Hand Axis

Archaeology – and matters related to it, have been in the news this week. With the death of Mick Aston, we have lost someone who knew how to communicate his passion for several layers of informative dirt piled on top of each other to the public, in a way they found engaging and interesting.

Mick was part of a team, and we should remember that many of us in the profession have been involved with at least one show during its long run in one capacity or another. We, and the watching public are all part of that team and must continue to keep archaeology in the minds of the public, in whatever form it may take.

Announced in the Government Spending Review was that £80 million pounds will be provided by the Government to establish a charity to care for the historic properties in the National Heritage Collection of English Heritage on a self-financing basis http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/80million-boost-heritage/.

Also announced was £100 billion pounds to be spent on infrastructure improvements http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-23080965 including upgrades to the A14, a new Mersey Gateway Bridge and the first stages of work on the HS2 rail link.

By association, some of this money will have to be spent on the archaeology effected by these announcements. We should embrace the opportunity to do justice to whatever is found, whichever archaeological units secures the contracts.

At the same time as the commercial units will be opening up swathes of countryside in advance of the road and rail building programmes, or working with the new charity to better interpret the properties in their care, Heritage Lottery Funded archaeological projects will be opening their own smaller, but no less important holes in their towns and villages.

Answering specific research questions and aided by professional archaeologists, these focused pieces of work will in essence, fill gaps which the commercial units will never be able to reach. http://www.hlf.org.uk/HowToApply/whatwefund/Pages/Archaeology.aspx.

Publicising the findings, whether through personal Twitter accounts, newspaper articles or television programmes, we must demonstrate that this money was well spent and increased our knowledge of the island palimpsest we live on.


Si longtemps, et merci pour le poisson

Writing a PhD thesis can raise questions you never thought you would have to contemplate finding an answer for when the research began. I assumed (naively perhaps) that I would just sit down, write about Welsh Castles, show where their landscapes were and be made a Doctor.

Except it doesn’t really work like that.

You sit down, start writing, and then find a reference. This reference takes you off to a book you’ve never heard of – and before you realise it a whole sub-plot has appeared in your research.

Which is what happened to me with the Otters.

It all began so innocuously. As part of my reading I have to look at the medieval extents which were compiled in the Fourteenth century describing who owed what service to the ‘new’ English Lord of the Manor – who had replaced the Welsh Prince after the Edwardian Conquest of 1282-1283. Within them I found a reference to something called ‘Cylch Dyfrgwn’ – with literally translated means ‘Otter Circuit’.

As an archaeologist, I’d never heard of an ‘Otter Circuit’. And, having thought about it, I’d not read about any otter bones being found on the excavations I’d been reading about. Was there a connection between the two?

An ‘Otter Circuit’ was a service which had been carried out under the Welsh Princes, and which was subsequently carried over to the English Lords. Essentially it was a hunting party who travelled around a prescribed piece of land from place to place keeping the ‘uneatable’ animals under control, of which the otter was classed as one.

Just because the animals were ‘uneatable’ did not mean that the event to hunt them was not without symbolism and ceremony. The ‘Devonshire Tapestries’, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum and dating to the Fifteenth century depict an otter hunt in detail http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/d/devonshire-hunting-tapestries/ and, although stylised, the detail of the hunting equipment and methods is clearly depicted. The main piece of equipment, a two pronged spear, continued to be used unchanged well into the Twentieth century.


The lack of archaeological evidence for the Otters from the ‘Otter Circuit’ can be explained by the fact that they were killed where they were caught, so the remains which were not useful were left at the spot. The skins were subsequently used for high-status clothing, and unfortunately these materials have not survived to the present day.

I’ve probably spent way too much time unpicking this story to try and understand the place of Otters in the medieval world, but the data I’ve collected can be used by modern researchers to understand the medieval range of the Otter and hopefully aid in ensuring the continued growth of the population.


The Revolution will be Televised

Last Friday a medieval home called Sycharth made an appearance on a programme called ‘Britain’s Secret Homes’. The five part series is looking at 50 (as the title reveals) of the lesser known, but very important houses in Britain.


Sycharth was number 37 https://www.itv.com/itvplayer/britain-s-secret-homes/series-1/episode-2 and I’m really pleased with the finished result. Probably the most satisfying feeling was that this was all about Owain Glyn Dŵr’s property, and not about the fight for freedom which usually clouds the issue when discussing his legacy.

Also important is that we were able to tell the story to an English language audience and have the poem written about the house spoken in its original language. Reaching an audience of millions with this is an amazing experience and importantly this is just one house from one point in the medieval period and the wider landscape and all the archaeological potential was only lightly touched upon.

Something which was cut from the segment was a specially commissioned ‘cywydd’ (a form of poem) by the poet Tudur Dylan Jones. Tudur is a multiple Eisteddfod winning poet, so you know you are going to get quality when you commission a cywydd from him. http://vimeo.com/68401196

Below you’ll find the original poem in Welsh, and a recent English translation. Even if you are unable to read the Welsh, you should be able to discern the beautiful rhythm of the original.

Llys Owain Glyn Dŵr yn Sycharth

Addewais yt hyn ddwywaith,
Addewid teg, addo taith;.
Taled bawb, tal hyd y bo,
Ei addewid a addawo.
Pererindawd, ffawd ffyddlawn,
Perwyl mor annwyl mawr iawn,
Myned, eidduned oddain,
Lles yw, tua llys Owain.
Yn oddain yno ydd af,
Nid drwg, yno y trigaf
I gymryd i’m bywyd barch
Gydag ef o gydgyfarch;
Fo all fy naf, uchaf ach,
Eurben clear, erbyn cleiriach;
Clod bod, cyd boed alusen,
Ddiwarth hwyl, yn dda wrth hen.
I’w lys ar ddyfrys ydd af,
O’r deucant odidocaf;.
Llys barwn, lle syberwyd,
Lle daw beirdd aml, lle da byd.
Gwawr Bowys fawr, beues Faig,
Gofuned gwiw ofynaig.

Llyna’r modd a’r llun y mae:
Mewn eurgylch dwfr mewn argae.
(Pand da’r llys?) pont ar y llyn,
Ac unporth lle’r ai ganpyn;
Cyplau sydd, gwaith cwplws ynt,
Cwpledig pob cwpl ydynt.
Clochdy Padrig, Ffrengig ffrwyth,
Clostr Wesmustr, clostir emswyth;
Cynglynrhwym pob congl unrhyw,
Cangell aur, cygan oll yw.
Cynglynion yn y fronfron fry,
Dordor megis daeardy,
A phob un fal llun llyngwlm
Sydd yn ei gilydd yn gwlm.
Tai nawplad fold deunawplas,
Tai pren glan mewn top bryn glas;
Ar bedwar piler eres
Mae’i lys ef i nef yn nes.
Ar ben pob piler pren praff,
Llofft ar dalgrofft adeilgraff,
A’r pedair llofft, o hoffter,
Yn gydgwplws lle cwag cler.
Aeth y pedair disgleirlofft,
Nyth lwyth teg iawn, yn wyth lofft;
To teils ar bob ty talwg,
A simnai lle magai’r mwg.
Naw neuadd gyfladd gyflun,
A naw gwardrob ar bob un.
Siopau glan, glwys cynnwys cain,
Siop lawndeg fal Siep Lundain.
Croes eglwys gylchlwys galchliw,
Capelau a gwydrau gwiw;
Popty llawn poptu I’r llys,
Perllan, gwinllan, ger gwenllys,
Melin deg ar ddifreg ddwr;
A’i glomendy gloyw maendwr.
Pysgodlyn, cudduglyn cau,
A fo rhaid i fwrw heyday
Amlaf lle, nid er ymliw,
Penhwyaid a gwyniaid gwiw.
A’I dir bwrdd a’i adar byw,
Peunod, crehyrod hoywryw,
Dolydd glan gwyran a gwair,
Ydau mewn caeau cywair,
Parc cwning ein por cenedl,
Erydr a meirch hydr, mawr chwedl;
Gerllaw’r llys, gorlliwio’r llall,
Y pawr ceirw mewn parc arall;
Ei gaith a wna pob gwaith gwiw,
Cyfreidiau cyfair ydiw,
Dwyn blaendrwyth cwrw Amwythig,
Gwirodau, bragodau brig,
Pob llyn, bara gwyn a gwin,
A’I gig, a’i dan i’w gegin;
Pebyll y beirdd pawb lle bo,
Pe beunydd caiff pawb yno;
Tecaf llys bren, pen heb bai,
O‘r deyrnas, nawdd Duw arnai;.
A awraig orau o’r garaged
Gwyn fy myd o’i gwin a’i medd!
Merch eglur llin marchoglyw,
Urddol hael anianol yw;.
A’i blant a ddeuant bob ddau,
Nythaid teg o beneathiaid.
Anfynych iawn fu yno
Weled na chlicied na chlo,
Na phorthoriaeth ni wnaeth neb,
Ni bydd eisiau budd oseb,
Na gwall, na newyn, na gwarth,
Na syched fyth yn Sycharth.
Gorau Cymro, tro trylew
Piau’r wlad, lin Pywer Lew,
Gwr meingryf, gorau mangre,
A phial’r llys; hoff yw’r lle.

Court of Owain Glyn Dŵr in Sycharth

I have promised twice before now,
fair promise, promising a journey;
let everyone fulfil, as much as is due,
his promise which he promises.
A very great pilgrimage,
certain prosperity, such a dear destination,
is going, swift promise,
It is beneficial, towards Owain’s court;
swiftly will I go there,
not bad, there will I dwell
to bring honour into my life
by exchanging greetings with him;
my leige can, highest lineage,
bright golden head, receive an old codger;
it is praiseworthy, though it is but alms,
Course without shame, to be kind to the old.
I will go to his court in haste,
The most splendid of the two hundred;
a baron’s court, place of refinement,
Where many poets come, place of the good life;
queen of great Powys, Maig’s land,
promise of good hope.

This is its manner and its form
In the bright circle of water within an embankment:
(isn’t the court fine?) a bridge on the lake,
and one gate through which would go a hundred loads;
there are couples, they are couple work,
every couple is coupled together;
Patrick’s bell house, French fruit,
the cloister of Westminster, comfortable enclosure;
each corner is bound together in the same way,
golden chancel, it is entirely symmetrical,
bonds side by side above,
cheek-to-cheek like an earth house,
and every one looking like a tight knot
Is tied fast to the next one,
nine-plated buildings on the scale of eighteen mansions,
fair wooden buildings on top of a green hill;
on four wonderful pillars
his court is nearer to heaven;
on top of each stout wooden pillar
a loft built firmly on the summit of a croft,
and the four lofts of loveliness
coupled together where poets sleep;
the four bright lofts turned,
a very fair nest load, into eight lofts;
a tiled roof on every house with frowning forehead,
And a chimney from which the smoke would grow;
nine symmetrical identical halls,
and nine wardrobes by each one,
bright fair shops with fine contents,
a lovely full shop like London’s Cheapside;
a cross-shaped church with a fair chalk-coloured exterior
chapels with splendid glass windows;
a full bakehouse on every side of the court,
an orchard, a vineyard by a white court;
a lovely mill on flowing water,
and his dovecot with bright stone tower;
a fishpond, hollow enclosure,
what is needed to cast nets;
place most abounding, not for dispute;
In pike and fine sewin,
and his bord-land and his live birds,
peacocks, splendid herons;
bright meadows of grass and hay,
corn in well-kept fields,
the rabbit park of our patriarch,
ploughs and sturdy horses, great words;
by the court, outshining the other,
stags graze in another park;
his serfs perform all fitting tasks,
those are the necessities of an estate,
bringing the best brew of beer from Shrewsbury,
liquors of foaming bragget,
every drink, white bread and wine,
and his meat and his fire for his kitchen;
shelter of poets, everyone wherever he be,
were it daily, he will have everyone there,
loveliest wooden court, chief without fault,
of the kingdom, may god protect it,
and the best woman of all women,
blessed am I by her wine and her mead!
Fair girl from the line of a knightly ruler,
she is dignified and noble by nature;
and his children come in pairs,
a fine nestful of chieftains.

Very rarely was bolt or lock
to be seen there,
nor did anyone act as porter;
there will be no want, beneficial gift,
nor lack not hunger nor shame,
Nor ever thirst in Sycharth.
The best Welshman, valorous feat,
owns the country, of Pywer Lew’s line,
slender strong man, best spot,
and owns the court, splendid is the place.


That’s Amazing!…but can we make the castle look more Medieval…?

The reconstruction of archaeological or historical sites using computer software is something we now take for granted. Flying through a medieval Abbey in amongst the roof timbers or stone vaulting at height, or exploring the crisp lumps and bumps which make up a Bronze Age Barrow cemetery under construction is designed to reconnect us to a past which for one reason or another cannot be experienced through another medium.

The genre has a long history, and its roots can be traced to the matte painters who provided backdrops for feature films. Directors such as Cecil B DeMille made use of this technique to immerse the movie goer into a world which could not be built as a traditional set, but which the camera could traverse to enhance the experience. http://nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.co.uk/ is a good place to start.

Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) reconstruction techniques are a combination of art and science, and as someone who has been fortunate enough to commission several of these I thought I’d take the time to explain some of the thought processes that go into their creation.

When you buy a guidebook for an archaeological or historical site, you invariably find within its pages a reconstruction drawing. This usually, but not always, depicts the site at the height of its occupational story arc, and will also depict at least some of the buildings as a cut-away, revealing the inside of particular building or buildings. With a CGI reconstruction the same principle applies, but the image is moving and not static.

What do I mean by ‘the height of its occupational story arc’? And who makes the decisions about what to illustrate and why?

The discussion about what to recreate with CGI is usually between the animator and the commissioner. I say ‘usually’ because anyone connected with the commission can offer an opinion / stick their oar in, if they feel their own particular specialism or historical viewpoint is not being envisaged. The CGI reconstruction usually depicts the site at the height of its use – when it presents the view which the site interpretor wants to get across as the most important (the height of the occupational story arc).

Occasionally a different approach is taken, for example depicting the destruction of the site (for example by fire) or a chronological view of the development of the site from beginning to end of its use. So when we are watching, what other things should we look at?

The weather is an important factor in the reconstruction. The reconstruction drawings of Alan Sorrell http://alansorrellproject.org/ are famous for their dramatic skies, and immediately provide a backdrop which focuses our attention on the action occurring beneath them. With CGI you can change the sky as you change the viewpoint, so if you want hardship in your narrative, make the sky darker.

Next time you look at CGI or a reconstruction drawing. Take time to read the narrative that goes with it, and think about how you could tell the story differently. After all, your opinion is as valid as anyone else’s in how you want to see the past interpreted.


What’s a nice Plaice like you doing in a Girl like this?

There has been much made in the news recently about the rise of the ‘Media Friendly’ Historian or Academic. With their snappy delivery and charismatic persona, they are credited with bringing the past to life for the tech savvy and short attention span generation.

The truth is media friendly historians and academics have always been around, the difference now is that there are far more opportunities to become a star with the proliferation of outlets available. Antiquarians, the fore-runners of today’s modern historians and academics, were just as clever in using the media outlets and resources available to them.

However, there is a group of people who we don’t hear about so often, but whose work we encounter coming out of the mouths of these presenters. We should, as people who are interested in our heritage, be aware of and support them however we can.

The ‘Day of Archaeology’ http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/, founded by Lorna Richardson and Matt Law (@lornarichardson and @m_law on Twitter) highlights the work of the archaeologists, who day in and day out are passionate about what they do. The first ‘Day of Archaeology’ was in July 2011 and the breadth of topics and countries represented on its website is now staggering.

From Zooarchaeologists sifting and sorting their way through boxes of animal bones to tell us more about the community who bred these animals; to Digital Archaeologists creating buildings from archaeological plans, interpreting the post holes or foundation trenches.

Maritime Archaeologists monitor the deterioration of undersea landscapes or wreck sites and decide on conservation strategies and ‘circuit diggers’, the hired guns of the commercial archaeological world, work all over the country in all weathers staying in Bed and Breakfast accommodation and producing high-quality results whilst being too cold to even hold a pencil.

All of these people have a story to tell, and by following the ‘Day of Archaeology’ you can gain an insight into their own personal world and their motivation to record and recover the past for future generations. So next time you watch one of these programmes with its charismatic presenter, remember there is an army of unsung specialists who are quite literally, putting the words in their mouths.

The next ‘Day of Archaeology’ is on Friday 26 July 2013.
You can follow the day through the website http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/
Twitter https://twitter.com/dayofarch
Facebook https://www.facebook.com/thedayofarchaeology?fref=ts