Connecting Spirals

06 g macehead

The Garboldisham macehead is a remarkable Neolithic artefact fashioned from red deer antler and carved with three spiral motifs. The macehead was discovered in the mid 1960s in a tributary of the river Little Ouse, Norfolk and is one of a number of iconic decorated artefacts from Neolithic Britain. Dr. Marta Díaz-Guardamino and I have been studying it as part of the ongoing ‘Making a Mark’ project, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.

Marta  recorded the carving on the macehead using Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) and it revealed some interesting features. It is clear that at least one of the spirals was carved over two phases, as the carving overlays at least two phases of polishing striations on the artefact’s surface. Detailed recording of the carved spirals using low powered digital microscopy also indicated that the carving of the spirals themselves were repeated more than once; possibly we might be looking at two craftspeople working on the same artefact.

Garboldisham 1

The date of this iconic artefact has been a mystery until now. A recently published project looking at these maceheads made from red deer antler decisively indicated that these artefacts date from the Middle Neolithic. We suspected this might be the case for Garboldisham too, but were delighted to be given permission to date the object. Following dating by the Oxford Radiocarbon lab, we can now report that the Garboldisham macehead dates from 3483 – 3104 BC (95% probability), placing it firmly in the same date range as the other antler maceheads. This is exciting as spirals occur in a diversity of locations, including Irish passage tombs, such as Newgrange, rock art in the Kilmartin region of Scotland and on Grooved Ware pottery from Skara Brae, Orkney. The early date for the Garboldisham macehead indicates that it dates from the same period as the primary use of Irish passage tombs. Indeed, the Knowth flint macehead is also carved with spiral decoration. The comparability of dates for the Garboldhisham macehead and Irish passage tombs suggests there were networks of interaction between eastern Ireland and East Anglia during the Middle Neolithic.

08 G macehead

We are currently writing up the results of this aspect of the ‘Making a Mark’ project, along with Alex Gibson (who was one of the authors of the antler macehead dating project) and Sylvia Cox (former curator at Moyse’s Hall/West Stow).

The Garboldisham macehead currently resides at West Stow Anglo Saxon village in Suffolk. We are very excited that as the result of these new analyses the Garboldisham macehead has been re-displayed. If you happen to be in Suffolk, and near West Stow, do drop in to see this intriguing artefact.

Dr. A.

Ask an Archaeologist: Kenny Brophy

Prehistories are very pleased to welcome Dr Kenny Brophy, (Urban Prehistorian extraordinaire), to take part in Ask an Archaeologist.


Ask an Archaeologist: Kenny Brophy

me low res

What is your specialism?

An interesting question! Traditionally I suppose I am regarded as a prehistorian, with a special interest in the Neolithic and early Bronze Age of Britain, with particular focus on Scotland. I have worked on ceremonial enclosures and stone rows, but more recently I have become more concerned with settlement and everyday life in the Neolithic. I have also for a long time been interested in landscape and how we experience this as prehistorians, and so earlier in my career I made a lot of use of phenomenology; plus I have dabbled in aerial archaeology and have a long standing interest in cropmarks. But over the past five or six years, my interests have evolved quite significantly – I would say I am now more interested in thinking about how the past impacts on us today and could shape our futures, and less on studying the past for the past’s sake if that makes any sense. I don’t think this has a name, perhaps I’m more of a heritage specialist now than archaeologist with a particular interest in how prehistoric traces appear to us in the contemporary landscape.


Why did you become an archaeologist?

I had no plans to be an archaeologist at all when I was at school, indeed it never crossed my mind. I had a vague idea of being a ‘scientist’, and then perhaps doing something with maps, but no clear plans. At Glasgow University, I was looking for a third subject to do with Geography and Geology, and a friend suggested Archaeology – so I did it and bought his course books cheaply from him. By the end of the first term, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist, although doing what exactly I still did not decide for a year or two.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

Alexander Keiller. I would love to hear his stories about fast cars, kinky sex and marmalade.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

Landscape is the easy choice for me. As a concept, regardless of how vague or how tricky to define, it captures for me what archaeology is all about. It concerns people and how they move about day to day, and it has a strong temporal dimension. The places that interest us as archaeologists – monuments, buildings, find spots, pits, settlements – are points within the landscape that were meaningful to people once, and still are to us, often for very different reasons. Landscapes can be places of economic transactions, but also be mythical and idealised. These kinds of contrasts fascinate me. Without landscape there would be no archaeology.

auchterarder standing stone

What is your dream find?

For many years now, I have hankered after finding a skull with rubies in the eyes, and a snake coming out of the mouth. I don’t know why.

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

No. What would it tell us really? All that would happen is that we would observe and record a whole load of other weird stuff that we would struggle to make sense of. The archaeological record is complex enough without another layer of confusion.

If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

That is tricky. I suppose, bizarrely, it would be the 19th century (AD!), at the birth of archaeology and so many other aspects of the modern world (good and bad). It would be fascinating to see the clash of politics, ideology, science and madness that seems to characterise that period. There was so much wrong, but also so much potential. I am not sure if I could relocate with self-awareness or not, but I hope I would be able to persuade barrow busters to stop busting barrows, and anatomists to stop measuring skulls, and put their minds and money to more useful and ethical pursuits.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

A few writers have been very influential in my career. I have always loved the playful work of Georges Perec, and the English language compilation of some of his work – Species of spaces and other pieces – has informed my views on typology and classification, place and space, and even some of my fieldwork practices. His novel, Life: a user’s manual, is a story of obsession, places and puzzles that embodies deep time, which I love. More recently I have been heavily into the work of psychogeographic authors, such as Iain Sinclair, but more usefully still Peter Ackroyd. His novels Hawksmoor and First Light have, in very different ways, powerfully impacted on the way I conceive of archaeology.First Light front cover

My urban prehistory project is explicitly psychogeographical and the occult time-depth and resonance of place inherent in Hawksmoor (itself based on Sinclair’s Lud Heat) speaks to me more strongly than most archaeological approaches to landscape, place and things. The past awkwardly exists in ruinous and ghostly form in our modern, urban, shiny landscapes – but most archaeologists seem intent on editing out the modern and getting back to the now disappeared and dead past as if the present no longer existed. Ackroyd’s work suggests to me that our romantic notions about the past are not always helpful. In First Light, the investigation of a barrow by a group of archaeologists has traumatic and powerful implications. Maybe, as HP Lovecraft suggests, we should not be tampering with ancient, buried places – at all. And if we do, we had better be prepared for the consequences. I suppose these diverse sources all force me to think anew about archaeology, what it could be, what it could do, and I find these kinds of things very inspiring as well as unsettling.

Gorsadd stones graffiti

What are you working on at the moment?

Lots of things, it surprises me how busy I continue to be. I am involved in a very exciting collaboration with colleagues and PhD students that we have called Cycletree; we consider how landscape heritage can be used to deliver the aspirations of the European Landscape Convention. I am their prehistorian. There are field projects to wrap up – I am working on monographs for two field projects (in Perthshire, and Caithness) and winding down a series of excavations around the village of Dunning. My blog and urban prehistory project is a big part of what I do now, and I am developing various projects with a public-facing aspect such as working with school kids, leading walking tours, low level vandalism, planning community engagement events – plus speaking to non-archaeologists within and behind academia. Lots more too, I like being busy.


Many thanks to Kenny for taking part.

If you don’t already know his excellent blog, you can read it here.

Dr H

Click the links for more Ask an Archaeologist features and the Prehistories Contents page.





It’s been a while since our last post.

The summer holidays have kept us away from blogging, but here is a taster of what we’ve being doing and thinking about, and some of the things we hope to blog about over the next few weeks.

We have been here:

Photo 26-07-2014 11 49 43 here

Photo 27-07-2014 14 13 47

and here:
Photo 29-07-2014 10 44 41 (1)

We have been watching this:

Art of China

and this:

We have been reading this

and this: 

We have been listening to this:

Cuz - 'tamatebako’ album cover

We have been thinking about this

and this:

More soon..

Dr A and Dr H


Ask an Archaeologist: Alice Watterson

The latest archaeologist to agree to questioning by Prehistories is Alice Watterson.

Ask an Archaeologist: Alice Watterson

What is your specialism?

Archaeological illustration, digital data capture and visualisation, I’m currently working on my PhD thesis in archaeological visualisation at the Digital Design Studio, Glasgow School of Art.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

I wish I could tell you my journey to becoming an archaeologist had come from a childhood dream or something delightful like that, but really I ended up studying it by chance! Starting at the University of Glasgow at 17 I had no idea what I wanted to be so when I was asked to tick off on extra classes to take as minors one of my choices was archaeology (my major had been geography and the other minor was theatre studies…so you can appreciate how unsure about my future career I was at that point!).

One of the introductory modules was “Archaeology of Scotland” and after a few classes I was hooked and switched to archaeology as my major. When I was growing up my family would pack up our camper and spend nearly every weekend away kayaking or cycling, where I’d spend a lot of my time exploring coastlines and scrambling over ruins. Suddenly I was looking at all these sites and landscapes I’d explored as a kid in a new light and they had this added richness of understanding. Following my first fieldschool my supervisors noticed I had a skill for drawing and a career as an illustrator (which later expanded into digital visualisation) really sprang up from there. The remainder of my undergrad was spent training in the conventions of different types of illustrations in my spare time. My lecturers would give me ‘beer money’ for producing publication illustrations for their papers, and I really owe a lot of where I am today to their enthusiasm and encouragement.

Which archaeologist (past or present) would you invite onto an excavation?

Vere Gordon Childe. Over the past couple of years I’ve been doing a lot of work up in Orkney and specifically at Skara Brae where Childe excavated in the late 1920s. I know a lot of people roll their eyes at Childe’s work at Skara Brae as a lot was overlooked (I think he even admitted himself that excavation wasn’t his strength) and much of the work was focussed only on consolidating the remains, not to mention the fact that with the advent of radiocarbon dating we now know Skara Brae wasn’t a “Pictish Village”, but Neolithic.

All this aside I’d love to have had him onsite with us when we were making the Digital Dwelling at Skara Brae film ( because I think he had a wonderfully imaginative mind when it came to interpretation. His site reports are punctuated by these great narrative threads about some of the finds where he takes the evidence and invents a little accompanying story to explain how an artefact was used or why it ended up in a particular context.

Choose one of the following: trowel; museum; archive; library; landscape; laptop.

Landscape. Since beginning my PhD nearly 3 years ago I’ve learned a lot about the way I approach the interpretation of a site and why. I think that coming at this research having just spent a year specialising in digital survey and 3D modelling at the University of Southampton meant that I was very focussed on sites in isolation and consideration of the wider context didn’t come naturally to me at all.

Over the course of the past two years or so I’ve worked quite extensively with Aaron Watson (who instinctively knows all things prehistoric and insists that each fieldwork project we work on has us out exploring the landscape as well as working on site) and Kieran Baxter (whose low altitude kite aerial photographs place sites in their immediate landscape context). Working alongside Aaron and Kieran really helped me to reflect on my own process of visualisation and to see past the site in isolation, forming a real appreciation for the importance of landscape in any interpretation.

What is your dream find?

Though I’m out on fieldwork quite a bit, I don’t do that much excavation myself anymore so I’m only really in a position where I observe others digging up finds. The best thing I’ve witnessed while on site was the opening of the Bronze Age cist burial at Forteviot (part of the SERF project). We had excavated a huge stone slab the previous season and had to wait a whole year to have it uncovered and bring a crane in to lift it. The anticipation had been killing everyone for months so when the day finally came to lift the stone we were all really hoping there was actually a cist underneath! Thankfully after all that fuss there was, complete with bronze dagger and what turned out after lab testing to be the remains of meadowsweet flowers. Even though I hadn’t excavated the slab and opened it myself it was amazing to be part of the opening that day, I was later commissioned to do the reconstructions for the monograph too so I don’t really feel too left out of all the excitement!

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

I think if you had asked me this question a couple of weeks ago my answer would undoubtedly have been “Yes! Get me in that Delorean and gun it to 88mph!” But recently I’ve changed my mind.

About a month ago I was interviewing one of the excavators up at the Links of Noltland in Orkney (which has phases of occupation from Neolithic to Bronze Age) and his response to a similar question was “absolutely not”, his reasoning being that if we knew the exact motives behind the often completely bonkers actions of people in prehistory some element of the fascination with that time period would be ruined for him, he liked not knowing.

When I really think about it I have to agree with him, it’s the not knowing that I love about archaeology because it makes the process of interpretation so fascinating. One of the challenges with the kind of creative reconstruction work I produce is conveying the ambiguity and intangibility of an interpretation to an audience; if we knew the answers for certain it just wouldn’t be as captivating, and I’d be out of a job. Also, realistically if we did go back to the Neolithic I think we’d have absolutely no idea what was going on anyway!

If you had to relocate to the past, which era would you move to?

I’m going to contradict myself here after answering “no” to the time travel question, but if I could relocate to the past I would love to go back to any era during the occupation of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides.

I’ve done quite a bit of work out on St Kilda and have recently finished work on a paper with George Geddes at the RCAHMS about use of the ‘cleits’ which are these unique little stone walled, turf capped structures used for storage and drying. At first glance their use and significance seems pretty straightforward, but then you realise there are literally hundreds of these structures all across the archipelago with no good reason for such excessive numbers. I don’t think the use of the cleits is something that can be answered by a quick nip back in time and asking a few questions, I think it’s much more complex than that and would require some level of prolonged observation. Although I wouldn’t want to time travel back to prehistory, St Kilda’s recent history seems so tantalisingly close so it’s frustrating not to have a clearer understanding of their lives.

Is there a work of art (e.g. novel, painting, music, film, etc) that has influenced you as an archaeologist?

The graphic novel Mezolith by Ben Haggerty and Adam Brockbank and the novel The Gathering Night by Margaret Elphinstone are both wonderful examples of archaeologically informed creative storytelling. I find them really interesting and in some ways inspiring because they occupy this strange ground where they are consumed as fiction but the stories are the product of extensive research in the fields of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology. I’m really interested in the ways different contexts and approaches change the way people consume archaeological images and interpretations and I think a lot can be learned from creative storytelling and fed into the ways we present ‘interpretive reconstruction’ to the public.

What are you working on at the moment?

Finishing and submitting my darned PhD thesis before Christmas!


Thanks Alice! You can read more about Alice’s work on her excellent blog:

Read more Ask an Archaeologist features here: