Friday 2 August: a contrast in the weather

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Jim Skipper, Andrew Rylah, David Croft, Ivor Davies, Kit Carstairs, Paul Browne, Paul Eland, Steve Foulds, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll, Ursula Scott

Weather: overcast, threatening rain, light cooling breeze otherwise warm; during lunch, there were sunny spells during which the temperature rose to 26° C and during the afternoon, the cloud began to break up into clumps of cumulus

What a contrast from yesterday! There is no danger that we might overheat today and the fact that we’ve already had a slight shower has made digging easier. The cloud cover also produces a flatter light that makes it easier to see things on site: I think that I can see a new deposit appearing in the outer ditch, beneath (291) and in the eastern arm of the L-shaped section through the henge, beneath (207).

Everything is continuing to run very smoothly and I feel almost like a spare part at times. My principal function is to make strategic decisions; next year, when I won’t be available to direct a summer excavation for the Group—I’ll be too occupied with the new museum—I am confident that there are people who will be quite capable of making these sorts of decisions. My other main purpose seems to be to worry about the nature of the site: even though I know that it is a henge, I still have odd moments of thinking to myself “What if it really is a round barrow?”. These are just silly neuroses: the only burial in the monument is late in its development, whereas in a barrow, the burial is deposited first, while we have a ditch dug through deposits in the centre and through the chalk bank.

A series of worm casts has appeared just inside the bank on the south-eastern side of the monument. They all appear to be in fills of the inner ditch and stop just by the gap in the chalk that marks the entrance to the henge. There are no worm casts anywhere else on the site. Clever worms…

The only material coming from (291) in outer ditch section [289] now is clearly prehistoric: hand made and somewhat coarse pottery that is unfortunately quite undiagnostic. I can’t recognise it as Peterborough Type Ware, Grooved Ware, Beaker, Collared Urn or any of the definite types that we have excavated from the henge. I wonder if it is a generic domestic pottery or if it belongs to the later Bronze Age (I am not familiar with local later Bronze Age pottery types), although it would be the first later Bronze Age material from the site, so this seems a less likely explanation.

I am wondering if (207) is a deliberately laid deposit in the entrance: it does not extend further into the henge than the gap in the inner ditch. It struck me yesterday that there is nothing else like it elsewhere on site, so my initial assumption that it formed from rubble that had fallen from the bank now appears to be unlikely. Could it be that it was deposited as a white surface to match the bank? It would not have been a comfortable surface to walk on, but if it were purely for appearance, perhaps people were prepared to put up with it; it is also possible, I suppose, that any finer chalk laid on top as a proper surface could well have vanished, falling into worm burrows or being worn away.

Although it is 21° C, I am wearing a coat because I feel cold. This is ridiculous: in any other summer, we’d be celebrating temperatures in the 20s! We had a few spots of rain after morning teabreak, but the weather has otherwise been dry despite the forecasts.

Ursula and Paul E are removing the fills of a plough rut before examining the structure of the bank. It particularly affects the more solid chalk, (213), and is more diffuse as it passes through (200), the looser material. I am concerned that we remove this fill before dealing with the bank deposits, as I do not wish to risk contamination. Material incorporated into the bank (if there is any) will be crucial to trying to date the construction of the henge, as will datable material from the soil beneath it. As excavation begins on (200), its relationship with (213) is unclear in this spit, although it appears to overlie it elsewhere on site.

There are still very few finds coming up today: the main clusters have been in the plough rut fill (308) and the inner ditch fills (still being removed as (197)). There is material, including prehistoric pottery and lithic débitage, in (291), in the outer ditch [289], but almost nothing in (207). This is curious, as it is accepted wisdom that the entrances of henges are where the most interesting things happen. Of course, accepted wisdom can be utterly wrong and I’m more than happy to ignore it when it is.

The Rain Alarm application on my ’phone (which shows a radar view of rain across much of northern Europe) is now indicating that we have escaped the likelihood of rain. There appear to have been (and continue to be) showers, some of which are heavy, not far to the east of us, as close as this side of Royston. We have been lucky.

Immediately after lunch, Andrew found a rather nice leaf-shaped arrowhead in (291). This is one of very few lithic artefacts to have been found on site and is of Early Neolithic date (c 4000-3400 BC); they are sometimes referred to as foliate points on the grounds that we can’t be certain that they were always used as arrowheads. The fact that it was found in ditch section [289] in an undamaged state suggests that it is in its primary context of deposition (in other words, not residual) and, more importantly, that the construction and filling of the outer ditch is earlier rather than later in the Neolithic. This is very significant as dating evidence; it makes me wonder if the pottery I don’t recognise is in fact a local Early to Middle Neolithic tradition.

Where Paul E and Ursula were beginning to remove what appeared to be the looser bank material, (200), soon resolved itself in the north-eastern corner of their section into what appears to be a fill of the inner ditch. This means that the material in the south-western corner is not actually (200) but material spread from it over the outer ditch, a phenomenon seen in section by cut [81] in the narrow trenches of 2010 and 2011. Its extent to the north-west is obscured by the remaining patch of (199). It has been assigned number (312).

Elsewhere on site, Ivor and Steve have planned a new deposit that was showing up yesterday, (310), which appears to lie beneath (119) and overlie (207). Most of the extent of this deposit lies outside the L-shaped section, unfortunately, but it is nevertheless clearly one of the deposits in the entrance to the henge. and extends northwards towards the remains of the bank. Kit and Tom are making progress on the inner ditch, although it is proving quite difficult to resolve the difference between (197) and a somewhat more chalky deposit that shows up only where Kit is working.

And another artefact puts in an appearance! In cleaning off (197), Tom has found a broken end scraper on a broad blade. It’s quite badly damaged except at the working end (it has evidently snapped during use) and I am less certain that it is in its primary context of deposition, as we know the inner ditch fills to be Late Neolithic in date and I am not convinced that we should expect scrapers on blades after the Middle Neolithic (if you know otherwise, do let me know!).

Ursula and Paul E have confirmed that the looser chalk (200) does indeed overlie (213): more evidence that this cannot be a burial mound, as mounds are built from the centre outwards, not the outside inwards. It also overlies what is either a fill of the inner ditch (unlikely) or a pre-henge topsoil. As this is the material visible under the plough rut fill (308), I am inclined to prefer the latter option.

It’s a pity that we have been rather short of people today: it has meant that we have been unable to make progress with the site plan. Progress today has been steady rather than spectacular, as we are fairly low on numbers, and I had been worrying that we wouldn’t achieve everything I had hoped from this season’s work (apart from a hand dug section across the outer ditch, which has been the priority since we started this year). Next week, we will have more people on site than this week, so we will no doubt make much better progress. We have actually made significant discoveries today without shifting a great deal of soil!

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About Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

I'm the Archaeology Officer for North Hertfordshire District Council Museum Service. I was born and brought up in Letchworth Garden City, so I have a life-long connection with the area.

Posted on 2 August 2013, in Fieldwork, Stapleton's Field Dig 2013. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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