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Excavation Diary: No Surrender!

Storms, surfaces resembling skating rinks and swimming pools for trenches — those constant fears of archaeologists working on British sites — have been encountered on two occasions since we arrived ten days ago. Clearing-up with pump, buckets and sponges was carried out cheerfully and without complaint by all concerned, and the site was soon looking close to its very best. Our so-called weather station — an ancient rain gauge — has recorded two peaks, but we have been relatively fortunate: the official meteorological station at Santon Downham, a mere 12 km to the north north-west, registered greater rainfall totals. As if to emphasise the importance of the weather, everyone is involved in two sweepstakes: forecasting the number of rainy days (those with >2 mm rainfall in 24 hours; our ‘days’ run from noon to noon as no-one could be found to take readings at midnight); and predicting the rainfall total for the excavation period. The most optimistic participant (5 mm total rain) was eliminated days ago! Grand prizes await the winners.

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From Brickearths, to Bricks, to Palaeolithic Archaeology

There is an important connection between brickmaking and the Palaeolithic in Barnham, as explored by Peter Hoare.

Barnham Brickyard (Credit: Euston Estate)

The archaeological site at East Farm is located on the floor of an overgrown pit set amongst arable fields and farm buildings on the edge of Barnham village. Today, we are confronted with a hole in the ground measuring ca 130 m west to east, 70 m north to south and 6 m deep.

Rumour has it that brickearth (a portmanteau term) was quarried here as early as the eighteenth century. A small part of the history of Barnham brickmaking is recorded in the sole surviving ledger, covering the period 22 August 1895–30 December 1912, held by the Euston Estate (East Farm is just one of several properties on the ca 2530 ha estate). So perhaps more than 150 years of brickmaking are unrecorded. Brickearth digging took place seasonally until the 1930s to supply the Barnham brickyard.

No photographs of raw material extraction can be traced, and the only known surviving photograph of the brickyard, which was demolished many years ago, is a small, poor-quality print held by the Euston Estate (reproduced left).

There were two principal types of clay- and silt-rich brickearth: one produced white bricks (Unit 5c of the stratigraphic story), the other red ones (Unit 7). Bricks and related products were made for a great variety of uses on the Euston Estate, but the brickyard also operated on a commercial basis, supplying Lord Iveagh on the neighbouring Elveden Estate, as well as numerous local builders and others.

Apart from the single Euston Estate ledger, no account of brickmaking at Barnham appears to have survived. Peter Minter, owner of the famous Bulmer Brickyard, Essex, has told us that he believes Barnham bricks would have been produced in a similar way to that of other eastern counties brickyards, including his own.

Re-exposing old clay pits by removing backfill: spade marks left by clay digging

The highly calcareous brickearth from Barnham Area III would have been tempered with sand or less carbonate-rich material; the amount of space available to dry the bricks before firing would have limited the rate of production; and eighteenth-century kilns would have held between 4000 and 5000 bricks. Each man is likely to have made ca 1000 bricks per day in the nineteenth century; it is now ca 500 at Bulmer.

Although the records are incomplete, the peak period of brickearth quarrying and brickmaking probably occurred at the start of the twentieth century. The south and west wings of Euston Hall were destroyed by fire on 5 April 1902, the fourth occasion on which the premises were badly damaged by fire. Rebuilding took place with little delay. Brickyard ledger entries for ‘Mr Heath Euston Hall’ start on 8 June 1903 and end on 15 April 1912, but 89% of the material was produced in the second half of 1903 and in 1905. The wings were rebuilt on the same plan, consuming, amongst other items, 322,975 red bricks, 3500 white bricks, 650 plain tiles, 150 paving bricks and 130 glazed pantiles. The total cost was £577 12s 5p, equivalent to ca £68,000 in 2019. The south wing and most of the west wing were pulled down by the tenth Duke of Grafton in 1952!

Excavations in Area III reveal old clay pits.

Brickearth extraction was responsible for revealing the Palaeolithic archaeology for which East Farm is renowned. The earliest evidence for the discovery of artefacts is of ‘… two flint implements …’ found in 1882, but they probably came from the gravel pit to the east of the village. Other late nineteenth-century finds are likely to have been of an opportunistic nature, some discovered in the wash-pit at the brickyard.

Barnham artefacts purchased from East Farm in ca 1905 included two twisted ovates, one of which is said to have been used by the brickearth diggers to clean their spades! By the time of the first formal excavation at Barnham in the 1930s, the brickearth diggers had produced numerous sections for archaeologists to explore. But that’s another story.

Further Reading

There is just one brief description of brickearth extraction at Barnham East Farm in Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G. & Parfitt, S.A. 1998. Excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site at East Farm, Barnham, Suffolk 1989–94. British Museum Occasional Paper 125, p. 292.

Readers might like to refer to The Brickmaker’s Tale (The Bulmer Brick and Tile Co, 2014), Peter Minter’s account of his family’s brickyard.

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Excavation Diary: Rain at Barnham

The rain arrived overnight. A steady downpour in the early hours had eased off by the time the team got to the site to survey the damage. The on-site rain-gauge recorded 14 mm of rainfall and thankfully the damage was not as bad as it might have been. Swapping spades and trowels for buckets and sponges, the team set to work on the mopping-up operation. The quantity of water in the excavation trench was manageable and the damage from a couple of collapsed sections was quickly dealt with. After brief shower mid-morning, the weather became warm and sunny and the excavation returned to business-as-usual. Good progress was made in both excavation areas; in Area I, excavation of the palaeosol is well underway and should be completed in the next day or so. In Area III, sampling continued and newly exposed blocks of sediment were prepared for surveying, recording and sampling. An enjoyable evening as guests of one of the excavation team in Ely rounded off the day.

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Excavation Diary: Week 2 at Barnham

Excavating the paleosol in Area I

It’s the start of week 2 of the excavation and in Area I excavation of the palaeosol is well underway: a series of samples have been taken for laboratory analysis, and the excavation team are now carefully troweling through this former landsurface. A number of exciting finds have already been made!

Meanwhile in Area III, steady progress is being made: 10 cm spits of sediment are being dug, bagged and moved to the sieving area for processing.

Preparations are also underway for future planned work. Rain threatens and the forecast is not good for the next 24 hours!

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Patterned Ground: A Periglacial Legacy in the Landscape

Peter Hoare explains some unusual features of the Breckland landscape that are best seen from the air.

Across substantial regions of the modern world, winters are sufficiently cold to freeze the ground to a depth of several metres, but complete thawing takes place during the following summer. In periglacial regions, with their significantly harsher conditions (mean annual air temperature <−2ºC), long-term freezing may create so-called permafrost that is hundreds of metres deep; ca 60% of Russia, 50% of Canada, 23% of China and 90% of Alaska are underlain by permafrost. Here, summer temperatures are only sufficient to melt the top few metres, forming an active layer. Alternate freezing and thawing of the active layer rearranges the component sediments, and may also disturb the bedrock surface if it is sufficiently shallow. Under these conditions, patterned ground is formed.

Throughout much of the East Anglian region known as Breckland (which includes Barnham East Farm), Upper Cretaceous Chalk bedrock lies within 2.5 m of the ground surface; its upper part is frost shattered (brecciated) and this material is often overlain by windblown (aeolian) coversand and other thin sediments. Large areas of Breckland display inactive or ‘fossil’ patterned ground, consisting of stripes and cellular (often polygonal) forms, indicating that active layer processes took place in the past. Polygons are commonly ca 10 m in diameter; they grade into stripes, which are spaced ca 7.5 m apart, on slope angles of between ca 1° and 6°.

Barnham East Farm brickearth pit (A); cellular patterns on flat, relatively elevated land (B); stripes on gentle slopes (C); note two sets of stripes converging to create a chevron pattern in the southwest corner of the image, indicating opposing gentle sideslopes of a minor (dry) valley (D). (Credit: Google Maps, accessed 8 June 2019.)

Shallow-lying patterned ground is evident at the surface because vegetation responds to variations in subsoil characteristics (particle size, pH, depth, moisture content, etc.) created by periglacial processes. Crop- or scorch-marks such as those seen in the photograph were especially clear during the long spell of hot and dry weather in the summer of 2018. Every other Breckland stripe is underlain by coversand with a pH of <4.5 (acidic) and heather thrives; Chalk bedrock lies close to the surface beneath the intervening stripes, the soil pH is >8 (alkaline) and grass flourishes.

In the most recent study of the Breckland patterns (Boreham & Rolfe 2016–17), the authors concluded that Devensian (MIS 2) frost cracks developed into what they termed ‘tiger’ stripes; solifluction played its part in drawing material downslope. Although the exact mechanisms underlying patterned-ground formation in Breckland are not fully understood, their presence may be used to say something about former climatic conditions.

Further reading

Boreham, S. & Rolfe, C.J. 2016-17. Imaging periglacial stripes using ground penetrating radar at the ‘GRIM’ training site, Grime’s Graves, Breckland, Norfolk. Bulletin of the Geological Society of Norfolk 66, 31–43.

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Excavation Diary: Field Trip

Students listen to a talk by Peter Hoare at Lakenheath, Suffolk

Archaeological excavations are about the minutiae of a site or a trench, and it is sometimes difficult to think about the wider context of the work immediately at hand.

A tradition of the Barnham excavations is to take a day out to visit other sites in the local area and to use the opportunity to consider Barnham in its regional landscape, environmental and archaeological setting and introduce the students to some of the research questions that the work at Barnham is working to address.

Today’s field trip visited Maidscross Hill, Lakenheath, Warren Hill, Mildenhall, Beeches Pit, West Stow and Barnham Heath to explore the Breckland’s Palaeolithic record. The trip generated some interesting questions and discussion.

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Excavation Diary: Bricks, Bats and Barbecue

After a week, the excavation is settling into its routine. People are getting to know each other, the areas are looking more like archaeological trenches and the pattern of daily life is established. From time to time someone, usually a visitor to the site, ‘volunteers’ to give a short talk to the group that is relevant to the work on the site. Today we had a talk from Peter Hoare about the history of brickmaking in Barnham and the pit which was dug for clay to make bricks from the 18th to the early 20th century. After lunch work resumed on site and by the end of the day, and the first week, the site is looking tidy and the artefacts are beginning to appear. The evening’s entertainment began with a game of rounders and continued with a barbecue enjoyed by all as the mid-summer sun dipped below the horizon.

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Excavation Diary: 50 Shades of Clay

Tuesday was our first full day on site and a buzz of excitement filled the air, with eager faces and an intrigue to learn. We started by fully uncovering Area III, the largest and deepest trench on the site, and prepared for this season’s excavation by cleaning what has been buried for over a year, battling creepy crawlies and the warm weather.

Area I at Barnham, previously excavated during the 1990s

Once this was completed, I and a team led by Claire and Anne-Lyse began work on Area I. This area had been excavated previously in the 1990s and again last year, but the hillside had partially collapsed revealing more of the Palaeolithic deposits. We secured the unstable edge and removed the backfill from previous excavations, neatened out the sections and began trowelling off the topsoil, eager to find the palaeosol and any potential finds. This was surprisingly strenuous and time-consuming, but we supported each other through chatter, banter and occasional jokes about rocks.

We continued on Wednesday, after sponging out the rainfall from the stormy night, but we were getting desperate to reach the palaeosol as our wrists were strained and concentration was wavering. Our morale was boosted by the occasional flint flake and burnt flint find. After working through what felt like 50 shades of clay – brown, reddish brown, black, and so on – we finally hit it and a mixture of elation and relief was mutually felt; I have never been so happy to see another layer of sediment! However, this excitement was cut short as the heavens opened and we had to pack up quickly before the site got too slippery. We covered the site to protect our work and headed home early for a well-deserved shower and a sit down.

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Technological Transitions, Fire, and Human Colonisation

Nick AshtonSimon Parfitt and Simon Lewis discuss the research highlights of the archaeological excavations at Barnham.

Archaeological excavations in an abandoned brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham have uncovered one of the richest Lower Palaeolithic archaeological sites in western Europe, dating to about 400,000 years ago. Finds include butchered large-mammal bones, flint tools and evidence for fire.

The 1989-94 excavations established the significance of the site, with its in situ artefact assemblages and its substantial quantities of vertebrate remains, include fishes, amphibians and small and large mammals. The second round of excavations that started in 2013 have refined our understanding of these lithic assemblages and also provided an opportunity to explore the evidence for technological transitions and how early humans developed strategies for survival. Recent investigations at the site have identified an earlier core and flake industry that was replaced by a later handaxe industry (Clactonian and Acheulian respectively). This technological transition may reflect arrival of different human populations into Britain from different regions within Europe, bringing with them different technologies.

Area III 3D photogrammetry render

Area III, pictured in a photogrammetric reconstruction of the excavation (above), shows ‘islands’ of undisturbed sediments cut by late 19th and early 20th century brickearth pits. These sediments contain stone tools and a rich assemblage of vertebrate remains. Area III has provided important evidence for the environment in which early humans lived; pollen grains contained within the sediments enable the vegetation at the time to be reconstructed and the landscape can be populated with both large and small animals based on the fossil remains found in the sediments.

Carapace fragments from a European pond terrapin

Among the many examples from these deposits are a macaque tooth and elements of pond terrapin carapace (shell) indicating warm conditions and diverse habitats that included both woodland and aquatic environments.

In a different part of the site, the excavations in Area VI, revealed a new dimension to the Barnham story; along with the many flint artefacts that make up the lithic assemblage, there is also a surprising quantity of burnt flint. This material, with its distinctive cracked and crazed surface and often red colouration, was found within the black clay, a layer that we know to have once been a land surface as it shows signs of soil development.

Macaque tooth from Area III

As the excavations have progressed, our research has focused on this evidence for burning and the critical question of whether the burnt flint, which includes some artefactual as well as natural pieces, provides evidence for hearths or does it record ancient forest fires?

To address this question we have excavated and carefully recorded the spatial distribution of hundreds of fragments of burnt flint in order to plot the variation in density across the excavated area. We are also using laboratory analyses, particularly Fourier-transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) to identify heating signals in the sediments. Another avenue of enquiry is the use of experimental fires, set and maintained under carefully controlled conditions, to investigate the changes that take place within and beneath a hearth.

Burnt flint in Area VI

If the evidence points to human use of fire, this would provide further indications of the development of new technology that goes beyond the stone tool evidence and it may also begin to tell us something about societies and culture in the different human groups that entered Britain during this interglacial some 400,000 years ago.

With a focus on the archaeological and environmental evidence, the Barnham Palaeolithic Project is able to address important questions concerning Palaeolithic societies 400,000 years ago at spatial scales ranging from domestic sites with evidence of fire through group territories to relationships between groups across Europe.

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Excavation Diary: Tea Duty at Barnham

Written by Sarah, a volunteer at the 2019 Barnham excavation.

Tea breaks are integral to field work at Barnham. In the mornings, team members shrug off yesterday’s aching muscle memory, cleaning up debris that has accumulated in the trenches overnight and picking up where we left off the day before. Morning tea break offers a circle of cushioned chairs beneath a sweeping sky of swirling grey and white clouds. Beside us, a rolling field of grass spreads out towards a horizon of tall trees. The grass veils tractors and equipment that remind us we are gracious guests trying to make sense of an ancient landscape on modern farmland.

The tea area in the Barnham site hut

As we are divided into different areas to work, first tea is the first opportunity to check in on everyone’s progress and exchange stories. Here we discuss small moments of interest, where things have not quite gone as planned, or someone has found something interesting. By afternoon, the team has broken into the prime vigour of progress for the day, and everyone has worked up a proper appetite. Lunch (with tea) is a welcome halfway mark to the day’s work. By afternoon, aches, pains, setbacks, and tedium begin to take their toll – broken by moments of surprise and laughter (or a bit of sarcasm). Afternoon tea is a final pause before the last push to meet goals, piece together the day’s big-picture puzzles about the site, and wrap up work.

The tea breaks lift morale and facilitates social health on site. Tea duty is therefore an important responsibility that rotates through each team member. Today was my day to make tea for the team. Being Mormon myself (a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints), I don’t drink tea. Nevertheless, I was happy and excited to help. I was amused (and so were the kind staff members and fellow students checking on me) as, at first, I kept repeating my questions about the difference between the hot water “teapots” and the steeping kettles. Not to mention I spilled quite a bit of hot water and tea while preparing for morning break, trying to figure out how to pour out of typical teapot spots into kettles and mugs. It was immensely satisfying to serve my wonderful team members and help host these essential gatherings that punctuate our work day. And, according to my new friends, I made a mean cup of tea!