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A true Neolithic experience: lots of mud

I got my day's digging yesterday. It wasn't entirely dry: in fact, by the end of the day, there had been two heavy downpours, although these were interspersed with patches of sun that were almost too hot.

Situated as we were at the very top of the hill, looking down over the sea to east and west, you could see the dark grey clouds as they sailed towards us, then away again. The heaviest shower was, fortunately, just as we were having our lunch, and we were able to squeeze into the Portacabins; the second-heaviest, though, was in the afternoon after lots of insignificant sprinkles, and those of us who chose to keep on working through it found that we were kneeling in muddy puddles, and had our movements impeded by stiffened limbs and heavy clothes.

Soon after arriving, I was collecting my bucket, kneeling pad, trowel and shovel, and shown which compound I'd be working in. I'd rather expected lengthy training, but it turned out that all I had to do was to kind of scrape over the ground with the trowel until I reached the chalk bed, a couple of inches below.

Anything that wasn't chalk or soil was potentially of interest, and we had to put it in a 'finds' tray; everything else went in the bucket and then was tipped out onto the ever-growing hill of spoil at the back of the plot. I was probably over-zealous with what I kept, but I'd rather have been safe than accidentally discard something significant. Especially as, later on, I heard about someone on some previous dig finding a gold ring on the discard pile.

The woman next to me, a very pleasant lady who seemed to know a lot of people and be involved with many community projects, found a flint that looked to have been worked, literally within a minute of kneeling down to start digging - but that was about as good as it got. I had the feeling that the dig wasn't as bountiful, in terms of finds, than those that some of the experienced diggers were used to.

We found small pieces of probably Victorian pottery, but not much even of that. There were oyster shells, probably again Victorian, from when you would have come up to the racecourse for a race and some seafood. A couple of small bones, some flints that went in the tray even though they didn't particularly look shaped, just because they were flints and there weren't many about.Collapse )
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Disappointment at the dig


Bank Holiday Monday - of COURSE it's been tipping down all day.

Unfortunately, it's also the first of my scheduled two days on the Whitehawk archaeological dig. Above, the TV mast where we were supposed to meet at 9:20 this morning. Being an obedient type, I was there, along with several species of slug, most of them larger than I would find preferable, and all shades of tan, brown, and orange.

Rain isn't ideal for digs: it's not just that it's miserable for the participants; apparently it can also be bad for any artefacts, which can get squidged underfoot more easily. None of us could get an optimistic forecast for the day, even across the wide variety of weather apps on the assembled people's devices, and all activity was called off.

I'll try again tomorrow, though the forecast isn't looking much better, I've taken the day off work; if it is still pouring down, I might try to work anyway and swap for a day later in the week, though there are only four days left of the project.

One silver lining was that I got to have a cup of tea and a wider debriefing in the project portacabin. One thing I didn't realise about the project was that we (I say 'we', despite not having lifted a trowel yet) are deliberately not excavating the main area of the monument, and the reason is that they *know* there would be rich findings there - the budget of this project, and the quantity of volunteers, means that they actually wouldn't be able to process that quantity of stuff in a measured and coherent way, resulting in a published paper.

So, sensibly (or frustratingly, depending on how you look at it I guess), we are excavating in several small areas where geophysical surveys have suggested there may be man-made anomalies - extending knowledge of the actual formation of the monument. So far, it sounds like the findings have mainly been confirmations of negatives, that is, that this or that bank is actually a natural feature rather than, as was suspected, part of the monument. A few flint tools have been found, but not much else.

Jon went over the history that he'd covered in the recent meeting, but this time in more depth. As there were just a few of us, we were able to ask questions, and I was really interested to hear about some chalk 'artefacts' that apparently had no obvious use except to be decorative, marked with a crisscross pattern that has also been found on quarry walls near Worthing (I think I have got this right; however, I was not taking notes so this is from memory); and also the patterns, based on cereal crops, seen on some pottery.

One thing I found interesting was how little we actually know. There is plenty of extrapolation and an accepted story of both the monument's building, and the wider circumstances of man's living arrangements and provenance around that time, but it was so long ago and no-one can be sure.

I wanted to know what would have been at the centre of all these concentric rings - or perhaps there was nothing, I suggested, wondering whether it was only modern sensibilities that would expect a focus in the middle of such a set-up. There are various ideas, but no-one knows for sure. Perhaps ceremonies, or actions that leave no artefacts, took place there. Perhaps there was a wooden structure, which would certainly not have survived through the centuries.

Jon suggested that Neolithic man was the first to have made substantial changes to the landscape, and to have experienced the effects of them. After their arrival (across the sea from Europe, in small groups, with livestock, which is one of the things that blew my mind a little), it seems that they began quite widespread deforestation of the South Downs, which would previously have been covered in thick woods. As a result, the very deep topsoil at the hilltops would have been swept away by rains, leaving a much poorer chalk surface for farming.

He also said that the incomers were the ones to introduce the 'domestic', farming way of life to Britain (it was already quite established on the continent), and this could have had a marked effect on population numbers. People who stay put can have larger families than those who are always on the hunt, and the younger members can be put to work helping to grind corn, etc. (Here he paused to wonder which way of life is actually better, given that apparently skeletons have been found where the repetitive task of grinding has actually caused some damage).

Coming back to this project, more than anything is is to help raise awareness and to protect it. In the last 100 years, the spot has been used as quite a dumping ground; parts have been given over to allotments, which would have tilled over some Bronze Age barrows that are thought to be in the area. A road has been built over the centre; the racecourse is also over the top of it and, despite its protected status, people seem to have forgotten just where the parts that need protection are. Cars are allowed to park right on top of some of the site's central structures, and none of this can be doing the remains any good.

Wish me luck for tomorrow - although, apparently there are quite frequent digs all over Sussex that are open to the public via the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society. For me, the trouble would be finding the time to commit - I can't help noticing how many of the participants are of retirement age - but I may well look into joining in, if my part in this dig comes to naught.

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Digging Whitehawk

Our street is a cul-de-sac, overlooked by a steep wooded hill.

If you walk to the end of our road, you'll find houses which have spread out benches and tomato grobags and laundry-airers, and children who play out, because cars don't disturb them. You'll also find a small gap in the wall, leading to a bramble-lined muddy path.

Follow the path and within a few yards you'll see wooden shores shoved into the earth of the hill, creating steps which - while useful - are variably spaced and hard on the knees.

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I've yet to manage to ascend the whole flight and stay in breath, but it's always worth it, no matter what time of year.

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They take you through the woods and out to the wildflower-covered hilltop, and from there you can look right down to the sea, the pier, the coast as far as Shoreham, and half of Brighton.

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That hill is called Craven Vale: on the other side of it are allotments, and if you walk northwards from where you find yourself after climbing those steps, you'll pass the radio mast and arrive at the race course - where I begin many of my lunchtime runs, and to where I made my way last night for a small gathering.

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I've been vaguely aware, since we moved to this area 10 years ago, that there was a neolithic site at the top of this hill - but to be honest, I rarely thought about it.

My impressions of Craven Vale and Sheepcote Valley have been much more shaped by my experiences there: blackberry picking, running further and harder, and discovering the seasonal variety in the wild flowers, birds and animals as I did so - and enjoying the view as the swathe of rough ground slopes gently to the sea.

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If I thought much about its history, it was more about its use as a landfill site before it was resurfaced and returned to the downland it is now. But, as our convener Jon Sygrave, of Archaeology South East was to explain to us, its history goes back much, much further.

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We met on Manor Road, just where I generally slip onto the grassland and begin my runs. Last night I found out that it's also pretty much the central point of an enormous Neolithic monument.

And here's what Jon told us.

It's thought that the monument was built around 3,650 BC. This was the point in history when man became more sedentary: they'd started farming cereal and animals, so it was no longer necessary to follow game around the country.

Analysis of their remains shows that 95% of their diet was from domesticated species - only a small portion would have been from fishing or hunting.

This site predates Stonehenge by 700 or more years and as best we can tell, it has significance beyond merely being a monument. Previous excavations found a lot of human remains, but also cattle bones, pottery and evidence of feasting.

Neither was it a defensive structure. It consists of concentric banks, but the banks have breaks in them, so would not have been useful for defence. Astonishingly, you can still see one of the banks very clearly by eye - Jon pointed it out to us.

In 1830, this site was first identified and documented by a Rev Skinner, who drew up plans. Then in 1920 there was a survey and 'bozing' - the dropping of heavy weights to check the sound to see if there are hollow areas.

The 1920 survey uncovered a lot of artefacts that haven't been examined in recent times, and more sophisticated methodology may uncover new facts, so part of this project involves volunteers going into Brighton museum archives and seeing what is there. Since that time, there has been a bit more exploration, such as a geophysical survey that found "a lot of modern rubbish, but it was still useful because we could see the shape of what was underneath".

In 2011 they figured out that 4 to 5 generations built and used this monument. They also mapped at least 4 or 5 concentric circuits and believe there might be more - the area covered stretches from one end of the racecourse stands almost up to the radio mast.

It was granted Scheduled Monument status; nonetheless, Manor Road was built right over the top of it (I have also read that the racecourse should, by rights, never have been allowed to be built where it is).

After that bit of history, we walked to where we are going to be based. For the first couple of days, diggers are going to come in and remove the topsoil (it will all be replaced by Brighton park rangers after the dig, and seeded with wildflowers) and then we will be volunteering in blocks of up to four days.

There has been a lot of interest in the project and it's even going to have a BBC 4 programme made about it, so if we find anything interesting, we have to be prepared to re-enact the moment for a video diary.

We also have to be prepared to find some gruesome remains. I guess we were all thinking about that after Jon mentioned the earlier finds; someone came out and actually asked. "If that worries you...", Jon began - but no, apparently he was looking forward to it...according to his friend, anyway.

I'm really, really excited now. I've been thinking what an amazing thing archaeology is - it's like a mixture between a giant lucky dip, and a game where you (hopefully) find clues that tell us things we never understood before.

And to think that people enjoyed the same views (ok, without the buildings and radio mast and Roedean school... but you know what I mean) *6,000 years ago*. It's almost too trite to say, but at the same time... they were people, just like us in some ways. What were they thinking? What were they doing? Maybe we'll find something that helps answer that.

I'm not involved until right at the end of the dig, and because of our holiday plans, only for a couple of days, but I am so looking forward to understanding more about the hill at the end of my road. It'll certainly give me something new to think about as I'm running on Sheepcote Valley!
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Change of address

When are the occasions you really don't have time to sit down and draw?
- Getting married
- Having a baby
- Moving house.

Unfortunately, these are also the times when it would be really nice to send people a hand-illustrated card with your news. I did manage hand-drawn invitations when we got married. I sure as anything didn't manage a birth announcement, or any kind of drawing for about 6 years after. But here is a picture which I'll be sending to my friends about our change of address (I've removed the street number and name, you know, in case of crazy people, but on the original, the number is in that yellow circle, and the name runs along the street. The map isn't particularly accurate or to scale).

we have moved

I wanted to convey a couple of things about the street that we've moved to: that it consists of a terrace of little houses that dips comically in the middle; and that it ends at the foot of a towering hill. As it happens, there's a TV mast at the top of the hill, so it seemed like a nice idea to have that broadcasting our news.

Amazingly, the scanner has started working after the move. I still can't get the printer component of the same machine to start working though, so getting these printed out and physically sent to people is more of a challenge than it really ought to be.
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Nascent feminist Item

Relevant to Item's interests.

Last weekend was a hot one. On Saturday afternoon, we spent a bit of time on the beach with Isadora and her dad; on Sunday, Item woke up with an encore of the weakness and nausea that had kept her off school for two days the week before, making me wonder if it was sunstroke.

I woke her up and got her out of the house early on Sunday, though, because I'd seen on Facebook that there was a march commemorating 100 years since women got the vote. Women from towns all over the UK have been setting out to walk to London, at different intervals depending on how far they are from the capital. Down in Exeter, my mum had seen her local pack the week before; we are only 50 odd miles from London, and they were setting off to arrive yesterday.

As regular readers will know, Item has been rather obsessed with the suffragettes, so I thought it was worth the walk down to the pier, even if she was feeling a little dodgy. I think it was, in several ways. First, the actual group of women walking was quite small - not everyone can spare a week, or even a day joining in - so it was good to give them some support.

Second, Item got to meet Caroline Lucas, our Green MP and the first woman MP to represent Brighton in Parliament.

Item and Green MP for Brighton Pavilion, Caroline Lucas! At the start of the Walk for Women, commemorating 100 years since women got the vote. The sign says "I ❤ suffragettes".

I got to speak to her too, not just about Item, but also about my work, of which it turned out she is a fan.

She gave a really stirring speech about women's rights and how it had been thought that mad women with their irrational views would overrun Parliament, given the chance, and yet there is still a woefully minority of women representatives.

The whole event reminded me of political rallies that my mum took me to: CND, Greenham Common, Hiroshima vigils. We all sang a special version of 'Glory Glory Hallelujah' and as I looked down into Item's earnest little face, singing out, I got that curious warm feeling that you encounter when you are passing on a piece of your own childhood to your progeny.

There were enormous crowds and tv cameras at the pier, but unfortunately it turned out that they were not there for our event, but to film some sort of dance event for Channel 5, and their music threatened to drown out the second speech, by Baroness Gould.

Her speech was a bit longer and a bit more complex, and Item needed to go to the loo, so we missed the setting off. Afterwards we took the Volks Railway to the Marina, did some Asda shopping and then went home, where Item just wanted to do this for the rest of the day:

Lazy days
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All right, so this lovely thing happened.


I've had this Gudrun Sjoden dress pinned to my wish I could justify that Pinterest board for.. well, for 25 weeks, according to Pinterest itself.

Something about the pattern and the colours really appealed to me, and the cut is one of the few that actually suits my frame.

It had become a benchmark in my mind - I'd see a cheaper dress that I liked, in a shop, and think, 'yeah, but if I buy two like that, I might as well buy the Cirkus dress, and the Cirkus dress is definitely twice as nice as that, so..'

As we know, it's quite easy to justify any purchase with this sort of logic eventually. 'Ooh, I'm so good, I didn't buy these fourteen things I briefly liked the look of, so now I can definitely reward myself with the thing I really want'.

And that's the stage I'd reached last week. The Gudrun sale was on, my resolve had weakened, and I was going to buy the dress.

Until... disaster!

The tweet says it all. The leggings were still available, the tunic was there, but there was no dress to be had. And that's when the amazing thing happened. Gudrun Sjoden tweeted me to say they'd look out for a dress and send it to me, if I'd draw it here.

Talk about an offer you can't refuse - why, even if I'd bought it with my own money, you know I'd be sitting down to draw that thing.

Now in the end, they couldn't actually locate a dress in my size, and they sent me the tunic. I have to say, I wouldn't have chosen the tunic myself, BUT, now I've tried it, I'm sold. It comes with a belt, and you can wear the tunic Robin Hood style, a little bit pulled over the belt, which - rather than emphasise voluminous post-baby tummy, which I suppose was my fear - actually looks rather nice. This tunic is going to be paired with black skinny jeans and boots all autumn long.

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It *was* fun to draw - though you'll note that I didn't draw the whole pattern. Artistic licence!

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To make the whole thing even more special, it came in not only a floral-patterned envelope, but a polka dot tote bag. It's as if they knew about me and polka dots.

And there you are, my first ever 'sponsored post'. Almost certainly my last, though, y'know, if Fat Face, Bravissimo, Boden, or *breathes* Marimekko would like me to draw myself in any of these, I am right here, and, evidence shows, fully amenable. :)