The Best Song You’ve Never Heard

The challenge I set myself with this playlist was fairly straightforward: pick a set of songs that a) I love and b) that are obscure. Happily, I’m a folkie, which made point b considerably easier for me. Let’s face it, if you’ve heard of Ninebarrow it’s because I’ve told you about them. The Edgelarks, Kirsty Merryn, Megan Henwood, and Richard Shindell have all supported Show of Hands on tour. Mark Knopfler is indeed that guy from Dire Straits and he’s gone on to have a seriously good solo folk career. Both Megson and Ninebarrow have played Thorganby Folk Club, that well-known cultural hotspot in Yorkshire (sorry Jon!).

I’ve thrown in a couple of tracks from Public Service Broadcasting, who are considerably better-known than they once were, and who are something of a marmite band – you either love them or you hate them, but I’ve certainly recommended them to a lot of people. British Sea Power have quite a dedicated fan base, and Carrion is off their best-known album, so it might not qualify but it’s also too good a song to leave off. Mt Desolation – I’ll send chocolate to anyone I know who has heard of them and not via me – is basically what half of Keane does in their time off. Their first self-titled album is great – I could have at least another two tracks from it on here too; I had an eight-year wait for their second and it wasn’t quite worth it.

And then there are a few tracks by well-known artists which aren’t the ones you’re likely to know. Most music by Eels is hugely depressing, but both Dirty Girl and Railroad Man are well-hidden album tracks and almost upbeat. If I’ve not convinced you yet about Josh Ritter, Getting Ready To Get Down is what my friend calls the “gateway” track – if you like that one, you’re away. The Ground Beneath Her Feet is a bonus track from U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind – one of my favourite albums, the one that Beautiful Day comes from – and there are versions of the album without it on. Finally, Brandy is a song by Looking Glass that the Red Hot Chili Peppers sometimes play live. I couldn’t find a version of it on Spotify, mostly because the Live In Hyde Park album isn’t up there, but the link takes you through to the version I know.

As ever, the playlist is up on Spotify, and you can find it here: . As ever, if you find something on here that tickles your tastebuds, do consider buying it. Spotify pays $0.003 on average to an artist for a single track play (I don’t know how much that is in UK terms, but less than 0.5p), and bands with small audiences are like any other small business – they need your support, especially at the moment when they have no revenue from touring.

1 – Carrion – British Sea Power

2 – Dirty Girl – Eels

3 – Signposts – Edgelarks

4 – Forfarshire – Kirsty Merryn & Steve Knightley

5 – Yon Two Crows – Mark Knopfler

6 – Underground Railroad – Philip Henry

7 – Railroad Man – Eels

8 – Penny To My Name – Eva Cassidy

9 – Dirty Clothes – Megson

10 – Platform 7 – Mt Desolation

11 – Puppet & The Songbird – Megan Henwood

12 – Night Mail – Public Service Broadcasting

13 – Teignmouth – Patrick Wolf

14 – To The Stones – Ninebarrow

15 – In Waves – Slow Club

16 – Getting Ready To Get Down – Josh Ritter

17 – Hide & Seek – Imogen Heap

18 – You + Me – Public Service Broadcasting

19 – Wisteria – Richard Shindell

20 – The Ground Beneath Her Feet – U2

21 – Widecombe Fair – Show of Hands

BONUS TRACK – Brandy – Red Hot Chili Peppers (

We Are The Resistance

It seems unavoidable to admit that we are living through Difficult Times. Of all the periods of history I wanted to have a closer first-hand understanding of, plague was very far from the top of my list, and yet here we are. I was prompted earlier this week to write a playlist, and so I started putting together songs about hope in dark times… and when that got too depressing and had me reaching for the Leonard Cohen, I delved into the recesses to find songs which make me smile, songs that make me giggle, and songs that make me want to get up and dance. The playlist is, as ever, available on Spotify (, and I’ve included a short meditation below on why I wanted to include each song. Looking through, I realise they are all either fairly obscure songs, or are obscure versions of well-known songs, so, um, give yourselves a point for each one you know? And if you like something and it’s by an artist you don’t know, consider buying their album – most folk musicians and small indie acts have seen their living vanish overnight when touring stopped, and supporting them financially would be a great thing to do right now if you can. And I hope there’s something in here that speaks.

1 – You’ll Get By – Show of Hands. I wanted to start with this song for a very particular reason. This is the last song that Steve Knightley played live in his last show before the lockdown started, and he has said it will be the first song he will play live when he’s allowed to play again. (For those of you who don’t know me, Steve Knightley is the main songwriter for Show of Hands. I have put only three Show of Hands songs in this playlist and that is an achievement.) It’s a song written for times which are difficult to the point of impossible. They are times that we will get through.

2 – I Will Survive – Cake. You know, I’ve not listened to this version of I Will Survive since I was an undergraduate, and I’d forgotten how much I enjoy it. Anyway, seemed appropriate. Wash your hands.

3 – Breathe – U2. While many of the things listed in this song are either slightly too apposite (“I’m coming down with some new Asian virus”) or things you can’t actually do at the moment (“invite a complete stranger into my home”), it ultimately talks about courage in the face of a world and a media that want us to give way to distrust and fear. Don’t.

4 – Feather – Edgelarks. If you want to drop out here and just listen to the whole album this comes from, I wouldn’t be offended. It’s all about hope and happiness and Phil Henry and Hannah Martin are fabulous musicians.

5 – Farewell – Talisk. DANCE BREAK.

6 – Wait It Out – Imogen Heap. Imogen Heap is the queen of heartbreak songs, and this packs a punch. It’s a little bit of poetry for those days – the wretched hollows, the endless in-betweens – when all you can do is dig in and wait for things to be better.

7 – Umbrella – Baseballs. Go and find the official video for this – it’s a complete blast of fake-60s joy and one of my favourite things.

8 – Try This At Home – Frank Turner. For everyone learning a new hobby and discovering how terrible they currently are at it. It’s totally fine.

9 – Long Shadows – Josh Ritter. After many years of prodding from my friend, I finally got into Josh Ritter’s music last year, and now I can’t get out of it again.

10 – Land Below The Waves – Skipinnish. DANCE BREAK. Are you up and dancing? How are you not up and dancing? Honestly, how?

11 – Wayfarin’ Stranger – Neil Young. This is an awfully old folk/gospel song, first written down in about the mid-19th century in America, and part of the Sacred Harp repertoire, for those to whom that means something. It’s been covered by everyone from Eva Cassidy to Ed Sheeran, but I rather like Neil Young’s understated version.

12 – Back From Hope – Edgelarks. Welcome back to those who deserted my playlist for the Edgelarks at song four, have you had a good time? Anyway, since we’re talking about wayfaring and wandering and all those things we can’t do right now, here’s a quick memory of hill-walking in the Peaks for you. Walks walked still live in your imagination, I’ve been finding. For as long as this song lasts, I’m trucking up Shining Tor with Carol and Bonnie-dog, wrapped in every layer I own, into a bitter wind on a freezing cold December day.

13 – Battlefield Dance Floor – Show of Hands. This is Steve Knightley in a rare mischievous mood, and every time I’ve heard it live it’s made me laugh out loud. Kicking back the dark is what your hands and feet are for.

14 – Cumberland – Josh Ritter. This one makes me laugh too. I can *almost* sing along, I’ll have nailed it by the end of lockdown.

15 – Scatterseed – The Lost Words. The Lost Words: Spell Songs is an album produced by a folk collective, based around the poetry of Robert MacFarlane and the art of Jackie Morris. The book “The Lost Words” celebrates small, often everyday, and often ignored bits of nature, bringing them back to our attention. Some of the subjects of the songs on the album can only be found in fairly remote places (seals, snow hares), but others are probably in your back garden. Like dandelions.

16 – The Lost Words Blessing – The Lost Words. This song asks us to “enter the wild with care”, which is always a good idea, even when the wild isn’t full of plague. I know I’m missing the moors, the sea, the woodlands; but I’ve also been discovering the place where I live. I’ve seen urban foxes this week, sparrows, robins, any number of crows and rooks and jackdaws and pigeons. The goosegrass has been sprouting for a couple of weeks, blackthorn and forsythia are in bloom, the first daisies are up, and all this within two miles of my front door. (Maybe three.) A tree has half-toppled on the Stray but has enough roots in the ground that it’s greening, and almost every time I pass it a parent has brought their kids to play on it. Also, someone within walking distance of me keeps rheas. Yes. Really.

17 – Up On The Roof – Carole King & James Taylor. Have you tried sitting in a different chair in your house? Also, this is the version of this song from the Live At The Troubadour joint concert Carole King and James Taylor did in 2007 as part of the venue’s fiftieth anniversary celebrations and it is such a good live album.

18 – There Is A Light – U2. “If there is a light you can’t always see / If there is a world we can’t always be / If there is a dark that we shouldn’t doubt / Then there is a light. Don’t let it go out.”

19 – Goodbye ‘Til The Next Time – Show of Hands. This is a fairly well-buried track off the second disc of the “Centenary” album, which was released in 2014 to mark 100 years since the start of the First World War. Firstly, I love it; and secondly, I think there’s a resonance in the story of separated lovers, who promise they will meet again, but don’t know when or where that might be.

20 – Be More Kind – Frank Turner. I scarcely think any of you need reminding of this, but kindness is perhaps the most powerful thing we own right now.

Bonus Track – The Heartbreak Handbook – Grace Petrie. This isn’t on Spotify, but follow the link to Grace Petrie’s bandcamp page ( and you can get at least a couple of listens in for free. (While you’re there, listen to Ivy too.) I’ve been singing it around the house all week. Call your friends. Grab a glass. Toast dead ends. This too will pass.

Advent Playlist 2019

Friends… it’s that time of the year again. I don’t know how many Michael Buble songs I’ve already heard, I’m fully aware of what Mariah Carey wants for Christmas (but can’t help her out with that), and I’ve lost count of the times Noddy Holder has yelled (erroneously) “It’s Chriiiiiistmas!” (calm down, Noddy, it’s barely Advent). Anyway, if, like me, you are already sick of the standard Christmas classics belting from every shop, try the following carefully-arranged playlist as an antidote. There’s one song for each day between the 1st December and Christmas Eve, and it’s also available on Spotify (Clare Rainsford: Advent 2019) or as a daily dose via the page “Alternative Advent” on Facebook.

1. Last Month of the Year – Blind Boys of Alabama

2. Angel of Harlem – U2

3. The Graveyard of the Outcast Dead – Frank Turner

4. Oh My Christmas Tree – Jim James

5. O Come O Come Emmanuel

6. Home Alone, Too – The Staves

7. Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl

8. Bethlehem Down

9. Innocents Song / Gwithian – Show of Hands

10. Light the Night – Ilan Eshkari & Andy Burrows

11. Here We Come A-Wassailing – The Watersons OR Kate Rusby

12. God Save The Hungry – Grace Petrie

13 – Sankta Lucia

14. Snow Falls – Lady Maisery

15. Gaudete – Erasure

16. Carol of the Bells – Kings Singers

17. Donna & Blitzen – Badly Drawn Boy

18. Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas – Kate Rusby

19. Mary Did You Know? – Pentatonix

20. Bogoroditse Djevo – Rachmaninov

21. Driving Home For Christmas – The Baseballs

22. Sing Lullaby – Howells

23. Sussex Carol

24. E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come – Manz

Wishing you a peaceful Advent, and a very merry Christmas when it gets here. 48417701_10103082015258880_8643888602532544512_o


How the Zooarchaeologist got her Deer Skeleton

There are a few really good stories in my family. Most of them involve my father; the rest tend to be about me (that time I got stuck in Luxembourg overnight; when my Dad and brother abandoned me at Ikea, etc., etc.). For those of you who know me, this is the one about Dad, the deer and the gate. For those of you who don’t, I’m trying to make a zooarchaeological point.

In 2011, my family were living in a semi-rural area of Sussex, and I was living in York. One pleasant spring evening, I got a phone call from my father. “What would you think,” he asked, “if, as an archaeologist, you found a complete deer skeleton tangled up with a lot of metalwork?”

“… Well, personally, I’d think something along the lines of “not more bloody Iron Age weirdness,”, I said, then, “Why? What have you done?”

The day before, Dad had just got back from holiday. Slightly jet-lagged and groggy, he’d gone into the garden early in the morning to find that, overnight, a young roe deer had managed to throttle itself in our garden gate. Its head was stuck through the bars, its legs were thoroughly entangled, rigor mortis had set in… it’s not the sort of sight you want to encounter on your first day back at home, particularly not if you are of a squeamish disposition. So my father dug a big hole at the bottom of the garden, took the gate off its hinges, and buried it. With the deer attached. He was phoning me that evening to ask my professional opinion as to how long it would be before the deer was skeletonised and he could have the gate back.

My mother and grandmother are made of sterner stuff, and Dad will never, ever hear the end of this.

Anyway, about eighteen months later we decided that the soil had sunk far enough that there probably wasn’t much deer left, and Dad and I ran a freezing cold New Year’s excavation to recover the deposit. And this is where it gets slightly curious. The deer was indeed there, nicely defleshed and not too mouldy – we’d pitched it about right. But in addition, there was another small group of bones in one corner which amounted to the skeleton of half a mallard duck. Well, alright, that’s not that unusual, its compatriots were busily quacking about a few metres away on the pond. But half a skeleton? In the same cut where Dad had deposited the roe deer?

Here’s the thing. When we find a complete skeleton, or a partial skeleton, or several bones which articulate to make the leg or backbone of an animal, we call these Associated Bone Groups. We love them – they don’t happen often, and there are all sorts of reasons they occur, from strange prehistoric ritual to the burial of a beloved family pet. What it means, though, is that the deposit we’re looking at hasn’t been disturbed. Someone has put that cat, that roe deer, that sheep foot in the ground, covered it over and it hasn’t moved between then and when we dug it up. Which means they are great bones to target for radiocarbon dating, since we can be pretty sure that that horse and the ditch he is in are about the same age.

Sometimes we recognise Associated Bone Groups while we’re digging them. Sometimes we don’t. There’s a cautionary tale I once heard about someone who was excavating along the length of a ditch and took a dog out in sections, but anyway. Sometimes, Associated Bone Groups are only recognised when the zooarchaeologist tips out the washed and bagged bone from that context and goes, ooh, yay. Now here’s the sticky bit. My roe deer and my duck are both Associated Bone Groups. They’re in the same context. That should mean they’re buried at the same time. But I know the history of the deposit – I know my Dad did not stick half a duck in there to confuse me 18 months later. So how did it get there?

Here’s my theory. A duck quacks its last on the bank beside the pond. Maybe a fox took it – that would explain why it’s only a partial skeleton. The carcass is scavenged, decomposes down to bones in the undergrowth. Then deer-gate happens, and my dad comes tromping down the garden to dig a hole. He picks the place where the dead duck is, but doesn’t notice (why would you? It’s early in the morning and he’s got a gate to bury). In backfilling the hole around the deer, he throws in the remains of the duck in one big spadeful. So while they’re both Associated Bone Groups, only my deer is exactly contemporary with the digging of the hole.

Family story, cautionary tale. I’ve seen it archaeologically as well, in an Anglo-Saxon cemetery where half a sheep turned up in the backfill of a grave with a few human bones, and was interpreted as an offering from an earlier grave which had then been disturbed. Look carefully at whether your Associated Bone Groups are actually primary deposits or not. And if you find a dead deer in your gate of a morning, do something slightly more sensible with it.

Commercial Zooarchaeology

A few weeks ago, I was asked to give a talk to the University of York Zooarchaeology Lab Group about the world of commercial zooarchaeology, and, since I’ve not got a lot else to do while I’m waiting for my photos to download, I thought I’d recapture some of it here for a wider audience.

For those of you who don’t know me, by the way – hi! I am a freelance zooarchaeologist based out of a small terraced house in York, UK, and I work on assemblages both from around the north-east of England and further afield. Before this, I did a PhD at the University of Bradford on animal remains in Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, which I’m definitely going to publish something from at some point. Before that, I worked as a full-time faunal remains specialist at York Archaeological Trust, and before that I did an MSc in Zooarchaeology at the University of York, supervised by Terry O’Connor. (The zooarchaeology lab in York has moved three times since then, and they’ve still not managed to shake me off.) I’ve been doing my best to tread a line between academic and commercial archaeology for very nearly ten years.

So what is commercial zooarchaeology? In the UK, of course, “commercial archaeology” is archaeology which is paid for by councils and building contractors in advance of development. “Commercial zooarchaeology”, though, is essentially any short-term zooarchaeology project someone pays you to do, and is usually (but not always) prefaced by the question: “I’ve got an assemblage of bones, can you look at them for me?” The project director or finds manager asking that question might be from a university, from a local society, from a commercial unit, from Historic England, or a community archaeologist with a bit of grant funding to spend. I’ve done paid work from all of those sources.

There are three common ways of being a commercial zooarchaeologist:

  • Full time faunal remains specialist employed by a commercial unit.
  • Full time employee with a commercial unit who does the bones, and, when there are no bones, other general archaeology jobs (usually excavation, watching briefs or desk-based assessments).
  • Freelance. This can be full-time or combined with research / other jobs, occasionally at the cost of some sanity.

Commercial zooarchs are usually the first people to look at and report an assemblage, often while the rest of the site post-excavation is on-going. Depending on a multitude of factors, including budget, we’ll write anything from a high-level report discussing the main features of the assemblage and its further research potential (assessment report) to the sort of in-depth analysis you might find in a big site monograph. We work with everything: from cows to shrews; swans to finches; Mesolithic palaeochannels to 20th century gardens. That means we’re not an expert in every period we’re asked to cover – give me an Anglo-Saxon cemetery assemblage and I’ll give you a nice piece with an up-to-date research background; ask me about Iron Age hillforts and I’ll have to do some background reading. And that means, dear researcher, that you with your greater depth of knowledge on the period are going to find points in my report where I’ve missed the significance of something or other, or not reported something in as much detail as you’d like. Such is life.

However, I do want to be an evangelist about the work we do. There’s a well-known phenomenon where published sites are much more often targeted for further research than similar unpublished, “grey literature” sites. But it’s next to impossible to work with a bone assemblage which hasn’t been reported at all. They exist in stores up and down the country – boxes of bone which have been sitting there for thirty years and have never done a thing but take up space, regardless of how important the material in them could be. We’re the people who are paid to make sure that doesn’t happen – that, however basic, some overview exists to tell future zooarchs what might be in the boxes, how important it might be, and how it might best be used.

Commercial zooarchs are, in the main, highly trained professionals, and often researchers in our own right. Almost all of us have a masters degree, and many have PhDs. You won’t necessarily see us at conferences, because conferences are expensive and it’s hard to get someone else to pay for us to go. But if you’re a university-based researcher, please remember that we’re worth talking to. We know the grey literature, because mostly we wrote it. And I, at least, don’t like to see good sites get overlooked.


Writing About Writing

The issue of good academic writing is on my mind at the moment. It’s there thanks to an article called “Mortuary Practices: Their Social, Philosophical-Religious, Circumstantial and Physical Determinants”, which is 100 pages long and about as easy to read as the title suggests. What the article is saying is actually interesting and relevant and important to my field of research. The trouble is that the author chooses to say it in daunting sentences such as: “Philosophical-religious factors are found to explain a significant proportion of intra-societal variation in mortuary practices repeatedly across cultures.” Which might explain why I’d never heard of it after four and a bit years of research in the area.

While it’s not the done thing to blow your own trumpet, I’d be daft if I didn’t know that one of my major academic talents is to be able to produce readable, grammatical, well-spelled prose. I’ve spent the past few years disclaiming this and going coyly, “Oh, it’s a gift,”, but I realised recently that that’s bollocks. I rediscovered my secret when I was clearing out some bags which had come up to me from my parents’ old house. Among them was an inch-thick pile of song lyrics, written by me, often in collaboration with one or two friends, when I was a teenager. They were almost all shockingly bad and are now off being recycled into something useful, like toilet paper. And they are just the tip of the iceberg. Out of curiosity, I logged back into the Documents folder I used between the age of about 11 (when we first got a computer) and about 21 (when I finally got rid of my first laptop). There’s about 550 documents in the folder where I stored all my creative writing. Thank God for new technology – I dread to think how thick that pile of paper would have been.

Anyway, here’s a few tips I’ve learnt for good writing:

1 – Say it simply. Alright, if it’s academia you might have to use some technical terms, but – for example – there is rarely any good reason to use “lacunae” when you could use “gaps”. The online Collins English Dictionary has a nice feature where it graphs the frequency of usage over time as part of the word definition. As a rule of thumb, if you are using a word which has been steadily dropping in usage since the 17th century, you might want to find a different one. The clearer your words, the clearer the ideas.

1b – Say it simply. Perhaps less relevant for academic text, but in editing this blog post I’ve taken out almost every instance of “probably”, “mercifully”, “basically”, etc. that I’ve found, because they were doing nothing but cluttering up the place. Keep your writing clean – do a Maria Kondo and chuck out anything which isn’t pulling its weight.

2 – Sentence Length – Vary it. This is a meme which has been passed around most of my fiction-writing friends, but which is also surprisingly useful when it comes to academic text:

Image result for sentence length variation

3 – Rule of Three – This is a common writing technique where you use three adjectives, or advance three explanations for something, or describe something in three clauses, because three is an intuitively satisfying number. I use this worryingly often. In fact, I used it just now to describe the rule of three (“use three adjectives… advance three explanations… describe something in three clauses…”), which is a bit more meta than I was intending.

4 – Read a lot – The more you read, the more these techniques will become second-nature. This includes fiction. OK, it depends on the writer, but if you are a prose writer who has been published, you generally know how to write, because that is your job. The more you read, the more you’ll find words and the rhythm of good language becomes part of your everyday life, and the easier it is to incorporate into academic text. So yes, feel free to use me as an excuse to spend a few lunch times reading the new Ben Aaronovitch novel and being anti-social.

5 – Don’t be daunted. I’m going to be honest, I’m coming back to this post after more than a year’s break and I can’t remember why this heading was here. However, I suppose I hate being faced with a blank page and having to squeeze my ideas out onto it. Often while I’m writing something I feel like it’s the worst thing I’ve ever written. But, as my inch-thick folder of song lyrics will attest, the more you practice writing – of any kind – the better you get. So don’t be daunted – and keep writing.









Advent Playlist 2018

It simply cannot be December 1st today. I know it sneaks up on me every year, but especially so this year – I’ve only just seen Show of Hands on the autumn tour, it can’t possibly be time to get the decorations up, start avoiding town on weekends, and spend upwards of an hour slowly congealing in the Minster to the glorious strains of the Advent Procession service. It cannot be the case that, yet again, I’ve missed the chance to get my Christmas shopping done in November.

Ok, no, to be fair, I can believe that last one.

Anyway, presented below please find this year’s antidote to twenty-four days of Mariah Carey, Wham!, Paul McCartney, and all the other usual suspects. The playlist is available on Spotify (Clare Rainsford: Advent 2018), and thanks to everyone who’s suggested songs for it.

1 – Hills of the North (hymn). If I don’t get to sing this in one of the two services I’m going to tomorrow, I will be terribly disappointed.

2 – E’en So Lord Jesus, Quickly Come (choral). I know this from the magnificent Advent Procession service at York Minster. It crops up on average every other year, and we had it last year, so prospects aren’t fabulous for tonight’s service.

3 – Jack Frost – Eliza Carthy (folk). Actually, I don’t know this song well, but it was one of last years’ suggestions and I’m keen to hear how it pans out.

4 – When The Thames Froze – Smith and Burrows. Confession: I’ve been listening to the album this is from since about October.

5 – Angel of Harlem – U2. Okay, this isn’t a Christmas song per se, but it’s probably my favourite U2 song, and it probably will be a cold and wet December day on the 5th.

6 – Dormi Jesu – Rutter (choral). Sorry to everyone who can’t stand Rutter – at least this is better than Candlelight Carol.

7 – Winter King – Ninebarrow. Hunting the wren is an old English folk tradition, which usually took place somewhere in the Twelve Days of Christmas. Like all English folk traditions, it is both worth remembering and utterly baffling.

8 – The Snow – Elgar (choral). Even though it will probably not be snowing on the 8th.

9 – Light The Night – Ilan Eskari / Andy Burrows. The soundtrack to the “Snowman and Snowdog” has been my absolute favourite discovery this year while making this playlist. Go away and listen to the whole thing – it’s an hour well-spent.

10 – River – Joni Mitchell. 

11 – Fairytale of New York – The Pogues & Kirsty MacColl. Still the best popular Christmas song.

12 – It Feels Like Christmas (from the Muppet’s Christmas Carol). NO APOLOGIES.

13 – Lux Aurumque – Eric Whitacre (choral). Translated, the lyrics to this are: “Light / warm and heavy as pure gold / and angels sing softly / to the new-born babe.”

14 – Innocent’s Song / Gwithian – Show of Hands. I was very tempted to put this in last year, too. We spend most of Advent anticipating Christmas and Epiphany (when the Three Wise Men visited Jesus – celebrated on Jan 6th, and the end to the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas), so this is an anticipation of Holy Innocents (when Herod massacred the children in an attempt to kill the baby Jesus – marked by the church on the 28th December). Also, it’s a cracking song.

15 – The Three Kings (choral). As I say, anticipating Epiphany.

16 – Gaudete – Erasure. Gaudete Sunday, in the traditional church calendar, is a break in the season of fasting and penitence which is Advent and an invitation to reflect on the joy that is Christmas. What better way to celebrate than with a synth-pop version of a 16th century Latin carol?  Translated, the chorus runs: “Rejoice, for Christ is born of the Virgin Mary – Rejoice!”. Also, the video for this song is fantastically creepy – recommended.

17 – Mary Did You Know – Pentatonix. This was my favourite discovery of last year’s playlist.

18 – The Christmas Goose – Kate Rusby. If you are of a folky bent and haven’t discovered Kate Rusby’s Christmas albums, go discover them. She’s got about four by now and does a Christmas tour each year which is well worth going to.

19 – Bethlehem Down – Kings Singers. 

20 – Mele Kalikimaka – Bing Crosby. I’m surprised this song isn’t much more popular. It is, however, an earworm, so when you spend the rest of Christmas singing it, sorry. I will be too.

21 – Carol of the Bells. Much nicer to listen to than to sing alto in.

22 – Big Brave Bill Saves Christmas – Kate Rusby. For further, non-seasonal adventures of the Barnsley Superhero, check out Ms Rusby’s album Life In A Paper Boat. I’m amazed Mrs Dobbins hasn’t learnt her lesson about going abroad yet.

23 – O Magnum Mysterium – Poulenc. Props to the lovely person who finally gave me the title of this piece. It’s cropped up on Carols from Kings previously and I’ve never remembered to add it to a playlist. Until now!

24 – Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day.  And so it shall.

Merry Advent, all. 9923CF82-D222-415F-8B10-067DD2371600


Bonfire Pyres

So it’s almost bonfire night and I’m going to tell you a story about a hedgehog. Since I am a zooarchaeologist, I think you can all guess how it’s going to end. However, come follow me to the 5th century in Norfolk, a time just after Britain had left the Roman Empire and was seeing serious economic decline and a good deal of Germanic immigration in the east of the country. We call them Anglo-Saxons and Victorian history pointed to this period as being when “England” originated, which possibly says something about nationalism.

Sheep cremationCremated bone stock

Left: Sheep on a cremation pyre. Image credit: Faye Worley. Below: Cremated bone. Image credit: C. Rainsford. 

At this time, the main burial rite in eastern England was cremation. There’s a lot we don’t know about the process of cremation, but the dead were clothed, quite possibly in special funerary clothes, and placed on a pyre, which, as far as we can reconstruct, was loosely-stacked wood laid on the earth and then lit. In about four out of every ten cremations, one or more animals were sacrificed and added to the pyre to be burnt. What animals? Across 3000-4000 cremations, we’ve identified horses, sheep, cows, pigs, red deer, roe deer, dogs, chickens, bear claws, fox, hare, beaver, goose… It’s generally said that horse was the most often included (in about 10% of cremations), but, depending on how you calculate it, bits of sheep were probably actually the most common offering.

Most of what we know about animals in Anglo-Saxons cremations comes from a single cemetery in Norfolk: Spong Hill. Over 2000 cremations were excavated from this site in the 1980s, and there have been ten volumes published on this site alone. (And that’s not including the academic articles about it). The original report on the cremated animal bones is extremely good, but in there were a handful of bones from birds which Julie Bond wasn’t able to identify. (This was fair enough – there’s not much worse than cremated bird bones, except probably cremated fish). So in 2015, armed with access to the archive, Julie’s blessing, permission to use the excellent reference collection based at the University of York, and help from Terry O’Connor, I dug out these mysterious bird bones and got the identifications tidied up.

For the most part, the answers weren’t stunning. Of eight bones, one turned out to be goose, two were mallard-size ducks, one was probably yet another chicken, and one we couldn’t get any further than “large bird”. One was a type of plover, which was quite unusual – they’re one of the more common types of game birds found on Anglo-Saxon and medieval settlement sites, but it’s the first found from a cremation. One was a passerine (something like a blackbird), which surely must have ended up in the pyre by accident. And one bone, from cremation [2121], wasn’t from a bird at all. It was, instead, the very burnt foot bone of a hedgehog.

It’s fairly straightforward to see what happened. Large, loose pile of wood on open ground; absence of effective “check your pyre-site before lighting” campaign; crispy fried hedgehog. However, it does tell us a couple of quite interesting things about this cremation. Firstly, the young man whose pyre this was must have died and been burnt in the autumn. That’s when hedgehogs are looking for a good place to hibernate. And secondly, the pyre must have been built and left – maybe not for long, but for long enough that a hedgehog living in the vicinity of Spong Hill decided that this was a good place for a kip. When the pyre had burnt out, the ashes of the young man were collected and placed in a pottery urn, along with one telling, accidental, remnant of burnt hedgehog foot. Together, they were taken to Spong Hill for burial, and there they stayed for the next fifteen-hundred years. Until they were dug up.

To my knowledge, the earliest example of a bonfired hedgehog in Britain.

Juvenile hedgehog by David CooperImage taken from:



My shower is big. Lots of plate glass. So when I shower, water collects on the glass, but so too, at the top, does condensation. Tonight, I was joined in my bathroom by a tiny fly. I didn’t pay him much attention – no more than I pay the couple of long-legged spiders who’ve taken up residence too.

But the fly left me footprints, in the condensation.

Like any other animal would leave tracks in snow.

I watched him make a few, turning round like he wasn’t sure where he was going. And then I saw the rest of them, leading up the glass, turning round, coming back.

I never knew a fly could leave footprints.

Maybe that’s because most people clean their compost bins out a bit more regularly than I do. And maybe it’s because most kitchens aren’t right next to the bathroom. And maybe it’s because most showers aren’t big enough to share, even with a tiny fly.

Anyway, there’s no point to this. It isn’t the sort of thing that makes a point. It doesn’t say anything about the world we live in, or solve any of the problems in my life. It doesn’t remind me of things I’ve done or haven’t done or ought to do. There’s no story in it, no moral, no purpose, no money. I’m just glad I noticed.

Because, like sand blowing in patterns across the surface of a beach, it was something I’d never seen before.

And almost too beautiful to wipe away.



Birds and the City

A little while ago, I promised a friend I’d write a blog on unexpected birds that have been found in archaeological assemblages from medieval York. I’m currently revisiting the glories of my past (and sort of my present) as a commercial archaeologist working mainly on York assemblages, so it seemed like the time to make good on this promise. For the most part, the birds that you find in urban assemblages are no great cause for excitement – mostly they went “cluck”, sometimes they went “hiss” (geese, for those who don’t live in York), and every so often they went “quack”. If it didn’t, it was probably the kind of thing that you’d see on your bird feeder or in a sad feathery heap by the side of the road. However, for every 50 or 100 bones of chicken, goose, duck, pigeon, crow and blackbird, something else crops up which – to those used to the modern city – is rather more unexpected. Something like…


Cranes, Snipes and Peacocks

What did people eat before turkey was the posh bird of choice? The answer, apparently, is everything. From the 10th century through to the 19th, game birds show up on a fairly regular basis in the archaeological record. Snipe are just the tip of the iceberg – from Hungate alone, we have identified woodcock, black grouse, pheasant, golden plover, lapwing, four types of duck, and a partridge in a pear tree. These are the kind of birds which would be caught in the countryside outside the city, maybe by hawking, and for the most part would have graced relatively well-off tables. Some birds, though, graced posher tables than others. Peacocks were introduced to Britain from India via the Mediterranean in both the Roman and Norman periods, and have always been captive bred birds, valued as much for their plumage and the status of owning or serving one as for their uninspiring taste. Mute swans, on the other hand, were native but subject to legislation designed to keep them from the tables of the common people. From the late 15th century onwards, all unmarked swans belonged to the Crown, with penalties for taking a swan which wasn’t yours. Licenses could be held from the Crown to lay claim to a certain number of swans per year, which was done by marking their beaks or “swan-upping”. If you really want to eat swan today, St John’s College in Cambridge still holds the right to serve swan from the Crown, along with a few other places.


Common crane (Grus grus). Image source:

The other bird which deserves a mention is the crane, a lanky, heron-like bird which was inexplicably popular over the early part of the medieval period. Unfortunately, a combination of decline of its wetland habitat through drainage of the Fens and its popularity for medieval feasts meant that the crane’s numbers declined sharply and – despite legislation by Henry VIII aimed at its conservation – by the 19th century the British population of cranes was effectively extinct. Happily, efforts by the RSPB to reintroduce them are having some success, with breeding pairs established in Norfolk and the south-west.


Eagles and other Predatory Birds

The archaeological record is unequivocal. In the 10th-11th century, white-tailed eagles scavenged around York. Their bones crop up infrequently, but they’ve been identified from both Coppergate and Hungate, showing that they were about in the city. There are a few things about the past that I still find genuinely mind-blowing, and one of them is that the white-tailed eagle – which is a bird of prey bigger than a swan, which looks like a plank when in flight, which went extinct in Britain in the 20th century and after being reintroduced, is still critically rare – scavenged in cities around the time of the Vikings and the Norman Conquest. Urban areas, of course, were a lot smaller and within easy commuting range of the countryside for the enterprising bird, as well as having more available food and butchery refuse to support a thriving ecosystem. In addition to white-tailed eagles, York supported and attracted buzzards, red kites, owls, and sparrowhawks. A single white-tailed eagle or red kite can consume around 500g of food per day – a thriving population could eat its way through two or three tonnes in a year. Were white-tailed eagles in the city all year? Carrion is a more important part of their diet in the winter months, when other food is scarce, so it’s possible to envisage hunger bringing them to the most likely food source when the weather turned colder. Were they welcome? Later records about red kites are more generally concerned with methods of keeping them away from chickens and other livestock, so attitudes were likely to have been ambivalent at best. A pair of peregrine falcons nests on the Minster today, and has made it into the list of “100 Best Things To Do in York” – a small and welcome reminder of the city’s past.


White-tailed eagle (Image source:

If the commensal birds of prey weren’t enough, there are a few – like goshawks, and maybe sparrowhawks – which were probably introduced to the city as tame falcons for falconry. And there’s the occasional bird of prey where we really don’t know how it got here. The only identified bone of golden eagle found in York came from medieval deposits at Hungate. Was it a trophy bird, brought back to the city for display or for its feathers? Or was it another unlikely urban scavenger? With its rarity, it’s hard to tell.


Auks: Guillemot, Razorbill, Puffin

If you’ve been to Flamborough Head (between Bridlington and Filey on the Yorkshire Coast), you have probably seen guillemots and puffins, together with a few others – cormorants, gannets, razorbills and the like. What these birds have in common is that they breed during the spring and summer and make their nests in large, cliff-top or cliff-side colonies, and spend much of their lives at sea. But for a few centuries, from around the 10th century through to the 14th century, they crop up at various sites in York – Hungate, Coppergate, Tanner Row – and also in Beverley from a similar date. What are these seabirds doing in the city? Butchery marks on the bones suggest fairly unequivocally that they were eaten, a practice which was far from unknown even up to comparatively recently. The community of St Kilda off the west coast of Scotland, famously, maintained their precarious existence on the island by harvesting the populations of seabirds which came to breed in the spring; and the great auk, the large flightless relative of the razorbill, was hunted to extinction by the end of the 19th century for its meat and its feathers. In York, with the breeding grounds at Flamborough nearby, these birds may have been a good cheap option for a low-status diet, particularly since the meat preserved well.

(Below) Puffin – a tasty snack? Image source:


Another possible reason for their popularity is the medieval dietary laws. Under Church law, medieval Christians were not permitted to consume meat on “fasting days” – which, including every Wednesday and Friday, the whole of Lent and the whole of Advent, took up about half the year. However, the definition of meat proved to be somewhat flexible, with dolphins, porpoises, and beaver tails designated as “fish” in a sleight of hand which then let you eat them on a Friday. Is it possible that auks were similarly exempt from being meat? The monastery of Le Tréport in northern France argued in the 17th century that puffins were fish, successfully enough to convince their archbishop, and it is no stretch of the imagination to suppose that similar debates had occurred earlier in Yorkshire.

Sadly, however, there’s as yet no evidence from York for a different and rather marvellous use of seabirds – getting cormorants to fish for you. The idea was imported to England in the 17th century from China, and there are both woodcuts and training manuals which describe how you capture, keep and train your cormorant. The manuals do make clear, though, that however well-trained your cormorant, it would still a) smell and b) bite you in the face at any given opportunity, which may explain why the practice was short-lived.


Past Diversity, Present Lives

I’m finishing off writing this blog after a week spent in the Orkney Islands. If you haven’t been to Orkney, the bird life there is astounding. Beyond its multiple types of breeding seabirds, we got used to tripping over oystercatchers, skylarks and curlews on a daily basis. Coming back to the modern city – with its lack of any birds except pigeons, gulls and magpies – has been a shock.

The medieval period is for the most part nothing to aspire to, but it’s worth remembering that the diversity of birds which were on their streets, in their skies and on their plates is considerably different, and considerably greater, than in modern York. Medieval York was smaller, dirtier, and with more available rubbish – altogether a different ecology to the modern city. The past, as they say, is a different country. With white-tailed eagles in the sky.




Bond, J. & O’Connor, T. 1999. Bones from Medieval Deposits at 16-22 Coppergate and Other Sites in York. AY fascicule 15/5. York Archaeological Trust.

Macgregor, A. 2012. Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interaction in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One. London: Reaktion Books.

Steel, T. 1988. The Life and Death of St Kilda. Harper Collins.

Watts, S. 2011. Enlightened Fasting. In K. Albala & T. Eden (eds.) Food and Faith in Christian Culture. Columbia University Press.