CA Letters January 2022

Your views on past issues of Current Archaeology magazine.

Victorian street furniture

I was interested to read in ‘Sherds’ about the sad demise of gas lamps (CA 383), which reminded me of a recent sighting of a possibly even rarer item of street furniture: the Victorian cast-iron stench pipe (or, as they are more politely known, a vent pipe). This particular one (pictured below) was in Burton in Lonsdale in deepest rural North Yorkshire. They are sometimes mistaken for ‘headless’ gas lamps, but were originally part of the Victorian sewage system to prevent the build-up of foul and dangerous gases. As with the removal/modernisation of gas lamps, few survive intact.

IMAGE: John Buglass.

John Buglass
Well, North Yorkshire

Wall’s ‘warrior’ figurine

I was interested to read the article on the lead ‘warrior’ figure from Wall (CA 383). When I looked at it many years ago in a poorly lit museum case, with other artefacts, the previous ‘wrestler’ interpretation did not seem unreasonable. But the excellent newly available images have completely changed our appreciation of the object, and while I agree that it should be reinterpreted as a standing figure that has been collapsed as a consequence of being heated, I am not convinced that it has any connection with a cremation burial.

The mode of collapse shows that the source of heat lay under the figure, which was standing upright at the time. This is not compatible with the object being laid in a cremation pit, and hot embers being piled on top. So, were the legs of the figurine pushed vertically into cremated remains that were already in a pit? That can be ruled out too, because the legs would not have collapsed in anything like the configuration we see today. Similarly, we can eliminate the damage being caused by a building in which it might have been displayed being consumed by fire.

IMAGE: Historic England/Bob Smith.

The clue to what really occurred is manifest in the three published images: the collapsed legs and lower part of the torso have slumped into a distinctly rounded mass, demonstrating that when the figurine was subjected to heat it was standing upright, on its own, inside a cup-shaped receptacle. In short, it was in a crucible with a fire underneath.

The legs, being relatively slender, collapsed first, forming a tangled but not molten lump in the rounded base of the crucible. The heavier mass of the torso sunk into it, transmitting heat to the slender neck, causing the head to slump on to the shoulders and the chin to indent itself in the softening metal of the chest. The left forearm, which was raised, and possibly held something in the hand (as the right arm did), softened with the heat and slumped against the side of the already repositioned head.

Since there is no record of the find-spot or circumstances of the figurine’s discovery, there is nothing to connect it directly with the cremations. It was more likely in a plumber’s workshop, where it was about to be melted down when something interrupted the process. The figurine was probably only minutes away from total destruction, because the image taken from the rear (CA 383) shows a wavy-edged ridge around the base of the back, where the lead had completely melted and taken up the profile of the interior of the crucible.

Warwick Rodwell

Syon mulberries

Robert Cowie’s account of the discoveries revealing the layout of Syon Abbey (CA 382) is very interesting.

By coincidence, a nice additional detail was mentioned in an article in The Plant Review (Royal Horticultural Society, December 2021): ‘London’s mulberries and their lost gardens’. Here, Peter Coles writes about ‘Morus Londinium’, a citizen science project locating the several hundred ancient mulberry trees still to be found in Greater London ( Coles says, ’The real champion of monastery mulberries… must be a handful of ancient Morus nigra specimens hidden in the private garden of Syon House… These hollow, collapsed, and sprawling trees are among the oldest in the country, and often said to have been planted by the herbalist William Turner, physician to Edward Seymour between 1547 and 1549. There is no documentary evidence for this (so far), but there are accounts showing purchases of black mulberries for Syon a few decades later, in 1604.’ At that time, James I was promoting the planting of mulberries in hope of establishing silk-making in his kingdom.

Alan James

Edible archaeology

My friend Dr Hal Bonella created an incredible Ring of Brodgar cake for my recent 40th birthday.

These are two of the photos he sent to me, showing how much effort he spent when he created the standing stones. I believe he used printouts from Historic Environment Scotland in order to get them just right, then used more of their survey records to place them correctly. The Ring of Brodgar is my favourite stone circle and means so much to me. I’m so floored by his gift.

The little section on the side of the cake is an inside joke. It shows a ‘section’ having been dug into the bank, with bank material (three raisins) recovered in a find tray. I argued once that raisins do not belong in carrot cake. He vehemently disagreed, and so he cheekily added exactly three raisins to my cake, but only from that ‘section’ of the bank. The rest of the carrot cake is blissfully raisin-free!

Kind regards, Dr Dorothy Graves McEwan

Scratching the itch

I wanted to thank all of you for your consistently excellent magazine. I am an Anglophile American with a keen interest in archaeology, especially of the Roman and early medieval periods. Although I have no formal archaeological training, I feel well-informed because of the depth and thoroughness of your reporting. The map on the back of each issue is very helpful, and has improved my understanding of British geography. I value the book reviews, too, as I am always interested in expanding my personal library, and I often look up museum websites mentioned in your back column. I also subscribe to all your other excellent publications, but Current Archaeology is my favourite because it is all about Great Britain. Finding it in my mailbox is a highlight of each month! Reading it is like scratching a mosquito bite: it feels so good!

Susan Nagle Olsen
Saranac Lake, NY, USA

CA Online

Richard Osgood @richardhosgood
Those of you who enjoyed the mammoth programme over Christmas (@TheDig Venturers, @Matthew Pope & others) or the wonder of the Rutland Mosaic and @butserfarm roundhouse on #DiggingForBritain this week will enjoy the new @CurrentArchaeo magazine – they are all in with lots more!

Wisbech Museum @wisbechmuseum
Catch up on research from the ‘Articles for Change’ project funded by @EsmeeFairbairn @MuseumsAssoc into the #textiles in the campaign chest belonging to campaigner & @Anti_Slavery founder Thomas Clarkson in this article from @CurrentArchaeo

Matt Hall @cispt2
Nice to see story of new artifact in @Sydney_Uni @ccwm_sydney written up in @CurrentArchaeo – owned by Earl of Carnarvon, re-found in a cupboard, traveled to Aus, and now donated:

Write to us at: CA Letters, Current Publishing, Office 120, 295 Chiswick High Road, London, W4 4HH, or by email to:
For publication: 300 words max; letters may be edited.