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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.
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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?

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How to build Avebury: with Denis Grant King

I’m volunteer Kiri, studying for a Masters in Cultural Heritage in Southampton. My job for now is to check the photos and catalogues that have been captured so far. The first step is to check that the photos are clear, complete and standardised. Then make sure the description of the photo and other information in the catalogue matches the photo. I have also been creating catalogue information from scratch when needed. This work is a nice experience for me because it is usually very difficult for people to have access to and view all the archives in a museum’s collection. And the Avebury archives often have some interesting pictures.

This hand-drawn picture is from archaeologist Dennis Grant King, and caught my eye while I was checking the catalogue. The title is ‘Methods employed for transporting and the erection of megaliths’, and unfortunately it is undated, but possibly produced between 1940-1950. In fact this piece caught my attention because it is so exquisitely composed, simple but not simplistic. And I’m sure many people who come across Avebury have similar questions about how the ancient people moved and erected these huge and heavy stones during the Neolithic period. This drawing by King gives a reasonable speculation.

Here is an image of a watercolour drawing by Denis Grant King. It is on cream paper, in red, blue, green, and black inks, showing neolithic people erecting a stone at Avebury.
‘Methods employed for transporting and the erection of megaliths’ drawing by Denis Grant King, Alexander Keiller Museum accession number 20000577-008.

King suggests that Avebury’s megaliths were moved by wooden rollers. People put wooden rollers on the ground and used the rolling of the wooden rollers to keep the megaliths moving. The use of ropes can also make it less difficult to manoeuvre giant stones. When lifting heavy objects, the use of ropes allows the lifting force of multiple people to be combined, reducing the amount of weight each person needs to carry.

The erection of the boulder depicted in the picture was carried out by means of ramp and lever. Inclined planes reduce the force required to move heavy objects, and wood placed on a slope lessens the friction between the object and the ground. Due to the force of gravity, the megalith could slide down the ramp into the stone hole. Plus the use of long wood for leverage saves the force needed to erect the megalith. The friction stakes standing at the other side of the Stone hole helped to keep the megalith balanced without falling over towards the far side of the stone-hole, whilst also preventing the stone from damaging the edge of the stone-hole as it slid into it.

In Smith’s edited volume ‘Windmill hill and avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-1939’, reference is made to evidence of construction techniques found by archaeologists at Avebury in the 1960s. The archaeologist Richard Atkinson suggested that the most efficient way of transporting monoliths was sleds and rollers, although these two methods may not necessarily have been used. And the process of erecting the stone vertically probably used levers and ropes.

Smith explains some of the evidence found in the holes at the base of the megaliths. Sometimes varying numbers of stakes have been inserted against the back side of the base of the stone hole to reduce the friction between the megaliths and the edge of the stone hole. In addition, some smaller stones have been found at the bottom of the stone hole, perhaps acting as another anti-friction device and also providing support for the megaliths. After the megalith was erected, the space around the megalith would have been filled with earth and sarsen packing stones to support the stone and keep it standing.

King’s suggestion of how the megaliths were moved and erected is partly similar to Atkinson’s and Smith’s views, including the use of wooden rollers, levers and ropes. And archaeological evidence proves that when erecting boulders, Neolithic people used ramps and stakes to reduce friction.

Reference

Windmill hill and Avebury: excavations by Alexander Keiller, 1925-1939, ed. by Isobel Smith (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), pp. 218-222.

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Event: Representing Avebury’s Assemblages

With a new year, we have a new round of events coming up! Our first update of 2024 will explore assemblages, and how to photograph them. All welcome!

The Avebury Papers Community Update: Representing Avebury’s Assemblages

Update 26 Feb: please note slight location and time change from previously advertised

Monday 4 March, 1:30pm – 3.30pm

The Chapel, Green Street, Avebury

Free! Please register for a seat via this form.

Join Dr Ben Chan, lithics expert and postdoctoral researcher for the Avebury Papers project for this community update and feedback session.

This event will explore assemblages of objects. Assemblages are simply groups of things that we give meaning to. Archaeologists are constantly in the process of gathering things into one type of group or other, and the same was indeed true of people in prehistory. This talk details how the Avebury Papers team set out to capture the material qualities of some of Avebury’s assemblages through photography. The results provide representations of people’s attempts to assemble together parts of Avebury in both the past and present.

We’d like to invite your thoughts on these photographs, and explore the questions that they raise for you! We’ll be making notes during this event so that your feedback can shape the future design of the digital archive.

Dr Ben Chan arranges arrowheads from West Kennet Avenue, Alexander Keiller Museum, photograph by the Avebury Papers.
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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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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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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.