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13 January 2011
Neolithic village discovered in Derbyshire

Archaeologist Ben Johnson and his team discovered a 5,500-year-old Stone Age village during a dig in Peak District fields at Curzon Lodge, near Wirksworth (Derbyshire, England). The team spent weeks digging at the location after being drafted in to check the area by Longcliffe Quarries which will build a new headquarters on the site. Finds such as pottery, tools and an ancient barley grain have been removed. The finds came from the Neolithic period.
     Like so many of today's archaeological discoveries, the dig began when a company - in this case Longcliffe Quarries - began the process of applying for a new building. The firm was required by law to get Mr Johnson's company, Archaeological Research Services (ARS), to investigate the proposed site, near Brassington.
     Mr Johnson said: "A digger took away the top soil and revealed charcoal and the kind of dark earth you would get if you threw away your vegetables and left them in the ground for thousands of years. From what I'd seen before, I realised this was probably a Neolithic site and almost straightaway thought this could be evidence of a settlement. Mr Johnson said the midden contained a piece of pottery, small pieces of flint, chipped into sharp tools and, perhaps most importantly, an ancient barley grain. He said: "The grain had been through the process of being grown and threshed. Even though it was a small thing it had a very important meaning. It showed we were looking at the earliest farmers in the Peak District."
     The pottery came from the early Neolithic Period, when people in England began to settle for the first time instead of living by hunting and gathering. Mr Johnson said: "The shard dated from between 3,900 BCE and 3,500 BCE. This is pretty fragile stuff. Any ploughing nearby would destroy it, so it was a rare find."
     In total, 83 pits and 13 trenches were dug as they searched for more remains, and a clearer picture of the site's importance developed. Hearth pits, used for cooking and warmth, were found containing charcoal which could be accurately carbon-dated to the Neolithic. Several more small pieces of flint cut into sharp knives for things like skinning animals and butchery were discovered. And three possible 'post-holes' suspected to be part of a home's structure was found.
     Jim Brightman, a senior archaeologist with ARS, said: "Our best guess was that we were looking at a settlement of buildings built using posts. These homes may have been quite sturdy or they may have been more lightweight. They were probably rectangular like others in the area. People would have lived inside them. Hearths would have been either inside or outside the buildings. There would have been middens, perhaps a short distance away from the settlements, just as with rubbish dumps today."
     The farming, Mr Brightman said, would have been in small plots, 'more horticulture than agriculture' making families self-sufficient. He added: "There could well have been cattle because that is a mobile type of farming. Most of the country would have been covered with forest but people were beginning to clear the trees to keep cattle." Mr Brightman said the site also provided more information about other finds made in the area, including several Neolithic flint axes, nine inches long, cut to a sharp point.
     Perhaps surprisingly, ARS did not object to Longcliffe Quarries' plans. But Mr Brightman explained that, once dug up, the site was 'destroyed anyway'. Its importance, he said, was in the information gained from it rather than material finds from the trenches. Curzon Lodge's Neolithic settlement, he said, formed another important piece of the Neolithic puzzle in Derbyshire's uplands. The digs were made in summer 2008 and winter 2009, but this is the first time details of the finds have been revealed to the general public.

Edited from Derby Telegraph (11 January 2011)

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