Category Archives: Archaeology

Thornton Bell Chapel


Thornton is a delightful old township outside Bradford whose moment of fame came in 1815 when Patrick Bronte was appointed its perpetual curate. Charlotte, Emily and Anne, together with their brother Branwell, were actually born in Thornton as a local plaque reminds visitors. For some reason it has never attracted the tourists in the way that Haworth has, although Thornton has many beautiful eighteenth and nineteenth vernacular buildings which are well worth visiting. Those interested in industrial archaeology will be drawn to its tremendous railway viaduct, built by John Rowlands, across which you can now walk. If you live anywhere near Thornton I can thoroughly recommend a visit.

The parish church of St James is a late Victorian construction (1872) which has a permanent exhibition of Bronte memorabilia. Patrick Bronte’s own church, where the four children were baptised, is now a ruin across the main road as you can see from the first image. Many local people have worked very hard to maintain the remains in a fit state for inspection. Please look at their website:

For most of its life the chapel was also officially dedicated to St James but it is widely known as the Bell Chapel which is the name I will employ. In the past it functioned as a ‘chapel of ease’ for Bradford parish church (now Bradford Cathedral) along with similar chapels at Haworth & Wibsey. People from Thornton itself worshipped there but also their neighbours from Wilsden, Clayton, and Allerton. Today only the east end of the original building remains, together with a stone cupola which was added to the Bell Chapel in 1818. At that time the chapel was also re-fronted on south side and re-roofed. It was said to have been ‘beautified’ in this way by Patrick Bronte who left Thornton for Haworth two years later. The areas both within and outside the chapel ruins are covered by many beautifully cut grave-stones. Among the internal monuments are those to members of the Firth family. Elizabeth Firth of Kipping House, Thornton, was godmother to some of the Bronte children. On my first visit my attention was caught by a series of date stones incorporated into the standing east wall. These are probably not in their original positions but ostensibly indicate the dates: 1587, 1612 and 1756. These stones puzzle me, but it might first be worth looking at what the two great nineteenth century Bradford historians have to say on the subject of the Bell Chapel.

John James (1841) notes that at the western end of the building was the 1612 inscription. Did he mistake his compass points or is this statement evidence of its re-positioning? He also mentions the 1587 stone which he supposes is when the most ancient part of the present chapel was built. He notes the existence of a chapel bell dated 1664, and the fact that in 1678 chapel registers commence. James noted that substantial work was done in 1756. The roof was taken off, the north side wall was demolished, and the west end wall demolished to within a yard of the ground. The south & east walls were also rebuilt. In 1793 the pews were repaired and a gallery for an organ loft erected. Even after Patrick Bronte’s work in 1818 the chapel was ‘considerably altered and repaired’.

William Cudworth, writing at the end of the nineteenth century, states that there was no pre-reformation church on the site. He also noticed the date stones and inscriptions which he must have seen in the same form as they are today. He describes how the chapel had seating for 600, which is a little hard to believe, since by his own account the Bell Chapel was low, dark and damp! He generally accepts James’ dates, and may well have used the earlier historian as a source of information.


The first OS map of the area, surveyed in the late 1840s, shows the chapel and the nearby Thornton Hall. Neither building is aligned on the Bradford & Thornton Trust turnpike which was 20 years old at most. Did Charlotte have the hall in mind when she described Thornfield Hall in Jane Eyre? The hall is said to have been rebuilt in stone in 1598 when owned by the Tempest family, and then extensively renovated in the late nineteenth century by the then owner, John Foster of Black Dyke Mills fame. Thornton is a good place for seeing date stones. They must always be treated with some care since they can be moved from an older building, or carved with a year which pre-dates the erection of the stone. The oldest at the chapel site is of 1587, the year before the Spanish Armada. There is nothing impossible about the date which fits well with the work on nearby Thornton Hall. I’m simply puzzled that the stone carver seems to have used three different fonts for the numerals 1 & 8, 5 and 7. It’s not impossible of course that the masons involved were given the privilege of carving a numeral each. The 1756 date fits well with the eighteenth century work on the chapel. The carving just looks a little amateurish when compared with contemporary date stones in Thornton itself.


The 1612 inscription is beautifully carved and has been universally accepted as accurate. It would certainly seem to indicate that the chapel was built or rebuilt by a freemason in that year. Yet there are several puzzles. Firstly 1612 seems an early year for English freemasonry. The Freemasons themselves state that their early history is a subject of speculation. The United Grand Lodge was founded in 1717 and the earliest date for an English freemason that I can locate at present is Elias Ashmole in 1646. The task of identifying the builder would be a great deal easier if the name was still present but this has been obliterated for no reason now known. Finally the technique of the inscription is essentially that of the cameo. The surrounding stone is removed to reveal the lettering in relief. This is a far more difficult than simply carving the lettering and does not, in my judgement, produce a particularly beautiful result. The technique has been adopted for the dates in a local tombstone, and I have been trying to compare the letter forms with other local seventeenth century stone inscriptions. The bar over the capital A is one such peculiarity and the V replacing the harder to carve U is another. The Ys that look almost lower case would also fit although I cannot yet match the ligature between the H & E or the final E in LORDE.


So can anybody help me? Is this inscription truly from the year 1612? If it were carved a century later with a spuriously early date I would be less puzzled, but I may be quite wrong to be suspicious. A comment from a historian of English Freemasonry would be especially welcome.

‘Coming the acid’: Leather’s Chemical Works, Bradford

This North Brook Vitriol Works was situated between Wharf Street and Canal Road near the end of Bradford’s canal spur. It claimed to be one of the world’s oldest chemical plants. Its origin lay in the work of John Roebuck of Birmingham, who in 1746 had adapted a method of burning sulphur with saltpetre to form sulphur trioxide within lead-lined, acid-resistant, chambers. The sulphur trioxide resulting was dissolved in water to produce sulphuric acid. These lead chambers were larger, stronger and cheaper than the previously employed glass vessels. The process was essentially in use for the next two centuries. The chambers produced sulphuric acid of 35-40% concentration. The chemists Gay-Lussac and Glover replaced the chambers with towers to obtain a more concentrated product. Sulphuric acid or vitriol was the starting point for the production of the other mineral acids, but was also important in fertiliser production, metal surface treatments, and a cloth bleaching process.

Vitriol and aquafortis (nitric acid) were first made in Bradford at the North Brook Works by Benjamin Rawson. Using the lead chamber process he was certainly in operation by 1792, and perhaps earlier. Shortly afterwards he purchased the Lordship of the Manor of Bradford which he and his daughters held for more than sixty years. By 1802 the works were leased to James Broadbent but were bought outright in 1838 by Broadbent’s son Samuel. Additional chemicals were now being sold: spirits of salts (hydrochloric acid), ammonia and Epsom salts (magnesium sulphate). Samuel Broadbent lived in Northbrook House, which had a garden leading down to the canal. The house was later used as offices. One of Samuel’s daughters married George Henry Leather, a worsted spinner, and he it was who took over the enterprise when Samuel died. After 1844 it was generally known as Leather’s Chemical Works and in due course Leather built the Zetland Mill for his textile interests. In 1854 the works were offered for sale by auction, as advertised in the Bradford Observer, but in fact the family connection seems to have continued.

Leather’s now also sold chloride of lime as a disinfectant, which may have been needed since the smell of the vitriol works, the canal, and nearby tipped human waste, was described in the press as ‘abominable’. Chloride of lime (calcium hypochlorite) was made by exposing slaked lime to an atmosphere of chlorine in brick built sheds. Lime kilns were present on the nearby canal-side which could have provided the slaked lime easily enough. It is a shock to learn that as recently as 1849 this chemical was being used to combat an outbreak of cholera in Bradford. It is also a shock to learn that at one works the employees raked over the lime to hasten its absorption of chlorine with no protection from the deadly atmosphere except face masks. Victorian industrialists were seldom health and safety conscious.

The product of the Gay-Lussac towers was about 78% sulphuric acid. The manufacture of some dyes, and nitrocellulose, required a more concentrated product still which in the 19th century was still made by the dry distillation of green vitriol or hydrated iron II sulphate. This material could be made by burning the mineral pyrite (iron sulphide) in oxygen, or leaving pyrite nodules exposed to water and atmospheric oxygen for several years. Leather’s adopted the former process in the 1870s, but it was relatively expensive. In the sources I have seen there is a material described called spent oxide. I assume this was the residual iron oxide remaining after the iron sulphate was dry distilled.

Meanwhile ‘back in Bradford’ the family connection with chemicals was maintained. Another of Samuel’s daughters married the Rev John Eccleston Burnet and their son Henry took over when George Leather died, full of years, in 1897. Henry died himself in 1940 when his own sons, David & Ronald Burnet assumed responsibility. The site was still a chemical works as recently as 1970. It was sold to Occidental Petroleum in 1972/73 but shortly afterwards Bradford Council purchased the site for road widening; chemical production was transferred to St Helen’s & Manchester.

The West Yorkshire Archives (Bradford) curate many documents relating to this site of chemical production. They have the monthly output figures for the years 1844 – 1928 with figures being given in glass carboys holding 10 gallons. In the first years the main products were OV (brown Oil of Vitriol), SS (spirits of salts or hydrochloric acid) and liquid ammonia. By 1859 no ammonia was being produced. The basic raw materials were brimstone (sulphur) and nitrate of soda. In 187, for example, over 1200 tons of sulphur was purchased for conversion to acid. Pyrite purchase was first mentioned in 1875-76 (305 tons) and within a year more pyrite than sulphur was purchased. After five more years pyrite was only used in some years, although ‘oxide’ was always bought. I don’t know enough inorganic chemistry to work out exactly what was going on and why.

Other raw material purchases included coal for fuel and the metal copper. Was there a requirement for copper sulphate to be used with lime in Bordeaux mixture against potato blight? It looks as though the company bought in chemical stocks itself when demand exceeded what could be supplied. The problem of getting 100% concentrated sulphuric acid remained. In 1887 Leather’s explored, with the famous company James Fison & Sons of Thetford, Norfolk, the possibility of purchasing a platinum still which cost £5,600. These could apparently be bought from Johnson Matthey & Co of Hatton Gardens. This company is still big today in precious metal products.

Oddly platinum had already provided the solution to the sulphuric acid concentraion problem. in 1831 British vinegar merchant Peregrine Phillips devised the ‘contact process’ in which sulphur dioxide and oxygen were reacted together at a relatively high temperature to produce sulphur trioxide directly. The reaction procedes very slowly unless a catalyst is provided and platinum is one possibility in this role. There were many difficulties in producing a commercially acceptible version of the contact process which was not generally adopted before the early 20th century. I have no evidence that it was ever used at Leather’s.

The world changes. Platinum has now been abandoned and vanadium is used as the contact process catalyst. But in this changing world two pieces of wisdom still stand as immutable as stone. One is that it is always wise to say on being offered yet another drink to say ‘no thank you I have had quite sufficient for one evening’. The second demands that when diluting concentrated sulphuric acid you murmur ‘add acid to water, never water to acid’.

Nineveh and Tyre

Whetley Hill

As I look at the old maps in the Bradford Local Studies Library I frequently find myself thinking ‘change and decay in all around I see’. This reflection was certainly occasioned by the above plan, which shows a dignified gentleman’s residence about to be replaced by mean terraced housing. But my thought was inappropriate for an archaeologist. In the first place all times, all cultures, and all houses are of equal value. In the second place my own ancestors would have thought themselves incredibly lucky to have owned even a terrace house. What we have is a sale plan for Whetley Hill, Manningham dated 1872. The house was located to the east of the road of the same name just above the important inn known as the Lower Globe.

The house would have provided an excellent opportunity for gracious leisure. The owner had a lawn naturally, and kitchen gardens for fresh vegetables. Some tender plants required heat and I assume the melons and cucumbers grown would have featured at fine dinner parties. Grapes might well have been provided as a dessert on such occasions and it was only proper to have both an early and a late heated vinery so that the dinner guests could enjoy as long a season as possible. Transport needs were taken care of by a stable and coach house, and for relaxation there was always croquet or a game of cricket. All could not be sweetness and light of course. I assume that the ‘soil shed’ was not a repository for potting compost but a storage area for human waste awaiting the arrival of the night-soil men with their cart. Lunch at your gentleman’s club on collection days. The ‘rubbish place’ was a convenient site for dumping coal ashes and broken pottery or glass in the years before a regular collection was provided by the local authority. Some lucky residents presumably now have an unappreciated archaeological treasure house in their back garden.

When was the house in existence, and who lived there? Immediately there is a problem. Two substantial dwellings exist at the same point on opposite sides of the roadway now called Whetley Hill. They are present on both the 1849 and 1871 Bradford maps. In 1849 this house is drawn, but not named. The house opposite is ‘Wheatley Hill’ with an ‘a’. In the 1871 map our dwelling has adopted the spelling of its neighbour, and is itself Wheatley Hill, while the dwelling opposite has become Wheatley House. This is a very thoughtless disregard of the needs of future local historians and I assume that the respective butlers sorted out the misaddressed mail. Such a large residence was hardly likely to escape the notice of Victorian local historian William Cudworth and he records that Thomas Hill Horsfall was the owner of Whetley Hill in 1839, within a list of Manningham freeholders. Confused? You will be since in Cudworth’s History of Manningham, Heaton & Allerton Wheatley House is described together with its owners the Hollings family, except that he once calls it Wheatley Hall. Neither house was exactly a rural enclave. In the mid-nineteenth century there were several neighbouring quarries and Wheatley House must have had a fine view of a brick works.

Where does the name Wheatley, Whetley or even Whitley, come from? It is a common English place name just as Wheatlands is a common field name. The obvious origin is from leah, a meadow or low-lying land, and the name of the cereal. It is slightly hard to believe in waving fields of golden corn in north Bradford, but there you are. An alternative is ‘white land’ with the whiteness being the result of Roman roads or remains. Some places with this name are close to Roman sites the best example being the fort of Whitley Castle, Northumberland. Whetley Hill is in fact a very straight road and is well-placed to be on the course of a Roman highway.

I think that Whetley Hill was built in the late eighteenth century by one Thomas Wilkinson who owned most of the land in the area and much else besides. He was a bachelor and on his death his housekeeper, a Miss Sally Kitching, inherited. Cudworth describes her as ‘a maiden lady of means and of some repute’. I’d like to know more about her and her repute, but so far her life story has beaten my investigative powers. She died in 1822 and Thomas Hill Horsfall (1802-1855) acquired the house from her executors. While he was resident he kept a pack of foxhounds that hunted all around Bradford; he was consequently known as ‘Hunting’ Tom Horsfall. It is pleasant to record that today you would need to take an immense walk to reach the nearest foxhound pack but that we had a fox safely asleep in our garden this week. Eventually Horsfall sold the house to John Priestman (1805-1866) and moved to Thirsk, around 1838 I estimate. It is fortunate that he was visiting his cousin John Horsfall of Bolton Royds, Manningham at the time of the 1851 census. Their ancestor was John Garnett Horsfall who introduced steam power looms to Bradford. The consequent riot beside his mill at North Wing in 1826 led to several deaths when special constables fired on the protestors.

Be that as it may the new home owner was John Priestman and his wife Sarah. John’s brother Samuel Priestman, of East Mount Hull, is a relative by marriage of my wife’s family. John Priestman was a very different man to Hunting Tom. He was a member of a large and distinguished Quaker family being devoted to peace and an enemy to none but strong drink. He was initially a flour miller and then a successful stuff weaver (John Priestman & Co.). After he died, at Whetley Hill in 1866, his wife and sons continued in residence for a few years longer. Cudworth gives the name of the last known resident as John Spink. By this time, he writes, the land below was covered by housing and after the sale ‘all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre’.

‘Most innocent, most happy, most dear’: child burials in Roman Britain

Malton &  Whitby 019

Any consideration of Roman burials must start with the fact that we only have access to a tiny fraction of the total number of bodies. It has been calculated that a town with a population of 4000 and a death rate of 25/1000 per year might generate 10,000 deaths over a century. The biggest cemeteries known within the Roman world have only 1200 graves, and the biggest in Britain half that or less. Even this small sample would not be randomly selected. The same considerations apply to Roman tombstones which are usually found separated from the original remains. Those commemorated tend to be adult rather than children, Roman rather than British, and wealthy rather than poor. Roman soldiers are thought to have joined burial clubs to pay for a decent funeral should this have become necessary.

The main burial rite itself altered during the Roman period, from cremation in the first century onwards to inhumation in the late second century. This change of rite doesn’t appear to have been associated with any marked innovation in religious belief. Cremation seems to have persisted longer in military burials. Burial of a complete, unburned, body seems to have simply become customary although there are bizarre variations such as skeletons decapitated or buried face down. Inhumation cemeteries in which late, regularly spaced, graves are oriented E-W, and skeletons are unattended by grave goods, are likely to be Christian. But there were pagan burials until the end of the Roman period. In some of these the body was contained within a lead coffin which was itself then placed in a stone sarcophagus. Although such burials are rare one spectacular fourth century example, of a young woman, was found in London about 15 years ago, complete with wreaths, garlands and glass unguent bottles.

Society in Roman Britain must have been extremely heterogenous. Auxiliary units of the Roman army were recruited from all over the empire. Even if, in the later Roman period, local recruitment was permitted the units may have retained the traditions of their original members. In a famous study Dr Hilary Cool investigated a military cemetery at Brougham, Cumbria. It soon became apparent that the whole community was being buried there, everyone from babies to old people, women as well as men. The period involved was relatively short, probably AD 220-300. The dead were not buried intact and went to cremation pyres dressed, rather than in shrouds. Women and children regularly wore glass bead necklaces. Very young children were treated differently from their elders. Only adult men, and possibly only those of high status, were ever accompanied by glass drinking cups. The small finds recovered regularly included items Dr Cool identified as coming from the Danubian provinces of Noricum, Pannonia and Ilyria (now parts of Austria, Hungary and the former Yugoslavia). There is even a certain amount of epigraphic evidence. It seems highly probable that we have here a unit raised on the Danube, and transferred to Britain, which still buried its members following traditional rites.

Disposal of the dead is always a matter for the living, who will naturally have their own conceptions of what is fitting and proper. The Roman authorities will also have had a view; the burial of an adult within a town was illegal for example and cemeteries were often placed alongside a town’s approach roads. Childhood burials are quite common in Roman settlements. Twenty-nine were found within Malton fort in North Yorkshire alone. The example illustrated was once displayed in Malton Museum, sadly now closed. The associated coin was presumably included to pay Charon, the ferryman, a fee for transport across the river Styx. Did the jet bear have a protective function? There was once a belief among archaeologists that Roman parents commonly practised infanticide, particularly of female children. Personally I found the evidence quite unconvincing and I am glad that this idea has been definitively refuted in a recent publication by Millett & Gowland (Britannia, 2015, 171-189).

I would like to describe some bereaved Roman parents who evidently mourned the deaths of their offspring in stone memorials which they set up. I spent a morning in the University Library collecting child burial stone inscriptions from The Roman Inscriptions of Britain (RG Collingwood & RP Wright, 1965, OUP). I excluded individuals aged over 14 and I was particularly interested in the age given, any mention of the child’s personality, or images of children. I extracted a total of 33 inscriptions. I am sure that this is an underestimate. Aside from further discoveries in the last half century several additional recorded examples contain wording appropriate to a child (eg ‘most sweet daughter’) but lacked definite proof of age.

Some inscriptions are baldly descriptive, for example these examples from Chester, now in the Grosvenor Museum:

To the spirits of the departed (and) to his son Lucius Festinius Probus (who) lived 2 years and 29 days. His father Lucius Sempronius Probianus, had this set up.

To the spirits of the departed and of Restita who lived 7 years, and of Martia, who lived 3 years; their parents set this up.

The involvement of a mother, as in ‘parents’, seems unusual. Possibly it was the convention for fathers to commemorate children, although wives certainly set up inscriptions to their dead husbands. Frequently a little more information is provided, perhaps in customary language. This lovely example is from a stone coffin curated by the Yorkshire Museum, York:

To the spirits of the departed and of Simplicia Florentina, a most innocent soul [animae innocentissimae] who lived 10 months; her father, Felicius Simplex, made this; soldier of the 6th Legion Victrix.

Finally there are examples of disconsolate parents publicly displaying their grief in what one might imagine was a rather un-Roman manner. This example is also in York:

To the spirits of the departed: Corellia Optata, aged 13. You mysterious spirits who dwell in Pluto’s Acherusian realms, and whom the meagre ashes and the shade, empty resemblance of the body, seek, following the brief light of life; sire of an innocent daughter, I, a pitiable victim of unfair hope, bewail her final end. Quintus Corellius Fortis, her father, had this set up.


The memorial that I find most memorable of all is in the Corbridge site museum. This museum is the most amazing treasure houses of Roman artefacts. The tombstone in question portrays a small child holding a ball. As you can see the sculptor was not highly gifted but nonetheless has created an image that I have always found very moving. The names of parent and child do not sound Roman and the poorly cut inscription reads:

To the spirits of the departed: Sudrenus (set this up) to Ertola, properly named Vellibia. (who) lived most happily [felicissime] 4 years and 60 days.

Doctors are always advised not to get involved emotionally with their patients, and perhaps archaeologists are not meant to be deeply touched by the artefacts they are examining. I cannot guess at how, under such circumstances, one is expected to avoid such a pitfall. Especially if you have had children of your own.

It is very difficult to draw any general conclusions about child death in Roman Britain. The probability is that infants, under six-months say, were treated differently from older children and adults. Burial of infants in a domestic setting, between houses for example, was acceptable although this would have been illegal for those who were older. The evidence such as it is suggests that in the Roman world, as in ours, children were generally loved, mourned and missed. Can we say anything sensible about the grieving parents? I cannot improve on what the poet AE Housman, a considerable classicist, wrote:

Then, ’twas before my time, the Roman
At yonder heaving hill would stare:
The blood that warms an English yeoman,
The thoughts that hurt him, they were there.

As for their lost children: sit tibi terra levis – may the earth lie lightly upon you.

The Old Straight Track


Ley lines were probably discovered (or invented, depending on your point of view) by Alfred Watkins, a 66 year old businessman and amateur archaeologist, in 1921. Watkins believed that if you examined the landscape and OS maps it was often apparent that ancient sites, megalithic monuments, henges, old parish churches and the like, were distributed in a linear relationship. Watkins himself seems to have felt that these features were ‘sighting points’ for long forgotten, but perfectly real, ancient straight tracks or walk-ways. I don’t think he endowed his lines with any mystical significance although I believe he thought they might have had a ceremonial function. When most of Britain consisted of deciduous forest navigation markers on high points would clearly have been valuable. There is nothing intrinsically impossible with this limited concept. The Ridgeway is an impressive 87 mile long prehistoric track ending at West Kennet, and our Bronze Age ancestors were certainly capable of constructing lengthy raised causeways of wood to negotiate marshy ground. The Sweet track is a 2km long and first crossed the Somerset Levels more than 5000 years ago.

Even at an early stage Watkins started to put more weight on the evidence than it could really bear. He believed that the tracks frequently passed through places which had the element -ley in their names. There are plenty of these up the Aire valley in West Yorkshire of course: Farsley, Apperley, Cottingley, Bingley, Shipley and Keighley being examples. However the place-name element –ley is more generally taken to originate in an Old English word indicating a clearing. Watkins also felt that the surname Dodman was associated with the individuals who laid out the tracks, the surveyors as it were. But dodman is a Norfolk dialect word for a snail; a pedlar selling door to door, and bent under the load of cloth on his back, does rather resemble a snail. This is a perfectly comprehensible origin for an occupational surname. Chapman has a similar beginning as a man who, in medieval times, sold and bartered at a cheap or market.

Some time in the 1960s the concept of Ley Lines was taken up by new enthusiasts for the phenomenon who seem to have been more inclined to view leys as marking the sites of ‘energy meridians’, or something even more incredible. Seemingly a link was made with Atlantis and UFOs; ley lines developing a European, if not a world-wide, dimension. This is a difficult area since practitioners of dousing believe that they can detect these meridians. The reality of dousing is so widely believed that it may come as a shock to the general public that science based archaeologists regard it as totally spurious. Only this week I have upset a fellow coal mine enthusiast by refusing to accept his placement of pit shafts since the evidence was acquired by dowsing rather than by historical research or geophysics. Be that as it may the incorporation of ley lines into ‘earth mysteries’ has probably inhibited any further serious archaeological work on the topic, whilst ensuring substantial book sales.

I hardly need to say that two points always lie on a straight line and that on an OS map a thick pencil line might be nearly 100m wide. To establish sufficient ‘sighting points’ believers in ley lines may have to pull in nearby and unusual landscape features from very widely different ages and cultures: a Neolithic tomb, a Bronze Age stone circle, a Roman fort, a Norman castle motte, a late Medieval abbey, and a branch of Barclays Bank c.1930. I think it is true to say that many supposed leys have fallen to an assault by statisticians. Clearly if the phenomenon were real it would be essential to demonstrate that point alignments occurred in the landscape more frequently than would be expected randomly. In a country thickly strewn with old sites like Britain alignments of three, or even four, genuinely ancient features occur quite commonly by chance. Popular books on ley lines tend not to publish evidence that does not support their views, an example of confirmation bias.

One interesting counter suggestion to my gibe about Barclay’s Bank was that sacred sites may have been highly conserved from culture to culture. The argument runs that a sacred neolithic spring was taken over as a Celtic cult centre and then a Roman temple. An early Christian church was subsequently built on the Roman pagan site to ‘Christianise’ it and this would then be replaced by a medieval village church centuries later. It is true that churches were commonly built in or near old Roman centres and that Iron Age hillforts were re-fortified during the reign of Ethelred the Unready in the early 11th century. I can think of examples where several links seem to be preserved but no examples of the whole chain.

I have always found archaeology to be a continual source of amazement and wonder without having to believe that spirit hands ever fashioned the landscape. I am very much afraid that ley lines are simply entertaining archaeological moonshine. Or so I thought until, with my pencil and ruler, I drew a straight line between Haworth rectory, home of the Bronte sisters, and the Humber Bridge north bank tower. I found that the line goes through my house in Heaton. Could my existence have been foretold by the elder gods? Could I be the living embodiment of ancient energies? Fair enough say I; it couldn’t happen to a nicer brick enthusiast.

Old Man River

Durham Visit 2

The names of British rivers show marked conservatism, in other words their names persist even when the language of those who inhabit the river bank changes. The obvious example is Avon. Since afon is the modern Welsh for river it seems highly probable that those rivers with this name reflect a widely spoken Celtic language existing before the arrival of English, and the English. The Bristol Avon with its famous gorge is bridged by Brunel’s extraordinary suspension bridge at Clifton. The beautiful river at Salisbury is the Hampshire Avon. There are other rivers of this name in Devon, Warwickshire and Scotland. All are in western Britain and I think that it is true that pre-English river names become commoner the further west you travel. Similarly there are rivers Dee in north Wales and Aberdeenshire. It is thought that Deva was a Celtic goddess who gave her name to both river and the Roman fortress at Chester, once itself called Deva. If so did the goddess Verbeia, seemingly worshipped at Ilkley, give her name to the river Wharfe? This is easier to believe if you recall that the Latin ‘v’ was pronounced like English ‘w’.

A particularly interesting exception to the principle that old names are western is the Ouse. The Great Ouse drains central England into the Wash and I once used to incompetently punt on its most famous tributary, the Cam. There is also a river Ouse in Yorkshire, flowing through the city of York, and I was once familiar with a third in Sussex which enters the English Channel at the important port of Newhaven. These three rivers do not exhaust the use of the name; an Ouseburn is a tributary of the Tyne. The immediate origin of Ouse is uisce or uisge which are Gaelic language words for water. Whisky, the water of life, takes its name in the same way and I think that rivers called Usk or Esk are cognate to Ouse. But uisce is not so different from the German wasser which may hint at an older Indo-European word that survives in both language families. Vaseline may derive its name from wasser but it’s origin is petroleum.

Once you have exhausted the possibilities of naming your local river as the river or the water then looking for descriptive adjectives seems a good plan. Rivers can reasonably be clear, bright, or dark. There are at least five rivers Glen including those in Lincolnshire and Northumberland; glan is still modern Welsh for clean. The Lea (or Lee) is the second largest London river and the general view is that there was a Celtic word lug- meaning bright. The Lee crocodile was once as famous as the Surrey puma but I have not heard of its depredations recently. Dublin famously means ‘black pool’; across the Irish Sea Blackpool also means black pool. So the Irish Gaelic dubh- means dark; are there any rivers that could be so described? The river Dove in the south Peak, loved so compleatley by Izaak Walton, is an obvious candidate.

Pose two etymologists a question and you will get at least three answers. There are rivers Stour in Suffolk, Dorset and elsewhere. Does the name originate in a Celtic word for strong, or an Anglo-Saxon word with the same meaning, or might the Germanic languages have borrowed their word because of the strong rivers that already carried an older name?

Then there is the Thames, and a cluster of rivers with similar names: Tamar, Tay, Teme, Tavy, and possibly Trent and Tyne. The smart money seems to be on another Celtic word meaning dark, or perhaps a pre-Celtic word of unknown meaning. The Tame is another river from this collection, being a tributary of the Mersey. The Mersey itself should be straightforward, deriving its name from the Old English mǽres meaning a boundary. The same origin has been suggested for March in the sense of the Welsh marches or the historical Marcher Lords. There is no end to this process and I leave you to investigate your own local rivers. Does Calder mean ‘violent water’ in a Gaelic language? Do the Darent and the various Derwents derive from dair meaning an oak? But if anyone mentions a river name to you I should always reply ‘Wye?’

How did Vikings get their metals?

2014-06-08 13.49.41

Recently I was able to hear Professor Joyce Hill lecture on the Vale of York Viking hoard. She holds an emeritus chair in Medieval Literature at the University of Leeds. Prof Hill is a wonderful speaker and is quite brave enough to move into archaeology or even archaeo-genetics when these disciplines appear to illuminate a point that interests her. My daughter Jess and I have seen the hoard for ourselves but the recent Viking Exhibition at the British Museum, where it was on show, was packed to bursting which made quiet contemplation impossible. I can foresee a trip to its home at the Museum of Yorkshire in the near future. I don’t have a picture of the Vale of York Hoard so the image is of another British Museum Viking silver assemblage.

Very naturally one of Prof Hill’s main enthusiasms concerns the beautiful Carolingian silver-gilt bowl into which the hoard’s ingots and silver coins were packed before burial. The bowl is a ciborium which was used to hold bread during a Christian communion service; it must have been a century old when it was used as a container. Other examples from Britain are known and one recent discovery even retains its lid. Stylistically they could all have come from the same Frankish work-shop. Given the proclivities of Vikings the Frankish silversmiths may not have been fully remunerated for their skill and trouble. In the case of Yorkshire’s Norse community the empire was about to strike back in the shape of Aethelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king of all Britain, who was shortly to make an ‘official’ visit to York. Indeed the dates of the coins suggest that the hoard’s burial was not unconnected with Aethelstan’s arrival in the new part of his kingdom.

Even when confronted with images of some rather beautiful objects I found myself wondering where all the metal had come from in the first place. Some doubtless originated in honest trading, but being paid handsomely to go away is also nice work if you can get it. The Vikings extracted vast sums in tribute from Frankia and later from Britain. We are probably talking about silver by the tonne and hundreds of kilograms of gold. Much of this will have been melted down to make the intricate jewellery items for which the Norse world is justly famous. What follows contains a good deal of speculation and I should welcome more evidence-based information from any reader. Clearly the Vikings prized the precious metals gold and silver, an enthusiasm they shared with many other societies both before and since. There is no intrinsic reason why these elements should be so highly valued, but they were. Bullion, especially silver bullion, served as the medium of exchange throughout the Norse world. As well as serving an extremely important role in Viking society silver was minted into a beautiful coinage for the contemporary English kings.

You will probably know that the metal lead, when prepared from its ore galena, contains about 2% silver. The silver was extracted by cupellation, a technique which is at least 2000 years old. Lead was heated in a flat bone ash crucible and air was blown onto the molten metal. The lead oxidised to litharge (PbO) which melted and soaked into the crucible. The bright melted silver did not oxidise and was left behind. The lead could later be recovered from the crucible. Ancient Athens was famous for its silver mines, and in Britain the Romans were extracting lead from the Mendip Hills by 50 CE. The Roman distribution of water made it necessary for them to obtain large amounts this metal. It was cast into sheets which could then be formed over a rod and soldered to make a pipe; Mendip lead has even been found in Pompeii. It seems highly likely that silver was being produced as well even at this early stage and by 70 CE Britain was the biggest supplier of lead and silver to the empire. It is known that silver was also being extracted by cupellation in Derbyshire, the evidence being some locally produced lead pigs with variable amounts of silver. I assume this process continued in the early medieval period although some Viking silver could easily be recycled Roman metal objects. The Viking silversmith’s basic raw material was often hack-silver, in other words cut up scrap.

The Vikings traded with Byzantium (Miklagard or Miklegarth) and imported Arabic silver coins from the Baghdad Caliphate, which they called Serkland. The Slavs to the east produced silver trade ingots and the spiral silver armlets known as Permian rings. This suggests they had their own sources of silver. But nothing lasts forever. The need for lead declined in the early medieval period although there was a vastly increased demand for lead flashings in the later middle ages when cathedral and castle building began. The mines from which the Arabs obtained silver were exhausted by the 10th century, although silver mines in the German Harz mountains were being developed during this period.

Because of its chemical unreactivity the only source of gold of any importance is the native metal. It is widely distributed but the problem is to separate gold flakes from the quartz or gravels in which it occurs. In ancient times, which would include the Norse period, crushed rock was separated by water whereupon the heavy gold dust sank first in settling troughs. Later extraction with metallic mercury was practised, and finally in modern times sodium cyanide extraction. Gold is soft, being extremely malleable and ductile. It can be beaten out into thin gold leaf between vellum which could then be used for decorating leather or illuminated manuscripts. There were sources of gold in Ireland and Wales which were probably first exploited in the Bronze Age. I assume that the Romans effectively abstracted all the British gold that hadn’t been safely buried but they also had their own mines in Spain. Due to its non-reactivity gold is an easy metal to recycle. Much gold left the empire for the east in exchange for silk and other luxury goods. By the Norse period there was probably an unmet need for gold which was not fully remedied until the Spanish started to import the metal from its New World possessions nearly a millennium later.

Copper is not a precious metal but it is commonly alloyed with gold to make it harder, or with tin to produce bronze which forms the basis of much jewellery. There is evidence that copper was being extracted in Wales in the Bronze Age. Associated artefacts have been radiocarbon dated to 2000 BC. Very early BA copper seems to have come from the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland, and the Great Orme Head in North Wales is a pre-Roman (and probably a BA) copper mining site. The Romans found a significant source of copper in Cornwall but they already had abundant supplies in Cyprus and Spain. Tin is much rarer but again Cornwall was a source of this element which was subsequently traded extensively in western Europe.

Silver, gold and copper will liquefy if contained in a crucible and heated on a charcoal fire. The molten metal can then be poured into a mould and will solidify on cooling. This process is known as casting, which is also suitable for alloys with a relatively low melting point such as bronze or pewter. A ‘runner’ must be created down which the molten metal runs into the mould. One or more ‘risers’ allow gases and excess metal to escape. Excess metal forms a ‘casting jet’ which is broken off when the casting has cooled. Moulds were made of two pieces, or even three if a socketed axehead was to be produced. Moulding can be achieved with clay, or moulding sand. Highly complex shapes were produced by an alternative ‘lost wax’ (cire perdue) method. The advantage of the lost wax method is the fact that there is no ‘parting line’ or ‘flashes’ seen on the casting, which also has a very smooth surface. After casting Norse bronze brooches, manufactured in this way, could be polished and ‘fettled’, and then embellished with gold, silver and niello – a black silver sulphide paste. The results are magnificent by any artistic standards. Silver and niello brooches were very popular. In this technique a line was engraved on a silver plate with a tool that would produce undercutting. Niello was rubbed into the design and the piece reheated to make the niello molten. After sanding and polishing the niello contrasted black against a silver background.

Iron could not be treated in this way. The northern European Iron Age didn’t began until about 700 BCE. The Romans later worked iron in the Forest of Dean and the Weald of Sussex. Sweden is famous for iron ore but the Viking age smiths probably collected and dried ‘bog iron’. A simple stack of charcoal and iron ore was ignited in a tall clay container or bloomery. The temperature was increased with bellows and eventually the result were ‘blooms’ of iron. The reduction of the ore to metallic iron was a solid state process since the temperatures reached were not high enough to produce liquid iron. The blooms were subsequently re-heated and hammered to extrude the slag and consolidate the metal. Wrought iron made in this way is practically pure with about 3% residual slag. It can be worked by a blacksmith with hot hammering. Cast iron was not made in Europe until the introduction of blast furnaces in medieval times. The oldest process for making steel is cementation. In this method wrought iron bars are bedded in charcoal for seven days and heated. The bars take up carbon and and the outer parts of the bar are converted to steel. When steel is cooled slowly or annealed, it is comparatively soft. Cooled quickly in water, that is quenched, it become intensely hard and brittle. Careful reheating determines its final properties. Razors are reheated very little since they need to be very hard and undergo no shocks. Chisels must be heated to a higher temperature since although they must be as hard as possible they should not be at all brittle.

The Vikings must have understood all these processes since they required large quantities of iron for helmets, weapons, tools and agricultural implements. The English and Anglo-Scandinavian metalwork discovered during the York excavations have been studied intensively. Investigation has shown evidence of high quality steel among the edged tools. Metallurgical evidence from Hamwic, Saxon Southampton, also shows similar high quality steel in the edged tools. Examples of steel from these sites shows that there was a high and uniform carbon content. Wrought iron had a very low slag content and exceptionally high hardness values that weren’t achieved again in edged tools till after the industrial revolution. Despite this knowledge the Vikings also imported superior sword blades from the Rhineland. The Carolingian kings attempted to prevent this, an early example of arms control. Despite the manufacture of beautiful objects the Viking age was a time of considerable uncertainty:

A wayfarer should not walk unarmed,

But have his weapons to hand:

He knows not when he may need a spear,

Or what menace meet on the road.

Shouting at doctors: archaeology and food allergy

Two of my Facebook contacts have been involved in an animated discussion on the subject of food allergy. The thread considered several important points, but the passions it aroused in some of the participants raised some painful memories from my former life.

My study of archaeological theory has taught me a great deal; I do wish I had started earlier. One thing I have learned is that the position of objective, entirely neutral, observer is a myth. All of us see the world ‘not as it is, but as we are’. Even if we do everything within our power to separate our observations from our interpretations we always fail because of personal experiences we cannot ignore, or prejudices of which we are quite unaware. You will be sad to learn that the world of academic theoretical archaeology does not consist of benignly competing, though mutually supportive, schools of thought but is rather riven by bitter divisions and irreconcilable hostilities.

So, just like medicine then. I didn’t leave the NHS to study archaeology for any single cause, and love of the past (or correctly those portions of our past which survive into our present) was always an enormous draw. But I was immensely glad to leave certain conversations behind, conversations which tended to go like this:

Patient: (speaking) ‘you are arrogant and ignorant. Seeing you was a total waste of time, you don’t know what you are talking about’.

Me: (speaking) ‘try to look at this rationally……’ (while thinking) ‘I have degrees from Cambridge and London. I am a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians. My post-graduate training took seven years and I have over twenty years experience as a consultant physician. I have no reason not to give you the best advice I can, although everyone can make honest mistakes and you may disagree with my advice – as is your privilege. Since I work wholly within the NHS your visit, tests, and treatment have cost you nothing. So why are you cross with me?’

My old dermatology department at St Luke’s Hospital had special interests in the early diagnosis of skin cancer, a severe skin disease called psoriasis, and the treatment of imported infections like leprosy and cutaneous leishmaniasis. Important work. Conversations like the one I have reported never occurred with patients suffering from these conditions, although the matters we did discuss could certainly be painful and difficult. The topics that rather wore me down were presumed allergies and skin diseases of a psychological origin. I could never understand why these disorders should be more difficult to discuss quietly and rationally than any others, and my incapacity in this respect plausibly accounts for my record of failure.

To begin with I should say that by ‘allergy’ I don’t mean those allergies expressed on the skin itself, to perfume perhaps, or epoxy resin, or to the metal nickel. There are reliable confirmatory tests for these problems once you have undertaken some very interesting preliminary detective work. Nor do I mean life threatening allergic reactions to nuts, eggs, penicillin or insect stings. A patient’s history almost always clearly indicates those conditions, and in any case there are reliable confirmatory blood tests available. There was also a fascinating, extremely itchy, condition called dermatitis herpetiformis of which I have provided a picture; this is unquestionably linked to gluten sensitivity. No, the allergies that proved contentious were food allergies that were possibly linked with skin disorders such as atopic eczema and urticaria (nettle-rash).

In archaeology, before we decide if a site is Neolithic or Iron Age in date, we have to reach agreement about what those cultural terms mean. It’s the same in medicine. I would propose that if a plant product contains a substance that damages almost everybody who ingests it (like wine or certain mushrooms) then that is toxicity. If a plant which is normally harmless, or even beneficial, to consume causes serious adverse reactions in a small number of people, and these adverse reactions are mediated by the immune system, then that is allergy, sometimes called hypersensitivity. If a plant which is normally harmless, or beneficial, to consume causes serious adverse reactions in a small number of people, but these adverse reactions are not mediated by the immune system (they might for instance result from an abnormality of a key metabolising enzyme as is the case with the disease phenylketonuria) then that is intolerance.

Despite the evident difficulties, we have to try to distinguish between observations and interpretation. In archaeology if you find a hole in the ground with bones in it you have found a burial. Burial is an observation but to call the same find ‘an interment within a grave’ is providing an instant interpretation which may or may not be justified. Similarly if you develop extensive urticaria then that is an observation, and one that can hardly be challenged if you have a photographic record. But if, on the basis of your recent dietary history, you say ‘Aha, I am allergic to oranges’ that is an interpretation and one that can very definitely be challenged. I know whereof I speak. I had urticaria as a child and my wretched existence was made just that little bit more wretched by having all the foods I enjoyed: oranges, chocolate, pork-pies, withdrawn one after another. All quite pointless; most patients with the common chronic versions of this condition do not appear to have a food allergy, although aspirin does predictably worsen the condition.

In both archaeology and medicine there can also be a problem with unavailable evidence. For example: you date a site by means of a Roman coin find. You send the coin to an expert but it is mysteriously lost before a report is written. You know what you saw but you must understand that it will be very difficult to convince others because the crucial evidence is now missing and cannot be observed again. Imagine that your life is being made wretched by severe headaches. There can be no objective evidence for the existence or severity of this symptom since it is something which you experience internally. You know what the headache feels like but if no cause is discovered can you accept that others may wonder if the symptoms represent a miss-perception on your part?

So where did my problems originate and why did I get into trouble? Patients with the hypothetical Hobbit’s disease ‘know’ from their own experience that the cause is wheat allergy combined with long quests. They put themselves on a gluten free diet and feel better as a result. That’s absolutely fine of course; who am I to say that they don’t experience an improvement? If, for one reason or another, they want a medical diagnosis of gluten sensitivity then there are blood tests and intestinal biopsies available to confirm this. If those tests are not undertaken, or the results are negative, then I would likely have concluded that the perceived beneficial benefits of the diet are an example of the ‘placebo effect’ or alternatively I might use that valuable Scottish verdict ‘unproven’. This is not a criticism of anybody’s character just an inevitable clinical deduction. I reacted in the same way when I met a lady who said she could ‘feel’ the presence of Romans in the landscape. I wouldn’t ask any adult to change their dietary behaviour as a result of my disbelief, although in the case of a child I might well feel happier to have a professional dietitian’s reassurance that no essential vitamins or nutrients are likely to be missed out as a consequence.

An additional complication used to arise when the patient was accompanied by a private lab report indicating that they were allergic to one or more, often many more, food items. Sometimes these tests were undertaken on hair samples which I am fairly certain is a simple fraud. Sometimes blood levels of a protein known as immunoglobulin E had been estimated. Under certain circumstances this test can be invaluable. Someone who has had a severe, life-threatening reaction to a flying insect sting may only recall that the culprit was yellow and black. Looking at blood IgE directed against bee and wasp venom provides a highly valuable species identification. Unfortunately sufferers from atopy (asthma, hay-fever or atopic eczema) invariably have multiple raised IgE levels directed against many foodstuffs and other common environmental proteins (grass pollen, house dust mite, milk protein, cat fur, horse dander, egg albumin etc). Deciding whether all, or any, of these are actually ‘clinically significant’ is a most challenging problem. I must have supervised dozens of people on house dust mite avoidance schemes, or restriction diets of various types, for the management of their eczema; some did feel they were mildly to moderately improved but I must say I never witnessed a life-changing results. Possibly my heart wasn’t in it, but please never say ‘lamb and pear diet’ to me unless you want to see a strong man cry.

I’ll try to reach a conclusion: in both archaeology and medicine it is alway important to think about the quality of the evidence. A large study, peer reviewed, and published in Antiquity or Nature is not an absolute guarantee of quality but such studies must be taken very seriously indeed. A paper published on the same subject by an ‘in-house’ journal of an organisation with a financial interest in a particular outcome is generally of less significance. Whatever the evidence you have remember not to go too far beyond it. Imagine that you find a Saxon site in Kent, fine. Saying that ‘Kent was conquered by the Saxons’ as a result of your findings goes way beyond the available facts. In medicine describing a reasonable biochemical justification for a treatment, or a diet, is one thing, but demonstrating worthwhile benefits, in statistically significant groups of patients in a clinical setting, is something else entirely.

Relatively recently, say somewhat less than seven thousand years ago in the UK, Mesolithic hunter-gatherer-fisher societies switched to a Neolithic diet based largely on farmed wheat and milk products. Why they did this is still far from clear but it was a huge change and one that human metabolism may well still be adjusting to. It is improbable that human evolution has successfully prepared us for large quantities of cane sugar, Virginia cigarettes or Carling Special Brew. Years of research have demonstrated that ingested items like tobacco, alcohol, and betel are associated with specific human cancers. This is not at all the same thing as saying ‘cancer is caused by food’. A causal link has to be demonstrated for each food and for each cancer, and this is a mighty difficult trick to bring off. Correlation does not necessarily imply causation. I think that we all have to accept that in the field of food allergy, as well as in archaeology, two people can examine the same observations but reach totally different conclusions. If you find yourself in this situation I would urge you not to be so committed to your own personal interpretation that you consider anyone who diverges from it to be foolish, arrogant or hostile. I have come to conclude that some people become so wedded to an archaeological hypothesis, or a diagnosis they believe that they have, that it becomes integrated into their personality. To attack the hypothesis, or the diagnosis, is perceived as an attack on them.

So, how do I finish? Firstly a piece of advice from my late father: ‘don’t shoot the pianist he’s doing his best’. Secondly something that a most charismatic doctor called Richard Asher penned fifty years ago as advice for people who want the best chance of having a long life: ‘don’t smoke, or drink alcohol. Don’t eat too much, get plenty of exercise, and choose your parents carefully’. How true. Now you can start shouting at me, if it makes you feel better, but remember that no doctor is put into this world simply to fulfill your expectations.

St John the Evangelist, Skipton Castle

Britain’s stock of ancient buildings has not infrequently been diminished by acts of thoughtless vandalism. Those buildings that do survive may achieve this by being incorporated into the fabric of more utilitarian structures. Bradford upon Avon’s Saxon chapel was once, I believe, part of a school. The Roman bath at Ravenglass was included in farm buildings. If eventually a thoughtful owner demolishes the later accretion then what remains of the original structure is revealed. I shall describe a happy local example of this phenomenon. I have visited Skipton Castle on several occasions but about ten years ago the combination of the presence of other Bradford university archaeology students, and the absence of small children requiring entertainment, stimulated my interest in the history of its chapel.

St John the Evangelist is a building also known as the ‘former chapel, Skipton Castle’. It was grade 1 listed in 1952 and its identifying number is 323418. That is about the extent of the knowledge available to the North Yorkshire HER but I have seen an informative press cutting dated 1957/8 which I assume is from the Yorkshire Post or Bradford Telegraph & Argus. The cutting states that: ‘the chapel of St John was erected by Alice de Romille, and first mentioned in a document dated 2 May 1512. It is likely that it was virtually destroyed in Cromwell’s time. During Easter Mr Hugh T Fattorini, who was reading history at Oxford, with the help of his elder brother Mr Thomas P Fattorini and the head gardener Mr Charles Fraser, made an interesting archaeological discovery. Some tons of stone and rubble were taken out and they found a hitherto unknown original doorway and oblique window in the wall which divided the sacristy from the chapel. They face the altar position.

To explain, there was a famous siege of Skipton during the English Civil War. After its surrender to the forces of Parliament the castle (home of the Clifford family) was ‘slighted’ and made unsuitable as an artillery platform, but not reduced to an irreparable ruin. The Fattorini family became famous as jewellers and goldsmiths at Skipton, Bradford, and now Birmingham. They designed and created at least one FA Cup. Since 1956 they have owned Skipton Castle, and have private apartments on site which are not open to the public. The press report continues: ‘already known features of the chapel include the piscina, two entrances, the window positions, the worked roof timbers and the lancet window in the sacristy. During the Easter excavations it was ascertained that the old floor levels were 28 and 48 inches below the present day level. Mr Hugh Fattorini had had this latest investigation in mind for some time.’

The basic plan of the chapel, as now accessible, is rectangular with a sacristy to the north, with north and south entrances at the west end. Originally it was used by the castle owners, garrison, and the occupiers of Holme Farm. It is not believed that any burials took place there. A building has been present at the site of the chapel in all the OS maps. To the immediate north is the castle ‘granary’; this is a seventeenth century building with stone mullioned windows and external stairs to a loft. Even on relatively modern maps it can be seen that the plan of the east end of the chapel building is different from the present structure. A representative of the castle owners has kindly provided me with an image which shows the pre-conserved state of the chapel. Evidently a domestic building with a chimney was demolished from the east end as recorded in a monochrome photos taken in the late 1950s. The mullions and tracery of the large east window are modern and were presumably restored after this demolition. Small fragments of the original tracery have seemingly been recovered and are displayed below the window. More recently the owners have returned the font which had been residing in the conduit court of the Castle itself.


The information display at the castle explains the medieval original form of the chapel. An exact date has not been established but it is thought to be of thirteenth century origin. Its presence and dedication is apparently attested in 1315. The thickness of the walls is attested by the building’s dimensions. The chapel is 59′ 6” long (internal 54′ 6”) and 27′ 6” wide (internal 22′). The height to eaves is 21′ and to ridge 27′. The wall fabric is a reddish sandstone masonry and at the west end it is built onto the limestone of an original bailey wall. The buttresses offer dating evidence since in the fourteenth century single buttresses would have replaced the twin type now visible. Having said this it is clear that the buttresses are constructed of well cut tan coloured ashlar which is quite different from the reddish roughly dressed sandstone found in the walls. Could the buttresses be the earliest modification to the original build? Perhaps their insertion could have been required by the greater weight of a new roof? Be that as it may the building has certainly been re-roofed and the white stone above the east window suggests the roof pitch was changed at this time.

At the east end of the chapel there is another large window, set high because of its importance. At the west end there is a rose window. Internally there are aumbries, a piscina and sedilia. In many respects it is the additional modifications to the structure since it was deconsecrated that I find most interesting. The owners don’t have any records but they know that before 1957 the chapel was a farm building split into at least two floors with the ground floor being used by cows. On the end was a residential building now demolished as mentioned above. Apparently the building had also been used as a coach house pre-1790 and at one time also a stable. The external south elevation shows signs of many modifications to the structure.

Skipton 008Skipton 012

A door with a Gothic arch would seem to be original. As part of the conversion to a coach-house the wall was later pierced and the arch created to transmit the load of the masonry above the large entrance is still clearly visible. In this space were later inserted a rather grand door and a small window; the remaining space being filled with rather poor quality masonry. The door and window will be datable; they are clearly not medieval, nor sub-medieval. The eighteenth century seems reasonable and would fit with the 1790 date mentioned by the owners. Moving further east along this same wall we can see that a further large medieval window has been blocked up and a further late Georgian door inserted. At the extreme east end of this wall there are further inserted windows and a chase line suggests that an additional external building, now demolished, was once present. The southern stepped buttress is visible.

The north elevation also shows signs of modification. The sacristy has been re-roofed in stone slates. Its east wall has been pierced, and the opening later filled with Victorian machine-pressed bricks. The large window has also been modified. Internally the sacristy appears to be now largely in its original condition. The window and squint ensured that a beam of light fell on the original position of the altar. The west end window and both buttresses seem unchanged. Inside the chapel there are many signs of internal partitions (some of brick) which may have constituted cow or stable stalls. I shall need to re-visit the chapel to record these. There must also have been wooden staging to support a hay loft.

The castle building itself welcomes visitors and, along with the canal, Craven Museum and parish church, is deservedly popular with tourists. The young historian, Hugh Fattorini, was to enjoy a long career in business but also became an authority on antiquarian books. Sadly he died about ten years ago; the chapel remains as a lasting memorial.

What happened in history?

2015-02-14 10.44.07 ‘If he [Colin Renfrew] were to be removed [from the Disney professorship] and placed, say, in a fruit canning factory in Bradford, no statement he might make, however scientific, would necessarily be accepted as a serious speech act worthy of attention…’ (Shanks & Tilley, 1989)

I shall start this blog by regretting that the authors of this quotation never thought to check if Bradford was a likely place for a canning factory. Sadly my city is not famous for peach trees nor fragrant orange groves. What fruit could one possibly expect to be tinned in Bradford; rhubarb perhaps? I should also explain that the Disney professorship of archaeology has nothing whatever to do with Walt, except possibly that some chemists and physicists regard archaeology as a Mickey Mouse science. The current holder of the chair is the wonderfully named Cyprian Broodbank. I should explain that Lord Colin Renfrew was the author of a successful archaeology textbook and was an early advocate of the scientific, or processual, school of archaeological thought. His opponents, like Ian Hodder, Michael Shanks, and Christopher Tilley, questioned Renfrew’s appeals to science and impartiality. They claimed that every archaeologist is in fact biased by his or her personal experience and background. This crevasse of variant opinion is as yet unbridged but some commentators regard the arguments between processualism and post-processualism as more a reflection of the clash of personalities during the 1970s at the University of Cambridge, where the Disney professorship is held.

Post-processualists have many differences among themselves but their shared core belief, which I think has much merit, was that the earlier theory treated people in the past as virtually mindless automatons and ignored their creative individuality. You will all be glad to learn that the archaeological heretics who refused to accept the prevailing orthodoxy did not face the headsman’s axe but were wafted to prestigious jobs at famous UK and US centres of learning. In some cases they are now housed quite near to orange groves, a fact I reflected on this morning as I tramped through damp brambles looking for long-abandoned mine shafts. I guess that much of the early history of archaeology was motivated by an attempt to distance the subject from pseudo-archaeologists who wrote popular paperbacks, antiquarians, antique collectors, dilettantes, or flint and brick enthusiasts, and in fact to establish archaeology as a proper science. Although current practitioners probably cannot provide neutral impartiality whether much would be gained now by everyone analysing themselves before starting to dig I’m really not sure. They would probably be more biased about each other than they are about stratigraphy and artefacts. Perhaps we should call in scientists from psychology departments to do the analysis. There, I’ve used the words scientist and psychology in the same sentence and they said it couldn’t be done. Anyway can we agree that archaeology is a ‘sort of science’?

Well, I’ve had my fun but seriously you do need theory to structure your thoughts. It would make no sense to simply accumulate facts but make no attempt to interpret them. Those practical people who refuse to consider modern archaeological theory risk unwittingly adopting someone else’s, out of date, theory without realising it. To explain the need may I offer telepathy as a sacrificial victim? On many occasions enthusiasts have tried to convince me of its reality by reporting experimental evidence. My feeling is that what is necessary is not yet more evidence but rather a theory that explains how telepathy might occur. Under those circumstances one might start to devise further experiments to investigate, and if possible falsify, elements of that theory. The difficulty I have met with telepathy believers is that they attribute the phenomenon to unknown mental powers or forces. Such a belief cannot make predictions about the natural world and so, in Wolfgang Pauli’s words, ‘is not even wrong’.

Long before Colin Renfrew there was an alternative school of theory known as culture-history. It’s most famous practitioner was Gordon Childe who I just remember, along with Mortimer Wheeler, from his appearances on BBC TV’s ‘Animal, Vegetable and Mineral’ in the 1950s. Vere Gordon Childe (1893-1957) was a classicist born in Sydney, Australia. In addition to his writings and theoretical work he was the excavator of the famous Orkney Neolithic sites of Skara Brae and Maeshowe, and held a professorship at Edinburgh. Although he was the son of a minister he became a life-long Marxist, and as a Marxist Childe believed in the crucial importance of the political, economic and social systems to which human beings were exposed.

The founder of the concept of a ‘culture’ had been Gustaf Kossinna (1858-1931), a German archaeologist and philologist. His basic intention had been to trace the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans. His conclusion was that Indo-European was the original language of the Nordic-type Aryans or ‘master-race’. As you can imagine these views tragically seemed to be a mandate from archaeology for the rise of Nazism. I’m sure Childe saw peoples as a social not a biological group, but it might not be completely unfair to regard him as a cultural imperialist. He was a distinguished classicist after all. Like so many scholars in the 1920s he saw the Bronze Age as the creation of Indo-European peoples. He grouped artefact types including: pots, weapon types, ornaments and house forms which together he saw as signifying a ‘cultural group’ or culture. He also took the next step in regarding such cultural group as the material expression of a ‘people’ or tribe. In the 1930s Childe drew diagrams in which blocks took the counterpart of tribal groups. These diagrams started in the Bronze Age when there was no history, and ended with historically attested tribes in the Iron Age. A popular concept at the time was that superior technology ‘diffused’ into adjacent areas. Generally a change in technology was assumed to reflect an actual migration. Some scholars envisaged mass movements with slaughter or enslavement of the indigenous inhabitants. Childe posited the migration of small groups of craftspeople. Ironically it was Colin Renfrew, using the new information derived from radiocarbon dating, who exposed the inadequacies of the assumed diffusion routes.

After retirement Childe travelled briefly but then committed suicide in Australia. It is often said that he was demoralised by the perceived inadequacies in his work and failures of Russian communism, however those in a good position to know believe that it was rather fear of old age and infirmity that were responsible for his final act. His writings were the first I ever read on the subject of archaeology and I still have my copy of What Happened in History purchased in 1966. Typically Childe is said to have selected Penguin Books as his publisher so that a cheap edition of this 1941 work could be made widely available. It is clear that Childe valued the golden tradition of civilization from Mesopotamia and Egypt, via Greece and Roman, to northern Europe. Native Americans and Australians don’t rate a mention, nor amazingly do the Chinese. World history is very different now. How different might my own personal history have been if I had first studied archaeology rather than medicine? On the whole I think I have had a narrow escape but it could have been fun, in theory.