About us

Culver Project

An Overview

The Culver Archaeological Project began in 2005 with a simple programme of field-walking, survey and trial trenching in the hope of identifying further archaeological sites within the landscape around Barcombe Villa. Little did we know back then that we would not only find an unknown Roman road but a sizable undiscovered Romano-British settlement, both of which would lead to large area excavations.

prime The project, which was founded by our Project Director  Rob Wallace, operates out of Bridge Farm, near Barcombe Mills where it has a purpose built headquarters building. The first season saw the identification of a Roman road to the east of the Barcombe villa complex, which became the focus of subsequent fieldwork seasons as we traced the road through adjacent fields. To date we have identified evidence for the road in six separate fields, and plan to continue to track its course over a much wider area. Whilst the road remains a focus of the project, we have since expanded our research questions to encompass activity adjacent to the route and the recently discovered 1st -4th century settlement at Bridge Farm.

Excavations in 2007 to 2010 exposed the road surface in 2 fields at Culver Farm and a wealth of features closely associated with it, from waterlogged timbers to pottery filled pits and ditches. While a lot more work is necessary before we come to any definitive conclusions, we have evidence for industrial and domestic activity dating from the late 1st to the late 4th centuries. Archaeological sites are, however, rarely straightforward and while our research is largely focused on the Roman period of occupation we have also identified activity from as early as the Mesolitsegunhic up to 19th century gravel quarrying. Our prehistoric discoveries include a Bronze Age cremation and a Middle Bronze Age stake point found, remarkably in a 1m square test pit, in a water-logged area which could well hide other organic artefacts from this period. Recent seasons have seen our summer campaign move east of the River Ouse to investigate a large unrecorded Romano-British riverside settlement, founded in the late 1st century, enclosed in the late 2nd and still active through the 3rd and 4th centuries. Whilst our previous objectives and locations are not being neglected it has been decided that priority must be given to this discovery of regional importance.

The Culver Roman Road (or Stroude Street)

Our investigation into the terceunknown Roman road began in 2005 when an area of flint scatters was pointed out by the local farmer and landowner Mark Stroude. We promptly dropped a trial trench into the area and exposed areas of heavily compact flints with a layer of clay agger and flint foundations beneath. Unfortunately, no dating evidence was recovered from the trench and due to the sweetcorn crop the excavation could not be extended.

Later that year we headed north into the adjacent Pond Field and using a JCB opened two large trenches along the projected alignment of the road. The first trench held no sign of a road, but did expose a possible Bronze Age field boundary. Trench two was rather more successful, exposing similar flint foundations as seen to the south along with a possible boundary ditch and two very welcome post-holes! Roman pottery and ceramic building material recovered from these features confirmrd our initial speculations. The 2006 season focused on a series of evaluation trenches in Culver Mead, targeted on the results of a geophysical survey undertaken the previous year. Much of the exposed archaeology reflected 19th century activity, specifically gravel quarrying, which unfortunately appeared to have truncated the majority of the earlier archaeological remains. However, despite the disappointment in some of the evaluation trenches, one area of excavation exposed a very exciting find, i.e. three 1.5m worked timbers exposed beneath a layer of bluish clay in heavily waterlogged features. These were subsequently radiocarbon dated to c. cal AD240-430. The extent of the feature in which the timbers were exposed is at present unknown, and further examination is still planned for the future. We returned to Pond Field in 2007 and opened up a large area in an attempt to identify the limits of the road and any adjacent activity. This year saw David Millum join the project as Site Supervisor, a role he he now combines with being the project’s Deputy Director. We were in for a pleasant surprise as much more of the road structure had survived than we were originally expecting, along with a flanking ditch, a series of post-holes, pits crammed with Roman pottery and most surprisingly the Bronze Age cremation. The exposure of a substantial length of road surface allowed us to project the route across a wider distance. 2008 saw a great deal of geophysics due to the wet conditions which further established the route of the road and showed up a strange chicane in Court House Field which became the target of our excavation in 2009. This area had luckily been a separate horticultural field until reasonably modern times and the preservation of the road was remarkable although the only conclusion for the S-bend was the possible crossing of palaeo-channels which run beneath the road at this point. cuarta In 2010 we went back to Pond Field to uncover a larger trench and established an area of workshop activity with a clay-lined puddling pit, a wide boundary ditch full of a vast variety of Roman pottery sherds, areas of intense burning plus some interesting artefacts including an iron oil lamp and the ghost of shoe left in the pattern of over a 100 hobnails. Malcolm Lyne reported on the pottery of the first 7 year’s of excavations funded by grants from the Sussex Archaeological Society and the University of Sussex Archaeological Society. The main period of roadside activity in Pond Field would seem to fall into the later 3rd to early 4th century. This analysis presumes that the Samian and some other fine wares were already old, as possibly handed-down items, and date from prior to the period of lower class working activity at the site.

The Romano-British Settlement at Bridge Farm discovered

During early 2011 David Staveley conducted a magnetometer survey in a large field at Bridge Farm, Wellingham. He was looking for the Roman road from London to Lewes that Ivan Margary had suggested ran down the east side of the Ouse at this point. The initial results were so outstanding and unexpected that the survey was extended over the next 2 years as the clear picture of a substantial Roman settlement in a bend of the River Ouse emerged from the images produced. The location is just across the river from Culver Farm where the Roman road and industrial workings had been discovered just to the north east of the Barcombe villa and bathhouse complex. The settlement pattern was apparently interrupted by a double ditched enclosure suggesting more than one phase of activity on the site. In the magnetometer images the enclosure appears to overlay the settlement but the chronology was not conclusive and the CAP directors, Rob Wallace and David Millum, agreed that this was one of the main questions to be resolved when planning the subsequent excavations for July and August 2013. The later surveys revealed radiating roads heading to the north, east and west, with smaller trackways and boundaries indicated by ditches in the area surrounding the main settlement. cuarta

 

Ordnance Survey data supplied by the EDINA digimap service. Crown copyright/database 2010. All right reserved

 Geophysical survey results (D. Staveley 2012)

  The interpretation of the buried features as Roman was supported by the Roman pottery and tile collected by systematic field walking in early 2011. Then in late 2012 David Cunningham, a local metal detectorist, who had collected an assemblage of finds from the site over several years, was introduced to CAP by the Independent Historical Research Group. His extensive collection ratified the longevity of the settlement as it included coins from the Republican era right through to Gratian in the late 4th century AD. Whilst the worn nature of the Republican coins indicate use in the 1st to 2nd century AD (David Rudling pers. comm.) rather than when they were minted, the coin sequence still indicates a 300 year time span. In early December 2012 CAP organised a thorough and systematic metal detecting survey by the Eastbourne, West Kent and Ringmer groups, who found a further 15 Roman coins mainly dating from the 3rd century AD. Over the next few months the full results of this survey and Mr Cunningham’s collection were scrutinised and fully recorded.

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A small selection of the detected Roman coins: a] Titia 1 (Q. Titius) denarius, c.90 BC; b] Galba denarius AD 68/9; c] Julia Maesa (died AD 225) denarius,; d] Gratian siliqua AD375-8 (mint of Thessalonica, Greece).

Further exciting news was received in October 2012 when the project was awarded a substantial National Lottery grant of £90,900 which enabled a comprehensive programme of surveys and excavations to be planned for 2013, with a strong focus on the involvement of the local community including nearby schools.

Bridge Farm excavations 2013: a truly momentous year

The first year of excavations at Bridge Farm (Nr. Barcombe Mills) proved to be truly memorable not only for the archaeology revealed but also for the terrific response from the 180 volunteers of all ages and experience who signed up for a total of over 1000  work days. During the 6 weeks of excavation an estimated 400 visitors had tours of the site and the fieldtrips from 5 local schools attracted 150 pupils. A wide range of workshops gave 120 people the opportunity to share the knowledge of 6 specialists in subjects as diverse as handling human bones to recording pillboxes. The partnership between CAP and our appointed contractor, AOC Archaeology, was an overriding success made possible by the generous grant received via the Heritage Lottery Fund. This grant not only funded the dig, workshops and visits, all of which were free to participants, but also the crucial post-excavation works including conservation and specialist reporting. So we think we can justifiably claim that as a community project Bridge Farm 2013 was a resounding success.

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A typical turnout during the 6 weeks of excavations (CAP archive)

Our main aim for 2013 was to evaluate the state of preservation of the archaeological features indicated in the geophysical survey. We also wanted to establish the phasing between the apparent open settlement and the double ditch enclosure. We excavated four open area trenches totalling 1150sq.m in locations which balanced obtaining the best results with causing the least disturbance to both the archaeology and the running of this busy farm.

An aerial photograph of the site under excavation in July 2013 (S. McGregor)

Trench 1 was dug just into the edge of the sweet corn crop inside the double ditched enclosure over the central N/S roadway of the open settlement. This proved to be our most difficult trench to interpret with the roadside ditches proving difficult to distinguish. The task was not helped by the series of deep pits that had been cut into the ditches although these rewarded us with some large sherds of pottery from the basal deposits and were crucial in dating features in this trench to the late 1st century.

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Trench 2 was positioned in the meadow and was placed over the intersection of the same road ditches with the outer enclosure ditch so that the phasing of these 2 elements could be resolved. It became clear after both stratigraphic excavation and box sectioning at the intersection that the enclosure ditch cut, and was therefore later than, the more ephemeral roadside ditches. This was supported later by pottery sherds of from the roadside ditch being dated to late 1st century with sherds from the enclosure ditch being late 2nd. Two star finds from Trench 2 were a quern stone made from West Sussex greensand and a Samian base marked Cinnamvs II, a maker from Lezoux in Central Gaul in the late 2nd century.               

 

The quern stone from Trench 2

The quern stone from Trench 2

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Trench 3 targeted a series of anomalies clustered around a crossroads to the southern edge of the settlement. This was arguably our most successful trench exposing, the remains of a possible circular tile kiln, a rectangular pit lined with tegular roof tiles, postholes of a small rectangular building, roadside ditches containing fragments of water-logged timbers, patches of flint road metalling, flint-packed pits/postholes, and charcoal and ash filled pits; all suggesting a busy working area close to the river and outside the main settlement area.     

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The half-sectioned tile kiln

Trench 4 offered us our only chance to examine both enclosure ditches together and these were successfully located and excavated. But this trench also brought us our most intriguing find; a human cremation in a nearly complete urn. This was lifted whole and taken back to AOC’s headquarters in Twickenham where osteoarchaeologist, Dr Rachel Ives, carefully excavated the contents finding 652g of burnt human bone. With no duplication in the larger fragments, which included elbow, wrist and vertebrae as well as several teeth,  this appears to be the remains of a single adult. No precise date has yet been attributed to the cremation as although the urn appears to date from the 3rd century its location within an upper context and inside the enclosure may suggest a date towards the end of the settlement.

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Catherine Edwards (AOC) and Sarah Foster (CAP) wrap the cremation urn prior to lifting

2014: An aisled building (?) and water-logged timbers

In the summer of 2014 CAP excavated an area to the east of the enclosed settlement in a field of permanent grassland known as Five Acre Brook . A recent magnetometer survey conducted by David Staveley had shown 13 round anomalies forming an 18 by 6 metre rectangleFrom the removal of the overburden the site duly revealed a variety of ditches, pits, hearths, and post holes, including the 13, one metre wide, holes that formed the rectangular feature in the geophysics .

In the first 3 weeks the team concentrated on the western half of the site, tracing three major ditches and numerous small posts and stake holes, as well as two hearths. Whilst the hearths still require further analysis, initial interpretation favours one (Feature 2), which contained pottery dating to AD 70-250, being a smelting hearth or possibly an oven. It abuts the ditch running down the centre of the site (Feature 1) which contained pottery mainly from c. AD 70 – 150. The other hearth (Feature 7), which contained several lumps of iron slag as well as pottery dated to the 4th or even early 5th centuries, may be the remains of a secondary forging hearth. Local small scale ironworking would not be unexpected adjacent to a large settlement so accessible to the western production area of Wealden iron.

Two large pits (Features 9 & 10), fully excavated after half-sectioning, have been interpreted as shallow wells for gathering surface water from the high water table. Both needed constant bailing and/or pumping out during excavation as apparently clear water rushed in from the sides. One of the pits (F9) was particularly interesting as towards its base was a layer of large stones, which had blackened animal bones beneath it (mostly from cattle) and waterlogged roundwood above; the latter possibly representing the remains of a wattle super-structure or lining. The fills surrounding this layer were 100% sampled by flotation with some success producing; a House of Constantine coin (AD 330-335) a plain, brass, wrap-around, finger ring  and a fine turned disk/spindle whorl. A rather unpromising lump of earth turned out to be the back half of a leather shoe/sandal with in situ hobnails. The unexpected wealth of artefacts in this pit together with the need for constant pumping of the fast in-flowing water meant that excavation took all 6 weeks of the dig. Pottery recovered from the lowest fill of this feature has been dated to the 4th century.

The final three weeks were allocated to the excavation of the 13 one metre plus wide postholes and a series of smaller adjacent postholes, later interpreted as being from a building of a different phase. Within the main postholes a series of 400-500mm diameter post-pipes were revealed.

These were half sectioned with some difficulty as they were discovered to average over a metre in depth and were partially below the water-table. Then, at the bottom of one was discovered the in situ remains of a waterlogged post. A busy period ensued during the last few days of the dig as all 13 post holes subsequently revealed in-situ post-bases. These, whilst exciting in themselves, being the rotted remains of the bases of probably every main post of a large timber-frame building, turned out to be just the entrée as when trying to feel under one of the posts (PH9) to record its depth another timber was felt to be lying flat beneath it and this one felt as if it was carved! A decision was made to remove the fragmented post base to inspect the timber below which was verified as being a sawn timber with some form of carving and appeared quite robust. Careful excavation of the surrounding soils and river gravels was undertaken, mainly by bare hands at full arm stretch until the timber could be lifted out safely without risk to its integrity.

The revealed artefact, which came from beneath a sealed Roman-British context, was indeed a prepared timber with an ogee-shaped end and a possible lap joint for another timber. Later another ogival-carved piece and a short section from a heavy beam were also found whilst carrying out the total excavation of this posthole (PH9). Whilst the team knew that any site with waterlogged timbers is of great importance and that carved timbers from Roman sites are rare, particularly in Sussex, they were not fully aware of how important these items were until being put in touch with Damian Goodburn, an archaeological woodwork specialist, by the Museum of London.  He confirmed the scarcity of architectural moulded timbers of the Roman period and from a photograph observed that the overall form and apparent scale of the timber suggested it came from a relatively high status structure; but he was unable to define what type of element it was. What we do know is that it became a pad for a post at some time probably during the late 3rd to early 4th century, of a building that possibly survived until the later 4th century (Lyne 2016, 2). Was it just spolia, the reuse of recycled building material, or was there some more significant meaning in its use in providing closure for a previous structure and/or continuity with the new build? Somethings are ‘unknowable’ but we will try to research its previous use providing we can find some relevant comparanda.

The footprint of the 13 postholes at around 16 by 6.4 metres and the size of the posts at c.450mm diameter suggest that we are looking at a substantial building. We know the building was timber-framed and apparently without a central post in the north east elevation, suggesting that this was possibly the main access point. The site yielded virtually no Roman tile, suggesting that any structure probably had a thatch or possibly shingle roof; unless we choose to suggest that a tiled roof was carefully removed for reuse elsewhere when the building was decommissioned.

Evidence from other sites raises the possibility that the Bridge Farm posts provided the main support for an aisled structure rather than the external walls, even though no trace of the flanking exterior walls was observed as several similar ground-plans in Surrey, including Flexford, Hengrove (Bird 2017, 124) and Building 6 at Beddington (Howell 2005, 33), have been interpreted as being the central naves of aisled structures. If the Bridge Farm example followed the proportions found in the Northants area then its total width including aisles would be around 12.8m with a length of either 22.4m or 18.2m depending on whether it had an aisle at the north end where the missing post suggests the location of the main entrance.

The year also revealed some intriguing finds including a zoomorphic enamel brooch and a small square of silver inscribed with (V)TER(E) (F)ELIX (utere felix i.e. use/ware with good luck) which is thought to be the bezel attachment to a 4th century ring.

Zoomorphic enamel brooch

2015: Securing the Future

In 2015 Rob Wallace secured a five year contract with Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU) to provide a four week practical training course each summer for all their archaeology undergraduates at a set fee per student. This resulted in a vigorous period of building by the CAP committee members to provide an administration and facilities block capable of taking 20-30 students for lectures, meals and the other ‘luxuries’ of camping on a dig site i.e. flushing loos, hot showers, a fully equipped kitchen and in 2018 a separate laundry room with washing machines and dryers.

The 2015-2017 Excavation of Trench 6

In 2015 it was decided to target the intersection of the double ditch enclosure with the north running roadside ditches in the NE corner of the settlement; a crucial area to the understanding of the site. We opened a 40m square area, Trench 6, at the end of June 2015 ready for the six week dig from 29th June to 8th August. The area was targeted to answer questions on phasing between the London road and the enclosure ditches and confirm the provisional dates provided by the 2013 trenches.

Little did we know at the time that this trench would prove so complicated as to demand 3 whole seasons of excavation.

For details of the excavations up to and including our current season see the ‘Excavation’ and ‘Reports’ section of this website.