6.3 Blackstone – the enclosure site

In 1979 Davenport and Hunt wrote:

The internal arrangements at Blackstone are difficult to parallel for similar reasons. At Beckford, a village organisation has been postulated (Britnell 1974 and 1975; Wills in prep. [2010]) which is hardly comparable to the Blackstone site. Beckford to the south, Barford (Warks) to the east and Sharpstones Hill (Shrops) to the north have all produced roundhouses as the major building type, but these seem to be absent at Blackstone. This absence may tie the site socially to the zone of influence of the Herefordshire hillforts, where even in the later Iron Age rectangular houses appear to be the norm (Stanford 1974); but even this connection is weakened by the dissimilarity of the rectangular buildings at Blackstone to those at Croft Ambrey and Credenhill Camp (ibid.).

As an enclosed, isolated (or rather self-contained) site Blackstone has superficial similarities to the enclosed farmsteads of the southern chalklands (Perry 1969), but excavations at the latter indicate considerably different management techniques, or even an entirely different economy (Bersu 1940; Wainwright and Switsur 1976). Important differences are the much greater incidence of pits at these sites, of small four-post structures ('granaries') and of roundhouses. Such features do occur at Beckford, which is certainly typical of one kind of settlement focus in the region (Britnell 1974 and 1975), and again at similar sites in the Thames valley (Parrington 1978, Lambrick 1978), which are in other respects unlike the Wessex sites. On the other hand, self-contained enclosed sites occur here too (Lambrick 1978). A similar mixture of types is seen also in the east midlands and Essex (Drury 1978).

Blackstone is perhaps best viewed as a component of such a mixture. Open sites, clusters or spreading groups of enclosures, self-contained enclosures and, of course, hillforts are all part of an overall and presumably inter-related pattern of settlement. This pattern is probably a reflection of the variety of small-scale local environments and related social organisations. In the upper Severn valley, such a mix is most clearly demonstrated by aerial surveys (Burrow 1978), and Beckford, Blackstone and Sharpstones Hill are excavated examples of varied types.

6.3.1 Ditch and bank enclosure

The ditch and bank circuit was not elaborate, other than for some possible local lengths of palisade shoring, and so its defensive capability seemed quite limited, unless the site had been held by very large numbers of defenders. The placing of the ditches also did not seem to conform to any particular tactical defensive plan. The main practical purposes of the enclosure seem, therefore, to have been to prevent easy access except through the single gateway, and to convey some impression of authority rather than merely to exclude any marauding wild animals.

6.3.2 Buildings

Iron Age roundhouses (internal drip gully diameters are given) have been identified in Worcestershire at Bays Meadow, Droitwich (a single roundhouse c. 6m diameter; Barfield 2006, 85, fig. 53), Beckford (e.g. structure 3; 7.5m diameter), Throckmorton (10-13m diameter; Griffin et al. 2005), Wychbold (10m, 12m, 8m diameter; Jones and Evans 2006), and Wyre Piddle (c. 10m diameter; Napthan et al. 1997). Moore (2006, 102) has drawn attention to later Iron Age roundhouses in the adjacent Severn-Cotswolds region being smaller than earlier examples, being 8m in diameter at Bagendon, but this cannot yet be substantiated in Worcestershire. The posited Blackstone post-built roundhouses (BG1, BG2, BG5) were 4.5-5.5m in diameter, which would be very small for a domestic roundhouse, and 0237 would be an even less likely example based on its dimensions. However, the identification of roundhouses from such a mass of features most heavily relies on the presence of a penannular drainage gully, and, unfortunately, this is absent at Blackstone; and on well-drained ground such as the gravels it may not have been needed.

All the proposed Blackstone houses are post-built in a ring, and this was the commonest technique in the early Iron Age in the Severn-Cotswolds, continuing into the middle Iron Age, when it was often combined with the drainage gully (Moore 2006, 101), and this seems to be the regular type in Worcestershire (see above). Not far from Blackstone and to its west, another Iron Age domestic building tradition has been claimed based on four-post structures. These have been interpreted as rectangular houses, as in the case of Croft Ambrey hillfort where postholes were c. 3m apart (Stanford 1974, 104-5), and sometimes as granaries, as at Little Woodbury (Wilts, Bersu 1940, 97-8) or more generally (Gent 1983), and sometimes as either, as at Bromfield (Shrops). At the latter site they occurred with a quadrilateral univallate enclosure of the late Iron Age (Stanford 1991, 57, fig. 19), and were accompanied by an area of postholes without obvious patterning, which was interpreted as hay trees and racks (cf. the numerous postholes at Blackstone). The four-post structures are usually square and 1.8-3.6m in size, and are similar to the features from other hillforts such as the Wrekin, where internal hearths were also identified (Stanford 1984) suggesting that some of these were indeed occupied domestically. No examples of this type of building were definitely identified at Blackstone, but building 3 was similar (cf. Croft Ambrey; Stanford 1974, fig. 51).

One Blackstone post-built rectangular building (BG4) enclosed the large Bronze Age gully (0517), and so it is even possible that it was of pre-Iron Age date; it bore little resemblance to any Iron Age building known elsewhere in the region. However, Moore (2003) points out that Iron Age rectangular buildings have been generally neglected, and, where present, interpreted as non-domestic structures.

6.3.3 Artefacts and their deposition

Deposition of artefacts during the Iron Age has become a primary area of interest owing to the likelihood of ritualised activity (Hill 1995), and the composition of assemblages has been reviewed accordingly.

There was the normal preponderance of pottery, which was scattered across the whole site but usually in rather small quantities. The pottery itself did not occasion any particular comment other than that one vessel (pit 0080; Fig. 38, no. 9) was very large at a time when most vessels were rather smaller, whether they were jars or bowls. This vessel harks back in shape and size to the much earlier large prehistoric vessels that have been regarded as indicative of communal feasting events, possibly involving hallucinogenic substances (Woodward 1998-9). That this very large bowl-like vessel was, unusually for the site, found in association with a relatively substantial amount of other smaller pots has been taken to represent the remnants of just such an event (see Prehistoric pottery). However, Woodward (1998-9, 8) has pointed out that the ordinary domestic use of pottery, especially for cooking, was established by the middle Iron Age. Possibly, in that case, the Blackstone community could have been continuing with a much older practice of festive conviviality. There was also the distinct possibility that this cache of material represented a deliberate deposition preserving some memory of the event; such social occasions have recently been interpreted as times to demonstrate competing wealth and power, leading to large-scale deposition of objects (Sharples 2007, 179-80).

The pit (0080) with the exceptionally large vessel was also adjacent to (and cut/inter-cut) another pit (0098; Figs. 27 and 28) with an even greater concentration of pottery, this time accompanied by other finds, all of which helped to underline its special character. In this case one fill in particular (0098.2/2a; Fig. 28), characterised by ash and cracked stones, was associated with most of the finds, including the pottery. The composition of the assemblage from pit 0098 is certainly exceptional for the site as a whole. Whether the choice of objects was significant is uncertain, but it is clear that it represents an expression of generosity, in contrast to the relative scarcity of material debris across the rest of the site. The range of finds (pottery, salt container, ceramic weight, iron objects) does not cover all types of materials – there was no stone object, for instance – and pottery and iron predominate, and these can be viewed as related through production or as representing important contemporary materials. If function was important in the selection of goods for deposition, then iron seems to have been particularly significant, as different types of iron object were present, perhaps showing the range of its everyday uses. Certainly the commemoration seems to relate to a multiplicity of functions, as there was no obvious single function that linked together items like a brooch and a possible pot-mending cleat. The possible pieces of currency bar may be of particular significance here, as such items have been claimed to be the subject of special depositions in the 2nd-1st centuries BC and have often been linked to settlement enclosure boundaries, especially at hillforts (Hingley 1990; 2005), though at Danebury hillfort occasional currency bar fragments were found in the centre of the site and dated post c. 300 BC (Selwood 1984). In all cases the Blackstone objects were either partial (though the use of Fig. 43, no. 4 remained uncertain) or broken, which is a common feature of votive offerings, and so this seems the most likely explanation here, especially in the absence of other evidence for industrial activity. It is possible here, therefore, that there is a privileged insight into the beliefs of the builders of the Blackstone enclosure, where offerings were being made to the otherworld.

Though the contents of two pits on such a large site cannot necessarily be taken to convey any significance for the function of the whole site, it is tempting to think they mark a significant event in the lives of the inhabitants, with the deposits being deliberately created, which would be in accordance with evidence from other later Iron Age sites as interpreted by Hill (1995). The fills of the two pits were possibly interleaved and so it is very possible that two different events were being commemorated. This could be reflected in the selection of objects, and certainly the two pit assemblages are quite different, pit 0098 having by far the larger collection, and pit 0080 containing exclusively pottery, with its possible indication of feasting. Such events might have been the completion of the construction works (see Prehistoric pottery), or it may have been in commemoration of a more personal event such as a birth, marriage or death, or some reflection of a wider social mechanism (Sharples 2007). In a more modern context, however, such an assemblage would simply be interpreted as a house clearance, and so a variety of interpretations may ultimately be possible.

Another hint about the zoning of activities on the site came from the distribution of the Droitwich salt containers, which were concentrated in the vicinity of the entrance way and in the pits (PG1) just inside the entrance, and immediately north of the inner annexe. Such a public position may imply the intention to vaunt salt use, but a more prosaic explanation may be that this location was the most convenient place in the compound, given the particular intended use. It is difficult to be sure of the specific Iron Age uses of the salt, but in later periods larger quantities are associated in a rural context with dairying and the production of butter and cheese. In general terms, whatever was being done with salt was in keeping with its contemporary use elsewhere in Worcestershire, as it was present at Blackstone in much the same proportion (15.7%; 15km) of the overall pottery assemblage as on other sites at a similar distance from source (e.g. Evesham at 11.3% (Hurst 2000b); 24km).

6.3.4 Other remains

In other ways the site generally conformed with the norms of its period, for instance in the presence of pit clusters. However, even here the normative characteristics could be regarded as only approximate. The pit groups were rather small, and cereals were just barely noted in association (PG2 and PG5).

An absence of copper alloy finds was, however, another striking characteristic, at a time in the late Iron Age when highly ornate and complex objects were being made for display. Such objects have been discovered in the general vicinity by metal detectorists (see Site background) and so were definitely in normal use, and small copper alloy personal ornamentation could be seen as a feature of the Beckford site 43km (27 miles) to the south, though how much of this was of later Iron Age date was uncertain. Currently there is no reason to suspect that copper alloy was in short supply in the later Iron Age, though this material was also noticeably absent or rare at a contemporary smaller, single compound at Wychbold (Jones and Evans 2006). In this case it may be possible to explain a variation from the norm in terms of the inhabitants of these smaller sites not wishing to display any signs of personal wealth, perhaps to deter unwelcome attention; equally they never attracted the passing metalworker who could make such bespoke items.

Another disparity in comparison with other nearby and broadly contemporary sites was that there was no clear evidence for the use of clay ovens. Although it remained possible that some of the rather fragmentary 'hearths' might have been the surviving bases of such ovens, there was the absence of any obvious superstructures, as found at Beckford (Hurst in prep (b)), and Childswickham (Hurst 2004b). Presumably such ovens are a good indication of domestic baking and typically this would have been bread production, and so a complete absence would be surprising in a primarily domestic site.

6.3.5 Site dating

Site dating clearly straddles the middle-late Iron Age. Although the interior looks busy, the absence of clearly defined areas of use other than the annexe and the relatively small quantity of finds all tend to suggest a relatively short-lived occupation/use. The pottery supports this view and has indicated a 50-75 year span of main occupation, most likely prior to c. 100 BC and certainly prior to c. 50 BC. Later Iron Age pottery (Fig. 40, no. 56) occurred in the upper fills of the outer ditch, and generally Roman pottery was present in small quantities in the tops of larger features, implying that some activity (?agriculture) continued to take place in the vicinity following the abandonment of the Iron Age habitation.

6.3.6 Overall conclusions

Any conclusions about the site have to be prefaced with the caveat that the site was not fully excavated, though a substantial part (c. 40% of the interior) was. The Blackstone enclosure seems to represent a type of late Iron Age site that was in widespread use in this part of the Midlands, with examples known to the west (e.g. Bromfield) and beyond into Wales. It may be characterised by the large scale of its construction, which contrasts with the less forceful impression of interior activity, the latter most likely indicating short-term occupation. It is unclear whether the prior occupation of the site during the previous four millennia held any significance for its Iron Age occupiers, but this seems to be unlikely in the light of the mainly rather slight features associated with this earlier activity. Rather the site was convenient, dominating an easy access route both to and from the river and possibly along this particular terrace from north to south.

Some doubts still remain about the intensity of Iron Age site occupation, despite the busy character of the period site plans (Figs. 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14). The number of features with Iron Age finds was actually extremely low at about only 8%, which might imply that many other features were of pre-Iron Age date than could be determined by conventional associations. This would be compatible with a site that was little used, but this is far from proven. Alternatively, if the many chronologically indeterminate features were really Iron Age then it raises the spectre that similar sites of this period may not be readily detected through fieldwalking because of a lack of finds, and so there would be the prospect that the dearth of Iron Age sites in north Worcestershire, compared with south Worcestershire for instance, may not reflect the true situation at all.

On the present evidence the Blackstone enclosure is best explained as a farmstead with (for the times) a conventional complement of gateway, banks and ditches, though with the advantage that it was close to the River Severn and to fording points, and so could have derived additional economic advantages from its location. There was a strong trading dimension to the site, even if it was only to acquire artefacts for the use of the few inhabitants, as everything on the site had been imported. The site was, therefore, certainly not isolated, though it seems to have existed in an area where late Iron Age population was low, and earlier settlement minimal. The involvement in trade may, however, have gone further and the site might have served to foster the late Iron Age trade network of the region by providing facilities, such as a stopping-off point after the crossing of the river, which at the best of times might have been a fairly precarious event requiring time and care to execute safely, especially if loaded with goods. The renewal of settlement at this location after a gap of about 1500 years might have marked an expansion in trade, though in the wider archaeological context there is no obvious hint of general growth in trade in the late 2nd to 1st centuries BC. It might indicate some intensification of trade along a specific trade route, perhaps at the expense of other routes, so that no overall increase in trade has been noted.

Any farming could have been largely involved with stock rearing given the particular locale, and the possibility that this type of compound was potentially associated with a late Iron Age expansion in ranching (see above). It is possible that the annexe is one sign that livestock were being kept at Blackstone. Though the data are still inadequate for this part of the west Midlands, Hambleton (1999, 90) in a survey of British Iron Age pastoral farming has cited as relevant to the rest of the Midlands the results of work in the east Midlands (Knight 1984), where expansion in stock rearing has been claimed for this period. Though usually dismissed as archaeologically unhelpful, Caesar commented (De Bello Gallico V 12; Anthon 1860) that 'the cattle are very numerous' and Strabo listed cattle and hides as some of the main exports of late Iron Age Britain (Salway 1981, 42). Even if accepted, such comments can only be taken as applying to southern England, and even then treated with caution. However, it was the natural wealth of Britain that drew the Roman advance, and so, even if not literally true of every part of the country, these ancient comments seem significant in providing a general context of wealth generated from farming.

Despite its possible dual economic basis the Blackstone enclosure was soon deserted. From our modern perspective such settlement instability looks abnormal, though to the earlier inhabitants of Worcestershire it could have been more normal as settlement sites responded to different factors over time. At Holt and at Beckford similar patterns of Iron Age abandonment were recorded for this type of enclosed site, which may indicate that this site-type was more prone to desertion, perhaps serving some specialised function, though the dating at these other sites lacks precision. Hill (2007) has recently drawn attention to new places being settled afresh in the late Iron Age, as well as new migrant groups arriving from abroad — a strong tradition of large-scale folk movements on the Continent was recorded by Julius Caesar in the mid-1st century BC. Locally, however, many sites remained occupied from the late Iron Age into the Roman period (e.g. Norton and Lenchwick in south Worcestershire; Jackson et al. 1996), so there seem to have been particular factors that affected the Blackstone site. Here in north-west Worcestershire Roman remains also seem to have been quite scarce, which could be used to suggest that it was agriculturally very marginal land, in contrast to south Worcestershire where there is more general evidence of both Iron Age and Roman activity. The thin scatter of medieval finds also implies little contemporary settlement in the vicinity of the excavation site, and a low level of medieval finds would be compatible with the more dispersed character of settlement found in north-east Worcestershire, and into the adjacent Arden area of north Warwickshire (Hooke 2006, 112-13). Only in the post-medieval period were finds more plentiful again, probably as a result of expanding arable in response to population growth (Overton 1996, 87), especially in the 18th century, before returning again to pastoral.

The site has, therefore, raised many concerns about our ability to understand the pre-Roman Iron Age and has posed many questions, most pressingly, for instance, the purpose of such sites, and whether similar sites elsewhere in the region really demonstrate the same time-scale, and possibly, therefore, reflect significant transformation in Iron Age society. The data to address such questions can obviously only be acquired by future fieldwork research, and perhaps next time there will not be a lapse of over 30 years before the results of fieldwork reach the wider world.


© Internet Archaeology/Author(s) URL:
Last updated: Wed July 21 2010