Icknield Infants School, May 2009
Friday 29 May
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Muriel Hardman, Mick James, Alan Goodwin, Pauline Gimson, Mervyn Evans, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll
Weather: sunny, occasional cloud, dry
This is the school I attended between 1963 and 1965, and it’s the first time I’ve been back since 1969… As expected, everything looks so much smaller, while the walk along the drive is much shorter! Little did I suspect back than that I would one day be proposing to dig three archaeological trenches in the playing field, but that’s exactly what we’re doing today.
The known Romano-British archaeology lies to the east of the school grounds, at 43 Archers Way and at Haselfoot, while the spectacular Late Iron Age burial urn came from a sandpit on the playing field to the south. For this reason, we are concentrating on the eastern corner of the site, at the foot of the slope representing the build-up to level the playing field when the school was built in the 1950s. Here, we won’t have to dig through a metre and a half of mid twentieth-century fill! Trenches I and II are at the bottom of the slope, against the hedge line, while Trench III is close to the drive, beside the garden of the caretaker’s house. Trench I is in the hands of Mick and Muriel, Trench II is being dug by Pauline, Alan and Mervyn, while Tony and Nigel have Trench III.
The ground is very dry, which has made turf removal difficult. Fortunately, this is only an issue in Trench III, as the others have areas that aren’t grassed but instead are covered in bark chippings to reduce weed growth. The amount of landfill is difficult to gauge at this stage: the soil in Trenches I and II looks like a good and slightly sandy topsoil, which I hope will be the only dumped deposit. There’s a treestump in the northern corner of Trench II, which wasn’t visible before digging started; it may unfortunately impede progress as we go down.
The material underlying the topsoil in Trenches I and II does not look like landfill, which is encouraging. There’s also a fragment of oyster shell in Trench I, which does raise hopes at this early stage of work. After a couple of less-than-exciting test pit projects, it would be good to make some decent discoveries.
I began to worry earlier about the location of the sand pit where the pedestal jar was found in the 1920s. My memory of the former sand pit was that it had become a small pound surrounded by gorse to which children from Icknield Infants’ School would be taken pond dipping. I recall it being close to the hedge, just inside the playing field from the school drive. In this location, there is now a small car park and I was becoming concerned that the sand pit/pond had been at the far end of the field, where there are trees. A quick walk around the field soon showed that the trees have been there for more than fifty years, so the pond I remember cannot have been there and that my original memory was correct. The importance of this is that it means that all the archaeological discoveries of the early twentieth century lay within a few tens of metres of each other.
I forgot to call a teabreak earlier and it was almost midday by the time I had realised it, so we’ll be stopping for lunch at 12.30, in five minutes’ time.
After lunch, things are carrying on slowly: it’s very warm (about 21°), which means that people can’t dig too quickly. There’s no shade and in this weather, everyone needs to be extra careful.
So far, the archaeology has been decidedly twentieth-century in date. There’s been one sherd of what I believe to be a medieval sandy ware, but as this came from what seems to be the levelling deposit for the playing field, brought in from outside, it tells us nothing about the medieval history of this site.
Christl came along after tea break to get some photographs as she can’t dig. It’s a pity that there isn’t anything really interesting to see, although there’s a rather nice complete 1950s Co-Op glass milk bottle in Trench I. I’ll be happy if we make reasonable inroads into the 1950s dumped material, as there ought to be a buried soil preserved beneath it, which ought to contain finds of relevance to the history of this site. In retrospect, I ought to have brought a mattock with me so that we could be a little more brutal, but I had not expected that there would be quite so much dumping at the bottom of the slope.
The possible tree stump in Trench II turned out not to be such; rather, it was a group of suckers and roots that had matted together. This is good news, although the probable thickness of the levelling material isn’t. Still, I’m remaining hopeful about the potential of the site.