Quern quest

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

Looking east from Seatown, West Dorset

As Martin so eloquently puts it ‘the cliffs are leaking archaeology’ especially in West Dorset, with its soft geology and erosion by the sea. Luckily for us there are keen-eyed locals who walk the same routes and notice changes and strange objects laying on the beach or sticking out of a fresh landslip.

A few weeks ago I found a message on my desk to ring a Mr Bickford who had found what he was sure were parts of a quern stone used for grinding corn and some clay loom weights, near Seatown in West Dorset. I felt a little jolt of excitement, as regular readers of this blog will recognize Seatown as the place where we excavated a Bronze Age burnt mound and two Iron Age ovens. (see 20/07/2015 burnt mound the story so far). Could we have more evidence to fill out the story of the Iron Age at this site, or was this a new place to investigate further along the cliff?

The layer of burnt flint and stone can be seen in the middle of the picture

The layer of burnt flint and stone of the ‘burnt mound’ can be seen in the middle of the picture

I rang and arranged to pop over to Seatown and look at what he had found and record were they came from. So it was that I headed west on a bright and sunny morning, deep blue sky above and spirits high. I was not disappointed!

I met Humphrey in the car park and we walked up the hill to his house, round the corner and into the garden. What I saw took the last of the breath away that the climb up the hill had left me. On the garden table were three large pieces of quern, both upper and lower stones, and next to them what looked like one and a half very large triangular clay loom weights!

“Wow! Oh yes they are exactly what you thought they were”

The top and bottom stones together as used

The top and bottom stones together as used

The pieces of quern stone

The pieces of quern stone

 

 

 

 

 

 

The stone the quern is made from is not local to the immediate area. We have had a few geologists look at images and one suggestion is that it may be continental! But they need to see it in the flesh, so to speak, so they can see every mineral and inclusion.

The loom weights are very large and have more holes than necessary so may not be loom weights. If they were they would have been used on a warp weighted loom, to make cloth by keeping tension on the warp(fixed thread)

The loom weights

The loom weights? probably something else but what? 

Hopefully my hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

My hand gives a scale to the size of the weights

Both the quern and the possible loom weights are probably Iron Age and the small piece of pottery found with them looks very like the Iron Age pottery from the ovens found when excavating the ‘burnt mound’ site nearby.

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A reconstruction of a warp weighted loom, the weights are along the bottom behind the lowest bar

A roman hand quern very similar technique to an iron age quern

A Roman hand quern, using a very similar technique to an Iron Age quern

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again we are on the trail of more information about a site. Try to solve the mystery of the weights and it’s a trip to the geologist first to see if we can track down the origin of the quern stone, who knows what stories we can then tell about the people who lived at Seatown over two thousand years ago.

Back to Badbury

Reconstruction drawing of Badbury Rings, Dorset by Liz Induni for the National Trust

Reconstruction drawing of Badbury Rings, Dorset by Liz Induni for the National Trust

Yesterday I met Radio Solent’s Steve Harris in the car park at Badbury Ring, on the Kingston Lacy estate, near Wimbourne, one of Dorset’s many Iron Age hill forts. We headed towards the large banks and ditches of the fort as the nippy wind blew across the fields to cool our faces. As we walked across the Roman road and stopped to look at the Bronze Age burial mounds a Skylark rose into the air singing its soaring song.

Steve Harris with Badbury Rings behind him

Steve Harris with Badbury Rings behind him

Steve wanted to talk about the hill fort for one of his regular features on his show. He hadn’t visited the hill fort for a very long time so this was my que to show off all the wonderful archaeology under our feet. There are almost too many stories to tell, across the thousands of years of human activity in the area.

Excavating the ditch of a iron age round house, just inside the inner bank of Badbury Rings

Excavating the ditch of an Iron Age round house, just inside the inner bank of Badbury Rings

Apart from the obvious ‘humps and bumps’ of the Bronze Age barrows, Iron Age hill fort and Roman road, we have found evidence of the earlier use of the high ground the hill fort is on. When we excavated on he very top of the interior of the hill fort we found flint tools from both Mesolithic and Neolithic times.

One of the trenches in the interior of Badbury Rings hill fort. Each white tag is a worked flint or waste flake.

One of the trenches in the interior of Badbury Rings hill fort. Each white tag is a worked flint or waste flake

As Steve and I reached the summit of the hill we found evidence of a more modern use of the site, large concrete blocks with iron loops in the top. These were the remnants of fixings for a timber beacon tower which emitted a signal to guide planes back to Tarrant Rushton airfield a few fields to the west during WWII.

Next to one of these blocks we finished the interview and looked out across the landscape, cars traveling along the road between the avenue of Beech trees, people walking their dogs, children running along the banks, birds chattering and the memories of our excavations came flooding back to me. Was it really 12 years since we were here, finding a clay sling shot, part of a small twisted iron torc, and beautiful worked flint tools. I will return when the many and varied wild flowers are in bloom, so long Badbury,  till we meet again.

A very happy archaeologist in a trench at Badbury Rings with a large sherd of Iron Age pottery

A very happy archaeologist in a trench at Badbury Rings with a large sherd of Iron Age pottery

Burnt Mound, the story so far

The garden seat at Shedbush Farm, Golden Cap Estate. Time to analyse the evidence and tell the story of the site.

The garden seat at Shedbush Farm, Golden Cap Estate. Time to analyse the evidence and begin to tell the story of the site.

The soil is back in the trench and we are left with the drawings, the photographs, the soil samples and the finds.

What does it all mean?

We started with a leaflet on burnt mounds produced by Historic England. It concluded that..nobody really knows what they were constructed for but most are found beside water courses and have a trough beside them. This has led to the idea that stones were first heated on fires and then thrown into the water filled trough. The hot water might then be used to create a sauna or sweat lodge or could be used to steam heat food for feasting perhaps. The hot rocks on cool water caused them to shatter and the waste fragments were regularly cleared from the trough and heaped into a mound beside it.

Nice ideas but our location was not beside water. We found that pushing a small container full of water up hill in a wheelbarrow was hard work. The stream flowed in the valley, beside the car park, about 20m down slope from us. There may have been a trough but we did not find it, unless it had dropped off the cliff or lay outside our deep narrow trench.

Our mound is made of lots of small blackened pieces of Upper Greensand sandstone and chert mixed with ashy silt and towards the bottom increasing amounts of clay. The product of a lot of work.. collecting and burning the wood and stones to break them down into such as small size. A very windy spot, on a shelf of land half way up Ridge Hill.. now Ridge Cliff because since the Bronze Age the sea has claimed most of it.

The mound is the waste product of a process. It looks like an industrial waste heap..if so, what was produced here? Perhaps stone was broken up to create temper to hold pottery together during firing. No pottery found in the mound though. Perhaps metal was worked nearby.. no slag in the heap though. Just stone and charcoal and clay.

These were farmers and good agriculture was a matter of life and death so could the mound be anything to do with soil productivity. A few generations ago, charcoal and stone were the ingredients to feed the kilns which were used locally to produce lime that was spread on the Victorian arable fields to counteract the soil’s acidic nature.Producing lime from local stone requires high temperatures and careful stacking of ingredients. Without a stone kiln structure perhaps the windy hillside would enable a fanning effect to increase temperature within a Bronze Age stack. This explanation is not very satisfactory…

Perhaps the mound is a pyre. A significant feature never understandable to us because we cannot comprehend the belief system that created it. Too easy and a bit of a cop out but perhaps true.

Above the mound we found flint scrapers and a few bits of chunky coarse grained Bronze Age pottery but the C14 analysis of the charcoal will confirm or deny our current estimate of about 1000 BC.

Nancy working on one of the Iron Age ovens high above the top of the Bronze Age burnt mound. About 40 generations had come and gone since the final cooling of the burnt mound and the lighting of the oven.

Nancy working on one of the Iron Age ovens high above the top of the Bronze Age burnt mound. About 40 generations had come and gone since the final cooling of the burnt mound and the lighting of the oven.

At the west end, the mound was cut by a later ditch and above this we found the two ovens. Not kilns we think now. Their entrances are simple and facing the prevailing wind to the south-west. The pottery in and around them seems to be Late Iron Age, about 2000 years old but apart from the ovens and the cluster of pottery around them, no post-holes or other settlement features were found at this level. There were a scatter of stone finds which suggest local industry here. The kind of roughly worked flint which is found in Purbeck interpreted as lathe bits to turn shale bracelets. We only found one chunk of shale at Seatown though. This was far from its geological source in Kimmeridge.

I came across a cube of green flint. It looked like an exotic mosaic cube when it was first brought up by the mattock. Other fragments were found at the same ovens level and they were obviously selected and brought here for a reason. Ali, the site’s geologist is looking into the source of this rock. Perhaps used and worked to create jewellery?

So we need to go away and analyse the samples, look at the soils and the ancient pollens within them examine and compare the finds.

It was good to hear Mike talk about the soils when he visited and I could see them change as I drew them. rising up the section beyond the last flint finds. Ploughing each season, helped by gravity dragged the soils down from above. This land was part of Chideock’s open fields in medieval times before the land was enclosed in 1558. About 20cm below the surface we found 17th and 18th century pottery mixed with bits of slate… but by this time the soil was wind-blown sand.. a sign that the cliff was approaching fast and after 3000 years, the end of the burnt mound was nigh..

Evening over Golden Cap beginning the walk back to Seatown from the burnt mound.

Evening over Golden Cap beginning the walk back to Seatown from the burnt mound.

Day eleven – it always happens…..

Sorry for the delay in updates. It seems to be the law in archaeology that features appear at the last moment, and time moves so quickly on the last few days!

We had lots of visitors today, the school came back to do some post excavation finds washing and colleagues from our team came to visit and to help. Stephen, one of our curators, was soon mattocking and Mike our gardens advisor was chief bucket emptier along with our line manager Wendy.

 Our team from the National Trust came to visit and help on site

Our team from the National Trust came to visit and help on site, Stephen wielding the mattock

Due to the time constraints it was time to reduce the trench size again and target the areas we needed answers from. The eastern end of the mound was not behaving so we need to find where it ended and if the stoney area was related to the mound or something else altogether.

Millie and Carol were giving the mission to sort out the eastern end

Millie and Carol were giving the mission to sort out the eastern end

Meanwhile down at the western end of the trench Rob was finding a ditch cutting through the end of the mound!

The ditch appearing with the black mound materiel on the right and left edge of the picture

The ditch appearing with the black mound material on the right edge of the smaller trench

 

Martin recording the ditch with help from Rob who dug it

Martin recording the ditch with help from Rob who dug it

The mound keeps going down, but has now got small patches of clay within it; hopefully not far to go now until we find the bottom of it.

The black mound

The black mound

This was the day the kiln/hearth/oven would reveal it’s flue/opening, or was it! As I worked to remove more of the red burnt clay (possibly the collapsed walls of the feature) I found the edge of a piece of pottery. It looked like it may be sat under a lump of clay that may have been one side of the opening of the kiln/hearth/oven.

 The edge of a  large sherd of pottery

The edge of a large sherd of pottery

As I dug it got bigger, and bigger.

The pottery got bigger!

The pottery got bigger!

Then it was time to remove the clay that seemed to be filling it.

The clay lump removed

The pottery fully exposed

Sadly it was cracked and small roots had grown through the cracks. As each piece came out we realized it was a base of a pot.

A lovely base

A lovely base

Phew! What a day. We stayed late to get as much done as we could, Martin had been recording and drawing the sections, while we all concentrated on our own small areas of the site. We left for a well-earned end of dig pizza, and a refreshing brew, hoping that in the last day we could manage to finish before Clive back-filled the site, and the porta- cabin disappeared!

Day nine – Busy, busy, busy

Martin on TV

Martin on TV

Today was a great day for many reasons. We had visits from the media, 13 students from the local school at Beaminster, and environmental archaeologist Mike Allen (Allen Environmental Archaeology) on site. The students took turns excavating, sieving the material from the mound and searching the soil heap for missed finds the digger machine had dug up.

Students  excavating on site

Students excavating on site

Sieving the mound soil

Students sieving the mound soil

Students Searching the spoil heap

Students searching the spoil heap

Mike came to site to take environmental samples and to look at the soils on site, to help tell the story of the processes of burial of our features – the burnt mound and kiln/hearth.

Mike preparing his samples

Mike preparing his samples

He took soil columns to provide uncontaminated samples. He will take smaller samples from them to look for pollen. Also Mike will look at the structure of the soils to see how they were formed, for example by down-wash of soil from cultivated land further up the hill. We will up date what Mike finds in a future post over the next few months 🙂

In the foreground one of the columns of soil wrapped in cling film

In the foreground one of the columns of soil wrapped in cling film

Martin and Rob carried on removing the orange yellow soils on the west side of the kiln/hearth, and at about 11 o clock the whoop went up as they found the burnt mound layer. Hurrah! More worked flints had been found just above the mound layer, more blades and scrapers, and pottery.

Prehistoric pottery - very crumbly!

Prehistoric pottery – very crumbly!

A lovely flint scraper, it could have been used for taking hair of hides or meat from bons

A lovely flint scraper, perhaps used for taking hair off hides or meat from bones

Day six – Magic Millie

Pottery in the hearth/kiln

Pottery in the hearth/kiln

A busy open day and less diggers on site, and the rain held off. Millie and Mike carried on in the eastern end of the trench, hoping to find the burnt material, while Martin did the same at the western end.   

Millie and Mike excavating down to the mound

Millie and Mike excavating down to the mound

Either side of the hearth/kiln features are taken down a few levels

Either side of the hearth/kiln features are taken down a few levels

Just before morning break Millie hit gold! Well, not real gold but as good to us, it was the top of the burnt mound, we have been looking for all week! we seem to have just got the back edge of it but time will tell.

Magic Millie cleaning down onto the mound layer

Magic Millie cleaning down onto the burnt mound layer

Here is a brilliant picture of the decorated pottery found yesterday, taken by Nick who visited the site and who kindly sent us the shot.

The decorated pottery

The decorated pottery

 

Day Five – WOW!

The flutter of anticipation has been released into the blue sky 🙂 we have had a brilliant day, the site is blooming, struck flint and pottery coming out thick and fast! But the real star is the round yellow feature filled with deep orange with hints of black, more on this later 🙂 The picture below shows it just appearing as Martin mattocks gently the hard surface.

The feature can be seen as a red and dark brown black area next to the side of the trench

The feature can be seen as a red and dark brown black area next to the side of the trench

The pottery that is being dug up at the moment looks more like Iron Age pottery than Bronze Age. It seems a bit different to the pottery we are used to finding in Dorset and may have more in common with pottery from Devon and Cornwall. At the site we excavated just over the hill, at Dog House, we found Bronze Age pottery from near Bodmin, in Cornwall. One piece that came from the feature described earlier, was an exciting surprise, showing a deep incised decoration of hatched lines (see picture below)

The small piece of decorated pottery. We hope we will find more

The small piece of decorated pottery, hopefully we will find more

Now back to the feature, it was very dry and did not look very impressive, so it was down to the garden center to get a water spray and Tommy went off to the rangers office to get some water. It was well worth the journey through the holiday traffic, as the spray soon highlighted what could be a hearth or kiln of some kind!  It was definitely a Wow moment 🙂 The yellow is the sides or wall with orange clay in the middle and a charcoal layer just appearing lower down.

The outer yellow of the 'wall' of the hearth/kiln/fire pit

The outer yellow of the ‘wall’ of the hearth/kiln/fire pit

The feature is right in the middle of the trench

The feature is right in the middle of the trench

We said goodbye today to Ray, our barrower supreme. Thanks for staying to help, you were a valuable member of the team, especially as I am out of action due to a  dodgy shoulder.

Ray 'Mr Barrow' Lewis take a bow :-)

Ray ‘Mr Barrow’ Lewis take a bow 🙂