The end of the third week and we’ve already achieved a lot
Sunday 14 August 2011
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Chris Hobbs, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, James Nauful-Power, Helen Gillespie, Karen Price, Sarah Saxe, Keeley Hale, Philip Dean, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, MJ Burgener, Siân O’Neill, Nick Smith, Martin Jupp, Sophia Brookes, Elizabeth Brookes, Lorna Holding, Carla Piper
Weather: overcast, dry, occasional sunshine, warm; becoming cooler during the afternoon
We have another reasonable turnout today. Caoimhín has set Martin and Nick to cutting back the spoilheap at the east end of Trench I as it had begun to slump towards the trench, leaving only a narrow walkway. To avoid the risk of people falling into the trench, it needs shifting. This is one of the disadvantages of using a small mechanical excavator to strip the topsoil: it can’t reach far enough with its arm to dump the spoil a long way from the trench edge. While this is okay with commercial archaeology, where trenches might remain open for only a few days, on a research excavation where they will remain open for weeks, they pose a greater potential danger.
Excavation of the site is going well and (35) has almost completely gone. We have established a sequence of activity based partly on stratigraphy and partly on artefact types that puts the construction and use of the monument between about 3000 and 2400 Cal BC, possibly slightly earlier. The first phase consists of a circular ditch around 55 m in diameter externally, the ditch about 3 or 4 m wide. There is a hint that on the east side, the ditch is either shallower or does not exist. Inside, there is a berm of about 6 m in width before the bank. The bank is not perfectly circular, although this may be a result of later alterations. The bank is about 30 m in diameter externally, with a break to the east. This lines up with the Ivel Springs and the equinoctial sunrise. Inside the monument, there are areas of burning and deposits of animal bone and flint. Eventually, the outer ditch is no longer cleaned and allowed to silt up. This occurs at a time when Grimston/Lyles Hill Ware and Impressed Ware are still in use. Significantly, there is no Grimston/Lyles Hill Ware and almost no Impressed Ware in these deposits; rather, there is Grooved Ware, albeit in small quantities. Probably around the same time, a penannular ditch is dug into the inside of the bank, partly through the chalk of the bank and partly though the deposits in the centre of the monument. It seems likely (based on what I can see at the moment) that this is the period when the post is erected in the centre and, presumably the other possible posts inserted, although this could conceivably be part of a third phase of activity.
In processing finds from (35), there are fragments of shell-tempered ware that I would regard as Late Iron Age or even Romano-British if they had been found elsewhere; their association with definitely Neolithic material is puzzling (unless I have completely misidentified the material I have been calling Grimston/Lyles Hill Ware and it is an Iron Age form). Neverthelessn there is a sherd of a shell-tempered fabric that in all other respects looks definitely Neolithic. Is there a south-east Midlands Neolithic shell-tempered tradition with which I’m not familiar? It’s looking decidedly possible; I will need to search through reports on Neolithic sites in Bedfordshire…
The prehistoric landscape of this area is quite amazing: we have a largely complete sequence in the “Baldock Bowl” (if I may coin a term) from the fourth millennium BC to the Roman conquest. It begins with the rather narrow cursus at Nortonbury, which is aligned on the Ivel Springs to the south and vanishes as it passes Nortonbury Farm; although not well dated (the dating evidence is that one of its ditches is overlain by a deposit containing Grooved Ware, so we could proftiably open a new section across it), it suggests that the springs already formed a focus for ritual activity in the fourth millennium BC. The next things in the landscape appear to be the formative henge, the D-shaped enclosure at Blackhorse Road and the shafts that seem to be associated with it. The radiocarbon dates from the shafts are more recent than I would expect from the ceramic assemblage (Impressed Ware, Grooved Ware and Beaker), so I need to check which shafts the radiocarbon dates derive from and precisely which ceramics they contained. The D-shaped enclosure is defined by a palisade trench, which is a Neolithic tradition. I’m wondering if there is any bone or carbonised wood from it that we might be able to date. The conversion of the formative henge into a classic type overlaps with the use of shafts at Blackhorse Road (although, so far, we have no Beaker material from the henge) and perhaps also with the development of a barrow cemetery around the henge. During the Middle to Late Bronze Age, we begin to shift focus away from this part of the “Baldock Bowl” to an area not yet identified, although the Late Bronze Age pond found last year at Cade Close suggests that it was not far away. We then have Iron Age occupation at Blackhorse Road that may span the entire period. By the second century BC, the development of the oppidum at Baldock created a new focus in the bottom of the hollow.
I did a quick Google search at lunchtime for shell-tempered Neolithic pottery and it turns out that there is some from Windmill Hill. Although this is Middle Neolithic in date and from Wiltshire, it shows that the technology was available. It’s therefore possible that we do have a Neolithic shell-tempered tradition. On the other hand, some of the rim forms that have turned up towards the western end of the base of (35) look rather Late Iron Age to me (although I have to confess to a lack of familiarity with Neolithic rim forms).
Even though (35) has been almost completely excavated away and (59) beneath it exposed, it’s still impossible to see the edges of the outer ditch. We’re not far from the level of the surface of the chalk, so most of what we can see must be within the ditch.
I have been working on next week’s priorities, which are, as ever, fairly predictable:
- clearly define the limits of (59) and excavate a section through the outer ditch;
- complete the excavation of the inner ditch;
- excavate the central posthole;
- complete the cleaning and planning of the central section of the henge
- define the inner ditch around the crossing of Trenches I and IV;
- predictably enough, establish the value of the TBM.
A large potsherd has been found in the upper levels of the central posthole that appears to be Grooved Ware or an Early Bronze Age fabric. This is exactly the sort of date I was hoping for and suggests that its insertion was roughly contemporary with the creation of the inner ditch.
We appear to have had further lucky escapes with the weather: there have been dark grey clouds pass to both the north and the south of us. Some of them were clearly shedding rain and I have felt the odd spot. We could certainly do with more rain, preferably only light while we’re digging, heavier overnight.
This is proving to be a truly wonderful excavation. The archaeology is exceeding all my expectations, with many more finds than I could have imagined, while the atmosphere on site is so much better than in previous years. The team is happier, working better together and achieving more than ever before. We have a site that seems to be of considerable local importance and perhaps even of wider significance.
In consultation with Christl, a decision has been made that no more washing of finds will be done on site. This removes any danger of things being put away damp or blowing away in the wind. It also means that finds staff will be engaged purely in logging material as it comes off site.