One of the surprises of the excavation carried out in the summer of 2007 was the discovery of a small Bronze Age pit underneath the wall of the late seventeenth-century barn. It contained only three objects: a broken whetstone, used for sharpening metal tools, a linen rubber, used for softening the fibres when making linen cloth, and a piece of flint débitage, a chip struck from a core during the creation of tools but not itself a tool. The finds give valuable dating evidence, as linen was introduced during the Neolithic (c 4000 – 2500 BC), metal tools around 2500 BC and flint fell out of regular use around 1400 BC. This perhaps puts our pit somewhere in the period 2500 – 1400 BC, during the earlier Bronze Age.
Bronze Age remains – other than burials – are uncommon in Britain and often appear to occur in isolation. At Baldock, for instance, a number of Bronze Age pits have been found with little evidence for associated settlement or burial. In Norton, by contrast, there is an important settlement site of the third millennium BC at Blackhorse Road, excavated by John Moss-Eccardt of Letchworth Museum between 1957 and 1974. More features were found during Gil Burleigh’s excavations nearby at Green Lane in 1988, now beneath Kristiansand Way. Might our pit be an outlier of this site?
This is unlikely. For a start, the Blackhorse Road occupation is almost a kilometre away. Settlements of this date were simply not that big. Even more importantly, we know that there were burial mounds between Church Field and Blackhorse Road. Such mounds were usually found towards the edges of settlements and their associated fields, where they seem to have acted as symbols of ownership. This suggests that the Church Field pit was associated with a settlement somewhere closer to the village centre.
It is now important to look at the evidence from the field south of Church Field, where aerial photographs have long shown the ditches surrounding destroyed burial mounds and where a geophysical survey carried out by GeoQuest Associates in 1996 confirmed these ditches and revealed others.
There is a large double-ring towards the centre of the field, which has been thought to be a burial mound of two separate phases, the larger ring showing that n originally small mound was subsequently enlarged. Between the concentric rings is an area of high resistance, suggesting to the geophysicists that there had been a ‘kerb’ of stones around the earlier, smaller barrow. Kerbed barrows are uncommon in eastern England, being a phenomenon more of the north and west.
More than that, the double ring lay at the centre of a roughly square ditched enclosure, with the north-north-western side open. In the south-eastern corner of the enclosure there is a single ring ditch. Beyond this, to the north-north-west, is a pair of ditches that appear to define a trackway, with a series of enclosures attached to the north-eastern side.
The line is aiming roughly towards the village centre, almost on the line of Church Lane, although there is nothing to suggest that it is part of the medieval and modern lane. To the south and east of the enclosure, there are yet more ring ditches.
We thus have a complex of monuments in a small area, not all of which are obviously connected with burials. The “double ring-ditch”, especially, no longer looks obviously like a two-phase round barrow, especially when the evidence of one of the photographs taken by Gil Burleigh in the dry summer of 1976 is taken into account. On this photograph, there appears to be a third ring inside the inner ring, but instead of being continuous, it appears to be composed of individual ‘pits’.
There are hints of this feature, too, in the geophysical survey, while the ‘kerb’ does not appear to extend all the way round the ditches, with a gap to the north-north-west, facing the ‘track’. This all looks very suggestive: the ‘pits’ may be large post settings and the ‘kerb’ the remains of a bank. This would make the monument a Class Ia henge with internal post setting and two ditches. It is important to point out that a henge was not a stone circle, as many people believe (probably because they are thinking of Stonehenge): it was an area defined by a bank and (usually) an external ditch, but sometimes with no ditches, sometimes with an internal ditch and sometimes with internal and external ditches. They could be circular or oval, and could have one (Class I) or two (Class II) entrances. A few had circles of timber posts or stone uprights inside them, often added later. They were in use mainly during the third millennium BC and fell out of use around 1800 BC.
There are other henges locally, including two on the Weston Hills. One of them is an oval Class II henge, quite unlike the possible example here. They exist as individual monuments without obviously associated landscape features. This is what makes the Norton example so interesting: the ‘track’ is evidently aligned on the entrance, making it a formal approach to a ritual monument, so we can perhaps think of it in terms of a processional way. The surrounding open square enclosure has a parallel at Sutton Weaver (Cheshire), where it has been interpreted as a Late Bronze Age replacement for an earlier henge. The enclosures attached to the ‘track’ have parallels in enclosed Bronze Age settlements, known as Itford Hill type enclosures.
We thus seem to have an entire Bronze Age landscape incorporating settlement evidence, a ritual site and burials all to the south of Norton village. This is a very rare situation and it is something that the Community Archaeology Group could investigate profitably. There has already been some fieldwalking around this area, carried out in October 2007, but it would be useful to do a systematic coverage of the whole field.
Where does this leave the pit in Church Field? The linen rubber may be a clue. Linen is a cloth associated with élites, but they have been its consumers, not the producers who would have needed the linen rubber. Some prehistorians have associated henges with élites, which seems reasonable enough, and it may be that the Itford Hill type enclosures seen to the north-west of the possible henge were where they lived. The peasants, who grew and made the linen that these elites used, perhaps lived further from the henge, somewhere close to the Church Field site.
The evidence is beginning to mount that Norton was an extremely interesting place in the remote past. The survival of so many elements of its Bronze Age landscape is unusual and very unexpected in an area that has seen so much development in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.