Aspull Ring Feature

Thursday 5th May
Day 8 – 8 volunteers today, joining Bill and Andy were Chris, John S, John N and Steve with Patrick coming later – and in the afternoon Mark arriving with Ian Miller from the GMAAS.
The two Johns were set trowelling Trench 3 ready for photos. Bill had brought his 15m monopod but forgot his phone which he needed to remotely operate his camera perched on the end of it. He struggled for a while with this camera trying to guess the  angle to set it at to get a good result, until Patrick came to the rescue with his camera which did in the end produce a decent photo. In the meantime Chris and Steve were tasked with cleaning Trench 1, having dried out a bit from the previous day, to reveal the bedrock in all its glory. Steve then set about re-wetting the section ready for photos and drawing. Andy was asked to set up the dumpy level and bill showed Steve how to take readings. This was to get relative heights across the site – taking a back site from Peg1, then a front site on Peg 5 (Trench 2) and Peg 7 (Trench 3). Readings were 3.23m, 0.26m and 3.26m respectively.
Andy was then tasked with opening a sondage in Trench 2, in the middle where we expected the ditch, just to make sure the hard clay wasn’t overlying it. About 10cm down he hit a very hard stony layer (presumed to be bedrock), confirming there was no ditch there. Andy then checked the rest of the trench with a 20mm corer which showed bedrock at a constant level all across Trench 2.
With Trench 1 cleaned and re-wetted Steve helped Bill with finishing his drawing of the section. They both then set about drawing Trench 2 that despite showing no ditch, had layers to record i.e. below the topsoil and sub-soil there was another layer of soft sandy clay before hitting the hard clay layer. This we presumed to be the remnants of the central mound (although we did get it on the outer end of the trench as well).
When Ian Miller arrived he was very complimentary on our efforts and was amazed at out result in Trench 1. However he couldn’t offer an explanation, however his colleague Ben Dyson at GMAAS my have a better idea as he was more versed in prehistorian matters.
After Ian had gone we set about digging out the dark brown feature in Trench 3 starting at each end of it. Not far below the surface (about a spades depth) the recognisable stone of the bedrock began to appear, the slope on the outside being steeper than the slope on the inside. Gratifyingly this reflects the shape of the ditch in Trench 2. It was now getting late so, after our best efforts at cleaning up what we’d revealed, we left it there for the time being. However it was clear we had another section of the ditch which was a big relief and renewed our confidence in what we believed to be there. To add to this Andy busied himself with the 20mm corer on the opposite side to Trench 1 along Profile 1.This also seemed to produce a result showing the ditch exist in this area as well. When the three locations for the outer edge of the ditch were plotted a ditch diameter of 43.4m appeared which fits nicely with the geophys result and to a certain extent with the ESRI aerial photo (but not so much with the Google aerial for some reason).

Wednesday 4th May
Day 7 – Despite the rain we had a decent turnout with 6 on site, i.e. Bill, John S, Chris, Bob and new starter Steve Taylor (and Patrick when the rain eased). At least the wet weather had brought out the colours in the ditch section.
Chris and John were tasked with removing the step we’d left in the ditch for access on the NE side, so that the full section could be drawn. This left us relying on the step in the opposite corner which proved a little unreliable. When the removing the step Chris found more charcoal to take a sample of.
The previous day Patrick and Bill had marked out Trench 3 on a line perpendicular to Profile 1 and 25m along it from out first peg (Peg1). When Nick (the farmer) arrived with his machine, we directed him to the starting point which was 25m from Profile 1. Working inwards, he opened our new trench to about 5m down long, down to the subsoil but there was no obvious colour change. We therefore asked him to take it down another 10cm through the subsoil. This produced a light orangie brown soft sandy clay (with stones) changing to a darker brown about 2m in. Was this our ditch? – probing with a steel rod suggested it was. We therefore asked Nick to expand the trench another 2.5m which produced more of the light orangie brown clay about 3m from the edge of the first colour change. We spent the rest of the day cleaning and squaring up the trench so that we could photograph this potentially exciting new find (it was great news after the disappointment of Trench 2).
While we busied ourselves doing that, Chris droned the site and later produced two 3D images which he presented at the Society meeting later that evening.

Low res model showing all 3 trenches:

Low res model of Trench 1:

Saturday 23rd April
Day 6 – Another good turnout at the weekend with 7 on site – joining Bill were Andy, Bob, Paris, Conor, Ken and Patrick.
Paris and Bob were tasked with trowelling and squaring up the SW end of the trench while Conor and Ken continued to dig the the loose out of the ditch – Conor working on the SW side while Ken concentrated on the bottom of the ditch. When all the loose was removed, the bedrock at the bottom was revealed showing it to be quite flat. When Patrick arrived he took over from Conor cleaning the SW edge of the ditch which was proving difficult as a lot of loose stone was coming out. It was difficult to determine whether this was a crumbling bedrock or backfill in the ditch. When cleaned of the loose clay, it did look like the former but this can only be confirmed by removing it to see what’s underneath. When the ditch was finally cleaned up (leaving a step on the NE side for access) the full extent of the feature could be seen – and it was quite astonishing. A ditch cut through hard clay and bedrock over 3m wide and 1.5m deep using just the tools available at the time represents a huge amount of effort.
When Nick the farmer arrived with his digger, he was directed to the area we had marked out on Thursday. Starting on the inside of the feature he soon had the topsoil off but there was no evidence of a colour change in the subsoil. We therefore asked him to remove the sub-soil to see if we could identify the natural we had seen in Trench 1. This came up just another 15cm or so below the subsoil but no sign of a ditch even when tested with a steel probe. It was decided to extend the trench by 2m on the east side in case we had made an error with our measurements but still no ditch visible in the natural. However, when Andy was asked with squaring up and clean the section at this end of the trench, the depth of subsoil was revealed to be quite deep and probably represents the start of internal mound. Paris and Conor were tasked with cleaning the section of the trench on the west side. This revealed that the light coloured subsoil giving way to a deeper darker brown layer, which may have something to do with the crop mark images we saw on the aerial photos. After we left for the day, Nick extended the trench on the west side by another 2m but reported that there was still no obvious sign of a ditch.
This is certainly a setback and we will now need to look at opening up a third trench, Trench 3 on the southeast site where the resistivity was more positive. Hopefully this will re-establish the ditch and confirm that it really does form a circle as indicated on the aerial photos.

Thursday 21st April
Day 5 – Just 5 today, Chris, Bob, Andy, Bill and Patrick.
Andy was tasked with cleaning and squaring up Sondage 4 while Bob extended Sondage 3 all the way to the end of the trench.
Chris was tasked with chasing down the hard clay on the SW side of the ditch to see if he could confirm the inner edge of the ditch (first identified by Paris on Saturday). To do this he removed the loose stone layer he had previously discovered. His work revealed that this was the inner edge of the ring ditch feature and, as with the outer edge, the side was almost vertical.
In the meantime Bill concentrated on digging out the ditch on the NE side. This revealed more of the bedrock in the wall of the ditch and at the bottom of the ditch, a lot of loose flat stones embedded in light yellowie brown soft clay (the clay was sticky and quite wet).
When Patrick arrived, he took over from Bob extending Sondage 3 and cleaning it out. To convince ourselves that the hard pinkish clay was natural, Andy was tasked with taking Sondage 4 down further. Again this proved to be very difficult and Andy was soon convinced that this layer was the natural.
In the afternoon, Nick the famer together with his wife and daughter, came to visit. We discussed using his machine to do some of the digging. It was decided not to use it in Trench 1 as enough had been already dug out by hand to understand its structure. We therefore talked about another trench, Trench 2, on the other side of the ring feature so that it’s diameter could be determined, Bill said he had already identified a couple of spots, not necessarily diametrically opposite Trench 1 as this might not cross the centre of the feature, but at two locations roughly equally spaced around the circle. The site selected for Trench 2 was for a 8m by 1.5m trench on the west side of the feature in an area where the two crop mark images from the aerial photos coincided (the resistivity in this area though was particularly vague). A third trench, Trench 3, was located on the southeast side of the ring feature so that an accurate value for the diameter of the ring can be obtained. This one may have to be 14m long due to the variations in the crop mark images but it would take in an area of low resistivity shown on the resistivity survey. Andy, Bill and Bob finished the day by marking out the site of Trench 2 ready for Nick to dig with his machine which he said he could do next time we’re out.

Wednesday 20th April
Day 4 – 6 attendees today, Chris, John N, John S, Bob, Bill & Patrick.
Bob was set to cleaning up the SW end of the trench (i.e. Sondage 3) and then widening it to 1m. The rest of the team were tasked with removing the baulk in the ditch area to enable Sondages 2 and 3 to be joined up. Before this however Bill recorded the position of the 3 presumed postholes and a sample of the charcoal taken from the third one. As the baulk was removed it became clear that the so called postholes were in fact one single layer of brown stained sandy clay, containing with flecks of charcoal. This perhaps represents a burning event when the ditch was still open but partially filled. As the fill was taken out of the ditch in the Sondage 2 area the outer bank of the ditch began to be exposed. It consisted of the hard pinkish clay lying on top of stone bedrock. Further down in the trench another brown stain appeared representing an earlier phase in life of the ditch.
On the other side in the Sondage 3 area, a layer of loose of stones  began to immerged, perhaps as a result of a slighting of the central mound. It lay on top of more soft clay fill so certainly not part of the bedrock.
Finally Bob was tasked with opening up a new sondage, Sondage 4, located well inside the ring feature to investigate the stratigraphy in the this area. Bob needed the mini mattock to cut through the hard pinkish clay which lay under the sub-soil (indicated by the blue line).  The clay was very similar to the clay in the Sondage 1 but some doubt was cast on it being natural as black flecks appeared in it which were thought to be charcoal. On closer examination however, these turned out to be small pieces of shale therefore quite likely to be natural.

Saturday 16th April
Day 3 – big turnout today with 10 on site in total. With the usual 4 i.e. Andy, Chris, John S and Bill, we were joined by newcomers Paris Welsh, Conor Grant and Bob Sanders (Patrick, Jim Meehan and Mark Tildesley joined us later).
It was Bob’s first time but he showed great enthusiasm trowelling out Sondage 1 to reveal in some detail a compacted stone surface  (in other circumstances this could have been a nice section of Roman road but there was nothing to suggest this was manmade).Chris and John were tasked with chasing the profile of the cut in Sondage 2 which seemed to get steeper and steeper. At a depth of about a metre a large stone appeared which had black material around it, presumably charcoal. Removing the stone revealed a brown stain with flecks of the charcoal in it suggesting perhaps a post hole. It was decided to take a sample of this black material for later analysis. Paris was tasked with trowel the surface of Sondage 3 and when Patrick arrived the sondage was expanded towards the NE. Pretty soon a stony surface was revealed but it was unclear what this represented – was it a result of a slump of the mound or a deliberately placed kerb around the mound (could even be natural but didn’t feel like it as the stones were loose). As Paris trowelled down towards the centre of the trench a distinctive edge began to appear perhaps indicating the inner edge of the ditch. Further in a darker brown stain began to appear and, as with the stain in Sondage 2, it contained flecks of what appeared to be charcoal (we assumed this was another post hole). When Jim Meehan arrived, Andy showed him how to set up the dumpy level and Mark came, the three were set with the task of surveying the profile of the mound. Using Chris’s 100m tape, readings were taken every 2m from the outside peg towards the centre of the mound for a distance of 60m. This done, a second 60m scan was taken a 90 degrees to the first at 25m along the first scan line (Jim took the readings in his note book).
Finally it was decided to expand Sondage 2 towards the centre of the trench (new recruit Conor provided the muscle for the task).  In the bottom corner another brown stain appeared, again associated with a stone and flecks of charcoal under it (it was assumed to be yet another post hole).
Before we packed up for the day Chris flew over with his drone and later that evening sent an amazing 3D model of the site, which can be view here.

Thursday 14th April
Day 2 – just 5 of us today,  Andy, Chris, John and Bill (with Patrick joining us later).
Chris brought his drone to get a plan of the site.
John was initially tasked with expanding Sondage 1 and then join it up with Sondage 2 following the surface of the compacted clay. This revealed that the sub-soil sandwiched between the plough soil and the compacted clay was uneven (there was even a suggestion that the clay represents a bank outside of the ditch – although the clay layer did not seem to be a manmade deposit). Andy was tasked with opening up another sondage a few metres further towards the SW to see if we could pick up the inner edge of the ditch. There was nothing to indicate where this was on the surface and trowelling down through the sub-soil to reveal any indication of an edge – in fact the sub-soil just kept on going. In the meantime Bill busied himself with setting up a string line so that the section could be drawn. To get the string level he used the dumpy (but this only confirmed that an early attempt by Andy with his line level was correct).
Having finished with drone, Chris started to expand Sondage 2. This was to explore the profile of the newly discovered ditch.  Following the compacted clay, Chris was able to show that the cut was quite steep and when the section was clean a re-cut was revealed (showing that there was at least one multiple phase to the feature.
The day ended a little early due to an unfortunate incident when the gate to the next field was left open.  This allowed half a dozen excited horse into our field and a farcical attempt by us to try to them round up and get them back into the other field. When this failed we had the embarrassment of having to ask the stable girls to do it for us.

Wednesday 13th April
Day 1 – start of the excavation proper. 7 attendees altogether, Ken Scally, Chris Drabble, John Smalley, John Needles, Andy Wilcock and Bill (Patrick arrived later in the morning).
All joined in with the trowelling and soon a distinct change of colour began to appear in the NE end of the trench. Further trowelling revealed the exact change point represented by a line across the trench about 3m from the NE end where the colour changed from a light orangie brown to a dark orangie brown (as previously detected in the test pits). The only other feature to be detected was a series of dark parallel lines running W to E which were probably the result of deep ploughing. It was decided to put in two sondages (a sondage is a small trench to help clarify stratigraphic sequences but carrying out the main excavation). The first was in the N corner of the NE end which deemed to be outside the ditch. This was to establish the nature of the subsoil in this area. This turned out to be a thick layer of firm pinkish coloured clay lying on top of a surface of compacted stones both of which we assumed to be the natural substrate. The second sondage was positioned on the line of the colour change on the NW side of the trench to see what was causing the colour change. The thick layer of pinkish layer of pinkish clay again appeared in the section but this time it dipped down towards the SW. This seemed to represent a cut in the clay, filled with dark brown sandy clay (the cut is marked with a blue line in the photo as it doesn’t show up well in the photo).
This was quite exciting as it’s our first clear evidence of the ditch we are looking for.

Monday 11th April
On site (Bill, Patrick and Chris Drabble) – met with the famer to watch him remove the topsoil after having marked out the 2.2m x 11m trench. This was done skilfully and just enough to show signs of the subsoil coming through (it didn’t take more than half an hour).

Thursday 24th March
Today we made a short site visit (Bill, Andy and Patrick) to mark out the suggested Phase 1 Trench location. Two Pegs were installed at the corners of the SE side of the Trench and two test pits were dug no bigger than 30cm x 30cm  to see how deep the topsoil was at each location. This turned out to be between 25and 28cm. The change in colouration of the sub-soil was also very encouraging as the sample from the internal position was much darker.

Later we spoke to Nick the farmer about the possibility of using a machine to remove the topsoil.

We first became aware of this feature when Steven Twigg (formally of STAG – South Trafford Archaeology Group) contacted us with an aerial image in 2019. The crop mark shows up quite clearly as a dark green circle and seems to represent a circular ditch around 40m in diameter. Viewing various other aerial images spanning a number of years confirmed the mark to be more than just a temporary agricultural feature.The size of the circle would suggest something prehistoric and probably older than Iron Age as it is certainly bigger than a roundhouse. The LiDAR image however revealed the site to have a shallow mound in the centre. This would suggest a Bronze Age barrow (similar sized ones can be seen at Normanton Down in Wiltshire). Its central mound and continuous surrounding ditch would suggest a Type 2 Bowl Barrow as classified by Historic England. (ref)

Other features are also noted on the LiDAR image.  About 230m to the south on the other side of the road leading to Gorses Farm, another circular mound can be seen. This is quite visible on the ground, but its size would suggest that it’s a natural feature probably a product of glacial activity. A linear feature runs for 370m (or perhaps more) diagonally to the northwest just 50m north of the ring ditch feature. This feature seems to relate to an old field boundary which is shown on early maps.

The site lies in an open field which gently slopes towards the east. From the site, there are extensive views over the fields towards Bolton to the east (its football stadium can be seen in the distance lying at the foot of Winter Hill). In the middle distance, Borsdane Brook runs from north forming the boundary of the Wigan Metro Borough.

On our first site visit, we were able to talk to the landowner who showed great interest and allowed us to wander over the field. We attempted drone imaging, but this failed to detect anything. However, the shallow mound was just about discernible on the ground.

In May 2021 Chris Drabble carried out a comprehensive aerial drone survey. This revealed a dry central circular area 23m diameter rising to a height of 1.4m and surrounded by a further damper area 6.5m wide. This seemed to confirm that the feature is man-made (Drabble, 2021).

In the Autumn of 2021, we carried out a resistivity survey of the site with very encouraging results as reported in our October Newsletter (No.246). Our two scans covered an area 50m x 46m and revealed the existence of below-ground archaeology in the form of a huge circular feature with central targets and possible outer bank in the southwest corner.

The next step would be to carry out some form of excavation but first we needed a Project Plan to know how this will be undertaken by setting out our aims and objectives and formulating a methodology. It is envisaged that excavations would be carried out in phases, the first phase being an exploratory trial trench (no more than 2m x 11m) across a section of the circular feature. The suggested position would cover a rare area where both crop marks from Google Earth and ESRI more or less coincide with the result from our resistivity survey.