Neolithic and Bronze Age Monuments and Middle Iron Age Settlement
at Lodge Farm, St Osyth, Essex, By Mark Germany
It is always a helpful start to be writing a report about a great site, and Lodge Farm, St Osyth is certainly that. The most notable features found include a previously unknown causewayed enclosure with over a hundred internal pits, an Early Bronze Age pond barrow, twenty-two Middle Bronze Age ring ditches of the local ‘Ardleigh Group’ tradition, and a dense Middle Iron Age settlement.
The 4.5 hectare open area excavation was carried out in advance of the construction of a reservoir. The site ran for two years in total, and was completed in February 2003. The fact that the report has been published only four years later is testament to the impressive speed at which some developer funded sites are now turned around. The main excavation (carried out by Essex County Council Field Archaeology Unit) was preceded by an evaluation (carried out by Archaeological Solutions). Unfortunately, as often happens when narrow trial trenches and pale prehistoric features coincide, the latter failed to identify much of the archaeology subsequently revealed (including the causewayed enclosure and ring ditches); many features were also invisible in aerial photos (p.5). This discrepancy presumably had serious financial implications for the main phase of excavation, and it seems that English Heritage became involved using Aggregates Levy Sustainability Funding as a result (p.1). EH’s capacity to help out where evaluations have been unsuccessful is a very important one, which appears to have diminished in recent years. It is thus critical that cases such as this one, in which their funds have saved important and exciting archaeology are flagged up.
It is worth summarising the archaeology found at St Osyth, not least to tempt people to read the book. Although an estimated 40% of the causewayed enclosure was revealed within the excavation, its shape and size remained difficult to discern. The ditch segments were extremely irregular in plan (p.14) – it is not a beautiful monument, it must be said. The enclosure appears to have three concentric circuits of interrupted ditches (p.11) forming a comparatively large, irregular oval of approximately 420 x 320m. The monument itself produced limited amounts of material culture, including Mildenhall style pottery and flint; the 117 contemporary pits found within the interior were generally richer in finds. In addition to the features revealed within the excavated area, aerial photographic research identified a possible cursus (300m to the south-east) and henge (immediately to the west). Were these monuments to be confirmed, St Osyth would represent an impressive monument complex rivalling others in the eastern region (e.g. Springfield Lyons, Essex; Fornham All Saints, Suffolk; Etton/Maxey and Eynesbury, Cambridgeshire). As Germany points out (p.108), the direct combination of causewayed enclosures and cursuses appears to be unique to East Anglia and the East Midlands. Interestingly, no Peterborough Wares were found during the excavation at all, suggesting a possible absence of Middle Neolithic occupation, despite the apparent proximity of a cursus. Late Neolithic/Early Bronze Age activity appears to have been relatively small scale, consisting of nine Grooved Ware and/or Beaker pits, and low levels of material in the upper fills of enclosure ditches. In addition to this ephemeral occupation evidence, four ring ditches – which contained virtually no finds – were attributed to the Late Neolithic/EBA (p.33). Given their form (which is notably different to the Middle Bronze Age ring ditches to the south), and the fact that an empty Collared Urn had been placed within a pit inside one of them, this seems a very reasonable assumption.
During the EBA, a pond barrow was constructed. This was associated with two main phases of activity: two cremation burial pits and a Collared Urn pit located immediately outside the ‘cut’ of the pond barrow; and a series of post-holes, a burnt area (interpreted as the site of a funeral pyre) and two further burial pits, this time placed within the area of the pond barrow. Several hundred years later, during the MBA, the pond barrow remained a focal point for further burials and associated activity. Four pits containing Bucket Urns were cut into the upper deposits of the pond barrow, while 22 small ring ditches (4 to 8m in diameter) were sited to the south and east. Several of the ring ditches were associated with further vessels (some containing cremations, some without), but many did not produce any surviving burial remains. This group adds to the small number of MBA ring ditch/cremation cemeteries, known collectively as the ‘Ardleigh Group’, found within a small area of Essex and perhaps SE Suffolk (p.113). The Middle Iron Age settlement was located towards the eastern part of the site. It also saw two main phases of activity: the construction of a series of small-scale field boundaries; followed by a settlement consisting of two main enclosures, a trackway, 19 roundhouses and a series of smaller post-built structures. Late Iron Age, Roman, Early Saxon, Medieval and Post-Medieval/Modern archaeology was also found; sensibly, this is going to be published separately in Essex Archaeology and History.
The structure of the report is traditional: the site is introduced, the excavated evidence presented, specialist reports follow, and it ends with an overall discussion. There has been a trend in recent years towards more ‘experimental’ report structures, yet in my experience these often fall down in terms of conveying basic information and presenting easily-comprehended narratives. Traditional-style reports such as this are both simple and effective – you know where you stand, and can get all of the detailed information you need very easily. There are plenty of illustrations (72 in 137 pages), conveying a wide variety of types of information. There are only a few photographs, but enough to give an overall impression of the site; many of them include people working on site, which is nice to see (it is a shame that the orange safety fencing could not have been air-brushed off the front cover photo). The computer-drawn sections (e.g. p.21, p.25) are functional rather than aesthetically pleasing, and there are a good number of interpretive plans, as well as straightforward site plans. The presentation of finds distributions (by dots whose size varied according to standard deviations from the mean) was very effective at conveying the required information. Helpfully, the report also reproduces a number of other site plans in cases where archaeology directly relevant to St Osyth was found (e.g. p.110-2).
Having read the report, you certainly feel that you know the site. From what it is possible to tell from the acknowledgements, Mark Germany worked on site directing the excavation before writing it up, and it shows. His first hand knowledge of the archaeology is reflected in the use of occasional detailed descriptions of some of the key deposits encountered (presented in a smaller font); these are very helpful, and represent the best way of conveying in print the intimacy that comes from digging (or at least seeing) the archaeology for yourself. The ‘summary information’ tables dotted throughout the text, which present in tabular form the main elements of the site as a whole (p.8-10), each causewayed enclosure segment (p.26-7), each ring ditch (p.42), etc., enable the reader to appreciate the basic character of the archaeology quickly and easily. Overall, the site appears to have been well-excavated, under what were no doubt difficult financial circumstances. Unfortunately, only a 10% sample of the causewayed enclosure was dug initially (before it was realised that it was a causewayed enclosure), but the eastern part was subjected to 30% sampling. 100% excavation – along the lines of Etton (Pryor 1998) for example – would have been ideal, given the rarity of recently excavated monuments like this, but the reasons why this did not happen are understandable. The remaining archaeology was sampled to a variable extent (Neolithic pits were fully excavated, but some MIA ditches remained very lightly sampled), and it is to Essex CCFAU’s credit that the slots excavated were actually indicated (something which, suspiciously, is becoming rarer nowadays).
The specialist reports vary in length considerably, presumably reflecting the amount of work carried out in relation to each material. For instance, one and a half pages of text are deemed sufficient to describe an assemblage of 11,536 flints, leading to what seems a rather superficial examination. The charred plant remains report is almost as short, and although 199 samples were ‘assessed’, only eleven were selected for full analysis – all of them Iron Age (p.90). The fact that there is no detailed analysis of the plant remains from the causewayed enclosure and associated pits is disappointing and difficult to understand. The pottery report is much more detailed, and time had clearly been spent on producing a good number of drawings. It would have been helpful if this had also provided an estimate of the number of vessels recovered, and a more detailed discussion of any attempt to establish refits between features (p.62). The human bone report is also detailed; the bar charts of cremations dug in spits (p.83-4) are effective, and their interpretation in relation to the treatment and collection of bodies after having been burnt (p.83) interesting. There is no animal bone report because none survived.
The substantial radiocarbon dating report is assigned its own chapter, a reflection no doubt of EH’s significant involvement in this aspect of the project. It is certainly encouraging to see a site so well-dated – 59 dates were obtained in total. I have to admit that I found the Bayesian modelling process, through which date spans were significantly reduced, somewhat puzzling, especially in relation to the causewayed enclosure. Eleven Early Neolithic contexts were dated in total: ten from internal pits, but only one from a re-cut of the causewayed enclosure ditch (p.99). Due to a general absence of the stratigraphic relationships between samples usually used to inform the statistical modelling of their ranges, in this case the Bayesian model was based on ‘the assumption that the Early Neolithic activity on the site formed a single, continuous phase of occupation’ (p.101). I sincerely hope that this was not the only basis on which the site’s use was determined to have been 1-40 years (p.101). Such an assumption not only remains questionable in relation to causewayed enclosures as a whole (which are generally thought to have been discontinuously occupied; see for example Thomas 1999), but directly contradicts Germany’s own interpretation of the site at St Osyth as having seen ‘intermittent’ occupation (p.106). Similarly, while some of the pits and the re-cutting of one part of the enclosure were dated, the enclosure’s construction and initial use, and indeed two of its three circuits, were not. Bayesian modelling is being used increasingly within archaeology. It is important that its practitioners make a significant effort to be transparent in their application of ‘mathematical assumption[s]’ (p.101) which also appear to be archaeological assumptions, and to be very cautious about the archaeological interpretations that their statistical interventions lead to.
The final discussion at the end of the report summarises many of the key issues very well. It is particularly effective at contextualising the site in relation to other comparable sites within the region. Given the regional focus of the series in which it is published, this seems entirely appropriate. The report is especially strong when assessing the highly localised phenomenon of the ‘Ardleigh Group’ MBA ring ditches (p.113-5), but is also at home discussing the fact that East Anglian causewayed enclosures are often very large (p.105), or comparing pond barrows across southern England (p.109). Unfortunately, the site-specific detail and excellent regional knowledge displayed throughout the report somehow felt more absent when it came to consideration of wider interpretive issues, especially in relation to the Neolithic archaeology. For example, the interpretation of the causewayed enclosure as having been used ‘for ceremony and the practice of religion’ (p.31) and as an ‘assembly place by small groups of itinerant people’ (p.106) did not appear to be based on the specific evidence recovered at St Osyth, but rather on generic assumptions about the Neolithic. Elsewhere, at Hambledon Hill for example, use has been made of the pottery fabrics found on site to argue that pots, and therefore probably people, were coming from far away (Healy 2004, 30-31). Similarly, throughout the St Osyth report, many of the deposits within the enclosure and internal pits are described as ‘special’ or ‘ritual’ (p.31, p.107, etc.). Again, this appears to be a consequence of broadly-held assumptions about the character of these monuments rather than a site-specific interpretation arrived at through detailed consideration of the evidence. The difference between ‘special’ deposits and dumps of rubbish is one which arguably needs a great deal more consideration within prehistoric archaeology in general (see Garrow 2006; Brudenell & Cooper forthcoming). Having raised these interpretive problems, it is important to emphasise – at the end of this review – that it was only possible to do so because the site was so well-reported and described in the first place. As stated at the beginning, it is a great site, and this report, in most places at least, does it justice.
Review Submitted: October 2007
The views expressed in this review are not necessarily those
of the Society or the Reviews Editor.
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