Earthwork

A day in the life… disappointing Neolithic enclosures but excellent gooseberries in Teesdale

Heavy rain as we drive up the A1 makes my daughter Iris (just 6), who is in tow for the day, much less enthusiastic. But fortunately it almost stops as we reach Upper Teesdale. Paul Frodsham and Stewart Ainsworth, waiting by the side of the lane, are here to do paid work for the North Pennines AONB’s LiDAR Landscapes project, following up the labours of volunteers, who have been systematically examining LiDAR imagery. I’ve been invited because they suspect that both the unusual enclosures we’re examining might be early Neolithic, but my involvement is unpaid, purely for interest. Retired aerial photographer Tim Gates is along for a nice day out, although his experience of the uplands, which rivals even Stewart’s, is always valuable.

We struggle into full waterproofs and set off up the valley side, hopping across a beck that’s almost dry, despite the recent rain, and zig-zagging up through the impressive basalt cliffs of Holwick Scar. Nestling in a valley by another beck, I spot the stone footings of a tiny post-medieval sheiling. Tim kindly keeps Iris moving forward by pointing out wild flowers.

After 30 minutes we reach the first site, on a plateau in the bleak moorland, and within seconds we’ve concluded that it’s not a Neolithic enclosure, but a typical Bronze Age field, defined by low banks of stone, laboriously cleared from the surface. Even today, 3,000 years later, the pasture within the plot is richer and greener than the surrounding rough grassland. Iris finds a disarticulated sheep skeleton to play with. A burial cairn, incorporated into the field boundary, is of interest because excavation in the 1980s (we note that the trench was never backfilled!) produced a Neolithic stone axe. But there’s no other indication that the cairn’s any earlier than the Bronze Age, so the axe might be a curated ‘antique’. The monument’s position in the landscape also prompts debate: although there’s a more conspicuous knoll nearby, the cairn was placed lower down, next to a tiny beck – a deliberate link with water. Paul asks whether it might actually be a ‘burnt mound’, ie the residue of a Bronze Age sauna, since these are invariably found next to small watercourses. But we’re all happy that it’s a bona fide burial monument. Did a little clearing in the woodland here first attract the builders of the monument, and later the occupants of the tiny farmstead? We look for the site of the large roundhouse that would typically sit at the edge of a Bronze Age field and soon find it, half concealed beneath the drystone walls of a post-medieval sheep-shelter, shaped like a Mercedes badge. There’s a welcome opportunity to joke about the sheep-shelter being a Bronze Age “tri-radial cairn”, a form of monument that briefly attracted national attention a few years ago when Paul was Archaeologist for Northumberland National Park, and which we think is a fiction. We discuss the potential diameter of the roundhouse and whether it might actually be a dismantled burial cairn, since there’s an unusually pronounced ‘kerb’ on one side (and where has all the stone for the sheep-shelter come from?). After 10 minutes, we’ve failed to reach a conclusion, but the primary question has been answered and Iris is bored, so we head back down for lunch, eaten standing by the cars in the drizzle, before driving into the next valley to look at the next site.

This second earthwork has been interpreted previously as an Iron Age palisaded enclosure. Even before we leave the cars, Tim puts money on it being medieval or later, based on a glance at the lidar print-out. It takes us a while to pin-point the start of the footpath up the valley side, because the signs have apparently been removed. Walking back and forth along the lane, we notice some heavily-fruiting gooseberry bushes in the hedgerow – Iris wants us to stop there. But eventually we’re sufficiently confident in our map-reading to set off boldly through a sea of cow manure, studded with islands of abandoned farm machinery, oddments of scrap and barking, wildly straining sheepdogs (a typical upland farmyard). Using the lidar imagery, we find the enclosure quickly. It is immediately clear that there are actually two separate earthworks. The later one, an enclosure defined by a low bank and ditch, has a very irregular plan that bizarrely surrounds a dry valley and parts of two knolls. Tim and I conclude that it’s a medieval or later wood-bank, made to protect a rare – and now vanished – surviving scrap of woodland in this largely treeless landscape. If it was spring, I’d be looking for the tell-tale species of plants that indicate ancient woodland, because they often outlive the trees. The earlier earthwork is what has attracted Stewart’s attention: an arc of low, stony bank, almost completely grassed over. It predates the ?wood-bank, which clearly cuts through it. But what appear to be artificial earthworks on the lidar imagery prove to be natural scarps reflecting the underlying geology (that’s why it’s important to ‘ground truth’ LiDAR), so, despite prolonged scrutiny, we can’t convince ourselves that the arc of stony bank ever formed a complete enclosure. Nor can we date it, except that it’s earlier than the ?medieval enclosure. Tim, keen to win his bet, claims that it’s just an earlier version of the wood-bank. The rest of us are more circumspect, but we can’t get much further without excavation, and that would be an expensive shot in the dark. So we head back down to the cars, Iris clutching a trio of bleached rabbit bones. On the way, Paul and I discuss a publication on the Neolithic in northern England which he’s co-editing, and to which I’m contributing – probably the day’s most useful outcome for me. I promise to email him things when I get back to York. He and Stewart drive off to inspect a newly-discovered Romano-British enclosure further down the lane, but Iris insists that Tim and I stay to pick gooseberries. Well, payment in kind is always welcome! And as soon as Paul is out of earshot, Tim grumbles that anyway he’d rather pick gooseberries than look at “yet another bloody R-B enclosure”.

 

I’m looking for any artefacts that might have been excavated from the Bronze Age house by rabbits. Iris is looking for the bones of the excavators.


Piers Dixon (RCAHMS) – South Lanarkshire

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

South Lanarkshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

Early Stone Castles of South Lanarkshire

I have been working as an Archaeological Investigator for RCAHMS since 1989 and currently as an Operations Manager in Survey and Recording. As a medievalist I have long been interested in castles in all their variety wherever they occur from Scotland to Greece, but opportunities for me to record and research them for RCAHMS only became available in 2000 with the Donside survey that led to the publication of In the Shadow of Bennachie (2007). This showed me that we have a lot to learn about the origin and development of castles, with a rash of motte-like structures, including the dramatic castle of Invernochty, Strathdon, with its ‘later’ stone curtain wall built by the ‘native’ earl of Mar, not all of which were medieval castles at all. Baileys, usually part and parcel of the castle earthwork, were absent, except at the Bass of Inverurie, but the mottes were often big enough to take a range of structures. More worrying was the absence of identifiable elite structures of the immediately preceding period.

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

View of Crawford castle from the air, showing the later stone castle on top of the motte. Copyright RCAHMS (DP153534)

The origins of castles in Scotland are generally assumed to derive from the influx of Anglo-French followers of King David and his successors bringing with them their notions of what was necessary for the centre of power of a lordship. Raising an earthwork or modifying a natural mound to make a place of strength was the quickest way of achieving this. South Lanarkshire provides a good test bed for this thesis since the documentation tells us that it was settled in the 12th century by Flemish knights, some of whom established themselves by building castles based on mottes or earthworks that defy easy definition. Some like Coulter motte in the care of Historic Scotland, or Crawford castle, a motte with a later stone tower, appear to have been typical conical mounded structures, but others like the earthwork at Castle Qua just outside Lanark, or that at Cadzow, not far from the later stone castle, take the form of promontories defended by earthworks with broad external ditches.  These were sites that were rejected as prehistoric settlement enclosures by the Royal Commission investigators in the 1970s, although a Roman coin found during excavations by Lanarkshire Archaeology Society of the Cadzow earthwork suggest a late Iron Age or Dark Age date.

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Cadzow earthwork, showing the mound and south ditch. The old oak trees have been dated by dendrochronology to the 15th century when the site lay within a hunting park. Copyright Piers Dixon

Further investigation of these sites is clearly needed. That at Castle Qua has been the focus of some interest locally and the Commission has reviewed the possibility of further survey work at the site with Addyman Archaeology for the Clyde and Avon Valley Landscape Partnership.  The site itself is a dramatic one with a cliff on one side dropping down to the Mouse Water more than 100 feet below. A substantial earthwork that displays traces of stone facings lies within broad ditch enclosing an area some 30m across with traces of structures near the cliff edge. A second ditch suggests the possibility of a bailey.

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Plan of Castle Qua showing the suggested line of the outer ditch as an overlay on the RCAHMS plan. (Addyman Archaeology overlay and RCAHMS DP152072)

Archaeology has also thrown up spanners in the dating of mottes, for example, excavations by Chris Tabraham at Roberton motte in the 1970s produced a sherd of imported pottery from France dated to the 14th century from the base of the mound. This contradicts the established wisdom of dating the construction of mottes and other earthwork castles to the 12th and 13th centuries by incoming Flemish lords. Although there is a good correlation between the documented Flemish incomers and the eponymous villages of Roberton, Thankerton, Symington, Covington, Lamington and Wiston, for example, all settlements of potentially medieval origin,  earthwork castles have yet to be located at all of them.  There is clearly much work to be done here in understanding the development of castles and this area provides an excellent location for doing just that.

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon

Castle Qua earthwork and ditch, much overgrown. Copyright Piers Dixon

 

 

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