Author Archives: brionystorm

About brionystorm

Briony Clifton is the National Trust Archaeology Assistant for the Stonehenge and Avebury WHS. She studied at the University of Southampton with a dissertation which focused on the reconstruction and use of the houses discovered by Stonehenge Riverside Project team at Durrington Walls. She has worked on the Between the Monuments project with Southampton and Leicester Universities.

Test Pitting in the Avebury Landscape

Last week, the Living with Monuments team started test pitting* in Avebury, in fields to the north west and the south west of Avebury Henge, in order to gather information about what the landscape might have looked like in the past and how it has been transformed over the millennia.


Archaeologists from the National Trust and the University of Leicester test pitting in the shadow of Silbury Hill ©Mike Robinson

Before the work began, it was assumed that the test pits would essentially show the same thing; however, what they showed instead was how diverse and different the landscape was in the past.


Archaeologist, Mike, from the University of Southampton recording one of the southern test pits ©Mike Robinson 

Previous understanding of past landscapes in Avebury was based upon John Evans’ work in the 1980s, which has been taken as the general model for the area, but we are now realising that it’s much more complex and localised.


Archaeologists at work with buzzards flying above and the smell of oilseed rape drifting over the field. ©Mike Robinson

Many samples have been taken and several specialists visited the site over the days we were digging. It’s very much a work in progress, but at the moment it is showing huge potential and provides an opportunity to rethink some of the ideas we have had about the area.



The teams from the Universities of Southampton and Leicester. ©Mike Robinson

Thanks to the archaeologists, specialists and farmers whose support makes this work possible, and to Mike Robinson for the wonderful photographs. Watch this space for more posts coming soon from Avebury.


*test pits are small trenches – here we had 2m x 1m test pits

Living With Monuments gets underway

An exciting new project has now begun in earnest at Avebury. The National Trust has teamed up once again with the Universities of Southampton and Leicester and Allen Environmental Archaeology (Between the Monuments 2013-15), and with the Universities of Ghent and Cambridge, supporting them in Living with Monuments, a new collaborative research project.

Last week we kicked things off with two days of surface collection (field walking) under beautiful big skies and in the company of three deer. The finds were not coming thick and fast, but we were cheering ourselves up with the fact that an ‘archaeological void’ of sorts is actually very interesting and intriguing.


This is only the beginning of what promises to be a thrilling archaeological project taking place in this world famous site over the next few years, building upon the previous work of the Between the Monuments project in the hopes of learning more about this extraordinary landscape.


The spectacular sky as we packed up at the end of the second day ©National Trust/B.Clifton



Experimental Archaeology with Breaking Ground Heritage & Operation Nightingale

For the last 2 weeks of September 2016 we supported an inspiring archaeological project at East Chisenbury in Wiltshire, which has a remarkable Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age midden (rubbish) site, an enclosure ditch and evidence of settlement.


A section of ditch in Trench 1 at East Chisenbury.  Photograph ©National Trust/ J. Tomlin

The project was organised and run by Breaking Ground Heritage and Operation Nightingale, who use archaeology and heritage as a route to recovery for injured service personnel. I was there to promote the experimental side of archaeology, reconstructing the ceramics coming out of the ground and going through the pottery-making processes with an eye to the prehistoric.

The exercise of pottery reconstruction allowed the retired servicemen and women to really get a feel for building a pot, for looking at where to add the next coil, how to smooth and blend, what hand movement or tool causes what pattern in the clay, and then to look again at the archaeology and see it in a different light.


One of the team working on a furrowed bowl (she ended up making 4 pots).  Photograph ©National Trust/B. Clifton

Pottery-making on site at Chisenbury was not only about experimental archaeology, however. Along with being a valuable social experience, it is also significantly about the individual’s responsiveness to the clay and about the focus and deliberation that naturally occurs when building a pot (…or sculpting a tortoise/whale/badger/giraffe – we had all four). For many people, pottery-making has hugely therapeutic qualities where the mind can rest and be totally absorbed in an activity – something I hope can at least help support the recovery of serving and ex-service personnel.


All of the pots together before some were carefully placed into the firing pit.  Photograph ©National Trust/B. Clifton

On the final day we fired some, but not all, of the pots in a pit firing (bonfire). The two preceding weeks had been quite cold and damp for the clay (which we were trying to dry out!), so I had given a frank warning to all the potters that the likelihood of their pot’s survival in a bonfire would be minimal. In other words ‘if you’re attached to your pot, don’t put it in the fire’.

The firing day was warm, but there was a strong wind which was blowing straight across the firing area. This would result in two things: 1 – the fire would burn quickly (not what we wanted) and 2 – there would be quite a bit of thermal shock from the cold wind and the hot fire, both of which can cause pots to crack. When firing in a bonfire (as oppose to an electric kiln) a certain amount of control is lost over the rise and fall of heat; add damp pots on top of this and I’m surprised we had any pots which survived – but we did!


Some of the survivors after the pit firing. Most came out completely black, some with black and brown patternation.  Photograph ©National Trust/B. Clifton

The Blackening Techniques in a Nutshell
Many prehistoric pots appear black. This is due to certain conditions in the fire: reduction and carbon blackening or ‘smudging’.
Reduction is a complex chemical reaction involving the movement of electrons (Ceramic Arts Daily), but is usually generally described as starving the fire of oxygen so that it draws it from the iron oxide in the clay and turns the pots black. The opposite of this is oxidation, where the pots may be red, grey, white etc. depending on the clay used. Pots can be a mixture of reduction and oxidation, which is why one pot could be, for example, full of reds, browns and blacks.
Carbon blackening occurs when pots are surrounded by combustible materials (such as sawdust) which are set alight and burn slowly until the fuel runs out, leaving black carbon coatings or smudges on the fired ceramics.
A combination of these and other conditions and variables can amount to really beautiful colourings of ceramics.



Many thanks to all the first-time potters who took part in this, and to Breaking Ground Heritage, Operation Nightingale and Wessex Archaeology for such a fantastic and stimulating fortnight. Thanks to Tom for supplying the majority of the wood for the fire, and Dave for the straw.

Lastly, rest in peace to Scott who was so brilliant last year at Chisenbury. I know he valued the pottery-making sessions and found them hugely therapeutic both physically and mentally. I was glad to have known him, if for a short while.



Breaking Ground Heritage:
Twitter: @BreakingGroundH

Operation Nightingale:

For a summary of the site see Wessex Archaeology’s blog post here: