British Archaeology, no 10, December 1995: News


New Flag Fen-like site found in East Sussex

A large Late Bronze Age ceremonial and occupation site, preserved in waterlogged deposits and similar in some respects to the famous Bronze Age site at Flag Fen, has been found near Eastbourne in East Sussex.

As at Flag Fen, the Eastbourne site consists of a large wooden platform connected to a long wooden causeway running across what was formerly a marshy lake. A number of bronze artefacts have been found, seemingly thrown from the platform as votive offerings into the marsh.

The platform appears to have been the site of a small settlement. At least two clay hearths were found on the platform, surrounded by a mass of occupation evidence such as butchered animal bones and pottery. The pottery seems to date the settlement provisionally to c 800-600BC - later than Flag Fen, which flourished from c 1400-900BC.

Both the platform and causeway lay originally on the surface of the marsh, supported by a complex arrangement of oak posts. The posts had been driven into the underlying clay and peat, but also rose up above the causeway and platform, possibly to mark the line of the causeway (which ran for at least 1km across the marsh), and also perhaps as a structural base for buildings on the platform. The platform itself, 80m wide and at least 50m long, consisted of a solid timber base covered in brushwood and rush matting, with a surface layer of gravel.

The bronze artefacts found in the surrounding peat included a palstave (or unsocketed axe), two socketed axes, a chisel head and a sickle. The sickle was excavated complete with its intact wooden handle, and all the other objects except the palstave retained traces of wood. The excavators from East Sussex County Council have so far only excavated a small area, and many more bronze artefacts are expected as work continues next year. One of the socketed axes was found in near-mint condition, and still retained a sharp cutting edge. Its style suggests it came from north-west continental Europe, indicating some form of long-distance trade or gift-exchange. Some amber beads and part of a shale bracelet were also found.

The skeleton of an infant was discovered at the site, but it was not in situ, and at present it is unclear whether the skeleton represents an ordinary child burial, or a foundation deposit or some other kind of ritual burial. Human bones from at least three adults have also been found.

According to Andrew Woodcock, East Sussex County Archaeologist, the presence of `foreign' bronze, and the ritual deposition of artefacts, suggest this was an important site in the Bronze Age. It is also likely to prove an important site for modern archaeology, as one of only a handful of major waterlogged prehistoric sites currently known in the country with good preservation of organic remains.


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Prehistoric children's cemetery in Kent

A small prehistoric burial ground that seems to have contained only children for most of its existence has been found at Eastry on the North Downs in Kent.

The Neolithic to Bronze Age cemetery was found to contain eleven intact burials - seven inhumations and five cremations - of which six inhumations were of children (aged roughly six to twelve), and two cremations were of new-born babies. The adult burials all date from the later phases of the site's occupation, suggesting that for a long period burial on site was reserved exclusively for the young.

According to the excavator, Tim Allen of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, the exclusivity of the burials was `extraordinary and unprecedented in Britain' - but as yet inexplicable. Tests such as radiocarbon dating and DNA analysis may shed light, however, on whether the children were related, and whether they were buried at roughly the same time or over a long period.

The site - probably used for various religious or ceremonial activities, and not just for burial - consists of three oval ring-ditches, which interlock with each other and therefore seem to represent different phases of the site. An interesting aspect is the site's apparent longevity, surviving from the Late Neolithic (marked by Peterborough Grooved Ware pottery and hundreds of Neolithic flint scrapers) to the Middle/Late Bronze Age. According to Mr Allen, initial examination of one pot suggests it marks the point of cultural transition between the two eras - a small cup with pierced lugs (typical of the Neolithic) but otherwise Early Bronze Age in form.


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First Viking settlement in North Wales

The first firm evidence of Viking settlement in North Wales has been found on Anglesey. The settlement consists of two large Viking-type halls and a third building, dating from the 9th or 10th centuries, together with a number of unusual high-status artefacts and evidence of farming, craftwork, and trade.

The site lies close to Red Wharf Bay, a large natural harbour that would have been a convenient stop-over point on the route between the Viking centres of Dublin and York. Little is known of Viking activity in the area, but historical sources refer to Viking raiding from c 840, and the attempted settlement of a certain Ingimund in 902-903, who had previously been expelled from Dublin. There is no evidence to link the new site with Ingimund, but late 8th and 9th century coins, and radiocarbon-dated charcoal from the site place it in roughly the same period (the carbon is dated to 760-1035 at 95 per cent probability).

The three buildings were found within a D-shaped ditched enclosure. Little has been found of the third building, but the other two seem to measure more than 12m by 8m, and have central hearths and possible evidence of benching. Their presence is marked by low stone footings for timber walls, but one of the buildings had been rebuilt - a line of post-holes marks its first phase - suggesting the site was occupied for at least two generations.

The most unusual find at the site was a large whetstone, with a bronze ferrule at one end in the shape of a pointed Viking helmet, attached to a suspension ring. According to the excavator, Mark Redknap of the National Museum of Wales, the whetstone appears to have been little used, and to have been more a symbol of rank than a functional object. Also found were a 10th century copper alloy ringed pin, and a small ornamental bronze bell perhaps worn as part of a woman's dress.

Evidence of craft activity at the site includes iron forging and bronze and antler working. Quernstone fragments and animal bones suggest a working farm; and there is also evidence of trade, represented by six weights and by quantities of hacksilver - fragments of silver cut up for use in exchange. Dr Redknap said: `For years we have been looking for a site like this. It is clearly a high-status site, and it should prove extremely important in illuminating the Viking Age in the Irish Sea.'


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In brief

Stonehenge roads

A planning conference, convened by the Highways Agency, and held last month on the vexed question of the route of the new A303 near Stonehenge, concluded that the English Heritage/National Trust proposal for a long road-tunnel under Stonehenge was both the ideal solution in principle, and the only acceptable route of all those presently under discussion.

The two route options running south of the stones - which were highly damaging to archaeology - had been withdrawn by the Government the week before the conference; and the two northern route options (one proposed by the Highways Agency, the other by English Heritage and the National Trust) were rejected by the conference as inimical to the World Heritage status of the site, to local interests and to the MoD. The conference's conclusion, which both surprised and delighted conservationists, appears to reflect a new rapprochement between English Heritage and the Highways Agency, reached in the days before, and during, the conference, after some months of `cold war' (see British Archaeology, October 1995). The English Heritage/National Trust/Highways Agency joint working party on Stonehenge, which had not met for six months, has now been reconvened.

The proposed long tunnel, which could cost about UKP200-250 million, has hitherto been rejected by the Government on grounds of cost; and it is unclear what effect the conference will have on the final decision, which now seems to rest with the Treasury.

Early church date

A timber-framed church at Greensted in Essex, thought to be Europe's oldest wooden building, has been dated to shortly after 1053 (strictly, 1053+10-55 years) by dendrochonologists from Sheffield University. The church had been thought to date from the 9th century, because of a faulty dendro reading taken in about 1960. Excavation in the 1960s, however, found possible traces of an earlier chapel.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison


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