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19 February 2013
A glimpse into 9,000 years of village life

Back in 1995, a hoard of 400 Roman coins was discovered west of Didcot in Oxfordshire (England), indicating the land had been lived on for centuries. When archaeologists began digging the fields in 2010 they knew it was a site of historical interest, but even they were surprised by the wealth of finds their trowels unveiled, proving that people have been living in Didcot for about 9,000 years.
     The fields, west of the town, have given a near complete timeline from when hunter-gatherers arrived in Oxfordshire in 7,000 BCE, through to the present day villages surrounding the site. Those earliest remains were found by Steve Lawrence, from Oxford Archaeology, the firm which carried out the dig. He was walking around the site one day during the dig and spotted bits of flint on the ground. On closer inspection, the flint had clearly been worked and there were hundreds of pieces, dating back to around 7,000 BCE.
     The most significant find of the dig was a rare Neolithic bowl from about 3,600 BC - when people began to settle down and farm the land. "It was found upside down in a hole where a tree had stood," explains archaeologist Rob Masefield, from RPS Planning and managing the project. "It may have been an offering to the gods of the underworld."
     Another rare find was a pond barrow - a stone lined 12m wide circular depression - which the archaeologists believe was used for 'exposure burials'. Mr Masefield said the body would be put up high on a raised platform and "the bones picked clean by birds and other animals". He added that only ever a dozen or so pond barrows have ever been excavated so this provided some great new information.
     Up to 50 burials, of both adults and children, were identified. Mr Masefield said: "It's possible that three or so of these burials in [grain storage] pits are what we call 'special burials', because it's not the usual way of doing it. It could be ritual or they could be social outcasts."
     He said there is evidence found at other sites - though not at Didcot - suggesting Iron Age people did practise human sacrifice and may even have 'bred' individual human beings solely for this purpose. "They are found with immaculate nails and signs of having lived a privileged life, almost like royalty," he said. "When the person is killed it's been done in three different ways. It appears to be ritual."
     Archaeologist Kate Woodley, from Oxford Archaeology, said the team still had a lot of work to do analysing the finds from the dig, which could take another two years. "We don't want to say too much too early and get it wrong. We'll get a more precise picture with carbon 14 dating and sampling."

Edited from BBC News (14 February 2013)

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