Bronze Age burnt mound brought to light in Suffolk

Excavations in the winter of 2021 at Framlingham Road in Laxfield, Suffolk, have revealed a palimpsest of prehistoric settlement activity, including an enigmatic Bronze Age burnt mound.

Bronze Age burnt mounds have long been puzzling archaeological features. As they are often found in association with a river or other natural water source, and frequently contain evidence of timber-lined troughs, it has been suggested that they may have been used for bathing or as a sauna. More recently, it has been hypothesised that these mounds may instead have been used for the seasonal slaughter of livestock. (In Ireland, it has been suggested they were used for making beer; see CA 256.)

Image: Cotswold Archaeology

The Laxfield mound was discovered by a team from Cotswold Archaeology, funded by Denbury Homes, while excavating in advance of development of the site. They found that while the mound had largely been destroyed by subsequent ploughing, a few defining features survived, including a well-pit and two troughs, as well as burnt stones and charcoal (right). As there is no watercourse nearby, it is probable that the Bronze Age community dug the well in order to supply the required water.

Radiocarbon dating of the waterlogged soil filling the well suggests that the burnt mound fell out of use by the Middle Bronze Age, while pollen analysis found that the surrounding landscape was largely pastoral at the time. To test the livestock theory, lipid analysis – which is used to detect traces of animal fat – was carried out on several of the heat-cracked stones but, unfortunately, did not yield any results.

Just to the south-west, a series of enclosures – possibly used for livestock – was discovered, with the earliest appearing to date to the Middle Bronze Age, by which time use of the burnt mound had probably ceased. The clay soils would have provided lush pasture in summer.

Approximately 1,000 years later, an Iron Age roundhouse was built within the earthworks of one of the Bronze Age enclosures. Two smaller roundhouses just to the south were also discovered. The lack of finds in these smaller dwellings means they are currently undated, but it is probable that they are also Iron Age. The site then does not appear to have been used again until the medieval period, when a series of ditches and gullies, found cutting through the prehistoric features, suggest that it was used for agriculture.

Text: Kathryn Krakowka