Bristol’s Brilliant Archaeology at Blaise Castle

On Saturday 3rd August, staff from our Cirencester office returned to Blaise Castle Museum to take part in the fifth Bristol’s Brilliant Archaeology Day, celebrating the Festival of Archaeology and the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Council for British Archaeology in 1944.

We think it’s fair to say that this year’s event was the biggest and best yet, with more archaeological groups, societies and companies than ever before. Thankfully the rain stayed away while the droves of visitors descended.

CA stall at Bristol's Brilliant Archaeology

Visitors to the Cotswold Archaeology stand were able to learn about 6000 years of Bristol and South Gloucestershire history! We showcased a variety of finds, dating from the Neolithic era through the Iron Age, Roman, medieval and post-medieval periods. Our ‘Bristol Finds Timeline’ went right up to 1944 to mark the special anniversary.

Children learnt about the important part Bristol played in the Second World War and how our historic buildings specialists investigate and record wartime defences. They were also able to design and keep their own aeroplanes, which proved very popular.

Children designed their own aeroplanes

We think some of them could have given the engineers of the Bristol Aeroplane Company a run for their money.

Jess Cook


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

Volunteers’ week

Its volunteers’ week!!!! The 1st – 7th June is a week dedicated to celebrating the fantastic contribution millions of volunteers make across the UK. Here at Cotswold Archaeology we thought this would be the perfect opportunity for us to shout out about the wonderful work our amazing volunteers do by looking back at some of the various projects they’ve helped out with recently. 

Helping out in the field

In April a team of archaeologists from our Milton Keynes office were on site at Great Linford Manor Park conducting a community dig alongside The Parks Trust. We were joined by volunteers from across Milton Keynes and beyond, including the Young Park Rangers, who were all very passionate and enthusiastic about the archaeology being unveiled.

Great Linford Manor Park community dig
Great Linford Manor Park community excavations
Volunteers assisting with the excavation
Volunteers excavating a feature at Great Linford Manor

The volunteers assisted with the excavation, recording and photography of features such as the Doric structure, a long-lost sundial and the HaHa wall (a sunken wall that provided a boundary to livestock without interrupting views). Feedback from volunteers was resoundingly positive with the site staff seeing many familiar faces at the site open day, keen to see how the trenches they’d worked on had progressed.

Volunteers from the North Devon Archaeological Society and other interested locals recently joined staff from our Exeter office to assist with the North Devon Hillforts Survey. The project included a geophysical survey of Bucks Mills hillfort hosted by North Devon Coast AONB and supported by Historic England and North Devon National Trust. Working alongside Substrata Limited and our staff, the volunteers assisted with the setting out of the grids and used survey instrumentation to plot the earthworks. We’re keeping our fingers crossed the project will help determine the date of the hillfort, which is currently a mystery!

Geophysical survey of Bucks Mills hillfort.
Geophysical survey of Bucks Mills hillfort. Photo credit: North Devon Coast AONB

The volunteers also helped our staff record the hillforts of Windbury Head, Embury Beacon and Hillsborough and Senior Heritage Consultant Zoe was “grateful for the assistance of the volunteers” especially as they worked “through all weather and dense vegetation”.

Recording the hillforts of Windbury Head, Embury Beacon. Photo credit: North Devon Coast AONB
Recording the hillforts of Windbury Head, Embury Beacon. Photo credit: North Devon Coast AONB

Post-excavation processing

volunteer Sarah
Volunteer Sarah working on the site archive

Our  volunteers help us out on a real variety of projects and tasks and many of these are carried out not only on site, but back in our offices when the hard work of analysing and interpreting everything uncovered begins. In our Andover office several dedicated volunteers have been ordering and preparing the recording sheets completed by the excavators at a large multi-period site in Kent.  This ensures that everything necessary for understanding the features, and the eventual creation of the detailed report, is all present and correct. They have also been assisting with the quantification of a large assemblage of samian pottery from a recent local excavation. Volunteer Victoria has “enjoyed learning new skills such as differentiating between parts of pottery vessels” and was pleased that she “was able to assist with the paper archive for large sites”.

A team of volunteers have also proved invaluable to the post-excavation staff in our Cirencester office by helping out with the washing of over 40 skeletons from a recently excavated Roman cemetery site. Their hard work means the assemblage is now ready to be analysed by our Osteoarchaeologist and the volunteers are all eagerly awaiting hearing about the results. Several of these volunteers have also carried out the very different but no less important job of auditing all 2,500 books and journals in the Cirencester office library. Volunteer Sue says “the task was thoroughly enjoyable” as it allowed them to set aside some more interesting volumes for reading at a later date. One of Sue’s particular favourites was ‘Hanged at Gloucester’ (not that we think she’s morbid or anything!!).

Sue washing human remains from a recently excavated Roman cemetery site
Sue washing human remains from a recently excavated Roman cemetery site

Our new Suffolk office has an impressive history of volunteer engagement both on site and within the post-excavation department. One such project involved volunteers assisting with the excavation of over 100 Iron Age storage pits. The volunteers then carried out finds and soil sample processing and were trained in finds identification so they could aid with the identifying and quantifying of the finds recovered from the pits. Project Manager Joanna said the work of the volunteers “provided an important link between a large new greenfield development on the edge of town with the community affected by it”.

Suffolk office volunteers assisting with processing of the finds and soil samples
Suffolk office volunteers assisting with processing of the finds and soil samples

The Suffolk post-excavation team have also been regularly joined by a small number of volunteers who’ve turned their hands to most tasks, with notable projects including the sieving of cremations and the reconstruction of pots from two Anglo-Saxon cemeteries.

We’ve also been lucky enough to work alongside the volunteers on community projects such as the recent Operation Nightingale Exercise Shallow Grave dig together with Breaking Ground Heritage and The Portable Antiquities Scheme.  We’ll be participating in several community projects this summer which we’re really excited about, including returning to Boxford, where we will be working with the Boxford History Project again on the mosaic first revealed in 2017. Watch this space for updates!

You can learn more about volunteer’s week here

If you’re interested in being added to our mailing list so we can keep you updated about any volunteering opportunities in our various post-excavation departments, then please contact our volunteer co-ordinator  or take a look at our volunteer website page for more information.

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

New Trustees 2019

We have recently added two new trustees to our Board.

chris gerrard photoProfessor Christopher Gerrard has held a Chair in Archaeology at Durham University since 2009. He gained a PhD at the University of Bristol in 1987 and joined the newly-formed Cotswold Archaeological Trust (as we were called then) in 1989, going on to become the Senior Archaeological Consultant at Countryside Planning and Management. He left commercial archaeology in 1992 to become a lecturer at the University of Winchester, joining the Archaeology department in Durham in 2000. Chris specialises in later medieval archaeology and has conducted fieldwork in many different parts of Britain and Europe, most notably at Shapwick in Somerset and Clarendon in Wiltshire.

keith wade photoKeith Wade gained a degree in Archaeology from Southampton University in 1973 and joined the Suffolk Archaeological Unit in 1974 to take up the post of Urban Archaeologist. Between 1974 and 1990 he directed 35 excavations in Saxon and medieval Ipswich. In 1991 he became County Archaeologist at Suffolk County Council, a post he held until retirement in 2012. Keith has served as a Trustee with many organisations in Suffolk including the West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village Trust and the Sutton Hoo Research Trust. He founded Ipswich Archaeological Trust in 1982 and is still a Trustee and Honorary Secretary.

Neil Holbrook