Saturday 30 May 2009

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Mervyn Evans, Keeley Hale, Phil Thomas, Lorna Kercher, Pauline Gimson, Alan Goodwin, Julie Goodwyn, John Goodwyn, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Gary Botazzi

Weather: Sunny, dry, almost cloudless but becoming cloudier throughout the morning and clearing around lunchtime

We need to make good progress with the 1950s dumped material before tea break, so I’ve brought the mattock in today. The best place to start using it is Trench II, where there are large quantities of metalwork and other modern rubble that need to be removed from a fairly thick deposit. It’s hardly the weather for heavy mattocking, so I’ve asked everyone to restrict themselves to just two minutes or so at it. Once Trench I is cleared, they can try the mattock in Trench III: I suspect that there’s not a great deal to take off in Trench I.

I really hope that we’ll get some sensible results from these test pits, as the past two projects, at Norton Road and at Wheathill, were so dismal in many ways. Still, as I’ve said before, we aren’t in the business of looking for treasure, but we’re looking for data and even a negative result (in terms of ancient deposits, features or artefacts) is nevertheless data.

The range of finds from Trench I, typical of the whole site

The range of finds from Trench I, typical of the whole site

All three trenches seem to be stuck in the 1950s: even Trench III is now producing the metalwork. There has also been decaying sandstone from II (5), which is not local stone. It’s apparent that some of the material used to level the site was brought in, even though most of the levelling seems to have been accomplished by cutting into the hillside to the south-west and spreading the soil to the north-east. This has created the dip down to the hedgerow on two sides of the school playing field, leaving a bank up to the hedge behind the school.

The bank at the edge of the playing field, showing how it has been raised above the surrounding land

The bank at the edge of the playing field, showing how it has been raised above the surrounding land

The bank down from the playing field was always out of bounds to the children when I was at school here. There was even a line painted in the grass outside the bank that we were not allowed to cross. I didn’t question the rule and even assumed that this was how all school playing fields looked. It’s only now, years later, that I realise that the teachers would be unable to see us if we went down the bank, which is why we had to ask permission if we wanted to retrieve a ball that had been kicked down there.

The bank at the back of the school, showing how it has been terraced into the hillside

The bank at the back of the school, showing how it has been terraced into the hillside

Even though we haven’t yet found any material contemporary with the Romano-British settlement in the vicinity, working here gives a good impression of its setting. It’s below the top of the hill, on a slope facing south-east. The village at Wilbury to the west-south-west would not have been visible, but the farm at Wheathill would have been. The Spirella building is a prominent landmark from here and there was a nearby Romano-British settlement at the junction of Nevells Road and The Quadrant, which would have been visible from here. The pattern of intervisibility among farmsteads just below the crests of hills is again confirmed. I feel that I now understand Romano-British settlement in the Letchworth Garden City area very well indeed, even if we’re not having much luck finding it in test pits.

Trench II has just a thick deposit of builders’ sand (II (6)), which goes down 0.76 m, making it too dangerous to continue. The team for the trench has stopped for lunch and will be backfilling afterwards. Another disappointing test pit to add to the list. What we can say with regard to this trench is that it appears to be located over a backfilled pit.

After lunch, backfilling began on Trench II, while in Trench I, the top of a buried soil was located at a depth of 0.68 m, too deep to allow further excavation. I’m very surprised at just how much dumped material there is here: the buried soil is about 0.25 m below the topsoil in the neighbouring gardens, which are down the slope from here. It is identical to the builders’ sand (10) in Trench II and is likely to be as thick, so there is simply no point in digging it.

Chris Hobbs called in shortly before 2 o’clock to see what had been found. He agrees that we need to review our test pit strategy to keep people interested: there are only so many projects that produce only twentieth-century material that people can take before they are put right off archaeology.

Trench III has proved to be all twentieth-century landfill, too. The burnt material in the southern corner turned out to be one load in a mixed area of dumping.

All in all, this has been another of those frustrating projects. Although it was a very promising location, there was simply too much earth moving when the school was built in the 1950s to enable us to reach earlier deposits. It’s still possible that there are archaeological deposits buried beneath all this stuff, but there’s too great a depth of it to make it worthwhile.

In lieu of some genuinely ancient discoveries from the site, here are some genuinely ancient photographs of the writer and his classmates in a 1964 production of Peter Pan put on by the second year at the school.

Captain Hook's pirates

Captain Hook's pirates

The Indians in Peter Pan

The Indians in Peter Pan

Mrs Webb's class, summer 1964

Mrs Webb's class, summer 1964

From talking to the caretaker, I understand that work on an extension is due ot begin next week. It’s on the one part of the site where there is unlikely to have been either truncation or dumping, so the chance of survival there is perhaps greater than elsewhere. I’ll see if I can come along and look at the trenches (assuming that the work isn’t already being covered by a watching brief).

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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 30 May 2009, in Fieldwork, Test Pits. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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