The Second Season of Excavation at Freston

many people standing in trench around excavated ditch

In 2021, the Freston Archaeological Research Mission returned for their second season of excavation to investigate the Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure at Freston. Dr Tristan Carter, our guest writer for this week, tells us all about it.

After a year’s pandemic-enforced break, the Freston Archaeological Research Mission [FARM] returned to the field in the summer of 2021. Our work at the Early Neolithic causewayed enclosure – one of the largest in the UK, and the first to be excavated in Suffolk – focused once more on the monument’s south-eastern quadrant.

A relatively clear plan of the earthwork has been produced through reference to aerial photography, and geophysical survey, with a double concentric ‘interrupted ditch system’ encompassing an area of 8.55 hectares, plus traces of what appear to be a palisade ditch running in between.

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

Alas these studies cannot provide us with an understanding of the monument’s absolute and relative chronology; that requires stratigraphic excavation, and scientific dating. This is where FARM comes in, with our work part-dedicated to produce the radiocarbon dates to specify when the causewayed enclosure was established, and its sequence of construction. Were both ditch circuits dug at the same time? Might the palisade represent a later, more defensively oriented reconfiguration of the site?

In 2019, our first season of excavations focused on a pair of ditch termini from the inner circuit, with organic deposits from the pottery-rich lowest deposits having since been dated at a radiocarbon lab in Ottawa. While we cannot detail here the exact dates (they are being prepared for publication), the results suggest that Freston is an early causewayed enclosure, constructed in the first half of the fourth millennium BC. As suggested above, it need not follow that the outer circuit was dug at the same time; nor was it necessarily used in the same manner as the inner ditch. Indeed, the results of the 2022 excavations suggest significant differences between the inner, and outer ditch systems. Firstly, the eastern outer ditch terminus was ‘only’ 1.5 m deep, almost a metre shallower than its inner neighbour, though the western ditch was an impressive 2.2 m in depth.

Person standing on ladder in the excavated area and a person sitting down drawing at the top of the excavation site
Nat Jackson and Deanna Aubert document one of the outer ditches ©FARM

Secondly, the outer ditches were much less productive in terms of finds, with the 2021 pottery assemblage only a tenth of that generated in 2019. The most prosaic explanation of these differences in depositional practices is that those responsible for clearing up the detritus of the events that took place in the enclosure, ‘simply’ dumped the pots, stone tools, and food waste into the first set of ditches they came to as they exited the monument. That said, work at other causewayed enclosures suggests that discard practices may have been influenced more by cultural tradition and symbolic practices, rather than our pragmatic attitudes towards waste disposal.

One of the finest artefacts from the 2019 season, was a delicate barbed-and-tanged arrowhead of Early Bronze Age date, an item deposited by people long removed in time and tradition from those Early Neolithic farmers who established the site.

Image of flint arrow head
Early Bronze Age barbed-and-tanged flint arrowhead ©Cotswold Archaeology

In 2021 we found more evidence of Early Bronze Age activity at the monument, with pottery and stone tools characteristic of the so-called ‘Beaker Culture’ of the 3rd millennium BC found in the ditches uppermost layers. Aerial photos suggest that there is a nearby round barrow cemetery of this date, but the character of activity in the causewayed enclosure remains unclear: veneration of the ancients, or simply the (re)occupation of a desirable location?

We also exposed another stretch of the palisade trench that ran between the two ditch circuits, the upright oak timbers being set into post-holes within a narrow slot. While our radiocarbon dates indicate that this was a later addition to the monument, the character of this feature remains puzzling. The major issue is that we are not certain that this massive fence was continuous; the aerial photos certainly suggests that in parts of the site it served to shut off many of the original entranceways, which on the face of it seems to be a defensive move, however, the part we dug in 2021 seemed to terminate with a larger post-hole.

Image of excavated area
Palisade trench terminating with large post-hole ©FARM

Might this palisade have been built more as a screen to block vision, rather than access? The section we excavated ran in front of a causeway, yet in theory one could still have entered the site easily enough by simply walking around the fence. Maybe instead we can think of the monument becoming more exclusive over time, whereby eventually only certain individuals were allowed to enter the hallowed space, while others were restricted to gathering outside (think Neolithic VIP room). The palisade might have served to stop the ‘outsiders’ from seeing what was happening inside, such as the performance of secret rituals (think Neolithic masonic lodge).

Once again, the excavation was undertaken by a small team of Canada, US, and UK-based archaeologists, together with a handful of keen volunteers. While our longer-term plan is to make the project more community-oriented, this initial two-year pilot project has at least been able to share our work with many interested parties through our second public open-day, articles for the Holbrook and Wolverstone parish news, plus talks for the Colchester Archaeology Group, and Holbrook Society.

Group of people standing around excavated area with archaeologists showing the site
Site tour organised by Shotley Peninsula Archaeology Research Community ©FARM

We have also had our first formal study-season, working on the finds in nearby Berners Hall, where shared our discoveries with Suffolk County Council’s emeritus prehistorian Edward Martin, and the Ipswich Museum geologists Bob and Caroline Markham, all of whom provided invaluable insights. It also offered Rose Moir – a student from McMaster University – her first dedicated opportunity to study the pottery for her graduate thesis (Figure 6), with a visit from well-known Suffolk potter Beryl Hines resulting in an experimental firing of handmade ceramic vessels using local clays, in a manner not dissimilar to the production of Early Neolithic pots (Figure 7).

Person handling pottery fragments
Rose Moir studies the Early Neolithic pottery ©FARM

Now, behind the scenes we are beavering away on writing the next set of academic papers (our first open access article on the 2019 excavation having been published last year), and preparing talks for the Ipswich Institute, and the Waveney Valley Community Archaeology Group.

We also await news on our next grant application, which if successful – fingers crossed! – would enable us to expand our work at Freston, and to engage further with local stakeholders, including the documentation of local artefact collections that can shed further light on the prehistory of the Shotley peninsula. In the interim, if you have further questions about our work, then you can peruse the FARM website or contact us by email if you would like PDFs of the four academic publications that this project has already produced.

Prof. Tristan Carter

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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