I’ve written a short piece on the henge for the North Herts Museum’s website, which may be of interest.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keeley Hale, Chris Hobbs (a.m. only), Nigel Harper-Scott, Ivor Davies, Tony Driscoll, Jean Andrews, Mervyn Evans, Martin Jupp, Susana Suldana, Jim Skipper, Lindsay Duncan, Sylvia Duncan
Weather: dry, cloudy with occasional sunny spells, very cold east wind; one snow shower
Keeley and Chris are excavating deposit (287) in the base of the ditch, which is still producing fragments of animal bone (including a piece of jaw and a tooth that were not connected with the teeth Mervyn found yesterday – signs of animal scavenging?). The deposit does not appear to be very thick, as Keeley is coming down rapidly onto rubbly chalk that may be the weathered base of the ditch. Nigel is beginning a plan of the trench.
Sieving is producing very little material, as it was towards the end of yesterday. What has turned up so far appears to be mostly Romano-British, so I suspect that we are dealing with colluvium rather than ditch fills.
Keeley’s rubble is indeed the base of the ditch and it is significant that all the finds are sitting on it, covered by the silt of deposit (287), which is therefore the primary fill. On the base of the ditch was a lump of fired clay that Keeley and Chris were worried might be medieval brick, but it was daub. There is a second potential piece. Interestingly, none has turned up during the sieving, which raises the possibility that it is part of a structured deposit.
As sieving continues, there has been more Neolithic material turning up and less Roman. It seems that the spoil represents destroyed stratigraphy quite accurately: it’s a shame that there is no way of telling which parts derive from which ditch fills and which are from the colluvium. One possible way of sorting out at least some of the material will come in the summer, when we excavate the trench to hand dig across the outer ditch: if we create a separate spoil heap for the colluvium (which will be stripped by machine), we can establish the range of finds it contains and suggest by elimination which classes derive from the ditch fills.
Excavation of the ditch, , was finished by 2.30. Martin took over from Chris after he had to leave at 12.30, and he and Keeley worked into their lunch break to make good progress on excavation. The base of the ditch is flat and the outer side slopes more steeply than the inner, which also has a curious break of slope near the top. There seem to be no more than four or five fills visible in section, although it’s possible that more will be identifiable through excavation in plan. I have record photographs and Nigel has planned it. All that needs to be done now is for Keeley to draw the section and we can pack up.
All in all, this has been a very productive and informative spring excavation. Although the weather hasn’t been on our side (who could have predicted that we would still be in single figure temperatures and have snow at the very end of March?), people have really worked hard and enthusiastically at the sieving. I had feared that the cold would be offputting, but it hasn’t turned out that way. I’ll do a further update on my thoughts about what this short excavation has achieved on the new North Herts Museum blog.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keeley Hale, Tony Dricoll, Nigel Harper-Scott, Jon Goodwyn (a.m. only), Mervyn Evans, Jim Skipper, Chris Hobbs (a.m. only), Phil Thomas, Julie Goodwyn (a.m. only), Alan Lewis, Ivor Davies, Frances Bourne, Julie Martin, Lindsay Duncan, Sylvia Duncan
Weather: cold, dry, very cold breeze, sunny spells, occasional snow
After yesterday’s very cold weather (it was only 3° by the time we packed up at 3 pm), it feels slightly warmer today although the breeze is still icy. We have a large turnout again, which means that we can continue with sieving the spoil from machining. Although there are not large quantities of finds, we are getting the odd sherd of Neolithic pottery, flint débitage and Roman material. Keeley is continuing to draw the south-west facing section, while Jon and Mervyn are cleaning the exposed surfaces in the ditch. I am hopeful that the lowest fill of the ditch will contain finds, possibly structured deposits.
There have been a couple of snow flurries but nothing really severe. It does seem to get much colder during these episodes. Nevertheless, people are continuing to sieve with good humour. It probably helps that we seem to be getting more finds today than yesterday.
Nigel replaced Jon in digging the ditch section after lunch and almost straight away discovered what appears to be articulated animal bone from a pig-sized animal. Soon after, Mervyn discovered a group of teeth. These are evidently structured deposits in the bottom of the ditch; a radiocarbon date from the articulated bone would provide a very reliable estimate for the date at which the ditch began to fill. This is very exciting and very fortunate.
Interestingly, the quantity of finds coming from the sieved material dropped off significantly during the afternoon. It looks as if there was a small part of the spoil heap that derived from a finds-rich part of the trench: I suspect that this is the ditch. The finds contine to be purely Neolithic and Roman (including, inevitably, a House of Valentinian coin…), with one Late Iron Age sherd, which may be earlier first century BC, as it resembles the early material from Baldock.
Things are definitely going well!
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Nigel Harper-Scott, Keeley Hale, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson, Frances Bourne, Sid Rowe, Ivor Davies, Lindsay Duncan, Mervyn Evans, Phil Thomas, Jim Skipper, John Baskerville
Weather: Overcast with occasional sunny spells, dry, cold, a little snow and ice still on the ground
We have a good sized team today, with thirteen of us on site. I am hoping that we will make good progress despite the cold, as doing the heavy work of shovelling to clean the site will help warm people. If it were not for the cold east wind, this would be good digging weather. As it is, everyone is well padded with several layers of clothing and thermal underwear.
The ditch is looking good. Even after five days’ weathering, I can’t see any trace of stratigraphy within its fill, although there is a hint that there is a difference between the top 0.4 m or so and what’s underneath. The initial clean around the edge took only ten minutes and the cleaning of the sections was complete by 11, so we had an early teabreak. It is proving very difficult to type on site, as my fingers are so cold. Who would have predicted that Easter would be as cold as this?
Keeley is working on the south-west facing section of the trench, which is a slow process that means everyone else is occupied with sieving. Remarkably little is turning up from the sieves soil: a few sherds of Neolithic ceramics, the odd sherd of Roman pottery and dome dubious flints. This pretty much confirms what I observed when watching the JCB on Monday. It’s rather dispiriting for the sievers but at the moment there is nothing else to occupy people. Even the soil emptied from the ditch by the machine is more-or-less free from finds.
Now that the sections are clean, it is becoming evident that the ditch contains five or more separate fills, of which the uppermost spreads out beyond it on either side. Uphill from the ditch, it becomes a separate deposit beneath colluvium (35).
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Nigel Harper-Scott, Jim Skipper
Weather: Cold, dry, snow on ground
Difficult as it is to believe that we are now in spring owing to the continued presence of snow on the ground and the threat of more to come, today saw topsoil stripping for our Easter weekend small-scale project. It’s more in the nature of an evaluation exercise than a full-blown excavation: we have stripped a linear trench across the line predicted for the henge outer ditch on the basis of the 1996 magnetometer survey. In previous years, the location of the ditch has been masked by the presence of an unknown depth of colluvium; in 2012, an area of colluvium was removed by machine down to the chalk bedrock, at which point (to the east-north-east of the centre of the henge), it was more than half a metre deep. This was a cause for concern, as the depth meant that we would never get into the ditch fills using the 100% recovery and three-dimensional recording of all finds that we had been practising up to that point.
In addition to this worry, I was concerned that the scale of the ditch suggested by magnetometry (between 3.5 and 5.0 m wide at the top) might indicate a commensurate depth. I had visions of Alexander Keiller’s excavation of the outer ditch at Avebury, where the V-shaped ditch was more than 11 m deep, with a width of 21 m at the top: a similar feature at Stapleton’s field might be almost two metres in depth. Then I was puzzled by the results of the 2011/12 resitivity survey, where the spread of colluvium was visible but the ditch was not. On the one hand, I thought that maybe the colluvium was so deep (perhaps a metre or so) that the outer ditch could not be detected at the resolution achieved (at a depth of a metre, using the survey technique employed, most features would be invisible); on the other, I was heartened by the likelihood that a ditch two metres deep would show up regardless of the depth of colluvium sealing it. Either way, I was beginning to suspect that the ditch was of a more manageable size.
I arrived on site slightly late (about 8.40) to find Tony, Nigel and Jim chatting to the digger driver. Under the snow, it was possible to make out the outline of last summer’s trench, which made it reasonably easy for me to locate the rough centre of the henge. I had already decided that we would open our exploratory slot down hill from the centre of the monument, where the colluvium was likely to be thinner (we knew from last year’s project that it did not extend as far to the south-east as the Roman enclosure ditch). The machine could then cut a trench up to 20 m long from the outside to the inside of the henge. This way, we could minimise the potential damage to deposits within the outer ditch.
There was barely any colluvium at the south-eastern (downhill) end of the trench, although it began to show up within a metre or so of the end of the trench. In the conditions on site (it was -2° C and icy), it was difficult to see artefacts within the colluvium, although Tony managed to identify a piece of Roman tegula, with part of the flange visible. After cutting back for over five metres, with the colluvium becoming increasingly thick (it has reached a depth of perhaps 0.25 m at this point), the chalk bedrock suddenly dived down. This was the outer edge of the ditch, exactly where the magnetometer survey had predicted it to be. It was clear straight away that the side of the ditch was not steep, perhaps around 45°, which raised my hopes that it would prove to be reasonably shallow.
The machine was used to empty the ditch of its contents. Although it is too early to be certain, it appeared to contain only one fill, which was sterile (or, at least, contained too few artefacts and ecofacts to be visible during soil stripping). If true, this is intriguing. It suggests that the ditch filled in a single episode, in other words, it was deliberately backfilled. If this proves to be the case, it explains how the ditch was so full that a colluvium formed over it north-west of the henge from the Late Neolithic onwards (the infamous context (35) that we spent so long excavating in 2011 in the mistaken belief that it was indeed the upper ditch fill). If it is a deliberate backfill, it raises some intriguing issues: why would the outer ditch have been filled and how much effort would have been required for the undertaking. This might be yet another indication that the early ‘formative’ henge was converted to the classic type some time before the middle of the third millennium BC.
The ditch proved to be at the upper limit of size suggested by magnetometry, around 5 m at the surface of the chalk. However, its sides sloped quite gently. Although we stopped the digger at a depth of 1.2 m from the ground surface for health and safety reasons, the angle of slope of the ditch suggests that there is less than half a metre of deposit left in the bottom. We will therefore be able to excavate a slot through the base, where there ought to be some indication of primary silts (and, I hope, something that can be dated). This means that the ditch is no more than 1.7 m deep (and cut under 1.5 m into the bedrock). This is very encouraging for the summer as it means that it will be possible to excavated a complete section through it by hand whilst maintaining our three-dimensional finds recording system.
After locating the inner edge of the ditch, another 1.5 m of topsoil and colluvium was stripped. At this point, over the berm between outer ditch and bank, the colluvium appears to be at least 0.4 m deep, confirming the observation to the north-east of the henge last year. After tidying up the soil scattered by the machine around the top of the trench, we left it until Friday (there is little point in cleaning up inside the trench, as more soil will have fallen in by then). I left around 10.15, while Tony, Nigel and Jim began putting up the hazard fence around the trench as, although it’s in the middle of a field, we need to ensure that people don’t stumble into it in the dark.
The forecast for the weekend isn’t good: there is supposed to be a high risk of more snow on Thursday or Friday and temperatures are not due to get above around 5° all week. This is hardly what one expects for an early spring project, but it’s necessary for understanding the monument. I will be back to blogging on Friday, when we return to clean and record what has been exposed. I also hope that it will be possible to excavate the soil in the base of the ditch. If we are lucky, there may be a primary silt with organic remains in it.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Arlene Walker, Ashley Tierney, Chris Hobbs, Christl Squires, Emily Bloom, Frances Bourne, Frankie Saxton, Ivor Davies, Jane Williams, Keeley Hale, Liz Hart, Lyall Watson, Martin Jupp, Matt, Nigel Harper-Scott, Rachel Mills, Susan Richmond, Tony Driscoll, Zoë Uí Coileáin
Weather: sunny, dry, occasional wisps of cloud and vapour trail, with dappled cloud developing throughout the morning
I was too busy yesterday to write more than a paragraph, for the blog, which was what I expected. Today, it’s likely to be much the same. We have very little to do to put the site to bed for this year: the ring ditch has been re-cleaned for a final photograph, I’ve taken a few general site photographs and shots of the sondages before they are covered. We have recovered some of last year’s geotextile, which is being laid over the sondages inside the henge, the posthole and the inner ditch. This will give these area additional protection beneath the main layer of geotextile that will be laid across the site later.
For once, there is no last minute panic. Most of the recording is up to date, there are no extra bits of excavation to do and the finds seem to be almost in order. Caoimhín is organising a bit of “section robbing” in the Roman ditch to recover ceramics. All that remains to be done on site is to lay the geotextile and to cover it with soil, while I need to transport the soil samples to the store (my intentions to do this every week have unfortunately come to nothing).
Everything was complete and we were off site around 2.45 pm.
Posted from WordPress for PlayBook
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Amelia Weatherill, Amy Saunders, Arlene Walker, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, David Sims, Eden Walker, Emily Bloom, Frances Bourne, Frankie Saxton, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner, Jane Males, Jane Williams, Jon Goodwyn, Julie Martin, Keeley Hale, Liz Hart, Lyall Watson, Molly Barron, Nigel Harper-Scott, Pauline Gimson, Rachel Mills, Susan Richmond, Tony Driscoll, Zoë Uí Coileáin
Weather: sunny, hot (22° at 9.30!) and only a light breeze
We have a good turnout today, which means that we will be doing more excavating than I had anticipated. The final recording is taking place in the Roman ditch, allowing everyone else (apart from Jon, who is on the ring ditch) to work on the henge. As well as the inner ditch and the sondage, a team is working on (199), the topsoil-like material over much of the southern part of the henge.
Posted from WordPress for PlayBook
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Arlene Walker, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Eden Walker, Frankie Saxton, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner, Jim Skipper, Jon Goodwyn, Keeley Hale, Liz Hart, Lyall Watson, Nigel Harper-Scott, Pauline Gimson, Susan Richmond, Tony Driscoll
Weather: cloudy and very windy, cool; the cloud became more broken by lunchtime, with more frequent sunny spells and a warmer breeze
After today, we will have the disruption caused by the Open Day and, on Sunday, the task of putting the site to bed until next summer. This means that we will have to finish today the excavation and recording of everything that we won’t be returning to next year. Fortunately, there is not a vast amount left to do. Unfortunately, we have severely depleted numbers today. This attrition of numbers seems to happen on just about any excavation, even though the last few days are always the most exciting. Curious…
Tony is finishing recording the section of the central part of the western branch of the Roman enclosure ditch, while Keeley and Liz are excavating the bottom deposit in the westernmost section of the same branch. Lyall and Ivor are cleaning their section of the eastern branch of the ditch record for final recording (photograph, plan and section), while Bernie and Ashley have one (I hope!) last deposit to remove from the terminal on that branch and they will be ready for recording. Rachel is recording the south-east facing section of the sondage over the outer ditch at the northern corner of the site. This is all achievable today.
The weather is appallingly windy and it’s a cold wind. I am sitting writing in a parka: it’s not right for mid August! At least it’s not raining.
Progress is good today, despite the poor turnout. Keeley and Liz have just about finished their section, which will be ready for recording by lunchtime, while Ivor and Lyall are starting to record their section. The final deposit in the terminal, (268), is being excavated and, being so far devoid of finds, is coming up quickly. It’s always amazing what can be achieved by putting a bit of pressure on the team.
I’m currently reading Inside the Neolithic Mind: consciousness, cosmos and the realm of the gods by South African archaeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce. They argue, rather contentiously, that Neolithic belief systems involved a “consciousness contract” by which altered states of consciousness were integrated into social norms of understanding (and it is the idea of artificially induced altered states that makes their hypothesis contentious). They view henges as microcosms of the cosmos, not just of landscapes as I was speculating yesterday (although they point out Julian Thomas’s observation that most henges are surrounded by “mountains” (I think it would be more sensible from an English perspective to use the term “hills”!)).
One of the criticisms of their book, by Chris Scarre, writing a review in Antiquity, is that they do not make enough of the abstract symbols widely used on the pottery found in Neolithic contexts. I was particularly struck by the zigzag lines on the “complete” pot deposited in the centre of the henge, as I thought at the time that it resembled some of their neurological data about altered perception and drug induced visions. I do wonder if there is any data about ecstatic visions, such as those experienced by Sufi dancers; that seems a more appropriate analogy for the types of activities I imagine to have taken place on this site.
Yet another different profile of the Roman ditch has been revealed by Keeley and Liz: where the ditch enters the baulk, it has a definitely V-shaped section. This contrasts with the rounded base seen in most other sections of the ditch or the apparently vertical sides and flat base at the western terminal. Yet again, this higlights the importance of digging more than one section through the ditch. We can now write off the (unexpected) Romano-British aspects of the site; this is something that I could probably get written up and published fairly quickly.
Tomorrow’s Open Day may be disruptive of the work on site, but it is an essential part of the outreach work that is one of the raisons d’être of Norton Community Archaeology Group. It is one of the Group’s best ways of communicating its aims, methods and discoveries to a wider audience than its membership alone. There is something so much more satisfying about seeing a site and learning about its history on the ground than just reading about it on a blog or attending lectures about it. This is especially the case where the landscape is so important to understanding the monument.
We had a visit by members of the East Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, during which Caoimhín discovered that all sections of the Roman ditch other than Keeley and Liz’s have been under dug. All the sections were V-shaped originally but the lowest fills consist of completely cemented chalk. They are archaeologically sterile and need vigorous hacking to shift, which has actually bent the tips of two of Caoimhín’s trowels. This is a pain to discover on the last proper day of excavation. At least we have one fully excavated section (and, as it’s the one against the baulk, it provides the section drawing I intended to publish, which is convenient). It’s too late now to do anything about the other sections, but at least we know.
Posted from WordPress for PlayBook
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Ann Pegrum, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Connie Andrews, Eleanor Betts, Frankie Saxton, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner, Jean Andrews, Jon Goodwyn, Liz Hart, Lyall Watson, Nigel Harper-Scott, Pauline Gimson, Rachel Mills, Sara Butler, Shona Nash, Steve Warner (from 12.30), Susan Richmond, Tony Driscoll
Weather: cloudy (some grey) with occasional sunny spells; stiff and near constant breeze
Today feels very quiet as we have fewer people on site. The Roman ditch sections are slowly nearing completion, the sondage close to the centre of the henge is coming down on to new material (as well as confirming that (94) overlies (88)), while a second sondage is being excavated through the postulated entrance to the monument. This new sondage covers a former ploughsoil, (199), that contains what appears to be chalk from the henge bank, sealing a less thoroughly disturbed henge bank, material evidently spilling through the entrance to the monument and undisturbed bank material. While not as complex stratigraphically as the sondage in the centre, it nevertheless gives us a complete sequence from construction through to destruction. We may even get that sequence this year!
There is a team from the Letchworth Garden City Heritage Foundation filming a promotional video of the site to illustrate the community grants it awards to local causes. They are setting up over lunch to begin shooting during the afternoon.
Work is progressing smoothly, if slowly. There have been no unexpected discoveries and, since the human burial of last week, no nasty surprises. Nigel did find a Roman coin (Tetricus I, AD 271-4) on the site, but we have had a number of them over the years and now understand something about their context.
The Roman ditch section that has consistently been the most intractable of understanding (the section being dug where the alignment changes to avoid the barrow) is finally beginning to make sense. Having reached the base, it’s become apparent that the south-western edge has either been underdug or that there is a single fill uniquely surviving a recut that removed the rest of it; I think that the former is more likely, as there is a very visible (but quite different) recut that can be seen particularly clearly in the north-east facing section.
There is a slight sense of winding down. It may be because there are fewer people on site, because the Roman ditch is almost finished or because we really are coming to the end of the season, although I don’t actually think that it is for the last reason. While the end of this year’s work is now in sight, we know that we will be back next year to resume exactly where we will be leaving off on Sunday. We haven’t been in this position before: working to a two-year project design has allowed me to take a longer term view of what we are doing and what needs to be done. Full excavation of the henge has never been an option as it is neither desirable (we need to leave elements for others to examine in the future) nor feasible (it would take decades!). Now that I have seen the site in plan, it makes it so much easier for me to make decisions about areas to target.
One of the things that I find most intrguing about the site it its landscape context. We know a fair amount about neighbouring monuments, both contemporary and of other dates, which help to frame the henge in an historical setting. There is also the topography of the Baldock Bowl, which is mirrored in the layout of the henge: was this something that its builders and users were aware of, or is it just me imposing an over-analytical postmodern mind onto it? I am sure that the Late Neolithic people of the area were perfectly aware of the shape of where they lived, but did they really conceptualise the henge as a microcosm of their world? This will be an interesting line of research to pursue.
Posted from WordPress for PlayBook
Followers of the blog and any interested parties are invited to our Open Day in Stapleton’s Field (between Church Lane, Norton, Letchworth Garden City, and the A1 motorway) this Saturday (18 August). There will be illustrated displays about the work of Norton Community Archaeology Group and its discoveries, as well as a guided tour of the site. The event begins at 2 pm.
Posted from WordPress for PlayBook