Flight Into Pre-history – Andrew Johnson

To nearly fill the theatre in the Centenary Centre for a talk on archaeology might seem a tall order but Andrew Johnson succeeded, holding the attention of the audience throughout with just the traditional refreshment break. All returned to their seats for the second half and that’s the touchstone of a good talk!

Andrew is Field Archaeologist for Manx National Heritage. His illustrated talk concentrated on finds on and adjacent to Ronaldsway Airport. These works were planning-led because of the runway extensions, setting off a whole chain of exciting, significant finds.

Care was taken to set the discoveries in physical context by the use of maps from 1860 onwards and in historical sequence by reference to earlier digs and finds. These did enough to set templates for future work, showing what an incredible area this is for study.

We were shown a 700 year-old lead smelting site for the Cistercian monks of Rushen Abbey, a Viking longhouse c.1000 years old and one of their balances, for weighing small quantities of silver. This is still usable and of such interest that it is ‘on tour’ to other collections. A fine, 98% gold ring was also found.

A 3000 year old stone grave had been discovered together with a fine, inscribed cross. Amusingly, a famous German archaeologist internee was enlisted to assist with one dig but because it was a wartime airfield had to view the dig from a protected area through binoculars. A 4000 years old Neolithic house was found, probably the first discovered in Britain. Oh the crass stupidity of war! Mind you, masses of Stone Age defence and hunting weapons were also found in abundance.

Clay storage pots for keeping food fresh for extended periods by sealing and burying were also displayed. Evidence from 8000 years ago of worked flints with indications of a mixed diet of molluscs, crustacea, eggs, nuts and birds were discovered. It has been calculated that the food source was so abundant that an hour’s hunting/gathering would provide one day’s food. It also sounds a good, organic diet!

Close co-ordination between the contractors, continuing aircraft movements and M.N.H. was critical. Design amendments such as slightly raising the runways rather than scalping down the adjacent land protected many potential finds.

Bronze Age remains have survived on this site because of its alkalinity –bones and shells gradually dissolve in acidic soil. This has left us with the remains of round houses with hearths and sleeping platforms and drains to keep the houses dry. A burial was found of a male, in the foetal position. A careful examination showed that the poor chap had been attacked, with a deep, unhealed cut to a kneecap and ribs cut by a deep, penetrating wound. It is rare to find a surviving Bronze Age skeleton and even rarer to discover a murder victim!

Andrew sets us up for our brief AGM and a talk by the incomparable Jennifer Leece on Wednesday, 16th February, 7.30pm in the Centenary Centre.