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Saturday 20 July 2013: continuing to trowel back

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Keeley Hale, Bernie Matthews, Deborah Curtis, Frances Bourne, Ivor Davies, Martin Jupp, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Paul Browne, Phil Thomas, Tony Driscoll

Weather: overcast, warm with a slight breeze

Conditions on site today are ideal: it’s warm (around 21° C) and the cloud cover is preventing the worst of the sun’s effects (although it will still be possible to burn). It looks as if we will at last be able to do a full day’s work on site, though.

By the end of yesterday, trowelling back had covered almost half the site and ought to be complete after morning tea-break. Yesterday’s finds are being numbered and assigned to the correct context numbers, ready for recording by EDM. It feels as if we are properly under way after a few days of preparation work. Keeley is about to start planning: it will be good to have an accurate, hand-drawn plan of the site after last year’s purely EDM-based plans, which have never been drawn up using a CAD package.

In checking the collection of bone that may be in the south-eastern terminal of the inner ditch, I spotted what appears to be a piece of human tibia, a definite piece of human maxilla and a human molar. There is also definitely animal bone, including a large ?sheep’s molar. This probably means that we don’t have a human burial as such, but a collection of bone that includes both human and animal. I need to check whether we are still covered by last year’s licence to remove human remains from the Department of Justice or if I need to apply for a new one.

Just before morning tea break, Deborah discovered a deposit of what appeared to be carbonised seeds against the outer edge of the henge bank. On excavating after the break, the deposit appeared to occupy a distinct hollow around 90 mm in diameter. We have collected the material as a sample for flotation, but I am unsure if this is actually archaeological material as opposed to recent botanical material (simply black seeds that have been taken underground by a burrowing insect or something similar).

The finds are being collected quite slowly, although this is only to be expected as there was a huge backlog from yesterday. One of the difficulties is assigning context numbers, as we have only a sketch plan to base them on. I have learned a valuable lesson about relying on EDM data… Once Keeley has done a master plan of the site, things will be a great deal easier.

It is becoming clear that the north-western edge of the henge interior has suffered more from ploughing than the south-eastern and that its effects overall have been more devastating than I previously believed. We are on what appears to be chalk bedrock at the north-western edge (and the machine has not helped in removing the thin deposits that survived over it). It has been the presence of the bank to the south-east that seems to have helped retain activity deposits in the centre of the monument. We are fortunate indeed to have started excavation when we did, as I suspect that only a few more years of ploughing would have removed all traces of the site apart from the outer ditch.

The chalk bank also seems to have been broader at the base than I first thought: the outer edge consists of well consolidated chalk, while the inner edge is more loose chalk and soil. This makes it around 3 to 3.5 m thick at the base. The inner ditch then defines a very small area inside this, perhaps no more than around 12 by 8 m (I will need to check these measurements against the results of the geophysical surveys).

There is still a small patch of topsoil left over the south-western activity deposits and a small section of the bank, (199). It is producing finds of relatively recent date (Bernie has found a piece of medieval or early post-medieval tile, for instance), which is not an issue and certainly ought not to be regarded as contamination once we come to do the initial post-excavation analysis of finds.

I think that we will have completed most of the trowelling back shortly after lunch. Philip is about to start cleaning the spur across the outer ditch, which ought not to take long. That can be planned rapidly and work can start in earnest on it. We will be able to accommodate five or six people in here initially; they will be dealing with the deposit of colluvium that fills the top of the ditch. Although this is still technically deposit (35), I think that it deserves to have a new number for the purposes of the excavation. As we are close to the trench dug at Easter, we ought to be able to compare the sequence there with the one we excavate here quite easily. It will be instructive to see if the sequence is as simple as it appeared to be in the machine dug section.

Today is the first day that it has been possible to return from lunch to do proper work: over the past three days, it has been so hot by lunchtime, that doing anything afterwards proved a real effort. With the breeze and the cloud cover, people actually refreshed following the break.

Bernie has discovered a very nice large sherd of Peterborough Type Impressed Ware. This is perhaps the largest piece we have had from the site. It has a distinct carination with whipped cord maggots either side, so it ought to be easily identifiable to type. Once again, we seem to be getting material from the early days of henge construction. It will be interesting to see what we get from the outer ditch.

It looks as if we will have cleared yesterday’s finds and some of today’s by the end of the day, which means that by the end of tomorrow, we ought to be up-to-date with lifting everything. The main issue has been assigning context numbers to everything: last year, we relied on using the EDM co-ordinates to match finds made during the first two weeks to the plan that was only done during the third week and I am determined that we do not do that this year. We do need to sort out last year’s plan data!

Where Martin has been working on the bank on the south side of the monument, he has found that it survives only as a very superficial deposit that trowels away with little effort. This means that the deposit beneath is a surviving ground surface from the time of the bank’s construction. This will be a good place to put through a section to examine this relict topsoil.

Where Philip is cleaning the outer ditch, it has become clear that there are two deposits visible, confirming the impression gained during topsoil stripping last week. There are a few sherds of prehistoric pottery in the outer deposit, which will be the stratigraphically earlier, and a fragment of what appears to be Romano-British greyware in the inner deposit, which is the colluvial deposit in the top of the hollow, suggesting that the outer ditch was still visible as a slight depression in the Roman period, confirming what we found during the Easter dig.

Trowelling back is almost complete, apart from a strip along the south-western edge of the site, which will be used as a barrow run tomorrow during the emptying of the material used to backfill the section excavated through the inner ditch. There is only minimal work left to do in the ditch – perhaps only a day or two – and it may be possible to excavate a second section through it (which would mean that we will have two sections through inner and outer ditches).

Progress seems to have been far better this year than last; this is despite having fewer people and losing three almost half days to the heat. Although we are dealing with a site that is about a quarter the size of the 2012 trench, this is the area with the most complex archaeology and by far the densest concentration of finds. People really do seem to be more enthusiastic and hard working this year. Perhaps the smaller site makes it more sociable and makes it feel more of a team effort. Whatever the reason, I am pleased.

Wednesday 17 July 2013: first day on site for the summer excavation

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Tomorrow, we begin in earnest

Excavation begins on site tomorrow. We have opened up a square 40 m by 40 m with a small spur to the east; this has exposed almost a third of the henge, highlighting how small the second phase monument would have been, while the spur has crossed part of the ditch of the small ring-ditch east of the henge. It has become more apparent that the henge occupies a slight terrace on the hillside: this helps to explain its slightly unusual position, as henges usually occupy flat ground, often on valley floors.

To understand the background to what we hope to achieve over the next two summers, read the Project Design and Pauline Gimson’s report on the resistivity survey carried out earlier this year. Having confirmed the character of the site in 2011, we now need to learn more about its date, history and use. This year, I also hope that we will actually identify the elusive outer ditch (its entire circuit appears to be maked by a build-up of colluvium, soil that has crept down the slope) and retrieve material thay will help us to date its filling. In particular, we need to collect materials suitable for scientific dating (organic material for radiocarbon and, perhaps, fired clay for thermoluminescence).

As ever, I will be blogging about the site every day, so you can keep up with discoveries. This is especially important for those of you who will be working only occasionally on site: you can find out what has been happening to “your” part of the dig.

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