Monday, 26 March 2012

Iron Age settlements and playing pitches make me happy.

Some time ago, I blogged about the proposed development at the back of my house, on Tithe, in Chatteris. It is part of the wholesale plan to vastly increase the population of the Fens and build on the remaining "island" land in the Fen market towns. Where there is currently field, there will be 1,000 plus houses, probably all little horrible boxes labelled "executive". The huff and puff about Section 106 and how it will, of course vastly improve our town to have so many new houses plonked in it, at the same time as all our buses, police, and other services are disappearing, is huff and puff that doesn't impress me one tiny jot. I am a mother to a three and 5 year old, and I can tell when politicians are lying without even asking them to stick their tongues out (imagines Cameron sticking his tongue out, me going "Yes, Mr Cameron, you're lying!" to gasps from the cabinet and whispers of "how does she do that?!" Always impresses the kids, as do my bat ears). 

But the one silver lining about the development is that there has to be archaeological work beforehand. The investigative trenching on Tithe showed there were probable Bronze Age settlements that were possibly worthy of further investigation, and possible mitigation onec work started. However, the trenching and pre-build investigation was done for the corporation who want to build, and as such, the trenching done was the bare minimum, approx. 2% of the entire plot, and that it showed up anything, even using old finds as a guide, was a miracle. And this is why I am very pleased that the Secondary school are extending into the same plot. Their privately owned plot abuts Tithe, and is being made into an all weather pitch. Being school, and therefore Council owned, the pre-build investigation was not as commercially driven (although it IS being driven, very rapidly by bidding concerns: the project has to be completed within time frame for the school to get the money). Hence, many more trenches were dug, a vastly superior percentage to that on Tithe. And lo! They have hit what looks like an Iron Age settlement. 

Iron Age settlements in the Fens are a much rarer breed of post hole. Until 1978, and the Fenland Archaeological Survey, it was more or less believed that Iron Age settlers hadn't made it to the Fens. The water level in the Fens was at it's highest in the Iron age and hence the modern fen-edge essentially marks the lower limits of Iron Age settlement (c. 700BC-50AD).  Chatteris has already been noted as being fairly replete with pre-historic archaeology, having yielded some 13,000 Iron Age artefacts from a substantial prior digs at Langwood Fen and Stonea Camp, which also threw up Roman habitation finds, suggesting continuous habitation. ( a quick search of the Heritage Gateway will show you what they found). This latest find can only add to the information on the area. Iron Age peoples came AFTER the Bronze Age blokes mentioned a lot at the Must Farm site, and were in all likelihood different peoples from different areas. I'm not up on the latest methodology, but it used to be thought that the Iron Age people of Fenland were a "Third Wave" of immigrants of Celtic and Germanic stock, responding to overcrowding of their territories by expanding, upwards towards Peterborough, at around 50AD. A lot of the Iron Age finds in this part of Fenland are from that later period, merging with Early Roman.  But this site seems to be an Early Iron Age site, and so it's that bit rarer. Whether it marries up with the previous finds, I don't know. Either way, it's a joy for me to know that my back garden field now has a recognised Iron Age settlement on the edge of it, even though it will shortly be a playing pitch. 

So, to the find itself. the very excellent Stephen Macaulay showed me the site. He is there as part of the Oxford Archaeology East team, who are confusingly named, like much of the "sort-of" public sector now, in a fashion that makes it almost impossible to tell that they are in fact Cambridgeshire County Councils Archaeology Unit, and hence responsible for the archaeology remit prior to builds as part of the planning process. The mitigation given in this instance was, as i've mentioned, extremely limited due to tight time constraints on the build and bid money, so the team have had to excavate and work very quickly, a bit like the bods on Time Team, only without Tony Robinson being not funny and the shouting and fake relief after they find something. After the flash and unique pictures  from Must Farm last week, inevitably the Iron Age settlement found here is constrained to suffer by comparison, but it's no less beautiful. Much of archaeology is in fact scraping away at things that don't look much like anything in dire weather for shit pay, it's love they do it for. And what we have here is: 

Signs of settlement, postholes, and lots of little white notes marking where things have been found. 
 Iron Age pottery shards. Alright, they don't look much, but they're a little bit of pre-Roman in your hands.
 You can clearly see the dips and bowls left by the settlers here, along with postholes.
 More of the same, cleared areas, possibly used for storage.

A section of a ditch that runs in a line out past the site, towards Tithe. This could be Roman or Iron Age, if Iron Age, which hopefully before they have to fill the site, they'll pinpoint, it points to the settlement being quite large, with purpose built ditches.

For me, the sheer joy of having a bit of pre-history at the bottom of my garden is made all the more fantabulous by the fact that this clearly holds out hope for the archaeology at Tithe once the development begins in earnest being of some import. The fact that Iron Age finds have popped up here points towards this small section of Chatteris being constantly populated from Bronze Age to Roman times.The view I see from my window is less watery than the one they saw, but the skyline was no less long, and the outlook no hillier. Just knowing that Stephen has found this has started the ball rolling for me: now the trick will be to ensure that this site, and eventually, Tithe, get the publicity and support they deserve. Last week, it was almost galling for me to have to say that big business were supporting archaeology. At Must farm I was placed in the position of almost needing the expansion of building in the Fens to allow the dig at Must Farm to prosper. Here, I am again in the situation that the steamroller of Toytown houses must be driven across the fields by Melton, to allow us to access the wonder underneath the fields. I do find it difficult. I find it hard to accept that knowledge and learning about our pre-historical past has to be reliant on funding from business, and entrenched in planning and growth. But while it is, it's definately going to be my business to do my shouty best to keep the work of the archaeologists in peoples' minds, and to be an annoying person arguing, where there is evidence, for mitigation and community involvement. I have thoroughly enjoyed meeting both Stephen and Mark (from last week), and what shines forth from both of them is how utterly they love their jobs. How i'd love to be able to hand them both a big Lottery wad of cash and free them and their teams from their planning and business constraints. But in the meantime, all I can do is say watch this space, and watch the earth under you. Who lived there before you did?

Next blog (or the one after, hey, i'm disorganised) i'm hoping to write a little about the  Jigsaw programme of community archaeology. That's if son has got over the Pox.

Previous blogs on archaeology and Tithe:

1 comment:

Kilburnlad said...

Thanks again for enhancing my knowledge of local history in such an entertaining way.