Somerset’s first timber circle found

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A Neolithic timber circle has recently been identified in Somerset near the village of Priddy. It is the first such monument to be formally identified in the county.

The location of the circle was first discovered in 2018 during a gradiometry survey, which was carried out by the Archaeological Landscape Extreme Research Team (ALERT), a local community archaeology group, in collaboration with the University of Worcester. The initial survey showed a circle of pits, which was then confirmed by ground-penetrating radar.

An overview of the timber circle under excavation. CREDIT: James Atkins

With the circle measuring 16m in diameter, the team was quite certain that it was likely to be a prehistoric circle of some kind, whether timber or stone. So, last July, Dr Jodie Lewis and students from the University of Worcester, along with local volunteers, opened a large trench covering the entire extent of the circle. They found that each of the 12 pits that comprised the monument had been cut into the bedrock up to 1m deep, with all of them spaced 2m apart. As is commonly seen in such post-holes, the sides of each were sloped, probably to aid in the erection of timber posts.

In total, the team excavated eight of the pits. Each had a discrete charcoal-rich fill at the base, which may have been due to the bottom of the timber posts having been burnt to stop them from rotting. The vast majority of the charcoal was found to be oak, suggesting that this type of wood was used in the monument, in common with many other timber circles. They also discovered numerous small slabs of Old Red Sandstone – a type of stone frequently used in this region during the Neolithic – which the team thinks may have been used for post-packing. Very few small finds were discovered, though, other than a small amount of flints, which do not appear to have been deliberately placed.

At the centre of the monument was a cluster of shallow stake holes that formed a small U-shaped structure. This may have functioned as some type of screen or partition. The team also discovered the possible entrance to the monument: two post-holes in the south-east part of the circle, which were slightly larger than the rest. This would accord well with other circular Neolithic monuments in Britain, which commonly appear to have entrances located to the south-east. At some stage the monument appears to have been deliberately decommissioned, with the posts taken out and the pits backfilled.

The excavation was unable to pinpoint definitive date for the circle, however, so material from the post-holes was sent off to be radiocarbon dated and the results have only recently come in. Apart from one Mesolithic date from a hazelnut shell and a post-medieval date from material from one of the top layers, the remaining nine dates cluster around 3000 BC, firmly placing the circle at the start of the later Neolithic.

This discovery adds to the rich Neolithic landscape around Priddy that has already been detected through past seasons of excavation by the University of Worcester. This complex of sites includes a small Neolithic enclosure of a slightly earlier date in the adjacent field, and an early Neolithic structure related to a causewayed enclosure within 1km of the circle.

This news article appears in issue 368 of Current Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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