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Cover of British Archaeology

Issue 76

May 2004



Avebury older than Stonehenge - and the ring gets bigger

Small town, big archaolagy

Is Viking ship under hedge?

Rare henge builders' homes revealed

In Brief


My Lord Essex
Exclusive report on the unique Anglo-Saxon chamber tomb

Old stones and the sea
Joanna Wright and Kate Seddon consider island prehistory

Riding into history
Angela Boyle reveals details of the latest chariot burial

The folk that lived in Liverpool
European capital of culture with a rich heritage

So tyger fierce took life away
Sarah Cross reflects on a souvenir pottery mug


War graves, community archarology and metal detectors


Gordon Noble writes


Neil Mortimer rocks with Anglo-Saxon scholar


The Celts: Origins, Myths & Inventions by John Collis

Defying Rome: the Rebels of Roman Britain by Guy de la Bédoyère

Environmental Archaeology: Approaches, Techniques & Applications by Keith Wilkinson & Chris Stevens

Landscapes & Desire: Revealing Britain's Sexually Inspired Sites by Catherine Tuck & Alun Bull

Food, Culture & Identity in the Neolithic & Early Bronze Age by Mike Parker Pearson

Celts from Antiquity by Gillian Carr & Simon Stoddart and Megaliths from Antiquity by Tim Darvill & Caroline Malone

Life & Letters on the Roman Frontier: Vindolanda & its People by Alan K Bowman

The Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Worthy Park, Kingsworthy by Sonia Chadwick Hawkes with Guy Grainger

Boundaries in Early Medieval Britain by David Griffiths, Andrew Reynolds & Sarah Semple

Sealed by Time: the Loss & Recovery of the Mary Rose by Peter Marsden

Piltdown Man: the Secret Life of Charles Dawson & the World’s Greatest Archaeological Hoax by Miles Russell

Boudica: Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott

CBA update

my archaeology

Ray Mears is moved by aboriginal Britain


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Avebury older than Stonehenge -
and the ring gets bigger

Avebury’s largest megalith may also be one of the UK’s oldest. A new date suggests it was erected around 3000 BC, possibly before the surrounding earthwork and other stones.

For safety reasons, last spring English Heritage and the National Trust set the two leaning Cove stones in lime concrete. Small excavations accompanied the work.

Optically stimulated luminescence dating (OSL), which measures natural radiation accumulated since sediments were last exposed to light, suggests the western stone was placed at 3030+-350 BC. There is no reason to doubt this, says Josh Pollard of the University of Bristol. Charred cereals, however, gave a mean radiocarbon date of 1520-1640 AD. The circle at Stonehenge was constructed c 2330 BC.

The Cove stone continued as much as 3 m below the turf. Once estimated at 50 tons, its true weight, says engineer John Mann, is likely to be 100 tons, or more than twice that of the largest Stonehenge megalith.

New dates from antler excavated from the ditch bottom at Avebury last century are not so old, averaging 2630-2460 BC. This suggests the earthwork, thought by some to be an enlargement of a smaller one, is contemporary with nearby Silbury Hill.

OSL produced a second Cove date of 830+-210 BC. Earlier radiocarbon dates from two stones in the outer circle were Iron Age: perhaps ritual deposits were made at megaliths up to 2,000 years after they were erected. Most of Avebury’s stones remain undated.

  • The National Trust has shown BA details of this winter’s resistivity survey in the eastern part of Avebury circle. The dry summer led to exceptional definition of buried megaliths, so that orientations and dimensions could be seen. As a result, says Martin Papworth, it has been possible to reach a firmer estimate for the stone circle’s size: it has grown by at least three stones to a total of 101. He says, cautiously, there are also ‘possible traces of a ring of stone settings’ 30 m across in the south-east quadrant. Building foundations and early boundary ditches were also revealed.
  • Small town, big archaolagy

    An unusual 7.5 m long ‘ship’ carved from an oak tree has been successfully lifted in one piece from an excavation in Nantwich, Cheshire. It looks like a dugout canoe with squared ends, but is in fact a large brine storage tank, weighing over two tons. With the ship were paddles used to stir the brine, and rakes for extracting salt. Wooden battens resting across the open top may be associated with its later use for tanning, indicated by leather off-cuts.

    Excavated last autumn from beneath 3 m of waterlogged deposits, the ship was left in place while money was raised. Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund the tank is now in storage, soon to go to York for conservation estimated to take two years. It has generated a great deal of local interest, says Cheshire County Council’s principal archaeologist Adrian Tindall.

    The ship is probably Late Medieval, but can not be precisely dated until dendrochronological study is complete. Excavations by Earthworks Archaeology in advance of residential development exposed huge quantities of waterlogged material, including complete wooden barrels of possible Tudor age. The site was off Welsh Row, the main cross country route to Wales from the salt trading town, and revealed small workshops and possible salt houses with cobbled floors and plank walls.

    ‘There is a localised high water table in Nantwich’, says Tindall, ‘difficult to predict, which can result in unexpected amounts of wood, with attendant conservation problems and immense costs for a small town. We are discussing with English Heritage a proposed research project to address the long-term issue’.

    Is Viking ship under hedge?

    Is it a ship burial or a hoard? Whichever it may prove to be, a discovery in Yorkshire was reported to have excited Arne Emil Christensen, recently retired curator of the Viking Ship Museum, Oslo, in York as guest lecturer at the Jorvik Viking Festival in February.

    About 130 pieces of metalwork were recovered by unidentified detectorists in December, and reported in January to Simon Holmes of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

    Christensen cautioned reports that the objects had come from a Viking ship burial, which would be the first to have been found in England, saying that some, including ‘hack silver’ (artefacts cut up for trading by bands of raiders) were not of the type normally found in such graves.

    The suggestion of a ship comes from at most three clench nails, iron bolts with washers and diamond-shaped heads used by Vikings to hold together clinker-built ships planks. Christensen said the nails might be from reused timbers.

    Seven coins of King Burgred of Mercia, two of Alfred the Great, and a clipping of an Arab dirham date the collection to the early 870s, some 250 years after the Anglo-Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo. Other objects include a bronze balance and two sets of four weights (one set polyhedral, the other disc-shaped), small silver ingots, a gilded mount with chip-carved decoration, fragments of two swords and a whetstone.

    Evaluation at the ploughed riverside field is planned, but Neil Campling, North Yorkshire county archaeologist, is doubtful much survives farming and erosion. Peter Addyman, founder of the York Archaeological Trust, says the small number of the nails may be misleading. The finders had been seeking bronze and precious metals, throwing iron under a hedge. ‘We’re going to try and find them’, he tells British Archaeology.

    Rare henge builders' homes revealed

    Excavations still in progress at a George Wimpey housing development in Dreghorn, Ayrshire, have revealed substantial Medieval remains and Neolithic features that include the site of a ceremonial pole, houses and a possible pottery kiln.

    A spur between the River Irvine and Annick Water was chosen in the 12th century for a settlement then abandoned after 200 years, possibly because of rising water levels attributed to climatic change. Excavation director Tom Addyman tells British Archaeology it is rare to be able to examine a rural settlement in Scotland on such a scale.

    Older finds include a 2 m deep Early Neolithic pit thought to have held a tall pole. Late Neolithic features, no more than c 3000 BC, are associated with large amounts of Grooved Ware pottery. This decorated ceramic, which seems to have first evolved in Scotland, is found across the UK at ceremonial monuments including henge earthworks and timber structures, but rarely at domestic sites in England or Wales.

    To date investigations have uncovered seven or eight gully-defined houses up to 6 m long, pits, stake and post holes including a rectangular structure that may also be Neolithic. This suggests a village similar in scale to the group of stone houses at Skara Brae, Orkney. A 1.5 by 1 m pit containing heavily baked clay and burnt sherds may be a kiln, the first of its kind for mainland Britain. Lithic specialist Michael Donnelly says the high quality flint used may be from Yorkshire. Early Neolithic flint tools were made from local beach pebbles.

    Commenting on the dig, Ann MacSween, a prehistorian at Historic Scotland, says ‘developer-funded excavation is changing the way we see Neolithic Scotland’.

    In brief

    Inquire within

    The Stonehenge inquiry (News, March) has its inevitable mix of insight, humour and sheer boredom. ‘We are archaeologists, sir, we are not precise about time’, heard an inspector trying to create a timetable. As the wise Michael Ellison strained to establish whether or not Emma Restall Orr was objecting, he learnt that ‘Druidry and most Pagan organisations are fairly anarchic’. For one speaker, it was all too much: ‘I submit that there is very little time left before action is taken, otherwise we are doomed as society and civilisation’.

    The transcript – passing half a million words on day 12—will become a document of great historical interest. What might not perhaps have been expected was the release of archaeological news.

    Under questioning, English Heritage confirmed the discovery of ‘buried archaeology’ at the proposed visitor centre site north of Amesbury, acknowledging that an Anglo-Saxon settlement area had ‘very high potential’.

    John Maloney, EH Stonehenge Project, says the field beside the river Avon has been subject to unusually intensive evaluation. The third phase in January brought the total of Anglo-Saxon sunken-floor houses to six; masonry foundations may also be Anglo-Saxon, in the absence of Roman artefacts on site. This may be the settlement that became Amesbury, where past work has failed to identify early activity.

    As remarkable as the discovery of part of the World Heritage Site’s story in preparations for its visitor centre, is that, as Maloney puts it, ‘all remains are literally just outside the proposed development areas’. Wiltshire county archaeologist Roy Canham confirms the works would have ‘no physical impact on the Anglo-Saxon settlement’.

    Welsh gold

    News has emerged of an exceptional Middle Bronze Age gold hoard (1300-1100 BC), found in north-east Wrexham by metal detectorists. A bracelet, necklace pendant (both unique in Britain), torc, beads and rings were buried in a plain pot beside two copper alloy palstaves and a chisel. Further details await a coroner’s inquest.

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