Late Bronze Age ringwork in East Devon

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

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

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

Hill Barton ringwork


Operation Nightingale Exercise Shallow Grave

Exercise Shallow Grave
Excavating the Shallow Grave

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!

Clare Castle Community Excavations

The three weeks digging at Clare Castle have flown by and on Friday we backfilled the five trenches we have been digging across the inner bailey. One of our aims were to try to determine the extent of the cemetery whose presence was first identified in 1951 and which is thought to have been associated with a small religious house founded in c.1045AD and recorded in 1090AD as lying within the castle grounds and moved out in 1124AD. The presence of W-E aligned, ordered burials in every one of our trenches has shown that it was extensive, upwards of 500 burials probably, but has not determined its limits in any but (probably) the western direction and raises questions about its period of use, clearly for longer than the c. 80 years that the religious community was here.

Excavation of the burials
Excavation of the burials

We were also hoping to find archaeological evidence of the sequence of buildings recorded in a wealth of documents to have been on the site in the 14th century. The evidence of falling ground levels to the nearby River Stour, however, suggests that only in the lowest-lying, southern part of the site does a sequence of stratified layers with the potential to provide this evidence survive. The large trench in this area contained layers of demolition debris and structural evidence as well as a large early palisade-type ditch. Across most of the remainder of the site the later medieval horizons have been truncated. Comparison of the levels of the burials in each trench should enable us to estimate the depth of what has been lost. Some building evidence was found near the entrance between the inner and outer bailey where a robbed-out wall, clay floor and the base of an oven was found – again the upper levels were truncated by leveling and these represented the earliest constructions in this area.

Jane with a pottery fragment
Jane with a pottery fragment

A single flint and mortar wall footing running roughly parallel to the southern baily bank did not have an identifiable ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ and may therefore have formed part of an internal partition or garden wall within the bailey.

Finds washing has started on site in the finds tent, which proved very popular with visitors. Preliminary results show pottery mostly dating between the 11th and 13th centuries and consistent with the apparent loss of the 14th century and later ground levels. This will continue in the CA Needham Market office throughout the winter.

This has been an ambitious project but the enthusiasm, skill and dedication of the volunteers who donated 393 days in total as well as the commitment of the Cotswold Archaeology staff has greatly enhanced our understanding of this part of the Castle – the question now is what shall we do next year?


View of the excavation site

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

Clare Castle Community Excavations

We are now a week into the community dig at Clare Castle in Suffolk, which is being carried out by local volunteers under the direction of archaeologists from CA’s Suffolk Office. The work is part of a large Heritage Lottery Grant awarded to the Clare Castle Country Park Trust in 2018 to improve understanding of the history of the site and the visitor experience.

A silver cut halfpenny of William I
A silver cut halfpenny of William I

Following on from last year’s successful dig in the Outer Bailey, this year’s work is focussed in the Inner Bailey, where excavation in 2013 had identified the possible site of a College of Secular Canons, founded c. 1045. As well as evidence for this pre-conquest activity, we hope to identify buildings associated with the occupation of the castle. Clare Castle is one of the earliest motte and bailey castles in Suffolk, constructed by Richard Fitzgilbert (who was awarded the lands of the Saxon lord Aelfric in 1075 following a revolt against William I) before AD 1090. One of the first finds made this year is a cut silver halfpenny of William I (the Conqueror), contemporary with the castle’s construction.

Despite a wet start on Monday, we managed to open enough trenches to start digging in the afternoon. Machining has removed the overlying railway deposits, revealing a buried soil containing medieval pottery. As we have started to remove this layer, flint and mortar walls and rubble spreads/surfaces are being revealed, so it all looks very promising. Considerable quantities of medieval pottery have been recovered, some of it large and very fresh-looking, so it is probably being recovered close to the site of its original deposition.

Digging on Day 1 with the castle in the background
Digging on Day 1 with the castle in the background

We have also inserted a single trench to confirm the presence of an infilled stretch of moat around the motte and to determine whether there may have been an outer bank, which perhaps preserves pre-Conquest buried soils beneath it. We have found the moat and can see where part of the motte had slipped into the inner edge and have immediately backfilled this length. A thick deposit of chalk at the outer edge needs further investigation in order to determine if it represents bank material that slipped into the moat.

We were delighted to host our CEO, Neil and three of our trustees during a visit on Tuesday afternoon and I could see they were itching to get involved!

The trustees visit
The trustees visit
Volunteers cleaning one of the walls
Volunteers cleaning one of the walls

We have a great HQ in the newly refurbished Old Goods Shed of the former railway line, where we are able to present displays and updates. Our volunteer team is consistently large and are proving capable and dedicated – and good humoured as they battle the soil layers compacted by a hundred years of train traffic. We are posting updates via social media and have an Open Day next Sunday between 12 and 4pm, where there will be displays, finds handling and guided tours. So if you’re in the area on Sunday, why not come and see the site for yourself?!