The Catholme Neolithic Complex.
Landscape, Ritual, Settlement and the Archaeology of River Gravels
Text by Dr. Henry Chapman.
The confluence of the river Trent with the rivers Mease and Tame in Staffordshire is an excellent example of extensive ancient activity which formed the focus for a large-scale landscape project funded by the ALSF. Named ‘Where Rivers Meet’, the project was overseen by English Heritage and undertaken by Birmingham Archaeology between 2002 and 2004. The ALSF also supported the publication of the fieldwork with a grant in 2006.
A cursory scan of the river Trent on Google Earth highlights the sheer scale of quarrying in the past and today. Aerial photography during the 1960s and 70s revealed a complex cultural landscape in this area leading to the statutory protection of many archaeological sites. Commonly, these cultural landscapes are focused around the river confluences, but the clustering of monuments in this area was extremely unusual – some have no direct parallels. Conventional archaeological interpretation was therefore somewhat restricted. The principal cluster, known as the Catholme ceremonial complex, covered a relatively small area directly north of the confluence near Alrewas.
The most striking feature was what became known as the Sunburst Monument. This consisted of a 16m-wide ring ditch from which 12 radiating lines of up to five pits or large postholes extended over a total diameter of nearly 60m. A second monument had been identified 150m to the east-southeast. Also circular, this was formed by five concentric rings of pits or large postholes with a total diameter of 50m, enclosing a central area over 20m across. This second feature was less unusual, displaying apparent similarities with the second phase of Durrington Walls Southern Circle, or with the rings at Mount Pleasant in Dorset, or even the Sanctuary near Avebury – all late neolithic or chalcolithic structures of around 2600–2200BC, typically thought of as distinctive of Wessex. We called this feature the Woodhenge Monument.
These two were not alone. The cropmark of a possible cursus monument lay 130m to the west. Aligned east–west and at least 110m long, it points towards the Sunburst Monument; only the western terminus survives, where it is 45m wide. To the east, on islets within the network of branching and reconnecting streams of the floodplain, two possible hengiform monuments have been identified on aerial photographs, at Fatholme and Borough Holme.
The cropmarks also suggest boundaries for the complex. To the east, a natural edge is provided by the anastomosed river Trent, which has been reconstructed as part of the Where Rivers Meet project by Neil Davies and Greg Sambrook-Smith using techniques such as coring and GPR, and historical mapping. To the west, the complex is bounded by rising ground beyond the cursus. To the north and south single and double pit alignments over 1km long run east–west, providing symmetry to the other monuments and linking the floodplain to the higher ground. On the west, around the cursus, these alignments are just 130m apart; as they extend eastwards, the area that they enclose broadens into a wide funnel up to 250m across as it meets the floodplain.
Whilst this complex appears distinctive, it lies within a densely packed prehistoric landscape. To the west are the two causewayed enclosures of Alrewas and Mavesyn Ridware, which provide evidence of earlier activity. At least three additional cursus monuments have been identified within the broader area along the Trent, and at least two further hengiform sites, to the southwest at Wychnor Bridges and near the National Memorial Arboretum. By the earlier bronze age (2200BC), an explosion of cultural activity appears in the form of numerous ring ditches, with a marked concentration on the higher areas overlooking the Catholme complex.
Before the project most of these monuments had not been dated, but it seemed likely they spanned a considerable depth of time. The relationship between the monuments suggested, unexpectedly, that the cursus and post rings were still visible when the pit alignments were dug.
We had two overlapping objectives at Catholme. The first was to obtain data about the principal monuments of the complex, including their date, function, phasing and preservation. The second aim was to investigate a range of different field techniques. Hence, Simon Buteux and Mark Hewson devised a programme that included the investigation of LiDAR data (undertaken by Stephen Wilkes), and an intensive assessment of geophysical techniques and data modelling (undertaken by Meg Watters), excavation and environmental analyses, all maintained together within a GIS. The synergy of techniques proved to be perhaps the most salutary lesson from the project.
The fieldwork began with geophysical survey, conducted in three separate phases. The first covered a large area of the landscape using magnetic and resistance techniques. This did not identify additional features, but provided greater clarity to the known monuments, and enabled their accurate location on the ground. This informed the second phase, which focussed on the Sunburst Monument, part of the Woodhenge Monument and a section of the northern pit alignment, using the same techniques and GPR at a high resolution. This was repeated in the third phase, after the stripping of topsoil for excavation.
This final survey gave remarkably clear results, providing data that allowed Watters to model in 3D the deposits identified by GPR. The first trench was positioned over the centre of the Sunburst Monument, taking in the whole of the ring ditch and some of the surrounding pits. The second trench covered the north-western quadrant of the Woodhenge Monument and its centrally enclosed space. We investigated four pits in the alignment in the third trench, where we had an opportunity to see if the apparent relationship with the other monuments could be demonstrated stratigraphically and chronologically.
The Sunburst ring ditch lay between an internal and an external bank, with a single break in its western side; it was just over 2m wide and survived to over half a metre deep. In places it seemed that it may have been preceded by a ring of pits, which lined up with the pits radiating out from the monument. We excavated 13 of these small pits beyond the ring ditch, showing that most had not held posts but were U-shaped in profile. After the ditch had refilled, it had been dug out again in segments.
At the centre of the ring ditch were the remains of a burial pit 2.4m×1.8m and 0.4m deep. The body had completely deteriorated but was identified by characteristic stains in the soil. Associated with the body were sherds of pottery and worked lithics. Ann Woodward has shown that the sherds probably derived from a single Beaker of David Clarke’s “Northern/North Rhine” group; petrographic study by Rob Ixer indicated that it may have travelled from northern England, or more likely from Scotland, suggesting the person was of some importance. Similarly, Lawrence Barfield suggests that some of the stone artefacts from the monument were not local.
Watters’ 3D modelling of the GPR data had accurately picked up the segmented recutting of the second phase, in addition to the earlier ditch and the central burial. It had also picked out the surrounding pits. Most significantly, the GPR had shown a circle of pits beneath the ring ditch, which we identified in excavation as a possible earlier phase. We would have missed these by excavation alone, which sampled the ring ditch in plan and section according to the scheduling constraints. However, with the three-dimensional GPR data, it was possible to understand this critical phase.
All this suggests that the radiating lines of pits had been the first monument. The innermost pit circle had then been reworked, initially with a hengiform type of ditch with a single entrance, and later by a segmented ditch. Modelling of the four radiocarbon dates from the ditch, by Derek Hamilton, Peter Marshall, Gordon Cook and Christopher Bronk Ramsey, indicated that the two phases occurred close together, with the recut around 2570–2490BC. In contrast, the Beaker pottery associated with the central burial suggests this was a later insertion at around 2000BC, some 500 years later. The “sunburst” itself remains undated, but must still have been visible when the first ditch was dug.
At the Woodhenge Monument we excavated 23 pits, some from each of the five rings. They were around a metre in diameter and in places over a metre deep, and straight-sided. Three contained the remains of oak timbers (flecks of charcoal and dark soil stains), confirming the morphological suggestion that they once held uprights, presenting something of a forest – a total of 195 tall posts in five rings each of 39. As well as the circular arrangement, the pits effectively form 32 radiating lines, comparable to the 12 lines at the Sunburst Monument.
There were few finds. The three lithics from the excavation were of local gravel flint, in contrast to that from the Sunburst Monument. All but one of five samples from the oak posts produced statistically indistinguishable radiocarbon dates, indicating that the different rings were contemporaneous, with construction dating to 2570–2470BC – the time of the recutting of the ring ditch at the Sunburst Monument.
At the northern pit alignment, we again surveyed the area using geophysics both before and after stripping the topsoil. The results reflected those from excavation, revealing six large, sub-rectangular pits on an east-west alignment; these were 2.3m–2.8m across and 0.8m in depth, with just 20cm between them in their truncated state. It is possible that they originally overlapped or joined at the surface, although there was no indication of the positioning of spoil. There was no evidence to suggest that they ever held upright structures; nor were there any organic remains for radiocarbon dating.
The landscape just north of the confluence of the rivers Trent, Tame and Mease contains a wealth of archaeological remains which can only be identified through remote sensing, as shown by the cropmarks and the geophysics. We know that this part of the Trent was already a focus for earlier prehistoric ceremonial activity through the dispersed causewayed enclosures. By the later neolithic, and the construction of cursus monuments, the area remained important, but activity was still dispersed along the rivers rather than concentrated in a single area
Then this all changed. A small section of the landscape was chosen for intensive activity, perhaps due to the proximity to the confluence and the linkages between lowlands and the higher areas. One of the cursus monuments had already been sited here. Now 12 radiating pit alignments were constructed to form the Sunburst Monument. Soon after, this was remodelled as a hengiform earthwork, only to be remade again, at around 2500BC, into a segmented enclosure. At the same time, a second monument was constructed just 150m away: similar in plan to the Sunburst Monument, it was dense with upright oak posts. Perhaps the hengiform monuments within the floodplain to the east at Fatholme and Borough Holme were also built at this time.
Five centuries later, the site was revisited for the burial of an individual with grave goods that included lithics and Beaker pottery which may have been imported from Scotland. It is uncertain what happened in the intervening period. The oak posts would have rotted, and the earthworks would have reduced, as there was no evidence for maintenance. However, the features must have remained significant for this continued use. At this time construction of barrows, many on the hills directly overlooking the complex, indicates its continued importance.
But for how long was the site significant to local populations? The positioning of the pit alignments to the north and south appears in plan to respect the ceremonial complex, providing both symmetry and perhaps a sacred space between the floodplain and the hills to the west. However, looking at dated pit alignments elsewhere, we would normally assume these were less ancient. The Catholme alignments also appear to reflect a much wider pattern of land division which extends these later prehistoric activities along the rivers Trent and Tame. It is possible that at least parts of the monuments remained visible and perhaps sacred until the later bronze age or iron age, up to 800BC or beyond; but it is also possible that these pits formalise an earlier boundary which is not otherwise visible to us now.
The complex at Catholme is reminiscent of clusters of monuments elsewhere across Britain and northwest Europe. The longevity of the cultural use of the landscape reflects broader themes of monumental archaeology. The sites mirror trends of monumentalisation apparent in numerous parts of the country though expressed in very different ways. The radiating pit arrangement of the Sunburst Monument is unique. As is the case with similar complexes, Catholme is less well known because the monuments are no longer visible on the ground. Furthermore, they lie within a landscape which has inexorably changed in recent years through agriculture and quarrying. However, it is perhaps gratifying that, just down the road from Catholme, the site for the National Memorial Arboretum retains themes of monumentality within the area.
Methodologically, the use of multiple lines of investigation paid dividends at Catholme. Surprisingly, the results from the modelling of the GPR data provided more than just a context to the excavations. The additional details such as the central ring of pits at the Sunburst Monument may alter how we excavate such sites in the future. For large scale quarry sites, perhaps the best approach for “strip and record” mapping is through threedimensional geophysics.
Finally, the Where Rivers Meet project has demonstrated the benefits of interdisciplinary landscape archaeology and the need for large and diverse teams. For the Catholme ceremonial complex, this was achieved through the collaboration of staff from the University of Birmingham’s Visual and Spatial Technology Centre, Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Birmingham Archaeology and the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, with continued support from English Heritage.