Scilly Isles (G-B): 'Significant' Neolithic pottery found

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The Old Quay site on the edge of the sea at St Martin's

Archaeologists have discovered one of the largest hauls of Neolithic pottery in the south west on St Martin's in the Isles of Scilly.

Thousands of pottery shards, dating back between 3,500 and 3,000 BC, have been uncovered thanks to a project run by volunteers.

Reading University lecturer and archaeologist Dr Duncan Garrow headed the Stepping Stones project with Fraser Sturt, of Southampton University.

Dr Garrow called the find of an age that preceded the Bronze Age "significant and intriguing ".

He said: "In 2013 we mainly dug small two metre by two metre test pits and this time we were looking for buildings and made a much larger 10 by 12 metre trench.

"We found about 30 post holes which might have been successive structures. There weren't any coherent buildings, however, like neat rectangles, which is always a bit annoying, but is the way it is.

"Also found were thousands of pottery shards and flint, and one pit yielded thick layers of charcoal about which we are not sure – containing material, rock crystals and a pierced pebble necklace or amulet."

A series of test pits in an adjoining field "had more post holes and absolutely loads of material" but overall the best find was "a nice Cornish greenstone stone mace head, like a Neolithic axe, with a hole through the middle".

"This process would have taken hours of work," said Dr Garrow, "as at the time people did not have metal tools and would have had to grind out the hole using a wooden bow drill and abrasive sand from the beach.

"The 'mace-head' may thus have been an important prestige object."

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A mace head discovered at the site.

Dr Garrow called it "the first substantial and significant Neolithic site in Scilly, although in the Eighties two pits were dug on Samson. It indicated a substantial neolithic presence on Scilly which hitherto had not been known.

Radio carbon dating would be done on this year's finds.

Dr Garrow said Neolithic pottery expert Henriette Quinell had called it "one of the biggest assemblies of Neolithic pottery in the whole of the South West, not just Scilly."

The encroachment down the years had pitched the site "literally on the coastal uplands" from what was then a central plain. There would have been a big flat, possibly marshy terrain in the middle when Scilly was one with all the islands.

There was no real reason why a Neolithic site had been found on St Martin's and nowhere else in the islands "other than luck".

The excavation team thanked Steve Walder, the Duchy of Cornwall and Natural England for permission to excavate the site, and the AHRC and Society of Antiquaries of London for funding.