Experimental Earthwork recording at Wroughton


A small team of present and former students from the Archaeology Department at Reading University spent a week at the beginning of June 2015 recording an experimental earthwork, at the Science Museum Group facility at Wroughton in Swindon.

The octagonal earthwork was constructed in 1985 by the world renowned experimental archaeologist Dr Peter Reynolds. Reynolds died prematurely in 2001 and not much has been published on the results of this experiment. The excavation 30 years after the earthwork’s construction was prompted by the forthcoming removal of three-quarters of the earthwork in order to build a solar farm.  It was clearly important to record the changes to the earthwork over the last 30 years, as a result of weathering, vegetation colonisation, faunal and other processes. 

1This is the sixth earthwork to have been investigated using similar methods by the writer. The excavations have demonstrated that changes to buried soils, for instance, occur very rapidly after burial, such that a thirty year old buried soil has many characteristics of one buried for millennia. So experiments lasting as little as 30 years are a valuable guide as to how the archaeological and palaeoenvironmental record has formed.  The ditch sediments at Wroughton showed evidence for annual banding over the first 5 or 6 years of sedimentation in some but not all sections. This could be potentially interesting in identifying the seasonality of placed deposits in the primary fills of prehistoric ditches. We hope to do some follow up analysis on the buried soils if funding can be found.

By Professor Martin Bell

Read more about Martin at his staff profile.

Mesolithic Fieldwork and Filming at Goldcliff, Wales

kirstenFrom November 21st -25th 2014 a small team from the University of Reading Archaeology Department took advantage of a low tide to investigate Mesolithic sites in the intertidal zone at Goldcliff, South Wales where many archaeological discoveries have been made over the last 24 years. We found human, bird and deer footprints, Mesolithic flints and charred hazel nuts. The fieldwork was in conjunction with a team from the BBC Horizon Science Series for a programme on the Mesolithic which will be screened in early 2015.

This was the start of a 3 year PhD project by Kirsten Barr who will be looking at Mesolithic, human, animal and bird footprints in the Severn Estuary and elsewhere in order to develop new techniques for the rapid and accurate recording and interpretation of this footprint evidence which is increasingly being found particularly in coastal locations.

Kirsten graduated with a First Class degree in Archaeology from the University of Reading. She started off with a mainly arts focus but discovered an aptitude for science during her kirsten2undergraduate degree. After this she did a MSc in Forensic Archaeology at University College, London and her current PhD project has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Fieldwork with the BBC team provided an early opportunity in the second month of her project to get information about the project out to the public.

Severn Estuary Prehistoric research is led by Professor Martin Bell, who has published 3 monographs on the subject in the last 14 years. The most recent is The Bronze Age in the Severn Estuary published by the Council for British Archaeology in 2013. This monograph includes contributions by several Reading University students including Kirsten who did her undergraduate dissertation on the footprints of animals in Bronze Age sites.

In the field with the National Geographic

Severn Estuary

National Geographic photographers with tree stumps of a 8000 year old drowned forest on the foreshore at Goldcliff, Severn Estuary

The December 2012 edition of the National Geographic includes an article on Reading University’s Mesolithic research in the Severn Estuary, South Wales.  In preparation for the article the National Geographic sent two photographers from New York and a journalist from Switzerland to work  with the Reading University team. The article concerns the effects of the sea level rise as ice melted following the last glaciation. Sea level rise drowned Doggerland,  which once connected Britain to continental Europe, and also drowned many coastal areas around Britain leading to the formation of the Severn Estuary. Work here takes place at extreme spring tide  in a narrow tidal window when sites are exposed for about 90 minutes and recording has to be rapid. Ten minutes before the tide came in a well-preserved Mesolithic footprint was discovered; the National Geographic photographers were on hand to record the discovery which features in the article and the Reading team moved in to cast the footprint for eventual museum display with the tide rising around them.  The footprints are 7500 years old and are of great interest in telling the team about patterns of past human movement, relating both to settlements which have been excavated and trails converging on other campsites now lost by erosion.

Many of the footprints were those of children, some as young as four, showing that in the hunter-gatherer communities of the Mesolithic children played an active role in the day to day foraging activities of the community.

Taking Casts

Casts being made of Mesolithic crane prints at Goldcliff during a student field trip in 2012

The iPad version of the National Geographic shows a time lapse sequence with the tide retreating and then returning as the Reading team rush around like ants to record footprints and artefacts exposed by the low tide. The title page  image for the National Geographic article shows a fine reconstruction painting which they commissioned  showing one of the four successive areas of Mesolithic settlement which the Reading team have excavated at Goldcliff. Returning to the site in summer 2012 the Reading team found a new area of Mesolithic activity, a discovery which was filmed for a Channel 4 Time Team special programme to be broadcast in Spring 2013 on a similar Doggerland theme to the National Geographic article.  The National Geographic claims a worldwide readership of 40 million in 34 languages, the inclusion of Reading University work in this article and the Time Team programme takes our research to audiences which are not reached by standard academic publications. Wide public awareness is particularly important at a time when the House of Commons Select Committee on Climate Change is once again considering a Severn Tidal Barrage. Such a scheme would have a major impact on the rich archaeological resource of the Severn Estuary which Reading University has played a key role in identifying.

Read the National Geographic article on-line

See the University of Reading’s Press Release