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A Neolithic ‘settlement’ in Stanton on the Wolds

Introduction and history

Much of the parish of Stanton on the Wolds forms the highest land in Nottinghamshire south of the valley of the River Trent and such areas are known to have been favourably viewed as suitable for living and farming by people 6,000 years ago. In 1938 Mrs Bird living at the Old Rectory next to the church on Browns Lane found worked flint in a small sand pit on the east side of Browns Lane almost opposite the Rectory. A few days later Mrs Bird noticed two more worked flints that had been brought to the surface during the excavation for a new grave in the church yard alongside the Rectory. Shortly after, she found eleven more worked flints in her garden where a previous Rector had for years cultivated his prize-winning Sweet Peas. He had apparently been in the habit of deeply trenching this part of the garden to a depth of three feet to work in lots of compost.

These finds prompted Mr and Mrs Bird to open a trench in their garden where the flints had been found and which was in a slight hollow. They dug down through about a foot of cultivated top soil. Below this the subsoil was light-coloured and sandy. About a metre below the surface they came across a dark layer of decomposed vegetation and charcoal (black earth) in which were embedded more worked flints. As the trench was extended they came across a group of ten fire-crazed hearth stones. At this stage a second trench was dug across the first trench to investigate the feature further. More flint flakes, flint artefacts and animal teeth were revealed. The black earth had a maximum thickness of 18 inches, thinning to about 6 inches at the edges and formed a saucer shaped depression 24 feet across, with the centre of the saucer between four and five feet below ground level, whilst the edges were about two feet below the surface. The black earth ceased beyond the edge of the saucer. The sub-soil beneath the black earth was a “hard-beaten light yellowish earth containing peat-stained worm holes”. They then carefully excavated the whole area. The entire black earth floor was sieved and 200 flint artefacts together with animal teeth and bone fragments were systematically plotted on a scaled plan.

Cross section of the Neolithic occupation floor at Stanton on the Wolds reproduced by kind permission of the Editor of the Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottingham
First impressions were that they had discovered an occupation floor dating to the Mesolithic, however the identification of many of the teeth as ovine tended to discount this. A Dr Clarke suggested that this was the occupation floor of a circular Neolithic hut that would date to some time in the 4th millennium BC. The black earth must have resulted from the decomposition of whatever material formed the hut floor, possibly bracken or rushes and small twiggy material mixed together with ashes and charcoal from the central hearth. No pot sherds or metal artefacts were found that might have helped dating. The excavation was written up and published in the Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire; “A prehistoric hut-floor at Stanton on the Wolds, Nottinghamshire” by A. J. and K. M. Bird and “The flint artefacts found at Stanton on the Wolds, Nottinghamshire” were described by Dr. Patricia Phillips of Sheffield University

The excavation of the hut floor was done between 1938 and March 1939. Samples of the black earth were collected to check for carbonised cereal grains and pollen. Charcoal and teeth were collected for Carbon-14 dating. Unfortunately all the samples were lost in the post in the first few months of the Second War World. Mr and Mrs Bird subsequently moved out of the parish. It was not until 1972 that their work was finally published with their recommendation that professional confirmation should be contemplated, particularly with respect to a number of other slight hollows in both their garden and in the garden of Glebe Farm next door. It seems unlikely that the hut circle discovered in the garden of the Rectory was the only one on this part of the Wolds. It is far more likely that it was one of a small group, but it is not known what area this might have encompassed. As the black earth occupation floor is so characteristic and easily distinguished from both the overlaying and underlying subsoil it would be worth trying to find further black earth floors by systematic narrow bore auguring of neighbouring fields and gardens to try and delineate the area of the settlement. We are fortunate in this respect in that much of this part of the parish remains open land and has not been built on.

Stanton on the Wolds Local History and Archaeology Study Group

Outlines of a proposed project

It is proposed to explore the extent of the Neolithic settlement by using using a five foot soil sampler to take deep soil cores over as much of the land as possible within the 300 foot contour line centred upon the site of the original hut floor to see if we could detect the presence of any further occupation floors. Using a grid system laid out by measuring tape, three-quarters of an inch diameter cores would be taken every 12 feet to ‘guarantee’ at least one ‘hit’ in any hut floor (the excavated floor had a diameter of 24 feet). In gardens and on lawned areas the coring holes would be back-filled with sharp sand. A hand held GPS device would be used to capture the exact position of each core. These 10 figure grid references would then be uploaded to a pc for plotting of the results. Assuming that black earth is found in at least one core from one further hut floor then a portion would be sent for carbon-14 dating. To retrieve sufficient useful material for potential further analysis it may be necessary to re-core the target area two or three times.

The project begins

The project to try and find a second Neolithic ‘occupation floor’ began early in October, after the purchase from Cole-Parmer Instrument Company Ltd of a ‘Deep Backsaver’ soil sampling handle (range 18 to 66 inches) fitted with an 18 inch dry, small diameter sampling tube, together with a 26 inch extension rod. The ‘Backsaver’ handle which is fitted with a foot pedal has worked very well. The small diameter sampling tube with a core diameter of ¾ inch was chosen as it was thought it would be easier to get to the required depth. It is certainly quite easy to take core samples to 6 feet in depth in four eighteen inch portions providing no stones are hit. However with a small diameter tube it does not take a very large stone to prevent the tube from progressing further.

If the original hut floor was not an isolated farmstead, then the possible settlement could have extended in any direction around the compass, as the surrounding countryside is all at approximately the same height of 300 feet. Back then, there would have been nothing to limit the spread of any settlement. The only possible clues might come from the underlying geology. To the west the post-glacial deposits are heavy wet clays, whereas to the north, east and south the wolds seem to have a capping of sand which in places is reported to be 5 feet thick. It would have been obvious then, as it is now, that the sandy well-drained soil would have been a both easier and more comfortable sort of site on which to build a hut or even to begin cultivation.
The first area to be investigated is a permanent pasture of approximately 8 acres situated on the opposite side of the lane to the south of the original occupation floor. This field contains a sandpit which was dug around 1900 to provide material for the bunkers on the nearby golf course. Four worked flints were found here in 1938: one was a pointed fire-reddened flake, another was an amber-coloured flake with a hinge fracture and two flints had finely denticulated scraping margins. So far a series of six 400 foot long transects have been made all parallel to the road and 12.5 ft apart. Core samples were taken at 12.5 feet intervals. The soil probe has so far been used to produce 180 cores up to 66 inches in depth (2 metres).

Some core samples appear to show the presence of small (1-3mm) pieces of carbonaceous material at a depth of 33 inches, which is about the same depth as the original occupation floor. As the probe passes them in situ they crumble and smudge. A piece of core with black smudges was subjected to gentle washing through a series of graded sieves after pre-treatment with hydrogen peroxide. Numerous pieces of dark-coloured amorphous carbonaceous material were recovered but apart from two very obvious plant seeds, no other particles were identifiable. To date no occupation floor has been detected in this field, however there are a lot more cores to be taken before the team move to another area.


A prehistoric hut-floor at Stanton on the Wolds, Nottinghamshire. A. J. and K. M. Bird, Trans.Thoroton Society volume LXXVI, 1972 pages 4 to 8

The flint artefacts found at Stanton on the Wolds, Nottinghamshire, Dr. Patricia Phillips, Trans.Thoroton Society volume LXXVI, 1972 pages 9-12



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