Unearthing, preserving, and presenting history

Elephant traps

The elephant trap – a deep pit cunningly disguised by laying branches and foliage over the top – is a cliché (or perhaps we should call it a trope) much loved by cartoonists and comedy films set in the jungle. Now it looks as if they really were used by pre-farming communities to capture aurochs, deer, boar, and other forms of wildlife destined for the cooking pot, and that there are thousands of such pits in the Stonehenge landscape.

Reporting on the discovery in the Journal of Archaeological Science (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2022.105557), researchers from the universities of Birmingham and Ghent claim that one of the pits they discovered, measuring more than 4m in width and 2m in depth, represents the most ancient trace of land-use so far discovered at Stonehenge, dating back some 10,000 years, and ‘the largest of its kind in north-west Europe’.

Perhaps of much greater significance for archaeology is the method used to find the pits: the researchers say that their approach uniquely combined the first extensive electromagnetic induction survey undertaken in the Stonehenge landscape with evidence from more than 60 geoarchaeological boreholes, 20 targeted archaeological excavations, and computer-generated analyses of thousands of the subsurface features revealed by the geophysical data.

Philippe De Smedt, Associate Professor at Ghent University, likened geophysical survey to an ‘archaeological “biopsy” of subsurface deposits, allowing us to visualise what’s buried below the surface of entire landscapes’. From 2017, the team carried out excavations to evaluate six of the 400 large pits detected by the geophysical survey (defined as being more than 2.5m in diameter), finding that they ranged in date from the Mesolithic (c.8000 BC) to the Middle Bronze Age (c.1300 BC), showing that the higher ground to the east and west of Stonehenge was used repeatedly over 7,000 years for hunting and gathering, long after the introduction of farming.

Not all Vikings were Scandinavian

Vikings are another favourite cartoon topic, usually depicted with sword, buckler, and horned helmet, standing at the prow of a longship with high bow of the kind found in ship burials and displayed in Oslo’s world-renowned Viking Ship Museum. Founded in 1926, that museum is currently closed for rebuilding, and is scheduled to reopen for its centenary year as the Museum of the Viking Age. When it does, it will have a slightly different story to tell according to the results of a DNA survey carried out by researchers at the universities of Bristol, Cambridge, and Copenhagen, and published in Nature (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586- 020-2688-8). This shows that not all of the people buried with Viking grave goods or at Viking burial grounds in Scotland came from Scandinavia: some were local people (including whole families) who took on Viking identity and were buried as Vikings.

RIGHT Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum is currently undergoing rebuilding work, and is scheduled to reopen in 2026.
Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum is currently undergoing rebuilding work, and is scheduled to reopen in 2026. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons, Larry Lamsa.

The research team sequenced the whole genomes of 442 men, women, children, and babies from teeth and skull bones found in Viking cemeteries in Greenland, Ukraine, the UK, Scandinavia, Poland, Estonia, and Russia. Bristol’s Dr Daniel Lawson explained that ‘people in Scandinavia during the Viking age were relatively similar [in their DNA profile] but we developed advanced methods to separate their ancestries’. This showed that Vikings from what is now Norway travelled mainly to Ireland, Scotland, Iceland, and Greenland; those from Denmark travelled to England; those from Sweden went to the Baltic countries. Raiding parties often consisted of genetically similar people, suggesting that they probably came from a single community or were members of the same family, such as the four brothers in one boat burial in Estonia who died on the same day.

What was more surprising was that ‘Viking’ identity was not limited to people with Scandinavian genetic ancestry: Scottish and Irish people with no Scandinavian DNA received full Viking burials in Norway and Britain.

Viking fishing techniques

The Museum Crush website (which, like this column, likes to dig up curious and off-beat stories) has a report on fishermen in Scotland who ‘still fish like the Vikings’. This involves standing chest-deep in the Solway Firth, negotiating a capricious tide, and using a ‘haaf net’ to catch any unsuspecting salmon or trout riding on the currents.

The claim to Viking ancestry is partly based on the name of the nets used in this traditional form of fishing: haaf is an Old Norse word that means ‘sea’. Haaf nets are suspended from poles that are 16 feet (4.9m) in length, which is apparently the same length as a Viking longboat oar. Viking or not, there is no doubting the antiquity of the haaf-net tradition, for it is mentioned in a charter of 1538 in which James V of Scotland granted the right to fish the Solway Firth to the citizens of the Burgh of Annan, a charter renewed by James I of England (James VI of Scotland) in 1612. In addition, one of the best spots for fishing is marked by a boulder known as the ‘Altar Stone’ that has been firmly embedded in the tidal sands since the Middle Ages, marking the parish and burgh boundary, and the border between England and Scotland.

The wonderfully named Devil’s Porridge Museum, near Annan, Dumfries (‘devil’s porridge’ is a reference to the explosive cordite that was made in the local munitions factory during both world wars), recently mounted an exhibition dedicated to the history of haaf-net fishing, emphasising the threat posed to the tradition by the declining number of people willing to brave the cold water, the shifting currents, and the unstable sand which can suck like glue, but also capturing the elemental nature of the activity. Oral histories speak of the phosphorescence that can appear in the Solway Firth, making the water glow with ethereal light, the resplendent sunrises and sunsets, and the proximity not only to the salmon but also to the seals and porpoises living in the estuary.

The shell middens of America

RIGHT Researchers studying shell middens in North America are discovering more about the large-scale oyster harvesting carried out by indigenous populations
Researchers studying shell middens in North America are discovering more about the large-scale oyster harvesting carried out by indigenous populations in the past. IMAGE: Paul VanDerWerf.

While the hunter-gatherer people of Britain were digging pits to catch game, their Native American equivalents on both sides of the continent were harvesting oysters on a huge scale. Another paper in Nature, looking at indigenous oyster fisheries (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29818-z), illustrates the astonishing quantities involved, with shell middens that dwarf the researchers from the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History who have been excavating them. The largest of the sites studied is in Florida, where one midden contains the remains of an estimated 18.6 billion oyster shells, piled up in a great white mountain, more than 6m in height.

These indigenous oyster fisheries persisted for 10,000 years or more, during which time the size of the oysters harvested remained consistent, suggesting a sustainable approach to the stewardship of oyster reefs, because overfishing would lead to smaller oysters being taken over time. The middens were found to contain house platforms and hearths, with human burials nearby, leading the researchers to ask whether the oyster harvest was associated with rituals or beliefs that protected against over-exploitation. Torben Rick, Curator of North American Archaeology at the Smithsonian, says that ‘to harvest things sustainably, it requires a respect for the species that you are engaging with [and] an acknowledgement that this “resource” is not exclusively yours. It belongs to everybody living today, as well as those that are coming behind us.’

A new museum in Ukraine

Members of the International Council of Museums continue to argue among themselves about the definition of ‘museum’: the currently favoured wording says that a museum is ‘a not- for-profit, permanent institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets, and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage’. A conference that will decide the matter is to be held in Prague in August.

Meanwhile staff at the Museum of the Second World War in Kyiv have been putting this definition into practice by collecting artefacts associated with Russia’s invasion. The museum wants to preserve the objects as evidence for posterity and as a witness to what happened for those who have not experienced war. Exhibits collected by museum staff with the help of the Ukrainian military include a hundred pairs of Russian army boots of different shapes and sizes, arranged inside a red star; artefacts from churches damaged during the fighting; the remains of a Russian armoured personnel carrier; and the fuselage of a Russian Su-25 aeroplane, shot down by the Ukrainian military on 2 March 2022.

As for intangible heritage, the museum features a television screen showing footage of Russian politicians, television hosts, and citizens making derogatory statements about Ukraine and justifying the invasion, to illustrate the chilling role of propaganda and fake news. Oleksandr Shemelyak, a senior researcher at the museum, said that many soldiers were visiting the museum and bringing objects with them to add to the collection.