Sites from the Thames Estuary Wetlands, England, and Their Bronze Age Use

By Meddens, F. M. | Antiquity, June 1996 | Go to article overview

Sites from the Thames Estuary Wetlands, England, and Their Bronze Age Use


Meddens, F. M., Antiquity


Antecedents

The alluvium along the northeast bank of the Thames, and along the rivers Lea and Roding, has for years produced occasional material of prehistoric and Roman date. Bronze Age and earlier prehistoric remains have come from the underlying peat deposits, and material of Roman and later date from the overlying layers of alluvial clays and silts.

Important among these finds is the Dagenham idol, a wooden anthropomorphic figurine dated to the late Neolithic, 2351-2139 BC (3800 [+ or -] 70 b.p.; OxA-1721) (Coles 1990: 326), which came from the area of Dagenham (O'Leary 1964: plate 3). There have been artefacts, three dug-out canoes (Whitaker 1889; Marsden et al. 1989), and possible crannogs or pile-dwellings of uncertain date (Needham & Longley 1980: 423-4).

The extent and nature of the peat-beds found in this alluvium was remarked upon as early as 1721 by John Perry in his account of the stopping of the Dagenham Breach (Perry 1721: 72-3).

The archaeology(1)

Since 1989 investigations, mostly by Newham Museum Service (the former Passmore Edwards Museum), have started to show the extraordinary richness and preservation of the archaeological resource found in the peat deposits.

At the Brookway site (RA-BA 92), on the south side of Rainham, Neolithic occupation remains were identified along the former marsh edge; crossing over the boundary from a dry-land gravel outcrop into marsh, cut features, pottery and lithics were found. From the peat deposits alongside the Neolithic site, finds of Roman date were recovered [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED] (P. Greenwood pers. comm.).

At the Bridge Road site (RA-BR 89), Rainham, wooden structures were located on the bank of the Ingrebourne river, along the northern edge of a gravel rise: an insubstantial brushwood trackway constructed of coppiced alder (Alnus), and a small rectangular enclosure [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 2 OMITTED]. The trackway ran from the edge of the gravel outcrop into the former marsh towards what may have been a predecessor of the Ingrebourne. The rectangular enclosure, at right-angles to the trackway on a northeasterly alignment, was constructed of alder (Alnus) stakes with evidence for a substantial woven construction for the horizontal component (Meddens & Beasley 1990: 243). The enclosure may have been related to animal husbandry, the marsh edge providing summer grazing. The 14C dates for the timber remains, 1410-1000 BC (3000 [+ or -] 80 b.p.; BETA-58377) and 1680-1260 BC (3210 [+ or -] 90 b.p.; BETA-58378), place them approximately in the middle Bronze Age and in, or soon after, the period involving the greatest change in the site pollen sequence. The sequence shows a marked decline in tree pollen such as oak, elm, lime, ash, alder and shrub species such as the hazel family, at the same time as a distinct increase in herbs (Chenopodium type), grasses, weeds, sedges (Cyperaceae) and cereals (Scaife 1991). These changes indicate intensified or geographicallily closer arable agriculture (Scaife 1991: 14).

Underlying the peats were two phases of undated cultural activity, represented by post-holes, pit and ditch cuts. A later phase of land-use, with a midden deposit, which commenced after peats ceased to grow, dates to the early Roman period (Meddens & Beasley 1990: 244-6).

At the Hays site (DA-HS 93), Dagenham, is a linear feature, traced for 23 m, 4 m wide and up to 0.27 m deep, constructed of pebbles, sandy silts and burnt flint, sandwiched by peat deposits (Divers 1994a). It has been interpreted as a causeway, a likely principal access route into the marsh and possibly beyond. The peat was compacted and densely pitted. Divers (1994a: 16, 22) interprets this as resulting from poaching the trampled mixed material coming from the passage of large numbers of relatively heavy animals over the surface. No signs of wheel ruts were observed.

14C from peats immediately overlying the causeway dates to 1380-990 BC (2960[+ or -]80 b. …

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