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Preparing for War

While transcribing Denis Grant King’s journals, it has struck me how little mention there is of tensions in Europe caused by Hitler and Germany. Of course, my view comes with the gift of hindsight with full knowledge of the tsunami that is about to crash across Europe in the form of the Second World War.

I am now transcribing pages covering spring and summer 1939, and with the exception of the one or two mentions of problems caused by soldiers out on manoeuvres, and occasional musings on war and politics, relatively little has been mentioned of the looming threat of the UK going to war – that is until 26th August. In the journal entry for this day there is mention of some of the steps people were suddenly making, obviously dreading (or expecting) a turn for the worse.

In the journal, it is unclear what discussions had happened at Avebury on this particular day, but the impending war had clearly become enough of a cause for concern for two things to happen. The first was that Alexander Keiller, who considered war to be “imminent”, asked his excavating staff to continue working on the Saturday afternoon to complete recording features and records before the government “called up all the men” for military service. The second thing was that two individuals, Commander Rupert Gould and Leslie Grinsell sent valuable manuscripts to Alexander Keiller so they could be kept safely at his Avebury museum. Commander Gould actually visited Avebury to hand his manuscripts over personally as he travelled to Bath to take up duties at The Admiralty.

For those wondering what significant event happened on 26th August 1939, it was what is referred to as the “Jabłonków Incident” when German agents tried to take over the Jabłonków Pass, a strategic railway tunnel, in order to help Germany’s invasion of Poland. However, the Germans were fought off by Polish soldiers and the planned invasion was postponed.

On September 1st, the German Luftwaffe started bombing Poland including the town of Katowice, where a young reporter for the Telegraph newspaper called Clare Hollingworth was staying. Clare was a remarkable persona and is known as being the first woman to be a war reporter. Witnessing the bombing raids first hand she tried to alert the authorities but Polish leaders and the Second Secretary at the British Embassy in Warsaw refused to believe her urgent phone calls; after all, negotiations were still ongoing. Later, she saw first-hand thousands of German troops and tanks lined up across the border, facing Poland. It was only when she reported it and the Telegraph ran the story that the British public at large realised what was happening.

1053 miles away from Katowice, the lives of the people Avebury would quickly change.

DGK mentions a news report – which is likely the one by Clare Hollingworth – and writes that war will be declared in the next couple of days. The government thinks, upon declaration of war, the Germans will carry out a huge bombing campaign. Children in the cities are soon transported to the country, and a bus load of 70 children from the East End with their teachers arrives in Avebury. DGK arranges for his parents to join him. By 2nd September, Black Out precautions are put into place.

Avebury, along with the rest of UK, is bracing itself for war.

**

The full extract for Saturday 26 August 1939, from Denis Grant King’s diary, Alexander Keiller Museum Accession Number 1732624-003.

“Saturday, August 26th 1939
Beautiful sunny weather that must remind the older folk of August 1914. It is difficult to believe in the reality of the international crisis, or indeed that the human race lacks the intelligence and good will to compose its differences without recourse to war. Still, the forces which lead nations to war gather momentum in fair weather and in foul; and every intelligent person who has lived and observed events during the past twenty

years would be unduly sanguine if he had not expected another holocaust sometime. The question is, when?

No doubt statesmen will try to put it off as long as possible, that is, as far as delay is consistent with imperial interests. Churchill suggested that the zero hour would occur in August.

Anyway, Alexander Keiller believes that war is imminent and has asked us all to continue work on Saturday afternoon to reveal the “Z arrangement” as much as possible, and complete the records, before the Government calls up all the men.

Another reminder of 1914 came in the person of Commander Gould, R.N., who fought at the Battle of Jutland. He was then on his to way to Bath to take up duties under the Admiralty and called in at the caravan, where Alexander Keiller introduced him to me. He is a six foot man, 18 stone, so he says, clean shaven and grey hair; also very friendly and talkative, giving an account of various talks he had broadcast from the B.B.C., mostly, I understood, of an informative character on a variety of topics.

His object in calling was to leave certain manuscripts of value to be deposited in the Museum, which he considered to be a place of comparative safety. L.V. Grinsell also sent us some of his MMS [manuscripts] for safe keeping.

After Commander Gould said good-bye, Alexander Keiller told me a little about him. It appears that after the War was over, his wife left him, and his distress affected him mentally, so much so that he lost his job and sank into very low water. He then spent ten years perfecting the Harrison chronometer and making it work (which apparently it never did before), for which service the government rewarded him with the paltry sum of £100. One should see his work in the Greenwich Naval Museum. A queer story. One would not have thought that such an immense robust fellow could have been so upset by a little bit of fluff; but that is life!”

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An Avebury Story

By Dushyant Naresh (MSc Digital Archaeology, University of York)

I’ve never really believed in magic, or the supernatural, or a higher power. But I have to admit that there is something undoubtedly magical about Avebury and the prehistoric landscape it is nestled in.

Maybe it’s the size of the stones, or how large the circles are, or the fact that you can walk right up to them and touch them knowing that thousands of years ago, another human being was probably doing the exact same thing, thinking the same thoughts, and feeling this same sense of wonderment. It’s this blurred line between archaeology and emotion that gets the hairs on the back of my neck tingling.

Coincidentally, one core exercise of The Avebury Papers project is to translate some of these emotions into another medium – a “creative intervention” – be it poetry, prose, or something else. I guess you’d call that “art”.

I am the worst artist of all time.

However, I know how to make videos, and I like experimentation. So, for my Master’s dissertation, I went to Avebury with a dodgy microphone and a 360° camera to try and capture a mixture of both archaeology and emotion. I then created a “choose your own adventure” style immersive story using the videos I shot, allowing viewers to pick what kind of anecdote or theme they were interested in experiencing. This was all programmed and downloaded onto a VR headset for a full immersive experience, and tested with dozens of participants.

Some people liked the project, and many others didn’t. That’s the nature of any creative endeavour, and is what makes the whole process exciting. I hope to go back to Avebury soon to reignite that sense of curiosity and create something new, and hopefully, divisive.

If you haven’t visited Avebury, I highly recommend it. In the meantime, if you’d like to experience it virtually, you can watch/play An Avebury Story on YouTube.

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The curious case of Mrs St. George Gray and the West Kennet Avenue Axe (Part 1)

The inspiration for writing this blog came from finding an axe whilst trawling through the archive of weird and wonderful objects held in the Alexander Keiller Museum at Avebury.

Most of the objects in the museum were found during archaeological excavations and are boxed along with crucial information on which excavation they were uncovered by, and the cutting (excavation trench) and context (e.g. stone-hole, ditch, pit etc.) in which they were found. A smaller number are what we often call ‘stray finds’. These are finds that were found by chance, for example in a molehill or on the surface of a ploughed field, and therefore have little contextual information to go with them.

The axe in question was one such find. It was stored by itself in a small cardboard box, and all the contextual information we know about it is written on the object itself. The writing on it simply says:

“FLINT CELT FOUND BY MRS. ST. G. GRAY IN THE KENNETT AVENUE AVEBURY 1911”.

The axe found by Mrs St. George Gray in the West Kennet Avenue

Part of my job on the Avebury Papers Project is to catalogue all of the finds from Avebury that are held by the Keiller Museum. As a result, finding the axe hidden away on a shelf raised a few crucial questions for me. Some were basic ones, such as: what is the object, how old is it, and exactly where was it found. The latter question is essential. To archaeologists context is everything. Individual objects can tell us lots about past societies, but they hold a lot more value when considered as assemblages of objects, particularly if we also know what type of context they came from. An axe found in a midden might mean something quite different to one formally deposited into a pit. Beyond these relatively prosaic questions, there are other interesting questions that we can pose of this particular object, namely, who was Mrs St. George Gray, and how did she come to find the axe. I am going to attempt to answer as many of these questions as I can in the course of this blog.

The easiest of these questions to answer relate to the type and broad age of the artefact. The object is a ground and partly polished flint axe dating to the Neolithic period. This means that the axe was first flaked into a rough shape, and then finished by a combination of grinding and polishing of its surfaces. Sometimes the grinding of an axe’s surface covers the whole of the axe, sometimes it is patchy, covering the ridges between flake scars that stick out the most. Almost always, the grinding and polishing covers the cutting edge where it is used to create a sharp and durable edge suitable for working wood. Along with first appearance of pottery, and the construction of monuments, axes of this type are one of the defining features of the Neolithic in Britain (c. 4000 to 2400BC). Actually, all of these things occur in different parts of Europe in the preceding Mesolithic period (albeit not commonly), but that is a subject for another blog!

Polished flint and stone axes are regular finds on Neolithic sites, occurring from the start of the Neolithic up until the earlier part of the Late Neolithic. They occur most frequently on Early Neolithic sites, such as the Windmill Hill causewayed enclosure located 2km to the northwest of Avebury. Much closer to Avebury, flint axes also occur, albeit in smaller numbers, amongst the predominantly Middle Neolithic (c. 3500-2900 BC) artefact scatter known as the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. The occupation site lies on the line of the West Kennet Avenue and was first excavated in 1934 by Keiller and his team (see this blog post for details). The 1934 excavations yielded roughly 15 axes and adzes, with Isobel Smith noting in the excavation’s publication that partly polished and unpolished axes and adzes were the characteristic form of the assemblage (as in the photograph below).

Three axes/adzes found by Keiller’s excavation of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site in 1934. From left to right: The butt end of a flaked axe with ground margins; the cutting edge of an adze; a small complete flaked and partly ground adze or chisel.

So, the axe found by Mrs St. George Gray could certainly fit within the assemblage from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. This is significant given that all we know of its find spot is that it was “in the Kennett [sic] Avenue”. It may, therefore, seem likely that it came from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site, but given that the Avenue itself is just short of 2.5km long it is worth considering whether it came from somewhere else along its length.

We can safely assume that Mrs St. George Gray is the wife of Harold St. George Gray, who excavated Avebury from 1908-1922. Given that the axe was found in 1911, the axe was most probably found by Mrs St. George Gray whilst her husband was excavating. But that doesn’t make deducing a more exact location of the find any easier.

We know that during the Gray’s excavations at Avebury only 19 of the West Kennet Avenue stones remained visible. The antiquarian William Stukeley had recorded 72 stones in 1722, and the Grays were clearly aware of his description of the course of the West Kennet Avenue. In Mrs St. George Gray’s time, as today, the most visible part of the Avenue was its northernmost third where it reaches Avebury. In 1911, however, even in this stretch, many of the stones were buried, awaiting their re-erection by Keiller’s team in 1934 and 1935.

What we also know, thanks to the recent excavations of Josh Pollard and Mark Gillings, is that this stretch of the West Kennet Avenue was rarely ploughed, with the artefact scatter that makes up the West Kennet Avenue Occupation site lying a good depth under the topsoil. This means that it is unlikely that Mrs Gray would have come across the axe kicking around on the surface, unless it had been fortuitously brought up in a molehill, something that does happen on occasion.

Another possibility is that she found it whilst tracing the route of the Avenue in the field immediately south of the currently reconstructed part of the Avenue, a field which we know has been regularly ploughed in the past. It is also possible that the axe was found further from Avebury as the Avenue winds its way towards the Sanctuary, but this is perhaps less likely given how interrupted the remaining stones of the Avenue are in this part of its route, and therefore how less certain it would be that it was found “in” the Avenue.

Hopefully it is not too anti-climactic, but that is all we can deduce about the find spot of the axe. It is a significant find, but it would be a lot more so if we could be certain about exactly where it was found, and particularly whether it was part of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site, or potentially some other concentration of features or artefacts along the route of the Avenue.

We are left with two possibilities. Either it was found, most likely in a molehill, in the extant northern third of the Avenue, or it was found further to the south, probably in a ploughed field in a location where it was still possible to confidently establish where the line of the Avenue was. Either is possible, although I am somewhat in favour of the idea that the axe was part of the West Kennet Avenue Occupation, found by Mrs Gray some 23 years before Keiller’s discovery of the site. Unfortunately we will never know the truth. If nothing else, the story highlights the importance of accurately recording the find spots of stray finds!

Having dealt with the archaeological significance of the find, we can now turn to the finder herself. Up until now she has only be referred to as ‘Mrs St. George Gray’. This has not been to diminish her individuality or personhood, rather it is a simple reflection of the fact that when I started writing this blog that was all that I knew of her. Indeed, that was all that any of the current crop of Avebury archaeologists knew of her. In the literature, she is very much in her husband’s shadow. Even in her husband’s obituary published in the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society in 1963 she is only referred to as Mrs Gray. Uncovering the hidden histories of people involved in the Avebury excavations is very much at the heart of the Avebury Papers Project, and so along with investigating the possible find spot of the axe, its discovery in the archive prompted me to find out all that I could of Mrs St. George Gray. For now, though, this blog is getting rather long, so the identity of Mrs St. George Gray will have to wait for the next post

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Cool Finds of the Month

During photography in the Stables library attic, we’re continuing to find a lot of interesting drawings, posters, and maps, some are archaeological, and others are a bit different. Here are a select few.

This cartoon was made by Denis Grant King During the 1939 excavation of the South East sector at Avebury. The cartoon has captions describing people and their day-to-day activities on the excavation site. It’s worth zooming in for details.

Denis Grant King Cartoon  of the 1939 Avebury excavation, accession number 20004595
Denis Grant King Cartoon of the 1939 Avebury excavation, accession number 20004595.

Stuart Piggott was well-known for doing quick sketches and cartoons when he had a free five minutes. We have many within our collection here at Avebury. This one below is my personal favourite – a strange creature sneaks into a room, with the caption “a regrettable error has unfortunately crept it”.

Cartoon by Stuart Piggott, Accession number 20004596. showing a  creature crawling through a partially open door. Captioned "a regrettable error has unfortunately crept in
Cartoon by Stuart Piggott, Accession number 20004596.

After the 1934 and 1935 West Kennet Avenue excavations archaeologist Denis Grant King drew up some of the flints found during the excavations. The flint drawings below show all the worked areas of the flints as well as cross sections of the flint. These drawings are a just few of the ones we have, they are all grouped together under Accession Number: 20004991.

The graph below, accessioned at 20000573-014-001 was also created by Denis Grant King. The graph shows the distance between the standing stones in the North West and South West sectors of Avebury.

bar graph showing the distance between standing tines in the north west and south west sectors of Avebury
Graph of stone distances created by Denis Grant King, 20000573-014-001.

Whilst we know little about the map below, we do know it was produced in 1935. The map itself shows the path of 32 different historical sea voyages dating between 600 BCE and 1906. It shows everything from Columbus’ voyages to Hudson’s discovery of the Hudson River! It’s not clear why exactly it’s in the Keiller archive, but someone must’ve thought it was of interest at some point in time – perhaps it helps us think about Avebury in context of world history?

Map of the world with sailing journeys taken by famous adventurers and explorers shown
“The Great Discoveries” Map, accession number 20004686-001.
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A witch visits Avebury?

One of the reasons I got involved with the Avebury project was because I am a Wiccan/Pagan, and the stones are an important spiritual site for those people following a similar spiritual path. I am particularly interested to learn when the site became a popular place for like-minded “Witchy folk” to visit.

Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two, 1939, AKM item reference, 1732623-002.

I am currently transcribing Denis Grant King’s journals, and it was with great delight that I came across the first reference to someone visiting Avebury for spiritual reasons.

The journal entry is for 21st January 1939 and reads as follows:

Saturday, January 21st 1939

“Went to the work-in-progress room in afternoon to write some letters, but interrupted by two groups of visitors who came thinking the museum would be open. I allowed them in. One gentleman was a Rowntree whom I remembered seeing in August. Also, with the other group, a dark-haired young lady, Mrs [here a space is left to insert her surname] dressed in a vermillion jersey, whom I had met before at Perry’s:- the lady, I fancy, comes to Avebury periodically to commune with the spirits of the stones. I almost thought she was going to fall into my arms, her greeting was so familiar. On leaving she said she did not suppose it would be long before she came again, and she asked for my name!”

Denis Grant King’s ‘Journal of my visit to Avebury’, 1939, Alexander Keiller Museum item reference, 1732623-002, p. 58.
Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two. This spread shows the entry for January 21st 1939. AKM item reference, 1732623-002, p. 58.

1939 is the year Gerald Gardner, the man widely credited with beginning the modern Wicca religion (this early phase is now commonly known as the Gardnerian tradition), was initiated into the New Forest Coven. However, Gardner did not introduce his Wicca religion to the public until 1954. This makes me wonder if the lady donning the vermillion jersey was from the New Forest coven?

I shall be keep my eyes peeled for any mention of a return visit from this lady and keep you posted.

Michael Boyton

Journal of my visit to Avebury, Book Two. Here, Grant King’s describes a visit to Silbury Hill, with a drawing of the same. AKM item reference, 1732623-002, p. 60.
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Surveying Avebury’s Stones (with poles!)

Visitors to Avebury recently may have witnessed the odd sight of two people walking around with cameras on the end of long poles. Certainly, many people came up to ask what we were doing, and no, it wasn’t part of a mysterious mid-summer ritual!

The truth is sadly more mundane. Adam Stanford of SUMO GeoSurveys (https://www.sumoservices.com/archaeology-geophysical) and I have been conducting a survey of the Avebury and West Kennet Avenue stones using a technique known as photogrammetry, a technique for generating 3d models of objects.

I should add that our survey happened to coincide with a period of beautiful sunny weather. The brilliant sunshine and strong shadow was far from ideal conditions for stone photography, but it was hard to worry about that as the buttercups were out and the West Kennet Avenue was looking rather magical!

Adam Stanford using a camera on a pole to photograph the top of a stone on the West Kennet Avenue.

In order to make the photogrammetric model, we take overlapping photos of the stones from every possible angle (hence the long poles). This involved taking roughly 150 shots for each stone. Once the photographs have been taken, we use software to generate a 3d point cloud by triangulating the positions of individual points on a stone using multiple photographs taken from different angles.

The end result is an accurate 3d model of each stone.

Screen capture of the construction of the 3d model. The blue rectangles show the location and direction of each photograph the model is being compiled from.

Those of you that follow the Avebury Papers project will know that the focus of our project is on digitising the archive from Avebury’s 20th century excavations. Therefore, you are probably wondering why we want to survey the stones. The answer is a little convoluted.

The starting point is that there are lots of photographs of Avebury’s stones in the Keiller archive (we estimate there to be 2000 of them!). Many of these are only partial images of stones taken from odd angles as they were being uncovered, or re-erected, in the 1930s. It is quite difficult to identify which stones appear in the photographs but this is information that we would very much like to add to our catalogue so that ultimately people will be able to search for all the images and written records associated with each individual stone on the site.

Whilst trying to work out how we were going to identify these stones, the opportunity came up to work with some clever people at the University of York involved with machine learning. They have set up a project that aims to teach a computer to identify the stones in the photographs for us. I won’t go into more detail here as this part of the project will be covered in detail in a future blog post. Suffice to say, the first step is to give the computer some images of Avebury’s stones to use as a reference point. These photos need to provide the computer data on what every stone looks like from every possible angle, and so the obvious starting point was to create a 3d model of the stones using photogrammetry. A few examples of what the models look like can be seen below.

3d model of Avebury Stone 9.

AS-09 by SUMO GeoSurveys on Sketchfab

3d model of West Kennet Avenue Stone 35A.

WKAS-35A by SUMO GeoSurveys on Sketchfab

Beyond teaching a computer to recognise a stone, there are many more reasons why the photogrammetric survey is a great idea.

First of all it will provide accurate 3d survey data that will be essential baseline data for the future management of the monument.

Secondly, the survey opens up lots of avenues for further research. For example, it will allow us to conduct a detailed quantified analysis of the surfaces of the stones. Many of the stones at Avebury have evidence of differing amounts of flaking and pecking of their surfaces. This is of interest as, unlike Stonehenge, Avebury’s stones are often thought of as being natural sarsen boulders that have not been dressed. We will use the photogrammetric model to try and work out how much of the surface alteration of the stones relates to the working of them in prehistory, as opposed to natural weathering, or medieval and later attempts to break or bury the stones.

Ultimately, we aim to survey the whole of the monument, including its banks and ditches. Once this has been done the model will also be able to quantify the volume of its earthworks to a higher level of accuracy than has previously been possible.

Alongside an improved understanding of the pecking and flaking of Avebury’s stones, this information will be an essential component in understanding the scale and complexity of the Neolithic construction of the monument.

For now, though, there is more survey work to be done. We estimate that we may need to take 15,000 photographs before we have captured every stone from every possible angle. So you may well see more people wandering around with cameras on poles in the months to come!

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Cool Finds of the Month

*Content warning: drawings of a human skull at the end of the post*

Whilst organising the stables archive there have been some interesting discoveries, here are some of them:

These mounted pictures of dinosaurs were used as a museum display piece! From left to right we have a styracosaurus, an iguanodon, and a ceratosaurus.

Plan drawing of a road accident from 1940
Plan drawing of a road accident from 1940, AKM accession number: 20004634.

During World War 2 Alexander Keiller worked for the local police force. This meant he had to write reports for any incidents that occurred in the area. Here we have one of his plans for a report.

At Stables, we also have Alexander Keiller’s floor plans for his London residence at Charles Street. It is interesting to see how the house was laid out during his time there.

HUMAN REMAINS DRAWINGS AHEAD

Below you can see a select few of Doris Chapman’s pencil drawings of some of the skulls from Alexander Keiller’s 1936 excavation at Lanhill. While not strictly an ‘Avebury paper’, they fall within the wider project’s remit to celebrate all the people who excavated Avebury, and allow more people to access Doris Chapman’s work and realise her contributions to archaeology.

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Getting the Stables Archive Ready for Photography

Here in the archive, we are gearing up for round two of photography. We are moving the photography equipment to the stables archive where we have a lot of our larger maps and plans stored. But before we make the move we have to make sure everything is in order.

the two main plan chests in the stables archive
The two main plan chests in the stables archive

To make sure photography at stables goes as smoothly as possible we have been doing some important prep work. This includes rehousing documents so they all have their own individual wallet and accession number.

rehoused documents in a plan chest drawer
Rehoused documents in a plan chest drawer

This is a super important job as we need to know exactly what we have before photography starts so we can make sure nothing gets missed during the process and so that accession numbers don’t get muddled up!

We’ve also started a more detailed catalogue, as some items were catalogued as a bundle.

A person holding up a large map of Avebury
Volunteer JM holding up a map of Avebury. Accession number: 20004915

Here we have volunteer JM holding up one of the many large maps of Avebury that we have in the collection. The organisation of the stables archive has led to some other interesting finds, stay tuned for a future blog post on these!

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Psychometry and the Giants of Archaeology

“I was glad to note that you made some protest against the vapours that have befouled the ether […] it is monstrous that the only prehistory broadcast should be this nonsense.”
– V Gordon Childe to Alexander Keiller, 10 October 1937

On Friday 17 September, 1937, BBC Radio aired one of a three-part series titled, “The Unchronicled Past” by antiquarian John Foster Forbes. Foster Forbes was dedicated to the idea that megaliths were built by the survivors from Atlantis. He was noted for his opinions on UFOs, giants, and psychometry, which was the practice of feeling and studying vibrations from ancient monuments. The inclusion of his ideas on BBC Radio sparked vociferous protest from contemporary archaeologists: including Alexander Keiller and V Gordon Childe, who was then Abercromby Professor of Archaeology at University of Edinburgh. For an excellent further discussion of BBC Radio and archaeology, see Jan Lewis’ 2021 PhD.

Fran and her team of digitising volunteers at Avebury came across materials in the archive that demonstrate push-back from archaeologists regarding unorthodox ideas about the past, and show how scholarly debate filtered into the mainstream.

A March 1937 clipping in the Daily Telegraph calls Childe a “Controversial Archaeologist” for denouncing the “simple supernaturalism” of physicists Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir James Jeans, and for calling Hitler’s Aryan theory “arrant nonsense”. 

“Controversial archaeologist” clipping from the Daily Telegraph, accessioned at the Alexander Keiller Museum as 88051526_078_001.

A 10th October letter from Childe to Keiller, containing the assessment of the “befouling vapours” of Foster Forbes’ theories, was sent on stationery from the Fleece Hotel in Richmond, Yorkshire, which is still a going concern. He rails against Foster Forbes’ appearance on BBC Radio, “It is monstrous that the only prehistory broadcast should be this nonsense.” He rallies archaeology’s institutions to protest and to “offer to advise the BBC as to the reliability of proposed talks” and complains about the admission of “any civil servant” to learned archaeology societies.

Howard Cunnington, curator for the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society (WANHS), writes to Keiller on the same topic a couple days later. He attaches a resolution he was to put forth at the WANHS committee meeting, which expresses concern that the BBC had broadcast Foster Forbes’ “highly regrettable discourse on the ‘Stone Age’, which, as he admitted, set forth only his own ideas, which are entirely opposed to the evidence of all recent excavations, and to the opinion of the greater majority of accredited archaeologists”.

In Keiller’s reply to Childe (sent two weeks later, as he was suffering with flu), he echoes Childe’s complaint regarding the membership of Foster Forbes to the Royal Anthropological Institute and the Society of Antiquaries, and notes that he has suggested that both societies distance themselves from Foster Forbes’ views. He explains how The Prehistoric Society, WANHS, the Hampshire Field Club, and others have already made “articulate objections”.

Keiller also reveals how Kendrick (T D Kendrick, keeper of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum) had written to him to suggest that “two reputable archaeologists should broadcast talks controverting Foster Forbes’ fantastic statements”. Modestly, Keiller suggests that he might “instantly name half-a-dozen men very much more competent to undertake the job than I. After all I am but an archaeological surveyor and an excavator when all is said and done”. Keiller duly appends a list of archaeological subjects and specialists including Grahame Clarke, “Hawkes” (probably Christopher, perhaps Jacquetta – both had contributed to BBC programming previously), R G Collingwood, O G S Crawford, and Stuart Piggott to propose to the BBC, asking Childe what he thinks to the idea.

There are several more letters back and forth between Keiller and Childe, and others, on Foster Forbes. These clippings and letters in the Avebury archive reveal Keiller and later curators’ interests in preserving discussions about archaeology as much as the physical archaeology. They show how networks of peers could be mobilised to defend – or gatekeep, depending on whose side you are on – archaeological narratives.

Over 80 years later, archaeologists are still mounting campaigns against what is commonly called “pseudoarchaeology”. Graham Hancock’s popular Ancient Apocalypse aired on Netflix in 2022, rehearsing some of the ideas Foster Forbes put forth regarding ancient people, aliens, and Atlantis.

John Hoopes, Flint Dibble, and Carl Feagans responded to this programme in the Society for American Archaeology journal, noting that by addressing pseudoarchaeology, archaeologists are “damned if we do and damned if we don’t” as some people argue that interacting with the theories – even to denounce them – adds legitimacy and visibility. Hoopes, Dibble, and Feagans record the various public-facing, social media, and popular media attempts to refute Hancock. Lobbying for a BBC series on the matter – as per Keiller’s suggestion – just would not reach the same audience as in 1939, as pseudoarchaeologies multiply across global, digital spaces.

Indeed, these theories seemingly hold enormous sway in public imaginaries. Alongside attempting to myth-bust, it is therefore vital to consider why these myths take root. During the recent Radio 4 ‘In our time’ discussion on megaliths, Melvin Bragg was audibly exasperated with the expert response to many questions of ‘we can’t know for sure’: archaeological myths play a powerful role creating and sustaining interest in ancient places, and go far beyond any individual or learned institution’s control. 

After speaking about the Avebury Papers on the radio, Colleen received a pamphlet regarding an alternate theory regarding Avebury involving ley lines. She emailed the author back and invited him to come to Avebury, perhaps to volunteer or just to have a chat. He was incredibly lovely, and declined, as he was very elderly and taking care of his partner. We hope he keeps in touch and we will share the online archive with him when it is available.

These enthusiasts are stakeholders in the Avebury Papers, and as a project team we are still trying to understand their interests and needs in our outreach and care of the digital archive. We hesitate to dismiss their attachment to Avebury as unimportant or irrelevant. Can we form an inclusive archive when these divisions have defined archaeology for decades? Or can we conceive of the Avebury Papers digital archive as an opportunity for reconciliation, de-escalation, and an invitation in?

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Avebury Papers on Outside the Box podcast

Just in time for Volunteers’ Week, 1-7 June in the UK, the Archives and Records Association (ARA) invited us to take part in their Outside the Box podcast!

Ros Cleal (Curator at AKM), Ros Preuss, Bev Stapleton, Prue Saunders (all volunteers with the digitisation project), and I chatted about how the project has been progressing, what it’s like volunteering at Avebury, and the kinds of stories we’ve started to explore.

You can listen to the interview on Spotify or via Libsyn.

Click here to listen on Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/episode/4YAPN9i8IIMKk38dNTyu44?si=o4oYm4YOShup4xG3_qznFw

Click here for Libsyn: https://sites.libsyn.com/448569/website/volunteer-special-the-avebury-papers

A huge thanks to host Deborah for inviting us onto the show!

Outside the Box is a podcast about archives and the wonders they contain. Outside the Box is part of the Archives and Records Association’s Explore Your Archive campaign.