Last weekend, I attended a one-day conference organised (and fully funded) by Wessex Archaeology at the Greenwich University Medway Campus on 12th September 2015. The theme of the conference was ‘Celebrating Prehistoric Kent’.

The programme was set out as follows and despite some minor overruns, all went very smoothly, ably m.c.’d by Wessex Archaeology’s Regional Team Leader for London and the South East, Mark Williams.

Programme
9.30: Welcome (coffee and selection of teas provided)
9.50: Introduction
10.00: Paul Garwood (University of Birmingham): Seas of change: the early Neolithic in the Medway valley and its European context
10.40: Sophie Adams (University of Bristol): We dig what you dig: exploring later prehistoric bronze working from the excavated evidence
11.20: Break with coffee and selection of teas provided
11.40: Phil Andrews (Wessex Archaeology): Digging at the Gateway: the archaeology of East Kent Access 2
12.20: Andy Bates (University of Kent): Investigation and Survey of the Oppida at Bigbury and Oldbury
1.00: Lunch (not provided) displays etc
2.00: Jacqueline McKinley (Wessex Archaeology): The Late Bronze Age-Middle Iron Age mortuary landscape at Cliffs End
2.40: Ges Moody (Trust For Thanet Archaeology): Prehistory in our place and our place in Prehistory; Thanet and the Trust for Thanet Archaeology
3.20: Andrew Mayfield (Kent County Council Heritage Team): Public perceptions of prehistory
4.00: Discussion & Close

I tried to take notes throughout the day, and I hope I haven’t misrepresented what was said by anyone in the following summary. Please comment if you were there and feel I’ve got anything wrong.

Paul Garwood kicked off the day, talking about the Medway Valley Megaliths, “discovered, forgotten, rediscovered etc. but not quite fitting in”. He postulated a two-phase Neolithic: The ‘Formative’ (4000-3750BC), which included the spread of farming to previously Mesolithic cultures, and the ‘Early Developed’ (3750-3400BC) which included the long barrow culture.

Evidence from each of the megaliths in the Medway Valley, which we’ve visited before, was examined in turn. As the size of the monuments increases (4000BC for White Horse Stone, Kits Coty etc) up to large enclosures such as that at Burham Causewayed Enclosure (3700-3500BC), this indicates a time of huge social change and activity, and suggests a new chronology for the British early Neolithic period.

Sophie Adams then ran through a wealth of evidence for Bronze Age and Iron Age metalworking in Kent, and provided several samples and reproductions to be passed around the audience. The evidence for metalworking usually consists of ingots, crucibles, moulds (often made of clay) or smithing tools.

There are many metalworking objects recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme from Kent relating to the Bronze Age, plus a lot of Iron Age coins.

Some 25 sites in the county provide evidence of metal working. This is a high number for such sites in a single county in Britain. Sophie examined the finds from several of these sites in detail, such as Holborough Quarry, Mill Hill in Deal, Highstead Chislet, and the Boughton Malherbe hoard.

After a short coffee break, Phil Andrews took us back to 2010 and the largest excavation in Britain, where over a period of 9 months some 48 hectares of land were stripped from a rich archaeological landscape for the East Kent Access route. The project was overwhelming but the road was completed on time. The site was divided into 25 ‘zones’ for ease of reference.

Among the earliest remains found were a palaeolithic flake from Telegraph Hill, along with Mesolithic axes. Zone 6 included a concentration of Neolithic Flint in pits, while zone 14 exposed pits with pottery. There are a large number of barrows in Thanet, almost all of which have been ploughed flat. There were at least 12 large barrows under the course of the road.

One ring ditch barrow produced up to a dozen burials at Cliffs End near to a possible henge – a 50 metre wide monument. A total of 8 late Bronze Age hoards were all found on the Ebbsfleet peninsula as part of the excavation.

Zone 6, over 300m long, also produced evidence of a very complex Iron Age site, with trackways, ditches, roundhouses etc. The settlement grew through to Roman times. The most significant discovery? A possible link to Julius Caesar in the form of a very substantial ditch, part of defences dating from around 100 bc or so. The ditch was recut in 100 AD, and investigation continues.

Andy Bates then described his work, surveying two under-researched hillforts in Kent, those at Bigbury and Oldbury.

Bigbury is an are dominated by gravels, much of the area has been quarried, some of the surrounding fields are being surveyed using metal detector, magnetometry and resistivity geophys, with some encouraging results including an intriguing rectilinear feature which bears some resemblance in form to a possible shrine found on Cadbury Castle in Somerset.

Oldbury, one of the largest hillforts in Europe, has been largely inaccessible to geophys due to being heavily wooded to the south with agricultural use (orchards) to the north, but an opportunity opened up for some survey work in a northern field. Not much showed on the geophys here, some features but all were very disturbed.

After a lunch break Jacqueline McKinley described some of the major findings from the Cliffs End farm site (see the article in Current Archaeology issue 306). This was a very busy mortuary site, with burials from the late Bronze Age, middle Iron Age and some Anglo-Saxon burials too. There were no bones in many of the graves, due to the acidity of the soil, but fortuitously in one area of redeposited soil, 14 articulated burials were preserved. This find increases by around 30% the number of articulated bodies found in Kent to date. Unusually, the majority of the bones were from teens.

The main find was the burial of a Bronze Age woman, found with two lambs on her lap, holding a piece of chalk to her face, and her other hand pointing to a central enclosure. Two youths were also buried with her, one with their head resting on a cow skull. The woman had died from four blows to her skull with a bladed instrument – a violent death, but possibly a sacrifice?

Ges Moody then gave us a brief history of Thanet, the Trust for Thanet Archaeology and the background to many of the antiquarian (and more up to date!) archaeological investigations in the area.

The Trust recently completed their ‘VM-365’ project, with a blog post every day for a year looking at Thanet archaeology and many of the finds available in their ‘virtual museum’. An interesting site, well worth a visit.

The day finished (for me) with Andy Mayfield giving a lighthearted look at how the public view prehistory. he then went on to explain a little about his work as a Heritage Environment Records Officer in Kent (what a H.E.R.O.!), and a review of the enormous amount of prehistory available in the county.

After the meeting, an invite was extended to all to continue discussions in a nearby pub, but as we had a long trip home in front of us, we left as the organisers were packing up the display materials.

All in all a very entertaining, interesting and educational day, and Wessex Archaeology are to be applauded for covering the cost of the event. I’ll certainly be looking out for other events in the future. Maybe they could consider covering each county in turn? Personally I’d like to see a similar review of archaeology in my local counties of Hertfordshire and Essex (hint hint!)