Dam Busting, Ancient Archaeologists and Iron Age Fort Raids

17 April 2011

Researchers re-create the experiments carried out by Barnes Wallis on the bouncing bomb; we discuss the Texan pre-Clovis finds; the Nichoria bone earns its place at multiple points in history and we explore the massacre at Fin Cop hill fort. Plus, in Backyard Archaeology: how to go about doing a bit of zooarchaeology!

In this episode

01:41 - Reconstructing Barnes Wallis' experiments on the bouncing bomb

Dr Hugh Hunt tells us about his work in solving the same problems that Barnes Wallis faced when he designed the famous weapon used by the dam busters.

Reconstructing Barnes Wallis' experiments on the bouncing bomb
with Dr Hugh Hunt, University of Cambridge

Dr Hugh Hunt tells us about his work in solving the same problems that Barnes Wallis faced when he designed the famous weapon used by the dam busters.

09:41 - Pre-Clovis Site in Texas

There’s been a discovery in Central Texas that’s stirring-up the debate on the first peopling of the Americas. Thousands of stone artefacts have been unearthed in a creek valley northwest...

Pre-Clovis Site in Texas

DUNCAN - Well, there's been a discovery in Central Texas that's stirring-up the debate on the first peopling of the Americas. Thousands of stone artefacts have been unearthed in a creek valley northwest of Austin, including more than 50 tools which potentially pre-date the technology used by the Clovis people. The contents of this site could finally put an end to the 'Clovis first' model.

DIANA - What do you mean by 'Clovis first' model?

DUNCAN - It has long been argued that the first people in the Americas arrived from Asia via the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age, sometime around 13,000 years ago. These hunter-gatherers produced a very distinctive stone tool technology, including characteristic fluted projectile points that were first discovered at a site near the town of Clovis in New Mexico in 1929, hence the name: 'Clovis culture'. Whether or not this distinctive style of technology came with them from Asia, we don't know, but it quickly spread throughout much of North America by the end of Pleistocene, around 12,000 years ago.

DIANA - So this recently-discovered site in Texas pre-dates the Clovis culture? What did they actually find?

DUNCAN - The team of archaeologists and other scientists, led by Dr. Michael Waters, director of the Centre for the Study of the First Americans at Texas A&M University, recently published their findings in Science. The site at Buttermilk Creek consists of a large assemblage of projectile points, blades, chisels, choppers and an abundance of flakes made out of locally-sourced chert, which were found in a layer of thick clay sediments immediately below a layer of Clovis material. These newly-discovered tools are sufficiently different from typical Clovis material to be a distinctive technology in their own right.

DIANA - But how were they able to date the site? Apart from the obvious stratigraphy you mentioned, was it just by looking at the differences in stone tool technology or were they using other methods?

DUNCAN - Good point and, yes, stratigraphy in floodplain deposits like this one can be unreliable. In fact, anthropology professor Tom Dillehay from Vanderbilt University and Professor Gary Haynes from the University of Nevada both suggested that the artefacts could have migrated through the layers of clay to create the potentially false impression of a pre-Clovis layer. So, Dr Water's team used a technique called optically stimulated luminescence (OSL), to assign a date to the tools of 15,500 years ago.

DIANA - Going back to my Undergraduate days, I seem to remember there were quite a few contentious sites in the Americas that pre-dated the arrival of the Clovis people. What's so special about this site?

DUNCAN - You're right, this isn't exactly new. In recent decades, archaeologists have been finding more and more evidence for pre-Clovis people in the Americas, and specialists have been questioning the routes these early migrants took across the continent or ocean. What is interesting is the idea that these earlier tools may be ancestral to the Clovis material, since they appeared 2500 years earlier. And they could settle the debate on whether or not the distinctive Clovis technology was an Asian import or actually developed in the Americas.

12:47 - The Nichoria Bone

Paddling across the pond, this next news story talks about the famous ‘Nichoria Bone’, a large fossil of an extinct mega mammal, likely a woolly rhinoceros, that roamed southern Greece...

The Nichoria Bone

DIANA - This next news story talks about the famous 'Nichoria Bone', a large fossil of an extinct mega mammal, likely a woolly rhinoceros, that roamed southern Greece around one million years ago. It's significant because the bone wasn't found by a modern team of palaeontologists or fossil hunters, but excavated by ancient Greeks two and a half thousand years ago.

DUNCAN - Wow! I didn't know there were fossil hunters living in ancient Greece. What were they doing with it?

DIANA - Adrienne Mayor, a researcher at Stanford University and author of the book, 'The First Fossil Hunters', argues that the bone was deliberately collected and stored on the ancient acropolis at Nichoria. The area nearby was known in antiquity as the so-called 'Battleground of the Giants', the basis of myths surrounding the 'Titanomachy', and is a rich source of fossils from the Pleistocene era.

DUNCAN - But what did they think the bone represented? I know the ancient Greeks were keen observers of natural history, but I'm fairly sure they didn't think it was the remains of a woolly rhinoceros ...

DIANA - This bone was clearly a very significant artefact to the ancient Greeks who first discovered it, and Mayor argues that this and other fossilised remains may have been the originators of some of the early stories about Titans and other giant beasts in Classical Mythology.

DUNCAN - Is the Nichoria Bone a unique find or are there other examples of fossilised bones being discovered at ancient Greek sites, or elsewhere for that matter?

DIANA - Mayor points out that there are only two examples of large vertebrate fossils still in existence from ancient sites. There are folklore accounts of griffins in Central Asia, likely inspired by the well-preserved remains of Protoceratops dinosaur skeletons. However, the Greek historian Herodotus makes reference to the bones of Titans being put on display at various sites around the Megalopolis Basin from the 5th century BC onwards, which is an indicator that people in this region were regularly finding fossil remains and attributing them to the existence of Titans in the distant past.

DUNCAN - So, where is the Nichoria Bone now?

DIANA - Well, it was re-discovered by a team of archaeologists from the Minnesota Messenia Expedition during excavations at Nichoria in the seventies. It was then 'lost' in the realms of the store rooms at the University of Minnesota until it was found again, thanks to persistent inquiries by Adrienne Mayor, and spent the next 10 years in various laboratories around the United States. The bone has since travelled back to Europe and is now on display in the Greek and Roman Antiquities Gallery in Oxford.

DUNCAN - I remember reading about the remains of prehistoric pygmy elephants in Cyprus and how the large nasal cavity in the centre of their skull looked a bit like a single eye socket...

DIANA - Absolutely right. The fossilised crania of prehistoric elephants may have given rise to the myths about giant Cyclopes. 

15:30 - Iron Age Massacre

Archaeologists working in Derbyshire have this month reported the discovery of a mass grave on an Iron Age hill fort. Dr Clive Waddington of Archaeological Research Services described how a...

Iron Age Massacre

Duncan - Archaeologists working in Derbyshire have this month reported the discovery of a mass grave on an Iron Age hill fort. Dr Clive Waddington of Archaeological Research Services described how a series of burials, dated to around 390BC, indicated something of a massacre occurred at Fin Cop.

Diana - Fin Cop, tell me more!

Duncan - Well, it's located in the Peak District and it's thought that construction started sometime around 440BC so this is a few centuries before the Romans arrived. It was a huge structure with a 400m long, 2m deep perimeter ditch, with 4m wide and high limestone walls. So clearly the owners of this fort were either very keen to impress or very afraid of what lay outside.

Diana - Why do we think such a fort was built to impress rather than defend?

Duncan - It's something that many archaeologists working in the British Iron Age have found; that building forts had more to do with power, show and prestige than actual fighting. Up till now there's been sparse evidence of warfare during this period. But Fin Cop is different. In the single 10m section of ditch that the archaeologists have excavated they've found bodies of women - one of which appeared to have been thrown in with her baby and remains of the wall-, there were also children and a teenage boy in the ditch. And they think there are potentially hundreds more bodies in the remainder of the unexcavated ditch.

Diana - So presumably, these bodies would have been cast into the ditch following some sort of raid. It's a little macabre, but apart from the prestige theory - why haven't remains like this been found at other Iron Age hill forts?

Duncan - This site is quite special because the soil is very alkaline, meaning that the two-thousand-year-old remains are quite well preserved. It may be that, at other sites, any similar remains would have simply been dissolved over time by more acidic soil.

17:26 - Largest Roman Site in England?

It looks like diggers have found what could be one of the largest archaeological sites in England. And it’s been hidden safely away under a forest called Bedford Purlieus Wood.

Largest Roman Site in England?

Diana - This one's passed fairly quietly under the news radar this month, partly because it ended up on Time Team! But it looks like diggers have found what could be one of the largest archaeological sites in England. And it's been hidden safely away under a forest called Bedford Purlieus Wood.

Duncan - So exactly what is hidden beneath the trees?

Diana - So far they've found evidence of ironworks - so Tom Birch would be straight onto that - there are tools, nails and a furnace. So some of this site looks to be quite industrial in nature. But there's also evidence of living quarters including underfloor heating and bathing facilities.

Duncan - Why is this only being reported now? If it's so big then how is it that no one fell onto the remains earlier?

Diana - Well someone did. The nineteenth century antiquarian Edmund Tyrell Artis claimed to have discovered several Roman items and burials in the area, but nothing was ever followed-up on his findings until 2008 when council archaeologists had a quick poke about. The other protective factor is the tree cover. Aerial photographs aren't much help for much of the site, and earthworks might not be quite so apparent. One of the archaeologists on the site, Tim Yarnell, has said that the fallen leaves and humic earth actually served to protect the remains. So they're even finding bits of plaster complete with original paint colours.

Duncan - That's pretty impressive. And I think it demonstrates how important it is to look after what little woodland the UK has left!

18:49 - Crucifiction?

Naked Archaeologist Simcha Jakobovici claims to have found candidates for some cross nails, or nails from the cross.

Crucifiction?

Naked Archaeologist Simcha Jakobovici claims to have found candidates for some cross nails, or nails from the cross.

20:21 - How to: Zooarchaeology

Angelos explains how zooarchaeologists go about analysing animal bones in order to study the sites from which they're excavated.

How to: Zooarchaeology
with Angelos Hadjikoumis, British School at Athens

Angelos explains how zooarchaeologists go about analysing animal bones in order to study the sites from which they're excavated.

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