Operation Nightingale Exercise Shallow Grave

Exercise Shallow Grave
Excavating the Shallow Grave

santacusCotswold 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

Exercise Shallow Grave has been nominated for Current Archaeology Awards in the Rescue project of the Year category. Vote now!

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

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