ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 44, May 1999


Neolithic house and Roman temple on rail link route

Archaeologists working on the line of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link through Kent have encountered a number of important sites, including a Neolithic long house, Roman and Saxon cemeteries and a Roman villa with outbuildings and a private temple.

The longhouse, one of only about 15 known in Britain, was found in the North Downs on Blue Bell Hill, near Maidstone. Marked out by a pattern of post-holes and sill-beam slots some 20m long by 7m wide, it was dated by its form and by pottery found in the the pits.

The site, excavated by Richard Brown of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, lies close to a number of Neolithic funeral monuments such as Kit's Coty and Coldrum long barrows, and may represent part of the `settlement' of the people who used the barrows. A later Bronze Age/Iron Age settlement developed on the site, with post-holes, storage pits and evidence of metalworking.

The Roman villa at Thurnham near Maidstone has been known since 1833, but the present excavations - directed by Graham Keevill also of the Oxford unit - have uncovered a large area of the villa estate, finding numerous associated buildings such as a private temple, a massive aisled building and other agricultural structures such as corn-driers and wells.

The temple has a `classic double-square plan', and is an unusual find on a villa estate, according to Mr Keevill. Mausoleums are more common, but the absence of burials at Thurnham prevents that interpretation in this case. The temple produced few finds, hindering further explanation of its presence. The aisled building had a mixed domestic and agricultural use, and is thought to have been a barn with attached accommodation for farm-workers. Massive post-holes some 1.5m in diameter possibly suggest a two-storey building.

Signs have been found on the site which hint at continuity of occupation from the Iron Age to the Roman period. Substantial enclosure ditches and associated post-holes were discovered underneath the villa with probable late Iron Age pottery. The discovery may suggest that the site remained in `native' occupation throughout the Roman period.

Other sites along the rail link route include a 6th-7th century Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Cuxton near Rochester, containing 36 burials surrounded by pennanular ring-ditches. Finds included shield bosses, spear-heads, glass beads and dress items. There were no signs of Christianity in the cemetery despite the presence of missionaries in Kent from the late 6th century.

A 1st-3rd century Roman cemetery has also been fully excavated close to Springhead Roman town, near Gravesend, aligned on a Roman road. Some 600 cremation and inhumation burials were found, some surrounded by shadow imprints of coffins. About 400 unbroken pottery vessels were recovered.

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Survey of SMRs paints bleak picture

A comprehensive survey of Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) in England published last month has painted a generally bleak picture of their condition, describing starved resources, inadequate content and unfulfilled potential.

The survey, written by former Bedfordshire county archaeologist David Baker, noted that SMRs, at their best, should be `definitive permanent general records of the local historic environment' with a variety of uses, ranging from planning control to research, education and public information. The 75 SMRs in the survey, however, were judged to be performing on average at about 50 per cent below the acceptable standard, with many performing far worse. The best, however, were performing well.

Management resources are often weak, the survey found. Less than two-thirds of SMRs have a dedicated SMR officer; less than a fifth have clerical or technical assistance. The organisation of archives is also weak in some cases. Data standards vary. Nearly half of all SMRs have problems in dealing with bespoke searches, and many report a simple lack of time to input new material.

The information contained in SMRs is variable in quality, according to the report. Some SMRs contain no information at all on major subjects such as historic villages as settlements or listed buildings. This is partly the result of fieldworkers failing to keep SMRs informed of new discoveries: `Requirements by planning advisers that field units report results properly to SMRs are ineffective in many areas,' the report says, `particularly where there is strong market-driven competition between contractors.'

SMRs are also grossly under-used, with the vast majority of enquiries driven by the needs of planning control; only five per cent of enquiries were inspired by research and two per cent by education. Half England's SMRs cannot offer enquirers a dedicated table or desk. `Only a small minority of SMRs have assumed their natural role as a major tool for fostering public appreciation and enjoyment of the local historic environment,' Mr Baker says.

The survey, commissioned by the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers, concludes that improvement of SMRs can be brought about only through concerted action by local authorities, English Heritage - and the Heritage Lottery Fund.

An Assessment of English Sites and Monuments Records, by David and Evelyn Baker, is available from ALGAO, Planning Department, County Hall, Chelmsford CM1 1LF

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Plan to re-wet damaged Iron Age site

An innovative conservation scheme to re-wet a formerly waterlogged archaeological site began last month in South Yorkshire. The site, an unusual Iron Age double-enclosure at Sutton Common near Askern, has been degenerating since the land was drained for agriculture in the early 1980s.

The Sutton Common double-enclosure consists of one larger enclosed settlement on the bank of a former river or stream, and a smaller enclosure on the opposite bank, which is thought to have been an entrance structure. The two were linked by a defended causeway - an arrangement that prefigures, in some respects, a medieval castle and barbican linked by a drawbridge across a moat. The site has few parallels in the Iron Age.

Sutton Common lies in an area of very low-lying land with a high water table. Timber posts driven into the ground in the Iron Age have been preserved by water-logging, allowing archaeologists to build a detailed picture of the enclosure's elaborate defences.

Both parts of the double-enclosure survived as earthworks until the 1980s, when the larger enclosure was bulldozed - despite being a scheduled ancient monument - and the surrounding land drained for agricultural improvement. Archaeological investigations since then have shown continuing desiccation of the site and erosion of the remains.

In 1997, however, the land was bought by the Carstairs Countryside Trust with the support of English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. Plans were laid to re-wet the land in a series of controlled experiments during which the condition of the archaeological remains would be continually monitored. The scheme is supported by English Heritage, the Countryside Commission, Hull University and other bodies.

According to Robert Van de Noort of Hull University, who is leading the archaeological monitoring, the buried field drains will first be blocked, then the surrounding arterial drains. The former river channel itself may be reopened. If necessary, water may be pumped into the area during especially dry periods. `The idea is to recreate a stable environment in which the buried remains can survive in situ,' he said.

No archaeological site in Britain has been re-wetted on such a scale before. The enclosures cover about 17 acres (7 hectares), but the re-waterlogged area will cover 90 acres (37 hectares), providing a large wet buffer zone to protect the site from the surrounding well-drained farmland.

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In brief

Roman lady

MUSEUM OF LONDON archaeologists last month opened the decorated lead coffin of a high-born Roman woman of the 4th century, whose sarcophagus had been found the previous month in Spitalfields. In an unprecedented discovery, a pillow of carefully-arranged leaves was found under the woman's head, and a piece of matted gold thread survives as a probable remnant of her clothing.

A delicate glass vessel with trailed-glass decoration, possibly a container for perfume or make-up, was found at the foot of the coffin, with a larger glass vessel which may have contained food. A jet disk, thought to be a pendant, and a jet canister also lay in the sarcophagus.

A reassessment of pottery found during excavations at Dalginross Roman fort on the Gask Ridge in Perthshire has led to a revised view of the Antonine advance into Scotland in the 2nd century AD.

Pottery from the fort, dated to the Antonine period by Manchester University's Roman Gask Project, led by David Woolliscroft, has shown that the Roman occupation of Scotland north of the Antonine Wall in the 2nd century was more widespread than had previously been believed. In the traditional view, the only sites held lay along the road north from Camelon to Bertha in Perthshire.

Margaret's seal

A 13TH CENTURY lead seal used for closing letters has been found in a ditch at Norwich Castle, with a Latin inscription indicating that it belonged to a woman. The inscription reads: `Margaret wife of Tom', but the woman's identity remains uncertain. Seals of this period belonging to women are thought to be relatively uncommon.

Marine archaeologists in America believe they have found the wreck of Captain Cook's ship Endeavour, in which he discovered Australia in 1768-71. Kathy Abbass, head of the Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project, has established though documentary research that the ship, renamed Lord Sandwich, was sunk in the siege of Newport, Rhode Island, in 1778. Her team has now located a ship with the correct specifications lying in mud at the bottom of the harbour.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999