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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.

The site stripped

The stripped site

The site stripped but not yet cleaned, as seen this morning

I made a quick visit to site this morning and it is looking impressive. Almost a third of the henge bank is exposed, with the activity deposits showing up in the centre as organic-rich soils, while the secondary inner ditch can now be seen in plan, at least for part of its circuit. The puzzling outer enclosure ditch has been exposed at the bottom of the slope and we have termini either side of an entrance. There is also a ditch belonging to the ring ditch east of the henge visible in the spur along the north-eastern edge of the trench.

The terminal of the outer enclosure ditch

The terminal of the outer enclosure ditch

There is clearly a lot of cleaning to do (it’s a huge area), but all thanks must go to Keeley Hale and Mick James for supervising what I understand to have been a very difficult topsoil strip. They have done a great job!

The south-western part of the ring ditch

The south-western part of the ring ditch east of the henge

Hawthorn Hill Romano-British settlement

Friday 20 March 2009

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Pauline Gimson, Ken Bird, Alan Goodwin, Barbara Crombie, Tony Driscoll, Lorna Holding, Eileen Moxley, Chris Hobbs, Lorna Boyd-Bell, Tony Ireland, Mick James, Christl Squires, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ray Thorne

Weather: sunny and dry with occasional light clouds, becoming colder after about 3.15 pm.

We are operating in four separate gardens: three on Wheathill (nos 18, 24 and 33) and one on Wilbury Road (no 115), which gives us good spread around where Percy Westell identified the original site and where the assistant curator at Letchworth Museum (name?) dug trenches in 1956. Roman ceramics are turning up in the topsoil, so there is clearly going to be good evidence for the ancient site.

The most productive of the pits is that at 33 Wheathill, where there is a good mixture of Romano-British greywares, orange ware, possible amphora and samian. This suggests to me that this is the closest pit to the centre of the settlement, whatever for it took. In the other Wheathill trenches, the Roman material is much more worn; the is a nice fragment of lava, presumably from a quernstone, from number 24. At 115 Wilbury Road, there is a highly burnished sherd from what appears to be a small globular vessel, which looks rather Middle Iron Age at first sight: it will be interesting to see what it’s like after washing.

It’s fairly slow progress this morning, with everyone still in topsoil. I hope that by lunchtime, in 50 minutes or so, the topsoil will have been just about removed from all the trenches. On the other hand, it might be a lot deeper than I’m anticipating.

After lunch, the trench at 33 Wheathill seems to be coming down onto a new, stonier deposit. There are fewer finds at this depth (which is around 0.2 m. None of the trenches was out of topsoil/ploughsoil by the end of the day: although there are plenty of Romano-British finds, they don’t really tell us anything that we don’t already know. We need to find structural evidence, or at least surfaces, to help characterise the nature of the activity here.

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