British Archaeology, no 30, December 1997: News

Wooden evidence found for prehistoric power-tools

A small, circular piece of wood found preserved at a crannog in Scotland has provided remarkable evidence for man’s early industrial development. The wooden disk is the waste material from a bowl or plate that was manufactured in the late Bronze Age or early Iron Age on a lathe - one of the earliest power-tools to be invented in Europe.

The disk was discovered at Oakbank Crannog in Loch Tay, Perthshire, a settlement built on an artificial island where waterlogging has led to the survival of wooden and other organic remains (see BA June 1996). The crannog as a whole dates from c 800-400BC, although it is unclear at present whether the disk dates from the earlier or later part of the period.

The disk, some 4.5cm across with a conical hole through the centre, was identified as the base of a turned wooden bowl or plate by wood specialists Rob Sands of Edinburgh University and Jon Hather of University College, London. The disk, attached to the bottom of the bowl, would have been fixed to the lathe by a spike (hence the conical hole) while the bowl was being turned, after which it was removed with an axe to leave a bowl with a flat bottom. Clues that the disk was turned on a lathe are that it is perfectly round and has continuous gouge-marks running around the edge.

Turned wooden objects, such as bowls, spindles, tool handles, spoons, wheel hubs and spokes, are more frequent on later Iron Age sites of c 200-300BC. Earlier examples are very rare. The earliest in Europe is a complete bowl from Corneto in Italy dated to c 700BC, and the new material from Scotland appears to be of a similar date.

The Scottish disk shows the bowl was lathed at the crannog - possibly suggesting a kind of ‘cottage industry’ - rather than imported to the site. According to Dr Hather, lathes transformed the manufacture of wooden objects, allowing a single worker to make a bowl in, say, 20 minutes rather than half a day.

The design of early lathes, however, is unclear. No lathes survive earlier than the post-medieval period, and even pictures of lathes are very rare before the 14th century AD. A ‘pole lathe’ appears in a 13th century stained glass window at Chartres Cathedral, and some rough pictures of lathes are known from the Roman period. It is thought, however, that the earliest lathes were ‘reciprocating’ - that is, they turned the object first forwards, then back. In the case of a pole lathe, a rope would have been attached to a treadle below the machine, wound round a mandrell fixed to the object, and connected to a springy pole above.

A replica of Oakbank Crannog has been built at Kenmore on Loch Tay by the excavator, Nick Dixon of Edinburgh University, and was opened to the public last year. A model of a pole lathe stands outside.

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One-upmanship in Roman Yorkshire

A colourful example of neighbourly one-upmanship in late Roman Britain has emerged during excavations at Hayton, near Pocklington in East Yorkshire. In those days, getting ahead seems to have involved showing that you were more Romanised than your neighbours.

The excavations have revealed a late Iron Age settlement of roundhouses which, during the Roman period, slowly began to adopt Roman culture. Pottery, brooches and glass began to appear, while the architecture remained native in style probably until the 2nd century AD.

At this stage, the roundhouses were demolished and a rectangular timber building in the Roman style was built, although it is unclear whether it formed part of a village or stood alone. Then, perhaps in the late 3rd or early 4th century, the owner did a strange thing - he built a tiny, stone bath-house onto the end of his timber home. Only later was the house itself replaced by a stone villa.

According to Jeremy Taylor, who excavated the site with Prof Martin Millett, both from Durham University, it is ‘rare’ to find bath-houses in East Yorkshire, and particularly unusual anywhere in the country to find one attached to a timber building.

‘The bath-house is usually a later embellishment to a stone villa,’ Dr Taylor said. ‘This is a local attempt to appear more civilised than your neighbours. Without the bath-house, the building is very similar to others nearby.’

The new bath-house was also a ‘particularly gaudy building’, Dr Taylor said. It was built of blocks of chalk and would have stood out noticeably in the landscape. Although tiny, with rooms only 6ft square, it was decorated inside with crude painted wall-plaster.

Excavations in the villa’s well have produced evidence for how the building was furnished. When it was eventually demolished, furniture was thrown into the well, where waterlogging has preserved some wooden pieces.

One piece, originally the side of an oak door or cupboard with iron hinges still attached, was inlaid with a geometric pattern of a lighter wood and bone. Very little is known about Roman furniture, and it has been assumed that such intricate decoration was confined to small, portable, but precious objects such as funeral caskets, Dr Taylor said.

To find such furnishing at an unsophisticated site, in the declining years of Roman Britain, points to the likely existence of far more elaborate furniture styles in the grander villas of the period.

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Iron Age forts crumble into the sea

Several prehistoric hillforts on the coastline of south-west Wales are crumbling into the sea, a recent survey has discovered. The Iron Age forts, built on top of soft mudstone cliffs, are eroding at the rate of around a metre a year in some cases.

A survey by Cambria Archaeology (formerly the Dyfed Archaeological Trust) has found that of 50 promontory forts on the Pembrokeshire coast, 19 are suffering erosion, and seven of these are in a critical condition.

The most seriously affected are Sheep Island, Linney Head, Flimston Bay, and Great Castle Head near Milford Haven, Black Point Rath and Porth y Rhaw near St David’s, and Castell tre Ruffydd near Cardigan. Castell tre Ruffydd could easily be reached on foot 30 years ago but is now practically an offshore island. Flimston Bay has developed a large ‘blow hole’ where the sea has tunnelled underneath the cliffs and squirts up through the fort. Linney Head is not only being eroded by the sea, but is also within an MoD firing range. Great Castle Head, once a huge hillfort with a double defensive earthwork, now measures only about 25m across as most of it has fallen into the sea.

Cadw, the Welsh historic monuments agency, is funding emergency survey and excavation work at some of the forts, but little can be done to stop the erosion.

Excavation by Peter Crane of Cambria Archaeology is now concentrated on Porth y Rhaw, one of the most elaborate of the endangered hillforts with a quadruple defensive earthwork, where at least three metres of the fort have disappeared in the past three years.

The work has suggested that the fort was occupied continuously from at least the middle Iron Age to the early Roman period. Six stone-footed roundhouses have been found, one of which had the unusual feature of an internal circular gully, perhaps for a screen. A similar discovery was made at Danebury in Hampshire.

A hearth containing flecks of copper alloy and half a glass bead - which may have been used for jewellery repair - has produced a radiocarbon date of 800-400BC, while a later occupation date is suggested by finds of 2nd century AD black burnished pottery. An amber bead provided evidence of long-distance trade. The fort showed no sign of abandonment.

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In brief

Henge research

The huge prehistoric wooden building and henge at Stanton Drew in Somerset, whose discovery received wide publicity last month, will be the focus of a new landscape research project organised by local archaeologists helped by English Heritage. The intention will be to understand how the monument related to other prehistoric features in the landscape, as well as to draw up a conservation plan for the area covering archaeology, ecology and the interests of local people.

Geophysical survey at the site by English Heritage this summer revealed that a building consisting of nine concentric rings of oak pillars stood within a henge some 120m across. Thought to have been built at c 3,000BC, it is similar to a number of other sites in Britain - such as Woodhenge in Wiltshire - but is the largest yet found.

According to Bob Sydes, archaeological officer with Bath and North-East Somerset Council, few sites of any period are recorded on the sites and monuments record for the area, and it is unknown whether the Stanton Drew henge was isolated or closely linked to other sites. One Iron Age hillfort is known nearby, and further research may tell if it had Bronze Age origins. ‘Research may also establish where the builders and users of Stanton Drew were living,’ he said.

National Archaeology Days, organised by the CBA, will take place on 25-26 July next year, rather than in the autumn.

Aerial survey

Over 4,000 new archaeological sites have been discovered in Lincolnshire, following analysis of air photos of the county by the English Royal Commission. They include a dozen Neolithic long barrows, twice as many as were previously known, and a dense pattern of Iron Age and Roman rural settlement. After examining some 58,000 photos, the Commission’s National Mapping Programme for the county is now complete, producing a map of all known sites - numbering over 6,000 - at a scale of 1:10,000.

Other areas that are now mapped include Salisbury Plain, the Marches Uplands, the Thames Valley, the Yorkshire Dales, and the Howardian Hills.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997