Britain’s greatest archaeological discoveries
From the astonishing revelation of Palaeolithic cave art to the discovery of the birthplace of Elizabethan theatre, Susan Greaney introduces eight of Britain’s greatest ever archaeological finds
The art of darkness
A spectacular gorge has revealed some of Britain’s earliest known artworks
Paul Bahn was a man with a hunch. And in April 2003, the 49-year-old archaeologist decided to act upon it – with spectacular results. Bahn had long been puzzled by the absence of Palaeolithic engravings and paintings across Britain. Such works of art from this period of prehistory (which stretched from 3.3 million to around 11,650 years ago) had been found in nearby parts of Europe. Yet Britain remained a cave art black hole.
That bugged Bahn. He suspected that such art did indeed exist – if only we’d look in the right place. And so, with two colleagues, he set out to explore potential sites in central and southern England systematically. It didn’t take long for his suspicion to be proved right.
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The first site Bahn’s team visited was Creswell Crags, a limestone gorge on the border of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Ever since the 1870s, when Victorian explorers began excavating the caves – leaving spoil heaps that were later found to include stone tools and the bones of extinct animals such as the woolly rhino – the area had been known as a Palaeolithic site.
On that first morning, shining their torches on the walls of a 75-metre-long cave known as Church Hole, the team made out an engraving of a stag and two other carvings that hundreds of earlier visitors had failed to spot. Returning a few months later, aided by scaffolding, they found a further nine engravings. The next year, assisted by sunny weather that cast natural light into the cave, they found even more. Bahn’s teams eventually recorded 56 separate figures in Church Hole.
Many of the engravings were in relief, making use of the soft limestone’s natural cracks and other aspects to accentuate features. They depict wild cattle, birds, a stag, a horse and other unknown shapes. Dating of the flowstone that has formed over the figures has proved them to be over 12,000 years old. Created by some of the first people to resettle Britain after the last Ice Age, they constitute some of Britain’s earliest known art.
The mystery of the Burton Agnes drum
The discovery of an intricately carved cylinder in a child’s grave is testament to the beauty and sophistication of Neolithic art
It started off as just another dig – albeit a very cold one. “It was the middle of winter, and the weather was terrible,” recalls Alice Beasley, describing the preliminary stages of an excavation near Burton Agnes in early 2015. But, as Beasley and her fellow archaeologists were to discover as they worked at the east Yorkshire site ahead of the construction of a renewable energy plant, things were about to hot up.
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The first sign arrived when Beasley started investigating a couple of circular ditches – likely the remains of burial mounds. “We uncovered the skeletons and were clearing around the head when it appeared, and we realised we’d found something special.” They had, indeed: three children buried with an intricately carved chalk cylinder, covered on every surface with concentric circles, lozenges, zigzags and chevrons.
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Immediately, the team recognised the item they had found. It was a Neolithic chalk “drum”, very similar to three cylinders that had been excavated in 1889 at a site only 15 miles away. The Folkton drums, as these carved objects were known, had also been placed in the grave of a child. This trio of enigmatic objects had offered a window onto life in Britain 5,000 years ago – decorated artefacts from the Neolithic period are, after all, vanishingly rare. Now, in 2015, archaeologists had found a fourth drum – and had the benefit of modern science when studying it and the grave it was found in.
While the Folkton discovery featured three drums with one child, the Burton Agnes find contained three children and one drum. Two younger children had been carefully positioned holding or touching hands, and were both being held by an older child.
Modern analytical techniques are revealing key details about the find and the interred bodies. Radiocarbon dating showed that the children died about 2950 BC, when our forebears were adding similar geometric decorations to pottery vessels and carving them into stone artefacts. Such objects are often described as symbols of power, but the presence of children alongside the four chalk drums suggests that they had other meanings.
When metal made its mark
Everything from gold earrings to copper knives helped make the “Amesbury Archer” Britain’s richest early Bronze Age burial
It was a Friday before a bank holiday weekend, the most inconvenient time to make an archaeological discovery – and, therefore, the most likely! Wessex Archaeology had uncovered a grave with fragments of early Bronze Age Beaker pottery next to where a housing development and new school were planned. Halfway through the afternoon, the archaeologists found two small, curled gold items, perhaps earrings or hair tresses, close to the skull. As more artefacts came to light, they realised that this was no ordinary grave. Rather than risk leaving the site over the weekend, they decided to press on and finish the job, completing the excavation lit by car headlights at two in the morning.
The “Amesbury Archer”, as the occupant of the grave became known after the discovery in 2002, is the richest early Bronze Age burial ever found in Britain. When he was interred in about 2300 BC, his mourners had placed around 100 objects in the grave, including 16 flint arrowheads, five Beaker pots, two sandstone wristguards (archery equipment), boars’ tusks, various flint tools, a bone pin, an antler spatula, a shale belt-ring and a “cushion stone” used for metalworking. The two gold “earrings” and three copper knives are the earliest metals from Britain.
Analysis of the Amesbury Archer’s skeleton showed that he was 35–45 years old when he died, with robust bones but a damaged knee that would have made it difficult to walk. Oxygen isotopes in the Archer’s teeth show that he grew up in central Europe, probably in the Alps. He was therefore an immigrant, one of the first people who arrived in Britain at the start of the Bronze Age bringing with them the first metals.
Soil, sickles and parasitic eggs
Cambridgeshire’s Must Farm settlement offers a perfect snapshot of life in the late Bronze Age
Sometime between 1000 and 800 BC, in the late Bronze Age, a small community built a cluster of raised timber houses by sinking wooden posts into a soft riverbed. Less than a year later, disaster struck. A fire ripped through the buildings, which collapsed and fell into the river below, where they were soon covered by layers of silt.
Some 3,000 years later, in 1999, the settlement was rediscovered on the edge of a working quarry near Peterborough, leading to excavations in 2006 and 2015–16 by archaeologists from Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Due to the unique conditions, the site is extraordinarily well preserved, with all organic materials having survived.
The Must Farm settlement was home to several families, who lived in round houses with wattle floors and walls, and thatched roofs. It was surrounded by a large fence of ash posts, with a wooden walkway, log boats and fish traps found nearby.
Discoveries inside the houses include different sizes of ceramic pot; wooden artefacts including two wheels, platters and containers; and metal tools, including axes, sickles and razors – some with their wooden handles still intact.
Analysis of the astonishing array of material from Must Farm continues. This includes looking at soil samples to find parasitic eggs, examining wood-working techniques, investigating residues within the pots, and studying the animal bones to find out about livestock management and butchery practices. Of particular interest are the many textile fragments, including finished cloth, fibre bundles and delicate balls of thread.
All this suggests that the community had highly specialised skills, playing a key role in the manufacture of textiles from plant fibres such as nettle, lime bark and flax – and then exchanging the finished products. In short, Must Farm explodes the widely held assumption that these people were simple farmers.
A mover and shaker
In 2003, the West Yorkshire countryside gave up the ultimate Iron Age status symbol: a complete chariot burial
“As soon as we’d stripped the topsoil from the site we could see the first traces of an iron tyre. It was the most amazing thing I have ever seen in 20 years of archaeology.” In 2003, Angela Boyle was leading a team excavating ahead of A1(M) improvement works near Pontefract in West Yorkshire. Here, they discovered a complete chariot burial surrounded by a small square ditch. It is one of only 21 such burials in Britain and was unusual because the chariot was buried complete and upright.
Even though the wooden and leather parts of the chariot had rotted away, the archaeologists were able to identify the position, size and location of wooden components by filling the voids left behind with plaster, or recording the darker stains left in the soil. This has enabled a full recreation of the chariot to be made.
A man aged 30–40 years old was buried in the chariot, probably around 200 BC according to radiocarbon dating. He must have been highly regarded: the presence of thousands of cattle bones in the surrounding ditch suggests that feasts were regularly held at the site of his grave for as long as 500 years after his death.
The practice of burying important people in chariots is much more common on continental Europe, but there is a distinct cluster in East Yorkshire. The Ferry Fryston chariot, as the find is known, is located to the west of this group, but other examples are known from near Edinburgh, and one has recently been discovered in Pembrokeshire. It is thought that the Iron Age inhabitants of East Yorkshire were settlers or invaders who brought this funerary rite with them.
The prince of Prittlewell
A sumptuous Anglo-Saxon burial chamber gives us a rare glimpse into the world of one of early England’s most powerful men
It’s not every day that you find a 4-metre-square oak-walled room buried in the earth. Yet that’s exactly what archaeologists from Museum of London Archaeology uncovered at Prittlewell in Essex while carrying out a routine excavation as part of a road widening scheme in 2003. But how old was the room and what was it doing there? The answer was provided when the archaeologists saw its extraordinary contents: an Anglo-Saxon princely grave that also happened to be the earliest known Christian burial in England.
This remarkable burial chamber contained a coffin and 110 objects, many of which were “block-lifted” together with the surrounding soil, so that they could be meticulously excavated back at the laboratory. Some of these objects were clearly personal possessions, including a painted wooden box, inscribed silver spoon, antler comb, iron knife and fine clothing. Other objects symbolised rulership, such as an enormous feasting cauldron and a folding stool, likely a “gift seat” from which the Anglo-Saxon VIP dispensed rewards and judgments to his followers.
The warrior identity of the grave’s occupant was represented by an intricately decorated sword and shield, and his long-distance connections by a copper-alloy flagon from Syria, garnets from Asia and gold coins from what is now France. A lyre and gaming board as well as food and drink accompanied the dead person into the afterlife. Perhaps most importantly, although the man had been buried according to pagan burial rites, two gold crosses had been placed over his eyes, clearly symbolising Christian beliefs.
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The rare and precious artefacts found in the chamber suggest that the occupant was a member of the East Saxon royal elite. Unfortunately, the bones of the skeleton had dissolved in the acidic sandy soil, but radiocarbon dates on two of the wooden objects, as well as the coins, tell us that he was probably buried between AD 580 and 600. The best guess is that this was Seaxa, the brother of King Saeberht of Essex.
The Picts’ finest hour
The discovery of a magnificent symbol stone in Scotland enables archaeologists to explore when, how and why such objects were made
“We suddenly saw a symbol. There was lots of screaming. Then we found more symbols and there was more screaming and a little bit of crying. It’s a feeling that I’ll probably never have again on an archaeological site.”
The discovery that sparked such joy in James O’Driscoll and his fellow archaeologists from the University of Aberdeen in March 2021 was a 1.7-metre-long Pictish stone probably dating from the fifth or sixth centuries AD. Carved with symbols including a mirror and comb (thought to represent female prestige), a double disc, a crescent (denoting the moon), triple ovals and decorative lines known as Z-rods and V-rods, it’s an object of real beauty. But the stone’s true significance lies in what studies of its context – the soil beneath it, the date it was created, and the surrounding medieval settlement – can tell us about one of the most important battles in Britain’s early medieval history.
This stone was found at Aberlemno near Forfar, long known as an important centre for the Picts, who lived in northern and eastern Scotland in the early Middle Ages. The area has a concentration of famous “symbol stones” carved with patterns and motifs that may have represented the identities of powerful rulers. One such stone previously discovered in the area is believed to depict scenes from the battle of Nechtansmere of AD 685, when the Picts defeated an army from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria – a victory that paved the way for a powerful Pictish kingdom to be established. The battle itself, crucial to the formation of the nation of Scotland, is thought to have taken place nearby.
Though some 200 symbol stones are known, few have been found during archaeological excavations. The stone discovered by the Aberdeen team was used in the paving of an 11th or 12th-century building, part of a settlement likely occupied since Pictish times. Further study of the stone and its context could help improve our understanding of the settlement and its part in that pivotal battle.
A dramatic discovery
How a Whitechapel housing development led archaeologists to the birthplace of Elizabethan theatre
The location of the first purpose-built playhouse in Britain had long been debated. According to written records (including two lawsuits), the theatre was built in or before 1567, in the grounds of the Red Lion in Whitechapel, London, by the wealthy grocer John Brayne. He later constructed The Theatre in Shoreditch, which staged Shakespeare’s plays in the 1590s.
When archaeologists from Archaeology South East investigated a site in Whitechapel ahead of housing redevelopment, their analysis of historic mapping and land deeds suggested that the remains of the timber playhouse (a stage surrounded by scaffolded seating) were nearby. But it was only when full excavations began in January 2019 that they discovered an unusual rectangular timber structure, surrounded by postholes. “We started finding timbers and then uncovered this whole structure. It was very exciting,” says Stephen White, who led the team.
The measurements of this structure (12.2 metres north-to-south by 9.1 metres east-to-west) matched almost exactly the dimensions given in the lawsuit. The postholes appeared to correspond to the “scaffolds” or galleried seating surrounding the raised stage.
The archaeologists recovered artefacts linked to the public house and theatre, including drinking glasses, ceramic cups and tankards. They also found fragments of green-glazed ceramic money boxes. These would have been used to collect entry fees from customers and then smashed to retrieve the coins, an ingenious method to prevent theft. Not far from the playhouse was a series of buildings which may represent the Red Lion inn itself, complete with beer cellars.
The remains of the playhouse mark the dawn of Elizabethan theatre, and as such, are a fitting final entry to my list of great archaeological finds.
Susan Greaney is an archaeologist specialising in the study of British prehistory. She is a lecturer at the University of Exeter.
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
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