Take part in a survey about using digital models in teaching about the Stone Age past

Model of a Homo heidelbergensis man in the Smithsonian Museum. By Tim Evanson – http://www.flickr.com/photos/23165290@N00/7283200264/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20187505

If you have used online digital models of Palaeolithic people or animals to teach the Stone Age topic, please consider taking part in this survey from a Masters student of archaeology at the University of Reading. There is background to the research below.

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/R86HWWJ

What is the potential for using digital models to enhance the engagement and learning of key stage 2 and 3 pupils with Palaeolithic collections?

I am investigating whether using online models of Palaeolithic material can enhance learning and engagement. Through trialling existing online models in the classroom I hope to understand whether this is a practical and useful resource for teachers. I hope that a resource such as this will be able to help pupils make interpretations of the prehistoric past and its artefacts in a way that is fun and engaging. Despite being online, I believe that these models have the same advantages as traditional object based learning. Moreover, it will also hopefully contribute to a better relationship between schools and museums and their collections.

An example of a 3D model you can view at africanfossils.org

Have you used any of these sites full of online 3D models of fossils or stone tools related to human evolution:

http://africanfossils.org/search

Smithsonian

Sketchfab models of Palaeolithic objects

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, on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border near Worksop, 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.

Day of Archaeology 2016

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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.

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.

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.

We’ve thrown the doors open to all of primary history

While prehistory will remain our primary passion, here at Schools Prehistory and Archaeology, we’re moving forward – in time! “Why stop when the Romans arrive in Britain?”, we thought. Why ignore the awesome Anglo-Saxons and the vivacious Vikings? And why give the Shang Dynasty the cold shoulder?

We’re archaeologists, and all these topics, and most of the others in the Key Stage 2 history curriculum in England, can be studied from the archaeological evidence as well as the measly bits of writing that has survived. So get ready to have all sorts of exciting teaching ideas about the ancient Maya, the Indus Valley, Benin and Baghdad.

The Shang Dynasty of China, for instance, is a Bronze Age culture, and even though writing had already been invented in China by this time, the majority of what we know about the Shang comes from what has been dug up by archaeologists.

A great activity to do with kids to help them understand how bronze was cast can be done with chocolate or jelly. Both substances, like molten bronze, are liquid when warm and go hard when cool. In the time of the Shang bronze was used to make vessels for food and drink, mainly as offerings to the many gods. Make your own vessel by following the instructions below.

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First you need to make a blank out of clay. You can make this exactly how you want the final cast to look and is easier than making a mould with the decoration in reverse. Above are some of the common patterns on Shang vessels.

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You will leave this to dry and then encase it in another layer of clay. This is the mould.

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Remove the mould when it is leather-hard and then leave that to dry.

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Replica Shang Dynasty vessel made of ice

Melt the chocolate or dissolve the jelly in some hot water and then pour it into the mould. You could even make an ice pop. Leave it to set and then break the mould to get at your delicious replica Shang vessel (technically not a vessel as it is solid; the Shang would have suspended a smooth blank inside the mould to cast a vessel).

This and more exciting activities on the Shang Dynasty are all available from the Hamilton Trust.

The pre-Christian festival of Beltane – what’s the evidence?

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Wicker man burning at Butser Ancient Farm

Today a few places around the country, for instance Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, will hold Beltane (or Beltain) festivals instead of maypole dances and light a wicker man at dusk in a ceremony that supposedly extends back to the pre-Christian (and potentially pre-Roman Iron Age) Britain. But what’s the evidence for this?

We do have a couple of written sources that describe Britain and Europe in the time just before the Roman occupation. Julius Caesar in his Gallic Wars specifically mentions that the druids burned a great effigy of a man made of interwoven branches, with people as sacrifices trapped inside,and the Greek geographer Strabo also mentions the practice, though neither specifically link it with Beltane or even mention the name of the festival. Strabo says “having devised a colossus of straw and wood, [they], throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings”. Both sources probably derived from the earlier Greek traveller, Posidonius, so potentially neither of the later writers had seen it for themselves. The description, which also served to justify the imposition of Roman rule over dangerous barbarians, could easily have been exaggerated from the practices of Beltane that survived in the western and northern parts of Britain in much later periods, described below.

The next reference to Beltane is around 900 CE in the Irish text Sanas Chormaic, a time when Ireland was very firmly Christian. The Sanas is a glossary of terms with explanations, and Beltane is described as the time when druids would bring the cattle to the lucky fires to make sure they didn’t get any diseases in the coming year (presumably caused by evil spirits) before being driven out to summer pasture. The mention of druids clearly harks back to an earlier time, but it’s not clear what evidence the author based this explanation on. The author goes on to explain that Bel may mean lucky, or refer to a pagan god called Bial. Because the author, a monk, would have been very familiar with the near eastern pagan god Baal described in the Old Testament, it’s likely he got mixed up.

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

18th century engraving of a Wicker Man. By UnknownMidnightblueowl at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Beltane festivals were still being held in Ireland in the 19th century, especially in Leinster and Munster, when both cattle and people leaped over flames to protect them against fairies and witches. They are also mentioned in the Scottish Lowlands in the 16th century and in the Highlands in the 18th century where a bannock bread would be made in the flames. They are also known in the Isle of Man, Cumbria, Devon and Cornwall in the 18th century but not across the rest of England. Although not recorded across much of Wales, they were known in Glamorgan and Montgomeryshire in the 19th century.

From the geographical distribution they look suspiciously ‘Celtic’ (although we prefer British, Celts not being described in Britain in pre-Roman times) in origin. But the corresponding areas of the continent that were Celtic e.g. France and Spain, had no tradition of May celebrations whereas they are found in Germany, Scandinavia and Austria. They may not have been Celtic in origin, then, but to do with a shared pastoral economy that relied on cattle or other livestock, rather than the mainly agrarian economy of south-eastern Britain and south-western Europe, where they practised other May traditions like bringing greenery into the house.

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Edinburgh Beltane Festival 2012. By Stefan Schäfer, Lich (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Whether you light up the barbecue or do a bit of gardening this bank holiday, rest assured you are probably continuing a couple of millennia of pagan traditions 😉 And, of course, some of you will be celebrating with modern pagan ceremonies too.

References

Green, M, 1997. Exploring the world of the druids. Thames & Hudson, London.

Hutton, R, 1996. Stations of the Sun. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Stone Age to Iron Age Cantabria, northern Spain, and it’s links to Britain

Spain has its fair share of beautiful heritage, and our director Kim Biddulph and her family found quite a few links between Britain’s and northern Spain’s Stone Age to Iron Age period on a recent visit to the area.

"12 Vista general del techo de polícromos" by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

“12 Vista general del techo de polícromos” by Museo de Altamira y D. Rodríguez. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

A highlight of the trip was a visit to Altamira cave, or, at least, it’s replica. The ceiling painted with bison and horses is recreated in a purpose built museum next to the actual cave. Many of the bison were painted on natural lumps in the ceiling that made them look 3D. We didn’t have time to visit the other painted caves of the region, but will go back to visit again. The cave art of this area and southern France is spectacular, but Britain has some cave art of its own. Around eighty carvings have been found in caves at Creswell Crags in Nottinghamshire and more at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset, and it’s likely more examples will be found.

One single piece of animal bone incised with an image of a horse was also found at Creswell Crags, one of only a couple of pieces of portable art found in Britain. In Santander Museum of Prehistory and Archaeology of Cantabria (MUPAC), we were blown away by the number and sheer beauty of the images carved on bone, antler and tusk.

We think there must have been communication between Britain and Cantabria in the Stone Age. The reason we’re suggesting a link is that in a museum in Bilbao we saw microliths (small flint flakes) that had come from a Neolithic dolmen, Hirumugarrieta 2, dated to around 2800-3000 BC (thanks to Joseba Rios-Garaizar of Arkeobasque for the link). Microliths (tiny precision made flakes that were used to make composite projectiles or other tools) were a type of flint technology used in the British Mesolithic from around 9000 BC up to 4000 BC (thanks to Spencer Carter for the date check), after which they went out of use, but they were certainly still being made and used in the Cantabrian/Basque Neolithic. Travel between the two could have been by foot in the earlier period but the seas were inexorably rising and then a tsunami in c.6100 BC caused by a landslide in the North Sea finally cut Britain off from the continent (see video below), so the two areas developed their own separate ways. Microlithic technology was invented independently in many different areas, though, (for example in south Asia around 35,000 years ago) so the link between Britain and Cantabria may be illusory.

 

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Late Iron Age Cantabrian circular tomb stone

Hillforts also become a thing in the Iron Age, just as in Britain, but one of the distinctive features of Cantabria, and neighbouring Basque country, in the late Iron Age are circular tombstones with distinctive motifs. Burials in general are quite rare in Britain in the Iron Age though there are some local traditions, such as the chariot burials in East Yorkshire.

Looking at the prehistory of another country is really useful to bring out the contrasts and similarities between the two and work out how typical Britain’s prehistoric traditions were. But it also reminds us that there wasn’t really a Britain at all until the seas rose and submerged the land bridge that once tied us to the continent.