Gros buried at Thornton
  • 1274 patronage passed to the Crown
  • 13th century much of the building works are in progress
  • 1382-1389 fortification of the gatehouse, likely due to the peasants’ rising
  • Survived the dissolution because it became a secular college 1540s under Henry VIII
  • Closed in 1547 as a training institution and went into private ownership

NOW TO THE PLAGUE PIT! Due to the sensitivity of working with human remains I cannot put any of my photos of the skeletal material up here, so for anyone looking for cool skelly pics, sorry. You’ll just have to use your imaginations.

Next to what the team believe is the monastery’s hospital lies a quite large cemetery. This is not a typical high-medieval, nicely laid out cemetery but, we think, at some point, a mass grave for victims of the plague. Which, if I may say so as a funerary archaeologist is PRETTY DAMNED COOL! From my understanding it wasn’t really a massive pit of bodies per se, a little more organised than that, but by no means the individualised burials of people who have died separated by time.


Trench M aka the Plague Pit, where I was most of the dig, sans skeletons

Needless to say, coming from an Australian background where archaeological human remains are a bit taboo (for multiple reasons) I was very keen to excavate the graves. By the time I joined the dig it was the last week of the season, and it appeared that they were down to lifting the last few graves (this earliest phase appears to not be from the plague period as the individuals are in individually cut simple graves with a mixture of men, women and children – suggesting a lay population). So myself and a colleague were set to levelling some of the areas between graves to make the section nice for photography and recording… until we hit another skeleton that was not meant to be there… rude! This set the tone for the rest of the week with more and more skeletons popping up around the old church/hospital building, which is a bit inconvenient when you need to shut the trenches down for the season, but for us students it was heaven.

If I remember correctly they have lifted over 200 skeletons from the site for careful storage and research back at the osteology labs in Sheffield. It will be a great teaching and research collection, I am really looking forward to seeing what work comes out of it.

Sadly I don’t think I can give you much more detail than that, you’ll have to wait for them to publish findings or read the dig’s blog. What I can give you more info on is the plague and how it does (or does not) affect the human body and then the skeleton. Finally a medieval use for my science degree!

  • The plague or its most famous outbreak – The Black Death was at its peak in Europe c. 1347-1350 (give or take) and killed somewhere in the region of 30-60% of Europe’s population
  • Most forms of plague are bacterial and only affect the soft tissues of the body, and pretty horrifically at that. The Black Death is caused by a bacillus bacteria called Yersinia pestis
  • Did you know that China and other parts of the world are having resurgences of plague? Read more here
  • Whilst the bacteria has devastating affects on the body it rarely if ever leaves identifiable traces on the bone, therefore our only hint as archaeologist is usually the circumstances of the burial i.e. mass graves, although carbon dating to the 14th century does also help clinch it if its available
  • However if you are lucky and have good preservation sometimes you can get aDNA (ancient DNA), but not of the people, of the bacteria, and this is the best diagnostic tool of all. Often such bacterial indicators of health will be trapped in dental calculus (the oh so lovely plaque etc. build up on teeth that happens in past populations when brushing your teeth wasn’t a done thing)
  • My colleagues who work on aDNA, palaeopathology and related fields have discovered through aDNA research that there were actually several strains of plaque in the middle ages, and are studying the evolution of modern plague. Some of the research suggests that it hasn’t necessarily evolved too much… an outbreak in Madagascar in 2013 proved to be almost identical to that found in 14th century skeletons in London, clearly it is still as dangerous as ever and doesn’t need to evolve too much.

If it goes ahead in future years I can thoroughly recommend taking part, its a fun, friendly atmosphere and if you’re keen you can try your hand at not just excavation but geophysics, trench recording, find processing and much more.

And now for some more pretty pictures of the site and the dig in progress:


Archaeologists like to be silly too sometimes… being cool benedictine style!

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Reflections on Studying in the UK

So in September 2013 I flew overseas to fulfil a massive dream of mine – to study in the UK. Admittedly when I was in primary school (yes primary school, I was a super keen kid) I had imagined that being in Oxford or Cambridge, but as a 22 year old I didn’t care where I went; I just wanted to live there, study there, and get amongst the medievalness. My destination was Sheffield, and it’s where I had one of the best semesters of my university career. And let’s get this straight in the beginning it’s Uni of, not Hallam… dear god not Hallam…



Sheffield Town Hall and the Peace Gardens

Many people said things like, “But it’s a northern industrial city, why are you going there to do medieval archaeology?” Well I’ll tell you why – because it’s one of the best archaeology departments in the UK: seriously, they’re amazing. Not only are their undergraduate courses top-notch, they also have a fantastic array of Masters coursework courses. That’s enough about their courses for now, if you are interested check them out.

I took 3 subjects whilst in Sheffield, which is the full-time load for the UK. This meant 6 contact hours – that’s right 6 – it was amazing. I took 2 archaeology subjects one of which was medieval, the other funerary archaeology, and the other subject was ‘The Medieval Inquisition’, a history unit. The most surprising thing was that tutorials appear to be an almost foreign concept, only my history subject had one and it was one of my two contact hours for that subject – very bizarre, but I was ok with that. The lectures themselves were definitely on par with, if not better than the ones at USyd, if only because they were super interesting and different. The archaeology subjects I took were theory and not lab based, which meant twice a semester the second hour of the two hour lecture became a “tutorial.” These “tutorials” meant that you discussed feedback from the major assignments or the course,  and in some cases had to bring in homework. – which is a very different set-up to Australia.  At home I had at least one or two science subjects a semester, each with 4-6 contact hours, so it was odd not getting to know my classmates or having frequent discussion around what we were learning. However, as an exchange student this was perfect – it meant I could party, socialise, and travel more. Although as I had picked the UK and Sheffield specifically to do classes to a) test run that I really wanted to do medieval archaeology and b) get a jump start on my honours research, I would’ve loved some more contact hours; I spent a lot of time raiding the Western Bank Library instead.

The Arts Tower and Western Bank Library from the duck pond in Weston Park

The Arts Tower and Western Bank Library from the duck pond in Weston Park

What Sheffield lacked in contact hours they made up for in very approachable and helpful staff. I’ve often felt unable to approach or form a professional relationship with my science lecturers (not so much in arts), but my lecturers in Sheffield truly went above and beyond. It helped that for two subjects the class sizes were very small, and as an exchange student I stuck out. Martial, John, Gareth and Katie could not have been more welcoming and helpful. John and Gareth in particular were beyond amazing: helping me with my research by sending me some of their own work, new monographs I would otherwise not know about, etc.

I should probably reflect more upon the general experience of studying in the UK, rather than go on gushing about the archaeology department (which is easy to do!) I think the biggest shock for all of the exchange students was the grading – the whole scale of marks was much lower in Sheffield and in the UK more generally. I know it varies between every university no matter where you are, but it is very different from Australia. 40 is a pass mark, anything in the 60s was great (in archaeology anyway), and 70s was 1st class. We were used to getting 70s and 80s in our Arts subjects in Sydney, and suddenly 70s were really amazing. It was a big adjustment, and even harder to explain to people when you get back home; “No I wasn’t slacking off, I swear it’s a great mark over there – see on the grading scale it’s a 2.1, basically a distinction… totally fine… I swear!”

Firth Court Building at the University

Firth Court Building at the University

The other big thing was trying to break into the local social scene. I had amazing flatmates and friends in the other exchange students from all over Europe and the world, however we were in England, so not being friendly with the locals would seem like a bit of a fail. Being there for only 1 semester made it a bit tricky, especially when you’re not living with Brits – by the time you’re solidifying friendships it’s time to go, but I made some good friends. The one huge piece of advice I can give is to get involved and do it early. I wimped out of some of the early events when someone from my res wouldn’t go with me, which I regret. Sadly the water polo trainings were at horrific hours where I’d get home from the pool at around midnight with early classes the next morning, so I ditched that which was a huge shame. But once I got involved it was great; you just have to brave the being the new kid from Aus, and there’s some territorial stuff that’s going to happen, you know how other girls are (or maybe not), and of course everyone closer to my age had known each other for years, but be nice and everything comes good. That’s one thing I’ve learned from changing schools during my life, and it certainly applies to changing countries.


Sheffield Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul (because one saint isn’t enough!)

Overall it was an amazing experience.

On the medieval note I could not get over being able to go into the medieval cathedral whenever I was in the city centre doing some shopping on the high street (dear god everything is so cheap! Primark, Poundland, the 99p store etc. are a student’s best friend), or it was only about an hour to York or Lincoln to get my fix in a proper medieval walled town. Likewise having the WHOLE B.A.R. at my finger tips was amazing, sooooo many site reports it was archaeogasmic. 2.5 hours on the quick train or 4 hours on megabus and I was in London able to utilise the archives at MOLA (who were also amazingly generous with their time and resources), go to the museums… heavenly really.

Some quick tips if anyone is heading over:

  • Get yourself a 16-25 railcard if you fall in the demographic, it’ll pay for itself in no time.
  • Megabus is amazingly cheap, and whilst often late, quite a decent service if you’re not in a rush.
  • Link said 16-25 railcard with your oyster card, and load with a day or weekly etc. pass rather than pay as you go, PAYG often works out to be much more expensive.
  • Easyjet and Ryanair aren’t that bad, I never had a problem with them, and you can’t knock £13 tickets to Dublin.
  • An English Heritage or National Trust pass or membership may be worthwhile if you’re planning on doing a lot of trips out.
  • If you have a UK student card it’s gold for entry into museums, castles etc. as well as for public transport (not sure about in Scotland but it worked for me in Somerset and other counties well beyond Yorkshire).
  • BOOK YOUR RAIL TICKETS IN ADVANCE, it doesn’t work like here, most tickets fluctuate radically depending on how close to the date in question, time of day etc., so don’t get caught out.
  • Email anyone you want to meet with about your research, just go for it, almost everyone I approached was very helpful and friendly.
  • Apply for research permission at museums and other collections early and plan ahead as much as possible.
  • Go to research seminars and talks to network and find out what kind of research is happening in your new university and town, and even further afield.
Nothing quite says Sheffield more than Yorkshire crisps which are Henderson's Relish flavoured - Ey Up!

Nothing quite says Sheffield more than Yorkshire crisps which are Henderson’s Relish flavoured – Ey Up!

Any questions? Queries? Feel free to ask.

Studying Medieval Archaeology in Australia – A Fool’s Errand?

It may become a theme of the authors here that we are frustrated at the situation of medievalists down-under, and rightly so. We are further from the manuscripts, the architecture, the artefacts and from many of our colleagues than any northern hemisphere academics. What surprised me (Sam)  most about living in England for a short time was the relative ease with which I could ‘pop’ over to North America. I’m sure many others would say that a 10-12 hour flight isn’t quick or easy, but when your grandparents live a 6 hour drive away – in the same state as you, and you’ve made the 24-32 hour flight to Europe 3 times in 18 months, the trip to North America seems like a breeze. This proximity to resources and peers in the northern hemisphere is something that I think many scholars take for granted, and why I feel that us Aussies are often forgotten about or under-valued. It takes some serious commitment to be a medievalist, or most types of academic, in Australia.


However as an archaeologist the frustration is perhaps heightened. Unless you are a prehistorian, most archaeologists (whether we admit it or not) are at least in part historians, so the aspects of our work which rely on documentary evidence are much the same as any academic living away from the original text – we can function quite easily with facsimiles and translations etc. However the unique thing about archaeology is that we are NOT historians and the whole point is that we engage with the material culture and get down and dirty – literally. In my 5 years of study I am yet to actually dig on a site from my period, and this depresses me greatly, and it also probably makes me seem ridiculous to my peers in the UK or even America. But when it is so expensive to not only get yourself a place on a dig but to travel there from Australia (not to mention our semesters don’t line up) it makes it really hard to earn your stripes by excavating in Europe. As you may have picked up I have travelled to Europe and the UK, but due to finances and when I was able to fit exchange into my degree I have only been there twice and only in the European winter – which is not when people are excavating – no one likes to be digging when a) its freezing for you to be there b) when the ground is probably frozen so you can’t actually dig or c) when its so wet from snow or rain that the trench is more like a pool (which admittedly can be a season in the UK summer anyway). So I’ve missed out on European digging… not fun.

t-rex on top of a fake castle-hotel in Queensland aka what medieval archaeology in Australia must seem like

T-rex on top of a fake castle-hotel in Queensland aka what medieval archaeology in Australia must seem like

Another tricky thing about studying archaeology at The University of Sydney (and keep in mind I love my uni and my department) is that we have basically no real excavation opportunities offered by the university. The only ‘local’ opportunity at the moment is with Amy Way down in Lake George, which admittedly is great, but its the first time in my 5 years that a PhD student has been asking for student digging volunteers so close to Sydney. The other opportunities require significant financing – Zagora, Pella, Paphos – and are often run at inconvenient times. The Zagora dig in particular, which one of my ArchSoc friends has just come back from, and the my other friend is still over there, is run in the middle of semester. Frances organised her assessments around her brief time over there, picking subjects specifically so that could work (and not everyone has that luxury, certainly as a science student I could never miss labs let alone move them or go away for a few weeks in semester). Lachlan who is still in Greece chose to take the opportunity at the loss of a whole semester which he will have to make up later.

The thing to note here is not just that it is tricky for us to get experience (perhaps a better rant for later) but as you might have noticed they are all Australasian, Near Eastern or Classical digs – which to be fair is what our department focuses on. Sydney, and I believe all Australian universities, do not teach early historic European archaeology. So how on earth did I become a medieval archaeologist? Good question! I was really stubborn and decided with dual majors in my arts degree of Medieval Studies and Archaeology I could do it! Out of the 8 classes needed for my archaeology major I have only taken 3 in our department, the rest were in anatomy or on exchange in England. This makes me unusual in both Australia and England, no one really knows what to make of my degree, I think. Neither do I sometimes. But it meant that I gained the knowledge necessary to focus on funerary archaeology and the medieval period at large. 3fdca7affac7c3c9b1b0af0edfbb9831

But I guess the big question is – is it a fool’s errand? Will I be accepted or valued due to my lack of field experience and unorthodox coursework list? I think the true test of that will be with time, all of the British academics I met couldn’t have been nicer to me and were all so helpful. However, I always have a sense of ‘impostor syndrome’ because I’m an Australian trying to make my way in Anglo-Saxon archaeology. I am, like my colleagues Alix and Harriet, trying to rectify my lack of European field experience and we are trying to make ourselves known on the conference circuit. But despite our efforts will we always be on the outside purely because we trained in Australia?


Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods, John Hines and Alex Bayliss (eds)

Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: A Chronological Framework

By: Alex Bayliss, John Hines, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac and Christopher Scull

Edited by: John Hines and Alex Bayliss

The Society for Medieval Archaeology, London 2013

ISBN: 978-1-909662-06-03

SMA Monograph 33

Rating: 4.5/5 – because let’s be honest its enormous and very impressive (its hard not to be impressed by anything associated with Bayliss and Hines).

Reviewer: Samantha Leggett

Summary: This volume seeks to address the large deficiencies in dating and chronological frameworks for graves of the early Anglo-Saxon period. A wide range of techniques, types of evidence and sites were used from the 6th and 7th centuries (the later part of the early Anglo-Saxon period) to revise and and review previous artefact typologies and seriation*. This was primarily done with precise dating techniques – C14 dating of bone and Bayesian modelling. The result is their new chronological frameworks for both male and female graves, treated separately in the text, which theoretically allows for cross-site calendrical dating rather than the traditionally flawed site-specific chronologies.

image from oxbow books

Now down to the real stuff:

I was directed to this work by Dr Gareth Perry at the University of Sheffield when seeking advice for my research into the conversion period cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England. It came out at the end of last year and is the culmination of a large and multidisciplinary project funded by English Heritage and spearheaded by Queen’s Belfast and Cardiff University. First off this volume is MASSIVE, it weighs about 3kgs (“How do you know this? I hear you ask – well I had to work out how much it weighed to bring it back with me from the UK) and whilst I would usually agree with the old adage that quantity does not always equal quality, in this case it does. This is a monograph of real substance and thoroughness. Whilst the technicalities of the Bayesian modelling and statistics are a little beyond my grasp, the interpretations, integrations and implications in the last few chapters are extremely useful for anyone studying the burials of the 6th and 7th centuries. The authors have truly thought about the implications of these adjusted dates for not only burial practices but also for wider Anglo-Saxon society.

This volume is clearly aimed at an academic audience, more specifically Anglo-Saxon archaeologists, particularly those working in the funerary sphere. These chronologies are tied very firmly to the carbon dating of the deceased persons in these cemeteries, however they show promise for expansion into settlement archaeology as well. One of the key points this volume argues is that furnished burial essentially ceases in the later decades of the 7th century AD. As the project was meant to but did not extend into the 8th century or beyond, I have issues with this proposed cessation from my own work. Whilst these adjusted chronologies do appear to be accurate, some sites I have included in my own thesis still have furnished burials into the 8th century, and there is some suggestion for this continuing into the 9th as well (admittedly these 9th century sites are in Viking settled areas in the North of England). I think this conclusion is premature, and would I would like to see an extension of this very important project into the later Saxon periods as well.

The separate male and female sequences will I think, cause some issues. They are of course based partly on sexing of the skeletons but still rely on the traditional male-female artefact typologies, which can be extremely unreliable. There are for instance males buried with female assemblages and vice versa. Not to mention the mysterious “third gender” assemblages that have been postulated in these early cemeteries. Likewise it is my understanding that, as in most of the original cemetery reports, this study appears to take the sex of the grave from the grave goods when the sex is not apparent from the skeleton itself. This is dubious, a long-standing practice, but still dubious and it may perhaps impact upon the chronologies. I’m not entirely sure how to account for this in the Bayesian modelling, and perhaps they have, but I just couldn’t see this accounted for in any significant way.

However, this project was ambitious, and from my early-career point of view, successful. Many of us have bemoaned the extremely “dodgy” dates of these cemeteries and the individual graves within them. As any archaeologist knows stratigraphic and typological dating is rife with issues. The research presented in this monograph begins to rectify the dating inadequacies of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and therefore has wide-ranging implications on the interpretation of these sites,  the artefacts and the make up of Early Anglo-Saxon society. The implications for economic activity, settlement archaeology and burial practices are significant for anyone interested in this period. The sheer scope and magnitude of the sample used is amazing and makes the results appear, to me, sound and well founded.

This is a mathematics and looooong paragraphs heavy (quite literally) monograph, which should draw the attention of most Anglo-Saxonists archaeologist, historian and literature buff alike.



Seriation – the arrangement of items, in this case archaeological artefacts in a sequence according to criteria, usually stylistic in nature. Often used for pottery or in the case of Anglo-Saxon artefacts brooches.


Report: The Ness of Brodgar – a Millennium of Prehistory in the Heart of Neolithic Orkney World Heritage Site

On the 10th October the regular Department of Archaeology postgraduate seminar had a special guest – Nick Card from the Orkney Research Centre for Archaeology (ORCA). Nick was magnanimous enough to talk to the department while he was here in Australia on holidays, the joys of academia! (It was also a novelty for us to hear a Scottish accent, half of our department are English, but Scottish is so much more fun). His talk focussed on the exciting new finds from the Ness of Brodgar site which is part of the wider World Heritage Site of “the Heart of Neolithic Orkney” on the Orkney mainland. This World Heritage Site includes Neolithic sites such as Maes Howe, Skara Brae, the Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  The site lies on a very thin stretch of land between two lochs – the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness. As I write this Neil Oliver has eerily popped up on my TV in his programme “Sacred Wonders of Britain” talking about the Ness in episode 1 – well worth a look.

Nick Card talking to Neil Oliver on the program (dodgy snap of my tv sorry!)

Nick Card talking to Neil Oliver on the program (dodgy snap of my tv sorry!)

The Ness and these other sites form part of a highly dynamic and, I found, surprisingly densely populated (5-10,000 people!) landscape in the Neolithic period. Before I go on with the rest of the report about Nick’s seasons at the Ness, I am sure many of the readers are wondering why something about Neolithic Orkney is on a Medieval blog? Well firstly this landscape of Orkney is amazing and awe-inspiring no matter what academic background you come from, and secondly the Orkneys were a major Viking focal point. Many of the ancient stones have Norse graffiti, it is a landscape with near continuous settlement for over 5000 years. Many of the folk tales surrounding these monuments can be traced back to the early medieval period and the Vikings.

The Ness of Brodgar site between the two lochs

The Ness of Brodgar site between the two lochs

At the beginning of the project they used good old geophysics, Lidar and aerial photography. The last two aerial techniques have covered over 300Ha of the island, uncovering an amazing amount of new archaeology. A famous saying Nick kept reminding us of is “if you scratch the surface of Orkney it bleeds archaeology,” and this certainly appears very true. The site is just one of many new archaeological sites found on the island. The first round of geophys saw John from Time Team come up and survey the area, however now they have their own dedicated unit. The geophys results turned up a lot of targets for excavation, which have yielded some extremely interesting finds.

There have been a variety of techniques applied to the site:

  • C14 Dating
  • Magnetometry
  • RHX
  • OLS Dating
  • Flotation
  • Pollen cores
  • Micromorphology
  • PXRF
  • ‘Smart Fauna’ (this is really intriguing and I’ll mention it later)

IMG_2747            IMG_2746

I won’t recount everything Nick covered in his talk, it was very detailed, fantastically so, but I’ll highlight some of what I found was the most interesting points brought up.

Firstly the structures 

I could go on and on about all of the amazing structures they have uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar site. Even though I’m a medieval archaeologist I still have a special soft spot for the Neolithic – maybe its a product of being trained in Australia by mostly prehistorians, or maybe its because I did a high-school ancient history project on Newgrange and the Bru na Boinne complex, but the structures with their magnitude and exceptional stone working and engineering are enough for any archaeologist to marvel at. There is evidence of multiple stages of buildings at the site with up to 150 buildings over the 1000 year span – for instance Structure 1 has over 14 floor layers. Many of them are what we might term lozenge shaped and include piers and buttresses, with everything made of stone, including the roofs. All the stone is local to Orkney, however each structure is made of a different type of stone from separate sites around the island chain. Neil Oliver, in his documentary, noted this same phenomena in the stone circles on Orkney and proposed that this may be a way of uniting the communities across the island – each stone representing a tribe or family group in an important monument. It is certainly an interesting thought. These buildings have a very similar structure to the chamber tombs, yet they tend to have hearths and the ‘stone dressers’ of domestic houses. Structure 10 is truly monumental, replacing the lozenge shaped interiors with a cruciform internal chamber. This is very like Maes Howe, and like the Howe it incorporates standing stones into the structure and is in fact aligned with the tomb. It is most decidedly NOT a tomb, featuring a hearth and ‘dresser’ as mentioned before. According to Card it is likely to be more esoteric in function and he made lots of allusions to similar structures in Central Asia and the Near East.

a cgi reconstruction on Neil Oliver's program with Neil and Nick standing next to it - note the stone roof

A CGI reconstruction on Neil Oliver’s program with Neil and Nick standing next to it – note the stone roof

Secondly the art

The trademark of the Ness is the sheer amount of Neolithic art. Some of it is obvious, and some is very ephemeral. Many of the stones either incorporated into the buildings or standing stones had pecking tool refinement to dress the slabs. There is also plenty of geometric art similar to the patterns found at sites in Ireland like Newgrange (I’ve been there, amazing and well worth the trip!). There were several gorgeous polished stone artefacts uncovered – mostly axes and the like. However the best of all, and here Nick got very passionate, was a carved and polished stone ball. It has 6 knobs asymmetrically placed around the sphere. There are hundreds of such objects from over Scotland but only 2-3 of them have ever been found in context – this was an exceptional find (so much so that Nick had offered a very good bottle of single malt whiskey for anyone who found one on the site – sadly the student who found it doesn’t like whiskey – such a waste!)

the amazing stone ball find - picture from www.orkney.gov.uk

The amazing stone ball find – picture from http://www.orkney.gov.uk

Thirdly the “Crack of Doom” and the World’s Largest BBQ

The giant crack that the team were worried about actually pointed to a large midden. In that deposit they found a huge Neolithic cattle skull – possibly related to an auroch – and it’s the largest ever found in Neolithic Britain. There was a lot of animal bones around the site with what appears to be a deliberate laying out of fauna remains numbering 400-600 animals right at the end of the period of use of the Ness. This is where the ‘smart fauna’ analysis was used. This giant animal slaughtering event coincides with the arrival of new pottery styles in the Iron Age. It was Neil Oliver who called this event possibly the “world’s largest BBQ”. Card seemed to suggest the Iron Age brought about some kind of very abrupt and significant end for this major Neolithic site, but why exactly is left up to the imagination.

So what is this site all about?

Nick Card provided lots of different hypotheses for what is happening on this site. It is not a totally “religious” or “sacred” site like Maes Howe or the standing stones, nor does it have a solidly domestic signature like Skara Brae. It does not appear to be occupied all year round and Nick describes it as a “monumentalised domestic” signature. It has a massive wall surrounding it and as mentioned above the buildings are all bigger than most other sites; there is also a lot of artwork. Clearly this site had some special significance to be so monumental and used for over a thousand years, but just what that is, we may never know. Check out the National Geographic interpretation of the site for a potential reconstruction.

It was a fascinating talk and I would like to thank Nick Card for giving up his time to speak to us during his holiday and over a lunchtime (it’s a brutal time-slot).

For more information about the project and the site click here and here. For those of you around Sydney Uni, Nick Card will be speaking again for the Celtic Foundation on the 23rd of October – further information and RSVPs through Jonathan Wooding.

Introducing Samantha Leggett

helllloooo internets!

Another one! Who on earth are you?

I’m the baby of the group – my name’s Samantha (Sam) Leggett and after a long double degree I’m finally finishing my undergrad and beginning to embark upon the wide world of academia. I’m currently writing up my honours thesis and have completed a BSc in Immunobiology and a BA in archaeology and medieval studies. I’m also a coeliac who is attempting to write another blog (thesis procrastination) about my GF travels with pretty medieval sites included too. Primarily though I’m a medieval archaeologist with specialty training in molecular techniques and anatomy – woooo sciencey stuff!

What’s a medieval archaeologist doing in Australia?

Well…. good question! I’m Australian, Sydney-sider born and bred. And I couldn’t pay international student fees/Sydney Uni is just so gosh darn pretty, so I stayed in Aus for my undergrad after high school. To be honest I planned to be far more sensible and just do medieval studies as an indulgence major, and then they pulled me in, I married it with my archaeology and have never looked back.

Where did you study?

I’ve completed both my degrees at the University of Sydney, like Amy and Kiera, and its been a blast. However, I did do something which I would recommend to any aspiring Australian Medievalist – I went on exchange to the UK. I studied for a semester at the University of Sheffield which gave me amazing insight into the archaeology of the region on a first-hand basis and could bounce my ideas off specialists, which is invaluable. And don’t ask me where I’m going to study next year – my brain hurts too much from my current thesis to choose.

What’s your research area?

Well my honours thesis is currently titled (and this may change between now and October) – ‘Mucking it up’: The Influence of church, kingship and trade on the Conversion-Period cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England c. 597-800 A.D.

Essentially I’m comparing Anglo-Saxon cemeteries from the conversion period that are from different kingdoms and different settlement types to investigate secular versus ecclesiastical power in the early medieval period. I’m finding some cool stuff, just saying… but you’ll have to wait until its finished for more.

Early medieval socio-political and religious relations and change is my focus on a very broad scale. BUT I also do love issues of ethnicity in late antiquity and the early middles ages… let’s avoid going down the rabbit hole for now though.

So that science degree of yours… what’s that all about?

Ah that old thing! (not really, I only finished it last year) Well I was always pegged as the science girl back in high-school, and don’t get me wrong it fascinates me – but to be honest this was only because science education initiatives had more money thrown at them, and hence I got to go on a bunch of fun camps like Forensic Camp (yes that’s a thing) and the National Youth Science Forum. What these camps did show me was that unlike at high-school real world science is very inter-disciplinary and at NYSF the then director suggested that I do a double degree so that I could incorporate the two together.

Immunobiology you say – what the heck is that? Well its a very broad major that involved a lot of cross-listing. Essentially I did a bunch of genetics (but hated biochem so I couldn’t get a Molecular Bio and Genetics major) and studied human disease – yum! But yes its true I did a genetic engineering subject and made a very pretty mutant tobacco plant – that’s medieval right?

I also did fun dead body anatomy stuff – which I included for archaeology. But I can use it ALL to study medieval populations, I think I’ve ended up with a holistic tool kit to investigate the literature, material culture, genetics and health of medieval peoples.

Do you exist outside of academia?

Why yes I do! I love sport, and whilst I don’t play at the moment, I still coach netball and T-ball. I have recently taken up recreational pole-dancing, its a challenge! And above all I LOVE to travel, and I blame the travel bug for my perpetual lack of monies for sensible things like a car or a house.

Got any gluten free cooking tips? 

SO MANY. You’ll have to check out my other blog when it finally gets up and running. Major tip – xanthan gum for baking is a must. I also make a mean risotto. I’ve also recently acquired some medieval recipes and plan to try them out GF-style, it’ll probably be a disaster.

Wanna stalk me?

I am yet to get twitter… heathen I know! But here’s my other blog (with nothing on there at the moment) – Gluten Free Europe and my academic page.  Stalk away!