Dug between 1965 and 1978 on a windswept, Essex Thames Gateway-side terrace, Mucking was a place like no other excavated in Britain; it became something of a fieldwork legend. The publication by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit of the site’s last two volumes – covering the prehistoric and Roman periods (Evans et al 2016; Lucy and Evans 2016) – took some eight years, and was both a daunting challenge and a great privilege.
‘Its bald gazetteer numbers are staggering: more than 1,100 burials and some 400 structures’
With its primary record existing in the form of 363 notebooks, the excavation’s archival sources were far from perfect. Yet it has to be appreciated just what an unprecedented dataset the directors, Margaret and Tom Jones, amassed. Amounting to over 1.7 million finds, its bald gazetteer numbers are staggering: more than 1,100 burials and some 400 structures.
A figure from Samuel Smiles’ James Brindley and the Early Engineers of 1864 singularly expresses Mucking’s situation. The hachuring in the engraving actually shows the site’s terrace-locale, on a scarp overlooking marshes at the last downstream bend of the Thames. There is effectively nothing in the viewshed between the site and the Continent. Indeed the French coast, lying only some 125 kilometres distant, would have been closer to Mucking than, for example, Oxford, and Continental connections loom large in the site’s sequence.
Digging, for the most part, was on a year-round basis and it is estimated that, in total, the excavations involved some 5,000 participants. They operated out of a ramshackle series of wooden huts and caravans and, living on site, conditions were by all accounts often bleak. Many of the surviving participants looked back on these days with a mixture of fondness and angst. Whatever their circumstances, Mucking, like Winchester at about the same time , proved a major rite of archaeological passage. The archive includes full annual staff registers, indicating what few paid positions there were, as opposed to the volunteer mass; and with males and females having differently-coloured entries, it has the potential to be the basis of a unique social history of a great excavation.
With the fieldwork undertaken in pre-computer days – prior even to reduced photocopy reproduction – and aiming for 100 per cent excavation of its more than 40,000 features, what the Joneses attempted at Mucking amounts to an act of outrageous audacity.
Margaret Jones clearly considered sampling to be an anathema and felt that total excavation was the only reasonable response to the blanket destruction that was threatened by the area’s gravel extraction. In truth, they generally achieved around a 75 per cent sample of the site. Having to work to the annual schedules of the quarry’s stripping and extraction meant that – especially in the early years – the rhythms and levels of work went awry at times, with portions having to be left uninvestigated. Regardless of this, the sheer scale of the site’s finds assemblages provides unique insights and, indeed, even after our efforts at writing up, the material still hold great potential for future study.
Digging of this intensity means that, for us, the site’s finds distributions of material older than the Middle Bronze Age, residual though they largely were, could be deployed to plot Mesolithic, Neolithic and Early Bronze Age surface-scatter usage (sometimes accompanied with pits), so that something approaching a full settlement sequence could be traced.
The scale of the site’s assemblages also implies that certain finds categories, which are usually only ever retrieved since in ones or twos, were at Mucking recovered in such numbers that their distributions can be meaningfully interrogated. Amongst the best examples are the variously owner/producer-marked later Iron Age pottery bases.
Similarly, portions of more than 70 La Tène-style vessels were present these are usually only represented by, at most, five such sherds on comparable excavations. When combined with the evidence of contemporary metalwork, not only do they allow questions of ‘style in the landscape ’ to be addressed but, on the basis of their completeness , also issues of feature- versus surface-finds recovery. With, for the most part, only some 10 per cent of the original total number of vessels represented (and correlating these with more statistically sound estimations of feature- as opposed to surface-deposit finds densities from other sites), Mucking’s original total assemblages would have been truly vast!
Paul Barford’s 2011 paper outlines the site’s fraught post-excavation history, which thus need not greatly concern us here. In its aftermath the finds records (including location co-ordinates) were computerised, under the auspices of Ian Graham at the Institute of Archaeology . A previous attempt to write up the site failed to activate these files. This however we managed to do (admittedly accepting about a five per cent error-factor) and the resulting files proved a mainstay of the writing project.
Working out of Thurrock Museum, with a Manpower Services Commission-funded team, the Joneses had actually progressed many facets of the site’s post-excavation work before; in the later 1980s, it was taken from them and allocated to a dedicated team at the British Museum (Clark 1993). Although we faced severe problems deciding which version of the many extant specialist texts should be taken as final and authoritative, it was only an advantage to be able to draw upon both phases of the site’s study. Indeed, in a number of cases our main role was to reactivate original specialists so they could complete their texts, with only Matt Brudenell’s Late Bronze/Iron Age pottery analysis being a fresh commission.
Working in retrospect
We tried to balance our approach to tackling Mucking’s enormous (and unwieldy) British Museum-housed archives. It was accepted from the outset that there couldn’t be a ‘Mucking for the 21st century’ and that site investigations are intrinsically rooted in their time (this is also why the volumes appeared under our unit’s ‘Historiography and Fieldwork’ heading rather than in Mucking’s own series). Piecing together how – and why – the Joneses interpreted the site’s sequence was, therefore, considered imperative and, in this, we had the advantage of being able to draw upon their many interim notices. Yet, at the same time, it could no longer just be ‘their site’. Interpretive frameworks have greatly changed over the intervening decades, especially in the light of the many subsequent Thames Gateway excavation campaigns.
These dual interpretative perspectives proved a difficult path to tread, but were essential if justice was to be done both to the sequence itself and the Joneses’ decades-long efforts.
Working from the reams of texts and the site’s phased dyeline plans, it can be estimated that the Joneses actually got somewhere in the area of 80 per cent of its sequence right.
Our main contribution was the realization of the scale and character of Mucking’s layout in the Late Iron Age. An area termed by us 'The Plaza', this had at its core a great ceremonial ground flanked on two sides by ranges of square barrows. A row of raised granaries were arranged along the back/northern aspect of this area, defining the rectangular space, which was subsequently fenced off. The granaries would have had an enormous grain-storage capacity and, arguably, imply export off-site. While this might have only been confined to the immediate area (eg to Colchester /Camulodunum), it may have reflected cross-channel ties, as both the barrow ranges and some of the pottery (Terra rubra) show connections with France’s Champagne district.
Now that we are able to appreciate Mucking’s Late Iron Age, something approaching a causative narrative can be construed for the site from the Late Bronze Age onwards. It was from that time, with the establishment of both the North and South Rings – ringwork enclosures akin to that at Springfield Lyons (Essex) and relating to bronze and salt production – that the sequence became ‘special’, remaining so until the end of Early Anglo-Saxon times. (Prior to that, what we see at the site has to be counted as generic ‘settlement fabric’ and largely reflective of broader regional trends, though it includes a renowned Beaker inhumation accompanied by 11 arrowheads, and a Middle Bronze Age field system along with eight small ring-ditch burial monuments).
There is not the scope here to otherwise detail the terrace’s Iron Age settlements (involving more than 110 roundhouses), nor, for that matter, the estate centre and crossroads settlement the site became in Roman times. The latter had a major overseer’s residence and, in its many parts, included five separate cemeteries and 23 pottery kilns.
What does warrant emphasis is that our review of the site’s Late Roman pottery evidence suggests that the Saxons got there very early – possibly even in the later decades of the fourth century – as almost all the Late Roman wares (Mayen, etc) occurred in Grubenhäuser/Sunken Feature Buildings within its southern sector. This need not imply that the foederati model (allied military settlers nominally in Roman service) proposed by the Joneses was necessarily correct, but adds weight to their arguments – and clearly there was Roman/Saxon overlap at the site.
Like much of the other evidence since forthcoming from the area of the Thames Gateway, Mucking’s sequence does not present a picture of uninterrupted continuities. It rather attests to a much more dynamic and widely-connected past than many researchers, until of late, have been willing to admit.
Executive Director, Cambridge Archaeological Unit, University of Cambridge
Having worked in British archaeology for over thirty-five years, Evans co-founded The Cambridge Archaeological Unit, together with Ian Hodder, in 1990. He has directed a wide variety of major fieldwork projects, both abroad (Nepal, China & Cape Verde) and in UK, most recently publishing the results of the Haddenham Project in 2006, the South Cambridge/Addenbrooke’s Environs (2008), Fengate Revisited (2010), the Colne Fen Project’s Process and History volumes (2013) and Mucking’s Prehistory (Lives in Land, 2016). Elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 2000, he is a member of editorial board of The Bulletin of the History of Archaeology and, together with Tim Murray, edited Histories of Archaeology: A Reader in the History of Archaeology for Oxford University Press (2008).
Barford, P M 2011 ‘Mucking: real heritage heroism or heroic failure?’, in Schofield, J (ed) Great Excavations: Shaping the Archaeological Profession. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 212–30
Clark, A 1993 Excavations at Mucking: The Site Atlas. London: English Heritage in association with the British Museum Press
Evans, C, Appleby, G and Lucy, S with Appleby, J and Brudenell, M 2016 Lives in Land – Mucking: Excavations by Margaret and Tom Jones 1965–78: Prehistory, Context and Summary. Oxford: Oxbow Books/Historic England
Hirst, S and Clark, D 2009 Excavations at Mucking: The Anglo-Saxon Cemeteries. London: Museum of London Archaeology
Hamerow, H 1993 Excavations at Mucking: The Anglo-Saxon Settlement. London: English Heritage
Lucy, S and Evans, C with Jefferies, R, Appleby, G and Going, C 2016 The Romano-British Settlement and Cemeteries at Mucking: Excavations by Margaret and Tom Jones 1965–78. Oxford: Oxbow Books/Historic England
Also of interest...
This section describes archaeological excavation methods and the techniques used to study artefacts and ecofacts, including scientific dating.
We identify archaeological sites and landscapes using aerial photography, lidar, geophysics, earthwork analysis and excavation.
How to survey historic places to the best standard possible, using our wide-ranging technical survey guidance.
One man's tenacity has saved a unique Cold War monument in Suffolk. Find out how and follow our other stories about your local heritage.