Late Bronze Age ringwork in East Devon

Cotswold Archaeology’s excavations at Hill Barton, Exeter, which finished in 2015, are on the way to being fully published. One aspect of the site was the discovery of a Late Bronze Age ringwork enclosure with a central roundhouse whose rarity in the region has prompted the publication of a summary article in the Prehistoric Society’s Autumn edition of The Past newsletter (pages 14-16).

The enclosure, measuring 37 m across and defined by a deep ditch, was one element of a complex of archaeological features on the site dating from the Neolithic through to the Roman period. The enclosure ditch contained very few artefacts – just eight sherds of residual Early to Middle Neolithic pottery, two sherds of Trevisker Ware and a small quantity of worked flints – none of which provided dating for the enclosure itself. However, the ditch and central features yielded charcoal, from which a series of 12 radiocarbon samples gave consistent dating. The earliest dates fell around 1100 cal BC (from the basal ditch fills) with a more or less continuous sequence of ditch infilling until c. 600 cal BC when the enclosure went out of use. This conclusively demonstrates a major episode of occupation starting in the Late Bronze Age and continuing until the Early Iron Age for which there was very little other evidence.

A report on all the findings from the excavations is to be published in forthcoming volume 77 of Proceedings of the Devon Archaeological Society.

Hill Barton ringwork


Operation Nightingale Exercise Shallow Grave

Exercise Shallow Grave
Excavating the Shallow Grave

Cotswold Archaeology, in collaboration with Operation Nightingale, Breaking Ground Heritage, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Gloucestershire County Council (GCC), undertook a unique excavation in the Cotswolds in May 2019. A few years previously, metal objects associated with an Anglo-Saxon burial had been found by a metal detectorist who reported his discovery promptly, leading to a small-scale investigation by GCC. That investigation was limited in scope and sought to contextualise the initial finds and advise the landowner on future land management; the remains were mostly left in situ.

However, it was recognised that the remains of the burial were vulnerable to deterioration or removal by illicit means, and earlier this year it was chosen the site of an Operation Nightingale project, and given the name ‘Exercise Shallow Grave’. As part of our programme of outreach and community work, Cotswold Archaeology supplied professional staff for free to assist participants in the project, which uses archaeology to aid in the recovery and mental wellbeing of wounded, injured and sick military personnel and veterans, to fully recover the burial.

Burial under excavation during Operation Nightingale project
One of the burials during excavation

Aided by a grant from the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, the project revealed not only the known burial, but two further burials and also evidence of Roman activity. The known burial was discovered to be lying at the top of a shallow ditch. No evidence for a burial mound survived and consequently it was covered by only 14cm of topsoil, a factor probably contributing to the poor preservation of artefacts and bone. The individual was found to have been aged between 7 and 11 years old at time of death, most probably between 9 and 10 years. For their relatively young age, it was surprising that they were buried with a sword, a shield, two glass vessels, a knife on a decorated belt and a silver drinking vessel, possibly similar to the Taplow Cup. The grave furnishings seem incongruous with such a young age and with a burial at the top of a ditch. Further investigations hope to understand the wider landscape; perhaps the individual was buried in an earlier structure, respected by the later community?

Anglo-Saxon glass bowl
Anglo-Saxon glass bowl recovered during Exercise Shallow Grave

In contrast to the shallowness of the known burial, the grave of an adult was found cut into the natural limestone to a depth of c. 30cm. The individual was accompanied by an antler prong, two amethyst beads at the head, a silver brooch, a knife and a stone spindlewhorl. Interestingly, despite the typically ‘female’ selection of grave goods, analysis of the bones suggest that the remains are those of a male aged over 30 years, and possibly over 40 years; a reminder to archaeologists not to make judgements based on artefactual evidence alone!

This work has proved incredibly interesting, both in terms of the fascinating archaeology and our first venture with Operation Nightingale. The site is already one of the most important Anglo-Saxon burials known from this part of Gloucestershire and we hope to secure further funding to explore more of this fascinating Anglo-Saxon landscape, whilst also promoting wellbeing for our participants, in 2020.

Katie Marsden

Operation Nightingale, Exercise Shallow Grave team
Exercise Shallow Grave team


Warwickshire gem building recording

We have recently been commissioned to conduct a heritage assessment and building recording of Wellesbourne Hall, a grade II* ‘William & Mary’ manor house in Warwickshire.  The recording involved some in-depth archival sleuthing to understand the history of the hall and its wider grounds, including a stable block and two 19th century walled  gardens.  Through analysis of building fabric and spaces we were able to broadly phase the development of the buildings and date the fabric and features within them; identifying significant spaces and features.   The recording will inform a repair schedule to ensure the ongoing conservation of this special house and its grounds. As part of the work we commissioned these fantastic 3D drone (photogrammetric) models, which give great aerial views of the house. A fascinating historic place and a very interesting piece of work to be involved in.


Down by the Riverside (it’s not just for ducks!)

The River Lark at Mildenhall is a tranquil riverside location now, but it was a different story in the past!

River Lark at Mildenhall at present
© Copyright John Goldsmith and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence

Back in 2010, Cotswold Archaeology excavated a site at Recreation Way, Mildenhall, in Suffolk, ahead of the development of a new supermarket. Our excavations revealed evidence that the site had been settled, farmed and even defended during a long sequence  of occupation running from late prehistory (1000 BC) through to the early medieval period.

A detailed account of these discoveries has recently been published in East Anglian Archaeology publications No. 169: Iron Age Fortification beside the River Lark, Excavations at Mildenhall Suffolk by Tim Havard, Mary Alexander and Ray Holt.

Iron Age Fortification beside the river Lark, book cover
Iron Age Fortification beside the river Lark, Published by: East Anglian Archaeology. Available through Oxbow Books

The earliest evidence for settlement at the site dated to the Late Bronze Age. One important pit survived from this period, which reached a depth of over 2m deep to reach the water table. Once the pit had ceased to be used as a source of fresh water, it was filled with discarded domestic refuse, which included charred seeds, principally of barley, spelt wheat and emmer/spelt wheat, along with the remains of at least two sheep; horse, roe deer, pig and dog bones were also discovered. It was obvious from this mixed assemblage that settlement lay close by, although no other domestic features survived. The recovery of sherds of Post-Deverel Rimbury style pottery, along with radiocarbon dates obtained from the charred seeds and a small fragment of a human skull from within the pit, enabled us to date this settlement to between c. 1000 and 800 BC.

The Bronze Age pit with one quarter excavated
The Bronze Age pit with one quarter excavated

The Middle Iron Age (400–50 BC) was a period of intense activity at the site; a pair of massive ditches were constructed, defining the eastern part of an enclosure (another equally substantial ditch at the eastern edge of the excavated area may also have been constructed during this period, although this remains undated).

The pair of ditches were originally accompanied by a bank against the interior of the enclosure and together they likely represent the remains of a defensive feature built to dominate what was probably a major crossing point of the River Lark during the Iron Age. As the western side of the enclosure lay beyond the limit of our excavation, its exact form is uncertain. It was apparent, however, that the southern side of the enclosure facing the river was un-ditched, and here the river or its marshy floodplain may have served as a natural barrier.

One of the Iron Age ditches during excavation
One of the Iron Age ditches during excavation
Decorated sherds of pottery
Decorated sherds of pottery

We believe that the ditched enclosure may have been as much concerned with display as with military defence, and possibly played a strategic role in controlling a tribal boundary. Numerous pits were found in the interior of the enclosure, and although no Iron Age houses were revealed, the fills of the pits and ditches were rich in finds and environmental material. As well as evidence for the consumption of meat and cereals, there were many finds associated with textile working, including bone needles, weaving tablets or bobbins and a weaving comb (shown on the cover of the book), along with a clay spindle whorl and clay loom weights. Evidence for the casting of copper-alloys came from a small number of ceramic crucible and mould fragments. The assemblage of decorated Middle Iron Age pottery from the site is the largest found in the region to date; the presence of so much decorated pottery might be an indication that the site had some special status.

The medieval lime kiln base
The medieval lime kiln base

By the Roman period the enclosure ditches had fallen out of use, and at this time a farmstead occupied the higher ground. During this period the river floodplain was used for fields, represented by a series of drainage ditches, although the area became prone to flooding by the later Roman period.

Activity at the site continued throughout the Saxon period, spanning the early, middle and later periods. Activities associated with farming took place on the higher ground and the wet environment probably restricted use of the floodplain. The evidence suggests that there was a process of deliberate land reclamation on the floodplain during the medieval period, and the area was subsequently divided into fields. On the higher ground, a large north-south orientated ditch may have been dug to demarcate the medieval town boundary, but this is far from certain. Excavated features from this period related to activities undertaken at the periphery of settlement, including crop-processing, animal husbandry and iron-working. A well-preserved kiln base may have been used for the production of lime, using chalk quarried from the edge of the higher ground.

There was a rapid decline in use of the area from the 14th century onwards, which broadly coincided with a downturn in the town’s prosperity, beginning in the early 15th century. The area continued to be used as farmland until modern development and the construction of the new supermarket.

The site archive has been deposited with Suffolk County Council Archaeological Service.

Mary Alexander

Boxford Open Day 2019

Cotswold Archaeology are pleased to have been working with the Boxford History Project on further excavations at the Mud Hole Roman Villa site. Following the discovery in 2017 of the a very rare mosaic featuring scenes from Greek Mythology, the community group raised enough funds to allow another season of excavation, which has just come to an end.

crowd of people looking at the boxford mosaic

On Saturday 31 August we supported an open day at the site and were astounded by the numbers of visitors and the very real enthusiasm and interest in the site. Around 3,000 people turned out on the day to see the site, listen to the site team explain what had been found and have a look at some of the artefacts recovered.

an archaeologist showing the excavation site to a crowd of people

While the focus of the excavations this year has been on revealing and recording the full mosaic floor, there were a number of other research questions that we were keen to resolve. The investigations have explored the origins of the structure, sought to determine whether further mosaics might have been present and tried to understand the later history of the building and its use.

The results have been astounding. Further elements of the imagery on the mosaic have been revealed, showing a greater array of tales from Greek Mythology. We also now have a much better understanding of the building’s construction, evidence to suggest that no other mosaic floors were present and evidence of alterations and repair late in the building’s life. There is a wide range of material that now needs further detailed investigation and analysis before we can tell the full story. We look forward to sharing this with you when the work is complete!

Overhead photo of the mosaic during cleaning
©Copyright: David Shepherd

The fall and rise of a medieval farm in the Severn vale

Fieldwork discoveries

Recent excavation by Cotswold Archaeology’s fieldwork team revealed the remains of a medieval farm on the flat clayland of the Severn vale.

view of the site during excavation

Post-excavation analysis

Now that fieldwork has finished, the project has passed to our post-excavation team who are preparing an assessment report. The report will map a route leading to full analysis and publication of the findings, and the deposition of the archive at an appropriate museum, where it will be available for future research.

Dispersed medieval settlement

By the 11th century, the familiar English nucleated village landscape had already evolved across much of the country, but other areas, including the Severn vale, were still characterised by a dispersed settlement pattern of individual farms and small hamlets. These settlements occupied a landscape of woodland, which had regenerated since the end of the Roman administration, interspersed with clearings for grazing and small farms, including the current example. Although the differences were not absolute, such wood-pasture areas would have stood in contrast to the more open sheep-corn landscapes with their nucleated villages in areas such as the Cotswold uplands, and it has often been commented that the occupants of these different pays would have held differing mentalities.

Medieval bones, modern research

The farm was probably family-sized, although it should be remembered that slavery was still practiced, albeit at a reduced level, into the 12th century and villeinage (the English legal term for serfdom) into the 17th century, and so over its lifetime the farm may have been occupied by an extended family as well as slaves and villeins. Although such farms were probably very common, few have been excavated, making this an exciting discovery and one to which modern forms of analysis can be applied, including isotope analysis of the animal bone assemblage, which can examine chemical traces in bones and teeth in order to estimate whether, for example, the animals were grazed locally on floodplains.

pottery in a featureLocal pottery

Most of the finds from the site comprised sherds of locally produced pottery known as Gloucester TF41B, dateable to the mid 11th to mid 13th centuries. A dump of this material was found within a ditch belonging to the medieval farm and analysis will aim to determine whether this represents ‘wasters’ from a local kiln thought to have operated nearby but yet to be discovered.

Agrarian crisis, plague and abandonment

The farm seems to have been abandoned around the 13th/14th century. An obvious hypothesis to test during our analysis is whether the site was a victim of the early 14th-century agrarian crisis which was responsible for many of the shrunken and deserted villages whose remains can be detected from surviving earthworks in the landscape. Intriguingly, the site also contained the remains of a single individual laid in a grave. The remains of this person were very poorly preserved and we do not yet know their date. Radiocarbon dating may indicate whether this was someone associated with an as-yet unidentified Roman or early post-Roman farm, or someone from the medieval farm itself, conceivably even a victim of the 1348–9 Black Death.

New money

One of the questions we will seek to address is how long the site remained abandoned for (if indeed it ever was fully abandoned). It was certainly reclaimed, since a large ring-ditch was built over some of the earlier medieval enclosures. No structural remains were found, and one possibility is that this was a mound for a windmill, but another is that t this may have been a moat surrounding the house of a wealthy peasant with aspirations to grandeur. Although the crises of the 14th century had brought misery to many, for those who survived there were opportunities to make money; the economy was increasingly market orientated, whilst with a reduced population, labour was in higher demand. Did the moat surround the residence of a peasant on the up? To the modern mind, moats are conceptually associated with castles, but in fact the majority surrounded far more modest dwellings, including those of the lesser gentry and wealthier peasants, both of whom could be regarded in modern terms as ‘new money’. As well as providing an obvious status symbol and security, recent research suggests that moats were amongst a suite of features used in medieval architecture to restrict access to certain areas to individuals thought to be of appropriate status, itself an expression of power and a reflection of the structure of later medieval society.

The moat may have fallen out of use by the 16th century and does not appear on any of the historic mapping so far examined, but investigation will examine whether its decline was associated with the enclosure of the site for sheep pasture as part of the rise of the Gloucestershire woollen industry.

moat under excavation