Wednesday, 28 February 2007

Tomb of Christ

Lots of press coverage of the claims by James Cameron (erstwhile producer of Titanic) that archaeologists have discovered the tomb of Jesus and his family. A tomb with a number of ossuaries (boxes for storing bones) were found in excavations in 1980. Six of the ossuaries were marked with the names Mary; Matthew; Jesua son of Joseph; Mary; Jofa (Joseph, Jesus' brother); and Judah son of Jesua. This, Cameron and his cohorts claim is clear evidence that this was Jesus’ tomb. Not surprisingly, the press released are being issued in advance of a forthcoming documentary on the topic directed by Cameron.

This is not the first time that a claim has been made linking an ossuary to Jesus. Several years ago a stone box bearing the name of James, brother of Jesus was found. In this case it was soon proved to be a forgery However, the press excitement at the time was just as great.

This is a potent reminder of the great popular interest in biblical archaeology (particularly in the States). There are still many people who look to archaeology to prove or disprove what is found in the bible.

In this case however most people’s critical faculties do seem to have remained intact (including in the media). Many people have pointed out how incredibly common the names found on the boxes were in 1st century AD Jerusalem.

Chimpanzee Archaeology

For most of us the idea of chimps using tools tends to bring to the mind the old PG Tips adverts. However, it appears that the truth might be a little more complex. An recent article in The Guardian describes recent observations of female chimpanzees making wooden spears and using them to hunt other animals for food. (Chester students also have a look at the original article in Current Biology – available on-line via IBIS. It’s in the “articles in press” section) discovery of stone tools apparently utilised by chimpanzeesover 4000 years go raised the intriguing possibility of being able to write the archaeology of another species.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007



Some of you may have recently noticed a flurry of news articles about Cleopatra being revealed as not the beauty that portrayed in legend. An image of her on a coin depicts her with a bulging eyes, a thick neck and a hooked nose. This is not a particularly new angle- a similar suggestion emerged in 2001 (thanks to Liz Dean for this reference).

The interesting thing about this is not whether or not Cleo was a beauty, but rather the way in which new discoveries or insights are publicised. In both cases, the suggestion came in advance of the opening of a new museum exhibition; one at the


A controversial archaeological project has recently been carried out at the University of Bristol. Archaeologists from the Department of Anthropology and Archaeology “excavated” a transit van used by workers and archaeologists at the Ironbridge Museum.

This has caused some raised eyebrows- is this useful archaeology or a waste of time? Can archaeology tell us something new, useful and important about something as mundane a 1991 van?

Wednesday, 14 February 2007

Metal Guru

An article in The Guardian about metal detecting. Do you feel the paper addressed in the debate in a balance way?

Archaeology and wind power

There has been a lot of recent interesting work being carried out on off-shore archaeology. This does not just include traditional nautical archaeology focussing on the study of ships and maritime installations. Work such as Birmingham University’s research into North Sea palaeolandscapes is extremely important. It aims to better understand the early landscape of areas now covered by water. Similar work could undoubtedly be carried out elsewhere on the British continental shelf.

Whilst of undoubted inherent importance, this research also has clear implications for resource management. With the push towards the expansion of renewable energy, there is inevitably going to be a greater push towards wind power, particularly in off-shore locations where more consistent winds are available and there is likely to be less opposition from local interest groups. However, the work at Birmingham serves as a useful reminder that such projects need to remember that seabeds are as much historic landscapes as on-shore locations. As such it is encouraging to see that COWRIE (Collaborative Offshore Wind Research Into The Environment), an independent company set up to raise awareness and understanding of the potential environmental impacts of the UK offshore windfarm programme has just published a guidance note for best practice in survey, appraisal and monitoring of the historic environment during the development of offshore renewable energy projects in the United Kingdom.

However, as always the proof of the pudding will be in the eating- will this guidance be followed or ignored in the push to meet government targets for renewable energy?

BBC Folk Awards

Last Wednesday saw the BBC Folk Awards , a handy reminder that the British folk music scene is undergoing a real renaissance (although one might quibble about the decision to award Seth Lakeman best album over both Bellowhead and Tim van Eyken). It would certainly be worth be signing the e-petition protesting against the ridiculous government licensing legislation restricting the performance of live music in pubs and bars.

It’s also worth having a think about how we approach this type of intangible heritage. Scotland, Ireland and Wales all have centres dedicated to their popular music. Whilst the Folk Music degree at Newcastle University is a fantastic development it is aimed at training existing performers rather than presenting folk music to the general public. In Scotland there is the National Piping Centre and in Wales there is Ty Siamas , there is no equivalent in England.

However, it is great to see that Somerset County Council has just published the Somerset Folk Map tracing the biographies and pinpointing the homes of the singers from whom Cecil Sharp collected his remarkable archive of traditional song, dance, tunes and children's games. Much of the work was done by Yvette Staelens, who works in the archaeology department at Bournmouth, and more importantly was once a backing singer for Blyth Power , possibly the best slightly-dodgy folk punk band in history!

Monday, 5 February 2007

The reburial debate

Two recent news articles have brought have highlighted the way in which archaeologists and museums treat human remains. Nine tattooed Maori heads have been Council of British Druid Orders have demanded that human remains on display in the archaeological museum at Avebury should be reburied.

This illustrates the complicated nature of the burial debate. Few would object to the repatriation of Maori remains. The demand for their return came from a body that can make some claim to represent the modern Maori community, and the modern Maori community themselves can make a clear case for being the direct ancestors of those people whose remains were taken. However, with the case of the Avebury remains, it is more debatable how far the Druids involved can make a clear case to represent the descent community of the prehistoric inhabitants. Even within the pagan community there are others who do not demand their reburial. The archaeologists who study Avebury are just as likely to be descended from the original occupants of the region as the Druids: how do we judge between competing claims to represent these dead communities? Indeed, is it possible for modern groups to truly represent the beliefs of the long dead?

From my point of view, those who demand the reburial of these early remains are as guilty of ‘colonising’ these past populations as the archaeologists. It is possible to argue that the belief that remains once buried should be kept buried is a relatively recent cultural construct. Despite medieval beliefs in bodily resurrection, in practice most medieval graveyards were continually reworked leaving huge piles of redeposited charnel. Should we aim to respect what past societies believed, or simply what they did in practice? It is noticeable that in Neolithic and Early Bronze Age society, there is good archaeological evidence (particularly from the Avebury region) that simple inhumation was not the dominant burial rite. Instead bodies were excarnated, disarticulated and circulated across the landscape. Arguably, by excavating and displaying the skeletal remains from Avebury we are closer to respecting the wishes of the dead community than those who would demand that they are reburied. What do you think?

Thursday, 1 February 2007

Valuing Heritage

A number of bodies including Heritage Link, English Heritage, The National Trust, Historic Houses Association and the Heritage Lottery Fund have just published a report Valuing Our Heritage. This is a document which aims to assess the economic and social importance of the heritage sector to the Britain. Much of the content is based on last summer’s History Matters campaign which many of you may have seen.

English Heritage has suffered a significant lack of funding over the last years, whereas funding for museum galleries and libraries has increased 36%, the Arts Council by 53% and Sport England by 98%. Despite the fact that EH has many statutory responsibilities, there has been no real attempt by central government to support it, with its funding not keeping up with inflation. It will be interesting to see whether the forthcoming White Paper on heritage protection, which is now promised to appear before Easter, will impact on the roles and responsibilities of both local and central archaeological curatorial bodies.

On another related funding issue are the potential threats to archaeology of the London Olympics 2012. First, there is basic threat to the archaeology and heritage caused by the major redevelopment of large parts of the East End. Ideally, this should all be mediated through the application of PPG16, the key element of planning guidance that deals with archaeology (though a search of the Olympics 2012 website for references to archaeology brings up no results). I have heard suggestions that the large-scale archaeological work required may cause a skills shortage in other parts of the country as many field archaeologists, particularly excavators, take advantage of the many jobs potentially available. However, it remains to see whether this will actually happen.

The bigger threat posed to archaeology by the Olympics is the wider pressure on public and lottery funding. However, it is clear that already the projected spending on the project is increasing rapidly, and it is likely that there will be aCaer Alyn project, or the Community Archaeology project in York. Whilst David Lammy, the Culture Minister, referring to the undoubted success of the Portable Antiquities Scheme may think that metal detectorists are the “unsung heroes of heritage”, the real heroes are those who spend time working on such community archaeology projects.