For a competitive insurance quote, call 0208 255 0617 / 07768 865983 or email your details to

Monday, 30 November 2015

We're in "Current Archaeology"! - Rescue Dig of the Year Event

The 'Conference' section of this month's Current Archaeology features the eagerly anticipated 'Rescue Dig of the Year' event, sponsored by your's truly!

Rescue digs are excavations in areas under threat by human or natural phenomena, and each year archaeologists cross their trowels to compete for a prize which is awarded by E&G.

Current Archaeology are asking you to consider this year's fascinating menu and cast the vote for your favorite dig. We've broken it down here:

The Drumclay Crannog-Dwellers
1,000 years of lakeside living revealed

The excavation of a medieval crannog in Northern Island has prompted comment from Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, who says that the 4,000 object-strong quarry has the potential to "rewrite history". Crannogs are artificial islands constructed in Ireland or Scotland, and crannog excavations reveal significant details about the medieval way of life; Drumclay, however, is of singular importance: "The rich quality of the excavated remains from Drumclay will reshape our understanding not just of this site, but that of crannogs across these islands and medieval settlements in Europe as a whole," Durkan said.

Ridgeway Hill
A scientific analysis of mass graves

The scrutiny of 50 decapitated skeletons buried atop Ridgeway Hill, Dorset, have given scientists a grim insight into the life - and death - of Viking raiding parties. The Vikings were put to death by Anglo-Saxons after the former invaded the British Isles; although the immediate circumstances of death remains unknown, forensic analysts have been able to determine the cause of death. Oxford Archaeology, whose archaeologists commandeered the excavation, sum it up as among the "most exciting and disturbing" discoveries in Britain. The Ridgeway Hill excavations are also among the largest to take place in Dorset to date. 

The Barrow Clump Excavations
A warrior cemetery is discovered in a Bronze Age barrow

Strange objects being kicked out of badger setts is what initially alerted officials to this series of graves in Salisbury Plain, a site now - ironically - under threat by the very same creatures. A plethora of Bronze Age weapons as well as mass graves, decorative beads, brooches and drinking horns were since discovered - making the site one of Britain's most exciting archaeological prospects. Barrow Clump has been subject of interest from the MoD - which fittingly operates a military training ground on the site - and Channel Four's "Time Team", the two having undergone excavations together on a trench. Treasures continue to be uncovered.

England's Coastal Heritage
A community scheme records Blighty's coastal history before it's washed away

Winds, waves and tidal scour are eroding Britain's shores and CITiZAN - MOLA's community-led initiative - has begun the noble task of recording English heritage sites under immediate threat from Mother Nature's wrath. MOLA lists "prehistoric forests, Roman buildings, ancient salt-working sites, lost medieval ports, fishing settlements, coastal defences from both World Wars and countless abandoned boats, barges and ships" as sites of chief concern and has teamed up with such organisations as the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Crown Estate to see the project through. 

17th Century Thames Warship
The remains of an English Warship are preserved by the Thames estuary

A leviathan operation which disturbed The London in her watery tomb found that she was loaded with Reformation-period riches. Funded by "Historic London", hardware such as a well-preserved gun carriage was found on the ship; the item is described as "in near-perfect condition ... a national treasure and the key to new knowledge of our social and naval history" by maritime archaeologist Alison James. Among the highlights of the salvage operation is the 350 year old rope going through the pulley block, which was equally well-preserved because the ship was "enclosed in an anaerobic environment, oxygen-free mud, safe from all the creepy-crawlies that would normally erode it."

The Fenwick Treasure
A Roman jewellery hoard dating to the Boudiccan War of Independence

Our final contender is that of a hoard of Roman jewelry found in Colchester. Thought to belong to a well-to-do woman during the sacking of the city by Bouddica's army, the collection includes two armlets, coins, earrings and rings. It has been described as "easily one of the best [discoveries of its kind] in the country" by Philip Crummy of the Colchester Archaeology Trust, as well as "nationally important". Found under the Fenwicks department store on a Colchester high street, the treasure trove was subsequently donated to Colchester Museum." 

Current Archaeology readers may vote in the latest issue (January) of the magazine, or online here.

The awards take place on 26-27th February 2016 at Senate House, London.  

Thursday, 26 November 2015

E&G Picks: Exciting New British Museum Exhibition

Iron Age shields
© The Trustees of the British Museum
A new exhibition starts on Britain's most important archaeology finds opens soon at the British Museum.

Silver coins dating to the 3rd century AD
© The Trustees of the British Museum
The display is comprises hundreds of objects including Roman coins, ceramic pots and - perhaps most saliently - a magnificent Frome hoard pot.

The pot itself was swollen with 52,503 coins when it was found in Somerset in 2010, and promises to be the centerpiece of a fine array of archaeological trinkets, which were described in an article by Culture24 a few days ago.

Bronze Age weapons discovered in the River Thames will also make an appearance, as will the first Iron Age coin hoards; all of the objects have been subject to extensive study at the British Museum.

Together, they not only symbolises Britain's rich history, but also the success of her laws: the Treasure Act of 1996 obliged treasure hunters to report their discoveries, and this potentially superb exhibition owes itself to the act.

Roman ceramic money box, with coins and a spoon
© The Trustees of the British Museum

What: Hoards: The Hidden History of Ancient Britain
Where: The British Museum, London
When: December 3 2015 – May 22 2016.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Glastonbury's Monk Marketers

For centuries a mystical atmosphere has swirled around Glastonbury Abbey, which is said to be the resting place of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere.

Since the 12th century, the Abbey has been one of Britain's most sacrosanct destinations for pilgrims and monks; but archaeologists have discovered that it's part in British myth may be more contrived than previously thought. 

In fact, the whole Glastonbury origin myth may have to be rewritten after surveys conducted by Reading University conclusively established that no remains belonging to Arthur or Guinevere are buried on the site. 
This leaves open the possibility that the site's monk custodians were actually medieval Mad Men, who invented the myth in a bid to raise funds after a fire destroyed the site in 1184. 

It goes without saying that their mythopoeic marketing strategy was an overwhelming success, and so firmly entrenched Glastonbury Abbey in British folklore that the site's popularity has endured to the modern day. Cynical monks, however, are no match for science's quest for truth.

The group of archaeologists whose project resulted in the findings say that despite the prospect of "the history of Glastonbury Abbey [being] rewritten", tourist numbers will not dwindle. 

Likewise, site director Janet Bell insists that the report does not "debunk King Arthur's affiliation with the Abbey", and even hints at the possibility of using it as another marketing opportunity. 

Her predecessors would have been proud. 

Export & General's friends at C&N Hollinrake Ltd, consultant archaeologists, are situated in Glastonbury, and devote some of their time to ecclesiastical archaeology. You can visit their website here

Friday, 20 November 2015

"Witch Girl" exhumed in Italy

Courtesy to Pontifical Institute of Archaeology

The skeleton of a young girl has been disinterred in San Calocero, Italy, and is believed to have been accused as a witch before she was murdered.

The girl - whom scientists determined was severely malnourished at the time of her death, and between the ages of 14-17 - was buried under stone slabs.

The finding was made by Philippe Pergola of the Pontifical Institute of Archaeology and his team, following a like discovery close to the site two years ago of an original "witch girl" who was also malnourished. Both girls are believed to have been the victims of the same macabre ritual.

The burial of the condemned girls - while they were possibly still alive - may have followed such tribulations as burning and being swung by the elbows. The fact that the recovered body's head was almost touching its breastbone suggests that the girl may have also been thrown into the pit.

Both skeletons are dated between the ninth and fifteenth centuries, when suspicion of witchcraft was a fixture of life in parts of the continent.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

'Martian Archaeologist' finds Face Carved in Pyramid

The YouTube channel "Martian Archaeology" has singled out a sphinx's face on a pyramidal rock formation on Mars - calling the photographs produced by NASA conclusive evidence of an ancient civilisation.

The 'Martian Archaeologist's' peculiar avocation involves scouring through NASA photo archives in an attempt to uncover convincing evidence of extraterrestrial life.

The photos in question were taken by the famous rover Curiosity which has hitherto found no evidence of life at all - even on a microscopic level. In recent months, however, evidence collected by Curiosity indicates that water may once have existed on Mars. The US Space Agency even suggested that large oceans may even have existed on the planet's surface.

But Martian Archaeology still isn't satisfied, and says that the NASA photo of the sphinx is part of a larger body of evidence which proves beyond doubt that an ancient civilisation once thrived on Mars.

We remain unconvinced.
Not many people purport to be able to explain the origin of the sphinx-face. Much less the mysterious red circle.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

E&G Picks: New Exhibition Unveiled in China

A museum in north China's Hebei Province has unveiled a new exhibition consisting of ancient Buddhist statues and fragments, many of which are over 1,500 years old.

Having documented an excavation in Mes Aynak, Afghanistan of priest-king and buddhist statues (click here), the news from Hebei has made E&G staff particularly excited.

So much so that we've dispatched a member of our team on tour in China - we hope he'll be visiting the Hebei Province museum and report back to us.

For specialist insurance for archaeologists, click here.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Breaking News: Europeans are Descendants of "Fourth Tribe"

Modern Europeans are the genetic descendants of a recently discovered "fourth tribe", researchers have confirmed.

It was thought that Europeans are a mix of three distant populations: hunters; Middle Eastern farmers and easterners who arrived during the Bronze Age.

But Nature Communications has revealed that genetic material retrieved from a skeleton in the Caucasus points towards a fourth population which has contributed to the European gene pool. 

Genomes harvested from burial sites thanks to scientific advances has meant that more data about ancient humans can be collected - altering our conception of our genetic legacy. 

The 10,000 year old Georgian skeleton, from which the data was collected

Of the three tribes previously thought to have been the exclusive ancestors of modern Europeans, the hunter-gatherers were the first to arrive in Europe before the Ice Age.

The migration of Middle Easterners 33,000 years hence shifted the genetic paradigm and introduced agriculture to Europe. 4,000 years later the Yamnaya - a herder people whose genetic contribution is concentrated most voluminously in the modern Norwegian population - entered Europe from the Steppes.

This groundbreaking discovery means researchers are likely to be puzzling over where the "fourth tribe" fits into the genetic story of Europe for quite some time yet.

CBA South-East Conference and AGM

We attended the CBA South-East Conference and AGM on Saturday – where we met some very interesting people and had a fantastic time!

While we didn’t attend the lecture sessions, the feedback we got from those who did was fantastic!

Professor Martin Bell (University of Reading) - The Mesolithic of the Wetland and Coastal Edge in Southern Britain
Phil Jones (Surrey County Archaeology Unit) - Mesolithic Remains at Bletchingley and Mesolithic Surrey
Garry Momber (Hampshire and Wight Trust for Maritime Archaeology) - Mesolithic Technology at Bouldnor Cliff: Was it 2,000 Years Ahead of its Time?
Mike Donnelly (Oxford Archaeology) - New Mesolithic Discoveries on the Bexhill Relief Road Scheme, Kent
Dr Fraser Sturt (Uni. Southampton) and Dr Duncan Garrow (Uni. Reading) - Stepping Stones to the Neolithic: Seafaring, Connectivity and the Mesolithic/Neolithic Transition
Dr Jodie Lewis (University of Worcester) - Caves, Springs and Depositing Things: Approaching the Mesolithic and Neolithic in the South West
Dr Rick Schulting (University of Oxford) - Violent Times in the Neolithic? A Review of the British Evidence
Don Henson (University of York)  - Public Engagement in the Mesolithic and Neolithic

All good stuff.  Click here to read more

Just about everyone there (with a few exceptions) pulled a Christmas cracker with us too!

From our point of view, we found yet again that there is a great deal of interest in our insurance services - and we were able to provide quotes 'on the spot' for a number of individuals, local societies and commercial businesses.  Of course we will be following up all of those enquiries in the coming days - and getting some new clients on cover! 

As for the location – the Surrey History Centre – well, that was also fantastic!  What a great resource – and what a change from the usual look and feel of the county records office!

Call me to discuss your insurance needs on 0208 2550617 / 07768 865983

The Chinese Lamps That Swallow Smoke

What's the most curious thing unearthed in archaeology this week?

The smoke lamp: A goose-shaped Chinese contraption designed to 'swallow' smoke produced by the burning of wax, which is consequently dissolved by water in its belly.

Two such lamps were this week discovered by archaeologists in China. Dating back to the Western Han Dynasty (roughly 221 - 206 BC) and made of bronze, they preempt the eco-friendly craze by roughly 2200 years - and could teach modern Chinese a thing or two about environmental awareness. 

Bronze lamps were a staple of the Han Dynasty, but these smoke absorbent ones are the first such discovered of their kind. Xin Lixiang, who led the excavation, says that the discoveries are set to change existing conceptions of Han industry.  

The fact that none have been discovered before makes this story particularly - ahem - absorbing; the findings hint at an element of exclusivity in Western Han society. It is likely that the increased production of bronze lamps reduced their price, encouraging more innovative variations of bronze lamps to be devised. 

The ingenious nature of the smoke lamps doesn't stop there. The ability to adjust the brightness of the lamp, a feature not even universally present in modern lamps, was enabled through the use of swinging shades. Furthermore, the whole lamp could be dismantled according to the anatomical parts of the goose, in order that it be preserved and maintained. 

And as with many ancient Chinese innovations, function is complemented by form - which typically draws on beguiling natural imagery:

"It is both an artwork and an example of ancient innovation," said Lixiang, who spoke to Chinese news agency Xinhua. 

The finding was made in a cemetery - Hailhunhou - in Jiangxi Province, itself an archaeological discovery dubbed the most "complete Western Han Dynasty cemetery" yet discovered in China by 

Excavations at the site first began in 2011, and the lamps symbolise the promise of new discoveries yet to be made. 

Chartered Institute for Archaeologists membership!

At last my membership pack from the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists has arrived!  I might only be an Associate, but it is a start!

I realise that the CIfA is not loved by everyone across the archaeology sector in the UK - and I understand why – but at least it is something of a central hub for archaeology professionals.

I look forward to gathering further opinion at the CIfA annual conference in April next year…..presuming that as an Associate member, I am invited…..and not banned again this year from attending by CIfA’s only insurance partner……

Call me to discuss your insurance needs on 0208 2550617 / 07768 865983

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Gloucester Cathedral - a political dynasty beneath your feet

Bones under the ledger stone

The unexpected discovery of an 8ft deep family burial vault in the North Transept of Gloucester Cathedral is a fascinating story for me.

Many of us have trodden over the ledger stones at Gloucester and elsewhere and wondered what is beneath.  As a child, I hoped that there was nothing underneath and that the actual burial was elsewhere – perhaps a way of persuading my 12 year old self that ‘morning chapel’ wasn’t taking place surrounded by dead bodies!

Now, of course, I love the idea of an intricate network of tunnels and rooms under the floor – most yet to be discovered.

The ledger stone

From the news reports the family name was Hyett – I can see on the ledger:

Benjamin Hyett & Elizabeth w…
daughter of Joseph Morwent
He dyed 1711 aged 62
She dyed 1708 aged 55
also their children
.. 1692 ..
.. 1706 ..
.. 1712 ..

And from on of the coffin lids:

Frances Hyett
Daughter of
…ny Hyett and Fran Hyett
Died Feby 16 1748?
Aged 9 Months

Inside the vault

A very brief scan of the internet shows a Charles Hyett (1677 or 1686 to 1738)  who had two sons - Benjamin Hyett II (1708 to 1762) and Nicholas Hyett (1709 to 1777). 

Charles’s father is recorded as Benjamin Hyett (1651 to 1711) who I think is our man – so at least one of Benjamin and Elizabeth’s children survived. 

Charles was MP for Gloucester between 1722 and 1727 and built Painswick House “to escape the smog of Gloucester” but he died not long after moving there.

Robins' painting
Benjamin II inherited Painswick House where he created the now famous Painswick Rococo Garden which was painted by Thomas Robins the Elder in 1748.

Nicholas was a lawyer and Justice of the Peace and one of “the last keepers and constables of the Castle of Gloucester”. 

Both Nicholas and Benjamin II failed in their attempts to follow their father’s footsteps into Parliament, but a long line of later descendants were more successful in this endeavour.

Press reports show Richard Clavering Hyett Dickinson (Lord Dickinson) as the living relative – and the grandson of Willoughby Hyett Dickinson, 1st Baron Dickinson of Painswick, who, like his ancestor Charles (and probably many other Hyetts)  was an MP. 

Painswick House
Back to the story, I think that I heard in a radio interview the new bishop of Gloucester – the Rt Rev Rachel Treweek- talking about renovations to the Bishop’s Palace and the installation of a new kitchen. Clearly her ‘new broom’ extends to the North Transept renovations and the installation of a lift – which is how this great discovery was made.

It is only by remaining current and fit for purpose in our ever-changing world that our great buildings will survive – and to survive, they need to do what they have always done – change!

My final hope is that the plan is to record the vault by camera and then close it up and leave the Hyetts just as they are.

Call me to discuss your insurance needs on 0208 2550617 / 07768 865983

Monday, 2 November 2015

Ice Age engravings found in Jersey

The recent discovery in Jersey of fragments from stone slabs proves that, like us, settlers in the UK were tablet aficionados 14,000 years ago. Plus ça change... 

The dig uncovered stone engravings which are similar to those discovered on the continental mainland - which are also dated similarly - but are the first of their kind here and pre-date the earliest discovered art in Britain. 

The 'art' in question - for we are using the term a little loosely here - comprises a series of criss-crosses carved into tablets, and are significant in that they perhaps mark the point when our ancestors began to think in a more abstract way. 

Unlike at other Magdalenian sites where tablets have been discovered with representations of other horses and animals on them, the carvings consist exclusively of repeated lines, leading experts to surmise whether the artist in question is in fact a distant ancestor of Ed Miliband

The discoveries were made by archaeologists who have been patiently toiling away at the site - 'Les Varines' - for five consecutive summers. And Dr Conneller, a lecturer at the University of Manchester, is hopeful their labours will bear yet more fruit:

"We're hoping this is a hint of what is to come, because at some other sites you get hundreds of these pieces. What we've got at the moment is only a fragment of something much larger."

A fragment of something much larger indeed:- Dr Silvia Bello of the Natural History Museum is confident that the fragments are the real deal, revealing a shift in hunter-gatherer attitudes from the simplistic to the aesthetic:

"the stones ... show clear incised lines consistent with being made by stone tools, and they do not have any obvious functional role."

£180,000 has been invested by the Jersey States in the project - dubbed the Ice Age Island Project - and work resumes. 

We'll keep you updated as more discoveries, fingers crossed, follow.  

For competitive archaeology insurance, click here

Hat-doff to the BBC for pictures.

Sinister Catacombs of Odessa: the Lost Girl

Everybody knows about the Parisian catacombs, but the sprawling lesser-known maze beneath Odessa harbours a notoriety which continues to this day.

Urban exploration is a burgeoning pastime among young people and archaeologists who fancy themselves as Howard Carter types. E&G staff have been known to dabble in it during work hours, counting a Victorian swimming baths in Bristol as one of our favourite haunts.

Catacombs, however, are a different animal entirely. The Odessa tunnels in Ukraine span three levels, cover a staggering distance of 2,500 kilometres and have 1,000 (known) entrances.
So large are the catacombs, in fact, that they haven’t even been fully mapped.
Starting out as an isolated series of limestone mines in the 19th-century, local smugglers began connecting them in a macabre game of dot-to-dot that would eventually claim lives.

It is very difficult to convey in words just how dauntingly expansive a 2,500 kilometre network of tunnels is, especially when they often lead nowhere or double-back on themselves. Resembling enormous black bronchi (see map at top), the tunnels are arid and stifling; they provide no bearings or signposts for the lost.

Which compounds the tragedy of the case of a 19 year old girl who wandered, perhaps while intoxicated, into one of the entrances after having been to a New Year party in 2005. She was only discovered four months later by urban explorer hobbyists after police, having been informed that the girl was missing, refused to enter the catacombs should they suffer the same fate. One story has it that she was initially with a group of friends when she entered the tunnels and ran ahead to scare them. It was said that they went a different direction, and never saw her again. 

Despite the government having attempted to seal the known entrances in 1980, others are frequently being discovered. Along with explorers, the catacombs have become popular with derring-do teenagers and archaeologists who are intrigued by its history as a hiding place for civilians and officials in WWII.

The body of the lost girl, named Masha, was recovered two years after her disappearance, in 2007. Based on where her body lay it is believed she spent three days wandering the catacombs, trying to find her way out, before perishing of dehydration. Her case serves as a reminder of the dangers the catacombs of Odessa continue to pose to the carefree or ill-prepared. 

For competitive bespoke archaeology insurance click here. 

For competitive bespoke travel insurance click here. 

Friday, 30 October 2015

The Copper-Bottomed Buddhas

What do one of the world's largest untapped copper mines; Buddhist monk-kings; an al-Qaeda training camp and the Chinese have in common?

Not much at all, except for Mes Aynak.

The archaeological site of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan is one of the most promising of its kind in the Middle East. A buried pre-Islamic city of monks shrouded in copper ore, it comprises monastic fortifications, buddha schist statues and human remains dating as far back as 300AD. 

The priest-kings, and the city they ruled, prospered ever since the first ore was smelted and up until the forested environs - on which the process depended for fuel - was gradually cleared. Contrasting the peace which the city used to enjoy, the site is now a bone - or several - of contention for mining companies, archaeologists and militants.

The copper which built the city might just doom its legacy. 12.5 million tonnes of it is buried underground, and in 2007 the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) won the rights to mining operations on the site. For Afghanistan, the prospect of new infrastructure and a £780m boost to it's febrile economy proved too alluring, despite the risks to Afghan heritage that the mining operation will pose.

But the Chinese are not mining yet, due to continuing conflict in the region. Islamists are the source of the conflict, and look askance at the idea of pre-Islamic heritage anyway. The Taliban, which still has a stake in the area, have been known to harass archaeologists who are trying to salvage the site's riches before the Chinese move in.

Under the Taliban's aegis, an al-Qaeda base used to be located at Mes Aynak; four of the terrorists who conducted the 9/11 attacks were trained there. Conflict continues. The Chinese were forced to defer the beginning of ore extraction operations after rocket attacks in 2012 and 2013, which scarred a landscape already pockmarked by looters who have robbed it of some of its riches. Alas, it doesn't seem to matter anyway. The National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul have accepted so many artefacts that they no longer have room for them. Thousands of discoveries sit in limbo at storage facilities.

The date for mining continues to be offset, which gives archaeologists time to work on the site and make digital records. They have the time but not the manpower: they rely on volunteer labour and are low on resources. Nobody knows what the future holds for the site, but one thing's for sure: as rockets streak the skies and Chinese machinery looms, archaeology is Mes Aynak's only prospect for preservation. 

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Middleham Quilters Handmade Quilt Draw 2015

The Millennium Hanging
The Middleham Quilters Handmade Quilt Draw 2015 will take place on December 19th 2015.  Tickets are available from the Middleham Key Centre office.(

1st prize: Handmade double-bed sized quilt in 100% cotton in "Double Irish Chain" (colour-way cream & wine) made and kindly donated by Middleham Quilters.
2nd prize: bottle of whiskey. 
3rd prize: Box of chocolates.

The Middleham Quilters have just had their Biennial Exhibition and if you missed it, here are some pictures from the show.

Established in 1989, the Quilters meet weekly to work on group and individual quilting projects in the Middleham Key Centre, where their Millennium hanging illustrating the history of the town is hung permanently.

Over the last 26 years, the Middleham Quilters have made 36 group quilts, thirteen of which have been raffled to raise funds of over £23,000 for charities such as Marie Curie Cancer Care, The Friarage Hospital in Northallerton and Riding For the Disabled.

What fantastic work, but having insured the show, I would say that wouldn't I!!

More information on quilting can be found at

Call me to discuss your insurance needs on 0208 2550617 / 07768 865983

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Today Historic England published an update to their Heritage at Risk register – “an annual snapshot of England’s historic environment”.  Have a look at:

".....from domestic buildings, to protected wrecks, archaeological ruins to industrial sites and places of worship."

In terms of categories under threat – and in order of risk:

1. Barrows
2. Residential buildings
3. Settlements

Though regionally priorities vary. 

In summary, progress is being made, but the challenge is still very significant.

A skim through the South East register highlights for me
  • The old Broadmore hospital which is planned to become a hotel
  • The 12th century barn at New Manor Farm at Broughton
  • The many at risk barrows in the Meon Valley, near Winchester
  • No. 6 Dock, Basin No.1, Portsmouth Dockyard
  • Brookwood Cemetery
  • The Amberley Limeworks near Horsham

It really brings home the fact that there is just so much out there!

The Tale of a Converted Victorian Swimming Baths

As a doctor of Archaeology, Export & General managing director Dr John Mitchell has a niche interest in the modern craze of “urban archaeology”; but the case of the Bristol Community Dance Centre is one building which he’d rather see preserved.

The Bristol Community Dance Centre is a converted Victorian swimming baths and spa-cum-dance studio; a monument to the fortitude of manager Alan Roberts who has run the premises since the 1980s; and a sentinel part of Bristol’s cultural landscape.

Both the studios and their custodian exude charm: Alan Roberts jokes that the ‘ravages of time’ have left their mark on him; but he isn’t intent on some cosmetic renovations of his own; it is the building that is in need of restoration.

The Bristol Community Dance Centre has been running for almost 30 years, during which time it has hosted performances by Disney, Elbow, Frank Bruno and other stars who regard the Studio One dancefloor as one of the best – if not the best – in Britain. The fact it was built over a former swimming pool makes it ideal for dance: the suspending metal springs beneath mitigate the risk of ankle splint injuries and conduce to more seamless dance manoeuvres. Both it, as well as the performance equipment in the studio, were fitted because of Alan’s tireless campaigning. During his stewardship a total of £1.5m in capital has been raised for fittings and renovations; having showed us the before and after photos of the building, it became clear that his contribution to not only salvaging the building from dilapidation – but also utilising it – has been a staggering feat.

Export & General have insured the studios almost since their inception, and we simply aren’t prepared to see its majesty crumble. It isn’t an exaggeration to say the Dance Centre has played a transformative role in Bristol’s community: Alan relates that a young local gangster - who regretted his life decisions and feared for his life to the extent he rarely went out - was taken to see the annual fandango and was so inspired that he joined the dance troupe, went abroad to dance and left his life of crime behind. This sense of purpose – Alan says – is an example of the magic of dance and drama, made more magic when set inside the soaring red brick walls, arching steel buttresses and vaulted ceilings of a listed Victorian baths. The question, then: isn’t the building owed a transformation of its own?

So Alan has spent thousands commissioning an architect to draw mock ups of what a renovated premises would look like. The results are simply stunning.

Plans include a plush new reception, glass veneers throughout the building including a glass balcony encompassing studio one and connecting the building’s 15 levels. The old tank and pump rooms would not only be restored, but given architectural significance: the Victorian bath tank would prop up a glass floor in the café, so you can peer into its fathoms while sipping a latte. A new studio dedicated to flamenco dance would be constructed in the spacious pump room, surrounded by towering steel beams, and would be the only one of its kind in Britain. The charming bathhouse fixtures like the spring valves, which are still connected to the historic 14th century stream built by a Jewish sect running beneath the building, would be restored.

At Export & General we actively embrace innovation and heritage. While the two concepts may seem like uneasy bedfellows, we see Alan’s plans for the Dance Centre as a symbol of our ethos – and their realisation: its total embodiment.

Which is why we really rather like it, and hope it stays around. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Attitudes Surrounding the Destruction of Palymra

E&G's Dr John Mitchell holds many opinions that are inappropriate for his day and age. He doesn't care for national treasure Steven Fry, could pass on David Attenborough (the other one was better, he avers with a sniff), sees no charm at all in foxes and regards them as vermin; perhaps most extreme of all, he is politically moderate.

So it was characteristic of him that - while I treated the news of the Ancient Roman/Syrian site of Palmyra with righteous indignation and disappointment - Dr John appeared not quite so distraught, saying that the fact everything was digitally recorded beforehand softened the blow.

Interpreting his position for flippancy, I laid into him with all the salivating relish of one of his bloodhounds:

How do you justify your indifference to other archaeologists? How does digital mapping compensate for the erasure of thousands of years of history? When are you paying me?

He answered that he can justify his position quite easily; that the archaeological profession is rooted in the paradox that to create history you must also destroy it (it would therefore be disingenuous not to take solace in the fact that there is a digital record); and not before I've purchased Employee Non-Payment insurance - a new package that he'd kindly tailor to my needs - and subsequently claim on it.

Much as I hate to admit it, what he said made rather a lot of sense. I had never thought that way about archaeologists: I had been led to believe that creation, rather than destruction, was the order of the day. But now that Dr John mentions it, is the position of archaeologists regarding Palmyra entirely honest?

I know nothing at all about archaeology, but if I imagine myself in their shoes I think the one thing I'd learn is that nothing lasts. Creating history would be exhilarating, yes, but wouldn't the prevailing lesson be that of impermanence? In the digital age, we have the ability to upload things into the great cloud; we can immortalise things in the data that we record. It is far harder to destroy this data than duplicate it; logically, it is more reasonable to expect to preserve things as data in the cloud than to expect them to weather physical threats on the ground.

Dr John is not ambivalent about Palmyra, but is right to find salvation in the digital age. Digital mapping may be less authentic than the real deal - but archaeologists deal in destruction as well as creation - and it would be dishonest not to bear this in mind.

The tourist blight on Machu Picchu

The ancient city of Machu Picchu is indisputably the most well-known South American archaeological landmark.

Built in 1450 BC in the Chilean mountains, the city is a symbol of the surpassing innovation of the Incans; its situation at high-altitude (it is one of the highest of South America’s ancient cities) makes the importance it had to the Incan economy all the more impressive.

So it is natural that Macchu Picchu has become the destination of choice for discerning middle class tourists who want to broaden their horizons; experiencing both the wonder of an ancient city in ruins, as well as the pristine jungle – complete with rare wildflower species and critters that are too large for their own good – on the three-hour long trek up to the site.

So it is hard to imagine such a place as this should be sullied by the tendrils of Western travel, but it has.

While I was there I spoke to a local, our sherpa for the trek up to the site, who told me (after some hesitation: the economy heavily relies on tourism, and it is a cardinal rule to make tourists feel as welcome as possible) that over the last decade or so the site has been increasingly beset by pollution from tourists.

The trail, on which he lugged my gear as we spoke, for example had been eroded by the sheer number of trekkers; though quotas had been enforced by the Chilean government, this trail is partly made of stone which is as old as the city itself. Parts of it had, indeed, been eroded – I began to feel guilty about even walking it.

The trail itself is fringed by an iridescent array of wildflowers. They smelt fantastic, had large drooping petals and with hues from pink, to blue, to green and even black. But - related my sherpa – they were apparently too beautiful for tourists to resist picking them along the trail, and we walked treading strewn wildflowers underfoot.

Surely tourists are not all that bad? – I asked my sherpa, who asked to remain anonymous, somewhat hopefully. He replied that for the local city of Cuzco, at which he lives and most tourists stay to get to Macchu Picchu, they have been an economic boon. New hotels, including a Hilton, have been sprouting there and local traders’ pockets have been steadily swelling over the last decade: red Alpaca wool coats in native striped patterns in particular sell very well, as do an assortment of brass trinkets including jugs, and ceramics.

But every silver lining has a cloud. New hotels with sleeker operations are bringing jobs, but are pricing local bed & breakfasts and family-run inns out of business. The luxury hotels also impair the once rugged and more authentic experience of tourism in the area, he said, and bring a sense of entitlement which feeds back into his job. Expecting to have every whim catered for, and more besides, tourists expect him to lug more and more items of baggage up the trail, packed with heavy equipment. My sherpa is impressively robust, and seems oblivious to the weight he carries which often exceeds 15kg, but I offer to carry a couple of bags after he tells me this.

Besides Cuzco and the jungle trail, Macchu Picchu is also feeling the strain of tourist numbers. Once we arrive – our attention immediately captured by the soaring peak of limestone rock jutting out North of the site, and the wraith-like clouds encircling it – I notice both visual and aural pollution. Children and tweens chase each other around the site and down the narrow alleys which comprise its old streets. Despite having recently been enjoined by the local tourist board to wear clothing in muted colours, I still spot raincoats in shocking colours. The sheer number of people - of which, make no mistake, I was one – all but ruins the serenity of the site. An older Canadian tourist who visited the site when its popularity was burgeoning in the seventies says that back then you could traipse around Macchu Picchu while it was almost deserted, hearing nothing but the whispering breeze and call of songbirds. This had been replaced by the din of camera shutters and chatter. 

The site is still beautiful, and took my breath away. The local people were lovely, and forthcoming. My sherpa especially so - their only expectation is a meagre wage and that tourists appreciate the majesty of a site they've known since they began work hauling luggage as children. But my trip home was still tinged with melancholy - not only because I was leaving, but because I would hesitate to return and know I'd contributed to infrastructural strain. 

Having arrived back in England, I heard of a new £28 million plan to rescue Macchu Picchu from excess tourist numbers. Measures include security cameras to cope with stealing, which is rife, ten minute visiting slots and a more stringent quota. 

I was slightly relieved. It could only be for the best. 

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Pigs Unearth 12,000 year old Stone Tools

A herd of pig archaeologists have unearthed tools left by hunter-gatherers at Islay around 12,000 years ago.

The stone implements gradually surfaced after years of porcine poking about the shore of the Scottish island, though the official line credits their gamekeeper with the find.

Evidence had previously suggested that the earliest dwelling at Islay dated back 10,500 years, but archaeologists at the site uncovered a level 3,000 years older. This was 'long before any humans should have been in the region' stated one archaeologist, almost as if the incursion of humans on the unspoiled islet had been rude.

As for the pigs, they were originally intended by their gamekeeper to clear bracken on the shore when their intellectual curiosity took over; an archaeologist at the University of Reading - a university in Reading - said that the findings had 'taken our breath away'. Unearthing who 'our' is would require the time and fortitude which only pigs in Islay seem to have, and so you'll have to forgive us for not expanding.

To read more about the discovery click here. For pig related news click here.

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Blunt Trauma: Battle of the Beanfield

E&G revisits a literally landmark civil battle

On June 1 1985, Stonehenge was humming with hippies. The ‘Peace Convoy’, comprising 600 tie-dyed travellers, converged on the Wiltshire site for the Stonehenge Free Festival. The festival had been forbidden by the Wiltshire constabulary, using a government-backed High Court injunction, from going ahead; but in a fit of hippie recalcitrance the phalanx of frosted peace-lovers rumbled into town anyway.

Potholes on the Road

Channeling the spirit of Kris Kristofferson’s protagonist in Convoy, the caravan set its bearings for Wiltshire in full knowledge of the police presence it would encounter. It was about seven miles from Stonehenge that the incense of nonconformism was first wafted towards police, who had formed a barricade of 1300 personnel to the South of the site.
After trying to endear officers with a misty rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, the convoy became restless during Hesitation Blues and ended defiantly with Piggies. It became clear that conflict was inevitable.

To acoustic strums of antipathy, the convoy made for the barricade and attempted to breach it. But police were ready. With truncheons, they smashed the windows of convoy vehicles, arresting members of the vanguard, and pursued an offshoot of the convoy to a nearby field where another stand-off ensued.

Joint Blame

To this day debate rages as to what exactly happened, why and whose fault it was.

Disputation surrounds whether members of the convoy used improvised weapons - even petrol bombs - as part of a premeditated and sustained attack on police. Although the use of petrol bombs, if true, does hint at this, The Observer reported that police may have preemptively thrown shields and stones at the convoy to get it to stop.

Although such measures may have been born of desperation or fear, one wonders whether bombarding moving vehicles with objects could realistically have provided any logistical benefit; a fortiori one questions the wisdom of throwing stones at people who were already stoned.

Although publications such as the Guardian maintain that police measures were sanctioned against the travellers without justification, the general conception that both parties were at fault for escalating the conflict - which led to 24 injuries in total, as well as 537 arrests - prevails.

Half-baked Excuses

Perhaps understandably, Wiltshire police have made no official apology. At the time, they stood by their actions as the justifiable result of the court-ordered injunction which forbade the festival from taking place at the hallowed site. However, in 1991 a court ruling determined that £24,000 be paid to 21 travellers in damages – encompassing wrongful arrest, false imprisonment and damage to possessions.

This most historic of British civil battles, which briefly and unbecomingly threw Stonehenge into a new light, typifies the risk of overlap between politics and archaeology. It gave rise to questions of the extent to which the state has authority over our national heritage. Ultimately, the fact that the events of the battle are related today highlights what an important role our national monuments still play in modern life.