What did people eat in Stone Age to Iron Age Britain?

There’s a great divide between what people ate in earlier prehistory and in later prehistory, and it all comes down to when did farming start. One of the places farming was independently invented was in the Near East in around 10,000 BC. It slowly spread outwards and got to Britain by 4000 BC. This early farming culture is called the Neolithic (New Stone Age).

Early humans

Earlier species of human inhabited Britain at both cold and warm periods in the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age) from about 850,000 years ago to around 40,000 years ago. Species may have included Homo antecessor, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis. From the earliest times they may have had control of fire, as the earliest hearth was found in Wonderwerk Cave in South Africa dating to about 1 million years ago, although the earliest hearth in Britain was found at Beeches Pit in Suffolk and dates to about 400,000 years ago.

Tusk of the extinct straight-tusked elephant from Swanscombe around 400,000 years ago.

Homo heidelbergensis hunted or scavenged horse and rhinoceros around 500,000 years ago at Boxgrove in West Sussex during a warm period between glaciations. Homo neanderthalensis may have hunted elephants a mere 100,000 years later at Swanscombe in Kent. The now extinct straight-tusked elephant had lived in a very warm interglacial when Britain was probably cut off from the continent temporarily. Elephant bones were surrounded by flint tools that had been made on site, used to butcher it and then abandoned afterwards (Wenban-Smith 2013).

Hunter-gatherers

Some of the cave paintings at Lascaux from the Hall of Bulls (aurochs) but also showing deer and horses

Before this all over the world people had got their food by hunting, trapping, fishing and gathering wild food. The hunter-gatherer diet was quite rich. In the Palaeolithic (Old Stone Age, which finished around 10,000 BC) certain animals were hunted that had adapted to the cold temperatures of the Ice Age and died out when the climate warmed. In the painted caves of Lascaux, which date to about 15,000 BC, you see horses, bison, aurochs (another species of wild cow – now extinct), giant and red deer but never reindeer, which were actually one of the main animals the people who lived nearby relied on. There are no mammoths represented here either, although they do appear at the nearby Rouffignac cave, but are not usually in the diet of the painters of this date in this area of France.

The cave art of Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire representing a deer and an ibex (a type of goat) then may not be representative of what was hunted for food in Britain at this time around 12,000 BC. A fragment of rib bone from an unidentified animal with a scratched image of a horse’s head on it has led to the suggestion that a few intrepid hunters were up there hunting wild horses on the tundra.

Human bones from Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno from the Upper Palaeolithic that were tested with stable isotope analysis

The bones of humans found in Kendrick’s Cave near Llandudno in Wales were tested using stable isotope analysis. This measures the ratios of isotopes of certain elements in bone collagen from ancient bone and can give indications about what kind of food is being eaten (marine or terrestrial, animal or plant) and can also indicate where a person had grown up and traveled to. The ratios of stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from the human bone at Kendrick’s Cave suggested that they got about a third of their food intake from marine mammals, and the team who undertook the work suggested this was probably seal meat (Richards et al 2005, 393), even though the animal bones left in the cave were all from terrestrial mammals.

People living on the coast do seem to have continued to heavily use marine resources. Many shell middens survive on the coast of Scotland but the coastline of England has changed so much since the end of the Ice Age that many of these are probably now beneath the sea. In Scotland such middens have yielded shells of many crustaceans and molluscs, as well as fish and marine mammal bones, e.g. Sand at Applecross, Wester Ross which dates to about 6500 BC (Hardy & Wickham-Jones 2009).

Red deer bones and antler at the Mesolithic site of Star Carr in North Yorkshire

By this time we are definitely in what archaeologists call the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) after the ice retreated but before farming was introduced. At Star Carr in North Yorkshire, which dates to about 9000 BC, the vast majority of the food being consumed seems to have been red deer, although bones of other animals like aurochs (wild cows) and wild pigs also appears. The people at Star Carr went to the sea, as we can see from the collection of amber picked up on the beach, and if they ate seafood they didn’t carry it inland. There are scant remains of pike, though, which suggests they did fish in the now vanished Lake Flixton (Robson et al 2016).

Plant remains have also turned up, although they don’t survive very well, of course. They only survive when they are charred, which might have happened if overcooked by accident. Charred plant remains found on Mesolithic sites in Scotland (and elsewhere in Britain) have included crab apple and pear pips, haw berry stones, hazelnut shells and the roots of Lesser Celandine, which would be a little like very small potatoes (Bishop et al 2013).

Farmers

When farming was adopted from around 4000 BC, everything changed. Stable isotope analysis comparing human bones from the Mesolithic and the Neolithic show a marked change between eating a diet rich in fish to one with little freshwater or marine component at all (although this has been questioned: Milner et al 2003). Signs of malnutrition are often found on early farmer’s bones, caused by a diet of mostly dairy and bread.

Neolithic charred bread found at Yarnton and dating to about 3600 BC.

The earliest preserved bread, charred in a fire, was found at Yarnton in Oxfordshire and dated to about 3600 BC. Wheat and barley grains have also been found charred, of a similar date and some even earlier in many places in the British Isles.

Dairying may have occurred from quite early on in the farming culture of Britain. The remains of lipids, and particularly fats from milk, have been found adhering to the inside of pots in Neolithic sites like Windmill Hill in Wiltshire and Runnymede Bridge in Surrey (Copley et al 2005).

Painted cave art of a woman gathering honey from Cueva de la Araña in Spain, Neolithic or earlier

People in the Neolithic may have had a slightly more interesting diet, though, and there are also remains of beeswax found in pots from Runnymede Bridge and in many pots from farming communities around Europe and Africa (Roffet-Salque et al 2015). This may suggest that bees were being kept in semi-domestication and that honey would be available for farmers. There is a famous piece of rock art from Spain, the Cueva de la Araña (Spider Cave) which seems to show a woman collected honey from a hive on a cliff while bees fly around her. It is not closely dated, and may be Neolithic or much earlier.

Gundestrup Cauldron dating to around 1BC from Denmark (but possibly originally made in northern France)

Large scale feasting sometimes occurs in the Neolithic and in later farming eras. At Durrington Walls near Stonehenge both cattle and pigs were slaughtered at winter-time, presumably for large midwinter feasts. Feasting also seems to be a part of life in the Bronze Age and Iron Age periods, from the discovery of large cauldrons and flesh hooks, such as one decorated with corvids and water birds from Dunaverney in Ireland and dating to about 1000 BC, and the silver Gundestrup Cauldron (probably for some kind of alcoholic drink) from Denmark.

Talking of alcohol, a pottery vessel from North Mains, Perthshire in Scotland had a black greasy substance in it which was sampled. It was found to contain cereal pollen and meadow-sweet pollen, which was used in flavouring alcoholic drinks in more recent times, and the archaeologists suggested the pot originally contained ale (rather than beer which is flavoured with hops and is usually said to be medieval in date, though there is some evidence of hops being used in Roman ale (in Andrews et al 2011, 224-5)). The ale at North Mains dated to about 1500 BC (Barclay 1983). It’s likely that ale goes back a long way.

A pot containing nettle stew carbonised in a house fire in the late Bronze Age Must Farm

A more varied diet comes back in the Bronze and Iron Ages after the introduction of a wider range of crops such as oats, rye, beans, vetch, cabbage and other foods. A pottery bowl with carbonised food and wooden spoon still in it was recently found in excavations at Must Farm near Peterborough, dating to about 1000 BC. The food was analysed and found to be some kind of nettle stew.

 

A – celery seed, B – coriander seed, C – dill seed, D – olive stone. Found at the late Iron Age settlement at Silchester in Berkshire.

With Roman contact in the late first century BC, some of the elite of southern England took to importing wine and other exotic foodstuffs. At Silchester, a late Iron Age settlement in Berkshire, imported food included coriander seeds and olives. Some ended up in their graves to take them to the next world, or at least show off to mourners. What a waste!

 

References

Andrews, P, Biddulph, E, Hardy, A & Brown, H 2011. Settling the Ebbsfleet Valley. Oxford & Salisbury, Oxford Wessex Archaeology.

Barclay, G, 1983. Sites of the third millennium be to the first millennium ad at North Mains, Strathallan, Perthshire. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 123, pp 122-281.

Bishop, R. R, Church, M, J, & Rowley-Conwy, P 2013.  Seeds, fruits and nuts in the Scottish Mesolithic. Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 143, pp 9-71.

Copley et al, 2005. Dairying in antiquity. III. Evidence from absorbed lipid residues dating to the British Neolithic. Journal of Archaeological Science Volume 32, Issue 4, pp 523-546. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jas.2004.08.006

Hardy, K & Wickham-Jones, C 2009. Mesolithic and later sites around the Inner Sound, Scotland’s: the work of the Scotlands First Settlers project 1998-2004. Scottish Archaeological Internet Report 31. http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archives/view/sair/contents.cfm?vol=31

Milner, N et al, 2003. Something fishy in the Neolithic? A re-evaluation of stable isotope analysis of Mesolithic and Neolithic coastal populations. Antiquity 78, Issue 299, pp 9-22. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0003598X00092887

Richards et al, 2005. Isotope evidence for the intensive use of marine foods by Late Upper Palaeolithic humans. Journal of Human Evolution 49, pp 390-4.

Robson, H. K., Little, A., Jones, A. K. G., Blockley, S., Candy, I., Matthews, I., Palmer, A., Schreve, D., Tong, E., Pomstra, D., Fletcher, L., Hausmann, N., Taylor, B., Conneller, C. and Milner, N, 2016. Scales of analysis: evidence of fish and fish processing at Star Carr. Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2016.02.009.

Wenban-Smith, F 2013. The Ebbsfleet Elephant. Oxford Archaeology Monograph Vol 20.

Round-up of prehistoric sites, museums and resources for Wiltshire

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

Stonehenge from the Heel Stone

Wiltshire has quite a number of very well-known prehistoric sites (*cough* Stonehenge *cough* Avebury *cough* etc…) but we hope you find something new and useful in this round-up of online resources and places to visit for the county.

The main place to find out about the prehistoric sites in Wiltshire is the Historic Environment Record maintained by the county council. It can be searched online here: Wiltshire Historic Environment Record Advanced Search. Choose a time period and perhaps a place near you and find out what’s on your doorstep.

Some important sites to know about in Wiltshire in chronological order are:

  • Mesolithic occupation at Blick Mead near Amesbury. It’s been in the news a lot lately and a publication is due out soon. It is not the only evidence for Mesolithic occupation in Wiltshire, a settlement was excavated in the 1950s in Downton in south Wiltshire. Neither of these sites, though, are accessible to visit.
  • Three Mesolithic post-holes in the old car park next to Stonehenge, possibly the bases of something like totem poles, though it’s hard to say for sure.
  • Neolithic causewayed enclosures, the earliest type of Neolithic monument possibly used as meeting, market and burial places, are known at Windmill Hill near Avebury and Robin Hood’s Ball near Stonehenge, among others such as Knap Hill near Alton and Figsbury Ring near Firsdown.
  • Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    Entrance to West Kennet long barrow

    Neolithic long barrows are quite numerous in Wiltshire. All we see is the final monument, which is the relatively uniform long earthen mound, but they all have very different histories, some with wooden and/or stone chambers containing human remains like West Kennet and then the mound, some are mere cenotaphs with no burials beneath, like South Street near Beckhampton.

  • There are two Neolithic cursuses in the county, the Lesser and Greater Cursus north of Stonehenge. Both predate the famous monument by 600 years. They may have been processional routes and the Greater Cursus has a long barrow at one end.
  • The earliest part of the Stonehenge monument is a simple circular ditch with a slight internal bank that was dug around 3000 BC. It was used as a cremation cemetery before the stones arrived 500 years later. A lot of information about Stonehenge can be found on English Heritage’s website.
  • Other henges in the county include Durrington Walls, which is just a couple of miles east of Stonehenge, and was the settlement site of the builders and worshippers at Stonehenge. Information about the most recent excavations can be found on the National Trust website. Next to it is Woodhenge, which is like Stonehenge but was once made of wood (though the little posts in the ground are now concrete). Avebury is the other well-known henge in Wiltshire and it has half a village inside it, so is very accessible.
  • Silbury Hill

    Silbury Hill

    Silbury Hill near Avebury is very imposing alongside the A4 from Bath to London. It is the largest artificial mound in Europe and dates to the late Neolithic. It is not possible to climb it. Legend once had it that it covered the burial of King Arthur, and that a similar, but smaller, mound in the grounds of Marlborough College was that of Merlin, but recent work has confirmed it is of a similar date to Silbury.

  • The Early Bronze Age is visible all over the county in the form of round barrows, many of them near Stonehenge at Winterbourne Stoke roundabout or Normanton Down. There are also the Seorfon round barrows on the A4 between Avebury and Marlborough near the Sanctuary, a Neolithic stone and wood setting. There are pages about the Bush Barrow chieftain who was buried near Stonehenge on the British Museum’s Teaching History in 100 Objects website.
  • Later Bronze Age archaeology is less visible in Wiltshire, and there is very little to see on the ground, but the county gets divided up into field systems around small settlements.
  • The Iron Age sees the rise of hillforts, for instance at Old Sarum near Salisbury (English Heritage has a Teacher’s kit about this site) and many others like Vespasian’s Camp (mistakenly once thought to have been a Roman fort) in Amesbury Park or Sidbury Camp near Tidworth.
  • Rybury Camp Iron Age hillfort near All Cannings overlies a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, so a visit there will cover the Stone Age to Iron Age topic nicely.
  • An enclosed Iron Age settlement known as Little Woodbury was excavated near Salisbury in 1938-9. It can’t be visited now but it’s a well-known site, its importance is explained in this feature from British Archaeology (scroll halfway down the page).

There are several fantastic museums in Wiltshire that are well worth a visit to see some of the finds from these famous monuments.

  • The Wiltshire Museum in Devizes has a permanent display of gold at the time of Stonehenge which includes the burial groups of several people buried around Stonehenge like the Bush Barrow Chieftain and slightly further afield, like the woman of the Golden Barrow from Upton Lovell.
  • The Alexander Keiller Museum is within Avebury henge and stone circle and was first opened by an owner of the site, Alexander Keiller. It has displays of the Stone Age archaeology of the site and nearby places.
  • The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    The Amesbury Archer in Salisbury Museum

    Salisbury Museum houses some of the famous burials found in and around Stonehenge, such as the Stonehenge Archer who was killed by arrows in the Early Bronze Age and dumped in the Stonehenge ditch, and the Amesbury Archer, who was buried with ceremony a couple of miles from Stonehenge with the earliest bronze tools known in Britain.

  • Stonehenge has its own museum which contains the remains of the Queen of Stonehenge, among others, a burial group from one of the barrows in the Early Bronze Age Normanton Down barrow cemetery south of Stonehenge. There are also several reconstructed domestic houses based on those excavated at Durrington Walls.

If you think there’s something we missed, please feel free to let us know in the comments.

Archaeology, Algebra and the Iron Age

Thanks to Trudie Cole of Poole Museum for this guest blog on using archaeology as a vehicle for teaching maths.

The introduction of prehistory in the history curriculum was great news for us here at Poole Museum, as we have a lot of archaeologists on the team. However, the elephant in the room was the increased focus on standards in maths and English. With such a crowded curriculum focused towards raising standards in these two subjects how could we realistically expect pushed teachers to develop new and interesting prehistory work?

The answer was fairly simple: look for ways where archaeology can help deliver across these core subjects. And actually, a quick review of the maths curriculum revealed lots of opportunities. There is a lot more content (so much that any realistic aim to cover it has to stretch out into other subjects), but there is also an emphasis on mathematical skills and developing reasoning and problem solving. The curriculum even explicitly mentions practicing maths in real life situations. It also talks about how maths should be taught through discussion and language and socially. To me, this sounds very much like social constructivism, which is a natural home for archaeological education.

The plan of the roundhouse excavated on Bearwood School grounds

The plan of the roundhouse excavated near Bearwood School

In all honesty, I didn’t make these connections on my own. I have been working closely with the staff at Bearwood Primary and Nursery School and their visionary Head Teacher, Laura Bennett. Laura saw the potential for developing maths teaching and learning through an archaeology project, which gave us at Poole Museum, a green light and the support to go ahead.

Another fortunate piece in the puzzle is that Bearwood School is located in an area of high archaeological activity, although this is not well known. In the fields adjacent to the school, excavations in the 1980s revealed intensive settlement from the Neolithic until the Roman period, including an Iron Age roundhouse.

The roof timbers of the Bearwood School roundhouse

The roof timbers of the Bearwood School roundhouse

In discussion with school staff we decided to build a roundhouse on the school field. Many other people have built roundhouses, including within schools and with children and communities. So we knew we were doing something achievable. What would be unique about this project was the explicit link to children’s maths work.

We started planning early on and involved children from the school on the steering group. Early work included identifying sources of funding and applying for grants. Alongside this, museum staff worked with teachers to explore cross curricular links and how to bring various maths topics to be covered into the project. The aim was to really inspire the children and give them real life opportunities for problem solving.

Building the skeleton of the house from coppiced materials

Building the skeleton of the house from coppiced materials

Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund we had the money we needed to go ahead. We coppiced some materials ourselves (museum staff, parents and children) and bought other supplies we needed. We built the skeleton of the roundhouse using manpower from the school staff, children, parents and the community. We employed a thatcher to thatch the roof. Children from the school daubed the walls.

The build was a lot of fun and engaged everyone involved with active problem solving. You can find out more about the build, what we did and how we did it on the Poole Museum learning blog.

Stories being told inside the roundhouse at the school's summer fair

Stories being told inside the roundhouse at the school’s summer fair

We held a community day to tell people about the project and gather memories of the local area. The school summer fayre was dedicated to the project and provided a showcase for the children to display their work.

A teacher’s pack will be released shortly with lots of the lesson plans that the teachers at the school used throughout the project. There will be more information on the Bearwood School website.

The finished roundhouse

The finished roundhouse

What is particularly exciting about the project is that it has initiated a sea change in how staff at the school plan and teach. Our research indicates that many schools take a cross-curricular approach to subject delivery, but still teach maths separately. However, what our project has shown is that maths can be delivered in this way and not only is it possible, but it helps with coverage and creates an inspiring context for problem solving.

Laura Bennett and myself are really keen to develop the approach and share what we have learned. Please get in contact if you would like to find out more (t.cole@poole.gov.uk).

Day of Archaeology 2016

doa-noyear-400px

The 29th July 2016 was the international Day of Archaeology which is a blogging festival for archaeologists across the world. There are hundreds of contributors writing about underwater archaeology to space archaeology and everything in between, and they’re still being added to.

On the website you can also look back to previous years’ posts and search for keywords you’re interested in, like prehistory. Take a look and find out what archaeologists really do.

Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her Daughters as seen from the air. Simon Ledingham [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg and her daughters is a Neolithic stone circle in Cumbria about seven miles north-east of Penrith. It may have had many more stones, but now has 68, and 27 of these are still standing. The ‘daughters’ are the grey stones set in a circle and Long Meg is a 12 foot (3.65m) tall red sandstone monolith that stands just outside the circle to the south-west. She is decorated with pecked spirals and arcs on her eastern face. Long Meg was probably transported a couple of miles from the River Eden or the Lazonby Fells and was erected first, whereas her ‘daughters’ were glacial erratics and put up later. According to local tradition, Long Meg and her daughters were witches who were turned to stone for dancing wildly on the moors on the sabbath. There are many local legends about the stones, including that if Long Meg were ever broken, she would bleed (Burl 1994, 3-6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552).

Long Meg and her daughters form the sixth largest stone circle in Britain, Ireland and Britanny, 25 times larger than the average stone circle (Burl 1994, 1). It is part of a European megalithic tradition of building large stone monuments that starts in the Neolithic and continues into the earlier Bronze Age. There are several stone circles in Cumbria apart from Long Meg, including Castlerigg, Little Meg, and Swinside. Not many of these stone circles have had a history of excavation, and so it is difficult to pinpoint with much greater accuracy exactly when in the Neolithic or Bronze Age they were constructed and whether they have been rearranged at any point. The eighteenth century antiquarian William Stukeley suggested that Long Meg had been extensively modified within his lifetime, and stones were also moved later in the nineteenth century, so it is possible that the stones are not in their exact original positions (Burl 1994, 4).

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Long Meg. PAUL FARMER [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Despite this, for many years it has been noted that Long Meg aligns with the midwinter sunset. The two more northerly ‘portal’ stones of the southern entrance align exactly on Long Meg and the midwinter sunset. The spiral motifs carved on Long Meg are thought to reflect the spiral shadow that the sun makes as it passes through the midwinter day (Burl 1994, 8). It is likely that there were two burial cairns in the centre of the circle, possibly built in the Bronze Age and later than the stone circle itself, that were removed by the landowners over the centuries. There are other stone circles known in Cumbria with stone cairns inside, at Gunnerkeld and Burnmoor, for instance (Burl 1994, 4-5; Clare 1975, 6, 10).

Although not visible on the ground, there was an enclosure to the north of the stone circle and a cursus monument (a long processional route flanked by parallel banks and ditches) to the west that leads to (or from) the River Eden. These were found in the 1980s through aerial photography. The enclosure bank and ditch may have been round a settlement that was lived in at the same time as the stone circle was built (Burl 1994, 6; Soffe & Clare 1988, 552). People from the settlement and surrounding areas may have processed along the cursus to from the River Eden to Long Meg and her Daughters at midwinter to “supplicate for the return of summer, light and warmth” (Burl 1994, 10).

Wordsworth was certainly inspired by the stones, writing in his 1822 poem, The monument commonly called Long Meg:

A weight of Awe not easy to be borne
Fell suddenly upon my spirit, cast
From the dread bosom of the unknown past,
When first I saw that family forlorn;

If you are a teacher in Cumbria, you have your own stone circle to teach about and even visit, and don’t have to focus on Stonehenge. There are plenty of other stone circles, rows, single stones or dolmens around the country, too, like the monolith in Rudston churchyard in the East Riding of Yorkshire, stone rows on Dartmoor, and Kit’s Coty in Kent.

References and further information
Burl, A. 2005. A Guide to the Stone Circles of Britain, Ireland and Brittany. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Burl, H.A.W. 1994. The stone circle of Long Meg and Her Daughters, Little Salkeld. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 94, 1-11.
Clare, T. 1975. Some Cumbrian stone circles in perspective. Transactions of Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, 2nd Series Volume 75, 1-16.
Clare, T. 2007. Prehistoric monuments of the Lake District. Stroud: Tempus.
Soffe, G. & Clare, T. 1988. New evidence of ritual monuments at Long Meg and her Daughters, Cumbria. Antiquity Volume 62 Issue 236, 552-557.

 

 

The Kingdom of Benin AD 900-1300

This new topic in the Key Stage 2 history curriculum is one of a selection of studies of world history that also include the Maya and Baghdad. All provide fascinating comparisons to later Anglo-Saxon England. What all of these cultures, with their many differences, have in common are the production of exquisite works of art, as well as complex social structures and religions.

The Kingdom of Benin is different to the Republic of Benin (formerly called Dahomey), which is between Nigeria and Togo on the West African coast. The old Kingdom of Benin is still a district of Nigeria around the ancient Benin City in the southern part of the country. A network of large walls, which have been estimated to be longer in extent than the Great Wall of China, enclosed the city and surrounding settlements and seem to have been built incrementally over hundreds of years.

Bronze bust of Ife. I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze bust of Ife. I, Sailko [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) via Wikimedia Commons

Not a great deal of archaeological work has been done in the Benin City region, so much of our knowledge of the early Kingdom of Benin comes from oral histories passed down from generation to generation (often quite accurately) and written down by Jacob Egharevba in the 1930s. The Edo speaking people of Benin tell of a time when their king, the Ogiso, was not to their liking and they sent for another king to another Nigerian kingdom called Ile-Ife. One eventually came and the king was from then on called the Oba.

There do seem to be connections between the two kingdoms, as people in Benin seemed to be influenced by and may have learned from the skilled craftspeople of Ile-Ife, who produced some amazing brass busts of their rulers. Brass-casting became a very respected profession in Benin, with Oba Oguola (1280-1295 AD) encouraging them to set up a guild.

 

Ivory mask of Iyoba Idia. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant "trish" [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Ivory mask of Iyoba Idia. By Wikipedia Loves Art participant “trish” [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

While much of the power of the country was in the hands of men, women could be influential. Oba Esigie (1504-1550 AD) created the position of queen mother, Iyoba, for his mother Idia. Idia helped quell a rebellion against her son and generally worked behind the scenes in government from her own palace. When she died her son created the first altar to a woman, and ever since queen mothers are the only other member of the royal family to have altars after their death.

Oba Esigie is said to have spent time with the Portuguese and learned their language. The European traders turned up from the end of the fifteenth century AD and their descriptions of Benin are fulsome in its praises, and we can assume that Benin City was as well-run and spectacular a place in the period before Europeans turned up. Olfert Dapper’s Description of Africa, published in 1668, described Benin City:

The king’s palace or court is a square, and is as large as the town of Haarlem and entirely surrounded by a special wall, like that which encircles the town. It is divided into many magnificent palaces, houses, and apartments of the
courtiers, and comprises beautiful and long square galleries, about as large as the Exchange at Amsterdam, but one larger than another, resting on wooden pillars, from top to bottom covered with cast copper, on which are engraved the pictures of their war exploits and battles… [It] hath thirty very strait and broad streets, each a hundred and twenty feet wide… [and] the houses stand built in rows,
in good order close by one another, as here in Europe.

Benin City imagined by Olfert Dapper in 1668. By D. O. Dapper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Benin City imagined by Olfert Dapper in 1668. By D. O. Dapper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Dapper hadn’t visited Benin, though, and got his reports second-hand from traders and travellers. Nevertheless, his description is corroborated by others.

Of course, with the coming of the Europeans came a huge growth in the slave trade as they settled in the Caribbean and the Americas. While it was a sign of wealth to own many slaves in Benin, the increasing demand for slaves lead to a ban on selling male citizens of Benin proclaimed by the Oba. Instead Benin became much more aggressive with its neighbours, aided by European firearms, and took prisoners of war that they sold to the Europeans. The Europeans were also known to kidnap people for the Transatlantic Slave Trade. In total it is estimated 12 million people were taken from West Africa, many of whom died on the voyage to the Americas.

Bronze plaque from Benin City depitcing part of the Oba's Palace, now in the British Museum. By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronze plaque from Benin City depitcing part of the Oba’s Palace, now in the British Museum. By Photo: Andreas Praefcke (Own work (own photograph)) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

As Britain’s power grew as an Empire the government took control, or thought they did, of many other European countries colonies. Benin was never colonised, but trading posts were set up on the coast and the British government thought (or assumed) that the Oba would agree to their demands to trade. While Oba Ovonramwen and the entire Kingdom of Benin were celebrating the Igue festival, which was closed to foreigners, in 1897, Captain James Phillips, after having written to the Foreign Office warning them, attempted to depose the Oba by posing as a trading party and went inland. Whether the Oba was involved in the decision to kill the invading party, seeing through their guise, is disputed, but it gave the British an excuse to launch a full-scale attack.

Benin City was burned to the ground but not before the Oba’s palace was looted of all its precious brass busts, plaques, carved ivory tusks and other items, which have ended up in British, European and American museums. This was a dark chapter in Britain’s history. Oba Ovonramwen went into exile but on his death in 1814 his son, Oba Eweka II, became the new Oba, rebuilt the palace. There are still Obas in Benin City today, and yet their possessions are scattered around the world.

Hunter-gatherers to farmers

Demonstrating flint knapping

Demonstrating flint knapping

The tricky question of how and why hunter-gatherers took up farming is explored in one of our all-day school workshops. Starting outside, using the time frame of the Mesolithic, we explore what life was like for hunter-gatherers. What animals were available for them to hunt? How did they make their houses? What skills did they need to survive? How did they enjoy and express themselves?

We emphasise how hunter-gatherers relied on the environment to provide everything they needed; food, clothes, building material, decorative items. We teach children how to make fire and process bramble into rope, or nettle into cord. Using an anatomy apron and a deer skin we ceremonially gut a ‘deer’ and decide which bits are edible, and which bits can be used for something else like making water bags.

Demonstrating spinning wool

Demonstrating spinning wool

In the afternoon everything changes as we go inside and find out about the farming lifestyle of the Neolithic, from making cloth out of wool, to grinding wheat to make flour. We explore how, because people were producing excess food they needed something to store it in, and so pottery became very useful. Children get to make butter and try out wattling.

Finally, the classes come together to celebrate in the Neolithic way, making a causewayed enclosure with their own bodies, playing musical instruments, singing and clapping. It’s a memorable way to finish off a wow day.

Find more details of this and other workshops here.

Hunter-gatherers used every part of the animal

In the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic before people took up farming they fed themselves by hunting and gathering. But the animals they hunted didn’t just provide food. They provided clothes, containers, glue, tools and so many other necessary things. Though we don’t know if this was the case in Europe, if we look at other cultures, the bounty provided by animals was deeply respected in other hunter-gatherer societies that survived to be recorded by westerners. Though the animals were killed, they were treated as gifts from the spirits and not a bit was wasted.

We have surprisingly large amounts of evidence for various parts of the animal being used, other than the meat. Bones were hollowed out and used as containers or flutes, or they could be splintered into thin slices and made into needles, bodkins and barbed points for hunting.

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Other bones were used as scrapers and burnishers for working with hides. Very large hard bones such as those from the wild ox (aurochs) and elk were sometimes turned into axes, like this one found in the river Thames. Antlers were turned into mattocks for digging in the ground, or as soft hammers for flintknapping. And, of course, animal teeth, horns and antlers were used as decoration. Star Carr’s red deer antler frontlets, worn as headdresses, may have been more than decoration. They were probably used for religious ceremonies.

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

The soft bits of animals have not survived in great numbers for us to find, but there are clues. The skulls of smaller animals such as pine martens, foxes, wildcats, otters and badgers with telltale marks of skinning found at Tybrind Vig in Denmark suggest they were caught for their fur.

Residues of animal fat have been found in shallow stone bowls along the coastline of Germany and Denmark, which may have been used as lamps. Similar traces, though coloured, were found on a wooden plate at Møllegabet in Denmark. The colour came from pigment and may have been used for body painting.

Traces of glue have been found on preserved tools and arrows, but it is invariably pine or birch pitch, not glue from boiled up animal hooves or hide. This might be because hide glue is water soluble so would quickly dissolve.

Although animals were clearly valued for more than their role as prey in the Palaeolithic, demonstrated by all the cave paintings and portable art, in the following Mesolithic this is less clear. But nevertheless, life would not have been possible without them.

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

References

Benozzo, F. 2010. The Mesolithic Distillation of Pitch and its Ethnolinguistic Reflections: A Holocene Etymology for an Italian Verb. In Scritti in onore di Eric Pratt Hamp per il suo 90. compleanno, ed. G. Belluscio e A. Mendicino. Rende, Università della Calabria, 29-42.

Clarke, J. G. D. 1954. Excavations At Star Carr: An Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer Near Scarborough, Yorkshire. Cambridge University Press.

Davis, S.J.M. 1987. The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press.

Heron, C, Andersen, S, Fischer, A, Glykou, A, Hartz, S, Saul, H, Steele, V, Craig, O. 2013. Illuminating the Late Mesolithic: residue analysis of ‘blubber’ lamps from Northern Europe. Antiquity 87, Issue 335, 178-88.

Menotti, F. 2012. Wetland archaeology and beyond: theory and practice. Oxford University Press.

Milner, N, Taylor, B, Coneller, C, Schadla-Hall, T. 2013. Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Vahur, S, Kriiska, A, Leito, I. 2011. Investigation of the adhesive residue on the flint insert and the adhesive lump found from the Pulli early Mesolithic site (Estonia) by MICRO-ATR-FT-IR spectroscopy. Estonian Journal of Archaeology 15, Issue 1, 3-17.

Wood, J. 2011. Prehistoric Cooking. Stroud, The History Press.

Prehi/stories podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network

prehislogo2-1Have a listen to our Director’s new podcast on the Archaeology Podcast Network. Prehi/stories aims to discuss stories set in prehistory. Are they a good way to help children and adults learn about prehistory? Do they inspire the prehistorians of the future? Can they inspire the prehistorians of today? Are they better written by prehistorians who aren’t primarily authors, or by authors who do their research?

Episode 2 is all about Wolf Brother, the first of a series of books by Michelle Paver set in the Mesolithic. Guests on the podcast include James Dilley of Ancient Craft, Donald Henson of the University of York and Matt Ritchie of the Forestry Commission Scotland which developed a teacher’s resource to go alongside Wolf Brother that you can download as a PDF. More children’s books will feature on the podcast as Kim talks to archaeologists, natural historians, authors and poets about them.

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum until 31st January 2016

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity at the British Museum

Celts: art and identity exhibition at the British Museum has just started and we made it a couple of days after the grand opening. It charts the development of the European and then insular British art style, mainly in metalwork, from the Iron Age to through the Roman period and into the post-Roman period of Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Gaels. It’s quite refreshing to see the links between these periods rather than to have them rigidly divided. The exhibition then goes on to describe the Celtic revival of the Victorian period and what it means to consider yourself Celtic today.

The word Celt is somewhat problematic for describing the earlier groups of people, as is reflected in the exhibition text from the beginning. The people who lived in Britain didn’t refer to themselves as Celts and the observers from outside Britain didn’t refer to them as Celts either. Greek writers referred to some people on the continental mainland as Celts for a short while. But it was eighteenth and nineteenth century antiquarianism which revealed the lost history of these early periods through sites and finds and labelled them as Celtic. The word is, of course, now used as a cultural self-identified label in Wales, Ireland and Scotland, among other places.

Setting that aside, the objects in the exhibition show a clear development of an artistic style that was widespread in Europe (some of the earlier objects come from the Czech Republic, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark) in a peculiarly British way in the Roman and post-Roman periods. It would have been good to have seen some of the continental artwork from these later periods to compare and contrast with the British stuff.

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gundestrup Cauldron. By Rosemania (http://www.flickr.com/photos/rosemania/4121249312) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Wonderful and well-known objects from the Iron Age part of the exhibition include the Gundestrup Cauldron, a wonderful feasting vessel made of silver and decorated with panels showing scenes of gods, animals, sacrifice, magic, music and warriors. Although it was found in Denmark, it was probably made in northern France or southern Germany, showing that there were links and movement of objects, and probably people, between these places. What is even more amazing are the animals that may be attempts by Iron Age craftspeople to depict elephants and rhinoceroses from hearsay.

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Basse-Yutz flagons. By British_Museum_Basse_Yutz_flagons.jpg: [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Links to the Mediterranean world are also clear, with wine flagons dating to about 400 BC from Basse-Yutz in north-eastern France based on Etruscan examples and a lovely Greek painted cup repaired with gold from Kleinaspergle near Stuttgart in Germany that was traded north around the same time. ‘Celtic’ Europe was not as isolated or barbaric as the Ancient Greeks like to make out.

St Chad's Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

St Chad’s Gospel. By The original uploader was Claveyrolas Michel at French Wikipedia (Transferred from fr.wikipedia to Commons.) [CC SA 1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/sa/1.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

The reconstructed Wetwang chariot and the incredible Snettisham hoards of gold and silver torcs are quite spectacular. Throughout the exhibition are also ‘ritual’ objects, including statues of possible deities, such as the two-faced statue from Holzgerlingen in Germany dating to about 500-400 BC through to an altar to Brigantia from Birrens near Glasgow that dates to AD 120-180 and then on to Christian crosses e.g. the Dupplin cross from Strathearn. Despite the conversion to Christianity, the pagan decorative style is still quite apparent, and is seen in St Chad’s Gospels, which is also on display.

Whether you’re teaching Stone Age to Iron Age Britain, Roman Britain or Anglo-Saxons, Picts and Scots, there’s loads to get out of visiting this exhibition. It’s on until 31st January and there are specific school visit sessions (all free), either self-led or with support from the museum’s facilitators.