Cymraeg

This blog is about fossils whose beautiful patterns have intrigued us for as long as we’ve been human. These animals survived the evolutionary power struggles of the past to leave their relatives in today’s oceans. They are the Sea Urchins, or to give them their scientific name, the Family Echinoidea - Echinoids to their friends.

A ‘Hedgehog’ by name, but not by nature

Their name comes from the Greek ‘Echinus’, meaning Hedgehog, because of their spines. People in the Middle Ages had the idea that each kind of land animal had a matching version living in the sea; sea-horses, sea-cows, and so on. So the spiky Echinoid was naturally called a Sea-Hedgehog. This might sound daft today, but we still call the Echinoids’ cousins “Starfish” though we know they’re nothing to do with fish at all !

Like little armoured aliens

The bodies of echinoids are really strange, almost like something from science-fiction. Being covered in massive spiny stilts you can walk on is weird enough, but inside their box of a shell they’re even more peculiar. They have a multi-purpose organ called the water vascular system. It’s a central bag of fluid connected to five lobes which lead to many tiny tubes coming out through pores in the shell. These are its tube-feet. It can move them around by changing the pressure inside the bag. They’re very handy for dragging itself along the sea floor, sensing the surroundings, and for getting food to its mouth. Some burrowing echinoids can even stick a tube foot up above the sand to get oxygen from the water.

Their basic body plan has proved to be very well adapted to a life of sea-bed scavenging. They move along like armoured tanks eating up whatever they can find; mostly algae, but their set of five toothed jaws can deal with a varied diet.

Cherished by the Ancients

The beautiful shells of echinoids have fascinated humans for a very long time indeed, maybe because they’re so different from other animals on the planet. Most animals have just one line of symmetry and an even number of limbs. But echinoids and their cousins the starfish can show star-like five-fold symmetry.

We know that this struck many people in the past. Ken McNamara gives the following two examples in his book “The star-crossed Stone” about the rich folklore of echinoids.

The oldest example of a collected and labelled fossil, is an echinoid with Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on it about 4000 years ago. It was found “in the south of the quarry of Sopdu, by the god’s father Tja-Nefer”. Sopdu was called the god of the morning star - he was a kind of border-guard god, and it’s been suggested that echinoids were important to the Egyptians in some way in their travels to the afterlife.

But human fascination with echinoids stretches back much, much further than that; long enough for the great ice sheets to have advanced and retreated across Britain four times since. About four hundred thousand years ago in what is now Kent, someone chose to make a tool from a flint containing a fossil echinoid. Most flint tools have two cutting edges, but this one may have been left unfinished on purpose. If the maker had chipped the flint to make the other edge, the fossil would have been destroyed. What is amazing is that this person was not a Homo sapiens like you or I, but either a Homo heidelbergensis or a very early Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis). Other humans were collecting fossils before members of our own species left Africa.

Trevor Bailey, Senior Curator – Palaeontology. This blog was adapted from a gallery tour I gave at the National Museum Cardiff.

The word treasure can mean a lot of different things.  In Treasures: Adventure in Archaeology we are able to see the historical treasures that have been uncovered from archaeological excavations over the years.  But while the term can be applied widely to things that are important to us it also has a very technical, and legal, meaning.   

In the past it was not uncommon for people to bury their riches or cherished objects for safekeeping in times of trouble or as part of a ritual offerings.  While some of these buried objects were reclaimed by their owners, others were not.  Hundreds or thousands of years later, these objects have been found while ploughing farmland, building houses or by metal detecting.  There have been laws in England and Wales on how to deal with these discoveries for over a thousand years.  Common law defined treasure as anything made out of gold or silver.  It also had to be hidden with the intention of recovering it at a later time.  It was against the law to not report the discovery of potential treasure to the coroner and those not reporting finds could face fines or imprisonment.  In 1996, the Treasure Act was passed and expanded the range of precious metal objects, and any associated objects, protected.

Medieval coin hoard discovered near Presteigne, Montgomeryshire and subsequently declared ‘Treasure’

Medieval coin hoard discovered near Presteigne, Montgomeryshire and subsequently declared ‘Treasure’

In conjunction with the Treasure Act of 1996, the Portable Antiquities Scheme was implemented.  The aims of the PAS are to record important non-treasure archaeological objects and to highlight the importance of proper reporting of finds by the public.  For archaeologists, information doesn’t just come from an object.  The area where it was found, how it laid in the ground, what other objects were with it and other factors provide vital clues in understanding an object.  When things are accidentally discovered and then removed, that context is lost forever.  The hope is that with the PAS in place, those that come across finds will report them quickly, provide as much of the other contextual clues as possible or, better yet, leave them in-situ (in the ground) and call PAS to help excavate them properly.   

Bronze Age Beaker pottery from Merthyr Mawr

 

For more information on the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, you can visit https://finds.org.uk/treasure.

Women's History Month is deeply rooted in the suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  To highlight the need for equality, it was vital to show the contributions that women had made throughout history and continued to make in current times.  In celebration of Women's History Month, and in conjunction with Treasures: Adventures in Archaeology, we take a look at some of the women who helped shape the discipline of archaeology.

Gertrude Bell was born in County Durham in 1868.  She was educated at home and went on the attend Oxford University where she earned a degree in history.  During a trip to Iran, she fell in love with the history and culture of the Middle East.  Becoming fluent in Arabic and Persian, she travelled extensively throughout the region, many times to places few Europeans had ever been.  During her trips, she would also carry out archaeological surveys of ruins and published several books.  Because of her unparalleled knowledge of the Middle East, when the First World War began she took a job with British Intelligence in the Arab Bureau in Cairo.  While there she worked with fellow adventurer and archaeologist T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).  In the post war years Bell became deeply involved in the formation of Iraq and Jordan as independent nations.  She had a close relationship with King Faisal of Iraq and Syria and in 1922 the new government appointed her Director of Antiquities.  In this role, Bell became a passionate supporter of artefacts remaining in their original countries, not in European collections, and to combat this she wrote the Laws of Excavation, which gave protection to archaeological sites in Iraq, and established the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.   Recently a movie, Queen of the Desert, was made of Bell’s life starring Nicole Kidman. 

Gertrude Bell in Iraq in 1909 age 41

Tessa (Verney) Wheeler was born in Johannesburg in 1893.  The family relocated to England and Tessa read history at University College London.  While there she met her future husband, Mortimer Wheeler, who would become a preeminent archaeologist.  After graduating, Tessa move to Cardiff where her husband had taken up the position of Keeper of Archaeology at the National Museum of Wales.  During their time there, Tessa and Mortimer carried out extensive excavations at Roman sites such as Segontium (Caernarfon) and Y Gaer (Brecon).  Just as they were preparing to begin excavating at Caerleon, Mortimer was appointed Keeper at the London Museum.  Instead of abandoning the project, Tessa took over the excavation.  Early in her career she was often overshadowed by her husband but in later life she was recognised for her fieldwork and the contributions she made to the ‘Wheeler team’.      

Tessa Wheeler at Caerleon amphitheatre

Turkish archaeologist Halet Çambel was a woman of many talents.  Born in Berlin in 1916, she had taken up fencing as a child and became the first Muslim woman to compete in the Olympics as part of the 1936 Turkish fencing team.  She famously declined an invitation to meet Adolph Hitler.  She then attended the Sorbonne in Paris where she read archaeology and the languages of Hittite, Assyrian and Hebrew.  She spent most of her career excavating in Turkey and spent over 50 years working at Karatepe, a Hittite stronghold.  She created the department of Prehistoric Archaeology at Istanbul University and in 2004 was awarded the Prince Claus Award, which is presented to those “whose cultural actions have a positive impact on the development of their societies.”    

A person doesn’t have to be a trained expert to have an impact on archaeology.  Take for example, Edith Pretty.  Born in 1883, Edith’s family saw the value in education, especially education via travel.  Throughout her many travels, she was able to see archaeological excavations in progress.  Her father also had an interest in archaeology and was given permission to excavate a Cistercian Abbey near their home in Cheshire.  Having inherited money, she bought land in Suffolk and moved there with her husband.  The property held several burial mounds which did not appear to have been excavated.  Edith and her husband often wondered what may lie beneath the mounds but Edith wanted any excavations to be done using the most up to date scientific methods.  In 1937, she contacted the Ipswich Museum and requested the mounds be excavated.  Two years later, the largest of the mounds produced one of the most important archaeological finds, the Sutton Hoo burial.  She gifted the finds to the British Museum where they are on display.   

1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo burial ship by Harold John Phillips

These are but a few of the women who have contributed to archaeology.  For more information, please visit http://trowelblazers.com/

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories.

Last year staff from Amgueddfa Cymru held an Explore Your Archive event for the first time. It was held in the Oakdale Institute at St. Fagans: National History Museum. We showcased a selection of documents and photographs relating to Wales and the First World War to coincide with the launch of our First World War online catalogue. You can search the catalogue here.

It was a popular event with adults and a number of school parties excited to see original historic archive material, and discuss their history with the staff who look after these collections. The success of last year’s event means that we are organising another one this year. ‘Discovering Wales: History on Your Doorstep’ will be held over two days on 20-21 November in the main hall of National Museum Cardiff, Cathays Park. This year the theme will be travel and tourism and we will have a selection of archive material from our collections including photographs, film, postcards, letters and notebooks for you to look at and discuss with members of the team who curate, manage and conserve the archive collections. This year we will also have a series of events for children. Children will be able create their own postcard for display in the Main Hall, or can put on their Sherlock hats and help us to identify unknown names and places from the photographic collections! There will also be an Explore Your Archive trail around the museum.

We hope to see you there. You can find out more about the event here.

The Bishop’s Palace at Hereford was once a very grand hall, and as it was built in 1180, offers a rare glimpse at the constructional techniques of the period. Last week, my colleagues and I visited the Palace to see the one giant arched-brace that survives, hidden in the attic.

One of St. Fagans’ latest building projects is the reconstruction of a medieval Royal hall from Rhosyr, near Newborough in Anglesey. This hall was significant because it was one of 22 in Gwynedd owned by Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn ‘the Great’) during the beginning of the 13th century. At the time Princes were peripatetic and would visit each hall in turn, in order to attend to the administrative needs of that region. As this hall now only stands as a ruin, very little evidence survived of its timber-framed roof, and a considerable amount of research has been undertaken in order to provide a representative design for the reconstruction. One potential ‘post-pad’, and areas of differential stone paving was enough evidence to suggest the existence of two rows of timber posts within the great hall at Rhosyr. These divided the space along its length, forming a central ‘knave’ and an ‘aisle’ on either side. Rows of tall timber posts like these need to be braced together to ensure their rigidity, and hence the reason for our visit to Hereford. The curved arch is almost as impressive today as it must have been when it was built. We plan on replicating this framing technique by joining our posts with similar, if smaller, arched-braces. Together they will form strong ‘arcades’ on which our roof rafters can rest.

The 1168 work was finished to a very high standard, as you can see from the ornately carved capitals and the studding along the upper edge of the brace. The timber is also of some note, as today such large diameters are only to be found in the dreams of woodworkers. For instance, each half of the brace is made from a single long curving trunk, which would be an exceptionally rare find these days. Also, the circular column near the base of the arch has been carved from, and is still attached to, the same trunk as the square post it backs on to - which called for a very wide tree.  A point of note, however, is that although the standard of workmanship is high, its design is somewhat frowned upon. In his book ‘English Historic Carpentry’ (1980) Cecil A. Hewett wrote ‘This is poor carpentry’… ‘The Hereford example is wrought to a high standard, but this quality is expressed only in the skilled cutting of the timber and the degree of ‘fit’ achieved. As illustrated, the jointing is weak and hardly deserves to be called such..’

Although described as ‘bad carpentry’ The Bishop’s Palace has stood for 835 years. Having returned from Hereford, my challenge is to replicate this design for use in our own hall, where 17 of these semi-circular arched braces are required to support Llys Rhosyr’s thatched roof, albeit at a reduced scale. The inclusion of a pair of hidden tennons at the top of the arch will successfully raise the standard of the jointing while crucially, maintaining the look of the original brace.