Friday, 11 July 2014

"A Site of European Significance"

When I was an archaeologist, that was the phrase that we used to use, almost as a joke - along with "artefacts of ritual significance" if we had no idea what they were for!
Up on Dorstone Hill, though, not far from Arthur's Stone, is an archaeological dig that really is of European significance. It may not look like much, but the students from Manchester University are uncovering a Neolithic monument that is unique in England - though some examples have been found on mainland Europe.
I was lucky enough to be taken up there this morning, with Brian from Belle Books - two of the archaeology students had been in his shop on Saturday (their only day off) and told him all about it. We were shown around by a young lady called Jade, who was very enthusiastic, and very knowledgeable. The previous day, she'd been talking to a group of children from Michaelchurch school.
This is the third year that the University has run a dig in that field. To start with, they were attracted by the almost ploughed out remains of a barrow, which was where they dug their first trench - and found that there was more to the site than they had thought.
The second year they opened up a second trench - and found something very special indeed. In fact, further study could show that the area around Dorstone could have been as significant a Neolithic landscape as Wiltshire - it's just that the monuments in the area have never been properly studied. Arthur's Stone isn't the only chambered tomb in the area - there are masses of them, and barrows - and who knows what else might be discovered with proper investigation.

Jade took us through the stages of the monument they had uncovered. It started with a timber hall, with daub walls. Then this hall was deliberately burned down - they can tell it was deliberately, because they can see where the major timbers were removed before the fire started. The fire must have been visible right across Herefordshire and over to the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons - the views from the top of the hill are spectacular.
When we looked into the trench we could quite clearly see the layer of burned clay that was the remains of the daub walls, which had been used to build the barrow. This was a long barrow, slightly wider at one end than the other - it's a common pattern for the period.
They also found the remains of two enormous post holes, which had contained posts made from enormous trees (think of the biggest tree you've ever seen - this one was bigger, and they cut it down with stone axes and moved it by muscle power). The posts would have supported a wooden trough, where the bodies were laid for burning. There's nothing left of the bodies now, of course - five or six thousand years of acid soil will do that to a skeleton.
There have been other finds, though - two stone axes, and some arrow heads, for instance. It's possible to analyze the rock to find out where it comes from, and some of the finds came from Yorkshire, while another came from mainland Europe - giving a glimpse into a wide spread trading network that the people in Herefordshire were part of. The axes are among the most perfect that the diggers are aware of - usually, thousands of years of being in the ground have taken their toll, as well as wear and tear from actual use. These axes were not used - they were placed in the graves pretty much brand new, and as the axes took around 300 man hours to produce, that's quite a generous offering for someone who must have been pretty special.
One of the axes was not quite perfect - it had been chipped while being manufactured, and normally when this happened the craftsman would start again with another stone. In this case, though, they smoothed out the chip as best they could, because the stone had a fossil embedded in it, and this obviously had some significance for the people of the time.
All of this was happening some time before the building of Stonehenge.

Digging down to natural - the undisturbed earth that the barrow was built on

Looking along the length of the barrow, showing the burned clay layer

When the barrows had been standing for several hundred years, they were obviously still a major landmark for the area, and of some importance to the people who lived there, because they were re-modelled. The three barrows were joined together with ordinary earth, and then were covered with stones to make one enormous cairn. This was a style of funerary monument that was becoming popular in the Black Mountains at the time.

The stone layer that once covered the barrows

It was wonderful to be back at a proper dig, even if it was only for a morning. It all looked so familiar (and I've still got my trowel!). We were particularly impressed with the barrow run - to get the wheelbarrows to the top of the spoil heap to dump the soil that is being removed from around the monument.

There's a short news item from last year on the BBC website at which has a short interview with the site director, Julian Thomas. Julian Thomas also gave a talk at Hay Festival this year - sadly, it was on a Sunday, so I couldn't go.
The site welcomes visitors, and they are having an open day on Sunday 27th July from 10.30am to 4.30pm, to show what they have found this year.

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