Category Archives: Norton Church Field Dig 2008

Sunday 17 August

Weather: clouds, sunny spells and light breeze following overnight rain

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Lorna Boyd-Bell, Greg Ford, Ernie Ford, Luke Gearing, Alison Coates, Chris Hobbs, Georgina Farley, Oscar Farley, Christina Farley, Nigel Harper-Scott, Muriel Hardman, Freddie Sharman, Claire Skelly, Mick James, Tony Driscoll

The north-western end of the trench is looking rather more complex this morning, after the rain has shown up soil differences rather more effectively. Context (2) is trowelling down onto a very thin deposit of very similar material with small chalk gravel in it; the deposit is probably no more than 3 or 4 millimetres thick, which is why it has been removed in a number of places without spotting it. Now that we can see it, it’s easier to deal with.

At the opposite end of the trench, Mick is now removing the clayey deposit on the south-eastern side of the hollow way, context (4). It evidently overlies the road metalling in the hollow and it’s intriguing that the road did not occupy the bottom of the hollow but rather ran on the shallower slope on the south-eastern side. The very bottom of the hollow may have been a drainage ditch at this stage or it may have formed by rutting from wheeled vehicles. We should be able to sort this out once we start excavating in the very bottom.

A sunny and dry morning on site

A sunny and dry morning on site

There is no trace this year of the harrowing that we found in last year’s trench, in the south-western corner of Church Field. At the time, I interpreted this as evidence for the ploughing up of the meadow during the Second World War, when this sort of thing happened all over the UK. That we don’t have it here makes me wonder if it was done only over the site of the demolished barn and adjacent farmyard to break up the soil to encourage grass to grow.

Muriel is removing the topsoil that underlay the dump of chalky material in the hollow way. The cut from which I now suspect it came has been assigned context number [5].

I intend to institute a new rule for the next time we do any fieldwork: no mobile ‘phone calls or text messages to be made or received on site except during scheduled breaks. There is one member of the team who frequently uses a mobile ‘phone for both calls and texts during working hours, which is unfair on everyone else. It would be inequitable to introduce the rule now, but it needs to be put into the “useful hints/common courtesy” section.

Context (4) is dreadfully hard and compacted, so I’ve given Mick the m*tt*ck to use on it. Its formation must post-date the abandonment of the road and is therefore no older than the early eighteenth century. It’s producing very little by way of finds and comes straight down onto a highly compacted clay and chalk pebble surface that may be related to other surfaces to the north-west.

I’ve done a quick sketch of the site to try to understand what’s going on. It’s enabled me to assign some context numbers to the different materials that are showing up. The chalk flecked deposit beneath (2) is context (6) and the material beneath that is (7). The very clayey material by the trench extension is context (8); I haven’t yet assigned a context number to the very similar material with chalk pebbles to its south-east, though. At the top of the slope into the hollow way, the uppermost of the two chalky deposits is context (9); this appears to overlie a grey topsoil-like deposit, (10), which in turns overlies another chalky deposit (11). The road metalling on the south-eastern side of the hollow way is (12), although I suspect that it will need to be subdivided as we discover the repairs that must have been made to it.

The ground is drying out dreadfully, with the sun baking the clayey deposits almost too hard to excavate. Everything is also tending towards a uniform grey-brown colour, which doesn’t help matters. Nevertheless, it’s becoming apparent that (6) does not extend as far south-east as (2), which seems restricted to a band about three metres wide at the north-western end of the trench.

Everyone is subdued today. I think it’s because it’s felt like a long week and the sun is very warm whenever the clouds part. It’s also tiring work digging such unyielding deposits. Even a few more spectacular finds would help lift people’s spirits, I’m sure. Why can’t we have some pretty things turn up?

Muriel’s patch of clay has been assigned context (13) and she’s now planning it. This also overlies topsoil (1) and is presumably related to the nearby cut, [5], in the same way that (3), above it, was. I had just completed my first provisional matrix when all this showed up, so it already needs correcting.

Road metalling in the hollow way

Road metalling in the hollow way

I’ve made an outline of the excavation trench to photocopy next week to enable me to draw sketches of the site more rapidly. A combination of annotated plans with context numbers will help me work out what is going on in the more complex areas of stratigraphy. It might also be useful to plan out the extents of individual contexts at this scale, given that some of the larger blanket deposits don’t fit on to even an A3 sheet of permatrace.

We’ll be packing up early today, as we are storing the tools at Chris’s house since Mick – who normally takes them home at night – probably won’t be here on Wednesday. I’ll also fit what I can into the back of the van (although it’s currently quite well loaded with the sample buckets).

I’ll be grateful for a rest tomorrow. I’m so unused to being out of doors that I find just being in the field quite exhausting. I think everyone else is showing considerable fatigue: not only have they been out in the open air, they’ve also been doing hard physical work, so they have more right than I do to a decent rest. There’s also the issue of dehydration on a day like today, which has been the warmest we’ve had for some time.

The archaeology seems to be reasonably clear now. In the hollow way, we have a road surface, which may be the only surviving surface or it may be one of a number; the bottom of the hollow appears to be either a deliberately dug drainage gully or rutting caused by wheeled vehicles at the bottom of the slope. At the top of the slope to the north-west, is the badly degraded remains of a late eighteenth-century surface, which I still suspect to derive from the floor of a structure overlooking the crossroads. Beneath it are traces of a more solid clay floor ins a rather different position. This presumably belongs to an earlier building. From its position, I suspect that this building faces the village street rather than the crossroads. The finds from the topsoil still lead me to suspect that the most intensive activity on this part of the site occurred between the tenth and sixteenth centuries.

Saturday 16 August

Weather: overcast, breezy, occasional sunny spells

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Muriel Hardman, Pauline Gimson, Freddie Sharman, Phil Howard, Lorna Boyd-Bell, Tony Driscoll, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ernie Ford, Jim Skipper, Alison Coates, David Gimson, Greg Ford, Luke Gearing, Claire Skelly, Mick James (to 10.20, back at 12.25)



Off to a slow start because there is planning to finish in the north-western corner of the trench before we can set people to work on the site. This left a group milling around with nothing to do until after 11 o’clock, the problem being exacerbated by a lack of finds to wash.

To the south of the hollow way, there is a very nice flinty surface turning up that is perhaps the last proper metalling of the road. Its relationship to the chalky patch that has been visible since we first removed the turf is unclear, although as Chris is trowelling back the remains of topsoil in this area, a relationship will be revealed eventually. There’s a plastic button from the surface of the road (probably 1950s or 60s in date) that can’t date the road: it’s presumably worked down through the topsoil.

Almost as soon as starting to remove the clay floor, a number of fragments of what appears to be an early nineteenth-century plate turned up. Whether this is something compressed into the top of the floow after abandonment or evidence for a Georgian cottage on the site, I don’t know. I’ll need to check the Enclosure Map again in more detail just to see if it does show something here that I’ve overlooked.

In the hollow way, a complex series of metallings is showing up on the south-eastern edge. Presumably, there are different repairs over many years, with only traces of the original surface. There is an area of large cobbling, an area of flinty gravel/pebbles and a patch of chalk gravel. How any of these relate, if at all, to the chalk flecky deposit on the north-western edge is currently masked by the mucky topsoil in the bottom of the hollow. Phil is now sorting that out. We are now virtually free of topsoil (at last!).

The weather has been relatively kind to us today: although the forecast all week had been that Saturday would be the wettest of the week, the heavy rain is stuck in the west and won’t be with us till this evening. We can but hope that tomorrow will be okay, too. What has become irritating today is that the wind is picking up, making it very difficult to use the paper records.

The clayey deposit, context (2), is proving less intractable than I had feared, as it’s remained quite damp underneath the harder crust. It’s also apparent that calling it ‘clay’ isn’t at all accurate: if anything, it’s a slightly clayey loam. This probably means that it isn’t a floor, although it might be derived from a clay floor by post-abandonment bioturbation. The material coming from it is no later than the earlier nineteenth century (and in some cases, older still).

Nigel and Tony are really cracking on with the planning, which means that we’ve got everyone working. We won’t be able to finish the plans of context (2) until Mick returns with the spray (he left two hours ago for an hour – these things always take longer than anticipated). The next bit to deal with is the patch of chalk in the hollow way that’s been visible all the way through: it’s apparently immediately under the turf and on top of the topsoil, so it’s becoming urgent to get it removed.

In the south-western extension, Freddie and Claire are beginning to remove (2) and it’s coming down onto a chalk rubbly deposit, even more chalky than the material on the slope of the hollow way. It’s beginning to look as if the chalky deposit could cover the entire site, which is unexpected (I’d have thought that things would be different either side of the hollow, but this is apparently not the case).

We appear not to have any finds labels. This is a bit worrying, as we are going to have to label the trays much more rigorously as we begin to dig more than one context at a time. These sorts of issues should have been sorted out long ago. We really ought to have a stock of consumables like this that can be used all year round, not just for the summer excavation.

At lunchtime, virtually everyone went to the pub (and a few have still not made it back…). With this sort of project, it’s not appropriate to get angry with people over their timekeeping, but it’s not good. Perhaps I am being over-neurotic about time-keeping, as it is only five minutes…

How many archaeologists does it take to trowel a five-metre square?

How many archaeologists does it take to trowel a five-metre square?

Mick has now got the spray working, which ought to help us see the contrast between context (2) and the apparently underlying chalk-flecked material. Once that’s done, Tony and Nigel can plan the area and we can get everyone on to removing (2). Even with the spray, though, the soil now looks mostly greyish.

The finds from (2) appear to be mostly later eighteenth-century in date. There’s a piece of tin-glazed earthenware that may or may not be transfer-printed; if it is, then it pushes the date into the later 1790s at the earliest. This will be where checking the Enclosure map helps me understand whether or not we have the floor of a building here. There has also been a rather nice ceramic marble (small find <3>). In the south-western extension, there is a deposit that we are treating as (2) provisionally because it is exactly the same colour but is rather more clayey. Could this be the parent material for (2) proper?

Deposit (3), Muriel’s chalky patch, which is clearly overlying the topsoil, is immediately next to a small hollow that was visible even before turf removal. It’s become apparent that deposit (3) is the material removed from the cut (which will need to be assigned a number of its own), probably in the not too distant past. Curiously, the topsoil beneath it appears to be overlying a clayey chalk-flecked deposit that’s unrelated to anything else in the vicinity.

Over most of the site, we now seem to be largely into the eighteenth century. Given that we have a number of blanket deposits, it means that we ought to have good preservation of any deposits and features below them.

Context (2) appears to be fairly thick. Although we had initially thought that it would overly the chalk flecked deposit visible on the slope of the hollow way, there actually appear to be chalk flecks within it, which were misleading us in those places where there had been over-digging of the topsoil.

Friday 15 August

Weather: sunny, a few fluffy clouds and a light breeze

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Rosemary Ryden, Chris Hobbs, Luke Gearing, Mick James, Pauline Gimson, Muriel Hardman, Alan Goodwin, Owain James, Phil Thomas, Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Freddie Sharman, Christl Squires, Anne Lake, Cameron Gormill

Fragment of a quernstone

Fragment of a quernstone

After the downpour yesterday evening, the topsoil is very clearly visible and the patches left over the presumed clay floor stand out. Mick is removing them. Doing so is proving very easy: in most places, it is just a superficial skim that’s left over the yellowish clay. The edge of the clay corresponds roughly with the edge of the platform, lending weight to my conjecture that it’s the remains of the floor of the last building on the site.

Medeival pottery (tenth to fifteenth centuries)

Medieval pottery (tenth to fifteenth centuries)

Today feels like a warm spring day, so we’ve had a real variety of seasons this week. The crickets are even buzzing again.

We’re now at a stage where plans are becoming necessary again, initially to show the extent of the clay ?floor. Tony and Nigel have both finished digging, so they are starting a plan. I’ve asked them to record the root traces at this level, so that we’ll be able to tell if they’ve affected underlying deposits.

A number of interesting finds are turning up in washing that weren’t spotted during excavation. The best is a broken gun-flint, which has lost a corner (perhaps during firing). There are also sherds of medieval material, including St Neots type ware, Hertfordshire greyware and a late medieval ?lead-glazed ware. It’s interesting that there is very little post-medieval pottery, although there are clay pipes and glass. This suggests to me that occupation came to an end before 1600 (and possibly much earlier still) and that the glass and clay pipe fragments show the presence of farm workers.

The excavation trench in Church Field

The excavation trench in Church Field

Thursday 14 August

Weather: sunny, clouding over as the day progressed, ending with rain

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (to 11.15 a.m.), Luke Gearing, Owain James, Alan Goodwin, Cameron Gormill, Alex Hill, Freddie Sharman, Phil Howard, Tony Driscoll, Mick James, Murial Hardman, Philip Dean, Hilary Wood, Anne Lake, Lisa Waldock, Clair Calver

The weather today promises to be better than the five-day forecast I saw on Tuesday was threatening. There may be an isolated shower later, but it ought to be lighter than any yesterday.

The principal task today is to remove and record the remaining topsoil. There has been a tendency to concentrate on the north-western end of the trench, over the presumed building platform, which means that there is still a great deal of topsoil to remove from the south-eastern end, over the hollow way and its south-eastern bank. There doesn’t appear to be a great depth in this area and I’m keeping the m*tt*ck firmly locked in the van. As I have to leave mid morning for a doctor’s appointment and will be at Letchworth Museum all afternoon, it won’t even be available. As I wrote yesterday in relation to not machining away the topsoil deposits, I see no sense in over-digging what could prove to be really quite sensitive archaeology. Just because it’s more recent doesn’t make it any less worthwhile recording. There is a pointless snobbery that equates age with importance, which is little more than a twenty-first century form of ancestor worship.

Pleasant weater for a chnage

Pleasant weater for a chnage

The light is making it very difficult to see anything on site this morning: it’s a really intense sunshine. On the other hand, the soil is beautifully damp, showing up colour changes nicely (when they aren’t obscured by sharp shadows). It seems that nothing is every right for archaeologists! Are we related to farmers?

Clearing the topsoil is proving relatively difficult: there is disagreement among the diggers about whether the clayey deposit is really different from the topsoil (although it clearly is) and those who think it isn’t real are tending to dig through it. This is something that needs to be nipped in the bud!

Kat Perry called in to site to give her apologies: she’s too busy to be able to come in and help.

During the afternoon, Muriel found a worked flint. It looked to be bifacially worked when I first saw it, but on closer examination it is a more regular flake. It has been blunted along one edge and a corner deliberately snapped off to created the shape. I think it was used as a transverse arrowhead.

Although I’d hoped to get all the topsoil removed by the end of the day, it wasn’t possible. A few patches are left over where I think the building stood and there is still a lot in the bottom of the hollow way.

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)

Trowelling in a wet August (or is it October?)

Trowelling in a wet August (or is it October?)

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.

Using the unmentionable tool... once only!

Using the unmentionable tool... once only!

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!

Sunday 10 August 2008

Weather: sunny, occasional cloud.

On site: Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Chris Hobbs, Nigel Harper-Scott, Luke Gearing, Andrew Dear, Greg Ford, Pauline Gimson, Tony Driscoll, Samuel Nobbs, Kyle Brunton, Matthew Dale, Ernie Ford, David Gimson, Anne Pegrum, Andy Nobbs, Philip Dean.

Lorna Boyd-Bell and Rosemary Ryden cried off sick, no contact from Freddy Sharman so not sure why he did not appear.

Trowelling continued on the topsoil, context (1), at the house platform end of the trench. Some excavators started to report occasional chalk flecks associated with a harder feel to the ground. These are, in the main, very small and appear to occur throughout the trench. Not sure if this represents a different context but proceeding on the basis that it is until confirmation (or otherwise) of KJF-M. (Note from KJF-M: it will be best to treat this as a new context).

Trowelling not too bad after the overnight rain initially but the strong wind is drying things out quickly.

Kyle Brunton went home at the start of the afternoon session as his hands were hurting. Matthew Dale went home as he was feeling ill. Both were picked up by their respective mother.

Trowelling became much harder after lunch. Diverted a number of excavators to the hollow way end of the trench as this still had the benefit of last nights rain under an initial crust. Actually looks damp at the bottom of the hollow way.

A number of small pieces of pot coming up which all seem to be associated with holes into an obvious earlier context which is showing in many places through context (1). Substantial number of chalk inclusions. This promises to be a more finds-rich context, I think.

Towards the end of the day, I trowelled a small area of context (1) near the tree stump hollow in the hollow way. Almost immediately came down onto a hard chalk rubble context which extended to the side of the trench. It will be interesting to see if this is the same context as the other holes showing through further up the opposite slope.

Finished the day at 16.45, cleared the site by 17.00

Saturday 9 August

Weather: clouding over, a few sunny spells, breezy but warm

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Luke Gearing, Phil Thomas, Kyle Brunton, Freddie Sharman, Lorna Boyd-Bell, Nigel Harper-Scott, Samuel Nobbs, Pauline Gimson, David Gimson, Greg Ford, Samuel, Ernie Ford, Tony Driscoll, Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Philip Dean, Chris Hobbs

Lots of happy (?) trowellers, all in a row

Lots of happy (?) trowellers, all in a row

It took a while to get started this morning as we were waiting for the plan of the north-western corner of the site to be done, but by 10.25, people were trowelling the topsoil. Judging from those areas where the turf was overdug, it’s going to be around 100 mm thick, so I’ve asked people to take it off in spits of arounf 15 mm thickness. That way, if there are any shallower parts, the underlying deposits won’t be damaged by inexperienced diggers and changes will become visible early on.

There are a lot of roots throughout the topsoil: it’s not yet clear how much deeper they have gone into the underlying material. Obviously, there will be most damage in the areas where there are decayed stumps, but I don’t know anything about the characteristics of elm root systems. Nigel has sent a text message to his brother, who apparently does know about them.

There are occasional spots of rain, but nothing to stop work at the moment. What is apparent is just how quickly the soil dries out: despite all the dampness yesterday, when it was soft and crumbly, the wind overnight and this morning has created a real crust that’s difficult to get through.

Very few finds are coming from the topsoil: yesterday’s post-medieval pottery may have come from an area where people had gone deeper during de-turfing.

There have been complaints from the local residents about people on site parking in Church Lane. There are two weddings today and there will be even more cars arriving at some point. While I have some sympathy for them, we’re not blocking access to their houses and it’s no more than I have to put with at home. Nevertheless, I’ve asked people if they would be willing to move their cars (and, it has to be said, there wasn’t exactly a rush to do so…).

The weather is getting decidedly worse: the wind is up, there has already been a shower and the clouds are getting thicker. If we can make it through to lunchtime, I’ll be happy. People don’t seem to find it easy to trowel: in most cases, they’re taking off no more than five millimeters at a time. Perhaps I can encourage them to be a little more vicious on their next spits.

We left at 12.30, when the rain became more-or-less constant. By 12.45, it was really quite heavy.

Friday 8 August 2008

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Mick James, Muriel Hardman, Sheila Love (a.m. only), Cameron Gormill, Luke Gearing, Christl Squires (a.m. only), Howard Webber, Pauline Gimson, Jim Skipper, Owain James, Freddie Sharman, Alan Goodwin, Chris Hobbs, Phil Thomas

Weather: cloudy, occasional drizzle (sometimes quite heavy) and much cooler than previous days, becoming drier in the later afternoon

Trowelling in the rain

Trowelling in the rain

It’s really autumnal today: the sky is overcast, there is light drizzle and the wind is distinctly chilly. At 9.30, the rain was quite heavy and I was wondering about delaying the start of work; by 9.45, though, it had cleared to little more than a heavy mist. Things are improving slowly and it’s actually quite good weather for trowelling (people on site are at least keeping warm, while I sit here with my fingers slowly turning blue).

I’ve decided to get people to re-do the trowelling begun yesterday as there were areas where lots of crumbs have been left. We’re trying to put experienced diggers between the inexperienced to give them encouragement and lead by example.

Planning is going to be difficult: we have only one drawing board (the planning equipment from last year having been mislaid) and most people will be left standing around. Mick, Chris and Cameron left to collect the planning frames from Chris’s house three quarters of an hour ago and have still not returned…

Advertising our Heritage Lottery funding

Advertising our Heritage Lottery funding

Trowelling has progressed quickly, with everyone working at roughly the same pace. There had been a problem yesterday afternoon, where some people barely covered a metre when others had completed a five-metre strip. The system of mixing experienced with inexperienced diggers seems to work well.

Shortly before noon, the weather took a real turn for the worse. Although there had been some drizzle during the morning, it suddenly became much heavier and I decided to stop for lunch at that point. I’ll make a decision about whether to carry on or abandon work for the day when we resume at one.

Over the lunch break, it brightened considerably and we were able to finish the trowelling. There have been a few finds from the topsoil, which we are calling context (1); most interesting are two sherds from an internally glazed earthenware vessel of seventeenth- or eighteenth-century character. There is also at least one struck flint, which is encouraging.



There were a few more light showers during the afternoon, but it was generally more pleasant than in the morning (even if the better weather promised by the forecast never reached us). I was able to do some basic training in planning and use of the dumpy level, so we have begun to create an overall plan of the trench. Since the afternoon break, we have been levelling the first plan (which I completed as part of the training) and have completed a second.

In a number of places, where the turf-cutting was perhaps a little over-enthusiastic, deposits under the topsoil have been exposed. In several places, there are traces of chalk rubble, which appears to be a laid surface rather than weathered natural (including in the hollow way, where it appears to be a resurfacing). Elsewhere, there are traces of a more clayey deposit, especially around the site of the platform that I’ve been interpreting as the foundations of a building. I suspect that it may have been damaged by the harrowing that we identified last year (and which I suspect occurred during the Second World War). It will be interesting to see just how deep the deposits are on this site: there must be a reasonable build-up in the hollow way, but there may not have been too much erosion to its north-west, where the platform is located.

We’ll be able to tie the site grid in to the Ordnance Survey National Grid by referring it to the north-western corner of 115/117 Norton Road and the south-eastern corner of 13 Church Lane. There is also a pylon beyond Nortonbury that would do at a pinch, if we need a third point.

Chris left around 3 o’clock to go in search of materials for planning: he’s going to Tim’s in Letchworth for drawing boards and large graph paper, which will be an improvement on what we’ve got currently. Work has come to a virtual end, as there is a bottleneck with the one drawing board we have currently. Luke and Cameron are looking distinctly bored… At least we’ll be digging again tomorrow (weather permitting).

Thursday 7 August 2008

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews (morning only), Mick James, Cameron Gormill, Hilary Wood, Lisa Waldock, Alan Goodwin, Freddie Sharman, Muriel Hardman, Philip Dean, Sheila Love, Luke Gearing, Alex Hill, Chris Hobbs, Jack Brierley

Weather: overcast, dry and cooler than yesterday; short showers before lunch and a thunderstorm mid-afternoon

Hoeing and deturfing

Hoeing and deturfing

Today, we need to complete the turf removal from the main part of the trench and to lay out the south-western arm (and get the turf stripped from that, too). The forecast is threatening rain for this afternoon; although we had the same threat yesterday, it seems rather more definite today. I’m going to be in the museum this afternoon, so we’ll have to see how things go.

It looks as if I won’t be able to get to Shonali and Jason’s wedding tomorrow, so I’ll be here. I think this is important, anyway, as the first decisions about where to excavate will need to be made tomorrow and I’m the only person who can realistically make them. It’s now quite clear that we will have reached a point where people will need to start planning.

Nearly finished deturfing

Nearly finished deturfing

On site, turf removal is progressing more rapidly than yesterday and I think that we’ll have the main part cleared by lunchtime. After lunch, we can get people trowelling the main trench, while Mick gets the grid and south-western arm set up.

There is a little bit of rain in the air at the moment, which may bode ill… Having been promised rain showers, this may be the start of it, in which case we won’t get a lot done this afternoon.

There were a couple of short showers just after noon: we could see the rainclouds approaching, but the main rain passed either side of Norton. It’s a bit worrying about progress for later, though. I’ve agreed with Mick that if there is thunder and lightning, people are not to shelter under the trees: as the highest things in Church Field, they would be the first things to be struck, which would not be safe!

As the turf is nearing complete removal, it’s been possible to undertake some initial hoeing on the cleared areas. Mick and I agreed that the men should do the heavy work of de-turfing, while the younger members and the women should do the hoeing. This isn’t a sexist decision, but based on the greater body strength of the men. I don’t think people were unduly offended by it.

Laying out the south-eastern trench extension

Laying out the south-eastern trench extension

Just before lunch, Mick and Muriel laid out the south-eastern extension to the trench, which will run parallel with the hollow way. If we are correct in identifying the platform as the site of a demolished building, this extension will take us away from it, I hope into a yard area.

I left for the museum a little after 12.30.

Speaking to Mick in the middle of the afternoon, it appears that they were briefly affected by the thunderstorm, although it was soon over. It was possible to get the turf stripped from the extension and start trowelling.

Wednesday 6 August 2008

On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Mick James, Cameron Gormill, Christl Squires, Hilary Wood, Lisa Waldock, Alan Goodwin, Freddie Sharman, Muriel Hardman, Philip Dean, Sheila Love, Luke Gearing, Alex Hill, Chris Hobbs, Greg Hobbs (a.m.)

Weather: overcast, dry and humid (threatening rain); sunny spells during the afternoon

Arrived at Norton around 9.15, so I came across to the field to get photographs of the compound before any work had taken place. The compound straddles the hollow way on the southern side of the crossroads, with most of it to the south-west. We have laid out the main part of the trench alonside the north-eastern edge of the compound, measuring 17 by 5 metres.

Removing the turf is rather difficult, owing to the length of the grass. We’re having to rake over the grass first and then really work hard to cut through it. Its a much slower process than last year…

Beginning to strip the turf

Beginning to strip the turf

We have no bullocks in the field; this is why the grass is so long. The advantage, of course, is that we won’t have over-inquisitive animals pushing against the fence, breaking it down and trampling on the site.

It’s almost midday and hardly any turf has been removed. It transpires that Cameron’s father, who is a landscape gardener, has turf-cutting equipment. It would be very useful to be able to use something that is specifically for the task! Chris is ringing him to find out if he would be able to bring it across for us. The equipment is a specialised spade and he’ll assess how useful one would be to us when he comes to pick up Cameron at the end of the day.

It’s surprisingly warm on site and the rain is at least keeping off. There are some excitable grasshoppers nearby that keep buzzing, making it feel really quite rural. As I forgot to give people a teabreak during the morning, I’ll stop for lunch at 12.30 today.

Washing finds on site

Washing finds on site

I have a feeling – nothing more tangible than that – that morale may be a bit of a problem this year. For one thing, the area where we are working is almost double the size of last year’s, so progress will be slower. Secondly, there is likely to be less of the really obvious archaeology (brick foundations, cobble farmyard etc.) that made things so easy for novices to understand last year. I’ll be happy if events prove me wrong.

Things are speeding up slightly as we get into the afternoon. The sun is also breaking through the clouds occasionally, so I think we may have escaped the threatened rain. It is very humid still and some people seem to be becoming a bit dehydrated and will need to be reminded to keep drinking water. At least there’s a tap in the churchyard where we can refill our bottles.

One of the challenges of this site is that it’s not immediately possible to identify it as a particular named property in the medieval documents. Quite how we do tie it down to a named house or identify its owners or occupiers, I don’t know. It may be that the documents talk about a crossroads, the Baldock or Stotfold road, or refer to places between the church and Nortonbury. On the other hand, it could end up being a lot more difficult and we may never be able to recognise it in the documents.

It has become very muggy as the afternoon has progressed. It was supposed to get up to 24° today, but I’m sure it’s hotter than that.

I’ve taken a walk across to the site of last year’s excavation and it’s remarkable how there is really no trace of it now. That, I hope, will convince anyone from the Heritage Foundation who might be worried about what we’re doing to their meadowland.

A local resident frog

A local resident frog

Another issue that we face this year is locating out trench and its grid accurately, given that we are now in the centre of the field. Without GPS or an EDM, we’re going to have to do some old-fashioned surveying with tapes and level (we don’t even have a theodolite!). At least we can set up the grid before we need to tie it in to features mapped by the Ordnance Survey.

A number of people were under the impression that we were due to finish at four o’clock. I’m not sure how much this is their misapprehension, how much owing to the fact that last year, we finished at 4.30 (I think) and how much is misleading publicity (although the website is quite clear about the working day). Today has been tiring for people: not only is it the first day and they aren’t used to this sort of heavy work, but also the weather has been very much against us, being oppressively hot and humid despite a start where it looked as if we’d be rained off.

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