A Bronze Age Cremation Cemetery and Other Prehistoric and Medieval Discoveries on the A477 Road Replacement Scheme, Carmarthenshire

Linear schemes such as road construction can transect large areas of land and so provide exciting opportunities for archaeological discoveries, and in this respect the archaeological investigations in advance of the A477 road improvements between Red Roses and St Clears in Carmarthenshire did not disappoint. Funded by the Welsh Government and facilitated by Ramboll, a programme of planning, survey, evaluation and excavation along the 9.5km length of the scheme identified numerous and varied evidence of past human activities dating from the Mesolithic through to the medieval period. The majority of this activity dated to the Neolithic and Bronze Age periods and included a significant Early Bronze Age cremation cemetery.

Details about these discoveries have been published this month in our most recent book (Cotswold Archaeology monograph No. 12), The Prehistoric Archaeology of the A477 St Clears to Red Roses Road Improvement Scheme 2012, by Alistair Barber, Alan Hardy and Andrew Mudd (Cotswold Archaeology monograph No. 12).

The factors that affect the outcome of archaeological investigations on linear developments such as the A477 road scheme are well known. The area available for investigation is limited to the narrow width of the development, and projects such as this one often pass across undeveloped and sometimes remote tracts of land where little previous investigation has taken place, and it is harder under these circumstances to envisage how the activity encountered sits within the landscapes of the past.

Road corridor strip near Llandowror
Road corridor strip near Llandowror

Although these factors certainly applied to the A477 road scheme, a great deal has been gained from the analysis of our discoveries along the corridor of road development. Interpretation of the prehistoric evidence has considerably benefited from the recent archaeological investigations during the construction of the Milford Haven to Aberdulais gas pipeline replacement, a stretch of which bisects the A477. In 2006 these pipeline works uncovered evidence for a prehistoric landscape of some significance, including the Class II Neolithic Henge lying some 225m to the south of the A477 road redevelopment at Vaynor Farm (PDF 7.7 MB). The knowledge gained from investigation of this earthwork, which probably remained visible in the landscape throughout the later prehistoric period, has enriched our interpretation and understanding of the archaeological remains along this stretch of the A477 development corridor.

The archaeological sites along the route of the A477
The archaeological sites along the route of the A477

Three locations along the road scheme were notable for the evidence of Mesolithic activity they revealed (Sites 25, 26 and 35). At Site 25 north of the town of Llanddowror a large concentration of flints and a posthole dated by a radiocarbon sample to the late Mesolithic suggest substantial use of the location. The site was on the floodplain of the River Taf, and no doubt favoured by those who used it for its easy access to a range of habitats and their natural resources. Early Neolithic evidence is also present here and hints at continuity, charred seeds and charcoal found in pits suggests the local woodland had been partially cleared for settlement, arable cultivation and possibly pasture. Transient Mesolithic activity was also indicated along the A477 road scheme to the west of Llanddowror at Sites 26 and 35 where small scatters of Mesolithic flakes and microblades were retrieved from the interface between the ploughsoil and underlying natural substrate.

A substantial Neolithic presence was identified at Site 37, east of Rhosgoch, Llanddowror, where postholes, pits, hearths and pottery provide rare evidence for domestic use. The site is also notable for the nature of the fills of some of the pits which were rich in finds including worked flints, whole (but broken) pots and burnt grain suggesting the deliberate placement of material in the pits.

An interesting aspect of the prehistoric remains from the road scheme was an apparent lack of activity that can be ascribed to the middle or Late Neolithic periods. This may be explained by shifting patterns of settlement, but we may also consider the possibility that the Neolithic henge at Vaynor influenced patterns of activity in the area, creating a tradition for ceremony rather than settlement that persisted into later periods.

Excavation of Bronze Age cremations, Site 26
Excavation of Bronze Age cremations, Site 26

In the section of the road scheme that ran close to the henge, traces of a Bronze Age barrow were discovered, together with a swathe of cremation burials and the site of pyres (Sites 18, 19 and 26).

These remains have benefited from in-depth analysis, from which an interpretation of the funerary monuments has emerged. Bayesian modelling of the radiocarbon dates by Frances Healy has enabled events to be modelled with a greater precision than would otherwise have been possible, and has also allowed a subtle chronological modelling of the activity within the barrow area in relation to the adjacent pyre site and surrounding features. The dates indicate a period from approximately 2000 BC to 1650 BC during which the burials took place.

With 38 deposits of human bone found in their primary locations, and further deposits in residual contexts, there were opportunities here to study the varied and variable nature of burial practices at this time and to compare this evidence with contemporary published data. Analysis of the human remains revealed that even the most ‘complete’ of the cremations did not represent a complete individual, even where the deposit has survived intact. Some cremations were contained within pottery urns, inverted or upright, or associated with empty vessels (accessory vessels) within the same grave pit (see below).

Decorated Bronze Age urns and small accessory vessel from Site 26
Decorated Bronze Age urns and small accessory vessel from Site 26

Some cremations were buried alone in grave pits or stone-lined graves (cists), and many pottery vessels appeared to have been buried without accompanying cremated remains. A number of the excavated features can be understood as the physical remains of aspects of ritual performances taking place on the site that may not have always included the act of cremation.

Excavation of Bronze Age urn (photo courtesy of Andy Buckley, AB Heritage)
Excavation of Bronze Age urn (photo courtesy of Andy Buckley, AB Heritage)
Inverted Bronze Age urn during excavation
Inverted Bronze Age urn during excavation
Accessory vessel during excavation
Accessory vessel during excavation

Another notable prehistoric site revealed by the road scheme investigation was the burnt mound located towards the western end of the road scheme at Site 32 near Red Roses. The mound, which was located adjacent to a watercourse, was composed of a mix of dark grey sandy silt, charcoal and burnt stone measuring approximately 15m long by 12.5m wide (see below). It was associated with two trough-shaped pits that may have held water. The purpose of these burnt mound sites remains obscure, but the most common theories are that these were used for cooking or were sauna sites.

Burnt mound, quarter-sectioned
Burnt mound, quarter-sectioned

Many of the undated features excavated along the length of the road scheme have been assigned to the prehistoric period based on similarities in fills and form, and the overall impression is of a landscape more heavily utilised in the prehistoric than later periods.

Archaeological evidence for activity along the road corridor of a date later than the Bronze Age was sporadic. Evidence for Roman activity was extremely sparse, but there was some dating from the medieval and post-medieval periods. Just to the south-east of St Clears lies the earthworks of Dolgarn Moated Site (Scheduled Monument CM 252), which was visible as a rectangular enclosure measuring 60m by 50m, defined by a ditch surrounding a slightly raised platform, and cut through by the old Turnpike road. The route of the new road crossed the south-eastern corner of the earthworks, providing an opportunity to excavate the ditch and a small part of the internal platform. Excavation showed the internal platform to be composed of horizontal deposits; these contained no dating evidence but were probably derived from the soil dug during the ditch’s construction.

Dolgarn Moated Site (Scheduled Monument CM 252). Excavation through the ditch
Dolgarn Moated Site (Scheduled Monument CM 252). Excavation through the ditch

The earthwork ditch proved to be 6.5m wide and 1.6m deep with a u-shaped profile. From one of the earliest of the ditch fills a carbonised seed was radiocarbon dated to cal. AD 1059–1263 (SUERC-50312). The fill above this produced 13 sherds of medieval pottery, 12 of these from a single vessel, almost certainly of locally made Llanstephan ware, dateable to the 13th to 14th centuries AD. All the pottery recovered from the later fills dates to the 13th to 15th centuries, and the absence of later material suggests that the monument was abandoned in the 15th century.

The analysis of a well-preserved assemblage of waterlogged insect, pollen and plant remains from the sequence of fills suggests that the ditch originally contained clear running water, although the levels of this had fluctuated, and that the immediate environs comprised a mixture of cultivated ground and pasture; the presence of dung beetles indicative of grazing animals nearby. As the ditch silted up the water within it had become murkier, and a decline in certain insect species indicates that there was less grazing nearby.

Dyfed Archaeological Trust Historic Environment Record (DATPRN 3884) suggested the Iron Age, Roman or medieval periods as possible dates for the monument, which had not been professionally excavated before.

Although earlier origins cannot be discounted, our investigations would suggest that the monument in its surviving form is a medieval construction.

Approximately 0.7km north of Red Roses, at Eglwyscumm, a cluster of ditches and robbed out foundation trenches indicate the location of a farmstead (Site 31), comprising at least two rectangular houses and one circular structure situated close to the buildings, with a network of associated paddock and field ditches extending to the south-east. The farm was only partially revealed within the road corridor, and clearly extended beyond the excavated area. Pottery from the features gave a date range of the 13th to the 14th centuries AD. An assemblage of charred plant remains from the ditch of the circular structure provided information on diet, crop-processing and the local environment of the farmstead.

No other sites of medieval occupation were identified although a number of pits and ‘ovens’ were found; the latter, distinguished by scorched bases and abundant charcoal deposits, are likely to have been used to dry cereals at the edges of the fields within which they were grown, prior to transportation for storage within farms or villages. Radiocarbon dates from carbonised organic remains dated most of these features to within the 11th to 13th centuries, with two earlier pits dated to the 4th to 6th and 9th to 11th centuries respectively.

A report on these medieval excavations, and a summary of the prehistoric discoveries will be published in the journal Archaeology in Wales (Hart and Alexander forthcoming).

This work has been made possible through funding from Welsh Government in collaboration with Principal contractor: SRB Civil Engineering UK Ltd (Sisk and Roadbridge Joint venture). Expert archaeological services provided by AB Heritage Limited with Cotswold Archaeology and with scheme design and engineering input from Arcadis and Ramboll.

Mary Alexander


Quern stone from Hinkley

In 2012/2014 Cotswold Archaeology excavated a late prehistoric and Romano-British settlement site at Hinkley Point, Somerset. One of the many artefacts discovered was a complete upper stone from a rotary quern, which is the subject of a recent online publication by Dr Ruth Shaffrey – The Movement of Ideas in Late Iron Age and Early Roman Britain: An Imported Rotary Quern Design in South-Western England.

Quern stone under excavationThe quern stone has a projecting socket for a vertical handle and thin-section analysis has revealed that it was made locally, in Somerset.

The object is remarkable for being the earliest dated example of a quern of this form so far found in England. It is also the first example ever found in southern England; querns with horizontal handles were more typically used in this region during the late Iron Age and early Roman period. As the quern stone was produced locally, the design appears to have imitated styles more popular elsewhere. This type of quern was common in Germany during the late Iron Age and early Roman period, although broadly similar styles of rotary querns are also found in north-eastern Ireland and south-western Scotland.

Ruth’s fascinating online First View publication is available on Cambridge Core.

Quern stone from hinkley


Iron Age settlement at Childrey Warren, Oxfordshire

Iron Age bone comb
Bone comb

A multi-million pound Thames Water project to protect the future of a rare Oxfordshire chalk stream has revealed some fascinating and gruesome discoveries dating back almost 3,000 years. The excavation at Childrey Warren, led by CA’s Project Officer Paolo Guarino revealed an ancient settlement containing an array of historic artefacts. Among the important finds were 26 human skeletons believed to be from the Iron Age and Roman periods, and some likely to have been involved in ritual burials, along with evidence of dwellings, animal carcasses and household items including pottery, cutting implements and a decorative comb.

Unusual Iron Age burial from Childrey Warren
Unusual Iron Age burial

Our CEO Neil Holbrook, said: “The new Thames Water pipeline provided us with an opportunity to examine a number of previously unknown archaeological sites. The Iron Age site at Childrey Warren was particularly fascinating as it provided a glimpse into the beliefs and superstitions of people living in Oxfordshire before the Roman conquest. Evidence elsewhere suggests that burials in pits might have involved human sacrifice. The discovery challenges our perceptions about the past, and invites us to try to understand the beliefs of people who lived and died more than 2,000 years ago. We’ve had a tremendous reaction to this discovery on social media with people wondering just what was going on here – see what people have been saying at our Facebook post.”

Project Officer Paolo added: “These findings open a unique window into the lives and deaths of communities we often know only for their monumental buildings, such as hillforts or the Uffington White Horse. The results from the analysis of the artefacts, animal bones, the human skeletons and the soil samples will help us add some important information to the history of the communities that occupied these lands so many years ago.”

Iron Age pottery from Childrey Warren
Excavation of an Iron Age pottery vessel

Cotswold Archaeology has now carefully removed the items for examination, allowing Thames Water to start laying the six kilometre pipe which, following consultation with residents, will supply nearby villages with water taken from groundwater boreholes near the River Thames and not Letcombe Brook. The archaeological findings have already been shared with residents at events in Letcombe Bassett and Letcombe Regis village halls.

Related events:

9 July 2019 Childrey Warren exavation results. Talk at Letcombe Regis village hall

 


Rough Justice in Saxon and Norman Hampshire?

When many people think about archaeology they focus on amazing new discoveries which are totally unexpected – that’s the exciting bit, right? Of course this is part of the romance of archaeology, but it poses a conundrum with modern commercial archaeology as significant and unexpected finds are what developers want least: they hold up the builders and can be expensive to deal with. Consequently much of the work of Cotswold Archaeology is, to use contemporary jargon, associated with de-risking proposed developments (i.e. avoid surprises when the construction work begins). But despite archaeologists’ best endeavours the old adage that you never know what’s under the ground still holds true, as a recent example at the site of a new Aldi supermarket in Andover, Hampshire, shows very clearly. Here a routine watching brief made a most unexpected discovery, but thanks to the generosity and genuine interest of Aldi this story has a highly satisfactory ending.

Archaeologist excavate human remains on Wenhill siteDuring the watching brief human remains began to be found, laid in graves dug into the natural chalk. In all 124 bodies were revealed, but what was even more surprising is that most were of young men and a number had injuries that clearly showed that they had been executed. Radiocarbon dating demonstrates that the cemetery was in use between c.AD 900 and 1300, and we conclude that this was an execution cemetery established in the Saxon period, but which carried on in use after the Norman Conquest. Perhaps the cemetery lay near a gallows where public hangings and executions took place? In the past justice could be harsh and summarily delivered; we will never know the perceived crimes the individuals buried here were judged to have been guilty of (although history tells us that some might seem by modern standards to have been trivial misdemeanours). This amazing discovery provides a fascinating window onto crime and punishment in this formative period of English history; find out more at Weyhil, Andover – an Anglo-Norman execution.

Fully excavated graveThis highlight brings us up to date and we’ve now selected one great project for each of the thirty years of our existence. The Andover dig is a great way to mark Cotswold Archaeology’s 30th birthday which fell on 17 March. If the archaeology we investigate in the coming decades is anywhere near as good as that which we have done over the last thirty years, then being an archaeologist with us in the coming years will be a great career choice.

Neil Holbrook


Living a Good(ish) Life in Roman South Gloucestershire

Channelled hypocaust system in south ranget
Channelled hypocaust system in south ranget

We all know what a Roman villa is – don’t we? They were one of the most distinctive elements of the Roman countryside – nice houses with some level of architectural pretension, often furnished with mosaic floors, painted walls, and private bath suites. But villas were actually always a rarity in Roman Britain: they are unlikely to have formed more than 1% of the total number of rural settlements in the province, and over large swathes of the country you don’t find them at all. So even a relatively humble villa (they came in all shapes and sizes) is noteworthy as the residence of the local moneyed classes. Excitement was high therefore when we found a previously unknown villa beneath a disused rugby pitch in Stoke Gifford, a northern suburb of Bristol, when working for Redrow Homes and CgMs Heritage in advance of a new housing development.

Roman lamp held in someone's hand
The unusual 1st century AD copper alloy lamp

The villa house dates to the late Roman period, as is common in Gloucestershire (a villa hotspot on a national level). What particularly fascinates me about this site is that it represents an attempt by someone to express their wealth and prestige through building – a trend we still see today of course. The owners clearly wanted to be seen to be doing something that would be recognised by their peers as embracing a modern, up market, way of life, and one that perhaps signified their alignment with the perceived norms of Roman administration. The house was nice, but not spectacular. It had two rooms with under floor heating, and what seems to have been a rudimentary bath suite, but no mosaics.

But we shouldn’t envisage a fancy house set within its own private parkland. Associated buildings show that this was a place of production, a place where wealth was generated. While agriculture undoubtedly underpinned the economy of the house, other activities included metal-working and perhaps beer making. So the people who lived here were local entrepreneurs who managed to make a decent living, but never made it to the mega-wealthy heights seen in some other Gloucestershire villas. Nevertheless the owners had access to nice things, including a fantastic bronze oil lamp which seems to have been made in Egypt.  How did that make its way to Gloucestershire?

Extension at the front of the north range
Extension at the front of the north range

Roman Britain has always been my favourite period of the past, and I’ve a particular affection for this site. It was just such great fun to work on. You can read more about the villa on this page.

Neil Holbrook


Cannington Park Quarry Cave, Somerset – Re-examination of the human and animal remains

The site

Location of the cave in the Quarry – original archive
Location of the cave in the Quarry – original archive

Cannington Park Quarry Cave (also known as Boulder Cave or South Quarry Cave) was located in c. 1962 (some notes state 1959) when quarry blasting opened up a chamber. The cave was explored by various individuals, most notably in 1964 by Tony Locke, who recovered a number of bones.

These bones were recovered from a breccia layer around the cave, although they were from heavily disturbed contexts and were partly covered by blasting material. The bones were examined in 1984 (Powers and Currant 1985 in Rahtz et al. 2000) and found to represent at least seven human individuals, along with the bones of red deer, badger, horse and bovine.

Illustration from the publication (Rahtz et al 2000) based on sketches from 1960s
Illustration from the publication (Rahtz et al 2000) based on sketches from 1960s

This group of bones were initially believed to represent disturbed material from Cannington Cemetery, a Late Roman – post-Roman cemetery excavated in 1962-3 and published by Rahtz, Hirst and Wright (2000). This cemetery was sited above the quarry and had been considerably damaged by it, with a quantity of loose material disturbed by blasting in the south-east part of the cemetery area. While the proximity of the Roman/post-Roman cemetery allowed for the possibility that the bones were from the graves above, the bones were reported to be from a small area and may originally have been deliberate burials within the cave. Indeed, the report in the cemetery publication concluded:

“…it is at least possible that these were deliberate cave burials…….only radiocarbon determinations could resolve this problem”.

The close proximity of the Cannington Cemetery to Cotswold Archaeology’s excavations associated with the Cannington Bypass and Hinkley Point power station, where the respective discoveries of a Roman villa and a Post-Roman cemetery were made, meant that it was important to consider the potential relationships between these sites. As such, we wished to determine with greater certainty the date of the bones found in the cave; research grant funding from BABAO (British Association of Biological Anthropologists and Osteoarchaeologists) allowed for two radiocarbon dates on the material, which now resides at the Somerset Heritage Centre near Taunton, contained in two separate boxes.

The research

One of the boxes in the musuem, with original description
One of the boxes in the musuem, with original description

Physical examination of the bones confirmed that they were those described in the Cannington Cemetery Publication. It was noted in the report that a ‘considerable calcareous deposit’ was removed from some of the fragments. These calcareous deposits remained in places and the bones were notably well-preserved. These deposits are usually found on material which has lain on a cave floor for a long period of time, and the light colour of the bone, together with a lack of surface erosion, did not fit with the expected appearance of bone that had spent considerable time in the earth.  Aside from this, the dental attrition on one maxilla was not the expected pattern for normal dental wear, but more in keeping with the use of the teeth as a tool. The use of teeth in such a way is much more commonly seen in prehistoric than later human remains. Together, these observations indicated that the bones were more likely to have come from a prehistoric cave burial than from the Roman cemetery.

To investigate this, two bones were selected, one from each box, from different individuals (one adult, the other immature), and samples were sent for radiocarbon dating. The results were very surprising. Both samples returned dates of over 9000 years BP. When calibrated this provides date ranges of 8545-8328 cal BC and 8237-7976 cal BC (both at 95.4% probability). This places both of the bones very clearly in the early Mesolithic.

These are very exciting dates and are comparable with those for the human remains known as ‘Cheddar Man’, recovered from Gough’s cave, nearby in the Mendip Hills, which were dated to 8540-7990 and 8470-8230 cal BC. Mesolithic human remains are extremely rare discoveries in England, with just 20 firmly dated sites known (Meiklejohn, Chamberlain and Schulting 2011).

Right facial bones today compared with the original photograph before the calcareous deposit was removed
Right facial bones today compared with the original photograph before the calcareous deposit was removed

Sadly the cave was completely destroyed by quarrying during the 1990s and the boxes of bones, sketches and notes are the only surviving evidence for what now appears to have been a rare Mesolithic burial site. Fortunately, we now know the site existed. This demonstrates the archaeological potential of material residing in old archives in museum stores, and the value that can be gained by returning to re-examine it. The findings will be fully reported on and published in the coming months.

Cotswold Archaeology are grateful to BABAO, Graham Mullan (UBSS) and Rick Schulting.

The human and animal remains belong to the Somerset County Council museum collection, cared for and managed by the South West Heritage Trust.

Sharon Clough

References

Meiklejohn, C., Chamberlain, A.T. and Schulting, R.J. 2011 ‘Radiocarbon dating of Mesolithic human remains in Great Britain’ Mesolithic Miscellany Vol 21: 2, 20-57

Rahtz, P., Hirst, S. and Wright, S. 2000. Cannington cemetery: Excavations 1962-3 of prehistoric, Roman, post-Roman, and later features at Cannington Park Quarry, near Bridgwater, Somerset. Britannia Monograph Series 17. Society for the promotion of Roman studies, London