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The Experimental Earthwork Project: 1960-1992.



Small ditch dug, a little infill, nobody hurt: what's the fuss?

The work of the Experimental Earthworks Committee over the last nearly 40 years has been important, and this is the largest and most detailed publication to come from it so far, the work of a large team being splendidly brought together by Martin Bell, Peter Fowler and Simon Hillson. The setting-up of the committee led to the construction of its experimental earthworks, in 1960 on Overton Down, near Marlborough, Wiltshire, on Upper Chalk, and in 1963 at Morden Bog, near Wareham, Dorset, on a heathland Noun 1. heathland - a tract of level wasteland; uncultivated land with sandy soil and scrubby vegetation
heath

barren, wasteland, waste - an uninhabited wilderness that is worthless for cultivation; "the barrens of central Africa"; "the trackless wastes of
 podsel. Sections were planned at geometrically expanding intervals: 2, 4, 8, 16 years, and so on. After a flurry of initial reports, there was a long silence, now broken after the 32-year section at Overton in 1992 and by the approach of the similar interval at Morden. As well as catch-up reports on the 1968 and and 1976 sections at Overton and on the story so far at Morden Bog, the bulk of the report consists of detailed studies of the state of the bank, ditch and their placed contents 32 years on. As the preface coyly suggests (p. xxiv), 'Some early results . . . look promising'. What is their general importance?

Archaeologists regularly make assumptions about the behaviour of earthworks, banks and ditches, and about the histories of things found in such contexts. The discipline possesses a vast amount of knowledge about such archaeological situations, but it still lacks a rigorous basis on which to interpret such contexts. The Earthworks Project is essentially a first attempt to provide some uniformitarian rigour. This is both its strength and, as Bell and the others recognize, its weakness.

Results reported here are extensive, some with implications (such as of the study of bone decay for DNA DNA: see nucleic acid.
DNA
 or deoxyribonucleic acid

One of two types of nucleic acid (the other is RNA); a complex organic compound found in all living cells and many viruses. It is the chemical substance of genes.
 recovery and analysis) which cannot have been envisaged at the start of the project. There is something for almost everyone here: sediments, soils, micromorphology, vegetation, pollen, land molluscs and buried materials of varied kinds. From my own personal perspective of having excavated Neolithic sites in the same north Wiltshire area and being now engaged in writing them up, I have found three particularly useful reminders: about the rate at which earthworks change, about how deposits change, and about how things move within archaeological contexts. Some of this has been evident from earlier reports from the project, but the underscoring provided here is invaluable.

The Overton bank has slumped or eroded a little, and the ditch has accumulated a fairly shallow primary fill, but has now stabilised. The profile of the ditch fill is still more or less symmetrical, the bank having contributed little or nothing to the ditch fill. Within the primary ditch fill, banding of coarser and finer deposits could at first be seen, but these have begun to be mixed by in situ In place. When something is "in situ," it is in its original location.  biological processes. Things have moved, by erosion and biological activity (and perhaps also on occasion by the action of people), for example charcoal moving both down and up under the bank (p. 133), and pottery discs moving from the outer bank face and the sides of the ditch to a whole variety of positions within the ditch fill (p. 79).

What does the Overton earthwork earth¬∑work ¬†
n.
1. An earthen embankment, especially one used as a fortification. See Synonyms at bulwark.

2. Engineering Excavation and embankment of earth.

3.
 not tell us? Is the uniformitarian approach sufficient? The business of the primary ditch fill is puzzling. Martin Bell candidly discusses some of the variables in the last chapter. Different ditch widths, other chalk subsoils and varying vegetation, erosion and human and animal activity would all be likely to produce different results (p. 236). To this list one could add the woodland setting of the Neolithic period, perhaps thicker soils, a chalk subsoil subsoil

Layer (stratum) of earth immediately below the surface soil, consisting predominantly of minerals and leached materials such as iron and aluminum compounds. Humus remains and clay accumulate in subsoil, but the teeming macroscopic and microscopic organisms that make
 affected by the Pleistocene climate, and the fluctuating Holocene climate. There is so much more primary fill, often markedly asymmetric, in Neolithic and other ditches, and Neolithic secondary fills, though slow-forming, have accumulated in a finite period of centuries. The Overton earthwork is neatly fenced off. It is hardly the fault of the Earthworks Project that it is difficult to reconstruct the lived setting of prehistoric earthworks, in dynamic ecosystems and fluctuating climates, on changing soils and subsoils, and above all used - and abused, for example by cultivation - by people, and walked over by animals. Welcome news is that there are other kinds of experimental earthwork being contructed and observed, for example at the Butser Ancient Farm Butser Ancient Farm, near Petersfield in Hampshire, England, is a working replica of an Iron Age farmstead where long-term experiments in prehistoric and Roman agriculture, animal husbandry and manufacturing are held to test ideas posited by archaeologists. . As well as waiting for another 32 years now to wheel by (depressing thought), the committee could turn its attention also to other kinds of observation, especially through ethnoarchaeology Ethnoarchaeology is the ethnographic study of peoples for archaeological reasons, usually focusing on the material remains of a society, rather than its culture. Ethnoarchaeology aids archaeologists in reconstructing ancient lifeways by studying the material and non-material , to look at the fate of earthworks in dynamic, lived human environments.

ALASDAIR WHITTLE School of History and Archaeology University of Wales Affiliated institutions
  • Cardiff University
Cardiff was once a full member of the University but has now left (though it retains some ties). When Cardiff left, it merged with the University of Wales College of Medicine (which was also a former member).
 Cardiff
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Author:Whittle, Alasdair
Publication:Antiquity
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1997
Words:780
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