Visit date: 6th May 2012

Weather: Initially chilly but bright, warm sunshine by the afternoon, wind negligible

Introduction

The route went from Martin Green’s farmhouse across Fir Tree Field to the Great Shaft, then over the field to see the excavated causewayed ring-ditch and the reconstructed round barrow. Leaving Fir Tree Field, the route then followed the footpath (somewhat intruded upon by oilseed rape) up the hill to the top of Gussage Hill to see the long barrow that is included in the Cursus and to view the settlement earthworks. Walking along the top of the ridge, the route then turned left onto the Ackling Dyke Roman Road and followed that as far as the road. Turning left, the next destination was the Wyke Down Henge and associated monuments. The highlight was then to see Martin Green’s museum and see the artefacts he has discovered on his farm.

Figure 1: Location of Wyke Down Henge and the Shaft in relation to other sites on Down Farm. After Green & Michael J Allen 1997 Figure 1

Fir Tree Field ‘Shaft’

Grid Reference:  SU 0016 1467 (NMR SU 01 SW 163)

Site Overview

The Shaft is 10m wide at the top of the 3m-deep weathering cone, tapering to 5m across at the beginning of the vertical section. The entire depth is unknown, as when the water table was reached at 13.2m in 1992, and an augur put in to determine further depth, the bottom was not reached at 25.2m (Allen 2000 : 41).

 

Figure 2: Fir Tree Field Great Shaft showing the view into the weathering cone August 2009. Copyright K Bragg.

Health and Safety demands that such a dangerous hole must be fenced off, so access to the site is via key only.  (Unfortunately on the day of the field trip, the key was not forthcoming, so photos are from previous visit.) A bridge is provided so that a view may be had down the shaft, but as this is mostly filled in, the view is not as dramatic as might be thought.

Figure 3: Fir Tree Field Shaft from viewing platform August 2009. Copyright K Bragg.

When excavated, a sequence of layers was discovered (as shown in Figure 4): the first layer revealed Beaker pottery and flints, lower down was a layer containing Peterborough ware from the mid-late Neolithic. In this way a sequence of layers dating back to the late Mesolithic was obtained.

 

Figure 4: Section of the Fir Tree Field shaft with radiocarbon details. (Source Green 2000 Fig 23)

Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1990 Discovery Lush cropmark discovered in Fir Tree Field that when excavated turned out to be the Fir Tree Field Great Shaft (Green & Michael J Allen 1997 :121)
1992-1994 Excavation Careful excavation provided a sequence of layers trapping environmental information in the range 5500-3775BP therefore providing key environmental information about the critical Mesolithic-Neolithic transition in this area (Green 2000).

 

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The shaft itself is now thought to be entirely natural and a result of water acidified by dissolved minerals causing the chalk to dissolve, although initially considered by geologists to be of anthropogenic origin (Green & Allen 1997 :130). Similar features can be found elsewhere in the area and such solution holes are a common feature of limestone and chalk geologies. The importance of this particular feature, in archaeological terms, is not just for the retrieved artefacts themselves, but for the rich environmental data that has been obtained that can then be used in the interpretation of the high density of archaeological sites in the area (Green & Allen 1997 :130-131).

Wyke Down Henge

Grid Reference:  SU 0065 1528 (NMR SU 01 NW 113)

Site Overview

The Wyke Down Henge presents as a penannular enclosure consisting of 26 chalk-cut pits approximately 2m deep (Entwistle & Bowden 1991 :26), although with some notable variety in depth (Barrett et al. 1991 :92), with a 3m entrance causeway (Entwistle & Bowden 1991 :26). After excavation, the site was left exposed so that the arrangement of pits can be seen. The site is located on a low hill and is close by part of the Dorset Cursus, and also a Peterborough Ware site in Chalkpit Field (Barrett et al. 1991 :105) (the field to the south-east of the field the henge is in). As well as being close by to other archaeological sites, the henge is close to the source of the River Allen, especially to a Pleistocene river cliff marking a paleochannel (Entwistle & Bowden 1991 :26). The section of the Cursus at this point is known to have been reused, and also would be most visible as it travels over the river cliff (Barrett et al. 1991 :105).

Figure 5: Wyke Down Henge looking south-west May 2012. Pits show as green circles in a ring against the chalk. Photo copyright P Bragg.

Investigation History

Year Investigation type Investigation Details
1983-1984 Excavation and environmental analyses Excavated by Bradley, Barrett and Green, the pits were found to have been cut and then recut at a later stage and then a central pit cut where the axes of the monument cross. Among the finds were carved chalk objects in the primary cuts, and grooved ware in the secondary cuts.

 

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The initial pits that were dug silted up again quite quickly and from all sides (i.e. no evidence for external bank collapsing) (Barrett et al. 1991 :92). Brown (1991) suggests that the nature of artefacts found in this primary fill indicated that in the early stage of the henge, the deposition was pragmatic, rather than with any ritual/symbolic overtones. The environmental samples from this first phase indicate that the area was open but with the possibility of denser woodland nearby, with the evidence consistent with the environment external to the pit not just recording an internal micro-environment (Entwistle & Bowden 1991 : 26).

 

Figure 6: Outline plans of the Wyke Down hence monument, showing the distribution of deposits belonging to the primary phase. (Source Barrett et al. 1991 Fig 3.20)

The pits were then recut (more shallowly than the original) and material from these has been radiocarbon-dated to 2190 ± 80 bc (BM 2396) and 2200±50 bc (BM 2397) (Barrett et al. 1991 :92). These recut pits also contained grooved ware pottery and at the time of this deposit, environment conditions were more shaded: suggestive of scrub rather than woodland cover (Entwistle & Bowden 1991 : 28) and that the monument was left untended (Allen 2000 :48). The final stage was the insertion of a central pit, with a deposit that has been dated to 1510±90bc (BM 2394) (Barrett et al. 1991 :96).

Barrett et al. (1991 :105) require that the henge be interpreted as an enclosure rather than the alternative of a causewayed ring ditch (an example of which can be seen excavated in Fir Tree Field) but reject the (then-commonplace) interpretation of the pits as a communal and collective cremation cemetery. They point out that cremated remains were a small fraction of the total deposits, and were in a secondary phase and therefore not consistent with the original design and purpose of the monument.

Bibliography

Allen, M.J., 2000. Soils, Pollen and lots of snails. In A Landscape Revealed: 10,000 Years on a Chalkland Farm. Stroud: Tempus Publishing Ltd., pp. 36-49.

Barrett, J.C., Bradley, R. & Green, M., 1991. Landscape, monuments, and society: the prehistory of Cranborne Chase, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Brown, A., 1991. Structured Deposition and Technological Change among the Flaked Stone Artefacts from Cranborne Chase. In J. C. Barrett, R. Bradley, & M. Hall, eds. Papers on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Cranborne Chase. Oxbow Monograph 11, pp. 101-133.

Entwistle, R. & Bowden, M., 1991. Cranborne Chase: The Molluscan Evidence. In J. C. Barrett, R. Bradley, & M. Hall, eds. Papers on the Prehistoric Archaeology of Cranborne Chase. Oxbow Monograph 11, pp. 20-48.

Green, M., 2000. A Landscape Revealed: 10, 000 Years on a Chalkland Farm illustrate., The History Press Ltd.

Green, M. & Allen, M.J., 1997. An Early Prehistoric Shaft on Cranborne Chase. Oxford Journal of Archaeology, 16(2), pp.121-132. Available at: http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/links/doi/10.1111%2F1468-0092.00029 [Accessed May 20, 2012].

 

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In the current era, change seems never-ending and relentless. Technology that was new yesterday is obsolete tomorrow. We embrace and welcome change. It can be easy, therefore, to assume that this attitude was always the case: where there was an obvious improvement available, it would be taken up immediately and without question. It is easy to experiment when you have no lack of resources; a catastrophic failure in the experiment will not mean starvation for you and your village. To reject a way of life that has served your family for generations innumerable would be a great leap, and there was no mass media to tell you to do it.

I can’t help but think then, that although the Neolithic ‘package’ spread throughout Europe, the uptake of farming in individual cases would have taken some crisis event to provoke the change, if you view the issue in purely economic terms. It may be that the initial forays into agriculture were special ritual crops for special purposes – a low-risk test of the crazy new ideas. If the gods smiled favourably on these offerings, perhaps the idea had some merit after all. These special crops may only have required periodic effort and so did not require that the farmer become fixed in one area. The well-understood pattern of foraging and hunting could continue, with the episodic return to the crop as part of the seasonal nomadism.

I view this experimentation with the growing of crops is part of the overall package of increased interaction with the land and soil. It probably started gradually and cautiously: a few shallow pits dug with trepidation and hastily filled with offerings, but then progressed to ever more bold statements about their relationship with, and power over, the land.

For me, the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition is this change in attitude towards the earth: the growing confidence with which man interacts with and shapes the very land he lives on. I view farming as the natural result of a growing affinity for the soil, rather than as an economic tool. The act of settling and binding yourself to a particular area can only performed with the confidence that the soil is understood and your place on it defined and negotiated.

Pottery is a natural extension of this relationship; one of the series of transactions that defines the connection between man and his environment. Extracting clay (and flint and other subterranean resources) from the earth is the reward, and the balance, for the offerings placed into the earth.

This increasing confidence and understanding of the nature of soil culminated in the vision and daring to construct large and expressive monuments, and to force a design of their own creation upon the landscape.

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Written on November 11th, 2010 , Musings Tags: ,

Aveline’s Hole

Grid Reference: ST476586

Site Overview

Aveline’s Hole is a cave in Burrington Coombe, Somerset and was named after William Aveline, a member of the Geological Survey and senior geologist for Somerset (Schulting 2005).The site today presents as an open cave mouth facing onto the road, but according to the story of its discovery in the 18th century, an entrance had to be made via a pickaxe in order to access the cave. The story, as published in contemporary newspapers, goes that it was the chasing of a rabbit, that occasioned the discovery of the cave, and that 30 (the number varies with the reports) bodies were found in a state of disarray, as if thrown into the cave (Boycott & Wilson 2010). How accurate this account is, seems to be in doubt, but the current entrance chamber has been remodelled using dynamite to remove a dangerous vertical drop in the inner part of the outer chamber (Donovan 2005), and would not have been the same cave as experienced by the original users of the site.

Artefacts recovered from Aveline’s Hole during the excavations in 1914 and 1919-31, were stored in the museum of the Bristol Spelaeological Society and this was destroyed in an air raid in 1940, along with many of the artefacts (Jacobi 2005).

Investigation History

After the discovery of the site, there was a flurry of antiquarian activity, both documented and undocumented, with bones apparently removed from the site (Schulting 2005).

Excavations conducted by the Bristol Spelaeological Research Society in 1914 were fairly brief and produced fragments of human skull (Schulting 2005), but resume in 1919 (as UBSS) and carried on until 1930/31 (Donovan 2005). This resulted in a complete excavation of the cave deposits, down to the bare rock floor visible today (Schulting 2005). The death of J.A. Davies, the leader of the investigation, in 1931, and the bombing of the museum and destruction of documents and artefacts, means that the report of the excavation was never published (Mullan & Wilson 2004, 76).

Evidence for red deer and horse was noted, with lengthwise splits consistent with marrow extraction providing evidence for diet.

There was evidence for the ‘stalagmite shelf’ that was sealing the layer of human remains and it seems that the cave itself may have been sealed in Palaeolithic times as no later deposits were found above this layer (Donovan 2005).

Chronology and Current Interpretation

Human remains from Aveline’s Hole have been dated to between 8460 and 8140 cal BC (Schulting 2005), a surprisingly short period but not a single event, meaning the burials date from the Early Mesolithic, but the presence of Cheddar Points may indicate earlier use of the cave, in the Late Upper Palaeolithic – its use as a shelter predates the use as an Early Mesolithic burial site (Jacobi 2005).

Human remains from Aveline’s Hole have been subjected to isotopic analysis, which revealed a diet high in protein, but low in marine protein. Although this is perhaps to be expected in a site far from the sea (Schulting 2005, 222), it suggests that marine resources were not being exploited by this group, and when you consider the finds of periwinkle shells associated with the burials and consider as ‘grave goods’ (Gardiner 2003), the range or contacts of these people must have reached the shores. Perhaps there was enough land-based food resource that fishing was not required.

There is also a suggestion that rock art was engraved inside the cave, in the area now fenced off. This takes the form of engraved crossed lines on a wall, apparently covered by a layer of calcite and showing signs of weathering and age. As the evidence indicates that the cave was sealed in prehistory, it seems likely that the marks are contemporary with the use of the cave as a Mesolithic burial site (Mullan & Wilson 2004).

Totty Pot Swallet Hole

Grid Reference: ST48255357

Site Overview

Totty Pot is a cave in the Mendip Hills, to the East of Cheddar. The modern access to the cave is via a vertical shaft but this is not likely to be the original entrance used in prehistory to access the cave with a less precipitous entrance lower down the hill (Schulting et al. 2010).

Investigation History

Initial discovery and excavation of the site in 1960, by the Wessex Caving Club (Murray 2010), was intended for caving purposes and did not anticipate the discovery of human remains (Schulting et al. 2010). Initially the remains were considered modern and handed to the police, who subsequently destroyed them as being of no interest (Somerset HER 2003). There is no published report of these excavations but a summary was given by Paula Gardiner in her PhD thesis in 2001. Gardiner investigated the mouth of the swallet hole (as the cave now presents as) but with few archaeological remains discovered (Murray 2010).

The remaining fragments of human remains found in the cave have been subjected to AMS dating and returned a Mesolithic date for one individual, but the other five presented as Middle and Late Neolithic (Murray 2010). The Mesolithic date places it contemporary with the latest burial found in Aveline’s Hole (Gardiner 2003, 104).

Chronology and Current Interpretation

The main interpretation of this site is as a later Mesolithic burial site, suggested as providing a comparison to the burial sites of Gough’s Cave and Aveline’s Hole by having a hilltop position as opposed to a cave (P Driscoll pers. comm.). I’m not sure how this comparison bears out if the hilltop opening of the cave was not the prehistoric entrance. I haven’t been able to establish exactly where the suggested prehistoric access was made.

Gardiner considers burial of the dead to be indicative of increasing social complexity, and the findings from Totty Pot (as well as Aveline’s Hole and Gough’s Cave) take this back to the early Mesolithic in time (P. Gardiner 2003). But the continuation of use into the Middle and Late Neolithic indicate that the ‘revolution’ of the Neolithic was not necessarily acceptable in all its facets to all people, and that burial in natural places was still part of life for some people of the Mendips.

Both Aveline’s Hole and Totty Pot share the same liminality of place – between the open air and the inside of the earth. This may have been an important consideration for the site of burial of dead, although if the nomadic lifestyle of the Mesolithic caused a wide range of locations to be used by a particular group, I cannot help wondering how the practicalities worked out: whether other places were acceptable to receive the dead, if someone happened to die away from the cave site, or whether remains were transported back to the cave. The disturbance of both sites by unsystematic investigations may prevent answers to that question being knowable.

Bibliography

Boycott, A. & Wilson, L.J., 2010. Contemporary Accounts Of The Discovery Of Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Combe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.11-25.
Donovan, D.T., 2005. Aveline’s Hole , Burrington Combe , North Somerset : Stratigraphy And Problems. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.159-170.
Gardiner, P., 2003. Caught in the act – where is the transition. In L. Bevan & J. Moore, eds. Peopling the Mesolithic in a Northern Environment. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 103-112.
Jacobi, R.M., 2005. Some Observations On The Lithic Artefacts From Aveline’s Hole ,. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.267-295.
Mullan, G.J. & Wilson, L.J., 2004. A Possible Mesolithic Engraving In Aveline’s Hole, Burrington Combe, North Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(2), pp.75-85.
Murray, E., 2010. Totty Pot, Cheddar, Somerset The Faunal Remains. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.97-104.
Schulting, R.J., 2005. Pursuing a rabbit in Burrington Combe: New research on the early mesolithic burial cave of Aveline’s Hole. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 23(3), pp.171-265.
Schulting, R.J. et al., 2010. The Mesolithic And Neolithic Human Bone Assemblage From Totty Pot, Cheddar, Somerset. Proceedings of the University of Bristol Spelaeological Society, 25(1), pp.75-95.
Somerset HER, 2003. Totty Pot, Cheddar. Available at: http://webapp1.somerset.gov.uk/her/details.asp?prn=10349 [Accessed May 15, 2011].

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Written on November 7th, 2010 , Certificate Year One, Field Trip Tags: , , , , ,

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