Feeding Stonehenge – a view from the laboratory

Large pottery sherd from Durrington Walls

So, today is another day of laboratory work for me. I work as a research associate in the BioArCh group at the Department of Archaeology, University of York. I am part of a large team of archaeologists working on the AHRC funded Feeding Stonehenge project, which is investigating the provisioning and consumption patterns of people who lived at Neolithic Durrington Walls – the settlement site associated with the construction of Stonehenge. My role in the project is to analyse the distinctive Grooved Ware pottery for food residues and to see if there were differences in the types of food products that were being consumed by different households, and to see whether certain animals were selected for feasting. I have already looked at over 300 individual pottery sherds, and today I’ll be analysing another 10-20. I’ll also be supervising undergraduate students who have recently started their dissertation projects, working on pottery from other archaeological sites. One student is carrying out work on modern reference pottery that has been used to cook and process marine animals. The results from these experimental studies can be used to help us interpret what we find in archaeological pottery. The day starts off by coming into the lab and switching on the kit in the fume hood – we have to heat the samples to 70 degrees so I have to do this first so it gets up to the right temperature. Then it’s time for the first coffee of the day….


Norton Community Archaeology Group investigates a suspected formative henge

For five weeks, we are investigating a site on the edge of Letchworth Garden City, between the historic village of Norton and the A1 motorway. Originally thought to be a ring ditch (ploughed-out burial mound), reinterpretation of aerial photographs and a geophysical survey suggested that the site might instead be a henge.

Last year, the group cut a trench across the centre of the site and it became apparent that it was very unlikely to have been a burial mound. There was no trace of a central burial (or any other burials, for that matter), while the deposits towards the centre indicated that they were the result of discrete activities, including burning, depositing Grooved Ware potsherds and flint knapping. There was little time last year for thorough investigation, so this year we’ve returned for five weeks, opeining up a second trench at right angles to the first.

The group consists largely of amateurs who want to find out more about the archaeology of where they live. Many of them have been involved with the group since it formed in 2006 and have built up a considerable amount of experience. I’m their professional advisor and the summer excavation is my main research project. This year, we have a professional supervisor, Caoimhín Ó Caoileáin, and my paid intern, Siân O’Neill, providing professional support.

We stripped the topsoil on Wednesday 27 July and have been cleaning the trenches since. One of the student archaeologists, who worked with us last year, has begun planning the new trench, so we will be able to begin excavation later today. This is obviously the part that most of the people who join the group are interested in! As well as digging, though, I make sure that everybody learns how to draw plans, to record the contexts on which they are working and how to recognise the different artefacts they may encounter.