2013 – Remembering Mick Aston

Remembering Mick Aston


The 2013 Conference of the Council for Independent Archaeologists was held at the Shipham Village Hall, Somerset on Saturday, 21st September 2013.

Shipham Village hall 09


The Conference was originally planned to celebrate the work of Mick Aston, the Leader of the television programme Time Team, who has recently begun a survey of the Village of Winscombe in Somerset, where he has lived for many years.  Winscombe is the next door village and has a splendid modern village hall, and so the conference was held there.

Sadly however, Mick died unexpectedly on 24th June, but his partner and co-worker Teresa Hall and his friend James Bond agreed to step into the breach and introduce the conference in memory of Mick.

James Bond 011The Conference was opened by James Bond (alias Jim Serf) who was one of Mick’s oldest friends.  He said that he first met Mick when they were at Birmingham University together as undergraduates.  Mick came from a humble background: his parents were Harold and Gladys Aston and his father was a cabinet maker, and he said that Mick inherited his talent for handicraft – and indeed his cussedness –  from his father.  They first met in 1964 at Birmingham University:  it was, he said, a time of change.  His year was the last year when the students all wore ties and Mick’s year – a year later was much more bolshie and had begun not to wear ties.    Mick however was already showing his talent for landscape archaeology, going round archaeological sites whenever he could find them on the Ordinance Survey map, and making records of what he found.

Subsequently they began to do post-graduate research and shared a room for a year.  But then Mick got a job with the Oxford Museum service when he also began his broadcasting experience, doing regular broadcasts for Radio Oxford.  He then moved to Somerset as the first Somerset County Archaeologist, where he set up the first Sites and Monuments Records.  At the same time he became entrenched in extra mural teaching, and in 1979 he transferred to Bristol University where he remained until he took early retirement in 2004.

The big change in his life came in 1994 with the launch of Time Team which was to continue for nearly twenty years and which made him into a national figure.  Time Team was a revelation: it was honest; it showed archaeology as it really was with occasional disagreements and frequent disappointments.  To Mick’s chagrin there were some academics who continued to disparage it, saying that you could not possibly do any worthwhile archaeology in just three days.  But the success of the programme proved that they were wrong.  Mick with his stripy pullovers became to his surprise a fashion guru, and despite his constant ill health he continued to be the dominant figure in most of the programmes, with Tim Taylor the other founding figure and Director of the whole project remaining firmly in the background, and off camera.

Above all Mick was a superb field archaeologist.  He and James Bond specialised in doing rapid sketch plans of earthwork sites, indeed James claimed that on one day they did sketch plans of eight deserted medieval villages, and these sketch surveys are now often the only record of the sites concerned.  On his retirement a Festschrift, ‘People and Places’ was to Mick’s surprise presented to him.  His particular interest was in rural settlements in Somerset.  Already Chris Dyer had done a pioneering survey at Hanbury, but Mick wanted to find a similar planed village and he found one at Shapwick, originally laid out by Glastonbury Abbey in the 10th century, and still owned mostly by the Vestey Estate.  After many years work, the project has now come to an end and has been published in several volumes, together with a popular version entitled “Interpreting the English Village”.


Teresa Hall Winscombe Village Survey

Teresa Hall 014Teresa Hall, Mick Aston’s partner and co-worker then explained the origins and progress of the Winscombe Village survey.  Mick had lived in Winscombe for nearly thirty years, and Teresa met him soon after he arrived. However in 2003 Mick had a severe brain embolism from which he recovered but which left him severely depressed, so Teresa moved in with him and helped him to come through and resume his productive career.

Though he had lived in Winscombe for so long, for much of the time he deliberately steered clear of studying the village on his doorstep – he did not want to get involved.  However by 2009 the Shapwick project was coming to an end and he began to turn his attention to Winscombe.  Winscombe in fact proved to be the ideal project, for it was very different from Shapwick and it proved to be an ideal exercise in compare and contrast.  Shapwick was a nucleated village laid out in a ladder pattern along the roads, indeed in many ways it could be considered to be a typical ‘Midland’ village of the type so much studied by medieval archaeologists, but here transported to Somerset.

Winscombe by contrast was not so much a village as a parish consisting of about 20 hamlets set in a pastoral landscape that was very different from Shapwick.  It lies in a fold at the northern end of the Polden Hills with a valley in the middle so that the parish included both hilltop pasture as well fertile arable land in the middle. In plan it is like a large butterfly set on its side, being two tythings joined together, with Winscombe in the south and Sandford in the north.  In the Domesday Book both Shapwick and Winscombe were owned by Glastonbury Abbey,  whose holdings were vast.  But in 1191 the Bishop of Wells acquired Winscombe and held it until 1215.  Then again in 1238 it was given to the Dean and Chapter of Wells and became an important element of the Wells Estate.

The archaeology has proved interesting. The earliest discovery is of a hand axe found on the rugger field, but more mysterious is a Neolithic axe which on examination at Somerset Museum turned out to be not an axe but an adze: even more mysterious, petrological examination suggested that it came from Polynesia.   The records of the local school were examined to see if any master had any interest in Polynesian antiquities,  but then a second Polynesian adze was discovered: evidence for a hitherto unknown Polynesian invasion of Somerset?  A Roman settlement and some skeletons were found at Winds Hill, but the oldest records go back to 975 when the estates of a rich lady called Aelswith, including Winscombe and Sandford came to Glastonbury Abbey.  Subsequently Marion Forbes a local historian of the parish has been tracing the medieval settlement, and Mick was in the process of following the expansion of Winscombe around 1300.  Now Teresa and the team that Mick had built up are continuing his work, digging test pits throughout the village to trace the varied fortunes of the two villages.  Mick’s work continues and his legacy lives on.


The Wolverhampton Archaeology Group

Martin Holland2 027One of the processes that Mick helped to popularise was the use of test pitting, that is digging test pits just one metre square scattered over a wide area to determine the limits of a village.  The technique is often derided by “serious” archaeologists as being too small to give a valid result, but the Wolverhampton Group demonstrated additional uses for test pitting.


As their President, Martin Holland explained, the Wolverhampton Group grew out of as extramural course, but when the course was closed down due to spending restraints, the Group was set up in 2000.  They carry out weekly digs, run monthly meetings in the winter and go on archaeological holidays and since 2001 they have completed thirty one reports on their activities, ranging from Devon to Lincolnshire.  They first came across test pits when Time Team carried out excavations at Bitterley – and they produced some fascinating videos of Mick – and Tim Taylor – explaining test pits, which they have subsequently adapted for use at Himley Hall.

Himley Hall lies in the nearby borough of Dudley where it is one of the prime possessions of the Dudley Borough Council.  Himley was originally a Medieval moated manor house, the home of Lord Dudley, but in 1774 it was rebuilt and the village was relocated and the park land was laid out by Capability Brown.  It flourished exceedingly in the 20th century when it became a regular weekend retreat for royal visitors:   the Prince of Wales and Mrs Wallace were regular visitors and it is reported that a ground floor window was always left open so that the Prince could climb in after his nightly escapades.  After the war it was sold to the National Coal Board and in 1996 it was purchased by the Dudley District Council, providing a venue for weddings, conferences and seminars.

But what is the archaeology of Himley Hall?  Where was the Medieval village, and the church?  Few maps and records had survived and resistivity surveys proved disappointing.  Since the whole area is now a well-used public park, it was not possible to carry out Excavations where the trenches were to be left open overnight, but the Director of excavations, Clive Eastwood, explained how they managed to persuade the local authority to allow them to dig test pits just one metre square which could be dug and back filled in a single day. This has enabled them to locate the position of the church which has already been approximately located on a rather poor early map.  They have found encaustic tiles, painted plaster, stained glass, 11th century pottery, and also four macroliths.  They were well pleased with their use of test pits and recommended their use to other archaeological societies.

Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group

Stephen Eastwood 037The advent of GPS – that is Global Positioning Systems – has presented archaeologists with both an opportunity and a challenge.  Is it possible to use GPS to map archaeological sites?  The GPS systems commonly used are deliberately crippled by the American military which pays for the satellites on which they depend, so they are only really accurate to 3 – 5 metres.  But this quite accurate enough to record archaeological features such as those to be found in the Yorkshire uplands of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale and SWAAG has been pioneering methods of using GPS in such circumstances.

GPS recording systems are available for a couple of hundred pounds – make sure you get one with a stubby protrusion for an external aerial which helps give additional accuracy. But if you walk over an area recording its archaeology, how do you transfer the points recording onto a map?  After considerable experimentation SWAAG has cracked the problem and recorded the results in a book “Landscape Surveying Using Handheld GPS Receivers” by Stephen Eastmead, and published by the American firm Lulu, which also shows how you can use your GPS data as an overlay in Google Earth.  Further details can be found on their website – www.swaag.org – and many members of the conference were extremely interested in using the techniques themselves.


The Tankardstown Copper Mine, Waterford, Ireland


After an excellent lunch provided by the stalwarts of the Shipham Village Hall, Kevin Barton who had come all the way over from Ireland explained his work at the Tankardstown copper mine at Waterford in Ireland.


The Tankardstown copper mine was a pioneering effort to set up a copper mining industry in southern Ireland.  The Mining Company of Ireland was set up in the 1820s; mining engineers and the best mining technology was introduced from Cornwall and a fine mine was set up with a tall chimney and two engine houses, one for a winding engine and one for a pumping engine, both using the same chimney.  However in the 1850s the ore ran out and by the 1870s the operations ran down, though the company still survived until 1890 when it was the subject of a notorious financial scam.


However the chimney and two engine houses still survive as an outstanding monument to early industry in Ireland, and so in 2005 it was chosen to be the flagship project of a Europe Geopark, and €1.7 million was given from the EU into a regional fund to set up the Geopark.  The chimney has been stabilised, the engine houses have been preserved, and a church nearby has been restored as a visitor centre.  A report has been published in the journal of the Mining Heritage Trust.


However many uncertainties remain: the company has been extremely secretive not wanting rivals to steal the secrets of their operations, or in the later days to see the extent of their failure.  Archaeology has therefore been called to the rescue: surveying has been carried out revealing part of the course of the tramway, which took the copper ore to the smelting area three miles away.  Work is continuing and being reported on the website www.arcland.eu


Bidston Community Archaeology

Alan D'Henin 053Alan D’Henin who has just taken on the task of editing the CIA Newsletter then reported on his work with Community Archaeology in Bidston. Bidston Hill is the highest point in the Wirral and a landmark for ships coming into Liverpool.  In 1763 a lighthouse was built there and a flag signalling station which was to signal to the Liverpool Docks the approach of a ship so that dock labour could be arranged.  However little was known about the archaeology of Bidston so Alan D’Henin was determined to do something about it.  After a disastrous experiment with extramural archaeology Alan and some friends went on a training course at Liverpool University, as a result of which they have been carrying out extensive work always taking great care to appeal to the local community.


Their most important work has been on a Mesolithic site at Lunt Meadow, Sefton, where two substantial structures have been discovered, presumably houses and also an area of severe burning from which a radiocarbon date of 5,800 BC has been obtained.  They have been working there for two years with an average of five members a day, and they are pioneering new recording technology to assist in their work.


The Pontefract and District Archaeological Society

Janet McNaught 056The Pontefract and District Archaeological Society is one of the oldest and still one of the most active of local archaeological societies, and one of the sites on which they continue to be active is St Richard’s Friary in Pontefract.  They first excavated here in 1963 long before the days of developer funded archaeology and the excavation was an important milestone in the establishment of the society.  However in 2011 they were able to return to the site which lies adjacent to the Pontefract General Infirmary.

The Infirmary believed that as a hospital they were exempt from the need to obtain planning permission.  The exemption has in fact been removed so when they set out to extend the hospital they gave £10,000 to the local society to excavate the site within ten weeks.  The challenge proved difficult, but nevertheless the society was able to carry out the work with volunteers working continuously throughout the ten weeks, finding the base of the north nave of the Priory Church in 2011, and then in 2012 the line of the southern wall. Several pieces of sculpture were discovered including part of a Purbeck marble sarcophagus and a five bay window with fragments of the painted glass.

Several grisly skeletons were also found: the area lay outside the usual cemetery and thus the burials would all have been abnormal burials and denied burial in consecrated ground.   One of the skeletons had seven vertebrae dragged up into its mouth showing that the victim had been hanged.

The main problem however has proved to be the post-excavation, and writing up all the work, and much of the grant of £10,000 has been devoted to paying for the various outside specialists – for example an analysis of the teeth of the hanged victim was costing £360 to determine whether he was a local villain or had come from a different area.

Bath and Camerton local archaeological society

John Oswin 066An even older society is the Bath and Camerton Society which was founded in 1946 by Bill Wedlake who was Mortimer Wheeler’s foreman on many of his excavations.  The society is now in its third incarnation and is flourishing and devoting much of its energies to doing resistivity surveys with the CIA resistivity meter.  One of the principal sites it has been surveying is the Stanton Drew stone circle.

The Stanton Drew Stone Circle is said to be the third largest stone circle after Avebury and Stonehenge, and was included in the original ‘schedule of ancient monuments’ in 1882.  For long it was curiously neglected,  but in 1996 English Heritage carried out a major survey of the monument and to their amazement discovered that it was surrounded by a bank and ditch making it into a true henge monument.  And that furthermore there were a number of rings of postholes in the interior which presumably had originally contained timber uprights.

John Oswin explained that the Bath and Camerton has been continuing these surveys and have shown the existence of two possible entrances to the surrounding bank and ditch, and also the existence of two possible coves outside the monument.  There is an additional small stone circle lying to the south west, and they have located a further outlier at Hautville’s Quoit.  They have also been producing a panoramic survey of the horizon to search for the skyline values.


Upstanding Archaeology

John Rickard 070The day concluded with a lively presentation by John Rickard of the Somerset Archaeological Society who made the case for the study of what he called upstanding archaeology – the study of vernacular buildings in Somerset.  He argued that the study of vernacular architecture should be considered to be a valuable part in the study of archaeology, and he showed a number of slides of the remarkable and unusual vernacular buildings found in Somerset.


This brought to an end the very successful conference of the Council for Independent Archaeology.  The example of Mick Aston in promoting archaeology was an inspiration to us all.  Mick is best known for presenting archaeology to a wide audience so that today the man in the street knows far more about archaeology than he did before.  But Mick was also a pioneer worker on the local scale, always willing to talk to local societies and setting up and inspiring societies throughout much of Somerset and the south west.  The conference was inspired by him and formed a valuable tribute to his work and inspiration.


3rd October 2013

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