Archaeological investigation on the route of A417 Missing Link

A417 Missing Link evaluation - a person recording an evaluation trench

During September to December 2020, Cotswold Archaeology undertook an archaeological evaluation on the route of the proposed A417 Missing Link, between Cirencester and Gloucester. The area around the proposed route is rich with archaeology of all periods, including the prehistoric site at Crickley Hill and Roman settlement in the Birdlip area. During the course of the fieldwork, at least 300 trenches were excavated along the route, largely targeting anomalies identified during a preceding geophysical survey.

The archaeology recorded during the fieldwork included finds and features from across the chronological spectrum, including Mesolithic and Neolithic flintwork, Bronze Age settlement, Iron Age and Roman funerary, settlement and agricultural activity (including a possible ritual site adjacent to Ermine Street Roman road), indications of potential Saxon settlement, medieval agricultural evidence, post-medieval quarrying and the positions of several potential Second World War defensive emplacements.

A417 cupid figurine

Amongst the unearthed artefacts is a rare Cupid figurine of Roman date, which is currently being examined by our finds specialist, Ed McSloy; more information about this exciting object will be coming soon. Michael Goddard, Highways England’s Senior Project Manager for the A417, said:

“The archaeology works we are undertaking along the A417 give us a significant insight into life on the site thousands of years ago, providing a unique glimpse into the past.”

Jim Keyte, Archaeology Lead for the project, added:

“It has been fascinating to reveal more about the area and the people who once lived here. Our investigations will continue as the project progresses and we expect more interesting discoveries to come.”

Alex Thomson, Cotswold Archaeology’s Project Manager for the evaluation, commented:

“This project has given us a unique opportunity to investigate a large area of the Cotswolds that is rich with archaeology, and it has shown us a landscape of continued use from the prehistoric period to the modern day: some of the finds that our hard-working team recovered during the fieldwork are incredibly interesting and I look forward to our further involvement on the scheme. The results of the evaluation will enable the archaeologists at Gloucestershire County Council and Historic England to assess the impact of the proposed road on the archaeological resource, and work with Highways England to define areas for further investigation and preservation where possible.”

The A417 is an important route between Gloucester and Swindon, which helps connect the midlands and north to the south of England and is an alternative to the M5/M4 route via Bristol. The Missing Link is a three-mile stretch of single-lane carriageway along the A417, between the Brockworth bypass and Cowley roundabout in Gloucestershire. Currently, it causes many problems for road users and those who live or work in the area, with congestion frequent and unpredictable.

Highways England is planning to build 3.4 miles (5.5km) of new dual carriageway, which will considerably improve road safety, reduce traffic congestion, and improve connectivity for road users and local communities, while unlocking economic growth in Gloucestershire and beyond.

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The Iron Age and Roman Settlements at Swan School and Meadowbrook College

In the spring of 2019, Cotswold Archaeology undertook archaeological excavations in advance of construction of the new Swan School and Meadowbrook College, Marston, Oxfordshire. A complex of archaeological features was revealed, providing evidence for past agricultural, settlement and industrial use of the site.

Swan School excavation in progress
Swan School excavation in progress

Using scientific dating techniques, and through studying the objects recovered from the excavations, we are able to say that the main focus of this activity began during the Iron Age (700 BC – AD 43) and continued well into the Roman period (AD 43 – 410).

Activity at the site seems to have begun during the Early Iron Age (700 – 400 BC), with a few dispersed pits and ditches. In the Middle and Late Iron Age (400 BC – AD 43) this activity increased and a possible settlement was established. Features representing the outlines of two possible roundhouses, a trackway and a number of ditches and pits, all of which may have been used for agriculture or settlement, were found across the site.

A coin of the Roman Emperor Constantine I was found in the remains of the pottery kiln.
A coin of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (306 – 337) was found in the remains of the pottery kiln.

Evidence for the development of the settlement was stronger in the Late Iron Age and Early Roman period. A series of several large, straight-sided ditches marked out an area of several enclosures. These enclosures may have been used to hold livestock, or they may have defined different functional areas within the settlement. Two trackways and more ditches and pits were also dated to this period.

This cow skeleton was found in a pit cut into the corner of one of the enclosure ditches
Pottery from Swan School excavations
Pottery from Swan School excavations

Yet more enclosures were established in the later Roman period, within one of which were the remains of a pottery kiln. Judging from the pottery found it is likely that they were making a particular type of red/orange-coloured bowls, and vessels called mortaria. These vessels have a coarse gritted surface on the interior and were probably used for the preparation of food in the same way that we use a pestle and mortar today. It is likely that the kiln was producing pottery from the middle of the 3rd century AD onwards.

It is uncertain when the settlement fell out of use and was abandoned, but it was certainly well before a series of furrows from medieval ridge-and-furrow agriculture developed across the site.

Sarah Cobain
Download Swan School Leaflet

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Excavation at Jesus College: an update

Excavating a brick-lined culvert, probably 19th century in date. In the background are the remains of a 17th century building at Jesus College site
Excavating a brick-lined culvert, probably 19th century in date. In the background are the remains of a 17th century building.

Cotswold Archaeology’s Suffolk team began excavating at Jesus College on January 4th, although the site had been prepared just before Christmas. The preparatory work involved recording the uppermost layers of the site, which consisted of modern garden soils, pathways and drains, before excavating these with a mechanical digger to expose the top of the archaeological remains. These include the foundations of Alfred Waterhouse’s hall building (constructed in 1875 and demolished in the mid-20th century), the foundations and cellars of what appears to be a building shown on a late 17th century plan and drawing of the college, as well as the remains of 17th–18th century garden soils, walls, wells, culverts, and rubbish pits. In places, hidden between the post-medieval features, we can glimpse even earlier archaeological remains, including what might be the large foundations of a previously unknown wall, perhaps of medieval date.

Because the archaeological remains consist of a complex series of overlapping soil layers, walls, cellars, culverts and pits, the excavation is like a puzzle; we have to approach it by excavating and recording each archaeological feature in turn, starting with the latest and working backwards through time to the earliest. Our initial task was therefore to identify which soil layers, pits or walls were the latest in date, so that we could dig these first. This undertaking was made slightly easier by the numerous drains, water pipes, gas pipes, manholes, electrical cables, and other services that had been laid across the site over the past 200 years, often buried in deep trenches. While these service trenches had damaged the archaeological remains through which they were dug, we could nevertheless use them to our advantage: by excavating the contents of the modern service trenches first, we could examine their sides and see the archaeological remains that they had cut. This provides us with a valuable window through which we can see how deep the remains are, and the order in which they lie on top of each other (something we call the ‘stratigraphic sequence’).

Brick-lined post-medieval culvert
Brick-lined post-medieval culvert. The base and walls of the culvert had survived, but the arch over the top appears to have been removed at some point in time. The dark soil through which the culvert was cut dates to the early college period. Photo on the right shows the culvert after the brickwork has been excavated. By excavating this culvert, we can now see earlier features below it.

Our next task was to record and excavate the latest archaeological remains in the sequence, and in doing so uncover earlier features. So far, we have recorded Waterhouse’s 19th century hall structure, a series of post-medieval pits and postholes, a post-medieval well, several post-medieval culverts, and a wall that appears on a 17th century plan of the site. We have also begun to record and excavate the complex series of post-medieval garden soils and kitchen waste dumps from the early college phases of the site’s history. These are full of oyster shells, animal bone, clay tobacco pipes and broken pieces of pottery; these will help us date each layer and will provide us with important insights into many aspects of life in the college.

Watch out for more updates as excavation progresses!

Preston Boyles

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Excavation at Jesus College, Cambridge

Cotswold Archaeology, with assistance from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, is currently excavating a site at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, ahead of work by Northmores Associates to extend and modernise the faculty’s kitchen block.

Jesus College began life in the 12th century as a Benedictine nunnery, dedicated to St. Mary and St. Radegund. The nunnery was dissolved in 1496 and repurposed as a college for the university. The core of Jesus College still retains the basic layout of the medieval nunnery, including the cloister court and the conventual church, which now functions as the college chapel.

An aerial view of the site, taken from the roof of Jesus college.
An aerial view of the site, taken from the roof of the college. The modern topsoil and garden paths have been removed using a machine, to reveal the remains of Alfred Waterhouse’s 19th century building, visible in the top-left corner, the cellars and walls of a 17th century building visible in the bottom-right corner, and dark post-medieval soil layers in between.
The cellars and foundations of a 17th century building
The cellars and foundations of a 17th century building

The current excavation is being undertaken within the Pump Court, a large courtyard on the north side of the college’s Great Hall. This area would have lain just outside the nunnery cloister during the medieval period, of which the Great Hall was originally a part. Early plans and drawings of the college from the 17th century depict this area as a series of gardens containing several small buildings. Many of these small structures and gardens appear to have been swept away by the 19th century, when new buildings were added around the edges of what became known as the Pump Court. Several of these 19th century additions were built by Alfred Waterhouse, the architect who designed the Natural History Museum in London. The new structures included an additional hall building, constructed by Waterhouse in the southwest corner of the Pump Court, but subsequently demolished in the 1960s. The origin of the Pump Court’s name is currently uncertain but probably came about because at some point there was a well and water pump within the courtyard.

The unique history of the site means that the excavation has the potential to uncover an array of important and interesting archaeological information. For example, we hope that it will provide us with a rare opportunity to study the remains of two successive self-contained, single-gender communities (the all-female medieval nunnery followed by the originally all-male college) which occupied the same location. The site’s position, adjacent to the cloister, also raises the possibility that we may encounter previously unknown medieval remains belonging to the nunnery.

Watch out for updates as excavation progresses!

Preston Boyles

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Revealing Lipid Analysis at Anglo-Saxon sites in Suffolk

Recent work by Dr Julie Dunne on Bronze Age burnt mounds has found lipids surviving in the fissures of heat-altered flint. Lipids are, in Dunne’s words, ‘the fats, waxes and resins of the natural world (and) are the most frequently recovered compounds from archaeological contexts’. Dunne’s work on Bronze Age lipids has advanced the study of the function of Burnt Mounds. Encouraged by this success, at the beginning of lockdown the post-ex team at Suffolk submitted further samples to Dr Dunne at Bristol University, although in this case it was Anglo-Saxon activity we were hoping to interpret.

One of the burnt pits from Eye after the flints have been removed and showing the base layer of charcoal and in situ burning
One of the burnt pits from Eye after the flints have been removed and showing the base layer of charcoal and in situ burning

A common but enigmatic feature of many Anglo-Saxon settlements in Eastern England are rectangular pits, filled with fire-cracked flint and charcoal, with evidence of in situ burning. Most fall within a size range of 1.5m–2.5m by 0.7m–1.5m; their depth is more variable and site specific. These are usually undated by finds; the first excavated examples were assumed to have been prehistoric and were therefore not included in the description of the Anglo-Saxon phases. However, over the last 15 years the link with the Anglo-Saxons has been confirmed by minimal finds dating, radiocarbon dating and spatial association. But what are they for? The pits appear typically to have had a single use and they occur too infrequently to be representative of everyday activity. Evidence from one such pit at Eye in Suffolk suggested that the flints were placed on a lattice of wood over a fire in the base of the pit. Presumably as the fire burnt the flints would collapse into the pit, shutting out the oxygen and smothering the fire, leaving a bed of ‘hot rocks’. But for what? Cooking, perhaps for an occasional feast? An industrial process? We now have an answer.

Members of the team at Eye lift carbonised wood, part of the lattice on which the flints were placed
Members of the team at Eye lift carbonised wood, part of the lattice on which the flints were placed
One of the pits from Kentford half excavated and with the pile of heat-altered flint removed from it in the foreground
One of the pits from Kentford half excavated and with the pile of heat-altered flint removed from it in the foreground

Lipid analysis was undertaken on flint samples from two Early Anglo-Saxon settlements in Suffolk, at Eye, in the north of the county, and Kentford, in the west. There are seventeen such pits at Eye and seven at Kentford. Three of the pits from Eye and one from Kentford produced positive results, with lipid profiles comprising ‘the free fatty acids, palmitic (C16) and stearic (C18), typical of a degraded animal fat’ (Dunne 2020) (see chart below). Once plotted the result shows that these profiles fit within the range of the ‘ruminant adipose ellipse suggesting the lipids originate from animal products produced by the cooking of ruminants, such as cattle, sheep or goat’ (Dunne 2020). The similarity in evidence from both sites suggests a common purpose and Dunne suggests that it is likely that this reflects the roasting of large joints or whole animals, but most notably not pigs (nor horses, although butchered horse bone was recovered from Eye). These results are ‘hot off the press’ and we now need to consider how we interpret them in the light of the settlement evidence from the two sites; we can say that this represents an occasional, and therefore perhaps special, cooking event that sometimes took place at Anglo-Saxon settlements in East Anglia.

We also need to research old excavation reports to find ‘lost’ examples. One of the great things about lipids from the perspective of an archaeological researcher is that they are resistant to decay, so if a sample of the heat-altered, fissured, flint has been kept the possibility of retrospectively testing for lipids exists.

Jo Caruth

Graph showing: a. δ13C values for the C16:0 and C18:0 fatty acids for archaeological fats extracted from three samples of burnt stone from pits at excavations at Hartismere High School, Eye (blue) and one sample from Kentford Lodge, Kentford (red)

Ref. Dunne, J., Gillard, T., and Evershed R, P. 2020. Organic residue analysis of burnt stone from Hartismere High School, Eye, Suffolk: Report. and Organic residue analysis of burnt stone from Kentford Lodge, Kentford, Suffolk: Report. Unpublished, Bristol University

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Cotswold Archaeology and COVID-19

Cotswold Archaeology fully understands and accepts its responsibilities for the safety and well-being of our staff, clients and others during the national health emergency brought about by the onset of the COVID-19 virus. We have worked hard since March 2020 to ensure that our operations accord with the latest Government guidance and have developed a suite of COVID-19 Health & Safety policies and procedures. Most recently we revised our risk assessments to align fully with the updated guidance set out in Working Safely During Coronavirus. You can view our COVID-19 office and site risk assessments. These precautions allow us to adhere to Government’s policy which regards activities related to construction as essential to keep the country operating. Our field teams are currently working at full capacity.

All our offices remain open for business but are closed to visitors. The majority of our office staff are working remotely from home. They have full connectivity and will respond to customer communications and new project enquiries. If you have an enquiry on a potential new project please contact us in the usual way, using email or mobile telephone numbers. On current projects we continue to adapt to changing customer requirements and methods of working.

Inevitably all our public engagements are postponed for now, but we do hope to reschedule these when it is safe and practicable to do so.

Cotswold Archaeology will react accordingly when the Government feels able to unwind its lockdown restrictions and we will update this notice as the situation evolves.

Neil Holbrook
Chief Executive

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