Burnt offerings: the Bradford Kaims project

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Tom Gardner

Tom Gardner

In the process of completing an MA at the University of Edinburgh, Tom is a candidate for a research MSc focussing on the environmental reconstruction of prehistoric wetlands. His interests lie broadly with British prehistory, and especially with the environmental evidence for resource use and landscape reconstruction. As a project officer for the Bamburgh Research Project working at the Bradford Kaims, his focus is on the environmental impact of the burnt mound phenomenon, attempting to understand the economic or social function it represents. He has taken part in excavations across Britain and Cyprus and is co-director of the Yadlee Stone Circle Project.
Tom Gardner
Tom Gardner

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Situated in the environs of Bamburgh Castle, north-east England, is an area known as the Bradford Kaims; a stretch of meandering marsh and stream which was canalized in the Victorian period. This landscape had once consisted of a large lacustrine system made up of lakes which formed and dissipated along an 8km stretch, draining into Budle Bay between Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. This wetland formation dates back to the Mesolithic, and archaeological investigations have shown that it was a hub of activity throughout the Neolithic until the Late Bronze Age.

In 2010 the Bamburgh Research Project (BRP) branched out from their long-running excavations at Bamburgh Castle in order to investigate the Bradford Kaims wetland system. This investigation was initially intended to assess the palaeo-environmental build-up in order to relate it to the wider archaeological development of Bamburgh’s environs. As the site is an Area of Natural Beauty (AONB), the primary survey constituted minimal-impact environmental core sampling and was undertaken by Dr. Richard Tipping of Stirling University. The results of this initial work highlighted the rich preservation in the area and informed the decision to implement a scheme of test-pitting in order to establish the archaeological biography.

Coring in the wetland, courtesy of Dr. Richard Tipping, Stirling.

Core sampling in the Bradford Kaims wetland courtesy of Dr. Richard Tipping. Image: BRP

A significant prehistoric landscape

The 2013 season in particular successfully confirmed the significance of the archaeology which has been excellently preserved beneath the wetland throughout the site’s expansive 4000 year history of human interaction within the landscape.

Occupation begins in the Mesolithic and is represented by a series of lithic scatters discovered on an island within the bog itself. These scatters – including debitage, cores, and finished tools – have been identified and dated by BRP archaeologists and Dr. Clive Waddington of ARS Ltd. This early archaeological horizon is mixed and sealed by a large deposit of churned sand.

Burnt mounds

A sequence of burnt mounds (feature consisting of a mound or crescent of heat shattered stones and charcoal, normally with an adjacent hearth and trough), are undergoing extensive excavation and one has had its upper layers dated by archaeomagnetometric samples to 6,230 +/- 50 years BP at 95% confidence. This is somewhat surprising, as it places the feature (Mound 1) within the Early British Neolithic period, unlike most other mounds in the UK which cluster between 1900–1500 BC and 1200–800 BC, with some outliers dating to the Iron Age. A new series of C14 dates will hopefully back up the previous results, but ceramic sherds recovered from Mound 1 also appear to confirm the early date.

Mound 1, Neolithic, from the air.

Aerial image of Neolithic Burnt Mound 1. Image: BRP

Excavation of the second platform area, Mound 1, Neolithic.

Excavation of the second platform area of Neolithic Mound 1. Image: BRP

A wooden platform on the edge of a lake

Associated with Mound 1, is the most exciting feature uncovered during the 2013 season; a wooden platform of a substantial size (approx. 4m x 12m), which is built onto the slope of the mound itself and extends out over the ancient lake shoreline. This structure is exceptionally well preserved, and is constructed from alternating layers of brushwood, secured with vertical stakes. Lying upon this platform was an enigmatic wooden artefact that is currently interpreted as a short-handled paddle for moving hot stones around within the burnt mound process. This artefact appears to be the first of its kind discovered in the UK, and is arguably the earliest in Europe. It also has potential to provide evidence for the actual application of the burnt mound process, something which still remains uncertain throughout British archaeology.

The 2013 season ascertained the potential for up to 22 burnt mounds in the investigation area, identified by a device nicknamed the ‘penetrometer‘ (a handled spike pushed into the soft ground to ‘feel’ the stones of a burnt mound) and limited test pitting. This investigation has more than doubled the number discovered in Northumberland to date, and represents one of the largest concentrations of burnt mound activity in the UK.

Due to time constraints, only two mounds have been extensively evaluated; Mound 1 being Early Neolithic and Mound 2 Late Bronze Age. Investigations planned for the 2014 season are aimed at discovering whether this is one continuous sequence of burnt mound activity, or whether the Early Neolithic mound exists in isolation within the prehistoric landscape. Future research will concentrate on determining the actual extent of each mound, and in identifying potential areas of primary activity around the mounds.

The Paddle in situ, lying on the 3rd section of platform, Mound 1, Neolithic.

The paddle in situ, lying on the 3rd section of platform, Neolithic Mound 1.

Evidence of social interaction

The quantity and size of the burnt mounds on the shores of the ancient lake indicates that a significant level of social interaction was taking place during the Neolithic and Bronze Age. As burnt mounds are essentially the discarded heaps of material used in the heating of water or the processing of food, the hypotheses for their true purpose includes everything from brewing, mead-making, fulling, cooking, bathing, sweat lodge use, wood-working, and textile production – and perhaps no one answer should be sought.

As the mounds usually appear in groups of two or three, whatever process is happening at the Bradford Kaims it is on a grand scale and was therefore a focal point for social interaction through activities such as food processing, feasting and drinking. Alternatively, it could have functioned as an industrial hub for the production of textiles and woodworking, or a social centre focussed around bathing, cleansing, and the use of sweat lodges, potentially for a ritualised function.

Opportunity to join the team

The Bradford Kaims project offers a rare opportunity to get involved with this hugely interesting site and are scheduled to take place from the 2nd of June to the 27th of July 2014. Applications are presently being accepted for a season which will include further excavations of the burnt mounds, detailed environmental sampling, as well as an investigation of a prehistoric causeway through the lake-system. The team will also seek to expose and excavate more of the well preserved wooden platforms.

Header image: Excavation of brushwood platform at the Bradford Kaims site. Image: BRP

More Information

Cite this article

Burnt offerings: the Bradford Kaims project. Past Horizons. May, 2014, from http://www.pasthorizonspr.com/index.php/archives/05/2014/burnt-offerings-the-bradford-kaims-project


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