Excavations

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Over the summer, Dr Duncan Garrow spent two weeks carrying out underwater and boat-based survey work on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, in conjunction with his long-term collaborator Dr Fraser Sturt (Southampton) and team. They were investigating potentially the most important new Neolithic sites found in Britain for many years.

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‘Crannogs’ – artificial island settlements constructed in lochs – are a numerous, geographically widespread and intriguing category of archaeological site. Unusually, this one site type was constructed in many different periods of Scotland’s prehistoric and historic past. Most scholars generally consider them to have been built, used and re-used from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1000 BC) to the medieval period (c. AD 1500).

 

Hugely significantly, our survey of three sites on the Isle of Lewis confirmed that the origins of some of these sites in fact lie 3000 years earlier than previously thought, in the Neolithic (c. 3700 BC). Over 400 crannog sites are recorded in Scotland, and many more no doubt lie undetected. The Outer Hebrides represent a particular hotspot in their distribution, with 150 potential sites identified across the island chain. Mostly unexcavated, it now seems possible that many of these are also in fact Neolithic.

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This project was only possible due to the curiosity of a local diver and keen archaeologist Chris Murray. Chris noted that a number of small islets in the lochs of Lewis appeared to have causeways going out to them, and to be a very regular shape. To find out more, he took his diving equipment and began to examine the bottom of the loch. The finds he made included a range of spectacular pottery, much of it dating to the Neolithic. He brought these finds to the attention of the archaeological community, with specialists in the museum in Lewis and at the National Museum of Scotland recognising their rare and important nature. It was this point that our joint project was born – we applied for and gained funding from the Honor Frost Foundation.

 

The newly discovered Lewis sites are extremely impressive – our underwater geophysical survey demonstrated that they are massive piles of rock (c. 15m across and up to 6m high) constructed within what would have been lochs in the Neolithic. Their monumental scale is comparable with local stone-built passage tombs of the same date. Our diver surveys identified worked timbers indicating that the mound structures were revetted; stone causeways out to two of them were also observed. Substantial quantities of pottery and quartz have been found on the loch beds around them. The preservation of ceramics – some vessels complete, many largely intact – is perhaps unique within the British Neolithic.

 

Since our work in 2016 was non-intrusive survey work rather than excavation, many unanswered questions remain:

 

– Were these Neolithic crannogs settlements (like their later equivalents) or a new kind of (ritual?) site?

– Does any settlement architecture survive? What buildings and/or other features can be detected?

– What practices were carried out on the islets and how do these relate to the substantial quantities of material recovered from the loch beds nearby?

 

If these Neolithic artificial islands were settlements, they transform our understanding of social relations at that time – what drove people to isolate themselves from the rest of the community in such a dramatic way shortly after the region was first settled on a substantial scale? Alternatively, if they are specialised, occasional-use sites, what purpose did they fulfil and what roles did they play alongside other monuments? Could they have been meeting/feasting places or venues for other ritual practice, perhaps even including burial?

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We have applied for further funding in order to undertake small-scale trial excavations on the two most promising sites next summer (2017). Watch this space for further information as more is revealed about these new, exciting discoveries.

 

If you’d like to find out more about our 2016 survey, it is due to feature on the BBC4 programme ‘Digging for Britain’ to be shown some time this winter (possibly early December last time we were told…).

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Fortune favours the bold

As a research and fieldwork active archaeology department, we are extremely fortunate to have one of Britain’s best preserved Roman and Iron Age towns on our doorstep – Silchester, or Calleva of the Atrebates, is less than 10 miles from the Department of Archaeology’s door. The department has been carrying out fieldwork at Silchester, led by Professor Michael Fulford, for nearly 40 years – and this largely undisturbed greenfield site provides many opportunities to pose new research questions, and then to answer them through cutting edge fieldwork.

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Excavation planning: Step 1 – bring in the machine!

Posing palace questions

For the last 4 summer seasons we have been searching for structural evidence that the Roman Emperor Nero (Emperor from 54 to 68AD) commissioned a palatial residence in the provincial capital of Calleva Atrebatum. Our excavations in Insula IX between 1997 and 2014 had thrown up tantalising evidence for this in the form of high quality building stone incorporated into the foundations of later Roman buildings, as well as pottery tiles stamped with Nero’s name. These tiles are found nowhere else in Britain, and their discovery hints at a high level of imperial involvement – and even investment – into the town. But where exactly was Nero’s palace?

Testing hypotheses

Archaeologists test hypotheses – and ours was that Insula III, centrally located within the town, held the secret – and possibly also the Nero commissioned palace. The Victorians had excavated here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and their resultant town plan suggested the presence of a stone founded building of good size. And indeed we thought we might have found it when, in 2013, we began digging in the south-east corner of Insula III and uncovered the colonnaded remains of a mid-1st century AD building, which, at first trowel, looked substantial and significant.

Location, location, location

However 4 seasons of work later, we can unequivocally state that Insula III did not contain a luxurious home to rival those of Rome, and built for a supportive British ruler or noble with Nero’s patronage. Instead we found an unfinished and fairly flimsy structure, built over layers of clay and gravel dumped to offset the soft and slumping fills of the underlying Iron Age pits and wells. It must have been a bitter blow for the builders of Nero’s time to realise that prime building land in the centre of the Roman town, next to the forum, was unsuitable for solid masonry structures. Instead we surmise that the area lay largely unused until the late Roman period when the desire for prime real estate overrode the restrictions of the earlier centuries and allowed the construction of gravel founded timber buildings, jostling for space in this most desirable of town locations.

New knowledge

Archaeology is a voyage of discovery and even if we don’t find what we hoped or expected, there is always a net gain in knowledge. This summer was our last chance to find Nero, and through the use of our – by now – tried and tested methodology of investigating the archaeology of Insula III by simply re-excavating the trenches dug by our antiquarian forbears and using the emptied trenches as ‘key-holes’ into the undisturbed layers, we uncovered a new and detailed sequence from the natural geology through to late or post Roman occupation, followed by 2 phases of Victorian excavation.

Seasons in the sun

We dug for 3 weeks in August and September of this year – and, as it turned out, we had the very best of an English summer: some hot days, lots of bright sunshine, and very little rain. A relatively small research excavation such as this also provides a great opportunity to give employability placement opportunities to our part 2 and Part 3 students, particularly those hoping to enter a career in commercial archaeology. But – to be honest- everyone should add an excavation to their CV – working as part of a team, communicating, solving problems: these are skills all graduates should have on leaving university. Plus, it is enormous fun – working together towards a common research aim, in what can sometimes be challenging physical conditions – what’s not to like?

Caedmon planning

Caedmon planning

 Turf, topsoil and talent

We opened 3 trenches – each with their own objectives – and we had a workforce of up to 20 on site, including a team working with our Finds and Visitors. The stage was set! Step 1 was to get the machining right – using a JCB to strip the turf and topsoil off is a challenging task. Take too much off, and you risk losing vital late and post Roman evidence; take too little off and you are condemning your team to days of backbreaking digging of sterile topsoil deposits and the risk of not finishing on time… With the help of a truly talented digger driver, we got it exactly right, and within a day we could quite clearly see the outlines of the diagonal Victorian trenches as darker stripes cutting through the topsoil and subsoil. Also immediately visible were striations and patterns of gravel which, on cleaning, began to show themselves to be outlines of a late Roman building completely missed by the Victorian excavators whose sole work purpose was to discover large pieces of masonry and exciting artefacts.

 

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Hard at work on a summer’s day

Antiquarian antics

By the end of the excavation, each trench had a story to tell, and when we left site with a complete record – plans, photographs, samples, finds, record cards – we left behind a very light touch on the archaeology of this major Roman town. We learnt a great deal about the nature of the Victorian intervention, as we tried to second guess their strategies – they do not record exactly how and where they dug – only what they found.

Sifting through the finds in their backfill is equally remarkable in terms of what they threw back in – what they deemed unimportant – or unrecognisable, becomes a treasure trove for us. The antiquarian archaeologists before us gave us no light and shade, no detail of the lives of the people living there. We can now fill in those gaps.

Roman New Build

As with elsewhere in Insula III, we identified substantial clay levelling of a 2nd century AD date, over an uneven surface, and not much construction work until the late Roman period – when a series of gravel-filled foundation trenches were dug to support a large, rectangular building in the north-west corner of the insula. This building had clay and gravel floors (most of which did not survive) and was subdivided into a number of rooms. Associated with it were a sequence of substantial postholes cut into the edge of the gravel surfaced street, dug and re-dug, used and re-used over time, recognising, marking and regularly replacing a boundary. The Victorian excavators of the 1860’s and the 1890’s did not recognise this as a building as such – and so we felt a great sense of achievement when adding it to the known plan of late Roman Silchester. Discovering a previously unknown Roman building is not something you do every day!

Losing Nero

Every excavation has its disappointments – and ours was no exception, We had begun this project in 2013 in the south-east corner of Insula III, looking for a palace of Nero, and we ended in 2016 in the north-west corner knowing that we had not found this building – at least not in Insula III – but knowing that there is enough material evidence to suggest that it is likely to be somewhere within the town. So – no wonderful treasures, no palaces of kings – this time – but we now know what Insula III was all about, and another piece of the jigsaw has been slotted into place. And we had a lot of fun doing so; thanks to a fantastic team!

Team 2016

Team 2016

Amanda Clarke

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In July, a team consisting of staff and students from the University of Reading (Aleks Pluskowski, Rowena Banerjea, Guillermo García-Contreras Ruiz, Rob Fry, David Thornley (formerly at Reading) and Caedmon Bradley), students from the universities of Granada and Montpellier, spent a week in the province of Guadalajara, central Spain, prospecting and surveying two castles associated with the medieval Christian – Muslim frontier. The project was funded by the Society of Antiquaries and the Erasmus Programme, as pilot studies within the “Landscapes of (Re)conquest project” which is investigating the character of medieval frontiers in South Western Europe. The central part of the Iberian Peninsula represents an exceptional area for investigating the dynamics of frontiers, colonisation and social reorganisation during the formative period of the Middle Ages, when political control of territory fluctuated between Islamic and Christian authorities. Our fieldwork focused on two castles – Molina de Aragón and Atienza – that were linked to medieval frontier authorities during both Islamic and Christian periods of rule. Both sites are defined by the presence of substantial enclosed wards, largely devoid of structures above ground. The use of these spaces and therefore the roles of these fortified sites during the various phases of occupation remain unknown, and the complete lack of palaeoenvironmental investigations has also detached them from their landscape context. The aim of the project was to conduct geophysics surveys within these wards, to obtain environmental data from excavated irrigation channel and terrace within the vicinity of the sites, and to collect samples of building fabric and document phases of construction. This information would be used to characterise how the landscape was used and organised by Islamic and Christian frontier authorities.

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Most of our fieldwork was focused on Molina de Aragón, which consists of a fortified complex, located on a hill overlooking the valley of the River Gallo in the Upper Tagus, one of the principle mountain ranges in Spain and recently designated as a UNESCO Global Geopark due to its unique geological formations. The role of the site changed over time, from a rural fortification during the Islamic period, ruled largely by Berbers (8th–10th centuries), to a focal point for the defence of Al-Andalus against the expansion of Christian kingdoms from the north (10th–11th century) and subsequently the capital of an independent Islamic state, the Taifa of Molina, following the collapse of the Umayyad Caliphate. In 1129, Molina was conquered by King Alfonso I of Aragon. After fierce territorial disputes, it was bequeathed to the Lara family who maintained a virtually independent frontier lordship into the 14th century and developed the associated town. Molina passed to the Kingdom of Aragon for a short period (c. 1366–1375), after which it was incorporated into Castile, and finally into Spain. After functioning as a military barracks throughout the 19th century, the fortress was abandoned from the beginning of the 20th century. Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometry surveys within the wards of the castle, whilst the rest of the team focused on excavating and sampling an irrigation channel at the edge of the medieval town, taking cores to identify suitable deposits for further environmental sampling and sampling a terrace for OSL dating and geoarchaeological analysis. Environmental sampling was led by Rowena Banerjea with students from Granada and Montpellier. Caedmon Bradley documented the walls of the castle at Molina de Aragón with photogrammetry for his third-year dissertation.

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The second fortified complex included within the project – Atienza – is located within an expansive valley of the mountain range of the Sierra Norte. From the 8th century it was settled and used as a rural fortification by the Berber tribe of Banu Salim. During the Umayyad emirate and caliphate (9th c-10th century), Atienza was an important strategic centre on the border between al-Andalus and the Christian kingdoms. In 1086, the fortress was conquered and became part of Christian Castile. Subsequently, it became the centre of a frontier lordship, securing the border against both neighbouring Muslim territories and the Christian Kingdom of Aragon (11th-12th century). Atienza remained loyal to the kings of Castile in times of internal civil war (13th-14th century), and its prosperity was represented by the construction of fourteen churches, alongside the expanded castle and urban defences. From the 15th century its strategic and economic importance dramatically declined. In the 19th century it was significantly affected by the War of Independence. Here, Rob Fry and David Thornley conducted magnetometer surveys within the castle itself, its outer wards and some of the adjacent parts (now abandoned) of the medieval town. The aim of the surveys was to identify the degree of disturbance and the presence of buried structures where traces of occupation may have been preserved, to inform future excavations.

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The results of these pilot projects are currently being analysed, but they represent an important foundation for more extensive future investigations into the role of these centres of authority in the medieval multicultural frontiers of Iberia.

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Judges have today released the shortlist for this year’s British Archaeological Awards showcasing the very latest discoveries and innovations in archaeology across the UK, with Reading University’s long-term Silchester excavation shortlisted for Best Archaeological Project 2016.

The results will be announced at the British Archaeological Awards ceremony at the British Museum in London on 11 July, compèred by ‘Meet the Ancestors’ archaeologist and TV presenter Julian Richards.

John Lewis, Chair of the British Archaeological Awards judging panel for the Best Archaeological Project Award commented on the Silchester project,

The aim of this long-running project is the publication of the total excavation of a large sample (25%) of one insula (block) to characterise the changing nature of the occupation of the Roman town at Silchester. The Judges were impressed with the way the project maximised environmental techniques and the development and use of a sophisticated database to aid analysis and make the findings accessible for future generations. The project has had a long-standing programme of public engagement, with many thousands of visitors each year.

Deborah Williams, Chair of the British Archaeological Awards added,

“The entries this year reflect the incredible wealth and range of archaeology that is going on across the United Kingdom, the quality and expertise of our world-leading archaeologists, and the ever increasing fascination of the public with the history and archaeology of their local area.

“Increasingly archaeologists are responding to this interest by developing new ways to help people to take part in research and excavations, start up their own projects, and share and understand new discoveries – and this shines through in our shortlisted entries. All the finalists have a common theme – involving and enthusing young people and the public in their archaeological heritage.

The British Archaeological Awards entries are judged by independent panels made up of leading experts from across the archaeology field in the UK, including both professional and voluntary sectors and aim to celebrate and share the best of British archaeology with the public.

 

See the shortlisted projects at www.archaeologicalawards.com and follow the Awards on twitter @BAAWARDSUK

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Professor Roger Matthews & Dr Wendy Matthews spent their Easter at the early Neolithic site of Bestansur, Iraqi Kurdistan. The excavations at Bestansur are significant as it is such an early settlement, dating to about 7700/7600 BC. At nearly 9000 years old, this provides us with some fantastic evidence for the very first steps of the transition from hunting to farming in the Neolithic period in this region.

The discoveries this season include the careful excavation of a very special building (Building 5) made of lumps of clay with plastered walls & floor, which had an unusual number of human remains interred beneath it. The team have identified a large number of human remains, mostly disarticulated, and often from very small children.

As seen in the video linked to below, one of the theories is that the building may be a special building for the burial of dead people – some of the remains seem to be coming from quite far distances, which is why the bones are disarticulated. With some of the bodies the team also found small offerings, such as beads of clay or stone, including a bead of carnelian which would have had to be imported from Iran or Afghanistan.

 

About the Excavation

Figure 1. Map to show location of Bestansur and other relevant Neolithic sites of the region.

Map to show location of Bestansur and other relevant Neolithic sites of the region.

A University of Reading and Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate team recently conducted a sixth season of excavations at the Early Neolithic settlement site of Bestansur, Sulaimaniyah Province, Iraqi Kurdistan, between 26 March and 15 April 2016. The team comprised Roger Matthews, Wendy Matthews and Kamal Rasheed Raheem (Co-Directors), Kamal Rauf Aziz and Sami Jamil Hama Rashid (Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate), Amy Richardson (University of Oxford), Sam Walsh (UCLAN), Adam Stone and Tom Moore (University of Reading) and local excavators.  We are very grateful to Sulaimaniyah Directorate of Antiquities for all their support, in particular to the Director, Kamal Rasheed Raheem, the Director of the Museum, Hashim Hama, and our government representatives, Kamal Rauf Aziz and Sami Jamil Hama Rashid, who helped us in many ways and contributed greatly to the success of the season. We are grateful to them all for their hard work all season.

The excavations were financially supported by generous grants from the Gerald Averay Wainwright Fund of the University of Oxford and the British Institute for the Study of Iraq. We are very grateful to these bodies for their kind support.

 

Excavations at Bestansur, an Early Neolithic settlement

Dr Sam Walsh excavating human remains in Building 5.

Dr Sam Walsh excavating human remains in Building 5.

Excavations at Bestansur focused on expansion of Trench 10 to investigate a neighbourhood of Neolithic architecture on the lower eastern slopes of the mound, in an area of 18 x 14m.

This season’s excavations in Trench 10 aimed firstly to investigate and analyse of the human burials below the floors of Space 50 and the stratigraphic context of these, and secondly to define the extent of the building in which they were placed, Building 5, radiocarbon dated to c. 7700 BC.

We established that there are an exceptional number of human remains interred within Space 50. The excavations this season increased the number of individuals identified to more than 55 people, with more remains detected but left preserved in the ground for the next season. This number of individuals is higher than that found in many houses from other Neolithic sites of the Middle East, such as Tell Halula in Syria, for example, where 5-15 individuals were buried within single buildings. The high number within Building 5 at Bestansur is larger than expected for a single household and suggests that there were extensive and long-lived inter-relations between communities.

Four principal groups of human remains were investigated in the south and east of Space 50. All of these represent selective burial of particular skeletal parts,

Cluster of human skulls and other bones buried under room floor

Cluster of human skulls and other bones buried under room floor

predominantly of skulls, long bones and ribs. Two of these groups were of mixed age ranges. One group included red-pigmented material around clusters of bones and another group included traces of white mineral material on many bones and a skull as well as red pigment. A third group comprised predominantly juveniles and infants. The fourth assemblage was represented scattered remains of human bone and beads in the fill below the floors. One unusual bead of carnelian, imported from Iran or Afghanistan, was also found (Fig. 7).

As the walls of Space 50 slope inwards, c. 10 cm of deposits have been left against the base and lower sections of the walls. These microstratigraphic sequences were carefully cleaned with an artist’s palette knife, photographed and drawn at 1:5 and 1:10 to investigate the history of the construction and use of Building 5 and the complex burial sequence throughout the foundation, occupation and infill of the Building.

Carnelian bead from burial deposits under room floor

Carnelian bead from burial deposits under room floor

The north of Building 5, the western narrow rooms and the northwest corner of Space 50 and adjacent buildings were defined by extending trench 10 to the northwest.

We will continue excavation of this extraordinary deposit and building in spring 2017 and beyond.

Recording of human remains was conducted in the field and the laboratory by osteoarchaeologist Dr Sam Walsh (Fig. 4). We are very grateful to the Sulaimaniyah Antiquities Directorate for permission to export human bones and teeth for analysis to study diet, health and mobility. We will be carrying out a full programme of analysis of this very special assemblage of human remains from the Early Neolithic period.

 

You can watch an interview with Roger on Rudaw TV here

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This summer, the Silchester team(s) were back in the field again for both the Insula III project and the Environs Iron Age project. Amanda Clarke and Dr Cathie Barnett give their updates below…

Never say Never Again: further excavations at Silchester Roman Town

By Amanda Clarke

Professor Michael Fulford, CBE and Archaeologist of the Year, is as near as our profession will get to having Royal Navy Commander James Bond on its books. And, in true 007 style, and with reference to the 1983 Bond film of that name, we have learnt that The Commander will Never say Never Again.

Mike and I had left a hole in the ground (and in our hearts…..) at Insula IX in August 2014, and had walked away, olive trees in hand (our farewell presents from the participants), never thinking we would be back.

Groundhog Day

Now here I was, returning to Silchester in August of 2015, to set up and run a 4-week project to excavate a 15m by 20m trench in the north-east corner of Insula 111 in the heart of the Roman Town.

The Insula III team

The Insula III team

What could possibly lure us back? Insula III has been pivotal to our research excavations at Silchester for several years now. In 2013 and 2014 we opened an area 30m by 30m in the south-east of Insula III with the aim of re-excavating the Victorian trenches (dug in 1891) to reveal the structure the Victorians had thought – excitingly – to be a bath house. This methodology – of walking and digging in Victorian footsteps – proved to be an extremely successful one and allowed us, with the minimum of new excavation, to understand further the Victorian campaigns and methods of excavation, as well as determining at least 3 phases of Roman and post-Roman occupation of this part of the insula.

Palaces and Promises

We returned in 2015 to the north-east corner of Insula III as we hoped, by implementing our established methodology of Victorian shadowing, to uncover further evidence for the early Roman palatial structure (misidentified by the Victorians as a ‘bath house’) we had exposed in 2013 and 2014. This would lead our research in a new and exciting direction, promising an early Roman template of town planning, possibly under the auspices of the Emperor Nero.

Victorian mayhem

The first week of excavation in 2015 revealed several things fairly rapidly to our team of volunteers, Silchester ‘old-hands’ and aspiring 1st, 2nd and 3rd year students. For a start, the Victorians had been fairly brutal in their excavation techniques and had employed a methodology which resembled the path of a modern-day bulldozer. However, silver linings and all that, as the excavators of 1893 had avoided and outlined the extent of the spoil heap of the Basilica-Forum excavators of the 1860’s, who had placed an enormous and intimidating mound of soil from their forum excavations all along the western edge of the North-South Roman street, extending into the north-east area of Insula III. This meant that preserved intact beneath the outline of this spoil heap were undisturbed late Roman and potentially post Roman deposits – something of a holy grail for Silchester archaeologists who have been long intent on illuminating the final years of the Roman town.

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Sadly however there was no evidence for the continuation of the large palatial building located in the south-east of the insula – instead a packed stratigraphy visible in the sides of the Victorian trenches promised a different story.

Our second week on site proved an enormous challenge on many fronts; we had to re-employ our JCB to remove the huge depth of Victorian backfill we were confronted with, as we recognised that this Victorian-sorted soil would only enhance our muscles, and not our minds. As well as this, it rained – very hard. For days on end.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

By the start of the third week, the Victorian interventions had been emptied, mapped and plotted, and we now had time to look at what they had left behind. The Victorian plan was a red herring – nothing recorded on it was as we found it – but we did gain further insight into the Victorian psyche. For example, a feature recorded on their plan as ‘HYP’ (hypocaust) and left in situ, turned out to be an early Roman hearth, pedestalled and separated from its context – but still intact, beautiful, and able to be sampled and studied.

The early Roman Hearth

The early Roman Hearth

Targeted excavation

The Victorian excavators had not reached the natural ground surface but had instead stopped at an extensive spread of gravel of early Roman date. So, our methodology was to extend downwards from some areas of the Victorian intervention to see if we could stratigraphically uncover the earliest occupation on this part of the insula. This we did, revealing a number of Iron Age features at the base of the sequence.

It’s all in the section

The strategy for the fourth week on site was simple: to record and sample the sides of the Victorian trenches – which contained the story of Insula III from earliest to latest – and to begin stratigraphic excavation of the late Roman tabernae, or small shops which fronted onto the north-south and east-west streets, and lay beneath the dark soils. The remains of these buildings had eluded the Victorians but we were able to recognise them as flint and gravel founded buildings with clay floors, and backyards consisting of gravelled areas delineated by post pads.

 

Final Thoughts

After 4 weeks on site we ended with a very successful Open Day and were able to present our many visitors with a coherent story about the development of the north-east corner of Insula III. Our work has revealed a complexity of occupation on this central insula, and has provided a tantalising glimpse of the richness of the archaeological record here. Now follows a winter of post excavation to establish the chronology of the area, and the chance to assess the many finds left behind by the Victorians – which included more than 66 coins. See you next year!

 

Pond Farm

By Dr Catherine Barnett

A team of 15 hardy professional, student and volunteer archaeologists, led by project officer Nick Pankhurst, ignored the August-September monsoon season to tackle the site of Pond Farm. The site was suspected to be an Iron Age univallate hillfort and had been chosen as the first in a series of sites to investigate under the new Silchester Environs project led by Prof Michael Fulford.

Four 20x20m trenches were opened up across the site, positioned according to the results of geophysical and coring surveys undertaken earlier this year. Key aims were to date the site and to gauge whether it had a chronological relationship with the nearby Iron Age oppidum that underlies Silchester Roman Town. We also wanted to find out what the site was used for and for how long. Artefacts proved sparse but appeared in just the right places, including a piece of Late Iron Age pedestal beaker recovered from a palisade trench at the end of the defensive encircling bank. The lack of internal structures yet evidence of several phases of earthwork and ditch recutting leads us to suspect that this was not a permanently settled site but one periodically visited over a long time, perhaps as part of a stock management system, with the huge defensive earthworks there to protect valuable livestock.

Much of our understanding  will however come from the post-excavation analysis and radiocarbon dating of samples collected during the dig. These are currently being processed, and we’ll let you know what we find in a future post.

For further information on the Environs project please see the Silchester website or email Dr Catherine Barnett at c.m.barnett@reading.ac.uk.  

 

You can also follow Silchester on Facebook and Twitter for the latest updates!

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By Dr Gabor Thomas

1.View over 2014 excavations with the Blob in the foreground trench and the Coach and Horses pub in the background overlooked by Lyminge church

View over 2014 excavations with the Blob in the foreground trench and the Coach and Horses pub in the background overlooked by Lyminge church

In September of this year the curtain closed on one of the department’s flagship fieldwork projects: a seven-year programme of excavation targeting an Anglo-Saxon settlement preserved under the village of Lyminge in south-east Kent.  Fieldwork projects of this scale and complexity nearly always run out of time and Lyminge is no exception.  2014 was supposed to be the final season of a three-year campaign funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council designed to investigate a large open space in the middle of the village called Tayne Field.  In the event, the new discoveries made that year were so unprecedented that it was impossible to examine the evidence satisfactorily in the six weeks available.  With the realisation that more work was needed, plans for a return season soon began to be hatched; by the following spring funds for a pared-down excavation had been secured from several sources, including a generous donation from a member of the Sutton Hoo Society who visited us in 2014.  Game on!

The cause of our extended season was first identified in a geophysical survey completed by Dave Thornley in 2012.

Aerial view of the Blob and adjacent ring-ditch after initial cleaning in 2014.

Aerial view of the Blob and adjacent ring-ditch after initial cleaning in 2014.

The ‘Blob’, as it soon became known amongst the excavation team, appeared as a large (18m by 12m) ovoid anomaly straddling the ring-ditch of a Bronze Age barrow.  Both features lay at the northern margins of a dense array of Anglo-Saxon settlement remains which had formed the principal target of excavations in 2012-13.  When uncovered for the first time in 2014, the feature stood out like a sore thumb: an expanse of charcoal-rich sediment crammed with animal bone and artefacts immediately recognisable as Anglo-Saxon.  Gold dust – we were staring at a huge, and as we would later find out, very deep, Anglo-Saxon midden!  Because all of the material removed from the Blob was dry sieved, progress was slow going and it soon became apparent that we could only investigate a small sample in the time available.  We therefore limited our window to a pair of 1m-wide perpendicular transects positioned across the maximum girth of the Blob.  Each of these slices produced a vivid layer-cake of dumped deposits punctuated by burnt horizons and, in one particular locale, an in situ hearth.  By the beginning of the final week both transects had been excavated to a depth of 1.80m, but with no sign of a bottom.  Then, in the final few days, we broke through the earliest of the Anglo-Saxon dumps to reveal a horizontal layer of flint nodules.  Time was up and we were left to ponder the hard-won evidence: what was the origin of the large crater used as a dumping ground by the Anglo-Saxons? And what was the function and age of the enigmatic flint layer?

These questions were foremost as a skeleton team reassembled to take on the Blob with renewed vigour in 2015.  Our strategy involved re-opening 2014’s transects to investigate the lower levels of the Blob (where possible) with further hand excavation, leaving the deepest portions for coring.  In addition, we planned to excavate a new 2m-wide transect across the unexplored northern sector of the Blob with the aim of exposing the full extent of the layer of flint nodules.  So what did we find?  The upper horizons of the midden sampled by the new transect proved to be as productive in Anglo-Saxon cultural material as in 2014, yielding a further 200 sherds of vessel glass, an array of brooches and other diagnostic metalwork and prodigious volumes of pottery and animal bone.  The new transect also revealed the full extent of the flint layer demonstrating that it formed a sloping ramp extending from the northern rim of the Blob down into its murky depths where it was first exposed in 2014 at depth of nearly 2m. Further excavation and coring in the previous season’s transects produced equally rewarding results.  We now know that the original cut of the Blob has a strongly asymmetrical profile and that its lower stratigraphy comprises clay-rich sediments deposited during later prehistory under natural processes.

Kevin Williams from QUEST assisted by Simon Maslin get stuck into some coring.

Kevin Williams from QUEST assisted by Simon Maslin get stuck into some coring.

So what does all this evidence add up to?  I would be lying if I said we had a definitive answer so soon after the excavation, but a compelling story is starting to emerge.  It goes something like this.  The Blob started life as a natural feature – a solution hollow, or to give it its correct label, a doline, produced by the erosion of soluble bedrock.  This particular example may have opened up early in prehistory and, as a significant landscape feature, could have acted as a focus for the construction for the adjacent Bronze Age barrow (such associations have been documented in other prehistoric chalklands, including the Dorset ridgeway).  When an Anglo-Saxon settlement was established in Lyminge in the 5th century A.D., the doline was reappropriated, commencing with the construction of the flint ramp to provide access into the deepest portion of the feature.  This may have been to facilitate the extraction of clay for the making of pottery and daub for buildings and furnaces, but alternative, potentially ritualistic, uses cannot be discounted.  Subsequently, as the Anglo-Saxon population expanded and economic activity intensified, midden material collected from various domestic and industrial contexts was systematically dumped into the cavity.  This process of infilling extended into the second half of the 6th century, but was punctuated by episodes of stabilisation when the hollow was used for industrial processes such as iron smelting reflected archaeologically in hearths and associated dumps of slag and furnace lining.

Although compelling, there are parts of this story which will remain speculative until the evidence has been carefully evaluated by professional geologists.  However, if the hypothesised sequence turns out to be correct in its essentials, then this will be the first example of an archaeologically-attested doline in the UK with evidence for Anglo-Saxon exploitation.  Irrespective of the final attribution, the investigation of this remarkable feature has transformed our understanding of Lyminge’s formative development as an Anglo-Saxon settlement.  Should you be fortunate enough to encounter a Blob on your own excavation, be sure to go back for a second season!

Diagnostic Anglo-Saxon jewellery recovered in 2015.  The gilding and decorative detail on these artefacts will show up beautifully when professionally conserved.

Diagnostic Anglo-Saxon jewellery recovered in 2015. The gilding and decorative detail on these artefacts will show up beautifully when professionally conserved.

With thanks to my Co-Director, Alex Knox, Lyminge Project PhD and Data Manager, Simon Maslin, Finds Supervisors, Helen Harrington, Emily Harwood, Alex Miller and Jessica Barnsley, QUEST technician, Kevin Williams, not forgetting a clutch of dedicated students from Reading and UCL and our regular local volunteers.  The 2015 excavation could not have happened without the generous support of Sue Banyard, the ‘Up on Downs’ Landscape Partnership Scheme and our principal funders, the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

For more information please visit the project website: www.lymingearchaeology.org

Gabor Thomas, Director of the Lyminge Project

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The University of Reading Archaeology Field School has a new location from summer 2015 – the Vale of Pewsey! Dr Jim Leary will be directing the project over the next few years and below, he explains a little of his background and experience in this fantastic landscape…

Dr Jim Leary

Dr Jim Leary

“As a prehistorian I have always been drawn to Wiltshire. I excavated there as an undergraduate, looking at the Mesolithic site of Golden Ball Hill, and have been digging there on and off ever since. I once even found and excavated a very ancient site there indeed. It was fantastically well-preserved considering it was 250,000 years old, and packed full of the flint tools and hunting residue of one of one of our early hominin ancestors. But it is the ancient Neolithic monuments that are the main source of fascination for me – and a challenge too: there is so much more to discover.

In 2007 I took charge of the Silbury Hill project, working inside the enormous Neolithic mound with a team of miners and archaeologists. It was an amazing experience, to be able to spend so much time actually inside Silbury. There was real concern that a big portion of the mound might collapse as a result of various shafts and tunnels created by past archaeologists and antiquarians. We had to stabilise the structure and make it safe for the future, but this was also an opportunity to gather archaeological information.

In the summer of 2010 I directed an excavation at the huge Neolithic henge at Marden in the Vale of Pewsey. It is the one no-one has heard of, and yet it is the biggest henge of all – bigger than Avebury and about 10 times the size of Stonehenge. One objective was to find the position of the ‘Hatfield Barrow’ – another conical mound, half the size of Silbury. The mound was dug into in 1807 but it collapsed and the remains of it were later removed by the farmer. We assumed it had completely gone but below the soil we found that some of the mound still remained – it was just 15 centimetres high! That is quite a reduction from the original 15 metres, but it did contain dateable material, which showed it to be the same date as Silbury.

Marden Henge

Marden Henge

Also inside Marden henge, we found the best-preserved Neolithic building in England. It wasn’t a house that was lived in, but probably had some other function – perhaps a sweat lodge. The people that used this building will have seen Stonehenge in use – perhaps even worshipped there. There may be more buildings at Marden, and this is one of the questions we need to answer when we go back. The Marden excavations produced other unique finds, including some of the most finely worked flint arrowheads I’ve ever seen. The pottery too, was highly unusual: one clay pot had been coated in bone ash – my guess is that it is human bone, but we’ll never know for sure.

Continuing with the mounds theme I’ve also made the news through my work at Marlborough Castle Mound – or ‘Merlin’s Mound’ as it is known locally. Now in the grounds of Marlborough College, this 19m high mound was once the motte on which Marlborough Castle was built shortly after the Norman Conquest. In the 17th century it became part of an elaborate garden; a spiral path was cut into it and shrubs planted. With the help of colleagues I drilled boreholes deep into the mound from the top. We were able to date some charcoal from the cores which told us that its origins go back to the same time as Silbury Hill; it was a Neolithic mound that had been re-used later on. It was one of those ‘Eureka!’ moments that are so rare in archaeology.

I am now gearing up to go back to Wiltshire. We will be undertaking further excavations in the amazing Marden henge. But more than this – we’ll be looking at a whole plethora or weird and wonderful sites all around it. I can’t wait!”

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