OPEN VILLAGES

Friday, October 24, 2008


Bronze Age House at Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire

Iron Age House at Flag Fen



1300BC, the people in the area built a massive kilometer-long row of posts which runs across the wetland and reaches dry land on either side. Towards the centre, the posts run across a man made timber platform of about a hectare in area. This site was the focus of many religious rites. It may also have served as a defensive barrier and route across the marsh. At Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire.


Scattered amongst the developed hillforts, but more often spreading over eastern England where forts are scarce, a series of settlements which we can best call open villages (some known since about 800 BC) now began to proliferate. An expanding population may have led to overcrowding in single farmsteads and the growth of nucleated clusters of houses in which the occupants could diversify their talents, for instance as metalsmiths, weavers, potters and carpenters, as well as farm and general labourers. Unenclosed round houses with streets and paddocks formed extensive groups which were usually located on the lower lying ground, and seemed to favour the river gravels.


Francis Pryor’s excavations of the Cat’s Water site on the extreme edge of the Fens at Fengate near Peterborough (Cambs) show that it dates from between 400 and 100 BC, and revealed more than 50 circular buildings. Clearly they were not all contemporary, nor were they all used for habitation. It was suggested that not more than a dozen would have been in use at any one time, perhaps occupied by a total of 25 to 30 people together with their animals. In general the houses were placed around the outside of the settlements, whilst the animals were penned in fenced and ditched enclosures in the centre. The site was divided up by numerous drainage ditches, made necessary by the high water-table so close to the Fens. Wild animals, fish and waterfowl supplemented the meat from cattle and sheep which the village produced. There was much evidence for pasture and meadow land around Fengate but cereal cultivation was poorly re-prepresented. Four post granaries were absent and the subsoil was too waterlogged for storage pits. A crucible with tin traces in it suggests that some metallurgy was practised at Cat’s Water.


The construction of a bypass at Little Waltham (Essex) revealed part of an open village settlement. Fifteen circular houses were uncovered dating from about 250 BC. Assuming that the unexcavated area was equally densely occupied, we can estimate a total of 30 to 35 houses. They stood on slightly raised ground above the river Chelmer, and each averaged 12.5 m. (13.7 yd) in diameter. The hut walls were made of wattle and daub panels supported by substantial timbers 0.20 to 0.35 m. (0.22–0.38 yd) thick which stood in deep wall trenches. An inner ring of posts to support the roofs was inferred from the great span of the rafters which would have needed internal support. There were no storage pits at Little Waltham, probably due to the poor soil conditions. Instead 8 four-post granaries were traced and more than 30 two-post drying racks. Bones of cattle, horses, pigs and sheep suggest that a mixed agricultural economy was practised. Pottery bowls of local manufacture were found in large quantities, together with everted-rim and footring bowls transported from the Mucking- Chadwell area of the Thames estuary.


At Mucking, also in Essex, the sites of more than 100 round houses have been uncovered in rescue excavations which are still largely unpublished. Little remained of the actual houses, but the circular drainage gullies that caught the water as it fell from the roofs were clearly visible. Some of the houses were in small garden-like compounds, but most were free-standing. Pits and post holes were common on the site, but were difficult to interpret as they ranged in date from the Bronze Age through to the Anglo-Saxon period.


On the south side of Bredon Hill beneath the hillforts of Bredon and Conderton Camp lies Beckford (Hereford and Worcs), an extensive village of houses and enclosures dating from 250–50 BC and covering several hectares. The enclosures seem to have been non-defensive, their ditches most probably for drainage. Each may have been individually owned. Inside were houses marked by rings of stakes and doorposts, cobbled yards, four-poster granaries and grain storage pits 0.5–1.0 m. (0.55–1.1 yd) deep and 1.0–2.0 m. (1–1–2.2 yd) in diameter. Examination of bones from the site shows that cattle and sheep were the main animals kept, but pigs, dogs and horses were also present. Under one of the cobbled yards a bundle of ten spit-shaped iron ‘currency bars’ was found.


On the north-eastern side of Winchester aerial photography revealed an enclosure on Winnall Down. Excavation has shown that it had a long history beginning in the neolithic period and continuing until medieval times. In the late Bronze Age four possible post-built round houses with west-facing porches were constructed. Later a Dshaped enclosure ditch surrounding half a dozen round houses, 24 storage pits and 19 four-post structures was dated by radiocarbon to the sixth century BC. By the second century BC the ditch had silted up and an open village of 10 round houses had been built over it, together with a large rectangular structure that may have been a sheep-fold, and a group of 80 storage pits to the east, along with some 16 four-posters. Eighteen burials were associated with the village, 12 of them children or infants. They had mostly been buried in crouched positions in quarry hollows and storage pits. The only adult male burial was also the only one with grave goods—a shale bracelet and a bronze thumb ring. The economy of the village seems to have been based like the others on mixed farming, which consisted of rearing sheep, cattle, pigs and horses, and growing sixrow hulled barley and wheat (sown in the autumn) together with beans and peas. The pottery used on the site consisted mainly of saucepan pots common throughout central southern England by the third century BC. Pieces of briquettage vessels, probably used for transporting salt, were also found.


As with the hillforts of the mid-first century BC there is little in the layout of the villages to suggest that they housed a hierarchy; every one seems to have been more or less equal. Currency bars and salt containers are seen by some as symbols of exchange. Perhaps villages could also be exchange centres? In Somerset the marsh villages of Glastonbury and Meare produced a range of semi-exotic goods. Meare Village West stood on the edge of a raised bog [less distance to throw witches]. Its houses had clay floors but very flimsy superstructures suggesting that they might only have been tents. The village was occupied only in the summer when its residents concentrated on the production of a wide range of specialist crafts, including glass beads, loom weights and antler combs. Among the many other materials used in the village were iron, tin and lead, shale, bone, wood and wool. Bryony Coles, one of the excavators of Meare, finds the situation of such a prosperous village in such a wet marginal location puzzling— but perhaps it was deliberate. She suggests that Meare may have been a market centre, a meeting-place, or seasonal fair on the periphery of a number of adjoining communities, sited in a neutral ‘no-man’s-land’ position, rather than a private hillfort: a clever expedient for keeping the peace. For a flourishing rural economy such exchange centres would be essential, and if she is right many more must remain to be identified.


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