I have been researching sources for archaeology, such as newspapers, so often overlooked given they are often the earliest records. In many instances, Historic Environment Records are based on much later sources, and the account may have been through several permutations.

In part, the research contributed to a book Fake Heritage - Solving Mysteries in 2022 where I looked at the contradictions arising from conjecture rather than documentary research. I continue to look for examples.

There happens to be an interesting case in Salisbury, being the skeletons discovered near St Edmund’s College in 1772. These have been attributed to an Anglo-Saxon cemetery. Accounts differ.

Swindon & Wilts HER (MWI 11178) in 1771-1774 refers to the Victoria County History for Wilts Vol 1.1 . It refers to 20-30 skeletons, shield bosses, brass bucket mounts and spears.

The other is Historic England Hob UID 218473, which gives a remarkably precise 10-digit grid reference SU 1477030470 for something I don’t think is more than vaguely locatable. It refers to a shield in Salisbury Museum, some 30 skeletons with weapons found beneath the city rampart in 1771.

Going back to early reports, a very different picture emerges.

The remains were found in March to April 1772. The first account appeared in several newspapers (Aris’s Birmingham Gazette, Chester Courier, and Oxford Journal) and in Gentleman’s Magazine Vol 42 p147 dated March 10, 1772. The text is more or less the same.

Some workmen employed by Mr Wyndham in making a road near the college in Salisbury discovered several human skeletons, one of which had its skull inclosed in an iron helmet which was fastened under the chin with several thin plates of brass, rivetted together. From the form of the helmet it is supposed to be as ancient as the reign of William Rufus, for the broad seal of that King represents him with a helmet exactly fashioned and fixed in the same manner as above. It weighed 15 ounces.

By the side of this skeleton was found the iron head of a spear, 10 inches in length and two in breadth.

A second report appeared in April, but I can only find it in the Manchester Mercury, April 14, 1772.

An extract of a letter from Salisbury, on April 6: "Since our last account of the discoveries made near the college in this city, upwards of 20 human skeletons have been dug up together with the following antiquities: three helmets of the same age as the former; a spear, a two-edged sword, three feet long and two inches broad, weighing two pounds and a quarter; a brass coin of Constantine the Great and some pieces of iron, the uses of which are unknown."

The HER entries all seem to be from sources 100 to 150 years later, where the story has evolved somewhat. These are contemporary accounts. Perhaps they refer to a different site, not necessarily St Edmunds College, but the dates are in the same range. Just the interpretation has resolved as Anglo-Saxon.

Either the contemporary impressions are right, and these are early Norman graves. Being found apparently under the 14th century city rampart they could represent an earlier battle in that period. The Roman coin could be incidental, but the helmets might also indicate Roman.

What is less clear from the finds is the automatic assumption of Anglo-Saxon, unless the shield in Salisbury Museum is conclusive.

We live in a time when commercial archaeologists with primary training in digging can do every aspect of heritage automatically, without any need for underpinning training.

All the old specialists, who mostly didn’t earn money doing it, have all been put out to grass - apparently quite incapable when compared with the phenomenon of modern archaeology.

In situations like this, I wonder why anyone is taken in by the bogus assertion of intellectual superiority of modern archaeologists. The trouble is, in the process, so many skills in this sector have been marginalised and pushed to extinction.

What was found here? Perhaps we will never find out. Could we have done so in a multidisciplinary environment instead of an archaeology closed shop? I’m sure the commercial archaeologists will assert superiority over everyone else. They have certainly convinced local government.

Dr Tom Welsh

Hartington Street,


Send letters by email to newsdesk@salisburyjournal.co.uk or by post to Editor, Salisbury Journal, Suite B (Ground Floor), Milford House, Milford Street, Salisbury, SP1 2BP.

All letters and e-mails must include full names and addresses (anonymous letters will not be published), although these details may be withheld from publication, on request.

Letters of 300 words or less will be given priority, although all are subject to editing for reasons of clarity, space, or legal requirements. We reserve the right to edit letters.