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Archaeology

We haven’t done any excavation on the project this summer but we have been working hard on making sense of everything we have found over the last five years. In particular, we have been trying to understand how the Middle Iron Age timber features and bank and ditch of the New Laund Enclosure fit together.

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Alex is working on this for his Masters dissertation. He is re-examining the existing geophysics, like this gradiometer plot of the features from 2011, looking at the ceramics and metalworking slag from the topsoil and re-evaluating the excavations from 2012 and 2013.

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However, he has also been doing some fieldwork. We now have a(nother) new toy. This is the Ground Penetrating Rader set in action on the enclosure interior last Friday. (obviously the only damp day of last week). It looks like a lawnmower† but inside the bit that looks as if it should be the grass-collecting box are three different frequency rader antennae. GPR works by detecting these radar waves as they bounce off any sub-surface features.

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This is the driver’s eye view, taken as I paused during one of my traverses. The tablet screen shows three vertical slices through the ground directly beneath the machine, one for each frequency of radar in use. We recorded 130 of these traverses on Friday, and therefore 390 scans in total, covering a 28 by 18 metre area just to the west of trench D from 2012 and trench H from 2013.

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This is only the third time we have used the GPR but I’ve already learnt that, laborious although the data collection feels while you are doing it, the real work will start next week when we download the data and begin the computer processing. The vertical slices you see on the screen as you are recording the data are extremely confusing to look at. They show the time the radar waves take to travel through the ground, rather than any scale measurement of what is beneath you. They also show multiple reflections from any target. To get anything which will be comparable to the existing ‘plan view’ geophysical results Alex is going to have to process all these effects and reflections out and then stack all the vertical traverses up together in their right geographical location next to each other.

Once this is done then it will be possible to virtually ‘slice’ through these at right angles and produce many plan views at different depths. Some of these will hopefully show the post-holes and foundation slots of the timber features. Of course the great strength of the GPR is that, unlike other geophysical techniques, you get this three dimensional view. Hopefully, not only will we be able to see if there are features in the area we surveyed but we should also be able to tell whether they are at the right depth to be part of the same structures as the features we dug in this area in 2012 and 2013.

Rick

†On Friday I kept thinking that actual lawnmower blades on the front of the antennae set would be a good after-market accessory. We had to push through some very stubborn tussocks of reeds to do the survey.

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Well, nearly. Only slightly later than promised, I’ve managed to write the second part of the summary of our recent dating project. As well as re-dating the New Laund Enclosure to the Middle Iron Age, these results have also helped us pin down dates for some of the archaeology around the Whitewell Enclosure.

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We have one date from the top of the outer ditch, here in trench Q. This is on charcoal from an oak twig at the very top of the secondary fill of the ditch and it calibrates to between 1530 and 1425 BC. This ought to mean that the outer ditch, which of course is now completely buried, was still a visible feature in the landscape in the Middle Bronze Age.

This helps to make sense of one of the important questions about this site. Here we have a complex of lots of pits inside the three concentric ditches of the enclosure. Many of the finds from the pits and the enclosure look very similar but we don’t know if the pits and ditches were in use at the same time, whether some of the pits are earlier than the enclosure ditches or whether the enclosure came first and the pits were a later response to the visible remains of an earlier enclosure (confused yet, I know I am).

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This is pit M13, inside the enclosure, which we dug in 2014. A date on a fragment of alder charcoal from the top fill of this pit (just about behind Connie’s head) shows that it was in use in the Middle Bronze Age too, between 1500 and 1405 BC. M13 looks to be a long lived pit with many layers and both this date and the enclosure date are from the end of the sequence. All we can really say here is these things were still visible dents in the ground in the Middle Bronze Age.

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Pit N06 should have been the last in the complex of pits we excavated in 2014 in trench N. There are two dates from this pit fill, which cover the whole of the Early Bronze Age. One calibrates to between 2270 and 2030 BC and the later one to between 1745 and 1620 BC.

All of this tends to suggest that the pits and the Whitewell enclosure both begin before the Middle Bronze Age and have a long sequence. This makes it much more likely that, unlike what appears to have happened at the New Laund Enclosure, the worked stone tools (which seem to be Neolithic and Bronze Age) go with the excavated features.

Thanks to Denise at Oxford Archaeology (North), who identified all the wood in the first place, Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit and Beta Analytic Inc, who did the actual dating, and the Natural Environment Research Council and University of Central Lancashire, who paid for it all.

Rick

 

Last time I posted about radiocarbon I reported on an unexpected Iron Age date from the New Laund enclosure. At the time I suggested that the charcoal we dated had been moved into an earlier layer and I fingered the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris as the probable culprit. I can now completely and unreservedly withdraw this accusation.

Just about two weeks ago we had another batch of radiocarbon results back. These were all on charcoal fragments that Denise identified from the excavations at the New Laund and Whitewell Enclosures. Now I’ve had chance to think about what these results mean it is clear that we need to radically reassess our ideas about the New Laund Enclosure.

We have being trying to do two things with radiocarbon at New Laund. First to get dates that were both earlier than the construction of the circle of posts in the middle of the enclosure and then others that were later than its demolition – giving us an idea of not only when it was built but how long it was in use for. We were also trying to get dates from the enclosure ditch, to confirm our suspicion that the circle of posts and the ditch were in use at the same time.

(Very) long term readers may just about be able to recall that early in the 2012 season, when we started to dig the New Laund Enclosure, we fleetingly considered the idea that the site might be Iron Age. Then we started to find large quantities of worked stone tools, showing that there had been lots of either Neolithic or Early Bronze Age activity on this bit of the hill, and came to the conclusion that the features we were digging were likely to be of that date too.

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One of our new dates comes from here, about half way up the fill of the New Laund Enclosure ditch, and it calibrates to somewhere between 390 and 205 BC, right in the middle of the Middle Iron Age.

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On the timber structure itself we have the date from the bottom of this posthole showing construction also started in the 4th or 3rd centuries BC.

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And now we have another one from this upper fill of the same feature with exactly the same calibrated date range: 395  to 350 or 305  to 210 BC. This is excellent,as it allows us to combine the archaeological information with the radiocarbon dates. One radiocarbon date on its own tells you that there is a 94.5% chance that the thing you are dating died between a given range of dates. So the date from the base of the posthole only really told us that the structure was built at some point after 395 BC. Now we have this second date, which should have gone into the ground after the posts were removed, we can now be much more confident that the building, use and demolition of the structure all falls into the period between 395 and 210 BC.

What is round, later prehistoric and made of wood? Now we have an Iron Age date for this structure then the temptation to take our former timber circle, imagine a big round thatched roof on it and call it a roundhouse is very strong. If it is an Iron Age roundhouse it is a very big one. And, of course, the date from the main ditch suggests that it has a big enclosure around it. I am off to look up possible local parallels, which should make a whole blog post all on their own. There is also the question of what was going on at the site in the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age to leave all the worked stone artefacts we have found. However, next week’s post, assuming I get all the dissertations marked before then, will be an update on the new results from the Whitewell Enclosure, where the finds and the radiocarbon dates are in much closer agreement.

Rick

As it has been a little while* since my last post I thought I had better try and sum up all the progress we have had with the various projects since I last posted. This will chiefly involve telling you about what other people have been up to. I have been supervising five dissertations based on work we’ve done. These are all due in during the next month, so they are doubtless evolving and changing all the time, but I thought I would try and give you a flavour of what each student is up to and how it feeds into our overall research.

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Phil is looking at the prehistoric pits in and around the Whitewell Enclosure for his BSc project. He is interested in how the objects we found in each layer got to be there and what the differences were between the different shapes of pit. Inspired by work on big Neolithic pit complexes in East Anglia, he has been spreading all the finds from each layer in each pit out on tables in the archaeology lab to look for similarities and differences. This should hopefully let us see which pits are roughly the same date and were used in comparable ways.

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James is using all the magnetometer surveys carried out at New Laund since 2011 to look at what effect a whole lot of different factors have on the effectiveness of this kind of survey. Apart from involving him and Scott spending a lot of last summer walking up and down the farm, he has been pulling together information about the geology, topography and excavated archaeology. The plan is to be able to use this detailed information to give a really precise interpretation of all of the surveys.

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Dan is still working on the environmental evidence for his masters dissertation. Alongside the core he and Mairead took last summer he has been analysing a second core from further up the Hodder valley. We think that both the peat bogs sampled built up over the last 6000 years so together they should give a good picture of how the local environment changed during the period that the sites we have been digging were in use.

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Josh has been analysing the human and animal remains we excavated from Dunald Mill Hole in October last year for his BSc dissertation. He has discovered that the human bone from this site all seems to come from the same Romano-British child as the front of the skull first discovered by Di. Most of the bone is from the skull, although Josh has found a fragment of arm-bone too. He is sure that the original burial site was either at the entrance or even some way outside the cave and that all the bone was washed into the back of Pearl Passage, where we found it.

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Chelsea is re-analysing the human remains from George Rock Shelter, which Stephen and I excavated between 2005 and 2007. The bone and teeth from this site were originally studied by former students Gemma and Genvieve shortly after the dig finished. However, that was before we got radiocarbon evidence to show that although some of this bone is Neolithic there was also a much more recent burial at the site. For her BSc dissertation Chelsea has been trying to find a way to distinguish the ancient and (relatively) modern within the mass of mixed up fragments of bone.

*or if we are being strictly honest absolutely ages, apart from reblogging Julia’s lovely appreciation of Stephen, I now see that I haven’t posted anything here since October last year

I was out at Thornton earlier in the week to talk to the Wyre Archaeology Group about the discoveries we have made on the project and coincidently we have just had the first unofficial results from the radiocarbon dating programme. At the moment the dates don’t have lab numbers but they were all carried out by the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Lab and funded by the Natural Environment Research Council’s NRCF scheme and we are very grateful for their support. As mentioned in previous posts we submitted bits of charcoal and bone from various features to try to build up a history of when the site was in use.

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This is [N06] the first feature that we have good dates for, the latest of a complex of intercutting pits inside the Whitewell enclosure and seen here being excavated by Phil and Kayla in July 2014. There were two layers in this pit and we managed to get a date from both of them. The lower fill built up sometime between 2271 and 2033 BC and charcoal was still going into the upper fill around 300 years later, as we have a date from that layer of between 1746 and 1618 BC. These dates belong at the beginning and end of the Early Bronze Age in Britain. We have always thought that [N06] was later than most of the other archaeology in this area, because the fill of it was visible as a charcoal spread from much higher in the sequence than some of the other pits. I think that this date shows that the complex as a whole was in use for a very long time, as we have a single late pit apparently in use for most of the Early Bronze Age. If the Whitewell Enclosure is a causewayed enclosure it should date to around 3600 BC, the use of the pits on the same hill clearly lasted for much longer than that. This is excellent news for our major project aim of trying to understand long-term landscape use and how people remembered special places.

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We also had some samples in from the presumed Late Neolithic henge and timber circle on the next spur of New Laund Hill. These included the single surviving piece of animal bone from that site (juvenile pig jaw) that Christina excavated with great care from the very sticky clay at the base of the henge ditch in 2012. This ought to have given us a very good date for when that ditch was originally dug but sadly, there was not enough collagen surviving in the bone to get a reliable result.

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We had two samples from this post-hole in the timber circle. One was a chunk of the cremation that was placed there after the post was put up and we are still waiting for that result to come back. The other was a small piece of hazel charcoal from base of the post-hole, which ought to tell us when the post was first erected. This date was entirely unexpected, given that timber circles are supposed to be either Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age. That piece of hazel was burnt sometime in the Middle Iron Age, between 396 and 209 BC.

There are two possible explanations for this. Either we have found a very large round-house on the top of a hill, which is just coincidently full of earlier prehistoric types of worked chert, or, and I think I favour this explanation, the hazel charcoal has been accidentally displaced downwards into a much lower level than it was in originally. We did find some crucible fragments and charcoal in this general area at a much higher level which could well be Iron Age. If this is the case then my prime suspect for this is the earthworm Lumbricus terrestris. Thanks to many conversations with Kevin and Chris, UCLan’s resident earthworm specialists, I have seen impressive evidence of the depth that these animals can burrow. A single worm digs a vertical burrow with chambers which can be more than a metre deep.

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The (potentially) guilty party. The date we still have pending on the cremated bone from the top of the post-hole will be interesting. If that is Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, which is more in line with our expectations, then we will assume the hazel charcoal was intrusive. If that is Iron Age too then the worms are off the hook (sorry) and we have to come up with a new interpretation for our timber circle.

Rick

Along with what seems like 3000 other archaeologists I have been in the west end of Glasgow last week for the European Association of Archaeologists annual conference. If you were trying to get into a pub on Byres Road on Friday night to watch Scotland play Georgia and couldn’t see the telly for intense looking people jabbering about metalwork or state-formation processes now you know why.

Unlike last year at Istanbul, when I gave a paper but was only there in spirit, I actually managed the two and a bit hours on the train up from Preston. Lindsey Buster and Eugene Warembol had organised a follow-up session to their Istanbul one last year. Once again this was on human remains from caves but looking at evidence from all periods across Europe and beyond. We started at 8.00 in the morning (I was on at the relatively civilised time of ten to nine) and had almost seven hours of information and discussion about dead people in caves.

Part of the joy of this sort of session is seeing the amazing range of discoveries people have made. Highlights this time included a jaw-droppingly well preserved 14th century burial of an archer from Mongolia excavated by the German Archaeological Institute in Ulan Bator. However, one of the things that seemed to strike everyone in the session (almost all of the closing discussion revolved around it) was how strikingly similar a lot of the evidence was from all periods and regions.

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Some of these similarities come about because, by definition, cave burial rituals share some fundamental structures. They all draw on the things that caves themselves can do to dead bodies: wash them away, cover them with flowstone, mix them up like a tumble dryer and make a handy space to have them eaten by bears and wolves. They are also structured by what happens to dead bodies as they get deader – basically the bits fall off in a fairly pre-determined order (pause to let osteoarchaeologists clutch their heads and roll their eyes at my over-simplification). Of course both of these constraining things are essentially universal. Human decomposition and karst geomorphology both work in the same way wherever you are in the world.

In our closing discussion we were debating how useful it is to generalise about cave burial and how much it helps to focus on the differences between rites in different places. I am not usually a big fan of generalisations in archaeology, so I slightly surprised myself during the discussion by putting lots of emphasis on the universal processes in the previous paragraph. However, we shouldn’t think of people carrying out funerals in caves as being forced by environmental and biological constraints to choose between a very restricted set of rites. Instead we need to remember that these people chose to make use of the powerful opportunities offered by the combination of geomorphology and decomposition. After all, cave burial is usually only one option out of many available to people at any given time in the past.

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Wildlife of the day. Hedgehog caught stealing the chickens’ grain when I went down to shut them up the night before I left for Glasgow.

Rick

We were very lucky at Whitewell to have lots of interested groups of visitors while we were excavating. We had formal visits like the Festival Bowland event and casual drop-in groups of hill-walkers wondering what all the inverted people were doing in the hole behind the electric fence. Every time this happened someone, usually me because I was the person on site least likely to be doing some essential part of the archaeological process,  would give a site tour and a bit of an explanation as to what a causewayed enclosure was. One question that a lot of people asked was why was there so much Neolithic activity around New Laund Hill?

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This is the view north from the summit of the hill on the day of the Bowland Festival walk. We are looking down over the site of the timber circle (between the sheep and the small rowan tree on the plateau everyone is walking towards) and the henge (which enclosed the whole plateau). The photo also shows the upper part of the Hodder valley heading north really clearly. When we were giving tours we always said that this valley must have been an important routeway in the Neolithic period. The hill would have been visible from a long way away up and down the valley. It was a distinctive place along a well-frequented route. It was also being transformed from early on in the Neolithic as people dug pits on the side of it. Its distinctiveness and these transformation led to it becoming the site of first the gatherings at the causewayed enclosure and then the more formal ritual monuments of the henge and timber circle. At least, that was the story we told the punters this year.

Now I am back in the office and have time to look at maps and satellite images of northern England I have spent some time looking in a bit more detail at where these possible Neolithic routeways might go. All this is highly speculative, of course, but based on our blithe assertion on site that the big river valleys like the Hodder and Ribble act as routeways I have drawn lots of Dad’s Army style arrows all over the north.

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One thing that this has shown is that, if you were coming from the west along the RIbble and heading for Yorkshire, then you might well use the Hodder as your main route east instead of the Ribble. Both will get you up into the Pennines and into Swaledale (take this route for East Yorkshire and good flint sources) and Teesdale (take this route for the Vale of Mowbray and Scandinavia).

Heading north-west through the Trough of Bowland would, in theory, give you a route up into the Lakeland fells and to the stone axe source at Langdale. However, unless you had another reason for visiting Whitewell, there would have been lots of more direct routes from almost anywhere to the Lakes.

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Wildlife of the day – very small moorhen chicks going for their first swim on the Lancaster canal yesterday. Taken on my crappy old phone so apologies for the image quality.

Rick