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An occasional series covering Hampshire archaeological digs, large and small
Houghton Down, Stockbridge; 1922, 1994, 1997.
Was this both a Roman villa and an Iron Age farm? A dig in 1922 by E A Rawlence, a Salisbury surveyor, found a substantial Roman aisled building containing a bath house. The excavated baths were covered by a shed until the 1930s. Rubbish accumulated, including a dead pig and barbed wire, and the hollows were eventually filled in. Later, aerial photographs showed circular buildings, storage pits, and fenced and ditched fields in the immediate vicinity.
Excavations by Professor Barry Cunliffe and his team in 1994 and 1997 for the Danebury Environs Project showed that, yes, it had been occupied, not quite continuously, between 700 BC and the 4th century AD. Generations of farmers extended the fields, pastures and ditches, dug wells, buried their dead, and built furnaces for metal-working and corn-drying ovens. The main activity took place in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when there may have been more than one family in residence. By about the year 200, the main buildings were in masonry rather than timber, and included the aisled hall and a narrow building, also used for living and eating in. The farm had expanded from a modest to a prosperous state.
The aisled building, 27.2m long by 13.6m wide, had been carefully constructed and was a substantial structure that would have been visible for miles around. It had a chalk floor, full-height flint walls on greensand corner foundations, a central nave and light from a timbered clerestory. The roof, supported on 14 stone and timber piers, was made of hexagonal Purbeck stone tiles. In the south wall (and probably also in the north) there was a large door opening – over 2m wide.
By the late 3rd century the building had been subdivided by timber partitions. It had a large oven inside. It was evidently now the main working area of a moderately prosperous farm. It also had a large bath suite retrofitted into the northwest corner. A cold plunge pool was started outside the building, but abandoned after only a day’s work! Making a breach in the gable end wall had caused serious structural damage, and so the design was hastily changed and the plunge pool moved to the north side instead of the west – but still outside the main rooms!
A new strip building then enlarged the farm’s living accommodation. Beer was brewed from surplus corn. But there was still little in the way of fine, non-local pottery or decorative ornaments. By the end of its life, in the middle of the 4th century, the building housed a smithy and piles of building material for recycling.
The dig unearthed 13 burials. Two were Roman cremations, two were adults buried close together in the old western enclosure ditch, and nine were infants, buried, here as elsewhere in Roman Britain, under the floors of the Roman buildings.
Houghton Down archives A1994.35 & A1997.55 are in the care of Hampshire Cultural Trust
The Danebury Environs Programme: The Prehistory of a Wessex Landscape, Vol 2 Part 6: Houghton Down, Stockbridge, Hants, 1994, by Barry Cunliffe and Cynthia Poole. English Heritage and OUCA Mono 49, 2000.
And Vol 2 Part 1: Houghton Down, Longstock, Hants,1997, Mono 71, 2008.
Series by: Anne Aldis, Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
To Petersfield, to see the third year of excavation at the ‘People of the Heath’ community project, and an opportunity for Hampshire Cultural Trust conservator, Claire Woodhead, to discuss the processes involved in dealing with their latest Bronze Age find (for an update on the project see their excellent bulletins).
The twenty or more burial monuments on the Heath were first put on record in a comprehensive fashion by a youthful Stuart Piggott, a native of Petersfield. Several small diameter circles were evident among the larger barrows and the project has now examined four of them. George Anelay who along with Stuart Needham is directing the project, told me how they all differed and that they hadn’t revealed an obvious similarity of purpose, with no central burial feature present. It put me in mind of one of Stuart Piggott’s own memorable passages (in ‘Ancient Europe’ – he went on to become Professor of Archaeology at Edinburgh) about ‘the unique qualities of human actions’ and their inability to create identical sets of circumstances – all this in a pre-industrial age of course!
It took me back to my own adventure with an early Bronze Age burial site – in Buckinghamshire – which found a remarkable parallel in Hampshire – with, it goes without saying, differences in detail. We’ve already visited Stockbridge Down in this series to view an execution cemetery and the hillfort at Woolbury, but in the late 1930s, J F S Stone and N Gray Hill excavated a round barrow, which ‘although small…was found to possess some unusual features’. The main occupant was a Beaker period crouched female burial, accompanied by one of the distinctive vessels and a bronze awl, but the rarity was the surrounding ditch, which was composed of five segments – they are usually continuous. In 1978 I had the good fortune to dig a ring ditch threatened by quarrying at Ravenstone, Bucks, and this monument was composed of four ditch segments with, at the centre, a Beaker period crouched female burial, accompanied by a pot and a bronze awl.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. At Ravenstone, the female burial was a secondary interment; beneath her was a deep burial pit containing a coffin – but no body – it was presumably a cenotaph. At Stockbridge Down there were cremation burials later than the main burial, dug into the ditch. This has only now got me scratching my head for a point of process I’d missed before. At Stockbridge the excavators were content that the ditch was dug to surround the burial – so female crouched burial, Beaker, awl, causewayed ditch were apparently contemporary.
At Ravenstone the causewayed ditch surrounded a deep grave-pit with a coffin (generally an attribute of a male Beaker burial). So the female crouched burial, pot and awl were interlopers – and the depth of her grave suggested that it was indeed dug through a barrow mound (the actual mound had been subsequently ploughed flat). Therefore two very similar plans are perhaps not as similar as they seem. They’re certainly not identical, are they Professor? It’s one of the joys of being an archaeologist.
Allen, D, The Excavation of a Beaker Burial Monument at Ravenstone, Buckinghamshire in 1978, Arch J Vol 138 for 1981.
Piggott, S, 1965, Ancient Europe
Stone, JFS & Hill, N G, 1940, A Round Barrow on Stockbridge Down, Hampshire, Antiquaries Journal, Vol XX
Series by Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone
To Winchester City Museum, for the launch of a new book ‘Danes in Wessex’, edited by Ryan Lavelle and Simon Roffey of the University of Winchester. The book stems from a conference held at the University back in 2011, but the editors also widened their net to include contributions from a number of specialists who were not at the original event.
As might be expected from a volume which covers a period when the power of the sword was more influential than the power of the word, a good number of the papers are about warfare. Thomas Williams looks at ‘The Place of Slaughter: Exploring the West Saxon Battlescape’, while the aptly-named Derek Gore conducts ‘A Review of Viking Attacks in Western England’. Among other dark offerings is ‘Death on the Dorset Ridgeway: The Discovery and Excavation of an Early Medieval Mass Burial’ by Angela Boyle. It’s not all cut and thrust, of course, and I, for one, look forward to reading about ‘Orc of Abbotsbury and Tole of Tolpuddle’, who according to Ann Williams, enjoyed ‘A place in the country’.
Another delightful offering is sure to be ‘Danish Royal Burials in Winchester: Cnut and his Family’, by Martin Biddle and Birthe Kjolbye-Biddle. Professor Biddle was at the Museum to give his blessing to the book and enthralled his audience by describing the action taking place on a fragment of stone sculpture from Old Minster. A prostrate, bound man grapples with a large dog-like animal, which has its muzzle pressed hard against his face. This may well be depicting the episode of Sigmund and the Wolf, from Volsunga Saga.
Having seen nine of his brothers devoured nightly by an evil-looking she-wolf, Sigmund is saved by his twin sister Signy, who sent her servant to smear his face with honey and put some in his mouth. When the wolf licked the honey and thrust her tongue into his mouth in search of more, Sigmund bit hard. The shock made the wolf jump backwards and break his bonds, but Sigmund didn’t let go and tore out the lupine tongue, killing the beast.
Reading about the episode I was transported back a couple of weeks to the cinema – and a viewing of ‘The Revenant’. I’m not sure a mouthful of honey would have done much to help Mr Glass in his encounter with the bear but despite the differences in time, terrain and weapons of choice, the film certainly conveyed the feeling of a rough, tough, raiding-party world.
The ‘Big Theme’ at several Hampshire Cultural Trust venues this year is ‘Royal Blood’, which looks at the role of royals from the Late Iron Age onwards. A touring show (Basingstoke, Winchester, Gosport) starting in September, is complemented by offerings at the Community Museums.
Ryan Lavelle & Simon Roffey (eds), 2016, Danes in Wessex; The Scandinavian Impact on Southern England, c 800 – c 1100. Oxbow Books.
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
The best surviving and most upstanding Roman remains in the north of Hampshire are the walls surrounding Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester), a civitas capital. Just outside them, at the northeast corner, stands the oval form of the town’s amphitheatre. It escaped examination a century ago, when much of the site was sampled as it did not lie within the Wellington Estate. It was only when it was taken into Guardianship in 1979 that a programme of seven years excavation took place, led by Mike Fulford of Reading University, at the request of the former Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments.
British amphitheatres tend to be smaller than those found on the Continent and generally have three characteristics in common: they are always outside town walls, are variable in orientation to street grids or defences and consist of local material that supports the cavea (seating) with no record of purely masonry support. The amphitheatre at Silchester displays all these characteristics.
The first timber phase at Silchester was constructed to a circular plan probably between about AD 55-75 on land that had been in prior use, as evidenced by two substantial ditches, which it truncated, and by a pottery-making site beneath the western seating bank from which coarse-ware wasters were found among pre-Flavian finds.
Seating was not free-standing and was supported on material excavated from the site. The overall capacity is estimated to have been about 3600 to 3700 although if spectators stood on wide terraces more than 7000 may have been accommodated.
The second timber phase, difficult to date but perhaps of the mid -2nd century AD when masonry was the preferred building material, did not fundamentally change these arrangements. The original entrance layouts were retained and it seems very likely that there was no disturbance to the recesses on the east-west axis but efforts were focused on adapting the arena plan to give it an oval shape.
The arena wall of the second timber phase was replaced in the 3rd century by one of stone which consisted mostly of flint with some use of greensand and sarsen. Flint was also the preferred material used in the re-construction of the passage walls, while brown ironstone was used in the refurbishment of the arena surface. The dimensions of the arena were slightly increased to about 45.5 by 39.m with its oval shape unchanged. It has been found difficult to date the stone re-construction phase although a plausible suggestion is the time of arrival in Britain of Septimius Severus in 208 AD. Such an event may well have justified the considerable expenditure incurred – estimated to be comparable with the cost of the original construction.
About the time that the Silchester amphitheatre was being constructed, the monument at Pompeii on the Bay of Naples was being overwhelmed by the eruption of Vesuvius. This froze in time an arena which had been built 150 years before, when the name given to them was ‘Spectacula’. The term amphitheatre (‘double theatre’) came later. The Pompeii seating could accommodate over 2000 in the best seats (separated by a deep moat from those behind!) and about 25000 overall, more than six times Silchester. There were also special boxes on the top tier for ladies – as Augustus thought it wrong for them be too near the action…and action there certainly was. Supporters at a gladiatorial show in AD 59 got out of hand and a riot took place between the Pompeiians and visiting Nucerians. This resulted in a 10-year ban for such shows at Pompeii, and exile for those who had staged it.
If Pompeii had not been buried in ash and lava, the amphitheatre would almost certainly have been improved, with the provision of an under-floor level, as at nearby Pozzuoli.
Positive evidence for the use of the Silchester amphitheatre is too sparse to draw any firm conclusions. Animal remains, predominantly horse, were retrieved from all three construction phases and it may be that there were equestrian displays, possibly animal hunts (venationes) or even beast fights. There is no evidence of gladiatorial contests and Nemesea, serving some religious purpose, seems to be the most acceptable explanation for the recesses on the east-west axis.
It is quite likely that the amphitheatre fell into disuse and eventual abandonment sometime in the mid – 4th century as evidenced by the finding of two coins of that period. It has also been suggested that the robbing-out of the stone wall could have occurred not much later, although the construction of the parish church of St. Mary 1125-1250 AD may be a more probable cause.
There is as yet no evidence that the amphitheatre may have been used in the post-Roman period until at least the 11th century when a single-aisled hall was built and a number of pits were dug within it. Pottery finds indicate a short period of occupation and the other contemporary structural changes do not preclude the use of the site as a castle during the ‘Anarchy’ of the reign of King Stephen (1135-54).
Thereafter from the 15th century until the 1970s the arena served as a yard for a nearby farm with late-17th to early 18th century pottery, glass and building material from the south entrance vicinity indicating the presence of a long-vanished cottage.
The amphitheatre has an evocative atmosphere and is well worth the short walk from the Church should you be visiting Silchester Roman Town.
Fulford, M (1989) The Silchester Amphitheatre, Excavations of 1979-85. Britannia Monograph Series No. 10.
Archive; A1980.65 held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone
Oh dear! For many years I’ve been telling people that the ‘tranchet axe’, typical of the Mesolithic period (10,000 to 6,000 years ago) was so named because ‘tranchet’ was the French for ‘cross-blow’ and it was this action that produced a chisel-like cutting edge. Not so; a ‘tranchet’ is a hunting or paring knife and puts a slightly different slant on things, if you see what I mean. ‘Trancher’, the verb, means ‘to slice’, so I’m probably just splitting hairs, but I’ll go with that in future.
Tranchet axes are comparatively numerous in Hampshire. J J Wymer, in his gazetteer of Mesolithic sites, describes how they vary considerably in size (anything from 100mm to 200mm in length) and that they are often referred to as ‘Thames Picks’, as so many have been dredged from that river. They would originally have been hafted in wooden shafts, but these rarely survive. The real ‘picks’ are more crudely manufactured, and often have a distinctive ‘banana’ shape. They can also be larger – the example from Privett is 270mm in length.
At Broom Hill, Braishfield, near Romsey, 113 axes and adzes were found and, in 1982, this could be claimed as the largest number from any single site in the United Kingdom. Michael O’Malley put this down to the good local supply of quality flint and that the inhabitants may have been making dug-out canoes. This number contrasts with the twenty tranchet axes recovered from Star Carr and neighbouring sites in Yorkshire.
Another pioneer archaeologist who made the most of the southern distribution was George Willis of Basingstoke. In the 1920s, he and his companions were dedicated ‘flinters’ in the fields of North Hampshire and found scores of artefacts. Their tally for 1928, for example, includes over 70 chipped or flaked axes and adzes and is typical of their endeavours. They did more than their bit in picking the fields clean – so much so that you’d be hard-pressed to find such a tool in the ploughsoil today.
A more typical discovery would be that made by Adam Carew, in the roots of a tree at Whitehill, Bordon, (top) another area generally rich in evidence of the Mesolithic period.
CBA Research Report 20, (1977) Gazetteer of Mesolithic sites in England & Wales, J J Wymer (ed).
O’Malley, M, (1982) When the Mammoth Roamed Romsey, A Study of the Prehistory of Romsey and District. LTVAS.
Series by: Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Jane King, Lesley Johnson, Peter Stone.
Willis Archive held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
In the autumn of 1994 a metal detectorist found a Late Iron Age decorated bronze mirror, the first from Hampshire, at Latchmere Green, near Silchester. It was associated with the cremation burial of a woman and a child, and tells of a tradition of high status metalwork ‘reflecting the British nobility’s contacts with, and travels in, Italy in the late 1st century BC and early 1st century AD’.
The mirror was unearthed just within Bramley parish, at the southern edge of a known Roman site close to the junction of the Roman roads from Silchester to Winchester and Chichester. This settlement had been previously surveyed (Corney, 1984) and had yielded pottery finds of the late 1st to early 2nd century, through to the 4th century AD.
The mirror itself was badly corroded, with the handle and plate separated, and was in generally poor condition. Assuming circularity, dimensions were estimated as 170 mm diameter, giving a 227 sq cm surface area; it was 1.1 mm thick. The overall length (mirror and handle) was estimated to be about 263 mm.
Basket engraving on the reverse side of the mirror plate was found to be in the form of a whirligig or triskele, with the lower arms extended at right angles to the axis of the plate in pelta (or shield-like) loop patterns, giving the impression of a pair of eyes.
This elaborate style of decoration, known as ‘irregular oblong block’, is not unlike that of the 1904 ‘Colchester mirror’ and other similar finds and is thought to date from the late 1st century BC to the early 1st century AD, while the plate area links the mirror with the south-eastern group* of mirrors, centred on East Anglia and the London Basin. Up to 60 mirrors of the period are now known, and many of these finds have been made over the past three decades.
Samples of metal taken from the handle and plate of the Latchmere Green mirror consisted wholly of ~88% copper and ~12% tin with a trace of phosphorus, which showed that the mirror was not of Roman manufacture. Roman mirrors always contain more than a trace of lead and a lower proportion of copper with tin.
Following the initial discovery, a small controlled excavation (5 x 5 m) unearthed a late Iron Age pedestal jar, lying on its side in a shallow pit. The jar contained a quantity of cremated bone and the evidence suggested that the mirror had been placed as a ‘lid’ closing the jar. Also present were fragments of iron pin and other pieces associated with brooches. These latter were found to be comparable with finds at Silchester and Thetford and again can be dated to the very late 1st century BC and the early 1st century AD. The wheel-thrown jar, although in a very fragmented condition, is of a type identifiable with the pre-conquest period.
The cremation was unusual, in that the small fragments proved to be very probably of a female, aged 30 or more, with a child who was not newborn or an infant. That the adult was most likely to be female is evidenced by the fact that such mirrors have never been unambiguously associated with Iron Age male burials. The small fragments of cremated animal bone present were found to be of pig – again an occurrence consistent with animal bone finds in other Iron Age burials.
In summary, the evidence points to a late pre-conquest or early post-conquest date for this Late Iron Age high-status burial, possibly of a mother and child (but see below). As to the triskele design with loops it can only be said that this is of unknown origins but no object associated with it has been datable to earlier than 1st century BC. The ‘masterly’ and ‘mature’ embellishments, as they have been described, would appear to be unique to Britain.
*As the Latchmere Green discovery is an outlier to the south eastern group, it was included in the Dating Celtic Art programme of radiocarbon dating (Garrow et al, 2009). The dates realised (360 – 50 and 360 -110 cal BC) seem too early (2nd century BC) for the associated brooches and pottery vessel, and there is the intriguing possibility that one of the individuals (the one dated) had been cremated some decades before the double burial was actually made.
M Corney (1984) A Field Survey of the Extra-Mural Region of Silchester, in M Fulford, Silchester Defences, 1974-80.
M Fulford & J Creighton (1998) A Late Iron Age Mirror Burial from Latchmere Green, near Silchester, Proc Prehist Soc, Vol 64, pp331-342.
D Garrow et al (2009) Dating Celtic Art: a Major Radiocarbon Dating Programme of Iron Age and Early Roman Metalwork in Britain, Arch J, Vol 166, pp 79-123.
Archive A1994.26, held by Hampshire Cultural Trust
The Latchmere Green mirror is currently on display at the Museum of the Iron Age, Andover.
Series by; Dave Allen, Sarah Gould, Lesley Johnson, Jane King, Peter Stone.
The Hampshire Historic Environment Record (HER) is a fantastic tool. Under its alternative title of the Archaeology and Historic Buildings Record (AHBR) it can be accessed and interrogated on-line in all manner of ways. If you want to know whether your village, town or parish hides items of archaeological or historical interest it’s the place to start, and it can lead you on a trail towards obscure reports (we call them ‘grey literature’) as well as published evidence.
Using the database it’s easy to get hooked on searching for your favourite type of site – Roman villas, for instance (104 results) – and then while away an evening, sifting through the various leads, which might head you towards some splendid find displayed in a museum, or alternatively into a ditch terminal. As more and more illustrative material becomes digitally available and linked-in, the historic environment will be more and more at our fingertips and our appreciation of what has gone before will be much enhanced.
One large step along this route has been taken by the staff of the Hampshire County Council Historic Environment Section, with the release of the Atlas of Hampshire’s Archaeology. Using the 50,000 records at their disposal, David Hopkins (County Archaeologist) and Alan Whitney (Historic Data Manager) have produced a set of forty maps which span the periods from the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) which began around 10,000 years ago, to the end of the Roman occupation (about 1600 years ago). The excellent base maps employ either topography (15 altitude bands) or landscape type (derived from a palette of 25 pastel shades) and this, together with the river systems, allows the current character of the country to be easily read.
When it comes to putting things on the map, there are at least forty different symbols employed, but these range from just three for our Middle Stone Age ancestors, to eleven on one of the Roman maps. This inevitably leads to a bit of congestion, especially when the symbol for a single find is essentially larger than an industrial estate, but care has been taken to make everything fit sympathetically.
A genuine sense of distribution can be obtained for all periods – and an appreciation of the physical relationship of communities with soil types and river systems. It highlights the enigma of the Neolithic in Hampshire – long barrows, yes, but why on earth no causewayed enclosures, cursus monuments or henges? It also shows how, by the following Bronze Age – to judge from the spread of round barrows – there were no ‘no go’ areas. In the Iron Age – a period blessed with 14 maps – grain and wool processing are among particular activities that can be teased out and ‘banjo enclosures’ also have their part to play; on the Roman maps, the layout of the road system brings communications well and truly to the fore.
Roman roads are an interesting subject, and have a number of people committed to their study. The current maps don’t include the routes through the New Forest surveyed by Arthur Clarke (2003), the last Archaeology Officer of the Ordnance Survey, which would enhance the western approaches. Other features that don’t fare well (in the Bronze Age) are the so-called ‘ranch boundaries’, sometimes termed ‘Wessex linears’, which are represented by a static symbol when their role, interpreted by some as the first tangible manifestation of territories (Cunliffe, 1993), would be better shown by a true representation.
The maps are accompanied by short essays summarising the character of each period, particularly with regard to the landscape. Indeed, the word ‘landscape’ wins out in any word count and is perhaps a little repetitive, especially when it is contrasting the ‘farmed’ with the ‘wild’. True, the landscape is the canvas holding the scene together, but with such vivid and varied pictures being painted by the human activity, it could perhaps be allowed to slip into the background a little. Alternatively, simpler maps showing the advance of the ‘farmed’ at the expense of the ‘wild’ would make the point – but would take a lot more preparation!
The maps throw up a number of issues not explored in the text, issues that tend to dog distribution maps. The concentration of finds in certain areas will be the result of individual fieldwork (George Willis et al around Basingstoke, for example, or Malcolm Lyne (2012) in Binsted and environs) and the growth of certain towns (Basingstoke, Andover etc) will have provided many more opportunities for discovery than other locations. Aerial cover will also be uneven, although in time the increasing use of LIDAR will bring greater equality. As a result there will inevitably be some bias on display, but the maps do a brilliant job in presenting the current state of knowledge and providing food for thought.
And in so doing, they are the perfect spur and complement to further research. The national ‘Atlas of Hillforts’ , for example, is nearing completion and it will be interesting to see how much variety is proposed in the survey for the forty or so ‘hillforts’ on the Hampshire map. Also, the Roman layout is forever being reconsidered – including roads that deviate for unknown reasons – whither Vindomis? etc ; and the monumental ‘desert’ that is the Neolithic remains as intriguing as ever.
So do make use of the maps – and having taken in the broad sweep of thousands of years of human history, consult the Historic Environment Record, and dig a little deeper.
Dave Allen, Curator of Hampshire Archaeology, Hampshire Cultural Trust
Clarke, A (2003) The Roman road on the eastern fringe of the New Forest, Hampshire Studies, Vol 58, 33-58
Cunliffe, B W (1993), Wessex to A D 1000. p129 ff
Lyne, M (2012), Archaeological Research in Binsted, Kingsley and Alice Holt Forest, BAR British Series 574