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The curious case of Mrs St George Gray and the West Kennet Avenue Axe (Part 2)

A photo of Avebury’s bank and ditch taken in April 1914, the figures on the bank are thought to be Mrs Gray and her son Lionel Alexander Keiller Museum accession number 78510069.

In my last blog I explored the prehistory of an axe found in the West Kennet Avenue. Today’s blog continues with its more recent history, or rather the history of its finder, Mrs St George Gray. Whereas the previous blog drew much from existing archaeological knowledge of the British Neolithic, in this blog our sources are birth certificates, census records, and the diaries of WEV Young, a key figure in Avebury’s archaeological history who worked as a foreman on many excavations, including Keiller’s Avebury excavations, and later went on to become curator of the Keiller Museum. I am joined in writing this blog by Prue Saunders, Avebury Papers volunteer and a keen documentary historian, who did much of the digging into the history of Mrs St George Gray.

Before we proceed it is worth stating who it was Mrs Gray was married to, as this provides background as to why she was at Avebury. Her husband was Harold St George Gray (1872-1963), a distinguished archaeologist who began his career as an assistant to General Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers, who is often considered to be the father of British archaeology. Undoubtedly Gray learnt much during his time with Pitt Rivers, and he went on to become a respected excavator, noted for the quality of his draughtsmanship and the thoroughness of his publications. The beautiful marking on the West Kennet Avenue axe (see the previous blog) is in a hand that appears on much of the material from his Avebury excavations, and one suspects that it is the hand of Harold St George Gray himself, or perhaps Mrs Gray.

After working as Pitt Rivers’ assistant, Mr Gray spent a short period as an Assistant Curator in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford before going onto the role that would define his professional life for the next 48 years, as the Curator of the County Museum of Somerset, and the Secretary of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society. Throughout his career he was frequently in the field, excavating a series of important archaeological sites including the Iron Age Lake Villages at Glastonbury and Meare, and the Neolithic henges of Arbor Low in Derbyshire, Maumbury Rings in Dorset, and of course Avebury.

Gray’s excavations at Avebury remain the only largescale investigation of the henge’s massive ditch. The current form of Avebury’s ditches is the result of many millennia of silting, and although they still appear massive, their true scale is almost impossible to appreciate. Their excavation was, by any reckoning, a mind-boggling undertaking which produced one of the most iconic photos of any British Neolithic excavation. Mr Gray’s excavations at Avebury took place in 1908, 1909, 1911, 1914, and 1922, and it was in 1911 that Mrs Gray found the axe somewhere along the line of the West Kennet Avenue: and so, we return to the true subject of this blog.

Harold St George Gray’s team standing on sections cut through the Avebury ditch in Cutting IX in April 1922. Alexander Keiller Museum accession number AVBAKP088.

Documentary research readily reveals that Mrs St George Gray was Florence Harriet St George Gray (née Young). She was born in 1875 to a farming family in Staffordshire, and moved to Motcombe in Dorset when she was three or four years old. The second of seven children, her family was listed in the 1881 census as farming 50 acres and employing one farmhand and two servants. They were, therefore, relatively comfortable, if not wealthy, by the standards of the day. In 1899 Florence Young married Harold St George Gray at her local parish church at Motcombe. In 1901, when Harold was Assistant Curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, their son Lionel St George Gray was born. He sadly died in 1923 aged 22 with his profession listed as an “archaeological student” on his death certificate. Florence St George Gray outlived her husband, who died in 1963, remaining in the home they had retired to, Treasurer’s House in Martock, Somerset, until her death in 1970.

Those are the facts of Florence St George Gray’s life as revealed by public records. To find out more about her and the role she played in her husband’s excavations we need to turn to archaeological archives, publications, and the diaries of WEV Young (no relation to Florence’s family, as far as we are aware). What is immediately clear from even a cursory view of these sources is that she was almost ever-present in her husband’s fieldwork, as was, one suspects, their son Lionel.

One of the benefits of the fact that archaeologists are generally very good at keeping photographic records of their excavations is that we often get to see snapshots of the people who were in and around those excavations. Often these images are working shots of people digging, or we see visitors incidentally in the background of shots of excavation trenches. Harold St George Gray’s photographic archive of his Avebury excavations includes many of these types of shots. A little more unusually, they also contain rather more formally posed portraits of a well-dressed woman, sometimes accompanied by a young boy. Often the female figure appears, somewhat ethereally, in the middle distance in a manner reminiscent of a landscape painting.

Mr Gray wrote long notes on the back of his photographs detailing their subject. In the photo below he describes the scene in detail, including observations about a bird’s nest perched in a recess in one of the stones, and even whose garden he is standing in to take the photo. The one thing he does not do for any photo, however, is mention the presence of the woman or the boy! Still, we can be relatively certain that the figures are Florence St George Gray and her son Lionel.

Two figures, thought to be Florence and Lionel St George Gray, with two stones of Avebury’s Northern Inner Circle in May 1911. Alexander Keiller Museum accession number 78510050.

In the earlier part of the 20th century, the role of an excavation director was to observe, direct, and record. Getting one’s hands dirty shifting tons of ditch fill was the work of labourers and site foreman. One can imagine that in between the moments when his presence was required in the trench, Mr Gray and his family were free to explore the surrounding landscape, or indeed to enjoy a spot of breakfast! We are provided insight into this in an account of the discovery of a skeleton in the Avebury ditch detailed in Harold St George Gray’s publication of his Avebury excavation, in which he recalls:

“The writer’s absence at breakfast was also unfortunate, for on his return some of the bones [of the skeleton] had been removed, and the skull had apparently been trampled upon before any part of it was actually recognized by the workmen engaged on this spot. Some of the bones had been thrown back: these, however, were collected, the picks were set aside, and the clearing of the interment and the surroundings was then carried out by Mrs Gray and the writer.”

  • Gray, 1935, p. 145.

One can quite imagine the dressing down the poor workmen were given upon Mr. Gray’s return. The passage is most interesting, however, because it reveals that, as well-dressed as she appears to have been at all times, Florence Gray was very much involved in the process of excavation, and was trusted to undertake delicate tasks unsuited to ‘clumsy’ workmen. In many respects, it seems that Mr and Mrs Gray worked closely together in regard to the excavation and processing of the excavated material. As C. A. Raleigh Radford recalled in Mr Gray’s obituary in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, “Mrs Gray was throughout his principal helper in all his activities, including his excavations”.

In the 1921 census, at the age of 46, Mrs. Gray for the first time records her occupation on her return as a Curator’s Assistant. In Mrs. Gray’s obituary, Cookson details “half a century of dedicated service” that she had provided to the Someset Archaeological and Natural History Society. This included copying minutes of meetings, supervising volunteers to wash finds, restoring museum exhibits, and driving her husband around to visit archaeological sites.

The extent to which Mrs Gray was ever-present in her husband’s working life is also suggested by the diaries of WEV Young, who met the Grays numerous times through his work as an archaeological foreman. These days we would think of the role simply as that of an archaeologist, or perhaps an archaeological supervisor, but in the earlier 20th century a foreman, despite often being a highly talented and knowledgeable excavator, stood somewhere between the workmen and the archaeologist. There was certainly a hierarchy at play in such roles, and according to Young’s diaries, this was a status quo that Mrs Gray was quite keen to maintain.

It should be stated that our observations are of course very much from the perspective of Mr Young, and we have no diaries from Mrs Gray to provide a counterpoint to his perspective. Bearing that in mind, in the few times that Mrs Gray appears in his diaries there is a clear enmity between the two of them, mostly based around Florence Gray establishing their relative social positions. In one entry, reflecting on his work during Mr Gray’s Lake Village excavations, Young notes:

“Mr Gray called me into the hut at five o’clock and paid me off, remarking as he did so that funds this time were very short (I hope he will get enough for his own “honorarium”). Mrs Gray also joined in with a few well chosen remarks, plainly intended for my edification, although addressed to her spouse – “Really dear: I cannot keep on making up the expenses of the excavations, my purse will not allow it. I had to make up five pounds for the Ham Hill work.” … In the presence of Sir Joseph and Lady Bowley, I listened meekly to all this … behaving myself with that gruelling humility one should do, in the presence of their superiors, then touching my ragged cap I backed away, and took my leave.

  • WEV Young Diary 2, Tuesday September 23 1930, p. 129-131.

Assuming the veracity of the account, Young’s rather sardonic attitude to the class system that prevailed at the time is clear. Equally clear is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, Florence Gray was keen to foster the elevated social status that her husband’s position gave their family. Perhaps more notable is that fact that she was not only actively involved in her husband’s excavations, but to some extent she partly funded them too, and she was keen to let others know this was the case! Her obituary suggests that alongside making up the shortfall in expenses from her own purse, she also raised money for her husband’s excavations.

Hopefully, through the course of this blog, we have managed to breathe some life back into a figure that has stood at the periphery of Avebury’s history. This seems fitting, as Florence St George Gray certainly does not appear to be someone who was content to remain on the periphery. Rather, she and her husband appear very much to have worked as a team, or perhaps, instead of a team, we should better think of them as a couple with common purpose. When I first came across the axe in the stores, I wanted to bring Mrs Gray out into the light because I felt that being known only as the wife of a noted archaeologist was doing her a disservice. Having spent quite some time trying to write about her, I wonder whether my desire was wrongly guided by modern sensibilities. I suspect that, as strong a character as she appears to have been, she was also keen to uphold the social norms of the day, and was probably quite proud of being Mrs St George Gray.

To bring things full circle, we will finish our account of Florence St George Gray with a particularly apt photograph. It is a photograph of Mrs Gray on the West Kennet Avenue taken in 1908, 3 years before she came across an axe somewhere probably not too far from where the photo was taken. Incidentally, WEV Young’s diaries tell us that the Grays visited Keiller’s excavation of the West Kennet Avenue in 1934, the year he excavated the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site. One wonders if Mrs Gray told Keiller of the axe she once found on the Avenue…

A figure, thought to be Florence St George Gray, next to one of the few standing stones in the West Kennet Avenue in 1908. Alexander Keiller Museum Accession Number 78510000.

UPDATE! 19 June 2024

Since publishing this blog, Prue has continued to research other names in the archive. In doing so, she has also recovered further evidence of Florence St George Gray’s contributions to archaeology.

Reports published by the Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society (unsurprisingly, given the Gray’s links with the society) contain further clues that piece together her work. Harold St George Gray’s 1928 report on Porlock Stone Circle Part II (SANHS vol 74), notes that Florence dug at the site, including apparently her own ‘small trench’.

Florence also is credited with drawings in Gray’s 1926 Ham Hill publication (SANHS vol 72): ‘Plate XIV – the five specimens, B2, B3, I 18, I 20 and S4, were drawn by Mr HC Charlewood, and the remainder by Mrs St George Gray’.

Ham Hill report, Plate XIV, SANHS 72 (1926).

Sources:

Gray, H. (1926). Excavations at Ham Hill, South Somerset Part III. SANHS, 72: 55-68.

Gray, H. (1928). Porlock Stone Circle Part II. SANHS, 74: 71-77.

Gray, H. (1935). VI.—The Avebury Excavations, 1908—1922. Archaeologia, 84: 99-162. doi:10.1017/S0261340900013655

Ralegh Radford, C. A., and Rawlins, S. W. (1963). Harold St. George Gray, 1872 – 1963, Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 107: 111-116.

Cookson, C A. (1970). Mrs. St. George Gray (née Florence Young) 1875-1970, Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, 114: 122.

WEV Young’s diaries are held at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes, Accession number DZSWS:MSS.4269

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Digitisation in progress: photography

Header image: Denis Grant King’s diary, Accession Number 1732623-002.

In the ‘archive scoping’ blog post I talked about our ambitions for the archive, and how we hope to embed reminders that, behind the digital files we create, there are real objects.

We’ve now been photographing for 4 months, and making good progress. Our wonderful volunteers have been tackling flat papers, photographic prints, and books which require ‘v-scanning’ (the books rest partially open in a cradle, and we use a setting in Tocosa to ‘flatten’ or ‘open up’ the pages). Each different kind of item demands a slightly different approach, whether that’s selecting lighting settings, using a cradle for conservation purposes, and whether we make use of auto crop or rotate, or do one or both adjustments manually.

Below are some of the photographs taken so far, which show a few of the strategies and decisions we’ve made.

Denis Grant King – Journal of my visit to Avebury, 1983

Denis Grant King’s diary, Accession Number 1732623-002.

King was an archaeologist and artist, and he spent many years at Avebury, eventually working with Isabel Smith as she prepared her vitally important synthesis of the 1930s excavations (which she published in 1965 as Windmill Hill and Avebury. Excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925–1939).

King’s diaries are lavishly illustrated and contain reflections on the personal dynamics of the group as much as the archaeology.

For this diary, we used the v-scan function in Tocosa, as it ‘flattens’ out the ‘v’ shape of the diary. We haven’t done this for all manuscripts, but there were compelling reasons for this one: 1. the double-page spread illustrations, and illustrations throughout, look better with square(ish) edges; 2. The handwriting is clear enough for us to use OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software to semi-automate the transcription process, and straighter lines of text help the OCR along. But more on OCR another time!

This map page is so beautiful I couldn’t resist uploading a version already to King’s existing Wikipedia page. We’ll be doing some more uploading to Wikipedia later in the project, as it’s a great way to get Avebury materials out there in front of many eyes!

Alexander Keiller’s 1934 excavation diary

Keiller kept diaries for each of his excavations. This is the first one for our project: covering the 1934 activity at West Kennet Avenue.

We photograph the fronts of all book-type objects in order to give more of an impression of the physical object.

Keiller’s 1934 diary, accession number 78510467 – front cover.

And here’s a preview of the title page, which gives a hint at Keiller’s handwriting (which is presenting a challenge to our transcription volunteers – more on that in another post!).

Unlike Denis Grant King’s Diary, for these diaries we are not using v-scan correction, so you get those angles edges from where the book is resting in the cradle. It was not so important to have square edges for these diaries, as there are no illustrations and the handwriting is almost impossible for OCR. Keeping these sloping edges keeps that reminder of the physical object properties.

Keiller’s 1934 diary, accession number 78510467 – inside cover page.

Retaining imperfection

Accession number 20004005-002.

Sometimes, letters might be a little creased as we find them in their storage boxes. So long as the crease doesn’t obscure the text, we are not smoothing out all texture. Again, this is to preserve more of an impression of the ‘real’ archive – which I hope will perhaps encourage people to come and see it for themselves. It also, I think, gives more of a sense of these objects as things which have been used – they’re not just digital files that have appeared on the internet, they have their own histories.

This letter is a reply from the museum curator regarding a query about the ‘Mary Tudor’ weight found at Avebury.

When photography goes wrong

And finally… just an example of the kind of human error that can sneak into the photography studio! Below you see the first image which was taken of item 88051525-064. Notice the ghostly hand blurring across the image! Luckily, we noticed this error and the photograph has now been re-taken, hands free.

Photograph of the address side of a postcard. There are two green King Edward stamps in the top right corner. This photo also has an error! There is a blur of an arm across the image.
Ooops… Item 88051525-064 is photographed a little too quickly.
Photograph of the address side of a postcard. There are two green King Edward stamps in the top right corner.
All fixed! 88051525-064 is ready for the archive.

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On Keiller’s excavation of the West Kennet Avenue and why we wash flint…

Whilst going through the archive in the Alexander Keiller Museum I came across some boxes of worked flint from the West Kennet Avenue. The material consists primarily of flint flakes, some of which is waste material from making stone tools, some of which are tools in their own right. The latter would have been flakes used for cutting and scraping a variety of materials such as wood and animal hides. The material in the finds archive in the Museum is conspicuously clean and carefully boxed and packaged, but for some reason this material was only poorly washed with mud still adhering to many of the artefacts. The objects needed a wash and the following is a long winded explanation of why!

One evening in 1934…

Two men met in the Red Lion in Avebury. The two men were Alexander Keiller and Stuart Piggott. Their first encounter was in 1928 when Piggott, then only 18 years old, was already a keen archaeologist with an interest in Neolithic pottery. By 1933 Piggott had taken up an appointment to help Keiller study the Windmill Hill pottery. He had also suggested to Keiller that small-scale excavation could reveal the course of the West Kennet Avenue, which at that stage had only a few standing stones remaining. The majority had been either fallen, been buried, or were broken up for building stone centuries before. Keiller thought that Piggott’s idea was excellent, and in typical Keiller fashion, took it and expanded it exponentially.

When Keiller and Piggott met in the Red Lion that evening in 1934, Keiller told Piggott that he had decided to buy the whole of the Avebury monument and as much of the West Kennet Avenue as he could, all with the aim of excavating and restoring the monument to its former glory.

It was a grand vision of a type that few could have resourced or even begun to imagine. The work began with the excavation of the West Kennet Avenue in 1934. The primary aim was to track the course of the Avenue by uncovering stone-holes and buried stones. The most efficient means to do so was through the excavation of two long parallel trenches on the alignment of the two rows of stones that made up the Avenue. Quite unexpectedly, during the course of the excavation a large artefact scatter was uncovered in the middle of the Avenue. The scatter is located towards the southern end of the section of the Avenue that Keiller subsequently restored. Thousands of visitors still walk across it every year without ever knowing that it is there.

The West Kennet Avenue during the excavation, Photo Album A, 78510300_006_d.

Keiller was interested in the scatter, which he deemed to be the remains of a prehistoric settlement, and extended the area of excavation to further investigate it. Ultimately the excavation retrieved over 1000 flint tools, associated waste flakes, and 600 sherds of pottery known as Peterborough Ware. The pottery indicated that the site was a Neolithic settlement site (later work showing that it dates to around 3000BC), and the scatter was named the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site.

The West Kennet Avenue excavation in 2015.

The artefacts were later studied by Isobel Smith, who published them in 1965 along with the results of the rest of Keiller’s Avebury excavations. Archaeologists have known about the site, and particularly the excellent state of preservation of its artefacts, ever since but very little else was done with the material or the site until 2013 when Mark Gillings and Josh Pollard reinvestigated it over three seasons of excavations.

Mark and Josh’s team retrieved many more artefacts (over 16,000!), and also revealed two reasons that the artefacts are so well-preserved. The first is that, presumably due to the presence of the Avenue and its buried sarsens, there has been no significant ploughing of the area. This is good for archaeologists as it means that the artefacts have not been moved around in the soil, not only preserving their spatial distribution, but also the objects themselves, which can become abraded and worn by the action of the plough. The second was that the soil in the area of the Avenue had become decalcified, with the calcium carbonate that is ever present in chalky soils having been leached out of it.

This is great for those of us that study chalkland flint assemblages, as flint from chalky soils are normally heavily patinated. That means that there normally black or dark grey lustrous surfaces have become white and dull. But, this makes it hard to study the edges of stone tools, where we are often looking for fine traces of use. This is important because when flint tools are used to conduct tasks such as scraping hides, grooving bone, or processing plant fibres, their edges become worn.

At a microscopic level that wear will vary in character according to the types of materials that a tool has been used on. The technique for studying these traces of wear is rather unimaginatively called use-wear analysis, and it is very useful at revealing the range of craft and subsistence activities that took place on a site.

A photo of a serrated flake from the West Kennet Avenue
The microscopic wear present on the teeth of a serrated flake

I have previously analysed Mark and Josh’s assemblage from the West Kennet Avenue Occupation Site and sure enough the tools in the assemblage did preserve use-wear traces. These tell us that varied activities took place on the site, including hide working and the processing of the fibres of plants such as nettles.

When Keiller was excavating the Avenue, use-wear didn’t even exist as a discipline, so they had no idea what the analysis of the flint from the site could add to their understanding. This may explain why they didn’t feel the need to wash the flint from the excavation!

Me talking to the APEX Team (its not just an empty room, honest!)
The washed flint being dried out and ready for rebagging

Well, we need clean flint for use-wear analysis, and rest assured, thanks to the efforts of Briony Clifton of the National Trust and her team of volunteers (the brilliantly-named APEX team!), the flint is now all shiny and new-looking. Now I just need to analyse it all.

Once this has been done we will hopefully know much more about the types of activities that took place on the site, and whether they differ between the areas excavated by Keiller, and the more recent trenches.

This will aid our interpretations of the settlement. Was it permanently or seasonally occupied? Was it a short-lived occupation, or something more long term? Was it a settlement at all, or just a working area? These are all questions that we hope to be able to answer once the analysis has been completed.

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Photographic Equipment Has Arrived

Yesterday our equipment to create a digital photo archive arrived. Lensart has supplied us with the Book2net photographic studio. The setup has a 71-megapixel camera which allows us to take high-resolution images of the documents within our archive. The installation was completed by the lovely Martin French at Lensart.

Photo of equipment arriving
The equipment starts to arrive.

With the installation complete, Martin took time to train two of our team, Fran and Caitlin. He demonstrated how to adjust the camera to get optimal focus for a range of document types. He then showed us how to use the Tocosa software to capture our documents and how to adjust that software so that we can best present each individual piece of our archive. Almost every item is different and so requires slightly different photography.

Once we felt comfortable using the set up we started photographing one of the photo albums from Keillers 1934 excavation at West Kennet Avenue (78510300). This allowed us to get a better look at the 1934 dig team. for the first time, we were able to see the detail of workers’ faces within the image. We invited the team to view the work we had done. Members of the team were able to point out familiar faces within the 1934 excavation team

Thanks for reading, Caitlin 🙂

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