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TVAS News: Church Farm, Thame, Oxfordshire

Archaeologists from Thames Valley Archaeological Services have recently been engaged in the excavation of a Bronze Age ring ditch and other features of Neolithic, Iron Age and Roman date at Church Farm, just north of Thame, Oxfordshire. The work has been carried out on behalf of Thame Town Council in advance of the construction of a new community football club with a new club house and a series of pitches.

Several areas were opened up for excavation to target features identified in the results of previous aerial, geophysical and archaeological surveys. The main area of investigation was the ring ditch. This circular monument measured an unusually large 45m in diameter and excavation showed its ditch to be c.1.2m deep and 4m wide. There were no entrance gaps in the ditch circuit. Most other examples of ring ditches are usually considered to be levelled burial monuments, with the spoil from the ditch used to create a distinctive burial mound. However, no definite evidence of human burial deposits was found at Thame and the unusually large diameter of the ring ditch and its infill suggests an alternative construction, with the spoil used to create a circular bank around the outside of the ditch. Similarly, the presence of very large, deep pit near the centre of the circle which could have held a large post is at odds with the notion of a central mound. All of this lead to a suggestion that the site might be a ceremonial rather a burial monument.

Various objects were found at the very bottom of the ditch and help date it until radiocarbon dates are obtained. These finds include Early Bronze Age (2100-1700BC) pottery and the very rare find of a stone shaft-hole tool called an axe hammer. Such tools are not particularly common with most examples having been found in northern England and Scotland. They are particularly rare for the south Midlands and southern England. The axe hammer head is made from an as yet unidentified hard rock that is not available locally.

The ditch was completely in-filled, possibly deliberately so, within the Bronze Age as two middle Bronze Age (c. 1200BC) bronze spearheads in very good condition had been inserted point down into the top fill of the ditch.

The earliest human activity on the site pre-dated the Bronze Age with the discovery of several late Neolithic (3300-2100BC) pits. These contained a large collection of struck flint tools and several sizeable fragments of a distinctive highly decorated type of pottery known as grooved ware. These pits are unlikely to be dug simply for the disposal of rubbish but are also likely to be of ceremonial significance.

Other features discovered in the area around the ring ditch included a probable Iron Age (750BC-AD43) pit alignment. This is a territorial boundary marker formed, in this instance by a single line of pits. Thirty two pits were uncovered. Unusually, the pit alignment made a sharp right-angled bend. A small number of Roman (AD43-410) agriculture-related features such as field boundaries were also recorded.

Click on the image thumbnails below for larger versions:

General view of the ring ditch under excavation. General view of the ring ditch during excavation.

View of a slot excavated through the ring ditch. The gravel tip line where the ditch has filled up in the past can be seen on the left hand side of the section. A view along the excavated southeast quadrant of the ditch.

The axe hammer head being excavated from the bottom of the ring ditch. A pit containing large amounts of relatively intact Bronze Age pottery being excavated.

Members of Thame Museum Trust and museum volunteers are given a tour of the site. The pit alignment can be seen running in a line from the photographer up the centre of the photograph. Members of Thame Museum Trust and museum volunteers visit the site.

Click to see photos of the finds Click to see photos of the finds