Friday 30 May 2008 – Test pits at 111 and 113 Norton Road

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Muriel Hardman, Alan Goodwin (am only), Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson, Frankie Saxton, Cameron Gormill (to 2 pm), Lisa Waldock, Mick James

Weather overcast and dry following persistent rain. A little sunshine during the afternoon.

We are excavating three test pits on adjacent properties on the north side of Norton Road (nos 111 and 113). One of these, 111, is the site of the discovery of thirteenth-century pottery during the excavation of a pit for a water pump around ten years ago; both are part of a property referred to in documents from the later Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century as Botons or Bootings. The name seems to have been given to the property following its acquisition by John Boton of ‘Wilion’ (Willian) some time before “Tuesday next after the close of Easter 7 Henry IV” when he was distrained for sending his son to school without permission (H.A.L.S. DE JN Z 33, a translation of medieval court rolls). Over the following centuries, the owners of the property were constantly in trouble for allowing the building on it to fall into disrepair, presumably being unable to let it at a time of population decline and migration to nearby towns.

The garden of 111 Norton RoadThe present houses are twentieth-century in date (111 was built in 1923 and 113 appears to be 1960s, but both have later twentieth-century modifications and extensions). The turf in the garden at 111 has been established for at least 44 years, while the garden at 113 has been subject to a number of modifications in recent years, including levelling by importing topsoil (although we have tried to avoid this by placing the trench further north, in an area formerly used as a vegetable garden).

The ground is very soft in the trenches as a result of yesterday’s rain, which was constant from about 2 pm to 10 pm. The topsoil in each trench ((1) in Trench I at 111, (2) in Trench II at 111 and (1) at 113) has proved to be very thin (0.10-0.15 m maximum) but has already yielded finds including Romano-British pottery ((1) at 113) and possibly (1) in Trench I at 111). At 111, the topsoil is coming down onto a slightly more yellow deposit with a few chalk pebbles, while at 113 it is coming down onto a much chalkier deposit, with perhaps 20% chalk gravel. This latter deposit must be the former soil in which vegetables were grown; was the chalk perhaps added as a way of improving drainage and increasing alkalinity?

In the NE corner of the trench at 113 there is a clearly different context, which appears to be the fill of a cut through the presumed vegetable garden topsoil. It must therefore be of very recent date (borne out by a lump of clearly modern brick in the top of it) and although it needs to be excavated stratigraphically, the team really shouldn’t waste much time on it.

A reporter (Victoria) from BBC Look East is supposed to be turning up on site at some point this afternoon, arranged by Chris. She’s going to be filming at Letchworth Museum, showing the material Chris found in his garden years ago, which is on display there. There isn’t a huge amount to say about the site at the moment and the finds are far from spectacular, but I think that there’s a coherent story to put together. At any rate, it’s more publicity for the Norton Community Archaeology Group.

The cameraman from the BeebThe camera team turned up early (typically) and they are currently filming Chris and the trenches. It means that we haven’t yet had a chance to take a lunch break. Such is the baleful power of television…

The different context in the trench at 113 has turned out not to be a cut but the deposit underlying the more chalky material (2), which simply had not spread over that part of the trench.

Trench I at 111 has started to produce a good variety of material, including Iron Age, Romano-British medieval and post-medieval pottery. This shows how churned up context (3) is, which is hardly surprising given what we know of the history of the site.

By lunchtime we’ve not got to any real depth in any of the trenches. The soil is horribly clayey, which makes it difficult to excavate. It’s looking unlikely that we’ll hit any stratigraphy before the end of today.

After lunch, work is continuing slowly. Trench I (3) at 111 is proving the most productive (and varied) of the deposits, with two joining sherds of a medieval handle turning up. Deposit (2) in the trench at 113 is the only context so far to have produced metalwork (an iron nail and a length of barbed wire), which does seem curious. And, inevitably, as soon as I had written this, a copper alloy curtain ring turned up in I(3) at 111…

Nigel pointed out that even though the lawn at 111 has been established for at least 44 years, it’s possible that much of it was dug up during the Second World War (or at least during the early part) for vegetables. While that’s quite likely, there’s nothing I’ve seen so far in the archaeology that suggests disturbance during the twentieth century (indeed, there’s nothing I’ve seen so far that I would date to the time when the house was built). It’s very different from what we’re finding at 113, where we know that there has been twentieth-century digging.

At 113, I(3) (the deposit under (2) that originally appeared in the NE corner of the trench) has come down rapidly onto a gravelly layer. It’s not clear if it’s the remains of a surface, but there is a patch of burnt material towards the north-eastern end of the trench that suggests that it may be close to the site of a former bonfire.

Work at 111 is speeding up owing the lack of real stratigraphy and the very mixed (but pre twentieth-century) nature of the deposits. Even so, I doubt that either trench will be 0.3 m deep by the end of the day. The range of material has been extended by the discovery of a piece of flint débitage of Bronze Age character.

The trench at 113 Norton RoadThe gravel ‘surface’ (4) at 113 trowelled away rapidly onto more of the burnt material that had originally been visible in the north-eastern corner of the trench. It’s not the site of a bonfire but is evidently close to one. The gravel contained a couple of pieces of leather, with traces of fabric on one side, which I suspect may be the remains of a shoe.

I’ve decided to assign a new context number to what’s coming out of Trench I at 111. In part, it’s because the material has got lighter as the trench has become deeper, but it’s also because it is now producing nothing later than late medieval material.

Instead of finishing at 4 o’clock, we’re carrying on to 4.30. This is because of the lack of real progress today, which is causing Chris some anxiety as the pottery he found nearby was at twice the depth reached today (around half a metre below the surface). I’m not so concerned, as I suspect his finds were from a pit…

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About Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

I'm the Archaeology Officer for North Hertfordshire District Council Museum Service. I was born and brought up in Letchworth Garden City, so I have a life-long connection with the area.

Posted on 2 June 2008, in Test Pits. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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