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Cover of British Archaeology 69

Issue 69

March 2003



Tale of the Bronze Age barge sunk in Trent

Roman baths at trading settlement by Thames

Earliest evidence of medieval open fields near Cambridge

Mesolithic houses in both Scotland and the North East

Planned Bronze Age village found in Co Londonderry

In Brief


Rethinking Cursuses
David McOmish rethinks some old ideas to explain cursuses

Burial with the Romans
Alison Taylor on all the horrible aspects of Roman burial

Great sites
Anna Ritchie recalls the great Viking excavation at Jarlshof


Saxon zoos, copperas, and how long Britain stayed Roman


George Lambrick on broader history education after age 14

Peter Ellis

Regular column


Garrison Life at Vindolanda by Anthony Birley

Grahame Clark by Brian Fagan

The Archaeology of Mills and Milling by Martin Watts

The Roman Shore Forts by Andrew Pearson

Heads and Tales by Iain MacLeod & Brian Hill

CBA update

favourite finds

David Longley on his first undisturbed archaeological site


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Simon Denison


Tale of the Bronze Age barge sunk in Trent

Two years of conservation and study of one of Britain's largest prehistoric boats has shed new light on the working life and sinking of a Bronze Age barge on the River Trent.

The logboat, discovered during quarrying work at Shardlow in Derbyshire in 1998, has been radiocarbon dated to about 1300 BC. The stern is missing, destroyed by quarry machinery, but 11 metres of the boat survives. Its original length has been estimated at a minimum of 14 metres - making it very similar in both size and date (though not in construction) to the famous Dover Boat found in 1992. Most known Bronze Age boats are a little over half that length.

Evidence from the quarry and surrounding area has suggested that this part of the River Trent was slow-moving, shallow, very wide and dotted with islands in the Bronze Age. The boat was found next to a causeway - a double line of posts packed with brushwood and stones - running from the shore to one of the islands.

The boat was found laden with a cargo of flattish sandstone blocks, presumably brought to add to the causeway. Identical stones can be found today on the riverbank some two miles upstream from the quarry. A raised wooden rib (or 'cleat') inside the boat suggests that, when laden, it was towed downstream like a barge, but it was probably paddled upsteam to reload.

According to Jonathan Wallis of Derby Museum - where the boat goes on display next month - the reason why the boat sank remains in dispute. Some claim it was a 'ritual offering', pointing to a range of Bronze Age metalwork also found in the quarry (and elsewhere in the Trent) including rapier fragments, spearheads, palstaves, and a socketed axe. 'But we think it was sunk accidentally, either before or during a flash flood that seems to have washed away the causeway,' he said.

The boat has been conserved at York Archaeological Trust's conservation centre. Over thousands of years, waterlogged wood is held together by nothing but the water filling the pores. If it was dried out without replacing the water with something else, it would distort, shrink and crack. At York, the timbers were immersed for two years in tanks of aqueous polyethylene glycol, a water-soluble wax used to replace the water in the wood. Finally, excess water was removed by freeze-drying the boat. Any splits were joined by steel rods.

Roman baths at trading settlement by Thames

A large Roman bath-house has been excavated in Shadwell, East London, a short distance east of the Roman city. The building stood on the side of a main Roman road, and was found associated with a complex of timber and cob buildings with a courtyard interpreted as a possible mansio or inn.

The bath-house - one of only four known in the Greater London area - consists of five rooms heated by hypocaust, including an apse, and a sixth room with a solid floor, downslope towards the river, which was interpreted as the cold plunge-pool. Waterproof plaster and mortar were used throughout the building, aiding its interpretation as a bath-house. Three fireboxes were found, one of them attached to a substantial structure, possibly the base for a cauldron.

Built in the 2nd century, the bath-house seems to have survived for about 200 years before being deliberately destroyed, with all mosaics and decorations removed.

The associated 'inn' contained a range of intriguing finds including dozens of low-value coins, a well-preserved lattice gold and emerald earring, and about 20 hairpins made of bone, antler, copper alloy or jet. According to excavator Peter Moore of PreConstruct Archaeology, the pins suggest the building may have been used for changing rooms by women pinning their hair up before going into the baths.

Earlier this year, an excavation immediately west of the bath-house site produced some Roman buildings and quantities of domestic rubbish; while immediately to the east, an excavation in the 1970s revealed an enigmatic square masonry tower, interpreted as either a mausoleum or watchtower, or even a shore fort. The discovery of the bath-house raises the possibility that it may have been a water tower serving the baths.

Taken together, the new evidence indicates that a much more substantial settlement existed at Roman Shadwell than was previously assumed. A river channel leading up to the site from the Thames, creating a natural junction with the Roman road (today known as 'The Highway'), would have made Shadwell a convenient location for a trading community.

Earliest evidence of medieval open fields near Cambridge

Some of the earliest evidence for England's medieval 'open field' system of agriculture - and hence for the origin of villages - has been found near Cambridge.

Large, communally-run fields, in which each villager farmed a number of ridge-and-furrow strips, were introduced when villages were first clustered out of scattered farms in the early medieval period. How and exactly when this first happened are among the great questions of landscape archaeology; but direct evidence has rarely been found.

Now, study of pre-Inclosure maps, along with features surviving in the landscape, has revealed a system of open fields that must predate the early 10th century, and probably dates to the 9th century or earlier.

The fields lie in the Bourn Valley, five miles west of Cambridge. They cross three parishes - Toft, Comberton and Barton - in one integrated system, indicating that they belonged to a single very large Anglo-Saxon estate.

By the early 10th century this estate no longer existed. It had begun to fragment into the present townships, and a hundredal (main administrative) boundary was driven across the system between Toft and Comberton.

According to Sue Oosthuizen, a landscape archaeologist at Cambridge University, the scale of the remains and the intensity of cultivation suggests an origin after about AD 700, but before about 870, when the Danelaw was introduced in Cambridgeshire with disruption in the ownership of land.

Ms Oosthuizen's discoveries seem to confirm indirect evidence, from elsewhere, that open fields were established from as early as the 9th century. Extensive fieldwalking in the Midlands by landscape archaeologist David Hall, and others, produced no pottery (ie, settlements) from underneath ridge-and-furrow dating from later than about 850.

The pre-Inclosure maps indicate that the open field system was divided by a series of very wide uncultivated strips, some 200 yards apart and up to 4 1/2 miles (7km) long. These represent the headlands separating bundles of strips (or furlongs) within the open fields, where animals turned while ploughing. Some still survive in today's landscape as bridleways and footpaths.

Similar evidence has been found so far in just one other landscape in England. At Polesden in Surrey, a set of lynchets was found crossing parish boundaries, dissected by a late Anglo-Saxon hundredal boundary. Here, the lynchets are close together and seem to represent the divisions between strips rather than furlongs.

Perhaps no less remarkably, Ms Oosthuizen's open fields seem to incorporate elements of Bourn Valley's prehistoric field system. It has long been thought that when early medieval surveyors laid out their open fields, they paid no heed to earlier landscape features. The new evidence show that this was not always the case.

Pre-Inclosure maps show patterns of fields, trackways, roads and hedges in the valley that must be prehistoric because they are cut across by Roman roads and other Roman features. This prehistoric system extends beyond the early open field system on all sides. Within the open fields, individual strips were clearly laid out along existing prehistoric boundaries.

Prehistoric fields survive in parts of England that remained untouched by the open field system, such as parts of Cornwall and East Anglia (BA, October 2001). The Bourn Valley provides the first evidence of a prehistoric landscape and open fields surviving together.

Mesolithic houses in both Scotland and the North East

Two large Mesolithic houses, each one an immensely rare discovery by itself, have been found in separate excavations some 80 miles apart - one at Howick on the Northumbrian coast, the other near Dunbar in East Lothian.

The circular, sunken-floored building on the cliff top at Howick consists of an inner ring of upright postholes, with an outer ring of stakeholes angled inwards towards the apex of the roof, suggesting an appearance similar to a Bronze Age roundhouse. Inside were large quantities of 'narrow-blade' flint microliths, including broken tools and knapping waste, showing that tools were made and repaired in the house.

Radiocarbon dates from a series of hearths inside the house suggest that it was occupied for at least 100 years from about 7800 BC. Measuring some 20 feet (6 metres) across, the house was rebuilt at least once.

The hearths contained burnt animal bone, including wild pig, fox, bird, either a dog or a wolf, and possibly a bear. According to excavator Clive Waddington of Newcastle University, most of the bones were pawbones, representing the unwanted parts of animals that had been hunted and butchered elsewhere. 'Some of the animals would have been taken for meat, such as pigs, and others for pelts, such as fox,' he said.

The other newly-discovered building, on the coast near Dunbar, is possibly the earliest, and certainly the most substantial, Mesolithic house in Scotland. The near-circular building is marked by deep postholes for large, heavy timbers set at an angle into the ground, suggesting that it was domed. Previously, Mesolithic structures in Scotland have been limited to windbreaks and other temporary shelters. The site is dated by large quantities of Mesolithic flints, such as crescent-shaped microliths, scrapers and points. But radiocarbon dates are not yet available, so it is unclear if the house dates to the early or later part of the period (roughly, 8500-4000 BC).

The house, measuring some 17 feet (5.2 metres) across, was easily big enough for a single family group, according to excavator John Gooder of AOC Scotland. It survived long enough to require several repairs and alterations, but the absence of deep occupation deposits, such as were found at Howick, suggests it was not inhabited permanently over long periods. 'I suspect it was used over a number of years at a particular time of year, possibly - to judge by the number of hazelnuts on site - in the autumn,' Mr Gooder said.

Inside the structure was an ember pit or hearth, while the outside was ringed by dark organic material, thought to be the burnt remains of whatever had been used to cover the house - possibly turf, bark or skins. A few fragments of burnt animal bone were found, including one from a bird.

The Howick site will feature in an episode of BBC2's Meet the Ancestors to be screened later this month.

Planned Bronze Age village found in Co Londonderry

A remarkable Bronze Age village with main street, side lanes and houses in two orderly rows has been found in Co Londonderry. The site is without parallel in Ireland, and transforms archaeologists' ideas about the prehistory of Irish settlement.

Excavations have only recently begun at Corrsdown near Portrush, but finds so far include a wide, metalled village street with 29 roundhouse plots in neat rows on either side, almost all of them contemporary with one another. Many of the houses are linked to the street by short lengths of metalled or flagstone pathway, like little garden paths. Early signs are that the village also contained cobbled side-streets.

According to site director Malachy Conway of Archaeological Consultancy Services, Bronze Age settlements in Ireland were thought to be limited to isolated farmsteads or tiny clusters of buildings. Small nucleated prehistoric settlements with a handful of houses have been found at Thornhill in Co Londonderry and at Chancellorsland in Co Tipperary - but nothing was known on the scale of the new site or with such an orderly layout of buildings.

The roundhouses, ranging from about 6 metres to 12 metres across, survive as low stone walls with post-holes on the inside and internal partitions. The larger houses, with outside drainage gullies and more elaborate entrances, seem to be at the centre of the village.

The site - which is being developed as a housing estate - has produced a mass of pottery, stone tools and other finds. Most spectacular was a large stone macehead lying on the floor of one of the houses. Also found was an unbroken half of a two-part mould for a middle Bronze Age palstave, or flanged axe. One complete pot was found buried upright in the entrance of one of the houses.

Only four houses have been excavated so far. As the dig continues through the spring, archaeologists will hope to shed more light on the uses of different buildings, and to make sense of the complex of postholes, rubbish pits and other features around the site, some of which may be early Christian in date. They will also be looking for burials, and for metal artefacts which have so far proved thin on the ground.

In brief

Newport skeleton

Archaeologists excavating the Newport ship in South Wales (BA, October) have discovered a human skeleton underneath the hull. The ship had been floated at high tide onto a 'cradle', and the skeleton was pinned between the cradle and the hull in what looks like an industrial accident. According to Adam Yates of the Glamorgan and Gwent Archaeological Trust, the accident may have occurred while the ship was being salvaged in the 15th century. The skeleton is missing its skull and lower legs and is thought to be male. Most of the timbers from the ship have now been lifted and are currently being conserved in wet tanks at a disused steelworks nearby.

Hunters' campsite

The undisturbed remains of a hunters' campsite up to 500,000 years old have been discovered during initial excavations on a new road in the Avon Valley near Salisbury. Excavators from PreConstruct Archaeology found 24 finished Lower Palaeolithic handaxes, flint cores in all stages of preparation and large quantities of flint waste, associated with numerous animal bones. These in situ remains of flint-knapping activity have now been sent for dating and further study.

Stonehenge tunnel

After more than ten years of debate on the future of the main roads at Stonehenge, the Government has decided to place the A303 in a 1.3 mile (2.1km) bored tunnel. The A344 will be closed. After a public inquiry later this year, the work on the tunnel could start in 2005 and be completed three years after that at an expected cost of £183 million. The design of the tunnel has yet to be finalised.

The decision to build a bored tunnel, rather than a cut-and-cover tunnel as proposed in 1999, follows persistent pressure from heritage bodies including the CBA, English Heritage and the National Trust (BA, December). CBA Director George Lambrick welcomed the decision as a 'very great improvement' on the original plan, but regretted that there had been no political will for a longer bored tunnel.

'A 4.5km tunnel would cost less than the Millennium Dome, but it would provide a benefit not for a single year but for generations,' he said.

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