18 July 2003
Excavation at Heathrow Airport
The largest single archaeological excavation in the UK, at the planned Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport (England), has yielded an unprecedented insight into the way mankind has used the landscape over the last 8000 years.
A team of around 80 archaeologists has been working at the 100-hectare (250- acre) site for over a year and has found evidence of human activity going back to hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age, around 6,000 BCE, as well as Bronze Age, Iron Age, Roman, Saxon, Medieval and later remains. In all, 80,000 objects were found, including 18,000 pieces of pottery and 40,000 pieces of worked flint.
The excavation revealed the only wooden bowl found dating to the Middle Bronze Age (1,500 BCE-1,100 BCE); one of only two wooden buckets from the same period; and a log ladder leading down into a pit dug during the Middle Bronze Age containing a wooden axe haft and a Neolithic stone axe, itself 2,000 years old when it was placed there. Two beautiful Iron Age pottery cups were also found. It also shed new light on the development of farming during the Bronze Age.
Archaeologists have also been able to piece together a fascinating insight into changes in the way that people expressed their religious feeling towards the land as farming developed. At Terminal 5, pollen found from hedges used as field boundaries showed that people here were creating fields with boundaries from around 2,000 BCE, during the Early Bronze Age, 500 years earlier than archaeologists have previously thought.
Other findings at the site included pits where meat was cooked by hunter gatherers during the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) period, c6,000 BCE; large ceremonial pathways created during the Neolithic era (New Stone Age, 4,000 BCE-2,400 BCE); fields and boundaries and the first small permanent settlements in the Bronze Age (2,400 BCE-700 BCE).
The excavation looked also at the Stanwell Cursus, a 4km (2.5 mile) pathway about 20 metres wide and flanked by ditches, which was built as early as 3,800 BCE and cuts across the Terminal 5 site. The cursus was a pathway with religious significance which linked important sites. The excavation revealed that when the first field boundaries were created in the Early Bronze Age (around 2,000 BCE - 1,500 BCE), they ran around the cursus and not across it, as a mark of respect for its religious significance. But during the Middle Bronze Age, from 1,500 BCE, field boundaries were created across the cursus itself, a sign that it was no longer venerated. At the same time, access to the local rivers for people's livestock was harder because it would mean driving them across others‚ land, so waterholes were dug instead. These then became the focus of religious rituals, with important objects such as pottery and wooden objects placed in them as a sign of their religious significance. These changes show how man changed the religious significance of sites according to how useful they were to early farming.
"It was fascinating to discover that within the boundaries of the world's busiest international airport lies a record of how people used the landscape for 8,000 years, from the time when people were hunter gatherers to the earliest farmers and later." said John Lewis, Framework Archaeology manager. Ken Welsh, the project manager, added: "The excavation revealed how the religious system changed under pressure from the new farming method. Land was needed so much that the cursus lost its significance and was used for growing crops. Instead, water for livestock became more difficult to get and waterholes were dug and became venerated sites - we find many valuable objects placed in them as a sign of their importance."
Sources: Ananova, BBC News, Britarch Press Release (17 July 2003)