A multi-period landscape at Commonhead, Swindon

In the summer of 2021, CA’s site team excavated a series of trenches and a 2.1ha area at Commonhead, Swindon. Previous trenching by Oxford Archaeology and Wessex Archaeology had recorded possible early medieval, Roman, and even prehistoric activity within the site, and excavations to the north by Headland Archaeology (as part of the wider Commonhead/Badbury Park residential development) had uncovered significant evidence for Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, and medieval settlements.

We too recovered artefacts and identified features from across a broad swathe of human history, including Mesolithic and Neolithic flintwork; Bronze Age cremation urns; a possible burnt mound; Iron Age and Roman enclosures, field systems, and cremation burials; and evidence of early medieval activity across the site.

Site plan, showing previous evaluation trenches (pink - OA; brown - WA; and blue - CA)
Site plan, showing previous evaluation trenches (pink – Oxford Archaeology; brown – Wessex Archaeology; and blue – Cotswold Archaeology)
MesolithicNeolithic flint blade
Mesolithic/Neolithic flint blade

Although the trenching suggested the site had supported Bronze Age or Iron Age settlements, only limited features of prehistoric date were recorded during our excavations; these were, however, interesting nevertheless. Residual flintwork was recovered from several features, indicating use of the landscape during the Mesolithic and Neolithic. At the north-western edge of our excavation area, the remnants of a possible burnt mound were uncovered, adjacent to a possible former watercourse; the mound had been heavily damaged by later ploughing, but consisted of a spread of fire-cracked stones. Two pits, discovered at the eastern edge of our site, contained cremation urns of Middle Bronze Age to Early Iron Age date. Bronze Age pottery was also recovered from a number of later features, further suggesting a focus of Bronze Age activity in the area, perhaps associated with the settlement evidence found by Headland Archaeology’s more northerly excavation.

Circular Roman enclosure
Circular Roman enclosure

Later Iron Age and Roman activity was the most widely attested on site, with field-systems, trackways, enclosures, and further cremation burials recorded, all containing abundant pottery of 1st to 4th century AD date. Typically, it looks like the main settlement area lies outside of our site boundary and it is possible that this field system represents the agricultural landscape associated with an affluent Roman villa, previously identified to the south-east in rescue excavations during the construction of the M4 motorway in 1969 to 1971.

Early medieval activity was also identified at the site, with pottery of 5th to 8th century AD date recovered from the upper fills of several of the Roman ditches. The villa to the south-east is known to have been occupied into the Early medieval period, and the infilling of these ditches may be related to this final phase of settlement on the villa estate.

The archaeology identified during the course of the excavation was not what was expected, but still provides a fascinating insight into prehistoric, Roman, and early medieval activity in the area. The team on site did an excellent job of digging the site, and overcoming very difficult ground conditions, to meet some tight deadlines.

Alex Thomson

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