DigVentures set off on a Dirty Weekend to excavate Poulton – the largest Iron Age lowland settlement west of the Pennines. Our intrepid team of Venturers uncovered a new roundhouse, evidence of wealth, trade and daily life and even something that’s set to change how we think some of the buildings were used…
Lots of people dream of being an archaeologist, and this time our Dirty Weekend Venturers really proved the point. At our rendez-vous on Friday at Chester’s charming Albion Inn, we were met by a fantastically diverse group of people, all of whom were here to live out their dream of learning to dig.
Meet the Venturers
Among our aspiring archaeologists we had Uly (who had flown over all the way from Nigeria to learn about community-led projects), Sam (a university student), Chris C (an accountant), Sean (a Times travel writer), Pamela (a Cambridge scholar) and four families, including the infamous Rosie and Hannah! When one of them asked us whether it was normal to have a group as diverse as this, we could only reply “with us, nothing is normal, especially not the archaeology…”
Introducing the largest Iron Age settlement west of the Pennines
We were ready for site early the next morning. It had rained overnight so the trenches were more than a little damp, but no matter – as every archaeologist knows, wet weather makes for soft soil and easy digging. This is a particular bonus when digging in clay like at Poulton. But first things first – a quick tour of the site…
On one side of the field is the Iron Age trench, where work has already revealed a massive roundhouse over 15.6m wide. Most archaeologists would count themselves lucky if they found 50 artefacts in a roundhouse, but this one has produced 5,000 and counting! Surveys of the surrounding field have shown that the entire landscape is covered with what will probably turn out to be dozens of Iron Age dwellings.
As well as being one of the biggest, Poulton is one of the only such settlements in the region – with discoveries rolling in thick and fast, instead of being an Iron Age blackspot, excavations are putting the area back on the Iron Age map.
Into the mud… and our first Iron Age discoveries!
In the Iron Age trench, we set about excavating one of the most iconic features of a roundhouse – the ditches and drip gullies (the ditch made in the soil by years of water pouring off the roof of the roundhouse) which run around the edge of where the building would have stood, and which tend to collect all sorts of odds and ends.
Here, we uncovered the fire-cracked rock and plenty of the animal bone that is so ubiquitous at Poulton. Fire-cracked rocks are one of the most common artifacts found on site, which were heated in the fire then added to pots to boil water for cooking and washing.
The first evidence of metalworking
Over in the ditch of Roundhouse 2, Chris and Sean were also sifting through the mud for bits of bone and fire-cracked rock, but when we heard a cry of surprise, we knew they’d happened upon something special.
Chris pulled up something bubbly and rust coloured, but not all that heavy. Passing this curious item around to have a look, Site Director Kevin excitedly pronounced that it was a lump of slag and promptly kissed Chris on the head – he’d found the first evidence for metalworking associated with that particular roundhouse. An extraordinary discovery that suggests that these structures weren’t purely domestic…
And a whole new roundhouse!
Meanwhile in the corner of the trench, excitement was brewing. Chris Clements and Sam had been cleaning back a layer of dirt, and in doing so exposed the arc of yet another roundhouse!
Chris and Sam excavated three fills from a section and found bone, fire-cracked rock and some nice big pieces of Very Coarse Pottery (VCP) – type of ceramic used for storing salt in the Iron age.
Back then, salt was a marker of wealth, so the quantity of salt container that we find helps us to understand the power of the settlement. The middle fill of this section was charcoal rich and so it will provide environmental information and another radiocarbon date for the site – something that can help us understand whether or not these buildings were inhabited at the same time.
A site of unusually good preservation…
But Poulton isn’t just about the Iron Age – on the other side of the field, excavation has also exposed the ruins of a Medieval church and cemetery with hundreds of skeletons, on top of a Late Saxon church, on top of a Roman cemetery. The remarkable thing is that skeletal remains are almost unheard of in the area – Poulton just happens to have exactly the right geology (boulder clay with glacial calcite deposits) to preserve them, making Poulton absolutely vital for the region’s skeletal evidence – both human and animal.
The other half of a Roman column
On the other side of the field, the Roman team were set to clean back an area and investigate some masonry. They too found lots of pieces of animal bone, but things got really exciting when they started pulling up Roman masonry. Rosie found a piece of column underneath that turned out to match a piece that Kevin excavated several seasons before and together will help the team better understand the site’s collapse and destruction.
Tools down… until next time!
When it came time for tools down, people were really starting to become attached to their work and nobody was ready to go home just yet – Sam asked if we could just leave her in the trenches. We didn’t want to say goodbye to our lovely little group either.
Our Venturers made lots of amazing discoveries at Poulton this year. We discovered a new roundhouse, found new evidence of metal industry, discovered evidence of wealth, trade and daily life. But this is an excavation that has been ongoing since the 1990s and will go on for years to come. Each new discovery brings up even more questions about this remarkable site and we’re excited to be along for the ride.
Tools down… until next time! We’ll be back in 2017!
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