CA 391 Letters – September

Your views on the latest issues raised in Current Archaeology.

Anglo-Saxon anglings

I enjoyed reading about the killer whale remains found in Anglo-Saxon Norfolk (News, CA 390). Zoe Knapp claims in her report that ‘whales were not hunted in Anglo-Saxon England…’ This is probably not true. In Ælric’s ‘Colloque’ (AD 955-1020) – the pupil-teacher dialogue – the ‘fisherman’, after listing all the species normally caught in the sea, says to catch a whale is a ‘dangerous thing’ because it could ‘swallow up and destroy not only me but also my companions’. But the teacher responds: ‘Nevertheless, many take whales without danger, and receive a large price for them…’ (I am quoting from Kevin Crosley Holland, The Anglo-Saxon World, Boydell, 1982, p.201). I have always taken this last line as a clear indication that whale hunting was not unusual in late Anglo-Saxon England, and the Sedgeford evidence seems to back that up.


Peter Warner
Emeritus Fellow, Homerton College, Cambridge

Dolmen discussions

Just to thank Chris Catling for his most interesting – and superbly illustrated – article about ‘The great dolmens of Neolithic northern Europe’ (CA 390). I was brought up a few miles from Trethevy Quoit (below) and always regarded the monument with almost superstitious respect. It was a place my bride and I naturally visited during the first week of our married life.

Even as a boy, I had reservations about the orthodox theory, that the huge granite capstone pointing towards the skies was originally an underground lid on a box of bodies. Chris’ discussion opens up several possible theories about dolmens, all of them much more compatible with the dignity and majesty of these magnificent monuments.

PHOTO: V Cummings and C Richards.

Martin Axford
Bridge of Weir, Scotland

Dolmen deliberations

In response to Chris Catling’s feature in CA 390, I would like to think that all dolmens were originally built as artificial pulpits for addressing the clan/tribe, either from on top or a position in front. The top could only be reached with a wooden ladder/steps/ramp when needed, so that irreverent kids could not easily get up there when not wanted. The dolmens could also be used like a throne with the dignitary sat under the arch during ceremonies held in the front. Only much later after this was no longer culturally necessary – when tumuli were being built – the locals started to reuse the structures for building covered graves due, also, to their historical significance. This then led to the follow-on development of chamber and passage graves for their relatives and friends as larger versions. Could this make chronological sense? Are there any location or physical markings on dolmens or on the ground around to support any of these ideas?

Additionally, looking at the photos of dolmens surrounded by small stones, why not hold a rock-throwing competition? You have to pick up a rock, climb up onto the capstone, and throw the rock as far as you can. Spectators cheer at the annual strongman games contest with other events nearby. Are there any standard sized/weight of rocks used for this or other events? Do they have any identification marks?

The gist of all this is that most dolmens were originally constructed for use by the elite with restricted access. This degenerated into use as multipurpose community platforms, and only thousands of years later were they used as mausoleums. Evidence of post holes around them would be relevant.

P.S. Also how about a mini stage for a singer/dancer on top and a musician/band below? Like a theatre or an early Glastonbury!

Ken Pavitt

Bullet Point #6

Thank you and your team for once again publishing an excellent edition of Current Archaeology (issue 386, May 2022). Living where I do, it takes a while for my copy to arrive at my local news agency, so my comment/observation may have already been raised by a fellow military history enthusiast.

I refer to page 21 of the article about the POW camp near Oswestry, and the photograph at the top, described as a ‘spent’ .303 round. To my eye (and without reference to a measurement scale to go by), it looks rather like a .303 drill or training round. The rim of the casing appears to be at the base of the round and the projectile point is in place, indicating it was not fired. There appears to be two parallel indentations along the length of the shell casing, which to my eye looks to be diagnostic of a drill round. These were used for safety purposes (i.e. so the rifle doesn’t go bang in the hands of a recruit); training soldiers in the loading/unloading of rifles and how to clear a stoppage. These are inert, they do not carry an explosive charge. I have handled these rounds, and similar are still in use throughout the world to train infantry soldiers.

If this is indeed an inert training round for the .303 rifle, it would well change the interpretation of its archaeological context.

Bryan Howis
Wynyard, Tasmania, Australia

Embroidered archaeology

I was recently commissioned to create an embroidered version of the composite mummies discovered buried under roundhouse 1370 at Cladh Hallan in South Uist (see CA 382). The bones of the two mummies were recreated as accurately as possible, whilst the colours of the surrounding foliage were chosen in keeping with local flora and fauna. The circular hoop represents the roundhouse itself.

Lily Hawker-Yates
Museum of London Archaeology

Happy Birthday, Hadrian’s Wall!

I have just returned from the latest of many trips to Hadrian’s Wall to find CA awaiting my return. It came as no surprise at all to my friends and relatives that I was planning to present the Wall with a 1,900th birthday card – a cheaper but no less heartfelt gesture than the huge and garish artwork at House­steads, which I climbed for the novel views. On the day I made my presentation, a couple of Australian walkers passed the ceremony and, on my explanation, asked, ‘Is this the actual day?’ Perhaps my recent sonnet would attract fewer questions and more appreciation? My novel ‘Hadrian’s Summer’ will, alas, miss its summer marketing opportunity, but should appear before the year’s end.

Dr Martin Davies
Langton Green, Kent

Hadrian’s Wall

(1,900th Anniversary 2022)
A Sonnet

The many benefits of Roman rule
Included bread and circuses and baths;
Not even Nero could be called a fool
If he built long straight roads instead of paths.
Then Hadrian, most civilised of all,
Britannia’s rebellious neck garrotted
With an impressive civilising wall
To woo the boy with whom he was besotted.
The British tribes were dumbstruck with distress –
Catastrophe had hit their ancient home;
But Hadrian had something to impress
The Senate and plebeians back in Rome.
New legionaries, each with boots and pack,
Now stride the muddy worn-out tourist track.

Martin J P Davies

CA Online

Prof.Turi King @Turi_King
In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of @richard_third excavation, I’ve been hosting a podcast series re.project: how it got started, analysis & identification of the remains & beyond:

Dr Joe Flatman @joeflatman
Researching a future @CurrentArchaeo column on #Northamptonshire, here’s CA 106 (Sept ’87) @#lrthlingborough with what-was @EnglishHeritage (now @HE_Archaeology) deploying deliciously old-school #aerialphotography. Suspect they deploy a (logo’d?) drone these days.

Dr Toby Driver @Toby_Driver1
Cutting edge tethered balloon there – reminds me of the old ‘Skyscan’ photography

Martyn Barber @MartynBarber2
I wonder if we still have it… There’d be a few problems generating the hot air.

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