Historical places in Thurrock

Mucking archaeological dig

Extensive barley growing by Thomas Lindsay Esq. of Walton Hall Farm, Mucking, on some 50 acres of Boyne Hill Thames terrace gravel, provided ideal conditions for the development of crop marks which led to the discovery of the Mucking sites. These were seen and recorded from the air by Professor J. K. St. Joseph, Director of Aerial Photography, University of Cambridge, in the dry summer of 1959. Soon after his publication of one photograph, which showed an especially dense complex of sites, where destruction by gravel quarrying had begun. Since September 1965 archaeological investigation has been carried out almost continuously by the Ancient Monuments Branch of the Department of the Environment with the co-operation of Hoveringham Gravels Ltd, directed by Mrs. Margaret Jones.

Over 3,000 students from many countries took part in the excavations. The work was directed and was organised by the Mucking Excavation Committee, supported by Thurrock Council, the British Museum, Essex County Council, the Society of Antiquaries, local firms and individuals. Some replica finds from the excavation are displayed in Thurrock Museum and some originals in the British Museum. 
The crop marks show a palimpsest of such features as ditched enclosures, pits, and house sites - underground traces which survive from ancient landscapes as well as the natural geology. When the plough soil and the subsoil have been stripped off, these features show as soil marks in the gravel. Excavations reveal the core settlements have a time range of 3,000 years, from Neolithic to early Saxon. A few worked flints extend occupation back to the Mesolithic, while a medieval windmill and later field ditches are the most recent.

The sequence of human landscapes on this 100 ft. Terrace, which lies close to the natural crossing point at the head of the Thames estuary, and overlooks the widening river, seems to be as follows. The Neolithic period - of which there are very few sites in Essex - is represented by isolated pits and graves, perhaps on the periphery of the focus of local settlement at the time centred, on the 'Causewayed' Enclosure south of the Orsett Cock. During the Bronze Age farming is indicated by slight enclosure ditches and the tradition of burial under a 'Barrow' of earth derived from the circular plan ditch for perhaps a few of the more important people in that society, although some simple inhumation burials including a fine Beaker burial with 11 arrow heads was also recorded. Then, about the 6th century B.C. - the terrace was dominated by a small circular bivallate hillfort of the later Bronze Age. It was only 250 ft in overall diameter, and its main entrance faced the river. A second single ditched circular hill-fort was situated at the eastern end of the gravel terrace, overlooking the Mucking Creek. Associated with this period is the earliest known salt-manufacturing industry and much pottery manufacture.

Later Iron Age settlement reverted to peaceful farming or herding. More than 100 round house sites lying within penannular eaves drip gullies have so far been found. Two complexes of round houses had attached compounds, the largest of which continued to be re-used as a Romano-British cemetery. A complex of frequently renewed curved and rectangular ditches, perhaps providing banks for sheepfolds, belongs to the final pre-Roman occupation.

About the time of the Roman conquest, defensive earthworks were once more thrown up where the hillfort had stood centuries earlier. This time surveyors must have had a hand in it's building, since the 1.5 acre, single entrance, partly double ditched enclosure is exactly rectangular. A bronze pendant from a 1st century Roman legionary's armour was found within it. Together with a sub-rectangular 'native' enclosure of similar size, this earthwork was incorporated into the field layout of a Roman villa. An earlier Iron Age ditched enclosure, was re-used as one cemetery containing 80 graves, the majority were inhumations, with body 'silhouettes' many counting grave goods and some in coffins with nailed joints. Two further Romano-British cemeteries have been found - one within, the other outside the main outfield boundary ditch. They contained 30 and 20 burials, cremations as well as inhumations. Many grave goods came from the cemetery within the central enclosure of the field system, and this supports the idea of a prosperous estate. A shallow trace of building here may be the 'villa' or perhaps it lies to the south beyond the excavated area. A substantial Roman building did exist and is indicated by roof and flue tiles, patterned wall daub and window glass, found as rubbish in ditches and wells. A number of Corndrier flues (made of flint, tile and chalk), timber lined wells, and clay walled pottery kilns indicate the farming and industrial use of this land.

Spread along half a mile of terrace, both inside and outside the villa boundary ditch, are the dug-out floors of Saxon huts, so-called sunken huts. This is the first British site where their crop-marks have been proved by excavation. Over 200 have been excavated, a total exceeded only at one Dutch site. Traces of nearly a dozen ground level post-buildings - or halls - of the Saxon period have also been found. The best preserved was nearly 50 ft. Long, double square in plan, and with one end partitioned off and opposed entrances in the centres of the long sides. The huts and halls seem to lie in two groups, separated by two Saxon cemeteries. This is perhaps the proto-development of what is now called Mucking Village.

Cemetery 1 was discovered as it was being quarried away, and what was left contained only 60 inhumations. Cemetery 2, however, which is the first sizeable Saxon cemetery in England known to have been completely excavated, contained nearly 800 burials, cremations as well as inhumations. The provisional date range of this Saxon occupation is from early 5th century to 7th century. The amount of early 5th century domestic pottery is notable, while from both huts and graves have come late Roman military belt fittings. This poses the question "were the original Saxon immigrants soldiers or settlers?" There seems no doubt that settlement on this strategic site was of greater significance than a mere farming village or villages. This discovery of Saxon cemeteries with settlements, on the same ground as Romano-British settlement with cemeteries, in turn succeeding prehistoric habitation and burial sites is exceptional.

After 14 years work this excavation has proved to be a type site. It has become the most extensive detailed check on the interpretation of crop-marks - now the chief agent of discovery of new sites. The long sequence of pottery found provides a reference series for south-east England. It is one of Europe's major sites for the early Migration period. The collections are now housed in the British Museum.

These ancient landscapes are disappearing at the rate of several acres a year. Gravel quarrying can, however, lead to discovery as well as to destruction, provided archaeologists receive enough support. Mucking offers a challenge to complete the most extensive crop mark investigations yet undertaken in Britain, in an area of considerable geographical significance, where urbanisation is rapidly damaging, if not destroying, much of the archaeological evidence.

Bibliography

  • ANTIQUARIES JOURNAL 1968, vol. XLVIII, part II
  • Journal of Thurrock Local History Society (Panorama) Vols, 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 (1968-1975)
  • ESSEX JOURNAL vol. 7, No. 3, 1972
  • ESSEX ARCHAEOLOGY AND HISTORY vol. 5 1973
  • ROB - Dutch Archaeological Service-Berichten for 1969
  • RECENT ARCHAEOLOGICAL EXCAVATIONS IN EUROPE, ed. R.L.S. Bruce-Mitford, 1975