Wednesday 13 August 2008
Weather: sunny, light clouds, breezy; clouds becoming increasingly grey and more overcast into the morning with occasional light showers; almost complete cover by early afternoon and much windier (blustery rather than constant), with frequent showers
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Luke Gearing, Matthew Dale, Alan Goodwin, Lisa Waldock, Phil Thomas, Alex Hill, Cameron Gormill, Freddie Sharman, Tony Driscoll (a.m. only), Mike Johnson, Christl Squires, Philip Dean, Hilary Wood, Anne Lake, Kat Maddison (p.m. only)
The site is looking a lot cleaner and the rain yesterday has soaked the soil well (although I can’t yet tell how far down it has penetrated). There are still a lot of roots sticking out, especially over the platform area, and it needs to be removed quite ruthlessly now. The chalk flecks on the south side of the hollow way clearly form a new deposit, most likely a chalk resurfacing of the road, although I can’t rule out the possibility that this is weathered natural chalk visible at the edge of the hollow. This alternative is less likely as the chalk consists purely of small gravel and pebble sized pieces in a predominantly topsoil matrix.
As far as I know, we are allowed to use the school car park now, so that’s where I’ve parked the van. I hope that the residents will be happier… Whether the school caretaker is or not is another matter entirely.
The weather forecast for the next few days is not very good. We’re supposed to be getting today’s band of rain around lunchtime; there’s another one due tomorrow before lunch, and although Friday should be dry, Saturday and Sunday are both supposed to be wet. Still, if it’s only light rain, it won’t affect us too much. What I find altogether more unbelievable is that I’m having to wear a coat in the middle of August because it’s so cool: maximum temperature today is supposed to be 19° C.
We need to sort out some publicity this week, I think. I sent a brief blurb about the dig together with some photographs to the Letchworth Garden City Council yesterday, at Muriel’s request, but there’s little substantive to report so far. Once we’re through the topsoil, though, we ought to start making significant finds, I hope. It’s the objects that most seem to enthuse the local press, which is where we’re most likely to get publicity, so we could do with something either chunky and recognisable, of intrinsic archaeological interest or of financial value. I suppose that I ought to advertise this blog on Britarch, too, given that so many other people do the same.
One of the issues that has exercised the group since its inception is getting St Nicholas’s Junior School involved. Considering its historic nature (it is a pre-Garden City building and the institution goes back to the early nineteenth century), its location at the heart of the original village and its proximity to where we’ve been digging, I think it’s shameful that the staff have done nothing to assist, to promote the project amongst the pupils and have actually been obstructive at times (here I’m thinking of the incident a few weeks ago where I was made to stop a public talk an hour ahead of schedule because the caretaker had been given the wrong time, despite fulll communication with the school). This is made all the more obvious by the enthusiasm shown by other schools in the Garden City, most of which are not even in the historic parish of Norton! I know that a lot of the time, such things come down to the interests of individual teachers, but it is appalling that, as an institution, St Nicholas’s School has remained utterly aloof from a group whose aims are directly aimed at enhancing the community’s appreciation of its past. Oh well, such is education in the twenty-first century…
Owing to the slow progress over the first week and the hardness of the topsoil, I’ve got Mick to give the highest part a light mattocking to see if this will help. I really would like to be rid of context (1) by the end of tomorrow! The topsoil appears to be merging with a chalkier and slightly more yellowish deposit, at least toward the south-western end of the site. The change appears to happen over a distance of around 50 mm. The rain of yesterday has actually softened the topsoil somewhat, so there is no longer a definite crust on the exposed surfaces.
Mick showed me a potsherd that turned up on Sunday in the southern extension to the trench. It’s a grey ware with a dark outer surface, with rilling on what would be the shoulder of the vessel. It’s clearly part of a ‘Braughing jar’, a late first- to fourth-century coarseware vessel from the Much Hadham tradition. We had no Romano-British material at all last year: might that be because of the active erosion in that part of the field? On the other had, we are closer this year to where Romano-British material has been found in the past.
We’ve had a light rain shower lasting fifteen minutes or so that hasn’t quite finished, but there are clearer skies behind, so I’m hoping we’ll have a better late morning than we’ve had so far. It’s still not very warm and the wind doesn’t help. A few sunny spells would certainly be useful.
In a few places, people have been able to remove context (1) to expose the more yellowish and chalk-flecked deposit underneath. At the north-eastern end of the trench extension, there is a patch of clay and it is not obvious how this relates to the chalky deposit, so I’ve moved Muriel and Philip into the main excavation area, so that we can expose the interface and work out the relationship.
The band of rain seems to have passed over completely and we’re back to sunny spells. This has definitely lifted the atmosphere on site: people are chatting, they have taken off their coats and it just feels so much better. However, after teabreak, it was back to showers, which are becoming more frequent although no heavier.
In places, there is clay showing up at a higher level than the chalk flecked material; at this stage it’s by no means certain that it overlies it, though. I am hoping that this is something to do with the remains of floors from the house we believe stood here. At this level, it is likely to have been damaged badly by the roots of the felled elm that once stood within our compound. Even so, if patches of it have survived, we ought to be able to estimate its extent.
Today, we’ll work through to one o’clock, which was the original plan. Last week, various factors conspired to make us stop at 12 or 12.30. This will make the afternoon session slightly shorter than the morning, which I hope will prevent energy levels from declining the way the did during the afternoon last week.
It’s been much better having no bullocks in the field this year. Last year, they were disruptive, as they would come to the south-western corner of the field by lunchtime, and they damaged the fence by leaning on it and rubbing up against it. If cows are capable of resentment, they certainly seemed to resent our presence (and even broke into the compound on the one occasion the gate was left open). It’s also apparent just how few people actually use the footpath: whole hours will pass without seeing anyone at all. In fact, there hasn’t been a single walker this morning (although it’s hardly surprising with weather like this).
We’re getting fewer finds from the topsoil than in the trench last year. Perhaps this is because last year’s site had been a farmyard into the 1930s and was accumulating the plentiful material culture of the era of consumerism, whereas this site was abandoned before the consumerist revolution was under way.
The complexity of the deposits under the topsoil makes it depressingly obvious how much is lost by machining. Under ordinary circumstances, we would have removed all the topsoil and much of the underlying deposits mechanically, usually going down to a depth at which cut features can be seen. On a site of this nature, I suspect that we would have lost a lot of information relating to the final phase of occupation (assuming that it is indeed still here) and we would certainly have lost a number of finds (not that any we have recovered so far appears especially significant). Yet another reason why research-led fieldwork is so much more rewarding than commercial archaeology!
Most people wanted to start back working before they had had an hour for lunch, so they started drifting back from about 1.40. In some cases, it’s enthusiasm, but in others, I wonder how much was to do with the cold wind…
Chris Hobbs called on to site just after lunch. I showed him where the group’s logo had gone from the noticeboard and he has a copy that he can put up in its place. The top of the board looks as if it’s been pecked by birds, so they may be responsible rather than human vandals.
Something that is quite evident is that the topsoil proper (our context (1)) can be spotted as this is where the thickest part of the root mat from the grass survives. This makes removing it by mattock a lot easier. The trowelling, though, is very variable. In part, this is because people are not always digging deep enough (largely through being over cautious) and in part, because the merging of the topsoil with the chalk flecked deposit means that it is impossible to work out exactly where the horizon between the two really is. Luke has been tending to burrow today – he’s chatting too much with Matt and really not concentrating. If they are both here tomorrow, I’ll separate them.
By the end of the day, it has become clear that the topsoil covers discontinuous patches of yellowish clay, which I am assuming to be the remains of a floor inside a building at the crossroads, and, apparently beneath that, the deposit with many chalk flecks. This may be an earlier surface of some kind. We are at last getting into some sensible archaeology!