If a tree falls in the woods and then we dig it up thousands of years later, does it make a sound?

Over the last ten years British universities have been very keen on what they call ‘research informed teaching’. This is Higher Education jargon for academics remembering to pass on the results of the research work they are doing to the undergraduates they teach and, ideally, involving the students in the research process too. In archaeology we’ve always been proud of how we do this. Staff and students work together on research projects as a core part of learning the practical skills on an archaeology degree.

DSC_0256For example, many boxes being ticked at once. Scott, learning about gradiometer survey (teaching), working alongside Mike, who of course is a professional archaeologist with Oxford Archaeology (employability), while carrying out survey on the newly discovered site K (research).

Sometimes the process works the opposite way around. This week I have had a minor eureka moment about the interpretation of site K (just a couple of weeks after I had finished the interim report, obviously). The impetus for this was a paper on tree throws I re-read to prepare for teaching a seminar.

Beacon Fell tree throwThis is a tree throw, in case you were wondering. I took this picture on Beacon Fell last weekend (I was supposed to be helping to look for Yoda in the swamps of Dagobah, but I got distracted). The tree throw is the hollow created by the root mass of a tree when it is blown over. If it wasn’t filled up with swamp you would be able to see that a ragged crescent-shaped pit is formed right next to the sheltering wall of the roots.

The paper I was reading is by Chris Evans, Josh Pollard and Mark Knight, published in the Oxford Journal of Archaeology in 1999 (it’s on the newly re-organised reading list here). Previous archaeological discussions of tree throws had tended to treat them purely as a problem – i.e. how do you tell ‘proper’ archaeological features made by people apart from pesky tree throw hollows. Chris, Josh and Mark were the first archaeologists to suggest that tree throws were deliberately used by people in the past. Importantly, they also published detailed excavated examples of tree throws from various sites, showing how pottery and stone tools came to build up in them.

NL13_Trench_K_planThis is why this discussion is relevent to site K. In the north-east corner of that trench Jasmine found part of a crescent-shaped shallow feature. Within and above this feature were all the stone tools and waste stone (about 1400 pieces) that I have described previously. I think that it is clear now that what Jasmine’s team found here is another one of these tree throws that had been used by people.

This is a big step forward in understanding the prehistoric landscape. First of all it tells us something about the past environment, this bit of the hill was clearly wooded when people were living here in prehistory. Chris, Josh and Mark suggest that tree throws were important, in part, because they mark a part of the woodland which has become more open, more available for people to carry out lots of different tasks in. This might be better sight lines for hunting, grazing that attracts game animals or opportunities for small-scale cultivation. The throw itself also gives people a place to gain at least temporary shelter while they are doing these things (so long as it hasn’t filled up with water like my Beacon Fell example, but then it has been exceptionally wet over the last month).

Site K, like Fairy Holes and Mouse Hole, is another example of a natural place which was inhabited by prehistoric people. Interestingly, the other two, despite being permanent stone features, seem to have been much less intensively used than the transient space created by a falling tree at site K.


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