Wood for the trees

Twice a year we have an oppotunity to bid for Natural Environment Research Council money to pay the Oxford University Radiocarbon Lab to do radiocarbon dates. Once of these deadlines was this Tuesday, so I have been on the scrounge for money again. You need a mass spectrometer to carry out radiocarbon dates so it’s not the sort of thing you can do in any old chemistry lab. If we had to pay for them individually each date would cost about £350, so you can see why this programme is a big help for archaeological research projects like ours. A couple of years ago I was part of a succesful bid with Sam, who was then a PhD student here, to get dates on a whole series of Early Bronze Age barrows from northern Britain. Sam has lots of details about the results here on her blog but we are also working on a joint paper about them (well, to be more strictly honest, Sam has done a lot of work and now the paper has landed in my in-box for me to get on with my bit next week).

Obviously NERC are not keen to chuck their money around dating things that they don’t think are important. I’ve posted previously about how we need to establish that we are dating viable samples but we also have to sell the project as a whole. Why is it important that we date these enclosures and how will this advance our knowledge of prehistory generally?

Denise, who identified all the charcoals for us, worked really hard to get a full list of the suitable samples ready for the deadline. What this also tells us, of course, is a lot more useful stuff about the finds distributions. Instead of a load of black blobs for ‘charcoal’ were are now in a position to look at what species of tree was being burnt where on site.

NL13 Trench D and H timber circle charcoal ids

This plan shows the identified charcoal from the timber circle we dug in 2012 and 2013. The dense concentration of charcoal around the entrance we always thought was connected with the cremation burial from the same place. Now we can see that the pyre fuel seems to have been predominantly alder and/or hazel. Most of the larger, slower growing trees like oak and ash come from different parts of the site.

This also helps confirm what we thought from the archaeology that, unlike some other timber circles, none of the big posts here were burnt down. If they had been we would have expected to see a lot more oak charcoal.

The charcoal finds from all the sites Denise has looked at so far has had a lot of hazel and alder in it. Although this is not as systematic as we hope the results from the wet sieved samples will be, it does give us a suggestion that in the Neolithic this was a landscape that was mostly small trees and bushes, rather than large forest species.


  1. are you going to date the cremated bone and the charcoal? 🙂

    • most of the crem bone isn’t very well stratified but there’s one good bit from the timber circle so I’ve asked for a date on that. There’s also the very mashed up bit of pig jaw from the bottom of the henge ditch but we might struggle to get 0.5g of that

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