Category Archives: Stapleton’s Field Dig 2010

Last day in Stapleton’s Field

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Turner, Tony Driscoll, Philip Dean, Mick James, Lydia Howe, Mervyn Evans, Chris Hobbs, Greg Ford, Ernie Ford, Phil Thomas, Mark Perks, Christl Squires, Mary Wood, Lorna Holding

Weather: overcast, windy; downpours at lunch time

A rimsherd of Grooved Ware from inside the henge

The wind is proving a real pain today; everything is blowing around and the forecast suggests that it will only get worse. If we had sunshine, it would be warmer, but it feels more like October than August at the moment.

As it’s the last day on the henge site, there are different priorities from earlier in the week. The first is to locate the trenches accurately following our unhappy experience with the GPS. Chris Turner and Tony are using the EDM lent to us by The Heritage Network to get the locations. Next, we need some environmental samples from deposits within the henge bank and the organic deposit that seems to be inside it. Then the recording needs to be completed; a large number of context records have been left blank, with people assuming that others have already completed them.

Storm clouds approaching

Impending disaster looms on the northern horizon © Christl Squires

The wind is making finds processing impossible. There has been a bit of a disaster with a couple of trays overturning and scattering the finds that were drying. A flint was relocated, but two potsherds are missing. A small piece of sandstone was found that was thought to resemble one of the potsherds, but we can’t be certain that it is one of them.

Just as it got to lunchtime, there was a sudden downpour, lasting for just a couple of minutes but enough to soak everyone. It appeared to be clearing up over the next few minutes, but shortly before two o’clock, a fresh downpour started. This one went on and on without letup. After twenty minutes or so of this punishment, everyone was soaked to the skin, cold and thoroughly miserable. It would have been cruel to expect anyone to carry on, so reluctantly we abandoned the site.

There is clearly unfinished business: context records have been left unfilled, finds have been left in the ground and we were not able to check that everything that needed doing has actually been done. However, human welfare must come before the archaeology, no matter how important that archaeology might be.

We have nevertheless achieved the primary aim of the project: the characterisation of the geophysical anomalies and features visible on aerial photographs. The “double ring ditch” is clearly no such thing and “henge” seems the best explanation for what is going on. The enclosure to the north is Romano-British, as are the field ditches that are probably associated with it. The trackway remains undated, but the three-sided rectilinear enclosure surrounding the “henge” is medieval, the most unexpected discovery of the project.

Over the coming weeks, I will  be writing a summary report on the discoveries, which I will make available from this blog. The site is clearly of considerable significance both at a local level and at a more regional scale. Those of us involved in the project have been very lucky and privileged to work on a site of such potential importance.

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Open day and better weather

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Cbris Turner, Chris Hobbs, Pauline Gimson, William Peters, Tim Vickers, Ernie Ford, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Philip Dean, Greg Ford, Mark Perks, Lydia Howe, Mary Wood, Mick James, Muriel James (not digging), Phil Thomas (not digging)
Weather; sunny, light cloud, breezy

Having expressed doubts about the character of the “double ring ditch” yesterday and spending an evening becoming increasingly worried that it’s just an unfeasibly large burial mound, looking at the site this morning has removed my anxiety. This is not a burial mound: there are no turf stacks, the soil is too full of material culture to be just random dumping and the difficulties of the section can be explained if we are on the northern edge of the monument and we take twentieth-century ploughing into account. I’m back to believing that “henge” is the best explanation for what we can see.

We’re expecting a number of local dignitaries for the open afternoon. I understand that Oliver Heald MP will be coming, along with various councillors and Garden City Heritage Foundation people. The site has generated a lot of publicity, which is good for all the organisations involved, and I need to keep up the profile of the site over the coming months. I’ve mentioned to Chris Hobbs that I would very much like to publish an interim account in Hertfordshire Archaeology & History next year; there may be other vehicles for more popular publication.

Being on site enables a much greater understanding of the monument in its landscape setting. Across the valley in which the A1 motorway now runs, the Weston Hills are prominent with the henge site there on the skyline to the south-south-east of us, which can hardly be a coincidence. On the rise to the south-west, the contemporary settlement at Blackhorse Road would have been prominent at the time. The Ivel Springs occupy the hollow to our east but the river valley is completely hidden from view. The hills beyond give the real impression of a bowl with Baldock at its centre. All told, we have an enclosed landscape where there are no long distance views. Life here during the third millennium BC must have seemed pretty self-contained (dare I say secure to the point of being boring?).

Finally excavating on the “henge” site

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keeley Hale, Phil Thomas, Pauline Gimson, Tim Vickers, Chris Hobbs, Greg Ford, Clifford Marshall, Mark Perks, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Philip Dean, David Croft, Ursula Scott, Ernie Ford, Mervyn Evans, Christl Squires, Lydia Howe, Howard Webber, Ann Lake, Mary Wood, David Gimson, Christina Farley, Oscar Farley

Weather: cloudy and windy following 40 hours of rain

We have plenty of people today, so I’m making everyone work in Trench I. Trenches II and III are partly waterlogged, so we wouldn’t be able to do much in them anyway, but we do need to get some better (stratified) dating material from this trench. I’ve got Tim, Keeley, Tony and Nigel recording the sections, while just about everyone else is cleaning the tops of features in the “henge”. Chris and Pauline are doing proper excavation, examining the outer ditch, while Christl and Mary are working with the finds. At some point BBC Look East will be turning up, so I’m feeling just a little frantic.

I’m also a bit concerned about the status of the monument. After a week’s weathering, the south facing section could now be interpreted as a central turf stack with a layer of chalk, another layer of turf and a final, thicker layer of chalk on top. However, this would make a barrow 40 m in diameter with a 10 m wide ditch, which is quite improbable. It also then fails to explain the inner ditch, the number of finds and the appearance of the monument on the aerial photographs and geophysics. Still, we can’t entirely rule out a huge barrow.

Very bizarrely, the ditch belonging to the square enclosure is producing medieval material. It’s stratified well below the level of the plough, so it’s not intrusive, and the ditch is much too small to have been silting up over millennia. The outer ditch of the “henge” is also producing later material (mostly Romano-British, including a fourth-century coin), but given its size and presumed depth, it’s unsurprising that it was still silting two millennia or more after being dug.

The BBC reporter has turned up and so far isn’t really disrupting things as she’s talking to Chris Hobbs at the moment. The trench looks busy and has cleaned up beautifully. Depending on what they film, it could look really nice! Half an hour in and I have still not been interrupted, which suits me! Eventually, time became pressing (I needed to egt off to pick up the EDM that The Heritage Network has kindly agreed to lend me) and I did the interview in a bit more of a rush than I’d have liked. It goes out this evening (barring a sudden big story).

Recording individual finds in 3D is proving terribly time consuming, although it will be worth it in the long run. Because the outer ditch is so huge and was filling up over millennia, being able to see the positions of chronologically diagnostic objects through relatively undifferentiated fills will help us understand the processes of silting more thoroughly. Some of the finds are looking very interesting; we have what appears to be a fragment of a polished stone tool, a variety of pottery fabrics (all very Bronze Age looking with no sign of anything Neolithic like Peterborough type wares) and modern stuff only in modern features.

Today has been such a good day for digging (if a little windy) that it makes up very much for yesterday’s lack of progress. The damp soils are trowelling beautifully and differences are showing very clearly. I feel that we are making decent progress on the site, even if its interpretation still isn’t as certain as I’d like (although henge is the best hypothesis as it explains more of the observed features than any other).

Too wet to dig

On site: nobody

Weather: drizzle following very heavy overnight rain

We can’t dig today: Trench II is full of water at the lower (north-eastern) end while the others are so sticky that we would damage the archaeological deposits simply by walking on them. This is very unfortunate given the slowness of the project to date! Whatever the weather is like tomorrow, we will be on site, if only to record the sections across the henge!

The second week on site

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Nigel Harper-Scott, Greg Ford, Tony Driscoll, Mark Perks, Ernie Ford, Mervyn Evans, David Croft, Ursula Scott, William Peters, Clifford Marshall, Philip Dean, Sophia Brookes, Alice Brookes, Christl Squires, Howard Webber (to 12 pm), Mary Wood

Weather: overcast, turning to hazy sun, cool; light rain after lunch becoming heavier by mid afternoon

Still busy in Trench II

Half way through the excavation and we’re nowhere near where I’d hoped to be by this time. I’d intended that we’d have finished Trenches II and III by this stage but we haven’t even completed a single feature in either. Given the weather forecast, it’s unlikely that we’ll get any completed today (and tomorrow looks like a complete washout); but we absolutely do need to get some of the features in Trench I excavated otherwise the project has failed. I ought to have given up on sieving earlier; I ought to have made people dig more rapidly; I ought to have asked for more people… Nevertheless, we have demonstrated that there was never a mound at the centre of the “double ring ditch” and that we can be 90% confident that it actually is a henge, so I suppose that it’s a bit harsh to say that we risk failure.

After yesterday’s BBC Three Counties Radio interview, we’ve got Jack FM coming in this morning and BBC Look East on Friday. I gather that Three Counties Radio would like to do a follow-up on site tomorrow, but I believe that the weather is likely to be foul, so there may well be nothing happening here. But we do seem to be getting good publicity: hedges aren’t that common as monuments, so they arouse interest, especially in view of recent excavations at Stonehenge, Durrington Walls and Marden.

All the features in Trenches II and III are beginning to look thoroughly Romano-British. This probably means that we can stop 3D finds recording after lunch, which will speed up the excavation.

Excavating a Roman ditch in Trench II

By 2 o’clock it had started spitting with rain. While it remains light, we will continue digging as we are so far behind schedule that I don’t want to lose any more time than we have to. Should it start to pour (as seems inevitable), then we’ll have to call it a day.

The northern half of the site is beginning to look entirely Roman. We seem to have field boundaries in Trench III, towards the top of the slope and something more complex in Trench II. This could mean that the enclosure suggested by the geophysical anomalies is the site of a farmstead; earlier, I picked up some Roman pottery, including a sherd of amphora, from the field surface to the south of Trench II.

The location of the Romano-British site towards the head of a shallow valley facing north-east

By 3.15, the rain had become heavier so I decided to pack up. I’m worried about tomorrow’s weather as the forecast is awful.

The BBC discovers Norton!

I did an interview with BBC Three Counties radio this morning about our discoveries to date at Norton. They have put a nice news story up on the BBC’s website, which will be very useful publicity for the group. There is likely to be further media coverage, so watch this space!

End of the first week

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Greg Ford, Keeley Hale, Mark Perks, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ernie Ford, Mervyn Evans, Tony Driscoll, Sophia Brookes, Alice Brookes, Lorna Holding, Phil Thomas

Weather: sunny, occasional light cloud

There was rain overnight, which has softened the ground beautifully (and causing soil to stick to the soles of our boots). We no longer have the over-dry crust that has made excavation so difficult. However, the sun is really strong and there’s no shade, so the ground will dry out rapidly. I’ve also warned everyone to drink plenty of fluids, as there’s a real risk of dehydration.

We’re several people down on the numbers we should have. Chris is unwell and Mick isn’t coming in until next Saturday, but there are two others missing today and Neil has gone back home. It’s annoying when people don’t let me know that they can’t make it and with Mick not being here, I can’t get in touch with people who couldn’t be fitted in. It’s difficult to know what to do in these circumstances.

We’ve started to collect bulk samples as all the features under excavation are Roman or earlier in date, so we have less idea about the environments in which activity was taking place. This is especially important with the Bronze Age features, as there was only minimal environmental data from the Blackhorse Road excavations.

Where Phil has been excavating (5) in Trench II (one of the potential Bronze Age ditch fills, there has been a darker brown deposit appearing on the south-western edge of the cut. I originally thought it to be an underlying silt and was worried that it contains Romano-British pottery and an iron tack. However, it’s now looking much more like the fill of a plough rut that doesn’t extend across the width of the trench, so it’s now been assigned context (10). This means that (5) can still legitimately be regarded as Bronze Age.

Also, deposit (1) in Trench III has come down on to something rather looser that has a Bronze Age sherd inside it. Assuming that it’s not residual, perhaps we are really looking at Bronze Age ditches that only completely silted up in the first millennium AD. That would explain why the Roman material seems to have been concentrated towards the top of the deposit.

Unfortunately, the looser material turned out just to be a patch within (5) and more Roman material was found next to it. So we’re back to having a little bit of Romano-British agricultural landscape in Trench III. This is now matched by a Roman coin from deposit (3) in Trench II; it looks as if it’s House of Valentinian or House of Constantine. Either way, it’s fourth century.

Posted with WordPress for BlackBerry by Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews.

Excavating in earnest

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Nigel Harper-Scott, Phil Thomas, Greg Ford, Philip Dean, Tony Driscoll, Mark Perks, Christina Farley, Mervyn Evans, Ernie Ford, Oscar Farley, Sophia Brookes, Alice Brookes

Weather: overcast, gusty

I began by giving everyone a talking-to about site discipline, occasioned by what happened at the end of yesterday. The finds team were persuaded to pack up at 4.15, which led to problems when it came to putting away site finds. What I’ve said now is that no-one is allowed to leave site until everyone is ready to go; similarly, no-one can come on to site until everything has been unloaded from the van. This is how it’s always worked in the past. How soon they forget!

We’re continuing to excavate in Trench III; deposit (1) is the fill of the ditch crossing the trench, while (2) is the patch of topsoil left along the southern edge. Where part of (2) was removed yesterday, it looks as if there may be a second ditch running at right angles to the first, although more needs to be cleared before we can be certain. If the trench is where I wanted it to be (which would be remarkable, given the difficulties we had laying out the site!), then it ought to be a second ditch.

Trench II has been planned and levelling is almost complete, so we can get people digging as soon as they’re ready. I’ll be able to pull Mervyn and Oscar off sieving and put them to work in the trench. Chris suggests putting off levelling in Trench I until Wednesday as this will give us three groups to excavate Trench II, each working on a separate feature.

The forecast suggested that there might be a risk of a rain shower at lunchtime. The cloud is certainly getting thicker and it feels slightly fresher (it’s been very muggy so far), so we may well be in for a little rain. It would help the digging, which is very difficult as the soil is so clayey.

At 1.15, it eventually started to drizzle very lightly; not enough to prevent working and not enough to make the slightest difference to digging. Let’s hope we get a downpour overnight.

We now have two groups working in Trench II. Tony, Mervyn and Oscar are dealing with the probable ditch fill at the north-eastern end, while Phil and Greg are looking at another probable dtich fill toward the south-west. The dryness is making excavation difficult, at least where the exposed surface has developed a hard crust. I hope that as they get deeper, the soil will be damper.

We now have two definite ditches meeting at right angles in Trench III. Both have produced Romano-British pottery, so we can stop 3D recording and just excavate normally now. This will speed up dealing with them. However, in addition to the two sections across the individual ditches, we will also need to excavate a section across the junction to determine the relationship between them.

In Trench II, neither of the suspected ditch fills started so far is producing much material, in contrast to those in Trench III. This may mean that the features are prehistoric or it may mean that those in Trench III are closer to habitation. The number of finds in the Trench III features appears too high for them simply to be field ditches, so I assume that it’s on the edge of a Romano-British farmstead or something similar. As the features in Trench II appear from the geophysical results to be elements of a rectangular enclosure, they ought also to be close to habitation, yet are producing almost no finds, bar the occasional struck flint. This strongly suggests to me that they are prehistoric and roughly contemporary with the henge to the south.

We seem to be on the very edge of a weather system: there are dark clouds, heavy with rain, passing to our south, over Stevenage. Here, the clouds are lighter and more broken, with patches of blue sky. For the fourth year running, a miserbale August outside Norton is leaving us without rain!

Looking at the Roman features in Trench III, which have become defined as very narrow linear trenches, I was struck by a worrying thought: are they robbed-out foundation trenches? We’re not in a good location for a villa (towards the top of the slope in a valley facing north-north-east) and none of the finds suggests high status occupation), but a field barn or rural shrine remain distinctly possible. Although it’s not exactly what I was hoping for here, it would nevertheless be an interesting discovery. We need to find out what profile the features possess: vertical sides would mean foundation trenches, while sloping sides would indicate ditches.

Now the fun begins!

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Neil Hassall, Nigel Harper-Scott, Keeley Hale, Phil Thomas, Pauline Gimson, Greg Ford, Chris Hobbs, Clifford Marshall, Mark Perks, David Gimson, Ernie Ford, Mervyn Evans, Tony Driscoll, Sophia Brookes, Alice Brookes, Sid Rowe, Howard Webber, Helen Gillespie

Weather: overcast, breezy, becoming windy by lunchtime

We will be ready to start excavation later, perhaps as early as just before lunch in Trench III. We are also probably likely to get started on planning Trench I before the end of the day. I’n still unsure how we deal with a temporary bench mark as I was unable to find any wooden marker posts at Burymead earlier. I think a lunchtime trip to Bickerdike’s Garden Centre may be necessary.

My enthusiasm for the project seems to be rubbing off on the team. I get the feeling that people are more excited about what we might discover as a result of this season’s work than they were about the two Church Field sites. I think that with the 2008 and 2009 seasons, my increasing frustration over the lack of progress created a bit of a negative atmosphere, which I ought to have worked harder to suppress. We did have significant results from those projects, but I don’t think that their real potential will be apparent until we can add data from the documents. With a prehistoric site, though, we have all the available data here in the ground and there’s no waiting around for documents that may (or may not) add richness to the interpretation.

Looking at the sections of Trench I, it is clear that we have a very complex monument. Some of the complexity derives from ploughing in recent centuries, spreading the chalk of the bank, but much of it appears to be original. As I noted the other day, the inner ditch is cut into the back of the chalk bank, at least to the south-west, while the possible cremation now appears to be beneath the bank rather than in the fill of the outer ditch.

Trench I is now clean and photographed. Mervyn and David are beginning to sieve topsoil samples at 5 m intervals from the spoilheaps on the south side of the trench. They ought to make more interesting finds from this trench than they have from the others (Trench III seems to have been especially lacking in finds).

Excavation has started in Trench III. There’s a mixture of ceramics so far: some prehistoric but mostly Romano-British. From the ditch proper (from which a 1 m wide section is being excavated), there is Roman pottery and a couple of struck flints. It’s potentially early, although not necessarily as early as the Bronze Age.

Planning has been completed in Trench II and started in Trench I. As usual, there’s a bit of a hold-up while just one person draws and others have to wait around for space to become free. At least with three tenches, we can move people from place to place rather than leave them with nothing to do.

Cleaning the trenches

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Turner, Neil Hassall, Keeley Hale, Phil Thomas, Pauline Gimson, Greg Ford, Tony Driscoll, Mark Perks, Mervyn Evans, Mick James, Sid Rowe, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ernie Ford, Christl Squires, Howard Webber, Lorna Holding

Weather: sunny, light cloud, slight breeze; clouding over by lunchtime

The soil is much dryer today, despite overnight rain. We’ve begun cleaning inside Trenches II and III, initially by shovel-scraping. We ought to have both trenches being trowelled by morning teabreak, which could mean photography and planning during the afternoon and perhaps even excavation before the end of the day.

I want to get these two trenches knocked on the head as quickly as possible (and certainly by Sunday) so that we can concentrate maximum resources on Trench I next week. Trench I is looking extremely complex now. The inner ditch appears to be cut through the redeposited chalk of the bank, making it secondary to the development of the henge. Chris has pointed out that the possible cremation burial lies beneath redeposited chalk; he suggests that it predates (or is contemporary with the construction of the bank), although I wonder if it’s beneath material slumped or ploughed out from the bank. Time will tell. The area in the centre also appears to have more going on than is suggested by the aerial photographs or geophysics: I hesitate to use the term, but it looks like an occupation/activity deposit.

A view across the henge, looking north-east

A view across the henge, looking north-east

I talk a walk down the hill (south) from the probable henge site and found a scatter of nine pieces of Bronze Age looking débitage all within about five metres. I wonder if we have a flint processing site down there. The site is clearly very extensive and may ultimately link up with Blackhorse Road, which I have previously imagined to be a separate site entirely.

After lunch, I took a look at the pottery from Trench III, which Mervyn thought might be prehistoric. Unfortunately, it is Romano-British. Mick has sieved a piece of Roman flagon handle from topsoil over one of the ditches in Trench II and, quite coincidentally, Phil came up with another in Trench I. It’s possible, I suppose, that the enclosure and ditches in the northern part of the site belong to a Roman farmstead and have nothing to do with the Bronze Age site. I’m still inclined to view them as all contemporary, though, and to see the trackway and associated enclosures as specifically connected with the henge.

The possible field ditch in Trench III

The possible field ditch in Trench III

We need to establish temporary bench marks for the site. There’s nothing suitable in the field that we could use, so we are going to have to put in wooden posts to use as reference points. We will also need two separate TBMs, as the only place visible from all three trenches is too high to be usable for Trench I. It’s becoming more urgent now that we’re about to start excavating features that will produce finds (all of which will be recorded in three dimensions).

Towards the end of the day, Sid Rowe found a small copper alloy tag whilst sieving topsoil from the north-eastern end of Trench II. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but it looks very like a piece of Roman military equipment (something for tying a leather lace around as a fastening, perhaps).

A copper alloy tag from Trench II

A copper alloy tag from Trench II

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