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Excavation Diary: Mostly Sunny

Fire experiments during the Barnham excavations

After the storm earlier in the week the weather has improved and today was warm and sunny. Parts of the site are shaded, others in full sunshine, so water, sunscreen and a hat are important additions to the field kit.

Surveying and drawing new sections is now underway and sampling of blocks of sediment that need to be removed this year can begin. With a week to go there is still a lot to do and new discoveries today have added a further dimension to the work for next year!

For the last couple of days a small team have been working on an experimental fire; carefully constructing a hearth with probes to measure temperature and replica flint flakes buried beneath the fire. The results will help with our understanding the effects of burning on sediment and flint.

Tonight: rounders – the rematch!

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Excavation Diary: Finds at Barnham

The steady flow of finds from the excavation areas has continued today. Remains of small vertebrates and fragments of larger bones are fairly common in the Barnham sediments and are sometimes found during excavation. Larger identifiable fossils are, on the other hand, quite rare so when one turns up, as happened today, it is a cause for some excitement as the sediment is carefully removed to reveal the shape and size of the fragment.

Inevitably opinions vary as to the species and the particular bone that has been found and people gather to hear Simon Parfitt offer his expert opinion on the latest discoveries.

An early end to the day allowed time for a visit to the former nuclear storage site at nearby RAF Barnham.

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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.