Silbury Hill: the dilemma
Sutton Hoo goes to sea
Editor Mike Pitts
Roman stone "basilica" used by Anglo-Saxons
A massive stone barn excavated this summer at Deerton Street, Kent, built in the 1st century AD, remained in use into the 5th or even 6th century, offering a unique insight into the much-debated transition between the Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras. Substantial stone piers still survived to the first course, with one column lying complete on the ground.
For the past four years students at the Kent Archaeological Field School have been investigating a large Roman villa dating from the early 2nd to the 5th century, west of the Hog Brook spring. Geophysical survey suggests the barn, which is east of the brook, and other unexcavated buildings were part of the villa complex.
Located by field-walking, the barn was 35.7m long by 15.4m wide with 20 piers. This was no rustic shed: an arcaded stone hall when complete, with clerestory lighting and separate nave and aisle roofs, it had, says field school director Paul Wilkinson, ‘much more in common with a basilica in a Roman forum than with a Medieval aisled barn’. Why such early sophistication? ‘Corn’, says Wilkinson. He believes it was designed as a warehouse for loading barges in one of the most fertile parts of Kent.
Stamped Samian pottery in the original construction trench was made AD 80-95. Other Roman pottery up to AD 400, Anglo-Saxon pottery from 450-600 and a Saxon gilt bronze brooch on the still intact Late Roman floor, show the building continued in use until at least the 5th century.
Burnt roof timbers beneath the collapsed tiles show it was destroyed in a fire. A 6m tall rectangular column had been made from stone blocks mortared together with a double line of tiles spaced about every 1.1m. It was found intact, lying over the articulated skeleton of a small cow.
Several such villa estates have been identified by the Kent field school along Watling Street, all located around a spring, set back from the road and with easy sea access. Each villa farmed some 800 ha. The classic Roman 20 actus square field shape can be recognised in Deerton Street’s modern field boundaries.
Ring may be contemporary with Archer
Wessex Archaeology, working with Bloor Homes and Persimmon Homes at Amesbury, Wiltshire, received the 2004 Developer Funded British Archaeological Award for the excavation of Beaker graves that made headline news (BA September). Near these in October they found a pit ring some 50m across. Apart from the badly ploughed remains at Coneybury henge (excavated 1980) the last time anything like this was seen in the region was in 1967, when the massive post holes in concentric circles were excavated at Durrington Walls, and before that in the 1920s the Aubrey Holes at Stonehenge and Woodhenge itself, the classic timber henge. Interest in the new find is high. There would have been some 40 pits, Andrew Fitzpatrick tells BA, of which 30 have been excavated, arranged in oval plan. Although a few have erection ramps and ‘pipes’ left by decayed posts, these are not typical post holes. Fill is humic without rammed chalk, and pits are of variable size, the larger, on the south-east, being about 1m wide and 1m deep. Finds include animal bone and a little Grooved Ware pottery.
Oldest door made by Anglo-Saxon carpenters
It was said to be covered with the skin of a flayed Viking, but DNA investigation conducted for the BBC TV series Blood of the Vikings showed the ‘Dane’ was cow leather. Now a tree ring study has proved that the north door of St Botolph’s church, Hadstock, Essex is the oldest working door in the country, hewn from a tree that was an acorn when the Sutton Hoo ship was buried and made by Anglo-Saxon carpenters around the time of the Norman conquest.
The portal in the Saxo-Norman church seemed to date to not long after 1060, and Jane Geddes, senior lecturer in history of art at King’s College, Aberdeen, thought the door merited detailed study. Dendrochronology conducted by Dan Miles and Martin Bridge of Oxford University showed the most recent tree ring dated to 1025, which allowing for removed sapwood and comparison with other Medieval doors dated by documents, gave a construction range of 1044-1067.
The door survived by chance. Earlier excavations by Warwick Rodwell show the whole door was moved 2m east in the 14th century, and a similar doorway on the north side of the chancel was removed in the 19th century.
For door experts, it is made of four plain oak boards, held in place by an edging frame and four half-round ledges, all fastened by neat clasping elongated roves. The hinges are flat straps across the front, which bend over the pintles and form a short neat strap on the back, ending in split curls.
All iron on the door front is recent, but it is pock-marked with ancient holes, some perhaps from nails holding the skin, and the surface has curving raised areas which look like the traces of elaborate scrolls. In 1784 James Essex noted the door was ‘plated with iron in a sort of scroll work and foliage which was laid upon a sort of vellum or skin’.
The 14th century west door has older ironwork attached, including Y scrolls like those on the north door. ‘We appear to have considerable remains of the earliest decorative door hinges still in use’, says Jane Geddes. ‘They merit some conservation attention’.
Ancient houses in Cornwall
Cornwall County Council’s Historic Environment Service have found 12 Late Iron Age (c 100 BC) houses, on the site of a new PFI school being built by Interserve at Threemilestone. Seven were circular and five distinctly oval in plan, the two types apparently associated with each other. Close to two typical Cornish settlements enclosed by ditches and banks known as ‘rounds’, this one was apparently undefended.
Pottery finds included a complete rim of an amphora, likely imported from Italy as a wine container in the 1st or 2nd centuries BC, and fine ‘South Western Decorated Ware’, jars with ornate geometric designs. Another rare discovery was part of a Late Bronze Age clay sword mould (c 1100 BC), found with pottery in a group of pits and post holes.
Also this summer, the largest archaeological excavations ever seen in Cornwall uncovered a series of small rural settlements at Scarcewater, St Stephen-in-Brannel, spanning the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman eras.
Imerys Minerals contracted the Historic Environment Service to investigate 30ha of land where a new china clay tip is to be established. Particularly well preserved was a Middle Bronze Age settlement (1500-1000 BC), which was completely excavated. Three round houses 7-15m across, once dry-stone walled with inner rings of posts, had central hearths; on the floors were sherds of Trevisker style pottery, distinctive Bronze Age bucket-shaped ‘urns’ made in south-west England.
Other finds included rare Neolithic (4000-2500 BC) hearth pits.
Norwich finds may be UK's first flowerpots
A 17th century rubbish pit in Norwich contained fragments of ‘horticultural vessels’, or household flowerpots. There is little archaeological evidence for the use of such pots, and these may be the earliest yet seen in Britain.
The Norfolk Archaeological Unit excavated in 2002-3 in an area once used for fairs and leatherworking, now being developed by Bovis Lend Lease for a shopping mall. Former clay extraction pits 30-40m wide had been used for rubbish disposal.
Further pits were found in the former garden of Chapelfield House, built in the late 16th century by the Hobart family. In the late 17th century the dissenting Hobarts held rallies in the Chapelfield garden. Documents detail deliveries such as 10 tons of tobacco and clay pipes. The scale of activity is indicated by the presence of cart ruts leading into the excavated rubbish pits. Their contents have not yet been studied in detail, but project manager David Whitmore describes this post-Medieval ‘pub assemblage’ as ‘the best I’ve ever seen’.
The broken flowerpots were found in a large, deep pit containing ‘nothing else but rubbish’. Finds officer Richenda Goffin compares them to vessels from Ham House, Surrey, and Basing House, Hampshire, but says the new finds may represent the earliest everyday use of purpose-made flowerpots.
The 17th century diarist John Evelyn wrote that Norwich was well known for its gardens and orchards, probably influenced by immigrants from the Low Countries and northern France after 1565. The first English florists’ society, formed by Huguenots to discuss and promote plant cultivation, was established in Norwich by 1631. There was one in London, probably at Spitalfields, by 1676.
English Heritage at risk?
Accustomed to pronouncing on threats to the heritage, English Heritage itself is beleaguered by stories of its shaky future. Following reports that a review commissioned by culture secretary Tessa Jowell considered merging some functions at EH with other bodies, Lord Davies of Oldham said (Hansard 17 November 2004) that ‘project-based funding for sport and free access to museums’ were among reasons for EH’s limited grant in recent years. As we go to press, professional investigators in Cambridge, Exeter, London, Portsmouth, Swindon and York wait to hear if they still have jobs.
At the archaeology awards presented in Belfast in October 2004, the Ancient & Medieval History Book Club award went to Monastic Landscapes by James Bond (Tempus 2004), reviewed here in July (‘A must for anyone interested in the story of the sub-prior of Warden Abbey, the vineyard and the whore’) with Celts: Origins & Re-inventions by John Collis (Tempus 2004) runner-up (‘A compelling demolition job’, May). Strangford Lough by Thomas McErlean and others (Blackstaff 2002) won the Keith Muckelroy Award for published work on British maritime archaeology. Markets in Early Medieval Europe, best scholarly publication, is reviewed on p42. See www.britarch.ac.uk/awards.
A nation of collectors
The Portable Antiquities Scheme has published its 6th annual report. Statistics continue to impress. Finds liaison officers now have regular contact with 141 of 190 identified metal-detecting clubs in England and Wales, where they are seeing the hobby take increasing numbers of people into further education. Reported treasure finds grow apace, the 428 for 2003 being 180% up on 2002. User hits on www.finds.org.uk (see for report) rose from 1.3m in 2002-3 to 7.8m in 2003-4. Norfolk’s pre-eminence in this field is maintained by a staggering 18,732 artefacts recorded in 2003-4, trailed a distant second by adjacent Suffolk with 6,591. Findspot accuracy is rising from only 56% with at least a six-figure grid reference in 1997-9, but at 73% for 2003-4, archaeologists will hope for more improvement there. Nonetheless arts minister Estelle Morris’s strong support is justified and welcome.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005