Saving Spilsby sandstone structures

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

On a recent visit to Lincolnshire, Sherds encountered an unusual group of churches, all of them built of a stone that comes from the more colourful end of the Munsell Colour Chart. For those not familiar with this essential archaeological tool, it consists of swatches that you can use to match and describe soil and stone colours, most of which are drab variations of brown and grey. Towards the end of the chart there are all the colours of the rainbow. Surely no stone is really that colour, one might think, but many of the churches around Spilsby, Lincolnshire, are built from locally quarried green sandstone that has the moss-green colour of florists’ oasis (below).

Like an oasis, Spilsby sandstone also tends to soak up moisture and to erode as a result of frost and rain. The churchwardens I spoke to said it was very difficult to repair. This is confirmed by the newly published Historic England database of historic building stone, which bluntly states that Spilsby sandstone ‘can weather badly’.

The Building Stones of England database is an online searchable tool compiled to help building conservation professionals find the materials they need for repairing historic buildings. Just under half of all listed buildings in England are constructed from stone, and it is a key material in many hundreds of thousands of unlisted buildings and structures in conservation areas, national parks, and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Suitable stone to repair them is often difficult to source, so the database, which lists more than 4,000 indigenous stone types, also pinpoints the quarries that are still in production, with the aim of empowering the Mineral Planning Authorities to protect them. To accompany the database, 45 illustrated guides highlight the distinctive stone buildings and geology that are characteristic of their regions.

The guide for Lincolnshire attributes the unusual colour of Spilsby stone to ‘the abundant presence of the green iron silicate mineral, glauconite’. Ominously, it concludes that ‘there are currently no quarries working the Spilsby sandstone for building stone, which poses a considerable challenge to conservation repair efforts’, and one wonders just how many of the other 4,000 building stones in the database can be sourced any more – perhaps a companion guide is needed of compatible substitutes.

We can do oracy

The term ‘oracy’ was coined in 1965 by the late Andrew Wilkinson, Professor of Education at the University of East Anglia, by adding the ‘-cy’ ending that indicates proficiency in a particular skill to the word ‘orate’. Wilkinson wanted to draw attention to the importance of speaking with confidence and fluency as a separate skill from literacy (reading and writing) in the development of communication skills.

Recently the word was revived in a speech on Labour’s education policy made by Sir Keir Starmer on 6 July 2023: the Opposition Leader promised to ‘weave oracy through a new national curriculum that finally closes the gap between learning and life, academic and practical, vocational skills, school, and work’.

Perhaps, Sir Keir, we archaeologists can help. Back in 2009, Sherds interviewed Carenza Lewis for an article about her ‘Access Cambridge’ project (see CA 239). This involved working with young people from families with no history of higher education, and having them spend a weekend digging test-pits in the gardens of host families in villages known to have medieval antecedents (above); then they would spend another weekend in Cambridge, analysing the results and experiencing college life.

I have never forgotten Carenza’s answer when I asked her which activity she thought had the most impact in raising aspiration and attainment. Expecting her to say, ‘the excitement of discovery’ or ‘dinner in a college hall’, she said instead: ‘asking them to stand by their test-pit and give a short presentation on what they had found’. Nobody was allowed to opt out, no matter how shy, insecure, or anxious they might be, and Carenza described the exercise as transformative, as the young people experienced the effect of being the focus of everyone’s attention, of being listened to, and of holding an audience with their words.

Archaeology is not the only creative discipline that can deliver oracy, but it definitely belongs to any package of measures designed to fulfil Labour’s educational plan. We can also deliver all of Sir Keir’s other strategic objectives, which include ‘creativity, resilience, emotional intelligence, the ability to adapt, practical problem-solving, academic rigour, curiosity, a love of learning, and an emphasis on all the attributes that make us human, that distinguish us from learning machines, and that make our communities and our lives so rich and rewarding’.

Most commentators warmly welcomed the oracy strategy, the main objection being to the term itself, which, said Lucy Kellaway in the Financial Times, ‘has a nasty whiff of the dentist’s chair about it’.


CA readers have recently told us about the words and phrases that they find objectionable, and this has encouraged others to air their thoughts on a variety of other topics requiring reform. Commenting on the striking advances in recent years in the use of drone photography in archaeology, Professor Norman Hammond reminds us of a short piece he wrote for Antiquity half a century ago, introducing the idea of a giant scale for distance photography. He proposed the use of a cloth made up of ten strips of alternating black and white fabric sewn together and laid on the ground to make a scale 1m wide by 10m in length. Richard Atkinson, Professor of Archaeology at University College, Cardiff, added a note to say: ‘Dr Hammond’s giant scale for air-photography is so simple, and so evidently effective, that one wonders why no one has thought of it before’.

…and footnotes

Professor John Blair, meanwhile, wishes us to reject the ‘Harvard-only’ referencing policy – which gives preference to in-text citations – that he fears is being adopted by an increasing number of scholarly journals and monographs. The use of the Harvard system makes sense for the relatively straightforward citations of short research reports in science publishing, he says, but scholars in the humanities need to do more than cite a source, and hence need footnotes or endnotes that can be used for additional observations.

John says he has heard footnotes dismissed as old-fashioned, but ‘from my recent experience as a graduate interviewer at Oxford, I can say categorically that students in their early 20s see the necessity of footnotes as much as their Victorian predecessors did’. Evidence that the footnote is alive and well comes from such recent bestselling works of general history as James Belich’s The World the Plague Made (2022), which has 448 pages of text and 157 pages of endnotes.

John believes that the steady reduction in funding for humanities research in favour of science has resulted in many people in editorial positions growing up with the Harvard system and knowing no other. But Harvard, he says, is crude and makes sentences cumbersome. In place of lucid writing, Harvard references constantly intrude, distracting the reader and making it difficult to follow the argument. The root of the problem, John concludes, ‘is lack of dialogue and understanding. I’m sure that everyone concerned would understand the needs of colleagues in the humanities if they were made fully aware of them, and I hope that even those who do not agree with me will at least see the need for discussion and understanding.’

Criminal names

If your surname is Lawless or Golightly, it is possible that one of your medieval ancestors was regarded as a deviant or a criminal. So concludes Dave Postles, the historian of medieval English surnames, who has observed that surnames did not become fixed until about the mid-14th century, and that nicknames could be ‘imposed by local society on errant individuals as a disciplinary measure, as a kind of labelling of miscreants’, and perhaps as a sign of social disapproval that was less harsh than complete ostracism.

A blog post on the website highlights some of the unflattering names that Dave found during the course of his research into criminal records from the 13th and 14th centuries. They include Roger Laweles, Agnes Daythef, Henry Golichtly, Walter Litlegod, William Suerdsliper (arrested in Wakefield for breaking laws concerning the bearing of arms), Nokekina Hoggenhore (one of six prostitutes arrested in a brothel), Godwin Haluedeuel, Henry Euilchild, and John le Fatte (a well-built pig stealer). Few of these names have survived later amelioration: the world no longer has many people called Maufesour (‘malefactor’), Stangethef, Cuttepurs, Wolvesheved (from caput lupinum, ‘wolf’s head’ – the term for an outlaw), or Brokenheuedknaue.

Images: Chris Catling