On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire. Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.
We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.
From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.
The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.
Archaeological works on the areas for new housing that are part of the Army Basing Project have been going on for some time now. Two of the areas are for new housing at Bulford and Tidworth. All of the areas both inside and outside the camps have revealed interesting archaeological remains, from periods from the Prehistoric to World War 2. I thought I’d talk about the Saxon cemetery finds from two of the sites for this blog. Both of the sites were excavated by Wessex Archaeology. Due to the subject matter, there are photographs of human skeletons in this blog article.
The site for service family accommodation at Bulford had been evaluated by geophysical survey and trenched evaluation early on. When one of the trenches revealed nearly 17 possible grave cuts, we knew that we had a previously unknown cemetery. The graves in that trench were mostly aligned east-west and were laid out rather than crouched, so we knew that they were likely to be Christian, or at least from the period when Christianity was starting to have an influence. One of the graves was sampled at that point and a radio-carbon date told us that this was a mid-Saxon burial, around about the time when people were starting to convert to Christianity in this part of England. As the cemetery was in an area where houses were planned, it was agreed that the whole cemetery would be excavated. We expected there to be around 50-70 burials. However, when the area was stripped, as part of a bigger area, it became clear that there were a few more than that (just over 160 in the end)!
This picture shows the cemetery after the topsoil has been stripped off. It was taken from a drone. In amongst lots of other features are the regularly laid out groups of graves. Typically, we ended up with far more than we thought originally, as the evaluation trenches had sat neatly between some of the rows! The excavation has finished and so now all the post-excavation work is ongoing. We’ll know more about the dates of the burials, the people themselves and how they were related to each other after that is finished.
Not long after the Bulford cemetery was started, work on a small area of excavation at a site in Tidworth started. This was a planning permission that was much older, so the evaluation had been done more than 10 years ago. Based on the results of that work, we were expecting some Roman-British remains (which we did find). However, more of a surprise was that we started to find burials that looked a lot like the ones at Bulford. The excavation area was extended and revealed (eventually) just under 60 burials. Initial radio-carbon dates suggested that these were also mid-Saxon in date. The burial methods were similar to Bulford (although the cemetery was not so carefully laid out) and there were also similar items buried with some of them.
The conservation team are celebrating this week as we have completed work on a beautiful and exciting project. Conservation of the stunning finds excavated from Bognor Regis by Thames Valley Archaeological Services in 2008 has come to fruition. The items form part of an unusual burial assemblage along with an iron ‘bed’ frame and sword and are thought to originate from the late Bronze Age/ early Iron Age.
The finds first came to us in the unassuming form of a large soil block, this was too large to x-ray at our labs so was transported to a local hospital where x-rays revealed a large amount of intricate metal latticework and a helmet.
The soil block was carefully excavated, layer by layer, revealing the spectacular nature of the copper alloy items held within. The helmet and latticework were extremely fragmented and fragile, the helmet was split in half and part of the lattice was adhered to the helmet with corrosion products.
In the archaeology service most new archaeological discoveries tend to be through our advice on planning applications. If a proposed development has the potential to impact heritage assets and in particular those with archaeological interest (as referred to in the National Planning Policy Framework), then we advise planning officers that a programme of archaeological investigation needs to be carried out in order to determine the significance of heritage assets affected by the proposals. Since I joined the archaeology service in August 2012 there have been some really exciting discoveries through development management, an overwhelming amount dating to the Romano British period. To name some of the top sites over the last few years that date to this period, we've had a Roman villa in Devizes, a roadside settlement near Beanacre, a high status farmstead outside Chippenham, two farmsteads on the outskirts of Trowbridge...the list goes on. In fact I have been surprised at just the amount of activity going on during this period in our county. Maybe it's not surprising considering we have some major Roman roads running through (see map below) including the main routes from London to Bath; from Silchester to Dorchester (Port Way); from Lincoln to Exeter (Fosse Way) and from Winchester to Charterhouse (Mendips). The two towns of Cunetio (Mildenhall) and Sorviodunum (Salisbury) lay at important junctions of the strategic road network and other towns of Durocornovium (Wanborough) and Verlucio (Calne) are also known to lie along the road network.
Many of you no doubt have read recently in the newspapers or heard on the radio that there has been a major new Roman discovery in the Deverills. We got a call from Luke Irwin who explained that whilst constructing an electricity cable to one of his outbuildings his workmen stumbled upon some kind of tiled floor surface and the tiles appeared to be quite small and colourful. He ordered the workmen to stop digging and that is when he contacted us. Of course my initial reaction was that of incredible excitement tempered by the realism, "what are the chances", people often tend to over exaggerate the significance of archaeological discoveries in their gardens. Despite my cynicism I quickly arranged to visit the site the following day with the County Archaeologist, Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger. Upon our arrival Luke explained that one of his workmen was interested in archaeology so had meticulously cleaned the floor. When we peered down the cable trench both our mouths must have dropped open and I think we both said at the same time "I don't believe it, you have got a Roman mosaic!!!” There was no arguing with the clearly distinctive Roman mosaic pattern, a common geometric border pattern known as guilloche.
You may remember the image of a group of ceramic sherds from one of our previous blog posts. Following reconstruction of the vessel we now have true understanding of the magnificence of the objects found. Watch a time-lapse video showing elements of the reconstruction of the vessel.
Conservation treatment involved a task like a jigsaw puzzle without a picture. The size, shape and colours of the sherds were used to determine their original location within the urn. Due to the uneven firing of the vessel and areas of burning caused by hot ashes being placed inside the vessel some areas were easier to piece together than others.
When the collared urn was originally manufactured ceramic technology was in its infancy with the kilns used never reaching the temperature required to permanently set the clay in position. During the time the vessel was in the ground, moisture from the surrounding earth also weakened the under-fired structure. This effect, on top of the unconventional excavation method, has meant that the overall shape of the vessel has become distorted.
Before reconstruction the edges of each fragment were strengthened by allowing a weak adhesive to be drawn into the rough surface to hold the loose and sometimes crumbling structure together. The adhesive is well used in conservation and has been developed and tested to ensure that it is long-term stable meaning it will not degrade causing damage to the original fragments of the vessel.
A stronger concentration of the same adhesive was used to adhere the fragments in position, small strips weak masking tape were used to hold the fragments in position as they dried. As the vessel was so large the reconstruction had to be undertaken in stages to ensure each level of fragments were securely in position and ready to support those placed on top.
This roughly square feature, with further squares on the corners, was first seen in the geophysical results when this housing site was first considered for development. At that point, no-one was quite sure what it was. Although a Civil War date was considered, it was also possible that this feature was associated with the WW2 features that surrounded it.
We had a look at it in the trenched evaluation, but didn’t get much more information, and so an excavation was required as part of the planning permission. This took place in 2015 and the initial post-excavation works are well under way. The excavation demonstrated that the structure was indeed large and square with square ‘turrets’ on the corner. Its outline was made up of a ditch cut into the chalk.
There were also the remains of a small building with flint footings, which can be seen in the photo above in the centre of the group of archaeologists.