On the 20th November ’17, the Trust began an archaeological evaluation on a large site to the north of Colchester. Interestingly, we completed the fieldwork on the 20th December! The site also produced some very interesting results… The evaluation trenching followed by excavation of exposed features revealed a large number of small shallow pits, each containing a charcoal-rich fill but few finds. As the pits show evidence of wood having been burned in them, we have called them ‘fire-pits’. The few finds from the site include part of a Roman pottery vessel, six post-medieval gun-flints, and a modern US military button!
The part of Roman pottery vessel is the most significant find from the site and the only find to provide dating evidence. We reconstructed it from some of the joining fragments of the 83 fragments! The fragments were excavated from one of the fire-pits (F7 in Trench 16) and represent parts of the rim, neck and body of the vessel, but not the base. Trust pottery specialist Steve Benfield has identified the vessel as an early Roman ‘butt-beaker’ or drinking-vessel of the mid-late 1st century. Other finds from the evaluation which can only be possibly dated to the Roman period are one fragment of ceramic building material (CBM), which was residual in the fill of a post-medieval/modern ditch, and some other small fragments of CBM.
This area to the north of Colchester once included extensive and historic woodland called ‘Kingswood’. The fire-pits seem to represent the remains of small round clamps in which wood was slowly burned in a controlled manner over several days to produce charcoal. Dating evidence for the fire-pits is very limited. However, charcoal samples from the pits have been dried and sent to a specialist to see if faunal analysis (of any plant species) can be retrieved and then a selection has been sent to a specialist for radiocarbon-dating. Charcoal is a very useful commodity and it has, apparently, been produced and used for over 5,000 years. It would have been produced in large quantities in woodlands by people working as charcoal-burners. Charcoal was used in the manufacture of iron, bronze, zinc, copper, lead, silver and gold, glass, for cooking and heating, and even to make gunpowder, while tar and pitch were by-products of charcoal. Charcoal-burners would also have made small fires for their own uses while living and working in the woods. The gun-flints would have been placed singly in a flintlock gun’s hammer to strike a spark and ignite the charge to fire the gun, possibly during hunting or bloodsports activity: flintlock guns would have been in use from the early 16th to the mid-19th century. We can only speculate about the modern US military button!
The site has, therefore, produced some very interesting results which suggest a range of human activity on the site for, possibly, many centuries, despite the lack of finds! Trust archaeologist Laura Pooley is currently writing the site report, which will include a study of fire-pits across a number of archaeological sites around Colchester, and she will also be giving a talk on charcoal-production and fire-pits at the Trust’s ‘tea and talks’ event on Saturday 17th February: details on this web-site at www.thecolchesterarchaeologist.co.uk/?p=40773 .
Read more about charcoal at www.pyrites.org/publications_files/Charcoal%20Making.pdf .
The images show part of the site including a trench and spoil-heap (above), Trench 16, fire-pit F7, and the reconstructed butt-beaker with all the fragments, plus three of the gun-flints (from Trenches 56, 39 and 64).
The featured image shows the reconstructed butt-beaker. The fragments were all washed, marked and sorted, and the vessel reconstructed, by the Trust’s archaeology volunteres. [Image to follow.]