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From 100 Minories blog – cesspit remains

May 17, 2016

My first contribution to the 100 Minories blog is now live, in which I discuss seeds, bones, shells and parasite eggs from cesspits at the site.


Winkles, Loneliness and Treats in Nineteenth Century London

February 6, 2016


A common periwinkle (Littorina littorea) shell

I’ve been analyzing a series of samples from a large post-medieval soakaway/ cesspit feature associated with a house on the margin of the City of London. It’s chock full of china, clay tobacco pipes (one rather fancy stem ended in a bird claw cupping the bowl), animal bones, and my favourite find, a copper alloy (brass?) spinning top, now radiant green but I gave it a twirl (or several) and can tell you it is no less effective for its decay.

One sample contained a large number of fig seeds, with cherry stones and seeds of blackberries and grapes – evidently what we can euphemistically term nightsoil. I made up some slides from a small subsample of the pit fill for higher power microscopy and sure enough found eggs of parasitic whipworms and fish tapeworms, the latter a hazard of eating undercooked freshwater fish.

The most visibly numerous biological remains are periwinkle (Littorina littorea) shells, however. These became a common foodstuff in the 19th century, especially after the growth of the railways – the line to Canterbury and Whistable in Kent was even known as the Crab and Winkle Line. In the astounding London Labour and the London Poor (1851, but originally issued as a serial in the Morning Chronicle in the 1840s), Henry Mayhew details the work of winkle sellers, interviewing a number of them, who tell him that winkles are generally a “relish”, that they are particularly popular among servant girls and tradesman’s families, and that “it’s reckoned a nice present from a young man to his sweetheart, is winks”. Mayhew also notes that large quantities are sold in public houses and suburban tea gardens.

One seller made the rather touching observation was that because removing winkles from their shells is such a time-consuming affair:

“Old people, I think, that lives by themselves, and has perhaps an annuity or the like of that, and nothing to do pertickler, loves winks, for they likes a pleasant way of making time long over a meal. They’re the people as reads a newspaper, when it’s a week old, all through.”

Reading Mayhew’s detailed account invests the shells with an additional quality. Yes, they are discarded kitchen scraps, but at one point they were a treat, received with from the seller with anticipation and consumed with pleasure, more so than an everyday meal. We can extrapolate this point, and other considerations about shellfish, backwards in time: there is a history of fashion, of cultural connections, of changing technologies, of “relishes”, and of necessity; but also of local and even individual preferences, to be told from the deep history of shellfish consumption.

In empty buildings

December 28, 2015

Guns were trained on me: I gasped as I quickly surveyed the seemingly innumerable brace of barrels. Instinctively, instantly, I turned and fled, head down, sprinting with all of my (limited) strength. Shouts, not shots, rang out as I barged through the double doors ahead of me, they were following, not firing. I looked up. A corridor stretched out ahead of me, light cast down from a broken skylight. I ran ahead, flying through fire doors, almost slipping on the dark pool of blood spread out from a lifeless body half-in, half-out, a small room on the left hand side. There was a telephone cast on the ground beside her. I didn’t know where I was, but it felt familiar, the house of an anonymous institution, now abandoned, predictable in its layout. I could hide here.

corridor.JPGWhere the eye leads, the body follows…

I seem to be haunted by nightmares at the moment, all of them disappointingly simplistic in plot and detail when I recall them, but truly terrifying in my sleep. This morning I woke from another, confused as to why I was being hunted, but filled with a different kind of uneasiness, one which has confronted me many times in my waking life as an archaeologist. There is an unnerving uncanniness to walking into a recently abandoned building. Over the years I have put trenches through the basements and car parks of all kinds of office blocks, homes and institutions, and I always find it slightly unsettling. Everything in them accords with my lived experience, and I picture the building brightly lit, populated with people typing, chattering and making coffee. Reality doesn’t cater to my imaginings, however, and some part of my denied mind senses that something must be wrong.

parcelforce.JPGAlluringly unnerving.

Despite my uneasiness, I enjoy exploring these buildings. There was an old children’s hospital (it had a padded cell! I didn’t know they were still used!) and any number of vast multi-storey office blocks with basement tunnels stretching beneath them, where silver pipes lead to dark and complex plant rooms. Sometimes the offices are freshly empty, the windows boarded up, upturned mugs still sitting hopefully in dishwasher racks. More often, the building has been bereft of its corporate occupants for some time. Windows are broken and wiring has been ripped out. The artefacts of a more ephemeral human use are visible: needles and spoons, polystyrene food boxes and underwear. Their moment is fleeting – no trace that these buildings were ever anybody’s home will survive for future archaeologists, but human lives have been lived there – a shadow story to the recognisable building history.

thefunweusedtohave.jpgI think Schiffer calls this ‘primary deposition’

The least comfortable I felt was on a site in rural Somerset. We had been given use of an empty bungalow for indoor space to take lunch and complete paperwork while we excavated in the garden. The last occupant had passed away but little had been done to draw a close to the material aspects of his life. The house was almost intact, save that the heating, electricity and water were off, save that a window was broken and a sparrow flitted noisily between the rooms. There was an object that looked like it might be a beer can wrapped as a Christmas gift on the kitchen counter. It was hard not to be touched by sadness.

As archaeologists, we find ourselves in places that have been abandoned by their people everywhere we work. Occasionally we find glimpses of individuals – unknowable to us but recognisable in their intentions –  a potter’s thumb mark, the debitage of skillfully crafted arrowhead, a seemingly makeshift repair in a waterlogged wooden structure – which resonate with our experiences and connect us despite the centuries. Rarely, however, do we have either as well-preserved a record, or as familiar a built environment, as in these unintended archaeological site explorations. But perhaps one day I’ll develop the imagination to dream of being chased into a roundhouse and feel that it is familiar.

In Today’s News: EU to take on trade in stolen antiquities

November 20, 2015

A couple of weeks ago I posted a review of the Site Unseen: Safeguarding MENA Heritage at Kensington Library as part of the Nour Festival. At that event, Dr Sam Hardy, who maintains the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog, spoke about the trade in stolen antiquities, and Rosie Garthwaite of production company Mediadante spoke of the importance of stigmatising ownership of stolen cultural property. Today, in response to recent global events (but most particularly the Paris attacks last weekend), the Council of the EU held an extraordinary meeting on counter-terrorism. Acknowledging that stolen antiquities constitute a source of revenue for terrorist groups in the Middle East and North Africa, the Conclusions of the Council published today state, under point 8 – Financing of Terrorism:

8. The Council
a) invites the Commission to present proposals to strengthen, harmonise and improve the powers of, and the cooperation between Financial Intelligence Units (FIU’s), notably through the proper embedment of the network for information exchange in Europol, and ensure their fast access to necessary information, in order to enhance the effectiveness and efficiency of the fight against money laundering and terrorist financing in conformity with Financial Action Task Force (FATF) recommendations, to strengthen controls of non-banking payment methods such as electronic/anonymous payments, money remittances, cash-carriers, virtual currencies, transfers of gold or precious metals and pre-paid cards in line with the risk they present and to curb more effectively the illicit trade in cultural goods

(my emphasis)

Quite what this will mean in terms of enforcement remains to be seen, but it is a welcome commitment.

Site Unseen: Safeguarding MENA Cultural Heritage (Kensington Central Library, London, 31st October 2015)

November 1, 2015

Looter pits visible on DigitalGlobe imagery on Google Earth. Image taken from Dr Emma Cunliffe’s contribution to Day of Archaeology 2015 –

Yesterday I travelled up to London for a free(!) panel on the topic of safeguarding cultural heritage in the Middle East and North Africa during times of conflict which Roya Arab had organised as part of the Nour Festival of Arts. The plight of cultural heritage – sites, artefacts and intangible heritage such as traditional practices – during current and recent conflicts has received quite a bit of publicity, so it was useful to hear the broader context and also some of the things that can be done to help.

The panel began with Professor Roger O’Keefe, a professor of international law at UCL. He described how cultural property has been protected by international law for some time, and that non-state entities are bound by this law, remarking that “We don’t need more law, we just need to enforce it”. Some of the steps towards enforcement he pointed out were that the UN Security Council has obliged every member state to criminalise trafficking of antiquities from Iraq and Syria; and that the peacekeeping force in Mali are empowered to use military force to protect cultural property. Choking off the market at home for stolen antiquities is one of the most positive steps that can be taken.

Dr Emma Cunliffe from the University of Oxford’s Endangered Archaeology in the Middle East and North Africa project began with a reminder that protecting cultural heritage alongside helping people is an important goal, as people care enough about their heritage to have died protecting it. She also reinforced the point that intangible heritage deserves protection too. Proactive steps we can take include supporting colleagues with supplies, computers, equipment, training, etc; documenting damage; as well as campaigning and raising awareness. She closed by introducing the work of the NGO  Heritage for Peace who specialise in Syria.

Building on the idea of supporting colleagues through training, Dr Jonathan Tubb from the British Museum introduced a new initiative, Preparing for the Aftermath, which over four years will provide training for Iraqi archaeologists in Britain and on field schools in Iraq.

After a short break, Roya Arab read a contribution from Dr Franklin Lamb from the USA, entitled Monument Citizens of Syria, a reference perhaps to the Monuments Men of the Second World War. This initiative provides 3D cameras to citizens in Syria who wish to document destruction and looting. A recent (open access!) Dartmouth College study suggests that more than 25% of Syria’s archaeological sites have been looted since the war began.

Dr Sam Hardy presented an exploration of the illicit trade in antiquities, noting that the UK government believes that this is an issue the industry can regulate for itself. In addition to the groups we hear much about, who use looted antiquities to raise funds, there is ‘subsistence digging’ by people who need money to survive, and looting by other groups involved in, or exploiting the opportunities presented by, conflict. There is a lack of knowledge about how widespread, or how profitable, the trade is, with very little evidence to support the claims about the revenue groups receive from trafficking antiquities. Dr Hardy maintains a thoughtful and current blog about these issues at Conflict Antiquities.

Finally, journalist Rosie Garthwaite presented the work of independent production company Mediadante in relation to heritage protection. I was especially interested to hear her describe a project ‘The Plunder’ as aiming to contribute to the taboo around antiquities ownership, as this seems to me to be another small step we can take to help the problem. As part of their work, 3D scans of objects from Syria will be available to download and print.

I was pleased that I attended this event as I think it made a useful and thoughtfully researched primer to a tremendously important issue, and demonstrated that practical steps are being taken, both within and outside of conflict-torn countries.


Cannibal slugs!

September 16, 2015

Early this morning I saw two Arion sp. slugs in convoy making their way across a path

Two Arions crossing a path

Two Arions crossing a path

The slugs weren’t in the process of copulation, which happens much farther up the body and involves a lot of mucus from what I’ve seen (!), so I was curious to know what was going on (and a bit suspicious because I don’t think I trust Arions to behave nicely). I pulled them apart and found, horrifyingly enough, that the rear slug had been chowing down on the (apparently unconcerned) front slug.

Arion with bitten rear end


Lovely things aren’t they? There is a mucus gland at the rear end of the slug, so it may be that the predator slug was acquiring nutrients the easy way, or it may have been a prelude to mating, or agggressive behaviour. It isn’t something I’ve seen before, but I’m told biting has been reported between Arionids.

Survey: Community Archaeology and Environmental Archaeologists

September 16, 2015

Dear all,

I’m conducting a brief (apparently it takes about 7 minutes to compete) survey to find out what (if any) interaction community archaeology groups are having with environmental archaeologists. If you are a member of a community archaeology group, please do answer the questions at before October 1st.

There will be a complementary survey for environmental archaeologists shortly.