Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “Prehistory”


We had a great time earlier this week.  We went to the dig at Damerham in Hampshire county, just South-West(ish) of Salisbury – see the website at the Damerham Archaeology Project.  We stayed in a local pub, the Compasses, which was very comfortable and provided good pub grub and coped beautifully with my inability to eat milk products.

The project itself is a community project led by Helen, Chris, Martyn and Olaf; that’s the same Olaf who is the Project Officer with Archeox. Olaf had suggested that we go down with him and have a couple of days down there to see how he’s been spending his summers for that last few years. As it turned out he couldn’t make it: he wanted to leave going down until the fields had been cultivated and that date seemed rather indeterminate.

One of the main reasons behind the Project is to investigate some aerial photographs, which showed some interesting crop marks, and see how they relate to the geophysics and, ultimately, to invasive (excavation) and non-invasive (field walking) techniques. The field walking has to wait until the land has been cultivated (ploughed and harrowed), so that the ground has been churned up and stuff brought to the surface – hence Olaf’s delayed arrival.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham. NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham.
NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Four trenches had been opened when we arrived as Chris explained after we had introduced ourselves. From right to left, one trench was across the ditch of the larger circular feature to the right, though no one was actually working there at that time. Below that where there was a circular feature joined to an elongated feature, Jack (Helen’s student from Kingston U.) was supervising a small trench.

Jack's trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

Jack’s trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

The largest trench had been put going away from the road across the large feature in the middle of the picture and finally, a small trench across the strange double circular feature to the left of the ‘bite’ out of the field, completed the tour.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it. Lovely weather, too!

The last feature was especially exciting as it is unique in the British Isles, the only other example being in France, in the Pas-de-Calais.

Explanations over, we set to work with Jack, sieving the spoil which had been removed by the opening of the trench. It was interesting to be excavating – well, sieving – in a completely different geology to the one we are used to. Here we were on the chalk, and only about 30-40 cm down we were down onto solid chalk, showing clearly the grooves cut by deep ploughing – though the farmer says they no longer deep plough, so the archaeology might last a bit longer.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack's trench.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack’s trench.

We sieved away all afternoon – found some flint flakes and some pottery; Medieval and earlier (well, really grotty, anyway). The flint was different – given its age and the environment, the surface changes and goes a milky-whitish colour; nothing like the flint we are accustomed to seeing. One has to look for the bulb of percussion (the little bulbous bit where the flint was struck to split it away from the original core) and the remains of the previous flakes on the dorsal side as the surface change tends to disguise the characteristic ripples that we normally see in flints in our neck of the woods. We had a lot of help as some of the volunteers from previous years had brought along their whole families.

Lots of help with the sieving - this was a quiet  moment - while Helen inspects the trench.

Lots of help with the sieving – this was a quiet moment – while Helen inspects the trench.

At the end of the day we repaired to the pub, the Compasses in Damerham, for a serious relax. We were a bit late in on the next day as we went into Fordingbridge, the nearest town of any size, to do a spot of shopping, but arrived on site at about 10. We had a look at the main trench, where it looked like they had found a couple of post holes at the top of the trench.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench - quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench – quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

Helen reckoned after all that sieving we deserved something a bit more interesting, so introduced us to Angela who was supervising the aptly named Angela’s Anomaly (I like the naming of the trenches – no Invisible Archaeologists here). We had a bit of tidying up to do – surprise, surprise – and then Helen suggested we split the ditch into six parts, so we could excavate three, and get a good number of sections.

The ditch with string already to start excavating - not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

The ditch with string already to start excavating – not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

While doing this we became aware of another difference from previous excavations; we had to ‘small find’ all finds! At least all we had to do was find Sam, Chris’ son, and he came over with a survey-grade GPS to get the location, so we didn’t have to faff around with tapes and a Dumpy level (though I do quite like doing it the old-fashioned way). We also took some soil samples as we went down, at least after we had got through the disturbed layer caused by ploughing. Another warm day so lunch came as a welcome break.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

Angela had to leave at lunchtime, so I got promoted to (nominal) trench supervisor – I wondered what Olaf had being saying about us! We kept on going down, assisted by Anthony, a very experienced digger who was familiar with chalk environments. I certainly wouldn’t have recognised the lumps of fire-affected flint which he pounced upon; he says he finds piles of them in the the New Forest where they were used to heat water. When you wet the surface you can see the fracturing caused by the thermal shock as the heated stones are put if the cold water, but dry and out of the ground they just looked like little grey pebbles to me. Gill came across a much softer bit of surface, which turned out to be an animal burrow, which after Helen dug around a bit, seemed to have a bottom layer of much darker material, perhaps an organic-rich layer washed in?

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

We weren’t the only ones to find animal burrows – in the main trench, where it was thought there were a couple of post holes it turned out the ‘complications’ were in fact a badger’s set, so a lot more tidying-up to unpick that one.

The animal burrow, a badger's set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

The animal burrow, a badger’s set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

At this point we were being helped by a group of artists from the Isle of Wight who were gathering impressions for future work, as well as experiencing excavating. It made for a busy and entertaining trench, though I rather blew it when, getting up to answer two questions at the same time, twisted and did some serious damage to my knee. Just at the end of the day, so I didn’t miss out on too much, but felt a complete idiot as I limped off to the car. Thankfully I could still drive but was really disappointed to have to miss out on Wednesday – we just drove home so I could get my leg up with cold compresses on the knee in hope that I could recover enough for the journey to the Orkneys.

Apart from the disappointing denouement, it was  great couple of days, and a really big thank you to Chris, Helen, Jack and Martyn (in strict alphabetical order) for making us so welcome, and giving us such an insight into excavating a chalky prehistoric site – we hope to be back in the future.

Leigh & Gill

Prehistoric Landscapes

On Thursday, 17th May, Olaf Bayer, our new Project Officer, gave a talk entitled “Prehistoric Landscapes” at the ArkT Centre in Church Cowley.  Sorry about the lack of photos, but as he was using the projector, the light levels were a bit low, and I didn’t want to get into all the copyright problems involved with asking if I could use some of his PowerPoint slides. He was introduced by Dr David Griffiths, who also mentioned that the Archeox project had been shortlisted (last three) for the Best Community Archaeology Project for this years British Archaeology Awards – though we won’t know the final results until early July, so stick around!

Olaf started off with some definitions: –

Mesolithic       10,000 BC to 4,000 BC

Neolithic           4,000 BC to   2,000 BC

Bronze Age       2,000 BC to      500 BC

Then he went on to sketch out some of the salient points to remember about the periods; it was a transitional time, with people slowly changing from being hunter-gatherers to being farmers – from a mobile life-style to a much more stable one. Though he emphasised that this was not sudden change; it was a slow process, with hunter-gatherers starting to manipulate their landscape and gradually starting to extend the periods when they stayed in one place until eventually they ended up permanently occupying one site.

He then described the characteristic technologies of the periods; in the Mesolithic microliths (small, sharp flints which were mounted side by side in hafts to produce tools) predominated, then in the Neolithic ground stone tools (handaxes, etc) appeared, to be followed by copper – the Chalcolithic – and then bronze – the Bronze age, by which time the use of stone tools had been mainly abandoned. Along side the changes in technology, there were allied changes in the monuments that these people have left in the landscape,  from burial sites, to tombs, to enclosures. Then to the idea of “Landscape” itself – not just a view, nor just a map, or even a set of resources – more a meaningfully inhabited space. In all human behaviour, there are always choices to be made – this would have been as true in Mesolithic times as it is today.

After laying this groundwork, Olaf went on to describe his post-grad work in the lower Exe valley, Devon where the Culm to the East and the Creedy, to the West joined the Exe. This is a broad valley, defined by areas of hard geology to North and South, which has been extensively farmed since Neolithic times, so the soil has been churned up by ploughing since time immemorial; so one of the main lines of investigation Olaf followed was a collection of stone tools (over 16,000!) amassed by extensive field-walking by John Uglow (1921 – 2007) and Thurston Shaw (later of Cambridge University). Rather than measure each and every item in the collection and apply statistical analysis, for some strange reason Olaf decided to select a sample which could be dated with a degree of certainty (this was done by use the “debetage” – the chippings left over from stone working – which gives different chippings if one is producing long stone blades, say, as opposed to small flaked blades) of about 1-2% of the whole collection, about 250 items. These were then mapped so as to show their distribution in time as well as place – two of the main conclusions Olaf drew were A): that there were other reasons apart from just resources that determined where people were gathering, and also, rather interestingly, B): that there seemed to be no difference in finds density between “ritual” sites and other sites (in more recent periods one can tell a church, say, from a house, by the difference in the assemblage of finds).

Olaf then talked about the various methods he had used to investigate the current landscape in order to tease out what remains from past – hard enough at the best of times, but this area had, as mentioned above, been under the plough for centuries. He used aerial photography (to see crop-marks and the like)  and LIDAR, a method using airborne lasers to obtain very accurate elevation data. LIDAR is useful not only for its inherent accuracy, but also for the way in which the data can be manipulated to bring out details which would otherwise be missed. Most rivers and their surrounds have been LIDAR mapped for information about flooding, but the data that has been obtained this way is an invaluable archaeological resource. These views were then used to pin-point areas for further investigation – geophysics leading to excavation.

We were shown slides of a couple of trenches Olaf had put across a the ditch defining a large enclosure – the trouble he found (apart from the weather) was that the soil was such that there was very little discernible difference in soil colour between the normal ploughed soil and the ditch infill. He had decided to put in a large “sondage” – in this case a mini-trench within the main trench going from one side to the other – to obtain a section across the ditch. Even this was difficult to unpick as worm- and root-action had blurred any sharp distinctions; the main definition between the soil and the infill was the angle of the large stones which had fallen into the ditch and lain at an angle on the side of the ditch! The dating evidence was pretty uncertain too – Olaf had some radiocarbon dating done, but the samples were so small that they could have been moved through the soil by worms or even gravity, so that Olaf reckoned he could not really draw any firm conclusions from the dates he got, even though they were pretty accurate in themselves – it could well have been Bronze age, but could also have been post-medieval . As we are finding out for our selves – trying to reconstruct a story from the evidence in the ground can be incredibly difficult!

He then went on to refer to a dig he has been involved with at Damerham, West Hampshire, which is a combination of university placements and community archaeology – as we were getting near the coffee break, he showed us a couple of slides and pointed us at the website.

After the break he continued by describing how he was planning to go about trying to obtain information about the prehistoric landscape in East Oxford. There is plenty of evidence of prehistoric activity – “crop-marks” in university Park, evidence from various excavations (a henge, circular enclosures) in the centre, so we know the area has been occupied for a long time – so where to start?

Initially, a look at the collections of stone tools, etc held in the various museums and collections in Oxford (The Pitt-Rivers, Ashmolean, County records etc) and looking at aerial photos of the area (aerial photography was almost invented around here). As I mentioned in an earlier blog (the recent one about geophysics) Olaf wants to do gradiometer surveys of as much of the open spaces as we can get our hands (or wellied feet) on and when the time is right (one needs to do it after the crops have been harvested and the area ploughed, and just after rain, to damp down the dust), we could do some field walking to the south of our area – south of Greater Leys and Littlemore. Apart from that, we need to carry on with the test pits, and inquiring about finds which people may have turned up in their gardens and allotments – not much to do then.

A fascinating talk, and an intimation of lots of interesting work to come – so much so that some of us (all of the professionals and a few of the volunteers) repaired to the pub (the Rusty Bicycle) to carry on the intellectual discussion – the highlight of which seemed to be how to wind up thirsty , but broke, theology students!

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