Archaeology Group Meetings held in 2006

Archaeological sites in Crete – 22nd January

Cynara Crump gave an illustrated talk on the history and archaeology of Crete. She told the meeting that despite the island’s small size –160 miles long by only 7½ wide at its narrowest point – it has been invaded, fought over and settled by a surprising number of cultures.
Perhaps as long ago as 6,000BCE, it was inhabited by people who probably originated in Asia Minor and it wasn’t until some 2,500 years later that the civilisation called by Sir Arthur Evans the Early Minoan I, appeared. It flourished until 1700BCE when a massive earthquake destroyed many of the buildings that had given their name to the period – the Old or Early Palace period. The New Palace period followed the earthquake when much rebuilding – bigger and better – took place, only to be destroyed, in 1450BCE, by a major eruption from a volcano on Thera. This signalled the emergence of the Mycenaean civilisation and, in the late Minoan II period, the construction of the building for which Crete is perhaps most famous – Knossos palace.

From around 650BCE the island experienced successive invasions: Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, late Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish, which resulted in the exotic mix of architecture and archaeology that so vividly reflects Crete’s turbulent past and makes it the fascinating destination it is today.

Cynara’s talk was beautifully illustrated with many slides and photographs of the sites, landscapes and artefacts that she had seen and visited on her tour.

Sheila Burch

Mottistone Down Burial Mounds – 26th February

Mottistone Tumuli © MC

Mottistone Tumuli © MC

In spite of icy winds and sleet, sixteen intrepid members met in Jubilee car park, Brighstone for a walk led by Frank Basford. We were unable to go on the route originally planned due to forestry work and therefore “Plan B” was implemented which was to head up Mottistone Down to see the Bronze Age burial mounds. We were shown many barrows at the side of the track, some of which were only visible to a trained eye. Each barrow would have contained at least two graves – inhumations or cremations – of people of high standing. Sited as they are on higher ground clustered around a combe-head, they would have been clearly visible from the inhabitants’ residential area. It is also thought that the surface would have been left bare, the chalk shining in the sun, as constant reminder of their ancestors! Apart from the obvious barrows, Frank also drew our attention to several other features on the landscape. These included a rectangular enclosure positioned around two or three of the barrows – purpose unknown – and several linear features at right angles to the main track, which he thought were possibly strip lynchets. Earthworks at Castle Hill could be seen on high ground across the valley containing the Neolithic Longstone. We could also see Black Barrow on its natural mound on Grammars Common. Continuing up to the top of the Down the damage being done to the Barrows by human feet, vehicle tyres and animal hooves was plain to see and of great concern. The most invasive damage however is done by rabbits and this is obviously the most difficult to prevent. In spite of extensive excavation, particularly by one Reverend Skinner in the early nineteenth century, very little remains of the contents of these barrows except for one complete cremation urn, safely housed in archaeological archives. It is however depicted in the drawing in the information board sited near the largest of the Barrows at the top of the Down. As we made our way back after a most interesting walk some of us were discussing what our Bronze Age ancestors would have been wearing on a bitter day like today. Not enough, I think!

Chris Fisher

Cnut – Emperor of the North – 12th March

Mr Mei Trow, author of Cnut, Emperor of the North, delivered a most informative and enthusiastic account of a little known monarch, to a sizeable audience at IWNHAS HQ in Ventnor. There was no mention of a King casually sitting on a beach whilst the waves gently lapped over his feet and ankles, instead we learned of a wise and powerful man with a strong survival instinct.

Born ‘Knutr’, around 1000AD, to Danish King and Viking Swein Haraldsson alias ‘Forkbeard’ and, it is believed, his first wife Gunnheld / Saum-Aesa. That Cnut’s mother was Polish is thought to explain his later interest in Eastern Europe and that ‘Wiht’, considered by some to link Cnut with the Isle of Wight, is actually derived from ‘Wihtland’ – Poland. Cnut is believed to have begun to participate in Viking raids, with his father, from the age of 12, invading England around 1016. At that time England was ruled by King Aethelred, who was considered useless in protecting his people from the attacks.

England was an attractive prospect because of its enormous wealth and lack of a military system. Initially monasteries were targeted in a series of ‘hit and run’ raids during which gold and wine were stolen. England offered good farming land compared to the Scandinavian homelands, encouraging settlement by the invaders. In 1002 and 1014, £24,000 and £21,000 (today equivalent to millions of pounds) was paid by the English to the Vikings under “Danegeld” (Danish taxation) as ‘submission tax’.

On Forkbeard’s death in 1014, Cnut became King of northern England, with additional claim to the Danish throne, whilst Aethelred remained in power in the south. Between 1014 and 1016 a series of battles ensued between Cnut and Aethelred’s third son Edmund ‘Ironside’, with several followers changing allegiance and back again, culminating in the battle of Ashingdon. By this time Aethelred was dead and his second wife, Emma of Normandy, wanted Edward (later the Confessor), her and Aethelred’s son, to become King. Ironside was defeated, fled the battlefield and ventured westwards. One week later Cnut and Ironside met again in Gloucestershire, striking a deal at Deerhurst church on Alney Island, at which it was agreed that England would become a ‘dual’ kingdom – Ironside taking Wessex, East Anglia, Essex and London whilst Cnut took the ‘northern parts’. Six weeks later, Ironside was dead! It is unknown whether his death was due to natural causes or murder. Now, Cnut became King of all England, his position not contested due to the deaths of several of Ironside’s powerful supporters at Ashingdon.

Post 1017 marked the formation of Anglo Scandinavian England – intermarriage and close working relationships between Saxons and Vikings produced interwoven communities and stimulated the development of similar religious and farming practices. Evidence of earlier intermingling of cultures exists in the ninth century amulet that combined the Christian cross with the Thor hammer, from pagan Thor / Odin.

Cnut died on November 12 1035, aged around 45. This ended an eighteen year reign, a long period for the eleventh century, during which time the people of England would have enjoyed a period of relative stability. Cnut was seen as a wise man who had the ability to recognise those that could help him. He had married twice, his first wife, Aelfgifu had borne him two sons, Swein and Harold ‘Harefoot’, whilst with his second wife, Emma of Normandy – who had been the second wife of King Aethelred also (and whom Cnut renamed “Aelfgifu”) – he had a son, Harthacnut and a daughter, Gunnhild.

Harold succeeded Cnut as King of England, but died in 1040 and was succeeded by Harthacnut, who died of natural causes in 1042. They were succeeded in 1043 by Edward (the Confessor), son of Aethelred and Emma of Normandy (Aelfgifu), restoring the Saxon line. However, the Viking influence lives on! Surviving in our language – Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday originate from Scandinavian language / religion – and as the basis of English law, produced in two series by Cnut and Wulfstan, Archbishop of York.

Alison Broome

Bembridge Down – Archaeology & Geology – 13 May

Seventeen members and guests gathered at Bembridge Down on a sunny but very blustery day for a walk led by Dr David Tomalin. He began by describing the various historic drainings that had been made to Brading Haven during the 14th, 16th and 17th centuries, culminating in the drainage of the entire haven from 1877, to give us the landscape which we have now. It is still possible to debate the merits of drainage versus non-drainage, though one of the stated aims of the project of bringing the railway to Bembridge is now a bit ironic in view of its closure some four decades ago!

Just as we set off, David pointed out the colossal bank in view – might this have been a lynchet of some sort? Was it possibly some form of land apportionment in connection with arable farming here during the Roman period, or perhaps mediaeval instead? Walking down the slope, our attention was drawn to the mediaeval ridge-and-furrow system (though better visible from above or below than in the field itself).
Arriving at the cliff edge at Redcliff Battery, the 19th century Palmerston Folly also known as Bomber’s Hollow, David recounted his reminiscences of the 1978 excavation of the very interesting Neolithic / Bronze Age site underneath and surrounding it. Rich finds of Neolithic flintwork – beautiful, crisp, black and glossy – were uncovered from the working floor where it was being churned out; in addition the only complete Island Neolithic pot, two Bronze Age urns, a complete Bronze Age beaker, and even Romano-British glass beads were discovered here – a most remarkable place! Microlithic finds indicated that the site had even been used in the Mesolithic period. David then demonstrated his point by descending to a working floor perilously close to the cliff edge and retrieving some good examples of worked flint; he also drew attention to the ferruginous sandstone which is easily confusable with Iron Age pottery. Why had this site been chosen? Because it was possible to extract pristine flint out of the chalk base, and there was also a source of water reasonably close by. David speculated whether there might once have been a causewayed enclosure in the area, now lost out to sea.

Walking back along the cliff, David pointed out a V-shaped piece of land which hid a large deposit of varied soils, and using snail-shell analysis Frank Basford and Mike Allen had been able to establish varying levels of late glacial landscape, prehistoric woodland habitat, a Roman arable landscape, and a post-Roman pastoral site. There are 77 species of land snail in the British Isles, which can often be used as proxy for pollen in determining ancient environments.

A spitfire shot overhead at the beginning of the walk, and three ravens were also spotted during it. Though only a relatively short distance had been covered on the walk, it was a measure of the quality of information imparted that everyone had braved the somewhat rough weather conditions for a full two-and-a-half hours. David was warmly thanked for a very interesting excursion.

Alan Phillips

Joint Archaeology & Geology Meeting – 25th June

Flint knapping with John Winch ©

Flint knapping with John Winch ©

At the kind invitation of Joy Verrinder, a meeting was held at her property in Yafford where John Winch demonstrated flint knapping. Society members have been helping with her Neolithic farming project and this was another strand in the skills needed 6000 years ago. John, Joy and Alan found some flint nodules at Cheverton Quarry and he demonstrated the difference in flint quality by the sound made when tapping the nodule with a stone. A good quality flint has a ringing tone. He used various hammer stones and antler tools to knap the flint. In fact he smashed the largest hammer stone trying to open a very large flint nodule. During the demonstration he showed how careful working of the flint could produce long thin blades. He also made a hand axe but had to curtail the finishing, as there was a flaw in the flint which would have caused the axe to break, if further shaping occurred. Our ancestors must have found this happened regularly.

Jackie Hart and Mike Cahill


Barrows, Landscape and Place Names – 16 July

Twenty one archaeology enthusiasts gathered at the Dell on Shorwell Shute for a very pleasant stroll into that other world of historical landscapes, under the guidance of Alan Phillips. A steep ascent to Renham Down brought us to Brumble Lane and then, above the long white scar of Cheverton Quarry, to the first of a series of well chosen viewpoints. At these, Alan indicated important landscape and settlement features, with a detailed account based on archaeological surveys, place-name evidence and historical records. Many are within the extensive parish of Shorwell, and Alan has been a member of the local research group which recently published a well illustrated booklet on ‘Shorwell Parish – Landscape Character Assessment’, under the auspices of the Isle of Wight AONB Partnership. Shorwell was named after a spring (wella) on the steep hill (scora) and, yes, the time-honoured local pronunciation is ‘Shore-well’. The earliest local artefacts are Late Mesolithic flints from c.4000 BC, left at a campsite near Farriers Way.

A view from Renham Down © GT

A view from Renham Down © GT

Visibility was excellent, under clear blue skies, but the sun proved too hot for some. Most continued to Limerstone Down viewpoint, and returned along a lower ridge path to North Court. We learned about David Tomalin’s excavation of a Bronze Age barrow on Gallibury Down, with an associated ritual monument outlined by post-holes. Extensive ‘Celtic’ (probably Iron Age) fields extended along Rowborough and Cheverton Downs and adjacent valleys, and stock pens here have been investigated by Julian Richards. Cheverton was Cevredone in 1086, the Down (dun) infested with chafer beetles. It has a round-barrow cemetery, with at least seven bowl-barrows older than 1500 BC. The function of barrows, and the power of ancestors to protect tribal boundaries, was discussed. Most Island barrows are on chalkland, but ‘Sheard’s Barrow’ from the Bronze Age is on the Gore, a prominent Upper Greensand ridge well seen from the Kingston road.

 Mottistone Barrow © MBo

Mottistone Barrow © MBo

Place names require careful analysis. While the Long Stone does feature in Mottistone, other village ‘stones’ refer only to farmsteads. Those belonging to Beorhtwig, Hunfrith and Leofmaer gave rise to Brighstone, Hulverstone and Limerstone. Rancombe, occupied in 1227 and the location of a house abandoned within living memory, was once the valley of Roe deer.

Recent Romano-British finds at Grange Chine, Barnes High and Atherfield indicate that the southern coastal plain and undercliff then had a much higher population than was previously realised. Grange Chine is particularly interesting, with a Roman iron-smelting crucible, evidence of salt-working, fourth century Roman pottery, and the sunken floor of an Anglo-Saxon building. The precise location of many known Anglo-Saxon settlements remains an outstanding conundrum.

Mike Cotterill

Priory Bay – Palaeoarchaeology – 12th August

Delian Backhouse-Fry led a group of over 20 members, family and friends on a walk from the Old Church Seamark at St Helens through Priory Woods to Priory Bay. She explained the importance of the site to palaeo-archaeology, with finds of flakes dating to 600,000 years BP, similar to finds at a site in Norfolk. It is not clear whether these hominids were hunters, scavengers or both, but they were certainly making stone tools by chopping through flint for sharp edges to cut up meat. There is no evidence on site for chopping down trees, or for the use of hearths (ie fire). These were not huge groups but small roving bands, who most likely lived in huge shelters and under rocks. Evidence from the famous Boxgrove site indicates that they were using camps and returning to them; while Newtown Creek presents evidence of mammoths, auroch and bison.

Priory Bay from the North © Google Earth

Priory Bay from the North © Google Earth

Fieldwork by Dr Francis Wenban-Smith from Southampton University was carried out at Priory Bay Woods in 2001. Over a thousand artefacts including several hundred handaxes have been recovered from the beach since the late 19th century, and Pleistocene deposits eroding at the cliff-top above the beach have been identified as the likely source of this material. The 2001 excavations alone produced over 110 Palaeolithic flint artefacts, comprising handaxes and flakes. This makes Priory Bay one of the richest Palaeolithic sites in the country.
After giving us some idea what to look for, Delian set us to work scouring the beach for flint artefacts. Though the results may not have equated with the spectacular finds already referred to, it was surprising how many simple flakes – one or two of quite high quality – as well as flint core and waste flakes members managed to come up with in such a short period. It was made all the more exciting by the knowledge that these were all approaching half a million years old.

Speaking on a personal level, I have to admit that during 25 years of living more-or-less on the doorstep of Priory Bay I had no inkling of any of this, and it is only since moving away from the area that I have discovered its supreme archaeological importance!

Alan Phillips

Metal Detecting – 19th November

Richard Armiger and Brian Manser, respectively Chairman and Finds Recording Officer of the Vectis Searchers Metal Detecting Club, provided a fascinating introduction to their work and dispelled a few misconceptions in the process. Theirs is now one of three metal detecting clubs on the Island, but the Vectis Searchers is the longest established, originally forming in 1985, folding and then re-forming in 1994. They have good relations with the County Archaeological Centre, and the Isle of Wight has the highest reporting figure for finds anywhere in the country: a remarkable 80%; the more important ones are sometimes included in the Portable Antiquities Scheme annual reports. This is all in marked contrast to former times when relations between archaeologists and detectorists were not of the best. Detecting is now also regulated by the National Council for Metal Detecting, and two specialist magazines are published, Treasure Hunting and The Searcher, both often invaluable for identifying artefacts.

The early days of detecting on the Island were carried out mainly on the beach, and it was nothing to fill whole buckets with old coins. Brian recalled that on one occasion he was referred to as a ‘New Age pirate’ by a mother answering her child! But the more interesting artefacts have been uncovered since moving onto farmland. The club assisted in the Time Team dig at Yaverland a few years ago, where they unearthed 21 Iron Age coins as well as Roman and mediaeval specimens, though two large Iron Age coin-hoards have been added by the other clubs since.

It was pointed out how some individuals can, in the first flush of enthusiasm, waste a lot of money by buying expensive equipment without good advice, going out a couple of times in the expectation of making great finds, finding nothing and then giving up. The majority of what is found, perhaps as much as 99%, is dross, and a tremendous amount of patience is required. Care must also be taken with lead items, which are susceptible to the formation of a poisonous white powder; and of course one must always be on one’s guard for bullets and bombs. Richard estimated that almost every garden and field on the Island must have at least one musket ball lodged in it somewhere.
Display cases full of artefacts had been laid out at the start of the talk – including a horde of Roman coins found at Tapnell – and many of the finds were passed round for us to handle during the talk. These included: Iron Age gold coins from the Freshwater area, sheep bells, deliberately cut half- and quarter-silver coins, bits of spurs, thimbles, which are found in profusion, tokens – including a silver coin bent into shape to form a love token, Saxon buckles and strap-ends, a local token in the form of a 1798 West Cowes halfpenny, and beer taps once attached to wooden bungs on the sides of barrels, with their own specially made anti-theft devices. A particularly curious exhibit was found on Ryde beach: a home-made ‘fish-dispatcher’ perhaps a hundred years old, comprising a piece of wood with metal tacked onto the end of it and obviously used for knocking fish on the head! Also present was the oldest piece of metal so far found on the Island – a Bronze Age socketed axe-head dating to c.2,200 BC; and an Iron Age coin with the design of a disjointed horse, originating from the Durotriges tribe. Mention was also made of the first piece of Bronze Age gold found on the Island, in the form of a penannular ring; as well as the dramatic find of a crystal ball and perforated spoon uncovered at East Afton – matching the Chessell Down finds of nearly two centuries ago.
The talk was concluded with the thought that what motivates detectorists most is not so much the finds already made but the anticipation of the finds to come. Both speakers were warmly thanked for a very informative presentation.

Alan Phillips

Prehistoric Ritual – 10th December

Despite the weather 25 members were present to hear Alan’s talk, which he introduced by highlighting how archaeology and ritual have been related historically. Whilst in the 18th century William Stukely had tried to record and understand ancient monuments, his fascination with all things druidical had discouraged later researchers from taking ritual seriously, whilst the evidence based approach of the mid 19th century found no place for any interpretation but the scientific one. It wasn’t until the mid 20th century that a few brave souls challenged this approach, notably Anne Ross in ‘Pagan Celtic Britain’ [pub.1967].

The pendulum has continued to swing and in the last 10 years or so the accounts of anthropologists, particularly in relation to shamanism, have been studied to see what light they might throw on to the archaeological records.

Alan went on to examine the archaeological records for shamanism and the systems of religious and medical beliefs and practices that centre on them. There is sound evidence for supposing that shamanism arose instinctively in all ancient cultures and he touched briefly on the possibility of interpreting Palaeolithic art in these terms. He discussed West Kennet Long Barrow and the rituals using ancestral bones that undoubtedly took place there. He continued with a case study illustrating the possible parallels between Siberian shamanic rituals and passage graves such as Maes Howe.

He concluded his talk with a modern case study from the Nepalese Himalayas that illustrated not only shamanic and ancestor themes but also domestic ritual.

Sheila Burch