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News on the Archaeology Front, March 2011

12 March 2011

Current Archaeology April 2011 … has a report on the discovery of a Neolithic chambered tomb on South Ronaldsway in the Orkneys that was quarried into the bedrock to create a central passage aligned east to west. Leading from the passage was a series of cells but the tomb, like many long barrows in southern England, was decommissioned by backfilling it and sealing the entrance. The thinking behind this is unclear but is found at many archaeological sites of the Neolithic and Bronze ages.

A survey of the Severn Estuary by archaeologists has found a couple of interesting defunct structures – such as a stone fishing weir dating back to the first millennium AD. These constructs were designed to trap fish as the tides receded. Also found were several peat exposures and submerged forests, medieval settlement sites, ridge and furrow, drainage ditches, water meadows, old orchards, old flood defences etc. The idea behind the scheme is to recreate an overview of the estuary from the Mesolithic era to the present.

Marden Henge … there may once have been megaliths within the huge enclosure but these have been broken up and re-used over the last 1000 years – possibly in church buildings. The idea expressed by one archaeologist, that the discovery of stone flakes at Marden indicated sarsens were worked there before transportation to Stonehenge to the south, seems unlikely as in this review the flakes are attributed to the process of splitting and breaking up the sarsens, a more likely interpretation. Even as late as 1806 a visitor commented on sarsen boulders at the site. The ground itself may be the key – as it tends to be soft and sandy which implies the stones could easily have been levered and toppled from an upright position, and broken up while prostrate. In fact, Marden is located on the Greensand – a geological layer going back to the Cretaceous, and lies in the Vale of Pewsey – between hills and ridges of chalk (also of Cretaceous date). It seems strange now but archaeologists in the past appear to have had a mental block as far as the Vale of Pewsey was concerned. The consensus view was that valleys and low lying areas had been thickly wooded and unlikely places for early farmers to choose as settlement sites on the basis it would take too much work to clear the vegetation and the ground itself was boggy. Once again, the idea of consensus attitudes inhibited research. Aerial photography and other modern methods of surveying the countryside have put paid to such prejudice as the Vale was, and is, fairly fertile – and the greensand presumably drains well. Unfortunately, most of the archaeology has been ploughed out but the large henge at Marden is surprisingly well preserved. Its mounds have been levelled but other features, such as a small henge within the bigger henge, were easily discernible, and various constructs were investigated – see In the News from last year. What is obvious at Marden, and at other Neolithic sites, is that the river was a focal point of the archaeology. The side of the henge abutting the river is open as if it was important to actually see the river and whatever ceremonial activity went on at the river – without being blocked from sight by a bank and ditch. An avenue led down to the river bank, a feature also discovered at Durrington Walls by Mike Parker-Pearson and his team. What role did the river play we may wonder – what did it symbolise?

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