Blog Keiller cuttings

Pinning down the Keiller Cuttings – Part 2 (Keiller makes a point)

Plotting out the excavation cuttings (a work very much in progress)

Last week Mark shared Part 1 of this series – read it here first.

Next step is to recreate Keiller’s excavation grid using the step-by-step measurements and drawings in his 1934-5 Plotting Book. I could have taken a digital approach from the outset, but to limber up, and better understand how the grid of planned excavation cuttings slowly unfolded on the 10th of April 1934, I began by hand-plotting his measurements, to scale, on a sheet of drawing film.

It all began for Keiller with the setting up of a point on the central axis of the Avenue line. The focus of the 1934 excavation was Mr. Peake-Garland’s main Waden Hill field; a strip running north-south alongside the road linking Avebury to West Kennett. Keiller started by establishing a centre line along the main axis of the Avenue at the southernmost end of the field, where 11 surviving stones could be seen (9 fallen and 2 still standing as a pair). He used a tape to measure the midpoint between the southernmost duo of fallen stones (37A and 37B using Smith’s numbering scheme) and did the same between the surviving upright stones 33A and 33B. He then joined the dots to create a notional line running down the centre of the Avenue and established a reference point (labelled A) on this line.

Keiller’s cuttings 1, 2, and 3, showing points A, B, C, D, E, F, G and H along West Kennet Avenue. A page from the 1934 plotting book, accession number 78510469 at the Alexander Keiller Museum.

Using a theodolite the next step was to set out two points perpendicular to A and at a distance of 40’ (12.19m) to the approximate east (C) and west (B) respectively. These points marked the east and westernmost extensions of the grid needed to encompass the width of the Avenue line. So far so good. Using this line of 3 points as a reference, Keiller then set out an 80’ (24.38m) wide corridor running to the northwest towards Avebury. This corridor was subdivided along its length into a series of numbered 100’ x 80’ (30.48 x 24.38m) blocks which were in turn subdivided into parallel lines of 25’ by 20’ (7.62 x 6.09m) cuttings designed to capture the locations of Avenue stones (more on the rather idiosyncratic coding of these blocks and sub-divisions in the next post).

What Keiller and his team had achieved with a theodolite and 100’ survey chains, I was mirroring using a sharp pencil, drawing film and graph paper; working page by page through the plotting book…

Click here to read Part 3.


Coolest finds of the month

This month we had the first volunteers in the archive, here are some of the cool things they found in the photo albums photographed so far.

The photos above show workers setting up a pulley system to help lift one of the stones into place in the West Kennet Avenue excavations. This clearly shows that there was no such thing as health and safety back in the 1930s.

Workers on a break around a caravan
Workers on a break around a caravan, Album C, West Kennet Avenue excavations 1935, 78510302, Alexander Keiller Museum.

Not everything was all hard work on the Keiller excavations, workers had the chance to take breaks and relax in the summer sun. They even had a caravan!

A toy armadillo on a stone
A toy armadillo on a stone, Album A, Avenue excavations 1934, 78510300, Alexander Kellier Museum.

Keiller and his excavation team were known to hide a toy armadillo around the dig site. Here is one example we found this week.

Stuart Piggott working on some pottery in a feature
Stuart Piggott working on some pottery in a feature, from Photo Album B, West Kennet Avenue excavations 1934, accession number 78510301, Alexander Keiller Museum.

In the above photo, it looks like archaeologist Stuart Piggott is having an afternoon nap in a feature. However, upon further inspection, you can tell he is carefully removing soil from around the base of a fragile piece of pottery.

Blog Keiller cuttings

Pinning Down the Keiller Cuttings – Part 1

One of the most vexing challenges in relation to the Keiller excavation archive relates to the precise locations of the trenches his team excavated – what he termed ‘cuttings’. One of the goals of the project is to create a series of georeferenced digital trench plans for each of the years of excavation. As to why, once in place these will enable us to spatially locate and anchor the various finds uncovered, photographs taken and pithy asides scribbled in the dig records and diaries.

We certainly have the re-erected stones and concrete markers resulting from the excavation trenches, but as to the precise areas that were investigated around these we are in the dark. As for the published trench plans, experience from previous attempts to fix these to the current Ordnance Survey base mapping for the area revealed significant levels of artistic licence and generalisation that precluded any neat fit. 

As a result, the decision was taken to go back to Keiller’s original survey records and start from scratch – using the digital equivalent of 100’ survey chains and theodolites in order to lay out his trenches afresh. This meant working methodically through the 1934-5 Plotting Book which contains highly detailed scale drawings alongside a narrative account of the work carried out. More of this to come in later blogposts, but a number of issues rapidly became clear. 

First, Keiller was a confident and accomplished surveyor, and you can very quickly see why his surveying skills earned the respect of Mortimer Wheeler. 

Second, he was obsessive with regard to formality and precision – rectangles, triangles and parallelograms abound. If a cutting needed to be extended to capture the full extent of a feature, it was not enough to simply extend until the feature had been revealed (and then tidy up and record the resultant extension). Oh no. Instead meticulously surveyed extensions were laid out in order to facilitate this search, and if the full extent was not revealed a second stage of meticulous survey was carried out to further extend.

Third, and building upon the point above, for Keiller the laying out of trenches was an end in itself (meticulously surveyed and geometrically perfect) rather than a means to an end (a framework for the excavation).  

Fourth, for all of the above he was remarkably lax in some regards. For example, the baselines setup in 1934 to lay out the cuttings along the line of the West Kennet Avenue were basically floating. They were established in relation to extant pairs of stones that were not themselves surveyed in position prior to the survey. Needless to say these stones were subsequently relocated and set into concrete as a consequence of the excavation and restoration work. He also had a habit of re-using codes to indicate reference points on his cutting grid. 

So, with pencil, permatrace, mouse and GIS in hand, it was time to go back to early April 1934 and begin to follow Keiller in laying out the first of the Avebury cuttings…. 

Read more in Part 2!

Blog Press coverage

Avebury Papers on BBC Radio York

Dr Colleen Morgan was interviewed by Ellie Brennan on BBC Radio York on Friday 23 January. Listen to the clip below.


Ellie Brennan:

Now, from dissertations and homework, to a very serious and amazing project going on to do with a world-famous stone circle. It’s going to be brought to life online for the first time. Experts from the University of York are involved in the work to digitise the archives about the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire, and they’re going to make them available to the public.

And with me now is Dr Colleen Morgan, who is from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. Morning, Colleen.

Colleen Morgan:

Oh, so nice to join you, Ellie, thanks for the welcome. 

Ellie Brennan: 

Thank you for coming on and talking to us about this, it sounds amazing, For people that don’t know, can you describe the Avebury site for us? How significant is it?

Colleen Morgan:

Oh, it’s very significant, it’s a key component of the UNESCO Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Site, and it’s actually the largest stone circle in the world.

And I think people are really personally very invested in this site, It is from the Neolithic, but unlike Stonehenge, you can actually go up and touch the stones.

Ellie Brennan:

Oh, my goodness, I was just going to ask you about this, because Stonehenge, I feel like, gets all the glory here. I had no idea that Avebury was the biggest.

Colleen Morgan:

Yes, absolutely, and it’s just a fantastic opportunity to investigate this really important archive that has been hereto really inaccessible.

It’s in the middle of the monument, so you have to actually go there, and it’s really difficult to access even if you are there. And it’s really interesting to be there because there’s not a lot of phone signal, the internet is not very good, and so it really is revealing this world-class archive to the entire world.

Ellie Brennan:

So that’s why it’s important to digitise, more people are going to have access to it.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered in the archives? And what might we be able to see in the future?

Colleen Morgan:

I think for me, personally, it’s actually seeing the faces of the old excavators: there were a lot of excavations in the 1930s headed by Alexander Keiller, he’s the major player, but we don’t know the personalities of the people involved.

But we’re also doing a full analysis of all the material that’s ever been excavated there at Avebury as well: Ben Chan from Bournemouth is working on this, and so we’re really excited to do the more scientific techniques that we’ve developed since the 1930s on this really important archive.

Ellie Brennan:

How significant is this archive for you in terms of history?

Colleen Morgan:

Well, it’s got 13,350 pages of documentation, it’s got 500 drawings and 3000 images, much of which have just been under used to a certain extent. They did a similar project at Stonehenge a few years ago under the same curator, the amazing Ros Cleal, and they were able to herald a new programme of research at Stonehenge and so we’re hoping the same revival comes to Avebury as well.

Ellie Brennan:

You’ve just mentioned there over 13,000 documents, 3000 pictures, how long is it going to take to digitise this? Because that sounds like an awful lot of scanning in.

Colleen Morgan:

Oh absolutely! And so there’s a fantastic researcher down there right now, Fran Allfrey, and she’s been working really hard to scope the archive. It is going to be finished in the four years that we have on the project, but we are also enlisting many, many volunteers down in Wiltshire.

But the exciting thing is that after we digitise things, we’re going to need the help of online volunteers to actually do a lot of the transcription because Alexander Keiller has the worst handwriting I’ve almost ever seen in an archive, and so it’s going to take a lot of puzzling out.

Ellie Brennan:

Okay, so if you think you’re good at reading handwriting, you’re needed: is that the call out here?

Colleen Morgan:

Absolutely! And there’s just going to be so much there and so much available, and it’s going to be available through the Archaeology Data Service, which we are really lucky to have here at York because it is, again, a globally known digital archive for archaeology that is freely available online for people to go and root through the past.

Ellie Brennan:

That sounds absolutely incredible. I mean, if people would like to volunteer and get involved with this when it is going online, how can people find information about this, Colleen?

Colleen Morgan:

Ellie Brennan:

Fantastic. Well, it sounds like a mammoth project and so interesting, thank you so much for coming on to talk to me about it today. That’s Dr Colleen Morgan who’s from the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, who I think will be doing a lot of scanning over the next few months, of all the archives about the Avebury stone circle in Wiltshire.

I had absolutely no idea that was bigger than Stonehenge: every day truly is a school day isn’t it!


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 🙂

Lensart company logo
Find out more about Lensart here.

Archive scoping

What comes to mind when you think of a ‘digitisation project’? For me, it’s a vision of a beautiful photography studio, with soft raking light, a camera poised above, the gentle ‘click’ of the foot pedal, and a hard-drive whirring away keeping digital files secure.

However, the reality is that digitisation begins far from any camera, with extremely analogue tasks!

I joined the Avebury Papers project team in July 2022. One of my first jobs was to scope out the paper archive: to work out what materials we are dealing with, how much, and whether there any preservation needs. All of this would inform what kind of studio set up to go for.

What’s in the collection?

The bulk of paper materials at the Alexander Keiller Museum relate to excavations supervised by Alexander Keiller himself in the 1930s. There are also documents and photographs from Harold St George Gray, who excavated at Avebury in the early 20th century, and later documents including preparatory notes by Isobel Smith and Denis Grant King made as they brought together and analysed findings from the 1930s work, commissioned by Gabrielle Keiller.

The National Trust has a catalogue of items in its collection (this link shows you everything at Avebury – not just the paper items). However, many of the paper items are accessioned (organised) into bundles or groups – which is quite normal for a collection of this type. So my first task was to conduct a manual quick count of all paper materials.

For facts and figures fans, here’s an overview:

2700 items in the paper collection, including:

  • Photographic prints (loose, mounted, or pasted into albums)
  • Letters
  • Notebooks and diaries
  • Plans and drawings
  • Printed books
  • Photographic slides (glass and cellulose)
  • 1 roll of cine film
  • Two CDs, 16 video tape, and 3 cassette tape

From these 2700 items, we will be creating 13,500 unique digital objects. This number accounts for individual pages of multi-page items.

In addition to the paper items held at the Alexander Keiller Museum, we’ve also identified relevant letters, diaries, and scrapbooks at the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. There may also be materials to draw in from the Historic England archive. I’ll share more about these holdings in future posts!


The variety in item size and type directed my search for the ideal photographic studio set up: we needed equipment that can cope with a range of documents and bound books, handwriting, print, and drawings, as smoothly as possible.

216 items (8% of 2700) are larger than A2, with 50 items larger than A0. So, we’re currently scoping out the best way to deal with these outsized (and often oddly-shaped!) papers.

The fact that 70% of the collection is hand written also presents a challenge for transcription (creating digital, searchable documents). Whereas typed documents may quickly and easily be run through OCR (optical character recognition) software which automatically turns analogue writing into digital type, Alexander Keiller’s handwriting especially needs human eyes – and patience!

This image shows a double page spread of the 1934 excavation diary kept by Alexander Keiller and Stuart Piggott. The spread shows entries for Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 May 1934, and a list of gear on loan from 'O of W'. Keiller's handwriting is cursive and difficult to read!
A double page spread of the 1934 excavation diary kept by Alexander Keiller – with some entries by Stuart Piggott. The spread shows entries for Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 May 1934, and a list of gear on loan from ‘O of W’. Keiller’s handwriting is cursive and difficult to read! Accession number: 78510467.


Scoping out the collection raised a bunch of questions as well as challenges. Now we know what we have, how exactly would we like people to be able to see and interact with digitised items on their screens at home? Because the collection is so varied, we need to ask this question for each item type.

This question is also guided by what sort of experience we’d like digital archive users to have in the future. This is not a decision that the core project team will make alone – we are planning various workshops in the coming months to find out what users want to see, and how they’d like to use the collection.

I’m also particularly inspired by elements of the Courtauld’s approach to digitising their art and architecture photographic collection. As Tom Bilson explains, they look to facilitate:

“An appreciation that every image presented online has a physical counterpart that still sits in a library box – a set of visual cues pointing to the personalities and voices enmeshed within our collections, and the recognition that appearance online is absolutely not their year zero, but another milestone in their malleable history”

Tom Bilson, 2020

For instance, take the Keiller-era photo albums held at Avebury. These consist of photographic prints pasted onto pages that are bound together, sometimes with more than one print per page. One approach to digitisation would be to focus on the prints only, and crop out the mount and album details. However, we’re leaning towards capturing the entire page, so that archive users can get a real feel for the photographs as physical objects with varied contexts.

There are many more decisions to be made about how we photograph and add detail to the collection. Let us know your thoughts and questions below!