An enclosed Anglo-Saxon settlement, with evidence of occupation from the C5 to the C9. The site also contains two probable prehistoric ring ditches.
Reasons for Designation
The Anglo-Saxon settlement to the west of Pirton village, including probable prehistoric ring-ditches, is scheduled for the following principal reasons:
* Period: excavation evidence demonstrates that the site contains features that can be dated to the C5 –C9 which are typical of a settlement of this date;
* Rarity: relatively few early Anglo-Saxon settlements are known on the Chiltern escarpment, and are also rare in the national context. The enclosed form of this settlement is also unusual for this early date;
* Documentation: the archaeological recording of this site is partial, but sufficient to confirm the date, nature and extent of settlement, and its importance in the national context, and to highlight the need for its protection. Its significance is increased in the context of the settlement history of Pirton village, which is well documented both archaeologically and by written record;
* Group value: the site has group value with the identified early settlement within the occupied village, and also with the scheduled Toot Hill motte and bailey castle and shrunken medieval village (NHLE 1012325) to the south, and with the moated site at Rectory Farm, to the north (NHLE 100954);
* Survival / Condition: geophysical survey and the excavation of test pits demonstrate that individual features representing structures and other aspects of settlement, as well as cultural material, will survive in good condition;
* Fragility / Vulnerability: this site, close to a potentially expanding village, is particularly vulnerable to development. Buried deposits are also vulnerable to agricultural work that would break the ground surface;
* Diversity: the settlement to the west of Pirton contains a diversity of features representative of a settlement of Anglo-Saxon date, but the scheduled area also includes very much older, prehistoric monuments, the presence of which may have held significance for the Anglo-Saxon settlers;
* Potential: the settlement contains the potential to inform our understanding of early Anglo-Saxon settlement, and its evolution over about 400 years, as well as the domestic, economic and social lives of the early settlers over that period. It may also contain evidence of a relationship with contemporary settlement in the wider landscape, including post-Roman Hitchin and Baldock, and offer further insight into the transition between Romano-British and Anglo-Saxon culture glimpsed there. In conjunction with the test pit evidence from the currently occupied village of Pirton it may offer a rare opportunity to observe and understand the process of transition to a consolidated, and perhaps planned form of settlement there.
Pirton village is at the east end of the Chilterns, about 2km north of the Icknield Way. The history of the village is well-documented both in written sources and through archaeological investigation. In particular, between 2007 and 2011 over 100 test pits were dug across the village as part of the University of Cambridge Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) project: a further 15 pits were dug between 2011 and 2015. Collectively, these produced pottery that demonstrates remarkably continuous (though fluctuating) occupation from the Roman period to the present, the latter represented by two settlements about 800 metres apart, with slight evidence of short-lived and shifting settlement in the early Anglo-Saxon period. More substantial evidence of early Anglo-Saxon settlement has been observed in the settlement to the west of the village, identified in 2015, which seems, on current evidence, to have been occupied between the C5 and C9. Its abandonment appears to coincide with early signs of consolidation from the currently occupied village, where pottery dating to between c.AD 850 and 1100 has been found. Three distinct areas of occupation have been identified from test pit finds, but more substantial evidence was found in 1995, in the course of excavation on land to the rear of The Fox public house, about 140 metres to the north of the C12 Church of St Mary. This consisted of an apparently planned settlement, and included a Saxo-Norman cemetery and a possible church.
At the time of the Domesday Survey in 1086 Pirton was a large and valuable holding, and from the early C12 the village expanded, coinciding with and perhaps encouraged by seigneurial interest, represented by the construction of a motte and bailey castle and new church. Between the C12 and C14 the village more than doubled in size, including a south-eastwards extension beyond the castle, an area that was substantially abandoned as the village began to contract. The test-pit data suggests that between the late C14 and C16 the village shrunk by two-thirds, and despite its post-medieval growth, the area to the south-east of the castle was never fully resettled. In the C19, as the population increased, the village reached the north-east boundary of the site to the north-east of Priors Hill.
Other finds and archaeological interventions that demonstrate the longevity and continuity of occupation at Pirton are recorded on the Hertfordshire HER (Historic Environment Record). The parish includes three scheduled monuments: Toot Hill motte and bailey castle and shrunken medieval village (NHLE 1012325); the moated site at Rectory Farm, (NHLE 1009541); and Pirton Grange moated enclosure (NHLE 1012348). The wider landscape is also archaeologically rich; most immediately, in the mid-C19 an Anglo-Saxon cemetery was found in Danefield, a large field to the west of Priors Hill; also in Danefield, in 1990 a Romano-British settlement, apparently occupied in the sub-Roman period and into the C6 and C7, was excavated in advance of the Humberside to Buncefield Pipeline. The quality and quantity of archaeological evidence found across the parish and its wider landscape are contributory factors to its inclusion in the North Hertfordshire Local Plan Area of Archaeological Significance 75. This designation indicates that, in the event of proposed development within this area, there will be likelihood of a significant archaeological presence, and investigation may be required. In February 2015 a geophysical survey was commissioned in advance of the determination of a planning application for residential development on this site. This was followed in June 2015 by an archaeological trial trench evaluation. The results of these form the basis of the description below.
The scheduled area includes features representative of two main phases of use. The earliest of these appear to be prehistoric, but the main significance of the site lies in features associated with Anglo-Saxon settlement dating from the C5 to the C9.
The field is sited on chalk, on a north-facing slope at the east end of the Chiltern Hills, and lies about 200m to the north-west of the castle mound and C12 church. The field appears to have been under arable cultivation for a number of years, but is currently (2015) laid to grass: it is bounded to the north-west by a bank that stands to about 0.25m high on its south-east side, but falls away to the north-west to form a steep slope about 1.5m high. Its slight appearance on the south side of the boundary can be accounted for by a build-up of colluvium behind the bank, to an estimated depth of up to 1m. Pottery found as a result of animal burrowing dates this boundary to the mid-Saxon period. At the west corner of the field the bank turns to the south-east, following the line of the hedge and merging into the hedge-bank that defines the south-west boundary of the field, which is also the boundary with Priors Hill. An outer ditch may lie to the west of the hedge, but the narrow roadside verge is not included in the scheduled area. There is also a slight bank marking the north-east boundary of the field.
The geophysical survey undertaken in advance of proposed development of the site for housing revealed a ring ditch about 30m in diameter to the south-west end of the field, within which there appears to be a smaller ditched circular feature; to the north-east of that is a second ring ditch measuring about 15m in diameter. Linear features were also identified, including one that runs north-eastwards from the field boundary with Priors Hill, roughly equidistant between, and parallel to, the north-west and south-east field boundaries, and marking a slight change of slope; this was revealed to be a ditch by subsequent excavation, and may define the south side of an enclosed area. Parallel to this feature are the probable furrows of medieval cultivation, and similar linear features were identified at the north-east end of the field running at right-angles to these.
The trial trenching that followed the geophysical investigation explored these features further, with 20 trenches altogether spread across the field, but clustered slightly towards the east end. Of those features already identified by geophysics, no evidence of date was found for the ring ditches, although they may be assumed to be prehistoric, based mainly on their form but also on their placement on the crest of the hill, both overlooking and highly visible from the valley below. The settlement was evidently occupied between the C5 and the C9, and seems to have been enclosed from the beginning. The majority of pottery found in pits, post-holes and ditches across the site can be dated to the C5-C7 or C9, and pottery of the earlier period was found in five of the seven trenches cut across the south-west to north-east ditch. No pottery was found that could be dated to the Late Saxon or Saxo-Norman period. Most of the post-holes found are clustered together at the east of the site, and are likely to represent post-built houses and other structures, although given the restricted view allowed by the trenches, no patterns or groupings are discernible. To the north-east of the site were a cluster of pits, several of which contained the larger collections of pottery seen on this site that date to the C5-C9. Within this group of pits was the grave of an older adult male: a sample of his bone was radiocarbon dated to between AD 775 and 970.
EXTENT OF SCHEDULING
The scheduled area includes the northern section of the field immediately west of Pirton village, defined on the south-east side by the line of the possible ditched enclosure running SW to NE and including a 5m buffer zone considered necessary for the support and preservation of the monument. To the NE it is defined by the field boundary and footpath, and to the east by the boundary of a small housing development south-west of Pirton School. To the NW, the scheduling extends for a further 5m beyond the field boundary into the neighbouring field, and to the SW by the outer line of the hedge and hedge bank that forms the boundary between the field and Priors Hill.