Views Of The Archaeological Landscape
by Kevin Fromings, Ba(hons) Ma
It was a brief paragraph in the Times newspaper that caught my eye back in 2005: “Ashford Price, whose family discovered caves at Dan yr Ogof, South Wales, has found hundreds of bones dating back 3000 years in his aunt’s wardrobe. Bronze Age people lived at Dan yr Ogof, and Mr Price believes that his aunt stored their bones for safe keeping.”
Let me begin by saying that I think Auntie Price and I would probably have hit it off – not that I specifically go for older women, or am in the habit of keeping human remains in my wardrobe. No, they are in a finds bag in my shed – the remains, not the women… but they may be the remains of older women… Anyway, back to Auntie: she obviously had an off-the-wall approach to archaeology. She also appears to have had a bloody big wardrobe! If, that is, Auntie Price actually existed.
A story like this is one that those respected (hem hem) dailies, the Mail and Express, usually vie with each other to get an ‘expert’ to discuss. Possibly creating some bizarre reconstructions of ‘life in a Bronze Age wardrobe’. On this occasion, from the usual culprits, there was nothing but silence.
Admittedly they had more fashionable affairs to deal with – something about an election to rant about at the time (if I remember correctly), however I think these two journalistic giants smelled a rat, whereas the Times couldn’t make its mind up, so published the news in a small paragraph.
“What is dubious about the story?” you may eagerly ask. This great country of ours is renowned for its population of grade II listed Eccentric Aunts. Indeed, one of mine was paragliding in France when in her mid-70’s. I think the answer lies in the actual wording of the story. You could easily imagine a bunch of inebriated Welsh archaeologists splitting their sides whilst devising the scam during a rain break, when excavating some 19th century slate worker’s privy.
It may all be based on anagrams, you see. For a start, let us look at the name Ashford Price. An anagram of this is ‘corpse hid far’. Well, a wardrobe is pretty far from the Bronze Age… unless Auntie kept her wardrobe in a turf roundhouse (perhaps it stops moths).
Note as well that we are not told where Auntie Price lived. Indeed, ‘wardrobe’ itself becomes ‘re raw bod’, and what is the ‘bod’ at its most raw? Yes, bones. Look at the place name Dan Yr Ogof: aside from sounding like Kylie Minogue’s sister, the words – rearranged – become ‘randy goof’ (now there’s an archaeologist if I ever knew one) or ‘for any dog’; and what are bones for? Dogs.
On a basic archaeological level things still do not add up: “hundreds of bones”, for example. Going back to relative sizes (and I don’t know what size Auntie Price was compared to her nephew), how many human bones can you fit in a wardrobe? Please don’t try this at home; it annoys your partner – that’s if you’ve still got one after cramming your wardrobe with human remains).
Okay, thinking about this logically, you might be able to secrete hundreds of phalanges, though these rarely make it into the archaeological record; femurs are more likely to survive, but they take up much more space. Although, what about skulls? Aside from how cramped they would be, imagine getting up in the morning without a stitch on, and flinging open your wardrobe door to be ogled by hundreds of eyeless ivory sockets! It would put you right off your breakfast.
Perhaps what is being referred to is a whole articulated body?
So, Auntie Price kept a body in the wardrobe? Was it a travelling salesman, caught ‘in flagrante’, who quickly had to hide when Uncle Price came home? Ah, but they were Bronze Age bones. Right, we aren’t given the age of Auntie or the wardrobe. Perhaps he was just a very old salesman who did not want to retire. Or, maybe we now know where some of those mountain postmen disappeared to…
And how do we know the bones are Bronze Age? Did Auntie get the lot carbon dated (obviously a very rich woman). Did she badger a poor hapless conservator so much with ridiculous questions about where she should store the bones, that the final exasperated reply was “How the bloody hell should I know, missus? Stick them in your wardrobe for all I care!” So she did, because the experts are always right.
There is so much vital information missing from the article. We don’t know the age, make, size, and origin of the wardrobe. Perhaps the bones weren’t jostling for space with Auntie’s dresses. More likely the bone receptacle had become the wardrobe – not by any Narnian-like transformation, simply because Auntie found a prehistoric stone cyst that was just the right size for housing her clothes… and she could not be bothered with removing them before putting it to use in her bedroom. Or – as already hinted at -Auntie lived in a roundhouse, or a cave. It is Wales after all.
Whatever happened, she was – like so many people – not considering the further implications of her actions.
If she did live in a cave and the roof collapsed, what would future archaeologists make of the Bronze Age bones in a pine wardrobe? There would not be enough raw material for dendrochronological dating, the timber could be easily sourced to Sweden, and could inadvertently rewrite history! Were the Vikings the first Scandinavians to invade the British Isles? No, it was a Bronze Age warrior named IKEA.
Now transfer the wardrobe and bones to the more likely setting of a cottage.
What if that cottage was in a village in Wales, nestling in one of the valleys that was due to be flooded so that rich English holiday makers could practice their water sports? Later marine archaeologists would identify the bones and define our Welsh forebears as having developed small amphibian urban communities at the start of the first millennium BC. Said one future hypothetical expert “By, it knocks the ‘furniture’ found at Skara Brae into an ethnic cocked hat, look you.”
My answer? Don’t believe everything you read about archaeology. Some people will write any old twaddle to get good copy. And any ‘watertight’ story written about Welsh archaeology is likely to be full of leeks.
Stop Press: “The family of a man who died (in Ramsgate) were shocked when they found the decapitated head of a mummy among his possessions.”
Yes, but whose mummy? Presumably it was not the man’s own, as there may have been questions asked back in the day…
“When did you last see your mother?”
“When she went out to buy a packet of fags, a tin of baked beans and a woman’s weekly in 1978”.
Also, this particular head was found in the man’s attic, and turned out to be at least two millennia old. They don’t know where the body went to, but no one is considering digging up the patio.
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