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A French Perspective on Barnham

Simon Lewis talks to Dr Anne-Lyse Ravon to find out more about her first experience of digging at Barnham.

SL: Anne-Lyse, thanks for taking a few minutes to answer some questions. Please can you tell us a little about your research expertise.
AR: I am a specialist in Lower and early Middle Palaeolithic lithic industries in Western Europe, but particularly in north-western France, where I direct excavations at the Lower Palaeolithic site of Menez-Dregan.

SL: This is your first time taking part in the Barnham excavations, what were your first impressions of the site?
AR: Barnham is a huge site, with different areas to correlate. The geological context is very different from what I am used to in Brittany: I usually work on coastal sites.

Anne-Lyse points discusses new finds with the excavation team
(Credit: Simon Lewis)

SL: What have you been working on for the last two weeks?
AR: I have mainly been working in Area I. Our first job there was to expose the surface of the cobble layer excavated in the 1990s, and then to excavate a palaeosol. This palaeosol preserved a lot of charcoal and burnt flint, which is particularly interesting for me.

SL: Has it been successful?
AR: Yes, very successful: at the end of the 2 weeks, the excavation of the palaeosol is finished, and we recorded numerous charcoal fragments, which is quite rare for this site.

SL: What have you enjoyed most, and least, about being part of the Barnham team?
AR: What I enjoyed the most: identifying charcoal and heated surfaces, because this is something that is very familiar to me, since we have a lot of charcoal and hearths in Menez-Dregan. What I enjoyed the least: the heavy rain during the night which caused a bit of the section to collapse before we arrived on site, and we had to work in the mud that morning.

SL: How does Barnham compare with excavating in France?
AR: Same techniques and methods, same recording systems, the only difference would be that in France, we provide all the equipment for the dig, including trowels: here everyone comes with their own trowel!

SL: This is your last day on site, where are you heading for next?
AR: Directly to Brittany: I’m heading to Menez-Dregan on Monday, where we are going to excavate for 8 weeks, up to the end of August.

SL: Thanks Anne-Lyse, and good luck with the field work at Menez-Dregan.

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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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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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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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Thirty Years of Dirt

On the eve of the 2019 season, Simon Lewis reflects on three decades of fieldwork in the Breckland.

In 1989 a team of six people, led by Nick Ashton, ventured into the old pit at East Farm, Barnham. Armed with spades, mattocks and trowels, and guided by information from earlier investigations by TT Paterson and John Wymer, the aim was to explore the potential for fresh excavations at this important, but perhaps somewhat overlooked Palaeolithic site. In the 1980s the British Lower Palaeolithic was dominated by Boxgrove; excavations were in full swing and the wealth of new data emanating from the excavation’s HQ in farm buildings near the site was transforming our understanding of early human behaviour and the environments in which they lived as well as setting new standards in excavation, recording and sampling procedures. In contrast to the scale and organisation at Boxgrove, excavations at Barnham adopted, from the outset, an approach that suited a small Breckland brickearth pit abandoned since the early years of the 20th century, now completely taken over by oak trees, hawthorn and bramble thickets and with little to disturb the tranquillity of the location.

The abandoned overgrown brickearth pit at East Farm, Barnham

John Wymer’s work in 1979, had revealed the potential of the site; he excavated a small area and recovered a refitting group of 13 flakes and a core. The team set about the task of re-exposing the sediments and the archaeological levels, previously described by Wymer. The 1989 results demonstrated that there was indeed scope for larger-scale excavations at the site and so, with the enthusiastic support of the Heading family at East Farm and the Euston Estate, began a six-year programme of fieldwork at East Farm. The results of these investigations have been published in a comprehensive volume, as well as papers in academic journals.

After the 1989-94 excavations ended the now-established research team turned their attention to another Breckland site; the former pit at Elveden, some 7 km west of East Farm. Excavations at Elveden ran from 1995-99 and together these two sites provided important new geological, environmental and archaeological evidence for understanding the Palaeolithic of the region.

Nineteen years after concluding the first round of excavations at East Farm, a decision was taken to return to the site. There were three main reasons for doing this, the first was to re-evaluate the key archaeological question of the relationship between Acheulian and Clactonian assemblages in the light of wider developments in understanding of this problem in the intervening years. The second was the opportunity to add to the already rich environmental information from East Farm, in particular to increase the vertebrate assemblage and to explore the linkages between the archaeological and environmental evidence. The third was to provide an opportunity for archaeology students to gain experience of excavation on a Lower Palaeolithic site. Following on from the work at Happisburgh with the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, Barnham provided an ideal setting for this.

Area III — one of the richest palaeolithic faunal sites in Europe — during 2019 excavations

So 2013 saw a return to East Farm, with a small team of Dutch students, to embark on a new programme of research again led by Nick Ashton. The first season was primarily about finding our feet again and identifying areas for excavation. Over the subsequent five seasons, archaeological work has focused on the southeast corner of the pit, Area IV(4), where evidence of handaxe manufacturing had been found in 1994, which has now been expanded into the adjacent Area VI. The environmental work focused on the centre of the pit, Area III, which has been considerably enlarged from the earlier work. Material excavated from Area III has been processed on-site; several tonnes of sediment being excavated, dried, disaggregated and sieved during the course of each season.

Sieving sediment from Area III for faunal remains

This second Barnham campaign has already provided an array of new information. Among the key developments since 2013 are the reassessment of the stratigraphic relationship of the handaxe and non-handaxe assemblages, the addition of several new species to the faunal list, the discovery of an intriguing burning signal though recovery of large quantities of burnt flint and location of an organic deposit, with a pollen profile showing the development of interglacial woodland vegetation. We have also welcomed students from several UK universities alongside new and returning Leiden students.

As the 2019 season gets underway, with new and exciting objectives for this year’s excavation, it is good to look back over thirty years of excavation and related research in and around the Breckland area. As always, the support of the British Museum, as well as other funding bodies through the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) and Pathways to Ancient Britain (PAB) projects and the Breckland Palaeolithic Project, has played a vital role in the excavations at Barnham and other Palaeolithic sites. Three decades of collaborative research in the Breckland, with fieldwork at East Farm playing a prominent part, demonstrate that a great site and a dedicated team of people, united by a shared interest in the lost world of our distant ancestors, are the foundations on which this endeavour has been built.