"Archaeology is pure pleasure": "Britain's Pompeii" and mesolithic pendant among victors at British Archaeological Awards 2016

By Culture24 Reporter | 11 July 2016

The British Archaeological Awards have honoured some of the best stories to have come out of Britain's history. Archaeology may be "pure pleasure", but these winners have worked hard

A photo of a person taking part in an archaeological investigation
The thrilling excavations at Must Farm, in Cambridgeshire, have been rewarded at the prestigious British Archaeological Awards© Courtesy Oxford Archaeology
It has been called “Britain’s Pompeii” and a “lost world” from thousands of years ago. Wooden fish traps, log boats and swords and spears from a burnt and abandoned Bronze Age settlement are among its captivating secrets.

So perhaps Must Farm was the least surprising winner at the British Archaeological Awards this afternoon, where the Cambridgeshire site’s lure was rewarded with the Best Archaeological Discovery prize at a gathering of some of the country’s most passionate pursuers of the past at the British Museum.

As the decisions of the independent panel of archaeologists were announced, there was plenty to take pride in for the nominees, winners and the archaeological community as a whole.

Sir Barry Cunliffe, the oracular explorer who has spent 44 years investigating European archaeology at the University of Oxford, spoke of the comradeship enjoyed by archaeologists when he took to the stage to receive the Outstanding Achievement Award.

“Archaeology isn't work, archaeology is pure pleasure,” he enthused. “Archaeology is a family. We are creative, vital and inclusive.”

A photo of a person taking part in an archaeological investigation
Oxford Archaeology launched the largest archaeological excavation series ever held in Oxford© Courtesy Oxford Archaeology
A fine example of the Emeritus Professor’s words came in the form of the winners of this year’s Best Archaeological Project award. As the largest set of excavations of its kind ever carried out in Oxford, the Westgate adventure saw Oxford Archaeology lay on visits for school and community groups and a pop-up museum.

As is the case with so many important excavations, volunteer diggers played a key role in uncovering the section of the town around the medieval church of St Ebbe’s, which held Saxon and medieval origins and traces of the historic town defences beneath the developed Westgate Centre and multi-storey car park.

Pilgrim badges showing the murder of Thomas Becket and evidence of 19th century tuberculosis have been a couple of the stories to have spun out of the site since the search began around 18 months ago.

A photo of a person taking part in an archaeological investigation
The Dorathea quarrymen featured in a wondrous book on the Welsh slate industry© By permission of Gwynedd Archives Service
North-west Wales has been the subject of an evocative book filled with nostalgia. Welsh Slate: Archaeology and History of an Industry makes a compelling case for Gwynedd and its slate industry to succeed in its bid for UNESCO World Heritage Site status.

Campaigners now have a Best Archaeological Book to back their arguments with – a reward which the hard-working slate workers of yore, sometimes pictured huddled in hirsute lines in the book, would have savoured, and author David Gwyn richly deserves.

Sometimes amateurs found strength and knowledge in numbers, confounding accepted expert wisdom. Around the small Arney River in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, the Battles, Bricks and Bridges project – winners here of the Best Community Engagement Archaeology project – spent a year uncovering myriad untold stories, starting with the 1594 Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits which opened the so-called Nine Years War.

They also found stories of the largely-forgotten history of brick and tile-making industry in the area and the recently-listed 17th century plantation bridge, the oldest of its kind in the county.

A photo of a person taking part in an archaeological investigation
The necklace found at Star Carr may have been shamanic© Suzy Harrison
An individual discovery was at the centre of the Best Archaeological Innovation award, won by the revered archaeology department at the University of York. Tom Bell, a 21-year-old student, had described himself as “super lucky” to unearth an 11,000-year-old shale pendant at the prehistoric dreamland of Star Carr in North Yorkshire, and the pioneering work to reveal more about its origins was an assiduous achievement by the university team and their partners.

National Geographic’s thoughtful and illuminating presentation of the staggering finds being made beneath London also earned an award. Like the subterranean capital, more marvels will surely surface at Must Farm in the months and years ahead.

“Usually at a Later Bronze Age period site you get pits, post-holes and maybe one or two really exciting metal finds,” said David Gibson, the Archaeological Manager at overseers the Cambridge Archaeological Unit.

“But this time so much more has been preserved. Reconstructions of prehistoric roundhouses will now be based on actual structural remains as opposed to posthole plans and educated supposition.

“We can actually see everyday life during the Bronze Age in the round. It’s prehistoric archaeology in 3D, with unsurpassed finds both in terms of range and quantity.”

A photo of two amazing archaeological finds made at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire
A Late Iron Age baldric ring from Must Farm© Cambridge Archaeological Unit
Duncan Wilson, the Chief Executive of excavation funders Historic England, spoke of the group’s delight at their victory in the biennial awards. “It is an incredible site,” he said of the fenland near Peterborough.

“The level of preservation has given us an extraordinary window into how people lived 3,000 years ago. With the 10-month excavation now coming to a close, we are excited at the prospect of learning more about life in the Bronze Age from further research into the discoveries at Must Farm." The settlement was ultimately lost to rising prehistoric sea levels.

  • Visit archaeologicalawards.com/2016-winners to see the full list and find out more. Follow the Awards on twitter @BAAWARDSUK and on Facebook. Sponsored by the Robert Kiln Trust, The Society of Antiquaries of London, The British Museum, Portable Antiquities Scheme, Historic England, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists, Archaeology Scotland, Historic Environment Scotland, and Cadw.

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Three great archaeology exhibitions to see

To celebrate 2016, The Year of Adventure in Wales, the museum is hosting extraordinary treasures from popular culture including the hat, whip and jacket of Indiana Jones, crystal skulls, Inca gold and early finds such as Egyptian Mummies.

The current exhibition, Writing for Eternity: Decoding Ancient Egypt, developed in partnership with Wrexham Museum, tells the story of 4,000 years of writing in Ancient Egypt featuring a fantastic range of hieroglyph and cursive writing on a wide range of materials. Until September 3 2016.

Tower Museum, Derry
An Armada shipwreck – La Trinidad Valencera narrates the story of La Trinidad Valencera, one of the largest ships in the Armada Fleet. In 1588 it foundered in Kinnagoe Bay in Co. Donegal during a violent storm and was discovered nearly 400 years later by divers from the City of Derry Sub Aqua Club.
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