Saturday, February 25, 2006

Archaeology Society and Wood Farm

CROXDEN Abbey has long been a very visible sign that Uttoxeter is rich in history.
And with the abbey so close to Wood Farm, it is no surprise that Cistercian artefacts have been found on its land, including a little bell, which could have come from a monk’s robe, horse’s bridle or a falconer.
These items, along with a second century Roman coin, signify that the site has been occupied for 2,000 years.
But finding flints, stone pounders, arrow heads, neolithic pottery, mace heads, axes, burial mounds and stone structures is evidence that the Uttoxeter area has history going back even further — by thousands and thousands of years.
Nick Brandrick has lived at the 224-acre dairy farm since 1964.
He has 30 acres of woodland and one of the more ancient wooded areas houses some unusual animals.
As Nick, 49, shakes some food pellets, the trees start rustling and the sense of history that pervades the farm is heightened by the sight of a small herd of wild boar, which comes snuffling out the wood.
It is partly because of the boar that Nick first found an interest in investigating the history of his land.
While building the boar pen, he and his son found a spear point — identified as coming from a fishing spear because of its serrated edges.
"That was the first real clue that anything had happened here," says Nick.
Those first finds in the 1990s spurred the farmer on to learn about archaeology from books and carry out his own investigations.
Sadly the wild boar, the dairy cows and even Nick himself have accidentally destroyed some of the evidence over the years, but much still remains.
"I started doing a few experimental digs over the years, but a lot of my finds have come with help from other people.
"I find things by going into the structures and digging on those structures."
Some of the eeriest places on Nick’s farms are the wooded hollows which become bogs in winter, but dry out in summer.
These creepy bogs are dotted with cairns — piles of stones which are thought to mark bog burials.
One expert from Derby University said he thought there was evidence of Bronze Age burial mounds in the wooded areas.
However, any trace of human remains would unfortunately be long gone.
"A dog bone would disappear in two months in this ground, because of the acidity," says Nick.
More baffling is the stone alignments which can be seen when the bogs are dry. Lines of sandstones have been placed across the bog like the spokes of a wheel.
Scattered here and there, Nick has found a good deal of quartz too which has been "napped", where part of the stone is struck off, making a sharp edge to use as a tool.
Other small pieces of quartz have signs of being used as a "pot boiler" — where the stone has been placed in a fire and then dropped into water to heat the liquid.
Curiously, not all of the stones Nick has been examining are local. Small white pebbles have been found purposefully placed at the end of stone lines, or in between larger stones, and are thought to come from places like the Chilterns or East Anglia.
A long grassy mound crosses one of the fields on Wood Farm. Bits of stone can be seen here and there and at first Nick thought it was a stone wall which had collapsed, but careful examination has since revealed that stones had been carefully placed at intervals and not in one long continuous line.
Following the stones leads you to what Nick calls the "Altar" and another big mound, where many of the artefacts have been found on digs, which reveal the careful layers of the structure and its elements of human construction.
Dotted here and there around the farm you can also see stones which bear signs of having been used to sharpen flints and make arrowheads.
The flints have been officially dated as neolithic by the county, but so far experts refuse to accept that the artefacts were found on digs focusing on the farm’s curious stone structures.
One expert from Hanley has even dated one of Nick’s flints at 40,000 BC to 60,000 BC.
However, he is still sceptical that it is quite so ancient, believing it more likely to be between seven to 10 thousand BC.
Most of his finds and the stone structures are believed to be neolithic, which dates them from 2,000 BC to 8,000 BC.
However, some may be even older, with markings on them hinting at the mesolithic age, which is from 8,000 BC up to 20,000 BC.
Stonehenge is probably one of the most well-known structures built by neolithic man and historians believe neolithic people had a huge sense of awe for nature and the changing seasons, which is reflected in structures such as stone circles.
Up at Greatgate there is evidence of this too. Just off Nick’s land there is rock face, which from the side looks like the profile of a person.
With permission from his neighbour, Nick explored the area and found intriguing bowl shapes cut into the rock at the very base of the cliff, with markings in the rock face just above the bowls.
The escarpment faces sunset and Nick believe the "cups" had a ritualistic purpose.
Just looking at the barrows and strange stone alignments conjures up images of prehistoric men and women carrying out rituals and burials.
It is obvious that Nick has a love for his land and a boundless enthusiasm in finding out about its history.
And he’s not the only one.
Members of Uttoxeter Archaeology Society are just as excited about the mysterious stone features to be found at the farm.
The society is hoping to start excavating some of the sites when the frosts have ebbed away and the more clement weather arrives in March.
Dave Parkes, a member of the society, says: "Part of it is making sure it’s recorded for future generations, but it’s also about encouraging other archaeologists to get on the land to investigate more about these kinds of finds.
"There are not many people in the UK who are experts in this area because it’s so hard to quantify and assess the finds."
Dave’s interest and amateur specialism in neolithic archaeology stems from his degree in ancient history.
He says: "It’s an incredible place. It’s got a real magic about it.
"It’s on a hill looking out over the valley and it just makes you think, what were they doing and why were they there? It’s like trying to piece together a jigsaw.
"It creates scenarios in your mind, to think about what these people were doing. Were they wearing furs or were they naked or painted?
"It needs more study, more approaches and opinions from other archaeologists and more debate about what it could be."
Nick’s artefacts and more information about his farm is currently on display at Uttoxeter Heritage Centre, as part of the centre’s new exhibitions of local collectors and their collections.