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Archaeological Research Questions

At Past Participate we believe in combining community engagement, volunteer training and high-quality archaeological research. This is the first in series of blog entries that will not only introduce you to our research project at Tenants Hill, but will also give you a flavour of the research process.


Every archaeological project should have a research question at the heart of it. The point of doing archaeology is to learn about the past, by understanding physical stuff (material culture). It is important that this is done in a focused way and builds upon what we already know. The building blocks used for this are made up of questions.


What are the research questions for Tenants Hill?


At Tenants Hill we set out to explore the landscape asking, “how was this landscape used in prehistory?” More specifically we wanted to know how the monuments were connected through use, space and time? What were people doing here and why?


These are quite big questions and so we have to break them down into smaller questions. These correlate to our separate investigations. For example, during our 2022 excavation we wanted to know: could we determine the form and size of the specific monument we were looking at? When was it built? Could we establish its function? What is the relationship between it and other features in the landscape?

Why are we asking the questions?

It is also important to really think about why you are asking the questions. What are the building blocks creating? What is purpose of the research?

We’re excavating at Tenants Hill because it should help us look at the bigger picture too. It is situated within the South Dorset Ridgeway; an extremely important and comparatively well-preserved prehistoric landscape. It probably contains a similar, or perhaps even greater, density of monuments than the Stonehenge and Avebury World Heritage Sites but it has been markedly under researched in comparison. Tenants Hill contains many monuments and can be seen as a microcosm of this landscape. We hope our research will provide insights into human activity throughout prehistory that can be used to help understand the South Dorset Ridgeway and, when put into greater context, prehistoric Britain.

What is the context for the questions?

Asking questions may seem simple - we ask questions all the time arising from curiosity. But research questions themselves need to be thought about, researched and developed carefully. As researchers we try to avoid bias in our answers, but we need to think about the questions equally carefully. We ask questions depending on our research context and our personal experience. This can limit the questions that we ask, and therefore the answers that we get.


Our context is as professional archaeologists who prioritise community participation in high quality research. We identified a lack of support and training for volunteers in the heritage sector in Dorset and thought we could meet this need through a research project focussed upon Tenants Hill. Many of our volunteers also volunteer with other groups or in museums and we try to provide support and context for their work. We also try to ensure that we introduce new audiences to archaeology and our research by making our projects accessible and diverse.


Over the past 5 years we have been funded by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the Prehistoric Society, the University of Manchester, the Cultural Recovery Fund and the Farming in Protected Landscapes programme. In order to qualify for funding our projects have to fit within certain parameters. Often these align with the politics of the day, for example we were only eligible for the Farming in Projected Landscapes programme because Tenants Hill is located within the Dorset Area for Outstanding Natural Beauty (DAONB) and our project aligned with the DAONB management priorities. This particular pot of money had been made available by the government as part of its Agricultural Transition Plan.


 

Our research story in questions. These smaller questions all help to answer our over-arching questions:


How was Tenants Hill used in prehistory?


How are the monuments connected through use, space and time? What were people doing here and why?

2018- Setting the scene: first forays into fieldwork

2019: Developing our research on Tenants Hill.

2020 ·The Covid Year!

2021: Targeting the research

2022: Excavation

2022 Sarsen Survey

2023 Watch this space...


 

Here is another case study that discusses the impact of research questions

Stonehenge

A portrait of William Stukeley
Frontispiece to The Family Memoirs of the Rev. William Stukeley, M.D. .. 1882. Publisher Andrews and Company

In the 18th century William Stukeley was one of the first people to do archaeological style research at Stonehenge. He was the first to identify The Avenue and The Cursus- two important features associated close with the stone circle. Stukeley’s interest in the past and his own personal religion were intertwined in the way he saw the world. His interpretation of the monument had to fit it with his literal belief in biblical mythology i.e., that the world was formed in 4004BC. Stukeley believed Christianity was the original religion and that it had been corrupted and then restored by Jesus. He thought that Stonehenge was a temple built by primordial Christians and he hoped to evangelise using this as evidence (Piggott 1985, Hutton 2005, Haycock 2009).


An archaeological trench in front of a large stone
Photo from Hawley's report in the Antiquaries Journal 1923

Much of the research conducted during the 20th century was in response to stabilisation or development works, and therefore the questions they asked and results they found were as a result of this- often determined by geography. For example, in 1901. Professor William Gowland excavated after a stone fell over and was re-erected. The small holes he excavated in relation to this work allowed him to discover bluestones chips that predated the large stones and that antler picks were used to dig the holes. Therefore, he concluded that Stonehenge was built before the development of metals i.e., it was Neolithic in date (Gowland 1902). A further restoration project was conducted in 1919, which again had excavations associated with it. These were carried out by William Hawley who continued to excavate the sizable areas of the monument after stabilisation works were completed. In the process he found numerous cremation burials, which first established a link between the stone circle and funerary activity. He also excavated the Aubrey holes (Hawley 1921). These were a series of large pits running around the periphery of the monument. As a result of his excavations, Hawley was the first to suggest that there were several distinct phases of activity at Stonehenge and proposed that the Aubrey Holes marked the location of a large stone circle that predated the extant monument. Modern radiocarbon dating analyses have now verified that the Aubrey Holes probably relate to the initial construction phase (Darvill et al. 2012) of Stonehenge.


In the 1950s and 60s more excavations were conducted at Stonehenge, and they slowly started to identify and refine the specific phases of activity, layering up our understanding. However, these investigations were also limited by their nature, and this impacted upon the questions they could ask. For example, excavations in 1966/67, in advance of a carpark and visitor centre being built, found Mesolithic pits and postholes, but only within the area of the new construction (Vatcher and Vatcher 1973).


A small round house with a thatched roof reaching to the floor
A replica of a house found at Durrington Walls

Riverside Project, Mike Parker Pearson used ethnographic ideas to think about Stonehenge as a monument for the dead, and Durrington Walls and Woodhenge as places for the living or recently dead (Parker Pearson 2000). Without a purely research and anthropological centred perspective these connections across the landscape may never have been made. At about the same time the SPACES project excavated within the stones and discovered evidence of Roman activity, as well as previous settings for the stones (Darvill and Wainwright 2008).


The most recent research has focussed upon the application of new technologies, which allow the consideration of new questions. Remote sensing and geochemistry allowed Gaffney et al (2020) to discover a series of very large pits surrounding the henge at Durrington Walls, close to Stonehenge. New questions have also been asked about archived material from the older excavations; researchers have investigated the genetic background of people buried in Neolithic cemeteries close to Stonehenge (Booth et al 2021).


All of these research projects build upon each other, and the questions they set out to answer are usually the result of previous work or circumstance. How we think about the past is historically situated- everyone asks questions in their own context, and we are no different. How will the questions that are asked in 10 years’ time differ from today?


References

T.J. Booth et al, 2021. ‘Tales from the supplementary information: ancestry change in Chalcolithic–Early Bronze Age Britain was gradual with varied kinship organization’, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 31(3): 379-400.

Darvill, T. and Wainwright, G. 2009. ‘Stonehenge excavations 2008’, Antiquaries Journal 89: 1–19.

Darvill, T., Marshall, P., Mike Parker Pearson, M. and Wainwright, G. 2012. ‘Stonehenge remodelled’, Antiquity 86: 1021–1040.

V. Gaffney et al, 2020. ‘A massive, late Neolithic pit structure associated with Durrington Walls henge’, Internet Archaeology 55.

Gowland, W. 1902. ‘Recent excavations at Stonehenge’, Archaeologia 58: 37–118.

Hawley, W. 1921. Stonehenge: interim report on the exploration. The Antiquaries Journal 1: 19–41.

Hawley, W. 1926. Report on the Excavations at Stonehenge during the Season of 1924. The Antiquaries Journal, 6(1): 1-25. doi:10.1017/S0003581500013184

Hawley, W. 1928. Report on the Excavations at Stonehenge during 1925 and 1926. The Antiquaries Journal, 8(2): 149-176. doi:10.1017/S0003581500012063

Haycock, D. B. 2009. ""A Small Journey into the Country": William Stukeley and the formal landscapes of Avebury and Stonehenge". In M. Aldrich and R. J. Wallis (eds.). Antiquaries and Archaists: The Past in the Past; the Past in the Present. Reading, Spire: 46–61.

Hutton, R. 2005. "The Religion of William Stukeley". The Antiquaries Journal, 85: 381–394. doi:10.1017/S000358150007445X. S2CID 162733894.

Vatcher, G. and Vatcher, F. de M., 1973. ‘Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park’, Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68: 57–63.

Parker Pearson, M., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Thomas, J., Tilley, C. & Welham, K. 2020. Stonehenge for the Ancestors, Part 1: Landscape and Monuments. The Stonehenge Riverside Project Vol. 1. Leiden, Sidestone Press.

Piggott, S. 1985. William Stukeley: An Eighteenth-Century Antiquary (second ed.). London: Thames & Hudson.


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