Archaeology

First World War Tunnels at Larkhill

on Tuesday, 25 April 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Military

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 of a rare Visigoth Brooch

on Thursday, 23 March 2017. Posted in Archaeology, Conservation

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.

Matt Smith holding the brooch

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.

Image of the brooch after conservation
Microscope view of the fabric weave

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.

Discovering Wiltshire's Historic Environment

on Tuesday, 31 January 2017. Posted in Archaeology

Are you interested in the rich and diverse landscapes of Wiltshire but wondered what influences and activities have shaped them? Have you ever tried to identify traces of the historic in the present day? These questions and so much more can be answered by the use of the Wiltshire and Swindon Historic Landscape Characterisation Project dataset!

 

Old Sarum and fieldscapes beyond
River Avon at Stratford Subcastle
Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) is a technique to explore the time depth of the present day landscape and to identify how it has evolved over time. What’s really great is that everywhere has character that can be perceived and so every part of the county has HLC data to investigate whether rural or urban, and it is intended to be descriptive not prescriptive! In that way it can help individuals, groups and communities to identify what is characteristic and of interest to them and to enrich what they may know about the places they live, visit and work in.

The historic core of Castle Combe village

It could be useful for those:

• Producing neighbourhood plans or design statements

• Investigating their local parish, town or village

• Involved with planning or strategic decision making • Undertaking academic research for school, college or university

The project started in 2012 and ran until the end of 2016 and was sponsored by Wiltshire Council, Swindon Borough Council and Historic England. The actual data itself and was created by studying historic and modern maps, aerial photographs and archaeological data to build a complete record for Wiltshire and Swindon. But what exactly will be made available to you?

• The complete dataset of c.14,500 HLC records, covering every part of the county giving details about the present and past character and attributes of the landscape for each land parcel

• Maps of historic landscape character built from the records so patterns and distributions across parishes, districts and the whole county can be seen

• A comprehensive and easy to read report explaining how the project was carried out, the sources used and descriptions of the different landscape types out there

• Case studies showing how you can use HLC data to investigate historic towns, historic farms and places like the Avebury and Stonehenge World Heritage Site

Walking the Wansdyke during the festival of British Archaeology

on Friday, 21 October 2016. Posted in Archaeology

On 31st July this year, as part of the Festival of British Archaeology, Tom Sunley (Historic Environment Records Data Manager) and I led a tour of a section of the Wansdyke in Wiltshire.  Our focus of the walk was looking at the most impressive part of the Wansdyke which runs from Morgan’s Hill to the western edge of Savernake Forest (known as the eastern Wansdyke), across the stunning landscape of the Marlborough Downs, see map below.


We had a great turn out of people and were blessed with a pleasant summer's day. We started the walk from Knapp Hill car park, SU 11570 63822, just over a mile north of Alton Barnes and walked up to Tan Hill which affords the best views of this section of the East Wansdyke.

View east from Tan Hill

From Tan Hill we headed east back along the Wansdyke path to Red Shore then headed south down the byway back to the car park. In total this circular walk is approximately 5 miles long.

The Wansdyke is a long linear defensive earthwork consisting of a substantial bank and ditch. At its most impressive on Bishop’s Cannings Down it is over 45 m wide, with a bank of over 5 m, producing a scarp slope of 12.5 m. Whilst there is still some debate over the exact western terminal, it is generally considered to be the hillfort of Maes Knoll in north Somerset and at its eastern end Savernake Forest near Marlborough.

Army basing and the Saxons

on Monday, 08 August 2016. Posted in Archaeology

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)!

Aerial shot of the site with topsoil removed

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.

From a block of soil...

on Tuesday, 05 July 2016. Posted in Archaeology, Conservation

The conservation team are celebrating this week as we have completed work on a beautiful and exciting project. Conservation of the stunning finds excavated from Bognor Regis by Thames Valley Archaeological Services in 2008 has come to fruition. The items form part of an unusual burial assemblage along with an iron ‘bed’ frame and sword and are thought to originate from the late Bronze Age/ early Iron Age.

Taking block of soil for x-ray

The finds first came to us in the unassuming form of a large soil block, this was too large to x-ray at our labs so was transported to a local hospital where x-rays revealed a large amount of intricate metal latticework and a helmet.

X-ray of soil block from hospital

The soil block was carefully excavated, layer by layer, revealing the spectacular nature of the copper alloy items held within. The helmet and latticework were extremely fragmented and fragile, the helmet was split in half and part of the lattice was adhered to the helmet with corrosion products.

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