Blog Press coverage

Avebury Papers in Current Archaeology

The Avebury Papers project is mentioned by Joe Flatman in the 2 July 2024 instalment of his “Excavating the CA archive” column for The Past (the online home of Current Archaeology and other magazines):

“For many people, Avebury means the Neolithic stone circle located in the Wiltshire village, and as such I commence there and work my way outwards. Alexander Keiller, the ‘Marmalade Millionaire’, was an influential landowner and field archaeologist across the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. He used his wealth to buy a large amount of the land in Avebury, but the National Trust gradually became the majority landowner of the village and the wider prehistoric landscape through a series of gifts and acquisitions, commencing in 1943 and concluding with the purchase of Avebury Manor in 1991. This complex history is told in an excellent series of museums, and there is currently a project digitising and exploring its archaeological archive (see As they explain: ‘the only large-scale archaeological excavations to take place at Avebury were conducted just before the outbreak of WWII. Materials and objects collected and made at this time were left under-analysed for decades. As a result, we have – until now – only had a partial understanding of Avebury’s past and present’. This absence of fieldwork also explains the modest interest of Current Archaeology in the henge, with only five visits of note in over 50 years – CA 97 (June 1985), CA 225 (December 2008), CA 330 (September 2017), CA 332 (November 2017), and CA 351 (June 2019). Of these, the most significant news came in CA 330, when a square monument was unexpectedly identified within one of the stone circles, proving to be among the earlier structures on the site, although its use remains unknown.”

Read more of the article at


Ever heard of a Discavox?

One thing that fascinates me is how technology comes into fashion one day, cruises high on a technological wave, then suddenly, something different comes along and… wipeout! Almost overnight, it’s a dead duck, only to be used or mentioned again by people with fond memories of ‘once upon a time’.

It’s a timeless phenomenon. Stone gave way to Bronze, which in turn was superseded by iron. And what about MySpace or Friends Reunited? For years they reigned supreme before new upstarts like Facebook and Twitter arrived. Websites that were once worth millions could suddenly be snapped up for less money than a second-hand family car. A mention of outdated technology brings a furrowed brow to a younger someone’s brow, and you suddenly realise that your teenage years have been consigned to the halls of history.

When transcribing Denis Grant King’s diaries, I often come across some long-forgotten gizmo or gadget. I get a bit of a thrill from researching exactly what the now obsolete technology was.

Alexander Keiller was a bit of a one for modern devices, happy to spend some of his fortune on the latest thing on the market. One example of this is that he regularly took photographs in colour [some of which can be seen on the Historic England website]. This was a time when many traditionalists saw colour photographs as a passing fad, and that black and white images would remain the top choice for any photographer with any dignity or pride.

Denis Grant King’s diaries detail the technology used during excavations, but he also writes about his day to day life, visits to the cinema, and friends and acquaintances. It was with some delight that I came upon a mention of something called a Discavox.

Wednesday, October 5th 1938
Washed pottery in the work-in-progress room. Stuart Piggott returned from London in afternoon. Told him about the mysterious young woman who enquired after him.
Visited Mrs Carter in the evening; She showed me how the ‘Discavox’ works, and I listened to one record.

From Denis Grant King, ‘Journal of my Visit to Avebury’, 1732623-001, page 79b.
The double page spread of Denis Grant King’s, ‘Journal of my Visit to Avebury’, 1732623-001, page 79a-79b.

Ever heard of the Discavox? Me neither. A quick search revealed this was some sort of recording device aimed at the busy businessman who could dictate his letters into it. The machine would record his voice onto a disc, which was then passed onto a secretary to type up. Discavox also offered a service where the disc could be sent to them and one of their own typists would do the work. Think of it as the 1930s version of the voice recorder on your phone.

Normally, that’s as far as I will go looking up trivia encountered in King’s diaries. A light is shone on to an oddity I’ve never heard of, and I move on.

But imagine my delight when I found someone on eBay was selling an original advert for a Discavox from May 1938. It was too good to be true; talk about a niche listing. I parted with a couple of quid and it arrived a few of days later. I’ll leave it to you to enjoy it in all its glory.

‘Discavox’ advert, kindly shared by Michael.
Blog Pathways and resources

Creating a teaching resource with the Avebury archive

[Editor’s note: Kiri completed a student placement with the Avebury Papers as part of her masters’ programme at University of Southampton. The team are so happy to publish one of the key outcomes of the placement here. You can more about Kiri’s experience in her first blog post. The downloadable teaching materials may be found at the bottom of this post.]

I am almost at the end of my placement at Avebury Papers this term. During my placement, I worked on a very interesting project: creating a teaching resource for high school students based on the Avebury archives and excavated artefacts. The main objective is to take them on an exploration of how 20th century archaeologists worked on Avebury.

My key inspiration for the teaching resource was this illustration:

A pen illustration by Stuart Piggott, 1935. Alexander Keiller Museum Accession Number 20004597-001.

This drawing was a gift from Stuart Piggott to a friend in 1935. Many of the elements in the image are related to archaeology, such as the skull, pottery, books, maps and working tools. It reveals to some extent the daily work of archaeologists: maps represent archaeological field surveys, working tools signify archaeological excavations, skeletons and pottery are finds from excavations, and books indicate records of archaeological discoveries.

In my previous placement tasks (which I discuss in this blog), while checking photographs and creating catalogue information, I explored hundred of items in the Alexander Keiller museum collection. I observed that many of the items relate to archaeological work carried out by archaeologists at Avebury. They thoroughly documented the survey and excavation of Avebury, producing beautiful maps and plans, and drawings of the artefacts, as well as interpretive drawings.

Inspired by this exquisite drawing by Stuart Piggott, I decided that the key question for the teaching resource would be how 20th century archaeologists worked on Avebury. Using the digitised archives from the Avebury Papers as a starting point, I created a teachers’ introduction, presentation script, and powerpoint slides to introduce a range of archaeological activities by 20th-century archaeologists at Avebury including fieldwork, mapping, archaeological excavation and artefact analysis. 

“How 20th Century Archaeologists Worked on Avebury”, a resource for teachers and students

In my design, the pedagogy of this resource is divided into four main parts.

The aim of the first section is to help students understand what archaeologists do. This section covers the process and purpose of fieldwork, the purpose and elements of mapping, the main stages of archaeological excavation, and the recording and drawing of artefacts.

Secondly, after students understand the basic steps of archaeological work and the methods of drawing artefacts, they are encouraged to choose artefacts that interest them and then try to draw them. Hands-on practice can give students a deeper understanding of how archaeologists observe and record artefacts.

Thirdly, after the indoor activities, students could be taken on a tour of Avebury to explain the archaeological features, historical significance and cultural background of Avebury. Previously learnt theoretical knowledge can be translated from this step into practical experience. With a site visit, students would be able to see the megaliths for themselves and interact with the landscape, touch the stones, listen to the sounds of nature, and observe the changes in light and shadow on the monuments. Students would be able to gain a fuller appreciation of Avebury from an archaeologist’s perspective.

Finally, at the end of the research and investigation of Avebury, a seminar could be organised to allow students to reflect on what aspects of the site interested them most. Students would be guided to use the Avebury archive and other resources to explore a wider range of Avebury-related topics and then freely present their findings.

Avebury artefacts

As the main teaching element involves artefact drawing, photographs of artefacts excavated at Avebury are essential. Ben Chan has provided some very clear and useful photos of the artefacts for this purpose. 

A pottery bowl from Avebury.

For example this pottery bowl comes from the burials at the foot of stones of the Avebury complex. It can be observed to have a relatively curved line with outwardly sloping edges, a slightly inwardly tapering neck, widest at the shoulder, and then an inwardly sloping belly. It also has a hand-carved geometric pattern on its surface. These rich details provide very helpful examples for practicing artefact drawing. 

Reflecting on the placement

The process of producing this teaching resource has also been a rewarding experience for me. My understanding of the archaeological process and the importance of the Avebury site has been enhanced through in-depth study of the Avebury archive. The designing of teaching resources has also honed my skills in educational pedagogy and curriculum development. The design of engaging and informative lesson plans requires careful consideration of the target audience (high school students), their learning needs, and the best ways to effectively communicate complex archaeological concepts.

I have become more acutely aware of the value of experiential learning and hands-on activities to attract students and develop deeper understanding. Although time was short and there was no opportunity to put this teaching resource to use, I hope that in the future it will help more young people to learn about archaeology, inspire interest in archaeology, and develop a sense of stewardship, preservation, and appreciation of archaeological sites among students and the wider community. I hope that teachers will use this resource in history or even arts classes, as archaeology as a subject is no longer available as a qualification in secondary schools. This experience not only broadened my knowledge, but also inspired me to learn more about my profession and apply it in practice. 


You may freely view, download, reuse, and remix the teaching resource below. This introduction is designed with History teachers in mind, however, it can be used by anyone. We’d love to know if you do use it, please leave comments below.

Part One: an introduction

This introduction explains how the resource was designed, and how you might use it to learn more about archaeology.

Part Two: presentation script

This script accompanies the presentation slides, linked below. It may be used by teachers, or read by anyone with any interest in archaeology or history.

Part Three: presentation slides

These slides accompany the presentation script, linked above. It may be used by teachers, or read by anyone with any interest in archaeology or history.

Blog Pathways and resources

A Pathway into the archive: with Denis Grant King

[Editor’s note: Matt completed a student placement with the Avebury Papers as part of his masters’ programme at University of York. The team are so happy to publish one of the key outcomes of the placement here. You can more about his experience in his first blog post. Huge thanks to our volunteers who participated in the Focus Group and whose feedback will directly impact future development of Pathways. A link to Matt’s Pathway may be found at the bottom of this post]

Introduction: A Pathway into the Avebury Papers

The Avebury Papers archive houses thousands of digital items that cover the range of occupation of Avebury, as well as the history of the Avebury excavation. One of my roles as a placement student was to create a Pathway which would serve as an engaging and entertaining entry into the archive for those not familiar with Avebury and its past. In the creation of this pathway I hoped to create a concise, interesting, and accessible entryway into the Avebury Papers for those that are interested in the history of the Avebury excavation. 

Denis Grant King in the drawing office at Avebury, Accession Number 20000606.

The photographs that I chose directly correlate to diary entries from Denis Grant King, who was an archaeological draughtsman working at the 1930s excavations, and the Pathway aims to tell a human story of adventure. By making these stylistic choices, both textually and through artefacts, ultimately showing one man’s trip to Avebury – from the moment he leaves home to the moment he leaves – not only gives insight into the work and life at Avebury in the 1930s, but also parallels the adventure a tourist may experience today.  

The pathway was created as a ‘Prezi’ experience because Prezi offers an engaging user-experience with a variety of design choices for the author to choose from. Moreover it allows for a free-scrolling form of exploration if the user prefers to explore at their own pace, or follow the more structured slide-show. 

I invited volunteers from the National Trust Avebury team to attend a focus group to give feedback on the Pathway. I ran the focus group when the Prezi was in a ‘beta’ form, ready to use but with the expectation of changes. The focus group was intended to discuss how effectively the Pathway facilitates a user’s further exploration into the Avebury Papers archive. By organising a focus group of self-selecting Avebury Papers volunteers, we were able to benefit from the knowledge of individuals who have intimate knowledge of the archives, and who are also experienced in speaking with visitors to the site.

Focus Group: Guiding Questions

Using the knowledge of Avebury Papers volunteers, I hoped to elucidate how effectively the pathway functioned. Using guiding questions, the focus group aims were to discern whether the pathway should be narrowed down and focus on particular themes in the archive; broadened to include more themes; whether more pathways should be created separate from one another; whether the pathway should function as a storytelling tool or be strictly informative; and ultimately if the pathway was deemed engaging and entertaining. 

These aims were important to explore as they encompass the overall ideas of how one might explore the archive, and be motivated to explore it further. In order to explore these aims throughout the focus group, a series of guiding questions were created. These questions were: 

1.       What did you find most compelling or interesting about the pathway?

2.       In what way Does the pathway inspire you to learn more?

a.       What is working well, and what could be improved upon in this regard?

b.       Did you find that the pathway kept you engaged, or were you bored by it?

3.       How is the pathway representative of the archive as a whole?

a.       Do you think that it is important that the pathway represents the archive as a whole, or should it be representative of only one group of artefacts?

b.       Would you like to see more groupings of artefacts in this pathway, or fewer?

c. Should the pathway be longer?

4.       Should the pathways act as a creative storytelling tool, or be more strictly informative? Why would one option be more effective than the other, in your opinion?

Each question was posed to explore a certain aspect of the pathway. Question one acted as an easy and thought-provoking exploration of what a volunteer felt when exploring the archive, and gave the focus group leaders a chance to see what worked for the pathway from the beginning. Question two, as well as sub point a and b, explored the idea of ‘inspiration’, and was the most lucrative of the questions that resulted in the most conversation, which will be discussed later in this report. Moreover, it helped elucidate on whether the archive was engaging, keeping the attention of the user. Question three helped shed light on the scope of the pathway and what may work best moving forward regarding how much should be in a single pathway and their functionality; this question was heavily touched upon in question 2 during open discussion with the group. Finally, question four opened the floor to the function and tone of the pathway and how that might alter how a user experiences it. 


These questions allowed for a free-flowing discussion on the nature of the pathway and their utility in the larger context of the archive.The volunteers listed are as follows: Dai Davies, volunteer 1; Andrew Snowden, volunteer 2; RP, volunteer 3; Bruce Chinery, volunteer 4; Martin, volunteer 5; Volunteer 6.

 Here, I summarise the responses to each question:

  • Question one: This question helped elucidate what works with the Pathway. There was a consensus amongst the volunteers that the pathway was intriguing and enjoyable, and offered insight into what was held in the archive. All volunteers noted that they enjoyed the adventure-like theme of Denis Grant King and the human touch it gave to the pathway. Dai and Andrew noted that they felt they did not get a good sense of what the archive held as a whole, however. They also noted they’d have liked a way to access other topics at a click of a button – for example, hyperlinks that lead to other objects from the collection.
  • Question two: Andrew noted that they enjoyed the post-it style of writing, but did touch on accessibility in terms of whether the user would be using a phone, PC, tablet, etc and how that may alter how they experience the pathway. Volunteer 6 felt that it was a ‘page turner’, also commenting that they would have liked to be able to branch off into new topics similar to a ‘Wikipedia rabbit hole’. This sentiment was shared by Dai. Andrew made note that the audience should be kept in mind when creating a pathway, and Bruce and RP elaborated further that they do not think the pathway would be valuable to a researcher. In the case of this pathway, the volunteers did not specify what the ideal audience of this Pathway was. 
  • Question 3: There were consistent comments throughout the focus group pertaining to the portion of question 3 discussing whether the pathway should be representative of the archive. A sentiment shared by all volunteers was that the Pathway does not paint the whole picture of the Avebury archive. For example, Andrew noted that Denis Grant King’s arrival to Avebury does not occur until later into the excavation, removing the beginning phases of the excavation. Martin echoed this, agreeing that artefacts that predate Denis Grant King would help add to the Pathway. Dai commented that too many pathways would raise an issue of scope, and questioned how many pathways would be feasible to address the entirety of the archive. Volunteer 6 thought that the pathway was an ideal size, a notion that Dai agreed with, and that a high-level summary at the beginning of the Pathway would have served them well to get a quick idea of what the Pathway would entail. 
  • Question 4: Dai, Martin, and Volunteer 6 agreed that the Pathway should be a storytelling tool for the casual visitor. RP said that the Pathway should be factual and straightforward, but still engaging. Andrew noted that while some want storytelling, others want straightforward writing; all participants also noted earlier that the audience should be kept in mind (e.g. academics vs. tourists), raising the notion that there should be different ‘pathways’ for both casual visitors and academic researchers. Volunteer 6 also suggested that she would have liked to see an image of Denis Grant King, the subject of the Pathway, which volunteers agreed with.

Key Findings and Recommendations

Overall, the Pathway met most of its aims based on the focus group results.  Volunteers generally agreed that the Pathway was engaging and informative, and left them wanting to explore further. The Pathway necessarily paints only a small picture of life at Avebury. With time constraints kept in mind regarding the allotted placement hours, the only changes that will be made to this particular placement will be adding the accession numbers to each photograph (a recommendation from the Project Team), as well as adding in a picture of Denis Grant King to more fully introduce him in the pathway.

Further Pathway recommendations

Volunteers shared ideas that were beyond the scope of this Pathway. This is perhaps indicative of the fact that they are very familiar with the archive as a whole. Their responses clearly indicate that further Pathways are desirable. The following are key recommendations for other Pathways that might be developed in the future:

  • Events such as the onset of World War 2 and its effects on the excavation 
  • The start of investigations of Avebury (before the arrival of Denis Grant King). 

By having multiple pathways based around different stories to be told and themes to be explored, visitors would have access to multiple accessible and easily digestible avenues of information, facilitating more active exploration. Moreover, while keeping scope, accessibility, and website management in mind, including hyperlinks to other related information or pathways would allow for a more seamless exploratory experience.

Explore the Pathway

You may explore the beta version of the Pathway via this link to Prezi:


Exploring Avebury Online: reflections on a placement with the Avebury Papers

Content note: please be aware that this post contains reproductions of black-and-white photographs of medieval human remains excavated and photographed in-situ at Avebury in the 1930s. The blog also contains descriptions of how the individual is thought to have died.


I am a current student of Digital Archaeology at the University of York. The subfield of Digital Archaeology is a relatively new phenomenon, including all aspects of archaeological investigation that might include the use of computers or software. Digital archives, 3D modeling, VR, Geographic Information Systems and more are all aspects of what a digital archaeologist may do, but it certainly does not cover the entire spectrum. 

I began my placement with the Avebury Papers project in January 2024, where I have been able to explore what it means to help build and participate in a digital archive. Having worked in some manner of physical archives in the past, it has been an incredible experience to see the difference between the physical and the digital, and how these different experiences and environments necessitate different approaches not only to archiving, but in facilitating the use and exploration of an archive.

During my placement, I was tasked with getting to know the archive by exploring the catalogue in progress and digitised items; selecting items to create a Pathway into the archive for future users; and creating a user guide which explains the transcription process.

Exploring a Digital Archive-in-progress

The Avebury Papers provides a unique opportunity not only to explore the fascinating henge monument, but also the many different strands that make up an archaeological excavation. The archive includes 1930s excavation diaries, by Alexander Keiller, William Young, and Denis Grant King, and all of the bureaucratic documents that go into facilitating excavations. These materials are important facets of knowledge production that are often overlooked when considering an archaeological excavation. Not only do they provide researchers with a framework for further investigations of the site as time goes on – and how a site can be excavated and revisited over the course of one-hundred years – but it showcases a window into the past. It highlights the human experience of the archaeological excavation, rather than showing off the artifacts that we are used to seeing on display in museums or stores.

A screengrab showing a folder in the shared Google Drive. Not an easy way to encounter archival materials!

There are issues with digital archives of course. And there are especially issues for encountering a digital archive which is not finished yet. As part of my placement, I have been accessing the digital photographs of archival materials and spreadsheets of information via a Google Drive, in formats that are far from the finished interface.

There is an inherent disconnect between seeing a tangible item and place in the real life world and viewing a virtual archive through an accession number and a screen. Digital items are looked at largely in a vacuum, in their own ‘window’ on the screen – this is counter to how you might view an artifact in a section of a museum, where it is contextualized with multiple others right next to each other. 

Figure 2 – Loose photographs compiled and annotated by Denis Grant King. Accession number 20000603-026

Take Figure 2 for example. Here we have two photographs documenting the excavation of human remains within Avebury stone circle during 1938. Looking at the hand-written description, it reads: 

“Photograph showing how the barber was trapped by the accidental falling of stone No 16. His pelvis was smashed and his neck broken, while his right foot was wedged beneath the stone.” 

From this photo and the general context of the Avebury Archive, you may guess a few things: that this individual could have been one of the prehistoric denizens of Avebury amidst its construction, and they were killed by the movement of the stone. Encountering only this photo set in the archive will not shed much light on the role this individual played in the story of Avebury. 

However, when you add context with the words of an expert who was part of the excavation team, the image becomes much more clear – as seen with Figure 3, below.

Figure 3: accession number 1732623-001, spread 60.

Figure 3 is an excerpt from the diary of Denis Grant King, with a key passage on the right hand page: 

“Thursday, September 15th 1938.

To the Museum. It now appears that the medieval skeleton found partly crushed under a large megalith in the south west-sector is not that of a tailor, as I had been told, but of a surgeon barber, aged 30 to 35, of the time of Edward I or slightly later. Three silver pennies of Edward I, a pair of scissors with sharp (not angular) points, a probe or lancet, and a buckle were were found with the skeleton. I saw these exhibits laid out on the table in room behind the museum in preparation for exhibition on the morrow. On the site I noticed that the “barber” stone was now standing without any baulks of timber, and the next stone had been re-erected. The base and verticality of this stone were determined this morning ready for fixing with concrete socket.”

Transcription from Denis Grant King’s diary, accession number 1732623-001, spread 60.

When working your way through a digital archive which does not yet have a complete catalogue, you sometimes have to build that context yourself. Archives like the Avebury Papers, that house both the written reports and diaries of the excavation as well as the artifacts and features that were found, provide a great way to pull together a story. To orient myself in the digital archive-in-progress, I started by seeking out images that spoke to me the most – one of these was Figure 1. I save these photos and then read through some of the transcriptions of diaries that accompany the artifacts, specifically looking at similar dates. This is how I was able to build context for myself within the archive.

When the digital archive is finished, users will be able to perform more complicated searches. However, this task can still be laborious, and also is not always an accessible option: after all, a user would have to have a keyword in mind, or already know what they are looking for if their only way into the archive is a search box. Someone that is a casual viewer of an archive, who might not be trained in archaeology or history, may find this process of searching cumbersome. Some users may prefer to have context laid out for them more ‘generously’, rather than having to search for it themselves (Whitelaw, 2015). Therein lies one of the challenges of making an open, exploratory digital archive – and why building a Pathway into the archive is an important task that I was given as a Placement volunteer. 

Creating a Pathway: with Denis Grant King

My main objective during this placement was to prepare a new pathway into the archive: that is, establishing themes and contexts that users might find helpful to follow to make their journey into the archives a more streamlined experience. By building a Pathway into the archive, I was able to do a few different things. One of these is building an engaging and entertaining introduction into one aspect of the archive, giving a user something to get started with research in the archive itself. In this case, I chose materials produced by Denis Grant King, an archaeologist and draftsman for Alexander Keiller, the man running the excavation. Second, this Pathway also allowed me to contextualize various aspects of the archive. The photographs of the barber surgeon excavation and the diary entry I shared above is one example of how I brought together archival objects for the pathway, giving more contextual information and a story for the black and white photographs. 

You can read more about the Pathway that I created, and the feedback generously shared by Avebury National Trust volunteers that helped with its development, in my second blog post [ed note – coming soon!].

User Transcription Notes

I also have been working on user transcription notes. The archive itself has plenty of handwritten diaries – many of which are difficult to read. Transcriptions make the process of exploring them – whether for research or pleasure – much easier. For example, transcriptions allow for the use of the search function on a web page, wherein you can search for key phrases of interest. However in transcribing these texts, decisions must be made on things to change or keep the same.

User notes, then, provide a guideline for archive users to follow that will explain any changes that have been made to the text for legibility’s sake. Eventually, the archive will house user guides of various kinds to help people to understand both how to navigate the archive, but also how the archive in its digital form was created. These guides will hopefully make the archive more accessible, transparent, and open.

Reflecting My Time at Avebury

I have found my time very enriching to my experience as an archaeology student. At first, I found myself floundering (and at times, I still feel that way) with how vast the archive is, and the sometimes oppressive nature of searching through excel spreadsheets and google drives of JPGs. However, as the placement progressed, I have begun to embrace the openness of the archive and find myself happily, and aimlessly, scrolling through areas of interest.

Every day I work in the archives I am met with a new challenge to face. One such challenge is just how truly large it is. It is home to thousands of photographs of actual artifacts, but also landscape photography, feature photography, and photographs of diaries. Because of this, it can be difficult to navigate, especially when contending with filtering between excel sheets listing the accession numbers of artifacts, and the google drive files. It is no easy task to familiarize yourself with the many different accession numbers and associated codes for different artifacts, but it is necessary to do – especially if you hope to find the patterns and themes within the archive to build something like a Pathway as I was asked to do. 

The upside to a challenge such as this, however, is the feeling of triumph after choosing a theme and following it through the archive. And who really minds looking at the rich history that lives within the archive? After many hours of taking note of accession numbers, similar photographs and key words in diaries, certain patterns begin to emerge – which is precisely how my Pathway was born!

It is challenges like this that made the experience at Avebury exactly what I was hoping for: a way to build my skills as a digital archaeologist by teaching me the best ways to navigate an archive, and how to use an archive to bring it to the outside world so others can enjoy it as I have. 

Blog Pathways and resources

Young archaeologists and time-travelling diaries

By Georgia (BA Archaeology, University of York)

I’m Georgia, an undergraduate student at the University of York, currently completing my dissertation on communicating archaeological techniques to children.

Georgia welcoming the young archaeologists to Avebury.

Back in December 2023 I welcomed a branch of the Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC) to Avebury, to explore the henge, discover how the Avebury Papers team goes about transcribing diary entries, and explore the ways that archaeologists have historically made records. 

Walking around the South West sector at Avebury.

The session began with a short walk through the henge, where we talked about Keiller’s method of excavation and restoration at Avebury.

There were two activities, separated by a ten-minute break where the children had a snack and a drink. The first activity was based on transcription, where the children were given a range of extracts to try to detangle. The diary pages that were used in the session were taken from Denis Grant King’s 1938 account of his time at the site, as well as the 1934 excavation log written mostly by Alexander Keiller himself, with some entries penned by Stuart Piggott when he was absent.

These diaries represent a range from most complex handwriting (Keiller) to least difficult (Piggott). While I was researching and planning this session in August 2023, I visited the Avebury Papers volunteer team who were in the process of transcribing the excavation logs, which prompted conversation surrounding Alexander Keiller’s slightly illegible penmanship and inspired this activity. 

Young archaeologists have a go at transcribing handwriting from copies of archival materials.

As they had a go with transcription, a few of the kids asked about what the “answers” were for unfamiliar or indiscernible words. This began a discussion about what the Avebury Papers volunteers do when a word is unidentifiable, such as leaving a blank space or inserting their best guess between square brackets to show their uncertainty. Some of the children incorporated this methodology successfully into their own transcriptions.

The second activity asked the children to attempt to write their own diary entries, imagining that they had spent a day excavating on site. 

The influence of the sources from the previous task was evident in some of the children’s diary entries. An example of this is in the picture below, in which it is clear that the child noticed and incorporated some of the style of Keiller’s excavation log, such as the abbreviation of names (e.g. Alexander Keiller becomes AK), the description of the weather, and his brief sentences. Although I’m glad they didn’t incorporate his indecipherable handwriting! 

An entry for ‘July 1924’ by one of the young archaeologists.

To end, I want to give a big thank you to the YAC members for being so enthusiastic, and to the YAC leaders for all their help throughout the planning process and the session itself.

You may freely view, download, and reuse the diary extracts (images and transcriptions) below. Right click to save images.

West Kennet Avenue 1934 excavation diary,
accession number 78510467

78510467: 19-20 April, written by Alexander Keiller, spread 71a-71b

78510467: 19-20 April, written by Alexander Keiller, spread 71a-71b.


78510467: 5-6 May, written by Alexander Keiller, spread 79a-79b

78510467: 5-6 May, written by Alexander Keiller, spread 79a-79b.


78510467: 2-3 August, written by Stuart Piggott, spreads 123-124


Denis Grant King, ‘Journal of my visit to Avebury:
Book Two’, accession number 1732623-002

Extract from 15 November 1938, spread 28

1732623-002: ‘Journal of my visit to Avebury: Book Two’, extracts from 15 November 1938, by Denis Grant King, spread 28.

Happy 90th Anniversary

The game is afoot! Today is the 90th anniversary of the very start of Keiller’s first campaign of sustained fieldwork at Avebury.

Alexander Keiller’s ‘Excavation Diary’, 1934, page 65. Accession number 78510467.

On Sunday the 8th of April 1934 the initial trenches were surveyed on the line of the West Kennet Avenue. Keiller’s own excavation diary records this in a rather matter of fact fashion:

‘11.15am staff also WY, PW and FC to site. Elephants [small tents] and Mammoth [large tent] erected. Gear unpacked.

Afternoon. Cutting Ci, Cutting Cii, Cutting Ciii, Cutting Civ, Cutting Cv, Cutting Cvi, Cutting Cvii, Cutting Cviii, Cutting Cix inclusive plotted by theodolite according to new “Central Line Method”.

Evening. Above plotting completed. 

Sunshine: clear: warm till evening: then chilly.’

In his own diary entry for Sunday the 8th of April WEVY (William Young) is a little more eloquent:

‘Spent the greater part of the day, (until dark!) in Mr Peak Garlands field, helping Mr Keiller and his staff who were engaged in plotting out the cuttings in preparation for the commencement of the forthcoming excavations tomorrow morning. The spot where Mr Keiller has selected to begin is at the S.E. end of the existing double row of stones, (seven on the left and four on the right of the avenue as one looks towards Kennett) situated along the foot of Weedon Hill, or Windmill Boll. It is Mr Keiller’s intention to search eventually for the stone holes of those missing from the right hand row, as well, and he has plotted out a skeleton plan to include the existing stones, beginning with cutting 1 at end S.E. end, which incidentally marks the boundary of the field. Each cutting will be 100 ft in length and 80 ft in width across the avenue, (i.e. extending 40 ft on either side of the avenue axis), and will follow, naturally, in direct succession.’

WEVY then marks in his diary ‘The Kennet Avenue Excavations’ in large handwriting on Monday 9th April… so this Avebury anniversary might properly be celebrated on both days.

Today is a fitting day then for introducing a new phase to Avebury’s history: read more about our commissioned artists, Gayle Chong Kwan and Kialy Tihngang.


Avebury Papers: Artist Commission Announcement

We are delighted to announce our two Artist Commissions for the Avebury Papers.

Gayle Chong Kwan and Kialy Tihngang will be exploring the Avebury archive in the coming year, and we are excited to see what they make of the archive’s varied materials and stories.

Our artist commission began with an open call in September, and we were overwhelmed with the quantity and quality of proposals. Avebury clearly inspires creativity, and we look forward to seeing the new works, and ways of understanding Avebury, emerge through this commission.

Gayle Chong Kwan’s and Kialy Tihngang’s proposals caught our attention for their serious attention to the complexities of archives and archive practices. Their practices are varied, but what both artists have in common is an open and expansive approach to mixed materials.

A portrait of Gayle Chong Kwan, photograph courtesy of the artist.

Gayle Chong Kwan

Gayle Chong Kwan is an award-winning multidisciplinary artist and academic, of Chinese /Mauritian and Scottish heritage, whose work is exhibited internationally in galleries and the public realm. Her large-scale photographic and video work, immersive installations, and sensory ritual events act within and against histories of oppression and positions the viewer as one element in a cosmology of the political, social and ecological. She has a PhD in Fine Art on ‘Imaginal Travel’ from the Royal College of Art, UK (2023) and has been Artist Fellow at Compton Verney (2024), the British Museum (2023), V&A Museum (2021), Ca’ Foscari University Venice (2020).

A portrait of Kialy Tihngang holding ‘Untitled (‘Useless Machines’), 2021, photograph courtesy of the artist.

Kialy Tihngang

Kialy Tihngang is a multidisciplinary Glasgow-based visual artist, working in sculpture, video, textiles, animation and photomontage, often in collaboration with performers and musicians, involving elaborate handmade sets, costumes and props. As a first-generation British-Cameroonian, she is particularly interested in the constructed (and therefore inherently deconstructable) nature of British national identity.


An Avebury folk song

In addition to Keiller’s records, papers, and correspondence connected with his activities on the property, the Avebury archive also contains material belonging to some of his collaborators on the Avebury project. Among these are the papers of William EV Young (or WEVY) who was the custodian and later curator of Avebury museum.  

Amongst Young’s sundry papers unconnected to the work of running the museum, under the same accession number are documents about local incidents and superstitions – including extracts from a local Reverend’s diary – and several versions of a folk song. 

The document dates from 1953 and, whilst it may be connected to the renewed post-war interest in folk collection generally, it is more likely to reflect Young’s specific interests in local Avebury lore. This version of the song was sung in the pub in Beckhampton, among other places, by John King of Avebury who died in 1917.  

An apparently earlier typed version of the ‘Ground for the Floor’ as sung by John King of Avebury, 20000594-013-001.

The song is Ground for the Floor – Roud 1269. In terms of genre the song is a ‘rustic idyll’ – characterising the simplicity of a rural life as one of contentment. It was also collected by others; including George Gardiner in Hampshire, Sabine Baring-Gould in Devon, and Alfred Williams from the village of Marston Mersey north of Cricklade, in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century phase of interest in folksongs. 

The lyrics and chorus collected have some degree of variation, which include distinct versions such as that collected by Cecil Sharp in Somerset, that by Gardiner in the South West, which are all broadly similar in structure, if varying as to the chorus . A more notable variation is the one recorded from George Maynard of Sussex, which differs substantially from the other preserved examples of the song. A tune was transcribed by Baring-Gould, and another is in Lucy Broadwood’s English Country Songs. The only recording of the song seems to be of George Maynard’s version of lyrics, first recorded in the 1960s – which appears on Volume 20: There is a Man Upon the Farm of the Voices of the People collection. 

Further research indicated that the lyrics Young and others collected closely match those of a broadside ballad of the same title, printed in London sometime between 1780 and 1812, and digitised by the Bodleian library.

A late 18th / early 19th century printing of Roud Number: 1269; Bodleain Library, Shelfmark: Harding B 11(2066), shared under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 DEED.

Visitors to Avebury and other names

Denis Grant King’s (DGK) journals, written during and after his time spent at Avebury in the 1930s, are rich repositories of names. King notes down site visitors, correspondents, and more. As I’ve been transcribing his journals, I’ve noticed some names appearing frequently, or in contexts which suggest them as important types. I found this fascinating and so decided to do a little research for no other reason than to satisfy my own curiosity. And then I thought, “if I’m interested, other people might be too”; and so here is the first of what is intended to be several occasional nlogs about these people.

I should have come up with some witty heading along the lines of Avebury Additions, or Excavating Extras but alas, I seem to have lost my little pot of inspiration. Maybe you can come up with something suitable? Suggestions in the comments please.

Avebury Visitors: Part One (16 August to 20 August 1938)

Thursday, August 18th 1938 

(1732623-001-016). When DGK first arrived at Avebury he had a letter of introduction with him written by OGS Crawford

Page 16 of DGK's 'Journal One', accession number 1732623-001. The journal has been opened and photographed at a double page spread, showing Denis Grant King's handwriting. We are transcribing the full text of this image as part of the project.
Page 16 of DGK’s ‘Journal One’, accession number 1732623-001.

Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford, CBE, FBA, FSA was a man who worked largely as the Archaeological Officer for the Ordnance Survey, plotting the locations of archaeological sites. He specialised in Prehistoric archaeology and wrote many books on the subject. During World War Two, as part of the Royal Berkshire Regiment, he made maps and took photographs of the German positions on the Front Line. In 1927 he founded  “Antiquity: A Quarterly Review of Archaeology”, which remains one of THE pre-eminent archaeological journals. The Avebury archive also contains many letters between Crawford and others, including a satirical letter to the Modern Mystic magazine.

Saturday, August 20th 1938 

(1732623-001-023). At Woodbury DGK saw an excavation taking place on the crest of a hill in sight of Salisbury Cathedral (these excavations would later be called “Woodbury I and II”). Here he was introduced to Charles William Phillips who was the Hon Secretary of the Prehistoric Society, and a tutor or professor at Oxford, who was in Salisbury on vacation.

Page 23 of DGK's 'Journal One', accession number 1732623-001. The journal has been opened and photographed at a double page spread, showing Denis Grant King's handwriting. We are transcribing the full text of this image as part of the project.
Page 23 of DGK’s ‘Journal One’, accession number 1732623-001.

DGK describes Phillips as “a fine tall Saxon type, with the muscles of a navvy, aged perhaps 45, with small — almost immature — moustache, and brown to fairish hair”. CWP was also an archaeologist who led the 1939 excavation of Sutton Hoo, and in 1946 replaced OGS Crawford as the Archaeology Officer for the Ordnance Survey.

A black and white photographic portrait captioned ‘CWP’. Photo Album F compiled by Alexander Keiller, undated, possibly Knap Hill c. 1937-1939. Accession number 78510305, at page 48.

(1732623-001-023). While at the above-mentioned Woodbury excavations, DGK was also introduced to Dr Gerhard Bersu of Frankfurt and his wife Maria (although DGK never mentioned Maria by name). They were a German couple who had left Germany on account of Gerhard’s Jewish heritage (on the maternal side). DGK describes him as presenting a very comical figure, short and dumpy, round moon-like face, very genial, somewhat discoloured teeth, blue eyes and brownish hair; dressed in loose sail-cloth trousers to the middle caff, a coat of weaving not generally seen in seen in England, and an old greenish Homberg with feathers and heather stuck in the band at the back.

DGK notes that Gehard “spoke in peculiar broken English”, and gives the example of what Gehard was calling “rocking seats” were actually “working seats”. What DGK seemed to be unaware of was Dr Bersu’s ingenious ability to interpret archaeological features. Far from being a ‘dumpy man in strange clothes and an old hat’, the revolutionary excavation techniques employed at this excavation by Gerhard that changed the way Iron Age Britain was interpreted. Before Dr Bersu’s arrival, it was common belief that Iron Age people lived in pits (as DGK mentions in his journal entries). However, by proving that these pits were not dwellings but had been dug for food storage, Dr Bersu was able to prove that Iron Age people lived in Round Houses.

While Dr Bersu was conducting DGK over the site, their group was approached by Lieutenant Colonel Charles Douglas Drew, the curator of Dorset County Museum (DGK mistakenly refers to this as “Dorchester Museum”) and the Secretary to the Dorset Natural History and Archaeology Society. When he died in 1956 The Drew Trust was set up in his name. Even today, this Trust gives outstanding A-Level History students prize money if they attend university.

Page 26 of DGK's 'Journal One', accession number 1732623-001. The journal has been opened and photographed at a double page spread, showing Denis Grant King's handwriting. We are transcribing the full text of this image as part of the project.
Page 26 of DGK’s ‘Journal One’, accession number 1732623-001.

(1732623-001-026). This entry, a continuation of the 20th August, doesn’t include anyone famous, but it shines a little light onto William Young’s life, and his family’s political interests. William is in charge of the excavations at Avebury and DGK is finishing the day by visiting Mr Young’s family home where he meets Mr Young, senior.  On the sideboard he sees two newspapers: The Daily Herald and “Action”. You’re probably wondering why this is worth noting? In those days, The Daily Herald was seen as a newspaper that supported the Labour Party and was aimed at the “working man”. However, Action was a newspaper published by Oswald Mosely’s British Union of Fascists. We don’t know yet what Young senior’s political leanings were, but it raises interesting questions about the circulation of ideas across the country at the time.

Denis was a busy guy on 20th August 1938. I wonder how often he looked back over his diaries and remembered the people he met?