Butts Brow Excavation … A few weeks later

Jo Seaman

Writing this post a few weeks after we finished our Community Excavation at Butts Brow has given me time to reflect on 3 weeks of fieldwork at a site of National importance on the Downs above Eastbourne (or more correctly Willingdon…or Ratton…or Jevington depending on where you are.)

Photo by Lee Roberts

The project was, like everything else in 2020, affected by Covid-19 social distancing and working restrictions and left us with a diminished but no less determined team of professional archaeologists and volunteers.  Some of our volunteering stalwarts returned and also some new faces, we had students gaining fieldwork experience or putting learned skills into practice and archaeologists on busman’s holidays all sweating their hearts out for the love of scientific discovery!

We also had many visitors this year including Environmental Archaeology Specialists, a Manager of one of the largest archaeological units in the South East, National Trust staff, Police Officers, an expert in East Sussex during the Second World War (who ended up digging a feature!) and most importantly over 2000 members of the public who wanted to know what we were up to on their beloved Downland.

This is partly what makes these projects so important.  So much of our heritage is in danger, not necessarily through deliberate destruction but through neglect or damage from lack of understanding.  By involving our visitors and indeed by engaging those not able to reach the site through digital technology and social media, we can help people appreciate what is, in this case at least, lying just beneath their feet.  So many people that we spoke to said they had been visiting the area for years (in some cases decades) and had no idea about the really ancient archaeology they had been walking upon, although almost every one acknowledged that the place was special to them.

The first glimpse of the features beneath our feet
Photo by Lee Roberts

On the one hand I think this specialness is actually key to understanding this complex and enigmatic site.

Essentially what we have at Butts Brow is an Early Neolithic enclosure (dated by pottery deposited in the ditches to around 3600BCE) or a space marked out by a ditch with an inner bank.  For me, this space was special, it must have been created by burning and hacking down the woodland that covered the Downs at this time.  Perhaps bringing order to the wild chaos, or marking the sacred from the profane, the safe from the dangerous? Whatever the reason, a ditch or segments of ditch, most over 10m long , around 1.5m deep and over 3m across were dug all around the hill, with antler picks, wooden or bone tools and hands. Then a huge bank over 2m thick built with the chalk rubble and clay thrown up inside.  A massive, monumental endeavour for which some serious motivation must have been needed.

This ditch is broken in at least two places by what could be described as possible entrances or more properly, causeways – so technically in archaeological terms we could now describe this site as a Causewayed Enclosure. With a similarly dated but better preserved Causewayed Enclosure at Combe Hill, less than 1km away, it could be unique to have two so close together[1].

So we have a special 5500 year old space literally cut into the chalk and marked out with a segmented (at least partly) ditch and inner bank that has a more elaborate twin just across the head of a valley that runs south west towards Jevington. 

Butts Brow looking towards Combe Hill
Photo by Lee Roberts

Both monuments have steep scarp slopes on one side where the ditch disappears (Combe Hill) or is smaller (Butts Brow – tbc) and the most substantial part of each monument faces one another across the valley. There are incredible 360 degree views from both sites, but is the focus down to the south west and the sea beyond or to the east over the levels?

Neither enclosure is on the hill top, Combe Hill lies cradled between two tumps to the east and west while the ‘peak’ near Butts Brow is to the south of the monument. In my view, space and location are just as important here as the earthworks themselves.  But the latter do tell a rather strange (to our eyes at least) story themselves.

In our main trench this year, a long, narrow section from beyond the ditch towards the middle of the site, we revealed the ditch in all its’ glory with some of the best stratigraphy (archaeological layers that tell us the story of how a site develops through time) I have seen in a long time. This told an intriguing tale.

Stratigraphy in ditch section
Photo by Lee Roberts

The ditch (at this point over 1.5m deep and 3m wide) was cut into the chalk which had split giving the steep sides a slightly stepped appearance. I can imagine the gruelling process of how the ditches were dug, striving to find a natural fissure or crack weathered into the surface of the chalk in which to thrust an antler tine and prising out ever diminishing blocks as the rock became more solid. I wonder what time of year this took place? No season is actually ‘good’ for digging into solid chalk!

The bottom of the ditch was flat with some large natural flints still sitting in a seam where they had formed over 95 million years earlier. Above the ditch floor was a thick layer of very loose chalk rubble and deposited within it pieces of knapped flint with debitage (the debris created by the process of knapping flint by hand), so fresh it looked as if it had been struck yesterday.  If we’d found this flint on the surface of a field  we may well have thought it recently plough-struck rather than the result of ancient hands.

This was one of those instances when even old hands like me get that electrical surge of excitement at being the first person to handle an object since the individual who made it placed it here thousands of years earlier.  I can’t underplay how thrilling these occasions are. In that brief moment of realisation your being seems to have a spark of connection to another soul separated by millennia.  At least that is how it feels to me – one of the many experiences that revealing the past gifts to you, if only for a split second and as intangible as it is brief. Anyway, enough of that esoterica and on with the evidence!

The looseness and freshness of the material at the bottom, together with the unweathered appearance of the sides of the ditch show us that soon after it was dug, at least this part of the ditch was backfilled with the broken chalk recently removed. As some of the extracted flints were replaced, they were roughly struck and flakes removed and then placed together in discrete piles.

Once this initial process was done and the ditch about half filled, it was then left open for some time, this was evident from the top of the chalk backfill weathering considerably and forming a much smoother, rock-hard surface.  It looks as if the ditch had been kept clear of vegetation at least for some periods of time, then it began to gradually silt up with clay rich soil through the weathering of the bank above to the east. 

Later, the ditch was once again filled, this time with large flint nodules and some clay soil, but no chalk, to form a very solid layer.  Within the natural flints were a large number of struck flakes including a very few tools that may have been in deposits like those flints right at the bottom.

The final event in this sequence was the more gradual filling of the upper levels of the ditch through natural erosion of the clay bank above.

It is really difficult to establish how long the ditch would have been open, (although some of the post excavation work may help us here) but I guess that the initial backfilling took place soon after excavation, perhaps a matter of weeks or even days afterwards.  Then the half-filled ditch remained open and periodically cleaned for some years, probably decades before the mass of flint was deposited, filling the remainder of the ditch.  This whole process, or the life of the monument, at least with the ditch playing an important part, may have been as little as a century or as much as 500 years.

The bank that I have referred to is certainly worthy of a mention now, although much more will be revealed through our post excavation work.  It was quite astounding to find the remains of a Neolithic clay bank surviving, literally, just a few centimetres beneath the present ground surface.  Indeed, we have not found evidence of this soil bank elsewhere on the site so I feel very, very privileged to have been able to examine it this year.  The fact that any of this bank remains must show that this area has not been ploughed extensively for much, if any of its’ 5500 years of existence.  Even better than that, we found a number of pieces of Early Neolithic pottery within the bank giving us some very valuable dating evidence for its’ construction.

This story of the initial digging, rapid refilling, prolonged use and then final closing of the ditch is repeated around the site, but with variations.

In our second trench this year, over on the southern part of the earthwork where in 2018 we had found evidence for a causeway or entrance, we established this sequence within a large oval pit or short ditch section. 

The pit
Photo by Lee Roberts

Here though, there were differences, maybe because this part of the monument had a different ‘function’ or significance.  In this pit/ditch that separated two causeways, the backfilling events were present but somewhat different.  In this case there is an initial deposit of fine, clean clay at the bottom and running up about half way up the sides without actually filling it.  It is almost like a lining rather than a fill. There was then a more substantial deposit or fill of chalk pieces that looks like it may have come from the bank, but with little to no clay.  Originally this might have filled about half of the volume of the ditch and the surface was very weathered, again indicating that for some time the ditch was left open, but kept, at least periodically, clean and free of vegetation.

What we found next was a real surprise. 

Cut through the chalk backfill and into the base of the ditch itself was a large posthole (around 50cm across) that was still part filled with large flints once used to pack the posthole and give what must have been a substantial piece of timber, good, firm support.  So what was this post and why was it placed here? 

Well, to be honest the first part of this question is likely to always be a mystery and until we can see if there are any similar features nearby it is very difficult to even guess. But I like to think that it may have been some form of marker, possibly carved or coloured in some way, perhaps even dressed with garlands or pelts of animals.

As to why a posthole was here in particular, we can say that this position does stand between one small causeway and the probable end of one bank section on one side and what looks very much like an entrance to the monument on the other.  So the idea of a marker post by an entrance, enhancing it or focussing the eye on this point does actually make sense.

Another reason to think that this area was an important part of the monument was the nature of the finds in this pit.  Though, like the rest of the site, finds beyond flint debitage were scarce, we did find deposits of pottery in this pit and also (in 2018) a stone used for polishing flint tools.  This form of deposition is very similar to some found in the ditch at the nearby Combe Hill – again indicating some possible contemporary activity at both monuments.

Sorry, I got a bit carried away there…back to the sequence of events with this part of the ditch. Following the insertion of the posthole and post, the surface continued to be weathered but we cannot be sure when the post was removed – there is no evidence to suggest it rotted in this position.  There then follows another filling of the ditch with flints and a clay rich soil and it is in to this that the deposits of pottery were placed.

So we have Early Neolithic pottery deposited in the upper (latest) fills of an Early Neolithic feature, indicating that this ditch was ‘in use’ throughout the Early Neolithic…not just at a given moment within it.  

Phew…confusing isn’t it?

That is one of the challenges and also joys of working on sites of this incredible antiquity where much of the actual evidence to tell us what people were doing up here is long gone and we are left with only the larger features and most robust artefacts.  We must use the expertise within our knowledge networks and also, importantly, use our imagination to attempt to understand these mysterious regions of the past.

We were asked why we were going back to this site as we already ‘knew’ that it was a Neolithic enclosure in 2018?

In answer to this very reasonable question, I tend to say that we know that, for example, that St Mary’s Church in Eastbourne was built in 1160AD but is that enough information to tell us about the function of the building?  Is that enough to tell us how the building was used throughout its 860 years of being?  Would knowing the date of its’ construction tell us about the Reformation (for example) and how that relates to the physical changes within its’ walls? 

The point is that we want to know as much about this monument at Butts Brow as we can whilst doing the least damage to the archaeological evidence that we can so that we can tell people about it, help them understand its importance and where it fits within our landscape.  If we can we will try to find out the motivations for building it, the processes of construction and closure that it seems to have gone through and hopefully far more about the people who would have known it.

We have known that this site was important from previous investigations but results from this year are likely to show that the enclosure at Butts Brow is of National or even International importance and we can start the process of telling its’ fascinating story and giving that story back to you to tell in the future.

And I haven’t even mentioned the incredible Second World War stories that we have discovered either…but that will have to wait for another day.

[1] Some other Causewayed Enclosures in the south east have ditched enclosures (lacking the causeways) nearby

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