Two thousand years of farming in the Severn Vale

Middle Bronze Age to Roman remains at Cleevelands, Bishop’s Cleeve

Bishop’s Cleeve, a popular village near Cheltenham, has expanded rapidly since the 1990s, providing opportunities for archaeologists to investigate the underlying remains. It occupies low-lying ground within the Severn Vale, with the Cotswold uplands nearby. Although much of the vale lies above clays, Bishop’s Cleeve sits on well-drained sandy gravels, and this probably attracted the Iron Age, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and later people whose traces have been recorded during previous investigations. When Persimmon South Midlands decided to develop land north-west of Bishop’s Cleeve for housing, Cotswold Archaeology were called in to investigate the archaeology.

The site, looking east towards Bishop’s Cleeve, with the Cotswold hills in the distance
The site, looking east towards Bishop’s Cleeve, with the Cotswold hills in the distance

The earliest remains were a few flint tools spanning the long duration (10,000–3000BC) of the Mesolithic to Early Neolithic and dropped by hunter-gatherers visiting the valley floor.

Log ladder
Log ladder

Longer term settlement was established during the Middle Bronze Age (1500–1100BC), by which time the site occupied an established agricultural landscape, with grazing, arable fields, hedgerows and woodland patches. Within the site, a single roundhouse and ancillary building were built. Some 85m away, a small cemetery contained the cremated remains of seven individuals, perhaps the former inhabitants of this family sized farm which would have been one of many within this well managed landscape. Several large pits were found 200m from the roundhouse, within what was then damp ground alongside woodland or a hedgerow. These deep pits had been lined with wood, but their functions are uncertain: they are unlikely to have been waterholes or quarries, and one possibility is that they were shafts used for ritual purposes, such as communing with underworld deities.

scutching knife
Scutching knife

One of the pits contained the remains of a log ladder, hewn from a single piece of oak, as well as a tankard-sized vessel made from stitched bark, and a wooden implement used for processing plant fibres. The ladder had been used to access the pit floor, but the bark vessel, wooden implement and other items (antlers, a gold strip, a flint arrowhead, pottery and animal bone) were probably cast into the pits as offerings.

Middle Bronze Age pit with log ladder in situ
Middle Bronze Age pit with log ladder in situ

 

The site was re-occupied during the Early to Middle Iron Age (700–100BC) when several roundhouses were built across what continued to be an agricultural landscape. Enclosures on drier sandy gravels in the southern part of the site were probably for penning cattle and sheep/goats that were grazed on open clay land alongside the Dean Brook. Several grain storage pits suggest that this farmstead also had an arable element.

This pattern of enclosures on the drier sands/gravels and open grazing to the north persisted beyond the Roman invasion. Isotope analysis of sheep and cattle bones from the site indicates that most of the farm’s animals were reared there; the exception may have been brought in from the Cotswold uplands, although whether this points to transhumance or the importation of breeding stock is unknown. A smithy within the farm had been used to repair and recycle tools and jewellery.

Arable production intensified from the 2nd/3rd centuries AD. An unusually high number of millstones suggests proximity to a watermill, whilst the remains of portable clay ovens reflect the provision of hot food to agricultural labourers during harvesting or sowing. Harvested crops would have been winnowed in the fields then dried within ovens to prevent spoilage when stored. One such oven contained charred cereals from a subsequent stage of processing, where the grains taken from storage are heated to harden them to facilitate milling.

The implications are that during the later Roman period, grain was milled at a central mill and labourers worked the fields; this suggests intensification and centralisation, perhaps indicating that the farm had become part of a villa estate. Indeed, Roman roof and flue tiles from the site do suggest proximity to a Romanised building. As part of the wider economy, the farm could have supplied nearby Glevum (Gloucester), accessible within a day’s travel.

A small number of these farmers were buried within the site. They were robust, having lived long enough to display diseases associated with ageing and to show signs of their farm labouring. They had adopted elements of Roman culture, seen for example in their choice of pottery for food storage, preparation and serving, and in their use of brooches to fasten clothing. They also retained Iron Age traditions, burying a neonate and cow in ditches, burying some adults in crouched positions and enjoying an Iron Age-style diet rich in meat, dairy and emmer wheat. They probably viewed themselves primarily as farmers, rather than ‘Roman’, although no doubt they interacted in different ways with different people depending on context. The range and quality of the finds is typical for a farmstead of this period, and these farmers’ wealth would have been invested largely in their livestock and crops. They were able to trade for jewellery, pottery and, presumably, perishables, but were frugal, recycling and repairing when possible, whilst depositing material within pits and ditches as propitiatory acts to ensure future productivity.

What effect the development of a villa nearby would have had on their lives and attitudes is unknown but there are hints that during the mid/later Roman period they were integrated into a villa estate, the owner of which may have had more Romanised aspirations. Burials from these centuries were placed in the extended body position typical of Romano-British traditions and the impression is that engagement with a Romanised market economy went hand in hand with greater acceptance of Roman cultural expressions. 

Early post-Roman remains were sparse, but settlements of this date can be difficult to detect and are under-represented in the archaeological record. The latest dated cremation grave at Cleevelands dates to the 5th/6th centuries AD, whilst Anglo-Saxon organic-tempered pottery from a pit dates to the 5th–8th centuries.

A full report can be downloaded from the Reports Online page of this website https://reports.cotswoldarchaeology.co.uk/ (report 18495).

Author: Jon Hart

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A Roman site at Llanwern, South Wales

Between September 2019 and January 2020, Cotswold Archaeology undertook an excavation at Llanwern in South Wales on behalf of RPS Planning and Development and Redrow, on a site occupying the east face of a hill overlooking the Gwent Levels.

The investigations revealed a complex including several stone-founded Roman buildings, terraced into the hillside. These included two stone-built circular buildings, a rectangular structure and an apsidal structure, with evidence for activity between the 2nd and 4th centuries AD. At least three other buildings were represented by partial ring-ditches, one containing a kiln or oven. Environmental samples taken from the oven may allow its function to be determined.

The rectangular structure, which measured 17m long and 7m wide, appears to have been the main building at the site. It had been subject to at least three phases of modification over time. The western side of the building had been cut into the terrace, with made ground to the east used to provide a level construction surface for the structure’s eastern extent. Two areas of mosaic flooring were identified, possibly representing a room and an associated corridor, which had potentially been separated by a wooden partition wall. The mosaics have been dated on stylistic grounds to the 4th century AD.

The main rectangular building, facing east
The main rectangular building, facing east
Remnants of mosaic from one of the rooms of the building
Remnants of mosaic from one of the rooms of the building

The function of the rectangular building is currently uncertain, although a complex series of stone-lined culverts drained water from a group of springheads at the west of the site down to the east, indicating that water-management played an important role in the use of the site. Many finds were recovered, including large quantities of Roman pottery, animal bone, ceramic building material (including tile), brooches and coins. The presence of unusual plate brooches amongst the assemblage raise questions as to whether the complex may have had a religious focus. One of the tile fragments bears the stamp of the Roman military unit Legio II Augusta, which was stationed at nearby Caerleon, suggesting a possible connection between the sites.

To the immediate north of the rectangular building, an impressive and well-constructed east-west aligned metalled trackway was formed from large unworked limestone blocks; the trackway measured at least 50m long and 4.8m wide, with its size and method of construction suggestive of a high volume of traffic.

 

The well-constructed trackway
The well-constructed trackway

At the west end of the site, an apsidal structure was terraced into the hillside; the internal area of the structure contained natural stone that had been exposed to create an area of hard standing, with a surface constructed on top, presumably for extra consolidation. The function of the structure is currently uncertain; interpretative possibilities being considered include a nymphaeum, a church, a shrine or possibly even a theatre, which utilised the slope as a spectator area.

The apsidal structure and adjacent rectangular building
The apsidal structure and adjacent rectangular building

This structure abutted a heavily truncated rectangular building, which contained a cremation burial and an inhumation burial. The latter burial had been placed in a prone (face-down) position. These burials raise the possibility that this building formed part of a mausoleum.

Other features identified at the site include an area of metalworking, water tanks and features interpreted as possible quarry pits.

It is hoped that analysis during the post-excavation stage will allow questions about some of the unusual aspects of the site to be answered.

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Cotswold Archaeology Wins Prestigious Book of the Year Award!

The 12th annual Current Archaeology Awards were held on Friday 28th February at Senate House in London, and we are very pleased to announce that our collaborative book, Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain, won the award for Book of the Year!

Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman BritainThe book is the third and final volume in the ‘New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain’ series; it deals with the rural people of Roman Britain…how they looked, lived, worshiped, died, and how they were treated in death. Cotswold Archaeology was a major partner in this hugely successful Leverhulme Trust funded project, along with the University of Reading, the Archaeology Data Service and Historic England. CA’s Neil Holbrook acted as a series editor for the volumes, and the volume was co-authored by our very own Tom Brindle (Post-Excavation Manager). More information about the project is available on the ADS website, where you can download a free PDF of volume 1 in the series, and access the online database.

A review of the book was published in the January 2019 edition (no. 347) of Current Archaeology, and the volume can be purchased from Oxbow Books.

2020 is CA’s most successful year so far at the awards, with our first win to date and a record three nominations in total. CA’s two other nominations were also for collaborative projects, with Revealing Boxford’s Ancient Heritage nominated for Research Project of the Year, and Exercise Shallow Grave up for Rescue Project of the Year.

Congratulations to all of the award winners!

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A moated site near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire

Last autumn, the CA field team excavated a moated site near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire. The moat had largely been infilled during the late 20th century, while post-medieval domestic buildings within the interior were demolished following a fire in 2005. The moat is now surrounded by a large industrial estate and business park, although it originally occupied a rural location. Despite this, it was deeply stratified, requiring three phases of mechanical stripping.

The demolished remnants of the post-medieval domestic buildings within, and contemporary bridge across, the moat
The demolished remnants of the post-medieval domestic buildings within, and contemporary bridge across, the moat

At the west of the site, the first site strip identified the later moat fills as well as the 18th and 19th-century domestic structures, all of which correlated closely with the available 19th-century cartographic evidence. Disappointingly, the moat here was relatively shallow, typically no more than 2m deep, and only 18th to 20th-century artefacts were recovered from within the four hand-excavated interventions.

The island created by the moat contained a number of later medieval/early post-medieval ditches and a stone culvert, which were clearly cut by the moat’s western arm before extending beyond the limit of the site. This suggested that the western part of the surviving moat was not medieval in origin, but possibly part of a much later formal landscaped garden, contemporaneous with the post-medieval buildings.

Outside the moat, immediately to the north, re-stripping revealed the footprint of a large medieval aisled barn. This stone building was very close to a post-medieval brick bridge across the moat’s northern arm, indicating that the building and the bridge were not contemporaneous. The stone barn was at least 35m long, 8m wide, and had eight surviving central stone post-pads within its interior. It had been roofed with Cotswold stone slates, although only the smaller pegged tiles survived.

The post-medieval western arm of the moat
The post-medieval western arm of the moat

Hand-excavation within the moat’s northern and eastern arms revealed a strikingly different sequence, and here it reached a depth of 3.5m. Organic-rich fills lay beneath the post-medieval deposits and, importantly, the earliest fills produced exclusively 12th to 14th-century pottery.

A bridge, contemporaneous with the medieval moat fills, was identified crossing the eastern arm, comprising interior and exterior stone abutments of finely dressed and coursed limestone. Two large, squared timbers (each 5m long and 0.4m square) were incorporated into the stonework, founded on the exposed natural clays at the moat’s base. Several upright timbers had been incorporated into the base timbers with mortice and tenon joints. While the interior stone abutment survived in good condition, the exterior stonework had suffered a catastrophic failure, which presumably rendered this bridge unusable.

The medieval stone abutments and exposed timber structure
The medieval stone abutments and exposed timber structure
Evidence for the failure of the exterior stone abutment pushing against the upright timber
Evidence for the failure of the exterior stone abutment pushing against the upright timber

The findings bring into question the true extent of the medieval moated site. It is now speculated that the original medieval moat enclosed a much larger area, probably extending west into an area truncated by modern flood alleviation works. This postulated part of the moat may have been truncated (or completely abandoned) when an early post-medieval mill race was constructed along the western limit of the site.  The surviving western arm is certainly much later (possibly 18th century) and runs parallel with the mill race; its most likely interpretation is as a post-medieval garden feature, albeit one that perhaps re-instated the dynamics and grandeur of a moated site.

Cliff Bateman

 

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Filming with Tern TV for Channel 4’s “Bone Detectives: Britain’s Buried Secrets”

In 2019, CA was contacted by the production company Tern TV, who had been commissioned to create a new series of programmes to be aired on Channel 4, specifically investigating the post-excavation side of sites where human remains had been found.

The cemetery CA excavated in 2016 at Weyhill in Andover was an ideal candidate. The site had all the elements needed for a TV programme.  There was a question to investigate – was this an execution cemetery? And we had a wealth of evidence with which to explore this question – scientific analysis using isotopes and radiocarbon dating had been undertaken, documentary sources exist, and of course we have the bones themselves.

CA osteoarchaeologist Sharon Clough had undertaken the analysis of the bones, so Tern TV asked Sharon to come into the studio and film with the series presenters, Tori Herridge and Carla Valentine. Project Officer Jeremy Clutterbuck, who had led the excavation, was invited to film on location in what is now a supermarket carpark. In fact, the hashtag #carparkdetectives became a theme during production of the series due to the number of sites which are now, or were once, carparks!

studio in BelfastThe studio was in Belfast, so Sharon was flown out to spend two and a half very long days filming in July, on what were some of the hottest days of the summer – with the baking weather and studio lights combined, it was unbearably hot! With little prior TV work (except for an episode of Time Team as a digger), this was a relatively new experience for Sharon, with a steep learning curve, although Tori and Carla were very supportive and helpful, as were the rest of the production company.

Taking part in the series provided a fantastic opportunity to present to the public the sobering story of this fantastic site, allowing it to reach a far wider audience than public lectures alone.

The episode will be broadcast on Channel 4 at 8PM on Saturday 25th January 2020 and will subsequently be available on Catch Up. We hope you enjoy the it – watch this space for news about our forthcoming book about the site!

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Current Archaeology Awards: Voting closes on 10 February 2020!!!

The nominations for the 2020 Current Archaeology Awards have just been announced, and we are proud to say that this year CA has been nominated for not one, not two, but THREE awards, each in separate categories! Voting is now live, so please vote for CA at the Current Archaeology website. You can vote for all three if you wish…

An Anglo-Saxon Enigma: Encountering a Cherished Cotswold Child

Current archaeology awards logoIn the Rescue Project of the Year category, we have been nominated for Exercise Shallow Grave. This excavation was undertaken as part of the Ministry of Defence initiative, Operation Nightingale, and was a collaboration between Cotswold Archaeology, Breaking Ground Heritage, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Gloucestershire County Council.

Operation Nightingale was developed to use archaeology to aid in the recovery of injured and sick military service personnel and veterans. In May 2019, the Shallow Grave team excavated the site of a recently discovered Anglo-Saxon inhumation burial, which was highly fragile and located close to the surface, and was thus at risk of further damage or illicit disturbance. The excavation resulted in the discovery of a remarkable small group of Anglo-Saxon inhumation burials, including the grave of a child buried with an astonishing assemblage of grave-goods. You can read more about the discoveries in our previous story about the excavation.

Excavating Myths and Monsters: The Boxford Mosaic Revealed

Current archaeology awards logoOur continuing work at Boxford, in Berkshire, has been nominated in the Best Research Project of the Year category. The project is a collaboration with the Boxford History Project and Berkshire Archaeology Research Group, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. In summer 2019 we returned to the site of the now famous Boxford mosaic, initially uncovered in 2017, which depicts scenes from Greek Mythology including Bellerophon slaying the chimera. This year’s excavation allowed the full mosaic floor to be uncovered and recorded, and the results have been truly astounding. Further elements of the imagery on the mosaic have been revealed, showing a greater array of tales from Greek Mythology, and we also now have a better understanding of the development of the villa building in which the mosaic was placed.

Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain

Current archaeology awards logoLast but not least, we are thrilled to have been nominated for our collaborative book, ‘Life and Death in the Countryside of Roman Britain’. This volume is the third and final volume in the ‘New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain’ series; it deals with the rural people of Roman Britain…how they looked, lived, worshiped, died, and how they were treated in death. Cotswold Archaeology was a major partner in this hugely successful Leverhulme Trust funded project, along with the University of Reading, the Archaeology Data Service and Historic England. CA’s Neil Holbrook acted as a series editor for the volumes, and the volume was co-authored by our very own Tom Brindle (Post-Excavation Manager). More information about the project is available on the ADS website, where you can download free PDFs of volume 1 and volume 2 in the series, and access the online database.

Voting closes on 10th February 2020, and the winners will be announced at the Current Archaeology Live! 2020 conference, to be held at the University of London’s Senate House on 28-29 February – more information on the conference can be found at www.archaeology.co.uk/live

We’d be grateful for your votes!

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