The Clifton Pile Settlement

by Frank E Earp

Commercial sand and gravel extraction and quarrying by the River Trent at Attenborough began as early as 1929 and has continued almost to the present day.

The resulting ʻpitsʼ, flooded with water, have produced the wonderful ʻNature Reserveʼ that we all now enjoy. Quarrying around the village of Hoveringham started 10 years later and still continues, with reserves yet to be exploited.

As well as leaving a legacy of scenic lakes and environment for wild-life, both sites have produced some interesting and revealing archaeology. Perhaps one of the more remarkable finds came as the result of gravel extraction of a different kind. In 1938, workmen from the Trent Navigation Company were dredging gravel in the Trent below Clifton Grove when their progress was stopped by wooden stakes or piles driven into the river bed. At the same time, human remains – in the form of a skull – and bronze spearheads were brought to the surface.

The foreman of the works, Mr Griffin, had the foresight to contact the Thoroton Society, a Nottingham archaeological group, whose chairman Mr Hind was dispatched to investigate. From the remains and artifacts, Hind identified the site as being a 3,000 year-old Bronze Age Pile Settlement.

clifton piles 001Gravel extraction and  work on the river bank continued into 1938 and, over this period, more piles – several hundred – emerged, along with yet more artifactsAlthough the main site was on the Clifton side of the river, a large number of piles were discovered on the Nottingham bank.

The piles were grouped close together and would have supported a platform upon which huts would have been built — a village on stilts. Such prehistoric sites are known in Europe but Clifton is almost unique in Britain.

The settlement proved to extend over 100 yards downstream on the Clifton side and two-thirds of the way across the river.

This does not mean, however, that the entire village was over water. With the changing course of the Trent it is likely that much of village was over marshy land along the banks. It is evident that the villagers knew the river well and made good use of it.

Among the many finds were spearheads, bronze swords, rapiers, daggers, knifes, a crucible containing metal, five more skulls and two dugout canoes each made from a single oak over 27ft long and between 18 to 20 inches wide.

clifton piles 001 - Copy

At first thought it might seem strange that anyone  would want to build their home on a platform above a river. However, when we look back to prehistoric times, it makes more sense. The people living in the village — or perhaps we should call it a farm or homestead — were agriculturalist.

Building over such a marginal environment makes good use of valuable land resources and certainly, with the Trent prone to flooding, better than building directly on the river bank.

Evidence of prehistoric field systems exist on nearby Brands Hill in the form of a series of terraces running the entire length of its northern slope.

Archaeology has moved on a pace since the settlementʼs discovery in 1938.

Ariel photography of the area is starting to place it in a wider prehistoric landscape. One photograph shows where the villagers might have buried their dead.

In the large field on the right hand side of the road, just over Clifton Bridge, the shadowy outline of the old course of the River Trent can be clearly seen. Along its southern bank are a series of ʻBronze Age Ring Ditchesʼ — the ploughed-out remains of tumuli (burial mounds).

More recent photos of the fields along the Trent by Barton show what is believed to be a ritual site known as a hendge monument – a circular bank and ditch.

In the same fields are the remains of an earlier Neolithic (New Stone Age) causeway enclosure, a communal gathering place.

In the late 1960s when the gravel quarry at Coniry Farm in Attenborough (at the back of the Village Hotel) began, a number of large coffin-shaped stones set upright in the ground were exposed. These were interpreted by archaeologist Bob Alvey as the remains of a stone circle.

What do the artifacts discovered at Clifton tell us about the people who lived there? The canoes are self-evident of a mobile riverside community.

The crucible with its remains show that they were working  metal, if only to repair valuable bronze tools and weapons. Hind and his contemporaries believed that the large number of weapons found at the site were the result of both accidental loss and warfare.

He substantiated this with the fact that all of the skulls had sustained the same damage, a hole in the back of the head. It is not unusual for large numbers of bronze weapons to be found in ʻwateryʼ places — lakes, rivers, wells, springs etc. Modern opinion is that these are ritual deposits, valuable objects given to the gods or ancestors.

The skulls are however a different matter. It is a remote chance that six or more individuals would all receive identical wounds in battle, or accidently. Could it be that these people were the victims of ritual sacrifice – an appeal to the river gods for safe passage?

The hole in the back of the head would then seem consistent with a Bronze/Iron Age sacrifice method known as the ʻtriple deathʼ. In this practice, the victims were first garroted and then bludgeoned to the back of the head.

Finally, their throat was cut. Is it possible that the four lives a year that the Trent was meant to claim is a distant memory of such a practice?


About nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam

Originally formed in 1965 to try to save or at least record before destruction the cave sites continually discovered during the major redevelopment of the City that took place in Nottingham in the 1960′s. Almost every day new sites were unearthed and destroyed before anyone was notified; last thing they wanted was someone telling them to stop what they were doing; TIME is MONEY. The word HIDDEN in the Team’s title is because a lot of what was being invisibly lost in the redevelopment was our early history in the caves, they are under most, if now all, of Nottingham. In the 80’s and 90’s the Team conducted with the help of Dr Robert Morrell and Syd Henley, research and work on Nottingham’s history, folklore and local archaeology. The Team published quarterly magazines on their findings. The Team lapsed for a few years after the death of Paul Nix who was the team leader for thirty plus years. The Team has reformed and is now back working on Nottingham local history. On this blog you will find a series of history, folklore and archaeological related articles and information. Most of the material published will be specifically related to Nottingham/shire local history.
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