Thursday 15 August: another busy day

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Frankie Saxton, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Emily Abrehart, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner, Judy Flack, Keeley Hale (pm only), Kit Carstairs, Laura Slack, Paul Browne, Paul Eland, Sara Gee, Sid Rowe, Steve Warner, Tony Driscoll, William Siddeley

Weather: overcast, gusty breeze but otherwise warm; heavy rain shower around 2.30 pm

We have another large team today, so work is continuing on all the areas we were targetting yesterday. Things are off to a good start: in the outer ditch section [289], Chris and William are working on (352?), which extends part of the way up the sides of the ditch; they have started removing these parts (which, in a couple of places, have unfortunately been left looking like steps) to find that the chalk edge of the ditch lies just a few millimetres below. In removing (293) on the outer edge of the bank, Ashley and Bernie have both fould lumps of daub, perhaps significantly close to the first structure. In the inner ditch, deposit (342), which overlies both its fills and the henge bank, has almost completely gone and it will be possible to return to excavating this section. Elsewhere, eveything is progressing well; Sid has found a piece of daub in the henge bank to the south, close to the second structure to be discovered.

Emma popped in to the site first thing, rather excited. She has got her A-Level grades and is off to the University of Reading to read Archaeology: congratulations! She was also pleased to have been named in the article in yesterday’s Advertiser as co-discoverer (with Kit) of the first of our Neolithic structures.

The sample buckets turned up… at the (former) First Garden City Heritage Museum! This was despite a postcode and street address that clearly refer to Letchworth Museum and despite the fact that the company has twice before delivered to the correct address. Oh well, at least we now have them.

The inner ditch section in the southern arm of the L-shaped section is getting sorted out. Deposit (342), the very late soil that covers the infilled ditch, was sealed by (358), the same loose chalk rubble as (196), recorded in 2012, that is clearly material derived from the henge bank. Whether it represents post-abandonment collapse or is a result of ploughing is currently impossible to say.

Chris has found the outer edge of the outer ditch and it’s almost vertical with a nearly flat base. This puts me very much in mind of the Stonehenge ditch and makes me realise that we under-dug the section, [288], dug at Easter: it is now evident that (286), which we wrote off as over-excavation by the machine into the natural was in fact an archaeological deposit.

We have a third structure, at the southern end of the L-shaped section, where Sid and Emily are digging. This feels a bit greedy! The first to be discovered is beginning to look more defined and I can persuade myself that I can see the whole thing. Each structure is beginning to look hexagonal (or similar) and only two or three metres in diameter. I am wondering if there was originally a complete ring of them, constructed where the henge bank was designed to be erected. They are puzzling and it will be interesting to find out if there is anything like it elsewhere.

Keeley has reached what appears to be pre-henge topsoil under deposit (355), which probably confirms that it is the same material as (207). This means that the entire centre of the henge was “paved” at some point (and it is clearly not a primary feature, as its deposition was later than the creation of the ash heap at the centre).

As we were packing up, Anne Teather and her husband, Andrew Chamberlain, turned up on site, after being delayed by motorway traffic. They seemed impressed by the site and its landscape.

I feel that everything is beginning to come together on the site. The story is not only coherent, it is also significant. We have a truly remarkable site that—this year, at least—has not failed to surprise and exceed our expectations. It really does feel like a privilege to be rediscovering this ancient place that was clearly of immense importance to uncounted people over many centuries.


Wednesday 14 August 2013: bigger team, new faces, week 5

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Frankie Saxton, Ashley Tierney, Bernie Matthews, Christl Squires, Claire Briginshaw, Emily Abrehart, Ivor Davies, Jan Turner Jean Andrews, John Baskerville, Judy Flack, Kit Carstairs, Laura Slack, Manuela Jimenez, Phil Dean, Rick Kelly, Sara Gee, Sid Rowe, Steve Warner, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland, William Siddeley

Weather: sunny, occasional light cloud becoming cloudier by noon, occasional very light breeze, warm (about 21° C at the start of work and occasionally peaking above 23° C, but cooling rapidly under cloud cover); a couple of spots of rain around 2 pm

We start the fifth week of the excavation with more people than we have had on site for a couple of weeks. This means that we can tackle areas that I have been putting off as less important in addition to putting six people onto the area where Ashley is removing the henge bank to define the shape and extent of the first of the structures to be discovered. The inner ditch is an issue, as there is no-one on site today who was here on Sunday, so there is no continuity between excavators whatsoever (which is an issue that affects other parts of the site, too). I am hopeful that the outer ditch can be finished today, although recording the new rubbly context that is showing up beneath the current fill, (337), will slow things up slightly.

I have printed out a list of stratigraphic relationships as understood at the end of excavation last year to make sure that the context sheets record these data. Frankie will be checking this list against the records, although this is not a priority. I also need to add in data collected this year, including new context numbers; it will also be useful to add interpretative data to the list.

I am happy that we will achieve my original aims for this summer’s project. What I am less certain about is the extent to which we will be able to elucidate some of the new questions that have arisen, such as the nature of the pre-henge structures and the purpose of the pit in the centre of the entrance.

The site has made the front page of this week’s Advertiser. Although, as ever, the story contains a couple of howlers (a Neolithic dwelling at Stonehenge is the most egregious and there is a random mention of the pyramids of Giza), it’s always good to have some publicity. The main purpose of the story, of course, is to advertise the Open Day on Saturday 24 August.

Rick and Manuela are excavating a small area of (202), a reddish deposit similar to (94) that occupies much of the south-eastern quadrant of the henge. This is to check its relationship with (200), the inner chalk deposit forming the henge bank: last year it appeared to overlie it. It also clearly overlies the inner ditch, as the ditch fills are not visible in this area. It closely resembles (342), the reddish material overlying the fills on the inner ditch in the southern arm of the L-shaped section through the centre of the monument and is probably the same material. There is a patch of topsoil (199) lying between the two that masks the relationship. This is interesting, as it suggests that there is a period of activity on the henge after the inner ditch had completely filled; (202) is producing lithics and the occasional potsherd.

The eastern branch of the L-shaped section is progressing well. There is a patch of (207) to the west of the part that has already been removed that Sara and Claire are now removing: this may be comparable with (355), farther to the west, as both consist of dumped rubbly material (although (355) seems to have more large, angular flints than (207)). It sealed pit [318] in the entrance and is perhaps a primary deposit, part of the construction of the monument.

We are now (finally) making better progress on the southern arm of the L-shaped section. The area south of the inner ditch, where the core of the bank, (213), and the inner rubbly deposit, (200), are visible, is now being cleaned and the bank removed. There is a patch of pre-bank topsoil in this area, which needs to be exposed as it is close to where Keeley identified the second pre-henge structure. In the centre of the henge, (321) is continuing to come down onto (355): this gives us a stratigraphic link between the two arms of the section. The ceramics seem to be uniformly Peterborough type Ware, which puts us early in the history of the monument.

By mid-day, it was clear that (202) does indeed overlie (200) as well as the pre-bank topsoil, (312)/(348). This means that Rick and Manuela can move onto the removal of all of it within the area defined by Ashley for the examination of the bank. Once (293) has gone, people excavating on that side of the bank can move across to join in the excavation of (202) before starting on (200). Where the team in the southern arm of the L-shaped section is removing (342), this also overlies the bank material (200), so I think that it is a fair assumption that the two deposits are one and the same. Paul has found a rather nice thumbnail scraper in (342); given that this is probably the latest deposit on site (apart from last year’s pit containing the unusual vessel, [171], and the child cremation burial pit, [243]), I am not concerned that this implies a date later in the third millennium BC.

After lunch, most of (207) had been removed, exposing the pre-henge topsoil, (357). It seems to survive only in discrete patches, apparently lying in hollows in the underlying chalk bedrock. I am unsure what this implies about truncation during the Neolithic: could the original topsoil have been worn away during the use of the henge?

Sunday 11 August 2013: “Mutiny, Mr Christian!”

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (set adrift in a Neolithic ditch), Keeley Hale (wearing the captain’s hat after hoisting the Jolly Roger), Ivor Davies, Ashley Tierney, Chris Hobbs, Christl Squires, Emma Winter, Frankie Saxton, Jacky Winter, Julie Martin, Martin Jupp, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Phil Dean, Phil Thomas, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland

Weather: broken cloud with sunny spells, becoming increasingly broken throughout the morning; a stiff breeze

The day began with Keeley staging a mutiny: she took charge and put me on digging duties. It was actually a conspiracy, hatched when Nigel read my blog post about having an itchy trowel, so I have been in the outer ditch all morning, finding only one nasty little scrap of lithic débitage and a lump of sandstone.

It’s actually a good sign that Keeley is able to take control: it’s an indication that she is on top of things, that the site is running smoothly with no personnel issues, that we have a good team that is able to get on with work without needing constant advice. I’m pleased by this (not least with being able to do some real excavation work); I’m not so pleased with finding out that my digging skills are horribly rusty…

Things are making good progress across the site. Chris’s pit, [318], has turned into a chalk cut sub-square conical feature. There is still one deposit left to remove from the base. Given the near sterility of the other fills, it would be good to find something in the bottom, but for once I am not optimistic.

After removing the chalky deposit (343), Frankie has found that the hollow visible at a higher level (fill (301)) is visible once again. I wonder if the previous “fill” was actually material that washed into a patch where the fill of an underlying feature had slumped. Deposit (343) contains a lot of animal bone and feels very ashy. It may not be coincidence that it lies to the east of (306), which appears to be the base of a fire, when the prevailing winds in this area blow from the west.

In excavating (321), south of the centre, Emma has found the butt end of a polished stone axe. It appears to be one of the very triangular and relatively short types; it has been heavily burnt, to the extent that one surface has become very crackled and the stone has turned pink, making it impossible to tell which stone group it derives from. This part of the country is on the interface between a zone dominated by Group I (Cornish) and Group VI (Great Langdale, Cumbria), so either of these types is likely.

The inner ditch fills are finally resolving themselves into a darker material to the north, which appears to underlie a more reddish material to the south. Although this has been visible on occasion since we started to excavated the section, problems with seeing it have meant that the entire width of the section has been excavated as a single context since we started. At least it is getting sorted out now.

Keeley and Ivor are investigating the features beneath the southern part of the henge bank, where the second probable structure is located. She has at least one feature cut into the chalk bedrock, [351], which looks as if it probably was a structural element.

Ashley has finished his plan, so excavation of the little patch of (35) can start after lunch. Then it is a matter of removing the various elements of the bank: first (293) on the outer edge and (200) on the inner, before starting on the core, (213). After this, it ought to be possible to define other elements of this structure.

In the outer ditch, (344) is becoming smaller and smaller as the bottom of the ditch gets closer. There is a looser, more gravelly feeling deposit beneath it that overlies the chalk along the edges of the ditch. I am unclear whether or not this is the primary fill of the ditch. I hope to get back to digging it this afternoon!

By the end of lunchtime, it was 25° C, although the breeze means that it certainly doesn’t feel that warm. This means that we will need to break again at 2.45 pm in line with the Hot Weather Policy.

Pit [318] turned out to be virtually devoid of artefacts: apart from a few scrappy bits of débitage, there were two scrapers in the very top. It is useful that it was sealed by the rubbly deposit that I speculated might have been laid as a chalky pathway into the henge, as it means that it is either earlier than the henge or dates from an early phase in its construction or use.

The small patch of (35) in the area planned by Ashley vanished upon trowelling, as I had expected. He is now able to start work on the removal of (293), the material on the outside edge of the bank.

The outer edge of the inner ditch, where it cuts into the henge bank, is proving very difficult to define. The reason for this is visible in section: recent ploughing has spread the chalk from the bank across the ditch fills (it is clearly contained in a topsoil matrix where it does this) and has thereby loosened the material making it up, creating a ragged inner edge. As the team gets deeper into the excavation of the ditch section, the bank material ought to become more consolidated as they get below the level of the worst depredations of ploughing.

We are now two thirds of the way through the excavation and I feel that we have achieved more in the past four weeks than in all three previous seasons put together. Okay, we only got to dig the site for three and a half days during the 2010 season, but we had five weeks in 2011 and six in 2012. Getting (almost) to the bottom of the outer ditch in three weeks this year is a remarkable achievement; in the two weeks that remain, we can achieve an awful lot more. I am confident that we will have answered most of the questions posed in the Project Design and will have generated a lot more.

Saturday 10 August 2013: what can we find today?

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Ivor Davies, Ashley Tierney, Chris Hobbs, Emma Winter, Frankie Saxton, Jacky Winter, Jean Andrews, Julie Martin, Martin Jupp, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Phil Dean, Phil Thomas, Sylvia Duncan, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll

Weather: overcast, light breeze; some heavy cloud and occasional sunny spells, but feeling cold (the temperature varied between 18° C and 20° C during the morning)

Things have been going so amazingly well that I don’t know what we can do to top the discoveries of the past few days. Perhaps a complete Peterborough type Ware bowl?

Saturday is a day where we tend to lose a bit of continuity among excavators: a lot of those who come in Wednesday to Friday don’t work at weekends, while those who do the weekends tend not to work weekdays. Today, we have no continuity in the southern arm of the L-shaped section: we have a completely new team on the inner ditch (although Mervyn has dug in it previously this season) and a new team on (321), the principal deposit running south from the centre of the henge below (94). Topsoil (199) was removed quickly from the five metre square over the foundation trench of the first structure to be located and Ashley is now planning it. Keeley is continuing to plan the traces of the second structure. Chris is finishing his pit and Martin is moving a small spoil heap by the western corner of the trench to give somewhere for people to stand during the open day on 24 August; in looking through the soil, he found a very nice Late Neolithic end scraper.

Outer ditch section [289] is nearing completion: the chalk edges are sloping in and there is now room for only two people to excavate. More animal bone is showing up, exactly as we found at Easter. With luck, there will be something datable. It would be good to have some ceramics and fired daub. An antler pick would be today’s spectacular find, but it’s probably too much to hope for.

Chris is probaby near the bottom of his pit, [318]; it’s beginning to look sub-square in plan, which is more convincing than the very irregular shape he first uncovered. It was almost devoid of finds but its location, almost exactly in the centre of the entrance, has to be significant.

I’m beginning to wonder if the chalk rubbly material that sealed pit [318] extends into the centre of the henge: there are certainly chalky deposits beginning to show up there. If so, it would provide a useful chronological horizon throughout the monument and would enable us to subdivide the earlier activity into two separate phases before the consturction of the inner ditch.

Today seems to be a day for nice lithic artefacts. Mervyn has found an end scraper in the inner ditch, while Emma has found a broken leaf-shaped arrowhead in (321), close to the centre of the henge. I had been wondering if lithic artefacts were restricted to features (all those found prevously had come from ditch sections, a pit and the bank), but Emma’s arrowhead was in one of the build-up deposits in the centre of the henge. It’s a very unusual leaf-shaped arrowhead, it has to be said: it has no invasive retouch, with both sides of the flake from which it was made retaining their original surfaces, while the edges have been trimmed to create the shape.

It is another of those days when things are running so smoothly that I feel almost redundant. There are few directorial decisions to be made and most of the questions I am being asked are about the identity of finds (which is good, as it means that I am getting to see many more finds than I have in previous years).

Friday 9 August 2013: a revised strategy

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Ivor Davies, Ashley Tierney, Chris Hobbs, Emma Winter, Frankie Saxton, Ivor Davies, Julie Martin, Jon Goodwyn, Keeley Hale, Kit Carstairs, Molly Barron, Paul Browne, Paul Eland, Phil Dean, Rick Kelly, Sid Rowe, Steve Foulds, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland

Weather: overcast, occasional very light drizzle, occasional sunny spells; two rain showers between 11.15 and 11.40, one heavy

With yesterday’s discovery of a probable structure, I have changed the site strategy somewhat. The section that was being dug to the north-west of the sondage over the outer ditch has been extended by five metres to the north-east in an attempt to define the extent and plan of the probable foundation trench. There is also a suspiciously similar linear patch of chalk against the north-western edge of the site, that we first identified last year and Caoímhin and I speculated might be structural. Keeley is investigating this.

Chris has returned to his hollow as, following last night’s rain, it looks as if he may have underdug it on the west. He has assigned a new context number, (335), to this possible second fill. As excavation progressed, it became clear that this is indeed a lower fill in the hollow. Quite what hollow [318] might have been is completely obscure: it is clearly not just a worn patch in the entrance, but something deliberately created. The near sterility of its fills does not help in interpreting it.

The rain showers helped (briefly) to show up the soil colours. Unfortunately, trowelling is removing the damp surface rapidly and everything is returning to the usual dry grey. Nevertheless, it has helped elucidate what’s going on in the inner ditch, where the dark material is clearly restricted to the northern part of the cut. It has also shown up the relatively subtle differences in the area east of the centre, where Frankie and Sid are excavating.

Outer ditch section [289] looks as if we may well bottom it by the end of this week. Fill (314) has been removed to reveal a thin and probably discontinuous layer with a higher proportion of gravelly chalk, which was unfortunately overdug in the south-eastern corner of the section because the material beneath it is identical to (314) above. I am hoping that the stone free material underneath this chalky layer will prove to be the primary silt.

It is very tempting to project what can be seen of the structural trench discovered yesterday into the five metre square being started today and I can convince myself that I can see its line. This is fantasy, as it lies beneath the henge bank, which hasn’t yet been removed.

I’ve been thinking about the chalk deposit, (97), that the inner edge of the inner ditch cuts and which is partly overlain by deposit (94). In the section being excavated through the ditch in the southern arm of the L-shaped section, it is evident that the chalk overlies a soil deposit, which appears to be part of the build-up in the centre of the henge. Originally, I had wondered if (97) was part of the henge bank, but this is clearly not feasible, as it would not have been practical to dig the inner ditch that far into the bank. I’m now wondering if it is material slumped from the inner edge of the bank and evidence for a period of abandonment; might this in turn tie in with (311), the deposit in the outer ditch that I had hypothesised might derive from material tumbling from the outer edge of the bank?

The chalk that Keeley has been investigating is, like the bit investigated by Kit, contained in a slot. This slot seems to have termini at both ends so, although we have traces of a second structure, we cannot define its shape or extent, at least at present. It seems a bit greedy to have two pre-henge structures, but that is what the evidence is currently suggesting. If the slots really are the foundations of buildings, then they seem to have had walls composed of planks, as so far there are no indications of postholes that might have supported a timber framework. This matches the recent discoveries at Kingsmead Quarry in Berkshire, where oak planks were set vertically into foundation trenches.

Where Frankie and Sid have been working, the deposits seem to be filling hollows. Two of the hollows (deposits (301) and (332)) look like worn patches, whereas the other seems deliberately dug. Rick is staring work on the deposit running south through the centre of the henge down to the chalk deposit (97); his posthole, [330], was cut into it. The inner ditch continues to go down slowly, while the outer ditch appears to be getting very close indeed to being bottomed. Topsoil (199) has now all but gone from the new five metre square where the first structure is extending, exposing the bank ((213) in the centre, (200) to the inside and (293) to the outside). We are making good progress, with twelve days left on site; we could always do with more, but I dread to think what additional discoveries we would make in that time!

Thursday 8 August 2013: the hot weather returns

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Ivor Davies, Emma Winter, Frankie Saxton, Jan Turner, Julie Martin, Kit Carstairs, Molly Barron, Paul Browne (a.m. only), Rick Kelly, Sara Gee, Sid Rowe, Steve Warner, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland

Weather: sunny, warm and dry; clouds to the north, moving south slowly, becoming overcast by about 10.35 and sunny again by 11.40, once the band of cloud had passed over; subsequently, light, wispy clouds and occasional thicker clouds

I have had to remind people about the hot weather policy because, although we are supposed only to get up to 24° C today, it is already this temperature on site. It will clearly get warmer during the course of the morning, although I doubt that it will reach 30° C.

I have split up yesterday’s teams for work today. This is partly to give people experience of different parts of the site (although one person is remaining in each area as a team leader to provide continuity) and partly to ensure that we have a good balance between experienced and inexperienced excavators. This was an issue yesterday, where there was an entire team of inexperienced people, which was unavoidable given the ratio of experienced to inexperienced. I hope that this doesn’t cause discontent.

Kit has found a piece of abraded Peterborough type Ware in (293), part of the material that makes up the bank. Further evidence for a Middle Neolithic date of initial construction: it will be interesting to see if there is anything diagnostic in the buried topsoil beneath the bank.

Everything is continuing smoothly on site and I am once again left feeling like a bit of a spare part! The outer ditch section, [289], is making good progress and I think that we will have it finished by the end of next week. Towards the end of yesterday, Sid found a piece of ceramic in (314), one of its fills, that looked like very abraded and poorly fired Roman pottery in an orange sandy fabric; it clearly can’t be and I wonder if it is a piece of daub. There was another odd bit of grey ceramic, which was very thin and only about the size of an Iron Age potin coin, from the same context.

As soon as the band of cloud passed overhead, the temperature dropped to 21° C, so my fear that we would need hourly breaks was unfounded.

Rick seems to have a small posthole cut partly through the chalk on the inner side of the inner ditch and partly through the principal deposit in the centre of the henge that overlies this chalk. It is nowhere near as big as the posthole excavated in 2011. Nearby, in (325), a patch of carbonised material that disappeared on trowelling, Steve has found a large piece of Peterborough type Ware with whipped cord maggot herringbone decoration and a cordon around the carination; it is perhaps Mortlake style. Unusually for local Peterborough type Ware, it is not heavily flint tempered; instead, it appears to have sand and small rounded quartz (although this assessment of what it does include was done without a hand lens, so caveat lector!). Intriguing: we now have a shelly fabric of Grooved Ware and a sandy fabric of Peterborough type Ware, not what one expects.

In the inner ditch, it has become evident that (313) is identical with (197), planned last year. This means that Jon and Paul can excavate up to the chalk edge, which gives us the northern lip of the ditch. It appears to be coming down on to a redder deposit, which is what extends to the southern edge of the ditch. We need to make better progress in this area.

In the eastern arm of the L-shaped section, Ivor and Jim are cleaning the area between where Frankie is working and where the hollows beneath (207) were investigated yesterday. It is unclear what is happening in this part of the section as it is very dust and appears quite complex.

At 12.15, we had to have a water break, as temperatures had reached 25° C around noon. This gives us a half hour session until lunch-time; as it was 26° C by the end of our water break, I suspect that we may well touch 27° C during the early afternoon, pushing us into half-hour work sessions, anyway.

We had indeed reached 27° C by the end of lunchtime, despite increasing cloud numbers. It had dropped back to 25° C by 2.15, so I decided that we ought to work until 2.30.

Emma has been dealing with (213), the very compacted chalk at the core of the henge bank. It is proving to be very thin, if hard. At least this means that it can come off rapidly. To the north-west, where Kit had removed (200), the less consolidated inner part of the bank, there was a stripe of chalk whose relationship to both (200) and the underlying pre-bank topsoil was unclear. He dug a narrow section across it and it turned out to be occupying a V-shaped trench cut through the relict topsoil; it appears to be the foundation of a pre-henge plank-built structure. This is VERY EXCITING! I was even lost for words for a few minutes. And Emma was worried that she was working on the most boring part of the henge…

The inner edge of the inner ditch is now almost completely exposed in the southern arm of the L-shaped section. It is cut through the chalk deposit  that forms an incomplete ring around the centre of the monument, (97); in one or two places, it has been overdug slightly and a soil deposit resembling those to the north is visible beneath it. Its outer edge is still not properly defined.

In the area east of the centre, the deposits seem to be resolving themselves and Frankie is going to do a sketch plan of what is visible. Intriguingly, one of the patches of burning, (306), seems to be underneath the main soily deposits; its relationship to the chalky deposits is not yet clear.

All in all, another good and exciting day.

Wednesday 7 August 2013: the fourth week begins

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Ivor Davies, Bernie Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Christl Squires, David Croft, Emma Winter, Frankie Saxton, Jan Turner, Jean Andrews, John Baskerville, Jon Goodwyn, Julie Martin, Molly Barron, Priscilla Simmons, Paul Browne, Phil Dean, Rick Kelly, Sara Gee, Sid Row, Susanna Saldana, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll, Tony Ireland

Weather: starting out overcast but getting sunny spells by 10.15 am, warm (up to 24° C at times)

We have a much larger team this week, although there is little continuity of personnel with last week, unfortunately. It does mean, though, that I have been able to put three teams into the centre of the henge to deal with the burnt patches (305) and (306), the complex stratigraphy to the east of these and to clean the area between them and the inner ditch section. The archaeology of this part of the site is very complex and will probably occupy us until the end of the excavation. At least we have three weeks to try to understand it all.

Chris, Molly and (temporarily, while Frankie plans the bank area) Emma are cleaning the area beneath (207), ready to plan the potential features that turned up last thing on Sunday. Chris will deal with the planning, so Emma, assisted by Molly, can return to deal with (293), the outer bank material. Chris reports that the fill of the easternmost of the two potential features sounds “hollow” as he trowels over it, which is a good sign that there is something different going on here (shades of bosing!). As potential features, these will require proper scale drawings rather than sketches with EDM location points (although the planning frame can be located by EDM).

This morning, we reached our 10,000th find. Not all of them are from the henge: Trench II from 2010 was entirely Roman, Trench III from the same year was Roman and Early Iron Age (unless the flint-tempered material is actually Peterborough type Ware), while last year, we had a lot of Roman material from this trench. Add to this the fact that some stones have been picked up as potential lithic material that will turn out not to be and it becomes clear that the number is inflated. Nevertheless, this is still a huge number of finds from the site, particularly a prehistoric one.

The stratigraphy east of the centre of the henge is resolving itself: the chalk rubbly deposit (257) overlies (259), the reddish deposit that is probably the same as (295). This is the opposite of what I had expected, but never mind. Tony Ireland has had a nice rimsherd of Grooved Ware from his deposit, (265), the relationship of which to (257) and (259) is still not clear.

Emma (joined now by Molly) has returned to the section over the bank. The deposit (293) is composed of small patches of different compaction and is absolutely awful to dig. There are also virtually no finds from it. The pre-henge topsoil is beginning to show through over much of the area.

A nice (undecorated) sherd of Grooved Ware has turned up in (313), a fill of the inner ditch. So far, apart from the lumps of daub on Sunday and Mervyn’s Grooved Ware sherd in a shelly fabric, there has been little ceramic material, which (I think) is a contrast from the section excavated in 2011-12, [81].

In the area south of the centre of the henge, the removal of (296) has helped to define a number of patches of burning. It is unclear how many are in situ burning and how many are dumps of ashy and carbonised material from elsewhere. They have been planned and numbered.

The two potential features in the entrance have turned out to be rather disappointing. The easternmost, [318], turned out to be a shallow bowl-shaped hollow with a few scraps of débitage inside its single fill; the other, [320], turned out to be even more amorphous, its fill disappearing rapidly. Although [318] gives the impression of being an anthropogenic feature, the same can’t be said of [320] and I’m disinclined even to refer to it as a hollow. Nevertheless, it is clear that if the material that appears to be the bedrock in this area really is the bedrock, then it is very uneven and the hollows in it contain a great variety of deposits.

Sunday 4 August 2013: half way through the excavation

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Jim Skipper, Chris Hobbs, Christl Squires, Emma Winter, Ivor Davies, Jacky Winter, Jon Goodwyn, Martin Jupp, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Phil Dean, Priscilla Simmons, Sylvia Duncan, Tony Driscoll

Weather: cloudy with sunny spells and a stiff breeze; warm

By the time we finish today, we will be half way through the excavation. We’ve made reasonable but not spectacular progress. One reason for this has been that we have put most effort into the outer ditch section, [289], as we do need to complete a hand dug section through it and we have to maintain our target of removing a minimum of 4 cm a day from it. My aim to bottom the new section across the inner ditch is ambitious, but if we can remove a context a day, it ought to be achievable. The entrance is being sorted out, with the removal of (207) on to what is apparently a pre-henge deposit, while the extension to the sondage that runs across the bank is proving more complex than I had anticipated. It is the centre of the henge that has received least attention since Ashley and Frances went on holiday, so we will need to have a team working there next week.

The weather today is better for excavation: it’s cooler and the cloud helps to prevent the soils from drying out too much. It’s amazing how just a little rain yesterday afternoon has improved what can be seen on site. Much as I enjoy hot sunny weather, I have to admit that it’s the worst weather for excavation.

In the outer ditch, the new rubbly context, (311), has trowelled away almost instantly. It appears to have been a stone line within the ditch fills and the material beneath it, (314), looks very similar to (291) above it. Presumably we are dealing with an episode of erosion (from the henge bank?) that marks a discrete phase in the infilling of the ditch. If the rubble does derive from the bank, it suggests that it occurred at a time when the chalk of which it was composed was still visible, either because vegetation had not yet colonised it or because it had been removed whether deliberately or accidentally (such as through a brush fire).

The section across the inner ditch is producing large numbers of finds, which probably means that my challenge to remove a context a day may well not be met. This is why it took three seasons to empty the original section, [81]. Nevertheless, this ought to be a priority almost as high as the section through the outer ditch. If we can identify a terminal of the inner ditch, it would be good to examine that, too, but at the moment is isn’t possible to identify it on the ground (although as I mentioned the other day, the worm casts seem to be offering us a clue).

I’ve been getting an itchy trowel for the last few days: I desperately want to get in the trench and dig. I just know that the moment I try, someone will need advice, then something that needs photographing will be found, then there will be a ’phone call… and I won’t be able to return to my patch.

Our little flurry of lithic artefacts appears to have been a flash-in-the-pan. Since first thing yesterday morning, there have been no more of them (although Chris did have a reworked flake from (207) earlier). We also have few ceramics (although Chris, once again, has had Peterborough type Ware from (207)).

In the centre of the entrance (at least, roughly in the centre), (207) is becoming much deeper and is filling a hollow in the underlying material. It remains to be seen if this is simply a variation in the level of the natural, an area worn in the entrance or slumping in the top of a cut feature. Perhaps there will be something interesting in the entrance, after all.

By late morning, the temperature had reached almost 25° C on site, although the breeze made it feel much cooler, so we called lunch break at 12.30. The rain showers are all passing by to the north of Bedford, over 25 km away, so we are escaping it. It can rain tomorrow and Tuesday instead.

The removal of (35) in the area extending the sondage to the north-west is coming down onto bedrock (as well as (293) to the north-west) and it is interesting to see how the natural suddenly dips immediately outside the henge bank. This has encouraged the formation of a greater depth of colluvium to the south-east than immediately around the henge. This reinforces my belief that the henge is located where it is because it occupies the flattest ground on the hillside, a little shelf that enabled the interior of the monument to occupy a roughly level space. By contrast, the outer ditch is at a much higher level to the north-west and a much lower level to the south-east, while the outer edges of the bank will have been slightly higher and lower in the same directions. This will affect calculations about the height of the bank and raises the question of whether the bank would have had a level top or one that followed the slope by being the same height all round. We will never know the answer to this sort of question.

As (207) gradually disappears, the contexts exposed beneath it are beginning to look more complex. As well as the “hollow” that Chris spotted earlier, there is another area further to the west where there is a soil matrix below the level of the bedrock, while further east there seem to be new deposits showing up. This is rather encouraging and suggests that there may be features hidden beneath (207), reinforcing my interpretation that it was laid deliberately.

Finds from the outer ditch section [289] seem to be restricted largely to lithics and animal bone. There has been one sherd of Peterborough type Ware from (314) and that has been it. I will be happy if this is the only type we have, as it would put the filling of the outer ditch in the Middle Neolithic rather than the Late Neolithic.

With fifteen minutes to go, Jacky found a transverse arrowhead in (293), which is the outer deposit on the henge bank ((213) now appears to be a more thoroughly consolidated core). Again, we have Early Neolithic evidence from the first phase of the henge, although it is clearly of Middle Neolithic date. Then, ten minutes later, Priscilla found a lump of daub in (313), the uppermost fill of the inner ditch. It had the impression of a wattle on one edge. Good finds to close a good day!

Saturday 3 August: more lithic artefacts

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Jim Skipper, Chris Hobbs, Emma Winter, Ivor Davies, Jacky Winter, Jon Goodwyn, Keeley Hale, Martin Jupp, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Paul Browne, Phil Dean, Priscilla Simmons, Sylvia Duncan, Thomas Burningham, Tony Driscoll

Weather: starting out sunny with occasional light cloud, becoming cloudier throughout the first hour but then returning to sunny spells by lunchtime; light cooling breeze but otherwise warm

We started almost straight away with the discovery of another scraper by Tom in in the inner ditch. This time, it was a horseshoe scraper, evidently used by a left-handed person (it had blunting along its left side rather than scraper retouch, suggesting that this edge would have been in contact with the skin); these types are more typically of third millennium BC date than yesterday’s end scraper. A little later, Chris discovered a side scraper on a flake in (207), the deposit in the entrance of the henge. This I am also happy to see as later fourth or earlier third millennium BC in date. Having said in previous years that the site produces only débitage, I am now eating my words: we have good evidence for artefact use as well as production and we were either unlucky or looking in the wrong places in previous years.

We have people working in all areas: two teams on the outer ditch section [289], continuing to remove (291) and exposing (311), a more rubbly deposit, to the north-east; a team continuing the extension of this sondage across the henge bank, currently removing a small patch of colluvium (35); a team on the inner ditch section, removing the last of (197) to expose the new (so far unnumbered) fill beneath; a team continuing to remove (207) in the entrance.

Mervyn has found a piece of shell tempered ware in (197) that has a deep groove in it, reminiscent of the horizontal decoration towards the top of Grooved Ware vessels. I haven’t previously seen this shelly fabric used for Grooved Ware (but I haven’t seen large quantities of Grooved Ware, I have to confess), so it is good to see that this material is a Late Neolithic type. I had worried that sherds we have found before might be Iron Age or Romano-British. I really ought to trust my own judgement more.

The entrance is beginning to look slightly more complex than I thought yesterday. The chalky deposit (207) is of very variable thickness and the underlying deposits (of which there are several) have an undulating surface. It is good to have found a lithic artefact among the chalk, as this area has otherwise been unproductive. Perhaps there are other artefacts lurking amongst the finds I have not seen.

There is not a great deal left to do on fill (291) in outer ditch section [289] as (311) beneath it is showing up in most areas now. This is similar to what was recorded in the machine cut section at Easter, which is encouraging as it suggests that we didn’t lose as much data as I feared we might have done by using a JCB to empty the ditch. There will have been some artefacts missed, although the sieving ought to have recovered a significant proportion of them, albeit in an unstratified way.

Mervyn, Jon and Tom have started on (313), the chalky fill that appears to underlie (197) in the top of the inner ditch section. It looks as if it may be a relatively superficial deposit, as it is not visible in section less than a metre to the north-west, where there is an machine overdug scoop.

The small patch of colluvium (35) in the extension to the sondage has now been removed. There was a considerable quantity of pea grit on the interface with (293) below, indicating that it was impermeable to worms. Visible in section in the sondage over the outer ditch, (293) appears to be quite a thick deposit (perhaps 100 mm or so), so its removal will probably take a day or two. It clearly overlies the henge bank (213) and presumably derives in part from it, as it contains a lot of chalk.

By the end of lunch, the temperature had risen to 23° C, which came as a bit of a surprise. It’s probably the breeze that is making it feel cooler. Although some of the clouds look rain bearing, we have had none of the threatened showers so far. The radar map of rain shows that it has been passing to our north and to our south as the bands make their way towards the east-north-east.

The lighter deposit beneath (207) in the entrance is very thin and has trowelled away in places, revealing that it sits immedately on top of the bedrock. This suggests that it is a pre-henge topsoil, drastically compressed beneath the material deposited in the entrance. I did wonder if (207) might have been deposited to make up the ground surface following erosion by traffic in and out of the monument, but this no longer looks likely (unless the thinness of the underlying soil is partly a result of erosion as well as compression). Coincidentally, the exposed patch of chalk bedrock lies exactly on the line where the inner ditch would have run had it been a complete ring rather than a horseshoe: this is part of the entrance causeway of the second phase, classic henge.

Excavation is now beginning on (311) in outer ditch section [289]. It has already produced a sherd of Peterborough type Ware, which is encouraging. There are also fragments of animal bone.

I am beginning to wonder if (293) is actually part of the bank rather than material that has tumbled from it. It is very compacted in most places and looks deliberately laid. There have been some fragments of highly mineralised bone from it.

Around 3.30, the rain that had been threatening finally arrived. We recorded the few remaining finds, packed away and were off site around 3.55.

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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