Letters from CA – June 2021

Your views on past issues of Current Archaeology.

Pathology in prehistory

The report on the DNA of tuberculosis from a human skeleton (c.400-230 BC) from Tarrant Hinton (CA 370) raised two issues: was this the earliest recorded evidence for human tuberculosis in Britain? And does the assumption of low population densities in the Iron Age sit well with this disease of crowded living conditions?

PHOTO: © Historic England.

Burial 11 from Dryburn Bridge, East Lothian (see Scottish Archaeological Internet Reports 24:18-25), was of a Bronze Age child who suffered some bone loss from around the nose and mouth. The palaeopathologist, Julie Roberts, initially thought that leprosy might be the culprit but this was not confirmed in a DNA analysis. Instead, the analyst recognised a single trace of Mycobacterium tuberculosis. As Julie reports, damage to the face by tuberculosis is rare but not unknown. So, did this Bronze Age child suffer from tuberculosis? It is probable but not proven.

Should we be surprised by such infectious diseases in the Iron Age in Dorset or in the Bronze Age in southern Scotland?

If we look at the local and regional environmental impacts of human land-use or, say, the resources needed by the architecture, we have to accept that there were often large numbers of humans living and working together for some or all of their lifetimes. Under the roofs of their roundhouses, we should assume these folks, at least, slept tightly spaced. So why don’t we expect to see more evidence of diseases and parasites of dense living conditions? Human fleas from another Scottish site, the Iron Age site at Brixwold, Midlothian (Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1997), perhaps show what we should more often find. So, is our generally poor knowledge of prehistoric illness the product of still not looking more carefully for the evidence?

Rod McCullagh

Saving slide archives

I loved the feature on the HEIR Project (CA 369), particularly as I have had many years of working with slides of various formats, from the 1950s until digital projection eclipsed slide projectors in the early years of this century.

With this experience in mind, may I offer some additional points to clarify the details in the feature? First, the standard size of the lantern slide was 3¼ inches square, though some US slides were 3 inches by 4 inches. (Both of these were superseded after the War by the current standard of 2 inches, or 5cm, square.)

Only in the very earliest days – pre-1870 – was it necessary to coat a glass lantern slide before printing the image on to it. When dry plates (for use in cameras) were introduced in the 1870s, ready-coated lantern plates were introduced at the same time. These had the advantage of being less sensitive to light, so that lantern slides could be made in a dimly gas-lit room.

Surprisingly, lantern plates were still on sale in the 1960s; I used them a lot, though by this time they required a red safe-light, and were only made in 2 inches square. Although monochrome, the actual tone could be altered simply by adjusting the exposure and development times.

A pre-cut black paper mask was necessary between the lantern plate and the cover glass. This protected the emulsion while avoiding direct contact of the glasses, which generated moiré patterns (Newton’s rings). The whole assembly was then bound with ready-cut gummed strips, which had a water-based adhesive that shrank on drying and created a really firm sandwich.

PHOTO: © Katharina Ulmschneider

Regarding projectors, when halogen and earlier low-voltage projection lamps began to supersede the older high-voltage bulbs, one or two firms marketed conversion kits. It could be that something similar is still available. Alternatively, an enthusiastic electronics worker may be able to rewire and convert a projector. It is a fairly simple process but must include a transformer.

My best wishes to the project. One hears too many stories of slide archives being binned rather than scanned, restored, and used. This shows what is possible.

Eric Houlder
Editorial Advisor, Heritage Photography

Lantern slide stories

Janice Kinory’s article on historic images and the HEIR Project (CA 369) brought back memories of my years as assistant in the Library of the Society of Antiquaries of London in the early 1970s.

One of my tasks was to operate the projector(s) for the Society’s evening lectures, and those of other archaeological societies. Most lectures were straightforward, but at one lecture at the Society, given by R Pinder-Wilson and C N L Brooke on St Petroc’s reliquary (later published in Archaeologia), the former insisted on using large glass lantern slides in the little-used old projector. Not long after the talk began, the lamp inside the projector exploded; how a few aged Fellows didn’t have a heart attack, I will never know! Professor Christopher Brooke was a real gentleman, and came to my rescue by helping me to select some of his own 35mm slides to be used for the second part of the talk, so that his colleague could continue.

The other aspect of glass lantern slides was with regard to a lecture given by C A Ralegh Radford. He insisted that his talk had to be illustrated with glass lantern slides – the quality was superb. Some of these came from the Society’s own collections, but others had to be newly made, expertly done by the photographic studio used by the Society. Fortunately, the projector bulb behaved itself this time.

Dr John R Kenyon
Llandaff, Cardiff

Viking DNA

I was delighted to read your report about the University of Copenhagen’s mapping of the DNA of the Viking world in CA 369. It confirmed what I have long felt: that is, that the original ‘Vikings’ of the 7th century were the ‘men of the wics’, people of many nations who built marvellous longships (like the Sutton Hoo ship) and traded all around the North Sea littoral from their open proto-urban settlements (their wic names must come from the Latin vicus) in modern-day northern France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, and Denmark.

As happened some seven centuries earlier in the Roman Mediterranean, these highly successful traders started to turn to piracy in the late 8th century, and famously ransacked monasteries, and so on. At the same time, and in increasing numbers, they travelled further afield up major European rivers and to new ‘Scandinavian’ countries further north. From the 9th century, Denmark was the pivotal place, and along with southern Norway and southern Sweden, pagan Scandinavians (not Vikings) were the dominant longship builders who roamed the fringes of the North Atlantic, and settled new places like Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, and most famously Normandy. In England, it was predominantly the Danes (not the Vikings), who settled – hence the ’Danelaw’ area in the east. Ultimately, we suffered a ‘double whammy’ in the 11th century, when we were conquered by first the Danes and then the Normans, as we all now know. But this was actually ‘a good thing’, and with the coming of Christianity, led to us building some of the biggest and most beautiful masonry buildings ever conceived. This had been foreshadowed some 4,000 years earlier, when invasions by the ‘Beaker Folk’ lead to the making of huge megalithic structures.

Tim Tatton-Brown

Edible archaeology

I wanted to share the wonderful cake that was made for my 50th birthday by my lovely 15-year-old daughter, Nell.

I research Iron Age gold torcs, and this was a truly torc-tastic birthday cake… it tasted delicious too!

Tess Machling
St Albans

Prof Alice Roberts @theAliceRoberts

Exciting news: Digging for Britain will be back this year – on @BBCTwo! We’re still scouring the land for inspiring, intriguing excavations and post-ex stories to share – do get in touch. #Archaeology #Digging @ArchaeoOutreach @Current Archaeo @archaeologyuk

Calum Henderson @calum_mh
The latest episode of The PastCast is now live! @Current Archaeo editor Carly Hilts and I spoke to @CarenzaLewis about the long-awaited return of @thetimeteam. Listen to it at: https://anchor.fm/the-past/

Mary-Ann Ochota @MaryAnnOchota
Oh my goodness @Current Archaeo! This could take edible archaeology to the next level!!

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