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.

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

BARROWS AND BURIALS

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.

This apparently deliberately broken polished stone axe, one of the site’s finest Neolithic finds, was recovered from a small, isolated post-hole.

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.

A reconstruction of the Bronze Age knife,
fragments of which were found with the cremated remains of a man in Barrow 2.

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.

At the heart of Barrow 2 lay an enigmatic mortuary structure, beneath which an early Bronze Age food vessel was found.

On excavation in the laboratory, it yielded the cremated bones of a middle

SIGNS OF LIFE

We have so far discussed plentiful traces of the dead, but what of the living? The first domestic structures appear on our site during the middle Bronze Age, in the form of two well-preserved roundhouses towards the southern edge of the site, and again they represented two differing styles of construction. One, represented by the remains of a drystone wall marking out the foundations of a circular structure roughly 8m in diameter, was exposed in 2015. Although not fully excavated, as it was decided that it should be preserved in situ, this building contained a wealth of material left by its occupants, notably a large quantity of Trevisker Ware pottery, including interesting sherds featuring lugs for lifting.

The second roundhouse was discovered earlier this year, 250m to the north-east on a pronounced geological ridgeline running across the landscape, affording views in all directions. Its 13m-wide footprint was formed by 38 post-holes, and a well-defined entrance on the house’s eastern side would have featured a rudimentary porchway. When we excavated this part of the structure, two small deposits of cremated human bone were found just inside the entrance – possibly placed as an act of remembrance as the dwellers passed on and their home was decommissioned.

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

Beyond these buildings, a wide spread of multiple field boundaries and an intriguing area scattered with more than 600 post-holes testify to the surrounding landscape being a busy one throughout the Bronze Age. Located, as it is, close to a watercourse, this concentration of features might also hint at a degree of industrial activity in the area.

Communities continued to live and work within the wider landscape for centuries, all the time keeping the barrows and the landscape within the shallow valley in sight. Evidence for formal settlements during the Iron Age is minimal, but one cluster of structures from this period, defined by three ring gullies, has been identified, crowning a limestone outcrop. This may have been a small settlement; evidence for stone quarrying was also noted in the area, while one of the ring gullies yielded a decorated weaving comb made from a split antler tine. Although broken, this object would originally have had 11 teeth, and the tooth-end of the handle was decorated with two parallel incised lines overlaid by chevrons. It is likely that the comb would have been used in textile manufacture to beat up the weft on a vertical warp-weighed loom.

There was one more secret for this part of the site to give up: close to the roundhouses we found an enigmatic structure cut into the limestone. Its shape is reminiscent of the T-shaped crop-dryers typical of the Romano- British period, with a rounded stokehole, a long, narrow flue – here, the large stone covering slabs were still in situ – and a cross-channel at the end, below the drying chamber. Here too we observed the remains of some kind of possible superstructure made from small walls bonded with a mortar-like material. This contained charred plant remains including cereals, legumes, and a small amount of sprouted cereal grains suggesting some degree of malting.

Evidence for Iron Age activity at Sherford was relatively limited, but the team did discover a small cluster of roundhouses, one of which yielded this decorated weaving comb made from an antler tine.

After the dryer went out of use, it seems to have started silting up and to have been partially backfilled during the later Roman period. It was at this time too that a pewter plate, along with a 4th-century coin and a horse mandible, were placed in the base of the flue – perhaps representing some kind of ‘closing’ deposit.

ROMAN REMAINS

There were further Roman traces to come; the area also appears to have attracted a community who created what appears to be a small farmstead to the east of the valley, defined by deep boundary ditches, containing traces of settlement, other structures, and isolated zones of industrial activity. Its inhabitants included both arable and pastural farmers, as well as traders and manufacturers – an echo of this latter group came from a small fired clay mould that was found just to the north of the farmstead in an area featuring hearths and ovens.

This limestone structure was one of the site’s more enigmatic Romano-
British finds. Current thinking suggests it may be a corn-dryer.

This object would have been used to make a distinctive kind of pear-shaped spoon with a rib running along its back. It is a rare find and, together with styles of recovered pottery and metalwork, sheds illuminating light on a Romano-British community that thrived in the 3rd-4th centuries AD and that had clear influence from the wider empire, as well as trade links and interaction with other communities further to the east, towards Exeter.

The enigmatic barrows that have proven such a constant theme throughout our project continued to hold an importance well into the Romano-British period. The mounds would have appeared other-worldly, perhaps even mythical to the later communities who chose to position their settlement and bury their dead in the monuments’ shadow. Some 60 inhumation burials associated with this later period have been discovered in the valley; it seems that subsequent communities were drawn back to the barrows with such a perception and awareness of what the monuments represented as to lay their own people to rest within this ‘sacred’ landscape.

Populating the past: an artist’s impression of the Bronze Age man buried in the mortuary structure in Barrow 2. At his waist is the knife found with his remains.

Thanks to these finds, we can imagine a protracted period of time during which different generations used their surroundings in similar ways – although there was some variation among their practices. Graves to the south of the valley were roughly north–south aligned and most contained the remains of coffins and hobnails from the shoes of those buried there – indeed, in one case we found the remains of a whole shoe in situ. However, graves to the north of the valley, many of which were found in pairs following a ridge overlooking the barrows, lay on a predominantly east– west alignment and contained no grave goods of any form. Might these suggest changing religious beliefs in the area?

Analysis of artefacts combined with radiocarbon dating suggests that these latter burials were contemporary with several unurned cremation graves that were also found in the area, even though they were found in the same locations as the Early Bronze Age examples. The repeated use of this funerary landscape evokes a rich tapestry of history, of settlement, and of respect and recognition of an ancestral presence.

Some of the 60 Romano-British inhumation burials that have been discovered during the investigations at Sherford.

TOWARDS THE FUTURE

Funerary activity came to an end in the valley with the end of the Romano-British period, after which the landscape seems to have been largely abandoned in terms of settlement – but the barrows continued to provide a point of interest to visitors. During the early medieval period a series of at least five pits were dug within the mounds’ circular ditches; radiocarbon analysis confirmed the Anglo-Saxon date of these later features, though it remains unclear why they were created. Several features and finds dating to the later medieval and post-medieval periods have also been recorded across the site, including a cut silver penny of Henry III (r. 1216-1272), trackways associated with local limekilns, and the remains of long-deserted farm buildings, notably Gore Farm, which was demolished in 1869.

Looking to the present day and beyond, as the development at Sherford continues to grow into a town, future communities will make the landscape their own and write a new history. What the archaeological excavations have been able to show is that this is nothing new. The landscape has been inhabited, utilised, farmed, developed, and changed over several millennia, with different groups of people each making their own mark on a changing countryside. The future of the site is inherently and intrinsically linked to its past. What is important is that future generations can learn how their town has developed over time and how that past will, in some part at least, define the development from here on in. This is not a new development, but one that has been built over thousands of years and, as such, has a pedigree locked into its landscape – a landscape saturated with meaning and imbued with ancestral roots.

Recording a medieval building, which reflects one of the later phases of activity at Sherford.

This feature appeared in CA 342.  

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