Monthly Archives: July 2014

VM_365 Day 32 Pottery from a period of change – Iron Age people become Romans

Locally made pottery Jar, encapsulating the transition from Iron Age to Roman culture
Locally made pottery Jar, encapsulating the transition from Iron Age to Roman culture

Today’s image for Day 32 of the  VM 365 project is of a pottery vessel dating from an interesting period in history which is well represented in Thanet’s archaeological record, the later stages of the Roman conquest of Britain (50-75/100 AD).

Dating from a period when Late Iron Age pottery traditions were giving way to new Romanising production techniques, this near complete jar in a pottery fabric known as Thanet silty ware is decorated with raised beads and a chevron pattern around the upper part of the body. This particular vessel dates no later than 60-75 AD, a couple of decades after Britain was invaded and occupied by Roman forces.

The jar was recovered from the fill of a pit (cut 216) at an excavation at a site in Sea Parade, Birchington, it  survived almost intact with only one large crack in the body of the jar and some damage to the rim. Characteristically for this type of vessel it has been deliberately made with three holes in the base, much like a modern flowerpot.

The many complete or near complete vessels of this period that have been recovered in excavations carried out at Minnis bay, particularly those of Antoinette Powell-Cotton in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The pottery sherds and vessels from these sites  have been the foundation for classification and dating this important sequence of  pottery, which spans a time of major cultural change.



VM_365 Day 30 The purpose of pondering prehistory?

Image of burial inserted into ditch of an Early Bronze Age round barrow
Can we find out who this person buried in the ditch of a round barrow was?

What drives our interest in following the trail of evidence from aerial photographs to the archaeology in ground that has been shown in the VM 365 images over the last few days?

The image for Day 30 of the VM 365 project shows a human skeleton, a young adult that was buried in a small grave that was excavated into the terminal of the round barrow that was shown in yesterday’s image. The grave fill overlying the skeleton was covered with a large fragment of whale rib.

Rather than focus on the excitement of the excavation process that revealed this burial, we should pay attention to the motivation for carrying out the investigation which is often overwhelmed by the excitement about the external character of the results.

The fundamental reason for developing the methods of archaeological investigation was, and remains, curiosity about the places we live in and about the people who have occupied the same places in the past. There are no written records describing the circumstances and experiences of life in periods such as the Bronze Age which are represented in such abundance in the Isle of Thanet. There is no evidence that emanates from their direct experience, which could be used to reconstruct their lives. The people under investigation in these circumstances are truly pre-historic, we lack any tools but archaeological methods to generate knowledge about them and to create narratives of the events that affected them.

Our interest in the universal set of questions, who, where, what, why, and when will not rest for lack of easy evidence and careful exploration and analysis can be used to describe the circumstances of discovery in ever greater detail. Once we understand as much as we can about the circumstances of discovery, and describe them with as much precision as possible, we can begin to interpret the meaning of the things we have discovered. Archaeological investigation must also be used to established the limits of our knowledge. If we take careful note of the present conditions of our discoveries we can begin to understand that many things that are lost from the image of the past we can generate.

Archaeology is about exploring the deliberate construction of messages by people in the past, the signal, as well as the inadvertent or deliberate destructive processes that can distort part of the message, the noise. To produce good and thoughtful interpretation; assumptions should be questioned; different perspectives  adopted on the data and our ideas subjected to critical review.

There is always something new to said and new information that can be gathered from the evidence collected by archaeologists. In the case of this burial, its inclusion in a research programme investigating Isotopic data that can be extracted from the teeth will in due course add more to the constellation of knowledge that gathers around the physical remains we recover from excavations.


VM_365 Day 29 What lies beneath the cropmark rings?

Circular ditch at North Foreland, Broadstairs showing in chalk geology after plough soil has been removed.
Circular ditch at North Foreland, Broadstairs showing in chalk geology after plough soil has been removed.

We know from the image in Day 28 of VM_365 that the locations of  the prehistoric burial mounds of Neolithic and Bronze Age Thanet can still be traced from the influence they have on the growth of the crops in the fields that lie over them.

Today’s image, taken at a site at North Foreland near Broadstairs, shows what happens when the thin skim of plough soil that overlies the ditches is removed by archaeologists, using a combination of a carefully controlled mechanical excavator and a final clean up using hand tools.

Once the earth filled ditches and pits underlying the plough soil has been exposed, planning and recording can take place before any further excavation is carried out to examine how deep the surviving ditches may be, and to recover any finds that can help to give a date for the feature.

Careful attention is paid to the irregular patches of dark soil that are enclosed within the ditch because these may be contain the burials that were marked by the ring ditches and their associated mounds as enduring features in the landscape . Other burials were often inserted later, when the mound and ditch surrounding the burial had become a familiar feature in the landscape.

At this stage an archaeological site which was previously known only through images holds the potential to produce physical evidence for the past.

VM_365 Day 28 Seeing the Bronze Age past beneath the soil

VM 28

Another image today from our slide archive taken in the early 1990’s, showing how we know so much about the past of the Isle of Thanet without even touching the ground.

The image  shows the cropmarks of two ring ditches, located in the fields behind Margate cemetery and council tip. These cropmarks undoubtedly represent the enclosures of unexplored Bronze Age burial mounds, just two of many hundreds of such features that are known to exist on the Isle of Thanet and have been identified in aerial photographs.

Many unsubstantiated ideas have accumulated around the huge number of these ring ditch cropmarks and the prestigious burials they represent, including a spurious association with Procopius’s ‘Island of the Dead‘ legend. However, their frequency and survival in the landscape undoubtedly contributed to the name that was given to Thanet as a territory in the early political divisions of Kent.

In the Domesday survey of the 11th century, the Isle of Thanet constituted  a ‘Hundred’, a collection of a hundred smaller divisions of plough land called hydes. Known as the ‘Hundred of Ringslow’, the Hundred of ‘ring-mounds’, the name shows that the Bronze-Age past of the Isle had a lasting influence on the area.

VM_365 Day 27: Down to Margate Pier

VM 27Our image today shows that Archaeology doesn’t have to  be buried in the ground, or to be  ancient, to reveal an important story of the past.

In celebration of the recent long spell of warm summer weather, we want to show that one of Thanet’s important seaside landmarks Margate Pier preserves much archaeological evidence of its us for industry and pleasure over the last 200 years.

Just look carefully for the fixtures and fittings that demonstrate that there were once many different uses for the pier, all related to Margate’s rich and diverse history. Even the stones of the pier tell a story, they were quarried at Aislaby in North Yorkshire.

If you can get down to Margate Pier this weekend, see if you can identify any of these or any other clues to the pier’s past history:

The picture shows clockwise from top left:

1. Metal crane track, used from the late 19th and early 20th for coal deliveries to the Margate Gas works

2. Scars of the tracks off the miniature railway that ran along the promenade in the 1950’s and 60’s

3. The original quoin stone and pier surface dating from the c. 1840’s at the landward side of the pier near the Turner Contemporary. This has been covered by later structures.

4.  Mooring positions inscribed into the edging stones along the inner harbour c. mid 20th century. NCB  probably stands for the National Coal Board.

There’s more information about Margate Pier in the Virtual Museum pages about our survey of the structure that was carried out in 2005, for the earlier design of the Turner contemporary – if anyone remembers that!

Let us know what you find if you visit the pier this weekend.


VM_365 Day 26 – Middle Bronze Age Cremation Urn from Ramsgate

VM 26
Middle Bronze Age cremation vessel, its location in a shallow pit with two other vessels is shown on the right

A small ring ditch cut into geological deposits was exposed in an excavation on the Westcliff at Ramsgate, carried out in 2002 on the site of a new housing development.  Irregular flint nodules spread over the area of the  ditch and retained in the soil that filled it suggested it may have been covered by a cairn.

Pieces of a coarse flint tempered vessel found at the base of the ditch,  linked the date of the ring ditch with that of a group of five truncated pits that were nearby. Each pit contained between one and three coarse flint tempered ‘Deverel-Rimbury’ style pottery vessels, all but one inverted so that they stood with their rims on the base of the pit. The bases of the vessels, which had been uppermost in the pits, had  been disturbed and destroyed at some later time.

Fragments of burnt human bone were distributed irregularly within the soil that filled each vessel. The burnt bone seems to represent material that had been collected from cremation pyres and placed in the vessels, rather than all that remained of the cremation of a single individual.

Today’s picture shows one of the pits (Pit A) being excavated, alongside a photograph of the best preserved Vessel 4, a straight sided, narrow mouthed bucket urn in a coarse flint tempered fabric, decorated down each side with two rows of finger tip impressions. The urn is inverted and stands on its rim as it did in the cremation pit.

All three vessels from Pit A contained cremated bone fragments, two with identifiable bone elements representing two individuals, a child around 10 years of age and an adult. Radiocarbon dating of a fragment of bone from one of the individuals gave a  date  between 1520-1310 BC, within the Middle Bronze Age.

There’s  more about the Middle Bronze Age in Thanet in the Virtual Museum’s Bronze Age gallery.

You can find out more about this site in the published report:
Moody, G., Macpherson-Grant, N. and Anderson, T. 2010. Later Bronze Age Cremation at West Cliff, Ramsgate.  Archaeologia Cantiana CXXX 147-172.

VM_365 Day 25 – The Invisible Element

Complex joinery in the upper structure of a large timber framed barn
Complex joinery in the upper structure of a large timber framed barn

Today’s image is inspired by a visit today to the excavations at Randall Manor in Shorne Wood Country Park, where a complex and prestigious medieval building is now only represented by the footprint of its foundations and low walls.

Although parts of the building may have been constructed in stone, the walls would have supported a superstructure built in timber, none of which survives. In common with buildings excavated on archaeological sites from the Roman period to the 19th century, the work of the carpenters and the spaces that were created within the structure can only be reconstructed now by using surviving examples for comparison, or in the case of more ancient structures by analogy with later joinery techniques.

The picture today is of one of the complex joints in a later medieval timber framed barn the Trust recorded at Chambers Wall, Birchington, when the cladding of the barn had been stripped off prior to the conversion of the structure to a house. The exposure of the skeletal frame of the barn allowed the complex carpentry to be examined in detail, revealing the clever engineering that was involved in using timber to build a structure to enclose a very large space.

The picture shows the complex jointing involved to bring together elements of the frame and the roof of the barn and to join long sections of timber beams while retaining the strength of the structure. All the elements were fixed using only wooden pegs.

A close look at the image will also show the numerals that were carved into each timber to  identify its position in the frame when the pieces were manufactured elsewhere and brought to the site to be assembled on a supporting foundation of low brick and flint walls.

Like much of the evidence that archaeology provides, the walls exposed on a site like the Randall Manor excavation only take us part of the way to the story of the construction of the building. We need to stop and consider the elements that would be needed to complete the structure, which now only exist as a body of comparative evidence which we can bring to bear on our reconstruction of the missing elements.

VM_365 Day 24 Symbols of power and weak English coffee

Three arrowheads associated with the Beaker at Margate
Three arrowheads associated with the Beaker at Margate

A few years ago a young French PhD researcher called Clément Nicolas, contacted us after seeing a piece on our Virtual Museum on the Beaker Burial discovered at Margate, which featured in the image for VM_365 Day 16.

Today we received a link to the two volumes and CD catalogue of Clément’s PhD thesis Symbols of power at the time of Stonehenge : productions of prestigious arrowheads from Brittany to Denmark (2500-1700 BC), which will no doubt provide an important and valuable resource for archaeological research in the future.

His interest was in the flint arrowheads that are commonly associated with Beaker burials in Britain and on the continent and part of his research involved creating a catalogue of every arrowhead that has been discovered, visiting museums from Brittany to Denmark to photograph and describe each of them.

We were able to show him the the four arrowheads that we had found in association with the Beaker burial at Margate, three with the primary Beaker burial and the fourth with a second skeleton which had been buried a generation later in the same location. Arrow heads that are in the collection at the Powell Cotton Museum were also made available for him to study.

The arrow heads from Margate are of particular interest as they are some of the few in Kent that were actually found in association with a burial. Although many Beaker burials have been found in Thanet, some in association with ‘archer’s wrist guards’ , another typical find from the Beaker archer’s kit, arrow heads remaining in association with a burial are surprisingly rare.

Perhaps his second greatest contribution to archaeology during his visit was to point out that the instant coffee we made for him was far to weak for French tastes and boosted with an extra couple of spoons and reduced to half its volume could be made moderately palatable. We still occasionally offer coffee in ‘Clément’ style to visitors who can take the power.

VM_365 Day 23 Roman Spoon

VM_23Just how old are spoons? A spoon (apart from a knife) is probably the oldest utensil known to man, being used to scoop up food to eat and for mixing and measuring. The oldest spoons were probably just scoops made from shells, later developing into purpose made scoops with handles and made from wood and bone. Some of the earliest known spoons with handles dating from around 1300 BC have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and are carved from ebony and ivory.

Our copper alloy spoon bowl, found in a Roman building at Broadstairs in 2004, is much younger, dating to the late second century AD and is without its handle. It was found associated with an oven on the floor of the cellar in a thick sooty deposit that also contained pottery, iron nails, rings and fittings as well as a Roman military belt buckle suggesting that old timber and even clothing was being used to fuel the fire.

You can read more about the site in Moody, G. 2007. Iron Age and Roman British Settlement at Bishop’s Avenue, North Foreland, Broadstairs. Archaeologia Cantiana CXXVII