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Avebury Session 7: Alexander Keiller Museum & Collections – 9 March 2018

Photos and text by Shane Faulkner

There was to be a small gap in proceedings, as last week’s Human Henge session was cancelled due to adverse conditions. Initially, Avebury’s surface conditions were deemed too poor and the henge site was closed. Added to this, of course, was the media termed “Beast from the East” that struck our shores and left many areas snowed in. This made for dangerous, and in some areas, impossible driving conditions.

This week, along our way to Avebury, snow still lay around 9 days after it had first fell. Large white drifts were visible in the field margins and on the road sides. On arrival at Avebury, we walked into the henge where, here also, snow still lay about in clumps. At the National Trust buildings we were met by Steve, a volunteer, who let us know our venue for today had changed. We met instead in an old room of the beautiful manor. Everywhere there were low beams, old wood & stone and wonky stairs.

Due to last week’s cancellation we were to have a slightly altered session plan.  Today, we met Laura Drysdale, Human Henge Project Manager, & Dr Ros Cleal, Curator of the Alexander Keiller Museum. Laura & Ros were introduced and Laura talked about the Human Henge Project (After many emails it was a pleasure to finally meet). We then split into two groups either side of the room and partook in a clap along with Yvette. We created some interesting acoustics that resonated between us. Afterwards, one group left with Ros over to the Alexander Keiller Museum, while our group stayed to listen to a talk by Briony on modern (17th century) archaeology.

Briony talked about some investigative work that had been carried out at Avebury Manor during December 2017. One of the rooms ceilings needed repair and in exploring the floor space an opportunity arose to look for finds. Many interesting items were indeed found under the floorboards; the whole room’s floor space having been meticulously mapped and methodically inspected. Around 70 bags of dust were amassed during the exploration as well as the odd dead mouse! Briony discussed with us the preliminary findings mentioning that she is still investigating and interpreting the findings of this room of the house. Briony also mentioned about a very intriguing, and until recently, unknown space found behind two walls within the house. I pondered what secrets & stories might lie hidden behind these walls.

After a while the other group had returned and it was our turn to set off to meet Ros at the Keiller Museum. We walked over to what was the old coachhouse building of the manor and had a brief look around the museum’s exhibits.

From the museum, we climbed some stairs to enter a room built into the roof space of the building. Here, many important local archaeological finds were stored and catalogued. Old dark wood presentation frames, display cases and glass cabinets held an array of pottery, stones and other period treasures. We all put on surgical gloves and listened as Ros talked about pottery finds. We first looked at Neolithic pottery shards collected from Windmill Hill. As seen in the photo below, there have been many examples of vessels discovered.  Looking at all of the styles and patterns was fascinating. People later noted how they enjoyed being able to actually handle the pottery, as opposed to seeing it in books or behind glass. The hands-on learning brought people closer to the past, to the peoples who created this pottery. People started to think how it may have been. What the peoples may have experienced.

We also looked at examples of gabbroic pottery, (as I discussed in the session 2 blog). The speckled appearance of this pottery standing out from the rest of the collections. In regard to this, Ros talked about ‘opening agents’ that are found in gabbroic pottery. Without these agents, water and air gets trapped in the clay causing cracks and breaks when fired. We then looked at the contrast with Beaker pottery, which generally has a paler look, made to perhaps imitate the look of bronze. We discussed how pottery was made and by who. For example, it was noted how pottery making techniques involved forming coils of clay, working upon the last coil as they went. Also, that it may predominantly have been women who created pottery due to social structure. For example, the pottery would have been used for essential domestic uses. A comparison was talked about between bonfire firing compared to oven-type firing. An example of pottery was shown exhibiting the black colouration due to the presence of carbon from high heat. This example of high heat oxidisation occurred when bowls was placed directly within fires. From this, you could then see how the bowls were placed into fires and used from all those years ago. Discussed also, were details such as the diameter of the rims in working out circumference, lug creations used for carrying and artistic design/patterns.

We moved on to look at examples of Neolithic Stone. There were an array of Neolithic stone examples. Many of the stones had smoothed polished areas. Drilled holes were present on some whole stones. A now somewhat faded Jadeite axe butt was shown. This axe was discovered to have travelled all the way from the north Italian Alps via Brittany 6000yrs ago or later. The stone was discovered locally at Beckhamton Avenue. We finished with examples of Germanic lava stones.

Back down the stairs in the museum, we had a longer look around the exhibits. There was a lot to see in the time we had left, so I missed a few things. However, there was a brief history of the archaeology of the complex and examples of finds. There was a skull and a skeleton, models of the henge and how the stones were positioned as well as some examples off flint arrowheads. There was also an exhibit on more modern finds from around the henge. I must come back for a proper look some time.

We headed back to the gallery room for a final fascinating talk from Ros. We all sat around to have a hands on look at many examples of Neolithic scrapers and axeheads found within the Avebury complex. This was a good chance to ask Ros and questions we had about all the finds. On commenting about this week’s session, one member mentioned how they thought it couldn’t get any better than the last session (the night walk) but how this week’s session indeed had been. As with other weeks, I had to leave early but others stayed to have lunch and a chat.

Next Week: Double Session with clay, music and equinoxes!

The Restoration Trust Digital Annual Report 2017

The Restoration Trust, who run Human Henge, have collaborated with digital storytelling agency Muddle Up and Medway-based social enterprise futureCodersSE to create an inclusive annual report, A Year of People Doing and Making.

The report features information about Human Henge as well as the other projects run by the Restoration Trust.

See the report here – http://ar.restorationtrust.org.uk/

Find out more about how the annual report was made here – https://restorationtrust.org.uk/2017/09/05/annual-report-2017/