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CHIPPY'S VERY OWN IRON AGE SETTLEMENT
Just two miles from the Town Hall steps a lecturer from the University of Central of Lancashire - Dr Duncan Sayer - is leading twelve of his archaeology degree students in a major four week excavation of an important Iron Age hilltop residence - surrounded by what seem to be stockyards. Already there have been numerous discoveries of pottery fragments. In the picture below Dr Sayer is seen examining one from a first century jar. Some beautiful hairpins made of bone and an exquisite bronze brooch are among other finds so far. More grisly are the skeletons of two babies found amongst the rubble.
Dr Sayer was kind enough to spend time on Wednesday showing your editor round the site. When you know nothing about a subject or historical period everything is fascinating new knowledge. Here are a few basics. In Britain the Iron Age lasted from 800 BC to the Roman Invasion of AD 43. Its pre-history. There is no written record of anything. Community structure was less visible and religious practices very different to ours today. Life was based on individual settlements. These were on the tops of hills where the land drains quickly. Iron Age tools were not sturdy enough to plough heavy clay in the valleys. Houses were made of wood, clay and thatch so none have survived. The floors were not tiled. But decorative arts had become important for identity - seen on designs on brooches and pots. The Chipping Norton site is a huge area consisting of an inner circular compound and a much bigger extended boundary marked by two substantial ditches - the precise function of which is not entirely clear, though probably in part to keep the animals in and unwelcome visitors out. Fences would have required too much wood - a hugely precious resource. In this extended farmyard area stock was sheltered and crops stored. The plan of the site marked by a complex pattern of ditches and gullies was first observed from aerial photographs in the 1990s and more recently surveyed by Dr Alex Lang - a distinguished Oxford archaeologist and Chippy resident (and co-director of the site). You can only see these patterns when crops have grown. On land previously dug out and subsequently filled crops grow to different heights - producing a sort of contour map. These patterns allow you to identify possible settlements and locations for detailed surveys. Once you actually start clearing an area with a JCB to a depth of a foot or so you can then see the underground patterns very clearly from obviously different soil colouring.
Anyway these archaeologists have hit the jackpot with the Chippy site. Everything I have mentioned so far is evidenced in different features of the Chipping Norton site. It is clearly a major settlement and further exploration should answer some of the questions which still exist about Iron Age life. Already digging sample areas of the large ditch around the camp has revealed amazing ritualistic relics which seem to echo pagan worship - as well as the baby's bones.
Things have got complicated since some kind of Roman troop station was plonked right on top of the Iron Age settlement - presumably soon after the Roman invasion - which makes the identification of specific structural remains difficult for the moment. But all will become clear eventually.
According to Dr Sayer North Oxfordshire was a very important geographical area in the Iron Age. The main Iron Age trading route in the country runs along the ridge between Hook Norton and Chastleton (with Chippy close by) and alongside the Rollright Stones across to the Cotswold escarpment. Salt went one way and Iron the other. It�s obvious from all the stone circles and tumuli that the area also had an enormous spiritual importance that date back even further into the distant past.
This excavation has only just begun. It will take years. Soon the site will be filled in until next summer when an even larger invasion of volunteers is planned. Drs Lang and Sayer have promised that next year they will organise some opportunities for local people to be shown around - perhaps have a couple of open days. That is not to be missed - Dr Sayer is a really splendid guide. He thinks they will unearth lots more artefacts but believes these are more likely to be bone and pottery rather than metal. He would like to think that perhaps the finds could be accommodated in a local museum - rather than be carted off to the Ashmolean. Now that would be really good.
The webmaster is indebted to hawk-eyed Joe Johnston who spotted the excavations from his van and took the trouble to make contact with Dr Sayer and then fixed up our visit. Joe has taken lots of pictures and is preparing a more detailed report on the project which we will hope to print here. Wouldn't it be great if we could find a way of funding a corner of the museum for a section on Chippy's very own Iron Age settlement.