Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Where The Rivers Meet

The Emergence of Sacred Geography in the Prehistoric Landscape
Rising on the southern edge of Biddulph Moor, the Trent is a major water course forming a natural boundary between the Midlands and Northern England before discharging into the Humber estuary. At about 8km north of Lichfield near Alrewas, the Trent is joined by the River Tame, its most important tributary and the main river of the West Midlands. Alrewas is situated next to the line of Ryknild Street, the Roman road running from Letocetum (Wall) to Derby. The name of the Tame is said to be of Celtic derivation said to mean “dark one” common in many British rivers such as the Thames, Team and Tamar. This is the traditional territory of the Tomsaete, or "Tame-dwellers", an Anglian military tribe living in the valley of the Tame and around Tamworth which later formed the kingdom of Mercia in the early 7th century.

The source of the River Trent, Biddulph Moor
Today this area of south-eastern Staffordshire at the confluence of the Trent and the Tame Rivers is one of the most intensively quarried landscapes in the country. The extensive aggregate extraction has revealed a remarkable archaeological record, including a Neolithic-Early Bronze Age ritual landscape, an Iron age and Romano–British settlement landscape, and an extensive Anglo–Saxon settlement and cemeteries.

A 72 square kilometres study area at Catholme Farm has revealed a complex of ritual monuments including a 'Woodhenge' type monument consisting of multiple rings of post-holes, a 'sunburst' monument consisting of a central ring ditch with radiating pit alignments, a very large ring ditch with apparently associated linear features and cursuses. These monuments, together with a series of smaller ring ditches, a possible cursus and a series of pit alignments, are collectively termed the 'Catholme Ceremonial Complex'.

Although evidence is slight, as is common in lowland landscapes in England, the earlier Neolithic perhaps sees the beginning of the creation of a cultural landscape on the higher ground between the Trent and Tame rivers. Two possible causewayed enclosures have been identified at Alrewas and Mavesvyn Ridware in the Trent valley, each with three close-set ditch circuits, both enclosing a maximum area of 4.15ha. For a long time these two possible causewayed enclosures were considered the most northerly outliers of what was once viewed as a primarily southern phenomenon until the identification of definite causewayed enclosures further north changed this perception.

It is in this period that the cultural landscape at the confluence of the Trent and Tame takes shape with the focus of this landscape would appear to lie at Catholme Farm on the extensive river terrace immediately to the north of the confluence of the two rivers. The identification of a ceremonial complex at Catholme Farm is based primarily on the identification of three monuments of presumed ceremonial function in close proximity to one another. These monuments have been identified from aerial photography and have been subject to intensive geophysical survey as part of the Where Rivers Meet Project, but no excavation has taken place.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The natural landscape setting was shaped by the activities of the Trent and Tame rivers during the Devensian glaciation, around 20,000 years ago. The sites lie just north of a confluence of three rivers; the Trent, Tame, and Mease where a cluster of prehistoric monuments has been termed the ‘Catholme Ceremonial Complex’, a unique group of monuments that span the period from the late 4th to the early 2nd millennium BC. Yet further monuments spread out to the west and south up the valleys of the Trent and Tame in the wider landscape extending the period of ceremonial activity considerably both backwards and forwards with the cursus forming the beginnings of the ceremonial activity at Catholme.

Henges are rare within the West Midlands, but a small hengiform monument with radiating pit alignments, named as the Sunburst Monument consisted of a 16m-wide ring ditch from which 12 radiating lines of up to five pits or large postholes extended over a total diameter of nearly 60m, is found at the Catholme complex. Shortly after 2000 BC an inhumation burial was inserted within the centre of the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, the placing perhaps reminiscent of the Stonehenge Archer, seemingly a ritual killing which appeared to have been deliberately and carefully buried in the ditch of the Salisbury Plain monument.

Catholme Ceremonial Complex
The easternmost of the monuments consists of five concentric circles of pits or postholes, approximately 45 by 35 metres, probably representing multiple timber circles, enclosing a central open space of 22 by 15 metres. The pits or postholes are arranged in 36 radial lines. There is no evidence of a surrounding ditch.

It is conjectured that the Woodhenge Monument was constructed around the same time as the segmented ditch of the Sunburst Monument, in a single phase of activity comprising the erection of extremely large oak posts set in pits of 1.0 m in diameter and up to 1.2 m deep in five concentric circles around a central ceremonial area. The majority of the posts also form radiating alignments from the centre outwards in a similar style to the pits defining the first phase of the Sunburst Monument, perhaps purposefully mirroring that design.

The Woodhenge structure shares similarities with a number of others sites outside of the region, although it is extremely rare to have the posts so densely arranged. However, timber circles are within the West Midlands are extremely rare and perhaps shares similarity with the timber circles Woodhenge, Durrington Walls and Stanton Drew for example, of Wessex. There is a good argument that Stonehenge started life as a timber circle.

About 200m to the west, immediately adjacent to Catholme Farm, is a second potential ceremonial monument comprising a ring ditch with six lines of pits or postholes radiating from it in similar ‘sunburst’ pattern. About 100m further west is a sub-rectangular enclosure which has been interpreted as possibly representing a small cursus monument of a type similar to a monument found in the valley of the Warwickshire Avon.

This complex is delimited to the north and south by two well defined pit-alignments running east to west and forming a 200-250 metres wide ‘corridor’ which contains the monuments which today is effectively closed by the A38 road and Trent & Mersey Canal at its western end and by the railway at its eastern end. Extending further south, to what is now the National Memorial Arboretum, is a large multiple ring ditch adjacent to the Tame, just south of its confluence with the Trent.

The clustering of cursuses within the middle Trent valley has been likened to similar clusters on the Yorkshire Wolds at Rudston and on Cranborne Chase. Yet, unlike Rudston, the cursuses within the Tame-Trent confluence have no apparent specific focal point. However, the function of cursuses remains a matter for ongoing debate.

The earliest monument in the Catholme Ceremonial Complex is the cursus on its western edge, thought to have constructed in the late 4th or early 3rd millennium BC with the central feature of the Sunburst monument to have been dug after c.2000 BC, the Catholme Ceremonial Complex represents over a thousand years of activity within the wider landscape extending back to the earlier Neolithic and forward into the Iron Age and later.

Catholme Woodhenge copyright © University of Birmingham 
Romano-British Continuity
The site appears to have continued in use with an unenclosed settlement unearthed at Catholme comprising of at least eight typical Iron Age`roundhouses and several four- and six-post structures. Cropmark evidence of field boundaries and enclosures typical of the Iron Age and Roman periods extends into the Romano-British occupation in the early 4th century.

The nearest Roman urban centre to Catholme was Letocetum was situated just to the southwest along the Watling Street. Catholme would appear to fall between the Cornovii and the Corieltavi, with the border possibly following the line of Ryknield Street.  However, Roman impact in the Catholme area is slight, and essentially comprises Ryknield Street, about 800m to the east of the site, with evidence consisting of ceramic finds and the consumption of Romano-British styles of pottery.

Evidence of British Survival comes mainly from place-names such as Comberford, containing "cumbre" as a reference to Britons; Eccleshall indicating Anglo-Saxon recognition of a British institution; the names of the two main Roman centres were preserved, possibly indicating continuity at Penkridge (Pennocrucium) and Lichfield (Letocetum).

Anglo-Saxon Settlement
In common with much of the West Midlands there is scant evidence for rural settlement in Anglo-Saxon period Staffordshire. Archaeological evidence relating to rural settlement in the early Anglo-Saxon period in the County is largely limited to what can be gleaned from burial sites and odd isolated finds; known distributions suggest that Anglo-Saxon influence was limited to the extreme east of the County, and much of it was late.

Anglo-Saxon inhumation, cremation and mixed-rite cemeteries in the Middle Trent Valley are mainly datable to the late 6th - early 7th century period with little or no 5th century material, with the majority of the county having no known early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.

Outside of the written sources, evidence for rural settlement in the middle and late Anglo-Saxon period in Staffordshire is largely limited to excavations at Catholme where a large settlement of Grubenhauser and wall-post buildings was occupied from at least the 7th to 9th centuries, set within a framework of enclosures and trackways defined by shallow ditches, extending in the direction of the Wychnor cemetery, discovered in 1899 by workmen digging a sand-pit.

Situated at the western limit of the essentially East Midlands distribution of Anglo-Saxon cemeteries, the Wychnor cemetery, of 6th - 7th century date is known only from quarry-finds, containing artefacts of Anglo-Saxon type. Evidence from excavation, cropmarks and fieldwalking suggests that the excavated features may represent the final phase of a single settlement, located at the Tame-Trent confluence in the mid-Romano-British period, and migrating along the river terrace through the early Saxon period into the middle-late Anglo-Saxon period.

The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon period is dominated by the excavation of the 7th-9th century settlement at Catholme consisting of some sixty-five buildings perhaps representing only about half of the settlement. The Wychnor cemetery, 500m southwest of the settlement at Catholme, strongly suggests a relationship between the two, even if the finds from the cemetery (brooches, spearheads, shield-bosses and pottery vessels) suggest a 6th, or possibly early 7th, century date, perhaps slightly earlier than the settlement.

This apparent continuity of settlement from the Roman period suggests that the Anglo-Saxon settlements of the 5th and later centuries further east in the Trent Valley did not cause major disruption of the agricultural regime, even in the eastern part of the county, and the population of Catholme may have been substantially, even wholly, native.

The presence of Germanic style brooches and weapons in the Wychnor cemetery may indicate the arrival of an elite group of Germanic origin, but it may equally represent the adoption of Germanic cultural styles by the native inhabitants.

Situated at the extreme western limit of Germanic influence in Britain, this geographically significant location of the meeting of the rivers Tame and Trent at Catholme would appear to provide evidence of a 'cultural frontier' demarcating the limits of early Anglo-Saxon expansion in Staffordshire.



Sources:
Gavin Kinsley, Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire: An Overview: Rural Settlement, West Midlands Regional Research Framework for Archaeology, Trent & Peak Archaeological Unit.
Henry Chapman, Mark Hewson, Margaret Watters, The Catholme Ceremonial Complex, Stafforshire, UK, The Prehistoric Society 2010.
Simon Buteux, Henry P. Chapman, Where Rivers Meet: The Archaeology of Catholme and the Trent-Tame Confluence, CBA Research Reports, 2009.
Where Rivers Meet: Landscape, Ritual, Settlement and the Archaeology of River Gravels,
University of Birmingham, 2006 (updated 2012) Archaeology Data Service (ADS).
Where Rivers Meet’ an Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund project overseen by English Heritage and undertaken by Birmingham Archaeology between 2002 and 2004.


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