Dr Jim Leary

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By Dr Jim Leary

This summer the University of Reading Field School excavated within the landscape between the famous prehistoric monuments of Avebury and Stonehenge in the Vale of Pewsey in Wiltshire. Our excavations focused on two prehistoric henge monuments (Marden and Wilsford) and, with Historic England, a Roman settlement. We also surveyed part of medieval Marden village.

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Marden henge is a truly huge monument, enclosing an area of 15.7 hectares, making it the largest Neolithic henge in Britain. Our excavations focused to the south end of the monument and we uncovered an extraordinarily well-preserved Neolithic building surface. The complete surface was rectangular with a central sunken area, which was dominated by a large hearth. On the floor were flint flakes still lying untouched in the same position they had been left in, and this is one of the best preserved Neolithic buildings in England. Close to the building were spreads of Neolithic rubbish, which incorporated elegant bone needles, as well as flint flakes and decorated ‘Grooved Ware’ pottery. In one area was an assemblage of bones from numerous pigs, clearly representing the remains of a feast. Analysis of the building is ongoing and we do not yet know what it was used for, although we have suggested that it may have been a sweat lodge type building.

We also excavated the Wilsford henge on the other side of the river. This is a much smaller monument and completely flattened by ploughing over the centuries. We excavated through the end of the ditch, next to the entrance of the henge, and discovered that the ditch was amazingly deep – over three metres! Near the bottom was a very well preserved early Bronze Age burial of a teenager wearing an amber spacer necklace.

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The striking feature about these monuments is their relationship with the River Avon, which runs between them. Both monuments face the river, as if access or good views of this part of the river were important, and Marden henge in particular sits within a large sweeping meander of the river. The relationship between these monuments and water was evidently a close one and likely to be key to understanding them. To this end and in order to better understand the hydrology of the river in the past, we undertook a geoarchaeological project along the river valley. This work has produced some very exciting results, including thick layers of peat, and will no doubt add significantly to our knowledge.

Under the guidance of staff from Historic England we also undertook a detailed topographic survey of an earthwork site located within Marden village. The grass-covered site comprises a series of enclosures of varying size, within which a number of building platforms and a network of tracks or hollow-ways have been identified. The enclosures clearly represent multiple phases of activity, with some of the enclosure banks overlying or reusing earlier features. At the eastern end of the site, two small terraced building platforms were recorded associated with a number of small compounds; these earthworks probably represent the remains of a small deserted medieval farmstead. This site is clearly complex and multifaceted, and interpretation work is ongoing.

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The area around Marden henge has seen very little archaeological work, particularly compared to the famous sites of Avebury and Stonehenge to the north and south. However, we now know that there are many other monuments preserved in the Vale of Pewsey, particularly along the upper reaches of the River Avon. These monuments will all be investigated over the coming seasons. There is clearly much more work to be done in the Vale of Pewsey and as we work through the post-excavation over the winter, we look forward to going back next summer.

 

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Footage of flooded houses and landscapes provide us with some of the most striking and immediate images of sea-level rise, bringing home the drastic consequences of modern climate change. Sea-level rise threatens humanity, but we have been through it before – many times. Sea-level rise happened in the past, particularly in the centuries after the last Ice Age.

In 1931, a lump of peat was dredged from the depths of the southern North Sea by the fishing trawler ‘Colinda’. Contained within it was a barbed bone point – an elegant artefact that was once one half of the head of a fishing spear, known as a leister. It is an archetypal implement of Stone Age hunter gatherers that lived in Britain after the last Ice Age.

With striking resonance for us today, these hunter gatherers lived through a singularly profound process. For this period saw rapid environmental change. During this time, sea-levels rose quickly, inundating vast tracts of the landscape, leading to the displacement of communities as land was lost altogether. One such area now lies beneath the North Sea – a prehistoric land larger than the United Kingdom, and which joined Britain with mainland Europe. It was an area that was lived in – people hunted in it, told stories, raised children, and we know from the leister, fished there. And yet this landscape became submerged and entirely lost; hidden now under a sea.

In a newly published book, Dr Jim Leary explores this process of sea-level rise. Not the recording of it, but the human experience – what it felt like, what affect it had on people’s everyday life. What were the consequences of sea-level rise and the loss of land, and what were people’s responses to it? What happened when their houses, hunting grounds and ancestral lands were lost under an advancing tide? And importantly for us, what can we learn from these past experiences as we face modern climate change. The book seeks to understand how these people viewed and responded to their changing environment, suggesting that people were not struggling against nature, but simply getting on with life – with all its trials and hardships, satisfactions and pleasures, and with a multitude of choices available. At the same time, this loss of land – the loss of places and familiar locales where myths were created and identities formed – would have profoundly affected people’s sense of being. This book moves beyond the static approach normally applied to environmental change in the past to capture its nuances. Through this, a richer and more complex story of past sea-level rise develops; a story that may just be useful to us today.

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The Remembered Land. Surviving Sea-level Rise after the Last Ice Age.

By: Jim Leary

Bloomsbury Academic

10 bw illus

RRP: £14.99

ISBN: 9781474245906

Published: 22-10-2015

 

See more at: http://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/the-remembered-land-9781474245906/

Read the first chapter here: http://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/widgets/9781474245937/Rememberedland.html

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roundmoundsDr Jim Leary has recently been awarded a grant from The Leverhulme Trust to fund a project entitled ‘Extending Histories: from Medieval Mottes to Prehistoric Round Mounds’, which will run until the end of 2017.

The Round Mounds project seeks to unlock the history of monumental mounds in the English landscape. Neolithic round mounds, such as Silbury Hill – the largest prehistoric mound in Europe, are among the rarest and least well understood monuments in Britain. Recent work by Jim Leary at the medieval Marlborough Castle motte, Wiltshire, has shown it to be a Neolithic round mound which was reused in the medieval period, and raises the possibility that other castle mottes may have prehistoric origins. This research project therefore seeks to uncover prehistoric mounds that were adapted for medieval defence or have been misidentified as later mottes – a previously unrecognized phenomenon that could re-write our understanding of both the later Neolithic and Norman periods.

The Leverhulme grant will fund a programme of archaeological investigation, the team (Jim Leary, Nick Branch, Elaine Jamieson, Phil Stastney and Quest) adopting an interdisciplinary approach to understanding large mounds. The work will involving a programme of coring, analytical earthwork survey, scientific dating and detailed environmental analysis, and will determine the date of construction, sequence of development and environmental context of 20 mounds from across England.

 

Click to read more about Jim Leary, Nick Branch, and QUEST.

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