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Tinkinswood Community Archaeology

November 8, 2011

Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.

Marcus Aurelius

Fate. Such a strong word for one so small. As I was finishing another blog post I had no idea that a very timely hit on the Twitter button would lead me to another excavation. There was no way I could have known who was online at the time of publishing, let alone if they would read it, but they did.

The Council for British Archaeology have very generously sponsored CADW to enable them to employ a community archaeological officer. The officer read on my blog that I had enjoyed taking the general public around Caerleon and mentioned that there was an opportunity to do the same at an up and coming community excavation. This had been organised near a Scheduled Ancient Monument called Tinkinswood. I couldn’t refuse. The site is an early Neolithic burial chamber of the Severn Cotswold type and is thought to hold the largest capstone in Britain, weighing in at an impressive forty tonnes.

First excavated in 1914 by John Ward, the keeper of archaeology at the newly built national museum, the  burial chamber was found to contain nearly a thousand individual bones. The bones were a variety of ages, of both genders, with about fifty individuals represented. Pottery was also found, although the majority of this was near the entrance of the chamber and has been linked to ceremonial purposes.

That is not the whole story, nearby were other strange features and these were not understood. So an excavation proposal was created and the funding sought. With all of the T’s crossed, the I’s dotted and the go ahead given, we all met up on the 22nd October to investigate these features with the hope of some answers being forthcoming. And they were.

There were three areas that were to be looked at through archaeological investigation. Two of the areas are on the link above, the third was a potential quarry where the huge capstone was thought to have been lifted from. It was in this area that I was to spend the majority of the next two weeks. We had a remit for up to ten test pits as we were charged with looking for any signs that prehistoric quarrying would have left.

Looking into the 'Quarry'

Looking into the 'Quarry', to the left of the picture is test pit two.

So what were we looking for? Hammer stones for one thing, quite literally prehistoric hammers. We were also on the look out for antler picks. Formed from the antler of a red deer, these tools were commonly used by Neolithic communities in north west Europe for the excavation of soil and quarrying out stone and bedrock. If these were present then other finds, such as worked flint and pottery, would help us date when quarrying had been undertaken.

We only managed to open up six test pits for a variety of reasons. The ground was like concrete as the tree roots had naturally sucked up any moisture from the ground that was present. Secondly the roots themselves were in every test pit that was opened up. Some of these were very large and it was time consuming trying to remove them.

Test pit six - One that stayed, it was just to large for removal

Another reason for only opening up six test pits was the fact that were under quite a dense tree canopy. Don’t get me wrong, we had great weather over the two weeks, but the canopy was just too dense for sunshine to penetrate it adequately. When it was overcast it was particularly bad to spot things like soil colour change or even small finds. On one overcast day, I was standing in the quarry area looking out towards where people gathered at the start of the day.

Hopefully this picture will illustrate how bad the conditions could get if the sun didnt shine. I turned my flash off for that picture and you may be surprised to know that there is a test pit in the bottom of the photograph, just to the left of the tree on the right.

Anyway, enough of my griping and moaning, what did we find in the quarry area? The answer to that is, not much evidence of prehistoric quarrying material at all! It has to be said though, my favourite find from the whole excavation popped up out of test pit two. A volunteer had been placed in there and it was hard going due to the reasons given above. As I walked past the pit the volunteer asked me ‘is this anything because if it isn’t, I would like to take it home as it sits so nicely in my hand’! Alarm bells started ringing!

Now, doesn’t that river cobble look pretty? Two flakes are missing from its leading edge. It is a crude chopping tool. When I took people around and showed them the find,  I did say that the flakes may have been created due to it striking something. They appear to be too equal in size for that though, to me they look like being deliberately worked by one hell of a skilled hand. As you look at the right hand picture, my fingers are resting on a worked surface which has been flattened. The left hand side remains curved. It is archaeological, I have no doubt about that, the age of that tool being created is another matter. Things like that are notoriously difficult to date. To confuse matters, tree roots had taken a small amount of metal working slag below it.
Test pit four threw up some very nice finds. By luck, it happened to be mine for most of its duration. Most of the pits had two contexts, top soil and subsoil before bedrock was hit. Test pit four was different, it had a third context overlying the bedrock. Normally, this would be known as the natural organic material overlying the geology, you do not normally get finds out of this. We did in test pit four.
The top of the pit had revealed a layer of burnt stone. That was important as it is thought that fire was part and parcel of prehistoric quarrying techniques. You heat the stone to an incredible temperature, pour cold water on it and the sudden change in temperature forces a fracture. With the burnt stone recorded, their removal meant I could eventually start to go down through the soil. I came across what appeared to be another piece of burnt stone that turned out to be a sherd of pottery, burnt pottery.

There is a strong possibility that the sherd is Neolithic. I have no shame when I admit that when I realised what this was I skipped down the field to call the site director. There is nothing wrong with passion in your work!
All in all, the excavations at Tinkinswood have been good for the archaeological investigation of the prehistoric landscape within the Vale of Glamorgan. The other areas of the site answered the research questions that had been set; I.E. What were they? You can read about them here.
May I take this opportunity to thank Ffion, the Community Archaeology Officer for CADW, and Meli who was the site director, for such a wonderful opportunity to excavate a brilliant and exciting site.
And one of the best things about the site?
‘Twas the sunsets as we went to go home. It is a magical place.

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  1. Hi David, It’s treat to be able to share in your adventure. Keep sharing.

  2. There are people who would pay good money to see you skipping from a test pit across a field to see the site director. Mind you, most of them are not allowed sharp objects.

    It sounds really interesting. Any chance of the great unwashed (i.e. me) getting to see any of this?

    • There is another excavation starting on the 19th November,it is just down the road at St Lythans burial chamber. Tours will be available from the 26th presumable at 11am and 2pm, although we did try and accommodate everybody who turned up on any weekend at Tinkinswood.

  3. Welshblood permalink

    Fantastic D!

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