Illuminating the past – Enhancing the present – Inspiring the future

Early Iron Age Settlement, University of Kent, Canterbury

During the spring and summer of 2013 Canterbury Archaeological Trust investigated an extensive early to middle Iron Age (600–100 BC) settlement on land to the west of the University of Kent, Canterbury (centred on NGR 613689 159411).  The work was commissioned by the university prior to the construction of Turing College, the latest addition to the university’s campus.

The site straddles the contour lines between 68 and 55m OD on the upper brow of St Thomas’ Hill along the northern ridge of the Great Stour valley approximately 1.7km from the centre of Canterbury.  The excavation covered a total area of 4.3 hectares on open land that sloped down from the north-east to the south-west with an overall gradient of c 2.5 – 3.0 o.  The site was bounded to the south-west by a stream and to the north-east by a dry stream bed that rose from springs located further to the north.  The underlying geology consisted of London Clay that was overlain in places with gravel resulting in a high ‘perched’ water table and boggy soft subsoil that included at least one spring.

Previous work in 2012 within the grounds of St Edmund’s School approximately 100m to the north-west of the site had highlighted the potential for early to middle Iron Age occupation in the area.  A multi-phased settlement was revealed with field enclosures, structures and at least one surviving round house.  In addition the proposed development lay within a well documented historic landscape focused around the extant fifteenth century Beverley Farmhouse.  The first stage of works for the new Turing College development began in March 2013.  Sixty-two evaluation trenches were dug across an area approximately seven times the size of the St Edmund’s site and immediately uncovered a continuation of the Iron Age occupation focused across the upper ridge-way.
Machine strippingStrip and map phased planAerial view looking south-west
Due to the high significance of the archaeological remains a programme of strip, map and excavation was implemented across the areas where the proposed development was due to have an impact on the buried archaeological resource.  The strip and map revealed an abundance of features that included, ditches, post-holes, small and large pits and charcoal-rich hearths.  Although spread across the excavation area the features were most concentrated on the upper plateau.  In total the excavation generated 5,190 contexts representing 2,221 interventions through archaeological features.  A large assemblage of cultural material was recovered that included 12,697 sherds of prehistoric pottery, daub, preserved wood, charcoal, worked flint, cintered flint, loomweights, a spindlewhorl and cremation vessels.

A regionally rare probable late Bronze Age waterhole was discovered with a partially preserved timber assemblage that included the degraded remains of an oak notch-log ladder.  The feature contained well preserved organic material including pollen and insect assemblages that have the potential to inform about the environmental changes that occurred during the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age transition period.  The waterhole likely formed part of a potential late Bronze Age settlement the full extent of which is currently unknown.
Turing College excavationExcavating LBA water holeLBA–EIA pottery from water hole
Late Bronze Age to early Iron Age death and ritual were represented on the site in the form of a small cremation burial group, analysis of which may shed light on the nature and composition of the cremation pyre and indicate further rituals and traditions practiced during this period. A highly symbolic oak log burial was located near to a natural spring on the western side of the settlement.  Close dating of this feature may be possible through dendrochronological and carbon 14 analysis and could reveal whether this enigmatic feature could have been a foundation deposit for the early Iron Age settlement.
Excavating LBA cremation burialOak timber burialTree ring sample
The majority of the features identified within the excavation related to an extensive early to middle Iron Age settlement that was briefly surrounded by an enclosing ditch.  Significantly the settlement included zoned areas of activity with textile processing in the north-east and pottery production and potential metalworking in the south-west.  Textile production was represented by a number of material artefacts such as loomweights and clay spindlewhorl as well as an unusual wood-lined retting pit located at some distance from any domestic structures.  During the excavation 792 post-holes were identified, further analysis of which will reveal the number of individual posted structures present on the site.  Already some of the principal domestic structures can be identified that included probable round-houses, fence lines, small enclosures and a number of four-posted structures believed to have been used for storage.  These features were regularly spaced across the settlement except for the storage structures that lay predominantly to the east.  Six regionally rare subrectangular sunken-featured structures were identified during the excavation three of which contained probable occupational midden material.  This type of structure is more commonly associated with the later Iron Age in the region and became more prolific in the Roman and medieval periods especially in east Kent.  The presence of the sunken featured structures within an early Iron Age context could indicate influence from the European mainland that may also have been the origin of a fragment of a shale bracelet that was discovered within one of the midden deposits.
Four posted structureLoom wieghtsRecording timber within retting pit
Fire pits and charcoal pits were distributed throughout the western area of the settlement and were located outside of domestic contexts.  These likely formed multiple small scale industries centred on charcoal production and possible food preparation/smoking.  In addition to the large ceramic assemblage the excavation uncovered regionally rare evidence for pottery manufacture that included three small circular kiln structures, several refuse pits containing crushed cintered flint for tempering and a series of clay extraction quarries.  The Turing College site also identified a small but potentially highly significant assemblage of metalworking material.  This consisted of slag from iron smithing and hammerscale, crucible fragments and hearth linings.  Significantly the full range of smithing processes was represented at the site and the majority of the material was located within two discreet features.
Fire pitCharcoal pitKiln under excavation
Settlement activity at the Turing College site appears to have decreased rapidly by the late Iron Age (c 100 BC) with a reintroduction of field systems and possible livestock enclosures.  This new evidence adds to the growing picture of movement and relocation to the Stour basin within the late and later Iron Age.  Evidence for occupation in this period was represented by finds that included a gold Stater coin and a fragment of Dressel 1B amphorae from Italy.  The area to the north of the site was the focus of a further small burial group of up to five cremations dated by their Aylesford-Swarling type pots to the first century BC.  Further burials of this type have been located in the Stour basin and detailed analysis has the potential to identify the rituals and paraphernalia associated with burial in the late first century BC.
Belgic Stater - obverseBelgic Stater - reverseLIA cremation vessels
After the Iron Age period no archaeologically visible activity was present on the site until the medieval period.  The current development incorporated and preserved several medieval parish boundaries that lie within an historic landscape surrounding Beverley Farmhouse.  The farmland would have been dominated by pastoral activities and was further sub-divided in the early nineteenth century.

The Turing College assemblage has a high potential for investigating the organization and social makeup of a large early Iron Age settlement that appears to have formed a precursor to the formation of late Iron Age Canterbury by the Cantiaci within the Stour basin.  Complimented by a vast ceramic assemblage the site will be only the second large nucleated settlement of such date examined in detail in east Kent.  The Turing College site is comparable to the settlement sites of Highstead, near Chislet and Island Road, Hersden and analysis will lead to a greatly improved understanding of the nature of settlement location, economic development and eventual displacement along the upper ridge-way of the Stour valley during the early to middle Iron Age.
The excavation team
Thanks are extended to the team of thirty plus archaeologists which included staff from Canterbury Archaeological Trust, recently graduated alumni from University of Kent and excavators from further afield, who worked tirelessly together on hard ground in very hot weather.  Thanks are also due to staff and volunteers from the Trust’s finds and environmental department who processed the large assemblage of material for analysis.

Ross Lane
Project Officer

    open all | close all