ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 35, June 1998


Plough damage `increased since the onset of BSE'

Fears have been raised that damage to archaeological sites in pasture fields may be accelerating in some parts of the country, as livestock farmers increasingly turn to arable following BSE.

The problem has come to light in Herefordshire, but it is suspected that other areas of the country may be affected as well. In Herefordshire, at least one deserted medieval village is known to have been ploughed up over recent months, together with half a mile of hedges; and a second deserted village is expected to go under the plough in the near future.

There is also a perception amongst conservationists in the county that the rate of pasture loss is accelerating. They fear, moreover, that pasture fields are increasingly being ploughed for potatoes, which need deep-ploughing to a depth of about half a metre, after which little archaeology survives.

The ploughed deserted village, which included remains of a ridge-and-furrow field system, is at Vowchurch near Hay-on-Wye. Late last year, Ian Prior of Vowchurch Court Farm removed eight hedges believed to date from the 14th century and ploughed the land for potatoes. He is alleged to have removed the hedges without permission and the case has now gone to court.

The threatened deserted village is at Fenhampton near Weobley. The landowner, James Verdin, has said he will plough the field once a small fieldwalking project, involving members of the local history society, is complete.

A third site in Herefordshire near Eardisland, known from crop-marks and thought to be the remains of a late prehistoric settlement, has also been obliterated by potato-ploughing in recent months. The site was already degraded from arable cultivation, but now all signs of postholes and enclosure ditches are thought to have gone.

Duncan Brown, SMR Officer for Worcestershire and Herefordshire, said it was `frightening' to contemplate the number of long-established pastures now being ploughed for potatoes. `Pasture has always been ploughed up, but what worries me is the scale of what's happening now in Herefordshire, and probably everywhere else affected by BSE,' he said.

Fiona Lickorish of the Herefordshire Nature Trust said she thought the rate of pasture loss was accelerating in the county. `Farmers around here are feeling the pinch from BSE and any land they can convert to arable, they are converting,' she said.

Some comparative information comes from Lincolnshire, where English Nature conducted a study of grassland loss between 1990-1997, and found that around 17 per cent disappeared, including numerous tracts of ridge and furrow. `There is no doubt that there have been many further losses since then,' said Rick Keymer of English Nature's East Midlands team.

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Lottery opens its doors for archaeology

The prospect of major additional funding for certain areas of archaeology opened up last month, as the Heritage Lottery Fund's new policy for funding archaeological projects became clear.

Archaeology has received only a small proportion of the nearly £1 billion committed to heritage-related projects to date, but the Fund has long signalled its desire to give more to the subject (see BA, April 1996). Its new archaeology policy was prompted by a widening of the Lottery's remit, brought about by the National Heritage Act 1997, which now allows the Lottery to support the operating costs of projects as well as new capital schemes.

The Fund's new policy states that the following five areas of archaeological work will be favoured for Lottery funds: fieldwork on sites threatened by environmental erosion; recording of locally-significant historical features, such as hedgerows; enhancement of Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs); publishing of past local fieldwork projects; and publishing past excavation projects where the original excavator is no longer practising.

Projects that can demonstrate a high level of public benefit - through public involvement, access, or presentation - will be favoured. In addition, museums are encouraged to apply for funding to help care for archaeological archives.

Some archaeologists may be disappointed by the new guidelines, in particular by the fact that the Fund seems unwilling to support major new research projects with a wide public interest.

Geoff Wainwright, Chief Archaeologist at English Heritage, however, welcomed the policy as it would relieve English Heritage's £4.3 million archaeological budget of some of its own obligations, in particular the publishing of certain unpublished excavations, and supporting fieldwork connected with coastal erosion, and other environmentally-threatened sites. `If the Lottery's going to take all of that over, it will be wonderful,' he said.

Nigel Clubb, Director of England's National Monuments Record, said he was delighted that the Lottery had singled out SMRs for funding. The NMR, he said, would work jointly with SMRs to bid for funds, in particular for digitisation of records, greater access and a national network of information. Diana Murray, in charge of Scotland's NMR, agreed it was an opportunity to `network information sources rather than compete for funds', and said she hoped to increase public access through the Internet as well as in libraries.

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Iron Age village below Cadbury Castle

The discovery of widespread evidence for late Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement around Cadbury Castle hillfort in Somerset, contemporary with settlement inside the fort, has raised interesting questions about the way hillforts were used in the 1st millennium BC.

In particular, a large late Bronze Age and Iron Age settlement covering up to 15 hectares has been found on the lower slopes of the hillfort itself, mirroring the settlement within the fort. It is assumed the two settlements were closely connected, although it is unclear at present exactly how.

Traditionally, hillforts were investigated in isolation and regarded by many as islands of Iron Age occupation in an otherwise empty landscape. The evidence at Cadbury Castle (South Cadbury) confirms that hillforts were merely one part of a wider settlement pattern, a point also made by recent work in the hinterland of Danebury hillfort in Hampshire.

At Cadbury, wherever intensive survey has taken place within a radius of 8km of the fort, material has been found of mainly late Bronze Age to Roman date, according to Peter Leach of Birmingham University's field unit, which was working at Cadbury together with a team from Glasgow.

The settlement on the south-western slope, containing roundhouses and rectilinear buildings, lies on what is thought to have been the main route up into the fort. Mr Leach rejects the idea that the settlements were related like a castle to its medieval town - to regard hillforts as primarily military is `old-fashioned' - but the powerful defences at the fort suggest it was used as a refuge in times of danger.

Early Bronze Age and Neolithic material was found at the settlement - as also in the fort during former excavations. The most spectacular find was a complete late Bronze Age shield, placed face-down in an early Bronze Age banked ditch, at the corner of what may have been a large enclosure. The circular bronze shield, of the Yetholm type (currently dated c 1100-700BC), is decorated with rings of impressed dots and appears not to have been used in battle. It is the first late Bronze Age shield from an archaeological context - as opposed to a river, or similar site - which may allow it to be more precisely dated.

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In brief

Untouched cairn

A Neolithic chambered cairn has been found on Orkney, its chamber apparently untouched for thousands of years. The cairn, built into a hillside near Kirkwall, was discovered when a farmer's tractor dislodged a roofing slab over the oval chamber. From the surface, piles of bones could be seen inside. Although dozens of chambered cairns survive in Scotland, the new cairn will be one of the few undisturbed examples to be excavated in recent times.

Temples at risk

A large complex of Roman remains on sloping ground north of Swindon has been identified as a series of temples and associated buildings in landscaped, terraced gardens, dating mainly from the 4th century. The site, however, forms part of an area intended for development and will soon be buried under new housing.

Three nymphaeums, or shrines to water spirits, with a further temple and altar, have been identified on the highest terrace. Conduits for water lead down the hillside, and a series of pools, a road, and stepped pathways have been found. At the bottom of the hillside, evidence survives of accommodation blocks and a baths complex, which once contained mosaic floors and vaulted ceilings. Silver finds include handles for a bucket-like vessel, leaf-shaped escutcheons and part of a large fluted bowl. The site has been excavated by Bryn Walters of the Association for Roman Archaeology, with a geophysical survey by English Heritage.

Axe attraction

A theory of sexual selection has been advanced to explain the exquisite design of Palaeolithic handaxes. As reported in New Scientist last month, Steve Mithen of Reading University believes that perfectly symmetrical handaxes were unnecessary for butchery - which can be done with a stone flake - and can only be explained if they were crafted to impress. Handaxes first appeared in Africa around 1.4 million years ago, at a time when hominids' social groups may have been becoming larger, leading, according to Dr Mithen, to a new competition in the mating game.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1998