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Cover of British Archaeology issue 59

Issue 59

June 2001



Quarries threat to archaeological landscapes

Digging down through rubbish to reach the 'best-preserved Victorian ironworks in Wales'

Prestige feasting 'dates back to hunter-gatherer era'

Unique Roman town indentified in hinterland of Hadrian's Wall

Bronze Age village found with buried megalith

In Brief


The edible dead
Cannibalsim as a universal human practice, by Tim Taylor

The glory that was York
Cosmopolitan York in the 8th century, by Dominic Tweddle

Town of tin
A 20th centruy town that has now disappeared, by Bill Bevan

Great Sites
Balladoole, by Mark Redknap


Ancient thatch, feasting, Northumbria, hillforts


George Lambrick on the varied impacts of foot and mouth

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Britain and the End of the Roman Empire by Ken Dark

Time Team's Timechester by Lewis, Harding and Aston

The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture by Jacques Cauvin

Roman Officers and English Gentlemen

CBA update

favourite finds

If it shines, it is gold. David Miles on an early Christian gold pendant


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Quarries threat to archaeological landscapes

Pressure mounts on Government to buy out 50-year-old minerals permissions

Several large tracts of landscape rich in 'protected' archaeological sites are under threat of complete destruction by quarrying companies whose permits were granted up to 50 years ago.

The principal landscapes at risk include several square miles of the Dartmoor National Park and a large area of the Peak District National Park. The proposed 'super-quarry' in Dartmoor would consume up to 20 scheduled areas and hundreds of monuments including a stone circle and three stone rows at Collard Tor and Shaugh Moor, several cairn cemeteries and roundhouses, and numerous enclosures and field systems including some of the famous Bronze Age reeves. It would also destroy a number of medieval buildings and fields, post- medieval tin-mining sites and other industrial remains.

In the Peak District, the threat centres on Stanton Moor which includes the Nine Ladies Stone Circle, an extensive prehistoric field system with some 70 burial cairns, and the Grade II listed Earl Grey Tower, a monument erected to commemorate the 1832 Reform Act.

Quarrying in Dartmoor is for tungsten and china clay, used mainly for an ingredient for certain types of glossy paper (it is not used in British Archaeology), while the gritstone of the Peak District is used as a traditional building material. Permissions in each case were granted in the 1950s, and they remain active for up to 60 years in spite of subsequent changes in national policy towards environmental and archaeological protection.

Archaeologists from the National Parks and English Heritage have, for some years, negotiated with the minerals operators to reduce the threats, and have enjoyed some success. On Dartmoor, for example, a moratorium on extraction was agreed some years ago although the set period is drawing to a close. The principal operator, French-owned Imerys, has - according to English Heritage - been 'constructive' in agreeing to avoid the most sensitive parts of extraction sites in other parts of the country.

No-one, however, expects the operators to allow their permissions to lapse entirely, so the issue remains a time-bomb whose time is fast running out. Under the 1995 Environment Act, minerals operators have been required to reapply for old permissions where extraction work has not yet begun, but if permissions are refused or modified, the planning authority could be liable to pay vast amounts of compensation. No test-case has yet taken place.

According to Ian Morrison, English Heritage's Inspector for the South- West, the compensation payable on the Dartmoor quarry has been estimated at around £120 million. 'Local authorities and English Heritage of course cannot afford to pay that sort of figure. It is going to need high-level Government intervention to sort out,' he said.

This view is echoed by Jon Humble who represents English Heritage in the East Midlands. The solution is for Government to 'take a robust line' and buy out old permissions where they affect nationally significant sites. Against the cost of compensation, he said, Government must set the costs of archaeological recording if the quarrying proposals do go ahead.

'On Dartmoor alone the threatened area is so large that recording costs could amount to tens, or hundreds of millions of pounds, and there are not enough archaeologists in the country to do the work,' he said.

Digging down through rubbish to reach the 'best-preserved Victorian ironworks in Wales'

Archaeologists have revealed what is said to be the best-preserved Victorian ironworks in Wales, after excavating through piles of rubbish 7m deep dumped over the historic site by a previous owner, the former National Coal Board.

The Tondu Ironworks near Bridgend ceased operation in 1896. Subsequently the site became one of the Coal Board's regional headquarters, and from the 1950s the disused ironworks became a dumping ground for its industrial and office waste, including broken lorry parts, rubber, glass, asbestos, paper, milk bottles and rags. Tonnes of earth, generated by landscaping elsewhere on site, were also poured over the Victorian blast furnace structures and other remains.

The site contains several scheduled monuments, including beehive coking ovens, calcining kilns, blowing engine houses, and a unique lift tower which was used to transport material to the top of the furnaces. Some of these monuments were buried to above first-floor level. All non-scheduled buildings associated with the ironworks were demolished by the Coal Board, despite their forming part of a conservation area, when it left the site in 1991.

Tondu's run of bad luck, however, seems to have come to an end. Owned by the Groundwork Trust, it is now to become an industrial heritage centre. A team from the Oxford Archaeological Unit was engaged to excavate and reveal the archaeology for a public audience. The archaeologists, led by Rob Kinchin-Smith, cleared and consolidated the scheduled buildings, and found previously invisible remains such as well-preserved 1880s furnace bases superimposed on earlier masonry furnaces dating from the mid-19th century.

The outlines of these features will be preserved in the brick floor of a new events arena to be built on the site. Also discovered was the intact 1880s flue system which is thought to be a unique survival, and a well-preserved rolling mill which had been overlain by a 1950s engineering building.

Mr Kinchin-Smith said: 'It makes a blessed change to be working for a client who is really interested, for once, in interpreting the archaeology.' It was also unusual, he added, to be digging a site as recent as the 1880s for the express purpose of adding to local knowledge.

According to Robert Protheroe Jones, the curator of heavy industry at the National Museum of Wales, the newly-excavated Tondu 'better represents the totality of a Victorian ironworks than any other site'. It also provides, he said, the best-preserved and most intelligible evidence in the country for the use of the 'hot blast' process.

Prestige feasting 'dates back to hunter-gatherer era'

Evidence from Ireland suggests that 'prestige feasting' - the holding of huge parties to demonstrate wealth and power - dates back to the late hunter-gatherer period and continued throughout the Neolithic, according to an intriguing new interpretation.

Archaeologists have pointed to the evidence for feasts in the Iron Age (see BA February), but the new theory is the first to claim similar events took place as far back as the Mesolithic.

According to Sarah Cross, a prehistorian at Cambridge University, the numerous Mesolithic shell middens found around the Irish coastline represent the remains of communal banquets. Many are very large. One heap of oyster shells, for example, part of a group of four near Carlingford in Co Louth, measures up to 35m long by 15m wide. It must have been produced, she says, by a number of mobile hunter-gatherer groups coming together for communal events a few times a year over several years. These 'parties' were held to exchange knowledge, resources and marriage partners.

'Since regular gatherings of hunter-gatherers are so important, throwing a good party is a way of showing off your wealth, skill and power,' she writes in the latest issue of Archaeology Ireland.

The tradition of communal feasting may have eased the transition from the 'easy and healthy lifestyle' of hunting and gathering to the back-breaking, less nutritious and more vulnerable lifestyle of farming, she claims. To ensure that the 'right food' is available for a prestige party, you have to control its growth and harvest - that is, you have to farm it. Neolithic cereals were used for beer as well as for bread. 'Brewing may have come first - what's a party without something to drink?'

The party tradition may also have inspired the long-distance trade and contact with far-off groups which was so important in driving cultural change. 'Having exotic food, jewellery, even tools marked people out as important, and competitive feasting provided the perfect arena for showing off the new things you had obtained.'

In the Neolithic, parties first moved indoors. The Irish landscape is dotted with large square or rectangular Neolithic buildings, up to 15m by 10m in size, centred around a single hearth. These have traditionally been seen as the dwellings of a single family group. But they are far too large for a single family, Ms Cross argues. They also differ in form from the similar-sized Neolithic longhouses of the Continent which typically contain a row of several hearths, catering for several families.

'Perhaps these [Irish] structures are better interpreted as feasting halls,' she writes. People lived in the small round houses often found nearby. These have traditionally been regarded as earlier and/or later than the large square halls, but may in fact be contemporary.

The new interpretation is unlikely to stand unchallenged. According to Mesolithic expert Peter Woodman of the University of Cork, shell middens 'bulk up very rapidly' and researchers should not be over-impressed by their size. The Irish middens are far smaller than those found on the Continent, and some date as much as 1,000 years before the onset of the Neolithic. They are more likely to represent repeated use by small numbers over centuries.

Unique Roman town indentified in hinterland of Hadrian's Wall

A unique example of a Roman civilian settlement in County Durham north of the River Tees has been identified on a recent aerial photograph.

The Roman town near Sedgefield, north of Darlington, consists of a series of house plots, lanes, and rectilinear enclosures at the edge of the main Roman road running south-north through East Durham up to Hadrian's Wall. It is very similar in plan to civilian settlements excavated further south. An intensive metal-detector search over the area has produced bronze and silver coins and brooches tightly dated to the period AD 120-200.

According to county archaeologist Niall Hammond, the town may have been planted to create a civilian Roman culture in the area when the frontier was moved north from Hadrian's Wall to the Antonine Wall in AD 142-3. When the northern wall was relinquished after 163, the region south of Hadrian's Wall reverted to being a military buffer zone and the town seems to have been abandoned.

Four county Sites and Monuments Records will become accessible to a wide public over the Internet following grants this year from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Essex and Warwickshire each received grants of nearly £90,000, while Durham and Northumberland, in a joint project, received about £120,000. All three projects are expected to be complete within about two years.

The Essex and Warwickshire databases will be searchable both in a conventional manner (eg, by site type, period or location) and through clickable maps. In Warwickshire there will also be an interactive quiz, aimed at schools and linked to the National Curriculum, with answers leading to information in the SMR. The Durham/Northumberland project differs slightly in that the database is being 'rewritten' for a public audience, and browsers searching the database will receive information about historic sites in continuous prose.

The Durham and Essex SMRs can already be searched on the Internet in crude form, at, and at, where browsers should click on 'heritage'.

Bronze Age village found with buried megalith

A complete Middle Bronze Age village has been excavated in Essex. Such settlements are very rare in East Anglia, where the shortage of building stone has meant the survival of few substantial prehistoric remains.

At the heart of the village was a massive, imported standing stone that had been ceremonially buried next to what seems to have been the settlement's main public building.

The rectangular village enclosure, defined by hedges, contained a number of timber-post roundhouses and rubbish pits, clustered around a large circular building some 15m in diameter which was entered along a long corridor of timber posts. Next to this possibly ceremonial building was a large pit containing a huge, 1-tonne sandstone megalith.

No clues were found to where or when the stone had originally been erected - perhaps in the Neolithic - and it may have been transported to the settlement over some distance. The nearest standing stones known today are several miles to the north in Cambridgeshire. 'What is particularly interesting is that the stone was ritually decommissioned,' said site director Nick Shepherd of Framework Archaeology. 'It is very enigmatic.'

The Bronze Age settlement lay at the heart of a well-populated landscape of smaller, less well-defined settlements and may have acted as a kind of ceremonial and social 'capital' of the region. Less than a mile away was a contemporary cremation pyre site by a stream. Its surrounding ditches were filled with charcoal and bits of human bone. Between the pyre and the settlement lay a cremation cemetery which was not well preserved.

The site was found as part of an unusually large-scale excavation project covering some 57 acres (23 hectares) in advance of carpark construction at Stansted airport. The project has shed light on the intensity of landscape occupation in the Middle Bronze Age, when settlements were spaced at roughly one-mile intervals, and again in the Mid-Late Iron Age. Previously, the low-lying claylands of southern Essex were assumed to have been densely wooded right up to the Roman period.

According to Mr Shepherd, occupation seems to have fallen back dramatically in the later Bronze Age, when climatic conditions worsened, and again in the Saxon period following the collapse of the late Roman rural economy. 'The soils here are heavy and difficult to work,' he said. 'The evidence implies that settlement in this marginal area was only worthwhile when conditions were good.'

Framework Archaeology, a joint venture between Wessex Archaeology and the Oxford Unit, was set up to undertake commercial excavations within a 'research framework', and the Stansted excavation is being conducted accordingly. Instead of sampling the whole site, in the normal manner, and analysing the finds only at the end of the excavation, finds are studied as they come out of the ground. Decisions on where to excavate next are then taken on the basis of new questions that need to be answered. 'At a normal dig, you find you collect masses of material that turns out to be worthless. That is not happening here,' Mr Shepherd said.

The buried megalith is likely to be re-erected close to its burial site at the entrance to one of the airport carparks.

In brief

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill, the 4,700-year-old mound near Avebury in Wiltshire, is in danger of collapse. An 18th century antiquary's shaft collapsed last year and has since widened, and further cracks appeared over the winter. English Heritage has now commissioned a full seismic survey which will produce a three-dimensional image of the hill, revealing the stress areas, before carrying out repairs. The engineering may bring an archaeological bonus, revealing all the tunnels and voids within the hill.

Arm and armour
A life-size bronze arm of a Roman statue has been excavated from a rubbish-filled ditch or watercourse in the City of London, just south of the Roman amphitheatre. The 1st century ad arm is thought to have comes from the statue of an emperor, possibly Nero or Domitian, which was destroyed when the emperor fell out of favour. The arm, now on display at the Museum of London, is lifelike with realistic knuckles, veins and fingernails.

Meanwhile, an important cache of well-preserved 2nd century Roman armour has been excavated at Carlisle. The finds include a shoulder-guard of iron scales held together with bronze wire, and examples of the laminated armour used by legionaries to protect their sword arms.

Another chariot
Following the Iron Age chariot burial found this year near Edinburgh (see BA April), another has come to light at Wetwang in East Yorkshire. The new grave contained the well-preserved skeleton of a young woman, aged about 25-35, lying amid the remains of her dismantled chariot and a number of sacrificed pigs. Dating to the 3rd or 4th century BC, it may be the earliest chariot burial in Britain and is the fourteenth from the area. It possibly belonged to a queen of the Parisi tribe.

Rollright stones
The Rollright Stone Circle and an adjacent burial chamber in Oxfordshire are to be bought by the Rollright Trust, following a £45,000 grant from the Hanson Environment Fund. The Rollright Trust, whose chairman is CBA Director George Lambrick, was set up to look after the site after the Stones were put on the market three years ago.

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