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Excavation at Tenants Hill

Updated: May 23, 2023

Following our background research and ground surveys it was time to do some excavation.

Although excavation is usually the primary activity associated with archaeology, it is often a small component of the research process. As demonstrated in previous posts we spent a lot of time researching and planning, before deciding that excavation was the correct research method.

In 2019 our primary goal was to understand some large anomalies that showed up on a geophysical survey we had conducted earlier in 2019. We thought these might be large postholes, but they turned out to be geological in origin. Within the trench, however, we found several smaller postholes, small pits and a cremation burial. Volunteers helped to dig all the features and we were awarded funding by the National Heritage Lottery Fund, Manchester University and The Prehistoric Society to carry out the research.

The features we had found in 2019 were clustered in the corner of the trench, so in 2021 we returned and extended the trench to determine where they indicative of settlement or some other form of activity? We also hoped to get further dating evidence to establish if the activity was a discrete phase, or occurring over a longer period of time.

As a result of the pandemic volunteers were not able to join us, and instead we taught fieldwork skills to Exeter University students. They spent a month camping at Gorwell Farm, which should have been beautiful and great fun, a lovely place and some great archaeology. However it turned out to be a really tough field school! Not only were the students dealing with the aftermath of COVID (in a social as well as physical way) but we’ve never experienced rain like it. It rained every day, for the whole month, accompanied by strong winds on many of the days. John the farmer said he had never seen such a wet spring. It was muddy, wet, cold and miserable and the students were in tents (although even some of those blew away). The archaeology was good, but hard, and those students who stayed with us until the end really demonstrated perseverance and stamina. I think they also learnt a lot, possibly about themselves as much as archaeology!

Although we still haven’t fully processed all of the archaeological data yet (there is a lot) we think that the postholes formed the structure of a large building/round house. This had an entrance way which faced the stone circle and it was larger than most domestic prehistoric buildings. The building was constructed and used during the Bronze Age, and while the exact date is still to be determined is probably a direct association between the structure and the stone circle. In 2021, we also found some more cremations and other pits that were probably also associated with the building.

An aerial image of the 2021 excavation showing the structure location

The jury is still out on the purpose of the building. It probably wasn't a domestic house; the location is too exposed on the top of the hill and it is too big. Was it a communal building? Was it used for activities related to burial, cremation, death and grieving? Was it used occasionally, seasonally, over several years or generations, or did it have a much shorter life?

We’ve paused this excavation site for now which also means are questions are currently unanswered. We feel that it’s important to catch up with the post excavation work and to consolidate our understanding and interpretation before continuing. I'll post about the recording and analysis processes soon, which are arguably the most important thing we do.

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