Scottish Urn and Burial Newspaper Project 2011-12

The Society helped fund transcription of reports and the creation of a database

During the 1980s and ‘90s, I became excited at the prospect of discovering ‘new’ archaeology in old newspapers. Odd cuttings had already come my way in antiquarian MSS collections whilst I was a research student earlier, and one or two of them – on coins and a medieval ship – had proved useful in the production of my first publications.

At first, prospects of discovery focused on laborious page-by-page eye-scanning of newsprint in microfilm and microfiche – prohibitively time-consuming to carry out other than on a limited scale. Then, when the publisher Chadwyck-Healey put The Times onto CD during the 1990s, much greater potential began to emerge. From there to full digitisation was but a short step to when the educational foundation GALE-CENGAGE made The Times online 1785-1985 available digitally around the turn of the millennium. Soon after, working in partnership with the British Library, CENGAGE’sBritish Nineteenth-Century Newspapers online followed (c. 2005). In 2010 that was integrated with The Times and together with many additional papers became their online searchable Newsvault. In November 2011 this was further complemented by a separate venture: The British Newspaper Archive (BNA), again a commercial partnership involving British Library holdings. This resource carries back coverage nearer to 1700 and offers fascinating insights into many as yet unexplored aspects of life in post-Medieval Britain and Ireland . A digitised record of The Illustrated London News 1842-2003 recently joined this cornucopia of resources, while ProQuest, another educational publishing foundation has digitised The Manchester Guardian and The Observer. Similarly, The Scotsman now has a bespoke digital archive and there are at least two online databases devoted exclusively to Irish Newspapers. All these resources require subscriptions. Fortunately, my access to CENGAGE and ProQuest comes through a membership card and Athens number from the National Library of Wales; the BNA costs £80 p.a. but I’ve not yet tackled The Scotsman, which will require a similar outlay. I believe that is more readily available to its  public through institutional and public libraries in Scotland. These databases are accompanied by sophisticated online word-search facilities enabling access to all kinds of information in a way that was previously inconceivable.

I began digital searching in earnest during 2005 and 2006 specifically to gain a better understanding of how archaeology was organised in the mid-nineteenth century and how quickly new ideas and interpretations were then being adopted. But this inquiry soon began to overlap with accounts of site excavations, discoveries made during building developments, and donations to museums. At first, I ignored them, largely because it seemed reasonable to suppose that such information would have found its way into archaeological journals and would now reside in SMRs. I felt most confident of that assumption for Scotland, because of the influence I believed Fellows of its Society of Antiquaries must have had upon its well-educated public.

Having begun to realise that some finds had actually fallen through the net, it occurred to me that I might profitably look for bronze or stone artefacts and find out if Early Bronze Age burials had been laid bare in agricultural operations. It soon became clear that the adventitious discovery of stone cists, skeletons and urns was a commonplace, particularly in Scotland. Here, Canmore provided a welcome reference point for checking how far these were new to the record. By late Autumn 2011, around 450 sites had been downloaded and printed from digitised newsprint and it was becoming clear that many were unknown to archaeology.

At this point I applied to the research fund of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland seeking help to begin transcribing and creating a simple Access Database. Consequently, ‘new’ information is now emerging that may help put a slightly different complexion on the existing dataset of single-grave burial in Scotland.

The cists, which were being discovered in a variety of economic activities,  often contained ash-and-charcoal-filled urns, singly or severally, the great majority of which did not survive intact, if at all. Skeletal material usually shared a similar fate, though some was re-buried in nearby churchyards.  In rarer cases, grave-goods are described. These tools, weapons, or ornaments were of bronze, stone or mineral, a handful of which are now found to have reached museum collections. Most never did.  Sometimes there are useful detail about nature of the burial ground or mound around the burial.  Upon closer scrutiny, it becomes clear that not every reference is certainly attributable to the Early Bronze Age. Some are of long cists, which, particularly when they occur in multiples, may be from Iron Age or Early Medieval contexts, some perhaps even later. But such information can also be important, and even without further definition, it will help identify areas archaeologically sensitive to future planning developments. The transcription and databasing will continue for at least another year, after which it should be possible to analyse and interpret the material. In the meantime, the writer continually tries to invent new search terms that will produce more early burials.

It is probably worth mentioning that there many other kinds of archaeological discovery to be made in old newsprint. A number of ‘new’ bronze hoards have also been identified, and the documentation about several well-known bronzes has been usefully enhanced. Among them are a ‘new’ late Bronze Age cauldron and an especially informative account of the discovery of the well-known Torrs chamfrein or pony cap. Furthermore, a corpus of mainly unknown Scottish medieval and later coin hoards numerically approaching 400 has been put together which currently needs a scholarly editor. There is a growing list of medieval stone coffins which might also make a useful project for a postgraduate to complete and write up. And the late Professor Anne Robertson’s gazetteer of Roman coin hoards could well be enhanced considerably from this same source.

Digitised archive newspapers are for the moment arguably the most prolific resource of untapped knowledge from which to re-discover and re-interpret several important archaeological artefact and monument types. The writer thanks the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland for their support in the present project, and welcomes expressions of interest in any aspect of its methodology or results.

C.Stephen Briggs
Aberystwyth, Wales

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