Research Dig at Freston’s Neolithic Causewayed Enclosure

many people standing in trench around excavated ditch

In 2019, a team from the Freston Archaeological Research Mission investigated the Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Freston. They wanted to know more about the date of the site, what was happening there and what the local environment was like in the past. Dr Tristan Carter, our guest writer for this week, tells us all about it.

Writing this a year into the pandemic, the six weeks we spent working at Freston in the summer of 2019 feels like a lifetime ago. The site has two concentric ‘interrupted ditch systems’, a type of Early Neolithic monument referred to as a ‘causewayed enclosure’ that were constructed across southern Britain from around 3800 cal. BC.

Freston is one of the five biggest examples of these monuments – the perimeter of the ditches encompasses 8.55 hectares. The enclosure was discovered by aerial photography in 1969, and scheduled by English Heritage in 1976, but there has never been a dedicated research excavation at the site until this season’s work by the Freston Archaeological Research Mission [FARM]. Indeed, none of Suffolk’s causewayed enclosures have ever been dug – there are two others at Fornham All Saints, plus another at Kedington. Examples of causewayed enclosures closest to us which have received significant attention are on the Fen Edge in Cambridgeshire (e.g. Etton), or south of us in Essex (e.g. St Osyth).

Plan of causewayed enclosure ditches and location of excavation trench ©FARM

What is a Causewayed Enclosure?

Causewayed enclosures are believed to have acted as formal gathering spaces for the small-scale and largely mobile farming communities that we associate with Britain’s first farming populations. The idea is that these people would have needed to come together at special times, perhaps at the solstices, or after the harvest, so that they could reconnect with one another through trade, feasting, marriage and storytelling – think of them as a combination of church, village hall and pub if you will. These monuments tend to be thus viewed as largely ceremonial rather than utilitarian; indeed, with so many entrances they would make terrible cattle enclosures, or defensive sites. That said, some of these enclosures took on a more fortified character in the latter stages of their Neolithic lives with the erection of palisades and the blocking of causeways, something we may have evidence for at Freston.

The 2019 Fieldwork

With a modest budget and team, the 2019 excavations had to be limited. But we first attempted to gain a larger insight into what was going on at the site by conducting a geophysical survey over a large part of the enclosure’s southeast quadrant. There’s nothing visible on the ground because the ditches are silted up and the earthworks ploughed away. This meant that the use of magnetometry and earth resistance techniques was also crucial to establishing the best place for our excavation in an area that we believed would produce the information we were seeking. The geophysics showed the circuit ditches and associated banks, plus a series of anomalies that likely relate to Neolithic pits, and what might be the outline of an even earlier feature, potentially the flanking ditch of a long-barrow burial mound.

The survey and first few days of digging took part during one of the hottest weeks of the summer, challenging to the geophysics (parts of the ground were simply too dry and compacted to survey), and excavators alike –  despite the fact that the four of us had just come from my other project in the Greek islands and should have been used to such temperatures by now. To be honest the heat was only part of the problem; being overly respectful to a scheduled monument, I had decided that everything should be manually excavated, whereby we heroically (idiotically!) wielded mattocks to remove turf, then a half-metre of topsoil, to get to the archaeology. After two days we had only exposed a 1 × 10 m strip, at which point a phone call to Historic England rescued the situation with permission for the trench to be machined open before the team downed tools and nailed me to a wall.

Ultimately, we established a 10 x 35 m trench targeting the ends of two opposing pairs of ditches and opening a small area inside and beyond the enclosure. The logic behind focusing on these ditch termini is that typically this is where archaeologists recover most of the finds from these sites, while simultaneously providing a stratigraphic depth – this would help us understand the site’s long-term history of establishment, use and abandonment.

Opening the trench ©FARM

The aims of the excavation were relatively straightforward: (a) to gain a clearer insight as to the site’s date by finding artefacts and collecting short-life organic samples for radiocarbon dating, (b) to gain an insight as to what was taking place at the site based on the kinds of artefacts made and deposited there, and (c) to recover plant remains and animal bones to tell us about the local environment and farming practices.

In the grand scheme of things, the excavation was a great success. The two inner ditch termini were over 2 m deep, their bottom layers full of finds – pottery in particular – with over 14 kg of Mildenhall Ware, the distinctive decorated bowls of Early Neolithic East Anglia. We also recovered lots of worked flint, including a few leaf-shaped arrowheads, plus  burnt flint and charcoal. These artefact-rich lower deposits were clearly made up of material that had been gathered and deliberately dumped into the ditches, perhaps a mixture of feasting and tool-making debris.

We also recovered the kinds of samples we needed for radiocarbon dating, including burnt hazelnut shells, and the outer portions of oak timbers –  the material was sent off to a lab in Ottawa for analysis. Alas the one aim we failed to achieve, was getting a clearer idea as what animals were being consumed on site; the complete lack of bones is probably due to the high soil acidity at Freston, whereby most organics – unless they have been charred – simply don’t survive, an alas all too common problem in this part of the county.

While we benefitted enormously from the work of a handful of local volunteers, it was never our aim for this first season to be a true community outreach project, something we plan to change in future years. It was possible however to give a site-tour towards the end of the excavation, a well-attended gathering organised by our friends from the Shotley Peninsula Archaeology Research Community, and later in the year we gave a preliminary overview of our discoveries via Zoom, hosted by the Stour & Orwell Society and Shotley Peninsula Facilitation Group. We have also created what we hope is a user-friendly and accessible website to share what we are up to.

What is next?

Though our hopes of returning to Freston to finish our excavation and study the 2019 finds has thus far been thwarted by Covid-19, our team has been productively beavering away in the background. We have already published the results of our geophysical survey, and have just had an article reviewing the 2019 excavation accepted for another journal, while a third paper is about to be submitted to a conference proceedings organised by the Neolithic Studies Group dedicated to causewayed enclosures – all very timely! Ideally, we will return in 2021, and look forward to further sharing our work with you.

Further Information

Freston Archaeological Research Mission website

New work at the Freston causewayed enclosure, Suffolk, Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 97, Spring 2021

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