British Archaeology, no 16, July 1996: News

Prehistoric salt-making village found in Fens

A prehistoric settlement, ranging in date from the Early Bronze Age to the Iron Age, with field ditches and evidence of salt-making, has been found in a gravel quarry on the Lincolnshire fen edge.

The site at Deeping St James, near Market Deeping on the Cambridgeshire border, consists of four Late Bronze Age roundhouses, one rectangular Early Iron Age house, and - a short distance away - a nearly-complete Early Bronze Age enclosure containing traces of cooking and other evidence of occupation. The later buildings were surrounded by domestic refuse such as animal bones and by a huge collection of early and mid 1st millennium pottery.

The Early Iron Age long-house contained several preserved structural wooden posts in situ, one of which has given a radiocarbon date of 525-395BC. Several other worked wooden objects have been found at the site - one looks like a table-top - but their function remains unclear.

A few small pieces of `briquetage (or salt-making equipment) have been found - fragmentary remains of broad, shallow dishes in which saltwater was evaporated, as well as one complete `two- horned pedestal (used in series to support the dishes). The Fens were a major centre of prehistoric and Roman salt-making, because of regular influxes of sea-water to the area,and other Bronze Age salt- making sites are known in Lincolnshire at Tetney, Stickford and Dowsby. Iron Age and Roman salt- making is known from Market Deeping and Langtoft nearby, as well as from several other Fenland sites.

Field ditches have been found next to the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age settlement, including one tiny ring-ditch about 2m across, which has been identified as the possible drainage ditch for a hay- rick.

The rectilinear Early Bronze Age enclosure, dating from the early 2nd millennium BC, contained a burnt mound (a heap of burnt stones used for cooking and heating water), a hearth, and a pit possibly used as a water-source. Gullies, pits and post-holes within the enclosure contained twisted-cord pottery, typical of the Early Bronze Age. The enclosure ditch had later been filled in, and the burnt mound was truncated by a criss-cross pattern of ard (or early plough) marks, suggesting that the Early Bronze Age site had returned to agriculture by the time the Late Bronze Age settlement was founded.

David Start, Director of Heritage Lincolnshire which recorded the site (courtesy of the quarrying contractors, Ennemix), said the discovery of Bronze Age settlement sites was `extremely unusual' in Lincolnshire. `This is certainly the most interesting site we have had in all my time here,' he said.

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Chemical rock art comes to the moors

What should we do about a decaying example of prehistoric rock art, eroding out in the open air? This is a tale to test our views on the matter.

It concerns a panel of cup and ring markings at Gardom's Edge, on the Peak District moors above Baslow in Derbyshire, which has decayed steadily since it was found some 30 years ago. Last month, in a ceremony involving a helicopter air-lift and a photocall for the region's press, the original 4,000- year-old rock was buried on site, and a replica placed on top.

The replica, paid for by the Derbyshire Building Society, is made of polyester resin reinforced with glass fibre - a similar material to that used for lightweight boats such as canoes, according to Alison Walster, the project director at Sheffield City Museum. Coloured to match the millstone grit of the original, Ms Walster said she hoped it would look the same in the landscape - `though it will obviously feel and sound different if you tap it.' Materials such as concrete were rejected because they too would eventually decay; whereas the polyester resin could in theory last for centuries without change.

Is this approach, supported by the Peak District National Park, the right one? Stan Beckensall, the leading authority on northern rock art, said it was `an honest effort to solve a problem', but that the correct place for replicas was in a museum. `I personally wouldn't like to see a replica in the open air,' he said.

Mr Beckensall said he felt some sympathy for the view that rock art should be allowed to `decay gracefully' - that it `exists in time', and that its value lies precisely in the fact that it has survived for millennia despite all processes of erosion. Acid rain was an intractable problem, he said, but some other major threats to rock art could be solved quite easily - such as root damage from nearby trees or trampling by animals.

The replacement of the Gardom's Edge panel is far from unique. A rock carving at Dunadd Hillfort in Argyll was replaced by a replica some 20 years ago, and several British monuments have been reconstructed in situ, including the Iron Age hut circles at Grimspound on Dartmoor and even large sections of Hadrian's Wall. Yet according to Mr Beckensall, in the absence of a national policy on monuments such as rock art, based on scientific research into the prevention or erosion, ad hoc decisions on individual sites would continue to be made which may or may not be approved by most people.

Alison Walster said the decision on Gardom's Edge had been very hard to take. `But if ideas change, the replica can be removed. One advantage of what we have done is that it is reversible,' she said.

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British team to study `oldest castle'

Claims that a castle in France may be the oldest surviving castle in western Europe, dating from about AD850 in Carolingian times, are to be tested this summer by archaeologists from the Oxford Archaeological Unit.

Documents record that the Chateau de Mayenne, at Mayenne in north-western France, was given by the Count of Anjou to Hamon de Mayenne in 1000, but recent restoration work has suggested a much earlier foundation date. Workmen removing plaster in the medieval core of the castle revealed brick and stone arcades similar to those found in Carolingian churches; and radiocarbon dating of charcoal in the mortar produced dates centred on AD850.

If the date proves correct, it would make the castle one of the `very few' substantially-surviving medieval secular buildings of the period in western Europe, according to Prof Edward James of Reading University, a specialist in early medieval continental archaeology and history. `There are a few bits of palaces surviving from this date in Spain and Italy, but this could very possibly be the earliest castle,' he said.

The castle stands in the frontier zone between Normandy, Brittany and Anjou, and for centuries controlled the north- south route to the Loire. It was beseiged and taken by William the Conqueror in 1063, and was twice captured by the English during the Hundred Years War, who held it for 15 years until 1448. The claims for a Carolingian foundation date - and indeed that the building was a castle in this period - will be tested by building and geophysical surveys, followed by excavations starting in the late summer.

The Oxford Unit won the contract in competition with French contracting units - perhaps the first time a British unit has won a fully-commercial project abroad, according to David Miles, the unit director.

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In brief

Neolithic wine

Wine, thought by some to be a hallmark of the highest civilisation, was made (it now appears) by the very earliest Neolithic settlers in the Near East, some 2,000 years before the first literate civilisations developed.

Traces of a resinated wine (like retsina) have been identified by American archaeologists at Hajji Firuz Tepe in the Zagros mountains of Iran. The wine was found still adhering to a jar fragment dated to 5400- 5000BC in what seems to have been the kitchen of a square mud-brick building.

The previous oldest wine was also found in the Zagros mountains, at Godin Tepe, dating from about 3500BC in the period of Sumerian civilisation. Both sites lie within the zone where the ancient wild grape grew.

Tower tunnel

First Stonehenge, now the Tower of London. Sir Jocelyn Stevens, Chairman of English Heritage, last month called for an estimated UKP100 million of National Lottery money to build a road tunnel under the Tower of London - a World Heritage Site, like Stonehenge, and Britain's fourth biggest tourist attraction.

The Tower's setting, he said, is blighted by a `disgusting' five-lane highway, which blocks the view of all but the highest battlements from the main direction of approach. Sir Jocelyn's call forms part of an English Heritage `crusade' on behalf of all ten of Britain's World Heritage Sites.

Forbidden cars

A large tract of relict ancient landscape in Wales, containing numerous prehistoric monuments such as burial chambers and hillforts, has been saved from further damage by off-road cars, following a decision last month by William Hague, Secretary of State for Wales.

At a public inquiry, motorists had argued they were entitled to use the Golden Road over the Preseli Mountains of Pembrokeshire - source of the Stonehenge bluestones - on the grounds that it had been a highway since Roman times. Mr Hague, however, upheld a decision that the track was no more than a bridleway. It is thought the track has been in use for over 4,000 years.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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