A Field Trip to the Heritage Coast – SPNHC2014

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Today was a day of Field trips as a precursor to the conference proper. We gathered outside the museum with all the other field trip groups watching the filming crew milling about outside. The museum was closed but they were filming Dr. Who, which was quite cool.

Our excursion was sponsored by the GCG and headed up by Cindy Howells of the National Museum of Wales. Our first stop was Dunraven Bay, where the Jurassic Blue Lias strata sits upon the Carboniferous limestone. The Dunraven fault – a reverse fault – has pushed the Lower Jurassic Sutton Stone up against the Blue Lias with some amazing crumpled folding patterns. This area was mostly underwater during the Jurassic, with only the highest hills projecting above sea level as a series of island chains. As a result, the fossils are mostly aquatic species: lots of Gryphaea; a good number of ammonites; the occasional ichthyosaur and plesiosaur (we were not lucky enough to find either); scattered bits of crinoid everywhere… and no belemnites at all! Where are the belemnites, why have none ever been found in the region?

Next we drove a few miles down the coast to Ogmore by Sea, residential home to a number of mating pairs of wild ravens! As we ate the remains of our packed lunches I watched a raven repeatedly harass a big gull. The Tower of London ravens are significantly bigger than the wild ones here but the Ogmore ravens are still spectacular birds and clearly intelligent.

A few hundred yards down the road brought us into Carboniferous limestone covered by a strange type of rock, which our guides described as an “angular conglomerate” or Breccia. It looks like raw cement and was deposited in the Triassic, when Wales was an equatorial desert. The deposit indicates a cataclysmic monsoon event. I can imagine early dinosaurs hoping to find water, only to learn the old lesson: be careful what you wish for!

We saw lots more incredible geology but it was a lot to take in and alas my head was still absorbing the Triassic landscape to take it all in. The scorching heat didn’t help either. I’d very much like to return another day, there are dinosaur footprints out there.

Looking forward to tomorrow and the start of the SPNHC2014 talks. I’ll keep you updated on these too.

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Vikings: Life and Legend – a Review

This post will be accompanied by LEGO illustrations as we were not permitted to take photographs inside the exhibition.

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When it comes to archaeology / anthropology exhibits I’m not the easiest audience to please. Unless the people in question had some serious interaction with the local wildlife I lose interest fast. Fortunately the Scandinavian people do not disappoint in this regard. As soon as you enter the first room you are greeted by a pair of walrus tusks, representing the primary source of Viking ivory, which they carved into all manner of things from game pieces and dice to religious objects and scabbard decorations. They traded ivory, pretty stones such as Jet, and furs – across Europe, the Middle East, and North America. There were some lovely black fox skins available for stroking. One can only imagine how quickly these will be reduced to a sticky mess. Their tools were often fashioned from animal parts too: the whale baculum (penis bone) was used as an axe handle.

We normally associate the Vikings as loud, war-obsessed drunks but their culture seems to have abhorred loud, idiotic behaviour. They did have a proud warrior tradition, in which it was noble to die in battle and shameful to die in bed. A child would be given an unsheathed sword from his father and told that his sole inheritance was whatever he could gain with this sword. Most of our English mediæval ancestors would have associated with the Vikings as raiders – even the word means “raider” or “pirate”.

They were by no means invincible: in Weybridge there were found some 30-35 Viking men, buried unceremoniously together. Carbon dating puts them near 1000 AD and it seems these men were the entire crew of a Viking raiding party that lost. Some of the bones are on display in the exhibition – including one hyper-arctic adapted chap with a very robust femur compared to his friends. According to written accounts of Vikings going to battle, they were often accompanied by ravens, which they referred to as the “wound-grouse” (fantastic name). The ravens got food in abundance from this arrangement but I wonder what was in it for the Vikings.

The centrepiece of the exhibit is of course the large longship Roskilde 6, according to some sources the largest Viking vessel of its kind. The norm seems to be 16 pairs of oars and shields, which is why I depicted this in my illustration, rather than almost double that, aka Roskilde 6. She’s an impressive ship. The Vikings made lightweight ships that could be carried over small obstacles, row into shallow water down to a metre deep, and can be reversed easily by simply rowing in the opposite direction, as the stern cut the water just as easily as the bow. It seems modern ships have made a commitment to going one way and turning is a much more difficult enterprise than it used to be. I have a question for any maritime engineering experts we may have reading this: what have we gained in sacrificing these benefits? I’m assuming there’s a trade-off there somewhere.

If I had criticisms, they would be the flow of traffic round the first room, and the use of microphones on the fire alarm which, in some areas, was barely comprehendable due to vocal distortion plus echo from the building acoustics. In conclusion, if you haven’t got yourself down to the British Museum and seen it yourself yet I would recommend it. It’s finishing on the 22nd of this month so do head down there sooner rather than later.