Category Archives: Stapleton’s Field Dig 2012

An interim report for the henge

A small collared urn from the final phase of activity on the henge

A small collared urn from the final phase of activity on the henge

An interim report has just appeared in the CBA East Newsletter for September 2013, which can be found on pages 6 to 8. It is up-to-date as far as Easter 2013, but doesn’t include any of the exciting details revealed this summer. When I have an interim report ready covering all four seasons’ work, I will post it here.

In the meantime, enjoy the image of the small collared urn found in 2012. Although the interim refers to it as “complete”, the conservator discovered that it is in fact only half of the vessel. Unusually for a collared urn, it did not contain any cremated bone and was not an accessory vessel within a burial. Collared urns are usually associated with the Early Bronze Age, but there are a few with radiocarbon dates stretching back as far as 2500 BC, such as this example from Wilton Moor, Kirkleatham (North Yorkshire). Given the complete lack of diagnostic Early Bronze Age lithics and the rarity of Beaker pottery (I have seen only a couple of sherds, although there are probably more than that) from the Stapleton’s Field henge, we can perhaps suggest that this is a Late Neolithic example of the type.

Norton Community Archaeology Group has been using the name Stapleton’s Field to refer to the site for some years now. When the group was first founded in 2007, we referred to it as “Top Field”, but by 2009 the late Deborah Giles had found out that this was not the correct name and we began to use the present name. We had always known that the name Stapleton was that of a twentieth-century tenant farmer and there seemed to be no information about any earlier name this parcel of land might have had. During the Open Day on 25 August 2013, though, I met Mr Stapleton’s daughter-in-law who told me that, although he would have been flattered to think that we were calling the field after him, its correct name is Hundred Acre Field. So there you have it: both the names we have been using for the past six years are wrong! It’s going to be very difficult to think of the site in the future as the Hundred Acre Field henge…

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Final day of the season: Sunday 19 August 2012

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.

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Open day on site: Saturday 18 August 2012

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.

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The last day of uninterrupted digging this season: Friday 17 August 2012

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.

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Thursday 16 August 2012

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.

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Open Day on site, Saturday 18 August at 2 pm

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.

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The start of the final week: Wednesday 15 August 2012

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Amy Saunders, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Christl Squires, David Croft, Frankie Saxton, Hazel Alford, Ivor Davies, Izzy Gray, Jan Turner, Jean Andrews, Jim Skipper, Jon Goodwyn, Julie Martin, Liz Hart, Lyall Watson, Mick James, Miriam Foster, Molly Barron, Muriel James, Nigel Harper-Scott, Rachel Mills, Shona Nash, Steve Warner, Susan Richmond, Tonh Driscoll, Ursula Scott

Weather: overcast, dry and windy; rain predicted from late morning on

It’s very windy today, which is making anything to do with paperwork extremely difficult. The forecast is also for heavy rain showers (a 90% chance of between 15 and 25 mm per hour from 11 to 4 o’clock), although there is no sign of rain clouds at the moment.

Jon has started work on a 3 by 1 m slot in the centre of the henge, including part of (94) and its relationship with the chalk platform (88). This ought to give us a good idea of the survival of deposits inside the monument, as it is in the area where deposits seem to be highest and presumably thickest.

On Monday, I had a look for parallels for the “complete” pot and found that there is a very similar Collared Urn from Ayrshire. This is much later in date than I had expected and the fabric seems too fine to be collared urn. It did not contain cremated bone, nor was there any in the pit that held it, which I would expect from a Collared Urn. I wonder if it’s something transitional between Grooved Ware, Beaker and Collared Urn types.

The Roman enclosure ditch really needs to be finished as soon as possible this week. The terminal of the eastern branch is being drawn (plan and section) and will be completed today; the other sections will take rather longer, as all of them still contain at least one unexcavated deposit.

Mick and Muriel are finishing the section drawing of the ring ditch that Greg started on Sunday. We ought to have this element of the site completed by the end of the day, too. The complexity of the depositional sequence makes it very useful that the people who excavated most of it are now recording it in section.

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Another sunny day: Friday 10 August 2012

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Aimee Crossland, Arlene Walker, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Claire Halley, Eden Walker, Frankie Saxton, Hannah Blannin, Isobel Simmons, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner, Jim Skipper, John Byrne-Nash, Jon Goodwyn, Keeley Hale, Kit Carstairs, Miriam Fraser, Nigel Harper-Scott, Norman Norrington, Philip Dean, Priscilla Simmons, Rachael Mills, Shona Nash, Sid Rowe, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland, William Hurry

Weather: sunny (indeed, cloudless), dry and hot (20° at 10 o’clock and getting steadily warmer); clouding over slightly during the morning (around 15% cloud by midday)

Another day where digging will be difficult because of the heat and the dryness. The site is difficult to trowel and I am concerned about the effects of the sun (sunburn and dehydration to name but two). I am still waiting to hear from the Ministry of Justice about the exhumation licence, so we can’t begin work on excavating the cremation burial. Caoimhín noticed that someone had moved the soil-filled bag covering it while we were off site; I hope that it wasn’t someone who was on site yesterday coming back for a sneaky peep at it, as I made it quite clear that everyone is to treat the human remains with respect and not as something to gawp at.

There has been some over-digging in the central section of the outer enclosure ditch, which I ought to have picked up earlier. The section shows that three separate deposits have been taken out as one, creating a pseudo-recut in the ditch: it is clear that what was taken out as the fill of the recut consisted of parts of three deposits that occupied the full width of the cut. Having the three-dimensional finds data means that we will be able to assign them to their correct deposits during post-excavation.

Tony is cleaning around the chalk “platform” in the centre of the site. It is clearly associated with burning and its surface also looks burnt. I wonder if it may have been the site of the pyre on which the cremation of the child took place. Unfortunately, we have lost the ground surface from which the burial was dug, so we can’t connect the two stratigraphically; if we can get radiocarbon dates, this may enable us to determine whether or not they are contemporary.

The henge is now completely surveyed, so we have an accurate, georeferenced plan of the monument. I will need to do a rapid walkover to assess the stratigraphic relationships of the various deposits and features to each other. In most cases, I think that it the relationships are fairly obvious, at least at a basic level. We then need to ensure that each context sheet is completed. That done, we will be able to excavate any element of the monument we choose (at last!).

There are certain priorities within the henge. I want to assess a sample of (199), the material that appears to consist of plouged-out henge bank chalk in a ploughsoil matrix. This could give us a date for the ploughing down of the banks or, at least, a terminus post quem for the last ploughing to damage them. If the ploughing began in the early medieval period, though, I doubt that we will be able to date from artefacts.

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The start of week 5: Wednesday 8 August 2010

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Aimee Crossland, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Christl Squires, Claire Halley, Frankie Saxton, Hannah Blannin, Hazel Alford, Isobel Simmons, Ivor Davies, Izzy Gray, Jean Andrews, Jim Skipper, John Byrne-Nash, Jon Goodwyn, Kit Carstairs, Nigel Harper-Scott, Philip Dean, Priscilla Simmons, Shone Nash, Sid Rowe, Steve Warner, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland, William Hurry

Weather: overcast, occasional very light drizzle first thing

We are starting with teams working on all five sections of the outer enclosure. In the terminal of the western ditch, there appears to be very little left to remove and I hope that it will be finished today. Frankie is continuing with the special deposit inside the henge, while Jon is finishing the cleaning of the inner ditch section, ready to start work on its excavation, and Philip is cleaning out the posthole section excavated last year. The principal outstanding task is the Total Station survey of contexts within the henge: this needs to be done before any other survey work is permitted.

At the base of deposit (172), Frankie has located two fragments of what appears to be fused soil of some sort, similar to an industrial residue. It clearly is not industrial in nature and I assume that it derives from some sort of burning and formed in a similar way to “cremation slag”. Given that there is plentiful evidence for burning in the deposit(s) through which this small pit was cut, it is not too surprising to find something of the nature; however, it does suggest that the burning was intense.

Planning is going to take some time. There are 27 contexts to be surveyed, of which 20 or so are new. Of the others, it is not always possible to match them up with context numbers assigned in 2010 and 2011. Progress has been slow: by lunchtime, I had been able to survey just seven.

It is becoming very warm. Despite the rain over the past few days and the drizzle first thing, the ground is horribly dry. In the outer enclosure ditch, the clayey fills are stiff and cracking, while the more sandy deposits in the sondage are simply hard. We really can’t win with the weather!

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End of the fourth week: Sunday 5 August 2012

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Caoimhín Ó Coileáin, Aimee Crossland, Amelia Weatherill, Ashley Tierney, Chris Hobbs, Christl Squires, Dorien de Vries, Emma Winter, Frances Bourne, Frankie Saxton, Graham Faint, Alex Faint, Isobel Simmons, Ivor Davies, Jacky Winter, James Reid, Jan Turner, Jane Males, Jane Williams, Jeremy Disley, John Byrne-Nash, Keeley Hale, Martin Jupp, Mel Moore, Natasha Males, Nigel Harper-Scott, Philip Dean, Priscilla Simmons, Tony Driscoll, Tom Westrope, Victoria Crawford

Weather: overcast, very occasional sunny spells, a few spots of rain, with obviously heavy rain to the south

We have opened up a fifth section across the outer enclosure ditch, where it bends more to the south. All of the sections are producing significant quantities of Roman tile, which suggests that there were several sizeable buildings immediately uphill from it. I imagine them to have been workshops (perhaps including a forge) and warehouses. There is a badly weathered but substantial posthole inside the entrance which is in the right place for a gatepost; it lines up with a series of what appear to be stakeholes from a fence line. We seem to have a real industrial complex here, albeit one for which virtually all the structural evidence has gone.

Work has resumed on the sondage, including a new 1 m wide section against the edge of the trench. This starts in colluvial deposit (153), which is beneath the upper colluvium, (21). It is also producing Roman material, showing that the outer ditch was completely silted by the Roman period.

The “complete” vessel, <5750> ,in special deposit (172) was completely removed yesterday and Frankie is trying to define and empty the feature in which it was placed. There are hints that it was supported by flint packing around the base in a cut that was barely bigger than the pot. The vessel itself seems to have been broken by compression rather than ploughing; this evidently happened in antiquity and I wonder if someone simply stepped on top of the backfilled feature before the fill had consolidated around the pot.

We have been very lucky with the weather so far today (and saying this is usually a signal for it to change for the worse): although there is an 80% chance of rain, it has all passed either side of us. At the start of the project, we had experienced weeks of much higher than average rainfall, with no sign of an end to the pattern, and I was afraid that we would only be able to be on site for three days a week at most. Fortunately, I’ve been proved wrong.

On Wednesday, we need to get the henge fully planned as a matter of urgency: no finds can be dealt with until the plan has been surveyed. This should mean very limited digging. The thing that is holding us back more than anything is the wind: we can’t get last year’s plans spread out to compare with the sketch of the site. One solution is to assign new context numbers and compare them later, but this seems a bit wasteful when we already did so for the section drawings at the end of last year’s season.

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