Excavation in Leicestershire has uncovered unique evidence for iron age feasting and ritual at a long-lived, changing settlement.
Over the winter of 2013/14 ULAS carried out the excavation of a significant archaeological site on land at Glenfield Park, close to the M1 and between the villages of Glenfield and Kirby Muxloe, which lie west of Leicester. The work was commissioned by Wilson Bowden Developments Ltd. in advance of a large-scale warehouse and distribution centre.
The excavation revealed evidence for long-term landscape inhabitation throughout most of the Iron Age and Roman periods across an area of c. 12ha. The main focus of interest was a dense c. 4ha spread of settlement remains at the northern end of the site, comprising many roundhouses, enclosures, 4-post structures and pits that occupied the southern slopes of a spur of slightly higher ground.
Part of the site had been revealed in 1993 ahead of a road development, when fieldwalking and excavation by the Leicestershire Archaeological Unit revealed settlement remains dating between the Late Bronze Age and Middle Iron Age. At that time there had been few excavations of later prehistoric settlements in Leicestershire. It was nonetheless clear, from the wider spread of fieldwalking evidence, that the excavated site was only part of a much larger area of occupation concentrated to the east.
The Iron Age settlement was long-lived and occupied a spur of slightly higher and drier ground, resulting in clustering and overlapping of the occupation remains. Analysis of the plan, and a series of radiocarbon dates, has helped develop a good understanding of how the settlement grew and changed over time.
The earliest activity was an early/middle Iron Age open settlement that occupied the south-facing, lower slopes of the spur. The settlement was organised into a spread of paired roundhouses, perhaps a combination of living space and craft or food preparation space, and associated pits. It is unclear how many of the buildings were occupied at any one time but up to 4 households could have formed the community in this period.
Slightly later in the middle iron age, C14 dating suggests in the 4th or 3rd centuries BC, the character of the settlement changed dramatically. The paired roundhouses were reorganised into a spread of individually enclosed households, which occupied a broadly similar space on the spur. Each new enclosure clearly cut through the remains of the earlier buildings, suggesting that there was a change in attitude from the community, perhaps related to a desire to express household individualism.
The enclosures had been used for depositional events across the settlement, particularly noticeable in the southern entrance terminals of the ditches. Those associated with roundhouses contained large amounts of domestic related finds, much pottery, including several complete vessels and substantial groups, quern stones and burnt bone, as well as metal objects and metalworking debris.
One larger enclosure was located slightly away from the main settlement core, and surrounded a post-built roundhouse with a very different character. Eight complete or near complete Iron Age cauldrons were discovered on the base of the ditch, making a clear connection between the enclosure and these rarely found vessels. All the cauldrons appear to have been deliberately laid on the base of the ditch, either in upright or inverted positions, before it was filled in, suggesting that they were perhaps buried to mark the ending of activities associated with this building and its enclosure.
In other areas of the settlement three more complete cauldrons had also been buried; two together in another enclosure and one in a semi-circular gully. Traces of further cauldrons, including iron rim fragments and circular handles were also frequently found across the settlement, indicating that they had been dismantled before entering the ground. In addition, fine ring-headed dress pins, an involuted brooch and a cast copper alloy object known as a horn-cap were discovered from different areas of the settlement, further emphasising the very unusual nature of the metalwork assemblage.
Later Iron Age occupation spread out into the wider landscape and was more enclosed than the earlier phases. A conjoined enclosure system containing a roundhouse occupied the southern end of the main excavation area. To the north of this, at the top of the spur, was a very large c. 50m diameter circular enclosure defined by a deep ditch that had been recut at least twice. Both of these later areas were also associated with metalwork deposition, including cauldron remains and other unusual objects. The ditches in the southern area contained cauldron fragments and a series of complete iron objects including a sword in its scabbard, a spearhead and several woodworking tools. The larger enclosure contained three clusters of cauldron fragments, mostly consisting of broken rims and handles. Deposition of metalwork was clearly still an important part of activities on this later settlement, but the way that cauldrons were deposited was different. In contrast, it seems that it was necessary to bury other objects in a complete condition.
The Glenfield Park settlement is unusual regionally, in terms of its size and character, but the real significance of the excavation results lie in the quality and quantity of the prehistoric metalwork assemblage recovered, which is of international importance. These finds occurred in various contexts from across the whole settlement, indicating that deliberate deposition of unusual artefacts was a distinctive feature of the site during its lifetime.
Taken together this is a highly unusual assemblage, unique both locally and regionally, but the inclusion of the cauldrons heightens the importance of the find significantly, to one of international importance. Iron Age cauldrons would have been important social objects forming the centrepiece of major feasts, perhaps in association with large gatherings and events.
The Glenfield cauldrons represent a significant addition to the European record of these important objects. They are a complete group within a well understood record of the archaeological site from which they came, and are only the second assemblage of complete Iron Age cauldrons to be discovered on a modern British archaeological excavation.
In 2005, 17 complete cauldrons were excavated by The British Museum / Wessex Archaeology at a site in Chiseldon, Wiltshire. These cauldrons had been buried together deliberately in a pit that lay within a wider area of settlement, and was the largest assemblage of such objects ever to be discovered in Europe. The Glenfield Park discoveries are directly comparable to the Chiseldon site but there is a much more detailed understanding of the wider settlement context, and their deposition can be seen to fit into a wider occurrence of similar activities across the settlement, involving cauldrons and other significant objects.
The cauldrons were fragile, precluding detailed excavation in the field. So we lifted them in soil blocks wrapped in plaster of paris bandages, to preserve their integrity ahead of more careful examination. Before any excavation and conservation began we wanted to find a way of looking into the blocks to see what had survived. We considered X-raying, but because of their size CT scanning seemed more appropriate. The cauldrons were taken to the Paul Strickland Scanner Centre, a medical facility in Middlesex with equipment large enough to accommodate the soil blocks. We weren’t sure what to expect, but the scanning produced some stunning results. We learnt some very useful information about cauldron orientation, approximate dimensions and profiles, as well as tantalising glimpses of manufacturing methods, and even decoration.
From what we currently know from the CT scans, the cauldrons appear to have been of a variety of sizes, with rims ranging between 36cm and 56cm across. Pending further excavation, it is difficult to give precise measurements for the depth of each cauldron to determine its capacity. The average volume of the Chiseldon vessels was around 50 litres. If we assume the same for the complete Glenfield cauldrons, they would have a total capacity of some 550 litres: if all were in use at the same time, they could have provided for large groups of people.
Despite the fantastic detail of the CT scans, it is only through further excavation that the full potential of the Glenfield cauldrons will be realised. So far one cauldron has been so treated, with work on the remaining vessels to begin in 2018. Excavation and conservation of the first cauldron, undertaken by the MOLA conservation team under the lead of Liz Barham, provided much information about its manufacture and life. For example, many neatly applied repair patches had been added to both sides of the cauldron bowl, indicating that it had been extensively used before it entered the ground. A thin sooty residue adhered to the cauldron’s base, probably left from its final suspension over a fire.
The CT scans of the other cauldrons show similar evidence of wear, tear and repair, indicating long-term and repeated use of the whole group. The apparently long life of these objects and the care taken to repair them, shows that they were special to the Iron Age community at Glenfield Park. Continued maintenance of the vessels was essential to the role of the settlement.
Very few examples of decoration are known for this type of cauldron, but two examples from Glenfield Park show decoration further highlighting the significance of the site. One example is on a small copper alloy bowl fragment which has a domed rivet or raised boss decoration, similar to that on the cauldron from Spetisbury, Dorset.
The second example of decoration has been identified by CT scanning, which indicated that the iron band on one cauldron was ornamented with raised curvilinear motifs close to the handle locations which are similar to the so-called ‘Vegetal Style’ of Celtic art, generally dated to the 4th century BC. This is only the fourth known cauldron to carry such decoration and one of only 10 or so known examples of this style of art on other contemporary objects from Britain (example). The context of this cauldron means that it will be one of the few objects with this style of decoration that can be independently dated.
A range of iron tools and implements reflecting agricultural, craft and domestic activities offered a picture of what may have consisted of the ‘everyday’ life of the settlement. Unusually however these tools, including chisels, gouges, blades and a sickle, were largely intact when they were deposited, and would seem to have still been usable objects. In comparison to other contemporary settlements in the area, where such finds are rare, the quantity from Glenfield Park stands out.
A complete Iron Age sword and scabbard had been deposited in a flat position within the upper fills of an enclosure ditch on the southern part of the site. The circumstances of deposition suggest that this was more than a casual loss and it seems more likely that this was a quite deliberate and symbolic burial perhaps relating to the closure of the ditch. Although further work is needed to be certain, the overall character of the sword suggests it belongs to Ian Steads medium length swords ‘swords of southern Britain type ii’ that are broadly dated to between the later third and later second century BC.
An iron involuted brooch was found in the same context as the main cauldron group. The style of this object is similar to other examples dating between mid-third to early-second century BC. Other finds included two ring headed pins, one of iron and one made of copper alloy. Both are of similar form but the iron one is smaller. These dress items are not closely dated and appear to have a fairly long currency, although some examples have been found on settlement sites in the East Midlands dated to the early and middle Iron Age.
Horn caps are rare and enigmatic objects with perhaps only around 20 other examples from across the country. They consist of two cast copper alloy discs joined by a waisted shaft. The shaft and lower disc are usually hollow suggesting they were originally made to be mounted. Apart from a recent discovery in Derbyshire, the Glenfield find is the most northerly discovery of this type of object which generally has a southern distribution. These finds occur in a variety of contexts but their scarcity and the contexts in which they are found (watery places, hillforts or as part of hoards) suggests they were valued objects, perhaps reserved for special deposition, perhaps with a ritual or ceremonial function.
The cauldrons and other finds at Glenfield Park are the result of a series of events that took place over a considerable length of time and have resulted in multiple episodes of deposition across the settlement. Importantly, because of the length of time that the settlement was occupied, we can see differences in how things were buried at different stages of its lifespan. This will help tell us an awful lot about continuity and change, and different attitudes towards ritual behaviour over time.
These repeated acts mark the site out as a potential ritual and ceremonial centre that also hosted large feasts. These events would have involved large gatherings of people from communities that lived in the surrounding area, and perhaps from further afield. By hosting these large feasts, in association with the ritual or symbolic burial of these prestigious objects, the settlement at Glenfield Park would have been of considerable importance to the local community.
Further excavation, conservation and analysis of the cauldrons will undoubtedly reveal much more information about their manufacture, use and deposition. This would not only be comparable to the results of the Chiseldon analysis but would add to the overall analysis and interpretation of this unusual and important Iron Age site as well as setting the objects in a wider study of cauldrons and their use in Iron Age societies across Europe.
ULAS would like to thank the excavation team, who worked diligently through extremely difficult digging conditions to bring the fieldwork to a successful conclusion. The post-excavation phase of the project has been considerably enhanced through the professional input of Andrew Gogbashian and the CT-scanning team from the Paul Strickland Scanner Centre, Middlesex, Liz Barham and the MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) Conservation Team, and Dr. Jody Joy curator of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. None of this work would have been achievable without the financial support of the Glenfield Park developer, Wilson Bowden Developments Ltd.
Article by John Thomas