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What are we doing at Freston?

Why are we excavating? The first point to stress is that we are only excavating because this is the only way we believe we can get the answers to our research questions. Excavation is a destructive process, so this work should always be taken with great responsibility; archaeologists no longer dig for ‘the sake of it’ or to find ‘treasure’. 

Before we could excavate, we needed permission from those who protect the site (Historic England), and the landowners; we also needed support from funding agencies. This required us coming up with important research questions, a suitable excavation methodology, and a team capable of skillfully doing the fieldwork, and scientifically recording everything we found.

When we started the project we had a number of questions in mind. Firstly, we simply wanted to prove that this site was an Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure. While the aerial photography and geophysical survey provided convincing evidence of the monument, we needed to find artefacts for scientific dating so we could know when exactly the site was in use. 

Secondly, we want to know what the landscape was like when the monument was created; why was this spot chosen? Might this have been a special place for the local hunter-gatherers who lived here before the arrival of farmers from across the sea? Did the incomers make put their gathering space here to bring together old and new populations? Alternatively, we might find that the land was deliberately cleared using stone axes and fires, creating a new social space for the farming settlers.

 

The Site Today

While today this location might not seem to stand out, it is actually one of the higher points on the Shotley peninsula. It is a place that probably provided those visiting the site with a view of the surrounding area, while those approaching from afar could see the enclosure’s night-time fires and hear the voices of those gathered within it.

We believe the answer to our question – why here - lays within the two springs/ponds that are situated within the enclosure, with one located in the very centre. While fresh drinking water would have been important to have at the site for both people and animals, there is also the possibility that these springs would have had religious or ritual significance, as they do in many ancient cultures.

The ponds can provide us with an important view of what the local environment was like, before, during and after the Neolithic enclosure was created. Every year, pollen from the various plants that grow here will be blown into the pond; these tiny plant remains gradually settle in layers in the mud at the bottom of these water sources. By taking a sample of the mud from the base of these ponds - using a hollow tube - we have a record of the past environment. By slicing the mud sample into a very thin section we can use a microscope to see which plants were growing in this area and how this may have changed through time. We can tell when any changes happened in the environment because the organic plant remains can be dated using the radiocarbon technique.

 

Our Work

Today the Shotley peninsula is a rich farming area, with a range of crops and livestock (including alpacas!), with the produce consumed locally, nationally and abroad. So what was farming like here when it was first introduced to the region? By excavating, we hope to answer this question. If animal bones and plant remains survive in the ditches and pits, then we can learn about these early farmers’ herds and crops.

 

A Glimpse into the Past

By using techniques developed from chemistry we might also be able to discover where these plants were originally grown, and where the animals were raised. Given the great size of this Neolithic monument, it could be that people were coming here from some distance, potentially throughout East Anglia and beyond.

Finally, to help our colleagues at Historic England develop a long-term plan for protecting the site, we were interested to see if there had been any damage done to the site by 20th century deep-ploughing methods before the monument was known about.

To achieve these aims, we began our excavations in the summer of 2019, starting with a modest area of exploration and a small team of experienced archaeologists and local volunteers.