24 October, 2008

4. Once upon a time, in a place called Little Woodbury ...

There are no real starting points in history; every event is dependent on an infinite number of prior events having happened since time began. But it's fun to play the game.

One of the more obscure consequences of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis in Germany was the arrival in England in 1936 of Gerhard and Maria Bersu. Gerhard Bersu was an experienced German archaeologist who had been forced from office on account of his Jewish background.

Gerhard Bersu

In 1938 he was invited by the Prehistoric Society to excavate a site at Little Woodbury.[1] The site was one of an increasing collection of ‘cropmark’ sites discovered through aerial photography since the First World War.

The enclosure at Little Woodbury prior to excavation, visible from the air as a dark oval cropmark

It is difficult to describe how prehistoric Britain was viewed in the 1930s. Suffice to say that in some quarters, though clearly not in all, it was thought that our ‘primitive’ ancestors, had lived in pits – literally in holes in the ground -- and were one step removed from cavemen. It is easy to mock ‘primitivism’, but archaeology was still a comparatively young subject, and not a great deal of good excavation work had been done in this country. The foremost British archaeologists had largely worked abroad, in the Empire, and had concerned themselves with the archaeology of former great civilizations. It somehow seemed appropriate that the Romans and their Empire had civilized primitive Britons. The Christian writers of our early history had also been keen to stress the mediocrity of the pre-Christian pagan world.

Bersu’s excavation of Little Woodbury, and his subsequent report [2] were a revelation on many levels, and set new standards for excavation, interpretation, and presentation of archaeological sites.

Crucially, he found two circular structures defined by concentric rings of postholes, which he interpreted as round timber buildings. These he reconstructed as having conical roofs and entrance porches. This was not the first timber roundhouse discovered. That credit should probably go to Thomas Wake and his 1936 excavations at Witchy Neuk in Northumberland [3], but Little Woodbury became the most important for the archaeology of Southern England.

Bersu's plan of two superimposed roundhouses from Little Woodbury

Bersu's work on the finds, such as animal bones and charred cereal grains, set these buildings in an agricultural context. Other small structures comprised of two and four posts were seen as drying racks and granaries, respectively. Bersu interpreted some of the pits he found as being used for storing grain, and not as dwellings, as some earlier excavators had suggested.

Plans of two and four-post structures found at Little Woodbury
After two seasons of excavation, the Second World War intervened, and Bersu was interned with many other German nationals on the Isle of Man for the duration of the war. He conducted excavations on the island during the war, but never worked in England again.

Bersu’s Little Woodbury excavation gave us our first real glimpse of the prehistoric agricultural economy and its built environment, and it established the Iron Age population as competent farmers. This was a long way from primitive people living in pits, as conceived by an earlier generation of archaeologists, but as we will see, still some way from civilisation.

Subsequent excavations would be seen in the light of Bersu's findings, seeking to confirm and expand on these exciting new insights. Understanding a ‘posthole palimpsest’ becomes a lot easier once you know you are looking for circular buildings and four-post granaries. Subsequently, similar structures were found on other sites, with Little Woodbury cited as the parallel to support such identifications. That is not to suggest these things would not have been found elsewhere without the Little Woodbury report, only that its is the beginning of a chain of citations that support such identifications.

A 'Romano-Celtic Temple' discovered at Heathrow in the 1940s [4]

It is worth pointing out that we have come across other forms of structures, such as square buildings known as ‘Romano-Celtic Temples’, and the search for four-post structures has led to detection of other small rectangular structures with 5, 6, or 9 postholes. Timber ramparts, palisades, and gateways have been identified on defended sites.

Examples of small rectangular structures from Cadbury Castle near Yeovil Somerset, excavated in the 1970s [5]
However, 60 years after Bersu’s excavation, we are still are looking for, and finding, the same types of structures that were found at Little Woodbury. In reality, apart from its importance as a template, the site is not any more significant than many similar sites in the area, but we run the risk of conceiving prehistoric built environment only in terms of its similarity to what was found at Little Woodbury.
It is an easy mistake to make.
[2] Bersu, G: 1940 Excavations at Little Woodbury, Wiltshire. Part 1, the settlement revealed by excavation. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 6, 30 -111.
[3]Wake, T 1937, Excavations at Witchy Neuk, Hepple.Archaeologia Aeliana . 4th Ser. Vol.xvi, pp 129-39
[4] Grimes, W F, and Close-Brooks, J. 1993: Caesar’s Camp, Heathrow, Middlesex. Proc Prehist Soc 59, 299-317.
[5] Downs, Jane, 1997: The Shrine at Cadbury Casle: Belief enshrined. In Gwilt, Adam, And Haselgrove, Colin ed.s: Reconstructing Iron Age Societies. Oxbow Monograph 71, Oxford, 145 – 152.


Anonymous said...

It's a minor point but Bersu didn't come to Britain in 1935, he was stillw orking for the German Archaeological Institute (RGK) in Frankfurt until 1936. He had however been demoted from head of the Institute to excavation supervisor. See Martin Maischburger German Archaeology during the Third Reich. Antiquity 76: 209-18.

Geoff Carter said...

Thank you very much Anon, I have corrected that.