LITTLE WOODBURY

Sunday, November 9, 2008


Reconstruction of an Iron Age farmstead of Little Woodbury type. Outside the central hut are various farming activities, as well as hay-drying racks, grain storage pits, raised granaries and beehives. A disused quarrying hollow makes a sheltered workplace. (Tracey Croft)


Normal Iron Age houses were circular and varied in size, with diameters from 15 m. at Little Woodbury (Hut 1) to 10 m. (11 yd) at Shearplace Hill. The Little Woodbury house would have had a conical thatched roof supported on two concentric rings of posts. The outer ring of posts seems also to have supported the walls of the house, the gaps between them being filled with wattle work daubed with clay. On the eastern side of the structure a series of posts formed an entrance porch into the building, probably contrived to house double doors which would alleviate draughts that might prove disastrous in a structure with a central hearth. No obvious provision was made to allow smoke to escape, and it may well have percolated through the thatch, incidentally killing insects and helping to ‘proof’ the thatch, or filtered out through the doorway. Excavation of Little Woodbury in 1938–9 showed that the house timbers had all been replaced twice, and that it may have been occupied for at least 100 years. A second circular house was constructed about 12 m. (13 yd) east of the first. A single ring of posts 10 m. (11 yd) in diameter formed the outer wall, with a porch again on the eastern side. It is not clear if the second hut replaced the first, was contemporary with one of its phases, or merely stood as a stable or store.


With its central fire ablaze and the doors closed life in a round house must have been remarkably comfortable. Each was spacious, with extra room in the rafters for shelves and sleeping platforms for the children. Furs and woollen rugs would have provided warm coverings for wooden benches and beds. Lighting came mainly from the fire, though rush spills or even candles may have been used. A bronze cauldron, perhaps constantly on the boil, hung over the hearth, providing a smell of food that pervaded the whole room and mingled with acrid wood smoke that made the eyes smart and with the stench from the open drain. On shelves around the house jars of various sizes contained food for the household’s consumption whilst wooden barrels and tubs held mead and water. Pans contained milk, some of it in the process of being turned to cheese. Salted meat hung from the rafters. On one side stood a quern with freshly ground flour lying beside it; elsewhere a loom was hung with a half finished blanket. Dogs lazed by the fire, ready to scavenge whenever possible. During the winter cattle probably shared part of the same house, their body heat helping to warm the building.


Outside the Little Woodbury huts a yard was enclosed by a wooden palisade, which was in use long enough to need renewing at least once. Later the palisade was replaced by a ditch 3.4 m. (3.7 yd) wide and 2 m. (2.2 yd) deep, with a bank on its inside, enclosing an oval area of 1.6 ha. (4 acres). Neither the palisade nor the ditch could be seen as defensive and we must assume that they served mainly to keep wild animals out and domestic animals and small children in. Within the palisaded enclosure many post holes were excavated, some of which were either in pairs or groups of four. The excavator, Gerhard Bersu, suggested most plausibly that the paired post holes, usually between 2.0 m. and 2.5 m. (2.2–2.7 yd) apart, once held drying racks for ears of seed corn or hay. The groups of four post holes, arranged at the corners of approximately 2 m. (2.2 yd) squares, may have supported granaries.


An extensive area on the west of the site was occupied by a shallow hollow measuring some 70 m. by 15 m. (76.5 yd×16 yd) scooped out of the chalk. Dr Bersu interpreted this as a working place where threshing and parching of the corn may have taken place, but it was more probably just an old quarry. In addition, other domestic chores such as spinning and weaving, basketry and food preparation may have gone on there, or in various smaller hollows, accompanied by the daily chatter of a large family. Traces of corn drying ovens made of cob or clay were found around the enclosure. A number of post holes may relate to unidentified farm structures such as sties, byres, pens and beehives.


At a later date, perhaps contemporary with the digging of the enclosure ditch, more than 190 storage pits gradually appeared at the site. Varying in shape from cylindrical to beehive, they also varied in depth but averaged about 2 m. (2.2 yd). Dug into the solid chalk, they acted as silos for the storage of grain and would each have held about 40 bushels (14.6 cu.m.). The pits were filled with grain in the autumn and the tops were sealed with clay. The seeds which touched the damp sides of the pit began to germinate and as they did so they used up oxygen and gave off carbon dioxide which created a sterile, airtight atmosphere. Such conditions kept the rest of the grain in excellent condition. When the silos were eventually opened the majority of the grain was removed, perhaps leaving only the germinated seeds around the sides and on the bottom to be destroyed by burning in the pit. Discarded pits were filled up with rubbish or used as latrines. Some shallower pits seem to have been lined with clay and were used for water storage, possibly collected from the hut roof.


Animal bones from the excavations show that small oxen (bos longifrons), sheep or goats and a few pigs had been kept at the farmstead and were eventually butchered. Small horses and a dog had also been kept for a time. The former would have been used primarily as draught animals, but were also ridden at this time, sometimes by warriors. It is often observed that trousers were introduced during the Iron Age to make riding easier. Worn tight at the ankles, they were decorated with check and stripe patterns which may have been ancestral to the tartan series.


Clearly the growing of corn was a primary occupation at Little Woodbury and outside the enclosure there must have been a whole series of squarish fields from which the corn was harvested with small iron sickles. Traces of these fields can still be seen on aerial photographs. Once it was realized that farmyard manure scattered on the land, or deposited there by grazing animals, increased its fertility, it is probable that a two-field system of rotation was introduced. It has been suggested that in the Iron Age a corn yield of about 10 bushels (36 cu.m.) per acre might be expected. Consequently about 1.5 ha. (4 acres) of corn would be required to fill an average storage pit. Fragments of numerous saddle querns were found inside the enclosure at Little Woodbury, as well as the upper stone of a newer, rotary, beehive quern, which had once revolved upon a lower stone that could not be found.


Little Woodbury has been described at length since it represents a common pattern of farming settlment on the chalk hills of southern England, though others often differ in size and shape. At Ardleigh (Essex) the enclosure was much smaller, only 20 m. by 30 m. (22 yd×33 yd), but at Hog Cliff Hill in Dorset it covered some 14 ha. (34.6 acres). Similar to Little Woodbury and completely excavated in 1972 was a 1.2 ha. (3 acre) enclosure at Gussage All Saints in Dorset, which has been shown on the evidence of its pottery to have developed in three stages between the fifth century BC and the first AD. The enclosure ditch was very roughly circular in plan with an external bank which may have been capped by a fence or thorn hedge. The main entrance on the east was closed by a strong gate of timber construction. Leading out from the enclosure during stage 2 were two arcs of ditch and bank known to archaeologists as antennae, which formed an impressive, funnel-like feature on either side of the entrance. It may have served as a symbol of the status of the farmstead, as well as being functional and guiding animals towards the gate. A similar feature is known from Little Woodbury but was not investigated in detail.


Owing to deep ploughing most traces of houses at Gussage had been destroyed. During stage 1 it was possible to recognize about a dozen four-post structures, 128 storage pits and half a dozen working hollows. One hut foundation survived from stage 2 together with more storage pits on the north side of the enclosure, whose ditch had by then been enlarged. The final settlement that spanned the last years BC and the first AD was more dispersed, with small internal enclosures as well as 184 storage pits.


The economy of Gussage was clearly arable and there was evidence for a gradual transition from growing barley to wheat during the life of the site. Iron tips from plough ards were found, as well as an ox goad. Livestock included sheep kept for wool and milk rather than meat, cattle and a few goats and pigs, more than 40 horses and about 30 dogs. The remains of red and roe deer show that they were hunted, and domestic geese, ducks and fowls were kept. Considerable debris from bronze and iron working shows that the Gussage folk were metallurgists as well as farmers and specialized at some point in the casting of bronze harness and chariot fittings.


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