New discoveries re-write prehistory of Leicestershire

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Leicestershire at the time of Stonehenge

New archaeological discoveries from the site of a bypass in Leicestershire have helped to redefine the picture of the county’s past according to University of Leicester researchers.

Recent discoveries of Bronze Age burials along the Earl Shilton bypass have emphasised how much of Leicestershire was being settled over 4000 years ago. Dr Patrick Clay, Director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services, has been studying this period for over 30 years.

He said: “When I first excavated a Bronze Age burial mound in 1978 our understanding of the first farming communities in Leicestershire was extremely limited – our studies were still in the ‘Stone Age!’

“The county was dismissed as having been covered in impenetrable forest with very little settlement by the first farmers between 6000 and 4000 years ago. With few surviving prehistoric monuments there had been little study of the area. The recent Earl Shilton discoveries have emphasised that this picture is far from correct.”

Dr Clay said there were two reasons why the idea of how the county was settled has changed: “One reason has been the success of community archaeology in Leicestershire through the County Museums scheme run by Pete Liddle.

“For over thirty years amateur archaeology groups have been fieldwalking the arable fields in the county and have uncovered the stone tools used by these people on the surface’. The Lutterworth Fieldwork group has been surveying the Swift valley and has located clear evidence of the area being occupied. The density of flint tools found by the group during fieldwalking is comparable with that found in the Wessex area around Stonehenge which is traditionally thought of as the centre of occupation in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The significance of this part of the county is emphasised by two Bronze Age gold earrings found north of Lutterworth by metal detecting and currently on display in Charnwood Museum. These rare objects were made on the continent and the only similar examples are known from Spain and Ireland.

“The other main reason we know so much about this period is due to archaeological work by professional units in advance of developments like the Earl Shilton by-pass.

‘Thirty years ago we had no idea of how significant this area was 5000-4000 years ago. Work by both amateur and professional archaeologists has completely revolutionised our knowledge of this period.”

One of the most exciting sites was found near Rothley. Excavations by the University unit in advance of a business park found a settlement with a remarkable group of flint and pottery finds. Dating from around 2500BC this site has more than doubled the number of excavated Neolithic finds known from the county.

The most exciting find is a part of a stone plaque which has a stylised decoration carved into it. This appears to be part of a face and is similar decoration to small stone drums found in east Yorkshire.

Dr Clay thinks this is a very significant discovery: “I’ve been looking for sites like this for over thirty years. Neolithic settlements leave little trace and have usually been ploughed away only leaving a few flint finds on the surface. Here though we have a possible building within which objects were deliberately placed – perhaps as an act of closure. Amazingly it was on a north facing slope on a heavy clay soil – the last sort of place early settlers were thought to favour.

“This was one of the most significant times in human history where prehistoric groups gradually adapted farming to supplement and gradually replace the hunting and gathering lifestyles of previous millennia. These new discoveries are re-writing the prehistory of the county.”

Source: By University Of Leicester

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