Looking for the Hawthorn Hill Roman site, 30 April 2010
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Tony Driscoll, ?, Philip Dean, Sophia Brooks, Georgina ?, Pauline Gimson, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ray ?, Mick James, Mervyn Evans, ?
Weather: overcast, dry; spots of light rain early afternoon and becoming much cooler as the afternoon progressed
Today and tomorrow, we’ll be digging four test pits at 19, 21, 23 and 29 Hawthorn Hill (Letchworth Garden City). These are further south than the pits we dug last year at Wheathill. The reason for returning to the area is that a scan of the 1930s and 1950s finds suggested that the main focus of Romano-British activity was a villa or villa-like structure. That being the case, I suspect that it would have lain downhill from where we were originally. The hill slopes down to the south-west, leaving a nice hollow that would have been a good spot for a villa. Unfortunately, the gardens rise up dramatically behind (north of) the houses and in none of them are we anywhere near the bottom of the slope; indeed, at 29, we’re on the top. However, this one is very close to the Early Iron Age site investigated by Letchworth Museum in 1955-6.
The weather is considerably better than forecasts earlier in the week suggested. With any luck, we’ll make decent progress before the rain is scheduled to arrive, around 4 p.m.
Before everyone arrived, I took a quick walk around this end of Norton Common. I’d forgotten just how many little tributaries there are of the Pix Brook around here; before the channels were dug (when?), it must have been very boggy at the bottom. It’s also amazing how much it’s changed since I last spent any time on this part of the Common, forty years or so ago. It’s much more wooded and, in particular, a bund created after the floods of January 1968 is now completely covered in trees. It’s a useful reminder of how quickly nature regenerates an area when left more-or-less to itself.
Progress is slow as the soil is extremely dry and quite compacted. We’ve had very little rain for some weeks, so it’s hardly surprising. All four trenches are coming down on to similar deposits, which are stonier and contain a fairly high proportion of chalk flecks. Roots are only an issue in the trench at number 19; unfortunately, this is the trench that’s likely to be close to Romano-British occupation.
The first scraps of Roman pottery (both sherds of Harrold shelly ware) have turned up at numbers 21 and 23. They are residual in modern contexts, though. Last year, all the Roman material was residual, although I’m not convinced that I was right to assume that all the archaeological deposits had been destroyed during the 1950s building work: at the time, I thought we were dealing with a hilltop settlement. Now that it seems more likely to have been a villa, I think that we were just looking in the wrong place.
The soil is dreadfully hard, which is keeping things very slow. I sometimes wonder if we would be better off with Carenza Lewis’s methodology of digging 100 mm spits by mattock and sieving the spoil. However, my natural inclination is to avoid brutality in case we do hit properly stratified deposits. Perhaps a compromise would be to mattock through topsoil and ploughsoil deposits.
After lunch, work is continuing much as before. Eveyone seems to be in a similar deposit, which I assume to be the old ploughsoil. It would be good if we can get through most of it before packing up for the day, though I’m sceptical that we will have got that far. The trench at number 29 is already about 250 mm deep and they appear to be at the bottom of the ploughsoil, which makes progress on the trenches at 21 and 23 seem more feasible. There are still large numbers of roots at 19, though, which are keeping things very slow.
The finds at 19 and 29 all seem to be no earlier than the twentieth century. At 29 especially, there is a lot of coke and later twentieth-century (1950s/60s?) plastic. At 21 and 23, though, there are small quantities of Romano-British pottery, which is encouraging. It’s a shame that the only pre-modern finds we get from these trial trenches are ceramic: the odd bone hairpin or brooch would really help with motivation!
There is now a sherd of Roman colour-coated ware (a rather chunky type I don’t instantly recognise) from number 29. It’s mixed with twentieth-century material and a possible medieval sherd, but it’s extended the distribution of Roman finds further south-east than I think has hitherto been reported.