They have dug and scraped on the hottest day of the year and they have had to abandon the site for a day because of torrential rain, in between they have unearthed some amazing finds – and made it almost impossible not to come back next year for a third summer dig Avebury’s West Kennet Avenue.
Archaeology students mostly from Southampton and Leicester universities have re-opened one trench from last year’s dig and opened another major area of investigation in West Kennet Avenue. This involves moving tons of turf and soil and getting down to a level of soil that has never been ploughed (“intact soil”) and so holds flints and other artefacts such as pottery shards, where they were dropped.
This part of the Avenue was chosen because it had been investigated by the marmalade millionaire Alexander Keiller in the 1930s and he had located a gap in Avenue’s stones. Such a gap must have been left for a reason – perhaps because there was a building or other special structure that had to be preserved.
Many of the finds from the newly opened trench are from the Early Bronze Age – probably 800 years after the Avenue was created.
Among these finds are several flint arrowheads – including one miniature barbed and tanged arrowhead (photo left) which the project’s experts say is deliberately miniaturised. Whether it was made as a gift, a toy or for a ritual purpose is another matter altogether. Whatever the reason for making it, the workmanship is extraordinary.
Dr Josh Pollard is very enthusiastic indeed about the finds they have made in the past two weeks: “It’s brilliant stuff – the finds are really nice.”
This dig is part of the long term Between the Monuments programme which aims, as National Trust archaeologist Dr Nick Snashall puts it, “to put the people back into the Avebury site.” Finding out more about the routine lives and residence of the people who built and used Avebury’s henge and avenues should help understand why these monuments were made and why this site was chosen.
It is a collaborative research project between the University of Southampton (Dr Josh Pollard), University of Leicester (Dr Mark Gillings), Allen Environmental Archaeology (Dr Mike Allen) and the National Trust (Dr Ros Cleal & Dr Nick Snashall.)
On Tuesday (August 5), with only two full days to go before the dig had to finish and with some rain showers during the morning, people from the surrounding villages were shown over the site and heard about the project’s progress.
Despite the buckets, wheelbarrows and spades (there was even someone spotted wielding a pick axe – albeit on the upper layers of soil), archaeology makes use of all the latest technology. This year laser measuring equipment has been used on the site.
And those plastic bags behind Dr Gillings (photo left) contain soil samples which will be analysed and may reveal tell-tale signs of plant life, what animals were about and so on. This is important as the soil is so acidic that snail shells and bones are not found – but pollen and chemical residues will be preserved and identified in the analysis.
Another recently available technique allows scientists to tell what different sizes and shapes of flint cutting tools were used for. This high-magnification process has shown one tool found last year was used to cut nettles – from which string and cords were made.
Another exciting find in one of last year’s trenches is what looks to the experts like the remains of a ‘possible hearth’. It was nearby in this trench that they discovered in 2013 twelve certain or probable stake-holes in a pattern that could justify the theory that they were part of a dwelling of some sort: it is very tempting to add two such finds together to make a dwelling.
And then, just when the students thought they had unearthed some really good and significant finds from many centuries BC, someone finds a mediaeval coin. Mind you, this coin far smaller than our five pence piece and paper thin, so spotting it amidst the soil and recognising that it was anything at all worth keeping from the spoil heap, is a testament to these students’ growing expertise and enthusiasm.
As ever, it is a matter of funding being available to allow a third year’s dig to reveal even more of the evidence of the human lives that flourished in between Avebury’s stones.