Seminar CLII: Thames Valley oddity over several centuries

Oxford Archaeology, frequently in the news for some new exciting dig or other, are not actually anything to do with the University of Oxford, but while I was at the latter it was repeatedly evident that both parties saw the advantage in talking to each other anyway, and this was again manifest on 26th November 2012 when OA’s Senior Project Manager, Paul Booth, came to speak to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar with the title, “‘Roman’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Settlements and Burials at Horcott, Gloucestershire – Continuities and Discontinuities on the Thames Valley Gravels”.

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Digging by Oxford Archaeology in progress at Horcott

Horcott is an exciting site for two reasons, the first being that although it’s been fairly extensively dug it wasn’t a major place, so it gets us unusually close to the level of the everyday population, maybe not as exciting as yet another princely burial but in some ways a lot more use. The other reason it’s exciting is that it has a substantial Iron Age phase, clear signs of Roman-period occupation and then also Anglo-Saxon features, which raises the ever-intriguing possibility of continuity between the Roman and post-Roman uses of the site. It is also a vexing site for two reasons, however. The first, a looming factor over everything I say that follows and some of what I’ve already said, is that the site has long been quarried for gravel and lots of the surrounding archaeology has therefore gone. With many a site (I suppose Flixborough is the one with hottest debate around it, and Sutton Hoo perhaps the most obvious uncontested example) there is the possibility that if one just dug a bit further in one direction one would get details that seriously change how the site should be interpreted; if that was the case here, we’ll never know, as any potential palaces, princes, churches, etc. have long been dispersed as roadstone and so on.

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Iron Age and probably other post-holes marked out during the Horcott dig

The second vexation though is that when you have a site where continuity might exist you really have to think about what would prove that. Simply showing structures with finds evidence from different periods isn’t enough: abandoned ruins can be fixed up by newcomers. Even old field boundaries may remain to be reused: here, there are Iron Age divisions still detectable in the gravels but other features of that era have been over-written by subsequent buildings. There is also the possibility that in fact there was continuity, but because the slowly-reidentifying population was shifting its building location every few generations and because social and religious practice was changing, you can’t tell it’s a continuity in the archæology because when they come back into view their material culture profile is changed. All these difficulties were rehearsed by Dr Booth before he let us at the actual evidence, so we were warned.

Foundations of a Roman farmhouse at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Foundations of the Roman farmhouse

So, in brief, what they have is an Iron Age landscape showing quite a lot of buildings (or at least a lot of postholes, much confused by later building), enclosures and trackways, and then what may be best summarised as a small Roman farm, centred around a solidy-built but small house (three rooms along a corridor). This began in one of the Iron Age enclosures in the mid-second century and seems to have been out of use by the end of the fourth century, but from about the middle of the third century a cemetery had started to develop across the stream from the farm and that went on after the farm buildings were out of use. The Anglo-Saxon settlement is scattered over much of the site, distinguished not least by overwriting earlier things but also by building type (dug-out, ‘sunken-featured’ buildings with four timber ‘halls’ of uncertain but unimpressive size) and material goods, pottery, bone and craft debris that speak of late fifth- and early sixth-century dates. None of this, you see, establishes continuity: the site is obviously still an attractive location but nothing is really staying in use. Except, as it turns out, the cemetery.

Excavation of an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Excavation of a sunken-featured building, paused for photo-op

The cemetery is the interesting bit. There were 59 late-Roman burials, more men than women, mostly older people and no children, largely oriented north-south and buried with knives and no other goods (which is all normal for the period).1 A full quarter of these burials were somehow ‘deviant’, however: ten of the men were buried face-down and on the edges of the enclosure (because it is enclosed), but four older women were buried, decapitated, in the very centre, and there were three other decapitations as well. The radio-carbon dates of this group came out between 350 CE and 560 CE and the whole group was disposed close to a division ditch. Then there was a later group, radio-carbon dates between 640 and 780, buried east-west in a different part of the enclosure, comprised of three adult females and otherwise entirely children (I didn’t write down the numbers, annoyingly, sorry). Of these children two were buried prone.

'Deviant' burial from the late Roman cemetery at Horcott, Gloucestershire

‘Deviant’ burial from the late Roman cemetery

Initially it’s hard to see this as continuity: the burial populations are quite different and they’re buried in pretty different ways, but the intriguing thing is that firstly they are in the same enclosure, even if separated, and secondly both groups are unusual for their eras, the former because of the number of deviant burials, suggesting some marginal group here gathered for burial, and the latter because of the absence of men. Although nearby Fairford might, it was generally agreed in questions, have been where the Anglo-Saxon men were buried, that still leaves the population here as being selected for some reason or other, and put to rest in a place where a previous selective population had been buried. What remained here and what was known about it that marked the site out for this kind of use after probably a century of disuse? Since the whole area (as John Blair pointed out in questions) was only really seeing Anglo-Saxon material culture from the beginning of the seventh century, it’s maybe not surprising that settlement of that era looks that way and settlement before doesn’t really show up, as Romano-British settlement is characteristically difficult to find archæologically, but while nothing else links the phases of this site together in an obvious way, this common marginality of burial population suggests that despite that we might be missing something that was durable here in a way that we would struggle to get from material remains alone.2

Saxon pottery from settlement excavation at Horcott, Gloucestershire

Saxon pottery from the settlement site

1. Although I haven’t read it myself, I believe the go-to on Late Roman burial is R. Philpott, Burial Practices in Roman Britain: a survey of grave treatment and furnishing A. D. 43-410, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 219 (Oxford 1991).

2. The question of the invisible Britons is taken up and debated from a wide range of perspectives in Nick Higham (ed.), Britons in Anglo-Saxon England, Publications of the Manchester Centre for Anglo-Saxon Studies 7 (Woodbridge 2007). There doesn’t seem as yet to be any publication of Horcott so it will clearly be something for interested persons to look forward to!

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