The discovery of an early henge at Norton, Hertfordshire by local archaeologists
The story begins in 1936. Major Allen, a pioneer of aerial photography in Britain, flew over a field to the east of the young Letchworth Garden City and spotted a large ring in the crop, which he duly photographed.
Like so many such cropmarks in North Hertfordshire, it was long assumed to be the traces of a ditch that would have formed a quarry for material to make an earlier Bronze Age burial mound. Subsequent photographs taken during the 1960s and 70s appeared to confirm this supposition.
Then, in 1994, there was a proposal to locate a new cemetery in this field. Because of the known archaeological sensitivity of the area, a geophysical survey was commissioned; owing to the technique used, magnetometry, only the north-western half of the field could be surveyed, as the south-eastern end of the field is crossed by high-tension power lines. Nevertheless, this monument was covered by the survey, which revealed what was described by the surveyors as a “double ring ditch”.
When I first saw the plot of the geophysics, in 2004, I was troubled by the description. Firstly, the inner of the two ditches was incomplete and horseshoe shaped; between this and the outer, circular ditch (which may have a gap on the same alignment as the inner ditch), the geophysicists had detected what they described as a “kerb”. Kerbed barrows are known in northern and western Britain, but they are not reported from Hertfordshire. However, an aerial photograph taken in the dry summer of 1976 suggested that this “kerb” was thick – perhaps up to ten metres wide – and had a gap exactly where the inner ditch and possibly the outer ditch also had gaps. I suspected that this was not a ploughed out burial mound but something rather less common, an Early Bronze Age henge (Figure 1).
Norton Community Archaeology Group
In 2006, following a successful exhibition about the history of Norton a Letchworth Museum and The First Garden City Heritage Museum, a group of local residents decided to form a Community Archaeology Group and I was invited to be its archaeological advisor. Early excavations, from the summer of 2007 on, were small scale and designed to train members in archaeological techniques on sites where sensitive remains were unlikely to be found.
By 2010, the Group had amassed sufficient experience to tackle the more complex archaeology of Stapleton’s Field (formerly Hundred Acre Field), where the “double ring ditch” lay. Three trenches were opened in what was expected to be an entirely Bronze Age landscape; two revealed a previously unknown Romano-British farmstead and its associated field ditches, while the third, which ran across the centre of the “ring ditch” discovered by Major Allen, revealed deposits that all appeared to be of Late Neolithic date.
The initial trench did not give enough data to characterise the site adequately, so it was decided to return in 2011 and open a second trench, at right angles to the first. Again, there were still too many unanswered questions, so a much larger trench, 40 m square, was opened in 2012 (Figure 2) and a slightly smaller trench in 2013. By the end of the fourth season, in August 2013, the Community Group’s investigations had produced some remarkable and unexpected results.
A Middle Neolithic henge
By the end of the 2011 season, it had become clear that we were looking at a henge, but one of unusual date and character. Classic henges are oval, with one or two entrances through a bank with an internal ditch. The Norton henge, by contrast, has a circular outer ditch and a bank inside it, associated entirely with Middle Neolithic material culture. This appears to indicate that is an especially early form of henge, generally known as a ‘formative’ henge. Most examples so far identified are found in Wales and the West Country, with the closest example to Norton in Warwickshire. This makes our henge the first ‘formative’ type to be identified in eastern England.
Little remains of the ‘formative’ henge apart from the outer ditch, which proved to be around five metres wide, with nearly vertical sides and a flattish base (Figure 3 – Header Image); its fills contained only Peterborough Ware pottery, Early to Middle Neolithic lithic types and, towards the base, a considerable quantity of animal bone. The bank had been badly damaged by ploughing, surviving in places to a depth of no more than a centimetre or two. Deposits in the centre had fared even worse, although the damage here appears to have taken place during the Neolithic, when much of the soil was worn away, leaving patches of exposed chalk bedrock. In the middle of the entrance, which faced precisely due east towards the springs of the River Ivel (a tributary of the Great Ouse), was a line of three pits, each deliberately backfilled with a chalk rubble and clay material (apparently in an attempt to prevent them from filling with water after rain). A considerable quantity of white quartz pebbles was found in deposits of this phase, suggesting that they had been deliberately brought on to the site. The exact date of this phase is unknown, in the absence of radiocarbon dates (which will be obtained later this year), but is perhaps as early as before c 3000 BC.
However, a second phase seems to have begun during the Middle to Late Neolithic, with the cutting back of the bank and the excavation of an inner, horseshoe shaped ditch. At around the same time, the interior of the henge and its entrance were paved with a deposit of dumped chalk and soil, covering the previously exposed bedrock and providing a flat surface to the monument. The fills of the ditch contained both Peterborough Ware and Grooved Ware, indicating that it began to silt up after around 2800 BC.
Subsequently, an activity deposit formed on top of the ‘paving’. This included discrete areas of in situ burning and contained sherds of Beaker pottery and Collared Urn, suggesting that the use of the site continued until the last quarter of the third millennium. During this third phase, a large cremation pit was dug in the precise centre of the henge; it contained the cremated remains of a neonate, a child and at least one adult; a couple of sherds of Beaker pottery suggest a date late in the third millennium. Nearby, a smaller cremation pit contained the remains of another child, although it may also have been deposited during the final phase.
Eventually, a low chalk bank, only about 30 cm high, was constructed on the inner lip of the inner ditch, with posts inserted into the top of it, while another post was set up close to the centre of the henge. The site of the former cremation pit was covered with a roughly square rammed chalk platform, its surface more-or-less level. The deposits in the centre of the henge continued to build up, eventually spilling over the top of the chalk bank and into the top of the now completely filled inner ditch. Some of these deposits included pieces of disarticulated and unburnt human bone, the context of their deposition completely unknown. The final activity in this phase appears to have been the deposition of a complete miniature Collared Urn in its own pit, not accompanying a human burial (Figure 4). After this, the site seems to have been abandoned until the Roman period.
A surprising discovery
Owing to the thinness of the surviving bank deposits, it became clear during initial trowelling in 2013 that a pre-bank topsoil was preserved beneath it. A decision was therefore made to remove a small section of the bank to recover environmental and dating evidence (if any) from beneath it. The first area to be investigated revealed a short stretch of what proved to be a foundation trench filled with the chalk rubble that had been used in the bank’s construction. Further cleaning revealed the plan of a horseshoe shaped structure, which had had (presumably) upright plank walling, open to the south-east (Figure 5); the trench was visible evidently because the planks were removed shortly before the construction of the bank. We had found a Middle Neolithic house.
As if that were not exciting enough, cleaning elsewhere revealed parts of two other pre-henge structures, both also plank built. During the excavations of the henge since 2011, considerable quantities of daub had been recovered, their origin presenting something of a mystery. The discovery of these structures provides a context for this material. The topsoil deposits through which the foundation trenches had been cut contained sherds of Peterborough Ware and a plain pottery type, fragments of animal bone and a number of brightly coloured pebbles, possibly brought onto the site deliberately.
The site in its landscape
One of the most remarkable aspects of the Norton henge is that there is a great deal of information about contemporary activity in its vicinity. A few hundred metres to the south-west of the henge is the site of Blackhorse Road, where Neolithic and later occupation was identified in the 1960s. The activity includes the sinking of five shafts (a sixth is unfinished), thought by the excavator to be flint mines, which included an eclectic mix of pottery (Peterborough Ware, Grooved Ware and Beaker) in deposits with curiously late radiocarbon dates in the eighteenth century BC.
Further to the south, a hengiform monument was discovered in 1999, with the crouched inhumation burial of an adolescent at its centre. Nearby, part of an evidently rectangular domestic enclosure of Late Neolithic date was found during the same investigations.
To the east of the henge, leading to the springs on which the henge is aligned, an unusually narrow cursus was first identified in 1963. At only seven metres wide, it nevertheless has parallel ditches with low internal banks and, although no definite dating evidence was recovered during its excavation, its fills proved to pre-date a colluvial deposit containing Grooved Ware. Further to the east, a flint working floor associated with a post-built structure and Peterborough Ware was identified at Baldock in 1989. A further Neolithic burial, this time in a square enclosure, and several groups of pits (including one containing a complete aurochs horn core) were found in 2003 during the construction of the A505 bypass to the east of Baldock.
This concentration of Middle and Late Neolithic sites is unusual in Hertfordshire. I have started to refer to the area as “The Baldock Bowl”, as it is a distinctive (if undramatic) landscape feature with a large number of monuments from the Neolithic through to the Roman period. Unlike more favoured parts of Britain, such as Salisbury Plain, where surviving earthwork monuments have long drawn the attention of antiquaries and archaeologists, the Baldock Bowl has been under the plough for the past two millennia.
As a result, the prehistoric landscapes are largely obliterated and it is only through chance discovery and targeted research that we are beginning to understand its richness and complexity.
Header Image : Figure 3 The outer ditch as revealed in 2013
Contributing Source : Norton Archaeology
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