Goings on with Grooved Ware: Glimpses of late Neolithic settlement at Rothley, Leicestershire
Leon Hunt, Gavin Speed & Lynden Cooper
In the last ten years, a number of excavations around the village of Rothley in north Leicestershire have revealed fascinating glimpses of late Neolithic settlement in the East Midlands.
Rothley I: Lodge Farm
The site at Lodge Farm was excavated in 2005/6 revealing a late Neolithic pit complex associated with a rich assemblage of Grooved Ware. The site lies to the north-east of the village, near the bottom of a north-facing slope to the west of the River Soar. The most prolific feature, in terms of finds was a large, flat-based pit with an irregular trefoil-shaped plan suggested to be a sunken-featured building with the ‘stalk’ as the threshold. The infill produced several thousand decorated pottery sherds, lithics and a remarkable engraved stone plaque displaying a rare example of figurative art.
The plaque (left) measures c.200 x 135mm and is made of a finely grained sandstone, probably derived from a skerry bed in the local Mercia Mudstone deposits. It is incomplete having been broken in antiquity, but enough survives to suggest that the original design would have been symmetrical and may be described as a stylised face set within a rectangular frame. The face motif is executed with near-parallel lines while the frame is a slightly broader and deeper line. The eyes are formed by two double concentric rings with curving eyebrows that link to the frame. The nose is formed by a slightly squashed lozenge with a linking chevron that forms the cheek. There are slight traces of a mouth, probably formed by another lozenge.
The lithic assemblage from the feature was mostly debitage but included some twenty-five flint scrapers, many in fine condition and abandoned long before being exhausted. Two Group XX (Charnwood) axes in the assemblage had been deliberately ‘undressed’ (right), whereby the original polished surface had been systematically removed by flaking. The resulting cores were capable of producing further flakes but they too had been abandoned before being exhausted. A preliminary scan of the ceramics gives the impression that it is all Grooved Ware of Woodlands style, with many highly decorated pieces.
Another placed deposit was found in a small pit c.5m east of the sunken-featured building. Calcined flint and animal bone, Grooved Ware from a single vessel, a large stone rubber and a ceramic ball (golf ball sized) were recovered. The large rubber was fabricated from a slab of skerry sandstone and showed signs of wear at one extreme. The lithics included a flint axe that had been completely calcined by intense heat to the point of exploding.
A second pit nearby contained a now sterile fill that appeared to have been deliberately sealed beneath a large sandstone slab.
Rothley II: Temple Grange
Excavations at Temple Grange in 2010 revealed evidence for a Neolithic settlement, including the discovery of a circular structure dated by Grooved Ware pottery and C14 samples to c.2700-2500 cal BC. Surrounding the structure was evidence for two more potential structures and numerous pits containing significant quantities of artefacts. The site was located to the south of the village, mid-way up a north-facing slope to the west of the River Soar, approximately 1.7km south of Rothley I. Archaeological evidence was not limited to the Neolithic. Iron Age and Roman pits and ditches were also excavated as well as an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building. However, it was the Neolithic structures that were of particular interest.
The circular structure comprised forty-eight post-holes forming a rough circle around 5m in diameter. Three sherds of pottery were recovered from the structure, including a sherd of Grooved Ware. Three of the post-holes had charred hazel fragments that were suitable for radiocarbon dating. At 95% probability, the dates were 2880-2580 cal BC, 2700-2480 cal BC and 2780-2570 cal BC.
A second possible structure was located 8m north-west of the first. This comprised a shallow irregular-shaped pit or hollow measuring at its maximum extent 2.8m by 2.8m, becoming narrower at its east end (1.5m). Within were five post-holes, all located on the pit’s sloping sides. Overlying the post-holes, and filling the hollow was a pale brown sandy-silt containing around thirty finds including Grooved Ware pottery and worked flint. A further cluster of post-holes 25m north-east of the first structure may also represent at least two phases of another circular structure.
Surrounding these structures were dispersed clusters of refuse pits or perhaps ‘working hollows’. Four pits contained large quantities of worked flint and pottery sherds. Of particular interest was a large ‘undressed’ ground stone-axe, a finished tool that had had its ground surface systematically removed by later knapping. The flaked fragments from the polished surface were also found, and fragments of the same or similar axe were found in a pit 60m to the north.
Two pits, again containing quantities of artefacts, had leaf-shaped arrowheads placed at the base of each (right). A C14 sample providing a date of 3520-3330 cal BC suggests earlier Neolithic activity, perhaps some 800 years earlier than the circular structure.
Settlement evidence of the later Neolithic in the East Midlands is rare and is generally limited to discrete pits or residual finds. Now, however, the Rothley sites add to an increasing number of Grooved Ware sites found in recent years. The interpretation of the large feature at Rothley I and a possible structure at Rothley II as a sunken-buildings – or pit dwellings – finds some local parallels in the structures recorded at Aleck Low and Curzon Lodge in Derbyshire, while two recent examples of large sub-rectangular Grooved Ware pits at Eye Kettleby and Braunstone in Leicestershire can be highlighted as possibly similar structures.
The discovery of a circular structure of late Neolithic date at Rothley II is rare within the region and further afield. The building is very small, being comparable in size to examples excavated at Trelystan, Poweys, though the structure at Rothley is far more substantial being constructed with wide posts rather than thin stakes. In view of its size, the circular structure may be best interpreted as a domestic house rather than a timber circle.
Although much of the material culture and site structure on both sites can be compared to sites from regions with higher Grooved Ware profiles, such as Wessex and Yorkshire, there are other elements that appear unique, such as the rubber and ceramic ball and the plaque with the stylised face (left). While there are examples of other engraved plaques with Grooved Ware associations, for example at Amesbury in Wiltshire, there are none with figurative art. Perhaps the closet parallel in terms of mobility art is the Folkton drums with their eye and eyebrow motifs. The opposed bar chevrons and lozenge used on the ‘face panels’ of the drums also find a broad parallel in the Rothley plaque. Indeed, these geometric elements do appear to be a leitmotif of the Grooved Ware style.
The acts of deposition at Rothley I and Rothley II are certainly structured, and include elements of intentional destruction with the breakage of the plaque, the burning of flint artefacts and animal bone, the flaking of the axes and, probably, the breakage of the pottery. Larsson has described the intentional destruction of flint axes and other artefacts by fire as a Middle Neolithic phenomenon in Sweden. He suggests that the colour change to white may have been appropriate to certain rites of passage. At both sites the final act of deposition may be seen as such a rite, perhaps as an act of closure to the site habitation.
The discovery of two important Neolithic sites within a short period of time, both through developer-funded projects, is in part down to good fortune but also due to their perceived favourable location in the landscape. Rothley is situated in the Soar valley, close to the confluence zone with the Rothley Brook and the River Welland. It is not far from the Charnwood hills, a major outcrop site for axes which were widely distributed across the country. The two Rothley sites combined, therefore, offer sufficient new information on Neolithic settlement in the region and are a valuable contribution to wider Neolithic studies in Britain.