SUMMARY REPORT OF THE 2015 EXCAVATIONS AT THE POULTON RESEARCH PROJECT, CHESHIRE
The objectives of the 2015 student training season were to continue and where possible complete excavations on the two trenches from the previous year. The extant archaeology comprised elements of an Iron Age roundhouse complex contained within an enclosure, a medieval secular graveyard with associated Chapel foundations, and a Roman ditch system. The latter surrounded a structure which predated and was later destroyed by the foundation of the ecclesiastical building.
The graveyard excavations were confined to the south-west of the site, in order to gain as much stratigraphic and dating information as possible. A total 37 skeletons were uncovered across the entire season, in addition to six redeposited crania from grave fills. An in-depth report on the human remains and their stratigraphic relationships will be produced in early 2016, but in summary the excavation strategy was successful and has provided dating evidence from ceramics and other finds. The picture so far indicates that this part of the graveyard was in use for at least 200 years, from the 13th – early 15th centuries AD.
In advance of the main report, there are general trends and several highlights which can be discussed. Many of the burials were truncated by the continued use of the graveyard over an extended period of time. As with previous excavations, there was a relatively high percentage of sub-adults and some neonates. Such a pattern is to be expected with the high mortality rate in Medieval Britain. In spite of this, a large proportion of burials comprised adults, at least one of which was 50+ years of age. This latter individual has lost all their teeth, with the space for the roots sealed over.
A notable double burial comprised double burial with two juveniles whose hands had been placed over each other (this is the second case at Poulton). We also revealed and planned a deposit of disarticulated human remains from at least four/five individuals placed into a pit. We have been calling it a charnel pit, but it is far more likely to have resulted from antiquarian excavations in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. Finally, a probable 13th century arrowhead was retrieved from the pelvis of an adult female. which is presently being analysed and conserved. All human remains were sent to Liverpool John Moores University, where they are stored and analysed. In addition to the stratified material, a significant number of redeposited finds were recovered, including Roman pottery and building material, Saxon Chester Ware ceramics, and prehistoric flints.
Excavation of the south-west graveyard has begun to reach the lowest level of interments, The human remains are scant and heavily truncated, and may either represent an earlier level of occupation predating the graveyard, or a mixing of the natural clay and lower level burials. We will continue to investigate this area next year.
Roman Ditch System
The Roman ditch system surrounding the remains of the medieval Chapel was extensively excavated to the north of said structure. The importance of these features cannot be understated, as they comprise the only undisturbed archaeology relating to the building which the ecclesiastical foundation replaced. Five sections were excavated across an area of the east-west portion of system (which was overall c. 12 meters in extent where exposed), revealing two curving ditches and a deep gully. The morphology of the ditches indicate that they were constructed as intentional enclosures for the structure superseded by the Chapel.
All excavated Roman features were finds rich, enabling a high level of dating and interpretation. There was a clear chronological relationship between the ditches, with the southern example opened in the first half of 2nd century AD. Within a generation it had been completely filled, leading to the construction of another ditch immediately north, referencing the former. Both features contained a series of backfill and silting episodes. The latter of the two contained a demolition layer of sandstone building blocks. One example comprised a stone from an archway which had been plastered and painted red. This was the first of many interesting finds, and would only have originated from a high status or religious building.
The finds assemblage from the two ditches comprised a largely domestic repertoire of local ceramics and fine wares. Building materials and nails were also recovered. A carefully rolled piece of lead from the first ditch may represent a Roman curse tablet, although this still has to be confirmed in post-excavation analysis.
The third feature comprised a deep gulley, which ignored the alignment of the previous two ditches, but took a sharp angle to cut through the earliest example. This was an especially interesting feature, as the lack of collapse on the sidewalls demonstrated that the gully was not open for long, but instead cut and then almost immediately backfilled. By far the largest amount of finds were recovered from these contexts, especially ceramics. Several hammerhead Mortaria from the Hartshill/Mancetter kilns were recovered, as were Black Burnished Ware storage jars, cooking pots and even a dish. These ceramics date to the 3rd/4th Centuries AD, especially the Mortaria. Other finds of Severn Valley Ware pots supported this date range. In addition, we retrieved roofing tile and overarching Imbrex, the former carrying a stamp of the XX Legion. Of special note was the discovery of a further two rolled lead fragments, which may represent further curse tablets. Quite a few have already been recovered from medieval graves, and may therefore have been redeposited from truncated Roman contexts.
Initial analysis of the assemblage from the gully has shown that it comprised the backfill of rubbish from a single event. The ceramic finds were mostly large and with unabraded edges, indicating that they had not been disturbed since initial deposition. The distribution of the finds was also interesting, as fragments of the pots were mixed along the length of the gulley, indicating that they had been swept up and deposited in one episode, rather than over an extended period. Finally, some of the tegula and imbrex showed signs of being burnt, indicating that a fire may have been involved.
The overall interpretation of this ditch and gulley system indicates that during the 2nd/3rd and 4th centuries AD they surrounded a small building of high status which stood where the chapel remains now occupy. The possible votive items, fragment of painted arch, and also a 2nd century zoomorphic make-up applier discovered in the late 1990s in a medieval grave (they are usually found on burial/temple sites), indicates a religious structure preceded the Chapel. This building may have been Christianised as part of a well-established tradition when the new religion entered Britain. Due to the relatively small nature of the structure as denoted by the internal space, this is unlikely to have been a full sized temple, but may have been a religious shrine overlooking the floodplain. The sheer volume of domestic pottery can be taken, however, to be contradictory to a religious interpretation, hinting at a secular function.
During excavation of the Roman ditches, a number of residual prehistoric flints were discovered, providing more evidence of the importance of this site during the Mesolithic Period. Of note was one of the finest examples ever recovered from Poulton, comprising the lower portion of a late Mesolithic broad blade core. Such items are basically a large piece of flint used for the construction of tools, and this was a really nice example. Additionally, a Neolithic bi-facial polished stone axe was recovered from this ditch system, in addition to a small fragment of Iron Age pottery.
Iron Age Roundhouses
Significant progress was made on our understanding of the nature and extent of Iron Age settlement at Poulton. The 2015 excavation continued the work of previous years, which have revealed a minimum of nine roundhouse elements constructed in the same area over centuries, with each new building replacing the previous one. Additionally, several dozen post-holes, a puppy burial, and later Roman industry and field division have been investigated.
Our efforts this year were concentrated on Roundhouses 2, 3, and 5. Additionally, several new post-holes were discovered and excavated, representing parts of other structures. Roundhouse 5 is exposed in the northern and western arc, continuing into the edge of excavation. Several students excavated this gully, which had already been established as being truncated by a feature interpreted as a Roman kiln or corn drier. A small but significant amount of animal bone and fire cracked stone was recovered, in addition to a charcoal rich fill which was sampled for environmental and radiocarbon dating. The majority of the exposed feature has now been excavated, except for the western arc, where it has been observed to be partially truncated by a medieval furrow and another roundhouse ditch from the southern part of the trench.
The excavation of Roundhouse 2 was confined to one small exposed section in the north-west corner of the trench, representing the south-east arc of the feature. The eastern arc of the roundhouse was extensively excavated last year. It has been established that Roundhouse 2 is stratigraphically earlier than Roundhouse 3, but we do not know by how much time they are separated. In this respect, a sealed deposit with sufficient amounts of charcoal for radiocarbon dating was excavated, in addition to yielding animal bone and Iron Age pottery (VCP).
It was with the excavation of Roundhouse III that we encountered the most ground breaking archaeological discoveries. This structure dominates the trench and is the only example to be completely exposed. Excavations have already revealed a large and deep ditch, 17.60m in diameter and up to 0.83m deep. Two door cairns were located approximately 1.0m within the east facing entrance, indicating a building approximately 15.60m in diameter. Finds from the previous excavation include several kg of VCP, a mass of animal bone, thousands of fire cracked stones, and abundant charcoal (which has produced excellent environmental data and 4th-2nd century BC radiocarbon dates).
The main objective this season was to expose and excavate the northern arc of Roundhouse 3, requiring the extension of the trench approximately one and a half meters to the north. We excavated and recorded four slots to maximise the amount of information, which revealed a similarly deep ditch with alternating silting and backfill episodes. At times, the junctions between the different events were so subtle that they could only be seen in section, and were virtually unidentifiable during excavation. Of note was a charcoal rich context which provided approximately 180 litres of environmental samples. Such amounts of stratified Iron Age charcoal have never been recovered in Cheshire before, and analysis will not only provide valuable information on the local environment to complement the information we retrieved in 2013. Stratigraphically, the primary fill was separated by two contexts from this charcoal rich event, with the combined sample providing an additional two radiocarbon dates.
The material retrieved from the northern arc of Roundhouse III was truly astounding, and deserves a thorough break-down to discuss the profound ramifications this material will have on Iron Age studies across the country. Firstly, the depth of the ditch which surrounded Roundhouse 3 was of a similar depth to the east, west, and south sections. There was a distinct concentration of finds near the north-east terminus; an effect of proximity to the entrance.
The finds from the northern arc of Roundhouse 3 were abundant, especially regarding animal bone. There was a lot of non-meat bearing bones from cattle, pig and horse, some of which appears to have been deposited with care. Of note was the complete jaw of a boar/pig which had been speared in the side of the cheek. This may have happened when the beast turned its head in a desperate attempt to escape. The majority of the finds were mixed in with the charcoal rich layer, which also contained a mass of fire cracked stone, demonstrating that the dumping of waste material was also a concern here. Intentional deposition is seen in other material from the ditch, for instance the partially articulated remains of an adult dog which was recovered from this area. In addition to these finds we recovered stratified Iron Age metal working remains, comprising slag, furnace wall and possible fragments of bloom. Such finds add a new dimension to Iron Age Poulton. Not only does this show that there is metal working on site, but we are now seeing more supporting evidence for a site of very high status, probably controlling trade in the area.
As we excavated the northern arc of Roundhouse 3, the finds kept coming, and several important pieces of decorated/worked antler were recovered. The most impressive items comprised an antler toggle with the circular decoration, and a complete Red Deer antler which had been sawn to create notches. The continuing finds of worked antler indicate a tentative industry at Poulton.
In conclusion, the Iron Age archaeology at Poulton cannot but understated in its size, importance and ramifications for the study of late prehistoric society in Britain. This is an area which is supposed to be devoid of high status Iron Age settlement, but we have a large site abundant in roundhouses and material culture. The evidence points to a long-lived trading and redistribution centre, whose access to the River Dee and natural defences to the east and south saw it flourish.
The excavations at Poulton are re-writing the archaeology of Cheshire, but the advances we have made in our understanding of this unique site could not have been made without the input of a lot of dedicated people. We are lucky in that the site is run by a supportive and understanding Trust, to whom we owe a great deal of thanks. The volunteers and students who attend our courses and trudge to site come rain or shine have enabled us to investigate this unique and complicated landscape, both in the field and in the lab during post-excavation analysis. Thanks also go to Liverpool John Moores University, who work in conjunction with the Poulton Research Project to investigate the medieval secular graveyard. The expertise and dedication they provide is vital to our understanding of the medieval population, and will provide ground breaking data for years to come. Finally, a big thanks to our team on the ground, comprising osteologists Cal Davenport, Megan King and Clair Richardson, and Saxon/Medieval finds specialist Janet Axworthy. Their tireless work was vital to the running of the site, and for this they have my deepest thanks.
Consultant Archaeologist to the Poulton Research Project.