Letters – CA November 2021

Your views on previous issues of Current Archaeology.

Neolithic bling?

With regard to the article on the Neolithic balls found in Orkney (CA 380, ‘News’), mentioning that the purpose of the balls remains obscure, I wonder if a complete layman might make a suggestion? Could their possession simply be a matter of family prestige and the Neolithic equivalent of getting one up on the Joneses?

There was no precious metal to turn into valuable objects; stone was common everywhere and the only way to demonstrate surplus wealth, create ‘value’, and show off would have been the length of time it took to create these items, clearly the thing to have at the time – Neolithic bling. One might imagine a conversation in Skara Brae:

Householder: Have you seen our new stone ball? It’s on the dresser.
Visitor: Oh – you’ve got one of the new ones with knobs on!
HH: (smugly) Yes – so much nicer than the old plain ones like the one they still have next door. We’d had a pretty good year, so we thought… why not? We got it done by that little stonemason in the next village. It took him six months and we had to pay him ten sheep.
V: Good Goddess – six months! That must be the best one in the village!

My interest in archaeology began when my wife worked as a field archaeologist with Margaret Gray for some years in the early 1970s. We started our subscription to CA then and have continued it ever since. I’m a widower now, but wouldn’t miss my monthly fix of the past – well done, Current Archaeology!

Robin Mitchell

Two chapels are better than one

In CA 377, Odd Socs seemed to suggest that Saline’s Morthouse was a type of building unique to Scotland; perhaps that is true, but here in Cambridgeshire we have an interesting mortuary chapel (or perhaps one should say two chapels) at Ramsey.

PHOTO: Michael Dudley.

My wife and I visited this interesting building during a Heritage Open Weekend. We entered the building through a centrally placed door and our guide explained that if the deceased had been an Anglican, the corpse would have been placed in the right-hand chapel; if a non-conformist, in the left-hand one. Those of the Roman Catholic persuasion were barred from using the chapel.

Both chapels had an external viewing window, protected by shutters when there was no corpse. Beyond the shutters, on the inside, a large, glass viewing window protected those outside from any infections or smell from the decomposing body. How long the corpses remained ‘on view’ varied depending on the burial arrangements. This practice was said to have continued until about the 1940s.

Maintenance now depends on a voluntary group, hence the signs of neglect, as fundraising seems to be their principal activity, apart from cutting the grass and weed control.

PHOTOS: Michael Dudley.

Michael Dudley
Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

Bravo, Brian

It was wonderful to read the account in CA 377 of the work of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit on its 50th anniversary. I was reminded of Andrew Selkirk’s splendid tribute to Brian Philp in CA 283, which I re-read.

Brian Philp has long been one of my heroes and it was delightful to realise that his zest, drive, and enthusiasm have in no way diminished over the years since he subsisted in a leaky, cold caravan when carrying out his first excavation at the Roman fort at Reculver.

Bravo, Brian and the Unit! Long may you continue.

Mary Fox
Canterbury, Kent

Hampton Court fire

The article about Dover Castle (CA 377) reminded me of a recent visit to Hampton Court. When I got to Henry VIII’s great hall I found a fire blazing in the middle of the floor. I found this crazy, Henry having a central hearth in his hall and no fireplaces. After all, the Black Prince had three fireplaces in his hall at Kennington nearly 200 years earlier, and by the late 15th century even multi-occupied tenements in Southwark were having fireplaces installed by their landlords.

There must have been some symbolism in a central hearth, but if so it only appeared very rarely.

Dr Graham Dawson

The conquest, continued

While heartily agreeing with the points made by Laurie Shine and Dr Margaret L Faull (CA 378, ‘Letters’) about the suffering caused by the Norman Conquest, I offer the following for consideration.

The British as a whole tend to react to what they don’t like with bloody-minded obstinacy: the requirement to speak French simply affected English vocabulary. This, incidentally, gave us a remarkable language: you can get by with 800 English words or you can expand to Shakespeare’s vocabulary, and you don’t need the subjunctive!

Apart from the unfortunate attitude to women, we do still have Common Law and the expectation that the accused will be innocent until proved guilty.

Although primogeniture undoubtedly caused problems, having to find careers for second and later sons was fortunate in some ways: Horatio Nelson became a midshipman.

Lastly, the British attitude to immigrants, still being worked out, has generally been humane, probably because almost everyone has one in the family.

Ann Page
Verwood, Dorset

Archaeology in schools

Regarding Raksha Dave’s comments on teaching archaeology in schools (CA 378), I have a CSE (sic) qualification in archaeology, earned at a less-than-bog-standard comprehensive in 1977. We do seem to have regressed somewhat.

Graeme Innes-Johnstone
Elland, West Yorkshire

Edible archaeology

Having been mentioned in CA 379 ‘News’ with regard to my role in analysing the stonework of the sculpture of Alfred the Great that stands in Trinity Church Square, Southwark, I passed the issue to my partner who explored the magazine in more depth and came across the ‘Edible Archaeology’ feature. She instantly reminded me of the birthday cake she had made me, claiming that it might be a contender for inclusion in the feature.

The cake includes an amazing sugar-paste construction of a Roman temple and features mosaic tiles and dolphins, which she added to the cake as they were a Roman symbol of romance. The cake still stands, after over a year, as I could not bring myself to cut into it. The icing is now rock-hard, but I am curious as to what might be found if any excavation occurred beneath the surface of the icing!

Dr Kevin Hayward
Building materials specialist

Online views

Joe Flatman @joeflatman
Today we play our periodic game: #archaeology team photo, or prog-rock conceptual album cover? Here’s a superb example from @CurrentArchaeo 213 (Dec 2007)

The Past @read_the_past
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the telephone kiosk. The first model resembled a soldier’s sentry box, made of cream-painted concrete with a red-painted wooden door and glass panes in the two sides. @CurrentArchaeo looks at their history: https://the-past.com/shorts/groups/the-red-phone-box-and-post-box-appreciation-society.

Bella P-H @p_hende1
We always scan phone boxes when away from home to see if they came from Kirkintilloch’s now defunct Lion Foundry. We find them all over Britain and once, to our delight, found one in central London.

Current Archaeology Live! 2022 will be held on 25-27 February. Like last year, it will be a virtual weekend, full of great talks from archaeological experts about the latest finds and ground-breaking research. Watch out for preliminary details of the programme, and the names of the people, publications, and projects nominated for the CA Awards in the next issue.
Write to us at: CA Letters, Current Publishing, Office 120, 295 Chiswick High Road, London, W4 4HH, or by email to: letters@archaeology.co.uk
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