Some of the ideas discussed in this blog are published in my new book called "The Stonehenge Bluestones" -- available by post and through good bookshops everywhere. Bad bookshops might not have it....
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Saturday, 25 September 2021

Archaeology -- its own worst enemy?

Looks as if academic archaeology is in a seriously beleaguered state just now.  The article reproduced below is an interesting analysis containing some good points.  It's a bit naive, because it treats all archaeologists as heroes, and seems to think that archaeology takes no responsibility at all for what seems likely to be an uncomfortable fate.  

It says this:  "Archaeology faces a “perfect storm” of university cuts, skills shortages and potential changes to planning rules which threaten to irreversibly damage the UK’s world-leading reputation in the discipline, experts warn."  That, I think is very naive indeed -- there may be a perfect storm, but one of the components in it may well be the declining reputation of archaeology as a serious discipline with a respect for the scientific method and a carefully controlled and monitored way of operating.  This may well not be true of ALL academic archaeology, but some of it, at least, is so obsessed with storytelling and myth creation that it seems to be disinterested in maintaining any sort of reputation as a "discipline." 

 If very senior archaeologists appear to have lost their respect for hard evidence and the truth, in pursuit of their post-processual obsessions, why should they get any respect from either the public or from a new generation of students?  And why should they be funded by the research funding organizations if all they are going to produce are fantasies and myths? From where I stand, archaeology seems to be intent on the "dumbing down" of its curriculum and on appealing to the tabloid press and TV documentary makers rather than to the community of scientists. Colourful characters pursuing their own personal quests may make for good tabloid headlines and good TV ratings, but what are they doing to uphold academic standards?  How much RESPECT does archaeology have outside of its own little bubble?  Not much, I suspect, whatever gushing praise may be directed towards it by the author of this article.


Archaeology could be rendered a thing of the past as multiple UK courses and jobs face the axe

University staff fear the discipline could be consigned to history because of funding cuts

When a rare 4,000-year-old Bronze Age log coffin was found by chance under a pond at a golf club near Grimsby, archaeologists from the University of Sheffield, working on an unrelated dig nearby, were able to act quickly to preserve it.

The find made headlines across the world. Tim Allen, of Historic England, paid tribute to them saying: “It was only thanks to them being able to assist that weekend we were able to secure the coffin, axe and surviving human remains.”

Incredibly, they won’t be around to help in future, as the archaeology department faces closure by the university authorities.

Archaeologists at Worcester University face a similar fate while those at Chester face redundancies.
News of Sheffield’s demise sparked controversy in the usually sedate corridors of academia. Digging up the past is seen as a British strong suit. UK universities are internationally recognised as among the best in the world – four of the five highest ranking courses are here – with Harvard in the US the only interloper. Sheffield is ranked seventh in the UK, 39th in the world.

Archaeology faces a “perfect storm” of university cuts, skills shortages and potential changes to planning rules which threaten to irreversibly damage the UK’s world-leading reputation in the discipline, experts warn.

Across the country, men and women usually found working quietly in trenches with trowels are protesting about the state of the profession. The crisis has prompted some to ask the Monty Python-esque question: what has archaeology ever done for us?
Well… there are discoveries from Stonehenge to Skara Brae, via “Seahenge” and Sutton Hoo.

Heritage tourism – refreshed with newly unearthed discoveries – from the Mary Rose to the burial place of Richard III or the recently unearthed Prittlewell Prince – supports 350,000 jobs and contributes £20bn to UK coffers.

There are as many as 7,000 archaeological jobs in the UK. A 2019 study found archaeologists working in the planning system saved the construction industry up to £1.3bn in delay and emergency excavation work.

Far from being a dead hand on progress, archaeological concerns were cited in just 0.01 per cent of planning refusals.

Dr Hugh Willmott, senior archaeology lecturer at Sheffield, suggests he and his fellow academics suffer from an image problem.

“Too often, we are seen as ‘people who play in the dirt’ or very occasionally – and
fortuitously for their media outlets – ‘finders of secrets’ rather than serious academics.”

More widely he believes archaeologists “are not shouting loud enough to our managers about the genuine value of archaeology”.

“University management, in my experience, massively under-estimates the extent to which we all collaborate with other disciplines on truly innovative projects.

“We need to be telling them that archaeology’s partnerships are not just with the History department, although this is important. At Sheffield we currently have active collaborations with Biomedical Science, Geography, Engineering, Mathematics, and Materials Science to name just a few.”

Fellow archaeologist Dr Chloe Duckworth, at Newcastle University, points out a 2018 poll found archaeology was the UK’s 11th most common career dream behind professional footballer, train driver and astronaut.

“Many more of my students hope to use the degree to gain a set of skills they can translate to other workplaces. Archaeology is really good for that. Teamwork, problem-solving, project management,” she wrote in British Archaeology.

She set up Dig for Archaeology in a bid to champion the discipline and argues officials in authority undervalue the skills involved.

British archaeologists are embroiled in a diplomatic spat in Turkey
The British Institute in Ankara is responsible for important archaeological work in Turkey.
Last month, Turkish officials entered the Institute and seized its famous collection of ancient seeds. Turkey has declared all seeds/plants collected by foreign organisations the property of Turkey.
Chemist Ibrahim Saracoglu argues that they are critical to Turkey’s history. He is a key player in Turkey’s Ancestral Seed Project.
The collection argued that under a long-standing agreement with Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, the institute served as the collection’s custodian and offered to share the resource.
Mr Saracoglu said: “We do not divide. This is the property of the great Turkish nation.”

Post-Brexit, the profession is now on the official skill shortage list but only after fierce lobbying. Such neglect is hard to understand. Archaeology remains popular with the public as the success of shows like Time Team and The Great British Dig demonstrate.

However, Dr Willmott suggests such shows may not always have helped the cause. The TV image of “archaeology being a three-day jolly with some colourful characters” has not helped persuade parents to “sail their children off into an archaeological career,” he says.

Whether news that Fleabag star Phoebe Waller-Bridge is being tipped to replace Harrison Ford as the fictional professor of archaeology, Indiana Jones, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark franchise films, will change that perception remains to be seen. For the moment, archaeology’s past remains clearer than its future.

Friday, 24 September 2021

Juggernaut Jeopardy


Juggernauts are very interesting. Here are the definitions:

1.  a crude idol of Krishna worshipped at Puri and throughout Odisha (formerly Orissa) and Bengal. At an annual festival the idol is wheeled through the town on a gigantic chariot and devotees are supposed to have formerly thrown themselves under the wheels.  (That is disputed -- probably they just slipped while doing their pulling stint......)

2.  any terrible force, especially one that destroys or that demands complete self-sacrifice

3.  any relentless, destructive, irresistible force

I gather that in the annual Puri festival there are actually THREE juggernaut chariots, equally huge but each with a specified number of wheels and assorted other technical variables. Goodness knows how many tonnes each one weighs, but the weight is probably doubled by the hundreds of devotees who are allowed to climb on board during transit.

The juggernaut is of course replete with symbolism.  It is not actually unstoppable; it demands and consumes vast resources of capital, manpower and energy; and if you do not pay attention while hauling it along, it is all too easy to slip and get crushed beneath those monstrous wheels........

Just thought you would like to know.......

Oxford Gletscher and the discovery of surges


This is a fabulous new satellite image of the north shore of Nordvestfjord in East Greenland.  The valley glacier trough on the right is the place where Dave Sugden and I did our first bit of glaciology in 1962.  We slogged all the way up to the confluence between the two glaciers, man-hauling a heavy sledge laden with drilling equipment across brittle ablating ice until we got caught in a blizzard around the firn line.  We camped close to an icefall which showed that the glacier on the right was much more active than the one on the left.  We should have realised that that was a sign of surging -- but nobody knew anything about surges back then.

Trekking up Oxford Gletscher on the way to the research area, 1962.

Camp site on Oxford Glacier in 1962.  Icefall in the middle distance.

Our colleague Svend Wurm with the drilling eq

Man-hauling on Oxford Gletscher with our home-made sledge.

When we drilled into the ice we were trying to find out whether the glacier was warm-based or cold-based --  but we never had any hope of drilling through to the bed.  Our hand-drilling equipment was far too primitive for that.  When we started to measure ice temperatures, using a thermocouple device designed and built by our friend Brian Hughes, the readings were chaotic.  We expected them to be rising gradually with increasing depth, but in the profile they rose and then fell and then rose again.  We decided that the instrument was faulty, swore at the maker, and did no further measurements.  Only afterwards did we realise that we had discovered a surging glacier.  When a surge is taking place, ice from one tributary overwhelms the ice from elsewhere, and the glacier becomes layered, with each layer retaining some of is pre-existing thermal characteristics.  But nobody knew that in 1962............

So in its own way, our very naive and chaotic research was actually quite important.  So when we suggested to the Danish Geodetic Institute that the glacier might be named Oxford Gletscher, the authorities gave it the stamp of approval. Citation:

"Oxford Gletscher 71Ø-369 (71°32.8 ́N 25°16.7 ́W; Map 5). Glacier in the south Stauning Alper, draining south into the east end of Nordvestfjord. Named by the 1962 Oxford University expedition, which undertook survey work on the glacier. Oxford University is one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious universities, whose origins go back to the early 12th century. Uranus Glacier has also been used."

In the satellite image at the head of this post, you can see from the pattern of moraines that the right-hand glacier has "squeezed out" the one on the left -- a sure sign of surging behaviour.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

A conglomeration of erratics


This is one of my favourite photos of erratics.  Erratic boulders on a glacially moulded and washed surface on Rödlöga Storskär in the Stockholm Archipelago.  Here there are 14 big boulders clustered together -- note the great variety of colours, textures and shapes.  These have come from many different provenances.  The ice was travelling directly N >> S, as indicated by abundant bedrock striations.  It's possible that there was a moraine here, but as the surface has emerged from the sea by isostatic uplift, wave action has washed away most of the finer fractions (clay, silt, sand and gravel), leaving the boulders behind.  No human intervention required..........

An apology to Prof MPP and his team

This report actually exists.... as do several others.....

Apologies cost nothing.  As readers of his blog know, I am always happy to apologise if I say something that is wrong.  So this is an apology to Prof MPP and his colleagues for accusing them, over and again, on the blog and in correspondence, of not writing and publishing any research diaries or interim field excavation reports between 2011 and 2016. (There are reports for 2017 and 2018, which we have already examined and discussed.)  I also accused them of falling short on academic standards and of preventing pre-publication scientific scrutiny of their work, by failing to place in the public domain any material that could be scrutinized or peer-reviewed, given that excavation pits are always filled in, thus preventing independent examination of the evidence due to be presented in print at some later date.

That latter point is still a valid one, but on the "interim report" issue I clearly got it wrong, since I have now been able to obtain from Dyfed Archaeology and the Archwilio "Historic Environment Record" the PDF versions of six brief "interim reports" of the fieldwork at Rhosyfelin, Carn Goedog, Waun Mawn and elsewhere for the years 2011 - 2016.  They are not yet technically "archived".  These reports are not accessible via any searches via Google, on the Archwilio web site, or on any other website such as Coflein, Cadw, UCL or RCAHMW.  They were published but not available, if you see what I mean.........

On innumerable occasions over the last decade, members of the research team were given opportunities to inform me about the existence of these reports, but declined to do so.  Maybe they were sworn to secrecy or instructed not to communicate?

Anyway, I obtained the documents by specifically asking for them, having tracked them down via one agency after another.

So I am sorry about my mistake and hope that my apology will be accepted.

As for extenuating circumstances, they are rather numerous, but I will leave those for another post.

Tuesday, 21 September 2021

The Nordvestfjord threshold

Scan of the topographic map of the Hall Bredning area. Note that the fjord width is compressed to just 7 km between Pythagoras Bjerg and Kloftbjerge to the west.  The fjord then opens to about 10 kms width at its exit.   

This is from a somewhat complex paper about the hydrology and water characteristics of the Nordvestfjord - Scoresbysund fjord system.  Forget about the symbols and concentrate on the bottom profile!  The reverse slope at the threshold is truly spectacular.......
I'm revisiting the topic of thresholds at the exits of glacial troughs because the other day I needed to go into considerable detail when chatting to some visitors to my little Bluestone Museum on exactly this topic.  They had heard that ice does not travel uphill, from somebody arguing that the ice of the Irish Sea Glacier cannot possibly have surmounted the chalk escarpment at the western edge of Salisbury Plain and could not, therefore, have carried erratics from west Wales onto the chalk downs.

Well, the informant has got it all wrong, and if a group of senior glaciologists and glacial geomorphologists says that  the glacial transport thesis is perfectly feasible from a practical and theoretical standpoint, that's good enough for me.

'Dynamic cycles, ice streams and their impact on the extent, chronology and deglaciation of the British–Irish ice sheet.'
Alun Hubbard, Tom Bradwell, Nicholas Golledge, Adrian Hall, Henry Patton, David Sugden, Rhys Cooper, Martyn Stoker
Quaternary Science Reviews 28 (2009) 759–777

Back to Nordvestfjord and Scoresbysund:

The Nordvest Fjord - Scoresby Sund system has clearly been one of the major outlet routes for ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet, during the whole of the Pleistocene and maybe for much longer than that. Even today the Daugaard Jensens Gletscher, near the head of the fjord, is possibly the most productive glacier in the whole of Greenland. Because the ice here has been streaming so effectively in a narrow and constrained trough, the rate of downcutting has been impressive indeed. There are no proper bathymetric charts, but from the scattered soundings that have been made we see depths of 1372m, 1459m, 1372m, 1150m, 1237m, and 1290m between Eskimo Bugt and Syd Kap. The deepest sounding of all is 1508m (4,947 ft). These soundings show that the fjord is substantially deeper than Sognefjord in Norway (maximum known depth 1308m), which has just one short stretch deeper than 1200m. 

Sognefjord long profile, Norway.  Note that there is a 1000m high reverse slope at the trough exit, over a distance of c 20 km.  This is the threshold and the point at which diffluence or lateral spreading of the ice has reduced erosional capacity to a very low level.

But here on the flanks of Nordvest Fjord the plateau ice caps and mountain summits are almost all over 2000m (6561 ft), whereas there is little land over 1600m on the flanks of Sognefjord. So the full depth of Nordvest Fjord over a distance of about 80 miles is approx 3300m or 11,000 feet. I'll let somebody else work out how much material has been eroded and removed by ice from a trough of this size....... but it is indisputable that this is the deepest, longest and most dramatic fjord system on earth.

Hall Bredning, with the twin islands of Ingmikertaje right in the middle of the channel.  Ice has flowed around this blockage and over "sills"at a depth of c 300m -- but nonetheless the survival of these islands is striking. Here too the reverse slope at the fjord exit is about 1000m over a distance of only about 5 km.

Some very useful information is found in this publication, showing a series of connected basis separated by sills:

Long profile of the bed of Nordvestfjord from the snout of DJ Glacier to the vicinity of the trough exit.  The ridges between the troughs are a puzzle, and another puzzle is the lack of an obvious relationship between tributary glacier inputs and trough deepening.  However, the threshold backslope, about 1000m high (approx the altitude of Mount Snowdon) and just off the right end of the profile, is both sudden
 and very steep.  

The deepest section of the fjord begins about 20 km from the DJ Glacier snout, and continues for about 30 km with depths around 1400m before shallowing to around 1200m; this may reflect erosive power or capacity, but it may well be that sediments are much thicker in the middle and outer sections of the fjord, with the bedrock floor maybe several hundreds of metres below the "sediment floor".   Some troughs have beds which are divided up into a series of connected basins. According to Julian Dowdeswell and others the bed of Nordvestfjord is like this, with a series of deep basins (over 1200m deep) separated by sills between 600m and 900m deep. I have not seen the detailed long profiles, and so we can but speculate as to whether the sills coincide with outcrops of highly resistant rocks (on the basis of lithology or structure) and whether the basins coincide with pulses or additions to glacier discharge derived from tributary glaciers. Near the trough exit the bedrock floor rises very steeply indeed, but sediments in this exit zone can be very think as well.   In Hall Bredning the glacial sediments are at least 100m thick.  But the essential point, from the long profile soundings, is that the reverse slope is truly spectacular, rising from a depth of 1200m to the threshold shallows in only about 5 km.  

This is a good explanation from Wikipedia for what goes on in the deepest parts of closed troughs where overdeepening happens on a spectacular scale.

"Analytic glacial erosion models suggest that ice flows passing through constrained spaces such as mountain passes produced enhanced erosion beneath thicker, faster ice flows, which deepens the channel below areas both upstream and downstream. The underlying physical phenomena is that erosion increases with the rate of ice discharge. Although this simplifies complex relationships among time-varying climates, ice sheet behaviors and bed characteristics, it is based on the general recognition that enhanced ice discharges typically increase the erosion rate. This is because the basal sliding rate and the erosion rate are interrelated and driven by the same variables: the ice thickness, the underlying bed slope, the overlying glacial slope and the basal temperature. As a result, the modelled fjords are deepest through the narrowest channels (i.e., regions with the highest surrounding highest topography). This corresponds with actual physical observations of fjords.[16]"

Where was the ice surface when the Nordvestfjord Glacier was reaching its exit and starting to spread laterally?  Let's be conservative and pretend that the snout surface was around 200m in the vicinity of Syd Kap.  Suddenly a glacier that was 1.4 km thick was forced to become a glacier only 400m thick, flowing over the threshold.  The ice volume in the threshold area was thus 1 x 7 x 5 kms = 35 cubic km of ice being forced like toothpaste out of a tube, up a reverse slope 1000m high, and then away into the unrestricted terrain of Hall Bredning.

Who was it that said that glacier ice could not possibly flow uphill?

Monday, 20 September 2021

Bluestone Museum -- new acquisition



The Curator, Trustees and Management Committee of the Bluestone Museum in Cilgwyn, Pembrokeshire, are delighted to announce a new acquisition which is now on display.  Occams Razor was purchased for an undisclosed sum, with the help of the National Lottery, the Science Museum and a single generous donor who wishes to remain anonymous.  The authenticity of the razor has been proved through DNA analysis of minute fragments of stubble stuck beneath the blade, which have been matched precisely with the chin of Mr Fred Occam himself.  So valuable is this item that the Museum has had to install bullet-proof glass and a full 24-hours surveillance system.