London Before London and DNA

Photo of the Petrous part of the temporal bone

I have just given a guided walk and a virtual tour of London in the prehistoric period. I rashly promised, as follow-up, a booklist. I have many books that I have found pivotal in shaping my own opinions, but I find myself very reluctant to recommend them in the light of the remarkable new, and recent, DNA discoveries.

The cause of this ‘revolution’ is the Petrous Bone – a small bone in/near the ear from which scientists can extract, without too much damage to ancient skeletons, a reliable source of ancient DNA. Previous studies were done on modern DNA and extrapolating backwards. Now, archaeologists can, relatively cheaply, investigate (and often debunk) archaeological theories about the spread of human cultures.

It is a salutary story. Early archaeologists had, what you might call, a colonial, diffusionist model of the past. So when a new culture was identified, normally on the back of the arrival of a new form of pottery. It was interpreted as being spread by diffusion, normally from the ‘civilised’ fertile crescent to barbaric pre-literate Europe. Hence, Stonehenge was thought to be built by a prince from Mycenae, on the basis of the Lion Gate in Mycenae having vague similarities with the Trilithons at Stonehenge (and other diffused cultural markers). And with a viewpoint, that the uncivilised Britons would not be able to build something so amazing!

Archaeologists in the 1970s rejected this imperialist model and preferred to think that cultures need not depend on advances from their betters, nor should ‘invasion’ be allowed to be the main means of technical and cultural advancement. The advent of Radio Carbon Dating profoundly affected how the past was dated, and showed that diffusionist chronologies, often, did not stand up. And thus Stonehenge was freed from cultural imperialism, and we Brits could take all the credit. And Prehistory lost a whole host of ‘invasions’ and ‘migrations’, and a start was also made on diminishing the centrality of the ‘invasions’ at the core of the Anglo/Saxon/Viking migrations into Briton.

Along comes the petrous bone and the development of the study of Ancient DNA, and we discover, in the last couple of years, that:

  1. The ancestors of Britons were dark to black skinned
  2. Farming was indeed introduced from the Continent, around 4000BC and the DNA of the UK was largely (but not completely) replaced by incomers. So it was not the Mesolithic hunter gathers who adopted farming but the ‘Western Neolithic’ people who settled bringing in sheep, cows, goats, pigs, wheat, oats, rye, barley, polished axes and pottery.
  3. The Beaker Folk, DNA now tells us, came from abroad around 2,500 BC. Originally from the Steppes via the Netherlands, and their DNA replaced all but 10% of the Western Neolithic DNA. This happened at about the same time as Stonehenge was remodelled with the giant Trilithons.
  4. Another influx of people from around 1300BC to 800BC replaced around 50% of the DNA of Britain.

So we now have at least 3 major population replacements before the coming of the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. Very annoying to find that those old-fashioned imperial archaeologists of the early 20th Century had it more correct than the enlightened archaeologists of the Late 20th Century.

London before the Romans
View of London from the SE as it might have looked before the Roman Invasion

So to my book list. Firstly, you will have noted above that I have linked the stories to reliable websites, so you can get further information. Here are a few other important websites:

Neolithic Houses at the Horton site at the Wessex archaeology site

Archaeology of Heathrow Terminal 5 https://framearch.co.uk/

Bronze Age Bridges at Dorney: https://heritageportal.buckinghamshire.gov.uk

Vauxhall Mesolithic and Bronze Ages Structures: https://www.vauxhallandkennington.org.uk/

Principle Place Feasting Site?: https://www.independent.co.uk/

Hill forts in the London Area: https://hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk/

As to books, I suggest the best start is to read Mike Parker Pearson’s ‘Stonehenge A Brief History, Bloomsbury Academic 2023’ because it is up-to-date and Pearson has considered the DNA studies noted above.

For similar reasons and for a more general introduction to Britain in the Prehistoric period, you could try:

Roberts, Alice ‘Ancestors: A Prehistory Of Britain In Seven Burials ‘ Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd 2022

which has good reviews, but I have not yet read it.

I know that neither is about London, but the only ‘book’ on Prehistoric London I have is:

Merriman, N ‘Prehistoric London’ Museum Of London, 1991

And this is more of a booklet than a full academic book. There is another book, but then it was published in 1914:

Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles / by E.O. Gordon ; with appendices by John Griffith. Volume c.1 1914

For the period just before the Roman Invasion, I would highly recommend reading Julius Caesar’s opinions on Prehistoric Britain.

Caesar, Julius (ed Anne & Peter Wiseman). ‘The Battle For Gaul’ Chatto And Windus Ltd, London 1989

Peter Wiseman was my Professor at University, and it is an excellent introduction, still available new but also cheaply second hand at Abebooks.

You will find some interesting, relevant passages in my book:

Flude, Kevin ‘In Their Own Words – A Literary Companion To The Origins Of London’ D A Horizons, 2009

You can buy a hardback copy from me for £5 plus postage (email me, kpflude@chr.org.uk) or from Amazon in a Kindle version.

I will add more as I find them!

Cover of Kevin Flude's 'In their Own Words'
A Literary Companion to the origins of London

March 20th Spring Equinox

Video by Heike Herbert of Druids at the Spring Equinox at Tower Hill, London

So, Spring has sprung. We are 20 days into the meteorological Spring (started 1 March) and now starting the astronomical or solar Spring. The 20th of March is the Spring Equinox, or Vernal Equinox, half way between the Winter Solstice and the Summer Solstice. The sun has been rising further north each day since December 21st, and it now rises due East, and sets due West, The day and night are roughly equal in length although by no means exactly.

The term vernal comes from the Latin for Spring, and today is the primavera, the first day of Spring. The Anglo-Saxons originally used the word lencthen (Lent) for Spring, but later adopted the idea of the springing of the year when the plants bud. In Middle English the word Spring was also used for sunrise, the waxing of the moon, the rising tides (spring tides) as well as sprouting of the beard and the first appearance of pubic hair!

Up to the 15th Century the English also used the french term ‘prime-temps’ in the sense of ‘first times’. This follows the idea that the year is young, while Winter represents old age. As we shall see, on March 25th, there was also a belief that the world was created in Spring at what became the Equinox (after God created it!), and Jesus was also conceived at this point of the annual cycle.

Zodiacally, if that is a word, Spring is Aries (brave and impulsive); Taurus (sensual and stubborn), and Gemini (dynamic and talented).

Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert
Druids at the Spring Equinox Tower Hill London, Photo by Heike Herbert

The modern druids have been out at their annual Spring Equinox festival at Tower Hill. I have a picture of this from many years ago when I last attended, but, Heike Herbert, who seems to be always travelling around the world, was in the UK for long enough to attend the Druid Festival and has kindly let me use photos for this post. When I last went to the ceremony I remember noting, with some distaste, that the druid costumes seemed to be made with nylon sheets, and their footware was mostly plimsolls. I see the nylon has at least been replaced with cotton, and the plimsolls with trainers. Not quite sure what that pair of black trainers are doing in the picture!

I say modern druids because there is no convincing evidence that the modern fellowships of Druids can trace their origins back to prehistory. Druidry was reinvented in the 18th Century – for example the Ancient Order of Druids was formed in 1781. They were set up as societies in the tradition of the freemasons and with a belief in the fundamental importance of nature.

As to when the Equinox first had importance for human society, the answer is, probably, at least as long as we have been reasoning creatures. On January 24th I draw attention to a recent discover suggesting evidence for a Palaeolithic Calendar. This is what I wrote:

But recently, evidence of a Palaeolithic Calendar has been uncovered by an ‘amateur’ studying markings in cave paintings at Lascaux, Altamira and other caves. Furniture maker Ben Bacon has collaborated with Professors at UCL and Durham and interpreted markings which suggest the use of a lunar calendar to mark the time of the year when particular animals gave birth. A Y shaped mark is interpreted as meaning ‘giving birth’ and the number of dots or dashes drawn by or in the outline of the animal or fish has been shown to coincide with the time of the year that the wild creature gives birth. For further details follow this link: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/

At Stonehenge, in the old Car Park they found three huge Pine postholes in a line, erected in the Mesolithic period. They align to the direction of the Mid Summer Sunrise and Mid Winter Sunset (NNE/SSW) IF and its a big if, you were sighting from Stonehenge itself which was built some 5000 years in the future. It is a bit of a stretch using two pieces of evidence so far apart in time but recent excavations have revealed that there are, on the Stonehenge site, natural periglacial striations in the soft chalk bedrock which themselves point to the Solstices. These not only predate Stonehenge but also the three post holes, and may well have been visible from the time they were created when the glaciers melted.

As I’m on a train to Amsterdam with no internet I’m using dates from my memory which are roughly right but not as accurate as they might be. Around 12,000 years ago the climate changed and the glaciers melted. This left a lot of water rushing around the landscape and at Stonehenge, it gouged out striations in the chalk. By chance, or as ordered by the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature, the striations pointed to the Solstice Axis, just at a place where the Gods/Goddesses/Divine Nature provided super-abundance in the guise of herds of Aurochs, which are huge wild cows. Richard Jacques excavations in the vicinity of Stonehenge have revealed that the aurochs came to the Stonehenge area for grazing and water. Each one had enough meat on them to feed 200 people. So, by 8,000 BC we have what might constitute proof of recognition of the significance of the major movements of the Sun.

This is confirmed by the alignment of many megalithic monuments dating from 3,600 BC onwards, including, of course, Stonehenge. Also all around the UK are long barrows and other burial mounds, many of which are indeed sighted/sited E-W to the Equinoxes. Many are fairly approximate, but at Loughcrew, County Meath in Ireland the Vernal Equinox shines right into the burial chamber, onto a stone marked by stone carvings. Similar alignments are recorded at Knowth and Dowth in the Boyne Valley.

The Equinox also has another role which is to be the anchor of the cardinal points – North, South, East, West, when there is a harmony, a balance in the world, and therefore a fortunate, a lucky time, a time to fall in love or undertake notable undertakings. Of course, as the Christian world awaits the commemoration of the death of the Messiah, marriage has to wait a little longer.

There are also two versions of the cardinal points too: there are the geographic and the magnetic cardinal points. The magnetic cardinal points wander – magnet North does not always point North, the earth has sometimes had magnet reversals when the north pole has pointed in different directions including south.

My first proper job after university was as an technician then research assistant at Oxford University studying this phenomena. I say ‘proper’ because when I left University, I became an itinerant archaeologist, digging in Switzerland, Northampton, East Anglia and Nottingham before I got the job at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, Keble College Oxford. Working with Dr. Mike Barbetti who was an expert on the wanderings of the Magnetic Pole. His interest was firstly in the pure science of the subject, but he was keen to explore the applied uses of the science to Archaeology as well So, after being appointed as a Research Fellow at Oxford he set up an epic journey from his native Australia to Oxford that went via some of the iconic sites of Palaeolithic Archaeology, such as Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, site of excavations by Mary and Louis Leakey.

In order to plot the movements of the magnetic north, scientists needed dated samples, and early human sites were some of the best dated sites. Also, archaeomagnetism, as the discipline became known, offered the possibility of dating sites. Also to determine whether deposits were fired or not. One of the sites Mike sampled was a candidate for the first evidence of fire in human existence.

As I said, Mike’s interest was discovering how the magnetic field of the earth changed over time, and, more importantly, what was the mechanism. He shipped back to Oxford samples of soil cast in plaster of paris. My job was to cut the samples up and to measure the strength and direction of the magnetic field in the samples. I cut them up with an electic saw in a shed in the backyard of the Laboratory, and then we used a mini-computer to measure the direction and intensity of the magnetic field in the samples. Soil contains particles of iron, and they align randomly so a sample of soil has a low magnetic intensity and a random direction of magnetic field. But once heated up, the iron particles align to the current direction of the magnetic pole and its intensity is proportional to the intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field and so provided a method of plotting the changes of the magnetic field. And from this data models could be constructed explaining how the iron in the earth’s core worked as a giant magnet.

We could tell if a sample of soil had been heated by fire and once we had built that reference curve for the movements of the direction of the magnetic poll and the changing intensity of the magnetic pole we might be able to develop another dating method to rival radio carbon, thermoluminescence and tree ring dating all of which were being developed at the Research Laboratory in Oxford.

Having got the results I then typed them up onto machine readable cards, took them to the Oxford University Computer Centre with a copy on cards of the programme written in Fortran, and gave them to the Computing Staff. They were run through the Centre’s mainframe computer which was probably an IBM or ICL computer, and 24 hours later I received a print out to proof read. When I located mistakes, I ran an editing run of punched cards essentially instructing the computer: ‘ on card two replace 2.5 with 2.6, and run the programme again’. I would pick up the results 24 hour hours later.

It seems extraordinaryily primative now but then it was an enormous saying of time. And that, patient reader, was my early contribution to Digital Heritage and pure science. We published at least three articles in the prestigious Science Journal Nature. And it is slightly annoying that my citations in the groves of academia are still dominated by articles I co-wrote in the late 1970s!

The work was important in the development of the study of the earth’s magentic field. However the use of archaeomagnetism in archaeology has never risen above strictly limited. Occassionally, in specific circumstances, it can be useful, but those circumstances tend to be times when no other methods came up with the goods and most often in attempting to date kilns.

Upton Lovell Shaman becomes a Goldsmith

‘Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial’

Upton lovell 'shaman' display wiltshire museum
Screenshot from Wiltshire Museum web site

The journal Antiquity reports amazing discoveries in a paper called : Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial and citing that the paper is

‘advancing a new materialist approach, we identify a goldworking toolkit, linking gold, stone and copper objects within a chaîne opératoire,

Setting aside what ‘new materialism’ and ‘chaîne opératoire’ are for the moment. Briefly, their analysis of the objects found in the Bronze Age burial of two people evidence that the person(s) identified as a ‘shaman’ on the basis of clothing/jewellery was (as well?) a gold worker. What is amazing is that they were using Neolithic axes which would have been hundreds of years old to make gold sheets. There was also evidence interpreted as tattooing instruments. As Upton Lovell is 12 miles from Stonehenge it means this is big news in the archaeological world, making most of the newspapers.

The authors dig deeper into the meaning of ‘New materialism’:

‘This approach advances on traditional technological studies in two ways. First, whereas materials are usually approached as having fixed properties, new materialists argue that these properties emerge relationally; they change through time and in combination with other materials, people and places (cf. Barad Reference Barad2007; Bennett Reference Bennett2010). Second, ‘making’ is seen not as the simple imposition of the will of a maker on an inert material but, instead, materials play an active role in the process.’

Widipedia gives a definition of chaîne opératoire

To put it more simply objects have complicated histories and contexts. You might also like to look at the original article (link below) which is written in a very strange style which gives the objects agency ‘an active role in the process’. Below is the conclusions of the article.

Conclusions

Drawing on microwear, residue analysis and new materialist theory, we have reassessed the Upton Lovell G2a grave assemblage. The empirical techniques attend to the materials, which are reinvigorated by situating them within this emergent theoretical landscape. These approaches reveal how the grave goods disclose an intertwining set of processes. Never static, these objects changed and shifted, requiring modification, repair and reuse. They speak to a complex interweaving of bodies—human and non-human—and their varied histories. There is far more complexity here, in relations, histories, gestures and processes, than could ever be captured under the label ‘shaman’, ‘metalworker’ or ‘goldsmith’. Grave goods are more than representations of a person’s identity. They are more even than critical relations in the construction of identity (cf. Brück Reference Brück2019). What these grave goods stress, when attention is paid to their stories, is quite different. They speak of material journeys, the colour of stone and the texture of gold capturing relations that flow across landscapes. Collectively, as an assemblage, these stone tools reveal a process of goldworking. But this goldworking involves as much the working of stone, in the shaping and upkeep of tools, as it does of metal. Here, we emphasise the repetitive and iterative nature of our chaîne opératoire, each action calling into being further moments of renewal of the polished stone surfaces so essential to the qualities other materials elicited. This goldworking chaîne opératoire is multi-material; it is as much a process in stone working as it is in the working of metal. From this perspective, the similarities in processing and working gold and stone mean that the former emerges as far more like the latter than our modern taxonomies would suggest.’

Materials in movement: gold and stone in process in the Upton Lovell G2a burial

If we analyse this conclusion based on the literary idea of ‘Point of View‘ you will see that the POV of the piece above is just bonkers. There is the ‘we’ of the authors, and the ‘they’ of the objects. ‘They’ are speaking to ‘bodies – human and non-human’. ‘They’ even have the ability to ‘stress’ an issue once ‘attention is paid to their stories’ and to be ‘reinvigorated’.

But its a very interesting find and analysis and does remind us that things are much more complicated than we realise.

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here:

I have republished my post of the Chinese New Year which you can see here: