Category Archives: Norton Church Field Dig 2007

Saturday 1 September: now that the excavation is over

The trench has been backfilled, the turf is in place and we have left the compound fence in place to give the grass time to re-establish itself before the cattle are given access to the area again. There is now the post-excavation work to do. The finds need to be sorted into categories, marked and quantified. We then need to have the specialist reports written. In the meantime, I will be writing an interim report for the NCAG newsletter and website; I’ll also submit a version to a journal such as Herts Past and Present. We then need to decide whether this excavation can be published as a stand-alone report or if it should form part of a larger report dealing with any further fieldwork we might carry out in this field.

As the first part of writing up the site, I have sorted out the matrix, which is all rather straightforward.

The site matrix


Wednesday 29 August

Weather some cloud, sunny spells, dry

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Alan Goodwin (a.m. only), Evelyn Goodwin (a.m. only), Owain James, Philip Dean, Mervyn Evans, Mick James, Tony Driscoll

Starting to backfill

Today, we are backfilling, which is always a depressing prospect, not so much for the hard work but for the putting back at speed of what took so much care to remove slowly. There are also the unexpected spoilheap finds that ought never have got onto the spoilheap in the first place: a large piece of brick (which we haven’t kept) and a large iron loop (which we have).

There was also the issue of the section for feature [40], the slot containing fill (34), which I planned last thing on Saturday. I realised that a section would usefully show the relationship between the feature and (15), the chalk floor that sealed it. It also shows the truncation of (15) at the edge of the platform.

It’s progressing well: by morning tea break we seem to have about half the spoilheap removed and about two-thirds of the trench covered in soil. Of course, the part that hasn’t so far been touched is the area where there are deeper features, which will take up a lot of the spoil.

Completely backfilled

By lunchtime, we had completed the backfilling. The site is not hugely mounded, so I suspect that, after settling and slumping, there will be a slight hollow where our trench once was.

The backfilling was done by 12.25, so we had a short lunch break, and put the turf back afterwards. There was more than enough to cover the trench entirely and by the end, it all looked good. Once the grass has begun to photosynthesise again and more has started to grow, I don’t think that the trench will be visible. We’re leaving the fence in place to keep the cattle out until the turf has had time to reestablish itself, though.

The turf replaced

Saturday 25 August

Weather sunny and dry

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Peter Owen (a.m. only), Chris Hobbs, Russell Turburville, Mick James, Mervyn Evans, Muriel Hardman, Nigel Harper-Scott, Phil Dean, Hilary Wood (late afternoon only)

There’s very little work left to do on site. Mick, Peter and Mervyn are attacking the north-western half of the pit, Tony is recording the linear hollow, Muriel is trying to define her feature more fully, Chris and Russell are giving the natural a thorough scrape to see if there are any more features, Nigel is finishing his posthole, while Phil is sorting finds. At this rate, we may even finish by lunchtime!

Winding down

Ironically, the good weather is making it very difficult to see colour changes again. We haven’t been able to strike the right balance between dryness and visibility during this project.

By teabreak, we had only two features under excavation and no others waiting to be dealt with. I wouldn’t be surprised if all we have left to do this afternoon is recording.

There is additional medieval pottery turning up in later deposits during sorting, which is perhaps an indication that activity here was intense even before the seventeenth-century farm was built. It may be that it was not newly-established in the seventeenth century, but merely rebuilt. Unfortunately, the truncation of the earlier surfaces during the 1930s demolition has meant that I can’t be certain of this.

By the end of yesterday, Muriel’s feature was growing. It was evident that chalk pebbles from (15) had compressed down into the fill and were masking the fuill extent of the feature to the north-east. Today, she has removed what remains of (15), allowing the full extent fo the fill to be planned. It now looks too big to be a posthole and it may be a pit similar to that containing (25) and (29). It’s produced a shed of pottery with a pale green glaze on a yellow fabric, which I think might be Saintonge ware: at any rate, it’s much finer than any of the other medieval pottery from the site.

I’ve been thinking about future sponsorship in recent days. We have various links on site to local institutions, such as Kryn & Lahy, where it might be worth approaching the parent companies for help. Even if we only get £50 or so from them, it will be worthwhile. I’d like to raise enough money to pay a supervisor for a couple of months next year and to pay for specialist analyses of the finds.

I have done a check on the context records and found only one that was not filled in. And it had my initials on it! Otherwise, we seem to be just about up-to-date with the recording (Muriel hasn’t described her fill yet and neither she nor Mervyn have assigned cut numbers to their features).

Typical teabreak fare on an NCAG excavation?

Frankie and Ros called in to see how things are progressing. Frankie brought us some doughnuts to have at afternoon tea-break.

Muriel’s feature is growing and beginning to look like another gulley parallel with [31] rather than a pit or posthole. The chalk of (15) that is compressed into its surface is still obscuring the north-eastern end of the feature. After tea, Chris helped her with defining it more accurately and found that the outside edge had been slightly underdug, while to the north-east it seems to be shallowing out and will probably terminate parallel with [31].

Tony and Nigel are drawing profiles of [31], as I realised that it hasn’t been done. It’s become more important now that it seems to be one of a pair (or more): I’m beginning to wonder if the gullies held elements of something that projected above the ground (such as a windmill, although this won’t have been one). I’m very unsure about what it might be, though.

As excavation progresses, Muriel’s feature is getting longer and is evidently going to terminate at a more north-easterly point than [31] does. So perhaps the two features aren’t related, after all. Even so, it must stop short of Mervyn’s pit, which clearly doesn’t cut it (and isn’t cut by it).

We finished everything just before 5 o’clock. The excavation is now over and we will be backfilling the site on Wednesday.

Friday 24 August

Weather overcast, slightly misty, damp

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Mervyn Evans, Peter Owen (morning only), Chris Hobbs, Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Owain James, Tony Driscoll, Hilary Wood (early morning only), Deborah Giles, Nigel Harper-Scott, Fiona Weller, Sam Weller

We have a good turnout today. Tony is finishing recording (21), Mervyn and Peter are staring the excavation of (29), Chris is planning the gulley containing (11), now numbered [31], while Mick, Owain and Muriel are removing cobbles (28). Everyone else is sorting finds, most of which come from demolition deposit (10).

Tony has found that his deposit (21) is apparently cut by the foundations of wall (7), cut [18]. This would put it earlier in the sequence than the barn, which could have interesting implications both for the date of the deposit and for the date of the barn. It is evident that (21) occupies a diffuse and probably quite eroded linear hollow (the sides are too shallow to regard it as a ditch or gulley); this is on a different alignment from the barn and cannot be related to wear patterns within the barn floor, as I originally thought.

Cobbles (28) are out and the underlying clay can now be planned. It occupies a smaller area than the cobbles or the chalk that was above them. It’s also looking very straight-edged, as if it is the capping of a large rectangular pit. I am put in mind of the nineteenth-century cess pit at BAL-45 (Icknield Way East, Baldock) in 1988, which had a dead cow covered in hay at the bottom of it… I hope this isn’t going to be a repeat!

In cleaning gully [31] for photography, Chris has found a piece of pottery in the overdug area at the north-eastern end, where I suspected that he had cut into an earlier posthole. We can at least now say that there definitely is a feature there.

Attacking the clay

Attacking the clay

The stiff clay (30) beneath cobbles (28) was removed to a depth of around 0.5 m and found to contain no archaeological material. Although it is quite unlike the clay natural at 111 Norton Road, as seen by Chris, its grey, anaerobic colour and the presence of iron pan makes it almost certainly natural. We thus seem to have discovered the boundary between glacial clay and periglacially modified chalk north of the church.

Muriel has cleaned around the possible posthole north-west of gully [31] and there is a definite feature there. It’s going off into the baulk and it’s not clear if it is a posthole or something rather larger; its fill is (34).

Nigel is working on the poorly-defined feature cut by [31] at its north-eastern end. There are fragments of pottery in deposit (35), showing that it is archaeological in nature, but it is very difficult to work out its shape. No pre-excavation plan could be drawn, so he’s working from the known extent, where it was cut by [31], back to the natural.

Finds sorting was completed quite early this morning and people moved on to finds washing. This is progressing well and we are almost up-to-date with it once more. Things are feeling very much as if the excavation is winding down, as indeed it is.

This horrible cow

This horrible cow

We have done well to get it all finished within the four weeks I allotted to the project and it’s thanks to the hard work put in by all the volunteers that we have achieved so much. The principal aims of the project design have been fulfilled and we have enhanced our understanding of this part of Church Field. I’m inclining more and more to the idea that we publish this excavation as a discrete unit. We have an evidently post-medieval farm that can perhaps be tracked in documents from 1668, with an undocumented phase of medieval activity before that, including structural evidence. The prehistoric evidence is effectively incidental, but nevertheless of interest.

There’s an appropriate Edward Lear limerick that I am constantly put in mind of whenever we’re on site…

There was an old man who said “How
shall I flee from this horrible cow?
I will sit on this stile
and continue to smile,
which may soften the heart of the cow.”

Thursday 23 August

Weather overcast and damp but not actually raining; less windy than yesterday but still cold

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Mervyn Evans, Peter Owen, Chris Hobbs, Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Bob Lancaster (evening), Bahkti Fitzpatrick-Matthews (evening)

There are pools of water on the site, particularly in the clay beneath the deposit of chalk (22) where Mick needs to plan. Muriel is baling it out! Chris is defining the south-western side of the cut containing (11), Mervyn and Peter are continuing their investigation of fill (25) and Tony is sorting out whether the flinty deposit in the north-western corner is the same material as (21) or is something distinct.

Having checked Cuniffe’s Iron Age Communities in Britain for Middle Iron Age pot forms, I am happy that the material from (25) may be of that date. I’ll need to compare it with the Iron Age ceramics from Blackhorse Road, as they provide the closest assemblage, but there’s also James Dyer’s stuff from Ravensburgh Castle. On the other hand, the fabric is rather harder than I would expect from prehistoric ceramics and I wonder if the decorated sherd is more likely to be medieval: the plain, dark sherds still look Iron Age to me in their unwashed condition. As excavation has progressed, so an iron nail has turned up, as have a sherd of a vessel with a baggy base and a rimsherd of St Neots type ware, so the pit is conclusively medieval.

The gulley

The gulley

The edges of the feature containing (11) are becoming much clearer: it highlights the problems of excavating when conditions are very dry, as the edges were all but invisible two weeks ago. It is still unclear what is happening at the ends of the feature, particularly to the south-west, where it looks to be cutting an earlier feature, perhaps a posthole.

It soon became evident that where Tony is digging is the same as (21), simply with more flint than chalk. Yesterday, he found part of a belemnite, broken along the centre of its shaft; today he found the matching half a short distance away. The natural (17) is rising up sharply beneath it, making the hollow to the south-west more clearly linear in character, as it appears on the north-eastern side of the site.

The feature containing (11), which does not yet have its own context number, is now quite clearly linear, coming to a pointed end to the north-east and completely truncated to the south-west. It’s produced medieval material, including St Neots type ware, so it’s perhaps contemporary with the pit containing (25) (and, beneath it, (29)), which is just beyond its north-eastern termination.

I spent the afternoon in Letchworth Museum.

I returned to site around 6.30 p.m., where Bob Lancaster, Mick, Muriel and Tony had started to transport stuff into the field for the Open Evening.

Keith talking in the near dark

Talking in the near dark

We had a refreshment table, operated by Bahkti, offering wine and nibbles, with another table to display a selection of finds (including all the small finds). The material looks good when spread out and will make a decent finds report.

I gave a guided tour of the site, explaining why we had selected Church Field and why we then fixed on the south-western corner. I showed people around the trench, explaining why I thought things are the way I interpret them. Putting it all together like that makes the story sound not just coherent but actually rather interesting.

By the time we packed up, it was getting rather dark, but I think that all our visitors appreciated what we have achieved after almost four weeks.

Wednesday 22 August

Weather cloudy and windy, ground conditions damp; rain started at 12.40 and we abandoned work for the day at 1.15 p.m.

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Mervyn Evans, Mick James, Owain James, Peter Owen (late a.m.)

Excavating before the rain

Excavating before the rain

The weather is not pleasant today: it’s very autumnal and cold. The wind has got up and there is the threat of rain showers, which we ought to be able to cope with. The bullocks were plainly unhappy to see us back on site; they came thundering towards us as we entered the field and bellowed at us, presumably hoping to intimidate us.

Tony is continuing the excavation of (21), Mervyn and Owain are planning pit fill (25), Mick is continuing the excavation of the chalk (22), which I assume to be the capping of a large pit. I did a bit of practical work, too: I planned pit [23]. I have to keep my hand in somehow…

Tony has found a struck flint at the interface between (21) and (17). He’s had to treat it as a small find, as lithics have not been common on this site. It is difficult to see whether (21) is actually different from the flintier deposit to its north, or whether they are simply the same thing: there was more chalk to the south of the deposit and it has gradually changed character as Tony progressed northwards.

Mervyn’s pit fill (25) has produced a sherd of what appears to be Iron Age pottery (although it’s difficult to be certain while it’s still dirty). A second sherd looks distinctly Middle Iron Age, while a third sherd also appears to be prehistoric, so I’m fairly confident of ascribing an Iron Age date to the pit.

Bob Lancaster called in to the site around 11.30 to discuss arrangements for tomorrow evening’s Private View. He’s sorting out refreshments (wine and soft drinks, crisps and snacks) and is bringing a gazebo, a couple of tables and plastic cups. He’ll be arriving around 6 p.m. to set up. He suggested having someone by the gate from the churchyard to direct people towards the compound, as it’s not clearly visible from there. He suggests having the gazebo outside the compound to the north to avoid upsetting the residents at 127 Norton Road, who have been unhappy about the excavation from the outset (they don’t like the noise and the people, and they want their seclusion back).

Rain started to fall just after lunch began and hadn’t stopped by 1.15, by which time the site was soaked and there were puddles everywhere, so I abandoned work for the day.

Sunday 19 August

Site matrix

The site matrix at 19 August 2007

Weather constant drizzle until lunch-time, followed by a dry spell, but wet again by 4 o’clock

On site: no-one

I’ve updated the site matrix today. It’s quite straightforward and everything down to (and including (9)) consists of demolition and post-demolition deposits; (10) is also an abandonment deposit. Beneath that, though, there is real stratigraphy, which can be divided between three phases: the post-medieval barn, some currently undefined medieval activity and Bronze Age activity. The latter is the most unexpected.

Saturday 18 August

Weather overcast following early morning rain and cool; occasional sunny spells by mid morning

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Frankie Saxton, Peter Owen (early a.m. only), Greg Ford, Mervyn Evans, Phil Thomas, Chris Hobbs, Mick James

The struck flint from the Bronze Age pit

The overnight rain has not made the site too damp, as I feared initially, and we have reasonable trowelling conditions. Frankie and Peter are finishing pit fill (19), Tony is carrying on where he left off yesterday, Mervyn and Greg are cleaning across (17) at the top of the slope, Phil and Chris are removing farmyard surface (20) and Mick is planning the chalk in the south-eastern corner of the trench, which appears to overlie (20).

Frankie has discovered the only definite piece of struck flint from the site so far in her pit, which is very reassuring. It’s débitage, but it’s still a struck flint and it’s been given a small find number. The feature is very irregular in shape, but we have a good profile across it in the baulk, where the relationship with (7) and [18] is also visible.

It looks as if we’ll get a full day of digging in, as the forecast heavy rain isn’t due to hit until late afternoon. We’re actually experiencing some sunshine at intervals and it warms up quickly in these sunny spells.

The possible pit under (20) has vanished. It was simply a depression in the underlying natural that had accumulated slightly more soil. At the same time, (22) is definitely above (20), although it still doesn’t explain why (20) is dipping down so much at this point. The chalk of (22) is horribly compacted, as if it is natural bedrock, but it does clearly overlie cobbles that are of non-local stone and at least one brick. As more is exposed, the cobbles can now be seen to overlie a light yellowish grey-brown clay that looks suspiciously like the capping of a pit, which explains why the cobbled surface had slumped and needed the chalk repair.

A probable posthole

A probable posthole

In cleaning up the section of the pit as it enters the baulk, it’s clear that Frankie has two separate deposits and probably two separate features: (19) is the dehumified prehistoric deposit, the fill of prehistoric pit [23], while there is another, browner deposit to the north-west, apparently contained in a cut that truncates the north-western edge of the prehistoric feature. It was in this area that the clearly intrusive iron nails and well-preserved wood were found, so we can now explain their presence: they belong not in (19) but in the fill of a later feature that truncates it.

Where Mervyn and Greg are cleaning over (17), there is nothing new showing up. What is interesting is that, despite removing a couple of centimetres of deposit, there is still a great deal of soil left in the natural, much of it in distinct linear streaks.

We’ve had a few flurries of visitors during the day. Although some have been prompted by the story in The Comet, others have just been passing. A lot of them have commented that once people know that we have stuff that’s more ancient than the barn demolished in the 1930s, they will take more interest. Let’s hope so!

Underneath (20), Chris has found what looks possibly to be the bottom of a truncated posthole. It’s immediately south-east of ‘Mick’s pit’ and on the line of its long axis, which makes me wonder if we’ve got a structure with earth-fast posts and sill beams.

Friday 17 August

Weather sunny initially, clouding over rapidly with the occasional light shower during the morning and sunny spells during the afternoon

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Frankie Saxton, Peter Owen, Phil Thomas, Nigel Harper-Scott, Laura Lea, Tony Driscoll, Mick James, Owen James, Philip Dean, Mervyn Evans, Muriel Hardman (p.m. only), Hilary Wood (late p.m. only)

As the site becomes more generally damp with the showery weather at the moment, it’s beginning to look more complex. At the north-eastern end, there seem to be areas of what are either soils left over natural hollows in the underlying deposit or are archaeological features. Phil and Nigel are mattocking the ‘natural’ to see if it really is natural (it looks it); Frankie and Peter are tidying up the foundation trench for (7), which doesn’t yet have a context number; Tony is continuing to clean around (15); Mick and Laura are continuing to clean the farmyard surface, together with Owain; Mervyn and Philip are finishing their plan of it.

I have updated the matrix (all of eighteen contexts so far!). It will no doubt become more complex before the week is out, assuming that we don’t lose all the weekend to the threatened bad weather.

Chalk bedrock

The natural chalk bedrock

The supposed natural – which now has context number (17) – is producing no finds whatsoever and is looking more like solid chalk as it becomes deeper. I am completely convinced that it is the chalk bedrock. It’s been recorded and backfilled.

There are signs of more features becoming visible underneath the cobbled yard surface, some of which look like pits. It is also apparent that ‘Mick’s pit’ has been under-dug on its north-western edge.

Frankie has discovered some early post-medieval window glass incorporated into wall (7), apparently deliberately sealed beneath a pig’s foot and a tile above that. This sounds possibly like a superstitious practice – I’ll have to check to see if there is any evidence for it.

As everything is becoming clean, we are waiting for plans to be able to progress, but we are still held up as we have only the one planning frame. People are moving on to finds processing as they run out of site work.

Some of the possible features in the north-western corner of the site are turning out not to be features at all. It looks as if the removal of (9) was not thorough enough here, so that (15) has not been exposed properly. Tony is sorting this out. Interestingly, the finds from (15) that have been washed today do not appear to include any nineteenth- or twentieth-century material (apart from a sliver of roof tile that may be intrusive). It will be good to find out the date of coin: at the moment, I’m guessing that it will turn out to be a Georgian halfpenny.

Tony certainly has something different in the north-western corner of the trench, where there is a deposit filling a shallow hollow. Whether its a genuine feature or something worn in the floor of the barn is currently open to question.

A possible whetstone

A possible whetstone

Frankie’s potential feature underlying wall (7) is looking like a natural periglacial fissure filled with a sterile clayey sand, (19). The very orange colour made it look suspicious from the outset as it’s completely dehumified: it is certainly not an archaeological deposit of recent date, although it could be prehistoric, I suppose. Towards the bottom, it produced a whetstone and a linen rubber, so it’s likely to be the fill of a prehistoric feature after all, which its irregular profile suggests may be Bronze or Early Iron Age. This is a really unexpected development that makes the absence of struck flint from the site all the more puzzling.

The plan of the cobbled surface is now just about complete and we’ll have it done by the end of the day. I have assigned it context (20). Mervyn, Chris and Phil have done an excellent job with the plan and will no doubt be very pleased to have finished it. The surface is now photographed and ready to excavate tomorrow.

All the finds excavated so far (with the exception of those from (19) and (21)) have been washed, so tomorrow we can sort those from (10) into material types.

Thursday 16 August

Weather sunny and dry, light cloud, becoming more frequent during the morning; cooler than previously

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Frankie Saxton, Peter Owen, Philip Dean, Ken Bird, Tony Driscoll, Mick James, Laura Lea, Chris Hobbs, Mervyn Evans

The farmyard surface

The farmyard surface

A much better day! Yesterday’s rain has really shown up the colours of the soils, so that we can now see under-dug patches of (9) and (10). The probable pit under (15) is looking really quite definite now, as is the possible posthole. Most people are working on cleaning up the stuff left over from the weekend, while Mervyn & Chris have the short straw of drawing the cobbled farmyard surface, which is the next element to come off the south-western end of the site.

On Tuesday, I did some tweaking to the recording system (rearranging elements of the context sheet, for instance) and producing a bulk finds recording form, so that we can begin to record the material that has been processed. I just need to run it past a couple of people to make sure that it records the sort of thing that we need it to.

Where Ken is taking away chalk floor (15), the possible posthole has what looks like a medieval rim sherd stuck in the top. It also looks as if it may connect with “Mick’s pit”, which means that the feature is more likely to be a gulley or ditch, which has been lost to the south-west, where trampling by animals and erosion have reduced the level of the farmyard.

Further investigation has defined the edge of the pit/gulley, which does not connect with the ‘posthole’. The posthole itself was not a feature, simply a slight hollow in the underlying chalk.

Elsewhere on the site, there is a slight hollow appearing underneath (9) beside wall (7), which may be a foundation trench. If so, it suggests that the foundations are not going to be deep; two courses below what is visible would probably take us to the level of the bottom of wall (14), which would be logical, assuming that the foundations were the same depth for both walls.

Planning the farmyard is time consuming, but a good training exercise. It’s probably not strictly necessary to do a stone-by-stone drawing of a yard surface of late nineteenth/early twentieth-century date, but it will get people used to the idea of how to do it for occasions when we might have to deal with, say, a medieval surface.

I’m beginning to wonder more about the ‘barn floor’ (15), as it’s looking more restricted now than it did originally. It’s not continuing all the way to the door on the north-eastern side and it seems to have coninued only part way over the ditch/gulley. I wonder if it’s the floor of an earlier building on the same site as the post-medieval barn (perhaps contemporary with 125/127 Norton Road to the south). The other problem with regarding it as a floor for the barn is that, now that wall (7) is being removed, the north-eastern foundations are only one course deep, suggesting that there has been considerable truncation of the original ground surface here: everything we are seeing on the site of the barn is below the level of its floor. It is also apparent that the barn may have been older than I originally assumed: the bricks from the post surround containing the doorframe look seventeenth-century in date rather than later, and there is no sign that they have been reused. This could make the barn contemproary with 125/127 Norton Road. In that case, how much older is (15)?

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