Archaeological Research – past, present and future

May 4, 2012 by

Interested in reading about previous archaeological research on the Isles of Scilly then head to Scilly Historic Environment Research Framework (SHERF), were you can download a series of documents that summarise the archaeological resource for the isles.

SHERF is a project being undertaken by those with an interest in research into the historic environment of the Isles of Scilly. These include academics, local authority archaeologists and others. The project is part-funded by English Heritage with contributions from the Council of the Isles of Scilly and the Duchy of Cornwall.

The aim of this project is to define a research framework for the historic environment of the Isles of Scilly. This is achieved by assessing the current understanding of Scilly’s past, by identifying gaps in knowledge and by promoting priorites for future research.

Submerged structure at Bathing House Porth

You can download documents that deal with the various archaeological periods and historic monuments. This is the most up to date interpretation of the islands archaeology and will form a focus for future work.

Day Five: Nornour and Porth Cressa

May 2, 2012 by

The Aliens have landed.

Last night, on returning to our bunker after dusk, we spotted what looked like an alien landing. There was an eiree glow up on the battlements, which on closer inspection  turned out to be Bob (the bird counter) sideline in moth trapping.  Today we can report that all moths stayed at home last night (unless they were abducted by aliens?).

This morning we packed up all our belongings (again) and headed off to catch a chartered boat to Nornour with our team.  Landing on this small quay-free island can be tricky so the jet boat towed a tender (smaller boat) behind to help us disembark.  On our arrival, we had welcoming guard of six seals who watched with amusement as we transferred firstly to the tender and then to dry land in a lively Atlantic swell.  A few feet got wet – then our boatman gave a cheery wave and was gone, joking he may not return (such extended stays have occurred in the past due to misunderstandings, but with mobile phones these are a thing of the past…..we hoped).

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Tiny Nornour is home to an extensive settlement, revealed when a storm stipped away overlying sand deposits and a collection of roman brooches were found. There are a series of freestanding houses, with ramm floors, central hearths and courtyards that were subsequently remodelled and filled up with midden (rubbish – shells, bones, ash, plant waste) when they went out of use.  There are seven different phases of building and a fine finds assemblage.  Occupied from the Bronze Age onward one particular building was the focus for the depostiion of Romano-British brooches, as well as a series of mintature pots, found placed in the hearth and secreted withing the walls. These minature urns are a standard size and shape with slightly different decoration and are without parrallel in the UK.  Made of a particular type of Cornish clay (gabbroic), which has only recently reported from two other prehistoric sites on Scilly, they remain enigmatically Bronze Age in shape but potentially much later in the timing of their deposition.

Sarnia Butcher, one of the original excavators of the site accompanied us. When the brooches were discovered she was the Inspector of Ancient Monuments with responsibility for the Roman period and was sent down to have look at this new material. She ended up leading excavations on the site and the report is published in Cornish Archaeology (1978 and 2001).  It is always fantastic to hear about the archaeology direct from the excavator and to wonder at the tenacity of excavation teams some 40 years ago.

We once again photographed and recorded the erosion activity and filled in our Shorewatch forms, although it may prove slightly harder for our volunteers to get out to check on Nornour.

The boatman reappeared to return us to St Marys and we retired to a café to discuss the mornings work.  As a result we lunched with Ray Mears (well on the next table) and ended up having a brief chat with him about archaeology, in particular his favourite period the Mesolithic.  He was very interested in our evidence and in how people arrived on the islands in early boats. We discussed the recent evidence for the Mesolithic on a series of distant off-shore British islands, the Shetland and Northern Isles and the Outer Hebrides.  With an interest in wild foods Ray pointed out that, in addition to the rich marine food resources, the islands had bountiful plant resources with a longer growing season, providing a cornucopia for early settlers.

Ian’s interview was broadcast at lunchtime on the Radio Scilly Wildlife program, but we missed it – however you can listen to it again.

We then popped along the beach to look at a couple of sites at Porth Cressa, where a cist, a house and a cremation urn (found a few years ago by one our Shorewatch volunteers) have all previously been recorded.  The house and cist are still clearly visible and actively eroding, and we found a flint flakes, a broken scraper and a few sherds of pot (probably Iron Age) associated with the house and midden.   The density of flint on later prehistoric Scillonian sites (i.e. Bronze and Iron Age) is of interest as it appears to be more common than on other insular sites of this period.  Flint, whilst not local, is freely available as beach pebbles deposited by the glaciers provide an abundance of material and it seems everywhere we look we find more worked flint.

This completed we had time for a swift shopping session before getting on the Scillonian for a smoother journey home, followed by a long drive to Wales.

We will be sending more details of our activities to all those who expressed interest in the Isles of Scilly Archaeology Group.  We apologise to all those who could not join us due to the weather or the timing of the events, but we will be organising more activities in the future.  If anyone has ideas for future activiites or themes, and comments on convenient timings and publicity please do get in touch via the ScillyArchaeology blog or email

We would like to thank the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust (particularly Julie Love) for their support and accomodation, and their volunteers Mair, Barry and Bob for letting us bed down in the bunker. The bedraggled biologists can now have our beds, should their tent prove permanently damaged by the storm.  The AONB supported our trip to Nornour whilst Bryher Boats, and the St Mary’s boatmen transported us from isle to isle.  Ted Moulson helped to move our equipment up and down the Garrison hill (phew!) and the Tourist Office and Radio Scilly promoted and supported out work. We also wish to say how much we enjoyed sharing the rich archeaological heritage with the islanders and visitors alike – we will return.

Jacqui, Charlie and Ian

Day Four: Bryher

April 30, 2012 by

You’re stuck. The Scillonian’s not sailing today!

Leaving proved impossible as there was no boat! Undaunted our team headed off to Bryher to check out a site below Bonfire Carn. This site, a eroding Bronze Age? structure with occupation layers, has been noted for many years and has previously produced the only sherd of possible Beaker pottery on the islands.   On the island we met up with more interested individuals and headed out along the shore in the sunshine.

The site was still clearly visible and individual stones, recorded on previous trips, could still be identified and we noticed a new organic deposit along the shore with a significant amount of flint eroding out.   A range of finds were recovered, with scrappers, blades and pottery fragments recorded.  Once again the site was described, measured and photographically recorded.

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A swift jet boat ride home left us sufficent time to go to the museum to meet with Sarnia Butcher, the director of the Nornur excavations.  Jacqui was interested in looking at the animal bone from the site.  Originally reported on by Frank Turk,  this remarkable assemblage contains a large amount of seal bone, red deer, shrews, birds and the usual range of domestic species.  When he studied the material species identification and notes on the size, shape and age of animals were sufficient – however a glance through the boxes revealed that significant additional information can be gained from a re-evalutaion of the material.

The Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, our hosts, were our next port of call.  Where Ian was interviewed in a cupboard for their radio show!  We also met Bob the new bird counter and chatted about future collaborative work.

We are staying here another night, so we had to unpack our worldly goods for another night in the bunker.  Strange as it sounds we all enjoy staying here and sleep like babies underground as the storms rage across the skies.

Julian, the biologist, has been recruited by Ray Mears to chat about wildlife – and we managed to spot him and his team as we left for our evening. We are still trying to recruit him to our cause……however it was raining and we were hungry, so next time maybe.

Day Three: Riders on the Storm

April 30, 2012 by

At breakfast we welcomed new residents to the Woolpack (which for the uninitated is a Late Victorian Quick Fire battery converted into accomodation for the IOS Wildlife Trust).  A couple of bedraggled biologists had been buffeted all night by extremely strong winds, resulting in the tent itself beating them about the heads.  Julain and Richard are here trapping and tracking shags, to find out where they feed. They catch them in their homes, attached electronic tags and watch ‘em go.  We tracked them drying themselves, their belongings and their tents.

We also initiated the biologists into the mysteries of lithic technologies, with Ian still riding on a mesolithic microlith high  Matching their bird id skills with our nerdy find skills.  We like to think they were impressed.

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With no chance of a the planned trip to Nornour, a small bleak, uninhabited island with fantastic upstanding archaeology) we spent our time seeking shelter in various hostelaries and solace in a range of wifi hotspots planning our strategy.  The combination of wind and rain resulted in an needle-like assault of waterdrops everything we toiled up and down the hill, so full waterproofs were the order of the day, all day.

Highlights of the day were roast chicken (cooked by Capt’n Ian) and a pub quiz. Bolstered by biologists and Barry (the volunteer) we came second and third.  Then off to bed, to get up early to pack, take a trip to Bryher and the museum and leave……

Day Two – St Martins

April 28, 2012 by

I’ve just found my first flint!

A quick visit to the coffee shop to upload the blog, then we were off on the boat to St Martins.  Landing at Higher Town was convenient for our small team to make its way to one of the more enigmatic, but potentially extremely important sites, at Old Quay.

Here we started by discussing the geology of the islands.  During the last glaciation the glacier reached down to the north of St Martins and left its signature in a series of peri-glacical deposits (the material dumped at the end of the glacier) that lie directly on the bedrock. This includes ground up grantite of various sizes in fine silt called ramm (rabb or glacial Head)  with the occastional far travelled erratic.   The archaeology lies on top of this deposit, although sometimes the difference between ramm and the undeveloped soils overlying it can be difficult to spot.

We then started to look at the eroding archaeology. The section at Old Quay has been producing pieces of flint, pottery and bones for many, many years.  In the 1980’s a feature (possibly a pit or maybe a posthole) was noted, with pottery lying near that dates to the Neolithic period.  Just around the corner on Par Beach, are peat deposits also dated to the Neolithic period (this time from radiocarbon dating evidence) and associated with this was a calf tooth.  Finding the calf tooth was a lucky coincidence and if it is the same date as the peat, this would be the earliest evidence for domestic cattle in the UK!  We have also sent the tooth to be radiocarbon dated, and are awaiting the answer with bated breath.

So back to the site – clutching the earlier records we set out to refind the pit and to look for more material eroding from the site.  We were sucessful on both counts.  We refound the pit, it was clearly visible with a darker organic fill and flecks of charcoal at the base.  The Scillies are home to a burrowing bee, and its activities make it difficult to be sure that all organic material in the pit really is in situ (i.e. original) making dating it difficult.  The pit has survived in the section for a good twenty years, suggesting that erosion along this part of the coast is not severe.

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We then looked all the way along the beach for any finds eroding out of the section.  They were very hard to find, with only tiny fragments of material present. After staring at the dirt so hard we were going cross-eyed, we were eventually rewarded with a small flint assemblage.  Even our the newest archaeologists were sucessful in spotting these tiny pieces of material.  We found a range of flint flakes, a flake core for small bladelets, a rejunvenation flake and a retouched utilsed blade. This material can date from any point from the Mesolithic to the Early Bronze Age.  However we also found a MICROLITH, probable a trapeze type, and this definitely dates from the Mesolithic, about 7 thousand years ago.

Last night in discussion it emerged (during what we called a ‘Flintoff’ – a lively discussion on tool types between specialists) that neither Ian nor Trevor had ever seen a true mesolithic flint tool from the islands, so to find one today was fantastic. This is the first finds evidence for a microlith in context – i.e. we know what it is and where it was.   This was so exciting that Ian got goosebumps.

We also found a number of small fragments of pottery, mostly so small they are undiagnostic.  We cleaned up the pit so we could photograph it, and then took shots along the section.  Looking at the eroding face there appears to be a large deposit of material lying over the glacial ramm which contains flint at various locations.

Keith, a local expert, came along and shared some of his knowledge with us.  He has been finding eroding flint, pottery and bone along this section for many years and has watched the shoreline retreat by ten of metres since the 1960s.  We were also visited by another resident whose younger relative we have met up with in Cardiff as she is working at the university.

We are due for some extremely bad weather so we left the island on the earlier boat, but first we called in to see Knackyboy Cairn, an entrance grave we have spent some time researching (see previously).  At present we are awaiting a series of radiocarbon dates from this and two other entrance graves as up until now not a single tomb has been directly dated.  It was, as ever, a splendid viewpoint (this time for the incoming rain). We financially support the continual clearance of this monument and at present it is home to a pleasing range of spring flowers.

Our final stop was to look at a recently found possible shaped stone. We don’t know what it is but humans have definitely shaped it.  The stone has a flat surface with a range of enigmatic ridges pecked into its surface.  Back in the late 80’s a rather fabulous stone statue (locally known as Billy Idol) was found on St Martins, is this another similar find?   Last time we came to islands we discovered a carving on a beach stone on Samson, we showed pictures of the art to many experts whom all agreed it was rock art, but with no parallels was consider it to be undatable.  With this latest find it seems that the isles repetoire of rock art is gradually increasing.

We spent part of the day hoping to bump into Ray Mears, he is here filming a natural history program about black rabbits, hedgehogs and ants. Jacqui is convinced he needs to use her services as an expert in insular zooarchaeology……rabbits and hedgehogs are not native!

We have just heard that tomorrows trip to Nornour is off due to inclement weather. A real pity as Ian has not yet visited the island.  Oh well, living on an island these things happen.

Day One – St Mary’s

April 28, 2012 by

‘It’s really, really exciting’

Great day looking at sites on St Mary’s.  The inaugral event of the Isles of Scilly Shorewatch group took a small group off to record a number of already known eroding sites.  To get ourselves in the mood we started by looking at the excavated site of Halangy Down, which dates to the early first century AD.  This is a small settlement of a series of courtyard houses excavated in the ‘70’s by the late, great Paul Ashbee (reported on in Cornish Archaeology (CA) 1996).  It is beautifully presented by English Heritage and proved to be a good starting point for discussions on what is archaeology and how is it identified, recorded and interpreted?

Halangy Porth lies about 100m upslope from the coastally eroding, earlier site of Halangy Down.  This is another settlment site, also investigated by Paul Ashbee (CA 1998) with  radiocarbon dates that place occupation in early to middle Iron Age (about half a century earlier than Halangy Down).  This site is visible in the cliff section as the sea erodes the archaeology.  It was first noticed by Bonsall in 1899 and its’ continued erosion has been a source of interest and concern since that time, with minor works by Gibson and Gray in 1920s, followed by Henken in1932 with a major excavation on the landward side in ‘75-‘76 by Ashbee.

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So how do you spot an eroding archaeological site?  Well as we discussed and demonstrated to the group there are a few clues.  Firstly as you walk along the coast the archaeological stands out as different.  Rather than sand/soil with few rocks, the sites tend to be stone rich.  Also many of the stones are in strange positions, standing on their ends or one on top of the other, not places that stone would end up if moved by natural processes. Secondly the soil tends to be a different colour. Humans alter where they live and material produced as a result of cooking, fire, food processing, tool production and general rubbish changes the colour, texture and content of the sediment at the site.  Then thirdly you get the material humans leave behind, most commonly pottery, bone, flint and charred material.  Halangy Porth showed all these charecteristics, with clearly visible walls, darker soils and finds.

Coastal monitoring gets folk involved in identifying and recording eroding sites. To do this we need to first find the sites (see above) then record their condition today and monitor their condition over time.  We used the SCAPE Shorewatch forms to record the sites – where they where (using grid references – along the corridor and up the stairs),  the condition of the archaeology, it’s vulnerability to erosion and what is the recommended action for the site.  At Halangy Porth we were lucky enough to have earlier records of what the site looked like over time, and it was obvious that active erosion is still on-going. To the extent that we found large pieces of recently eroded Iron Age pottery lying on the ground at the bottom of the section.  We also found two small flint flakes, a small bladelet and a broken serrated blade, these are of particular interest as Iron Age sites are not thought to continue to use flint.  The team also (re)found a number of large quern (grinding stone) fragments lying on the beach in front of the site that have obviously been eroded out of the site.   The finds were a good focus for a chat on how to identify pot, flint, worked stone etc.  The vulnerability of the site and the quality of the archaeology led us to recommend its’ excavation.

From Halangy we moved around the coast to the cairn at Pendrathon. We tasked the team with finding the site based on their new found skills.  They easily spotted it and this enigmatic monument (i.e. we don’t really know what it is) looks like a cairn and when previously recorded has been interpreted as a burial cairn.  There are lots of stones visible in the section but very few finds.  Today it was apparent that the site has suffered over the past few years, with many newly fallen stone and sections of the coast undercut.   The erosion had also revealed a new area of stone with thick chunks of what looks like Late Bronze Age (or Early Iron Age?) pottery falling out of the section.   We recorded and photographed this site as well.  Along the shore was evidence of the power of the sea in the form of a WWII pillbox now lay on the beach but previously had been up on the cliff.  Recommendation? Excavate?

The weather was kind, the archaeology interesting and the team leaders enjoyed having the time to share their knowledge.  Often when we are over here we are on tight schedules and whilst happy to chat have many calls on our time dealing with students and research agendas.   Today we had all the time in the world to ask people what they wanted to know and how they would like the project to evolve.

Exploring a drowning landscape: Shorewatch 2012

April 26, 2012 by

On a bright spring morning, over a rolling sea, the Islands in a Common Sea team returned to the isles for our latest Scillonian adventure.

Over the weekend we will be working with visitors and members of the Isles of Scilly Archaeology Group, in a Shorewatch project.  Shorewatch is a Scottish initative that encourages and supports community groups to survey coastlines and monitor eroding archaeological sites.

The idea for an Isles of Scilly Archaeology Group has been around for some time. In 2011 Charlie Johns (Historic Environment, Cornwall Council) lead a series of introductary archaeological skills and training events (funded by the Isles of Scilly AONB Sustainable Development Fund) at which the impetus to develop a Scillonian Shorewatch scheme emerged. As part of the Islands in A Common Sea project Cardiff Universityhas funded three archaeologists (Ian Dennis, Jacqui Mulville and Charlie Johns) to come over to Scilly .  We will be training the IOS Archaeology Group in the recognition and monitoring of eroding coastal archaeology.

We are working in partnership with the Council for British Archaeology South West, the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust, the  Tourist Information Centre and the Isles of Scilly Museum.

Charlie and Ian arrive at our accommodation, the IOSWT's bunker

We are also partnering with the SCAPE trust (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) who have developed the highly sucessful Scottish SHOREWATCH program and winner of Current Archaeology’s Rescue Dig of the Year 2012.

The role of the sea in creating, shaping and eroding the islands has fascinated archaeologists for years; from the submerged hedges and ruins identified by Crawford, to the Charles Thomas’s ‘Exploration of a Drowned Landscape’ right through the continuing English Heritage funded Lyonesse Project that is providing new information on the rate of rise in sea levels from intertidal and submerged peat deposits.

This event will benchmark the sites identified in the Coastal Eroding Project in the early 1990’s and provide training in the recording, identification and monitoring of existing and new eroding sites.

Over the course of the weekend we will be visiting four islands. On Friday the weekend will kick off with an exploration of St Mary’s with visits to Halangy Porth and Pendrathen, on Saturday we will visit sites around Old Quay on St Martins, on Sunday afternoon we hope to get out to Nornour accompanied by the site excavator, Sonia Butcher.  On Monday morning we head to Bryher to examine Bonfire Carn before boarding the Scillonian to return home.

Details of all these events will be posted on the Tourist Information Centre notice board once boat times are clarified.  On Friday we will be gathering outside the Lloyds Bank at 10.15am and we will then walk to Halangy Porth, where others can join us at 11am.   From there we will walk to Pendrathen and the day should finish by 3pm, do bring sandwiches for lunch and waterproofs in case of rain.

Geophysic Results

July 30, 2007 by

You can view the geophysic and other survey results at

At present they are just data with no interpretation, and I am darned if I can pick out the buried sailors, or any of my entrance graves – hmmmm.  As I have said a dark art this geofizz stuff.  Hopefully Tim will make these images into something…..


Final Team photo

July 26, 2007 by

The whole team


Final blog: July 25th

July 26, 2007 by

Repent for the end is nigh! (you should have seen this before proof reading. It stated “the end is neigh!”)

 The finality of our departure has just sunk in and a kind of resigned fatalistic gloom has sunk in over the team, not helped by the news that a second sillonian local has apparently perished since the start of our stay on the islands: apparently they just found his kyak near Seven Stones, half way to the mainland. The weather today has also been its usual self and I did not bother checking on it before dressing but just put on the waterproof trousers on automaticaly. However at around noon the weather cleared up a little and our day of backfilling in the rain was over. 

In the evening spirits began to rise a little, like bad bread, and I undertook the apparently simple task of repairing a tent. Three hours  of playing with needles and elastic later,  I finaly got the bugger standing without any more poles rupturing and could at last calm down enough to realise I felt heartely sick, an expereince made worse by the uttely alien sight of Sly Dave sans facial hair. It could be worse; last year he started the Scilly dig with long-ish hair and shaved it to his now familiar black fuzz mid dig to the horror of all.

However I was soon cheered up by the awards ceremony cooked up by Edd, Owen and Rhys. Neadless to say that most of what was spoken is not fit for repeating here and it was a small mercy that all those under 15 were of crabing at the time because the language used was as colourful as a electric chamellion on bad acid locked insde a 1970’s discoteque. I won’t evern mention the role-playing and the acting out of the months most embarassing moments.  My two awards were for best bum-bag and site know-it-all, both of which I accepted with my usual upbeat enthusiasm, although I was was envious that Rob and not me got the “most likley to kill everyone” award for his action with the imaginary bazooka. As if my staring down the EDM crosshairs at passing tourists and making “Bang! Clink-Clink” noises and making bolt action gestures all month was any less inpressive. I also refrained from booing for nearly all of the event.  Unusualy braced by this we fell to discussing the meal we had just eaten. The quadbike sent to get food came back with two small boys that Jacqui and Ian had lost, but no chicken.  Rather than eat that had been delivered, ala Hannibal Lecter, the quadbike was sent to recover the missing food. The errant poultry fillets were eventualy found in the road, in a puddle. Did it fall or was there fowl play afoot?

 Aftrer that I walked to the pub with Jacqui and Rob. Three Archaeologists walk into a pub. Unfortunatly one of them is Jacqui and as the format of that particualr jopke is three blokes walk into a pub we’re working aganst the grain from the start. Speaking of working against the grain I plan to drink as much of it malted as I can and hope it can’t work against me. And in the pub there is a computer. Thus blogging happens, or is happening, or had happend from your point of veiw as unless you are a seer of have a really good long lens camera you can’t actually see me as I type this.  I hope.  And thus blogs, and digs, become self referential and end not with a shout, but with a whimper. Or a drunken song. Or Meta-Humour.

So here we are (well, your not here. If you were you could just ask me rather than reading it in a blog) at the end of the road (again, metaphor, there is no road to speak of-  although now I think of it Bryher only really has one road and the pub is at the end of it so in theory we’re safe).  The group has fallen to musing, drinking and discussing the philisophical ramifications of subjecting others to our purely interpretive veiw of the past gleaned though the last four weeks hard slog and our careful understanding of herminutic spirals where our understanding of the question asked about the past changes as does the question, and so that to answer it the mind spirals ever inwards to deeper levels of understanding of the world around us.

Well, one out of three isn’t that bad I guess.