A well-preserved prehistoric hearth has been discovered 5ft below the surface during a commercial watching brief on a pipe trench in St Clement, southeast Jersey, which was carried out by the Société Jersiaise’s Field Archaeologist Robert Waterhouse.
Possible post holes were seen nearby in the bottom of the trench, but the excavation’s narrow width made these difficult to interpret, and it is not even certain that they were associated with the other feature. The rubble hearth material, overlying a large shallow pit and filled with charcoal-rich ash as well as occasional flint chips, was slightly disturbed by later prehistoric ard marks, or plough scars. These made archaeologists on site think that it might have been of earlier Bronze Age or even Neolithic date. Hearths of similar design have been found on a site in northwest Normandy which date to the early Neolithic, c.4400-3900 BC.
The hearth was identified in 2016, and to confirm suspicions about its date some of its charcoal was sent out for radiocarbon dating. Results are now in, and they came as a complete surprise, suggesting a likely date range – at 95.4% probability – of 4946-4787 BC. This could place the hearth within the late Mesolithic, about 500 years before it is generally considered that Neolithic culture arrived in this part of Europe. However, recent research by British and French academics is starting to suggest that the Neolithic cultural package arrived in the Channel Islands at the start of the 5th millennium BC. Intriguingly, this means that the hearth could date to this transitional period in prehistory.
Neolithic hearths are fairly unusual finds and this is the first so far found in Jersey. The depth of burial, on a south-facing slope just above the coastal plain, means that more such features are likely to survive nearby. As only one third of the hearth was exposed in the pipe trench, further excavation of a larger area adjoining it is planned in order to examine the area around the hearth, and hopefully obtain more dating evidence.
Robert will be speaking about his discovery at the Channel Islands Archaeology Conference, hosted by the Société Jersiaise, on September 7th-9th this year. Tickets are still available at: www.societe-jersiaise.org.
This article appeared in CA 343.