Prehistoric archaeology

Mesolithic c.10,000 to 4,000 BC

One of the more significant findings of the project to date is the unexpected discovery in late 2011 of a shallow (c.0.2m deep) hollow on the hillcrest of ‘Area A1 (south-west of Stephen Freeman School) in the northern area of the GWP site. The hollow covered over an area of approximately 6.5m by 4.5m and was filled with reworked silty clay containing a large collection of nearly 4000 early Mesolithic worked flints. Scientific dating (Thermoluminescence dating and radiocarbon dating) appear to imply two phases of activity, the earliest in the 9th millennium BC (consistent with the flint typology) and the later centred on the 7th millennium BC (about 7,000-6,000 BC).

The worked flint assemblage was dominated by small blades with a wide range of artefacts including the presence of flint tools (with ‘microliths’; used in combination as points or blades) and blade cores. Other tools (in addition to blades which can be used for cutting) include scrapers, burins  and awls/piercers. Many of the artefacts had been subject to heating (burnt on a fire) prior to deposition. This material was similarly in a very fresh condition indicating that the burning had occurred close to the final resting place of the flints although there were no surviving remains within the hollow otherwise related to hearths or fires.

During the processing of soil samples from the hollow a flat piece of worked ‘cornbrash’ stone, some 9cm by 8cm in size, was found to have been carved with a simple flag-like rectangular design with a diagonal line across its centre. There are other scratches all of which are likely to have been made using a flint tool. If confirmed as Mesolithic the carving would represent a very rare example of Mesolithic portable art, perhaps only paralleled in this country by one or two other finds, including an incised pebble from the famous Star Carr Mesolithic site in north Yorkshire. What the design represents is not known but will be a focus of ongoing analysis and research.

Early Neolithic 4,000 to 2,500 BC

The Neolithic finds from the field-walking in 2001 included a fine flint ‘leaf shaped’ arrowhead, perhaps from a hunting expedition (within the Phase 2 allotments area). Whilst the 2001 trenching of the same year found a small pit containing pottery within the Phase 5 area north of Wantage Road (RPS 2001 & RPS 2000).

Early in the construction for the Phase 1a roundabout on the Spine Road, just south of the A4130 junction, one of the most significant single artefacts from the works to date was found. This rare find comprised a complete upturned round-based bowl now radiocarbon dated to between 3910 and 3660 cal BC (about 5800 years old) that had been placed within the pit cut into the filled hole left after a tree had fallen or been pulled down. The early Neolithic date of the pot may suggest the tree removal was part of an initial clearance of the ancient post-glacial forest for pasture and/or the earliest production of cereals. Another very early Neolithic pit at the east edge of the development south of Stephen Freeman School, contained distinctive ‘Carinated bowl’ pottery and part of a polished stone axe and was radiocarbon dated to 3,780 to 3,650 cal BC.  

A row of three small and shallow Neolithic pits were also encountered within the northern zone of mitigation Area A1 with a second small cluster found some c.40m to the south-east. These appear to be slightly later in date, though still within the early Neolithic (around the 36th century BC based on radiocarbon dating) and contained charcoal rich fills and included both pottery sherds and worked flints, including blades. Such pits are often considered to be purely ‘ritual’ in nature, dug to house offerings that some archaeologists consider marked the ‘comings and goings of settlements’ associated with swidden agriculture.

Late Neolithic and Bronze Age 2,500 to 800 BC

The late Neolithic to early Bronze Age sub-period (2,500 to 1600 BC) is associated with distinctive and highly decorated ‘Beaker pottery’. A smashed example of a Beaker vessel was found within a pit to the east side of Down Farm in 2015. Also probably of this general date were two Bronze Age ‘ring-ditches’, which would originally have defined round burial mounds. One of these was found in 2003 and excluded from the GWP boundary, with the other preserved intact within the GWP development to the west side of the Didcot parish boundary .

Bronze Age activity also included a c.12.5m diameter and 0.35m deep carefully gravel lined sub-circular depression within ‘Area A20b’ on the eastern edge of the GWP site to the south the Stephen Freeman School. There were two pits cut into the central area and three more around the perimeter. The radiocarbon dating suggests the complex was used and modified over a long period perhaps beginning around or before 2,000 BC at around which time further sherds of Beaker pottery along with finely worked flint tools, including barbed and tanged arrowheads, were placed above the gravel surface of the depression.    

The feature complex as a whole is typical of a class of monument known as a ‘pond barrow’. This form of early to middle Bronze Age monument is difficult to interpret (often being mistaken for standard ponds or quarries) but has increasingly been recognised on excavations in southern England and recently as far west as Pembrokeshire in Wales. Only about 15 pond barrows have so far been excavated to modern standards. Many pond barrows have evidence for burials (mainly cremations) but are considered also to have been primarily ‘open arenas’ for conducting rituals within, hence the metalling found within several examples, including at GWP Didcot. The pond barrow, perhaps late in its use period or in disuse, appears to have attracted Late Bronze Age activity (11th century BC based on radiocarbon dating and ceramics) in the form of three post-defined roundhouses, and a rectangular six-post structure, possibly a granary, set within ditched ‘farmyard’ compounds .The occupation indicates that the surrounding landscape was farmed at this time.

Iron Age 800 to 100 BC

A later Bronze Age to early Iron Age settlement (dating provisional) including several post-defined roundhouses within ditched stock-yard enclosures was found during works south of Wantage Road to the south-east of Down Farm in 2015. This farmstead shows the wider landscape was occupied and farmed between the Middle Bronze Age phase and before a later, more extensive and intensive, Iron Age phase of activity at Great Western Park. 

The majority of this more significant phase of Iron Age activity was located on the higher ground to the north of Wantage Road. An extensive Iron Age hillcrest settlement was investigated in 2011 and 2012 at Area A1 and its extensions to the west and south-west of Stephen Freeman School. The settlement may also have had its roots in the later period of the Bronze Age or earliest Iron Age but the evidence is more ambiguous than at the site south of Down Farm. The overall occupation area covered about eight hectares centred on Area A1 and comprised dozens of round-houses, up to 24 four-post structures (probably granaries) and around 900 storage pits (of which 683 were positively dated to the early-middle Iron Age) that may have stored seed grain and foodstuffs.

‘Additional area 5’ was located on the line of the Spine Road on the west edge of the wider settlement and comprised a well preserved row of at least six roundhouses with two further well preserved examples to the immediate east and south of this row. These circular timber framed structures are identified by a ring of post-holes which would have supported a roof, probably of thatch. The two houses to the south and east were slightly more isolated and were associated with three more 4-post ‘granary’/raised storage structures and a cluster of storage pits. As such it provides an example of what a single stand-alone Iron Age household unit might have looked like. One particular cluster of post-holes within the eastern area of Area A1, containing (earlier) Iron Age pottery, appears to comprise a larger rectangular structure, possibly a barn or substantial granary. Such structures are unusual in the Iron Age and may indicate other special or specialised functions including religious activities. 

Some pits were used for special depositions in their disuse phases. For example a dog was buried within one pit, a neonate human inhumation in another, whilst several adults were also buried in former storage pits. These include a complete individual whose head appeared to be disarticulated, post mortem, from its semi crouched position as demonstrated by the position of ribs overlying the skull. Burials in the Middle Iron Age are considered the exception rather than the rule and therefore human remains found on settlement sites such as these may indicate individuals of a special or unusual social status.

There were a number of other examples of potential ritual/votive actions within the pits of Area A1. These included the presence of selected human bones such as skulls or skull fragments, various deposits of animal skulls including one pit in the centre of the site (pit 11100) containing at least four articulated horse spines and pelvises, pig and sheep/goat skulls and three pots encircling it all. Others contained large deposits of pottery that may be suggestive of particular events such as feasting.

Several more restricted areas of apparent Middle to Late Iron Age settlement encountered at GWP demonstrate the typical trend towards ditched enclosure of settlement after the earlier Iron Age. These included round houses defined by the surrounding drip-gullies for their conical roofs (rather than by post-rings as seen in the earlier periods). Two such enclosed settlements linked by a boundary and track were found at Area A4 (the new primary school site) north of Wantage Road, with two more located and excavated in 2015 to the north-east and north-west of Down Farm respectively. The larger scale of the latter enclosure and its deep ditch may suggest use for holding cattle - for example overwinter – with its several residences confined to its southern area. Some evidence for iron working was also recovered. The individual farmsteads were seemingly set within a well-defined series of landscape ditches and trackways. These both linked the settlements together and enclosed blocks of agricultural/pastoral land between. This land was probably shared (held in common) by the surrounding settlements. A key axis of the landscape was a trackway that linked the hillcrest settlement at Area A1 and provided access, sometimes via perpendicular tracks leading from it, to the southern enclosed settlements. This main trackway continued north, down-slope towards the Thames floodplain, where it was identified as a ‘holloway’ (erosion hollow). Such use-wear no doubt reflects its use for droving stock to and from the rich floodplain pastures during this period.

Late Iron Age/Roman Transition 100 BC to AD 43

Evaluation for the project to the north of Zulu Farm in 2003 had located a modest settlement site comprising of pits within enclosures and associated with a minor north-west/south-east aligned ditch defined track. The site was part investigated in 2011 via an offline sewer trench and subsequently in 2012 as a 0.8ha open excavation area. In open plan the site was found to comprise a slightly trapezoidal enclosure with internal sub-divisions. A second, oval enclosure, possibly a corral for livestock, was excavated near the south-western limit of GWP.

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