Exploring millennia of settlement in Devon

The development of a 1,200-acre site outside Plymouth, where a new town is planned, has allowed Wessex Archaeology to carry out extensive excavations. (IMAGE: Wessex Archaeology)

The creation of a new town on the eastern side of Plymouth has afforded a rare opportunity to investigate a wide multi-period archaeological landscape, revealing the hidden secrets of the people who lived there centuries before. Gareth Chaffey and Matt Kendall explain how these discoveries are pushing back the boundaries of our understanding of southern Devon’s past.

To the east of Plymouth, work is under way on a new town – Sherford – which is intended to become home to more than 12,000 residents. Construction of the 1,200-acre site is being led by the Sherford Consortium (a partnership of national homebuilders: Bovis Homes, Linden Homes, and Taylor Wimpey) and, since 2015, we at Wessex Archaeology have been excavating the town’s planned footprint.

The sheer scale of the site is impressive, and offers exciting possibilities in terms of truly understanding how the landscape and its use developed over time. To-date, some 25ha have been excavated. While it is hoped that modern Sherford will become a thriving and sustainable community, the emerging evidence paints a picture of an equally prosperous landscape in which people have lived, traded, and interacted for millennia.

Although only a portion (albeit a sizable one) of the site has been excavated so far, a geophysical survey was carried out in 2014-2015 over the entire area of development. This gave tantalising glimpses of what secrets lay beneath the surface, including multiple areas where monuments, enclosures, and structures could be clearly seen. Such potential unquestionably merited more detailed investigation, and since then we have opened trial trenches, undertaken watching briefs, and employed larger-scale excavation in order to understand as much as we can from this vast site. As a result, almost the entire area developed so far has received some form of archaeological monitoring, offering a rare chance to view an entire landscape from an archaeological perspective.

Modern Sherford is planned to house 12,000 residents – but the recent archaeological work has revealed evidence of far earlier occupation of the area. (IMAGE: Groundfix Ltd)

EARLY PREHISTORY

The results have been stunning: as the topsoil is stripped away prior to development, the entirety of the underlying archaeology is laid bare, and a number of significant discoveries have already been made. As work on the site progresses over the coming months and years, it is hoped that this already exciting site will reveal further secrets about its historic economies, agricultural interaction, and industries, allowing us to imagine the lives of the people who lived there in increasingly vivid detail.

In particular, as excavation began one area of the site rapidly stood out as having been used repeatedly over time: two barrows, whose footprints had survived centuries of ploughing and farming, seem to have formed a focal point of human activity across several millennia. Time and time again, our finds suggest, communities were drawn to these enigmatic and prominent features – as we will explore shortly. But let us first delve deeper into Sherford’s past.

Two early bronze Age barrows, shown in an artist’s reconstruction of how they may have looked when complete, seem to have formed a focus of human activity for millennia. (IMAGE: Groundfix Ltd)

Mesolithic activity reflects a period rarely detected in southern Devon, but our excavations have revealed a scatter of clues to the presence of nomadic hunter-gatherer groups long before formal structures were built on the site. Two raised areas within the otherwise flat valley floor would ultimately become home to Neolithic monuments, but they witnessed activity long before this, as evidenced by the discovery of over 600 pieces of worked flint, including delicate microliths. These were found within a buried land surface lying directly beneath both barrows, and a radiocarbon date on charred hazelnut shell fragments from this surface confirms a Mesolithic origin. Here we see tantalising suggestions of an early significance to this specific place in the landscape, separated as it was by a watercourse, which was then returned to repeatedly for generations.

If this area was seen as special during the Mesolithic period, this significance was built on by the Neolithic communities who came to occupy it. Evidence for this period is similarly limited at Sherford but very significant. This includes a small number of pits speckling the development area, which preserve a wide range of pottery styles spanning the whole Neolithic period. A single pit, for instance, contained more than six kilogrammes of Carinated Bowl, while highly decorated sherds of Peterborough Ware and Grooved Ware (Woodlands substyle) have also been recovered. In addition to these, one of the site’s best finds was a stunning late Neolithic stone axe, a remarkable discovery and beautifully preserved. Highly polished and showing clear signs of wear and use on its cutting edge, the axe appears to have been deliberately broken before its deposition within a small isolated post-hole.

BARROWS AND BURIALS

One is pictured under excavation during the recent project. (IMAGE: Groundfix Ltd)

Moving into the Bronze Age, in 2016 we investigated the round barrows themselves. Located at the base of a shallow valley, the mounds stood 50m apart, separated by a stream – now canalised, although our investigations revealed that this watercourse had existed during the Bronze Age. Excavating them, largely by hand, revealed that the monuments were very different in terms of size, depth, and make-up.

Barrow 1, with an internal diameter of 22m, was surrounded by a narrow but deep ditch. We did not recover much in the way of artefacts from this mound, but it did contain a single central burial: the cremated remains of a teenaged girl, placed inside a decorated early Bronze Age food vessel. By contrast, Barrow 2 was much bigger, boasting an internal diameter of over 29m and an external ditch measuring over 5m in width and 1.5m in depth. This imposing mound would have been an impressive sight in the landscape. Once again, few finds came from the barrow ditch itself, but at the heart of the mound we discovered a very enigmatic central feature.

What initially appeared to be a pile of limestone rubble was soon revealed to be a large and significant mortuary structure, complete with stone uprights that seem to have been more decorative than practical in function. At first glance, the structure itself seemed to be empty, but as the stones were removed piece by piece its contents proved to be far more exciting. Directly beneath the western end of the structure was a complete early Bronze Age food vessel, turned upside down like a lid, and when this was excavated in the lab we found that it contained the cremated remains of a middle-aged man, as well as fragments of a bronze dagger.

Around 35 bronze Age cremations, many of them urned, were found along the base of the valley near the barrows. (IMAGE: Wessex Archaeology)

Green ‘spot’ staining on bone fragments from the area of the man’s waist suggests that that the blade had been placed on this part of his body as he lay on the funeral pyre. It also seems likely that the mortuary structure had been built specifically to hold the individual’s remains following his death, and that it stood in the landscape as a marker – signs of weathering on its outer faces suggest that it had been exposed to the elements for a period. We have been able to unpick the sequence of events that followed the man’s death: after his cremation and the placing of the remains and pyre debris into a vessel, part of the structure was dismantled to allow the container to be buried. The structure was then rebuilt (poorly in comparison to the undisturbed parts) and finally buried under the barrow mound, which was constructed using spoil from its substantial surrounding ditch.

Who were the individuals buried beneath the barrows? Despite the mounds’ differences in form, radiocarbon dating revealed that they were broadly contemporary in date. It is tantalising to consider that those interred within them might be close family members, but, whoever they were, they were clearly significant enough in their communities to be commemorated in this spectacular way. Moreover, the mortuary monuments constructed to honour them became a focal point in the landscape for millennia to come. Our excavations revealed a further 35 cremation graves scattered along the base of the valley near the barrows, the majority of which were on the northern side of the stream. Their numbers dwarf what has been previously recorded for the region, creating exciting opportunities for the future study of Bronze Age Devon, and almost all were urned, some containing grave goods (including a stunning whetstone). This repeated act of returning to this location gives us a powerful insight into how this Bronze Age community thought of death and interment.

This is an excerpt from a feature published in CA 342. Read on in the magazine. Click here to subscribe

Leave a Reply