Archaeologists suspect they have found evidence that the Weald area of Sussex was cleared of woodland and used for agricultural purposes much earlier than was previously thought.
In a year-long dig at Countryside Properties’ Wickhurst Green development near Horsham, archaeologists from Archaeology South-East found what they think could be a Neolithic structure upon which the dead were laid out before burial.
The small square enclosure is possibly the earliest Neolithic structure of its type in Sussex, and could indicate settlement in the area earlier than previously believed.
The earliest evidence of human activity uncovered by archaeologists, who investigated a 46-hectare area of land at Broadbridge Heath, was from the hunter-gatherers of the Mesolithic period, in the form of flint used for arrows and blades for hunting.
The findings suggest that the Weald was not, as was previously believed, an unpopulated wilderness during prehistoric times. Further tests will be carried out to definitively date the discoveries.
Archaeologists also discovered five roundhouses from the Iron Age, and four medieval settlements. They also found three structures similar to the suspected Neolithic burial enclosure, dated to the Iron Age period.
Robert Masefield, archaeology director from RPS Planning and Development, the archaeological consultant for the project, told historyextra: “There was more archaeology than we anticipated.
“This is not the earliest example of prehistoric living in the Weald, but it supports the notion that a large area was lived in.
“It would have been difficult to grow crops in the area, and hard to sustain a large population. But the excavation shows people clearly had managed to make a living out of very difficult circumstances.
“The composite arrowheads we found show that people were exploiting the woodland. And we suspect the small square enclosure that we discovered – a gully around a square, raised platform – was used as a mortuary.
“We think the dead would have been laid out for birds to pick off the flesh. We suspect this is a Neolithic structure, dating to 4,000-2,000 BC.
“The developers, Countryside Properties, deserve a pat on the back for supporting and financing this dig, which is one of the most informative studies of the Weald full stop.
“It allows the historical narrative of the development of the Weald and the landscape to be played out in archaeological records.
“You can see that the grain of the landscape changed, but never fully reverted to woodland.”