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Survey

In 2018 we initiated the Freston Archaeological Research Mission. It had a modest beginning, with just two of us doing an archaeological survey of the field due south of the monument. Over two weeks, we systematically we walked back and forth across the field recording any pieces of pottery, stone or other traces of human activity that could be seen on the ground’s surface. The idea was to see if any evidence of Neolithic activity could be seen outside of the causewayed enclosure, as most research at these sites has tended to focus on their interiors.

The field had been ploughed a couple of weeks before we started the survey, which made it easy to spot any artefacts laying on the freshly weathered soil. During the last century the field had been used for growing potatoes, which requires quite deep ploughing, a process that would sometimes bring ancient buried artefacts up to the surface.

While we hoped to find material of Neolithic date contemporary with the causewayed enclosure, most what we found was much more recent in date, including glazed pottery, glass and tile that were deposited on the field in Victorian times (18th-19th century AD).

Initially we though this material was rubbish from the nearby Latimer Cottages and Potash Farm, but these finds were distributed evenly across the field. When we spoke to local farmers and historians it became apparent that what we had found was the result of ‘manuring’ practices. During the Victorian period there was a busy trade in hay from the fields of the Shotley peninsula being loaded on barges on the River Stour for transport to London where it would be used to feed the horses that pulled the hackney carriages in the city centre. On the return trip the barges would be laden with horse manure to fertilize the fields back on the peninsula. However, in shoveling up the manure from the streets of London, all sorts of rubbish would get collected as well – broken plates, bottles, and roof tiles from neighbouring houses – material that eventually was spread onto the Freston fields along with the natural fertilizer. 

Although the rubbish of working-class London homes dominated what we found on the field, there was also one piece of Late Saxon pottery (9th-11th centuries AD), which may have been made in the kilns of nearby Ipswich, a major town of the period.

The finds also included a small amount of Neolithic stone tools, though never in any great concentrations that suggested ‘hot spots’ of activity. There were a few flint blades, and some scrapers that may have been used to process animal skins, but none of the arrowheads we would have liked to find.

Such a low density of material culture might suggest that there was only occasional and limited activity outside the Neolithic monument.

Excavation

In the summer of 2019 we turned our attention to the Neolithic monument itself, with a six week excavation focusing on the enclosure’s south-east quadrant. Our first fieldwork season was small-scale, both in terms of the area of the site we exposed and the number of archaeologists involved, with a core team of four, plus some very helpful volunteers.

The excavation process

At the start of the season two archaeologists from Cotswold Archaeologists (Suffolk Office) used geophysical techniques to help us target where we wanted to dig. One method involved sending magnetic pulses through the ground to read the resistance, the logic being that a buried ditch would contain looser soils through which the pulses would flow with less resistance than the surrounding soil. Such areas of less resistance were then mapped to reveal the ditch system which we used to pinpoint where we should be digging.

We started the excavation by hand stripping a 10m x 1m area of turf to define our trench, then started to dig down into the plough zone. The work was heavy going, with temperatures reaching over 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit), making life very tough. After only a day it was quite apparent that we could never achieve our original aims by going so slowly, and that the team was likely to revolt…

With permission from Historic England we brought in a mechanical digger, which in half a day removed the turf and topsoil and extending our original trench to 35m x 10m. This rectangular trench clearly exposed the outline of four ditches and a series of small pits. With this, we were good to go!

Our initial excavations targeted the ditch ends (or ‘termini’) because at other causewayed enclosures these features typically contain lots of pottery, stone tools, plant remains, plus animal and human bones. Many archaeologists think that these items were deliberately dumped into the ditch termini as part of a ritual marking the end of the feasts and other ceremonies that happened inside the monument. 

The Freston ditches did not disappoint. Most of the season involved two pairs of archaeologists excavating the eastern and western termini of the inner circuit, a major undertaking given that these ditches were 2.5m and 3.5m deep. We diligently sieved all the dirt we dug to make sure we recovered all the finds, and put hundreds of litres of soil through an even finer mesh screen to collect seeds and other plants remains. We also took small, brick-shaped blocks of soil from the ditch cross-sections so that a specialist could look at them under a microscope to reveal the history of how rapidly the ditches were infilled after the site was abandoned. Did Neolithic people leave the site to be slowly erased by the elements as they turned their attention to new special places, or was the site deliberately and rapidly backfilled to clearly mark the end of an event? 

Documenting the site

We took photographs and made drawings to record the excavation process, with artefacts carefully bagged and labeled so we knew where everything came from. The finds included lots of broken pots, some decorated with vertical or horizontal lines and dots. Many pots have residues inside them, traces of what the vessel originally contained. We hope to study these residues to understand what people were eating and drinking during these social gatherings. The style of the decorated pottery was familiar to us, with examples of these bowls found at other East Anglian sites, such as Mildenhall and Thetford. This was an important discovery because these other sites have been well dated to the Early Neolithic. We had thus proven what people had long believed, that the Freston site was indeed a causewayed enclosure associated with Britain’s first farmers.

Neolithic period

We also found lots of stone tools (over 5kg); again, many of these are typical of the Early Neolithic period. These finds included a few delicate arrowheads, weapons that could have been used for both hunting and conflict with other groups. There is a famous causewayed enclosure in Gloucestershire (Crickley Hill) where archaeologists found scores of arrowheads all pointing towards the site; clearly the monument had been attacked at some point. Perhaps the narrow palisade ditch at Freston reflects a defensive change in the enclosure’s history that required a high fence to block off arrow-wielding attackers?

So what do the excavation tell us about what the Neolithic people were farming? Unfortunately, while today’s topsoil is quite neutral (pH of 7-7.5), the ancient soils beneath have been mixed with the underlying sands and gravels making it very acidic, which means that bones will rarely survive. Perhaps we should not be so surprised, as the nearby Saxon burial ground of Sutton Hoo is known for the ‘sand bodies’ of dissolved skeletons from the surrounding acidity, with the outline of bodies remaining as iron rich stains in the soil. We saw some iron staining within the ditch fills, suggesting that at one time these termini did contain bones, but alas it is impossible for us to tell if these were animal, or human. 

While remains of the animals herded by the Neolithic farmers have not survived, we did find some plant remains, as some material was burnt which helps their preservation. It is possible that these charred plants had either been cooked, or used as fuel, in the fireplaces within the enclosure, then swept up and dumped into the ditch termini. The preliminary study of these plant remains have identified wheat, no doubt one of the cereals cultivated locally (as it is today, some 6000 years later) plus lots of hazelnut shells, something we see at many other British Neolithic sites. We also identified types of weeds that are associated with open land; this would make sense for the area of the enclosure, as it would have been originally cleared of trees and brush when the monument was created.