Thursday, 4 October 2012

A Bronze Age Factory? — The Firm Evidence

With Winter comes the chance to put the flood of detecting finds made through late summer and autumn into order and evaluate their meaning. The finds from the Bronze Age 'factory' site (read here) were certainly the remains of something meaningful, but without excavation to evaluate their underlying context I thought nothing could be ventured other than they were the evidence of some kind of settlement. Which clearly they were.

About that time in the mid-2000's, aerial mapping had become available on the Internet. It wasn't easy to navigate on a dial-up modem and reloading frames to move just a few hundred of yards would take ages. Nevertheless, it was fascinating stuff and promised to unlock plenty of secrets if only the pictures were of fields in perfect condition to reveal them. Unfortunately, the majority were far from ideal.

Undaunted, I scanned across my entire operating area of three parishes and downloaded every frame to make a composite map from. I did discover things I didn't know about before, but to be frank, it was as confusing as it was enlightening with all kinds of features 'made' into what they were not, and details that later proved to be direct evidence of things, completely missed or ignored.

I no longer have those original images (luckily I've rediscovered them on the Internet since!) but remember clearly the sequence of events concerning the Bronze Age site. Firstly, there was an aerial shot of the field in crop taken in 2004. This was the same year I discovered the site but the shot was of a field of ripening wheat taken in late-summer, not when ploughed and harrowed in autumn when it might have revealed more than it did. There was hardly anything to see but a slight mark where there's a shallow depression in the field that I already knew about.

The next year I came across a second provider of these fascinating images (pictures taken in 1999) and went back to work. I became completely bound up with what they revealed about one of my pet Roman sites and concentrated on them for weeks making line maps from the startling features revealed, however, I finally got around to the Bronze Age site...

The shots had been taken of the field in stubble and there was a sketchy feature visible of dark marks around the area of the depression that I thought very interesting. It seemed to be an enclosure of some kind, but as I had already discovered, you must exercise caution when making interpretations of these kinds of crop marks because they rarely turn out to be anything remarkable...

Nevertheless, because all the finds had come from directly to the West of the marks (left in the picture) I took them seriously enough, and when I finally got back on site, gave the area inside the marks all my attention and resisted the urge to venture to the area of the Bronze Age finds thinking there was plenty of time for that later

I found nothing there of Bronze Age date but did make a few Roman period finds of a Colchester brooch, a small bronze mount, and two coins, one of which was a third century issue in very poor condition and the other a far more interesting 1st Century bronze issue of probably Vespasian, with a legionary eagle on the reverse.
Copper As with legionary eagle reverse

These Roman finds were nothing that couldn't be found in a day anywhere else in the locality in fact such a number of finds would seem a poor haul in places. I thought it odd, though, that this field had never given up a single Roman find before — also that a Flavian copper dating to the 1st century was the earliest Roman coin I'd ever found in the local area.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned the field had been quickly turned around and was drilled, so I'd missed my opportunity to extend my knowledge of the field's Bronze Age past for another year. Tragically, unforeseen domestic circumstances that winter forced a relocation the Midlands where I was then too far distant from Essex for any chance of a return, so it was also my last.


Fast forward to the present day and my rekindled interest in detecting. It's 2012, and 7 years since my last visit to the field, but I'm 100 miles away in Coventry, not Essex. That doesn't stop the determined though! Nowadays we have excellent high-speed access to the Internet and aerial maps are not only available and free, but so easy to scan that whole districts can be browsed in minutes. I went back to work on the Bronze Age site...

The field ploughed and rolled - the red stars represent the scatter of Bronze Age pottery

The first pictures were disappointing. The field was rolled and besides a large dark mark that would have been inside the 'enclosure' and I thought was probably nothing more interesting than loamy soil caused by wet conditions at some point in history, the only other features visible were light areas of soil that could have been where the plough had bitten deeply and thrown up subsoil, but, such marks were rare in the surrounding fields, when found were almost always single instances, and when compared to other aerial pictures and old maps usually proved to be features such as ponds (the large mark in the next field actually was) or other small scale excavations...

Therefore, I thought they might actually be a dense collection of pits...

I took a closer look and saw a faint dark line around the large dark mark that looked like half of a square enclosure. Oddly, this 'square' seemed larger than the original sub-circular enclosure I'd hoped to see, but of which there was no visible trace.

The individual findspots of the scattered fragments of pottery that I'd noted in the field in a log, were plotted on to the aerial shot in hope of them revealing something. They failed to. I couldn't see anything I didn't already know of and had no way of going back on site to examine those light soil marks to see what they were all about or to see if that fine dark mark in the shape of a square was real or just an illusion.

It seemed that I'd hit a brick wall, however I'm determined once I get started and went back online to see if there were any other maps out there that could help me out. I soon discovered an alternative aerial map provider, and what I discovered there was simply astonishing...

Here's a sequence of pictures of the site with the new information overlaid and made visible by degree ~

I was dumbstruck when I first discovered these new pictures because they proved that the marks that I once thought might be an enclosure really were after all. They also revealed much greater detail than any previous picture had so it's possible to see that there's probably a second smaller enclosure inside. The best thing is though, they've proven beyond reasonable doubt that those pottery and metal finds really are not the traces of a long-vanished 'itinerant' bronze-smith's encampment, but really do belong to something important, substantial and long-lasting in the Bronze Age landscape of Essex.

All finds and site Epping Forest District, Essex.

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