Channel your inner Indiana Jones and embark into the world of archaeology with Virginia

Virginia Blackburn as Indiana Jones

Virginia embarks on her first crusade into archeology (Image: Jonathan Buckmaster)

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Because by day, Justin is an investment manager but in his spare time his great passion is archaeology and he has been on digs all over the world, including in Italy, Israel and Jordan. He is an expert on the ancient Roman economy. And so, after a few digs (geddit) about fossils and old relics, he teams me up with his great friend Alistair Pike, Professor of Archaeological Science and Head of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton.

Professor Pike is a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award Holder and quite the champion of the Neanderthals: he worked on cave paintings in Iberia that predate homo sapiens by about 25,000 years and is an expert on the disappearance of the last Neanderthals.

Justin and I set off for Avebury in Wiltshire, which frankly knocks Stonehenge into a druid’s hood: for a start it has the largest stone circle in the world, dating back to the late Neolithic period, over 3,000 BC. 

Nearby is a dig at the West Kennet Palisades, a large wooden structure that forms part of the Avebury monument complex, which is where we will find our inner Indiana Jones.

But first we meet for a chat about archaeology. My SB is an old hand at all this, but for me it’s completely new.

So what exactly is archaeology? “It’s a study of the human past through material culture ‑ the things and sites that have been left behind, and how environments have been modified,” Alistair explains.

And what turned you on to the subject? “My mother was Australian. When I was seven she told me that if I dug a hole deep enough I would get through to Australia. So one summer I decided to do it. I got about six feet down ‑ I was only about three feet tall ‑ and I found the complete articulated skeleton of a horse. I should have got it dated as we were near Swaffham, where there were lots of iron age chariot burials.

“My parents were at first very excited about it but then discovered I was tunnelling, at which point they shut the whole operation down.”

Virginia on the dig site

Virginia searching for traces of ancient remains with Professor Pike (Image: Johnathan Buckmaster)

But Alistair was not put off and went on to study Archaeological Sciences at Bradford before doing a doctorate at Oxford. 

A very distinguished career followed, including work on three cave sites in Spain, La Pasiega, Maltravieso and Ardales. 

These revealed the oldest cave art in the world, from more than 64,000 years ago, which proved beyond doubt that in sharp contrast to their somewhat dim-witted image, the Neanderthals created art.

“We’re taught that Neanderthals are thick,” says Alistair, who clearly has a bit of a bee in his bonnet about this one, “and told they had no morality and no god. When the shape of their skulls was analysed, the closest match was with Pacific islanders, who had similar beliefs.”

But this would appear to be wide of the mark: the caves are believed to be sacred spaces. The art was created by blowing through hollow tubes in much the same way as an aerosol can operates ‑ just think of the Neanderthals as early graffiti artists.

Alistair has worked on much more recent projects, too. One of these was the identification of Princess Eadgyth’s remains in Magdeburg castle: Eadgyth, was a granddaughter of Alfred the Great and her half-brother King Æthelstan sent her and her sister Eadgifu to Germany.

“Prince Otto, the heir to the throne, was told to choose which one he liked and send the other on to Bohemia,” says Alistair. Eadgyth was the lucky lady and both became famous, Otto I becoming Holy Roman Emperor and Eadgyth “the Princess Diana of her day,” before dying young in 946. 

She was buried at Magdeburg Cathedral, but the church has been reconstructed several times since then and there was no certainty that what was actually in her tomb had anything to do with her.

“But we opened it and found a beautiful box from the third renovation of the monument,” says Alistair. 

“We opened that and found more cloth, with a skeleton, maggots, straw and cloth, from the 10th, 13th and 16th centuries. But still we couldn’t be sure, so we used a laser to measure the isotopes in her teeth, which pick up the geology of where you live.

“It was the smoking gun.They showed she moved on and off chalk until she was 12, which would have signified moving in royal circles, and then there was no movement. Her mother divorced her father when she was 12 and was sent to a convent. Eadgyth went with her and stopped moving around. So we are 99 percent certain it is her.”

Magdeburg Cathedral

Magdeburg Cathedral where the tomb of medieval queen Eadgyth lies (Image: Oleg Senkov/Getty)

Cor Indiana Jones might have been rushing around after crazed Nazis, intent on finding the Holy Grail, but I bet even he couldn’t identify a medieval queen by what sounds like archaeological dentistry. 

And so we move on to the West Kennet Palisades, a dig run by Professor Joshua Pollard of Southampton University and Professor Mark Gillings of Bournemouth University.

“There was a complex of monuments in timber here,” Professor Pollard says. “We knew it was here because aerial photographs showed the growth of crops signified there was something underneath. It dates from about 2,400 BC and was a colossal palisade enclosure, one kilometre north/south and half a kilometre east/west.”

“What are you looking for?” I ask. “We’re finding feasting debris, there might have been the equivalent of giant pig roasts here.

“We think they’re connected to building big monuments ‑ they were an incentive for people to come and build giant structures. The animals, pigs and cows, were brought from Scotland, Wales and the south west.”

And was religion involved? “Yes. Beliefs then permeated everything and Avebury is a ceremonial site. People were honouring their ancestors, who they felt could intercede in the land of the living. Possibly there were higher order spirits and gods, as found in Polynesia with similar belief systems.”

It’s time to dig. My SB shows me how to use a trowel, slowly and gently drawing it along the ground so as not to destroy anything nor indeed miss it. This reveals quite a different side of his character: he is normally a Master of the Universe type, charging around achieving things, but this is slower, meticulous work.

And, it seems, this is what archaeology really entails. No signs of the Thuggee tribe, trying to rip Indiana Jones’s beating heart out of his living body.

“Is there any similarity at all between Indy and a real archaeologist?” I ask Alistair. There’s a brief look of amusement. “In the opening scene, yes,” he says.

The scene, you recall, is set in a lecture room at a university, with no jungles in sight. The inner Indy is actually a soft-spoken academic. But one we can all dig.

For details onWest Kennet Palisades, go to

Harry Byrne

Harry Byrne

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