ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 49, November 1999


Parish boundary that may date from the Bronze Age

Remarkable new evidence for the antiquity of some English territorial boundaries has come to light on the Wiltshire-Gloucestershire border, with the discovery that the boundary between the two parishes of Ashton Keynes and Somerford Keynes may date back at least 3,000 years to the late Bronze Age.

Excavations this summer, carried out by the Oxford Archaeological Unit in advance of gravel extraction, found a double line of Bronze Age pits that precisely mirrors the parish boundary for a distance of at least 200 yards. The county border now also follows the same line, as a result of boundary changes in recent years.

Similar double lines of Bronze Age pits have been found elsewhere in England - in Yorkshire and Cambridgeshire - and have been interpreted there as territorial boundaries. This summer's excavation found that Roman fields and property boundaries respected the line of pits, suggesting that the boundary was observed in that period, while the present parish boundary is known to date at least from Domesday Book in 1086, and probably from mid-late Saxon times. The suggestion of unbroken continuity is therefore strong.

According to excavation director Gill Hey, the pits held no structural features and were simply open, circular pits about two feet deep in the Bronze Age, suggesting a symbolic rather than defensive boundary. The line may have been reinforced, however, by a hedge which has left no archaeological traces. Environmental evidence indicates that the surrounding landscape was grazed but not cultivated, without much human settlement, reinforcing the sense of a boundary area.

A single burial was found close to the pits, and is thought to date from the same period. It was of a woman, whose legs had been broken to squeeze her into a small grave. Burials of this date are not uncommon in boundary areas, and may have been placed to invest the border with symbolic power. There is no evidence for a ditch encircling the burial, but it may originally have been covered by a mound.

The pits have been broadly dated by stratigraphy. Some of the pits cut through earlier middle Bronze Age pits, which are datable by pottery; while small fragments of middle Iron Age pottery were found in the upper layers of pit-fill, suggesting a date for the digging of the pits roughly between the two.

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`Victims of a Viking raid' on Anglesey

Three roughly-buried skeletons that may represent the victims of a 9th century Viking raid have been found during this season's excavations at the defended settlement of Llanbedrgoch on Anglesey (see BA, December 1998). They join two further skeletons from the same burial group that were found last year.

The five bodies - three adults and two infants - were dumped in a shallow grave in the upper fill of the ditch outside the defensive wall, and were covered by large stones. All lay at different angles. One was pushed up against the side of the grave; another lay on top of an infant with its feet by the infant's chin, and seems to have been buried with its hands tied behind its back. The sex of the adults is not clear.

What is clear, according to excavation director Mark Redknap of the National Museum of Wales, is that the bodies - dated in one case by radiocarbon to between 770-970 - were `not buried by their nearest and dearest'. Although disease cannot yet be ruled out as the cause of death, followed by hasty burial to avoid contagion, a violent death is thought more likely. Viking raids in North Wales began in the 850s.

The presence of infants suggests that the bodies belonged to inhabitants of the settlement rather than an attacking party. The rough burial implies they were interred by the enemy, and the event possibly marks a temporary takeover of the site by Viking raiders. According to Dr Redknap, it was not uncommon for Vikings to live off the land for a short period following a raid, before taking once again to the sea.

If the settlement's initial contact with the Vikings was violent, friendler trading contacts soon developed. Evidence from earlier years' excavations has shown an increase in Viking-style metalwork and other artefacts at the site during the 10th century.

The adult skeletons seem to be aged about 25-35. None had been decapitated, or had other cut-marks to the bone. `But if their throats had been cut, it wouldn't mark the skeleton,' Dr Redknap said.

Further research at Llanbedrgoch will now focus on the bodies, to try and establish cause of death, sex, age, family relationships and medical condition. Plans are afoot to reconstruct one face from the skull.

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Iron Age homes used for summer grazing

A small Iron Age settlement has been found preserved under peat in the Gwent Levels, on the South Wales coast. It consists of three timber buildings, lying in an area that was damp and boggy for much of the year during the Iron Age. They are thought to represent the temporary homes of cattle farmers using the Levels for summer pasture.

The buildings, at Barnard's Farm between Newport and Chepstow, contain evidence of domestic occupation, such as datable pottery and quernstones. Outside, the hoof-prints of Iron Age cattle survive in the surrounding ditch. Cattle appear to have been standing by the edge of the ditch and sinking in. The prints were preserved when they were later filled in by estuarine silts.

The site, less than two miles inland, lies close to a former tidal creek which silted up after the Roman period. Nearby, a near-complete Romano-British oak boat, dating from the 3rd century, was excavated in 1993 (see BAN, March 1994). A handful of similar timber buildings have been found since the early 1990s on the Levels foreshore.

The buildings, about 5 metres long by 3.5 metres wide, were rectangular with rounded corners. Their walls consisted of rows of stakes driven into the peat, with any gaps filled in by wickerwork. Roofs were supported by one or two central timber posts. The bases of the timbers and stakes survive, some to a length of 1.5 metres, along with some brushwood flooring.

According to Martin Locock of the Glamorgan-Gwent Archaeological Trust, the occupiers probably moved inland when water-levels rose in the autumn - possibly to Wilcrick Hill hillfort which overlooks the site. Another Iron Age settlement thought to have been occupied only during the summer months was excavated last year in Northamptonshire (see BA, February).

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In brief

Neolithic bread

Two small, charred lumps of bread over 5,000 years old have been found at Yarnton near Oxford. The bread was possibly burnt in a prehistoric cooking accident and discarded as inedible, or deliberately burnt as an offering to the gods.

Thought to be the oldest examples of bread known in Britain, the lumps contain a number of coarsely ground grains, of which only barley can be firmly identified. Tiny samples produced radiocarbon dates of between 3620-3350BC. The bread was found by the Oxford Archaeological Unit in a pit that also contained a large flint knife and other tools, with over 200 flint flakes, fragments of pottery and charred hazelnuts.

The Roman lady found in a lead coffin at Spitalfields, London, earlier this year may have come from Spain, according to Bryan Sykes, a geneticist at Oxford University. DNA extracted from one of her molars was compared against a database of 11,000 people from around the world, producing an exact match with someone from Spain.

Dyke redated

Wat's Dyke,a 40 mile earthwork which runs parallel to Offa's Dyke in the Welsh Marches, has been dated to the 5th century. The dyke was assumed to be a near-contemporary predecessor of Offa's Dyke, built by the 8th century Mercian king. But excavations at Maes-y-Clawdd near Oswestry by Shropshire's archaeological service have uncovered a small fire site, eroded shards of Romano-British pottery and quantities of charcoal, radiocarbon dated to between AD411-561. The discovery appears to link the dyke with the post-Roman kingdom which centred on Wroxeter.

Two other important Saxon discoveries have been made over recent months. Parts of a timber pile-and-plank bridge or causeway were found in Norwich, thought to date from the 10th century. They were uncovered during work on the city's drains. Meanwhile, a mid-late Saxon mutton bone was found in London inscribed with two Anglo-Saxon runic signatures - Tatbehrt and Dric. This rare find implies that some ordinary folk living in a farming community outside Lundenwic could read and write.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999