North Herts Museum is always happy to offer work experience placements for interested young people; many of us got our first taste of museum work in a similar way. Last week, Tom, a student from St Christopher School in Letchworth Garden City, spent some time looking at the finds from an old excavation. The finds were deposited with the Museum Service more than ten years ago but no-one had had the opportunity to look at them since then.
I was interested in looking at the finds because they were excavated from a site at the east end of Works Road in Letchworth Garden City, only a few hundred metres from the henge in Norton that I have been investigating recently. The original work was carried out between 1997 and 1999 by the Hertfordshire Archaeological Trust (now Archaeological Solutions), who discovered important Late Neolithic features, dating from about 3000 to 2000 BC. These included a hengiform monument with the crouched skeleton of a teenager at its centre, some deep shafts, a curious banana-shaped pit and an L-shaped ditch. A report on the flints found compared them with those found at Blackhorse Road, a site excavated between 1957 and 1973 by Letchworth Museum, just 200 metres away. I wanted to see for myself how similar they were to the flints from the henge and, perhaps more importantly, to see how their small quantity of pottery compared.
As expected, the types of flints were very similar, with some rather nice scrapers and denticulated blades. By the end of the week, Tom had learned how to spot the difference between scrapers, blades, débitage (waste flakes from striking the flint) and cores. He also spotted some stone objects that were rather more unusual, which had me puzzled at first. Two of these objects consisted of flat slabs of a gritty sandstone-like material, about the size of my hand. One surface on each had been polished smooth and, on one of them, a polished groove had been worn into the centre of the stone’s long axis. There was also a cube of stone with one face polished and a pebble with a pointed end that was damaged as if it had been used as a hammer, which is what I thought it was at first. Then I spotted that it was also worn along one edge and that it fitted into the groove on the slab almost perfectly.
This was the clue I needled to answer the puzzle.The slabs were hand-held palettes, used for grinding something, while the other stones were the grinders. The cube had not worn into the face of the slab, but the different shape of the pebble had gradually worn down a groove. Unlike larger querns, slabs that were used for grinding flour from grain, these were designed to be held in the hand for grinding small quantities of something. Palettes have been recorded in the Neolithic of other parts of the world – the decorated cosmetic palettes of Egypt are well known – but they are not widely reported from Britain. I suspect that the pair from Letchworth Garden City were used in a similar way to the more decorative Egyptian examples, for grinding pigment to use as cosmetics, perhaps for religious ceremonies rather than general beautification. To have two together is really quite unusual, if my identification of them is correct.
The discovery of these palettes has turned the site at Works Road from one that is merely interesting to one that looks to be rather significant. With the early henge only 300 m away, flint mines closer still and a hengiform monument on the same site, this is a complex to rival many better known sites. It goes to show that important discoveries can be made away from the site, by people who, like Tom, are not trained archaeologists. Thank you, Tom!
This year’s summer excavation by the Norton Community Archaeology Group is coming to an end, so today the museum team went to see what they have found.
It is a very interesting site, which Keith really brings to life. I would encourage those of you who are able to go along to the Open Day tomorrow and have a look for yourself. If you can’t visit, Keith and other members of the Norton Group have been keeping a blog detailing the progress each day, and posting pictures of some of the finds.
Radiocarbon dating the henge
I sent a piece of animal bone off for radiocarbon dating before I went off for my holiday in Malta. The bone is part of the leg of a juvenile pig, placed on the bottom of the outer ditch of the henge before silting began. A radiocarbon date from it ought to give us some idea about when the ditch was last open (it doesn’t tell us about when the ditch was dug, as it could have been cleaned out many times over the centuries the henge was in use). As the only pottery from the ditch was of middle Neolithic type, I am hoping that the radiocarbon date will confirm a date before 2800 BC.
Comparing the Norton henge with Maltese megalithic temples
Malta is well know for its Neolithic temples, which include some of the oldest stone structures in the world (only Göbekli Tepe, in south-eastern Turkey, is older: even the pyramids of Egypt are not as old). I visited one of the most famous, at Tarxien (pronounced “Tar-sheen”), for the fifth time while away. It was discovered when a farmer turned up large pieces of stone when ploughing a field early in the twentieth century. Sir Themistocles (“Temi”) Zammit, the island’s principal archaeologist at that time, spent several years excavating the monument and his work there turned up some of the best-known images of prehistoric Europe: spiral decorations, images in low relief of bulls and the lower part of a colossal statue of a very fat person wearing a skirt or kilt (usually assumed to be a woman, for no very good reason).
Although the earliest temple at Tarxien dates from the earliest phase of massive temple building (known as the Ġgantija Phase, after a temple complex on Gozo), the style reached its peak with a later Neolithic seven-roomed structure built to its west. This is more-or-less contemporary with the henge at Stapleton’s Field, dating from around 3100 to 2500 BC: our henge site was probably built around the same time as the earliest of the temples at Tarxien and was perhaps abandoned around the same time as the latest. Both were constructed by Neolithic farming communities and it is instructive to realise that in both places, the work required was enormous and would have put a real strain on agricultural productivity.
It is often tempting to think of prehistoric peoples as “primitive”. This is an attitude that goes back to the beginning of archaeology, when wealthy Victorian gentlemen who saw themselves as the pinnacle of civilisation viewed people in Africa, Asia and the Americas as “savages”. They compared the societies of these people with what they could discover about the European past and saw many similarities. Of course, there are parallels to be drawn between ancient societies and those that ethnographers study today, but we should not be so quick to make ill-considered value judgements.
The people who built the Tarxien temples and Stapleton’s Field henge were as intelligent and sophisticated as we are. Their lives were as rich and full of joy, conflict, love and pain as our own. The differences between us are largely those of technology and the scale of our societies. The globalised world of the past century or so depends on a range of technologies that make the movement of heavy objects so much easier and the communication of ideas so much faster than they were in the Neolithic. Neolithic farmers lived in dispersed communities; coming together for seasonal meetings at places like Tarxien or Stapleton’s Field was their main means of communication, of learning new ideas, and was probably an occasion for employing a lot of muscle power. These people were not constrained by the sorts of deadlines we have: like the builders of a medieval cathedral, they were content to spend decades, even centuries, building their monuments.
This is an important lesson from prehistory. The technology of Neolithic farmers may have been primitive in comparison with ours, but we can still be awe-struck in front of their achievements. As an archaeologist who has shifted untold tonnes of soil over the years, I am well aware just how much effort was put in by the people who excavated the outer ditch of the Stapleton’s Field henge to a depth of 1.5 metres and a width of 5 m using only antler picks and cattle shoulder-blade shovels.
I am hoping to be able to reveal the date of the pig bone from the henge around the end of May.
19 December 2020 - 31 January 2021