Sunday, 20 September 2015

By the river Bytham

Things do not always go to the plan and last Thursday things were not turning out as expected for the Leicestershire Fieldworkers’ lecture event in the Jewry Wall Museum. Not only was the equipment playing up, but also the person giving the presentation had had a long day and the PowerPoints did not play ball. Thus, instead of hearing about the LiDAR survey across Bradgate Park and the specifics of the University of Leicester project there, we got a presentation about the Palaeolithic and the earliest humans in Leicestershire and Rutland. It was slightly unexpected, but in the end we got a fascinating story from Lynden Cooper – even if the only presentation he could find was originally meant for local primary school teachers. It had the Bradgate Park test pitting in it.

The river Bytham and Brookesby

I did not know that we living near Bradgate Park are living along the Pre-Anglian river Bytham – if not actually in the river. Archaeologists from the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) visit Brookesby Quarry every week until there are no more Ascheulian deposits to be found. This is a site that shows that the Palaeolithic people did not only make stubbornly hand axes no matter where they were, but adapted to the local geology. When they had flint or perhaps rhyolite from Wales, they made a proper hand axe, but otherwise they just kept knapping the local quartzite and selected flakes chopped from cores to have knives to cut their prey.

Coring in Brookesby Quarry (image via ADS/East Midlands research frameworks)

The other Palaeolithic sites were considerably younger. The second site presented, Glasdon, could have been one of the last places for the Neanderthals. This site had earlier activities with now-exotic animals roaming in Leicestershire. Woollen rhinos wandered in the landscape near a hyena den. A field day for the zoo-osteologist when he could use the Africa pages of his reference book.

The third site was from the period of the famous Cheddar caves in the south-west. This site also brought us to the original topic of the evening, the Bradgate Park project. In 2001 the unique open Creswellian site, culture named after the famous cave art site of Creswell Crags, was found eroding down in Bradgate Park. The change of management in the deer park meant that there was interest among the managers in archaeology alongside natural environment. Thus, the management plan, mostly funded by Natural England, incorporates also assessing the archaeological assets. In 2014 archaeologist from the University could made tiny 50 cm x 50 cm test pits when the bracken had been cut back and find out that some of the cultural layers were still there. This week the work is starting again and perhaps in the next few months we will learn much more about this exceptional place.

What we know is interesting enough. It is considered to be a ‘clean’ Creswellian site, so the finds are more or less in situ. It is defined by bladelet production and the finds include a Cheddar point and some scrapers and piercers that show that the activities at the site are likely to have been many-faceted. While all the other known sites from Britain are from caves, this is an open air site. It is very near the surface, just underneath the turf. That makes it so vulnerable in an extremely popular outdoors area.

Testpitting 2014

At this point Lyndon referred briefly to the Bradgate Park project as a whole. Currently, it is made up by three different things: 1) the LiDAR survey, 2) the test pitting and excavation of the Palaeolithic site, and 3) the field school studying the Medieval structures and the Tudor Bradgate House. At the end of the project these three lines of enquiry will be brought together and we will know more about the many landscapes of Bradgate Park, perhaps the only manor house park in Britain that never experienced the re-landscaping by Capability Brown into an English landscape garden

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