Almost reaching the end of 2020 has given me a good opportunity to reflect on what has been a most unusual and difficult year but one in which archaeology in Wiltshire and Swindon continues to excite and surprise.
Over the course of this past year around 45 fieldwork projects relating to planning applications were undertaken across Wiltshire and Swindon. There were also 9 research or academic excavations. The volume of work the Archaeology Service has had to deal with has not diminished during the Covid pandemic and if anything has been more intense than before, with some of the large projects we are involved with such as the A303 Stonehenge project and other road schemes in Wiltshire and Swindon. Commercial field archaeology has carried on throughout the year as construction projects have continued. Our team have been allowed to continue going out on site to monitor the field work, subject to strict health and safety policies and Covid-safe practices
Sadly, what we haven’t been able to do so much of this year is the outreach work that we all enjoy so much, the archaeology walks and talks, but hopefully in a few short months we will be able to resume these activities. Please watch this space for details of events from the Spring onwards
One of the exciting projects we have been dealing with stems from a planning application for a solar farm development between Beanacre and Lacock. It was in this area that Wessex Archaeology excavated Roman remains in 2014 that turned out to relate to a previously unknown large Roman settlement located on an east-west Roman road. The geophysical survey from this latest project and the trial trenching has helped to reveal the extent of a Roman town on its south and east side. This now means we have 6 rather than 5 Roman small towns in Wiltshire and Swindon. Unlike Durocornovium (Wanborough), and Sorviodunum (Old Sarum) and Verlucio (Sandy Lane), this one doesn’t seem to have a Roman name. Who knows how many others may be out there waiting to be discovered?
Exciting and unexpected archaeological discoveries show how no evaluation process for sites is fool proof. What happens next shows how important cooperation and communication is, particularly for the County Archaeology Service, who are tasked with supporting development AND safeguarding heritage. The critical concept is “significance” – how important are the remains; what is their potential to inform us about the past? Rachel Foster, Assistant County Archaeologist reports:
In 2017 Wessex Archaeology excavated a new housing development north of Bitham Park in Westbury. I had requested this work as a condition of planning permission, based on limited evaluation results. Unexpected discoveries demonstrated the challenges faced by Planning Archaeologists in understanding the significance of archaeological sites based on the results of trial trench evaluation.
The 2018 National Planning Policy Framework states that local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any “heritage asset” that may be affected by a proposal. In line with this advice, we often ask for sites to be investigated before the determination of a planning application, so that we have that information. Evaluation usually this consists of geophysical survey followed by trial trench evaluation. The Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Environment Record which contains detail on archaeological sites, buildings and finds, informs our decision making.
Archaeological evaluation can feel like a game of battleships. When geophysical survey goes well, and reveals features that look like potential archaeology, we ask for trenches to be dug and the features investigated by commercial archaeologists. The aim is to understand the significance of the site by investigating features within the trenches, which is not always so easy: if geophysical survey has not been carried out or is unsuccessful, then trenches are placed either systematically or randomly across a site and there is potential to miss remains. Today, the trenching is usually a 3-5% sample of the development site but in exceptional circumstances, up to 10% may be carried out. That sample of trenching should find archaeological remains within a site and provide enough information to understand the importance, extent and significance of any remains. Results of evaluation will then inform our advice to the planning officer on the impact of the development on archaeological remains. Remains considered to be of national significance are likely to be preserved in situ and not developed, but other remains are likely to be investigate. Early knowledge about archaeology and its potential effect helps the developers manage their risk and adequately budget for excavation costs, as well as post-excavation work and publication.
The geophysical survey results at Bitham Park didn’t show much other than a few lines representing ridge and furrow remains across parts of the site and a few other possible linear features. This image gives an example of the greyscale plot of the geophysical survey results (magnetromotry).
Geophysical survey isn’t always reliable, so I asked for trial trench evaluation prior to determination of the planning application: in some cases, later ridge and furrow can hide earlier remains. As the geophysical survey indicated, there were remains of medieval/post-medieval ridge and furrow cultivation; however, my assessment that there might be more archaeology was correct. Archaeological features were discovered across several trenches, mostly concentrated in the western part of the site. They included ditches, gullies and pits containing small, worn pottery fragments from the early/middle Iron Age and Romano-British periods (150BC onwards). Nevertheless, the significance and extent of the remains could not be fully understood, so I asked for a second stage of evaluation to provide more data. The extra information would help me define an area for archaeological mitigation – the full excavation of important features. The results confirmed prolonged and intensive agricultural use from the medieval period (1066- 1540). This had truncated and displaced features and artefacts from the earlier Iron Age and Romano-British periods; however, theses features included and arrangement of post holes representing a possible structure (see trench locations of two evaluation stages below).
On the basis of the two evaluations I asked for an area of excavation within the vicinty of where the most significant archaeological features were recorded, in the western part of the site and along a north-south trajectory.
In advance of the housing development an initial area was stripped with contingency and here’s an aerial view of the site below, can you spot anything interesting?
I have written before about some of the amazing finds at the site that will become the Larkhill Service Family accommodation. Archaeologists from Wessex Archaeology and White Young Green have been ensuring that the archaeology has been excavated, with archaeologists from the Wiltshire Council Archaeological Service (mostly me!) helping to ensure that anything affected by the development is properly excavated and recorded. We’ve had Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age finds, including a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, a new (probable) henge and an enclosed settlement (with associated roundhouses). I’ve also mentioned before that we have the remains of a First World War training battlefield, with what has turned out to be over 8km of trenches that have been excavated by the archaeologists and unexploded ordnance specialists that have been working on the site (an example of some of these trenches are shown in this picture – the trenches are white from the excavated chalk being backfilled into them. The second photo shows part of the trench system).
In addition to the trenches, we can now reveal that the practice battlefield also included tunnels and dugouts. On battlefields, dugouts were used for lots of reasons, including troop shelters, medical posts, headquarters and stores. Their position underground meant that they were less likely to be affected by bombs, shells or bullets. We have a number of these at Larkhill, along with a number of tunnels. Both sides dug tunnels into no-man’s-land in order to lay mines that could blow up the other side’s trenches. Counter trenches were also dug to try to stop this. Tunnels were also used as listening posts (listening for the sound of the other side’s digging).
(These pictures show the entrance to one of the dugouts, with steps leading down, and another with a cob wall and doorway forming a room inside.)
The presence of these tunnels and dugouts (along with the trenches, ammunition, grenade fragments and food containers – amongst other things!) show that the troops training here were learning to undertake all aspects of trench warfare. They may well have come from all over the Commonwealth, but we know for a fact that we have people from the Wiltshire Regiment, drafted West Yorkshire coal miners, Manchester Scouts and troops from Australia. We know this thanks to the over 100 pieces of graffiti that have been found written on and carved into the chalk of the defences. Sometimes the graffiti was written in soot from candles, but more often if was written in pencil on the chalk.
Conservation has been undertaken on a rare Visigoth Brooch here at the Wiltshire and Swindon History Centre. We were honoured with a visit by the finder of the artefact Matt Smith, who came for a tour of our facilities and to view the work being undertaken.
Thought to be only the second of its kind found in the country the iron and copper alloy brooch has been identified as a late 5th, early 6th-century AD type, predominantly found in southern France and central Spain. The brooch was uncovered during excavations undertaken by Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology at Barrow Clump on Salisbury Plain.
The brooch formed part of the grave goods associated with one of the female burials on the site, and Matt’s first solo grave excavation. Significantly, well preserved organics remain on the surface of the object with the weave of the fabric visible through the microscope.
The brooch arrived at the conservation labs after x-radiography revealed the decorative copper alloy inlay. Still covered in corrosion products and soil from the burial environment, clues to the presence of preserved organics were just showing through the soil covering. Cleaning started slowly with scalpels and pins under the microscope to remove the soft chalky soil and reveal the extent of the organics.
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.
Earlier this year archaeologists discovered an extensive Roman settlement in the northern part of the airfield of the former RAF base. This all happened because a few months earlier, planning permission had been granted for the development of this area into a solar farm. Following an archaeological evaluation in which 60 machines dug trenches in January where about the third of them had evidence of Roman features, full scale excavation was undertaken in February and March.
Two large areas, totalling just over a hectare, were opened up for excavation and because of the tight timescale for the building of the solar farm, two teams were employed British Solar Renewables to excavate: Wessex Archaeology and Pre-Construct Archaeology. Between them the teams excavated hundreds of features indicating extensive occupation through the Roman period and a hint at earlier Iron Age occupation too.
The most exciting features were two round house dwellings. They were both around 12 metres in diameter and had well preserved internal features. The earlier one was Late Iron Age and was superseded and partially overlapped by a slightly larger Roman one. This hints at continuous occupation on this site for a few hundred years.