Walton, Felixstowe: We need to talk about Pits…

Excavation of prehistoric pit

The Suffolk branch of our site team completed a large (three-hectare) excavation at Walton, near the coastal town of Felixstowe in Suffolk in early 2022. The project is now in the post-excavation stage and the site has got us thinking about pits… Prehistoric pits!

Within East Anglia this largely means Early Neolithic, Beaker, Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age – comprising perhaps 90% of the archaeology excavated at these periods, and 90% of contemporary artefacts. However, their function and significance has remained enigmatic at best, misunderstood at worst. The Walton site contained pits of both Beaker (c. 2400-1950BC) and Early Iron Age (800-350 BC) date.

Prehistoric pits are found as discrete features, as pairs, in tight, nucleated groups and in large, open scatters. At Walton, the Beaker pits were in nucleated groups, while the Early Iron Age pits were in an open scatter.

For decades the majority of pit studies and publications have viewed the pits and their contents as inextricably linked, with the latter far outweighing the former in ‘importance’; the focus has generally been on the finds, and, to a lesser extent, the environmental material.

However, to address the question ‘What was the original purpose of Prehistoric pits?’ we need to divorce the pit from its contents and look at the two separately – the pit may have a purpose entirely unconnected with the material that subsequently filled it, though the material that filled it may have a bearing on why the pit was located here in the first place.

This bit is for the real nerds….. The Beaker pits were all of roughly the same size, though were clearly plough-truncated to some extent, and, on this high ground, probably to quite a serious degree. At an average size of 1.00m diameter and 0.30m deep they may originally have been c.1.30m across and 0.70m deep. Occasionally a pit cut the edges of another within the group, though originally it is likely that many more would have clipped earlier, adjacent pits, and been clipped in turn.

This intercutting, and the bowl-shaped profiles, preclude their interpretation as ‘storage’ pits as these would have been cut into unexcavated ground to ensure their edges were solid and did not collapse. There is, in both periods, a distinct lack of recognisable ‘structured deposition’ at Walton as at most other sites, and a good number of pits contained small, scrappy, incidental finds assemblages, or no finds whatsoever, and this argues strongly against interpretations of pits either as repositories for ‘ritual’ deposition or as rubbish pits purely to bury waste – they had a purpose prior to infilling.

Plan of prehistoric pits in pit group 2
Plan of pits in “Pit Group 2”

Looking at the pits in Pit Group 2, the pit at the southwest (top right) contained the fewest finds and a clean, pale fill, while the pit at the other end of the ‘ring’, held a dark, charcoal-rich fill and the largest finds assemblage. The number of finds grew progressively between the two. This suggests that they were dug and infilled in sequence, and that the material used to backfill them was becoming progressively ‘dirtier’ and more finds rich with each infilling.

There is consensus that prehistoric territories were relatively large, varying depending on soil type, contour, vegetation cover etc. If life was, at least to a degree, peripatetic, then ‘settlement’ sites within each territory would have been numerous. Cattle and sheep would require different areas of pasture, at different times of the year; fields would need to be ploughed, picked and fenced; crops planted, weeded, tended, harvested; woodlands and coppices managed and harvested etc. All these activities would have taken time, and the assumption must be that people would have ‘lived’ in these locations while they were being undertaken, but only then.

Graph of the number of finds found in each pit overlaid onto a photo of the pits
Photo of Pit Group 2 showing the quantity of finds

If each pit represented a visit to this location, with a group of people living on site for a few days or weeks, one interpretation would be that at each visit a camp was set up, utilising portable structures such as tents, and that life was lived as normal while the work here was carried out. A group of people living in a location for any length of time would require a latrine, set up adjacent to the camp. They would also require somewhere to midden their waste, the debitage and used tools from flint-working, the pots which broke on the fire, their food waste and fire waste etc. The latrine and the midden heap, which would get larger, dirtier and more material-rich with each visit, would be adjacent, keeping all forms of ‘waste’ in one tight location, cleanly and neatly. At the end of each visit the latrine would be backfilled from the adjacent heap of mixed upcast and midden waste and on the subsequent visit a new latrine would be dug in line. Unfortunately, because the pits are so shallow and well-drained, and because they are 3500 years old, any trace of cess has long since disappeared.

Field team at Walton on a classic British "summer" day
Field team at Walton on a classic British “summer” day

Richard Mortimer
​​​​Post Excavation Manager

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