Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Time Team Dunwich sneak preview - discovery of jug handle causes much excitement

TIme Team presenter interviews archeologist at Dunwich Maison Dieu dig, with Flora Tea Rooms in the background, June 2011

Channel 4's Time Team, which goes out a week on Sunday (Sunday 5 February 2012) is from the village of Dunwich in Suffolk, formerly England's third biggest city in the Middle Ages before it started falling into the sea.

The excavation, in a very rainy week in June last year, was in the grounds of the ruined Greyfriars Monastery, English Hertiage's most threatened site - thry expect to lose it to the sea in the next 50 years - and in the car park in front of the Flora Tea Rooms at the beach. Locals in the know were puzzled by the choice of Greyfriars, regarded by many as "archeologically barren", with the last dig in the 1990s believed to have dug up everything there still was to dig up. There were last minute doubts as to whether the Greyfriars dig would go ahead at all.

The dig at the Flora Tea Rooms car park site involved a long, thin trench on the edge of the car park up against the recycling bins and one of the last remaining World War Two pill boxes (the sea has already claimed most of these) and a couple of small trenches right outside the Tea Rooms in front of the tables, avoiding where they thought power, water and gas cables would be.

Long thin trench at the Maison Dieu dig, Dunwich

The Flora Tea Rooms dig was looking for signs of Maison Dieu, a charitable hospital run by a religious order to serve the poor of the then city of Dunwich. There's still at tiny Maision Dieu Hill on the beach, the "hill" is now a patch of eroded ground with a fisherman's shed on it, but it's crumbled away so much the shed's not safe to use anymore.

The village Reading Room served as the HQ, with lots of maps. There are plenty of Medieval surveys of Dunwich. It's in the Domesday Book, with a staggering 15 Frenchmen recorded there within two decades of the Norman Conquest, and a King's Commission was despatched in 1287 to discover why the city's considerable tax revenues had suddenly dried up. (A huge storm had blown down a lot of houses and blocked the harbour with shingle, ending the port's commercial viability, it turned out.) Maps from the 16th century onwards record the ruins in detail.

There was much excitement when Time Team (Wessex Archeology Service, who have a commercial arm, and Suffolk Archeology Service) dug up a jug handle from one of the Flora Tea Room trenches, characteristic of a particular style of Provencal pottery.

Of Maison Dieu itself nothing was found, except that fragments of "posh" ceiling tile, floor tile and dressed Caen stone from Normandy - pulled out of the rubble packing the trench. If these were bits of Maison Dieu, they would have been recycled Maision Dieu rubble used as hardcore for the foundations of a later building on the site.

Meanwhile, up at Greyfrairs, an extraordinary amount of time was apparently spent digging to establish and then stake out exactly where the 1990s dig had been, which seemed an extraordinary boring pursuit. The 1990s dig had resulted in resentment locally, because the finds had apparently been locked away in storage in the Ipswich Museum and never seen the light of day. Dunwich has its own museum (my parents are volunteers in the weekend) which recently got a security upgrade for its exhibition of seals on loan from the British Museum, so there was already lobbying for any Time Team finds to go on display in the Dunwich Museum.

Archeologist (seated) prepares for piece to camera about his exciting jug handle find

On the edge of the Greyfriars site, close to the cliffside wall, there were JCB diggers at work and one archeologist was out in the pouring rain passing a metal detector over the piles of earth they'd thrown up. It was the final day of the dig before the clear-up, and it wasn't looking good. The Dunwich defences, mentioned in chronicles that praised the bravery of the men of Dunwich who withstood a siege by the Earl of Leicester in 1173, was eluding the Time Team.

Soon afterwards, though, I heard that in the final phase of the dig, the Team had found the Dunwich defences - much bigger and much older than anyone had thought. The ditch went down almost five meters, which suggests a pallisade or wall of about the same height, and it has Saxon pottery shards at the bottom.
All these were initial findings, as related to me at the time of the dig, or soon afterwards. We'll have to wait 'till Saturday week's Time Team broadcast to learn of their final conclusions.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Lowlands media monitor - Holland's 1 in 13 youth unemployment, extra security for Belgium's rhinos

I just returned from a short trip to Holland and Flanders (Dutch-speaking Belgium). My visit was mainly to keep up my Dutch language, but also to take a look possibilities for freelancing for the press in those countries, after Amsterdam-based International Features Agency's tip-off that new consumer magazine titles are opening in those countries, and the health of the Press in those countries is not quite as dire as in the UK.

As is often the case while abroad, there are stories in the local press that never make it into the increasingly poorly resourced UK newspapers. Two such stories that particularly caught my interest were:

The Netherlands as of December 2011 had a youth unemployment rate estimated at somewhere between 1 in 10 and 1 in 13. A commentator in progressive daily De Volkskrant (literally "the people's paper") attributed this to strict Dutch employment laws, including a "mountain" of paperwork needed to dismiss somebody from a job. So far, the centre-right Christian Democrats haven't been able to dismantle these regulations (they'd like to!) The article ended with a plea for other countries to adopt the Netherlands' successful "polder model" labour market, noting that whenever countries such as the US in particular liberalised their labour laws ostensibly to save the economy, massive unemployment and longer working hours for less money inevitably followed. (The "polder" is the flat, reclaimed land that characterises Holland.)

The article also noted that Dutch people work on average 32 hours a week - the lowest in Europe. My look around the centre of the town of Nijmegen revealed numerous little independent outlets for "funshopping" which would have gone under years ago in the UK. Could it be that the Dutch, with fewer hours at work, simply have moretime to go out and buy stuff, thereby keeping the economy afloat?

I was, however, told by my hosts that another Volkskrant article, a survey of Holland's biggest companies, showed that they were all planning to make massive lay-offs next year, bringing Holland into line with the rest of disastrous Europe.

Meanwhile in Belgium, the Flemish-languageDe Standaard daily newspaper reports that extra security guards are being deployed to stand guard over the rhinos in the country's Plackendael safari park. The already insane international trade in rhino horn as an aphrodisiac used in traditional Chinese medicine has gone absolutely bonkers, with rhino horns fetching five- or even six-figure sums in US dollars. And it's not just living safari park rhinos that have become the target for rhino horn dealers - there has been a surge in items containing rhino horn from antiques shops and stately home collections.

Whistleblowers, defamation, News International surveillance target

There have been some very interesting guest speakers at NUJ London Freelance Branch of late, here are my meeting reports from The Freelance:

Whistleblowing in the wind - Private Eye's Andrew Bousfield on health service whistleblowers, and Cathy James of Public Concern at Work on the limited legal protection available for those who uncover wrongdoing at work. More... (From The Freelance October 2011)

Libel reform and the public interest - libel lawyer Robert Dougans (he defended Simon Singh against the British Chiropractic Association) and Index on Censorship's Padraig Reidy on the prospects for libel reform, and on famous libel cases from Duke of Brunswick v Weekly Despatch to the "Goodbye Gombeen Man" case. More.... (From The Freelance November 2011, co-authored with Padraig Belton.)

Who rules now? Minny Dowler' family's libel lawyer, News International surveillance target and Leveson Inquiry star witness Mark Lewis on media ethics on the eve of the Leveson Inquiry. Also starring Professor Natalie Fenton of the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy (Goldsmiths, University of London. More... (From the Freelance, December 2011.)