Excavations by CA Andover in 2018 at land north of the A417 at East Challow near Wantage uncovered an important multi-period site, including prehistoric posthole alignments and a progression of Late Iron Age to Roman enclosures and boundary ditches. However, the most significant discovery was an early Anglo-Saxon settlement comprising 16 sunken-featured buildings (a type of structure common in the Anglo-Saxon period), pits and the remains of two possible timber halls.
Excavation of the sunken-featured buildings yielded assemblages of Anglo-Saxon artefacts commonly found in such contexts, including potsherds and spindle whorls, fired-clay loomweights and beads, a whetstone, and fragments of numerous objects of worked bone, including pins, a pin-beater, a handle, and several fragments of combs.
We routinely take soil samples while excavating our sites, looking for small fragments of plants, charcoal and snail shells that can be examined under a microscope. The range of material and mix of species in these assemblages can provide information on the local landscape, the nature of the settlement, the range of crops and crop-processing activities, and the nature of the local woodland.
As well as recovering artefacts, a large number of samples were taken from different parts of the sunken-featured buildings and other Anglo-Saxon features. We were looking to see if we could distinguish specific areas where different domestic activities were taking place within these buildings, such as crop processing, cooking or weaving. While the environmental assemblages provided no clear evidence for specific areas of activity, they did demonstrate that all these domestic activities had taken place at the Anglo-Saxon settlement.
The potential crops and food sources in these rich assemblages included wheat, barley, rye, cabbages, peas, beans, flax, hazelnuts and oats. These would all have been typical crops and food sources in this area at this time. Barley was the main cereal from the sunken-featured buildings, whereas wheat was the main cereal from samples Anglo-Saxon pits. The cereals would have been used to make bread, pottages, porridge and beer. It is possible that some of the barley and oats were also used as animal fodder.
The crops would have been grown on a number of different soils in the local area, including lighter drier chalk soils, heavier clay soils, sandier heath soils, and damper soils. Some of these soils would have been manured by grazing animals. The local woodland comprised oak, ash and hazel, but firewood was also collected from nearby hedgerows, scrub and damp, low-lying ground. The assemblages from the sunken-featured buildings in particular included a large number of mineralised seeds, stem fragments and nodules, and eggshell fragments, which provided clues to the Anglo-Saxon diet.
The environmental work, done back in the office looking down a microscope, supplemented the work done by the excavation team on site, and has helped us tell a fuller story of this Anglo-Saxon settlement.
Sarah Wyles and Pippa Bradley