Ask an Archaeologist: Neil Wilkin

Prehistories is very pleased to have Dr Neil Wilkin, Curator of Bronze Age Collections at the British Museum, take part in Ask an Archaeologist.

Ask an Archaeologist: Neil Wilkin


What is your specialism?

My specialism is the Bronze Age in North West Europe. My PhD was on Early Bronze Age Food Vessel pottery and burial in Northern England and before that I was involved in a project that looked at Beaker burial in North East Scotland. In the course of working at the British Museum, I’ve become increasingly interested in metalwork deposition and hoarding. I’m also keen to bring together different types of evidence (e.g. ceramics, metalwork, typology and strands of context) that have often been studied in isolation in order to produce more joined-up accounts of the period.

Why did you become an archaeologist?

I was surrounded by archaeology growing up just outside Glasgow. My Dad was keen on buying our house because it was over the Antonine Wall, with a little bit of the foundation layer in the back garden! My primary school was across the road from the Roman baths and my bedroom looked out onto the Roman fort on Castlehill. At University I escaped to prehistory. I was always just as curious about who was beyond the Wall as who built it and Paul Garwood’s lectures and seminars on prehistory really captured my interest.

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

J.R. Mortimer (1825-1911). He excavated an impressive number of Early Bronze Age barrows near his home on the Yorkshire Wolds, many of them containing Food Vessel burials. By the standards of the day he was a good excavator, having a better grasp of recording and stratigraphy than many of his contemporaries. He was clearly passionate about archaeology from a young age and sacrificed a great deal in pursuing it. In a very good biography, Stephen Harrison makes a case that ‘had Mortimer lived and worked on the chalkland of southern England…he would have been celebrated today as the founding father of modern British archaeology’ (2011, 2), I think he’s certainly up there and deserves wider recognition. It would be good to tell him that.

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

I would have to say ‘museum’! But with the MicroPasts project, a collaboration between the British Museum and the Institute of Archaeology (UCL) underpinned by public participation (see, we’re trying to show that Museum objects, archives and computers (specifically 3D models) can be brought together in useful and productive ways. This has involved digitising and transcribing the National Bronze Age Index, a large, traditional
card-based archive and making models of Bronze Age tools and weapons using structure from motion photogrammetry. It feels like the past and future of museum object recording can be brought together.

3. MicroPasts
What is your dream find?

The most iconic objects in museums tend to be those without parallel, with ‘the’ before their names (the Nebra sky disc, the Folkton drums and the Mold Gold Cape), and that’s both a blessing and curse. I’d like to find a close parallel for something we previously thought was unique and which we have many questions about, something deserving of
‘the’ in the title! The comparison and context would hopefully deepen our understanding without stealing the original object’s intrigue. Perhaps another cape of gold?
4. Mold Gold Cape

Time travel, yes or no? (Give reasons)

No, thank you. I had a quite heated debate about this question on a dig in Shetland and I think its quite a telling one…

I enjoy the difficulty of the task and the lack of certainty in studying prehistory, I think the process constantly humbles us and that that’s an important part of its value as a discipline.

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

Naturally the Bronze Age, especially the early Beaker period (c.2400 BC), with the new ideas, technologies and people shaking up the old world order, but perhaps that’s a bit predictable? I’d like to see Victorian Scotland and specifically Glasgow during the lead up to the International Exhibition of 1901, which established the Kelvingrove
Art Gallery and Museum. Glasgow has lots of beautiful buildings and monuments from this period and from the Georgian era, but they’re often overlooked, even by its inhabitants. Alasdair Gray’s observations in ‘Lanark’ (1981) captures the tension:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city…Why do we hardly ever notice that?…Because nobody imagines living here…think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films.  But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively…when our imagination needs exercise we use these to visit London, Paris, Rome under the Caesars, the American West at the turn of the century, anywhere but here and now. Imaginatively Glasgow exists as a music-hall song and a few bad novels. That’s all we’ve given to the world outside. It’s all we’ve given to ourselves.”

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

Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s novel ‘Sunset Song’, for the tensions and balance between land and soil on one hand and ideas and education on the other. I also think some of the aspects of the farming lifestyle that are lamented as passing away (as agricultural machinery was introduced) would have been recognised by Bronze Age communities in North East Scotland, so it relates a really epochal moment. It also captures the conflict between fieldwork and academic writing that archaeologists experience.

“So that was Chris and her reading and schooling, two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.” (Grassic Gibbon 1932)

When I recently revisited Cyril Fox’s seminal archaeological work, ‘The Personality of Britain’, I realised the two books were published in the same year (1932), and while they differ in important ways, they also convey some similar themes and beliefs about the relationships between land and people.

What are you working on at the moment?

In addition to the MicroPasts project mentioned before, I’m working on publishing the PhD thesis on Northern English Early Bronze Age Food Vessel burials. I’m also working towards an integrated study of Bronze Age metalwork deposition and hoards. The Treasure Act component of my job also means that, come Monday, I could be working on a new hoard that’s recently been found and that inevitably takes me off in new and unexpected directions…

5. Hoard


Many thanks to Neil for taking part!

Make sure you check out the MicroPasts website.

Click on the link to read other Ask an Archaeologist features.

Dr H

Folklore Fridays: Torhousekie Cairn

Torhouse Stone Circle

Tourhouse Stone Circle, Photo by Gordon Hatton

Folklore Fridays return with the tale of Torhouskie Cairn (Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland).

Grinsell highlights this site as one example of how locals believed that disturbing archaeological remains also disturbed the ancient spirits that dwelt in them.

During the 19th century the cist slab from one of the cairns close to the Tourhouse Stone Circle (pictured) was removed and used to cover a water conduit. Following the slab’s reuse, numerous people claimed to have seen a light moving in the darkness, travelling from the cairn – along the route the slab had been taken – to its new resting place. Locals were then afraid to disturb or open any more tombs. However, subsequent generations seem to have been less fearful, as the RCAHMS website notes that very little remains of the cairn as “most of it has been removed to build walls”.

The stone circle itself is also associated with a piece of folklore, with the three largest stones being referred to as King Gauldus’s Tomb – this association going back to 1672. King Gauldus, or Galdus is a mythical Scottish King, who is allegedly also buried at  Cairn Holy II (also in Dumfries and Galloway).

The Historic Scotland website notes that the Torhouse stone circle is of Bronze Age date and is somewhat out of place in SW Scotland, having more in common with the recumbent stone circles of NE Scotland.