Bronze Age henge discovered in Hertfordshire field could be human cremation burial site

By Ben Miller | 27 August 2010
A photo of a grey soil trench

“The previous field that we looked at was the core of a Medieval village,” says Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, reflecting with some affection on his team’s previous digs in the lucrative archaeological terrain of Letchworth.

“There was a lovely series of earthworks in that field. The roads went out of use in the 18th century, so we assumed it was simply abandonment. We were quite shocked to discover that the last building on the site had been pulled down in the 13th century, which was even pre-Black Death.”

Admitting to being “one of those people who’s fortunate enough to be doing what they’d always dreamt of doing as a child”, the North Herts Archaeology Officer has had a busier time than usual this week thanks to the discovery of a 50-metre Bronze Age henge at Stapleton’s Field in Norton.

A photo of diggers in a trench

Trench II of the Roman ditch

“It’s the first time I’ve been anywhere near a henge because they’re not exactly common, but I can recognise the finds because I’ve done Bronze Age sites before,” he assures us.

“It’s always been regarded as a burial mound before. I was sceptical of that, which is why we decided to dig there. I’d expected it to be virtually all gone, but even though it’s ploughed we’ve got a good 20-30 centimetres of bank sitting there, which has protected the deposits.”

The well-preserved remains should yield plenty of secrets when experts examine the finds. For now, Fitzpatrick-Matthews is fairly sure what our firestarting ancestors were up to.

A photo of a deep long trench in a field

The henge is up to ten metres wide

“They seem to be burning things,” he says. “I got a little bit worried about it being human cremation burials, but they’re not really something that you find that often in henges.

"I’m presuming that what we’re going to find are burnt deposits of foodstuffs that have been sacrificed. It’s either that or it’s cremations.”

If that sounds a bit gruesome, the investigation leader is unperturbed. “They hold no horrors for me,” he asserts.

A photo of a brown key

A copper alloy tag found on the site

“We’ve applied for a license to remove human remains, which I’ve now got. I’ve dealt with hundreds of Romano-British cremations over the years, they’re an everyday aspect of archaeology. I first dug a human burial 24 years ago, and you just get used to it.

"You always have to bear in mind that it was once a person but they’re long dead, they can’t do anything to hurt you and I always think it’s far better that they’re dug up with some respect than disappearing under a plough or a JCB.”

Up to 15 workmen will continue at the site for the next five days, foraging a “massive” outer ditch in an intensive project.

A photo of a corn field under a bright blue sky

The location of the Romano-British site towards the head of a shallow valley facing North-East

“I would like to be able to come back after that, but it depends on landowners and tenant farmers,” says Fitzpatrick-Matthews, who has built up a good relationship with both parties during four years of excavations.

“They’re used to being disrupted, but it’s the first time in this particular field. They’ve got the usual farmer’s interest in knowing what’s under their land. It gives them some good stories to tell.”

See the finds, ditches and materials in an open day at Stapleton’s Field, Church Lane, Norton tomorrow (August 28 2010) at 2pm. Visit the excavation blog or the Norton Community Archaeology Group online for all the latest on the dig. The finds are expected to go on display at the Letchworth Museum.

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