Bronze Age burial and Roman farming at Waltham on the Wolds

In the spring of 2019 ULAS undertook an archaeological excavation on the southern fringes of Waltham on the Wolds, a picturesque Leicestershire village 5 miles north-east of Melton Mowbray. Initial investigations in late 2018 had highlighted the potential for considerable Roman archaeology on the site, which was subject to a planning application for residential development. Site director Adam Clapton reports:

Two areas were investigated, a smaller area on the east side of the proposed development and a larger area to the west. Both targeted areas of known archaeology.

The Waltham excavation from the north courtesy of Chris Bursnall and his drone. The Bronze Age ring ditch is being excavated in the smaller area to the left whilst the Roman farming enclosures are being excavated in the large area to the right.

The Ring Ditch

Much to our surprise, in the smaller area a previously unknown Bronze Age ring ditch was discovered. This was an unbroken circle in plan measuring 25m in diameter from inner edge to inner edge. No accompanying bank or mound was found, mostly likely lost due to medieval and post-medieval ploughing on site. A total of thirteen 1m slots were excavated across the ditch but no finds were recovered, not uncommon for this type of feature. The ditch measured between 0.9m and 1.7m in width and 0.2m to 0.6m in depth.

The Bronze Age ring ditch from the south, with small cremation pits at its centre. The Iron Age pit alignment can also be seen in the top right.

Centrally placed within the ring ditch were three cremation burials. These were un-urned but were placed in small purposefully dug pits. The burials contained evidence of cremated bone and probable pyre material. Further analysis of the burials is forthcoming and will hopefully tell us much more about the nature of the cremations.

Archaeologists stand in excavated sections across the 25m diameter ring ditch. Looking south-west.

Looking at the wider landscape, the ring ditch was situated on the crest of a west facing slope, with a plateau of high ground immediately to the east. It would have commanded widespread views and would have been a prominent, highly visual monument in the landscape during the Bronze Age.

Immediately east of the ring ditch was a row of thirteen evenly spaced large oval pits, their linear arrangement suggesting they were a pit alignment. The alignment appeared to respect the ring ditch and continued beyond the development area to the south-east. A sherd of Iron Age pot was found at the base of one of the pits. Some of the pits also appeared to have been re-dug in the Roman period, suggesting the alignment was still significant at this time, perhaps marking a boundary of some form.

Roman farming activity

The large area to the west revealed a complex of predominantly Roman features, consisting of inter-cutting multi-phased ditches, gullies and pits. Three rectangular enclosures could be seen running north to south, with the central-most enclosure being re-worked over several generations. These would most likely have been used in agricultural practices, to manage livestock movement around the site.

East of the enclosures was a cluster of around fifteen heavily scorched keyhole-shaped features. These provided a large quantity of Roman pottery, including some near complete vessels, and many quern stone fragments. Soil samples were taken to collect environmental data from the heavily burnt material in the bases of the features and forthcoming examination of the data and finds will tell us much more about the function of these features, which could be hearths used for corn drying or other industrial processes.

An archaeologist excavates a near complete vessel from one of the scorched keyhole shaped feature.

A concentration of intercutting pits just to the west of the central enclosure also yielded an abundance of Roman pottery of differing vessels and types including those more commonly found in Lincolnshire and Southern Yorkshire. These pits may have been quarried to extract material to be used in small scale industrial processes nearby. Two shallow well-like features were also found. Both were cut through pre-existing ditches into the ironstone bedrock and would have collected water.

One of the well-like features cut into the ironstone bedrock.

Intriguingly at the very south-west edge of the excavation a line of three pits could be seen, perhaps giving us our second prehistoric pit alignment. Like the first alignment, it position continued in use into the Roman period, this time redug as a gully or ditch.

Analysis of the site and its finds are ongoing and we hope to reveal yet more information about the use, importance and prominence of this site at Waltham on the Wolds in the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman period in due course.

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