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.