Thursday, 19 December 2013

Terrible TV Review: Battlefield Britain

I normally don't do reviews, but this really got my blood boiling! "Battlefield Britain", hosted by father-son duo Peter and Dan Snow back in 2004, looked at the most famous battles in British history; Boudica v the Romans, the battle of Hastings, the Spanish Armarda, and so on, using a mixture of top-down and bottom-up explanations, with some reconstructions, using actors, physical scenarios and virtual reality. So this actually sounds very normal for a history program with some archaeology thrown in, trying to experiment with new technology and actively trying to reconstruct what it would have felt like to be in a battle, to make it more appealing to the public; currently it is being shown after midnight on BBC 4. But I'm going to explain why this is a terrible advertisment for both history and archaeology, and I fear that it has set a precedent for more TV shows that ignore the facts and just want ratings.

And this was meant to be high-tech stuff back in 2004! (image from wikipedia)

So to begin with I watched the first 2 epiodes and got so angry with the way that they treated the history and archaeology with such contempt that I point blank refuse to watch another episode. Why? Well, the main issue I had was their contempt for presenting a very narrow and very strict version of history that didn't use very much evidence at all. If this was a scientific experiment, they would be laughed out the lab. Seriously, I've seen children's history books with more factual content.

Take the first episode. Boudica was the queen of the Iceni, but on her husband's death, the Romans defied the will he made up and took the whole of her lands, rather than just half. That they got right. What they didn't get right was everything else! They presented a horrible view that the Romans simply conquered every tribe in Britain as soon as they touched down on our Isle. In fact, the Romans went about conquering Britain much more subtly, by negotiating treaties with various tribes, like the Dobunni, who in exchange for their continued security, would pay taxes and allow the Romans to trade with them in their towns, even helping to build these new towns for the tribes. This is information that was even back then not particularly difficult to come by; any archaeologist working on any roman site would be able to tell you what I've just said, and more! Furthermore, the only archaeology we saw was the remains of the temple in Colchester, which "withstood the fighting of the Iceni" by holding out for 2 days. Any look at a Time Team episode (admittedly biased) will show you that the Iron Age is full of archaeology, which can tell use so much more about their lives than the fighting we see on this program (also see my excavation on an Iron Age site here). This was relying purely on the evidence of Tacitus, and not on any site reports that are available, which is a crying shame because there are bound to be site reports for archaeological excavations on all the sites that were mentioned in the program.. Boudica, admittedly some new evidence concerning the location of her last battle, but they neglected to mention the other alternatives (except for Mancetter). New research that wasn't available to them at the time suggests that the battle took place near Church Stowe in Northamptonshire (John Pegg 2010).

Then we come to the second episode (the Battle of Hastings), which was probably written on the back of a coaster in a pub. They neglected to mention the following things (that are rather important to the Battle of Hastings and it's context): the Bayeux tapestry, Harald Hadrada as King of the Norwegian Vikings and his claim to the throne, the story of how Edward the Confessor promised his throne to William. In their defence, the presentation of the fights themselves was well done; fast paced, and somewhere there was a narrative. They did also mention other important facts, like the Italian mercenaries, how it was a battle for god and not just William, how the Vikings were defeated at Stamford Bridge; but a lot of this is mentioned in the tapestry at one point or another.Furthermore, there was no explanation for the Vikings attacking England, except for "pillaging". This is the same army sent by Harald Hadrada; no king with a claim to a throne would send troops to an enemy country with no instructions except to pillage, as was very much implied by the program.
 Yes, the reconstructions of being charge by a horse was a useful exercise in showing the power of mounted knights, but by this point in the program the context of the story had been so muddled up with a lack of information I felt at a loss. A battle without it's own story is just an exercise in meat-grinding.

You can argue against my critique that history is subject to changes in opinion, but we knew even back then, only 9 years ago, that the Romans were not so stupid as to charge head-first into an unknown and hostile land without first making some friends. Neglection of even mentioning the Tapestry is a major flaw in the argument of this episode, especially when they are in France for part of the show. Surely they could have got access to it? Seriously, Dan Snow is now the President of the Council for British Archaeology (although his background is history and not archaeology). He needs to button up and do some reading. Or some excavating. He is a historian first and it shows. Not a very good one, on this evidence. Not one excavtion was shown in these episodes, and I suspect this is the case for all the remainder. Having said that, I will agree with Dan that his dad does explain some rather complicated bits of history quite well, befitting of a man who has worked on the TV for so long.

The main selling point of the program is Peter Snow's "briefcase", which, when opened up, displays a battlefield from a particular time and place. Using virtual reconstructions of men, their weapons and the environment, it presents the fighting almost as it was. There is very little wrong with the reconstructions themselves, but I will come back to the problems of reconstructions in a moment. Meanwhile, they also use a mixture of "interviews" with actors being soldiers or civillians from the time period in questions, which again in itself is not a bad idea. Furthermore, they re-enact some aspects of warfare for themselves; I did like the use of the police as a makeshift "shield wall" and contrasting the two techniques, although the police-woman showed up the Snows in their knowledge of what a good shield wall should do, but then that is a new interpretation in itself, and that is actually good for public viewing, giving a new insight into the mind of those who are on the front line today. But not in the past, it should be said. But this is a minor qualm when you're broadcasting information to the public.

If this program was given any more screen time than it has already been given, I would be extremely concerned. This is a very lop-sided version of histroy that simply ignores unacceptably large amount of evidence. Yes, we've all heard about the Bayeux tapestry for the hundredth time, but there's a good reason why you've heard about it; it is one of the most important pieces of evidence we have surrounding the account of the battle of Hastings, and it provides more than one side of the story, even if it is written by the victor. A lop-sided and deliberately incomplete account of history is a far more dangerous thing than a simply lop-sided one. Many of the tyrants of history knew that eliminating the traces of your vanquished foes made your position all the more secure; to quote Hitler "Who remembers now the destruction of the Armenians?", a rhetoric reference to the Armenian Genocide, which was carried out during World War 1, and seemingly forgotten about during the inter-war period, possibly helping to justify Hitler's extermination of the Jews and other races during the Second Word War.

Now for the reconstructions. I could be here all day, but I will keep it short. You can reconstruct anything from the past, but if you do not explain how it was reconstructed, what sources you used, and what could be an alternative presentation of the facts, then you risk alienating experts, you risk presenting a falsified version of events, and then accidentally (or intentaionally) lying to the public. Given that we pay the licence fee, the BBC needs to think carefully over what it is spending it's money on. Those virtual reconstructions are based on some historical and archaeological evidence, but also ethnogrpahic evidence (the actors, reconstructing fighting techniques and so on), but there is no mention of where the environmental sources! If you look out over a bit of green space, how long ago do you think it was before it was cleared of trees and undergrowth? We don't know the answer to that question unless we count rings on trees and count pollen from coring samples. This links back to the "written on a coaster in a pub" statement above; it feels very rushed, without consulting all the evidence (again, becoming a bit of a theme here). My point here is that no reconstruction is ever going to be perfect, no matter how "realistic" it looks. It can be an accurate and precise reconstruction, but it can never be a "true" reconstruction, because of the nature of the evidence. You will note that this caveat is never mentioned in any program that features reconstructions, not even in Time Team!

On to the BBC itself. While the nature of historical programs has got better in using more recent historical and archaeological evidence, if they are replaying Battlefield Britain as a genuine alternative, then it contradicts the BBC's efforts to present a solid argument for presenting history and archaeology on the TV. But that can't be right; it is relegated to the midnight slot! But having said that, given that the BBC are re-running it, shows that the producers care little for the critical review of the content of the program, and simply the ratings that big names can pull.

If I was in charge of this program, I would make a lot more of the historical and archaeological evidence actually mentioned on the program, and I would have used more experts from various institutions as well, while cutting down on the actors, although not getting rid of them (they were overused a bit). If I was in charge of the BBC, I wouldn't have this program shown at all. Instead, I would recommision it, maybe with Dan and Peter Snow, because I am sure that they not entirely to blame, and we all learn from our mistakes. Besides, they are not the main fault of the program; if arcaheologists were on the program I would still slate it for the lack of factual accuracy. If archaeology is not on the TV being broadcast and reminding the public about it's importance to telling us about understanding the past, then we will lose it! 

Rant over, please leave any comments below!


Bardakjian, Kevork, 1985, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide,, Cambrdige, Massachusetts, Zoryan Institute.

Pegg, J., 2010, Landscape Analysis and Appraisal: Church Stowe, Northamptonshire as a Candidate for the Battle of Watling Street, craft:pegg, London

Image one: Author unknown, last accessed 19/12/2013, Battlefield Britain,, last updated 15th December 2013.


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Archaeology in the Public Eye: Ooo shiny...

I noticed a while ago an article on the BBC about the "hairdo archaeologist" (see here). Why has this woman's fascination with hair led to a media sensation, and why don't other archaeological news stories across the world, which are more impressive and arguably more important (see here for dolphins discovering a 19th century torpedo in the USA!), get more attention? In a more recent set of articles from the same University, emphsising my point, a set of 18 skeletons were found next to Durham Cathedral (see here), while a relatively unoticed excavation in Asia by the same University will redate the birth of one of the world's most important religions (see here). Which of these stories did you hear about?

In my perfect world, everyone would be fascinated with the periods just before and after the Romans (particularly in Britain), or anywhere around the world that looks at the cultures that existed just before writing occurred, and then push back the boundaries of our knowledge further. Maybe I grew playing too many games in the Total War series, where grand armies could sail from Norway (or France in Rome: Total War) and conquer large parts of Britain to my (their?) hearts content, distorting my interests in historical periods. In one sense though, this is virtual archaeology- the games themselves provide a small, yet interesting amount of history (rarely archaeology though) as to how certain weapons were made, and how and why some buildings were built, and some historical battles. Of course in the grand scheme of things, this comes across as a minor point when you are beheading virtual foes with your mighty huscarl regiment. There is also the small issue of the Total War series not explicitly telling us where they got this information from!

My point is Archaeology is everywhere, usually you just don't recognise it! See that field over there outside your window? If it has small earth mounds that run across the length of the field in a linear fashion, chances are that it is medieval ridge and furrow. If you see a pond surrounded by trees, or respected by hedgerows, the chances are again that it has a longer history than you think, and may have provided fish for a local lord or monastery back in the day. If you live by the seaside, you will usually spot some pre/historic feature that indicates the area's function, no matter how small it may be. However, most of the time, because you aren't told about these things, then you won't recognise this "heritage".

Do some research into your local library; look at old tithe maps, parish maps, local landowners, and any previous historical or archaeological investigations, and prove me wrong. Shiny things, such as gold torcs or Roman coins, in contrast, provide a different side of the story, usually reflect elites, and other important individuals in society. Metal hoards may reflect multiple people, or the collective efforts of multiple people for one person. Objects in a hoard often belong to the same culture. Because they are often well made and haven't rusted too much, they often lend themselves to presentation in a display cabinet. It is also easier to illustrate the individual with this shiny object rather than with the landscape, like the field I mentioned above. "This coin was produced by the Romans during the rule of Emperor Severus" conjures a more vivid image than "This field would have produced crops in a 4-field system, an idea taken from Dutch farmers, that would have kept the local area well fed...", for example. The individual is easier to illustrate than an entire community.

This brings me to the hairdo archaeologist and the dolphins. While she has no shiny objects, her knowledge is like a shiny object- it glitters in the light of the media, and it provides a unique perspective on individuals back in the classical period. It can also be put in a display cabinet and be taken to various places. In contrast, the dolphins, while displaying a frankly astounding level of intelligence to find a 19th century torpedo, will probably not get the same coverage. Why? Does the BBC's North America editor have a hair fetish? Surely with military considerations on the top of the list at the moment with the unrest in Syria and terrorist attacks around the world, surely being able to use animals to find bombs is going to have more value in society? A simpler explanation is more likely to be the uniqueness of the woman's discovery. Even though it addresses individuals specifically, these hair styles were being used all across the Roman and Greek empires. 

The bomb in contrast is much more difficult to relate to an individual, despite it's relevance to modern day scenarios. Perhaps the US military has kept records of the suppliers of military hardware from the 19th century, but less work has gone into identifying individuals, nor are dolphins good at talking in English. With a relatable modern day person to relate the skills to as well, it can be argued that these skills can now be replicated, preserving this knowledge. I haven't even mentioned King Richard III, who has captivated the imagination of huge numbers of people, who have now visited his skeleton. I would like to contrast this with the very few people who visited the site of the Bosworth battlefield, where he died. Leicester University are missing a trick here! This landscape, as bloody as it is, represents an excellent opportunity to illustrate a landscape with famous individuals, especially since we know the story of Richard III; where he stayed the night before, where he died, where he was buried and so on. These could all be linked into a "heritage trail", and tied into the major exhibition that occurred a while back. 

Ultimately though, going back to my main theme, it is, or course, how the news articles get media attention that often dictate how much of the public see these archaeology stories. A lot of the news stories I see on my internet feeds are archaeology, because I signed up for groups, newsletters etc. about them. Alas, these are often specialist groups, and not to everyone's taste. But that's not all; news reporters are human; they too only have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the news to write into their papers etc. Their biases will be distorted towards their personal likes, political agendas, and how good their sources are at following up major discoveries/events. So a number of things stop a good news story from getting into print. Also luck.

So the public like individuals. They also however like objects which display great organisation, such as Stonehenge, Hadrians Wall, or natural wonders like Ayers Rock, or, before 2001, the Bamiyan statues of Afghanistan ( These often involve entire communities, usually multiple communities, and over time, multiple cultures, like today's landscape of the Baniyam valley, with a mixture of Buddha statues (now destroyed) and Muslim buildings. Who made these decisions to build these monuments? Would this tell us any more about the cultures? The contrast between the monuments I have just described and the ridge and furrow I have described above are huge, but mainly that it is likely that your local field is not protected by international law from development. What I am saying is that any landscape can provide a new perspective on your local, or in some cases, national history/heritage.

The Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 for representing a different religion. Considered to be one of the Asian wonders of the world for their sheer size and skill of the craftsmen (the holes are c.60 and 35m high respectively, which held massive statues!) The buildings are Islamic in origin.

I believe that the public can't take too much information in about the past, which limits the detail somewhat. Individuals are easier to remember than landscapes, but that doesn't mean archaeologists and heritage specialists should stop trying. Indeed, in the last 60 years or so, landscape studies in archaeology and history have become considerably more popular. Populating this landscape is one way to bring the archaeology to life. However, this article is far too short to cover all of the aspects of the "individual" against "the landscape", and in academia, we tend to make the distinction between sites (arbitrary areas of archaeological activity) and landscapes (vast sweeping areas with varying degrees of archaeological activity), which until recently, was uncritically accepted.

So my recommendations for the public? Embrace the landscape, but don't forget the individuals who lived there! As you can imagine, this is much easier to do for any period that contains writing, and this is the challenge I accept; to populate the landscape as far back as I can go. Knowledge can be your shiny object, illuminating the lives of those before and around you.

Please leave any comments below and I will endeavour to respond!

P.S. I admit that the sources I chose here are biased; the two more "obscure" ones come from specialist archaeology sources, and the other two come from a mainstream news site! But it still serves to prove my point.


BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, "Hairdo Archaeologist" Solves Ancient Fashion Mystery,, Last updated 26/05/2013

Archaeological Institute of America, last accessed 08/12/2013,Dolphins Discover Ancient Armament, http:// last accessed 08/12/2013,, last updated 21/05/2013

BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, Remains of 18 People Found on Dig Medieval Dig in Durham,, last updated 30/11/2013

Durham University, last accessed 08/12/2013, Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha’s life,, last updated 5/11/2013

Saturday, 16 November 2013

5 fun facts about Southampton University

Time for 5 more fun facts! This time I will focus on Southampton University; it's history and archaeology ~(mostly buildings based). Hopefully not as long as the last few articles I've done!

1.The University of Southampton was founded in 1862, with funds from the then-deceased Henry Robinson Hartley (hence why the University was originally called the "Hartley Institution")(Nash and Sherwood 2002). The son of a wealthy wine merchant, he actually disliked Southampton during his adult life, never actually living in the city itself! This was a time of great social and economic change in Southampton; the population roughly quadrupled in 40 years from 1815-1855, bringing the industrial revolution with it (ibid.). Nonetheless, he did enjoy Southampton as a child.
On his deathbed in 1850, he bequeathed his estate to the "Corporation of Southampton" (basically the city council), with the intention of creating "a small serve as a repository for my household furniture, books, manuscripts, and other moveables"(ibid.). This comprised most of the Highfield Campus in Southampton. The Corporation then spent the next decade arguing whether the money should be spent on a "University College" or an Institute, the main difference being that the college would be quite similar to the ones founded in London (University College London) and Manchester (Owens College, by then the only other "colleges" in England, in the strictest sense of the word; Durham University was founded in 1836, but wasn't really a "University College" by this point, having multiple colleges like Oxford and Cambridge). Meanwhile the Institute had members, but not students, although it gave lectures. There was also a small legal matter involving Hartley's relatives, who won half of the money bequeathed by Hartley to the Corporation! In the end, the Institute won out even though it would originally be designed for a smaller section (i.e. richer) section of society.

2.  However, in 1883, the Institute became a College, after a series of corruption allegations bought about by lecturers on the Institute's Council, leading to the Magnus Report of the Corporation's Technical Instruction Committee of the 1890's, that changed the Institute into a College (ibid.). After a few years of wangling, it became a University College in 1902 (ibid), which meant that some students could take their exams at Southampton and be awarded a degree from the University of London! Ultimately the University of Southampton came into being in 1952, being given a royal charter by Queen Elizabeth II, in one of the first acts of her reign (ibid).

3.  Other campuses in the area include the National Oceanographic Centre and the Winchester School of Art. The National Oceanographic centre was part of the University of Southampton. It was constructed in the 1980's to promote Southampton's maritime research. In 2010 it merged with a similar facility in Liverpool and owned by the Natural Environment Research Council (National Oceanography Centre, 2013). The School of Art is based in Winchester, and has been around in various guises since 1860, making it older than the Hartley Institute (Nash and Sherwood 2002: p.120)! During the 1990's it acquired a huge number of new students through expansion, but then also became part of the University of Southampton, after about 15 years of discussions that had started in the 1980's.

4. Avenue Campus was developed out of Richard Taunton's College, which was purchased in 1993. Founded by this 18th century mayor of Southampton, this school had been around since the 18th century, providing free education, although it had only been on the Avenue Campus site since 1926. Today the Richard Taunton school continues on Hill Lane in Southampton (Old Tauntonian's Association 2013).

5. Many of the University buildings described above survive today; the original Hartley Institute building was the Hartley library (mostly redeveloped though), the modern library was built in the 1930's to honour Edward Turner Sims, the Avenue Campus was developed on the inside, but the exterior largely untouched (although a new archaeology department was added recently to Avenue Campus). 

Image 1: The Hartley library, originally called the Turner Sims library, because it was built in mmory of Edward Turner Sims (Southampton University)

While a number of other buildings are largely modern, these reflect Southampton's rapid rise as one of the country's leading Universities in the modern era, catering for all students across the UK; a contrast to the selective institute that the University was founded on! However, it hasn't all been plain sailing: see here for a recent fire in the computer science building! Fortunately no one was hurt.
  So Southampton's modenr history has shown how the rapid expansion of the University can still complement the history and archaeology of the past; mainly by preservation and consolodation of multiple schools. By losing it's London connection, Southampton University was able to focus on it's local area, and forge it's own destiny as a successful independent University.

Any comments are appreciated!


Nash, S and Sherwood, M., 2002, The University of Southampton: An Illustrated History, James and James, London

National Oceanography Centre, last updated 2013, Our Organisation: About Us,, last accessed 16/11/2013,

Old Tauntonian's Association, last updated 2013, College History, last accessed 16/11/2013


Image 1: Southampton University, last updated unknown, Hartley Library,, last accessed 16/11/2013


Link: last updated 31/10/2013, Southampton Uni Research Centre Blaze,, last accessed 16/11/2013

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Archaeological Techniques for the 21st century

There have been a huge range of developments in technology in the last few years; ipods, then iphones; free software that you can use on your laptop; cheap cameras and dvd players, etc. etc. This has some interesting side effects for commercial and academic archaeology (mostly because as you produce more of something, generally the cheaper it gets), but here are a few things you may not have heard of that are finding uses in archaeology (apologies, this is a long post!):

RTI (not to be confused with Real Time Information, a system of Pay as You Earn in the UK!)

Reflective (or reflectance) Transformative Imaging (RTI) is a relatively new technique that involves a camera (ideally high resolution), a few bits of kit and a PC with the right software installed. The idea is that 2-dimensional surfaces are deceitful; they are often made up of grooves, holes and other depressions which have been created either by nature or by man. You can tell the difference usually because the man made grooves look, well, man made. More often they are following a known human pattern (see image 1 below). Conventional camera-taking techniques don't capture these depressions on their own. But, you can take multiple images of one 2-dimensional surface from different angles, and with the help of processing software, you can see these depressions! It can't work without the software, because the software can work out the mathematical calculations involved in finding these depressions, creating a 3-dimensional image; this is not something that you can just do right now with your own camera (unless you buy/borrow the kit!). See here for more information on the technique. 

This is a particularly good technique, not just for the potential to reveal new information about a painting or a wall carving (i.e. the paint might have gone away but the traces can still be found by this technique), but also as a good way of digitally storing the information about these objects; by forcing the archaeologists to take more photos! This technique can be used on any surface, such as coins. If you can photograph it, you can RTI it!

Image 1: Normal image in bottom left, after RTI processing on the top right. Note how here the grooves tend to follow the painting (Cultural Heritage Imaging).

There are some drawbacks however. The kit itself is a little pricey (at $350) and there is only one manufacturer of the equipment (based in the USA). And currently it's main use has been limited to California in the USA. But, Southampton University and Oxford University have been pioneering its use in the UK, in one case in churches, in collaboration with local archaeological groups (). The software itself (called RTIbuilder) is now free to download.

surface normals diagram 1
rti diagram 2
Image 2: Above is the direction light normally travels when captured from one angle. The bottom image shows how multiple angles can "capture" the effect of the grooves etc., simply because the software knows where the light source is coming from, and where the picture is being taken from. Magic! (Cultural heritage Imaging) 

There are a number of blogs now dedicated to the advancement of RTI (mostly American); see here for an example of a discussion of which is the best camera to use in RTI.

Motion-Capture (with thanks to Jasmine Noble-Shelley for this one!)

The use of motion-capture technology in archaeology is rare, but not unheard of. It has been used in museums for a number of applications, such as in the Louvre, and the Roskilde museum in Denmark. In Britain, Jasmine Noble-Shelley pioneered the use of an Xbox Kinect to create a "virtual excavation" using nothing more than some cameras, a sandpit and some willing volunteers (Noble-Shelley 2013)! This allows the volunteers to engage much more with an actual site than they could normally, especially if the site in question is able to attract the public's imagination, such as Pompeii or Tutukhamun's tomb (Noble-Shelley 2013). Some of the software that was used in a particular geological project is openware (i.e. free to download) and can be found here.

Both of these sites are now under threat from the sheer weight of visitor numbers. So this could also be the way forward for allowing people to visit "real" sites by creating 3-dimensional ones that can be explored using motion-capture devices, without actualy visiting them!

Ipads (with thanks to Craig-Lee Holt for this one! Saw your facebook post about this topic a while back)

Going from Microsoft to Apple, who would have thought that Ipads would have a direct application in the field of archaeology? In Britain and the USA at least, they have found their way onto commercial excavations, saving time and money by allowing archaeologists to record the archaeology directly into a database, rather than using paper formats, then copying it out later into a database. Sounds simple, doesn't it? But imagine trying to lug a computer or even a laptop around a muddy excavation to do the same task as the Ipad! Also see here for an academic project in Palestine that is

Laser scanning techniques

Lasers have come a long way from being just fancy light displays! In addition to laser printers, now you can use lasers to create 3 dimensional images of monuments! In Britain, by far the most famous example of this technique is Stonehenge. But did you know that there are multiple ways of applying lasers to record archaeology?

  • Triangulating 3-D scanners
    • This technique simply uses the principle of triangulation (not dissimilar to RTI above), by placing a digital camera at a different angle to the laser, the 3-dimensional component of the image can be worked out. This leads to a very high resolution (quality) and accuracy of the surface (Laser Scanning Stonehenge/Archaeoptics 2003). This was the technique applied to Stonehenge a few years ago, and is better suited to a more abstract 3-dimensional surface.
  • Time of Flight 3-D scanners
    • This technique differs because it's principles are borrowed from Sonar: send out a laser and measure the time taken for the laser to return. So a laser scannign  device can be set up to move up and down to scan a surface. Hence, a 2-dimensional surface can be recorded quite easily with this technique, although it is not quite as high-resolution and high-quality as the triangulation method (Laser scanning Stonehenge/archaeoptics 2003).
  • CT (computer tomography) scan
    • A comparative newcomer to the game, coming from a medical background, which in itself is an unusual route. But it provides an excellent, high-quality scanning procedure that can capture the tiniest of details. The vast majority of CT scans have been used on mummies thus far (Hughes 2011), but it has also been used recently on the Hilton of Cadboll cross in Scotland, which stood about over 5m tall but is now in over 3,000 pieces(National Museums Scotland)! You can get involved in reconstructing the cross  here.
  • LIDAR (Light detection and ranging)
    • All of the above techniques are great for individual artefacts and monuments, but what if we want a (quite literal) bigger picture? LIDAR has come into it's own in recent years, although it was also being used in the 1960's for submarines. Usually taken from a plane, this technique involves the same principles as Time of Flight, but it can take 10,000's of points per second! It has been used to map areas of land from smalls fields right up to county level and beyond (English Heritage)!


Geographical Information Systems (GIS) have been around since the 60's, with the first archaeological application in the 1970's. It then fell out of favour during the 1980's, but has made quite a comeback since the 1990's (Wheatley and Gillings 2002), to such an extent that the chances are that any archaeological project today will make some use of it, even if it is just to create a map. GIS describes a software package that deals in geographical spatial information, mainly in map form. But, it also allows you to create spatial data, either in relation to other layers or on it's own, analyse the data, and even start to predict where sites can be found (amongst other things)! However, this requires a lot of computing power, even for a "basic" GIS, so make sure you have a powerful laptop if you are going to try these at home.

There is free software for GIS that you can simply put onto your laptop for free, such as GRASS (at the time of writing, the latest version was 6.4.3). An alternative that has been developed exclusively without archaeology in mind, but can still be used, is CorelDRAW. It is pretty old now, I'm not entirely sure if you can get it online for free, but it's worth a look to see similarities between other packages.

The major disadvantage (aside from computing power and storage) is top-down approach of most GIS programs; very few explicitly model the individual human's activities, whether they are in the past or the present. Therefore it is better to use GIS as a large map that is used for sweeping statements about the past landscape, than for trying to model one person's actions within a particular environment.

Graphics Software

Graphics software is becoming more and more accessible to all disciplines. Again, more free software is available from many places. In archaeology, it can be used on a variety of topics, from displaying unique symbols on a map to putting the finishing touches to a report.


Geophysics has become a mainstay of archaeological research these days; even 20 years ago it was a popular (albeit relatively more expensive) technique. There are 3 main kinds of geophysics (although there are some other types, see above for LIDAR, which is strictly speaking a geophysical technique):

  • Magnetometry; generally the most popular of the techniques, it is the cheapest and the fastest. It relies on taking readings of the magnetic field of objects in the ground, but also the background magnetic field. By doing some clever math, it can try to work out how strong the magnetic field is from the archaeological objects in the ground! There are a small variety of different types of magnetometers, each essentially serving the same purpose However, it is an extremely sensitive object; you can't wear metallic objects, or pass under telegraph poles with magnetometers (don't even think of going near fences!), because the magnetic field is so strong, that the machine simply can't make out what's underneath the soil. Also not advised to use when there is a solar flare happening in space that is heading towards earth.
  • Resistivity; Much slower than magnetometry, but no less useful, this machine puts electromagnetic probes into the surface, generates a small electric current, and two more static probes recieve the signal. It detects the electrical resistance of objects under the ground, although the effectiveness of the technique varies depending on the water content of the soil (needs a little to be good), and the distance between the two sets of probes. I found the foundations o a church once using tresistivity! The slowness of the technique means that magnetometry is often preferred when there is little time to survey a large area.
  • Ground Penetrating Radar(GPR); the last technique relies on radar to create "time-slices", or layers, of what is underneath the ground. It is the slowest technique by far, and the most expensive, but the quality of the results often outweigh the negatives in a small area. nklike the other two methods, there are very few background conditions that have to be met.

Google Earth

Google Earth has found its way into a number of archaeological projects and reports, with it's total view of the earth, and now a new "time-depth" feature, which allows you to access aerial photographs from the past, particularly in Britain for just after World War 2 and into the early 20th century in some cases! With the height of the earth also computed, it allows you to make sweeping generalisations of the landscape very quickly, as well as seeing aerial photographs for free, when before you would have to visit certain institutions, like the Cambridge University Collection of Aerial Photography, and then pay to have copies of the photographs.

However, there are a number of issues with using Google Earth for Archaeology. We have no idea where Google Earth are getting these images from. Well, we know they are coming from declassified military information and civilian sources, but Google's not going to tell us which is which. Furthermore, Google Earth won't tell us the resolution of the images; if we don't know the resolution, then we can't compare it to other images that archaeologists have taken on higher (or lower) quality cameras. Finally, you will notice that the quality of the images across Google Earth is far from uniform, so some places will have some half-decent images, but other areas less so, which can affect a comparative study in archaeology. Also it is quite tricky to georeference a Google Earth image to a GIS software package. So use with caution, although it is still a free and powerful tool, which can be downloaded for free here

So that's my list of things that are becoming more and more popular in the 21st century, as well as things that have been introduced over the last 10 years or so. This situation will continue to develop, maybe some of these technologies will fall out of fashion, others will set the standard for future technologies to follow. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, if you have any suggestions about other new archaeological techniques please comment below!


National Museums Scotland, last updated unknown, Pictish Puzzle,, last accessed 31/10/2013

English Heritage, last updated 2010, LIDAR, last accessed 31/10/2013

Hughes, S., 2011, CT Scanning in Archaeology, in Computed Tomography - Special Applications, Dr. Luca Saba (Ed.),published by InTech, Available from:

Laser scanning Stonehenge/Archaeoptics, last updated 2003, 3D laser scanning,, last accessed 31/10/2013

Noble-Shelley, J., 2013, The Kinect: Potential and Application within Archaeological Education and Outreach, undergraduate dissertation, University of Southampton

Wheatley, D and Gillings, M., 2002, Spatial Technology and Archaeology: The Archaeological Applications of GIS, Taylor and Francis, London


Image one: Cultural Heritage Imaging, last updated unknown, Reflectance Transformative Imaging (RTI) Sennedjem Lintel from the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley.
RTI representation showing color information (bottom portion) and “specular enhancement” mode showing surface shape and enhanced reflectance (top portion), last visited 10/11/2013

Image two: Cultural Heritage Imaging, last updated unknown, Reflectance Transformative Imaging (RTI), Figure 2, last visited 10/11/2013


Link 1:Cultural Heritage Imaging, last updated unknown, Reflectance Transformative Imaging (RTI) last visited 10/11/2013

Link 2: Kreylos, O., last updated 2013, Augmented Reality Sandbox,, last visited 10/11/2013

Link 3: Filemaker, last updated unknown, Jericho Mafjar Project: Filemaker Go for Ipad Modernises Archaeology,, last visited 10/11/2013

Link 4: National Museums Scotland, last update 2013, 3dei: Hilton of Cadboll Stone: A Pictish Puzzle,, last accessed 10/11/2013

link 5: Google, last updated unknown, Google Earth,, last visited 10/11/2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Fun Fact special: Remember, Remember, the Fifth of November; Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot

Preamble: My fascination with Guy Fawkes comes from a lot of local knowledge, since a lot of the events that relate to the Gunpowder Plot happened not far from where I was growing up. What I am about to do is talk about the Gunpowder Plot from a "local" point of view, although some things have had to be researched to fill in the gaps. Enjoy!

It is London, sometime on the evening of Saturday 5th November. A number of men have gained entry to the cellars below the House of Commons, with the intention of destroying the protestant institution that is (at the was) King James I, who had only acceeded to the throne of the United Kingdom in 1603, and his government lackeys, who can be described as little more than "yes" men at this time. Their tools of destruction? 36 barrels of Gunpowder. They carefully and quietly worked all night to prime the gunpowder, waiting for the king to arrive into Parliament. They left some of their men to guard the gunpowder for a few hours. Nothing could go wrong now, surely? 

But then, after a tip-off, they were attacked by officers of the law and a number of the conspirators were captured (some were killed duing the attack), who were later interrogated and executed. The remainder escaped back up to the midlands. This episode would go down in legend as the "Gunpowder Plot". One of these men, Guy Fawkes, has recieved more attention than any other member of the Plot, but he wasn't actually the ringleader!

Why is this the case, and what motivated a group of wealthy men to risk their lives to kill the monarch? I'm going to delve briefly into the world of 17th century England to reveal why this is the case, and who this man actually was.

Guy (or Guido) Fawkes was born in 1570 in York, into a reasonably well-off protestant family (History Learning Site). The house in York where he was probably born, in Stonegate, York, still stands today. He was baptised at St.Micheal-Le-Belfry as a protestant too.  It is likely that he lived in Bishopthorpe (St. Andrew), just to the South of York, and that he went to the Grammar school in York (Lewis 1848, p.267). He converted to Catholicism in 1586 (Sharp 2005;p.24), so it is likely that his family were not Catholic. Guy became a soldier and went on to fight in the Low Countries for Spain in the late 16th century, where he learned how to use gunpowder for explosives (who owned modern day Belgium and parts of the Netherlands, who were largely non-Catholic) (History Learning Site).

Photo of plaque
Image 1: The plaque commemorating the baptism of Guy Fawkes in Yok (Open Plaques)

Robert Catesby, meanwhile, was born into a very wealthy midland family in Leicestershire (Lathbury 1841; 18), with property all over the midlands, including Catesby manor at Ashby St. Ledgers in Northamptonshire, where he spent a good deal of his time (Incidientally, his ancestor, William Catesby, who was buried under a marble slab within the same manor, was a favourite of Richard III, who was recently excavted in Leicester!). The manor still exists today, as does the church of The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Leodegarius, which contains some wonderful medieval features. In fact, a lot of the landscape in this area of the midlands has largely survived from this time up to the present day, preserving the scene of what it would have looked like around the 17th century (see here for more information)! Robert's grandparents had died as Catholic martyrs during the pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 (Walsh 2004; p.78).

With the death of Queen Elizabeth I in 1603, Catholics like Robert and Guy hoped that James Stuart (James VI of Scotland/I of England) would be more tolerant of Catholics, and perhaps give equal status to them. But he didn't. Catholic lives more miserable thorugh even more harsher laws that meant they couldn't even go to court if they were owed rent! This was in addition to the laws that meant simply being Catholic could put you in prison. For Robert Catesby, enough was enough. He told people like Thomas Wintour (Winter), who introduced Guy to Robert, and from here more conspirators were added. They devised a plan, or plot, to kill the king in such a way that would take down the government of the day with him. This scheming led to the Gunpowder plot!

Image 2:The gunpowder Plot Conspirators; there were thirteen in all. they were Robert Catesby, Robert Winter, Thomas Percy, Thomas Winter, John Wright, Christopher Wright, Everard Digby (a knight!), Ambrose Rookwood, Francis Tresham, John grant, Robert Keys and Guy Fawkes. (History Learning Site, Lathbury 1841; 17)

Among the many places where the conspirators met to discuss the plot was at Bisley in Gloucestershire, just 10 miles south east of Gloucester (Lewis 1848). This would have been because of the constant threat of arrest for being Catholic, but also because they could avoid being arrested thanks to Catesby's connections. It is reputed that they met at Catesby's manor in Ashby St. Ledgers before going to London on the 4th November, 1605. They had hired out some cellars undeneath the Houses of Parliament, with the intention of stuffing them with gunpowder barrels that they had acquired. Fawkes's knowledge of gunpowder from fighting in Europe would serve their plot well.

Image 3: The front of Catesby manor, Ashby St. Ledgers (English Buildings 2010)

They thought it was all going to plan; they had their 36 barrels of gunpowder inside the cellars, ready to blow when the king arrived. But in reality it is likely that the king knew of this attempt on his life, and they were waiting for the right moment to catch the perpetrators in the act. In the end, a mixture of luck (catching them before they set off the gunpowder!) and poor planning on Robert Catesby's part (for telling so many people about his plot) led to the failure of the Gunpowder Plot. Robert escaped up to the Midlands with some of the others, originally to Coombe Abbey, near Coventry. But was later killed by soldiers at Holbeche House in Staffordshire, in a stand-off with the Sheriff of Worcestershire (History Learning Site).

So why does Guy Fawkes get so much attention? He got captured during the attack under the Houses of Parliament, and tortured (see his signatures below!), before he was charged with treason and executed. Being used to explosives, he could be caught in the act red handed. His name became synonymous with Catholic sentiment across England around this time, as a sort of martyr, but it also justified to many non-catholics that Catholics were not very nice people, and deserved the second class rate they had been given. Fawkes's execution also recieved a lot more publicity than Catesby's death, so his name stuck with the Gunpowder Plot.

Image: (after) English School - Signature of Guy Fawkes (1570-1606)
Image 4: The signature of Guy Fawkes before and after his interrogation (MyArtPrints). 

So poor Guy Fawkes got the publicity for the botched plan, and Catesby largely gets away with little of the notoriety. Bonfire night was originally used as a celebration to remind English people about the evils of catholicism! Thankfully today this isn't the case. Today, the cellars under the houses of Parliament, the buildings in York discussed above, and a number of the manors and houses that were used around the Midlands for the plot still stand, albeit some have been heavily modified. But the best example of the 17th century landscape lies in North West Northamptonshire, where the plotters spent their final full evening together 4th November, 1605. Well worth a visit!


History Learning Site, last updated unknown, Robert Catesby, last accessed 27/10/2013,

Lathbury, T., 1841, Guy Fawkes, Or, A Complete History of The Gunpowder Plot, A.D. 1605: with A Development of the Principles of the Conspirators, and Some Notices of the Revolution of 1688, John E. Parker, West Strand, London

Lewis, S (ed.)., 1848, A Topographical Dictionary of England, Institute of Historical Research, pp.267,

Sharpe, J., 2005, Remember, Remember the Fifth of November: Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot, Profile Books, London

Walsh, B., 2004, Empires and Citizens: Book 2, Nelson Thornes, Cheltenham pp.78-


Image 1: Open Plaque, last accessed 4/10/2013,Plaque no. 6302,, last updated unknown.

Image 2: History Learning Site, last accessed 27/10/2013, Robert Catesby,, last updated unknown

Image 3: Philip Wilkinson, last accessed 3/11/2013, Ashby St. Ledgers, Northamptonshire,, last updated November 2010 

Image 4: MyArtPrints, last accessed 4/10/2013, Signature of Guy Fawkes,, last updated unknown

Saturday, 26 October 2013

5 Fun Facts about Hampshire

Time for more 5 fun facts! This time I'll be focusing on the history and archaeology of Hampshire as a county in general:

1. The origins of the county are linked to the Anglo-Saxons and the formation of Wessex, as well as the centre of what became England; the first mention of Hampshire (although disputed) appears to be in 755, as "Hamtunscir"; apparently however, this is not to be confused with the "Hamtunscir" of Northamptonshire that appeared in 1011! (Grant 1989; p.67,p.103). The county takes it's name from the Saxon settlement of Hamwic, now the modern day Southampton (see my previous blog here). In addition to this, it is also known that there was Roman and prehistoric presence  in the Southampton area too!
Image 1: John Speed's map of Hampshire (Mappa Mundi)

2. The New Forest is famous for being a Medieval royal forest, but it was also the centre of Roman pottery production and the beginning of the Saxon invasion of England! The heathland that you see today is partly the result of Iron Age woodland clearances (New Forest National Park 2013). More recently, excavations are showing the impact World War 2 had on the area as well (see here, Wessex Archaeology 2012).

3.Below is a map of all the known shipwrecks in the East Hampshire coastline! There are far too many to    go over individually; but this website that allows you to look through wrecks in the area and beyond, including the aptly named HMS Hampshire, which sank in the North Sea (
.Image 2: Shipwrecks in the east Solent( channel. Note how they are facing mostly to the west 

4. A Victorian who lived in Southampton, William Cantelo, invented a rapid-firing machine gun, but also learned to dissappear and make a name for himself under a new pseudonym of Hiram Maxim, who suspiciously also developed a  rapid-firing machine gun! However, it wasn't the first machine gun- that honour goes to Gatling of the USA (Daily Echo 2012).

5. The modern Hampshire County Council was established in 1889, but only obtained it's "modern" coat of arms in 1992 from the College of Arms to celebrate it's centenary! The lion represents Winchester's former status as England's capital during the Middle Ages, while the Stag represents the New Forest, and the castle represents Hampshire's importance in the "defence of the realm" (possibly an inspiration for the World War One Act (D.O.R.A.)?). The rose is the county badge, like many other counties in England. However, this is not the actualy logo of the Council, but just to to maintain the tradition of having a coat of arms for any self-respecting individual or concern, since the council is strictly speaking in service to the royal family (because the government has every law approved by the queen, which is a formality these days)! (Hampshire County Council 2012)
Image 3: The Hampshire County Council coat of arms(Hampshire County Council 2012) 

So there we are! Next time, I may delve more into Hampshire, this is a fairly broad section 


Daily Echo, last asccessed 26/10/2013, Mystery of the Disappearing Machine-gun inventor,, last updated 20/08/2012

Grant, R., 1989, The Real Counties of Britain, Macdonald & Co, london, pp.67, 103.

Hampshire County Council, last accessed 26/10/2013, The Hampshire County Council Coat of Arms: History, last updated 24/08/2013

New Forest National Park, last accessed 26/10/2013, Archaeological Heritage: Human Impact Through the Ages,, last updated 2013

Wessex Archaeology, September 2012, Buckler's Hard, Beaulieu, New Forest, Hampshire: Archaeological Evaluation Report, New Forest National Park Authority and Wessex Archaeology, Salisbury.


Image 1:Mappa Mundi, John Speed Hampshire Map, last accessed 26/10/2013,, last updated 2013.
Image 2:, last updated unknown.
Image 3:, last updated 24/09/2013

Link 1:
Link 2:;postID=4146439591114553757;onPublishedMenu=posts;onClosedMenu=posts;postNum=1;src=postname

Sunday, 13 October 2013

5 Fun Facts about Southampton

It has happened. I've moved to Southampton! From one end of the country (Durham, see here for my 5 fun facts on Durham) to the other, I will be spending the next 12 months in this major port city completing my Master's degree. So time for another edition of 5 Fun Facts:

1. Southampton began life as a small, but significant, Saxon town called Hamwic around AD700 between the rivers Test and the Itchen. Back then, it was considered a major town, which shows evidence of early Saxon town planning (see map 1). Hamwic enjoyed "complementary" trading relations with Winchester, the nearby royal town (Hamerow 2002), which basically meant that the two towns were essentially best mates, and while Winchester was older and more established, Hamwic was the more dynamic of the two and was able to exploit trading links with the continent, being sited next to the sea in a relatively safe natural harbour. Thus Southampton has always been assocaited with the sea.

Map 1: Image of Hamwic, facing north, with the river Itchen to the right; the Test is about 1/2 mile to the west. Note the ordered formation of the roads (Archaeology in Europe).

However, Hamwic collapsed during the 9th century, for reasons that are not fully understood today; reasons range from Viking invasion (or indirect Viking influence affecting English Channel trade), to political instability in England at the time.

Hamwic has been excavated multiple times, but the most important excavations were at Six Dials in Northam (a district of Southampton), which produced streets filled with animal bones (direct evidence of butchers?), and over 60 buildings (Hamerow 2002)!

2. The logo of the city is "the gateway to the world", which comes from Southampton's roots as a port city, but not just to it's colonal importance (when Victorians would emigrate out of Britain through Southampton, Liverpool and other major port cities to new parts of the world;  the phrase "gateway to the British Empire" was inventedfor this reason!). The modern docks have been in their present location since 1843 (portcities). "The gateway to the World" logo also reflects Southampton's status as one of the busiest ports in the world; in 2011, it was second only to London (felixstowe port) in terms of container traffic in the UK, and, although it may sound unimpressive, this made Southampton no. 86 in the world for container traffic! See here for more info.

3. Ordance Survey, who produce maps for the UK, were originally based in London, at the Tower of London. But after a fire in said tower in 1841  highlighted the need for more (and more fire-proof!) office space, they relocated to Southampton. (Ordance Survey 2013, Historic Royal Palaces 2013).With the advent of the train and faster ships, this meant that it is wasn't necessary to be located so close to your owners (i.e. the government), and Ordance Survey to this day is still based on the outskirts of Southampton, producing maps for the world.

4. Southampton, along with Portsmouth and other small towns nearby, make up around 850,000 people, with Southampton contributing aout 230,000 people to this total, making it one of the UK's larger cities, but again, a rather unimpresive21st. But it's not the size that counts: famous residents in the past have included Jane Austen (briefly), Craig David, and Coldplay drummer Will Champion!

5. Large areas of Southampton have now been recognised as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and also in marine cases, European Special Protection Areas (SPA) and Special Areas of Conservation (SAC). See here for more information on marine coastal protection. Southampton Common, which is open to the public, is a large example of an urban SSSI.

Next time, I will delve further into Hampshire; with the New Forest, South Downs and Goodwood set to feature, it should be more exciting facts that you may not have known about the local area!

Comments always appreciated!


Hamerow, H, 2002, Great Sites: Hamwic, in British Archaeology, issue 66,

Historic Royal Palaces, last updated unknown, The Ordance Survey, last accessed 13/10/2013,

Ordnance Survey, last updated unknown, Our History, last accessed 13/10/2013,

Portcities, last updated unknown, PortCities: Southampton, last accessed 13/10/2013,


Map 1: Archaeology in Europe, last updated unknown, Early Medieval Emporia: Hamwic, or Saxon Southampton,, last accessed 13/10/2013
Link in e.g. 2: American Association of Port Authorities, World Port Rankings 2011, 2012,
Link in e.g. 5:The Yatchman's Guide to Southampton Water and It's Approaches, Associated British Ports, date published unknown,


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