The Bottleknap Trio, Long Bredy: The Lost Dorset Generations

This is a good story. No photos this time. Just an update.

Bodies in Trenches was a blog from the end of 2013.

At that time, we mentioned that some bones had been unearthed during a watching brief on a drainage trench beside Bottleknap Cottage in Long Bredy. This is a little piece of National Trust land, a 17th century cottage and a couple of fields all on its own in the parish of Long Bredy. It’s tucked away below the South Dorset Ridgeway.. towards the coast. There was no planning condition for a watching brief. The NT believed the place to be significant enough to keep an eye open while the ground was being disturbed.

Peter and Mike watched the digger and almost 1m down beneath some stones, at the point where it must surely have reached natural bedrock, the bucket came up full of bones. They stopped everything, dropped down into the trench and saw the parts of the skeletons in the deep narrow trench section. Including the severed ends of long bones and the line of a spine.

Claire looked through the bones and saw there were the hip bones of at least three young people, teenagers or early twenties. From what could be recorded from such a narrow slice, the bodies had been in a line, buried in a crouched position, with their heads pointing to the north.

Nothing to date them though. What were they doing there so deep beneath the Dorset countryside? Were they buried under a cairn of stones? Was this a crime? The parish church is just a few hundred metres away but crouched burials tend to be far older than the first churches in England.

Burials in round barrows tend to be on hill tops and the South Dorset Ridgeway, which overlooks Long Bredy, has hundreds of examples of these…

The bone fragments were very well preserved so we sent three samples away for radiocarbon dating and waited….not knowing what dates would come back. One date is just a date, two dates may conflict or be a coincidence.. three dates will give you good supporting evidence if they match.

This week the dates came back. If you have.. that time bug… then such moments are electric.

The dates of the three samples matched (C14 is not precise you understand) and fell between 800-600 BC. The graph suggested that the true date of burial was likely to be towards the earlier end of this range.

The thing to do now is to make comparisons with similar finds in Dorset.. but there are none. I checked with Peter who checked with Claire.. nope.

There are times in prehistory where there is much evidence for burial and others where there is none at all. (whatever did they do with their dead?) and our Bottleknap trio fall within the latter.

Bit of a dark age really.. when the very first fragments of revolutionary iron were being brought to our shores. These three are the very first Dorset people we can link to this period.

If we look to the wider world..this is the time of the Assyrians. For example, in the book of Isaiah in 701 BC King Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem…. but Dorset has no such history.. just these three young people found in a drainage trench beneath some stones.

The games people play…

 

A bone domino with bronze pins to attach it to a thicker base, probably made from wood

A bone domino with bronze pins to attach it to a thicker base, probably made from wood

With football, tennis and cricket in full swing my mind turns to games. Not in terms of field games but more sedate board games and pastimes.

 Whether we are excavating trenches or looking under floorboards, we come across those lost counters, dice and cards from the games we probably all still play today. But some of the pieces may not be what we think, it is thought that they could also have been used as theater tickets, or counters for use  by accountants, and as tokens for gambling. Some of the objects like the domino above or playing cards are more obvious than the rounded stones, glass, pottery or bone objects.

Roman glass gaming counter

Roman glass gaming counter

We can be sure that this roman glass counter is for playing games, as a set of very similar counters were found on top of the remains of a board at Lullingstone roman villa, in  Kent. The pattern and colour of dots on each counter is different, but they do form two sets, the actual game is not known, but it is thought that it may have been something similar to backgammon.

Roman glass counter black with white and red marks

Roman glass counter black with white and red marks

 We only found this one the rest are probably still in the field scattered by many years of ploughing. From the same fields we found stone counters, one with decoration on the edge and thinner and finer than the other two.

The plain ones maybe counters from gambling games and the finer decorated one looks more like a board game piece.

Boards for these games can be wooden or scratched lines on stone or tiles. The wooden ones only survive in wet or very dry conditions and often only the metal corners survive in situ. 

Three stone counters or gaming pieces from the Kingston Lacy Estate
Three stone counters or gaming pieces from the Kingston Lacy Estate
clos up of decoration on the fine stone piece

close up of decoration on the fine stone piece

 

 

 

 

 

 

 At Chedworth roman villa there is one architectural stone
slab with an incised chequer board, in one corner. In the collection are a couple of possible gaming pieces or counters. There may have been more but if they were very basic objects they may not have been recognized by the Victorian excavators as interesting and worth keeping.

 We sometimes find die and dice on sites, often made from bone and in various sizes, they are always worth a more detailed look. Sometimes when bone dice are x-rayed you can see inserts of lead so that the roll of the die is effected, this suggests that they were probably used for gambling and by a cheat!

At Corfe Castle we excavated a very small bone die from the outer gate house guard chamber. We have not x-rayed it as it shows clearly its quirks! 

A very small bone die from Corfe Castle outer guard chamber

A very small bone die from Corfe Castle outer guard chamber

 

A drawing of the Corfe Castle bone die showing the alterations to the dot numbers

A drawing of the Corfe Castle bone die showing the alterations to the dot numbers

When you look closely at the dots you can see that it was probably a usual die that has been altered by adding dots, the side with six dots is the only one you cannot change, and five was the largest number that all the other sides could be changed to. Was it part of a dice game were other die had changed numbers or once again was it a way to cheat. The die is very small and if used inside the guard chamber it would have been dark and may not have shown up very well especially if the owner of the die had a good sleight of hand!

 

 

Deep Time in Ebbor Gorge

I do this each year and usually alone. I took Simon the wildlife adviser once.. and at this stage.. perhaps it falls more within his department.

The Somerset Levels looking towards Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips above Ebbor Gorge

The Somerset Levels looking towards Glastonbury Tor from the Mendips above Ebbor Gorge

I drive up onto the Mendips, turn left at Priddy, follow a narrow twisting lane and park. The views out though the gateway are immense. The sweep of the Somerset Levels, with Glastonbury Tor and Burrow Mump projecting from the flat lands.

Burrington Coombe and Cheddar have roads running through them but Ebbor Gorge is only accessible by narrow footpaths. From the grassy car park you cross a stone style and plunge into woodland. As you descend the steps, you start to feel that the modern world has been lost. Who knows what ancient creature might emerge from the dense vegetation. It feels like a remote place and the bottom of the gorge is warm, still and humid. Then there is the steep ascent up the other side, pausing for breath from time to time, keeping an eye open for the slight hidden path created for the dig between the trees, along the gorge edge.

The woodland path into Ebbor Gorge.

The woodland path into Ebbor Gorge.

There it is. I weave up and down and start to hear faint voices. Turn a corner and the cave is there. Much activity and a welcome from Danielle who has been expecting me.

Many of the Ebbor Caves were discovered by Victorian and Edwardian explorers and dug away. There are displays of some of their finds at nearby Wookey Hole. They were big on enthusiasm but their techniques were not great.. so to find an unexcavated cave is exciting and rare.

The Gulley Cave in 2005 before excavation.

The Gulley Cave in 2005 before excavation.

Ebbor is a Natural England reserve leased from the National Trust. Bob Corns, the NE ranger showed me the potential of Gulley Cave in 2005 and Danielle and her team from Royal Holloway College, London have been investigating the site since 2006. They are top experts in the Palaeolithic and each year descend a little further into the remote past. They tell me that this is an extremely important site. 40% of the cave deposits have been preserved for the future and have been kept in place by scaffolding.

The finds consist of animal bones, beautifully preserved because of the lime-rich conditions of the soil. Danielle tells me about the extreme cold following the last glaciation. We would have to go to the Russian Steppes to find such conditions today and the animal bones in the cave reflect this. Lemming, arctic fox, wild cat, an extinct type of wild pony, reindeer and hundreds of tiny animal bones. These are the remains of voles and other small rodents probably brought to the cave as pellets from hunting birds like owls. They have provided a range of radiocarbon dates from 10,000-13,500 years ago. The changing types of rodent reflect the fluctuations in temperature during the Holocene.

The limestone soil preserves bones extremely well. Danielle holds a wildcat jaw and the massive bone in the background is the femur an extinct species of giant cattle (aurochs)

The limestone soil preserves bones extremely well. Danielle holds a wildcat jaw and the massive bone in the background is the femur of an extinct species of giant cattle (aurochs)

The hope is for evidence of human occupation but no tools have been found. The larger meat bones have been discovered welded to the back of the cave with a hardened lime solution, which seeped from the cave wall over time.
The massive bones, representing the haunch of an giant extinct type of cattle (aurochs) were found there. Not something that would be tip-toeing around the gorge and probably too large to be brought there by wolves. Another long bone showed burning and had been fractured to extract marrow.

These are the clues at the moment that a family hunted and brought meat joints hear, roasted them on a fire and had meals in Gulley Cave, perhaps cleaning up the bones by placing them at the back of the cave. The south facing view from the cave mouth across the gorge would make it a good secure, sheltered home.

The cave has filled up over many thousands of years. Beneath a thin crust of lime which has dripped and accumulated from the cave roof is a breccia deposit of soil and stone deposited during post-glacial cold tundra conditions 11-14,000 years ago,.

The cave has filled up over many thousands of years. Beneath a thin crust of lime which has dripped and accumulated from the cave roof is a breccia deposit of soil and stone deposited during post-glacial cold tundra conditions 11-14,000 years ago,.

This year, Danielle told me, the finds have been few. The excavation has entered the last ice age. 15,000-25,000 BC was a very cold time and people probably didn’t live in Britain then. The soil has changed to frost fractured fragments of rock. Below this, about 30,000 year ago, might be found remains of woolley rhino, mammoths and perhaps earlier remains of Neanderthal man.

The story continues. I think that I will be visiting this cave each summer in years to come. This is rare evidence for deep time and Gulley Cave is yielding a fabulous stratigraphy.

Gulley Cave this year. Below the tundra soils is a deep deposit of frost fractures stone. These accumulated during the last glaciation which was too cold for people to live in Britiain it is thought.  Depth of this glacial period of cave filling is unknown but scaffolding has been inserted to hold back the reference section as the cave gets deeper. The next soil layer and warmer period will indicate deposits about 30,000 years old.

Gulley Cave this year. Below the tundra soils is a deep deposit of frost fractures stone. These accumulated during the last glaciation which was too cold for people to live in Britiain it is thought. Depth of this glacial period of cave filling is unknown but scaffolding has been inserted to hold back the reference section as the cave gets deeper. The next soil layer and warmer period will indicate deposits about 30,000 years old.

Object of the month – Here be Beavers…

During archaeological excavations we ‘dig up’ all kinds of things like pottery, glass, shell, metal and lots of bones, mostly the remains of many meals and you soon become familiar with the more common finds of sheep/goat, pigs and cattle. With good eyesight or by sieving samples smaller bones that turn up are birds, fish, frogs and mammal bones. The fish bones are often very interesting as they can show if the people using the site eat river fish or sea fish, and if the sea fish came from deep or shallow waters.

Teeth

Teeth

Sometimes when digging you come across what is not ‘run of the mill’  you know its something different but have to wait for the specialist to identify it in the post excavation reports. Over the years we have had  dogs from Roman sites, a Greater Horseshoe bat bone from a 17th century layer in the third tower at Corfe Castle.

But best of all, our object of the month, Beaver molars! These come from a second century Roman site on the Kingston lacy estate, near the River Stour. It seems very likely that the Beavers would have been caught nearby for meat and their pelt. This information changes our whole view of what the landscape around the estate would have been like in Roman times.

Wavy Beaver teeth

Wavy Beaver teeth

Looking at archaeological evidence Beavers seem to have become extinct in Britain in the Saxon period, but are now being reintroduced into Britain, for more information on their history here are some good references (our beaver teeth feature in this book) Derek Yalden The History Of British Mammals 1999 (Poyser)  and Prof. Bryony Coles  2006 “Beavers in Britain’s Past” WARP Occasional Paper 19. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Beaver molars all in a row

Beaver molars all in a row

Blue, blue electric blue..

Bluebells at Godolphin, Cornwall

Bluebells at Godolphin, Cornwall

Once again I headed west to Godolphin, and was greeted by an electric blue carpet and a heady scent of bluebells, I felt like sitting under a tree and daydreaming the day away. I was down in the far West doing a handful of small jobs. At Godolphin I had more empty museum archive boxes to deliver, an appropriate task as  I have a red Berllingo and am called Post Man Pat by many NT Rangers  and small children, but my car cat is white not black and white! 

Objects found at Godolphin that can be handled by visitors
Objects found at Godolphin that can be handled by visitors

I also wanted to see the new  hands on archaeology activities  that Siobhan had created in the King’s room. They are proving a great success with the visitors, with lots of activities to go with them, including sets of dominoes for families to play. I remember playing with my grandpa who use to knock the table to make all the tiles fall over and he could then see what we all had!

The Kings room at Godolphin

The Kings room at Godolphin

Jim the National Trust Archaeologist based in Cornwall with his organized paper archive.

Jim the National Trust Archaeologist based in Cornwall with his organized paper archive.

I visited the NT archaeologist based in Cornwall to audit his  finds and paper archive, it’s all part of the national archives work I told you about  in the February  post The future of the past. As well as our own archaeologists I am checking with museums what the have that has come from NT sites, especially from before they came into NT ownership. I had the pleasure of visiting Helston Folk Museum, the front looks like a very small building but once inside it is a Tardis!  full of social history, archaeology and so many interesting tools to keep all happy! There is an upstairs with a sloping floor due to the original use of the building as a meat and butter market.

The entrance to Helston Museum

The entrance to Helston Museum

The value of visiting  local museums are many fold, I was hoping to familiarize myself with the local  pottery and objects from excavations, and also what industries took place and any unusual tools and equipment we may find when working on a site. I was very excited to see in one of the displays a bone spoon almost exactly like one we had found at Godolphin and which was now in the handing collection in the Kings’s room!  it was part of a collection of bone spoons made at a farm just across the fields from Godolphin, whether the people on the farm made them for sale was not clear but the connection with our spoon was intriguing,  the moral of the story is visit your local museums you may be surprised! 🙂

Bone spoon fround at Godolphin

Bone spoon found at Godolphin

Finally I had to include a photo of a very popular attraction at Godolphin, Gollum the Turkey, hopefully visitors will remember the archaeological  finds and not just dear old Gollum!

Gollum the turkey another attraction at Godolphin!

Gollum the turkey another attraction at Godolphin!

Vindocladia

This week we took the opportunity to dig 3 trenches in the back garden of a cottage that awaits a new tenant.

It lies in the sleepy village of Shapwick. The shop closed in the 1990s. The pub is still open but it lies beside a market cross where there has been no market for hundreds of years. On its own, beside the river, is the lovely parish church. It looks towards the bridge across the Stour but the bridge is gone. Shapwick is a dead end now. However, the earthwork of the old road can be seen continuing across the Sturminster Marshall meadows beyond the river.

Shapwick beside the River Stour. The High Street (top left) follows the line of the Roman road. It now stops short of the River Stour but there is a ford there and the earthwork of the road continues across Sturminster meadows towards Dorchester

Shapwick beside the River Stour. The High Street (top left) follows the line of the Roman road.It now stops short of the River Stour but there is a ford there and the earthwork of the road continues across Sturminster meadows towards Dorchester”

This place hides its pedigree. After Dorchester (still the county town), Shapwick was once the second largest place in Roman Dorset (do you believe me?). The village High Street follows the line of the Roman road from Salisbury (Sorviodunum) to Dorchester (Durnovaria) but the line disappears in the arable fields between Shapwick and the crossroads at Badbury Rings (the spaghetti junction of Roman Dorset). These were the common fields in the medieval period but there are place name clues in the furlong names. ‘Stoney Lease’, ‘Blacklands’ and ‘Walls’. The old farmers were obviously finding stuff.

The three ditches of the Shapwick 4th century fortress. The furthest ditch was 3.5m  deep when we excavated it in 1995.

The three ditches of the Shapwick 4th century fortress. The furthest ditch was 3.5m deep when we excavated it in 1995.

There are few places where the Roman names are known. From Dorset we have two names, Durnovaria and a place called Vindocladia and for centuries historians have been searching for it. Back in the dry summer of 1976, a pilot spotted the outline of a Roman fort in the fields beside Shapwick and in 1991, the local farmer told me to look in a field beside the fort. It was covered in clusters of stone and flint rubble. I picked up part of a grinding stone, fragments of mosaic and painted plaster and a collection of pottery dating from the 1st to 4th century AD.

The story so far. The geophysical survey of the Roman town we think is Vindocladia. Fort top right, streets and builidngs and many other features. This week's trenches were at Hyde Farm which we will add to our survey later in the month.

The story so far. The geophysical survey of the Roman town we think is Vindocladia. Fort top right, streets and buildings and many other features. This week’s trenches were at Hyde Farm which we will add to our survey later in the month.

The local National Trust association gave us money to carry out a geophysical survey of the field. A couple of days in, I went to see John the surveyor. “Found anything?”, he pressed a button on his lap-top and there was a chunk of the town. Wow! Roads, buildings and property boundaries and an array of rubbish pits and post-holes. Since then, we have built up a picture of this place. It extends from the river, continues under the village and below the fields as far as an escarpment overlooking Badbury Rings. This place was already important in the Iron Age. It grew after the Roman Conquest, when round houses were gradually replaced by increasingly sophisticated rectangular houses.

The fort is a rare thing for the south of England. Not a AD 43-44 conquest fort but a ‘burgus’, dating from the late 4th century, when the province of Britannia was under attack and a secure place was needed. In one corner of the fortification, the geophysics shows what looks like a government inn and relay station (mansio)

We found that the fort overlay earlier Roman structures which were above Iron Age storage pits. This one dated from 300 BC and contained various skeletons including a pig, dog, and sheep.

We found that the fort overlay earlier Roman structures which were above Iron Age storage pits. This one dated from 300 BC and contained various skeletons including a pig, dog, and sheep.

In the 5th century, Britannia was on its own. It broke up into different political units. Communities that had to fend for themselves. The economic network of society crumbled. The population of Shapwick shrank and the roads and houses deteriorated. Building materials were taken for other uses and eventually, much of the old town became fields and was forgotten. By 1086, Vindocladia was known as the ‘sheep (shap) settlement’ (wick derived from the Roman vicus perhaps)’ and a small remnant has survived to the present day. The village has a long and fabulous past under its quiet streets.

Amongst the Romano-British

Trench C and in the distance A. The chalk bedrock in C has been cut for a rubbish pit. The filling contained Iron Age pottery and the jaw bone of a horse.

Trench C and in the distance A. The chalk bedrock in C has been cut for a rubbish pit. The filling contained Iron Age pottery and the jaw bone of a horse.

Trench B down the bottom of the garden was disappointing. It looked like old plough soil and all we got was some bailer twine and a struck flint. Dave moved to trench C in the middle of the garden and I stuck with A closer to the house. By mid morning we were still in the 19th century lots of blue and white pottery. Then Dave showed me a plain black piece of pot. ‘BB?’ he said ‘yes’ but it was mixed with much later stuff. At 11.30 everything changed, we moved from 150 years to 1500 in a few trowel strokes.

Suddenly we left the early 1800s behind and chunks of Romano-British bone and pottery were flicking out of the soil. There were chunks of limestone and flint from demolished buildings, fragments of amphorae, Samian from France and jars and bowl pieces from BB (Black Burnished ware) made locally in Purbeck.

At this stage you wonder what you are above. Perhaps a building. Would it have a mosaic or remains of a wall with painted plaster on. In the end both our trenches came down on rubbish pits. Dave’s was Iron Age, mine was late Roman but these are part of something much bigger and its discovery is a good story.

Pottery from A includes  black Purbeck pottery, orange Samian, a fragment of amphora and food remains include bone from joints of meat and oyster shells.

Pottery from A includes black Purbeck pottery, orange Samian, a fragment of amphora and food remains include bone from joints of meat and oyster shells.