An Archaeological Investigation
Introduction and Background
North Park Farm, Bletchingley is a sand quarry located on the Folkestone Beds sand, just to the south of the North Downs, in East Surrey. The quarry has been operational for many years, but the present programme of work relates to an extension which began to be opened up in 2001.
The new extension was subject to an archaeological scheme of work, secured by a condition on the planning permission. Surrey County Archaeological Unit (SCAU) undertook a controlled topsoil strip, followed by recording of the archaeology revealed. Scattered over an area of nearly 5Ha were features of a number of periods. The Neolithic and Bronze Age features were almost all pits, to which it is difficult to ascribe specific functions. The Iron Age evidence was more varied, including pits, some of which seem to be associated with metal working, and post holes belonging to a 4-poster structure, as well as others that are part of a fence line. The Roman period is represented only by stray finds. Saxon and early medieval activity is shown by ditches, pits, including a probable waterhole, and a number of post holes. Some of the more interesting of these features occurred near the limits of the present stripped area, and it is likely that a better understanding of them will be achieved when further stripping takes place.
The most exciting evidence to emerge was, however, of Mesolithic date. A series of pits were identified, including several clusters. These are themselves of considerable interest and importance as deliberately dug pits of this date have only rarely been identified. Their significance was, however, greatly enhanced by the identification of a 'buried soil', containing only material of Mesolithic date, and in some quantity, within a topographic hollow occupying an area of almost 1Ha.
Further evaluation in 2002 revealed that the 'buried soil' had a complex formation process both during, and perhaps prior, to Mesolithic activity. In situ evidence was revealed for flint working at several of the sampled locations, and there was also evidence of fires and/or cooking activities. Repeated visits were evidently paid to the area from around 8000BC down to around 4500BC.
Hunter-gatherers have rarely left any visible trace on the landscape, so the vast majority of evidence for Mesolithic society consists of isolated scatters of flint artefacts. Set against this background, the discoveries at North Park Farm clearly provided a remarkable contrast, and offered considerable opportunities to advance our understanding of the chronology and character of the period.
Fieldwork in 2005
A detailed programme of excavation preceded by intensive geophysical survey and involving rigorous environmental sampling, was undertaken between June and December 2005. Professional and volunteer archaeologists, under the guidance of the Surrey County Archaeological Unit and ArchaeoScape of Royal Holloway College, worked together on one of the most significant Mesolithic excavations in the UK. The work is jointly funded by WBB Minerals and English Heritage, who are using funds allocated to them through the Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund.
The evidence that has emerged, with flints, hearths and other activity areas, will undoubtedly yield important academic benefits.
The areas of recovery of in-situ Mesolithic flints are numbered on the plan below and can be summarised as follows (The plan can be enlarged by clicking on it):
- A small area where trial pits previously demonstrated the presence of early types of microliths. Only c200 struck flints recovered and, clearly, the density of Mesolithic usage lessened towards the west end of the site.
- An alternate checkerboard opened-up between two burnt flint scatters. c350 struck flints of Mesolithic type.
- A few random metre squares in an area where there were five burnt flint scatters. All demonstrated the presence of significant quantities of struck Mesolithic flints.
- An area where a trial trench had revealed significant quantities of struck flints. c5000 were recovered during the excavation in a seeming single cluster.
- Two metre squares opened up where geophysical survey work indicated an anomaly. None found, but many struck flints recovered.
- Larger area opened up where trial work had suggested in-situ knapping. This proved to be so, although several tree-throws had re-deposited some of the flints, c5000 struck flints, and at least one hearth of Mesolithic date.
- Two metre squares where geophysical survey suggested an anomaly. None found, but many struck flints recovered.
- Small area opened up because of the presence of a Bronze Age flint type on the surface. Many flints recovered, but no more were obviously later than the Mesolithic period.
- 'Prospecting' metre squares opened up outside of areas affected by tree-throw hollows. Each contained up to 100 struck flints and in the south-east corner a deeply buried hearth of Mesolithic date was fully excavated and sampled.
- This largest area was opened up because of the presence of geophysical anomalies and the absence of tree-throw hollows. c10,000 struck flints and at least two Mesolithic hearths and spreads of burnt flint.
- The largest and most deeply buried Mesolithic hearth. Fully excavated and sampled.
- A small area of surface collected struck flints.
It is estimated that the full total of struck flints from the site, including that from a buried soil that sealed the Mesolithic stratigraphy, amounts to c25,000, and detailed analysis of this vast assemblage is now underway.
Also shown on the plan are some later features that include several later Bronze Age and Early Iron Age pits on the northern flank of the shallow hollow. At least three of these produced complete pots that may contain human cremations. Some, at least, of the eleven burnt flint scatters found in the west of the site may also be of later prehistoric date. On the southern side of the hollow c20 pits and a hearth of early medieval date were found and several slightly later field ditches were traced across the site. The latest feature is a loosely constructed causeway largely comprised of Merstham Stone and probably dating to the early post-medieval period. The present farmer and his father had never realised it was there as it had become sealed by up to 0.5m of accumulated soils.
Stone Age Summer
From the outset the delivery of opportunities for public involvement and outreach work were central to the 2005 phase of this North Park farm work which focussed on the hollow. The excavation provided training for many students and welcomed volunteer participation. The SCAU Education Officer (supported by the HLF) arranged for family learning days on site, and visits by schoolchildren of varied ages and A level students. A particular effort was made to publicise the work locally, utilising the press and a variety of other media. This resulted in an almost overwhelming attendance of 250 people on each of two site open days, many of whom took the time to express their appreciation of the experience.
The Mesolithic has generally been regarded as a difficult period for outreach, but the success of the work at North Park Farm in reaching out to these audiences has inspired the adoption of 'Hunter gatherers' as the core theme for heritage promotion in Surrey in 2006. SCAU will be working with Surrey museums, the Surrey History Centre, and other heritage providers to explain the fascination of this remote and poorly understood period to as wide an audience as possible.
SCAU will be helping to organise events during 2006 in relation to the Mesolithic period in Surrey, incorporating the findings from the North Park Farm archaeological investigation. Our "News and Events" web page will shortly list the programme of events and activities, which will be carried out across the county over the coming year.