Kelly van Doorn
In the past Heritage Eastbourne’s archaeology collection was underused, which is strange given the size of it! We have objects and archives from the St Anne’s Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Eastbourne Urban Medieval Excavation Project (EUMEP), Bullock Down, Beachy Head, Combe Hill, Summerdown, Motcombe… and the list goes on.
Archaeology is a valuable resource but it can often create more questions than answers. In the absence of contemporary written records, we have to look at contexts (i.e. where the object was found) and its relationship to other objects and the landscape. Archaeology isn’t crystal skulls and temples of doom unfortunately…people covered in dust with a weird tan or soaked to the skin and covered in mud is closer to the truth! It is such a rewarding profession and without archaeologists the history of so many historic communities would be lost forever.
Unfortunately, people of the past didn’t leave instruction manuals and so “Experimental Archaeology” became an area of study and yes, it is as much fun as it sounds. Essentially, people attempt to test their theories about how people of the past did certain things. For example, how were their pots fired? What was the optimum length of the handles on the axes they used? Would a bronze axe cut down a tree? Experimental archaeology sometimes involves reconstruction of methods and structures. It is worth bearing in mind that these are not necessarily how people of the past performed these tasks or how they actually looked; they are based on a theory. Some theories are still being tested, adapted and improved. Take the stones at Stonehenge for example- there are many theories about how they ended up where they did (pulled on planks of wood, pulled along horizontally placed timbers, taken by boat etc.) and archaeologists are still none the wiser. The people building Stonehenge may have done all of these things or none of them.
Science has also done wonders for the progression of attainable information. If a skeleton is well preserved (and all the right bits are present!), osteoarchaeologists can determine sex, age, certain pathologies and stature just from studying the remains. When scientific processes are introduced, there is the potential to find out where the individual lived as a child, where they lived around the time of death, how old the skeletal remains are, whether they had any genetic diseases and what their diet consisted of. Considering that once they were unknown skeletons in the ground, we’re able to bring them back to life as individuals who had ailments and probably argued with their kids (they may or may not be linked).
Our archaeological collection consists of a large number of flints ranging from the Palaeolithic through to the Bronze Age, covering a period of around 500,000 years. We have hand axes, scrapers, polishers, arrow heads, flakes, microliths and many more. Each and every single one was hand crafted by a person thousands of years ago.
We often find pottery alongside flint and both of these can indicate a site of occupation of some kind. Just like today, people had different artistic styles and pottery was often intricately decorated with tools, shells and fingerprints. If the conditions are right (and archaeologists have all the luck of the gods), there may be traces of whatever the pottery contained which helps to answer questions about diet and cultivation of crops.
More rare, however, are grave goods. Archaeologists and historians are not entirely sure why some people were buried with items and others weren’t or, indeed, why some had specific items buried with them. Theories abound about wealth, status, occupation and sex but these are not always so clear cut. One in particular that springs to mind is a grave adorned with weaponry and jewellery. Some theorised that the individual was a great (male) warrior buried with the weapons he fought with. Actually, they were female but they may well have been a warrior nonetheless. The point is that our unconscious bias tends to creep in and we think “weaponry= man” and “beads=woman”. At St Anne’s Road, Eastbourne a grave was excavated where the individual was buried with generically female objects and possibly clothing but they were osteologically male. This, rightly so, opens up questions about gender identity, grave goods being for those who are left behind and beliefs in an afterlife. Although we may never know the answers to the questions above, they are important discussions to have and unconscious bias must continue to be recognised.
In our collection, the most well known grave goods are those from St Anne’s Anglo-Saxon cemetery, Grave 656. A young woman was buried with 3 gilt copper brooches, one in the form of an ‘S’ with animal heads either side, both with garnet eyes. She also had a gilt headdress pin with a bird-type motif, inlaid with garnets, and “claw beakers” made of glass- all of which are incredibly rare. This elaborate furnishing of a grave is highly unusual and within the same cemetery, many were buried with nothing.
There are far too many items in the collection to discuss in detail here and so I hope this little taste has shown how invaluable archaeology (and the objects that are found) is for understanding people of the past. It is crucial that those records, objects and stories are preserved for future generations because who knows what we might be able to discover in 100 years time…