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Interested in learning more about human remains: the bones of the body, identifying sex, age, and illnesses on individuals from past populations? As part of the 26th Festival of Archaeology, North Hertfordshire Museum is hosting a one-day hands-on human remains workshop as part of a project to further our understanding of health in and around Baldock, Hertfordshire, the site of small Roman town.
Osteoarchaeology
The course takes place on Saturday 9 July 2016, from 10 am to 5 pm, in the Learning Centre of the new North Hertfordshire Museum, Brand Street, Hitchin SG5 1JE.

Course Flyer

It will allow people the opportunity to directly analyse human remains from the Roman and Medieval periods. This is an ideal opportunity for members of the general public, undergraduates and graduates in archaeology and forensics, medical professionals, museum staff, local archaeologists from societies as well as anyone who wants to know more about osteology and what human remains can tell you and how to handle and curate them. It is a great way to gain hands-on experience of human remains in a museum environment and learn about the past from people who lived through it.

Classes are limited to twelve students to ensure maximum access to the remains and guidance from a trained osteoarchaeologist with experience on hundreds of skeletal remains. This is a general course suitable for anyone and the day revolves around handling skeletal remains. The day will include:

  • Training in how to identify different bones and layout a human skeleton
  • Determining sex, age, and height of individuals
  • Identifying different pathologies and the health of a person at death
  • Using skeletal remains and other evidence to reconstruct life in different periods
  • Reviewing the different stages of skeletal remains from burial, archaeological excavation, osteological study, curation or reburial
  • Learning how to curate and record remains

Cost £55, including tea, coffee and course materials.

Booking form: Adobe PDF or MS Word document formats.

Contact: Dr David Klingle, Osteoarchaeologist, Osteoachaeology Initiatives, 46 High Street, Chesterton, Cambridge CB4 1NG, mob 07578 323410, email david.klingle@cantab.net or david.klingle@yahoo.co.uk. Please book directly with Dr Klingle, not through North Hertfordshire Museum.

M4 Richard Smith

M4, 1968

Although the old museums are closed, and we’re waiting for the wonderful new North Herts. Museum to open, where appropriate we still acquire new works for the collection. Last year we were extremely fortunate to gain grant aid from three generous funders (the Art Fund, the Arts Council/V & A Purchase Fund, and the Hertfordshire Heritage Fund) to purchase M4, a work by internationally-renowned artist Richard Smith.

Richard Smith and RA 20 May 2014

With Richard Smith at his 2014 exhibition

Richard Smith has long been recognised as one of the most important painters of his generation, with work in major collections throughout the world, including over 90 paintings and drawings in the Tate. He was born in Letchworth in 1931, at school there and later at Hitchin Boys’ School. After art school in Luton and St Albans, Smith attended the Royal College of Art, winning a Harkness Fellowship to New York in 1959. Here he produced work that was abstract and concerned with the formal use of space and colour, yet, like the work of contemporary Pop Artists, referenced American advertising and culture. He began to use shaped canvases, and then kite-like constructions, using canvas with string and tubing. In 1971 there was an exhibition of Smith’s work at Letchworth Museum. He returned to live permanently in New York in 1978.

A couple of years ago I discovered that Smith was born locally, so should really be represented in the museum collection in some way. I rang his London dealer the Flowers Gallery to ask if they had a photograph of him we could use, as I didn’t think we’d be able to afford one of his paintings. In a stroke of pure good fortune, they told me that he was coming over for a retrospective exhibition in a couple of weeks, and asked if I’d like to meet him at the exhibition opening. I was thrilled to meet him at the show, and realised that with a package of grant aid, we might be able to afford a small painting. The piece I chose M4, of 1968, is a green and red coloured drawing in a Perspex box; the lower half curves backwards, giving it a sculptural quality. It took a while to put together the grant applications, but we were successful, and the museum is extremely grateful to the three funders.

The work is on view in Letchworth at the moment, lent to the first exhibition in the new Broadway Gallery, Leys Avenue, Letchworth (previously Letchworth Art Centre). The curator, Laura Dennis, will be talking about Richard Smith on Monday evening, 4 April, for the Letchworth Garden City Society. The talk starts at 7.30pm in the Broadway Gallery, and non-members are welcome; admission is free. The exhibition , Richard Smith, Reunion, runs until 5  June, and the gallery is open Wednesday to Sunday.

On Sunday morning, I led a walk with Angela Forster (from Hertfordshire County Council’s Countryside Management Service) around the Weston Hills, south of Baldock. Taking in parts of Baldock, Clothall and Weston, it goes through a variety of landscapes that help tell the story of the local geology, ecology and archaeology. It is one of the Countryside Management Service’s regular Walks and More events that aim to get people out into the county’s often under-appreciated rural areas both to learn about local wildlife and heritage and to help maintain an active lifestyle.

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Learning about geology in a dry valley near Old Wellbury Farm

The walk began in Baldock (in the car park at the rear of Tesco) and we went along South Road and Limekiln Lane and on to the footpath leading to the footbridge over the A505 Baldock Bypass. Here was a good place to stop and for me to tell people about the archaeological importance of Baldock. The line of the road south-east from the ancient town crosses the fields between this point and the A507, eventually falling into line with the footpath close to Old Wellbury Farm before climbing the hill to Clothall. Baldock is really two separate towns: an ancient settlement that was abandoned by AD 600 and the Knights Tempar’s ‘new town’ of the 1140s. The earlier settlement has strong claims to be Britain’s first town, developing in the fifty years or so before Julius Caesar’s invasions in 55 and 54 BC.

From the footbridge over the A505, we walked to Old Welbury Farm and turned right into a dry valley, along the long-distance Hertfordshire Way. This is a good place to discuss the geology of the area, with its underlying chalk bedrock formed 90 million years ago beneath a sub-tropical sea. A period of uplift pushed the tectonic plate above sea level until it sank again, to be covered in a layer of clay when it was at the bottom of a lagoon. Further uplift pushed it above sea-level once again and during the Anglian Glaciation, 475,000 to 424,000 years ago, North Hertfordshire was covered by an ice sheet. As the climate grew warmer, the meltwater wore valleys into the chalk bedrock that are today dry, although they look as if they should have streams in them. The glaciers also fractured the chalk, mixing it with surviving patches of clay, breaking flint nodules and depositing acidic sands in pipes and cracks in the rock. This makes for a very complex geology that is the bane of gardeners and archaeologists alike.

At the top of the hill, we turned right (north-west) off the Hertfordshire Way to cross the large field on a trackway leading towards the triangular woodland. Off to the right is a large crater that often has a pond in it, thanks to the underlying clay that impedes drainage. This is just one of several visible on the top of the hill, which were formed in August 1944 when two American B17 bombers from Parham airfield, near Framlingham, collided. They were on their way to Nazi shipyards at Brest in Brittany as part of the Allied invasion of Europe when the pilots realised that collision was inevitable so, to minimise the danger, they shed their bomb load. Part of the wreckage fell at Friend’s Green in Weston, killing a child and a woman evacuee.

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The henge at Weston Hills, seen as a slight hump in the centre of the field in the distance

Beyond the crater, it is just possible to make out a slight rise in the field behind the wire fence. This is better seen from the far end of the triangular wood at the end of the field, where its position at one side of the dry valley we had entered earlier can be appreciated. It is not an obvious monument in the landscape, but if you know where to look, it is visible as a slight earthwork. From here, the ditch that helped to define it is visible. Henges are believed to have been ritual monuments of the Late Neolithic and early Bronze Age (about 3100-1800 BC), but they are not the same things as stone circles, so don’t think of Stonehenge. Norton Community Archaeology Group excavated a similar monument in Letchworth Garden City between 2010 and 2013 and it is possible that this one in the Weston Hills was built as a replacement when the Norton Henge went out of use around 2200 BC.

From here, we crossed another field with more bomb craters either side, to the footbridge across the A505 Baldock bypass. Here, the edges of the cutting were seeded with chalk downland plants, providing an important ecological zone. This was one of the reasons for keeping the tunnel so short, the other being cost. The tunnel, though, reduces the visual impact of the cutting when seen from the east, helping to hide it in the landscape. At the top of the cutting, it is possible to see orange glacial sands filling glacial pipes and cracks in the chalk bedrock, visual evidence for the impact of the Pleistocene glaciation of this area.

The Weston Hills tunnel in 2013

The Weston Hills tunnel in 2013

From here, we descended into the Weston Hills nature reserve, designated as such in July 2012. It is actively managed by the Countryside Management Service and the Friends of Baldock Green Spaces, who keep the site tidy and help maintain the ecologically rich chalk downland landscape around Gibbet Hill. Here, a steep-sided spur is kept free from trees and scrub by grazing, as it would have been in the Middle Ages. It is home to an amazing diversity of wildlife, including the common spotted orchid and field scabious. The name Gibbet Hill is first recorded in the seventeenth century and presumably refers to a place of execution: a gibbet on top of the hill would have been a prominent and stark reminder of the potential fate of criminals at a time before the hills were planted with trees in the 1800s.

The other hillsides, which are largely hidden by woodland and scrub, have a number of ancient quarry scars, particularly to the east of Gibbet Hill. Although the name of Limekiln Lane shows why the chalk was being quarried in recent centuries, we also know that it was quarried in Roman times thanks to chemical analyses of mortar and plaster from buildings in the ancient town. More surprisingly, white tesserae (cubes of stone used in mosaic floors) from a villa in Leicestershire were also found to be from the Weston Hills. This suggests that the quarry owners were able to market their products over a wider area than just the local town. It also means that some of the quarry scars visible in the hillside are likely to be of Roman date; some of the more bowl-shaped scars could well be from then. There are also terraces on the hillside that lead to and from the quarries and many of these are probably also of Roman origin.

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Learning about the management of the Nature Reserve

At the north-east end of the reserve, back towards Limekiln Lane, management of the site is done by bringing longhorn cattle onto the site. These are docile and are not disturbed by dogs walked on the hills, unlike the sheep that graze Gibbet Hill (dogs should always be kept on a lead around sheep). By grazing in summer and autumn, they keep the development of scrub to a minimum. Thinning the woodland by hand also helps to allow some trees to grow taller while bringing sunlight down to ground level encourages the growth of woodland plants with the butterflies that feed on them. Birdlife is also abundant, with buzzards and tawny owls the main predators around the hills. Red kites are also becoming common around the Weston Hills and North Hertfordshire more generally, a real success for the conservation movement.

The Weston Hills walk is about 5.5 km (3.5 miles) and takes around two and a half hours at a gentle strolling pace. It can be muddy in places, but this is a reminder of the area’s complex geological history, and although some of the climbs are steep, it is not a difficult walk.