It’s only six weeks since I promised a more detailed post on the results of this summer’s excavations ‘in a few days’. Sorry about that. The life part of the work/life balance has been getting some much needed attention over the summer. However, now is the time to focus on work again, so I am going to go back to blogging instead.

I realise that I described the results of this summer’s work fairly thoroughly in my last post but one, so I will try to concentrate in this one on giving some interpretation and context. There are two main components to the archaeology we have been investigating this summer.

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First, there are the medium and large bowl-shaped pits we excavated in trenches M and N. This is the big one in trench N. Pits of this shape are typical of the Neolithic period in Britain, many large clusters of them have been excavated all over the country, particularly on excavations in advance of quarrying. There is a very good summary of the archaeology of these pits in Regional Perspectives on Neolithic Pit Deposition, edited by Julian Thomas and Hugo Anderson-Whymark, which includes all the papers from a Neolithic Studies Group conference in 2010 ( I have put the full details of this on the reading list page).

As always in archaeology, there are lots of complex regional variations but the over-riding theme is that these pits mark areas where people lived. We believe that most of the population was still at least partly mobile at this date so these are unlikely to have all been permanent  settlements (and the pits are often not found near houses). Where the soil conditions allow good preservation then archaeologists see complex patterns of associations between, stone tools and waste, animal bone and pottery. It is likely that these structured dumps of rubbish were put into the pits at the end of each temporary occupation of that particular part of the landscape.

Our soils are quite acid (despite the limestone bedrock) and so no animal bone survives from the pits but we have found a lot of stone tools and tool making waste. We also found lots and lots of charcoal but, surprisingly, no pottery. Despite the lack of pottery I am reasonably convinced that our pits are examples of this sort of thing: dating, if I was to stick my neck out, to the Early Neolithic.

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The other big discovery of this summer was, of course, the series of shallow ditches running around this part of the hill. This is one of them after excavation in trench Q. They are nothing like as impressive as the Late Neolithic Henge ditch further up New Laund Hill. They are shallow, sometime discontinuous (at least they are on the gradiometer plot) and there seems to be at least two circuits one inside the other. If this ditched enclosure is also Neolithic (and that is what the finds from trench P seem to suggest) then it might be related to a kind of monument called a causewayed enclosure.

Actual causewayed enclosures are Earlier Neolithic circular sites which were surrounded by rings of non-defensive ditches with lots of gaps in them (hence causewayed enclosure). They are most common in southern England, where they seem to have been a central place for people to meet and exchange all kinds of things. There is another Neolithic Studies Group volume, also on the reading list, edited by Tim Darvill and Julian Thomas with some good papers on these sites. What we have is not a causewayed enclosure, it is the wrong shape, and in the wrong bit of the country, but it may have been used in a similar way.

Wildlife of the day has to be Toads because I have to go back into work tomorrow.

Rick

We got to work this morning, on the penultimate day of the project, to find that the swallow fledglings in our barn have grown up and left home. If you read a metaphor this clunky in a novel you would fling the book away in despair. Sometimes, I suppose, life really does have to be like a box of chocolates.

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Today was tractor day. We have all been working like crazy to get all the sites completed so that Tom could help us backfill them. This will just be a short post with lots of pictures and then I will post some more considered thoughts on the results from each trench over the next few days.

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The largest archaeological task we still had to complete at the start of the day was to finish digging and recording the giant pit in trench N. Once we had dug out all the surviving fills we had left so we could draw the sections we needed to clean up the base of the pit, which Kayla is just finishing in this photo, before adding all the final spot heights to the plan.

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Once all this was completed and Tom had hoisted all the spoil back into the holes it needed a lot of spreading about with shovels.

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A bit of trampling and then a lot of re-turfing. Despite the complicated grass and thistle jigsaw we managed to get all the grass back on the trenches by the end of the day.

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We made another use of the big pit over dinnertime to grab a group photo. Thanks to everyone for all their fantastic hard work over the last four weeks. Left to right: Chloe, Tom, Connie, Scott, Kayla, James, Josh, Sammy, Laura, Katie, Chelsea, Mike, George, Ashley, James, Alex, Phil, Jack and Mike.

We found our mascot tiny toad again, hiding in the turves as we put them back, to be wildlife of the day.

Rick

Yesterday we got our magnetic powers back. Our gradiometer is still away being fixed but the replacement hire machine turned up on Monday. Mike, Scott and James have been using it to complete the survey of the pasture.

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Here is all the data, fifty seven 30 x 30 metre grids in total, after Mike and James processed it and I have located it onto the mapping in QGIS. This year’s trenches are marked in blue and you can see that the ditch we found in trench P (bottom left of the plot) continues around the hill. It then seems to curve up to the north, about level with survey point 24, before returning along the other side of the hill to where we put trench Q. Excitingly, there also seems to be another circular ditch inside the bigger one. This would just cover  the higher bit of the hill. Inside the ditches we can see many similar anomalies to the ones which we dug this year. These are all likely to be prehistoric pits too.

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We have even better evidence that the ditch continues around the hill from trench Q. Cut into the natural glacial clay here we have found a small v-shaped ditch with a silty upper fill. This is almost identical to the shape and fill of the rock cut ditch in trench P on the other side of the hill. Although it has quite a lot of charcoal in it, it doesn’t have anywhere near the density of worked stone we found in trench P. This may be because this part of the ditch is much further away from the big pit clusters, and hence the centre of the occupation area.

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The giant pit in trench N is a very good example of the kind of thing some of the other anomalies in the magnetic data probably represent. This one seems to have had quite a long period of use, with layers of filling visible. You can see the difference between a dark brown upper fill and a much lighter deposit at the base in the section behind Jack’s boots as he helps finish a final clean of this. I, meanwhile, was standing on the grab bags photo-directing to get the best possible shot of all these layers in their pit. I suspect this feature will finish up on the cover of this year’s interim report.

Mike saw two weasels playing on the way up the hill from the barn this afternoon. This was going to be wildlife of the day but is probably pipped by the trench Q selfie (if you call it a selfie when you take it on a Nikon D90 digital SLR).

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Apologies to Ravelry for stealing their pun for the title, and to James, whose job it normally is to make the puns on site.

Rick

Well, probably, given my general track record in this area, but we seem to be moving in a smooth and orderly fashion towards the end of the dig. Obviously, until every last bit of the site is excavated we won’t know if there are going to be any last-minute surprises to complicate our final week. However, we seem to be on top of all our paperwork, the weather is being remarkably benign (i.e. its not raining but the ground is damp enough for us to see soil colours) and everyone has worked tremendously hard.

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We are already just finishing up in trench P, as Katie and Jack sample the ditch sediments. We will also be taking a soil column from the opposite section to look for fossil pollen tomorrow and then trench P will be completely excavated, recorded and sampled.

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Unsurprisingly, given we only started digging it on Thursday last week, we are not anywhere near finishing trench Q. This is the trench we put in so we could see if the anomaly that runs around the hill on the magnetometer survey is actually part of the same prehistoric ditch we found in trench P. The hillwash and topsoil above any possible prehistoric features are particularly deep on this part of the hill but thanks to lots of hard work, we believe we have come down on to the top of another small ditch very similar to the one on the other side. It seems to be cut into the natural bedrock on the right of the photo and to extend just less than halfway across the base of the trench. We have had some worked stone and charcoal in this area, but not a great amount so far.

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This is trench N, looking very like an illustration from a 1950s excavation manual on how to dig a pond barrow. We have left standing baulks of sediment between the quadrants of the large pit. This should allow us to draw two cross-sections through the deposits which fill the pit at right angles to each other. Once this is done and we have sampled these sediments we will then be able to complete the digging of this pit by removing the standing baulks. Although this pit is quite shallow we have also discovered two smaller, deeper pits at the northern edge.

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Josh and George are filling out a context record to describe the sediment filling one of these pits, which you can see in the section behind Josh’s boots. We now realise that we have completely over-dug the other one, just visible behind Carol and Phil. This was a genuine archaeological feature, which probably was about as deep as the one being recorded now, but the natural subsoil which formed the base of the pit was so loose and damp that charcoal and worked stone kept falling into it. We therefore kept assuming that this loose stuff full of finds was still the fill of the pit and kept taking it out. In the end, the fact that there was no obvious difference between what we thought was the fill of the pit and the sediment which made up the sides and base made us see that we had gone down too far and we stopped.

This sort of thing happens all the time. It is an inevitable result of the fact that to find out if something is real or not you generally have to dig it. Sometimes you dig it and it’s not real and then you are left with a hole in the natural. It is a lovely cool damp hole, Mike found the wildlife of the day, another tiny toad, in it this morning. A toad, in the hole, do you see what we did there?

Rick

 

There is a lot written in archaeology and anthropology about the short-term settlements of Hunter-Gatherers and Nomadic pastoralists. Our own impact on the landscape has been steadily growing over the three weeks we have been working here. Like the prehistoric people who left the remains we are excavating, we now have a structured camp with regularly demarcated zones of activity. Thanks to John’s shopping trip to Argos we even have some ephemeral stake shelters to hide from the sun under.

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This was the view from the top of the hill yesterday afternoon, it was too hot to go up there again today. What is particularly interesting is that, despite the way we have spread out over the hillside, the dig site is hidden by the slope of the hill. Apart from trench Q, on the left of the picture, almost none of the dig area is visible as you walk up from the valley until you are almost upon it. Presumably the prehistoric habitation we are uncovering was similarly well hidden.

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Connie and Chelsea have finished drawing the cross-section through the deposits in their pit in trench M. Now they get the fun of digging out the rest of it.

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In trench N, the big feature is starting to make sense. It is a broad, but not particularly deep, pit which is filled with different layers of dumped material. All these layers have a lot of charcoal and stone tool making waste in them. Presumably they also once had quite a lot of other things in there which don’t survive. Our thinking at the moment about this is that it is the place where all the debris from each season of occupation on the site was cleared away and dumped. On the north side we have identified another smaller pit. Ashley is just cleaning it up in the photo while George interprets the evidence.

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We are just left with the recording to do on trench P. Katie and James have been drawing the long sections and are pausing to explain the process to passing visitors. They have been cleaning the sides of the trench again to do this and in the process have discovered traces of another posthole or small pit cut into the top of the ditch. That now makes three in this section. None of the posts would have been very big, but then the ditch wouldn’t have been very deep either. I think this probably means that we should think about this boundary or enclosure as something which persisted for a long time and was modified. It started out as a ditch cut into the limestone and later on was re-emphasised by having posts put up in it.

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Of course, all this would make much more sense if we could look at the enclosure boundary in more than one place. Therefore we started a new excavation, trench Q, yesterday. We only really have a week to deal with this in so it has to be small but hopefully perfectly formed and precisely located right on top of the enclosure ditch on the other side of the hill. Cat, Chris, Tom, Alex and James have been chopping through the topsoil and hillwash to try and get down onto the surface of the clay subsoil, which is where we expect the top of the ditch to show up.

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Don’t they seem to grow up fast nowadays. The fledglings that hatched last Saturday have turned from voracious perpetually open beaks to recognisable, if slightly grumpy looking, young swallows in less than a week. Big thanks to John for another round of excellent choc ices and Chris for a splendid supply of doughnuts.

Rick

We’ve done that thing again where we annoy the supernatural guardians of the ancient mysteries. I knew we should have left the gold tablet with all the runes on it alone. Yesterday, despite Mike’s best efforts, the Bartington gradiometer still wouldn’t work. This morning, after I had dropped everyone else off, I drove back to Preston with it. After several phone calls and some form-filling it has gone off back to Star Fleet Command in Oxfordshire to have its di-lithium crystals replenished. This, and arranging to hire a replacement so we can finish the survey next week, meant I was off-site for a good part of the day.

Around dinnertime I got a text from Mike asking ‘Did you back up the data from the total station last night?’. This is one of those messages that gives you a bad feeling as soon as you get it. As it happens I was able to answer ‘Yes’ but even as I replied I was thinking that there are no good scenarios that lead to that question. The total station is our primary recording tool on site. We use it to locate finds, put spot heights and grid points on our plans and to lay out trenches and survey grids. What can have happened to it? Eaten by cows? Carried off by buzzards? Melted by spirits from within the Ark of the Covenant?

When I got back to site at about 3.00 it was still standing there. At some point this morning it had shut itself down and in the process lost the job file with all our data so far in it. It is, needless to say, not supposed to do this sort of thing. Like all survey instruments it is built to automatically save data as it goes along and to only allow you to delete jobs manually and laboriously after going through at least three screens which say things like Warning! this reality will become unstable if you press delete! Are you sure you want to press delete? I’m sorry Dave, I can’t let you do that right now. Except this time it had. Fortunately Kayla spotted what had happened straight away and was able to re-do all the readings from today. Even more fortunately I had backed things up last night so we hadn’t lost data from the days before.

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While we were tapping computer screens and sucking our teeth, some people have been getting on with work. The very large prehistoric pit in trench N seems to have at least two fills. Josh and George are taking the last of the upper layer of darker brown soil off in their quadrant but in the two smaller quadrants behind them it has already gone. Beneath it is a much lighter soil which is still full of charcoal and worked stone. We have left the fourth quadrant alone for the moment as it is earlier than the pit which Phil is digging, so that needs finishing first.

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Digging is finished, at least for the moment, in trench P. The politest way to describe the rock cut ditch here would be slight, but it is a real prehistoric feature nevertheless. We have had two chert scrapers and a some very fine flint blades from the fill. James has been showing Jack and Katie how to draw a section through the deposits. Once we get a gradiometer again we will be looking for the line of this ditch around the rest of the hill.

Wildlife of the day, solitary magpies

Rick

The Bartington gradiometer is playing up. This is the device we use to look for variations in the earth’s magnetic field caused by buried archaeology. Using it is a bit of an arcane skill and, as I have posted before, what goes on inside the machine is a complete mystery. Mike and James have spent a lot of today trying to get the two tubes balanced so they can continue with the survey that they started last week.

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‘Getting the tubes balanced’ sounds exactly like the sort of pseudoscience Dr Who scriptwriters slip in to convince you that there isn’t a gaping hole in the plot and, like them, I am going to move swiftly on without attempting to explain what it all means. It’s broke, hopefully Mike can sort it tonight, otherwise it is going to have to go down to Oxford to be mended by people who actually understand physics.

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We have more positive progress in trench N. After cleaning up at the base of the hillwash we could see the fill of an absolutely colossal pit  (at least in area, we have no idea if it is similarly deep yet). We have divided this into quarters and are removing the fill in the north-east and south-west quadrants. That way we should be able to record vertical sections through the pit’s contents in two directions at once. This feature is full of charcoal and worked chert and flint and it is cut into the undisturbed glacial clay. Both of these things make us fairly convinced it is prehistoric.

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Big changes to the features in trench M too. What seemed to be a bowl-shaped pit has now turned out to have two substantial postholes in its base. Here Connie is just cleaning up the edge of one on the southern edge of the pit. This photo was taken this morning; before Chelsea found another very deep posthole on the east side this afternoon.

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The other pit in trench M, with a bit of encouragement from me and Mike, has just been getting bigger and bigger. Chloe, John and James sort out the mess after we have been round  – I think the edge is just back here somewhere (hack, hack, hack) Good, now if you clear up and follow that around….

Wildlife of the day was a big hare sitting in the meadow by Little Bowland road on the drive home.

Rick

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