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BRITARCH  September 2004

BRITARCH September 2004

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Subject:

Re: Cumwhitton Viking burial site (longish)

From:

Paul Barford <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Wed, 8 Sep 2004 23:13:27 +0200

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Mark Horton writes:
> Is the media circus linked to the fact that this originated as a metal
detector
> find, and was reported through the PAS - Ms Morris is very keen on the
PAS,
> and their press release makes instructive reading.
This would seem to be a good explanation of the hype, its more propaganda of
success for the PAS - which invites us perhaps to look at these articles a
little more closely, especially as they link to several of the topics which
came up in the discussion here a few weeks back on detecting and the PAS.
Here we have a specific case, quite fully covered in the media and we can
see what kind of material is offered for people to make up their minds about
the benefits or otherwise of continuing to allow uncontrolled
metal-detecting in Britain. All of the reports present a very positive
picture of the hobby, but there are some issues which seem to have been
blurred and questions raised in the attempt to present this rosier than rosy
picture.

1) We have discussed the user-friendliness/efficiency (or rather lack of
them) of the PAS search facility here before, so this may be the explanation
why the two brooches and sword fragments found by the detectorist Peter
Adams seven months ago (March this year) could not be found by my searching
the PAS database for them (either with or without a more precise location
noted). This seems very odd, as the FLO was reported to have been present on
site at the time of the discovery of the second brooch and sword fragments.
If they are indeed absent, why is this so? It would seem to me that their
showcasing would be a good way of showing that the PAS is doing what its
intended to and is providing a useful resource. (Nota bene there is a news
item about this discovery on the PAS webpage which could have linked through
to these finds if they were in the database). I stand to be corrected here
if somebody can produce a link to show these finds are on the database in an
area unpenetrated by my search.

2) The large photograph of one of the brooches in one of the news items
referred to on Britarch shows that at least two of the bosses have been
broken off at the time of discovery (fresh breaks). Since the objects were
NOT in the ploughsoil (despite at least one of the news reports stating that
they were - see below), this most likely happened when Mr Adams dug them up.
This highlights the problems that can occur when delicate finds are
excavated from small holes dug down by untrained individuals into
archaeological stratigraphy.

3) We learn from the Oxford website that the ploughsoil was only 20 cm deep
("within a clearly defined east/west orientated grave cut that had been
damaged by ploughing c 200mm
deep" -http://www.oxfordarch.co.uk/vikingburial/indepth.htm) a figure that
is confirmed by a photo of the excavation showing the "extent of plough
damage": http://www.oxfordarch.co.uk/vikingburial/ploughscarring.jpg, so
below this depth of 20 to 25 cm we have undisturbed archaeological
stratigraphy.

In an interview with Mr Adams, we find the following information: > A very
weak signal on the crest of a hill set him off digging and about 14 inches
down he found an object: "When I saw it in the ground, I thought it was an
indicator off a tractor or something," he said. <
http://www.24hourmuseum.org.uk/nwh_gfx_en.html
 Well, it probably would be a weak signal if it came from highly corroded
object at a depth of 36 cm, well below the level of the base of the
ploughsoil. It is a pity that Ms Morris and Mr Cossons did not comment on
this aspect of the discovery, the objects found by the detectorist were
removed by him from undisturbed archaeological deposits of an archaeological
site well below the ploughsoil.

Maybe the finds thus brutally removed from their context WERE in this case
reported, leading subsequently to an excavation. It is however noticable
that the plan of the burials published on the Oxford website carefully
avoids giving us a detailed plan of this particular burial (instead other
websites offer an artist's reconstruction of how it once had looked). Is it
perhaps the case that Mr Adams' diggings in this grave prevented the
archaeologists who subsequently excavated it from determining where
precisely within it the objects had been found? Perhaps those producing the
material for the press thought it would not be PC to discuss the two 36 cm
deep holes earlier dug into this grave.

4) The evaluation excavation began by removing the ploughsoil from the
plough furrows at the base of the ploughsoil, as seen in the photo cited
above. Oddly though, the stratigraphically later feature, the holes dug down
into the grave fill by Mr Adams are not emptied out in this photo. The
excavators presumably wished their photo to show one type of damage to the
site, and not another. While the top 20-25 cm of the site was being damaged
by ploughing, up to 36cm depth was in danger of being damaged by another
agency. The presentation of a photo showing a stage of the excavation by
which the latest features on the site had been emptied in reverse
stratigraphical order merely manipulates the evidence for what actually had
happened to the site, nota bene - to the advantage of the position of the
pro-detectorist lobby.

5) Several of the news items stress the involvement of Mr Adams with the
subsequent evaluation and excavation. There are (posed?) photos of him
scanning the evaluation trench during its excavation (I wonder if he found
the bosses that fell off the brooch when he dug it out, thinking it was a
tractor part?). There is some doubt in my mind what this detecting was
actually for (since the soil was reportedly sieved anyway, thus not only
would any small bits of metal be found, but so also would small bits of
finds of any other material). The main use it seems to have served in this
part of the project is its propaganda value (look everybody - exemplary
co-operation between archaeologist and detectorist). Far more productive in
my opinion would have been to give him a trowel and help him find out what
real archaeology is about.

Comparison of the published site plan with the news reports suggests another
problem in the later campaign. We read: "the metal detecting survey
identified a series of 'hot spots' in the north-eastern part of the main
excavation area. Stripping of the area and careful hand excavation over the
metallic 'hot spots' revealed [...] five further graves". Interestingly, a
geophysical survey was reportedly done here too, though the reports suggest
that the fiurther graves were found only as a result of the detectorist
being involved and are silent about the other results. Again,
pro-detectorist propaganda. Also if the detector was used to define the
boundaries oof the area to be stripped of topsoil, it is not clear why a
published photograph shows the detectorist going over the area AFTER
stripping. Was the detector survey being used to locate features in the
stripped and excavated area? The plan published on the Oxford website shows
a number of features to the west of the graves which simply end in
mid-trench and look as if they were only partially planned and excavated.
The fact that the continuation of these features was not found or planned
raises the question of how thoroughly this area was in fact investigated
beyond sweeping it with the metal detector. If this is the case, how many
graves or other features might there have been in this area which did not
contain any metal objects? One hopes that the final report will clearly
state the precise methodology of the excavation and the part played by the
use of metal detectors in the excavation strategy to offset the prominence
this tool has been accorded in the accounts available at present.

6) I was disturbed by the quality of some of  the excavation suggested by
the publication photos of the site. While we can all see that soil
conditions are not ideal, surely any self-respecting excavator would do a
little more to tidy the area around a grave- find such as the jet bracelet
before taking a publication photo such as:
http://www.oxfordarch.co.uk/vikingburial/jet%20bracelet.jpg.  Photos like
this merely suggest lax standards and work carried out in a hurry, and not
the standards one would expect of a prestige and state-funded project on a
site apparently no more threatened than many tens of thousands of other
archaeological sites under the plough.

7) In fact, the justtification for carrying out the excavation in the first
place is not stated. Was it dug because of some kind of a threat, and was
that threat of the 25cm deep variety or the 36cm deep kind once the news got
out?

8) As for the hyping of the "importance" of the site itself, it is after all
just six graves and a few gullies. David Wilson published a map of Viking
burials in England  long ago (1976 The Archaeology of Anglo-Saxon England,
page 394) which has nearly 30 sites on it. A modified version appeared in
David Hill's Atlas of Anglo-Saxon England which has the Scottish and Irish
sites too - there are quite a lot of burials and indeed cemeteries. One of
the Cumwhitton excavation team apparently later substantiated the claim by
suggesting that this was the "only one with burials" (by which was meant
"inhumations", but that also is not unique).

9) It is worth also noting that the version that this was the cemetery of a
generation of Vikings somewhere between paganism and Christianity may be a
nice story, but Christianity had reached at least some of the Vikings
settled in England well before the early tenth century TPQ offered by the
brooch which is the only datable artefact mentioned. Also it should be noted
that graves 27, 25 and 32 form one group, while 24 and 36 form a second and
the relationship between them suggests that they are not contemporary. The
grave which Peter Adams iniially found however is an outlier of this cluster
lying well to the SW. The cemetery thus probably had at least two phases of
use, and it may not be fanciful to see at least two generations buried here.

10) Finally, we should remember that two brooches do not a Viking make (see
the heated discussion on this in the case of identical brooches found in
barrow cemeteries in Russia). These objects were worn by the woman in the
isolated grave at Cumwhitton, while the burials in the other graves have
less ethnically-specific artefacts. Whether or not they can be considered as
Scandinavians will have to await a closer analysis of the finds, and
especially a comparative study of the burial rite with those in Scandinavia
(the approach adopted to study the "Viking" graves of Russia).

Anyway, interesting as these news reports are, let us see what emerges from
the fuller study of the evidence and the final publication.

Paul Barford

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