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Saxons slaughter Vikings – Weymouth, 10th Century…

March 12, 2010

I spent many years on archaeological excavations (endless roadschemes) around Britain and further afield and, as any digger will tell you, it’s not too often that you find something worthy of that endless question ‘What’s the best thing that you’ve ever found?’. But Oxford Archaeology diggers on the south coast in Weymouth, excavating in advance of a relief road for the 2012 London Olympics, did just that last summer – they found a pit containing 51 skulls beside the bodies of 51 souls.

Judging by the hacking wounds across heads, chests, arms and hands, this wasn’t a cold, orderly execution of a captured enemy. This was brutal, bloody slaughter that shouts out vengeance. There were no diagnostic remains from clothes or ornament – these men, and they were all very young men, were stripped naked. The clues to their identity came from their bones and teeth. Carbon dating and chemical analysis demonstrated that the 51 men weren’t Roman, they weren’t Briton or Saxon – they were Viking and their execution (to put it politely) dated between 910 and 1030 AD. A time when Viking raids were at their height.

But in this piece of Dorset, the Saxons grabbed the upper hand with the result that we can now see the other side of the struggle – the marauders, raiders and pillagers are the ones in the pit. History gets a reminder that events don’t always follow what the writers of histories would have us believe.

More here.

Sorry for the delay in posting – I normally write about film and the Oscars have a way of sucking away all one’s time…


The Tomb of the Lost King reopened thanks to the BBC Archive

January 26, 2010

When I was 17 years old I went on a classical tour of the mainland of Greece. A big reason why I was so eager to make the trip was a Chronicle programme by the BBC that I saw as a small child. In 1979, Chronicle screened Tomb of the Lost King and it told a gripping tale of a Macedonian king, buried in gold, and possibly murdered by his own son, Alexander the Great. What caught my attention was the thought that maybe the last person to see Philip of Macedon’s remains, including his armour and gold crowns, was Alexander himself. This thought stayed with me through travels and archaeological jobs around Turkey and Egypt over the years. I’d visit a remote acropolis in the mountains of Turkey and see the remains from an Alexandrian siege below, or, in Egypt, see the mark this Greek pharaoh left in the fabric of ancient temples, in the form of shrines, dedications and works of art.

Philip of Macedon's armour - Vergina

Although there is still debate about the identity of the human remains in the Vergina tomb, The Tomb of the Lost King was a landmark in TV archaeoloogy, and so it was a good feeling to learn that Chronicle, and this episode, has been added to the BBC Archive.

A gold wreath from the tomb of Philip of Macedon, Vergina

And there are other, familiar episodes there waiting to be found by new audiences. In 50 minutes you can get an introduction to the Rosetta Stone, or Sutto Hoo, American slavery, the Minotaur or the Maya. There may have been more recent discoveries, but the excitement and immediacy this series conveyed about the ancient world still around us is as relevant as ever.

Once you’ve finished with these, just take a look around the rest of the Archive, it’ll suck you in.

The Crystal Cave

January 21, 2010

This week a new series began on BBC2 about the world beneath us – How the Earth Made Us – and it took the breath away. Because of this.

(Picture from National Geographic, via The Iron Ammonite)

Every time I settle down with one of these new BBC series, such as the recent Earth, or David Attenborough’s last Life series, I wonder how they will manage it yet again? I’ll always watch but how will they make me catch my breath yet again, making me want to watch and rewatch on iPlayer and then buy the DVD? But they do. And this week it was because of the Crystal Cave, which had so high a visual impact it even featured on the news with only a hint of it feeling like a pat on the back for the BBC.

The power of the visual image – this cave is as hot as any filmmaker can handle. But only for 20 minutes at a time, and then with ice strapped to the torso. Yet, looking at these crystals and the human beings walking around them and along them, like miniature spacemen in their lifesuits, it looks as cold as ice. That’s because the wonder of this Mexican cave challenges all our preconceptions. Most of us have been in caves but they’re nothing like this one.

David Attenborough is possibly the biggest single influence in my life, besides my father, with whom I would go, as a child, beetle and insect collecting on long rambles through the Peaks. That was followed by ambitious trips around sub-Saharan Africa, watching cats’ eyes from boats and tents, or competing with elephants for the last of the shower water at remote campsites. David Attenborough doesn’t present this latest series but these days he doesn’t even have to (although I love him to) because his influence is everywhere. And the influence on me continues, now I want to photograph the world around me. I saw David Attenborough a couple of months ago at a book signing – the line of autograph seekers went down three flights of stairs. So I’m clearly not the only one.

In this blogging world, we can go behind the scenes more and more and learn about the experiences of those behind the camera. Crystal Cave contributor Paul Williams has a fascinating website – it’s not easy to leave after you start your exploration. David Attenborough is currently a long way away, filming at the bottom of the world in Antarctica, and yet now we can follow the expedition.

I can’t wait to see what we get from the next How the Earth Made Us. And the next time I watch one of the BBC’s big natural history programmes I will be amazed but I won’t let that surprise me.

Oxfordshire’s Dinosaur Prints to be Protected

January 20, 2010

There aren’t many weeks when I don’t drive along the M40 in Oxfordshire. I’m used to the cutting, think Vicar of Dibley, the Wittenham Clumps and the prehistoric and later shapes in the landscape, but I had no idea that I was following in the footsteps of Megalosaurus. News stories today report that moves are underway to protect up to 40 sets of herbivore and predatory dinosaur tracks at Ardley Trackways, near Bicester.

The tracks show a hunt in motion – a slow moving herd of large sauropods followed by a number of two-legged predators, at first moving carefully, and then breaking into a trot. These prints, discovered in 1997, have given scientists the opportunity to survey life in motion, as it happened, in real Jurassic days. But take away the tape measures and the cameras and the footprints leave you with a tangible reality of life 165 million years ago.

These footsteps date from a time when this part of Oxfordshire was a coast. Today you can see casts of some prints from the site in the museum at Woodstock, but the protection of this landscape will mean that this unparalleled site in Europe will continue to put us in touch with the past.

Ancient landscapes often don’t do so well – I recall the mammoth tooth and a Roman burial urn simply handed over to me by quarrymen. This one may last.

The report from the Oxford Mail.