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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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A medieval face

This little chap turned up today in one of the boxes of medieval pottery excavated by Alexander Keiller between 1937 and 1939, that I am currently examining.

It’s quite an unusual piece, almost certainly from a 13th-century jug. The ‘face’ is formed from an added blob of clay, shaped into a rough nose and mouth and with ring-and-dot stamps for the eyes. There is a hint of another ring-and-dot stamp on the right-hand edge, so there may have been a series of applied faces around the jug rim. 

Face jugs were made by many of the medieval pottery industries, for example the Laverstock kilns outside Salisbury, but this example is in a different fabric and may instead come from the Nash Hill kilns at Lacock. This is still quite a distance from Avebury but fine decorated jugs like this were traded over long distances. At least one other example is known from Avebury.

This photograph is a close up of a pot sherd with a 'face' detail of added clay, shaped into a nose and eyes. It is about twice the size of a fifty pence coin, included in the photograph for scale.
Visual description: This photograph is a close up of the pot sherd with a ‘face’ detail of added clay, shaped into a nose and eyes. It is about twice the size of a fifty pence coin, included in the photograph for scale.
A drawing, unsigned and undated, likely an imagined reconstruction of the jug, accession number 20000573-017-006.
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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 Whimsical Flimsy

Cataloguing correspondence for the digitisation project may appear to be a dry old business, but in fact it’s often pretty interesting and every now and then it throws up a real gem of a letter.

Below is a copy of a letter which caught our attention this week (typed on ‘flimsy’ paper – thin sheets usually used for carbon copies). It was written by the highly influential OGS Crawford, in response to an article written by Alexander Keiller in The Modern Mystic issue of February 1939. Keiller’s piece in the esoteric magazine discussed the origins of sites including Stonehenge and Avebury.

Osbert Guy Stanhope Crawford was – judging by the relatively small amount of his correspondence held in the Avebury archives – a dynamic, progressive, larger-than-life, no-nonsense character. He was an archaeologist and aerial photographer of great renown, and served as Archaeological Officer of the Ordnance Survey in Southampton – the perfect occupation for such a pragmatist.

Crawford’s Wikipedia page gives a flavour of the enormous breadth of his experiences and achievements, but in this archival document we see his rarely glimpsed (and biting) humour in full flow. It is at the same time both an inventive whimsy and an acerbic criticism.

Love it.

A photograph of OGS Crawford, via Wikimedia. Unknown author, copyright Keble College, Oxford.

[Ed’s note from Fran: Crawford’s letter is another example from the archive that documents lively early 20th century debates about public (pseudo)archaeology. A key question for the research team is how far our digital archive can contain writings which satirise or dismiss alternative approaches to Avebury and other neolithic sites, while also opening up space for serious, sensitive, and critical approaches to Avebury’s varied interpretations and uses. We welcome your comments!].


Transcription:

Copy of OGS Crawford’s letter to The Modern Mystic.

Nursling, Southampton,

14th February, 1939.

Dear Sir,

In your February number (p.10) Mr. Keiller, in his admirable article, quotes a statement that, when megalithic monuments like Stonehenge were built, the level of the Baltic and of the North Sea was 400 feet higher than now! (I need hardly say that Mr. Keiller himself is far too sane to attach any importance to such a statement). But it seems at first glance to raise certain difficulties about the construction of Stonehenge. the level of the ground on which Stonehenge stands is about 340 feet above the present level of the sea. A simple calculation shows that it must have then been about 60 feet below the sea!

The explanation of this remarkable fact was mystically revealed to me by no less a person than the chief architect himself, the patriarch Noah. With characteristic frankness he told me of a difficulty that has escaped the notice of all the Biblical critics, and of the ingenious method by which he solved it. The heavy precipitation which resulted in the well-known Flood, consisted, of course, entirely of fresh water; and the fishes who for generations had been born and bred, so to speak, in salt water came to him in great distress, asking his advice. Not being a water expert himself, Noah consulted the Authorities and was told that only strenuous work could save the fish from becoming fossilized. He accordingly devised a scheme by which they should swim across the drowned continent of Eurasia and construct a temple to Jehovah upon the submerged uplands that are now called Salisbury Plain. In order to increase their labour and save them from extinction they were to use only the largest stones, and were to fetch some of them from distant Wales. They were supplied with blue prints by a well-known firm of Sumerian architects, specially drawn on waterproof paper by highly skilled crabs, with ink provided free of charge by cuttle-fish or squids. (It is interesting to note that precisely similar paper is still used by the Ordnance Survey for its small-scale maps). The task was duly carried out, and shortly after 4000 B. C. the temple was formally declared open by a bottle-nosed whale.

In every community, however, there are some recalcitrant individuals who refuse to take good advice, and so there were amongst the fishes. A little group of passive resisters was formed, and they occupied their time swimming round the ark cursing the Authorities. They said they would be fossilized before they would consent to do such menial work, and fossilized they were. When at length the Flood receded, the slopes of Ararat and all the land of Armenia was strewn with huge stone fish. They remain there to this day and may be seen by any who care to visit that country. There is a photograph of one in the Museum at Erivan. They are called VISHAPS and a fully illustrated account of them was recently published (Les Vishaps, by N. Y. Marr & J. I. Smirnov, Leningrad, 1931, reviewed in ANTIQUITY XI, 1937, 122-3).

This explanation is a Revelation in the strict sense of the word. It entirely supersedes the old theory that Stonehenge was built by the Apalachian Indians of North America and dedicated to Apollo*; and of course puts out of court the fantastic conclusions of archaeologists which are invariably built upon the insecure basis of ascertained fact. I might add that Noah informed me that he was always at the disposal of genuine seekers after knowledge, and that his best inspiration came from Chambery No. 5 served with pigs’ trotters, preferably at the Escargot d’Or.

Yours faithfully,

(signed) OGSC

The Editor Modern Mystic 6 Bear Street, Leicester Square, W.C.2

*

W. S. Blacket, Researches into the Lost Histories. of America, 1883, p. 193.

*

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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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Avebury is FAKE (and other archive stories)

On 13 October 2023, a news website decided to run with a rather scandalous headline about Avebury.

The headline reads: “Revealed: The World Heritage ancient stone circle at Avebury is FAKE – with photographs showing that the stones were actually erected in the 1930s… and some are upside down”.

Screengrab of a newspaper headline: “Revealed: The World Heritage ancient stone circle at Avebury is FAKE – with photographs showing that the stones were actually erected in the 1930s… and some are upside down”.

The cat is well and truly out of the bag! We’ve been found out!

But wait. Before panic sets in, it’s worth exploring this article a little further.

First of all, the article writer seems to have picked up month-old news about Historic England’s freshly digitised Avebury materials. You can explore the “Series of slides taken by Alexander Keiller showing the standing stones and excavations at Avebury and West Kennet Avenue” over on Historic England’s website. It’s lovely to see Avebury in the dreamy colours of almost 100-year-old slides.

Historic England tweet from 13 September 2023: “We’ve recently digitised a set of colour slides by Alexander Keiller showing the stones and excavations at Avebury and West Kennet Avenue in 1938-1939 [sic], including this view of Stone 9.”

For those of us familiar with Avebury, it’s easy to laugh or eye roll at the October newspaper headline. But, this article, and some of its comments, are actually very interesting as a case study of how histories are made and re-made over time.

The 1930s excavations have never been a secret. During the excavations Keiller and his team frequently showed visitors and journalists around. One scrapbook in the Alexander Keiller Museum collection includes pasted headlines and cuttings from 1938, describing a “new wonder of the world” being unearthed.

Avebury has been in and out of the news ever since. However, with news cycles moving quickly, we might forgive people for missing stories, especially if they don’t live in the area, or just aren’t looking for archaeology stories. We can certainly understand that some folks can’t access the archive or up to date research (even 100 year old research), as so much information is behind pay walls or exists only in a physical location.

Comments quoted in the article are a good reminder not to take knowledge about Avebury for granted: apparently even members of a ‘specialist’ Avebury Facebook group and a ‘regular visitor’ were shocked at the news of Avebury’s 1930s restoration. (Although, it has to be said, a quick browse of the aforementioned Facebook group reveals many other members were quick to point out the article’s inaccuracies, and the “common knowledge” status of Avebury’s restoration).

These quotations bring me to thinking about how emotions and histories are linked together, and how places exist in people’s heads as much as the physical world.

Ask 100 people what “Avebury” is, and you could get 100 different answers. While Avebury is a very real place, it’s also a symbol, or concept, or idea. It exists in the imagination of everyone who has ever heard of it. Every visitor to Avebury also of course experiences it in a unique way.

So, a challenge that we’re thinking about as part of the Avebury Papers project is how to communicate Avebury’s complex stories to people who all have very different starting points.

Using a scandalous headline can arguably be an effective way to gain attention. But I’d be a bit nervous to use such an approach: it entrenches some negative views of archaeology which have repercussions at a wider scale. The reoccurring myth that archaeologists are keeping secrets from everyone perpetuates a pernicious distrust of expert knowledge, which often goes hand in hand with some damaging conspiracy theories that seek to fracture society.

Screengrab from the news article, including a quotation attributed to Historic England: “these fascinating photos show the extent that modern interpretation has contributed to their current appearance”.

The quotations from Historic England in the article are straightforward enough: “these fascinating photos show the extent that modern interpretation has contributed to their current appearance”.

But I’d like to dwell a little more with the language that people use to describe their reactions to the photographs. It seems like some people don’t want to know about Avebury’s modern interpretations. The journalist reported that people felt ‘shocked’ or ‘conned’ by the photographs. These are big emotions: more knowledge seems to ruin something about Avebury.

And they lead me to some questions which I’d like to explore more as the project progresses.

  • How do photos of 1930s Avebury make people feel about the site?
  • What role do such pictures have in people’s experience of Avebury?
  • What kinds of emotions should an archive project try and provoke?
  • How can we use archival material to tell multiple stories of Avebury?

Perhaps you’d like to offer your answers in the comments!

Photograph of workers re-erecting stones in the South East Sector at Avebury, 1939. Alexander Keiller Museum Accession Number 20004243-002.
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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.

Sources:

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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The Avebury Papers: Artist brief

[First posted 18 September 2023; edited 21 November 2023]

Our call for submissions closed at midnight, end of day Monday 20 November.

You can find an archive version of the artist brief via this Google doc. But please note that we will not be accepting further submissions.

To sign up to notifications regarding more Archaeology and Heritage Creative opportunities, fill out the form here: https://forms.gle/goFr4yNpFG7uYz487 The email volume is low, maximum 5-10 emails every six months.

Colleen and Fran


Creative Process Timescale

September 2023: Artist Brief Circulated

30 October 2023, 09:00-10:00 GMT: Online information session for interested applicants: a brief introduction to the Avebury archive and an opportunity to ask questions to the team. Please email Dr Colleen Morgan for the Zoom link.

20 November 2023: Deadline for artist proposals. Submissions due by midnight GMT, no late submissions may be accepted.

8 December 2023: Shortlist of artists will be contacted for interviews [UPDATE 23 November: due to a high volume of submissions, we anticipate contacting a shortlist later in December. Thank you for your patience, we cannot give a more certain date at present].

8 – 16 January 2024: Artists will be interviewed (online, via Zoom)

19 January 2024: Commissioned artists will be notified and briefing sessions will be arranged

January 2024 – October 2024: Commissioned artists work with the archive

October 2024 – April 2025: Commissioned artists share work with the Avebury Papers team, and discuss steps for archiving and exhibition

June 2025: Exhibition at Avebury

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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.