Stonehenge and Woodhenge are well known examples of Neolithic circular monuments made of stone and wood respectively. However, another type of prehistoric circle exists called a pit circle. Generally found from the middle to late Neolithic and early Bronze age, pit circles are arcs or rings of “shallow but fairly regular oval scoops” which often contain carefully selected deposits. (Darvill 2009)
The diameter of these circles is usually under 20 metres. So, when a Middle Bronze Age pit circle with a diameter of 42 metres was uncovered during an excavation at a housing development site in Fleet in 2007/8, it was considered a rarity. Especially as this part of Hampshire is not known for its archaeological sites. (Pine 2016,1)
There are only 60 timber and pit circles recorded in England. Unfortunately, very little is actually known about pit circles with classification of the various types not yet undertaken. (Historic England 2011,2)
Fig 1 – Site of Bronze Age Pit Circle at Hitches Farm before area transformed into housing development.
Fig 2 – Picture showing the large size (42m diameter) of the Bronze Age pit circle at Hitches Lane, Fleet.
The excavation site at Hitches Lane was large with 231 trenches dug. 150 individual features were identified with approximately 20 being prehistoric and 20 Roman. The rest were medieval or modern. (Pine 2016, 2) For the purposes of this article, I will be focusing on the Bronze Age finds of a pit circle and field system although it is important to note that evidence of “a substantial 2nd-century Roman rectangular timber-framed building set within a system of fields and paddocks” was also found on the site.
The pit circle consisted of 29 pits, many containing deposits of burnt flint. Each pit varied in depth from 10cm to 50cm. This may be due to damage by ploughing but also the construction of a late post medieval ditch. (Pine 2016, 14 -16) It appeared that the flint had not been deposited to hold up timber posts. Most pits were too shallow and wide to hold posts, except for one. (Pine 2016, 16) Some pits contained unburnt flint as well as pieces of Bronze Age pottery. One of these contained four flint flakes and a flaked flint axe. Wood charcoal of oak, alder and hazel were also found in some of the pits with one containing a single grain of barley (pit 702 see fig 5). The distribution of these finds can be seen in figure 3.
Fig 3 – Plan of pit circles showing the distribution of finds. Small arc of pits inside main circle also shown.
Radio carbon dating from pit number 725 dates the pit circle to 1494-1395BC placing it in the Middle Bronze Age. Pit circles with diameters over 20 metres are usually a feature of the late Neolithic. So, to have one of 42 metres dated to the Middle Bronze Age is possibly unique. Later Bronze Age pit circles tend to be half this size and have multiple rings. (Pine 2016, 36) However, an arc of four pits with a diameter of 4 metres within the main circle could be the remains of a smaller inner pit circle. Of course, it could just be the remains of a round house as it does not lie in the centre of the main pit circle but 5 metres to the south. Burnt flint and sherds of Bronze age pottery were found in the pits (Pine 2016, 14-16) See fig 3 pits 718-721.
Fig 4 – Pit 701 containing pieces of burnt flint in situ.
Fig 5 – Pit 702 which yielded the largest amount of burnt flint – 13.5 kilos and one grain of barley!
Fig 6 – Pit 726 in the process of excavation
Fig 7 – Pit no 728 under excavation. This pit yielded 786g of burnt flint.
A flaked flint axe made from grey flint with the butt end missing was found in pit number 703. It can be viewed in fig 8.2. It appeared to have been broken and also had a large lump on the side. Its not known whether the axe broke before it was used or whether the inability to remove the lump meant it was discarded. Again, this is an unusual find on a Middle Bronze Age site. If in use during this time the flint axe would certainly extend the chronology of lithic core tools (tools made from rocks or stone) Of course it could also have been a tool that had been passed down through time and deliberately placed as an offering in the pit. (Pine 2016, 23)
Fig 8 – 1: Flint scraper recovered from Middle Bronze Age urn. 2: Broken flake flint axe found in pit 703. 3: Broken flint knife found just outside pit circle.
Ritual and ceremony were very much part of life in prehistory. Making votive deposits in the earth or gifts to the gods is known from the Middle Stone Age or Mesolithic onwards. In the Bronze Age votives were frequently placed in holes in the ground, under stones or rocks and in caves. (Mackintosh 2009, 258)
Other deposits of flint and bronze age pottery were found in gullies on the site. The gullies were interpreted as a bronze age field system. They formed a rectilinear pattern and were positioned south of the pit circle. A flint scraper was found in a Middle Bronze Age urn found in one of the gullies. (Fig 8:1) and a broken flint knife was recovered from an excavation trench just outside the pit circle. (Fig 8:3 and Fig 3) (Pine 2016, 10)
The conclusion come to by archaeologists is that Hitches Lane is a non-typical Middle Bronze Age site. The large pit circle along with gullies forming a rectilinear enclosure is an unusual feature for the era. It is difficult to place this site in a wider context due to a lack of comparable sites. This is truly a unique find in Hart. (Pine 2016, 35-36)
Darvill, T 2009; The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology, 2 ed Oxford: Oxford University Press available online Oxford Reference. Retrieved 24 Jan. 2018, from http://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100329121..
Pine, J. 2016 A Middle Bronze Age Pit Circle and Field System and Roman settlement at Hitches Lane, Reading: Thames Valley Archaeological Services available online at http://tvas.co.uk/reports/pdf/OccasPap12onlineversion.pdf accessed 2/8/2017
Historic England, 2011. Prehistoric Henges and Circles available online at https://content.historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/iha-prehistoric-henges-circles/prehistorichengesandcircles.pdf/ accessed 23/1/2018
Mackintosh, J. 2009 Handbook to Life in Prehistoric Europe, Oxford: Oxford University Press
Figs 1 – 8 All photographs and plans courtesy of Thames Valley Archaeological Services. With many thanks to Anna Ginger from TVAS archives.