Stonehenge, shallow graves and shoes as rare as gold: 24 amazing archaeology stories of 2015

By Ben Miller | 26 December 2015

Facial reconstructions, elaborate burials, martyrs and Shakespeare's oven all played their part in the year in archaeology. Here are 24 of our most popular stories of 2015

Head of Richard III reconstructed in four-hour operation

A photo of the reconstructed head of a king with blue eyes and blond hair
The new-look Richard III© King Richard III Visitor Centre
It took four hours for Professor Caroline Wilkinson, of Liverpool John Moores University, to rework the head of King Richard III. Basing her nimble touches upon the test results produced by the experts who were instrumental in identifying the King’s body in Leicester, Professor Wilkinson’s more accurate rendition gave Richard eyebrows, eyelashes and golden hair, including the removal of his eyes to replace them with lighter glass ones. The ensuing debate in our comments section ranged from those who believed that Richard had darker or curly hair to one person who fancied the king, rating his looks as “10/10”.


“Extraordinary testimony” of a Bronze Age Flag Fen settlement destroyed by fire

A photo of a set of stones and an ancient pot at a wetland archaeological site
Archaeologists found food from between 800-1000 BC in a set of pots, textiles and other material at a Cambridgeshire settlement destroyed by fire during the Bronze Age© Cambridge Archaeological Unit
A charred pot full of vitrified food pointed to a swift abandonment of this huge Bronze Age site, believed to have been destroyed by fire 3,000 years ago. As disastrous as the settlement’s collapse into a river must have seemed at the time, it ensured a well-preserved picture of living for 21st century archaeologists to reassemble, including pots, jars, glass beads and scraps of ancient food – use-by dates not required.


Butchers, mosaics and central heating: The vast Roman villa found during roadwork

An overhead photo of a brownfield archaeological site
Charcoal deposits were found in a stokehole in the north-east corner of the heated room at Aiskew© Prospect Archaeology
Initially sized up in November 2014, the earthy Aiskew Roman villa surfaced during exploration work preparing for a new bypass near the North Yorkshire village of Bedale. Everything from mosaic sections and robbed masonry walls to butcher knives and a sophisticated central heating system turned up. Evidence of metalworking and barley and wheat grains were also found.


The skeleton woman who was the latest early medieval burial found in Wales

A photo of a skeleton through an opening in a floor
The skeleton of a woman in her 60s, found in Nefyn, is thought to be the latest known early medieval burial in Wales© CR Archaeology
The lady in this grave – the last burial of its kind in Wales, dating from the late 12th or early 13th century – would have lived through turbulent times, witnessing the rise to power of Llywelyn. Lifting the cover of a stone-built cist on a church site, archaeologists allowed osteologists to investigate the bones, with the results suggesting that she was in her 60s and suffering from arthritis. She could have been a local resident or a pilgrim travelling to the Christian pilgrimage spot of Bardsey Island, and a metre-wide wall, thought to have been part of a medieval monastic settlement, offered a further religious link.


The lucky discovery of 2,000-year-old Roman god in Yorkshire – or is it a gladiator?

A photo of a small dark grey and green sculpture of a roman god
© PAS
There was a curious timeliness to metal detectorist Dave Cooper’s discovery of a 2,000-year-old figurine of Mercury in a Yorkshire field. Rebecca Griffiths, of the archaeology-loving York Museums Trust, registered the find on the day of the festival of Mercury, making it the 1,000th officially recorded find of the year in the county. “It honestly was pure coincidence,” she remarked. “To me it looks like a gladiator with a spiked glove,” contested one commenter, citing a 2nd century French mosaic named on Wikipedia.


Murdered 6th century men and women found in 1970s Edinburgh

A photo of the reconstructed face of a 6th century woman found at a crypt in Edinburgh
Female, aged 26-35 (died 430-550 AD). Isotopic analysis reveals she grew up locally and spent her final years in and around Cramond, but there is lack of evidence as to her cause of death. Forensics reveal poor teeth and an iron deficiency© Hayley Fisher
These reconstructions were very specific. Found in a mass burial beneath an Edinburgh car park in 1975, they included a young male whose eye cuts could have made him a warrior fighter, and a woman who could have been as young as 18 with an injury to the side of her head which would have left her brain exposed. As you might deduce, these 6th century people met apparently violent demises, and at least two generations of the same family were involved. Mystery surrounds their migration and differing forms of burial, but one reader felt sure that they were once “very attractive”.


Blackened medieval shoes – but pure gold for archaeologists

A photo of a pair of ancient black medieval shoes
Archaeologists followed the footsteps of historic communities in Oxford© Oxford Archaeology
An extreme example or 50 of retro fashion in Oxford, where dozens of medieval shoes, a complete leather bag and an enviably well-carved wooden bowl had been preserved by the Thames floodplain. Experts were able to examine the stitching and leather of the bag, forming part of a haul revealing much about everyday life 700 years ago. “These finds are as rare as gold and often as informative,” said Ben Ford, of Oxford Archaeology. “It’s amazing to think these shoes were worn by people who walked the streets.”


A two metre tall warrior and adolescent girl buried with knives and a shield during the 6th century

A photo of two human skeletons being excavated from a brown pit at a Roman villa site in Northamptonshire
The two graves - the male, with shield boss still in-situ, is to the right© CLASP
This community dig had real heart to it, finding the well-preserved boss of a warrior who had fallen on his shield. Discovered in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery where nine graves were first identified ten years ago, his grave contained a personal knife – as did the coffin of the teenage girl who was also found at the Northamptonshire spot. CLASP, the group who searched for them, organised a reburial ceremony with replica items. “You’ve got to do something,” said project leader David Hayward. “I think it was proper to treat them respectfully.”


A shallow Civil War grave containing a woman buried with a shilling on her eye

A photo of a skeleton in a brown mud and sand grave
© Oxford Archaeology
There were a few intriguing clauses to this discovery: the college grounds where the skeleton of a young 17th century woman was found had been used for gardening, according to maps, rather than a cemetery, and a silver shilling had been placed over one of her eyes. The coin could suggest she was from a well-off family, minted in 1640 or 1641 and left to rest near her shoulder once it had fallen from her eye. Readers commented on her unusual positioning, pondering whether she died in her sleep. There was even a suggestion that she had been executed for witchcraft, with her eyes covered to protect her accusers.


A landscape of prehistoric sites and the grounds of Lady Jane Grey’s house

A photo of rocks on grassland under a blue sky
© Andrew Norman / Wikipedia
Set near Leicester, archaeologists said this section of upland, positioned within an 850-acre deer park, is “as good as it gets”. Bradgate Park could span all the way back to the Ice Age. Palaeolithic features have already been found, and later features include a substantial block built at speed to house 100 horses ahead of a visit from King William III in 1696. “Excellent to see our park in the news,” wrote one reader who lives opposite it. “We spoke to one of the academics leading the dig when we were walking there. Fascinating stuff.”


Three surprise crouched skeletons which were the first of their kind in Dorset

A photo of sections of archaeological bone from the Iron or Bronze Age found at Long Bredy in Dorset
© Martin Papworth
Aged between 18 and 25 and discovered by surprised National Trust staff in the village of Long Bredy, between Dorchester and Bridport, these people came from the first period of iron being used in England. They were buried between 800 and 600 BC near the site where an 18th century cottage now stands. Martin Papworth, an archaeologist for the trust, said the remains probably offered further evidence of the nearby roundhouse settlements.


A devotional panel remembering an earl executed as a martyr during early 14th century unrest
 
A photo of a female curator holding a tiny silver gate-designed relic with white gloves
The Thomas, Earl of Lancaster medieval panel was found on the banks of the Thames© Museum of London
Thomas, Earl of Lancaster was a baron intent on seizing power from Edward II. His dastardly plan only led to execution as a martyr in 1322, with his mourners circling his grave. Mass-produced at the time, this devotional panel carried a number of foreboding messages which might give you cause for concern about the embattled Earl – “I am judged”, “I am taken prison”, “I am under threat” and “mort” among them. Museum of London Archaeology had the wet conditions of the waterfront to thank for the artefact’s excellent condition.


The continuing mystery of Britain’s spongy oldest brain

A close up photo of a brain
The valuable tissue matter of Britain's oldest brain© York Archaeological Trust
Archaeologists who cut into this skull were surprised to find a quantity of bright yellow, spongy brain material, its tissue preserved long after the skin, hair and flesh had gone. The pit it was found in, near York, provided a wet, oxygen free environment of sheltering clay, although little protection had been given to the individual, who died at the age of 26 to 45 when he was executed with a sharp knife during the 6th century. Responding in our comments section, Terry O’Connor, of the University of York, explained that understanding the chemistry and survival of the brain was the greatest challenge, praising the York Archaeological Trust’s Rachel Cubitt for finding it. Other readers wished they could tap into the memory section of the prehistoric brain.


An abandoned water tank surrounded by Roman roads in the north-east

A Roman finger ring found at Vindolanda© Vindolanda Trust
Vindolanda, the mighty Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, is a year-round production line of impressive archaeology. A free-standing tank from a temple and a carving of a hare and hound, probably made in honour of Diana, the goddess of hunting, were the highlights for archaeologists in another series of excavations for experts in Hexham in May. Bad weather didn’t stop them from finding pottery, roman coins and the first copper lock barrel found at the site in 34 years.


The spoils of a vast ditch, ancient houses and gardens and Roman defences in the City of London

A photo of a dark Georgian artefact within a light brown archaeological trench
© Urban Archaeology
A diverse range of artefacts surfaced at 100 Minories, where archaeologists dug eight metres into the ground before putting their finds in a pop-up museum. A pair of metal shears were described as “beautifully preserved”, while a Wedgewood lion recalled the Georgian buildings built there during the 1760s. Leather shoes once worn by children, metal rivets and a lobster claw were also discovered. Visit http://100minories.lparchaeology.com/ for the latest.

The Stonehenge super-henge and the origins of the stones across the border

A photo of people on tractors going across archaeological fields at Stonehenge
© Geert Verhoeven (LBI for Archaeological Prospection & Virtual Archaeology)
Many of this year’s finds have made the story of Stonehenge seem as irreducibly complex as ever. But the usual abundance of tantalising clues have surfaced: a nearby “super-henge” of 90 standing stones, detected through ground-penetrating radar technology, was another huge circle for conjecture. December brought more evidence that the site’s bluestones might very well have been transported from a monument in or near Pembrokeshire. “We now have two probable quarry sites and need to find the rest,” said Dr Rob Ixer, who was part of the large team who found the Welsh sites where Stonehenge’s origins might lie. “The pin-pointing of the Stonehenge quarry at Craig Rhosyfelin was so much more exciting than I imagined it would be 20 years ago.”

A coin hammered by King Edward during the 13th century at a Battle of Flodden site
 
A photo of a hand holding an outstreched coin
© Courtesy Flodden 1513
Northumberland’s medieval Wark Castle is perhaps best known as a strategically important site during the Anglo-Scottish Battle of Flooden more than 500 years ago. In one of the most exciting early finds of a £1.3 million project near the fortress, two nine-year-old boys used trowels to discover a hammer silver halfpenny coin minted by Edward I after he was crowned in 1272. Pottery and animal bones were also found, including excavations around a former chapel. The work will create the ecomuseum, linking more than 40 museums with connections to the battle. Visit flodden1513.com for more.

The north’s largest medieval hospital – beneath the floorboards of a theatre
 
A photo of a woman in a high-visibility jacket and helmet carrying archaeology remains
Archaeologists made some dramatic discoveries at York Theatre Royal© YAT
A £4.1 million programme of renovations at York Theatre Royal might not have anticipated the discovery of the remains of a medieval hospital. St Leonard’s was one of the largest hospitals in the region, but its rubble had lived beneath the stalls of the theatre since the 18th century. “It is amazing, considering all the alterations to the theatre since 1764, that so much of the medieval hospital has survived under the stalls,” said Ben Reeves, of the York Archaeological Trust. “Documentary sources tell us there was an infirmary and chapel, a children's house, a leper house and, of course, there would have been quarters for the monks and nuns who ran the hospital and cared for the sick and dying.” The planned pantomime had to be moved to the theatre of the National Railway Museum.

Beer, pickles, salting, a fridge and a fire in William Shakespeare’s kitchen

A photo of a deep stone well
A well found in the courtyard behind Nash's House, at Shakespeare's Birthplace in Warwickshire© K Colls / W Mitchell, Staffordshire University, Centre of Archaeology
With 20 rooms and ten fireplaces, Shakespeare’s New Place home - bought for £120 in 1597, dwarfing the average salary of a schoolteacher at the time - sounds palatial. The discovery of the oven (a fire hearth) in the kitchen allowed archaeologists from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to start building a comprehensive picture of how the house might have looked and operated, with a cold storage pit used as a fridge and fragments of plates, cups and cookware also illustrating how the poet’s home was a good place to be if you were hungry. Layers, features and finds dating to the prehistoric period - mainly the Iron Age – were also found as part of a £5.25 million project to open the house next year.

Milk, yoghurt and cheese were seen as “exclusive” and eaten in ceremonies around Stonehenge
 
A photo of a large prehistoric settlement once used by builders near the site of Stonehenge
Experts in York compiled a detailed picture of food and cuisine near Stonehenge© Mike Parker Pearson
Pots in ceremonial spaces at Durrington Walls, a late Neolithic monument and settlement site where Stonehenge’s builders lived, were found to have mainly carried dairy produce, barbeque-style roasted pork and beef. According to Professor Mike Pearson, the Director of the Feeding Stonehenge project, said that the finds indicated the social and religious importance of food sharing among Britain’s scattered prehistoric communities. But there was bad news for ancient vegetarians: almost no evidence of food plant preparation was detected, with all the evidence pointing towards autumn and winter pig slaughtering for feasts.

Mrs Getty – the wealthy woman in one of the richest Anglo-Saxon graves ever found in Britain

A photo of a forensic reconstruction of a female face
© University of Manchester
A two-year wax reconstruction resulted in the slightly unsettling, often gurning images of Gloucestershire’s Mrs Getty, found in a 6th century Anglo-Saxon wooden coffin with stone packing. The grave was crammed with more than 500 objects, strongly indicating that she was someone of high status. The list of stuff on her chest alone is a decent haul: silver finger rings, a mounted beaver incisor tooth - perforated for suspension - two silver-coated copper tubes, a large square headed gilded brooch, a pair of saucer brooches, a bone comb, an amber necklace and a string of tubular blue glass beads. “I find it interesting that her teeth were so well preserved,” wrote one reader.

A continuously-occupied site from the Iron Age and Roman periods at a power station site

A photo of a set of bones in a brown and stone grave
© South West Heritage Trust
It would have been more remarkable if the site of a new Somerset power station had failed to produce any interesting archaeology, given that it covered the space of 160 football pitches. The breadth here was impressive, covering multiple phases of occupation, while tests on some of the bones found – despite their poor preservation – showed a diet rich in carbs and poor oral hygiene. A decapitated adult female, more alarmingly, could have been part of a Romano-British burial rite, although the condition of the remains prevented the archaeologists from pursuing the story. One poor scurvy sufferer was likely to have had a headache when he died, and a dog was buried in a ditch.

The late 19th century sports ground surrounded by ghosts of the West Yorkshire past

A photo of people in football shirts looking at an archaeological excavation in a forest
© Neville Gabie
Now covered by a forest but once a field of dreams for Bradford Park Avenue and Bradford rugby club, Park Avenue football ground is an evocative place. The old terrace is intact beneath the trees, causing Neville Gabie, an artist who worked alongside a specialist in Roman history and supporters to excavate and record the site, to compare it to a Mayan ruin. A geophysical survey picked up the old pitch markings perfectly, and hundreds of fans turned up to help create film footage of the project. “All around were the ghosts of the past,” commented Tim Clapham, Park Avenue’s historian. “It has been a huge success and has given supporters the opportunity to revisit the old ground and bring along all kinds of memorabilia and share memories. Looking around the ground last week was akin to slipping back in time.”

An amber necklace-wearing adolescent child who died 4,000 years ago near Stonehenge

A photo of a dark brown human skull
A rare skeleton of a Bronze Age child found in Wiltshire© University of Reading
The cracked skull of this teenager was found at the Neolithic Wilsford Henge between Stonehenge and Avebury, lying in a foetal position and measuring a metre-and-a-half in length. Discovered during the final week of a season of digging by University of Reading experts, the most striking feature of the burial was undoubtedly the amber necklace the body was buried with. “As so often during excavations, the best is revealed last,” reflected Dr Jim Leary, who said the adolescent would have lived during a time of frenzied activity in the Stonehenge area. Wilsford is one of four trenches which will come under continued investigation by the team during 2016.

What were your favourite stories of the year? Leave a comment below.

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