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As the end of their 2012 dig season came to a close, so the Norton Community Archaeology Group  (NCAG) held an Open Day at their Stapleton’s Field dig on what was the hottest day of the year so far. This is the third season of an ongoing project design (PDF links) begun in 2010 to investigate crop marks on aerial photographs which suggested a possible henge structure. Although most participants in the dig are amateurs, the summer excavation work is directed by North Hertfordshire District Council’s Archaeology Officer, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, and advised by local archaeologist Paul Palmer.

Stapleton’s Field from the air, 1976 © G R Burleigh

I headed up the A1 to Letchworth in good time for the start of the open session and decided to take a slight detour to look at the museum in Letchworth. It is housed in an elegant Edwardian building facing Broadway Gardens, in the centre of Letchworth, beside the Library. The ground floor contains a wildlife exhibition – lots of stuffed animals and birds. The ‘Before the Garden City’ exhibition is on the first floor, sadly inaccessible for the disabled except via two flights of stairs via a small mezzanine floor. The exhibition itself is quite extensive, though some renovation work is being carried out: some display cases were empty or partly so, information boards referred to missing exhibits etc. but despite that, it gives a good flavour of the depth of archaeology in the area. NCAG have a display there too, outlining their excavations and findings.

I had heard that the museum also had a roundhouse, but when I enquired at the desk was told this is in the museum garden, only viewable on ‘open archaeology days’, but that I might be able to see it from the children’s section of the library next door. I declined this offer, and set off for the dig site.

I parked on a grass verge on Norton Road just west of the bridge over the A1, and set off around the footpath to the site. Across the field I could see a good crowd, obviously being told about the site. Was I too late?

The first tour in progress.

I found my way eventually, having taken a turn onto the wrong footpath and being stymied by barbed wire fencing frustratingly separating me from the site and causing me to walk the length of the field twice to gain access, just as the tour was ending. I would estimate between 80-100 people on that first tour, a good turn-out!

There were gazebos set up with some information boards, both on general archaeology techniques (geofizz etc) and the site dig in particular, and as I was perusing these, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews was announcing that a second tour was about to start. Again, a good 70-80 people were gathered, having missed the first tour.

We started by the south corner of the 40m square excavation, where Keith explained a brief history of the dig site and the mystery of a ‘square enclosure’ around the suspected henge. The enclosure turned out to be a Roman ditch, with lots of roof tile, and some evidence of iron smelting and manufacture in the area, although no forge was found. Keith postulated that the area was a site for manufacture, and possibly sale of iron goods, the ditch being a defensive mechanism to keep out burgulars. Any buildings may have been timber-framed structures, built on (rather than in) the chalk base. The lack of a forge could be explained if the forge were to have been built into the bank of the henge which was slightly uphill, and subsequently ploughed out and scattered, leaving no trace. This would make economic sense at the time, as building a forge was a large undertaking, and why not use what’s already there?

Keith explaining the Roman ditch

The ditch in section

We then moved uphill to the west of the excavation, where barely visible remains of a chalk ring could be made out on the ground. This was the remains of the henge, which was composed of not one, but two banks; a large outer bank some 55 metres or so in diameter, and a smaller inner bank and ditch. This has been interpreted as a possible ‘missing link’ between the earlier formative-henge monument type, and the later classic henge form. If this is the case, then this makes the site very important indeed.

The smaller bank had an entrance due East, and a central, flat chalk platform which may have been used to view the equinoxal sunrise – important dates in the neolithic farming calendar. A cremation burial was also found within this inner bank, along with a large post hole – for  a ‘totem’ pole possibly? The cremation was of an adolescent, some 8-9 years old, as evidenced by a milk tooth found within the remains.

The excavation from the west

The bank and ditches have been dated via various pottery finds of known types. The cremation mentioned above having been in what may have been a collared urn style pot, but one of much better quality than usually associated with the type.

There was some discussion of the wider landscape, the ‘Baldock Bowl’ as Keith has called it – the subject of his recent talk at the Welwyn Archaeological Society Conference“it’s like someone dumped a lump of Salisbury Plain in Hertfordshire!”

All too soon the tour of the site was over, and Keith was answering questions from the couple of dozen people who had remained. As I left, I overheard plans being discussed for next season’s excavation in 2013.

An interesting day of outreach to the local community, who were obviously (from the numbers present) very interested in the early story of their local area. Well done to all involved!

Note: Apologies to all involved for any inaccuracies in my account above, I was working from memory rather than notes.

All pictures above © Alan S. unless stated.

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