Little Marlow through pre-history

A few years ago, South Bucks’ first pollen analysis was carried out at Little Marlow, before sand and gravel were to be extracted commercially.  Several associated techniques were used and from the results a clear description emerges of the environment and, to a lesser extent, the lives of the people from around 8,000 BC through to the Iron Age.
Marlow excavations map
The pollen analysis was possible due to the deep peat horizons,  which also yielded radiocarbon dates.  This article has been written to paint a series of landscape pictures to highlight a few of the many results.

A large area of black earth and ‘burnt stone’ was excavated on either sides of a small stream and, excitingly, human activity, (albeit low-level), was found, possibly from a lake/river-side environment which showed evidence of burnt mound constructions, together with a ditch and post-holes.  A few pieces of worked flint and pottery were also found.

The excavation identified five levels in the peat, the deepest related to an early Mesolithic environment; the upper to late prehistoric (ie pre Roman) times and showed evidence of cereal cultivation. To the north of the modern stream, activity was radiocarbon dated to the Middle and Late Bronze Age; to the south there was early Bronze Age activity. This movement across the area was probably due to the stream changing course.

The deepest layer dates to the period after the last ice age and the second and third layers follow on from this.  However between the third and fourth layers there appears to be a gap in the sequence.  This is shown both by a dramatic change in the types of pollen and also by radiocarbon dating.  The deeper layers run through from the late Devensian to the late Holocene (Flandrian Chronozone III), ie about 8,000 BC to 5,000 BC.

Pollen in the lowest layer is indicative of a mainly open herbaceous environment of juniper scrub interspersed with birch and pine. The “herb” assemblages present, were found to include grasses, rock rose and moon wort and imply short turf grassland.  The meadowsweet, marsh marigold and bistort that were found give evidence for a tall herb/meadow grassland.  Also, plants including very high amounts of sedges and horsetail fern were identified and these tell us that there was an area of open sedge fen.  Freshwater algae and occasional aquatic plants suggests that, at one time, there was standing or slow flowing freshwater here soon after the ice age.

The next, (younger), zone started with a dominance of pine and an expansion of hazel, oak and elm, which represents an improvement in climate and a move away from the more glacial woodland plants and landscapes. Such changes are entirely in keeping with the overall picture across southern England, which, we know from elsewhere, was followed by a migration of plant species across the Midlands and northern England.

The third pollen region continues this pattern of change with a sharp expansion of hazel,  followed by an unfortunate gap in the peat record (also shown in the radiocarbon dates), which covered around 2,000 years and probably represented a substantial change in the local taxa and ecology.  It seems certain that the normal widespread dominance of oak and elm over pine would have been demonstrated in the missing layer at the top of region three.

Marlow's ancient plants
Marlow's ancient plants

From roughly 3,000 to the end of the first millennium BC, there is a clear change in the pollen assemblages.  The environment was one of woodland, covered predominantly with lime, oak and hazel.  There is also good evidence of human activity such as cereal farming and the associated weeds that are typical of disturbed ground and cultivation.  There is, however, also a substantial presence of grasses, plants from the daisy family, dandelions, sow thistles and hawk-bits. The period seems to have exhibited both woodland and areas of open agricultural land.

Ten fragments of animal bone were found from the Bronze Age period, all within burnt flint spreads, sadly they were in very poor condition and it is not possible to say if animal bones were a significant component of the original deposits. These bones were from domestic cattle and a pig, together with two red deer bones, and a humerus from a bantam-sized chicken.

Just one charred cereal grain, one sloe stone fragment and one hazelnut fragment were found on the site – (which yielded nearly a quarter of a tonne of archaeological deposits!).  This is extremely low.  Hazelnut fragments, in particular, are usually common and would be expected to be found in greater numbers if the site has included domestic occupation for any length of time.

However, although the density of artefacts found across the site is low, it is actually quite typical of other burnt mound sites across the region. The few pieces of pottery and worked flint that were found suggest that the mounds on the site were constructed from several visits across a long period in the Bronze Age. The low number of finds suggests that visitors did not leave much behind. They boiled water with hot stones and flint, but didn’t undertake activities that used the tools, containers, animal by-products, or any of the other finds that are found in areas of general domestic or industrial activities.

by Gerry Palmer

One thought on “Little Marlow through pre-history”

  1. Dear Mr Palmer.
    After the archaeologists left the Little Marlow site, I spent 6 months continuing digging until each section was destroyed by the quarry workings. All but the burnt mound spread area, which is intact. This unfortunately is below water at the moment but numerous visits over the last 15 years has rewarded me with some nice finds.
    I have a complete flint working kit from the peat. Core, flakes, two hammer stones, and a tool for taking off fine flakes. I also have a piece of shaped wood probably a bowl section, my 8 year old found a stake with axe marks only a few months ago. Every time we visit we come back with something. last month a piece of pot, and more stake material. The site is to be turned into a country park soon and we will be continuing our search when water levels return to normal. I will inform you of anything interesting.
    Yours Simon Lee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *