Category Archives: Test Pits
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.
Friday 30 October
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Alan Goodwin, Nigel Harper-Scott, Pauline Gimson, Christl Squires, Philip Dean, Henry Marshall, Jim Skipper, M Spencer, Kieran Harkin, George Newton, Harry Webb
Weather: sunny, dry, unusually warm, clouding over by mid morning.
We have a good turnout today: eight adults and three young people from Henlow Middle School. This gives us enough people to do three trenches. I’m keeping to Evelyn’s part of the allotment, which is the northern end. Two of the trenches are close to the churchyard wall, one towards the road.
There is going to be a fair depth of topsoil, especially if there has been double digging in the allotment. All the finds so far have been later post-medieval in date, largely later nineteenth and twentieth century. There have been a couple of sherds of probably eighteenth-century pottery but so far nothing earlier. As it’s clouded over, it’s become much cooler and more like October.
According to Deborah Giles’s book, the poorhouse was demolished around 1850. If correct (and I have no reason to suspect it is not), that means I can’t have seen a photograph showing the building, as there are none of Norton so early. Perhaps I’ve seen a print or a painting.
In Trenches I and III (the two close to the churchyard wall) there is a change of context at a depth of only 0.10-0.15 m. These areas have evidently not received double digging… According to Alan, the allotment was rotavated before Evelyn took it over; I need to find out how deep a rotavator goes and precisely what it does to the soil.
During the afternoon, earlier material began to turn up in Trenches I and III, although I have not seen anything earlier than the eighteenth century in Trench II. In Trench III, there was a rimsherd of a greyware with a very pimply surface, which I think may be Thetford-type ware, as it doesn’t really look like Hertfordshire Grey Ware. In Trench I, there were a number of sherds of Harrold shelly ware, which is Romano-British.
By the end of the day, all three trenches had come down onto the harder material, always at the same kind of depth. I hope that we’ll be into archaeological deposits tomorrow!
Tomorrow, we begin digging three test pits in the allotments to the west of St Nicholas’s church. Our attention was drawn to the site by group member Evelyn Goodwin, who cultivates a patch there and who has, over the years, amassed a small collection of finds.
We know that this was the site of a group of cottages that were converted to use as the parish poorhouse in the eighteenth or nineteenth century. We know little about their form, although an old photograph suggests that they were timber-framed with brick nogging. Some of Evelyn’s finds, including clay tobacco pipe stems, probably derive from the cottages or poorhouse.
Others are more unexpected. There is a considerable quantity of Romano-British material, mostly pottery. It is very abraded, which is hardly surprising on a well tended allotment. It also fits with nearby discoveries at St Nicholas’s School and from several places in Church Lane as well as the contemporary finds from the main summer excavations in 2008 and 2009.
What we don’t yet know is the context of Evelyn’s material. Is it being brought to the surface from buried Roman features or is it a general scatter of Romano-British rubbish that has been in the topsoil since it was first discarded, as the clay pipes are likely to have been? Will we find evidence for medieval activity on this prime site, next to the parish church? I hope that we will have some answers by Sunday evening!
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
Friday 20 March 2009
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Pauline Gimson, Ken Bird, Alan Goodwin, Barbara Crombie, Tony Driscoll, Lorna Holding, Eileen Moxley, Chris Hobbs, Lorna Boyd-Bell, Tony Ireland, Mick James, Christl Squires, Nigel Harper-Scott, Ray Thorne
Weather: sunny and dry with occasional light clouds, becoming colder after about 3.15 pm.
We are operating in four separate gardens: three on Wheathill (nos 18, 24 and 33) and one on Wilbury Road (no 115), which gives us good spread around where Percy Westell identified the original site and where the assistant curator at Letchworth Museum (name?) dug trenches in 1956. Roman ceramics are turning up in the topsoil, so there is clearly going to be good evidence for the ancient site.
The most productive of the pits is that at 33 Wheathill, where there is a good mixture of Romano-British greywares, orange ware, possible amphora and samian. This suggests to me that this is the closest pit to the centre of the settlement, whatever for it took. In the other Wheathill trenches, the Roman material is much more worn; the is a nice fragment of lava, presumably from a quernstone, from number 24. At 115 Wilbury Road, there is a highly burnished sherd from what appears to be a small globular vessel, which looks rather Middle Iron Age at first sight: it will be interesting to see what it’s like after washing.
It’s fairly slow progress this morning, with everyone still in topsoil. I hope that by lunchtime, in 50 minutes or so, the topsoil will have been just about removed from all the trenches. On the other hand, it might be a lot deeper than I’m anticipating.
After lunch, the trench at 33 Wheathill seems to be coming down onto a new, stonier deposit. There are fewer finds at this depth (which is around 0.2 m. None of the trenches was out of topsoil/ploughsoil by the end of the day: although there are plenty of Romano-British finds, they don’t really tell us anything that we don’t already know. We need to find structural evidence, or at least surfaces, to help characterise the nature of the activity here.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Nigel Harper-Scott, Keeley Hale, Sophia Brookes, Clare Skelly, Philip Dean, Julie Goodwyn, John Goodwyn, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson, Greg Ford, Ernie Ford
Weather: dry, overcast, chilly
We have a lot more people today, as well as two new starters (Julie & John). We need to make good progress as tomorrow’s forecast is bad and the trenches at 107 & 109 are only about 20 cm deep, while medieval finds were made in June at a depth of about 40 cm.
At 111, the material dumped during the 1990s, (13), came down onto a thin buried topsoil, (14), which overlies an earlier dumped layer, (15). At the interface, there was a 1956 sixpence.
At 109, the homogenous soil deposit removed in 5 cm spits has given way to a more chalky layer. This has surprised me, as the homogenous layer looked very similar to the material in Trench I at 111 that contained only medieval finds. In the south-eastern corner, there is a distinct patch of burnt clay that may be the base of a bonfire.
At 107, they are still dealing with rubbly material, although there seems to be a change at the bottom. There is still rubble in this, but it’s possible that it has been compressed in from above. On the other hand, there is as much rubble as in the overlying deposit, so it may be part of the same dump.
At 111, (15) has turned out to be about 20 cm thick & to overlie a yellowish clay with little in it. I think it’s safe to abandon the trench.
After lunch, Chris & team backfilled, having first located the trench with reference to the garden shed. It looks as if this end of the garden has been used to dump unwanted soil for half a century or more.
The apparent change of deposit at 107 turned out to be a false alarm. Instead, there is a very rubbly deposit, consisting of a great deal of chalk with some quite large pieces of brick, still of evidently twentieth-century date. As it comes out, though, the brick is clearly not of nineteenth- or twentieth-century date, but is seventeenth- or eighteenth-century.
And that was it. Superficially disappointing results in all three trenches, but they still tell us several things. Firstly, that at the back of 111, there has been too much dumping of material during the twentieth century to make searching for Roman material worthwhile. Instead, we need to maintain a watching brief during construction work at Cade Close, which is due to take place early in 2009. Secondly, the lack of medieval material at 109 suggests that the original discovery at 111 and the material found during the test pitting of earlier this year marks a genuine concentration of medieval material that corresponds to the location of more intense activity. Thirdly, the discovery of apparently eighteenth-century bricks at 107 must be connected with works associated with what is now known as Manor Farm ar 105 Norton Road. In other words, we’ve actually got a lot of information, which is what the pits were intended to do: archaeology is absolutely not treasure hunting for spectacular finds!
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson (a.m. only), Howard Webber, Philip Dean, Alan Goodwin, Sophia Brookes, Chris Hobbs, Nigel Harper-Scott
Weather: cool, overcast and dry following overnight rain
We’re digging three trenches, at 107 (built 1947), 109 (originally known as Valcroft, after Valerie, daughter of the builder, who died in a motorcycle accident aged only 15, plot 966, built in 1955) and 111 Norton Road where it will be Trench III. Those at 107 and 109 are towards the back (south) of Botons Close, in other words about half way along the garden. That at 111 is right at the back of the garden to get as close as possible to the Cade Close feature that produced Roman tile. Stupidly, I’ve forgotten to bring any record forms with me and, to cap it all, the battery in my camera is dead. I am going to have to go home to collect the spare battery and pick up my Burymead keys the go and pick up the context sheets…
All three trenches appeared very different from the moment the turf was lifted. At 107, there’s a gravelly deposit with a jam jar set into it; it’s perhaps the foundation of a surface rather than a surface proper. At 109, it is down onto a very fertile looking topsoil with almost no inclusions. At 111, it’s dumped material from when Chris dug his pond in 1996. It consists of clay, which comes away in lumps. There are a lot of finds from this material, including St Neots ware, late medieval sandy wares and probable seventeenth-century pottery.
I took a trip down to Hitchin, so I now have a working camera and record forms. I also got a mattock for Chris’s pit, but on returning, found that the mixed material has almost gone and is peeling away from what looks to be the previous topsoil.
Chris’s trench is producing the most finds, which is hardly surprising, and none of the others are yet earlier than the twentieth century (there has been a little possible nineteenth-century material from 109, but it’s in a recent deposit). I’m hoping that the sequence at 109 is going to be like that at 111 in Trenches I and II, excavated back in May, where a fairly homogenous soil deposit has finds sorted by depth. What I’ve seen so far doesn’t contradict that. At 107, the story is more complicated, but we expected that, as we deliberately targeted the little platform by the relict boundary.
Once the sun is no longer on the gardens, it’s turning cold rapidly. The low raking light also makes it difficult to see what’s being excavated and by about half past four, it will be too difficult to continue.
Although today hasn’t been hugely productive in terms either of finds or of information, I am confident that we will get plenty of results tomorrow. We need to do some levelling tomorrow, as well: none of the test pits dug so far has ever been levelled, which happened only because the project did not have a dumpy level until the summer. We can now tie in Trenches I and II at 111 Norton Road and establish a temporary bench mark on Norton Road that we’ll be able to use for future projects.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Muriel Hardman, Alan Goodwin (am only), Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson, Frankie Saxton, Lisa Waldock, Mick James, Tim Vickers, Matt Pilsbury, Kevin Kendrick, Cameron Gormill (to 2 pm).
Mick has brought in the Cade Close evaluation report, which shows that far from revealing nothing, the trench closest to the gardens we’re investigating had a posthole containing a sherd of Romano-British pottery in it. So there’s a potentially Roman posthole about 15 m south of the end of the gardens…
Trench I at 111 continues to be the most interesting of the three. As well as another piece of débitage, Frankie has found a complete iron candle-holder. It’s difficult to be precise about its date, but as the deposit is producing nothing later than around the fifteenth century, I’m happy to see it as medieval (provisionally).
A very nice barbed-and-tanged arrowhead has turned up in Trench II at 111. There is some ancient damage to the barbs but apart from that, it’s in perfect condition.
The trench at 113 continues to be disappointing. The burnt material trowelled away rapidly and it’s come down onto a deposit with apparently recent tile in it. However, it turns out that this trench is not located in the former vegetable garden but in an area that was waste before being laid down as lawn (which probably explains the evidence for a nearby bonfire).
Context (7) in Trench II is now producing mostly medieval pottery, so I suspect that it is the same deposit as (6) in Trench I. There’s no sign of plough disturbance, which is what we’d expect as the documentary evidence indicates that this property has been part of a close since at least 1406.
Deborah Giles called in during the morning. Her health is very up and down, but she’s working on trying to document the owners and tenants of all the properties documented in 1796 back as far as she can go (which will certainly be into the Middle Ages for at least some properties). Hard work but incredibly useful!
Muriel organised finds washing during the morning. The finds from the Caslon Way test pits dug in February had not been washed, so a start was made on them. They aren’t especially exciting.
Ken Bird also called in at lunchtime and brought cakes for later…
No finds processing took place during the afternoon as Mick and Chris are getting anxious about bottoming the test pits. I don’t think that they have much to worry about: the Cade Close evaluation suggests that the topsoil and subsoil are no more than a maximum of 0.45 m thick. Even allowing for the effect of the turf in raising the level of the garden surface, I suspect that in Trench I at 111, we’re within 10 to 15 centimetres of natural, while in Trench II, it’s more likely to be 20 cm. The trench at 113, though, has further to go (perhaps as much as 35 cm) because the more complex stratigraphy there has meant that progress has been slower. And just to make things more complex, a probable posthole has turned up in the yellowish deposit that elsewhere contains medieval material. It’s more-or-less on the line of the relict boundary that seems to be the southern boundary of Bootings Close in 1796, so it may be part of a fence line. After the posthole was excavated, a stakehole turned up.
A piece of decorated ceramic building material has turned up in Trench I at 111. It’s a curious object, thicker than the usual floor tile, yet it’s the upper surface that’s decorated. The decoration itself is very rudimentary, consisting of parallel scored lines in two directions that are clearly not an artefact of manufacturing or to provide keying for mortar. All in all, I’m inclined to believe that it’s a floor tile.
By the end of the afternoon, none of the trenches had been finished, so I got the diggers to put sondages into the corners of trenches I and II at 111. As I suspected, the natural clay was a matter of centimetres below the depth reached and, in II, the water table was hit. I agreed with Mick and Chris that they could carry on tomorrow without my supervision, so we did not backfill the trenches.
On site: Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, Chris Hobbs, Muriel Hardman, Alan Goodwin (am only), Nigel Harper-Scott, Tony Driscoll, Pauline Gimson, Frankie Saxton, Cameron Gormill (to 2 pm), Lisa Waldock, Mick James
Weather overcast and dry following persistent rain. A little sunshine during the afternoon.
We are excavating three test pits on adjacent properties on the north side of Norton Road (nos 111 and 113). One of these, 111, is the site of the discovery of thirteenth-century pottery during the excavation of a pit for a water pump around ten years ago; both are part of a property referred to in documents from the later Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century as Botons or Bootings. The name seems to have been given to the property following its acquisition by John Boton of ‘Wilion’ (Willian) some time before “Tuesday next after the close of Easter 7 Henry IV” when he was distrained for sending his son to school without permission (H.A.L.S. DE JN Z 33, a translation of medieval court rolls). Over the following centuries, the owners of the property were constantly in trouble for allowing the building on it to fall into disrepair, presumably being unable to let it at a time of population decline and migration to nearby towns.
The present houses are twentieth-century in date (111 was built in 1923 and 113 appears to be 1960s, but both have later twentieth-century modifications and extensions). The turf in the garden at 111 has been established for at least 44 years, while the garden at 113 has been subject to a number of modifications in recent years, including levelling by importing topsoil (although we have tried to avoid this by placing the trench further north, in an area formerly used as a vegetable garden).
The ground is very soft in the trenches as a result of yesterday’s rain, which was constant from about 2 pm to 10 pm. The topsoil in each trench ((1) in Trench I at 111, (2) in Trench II at 111 and (1) at 113) has proved to be very thin (0.10-0.15 m maximum) but has already yielded finds including Romano-British pottery ((1) at 113) and possibly (1) in Trench I at 111). At 111, the topsoil is coming down onto a slightly more yellow deposit with a few chalk pebbles, while at 113 it is coming down onto a much chalkier deposit, with perhaps 20% chalk gravel. This latter deposit must be the former soil in which vegetables were grown; was the chalk perhaps added as a way of improving drainage and increasing alkalinity?
In the NE corner of the trench at 113 there is a clearly different context, which appears to be the fill of a cut through the presumed vegetable garden topsoil. It must therefore be of very recent date (borne out by a lump of clearly modern brick in the top of it) and although it needs to be excavated stratigraphically, the team really shouldn’t waste much time on it.
A reporter (Victoria) from BBC Look East is supposed to be turning up on site at some point this afternoon, arranged by Chris. She’s going to be filming at Letchworth Museum, showing the material Chris found in his garden years ago, which is on display there. There isn’t a huge amount to say about the site at the moment and the finds are far from spectacular, but I think that there’s a coherent story to put together. At any rate, it’s more publicity for the Norton Community Archaeology Group.
The camera team turned up early (typically) and they are currently filming Chris and the trenches. It means that we haven’t yet had a chance to take a lunch break. Such is the baleful power of television…
The different context in the trench at 113 has turned out not to be a cut but the deposit underlying the more chalky material (2), which simply had not spread over that part of the trench.
Trench I at 111 has started to produce a good variety of material, including Iron Age, Romano-British medieval and post-medieval pottery. This shows how churned up context (3) is, which is hardly surprising given what we know of the history of the site.
By lunchtime we’ve not got to any real depth in any of the trenches. The soil is horribly clayey, which makes it difficult to excavate. It’s looking unlikely that we’ll hit any stratigraphy before the end of today.
After lunch, work is continuing slowly. Trench I (3) at 111 is proving the most productive (and varied) of the deposits, with two joining sherds of a medieval handle turning up. Deposit (2) in the trench at 113 is the only context so far to have produced metalwork (an iron nail and a length of barbed wire), which does seem curious. And, inevitably, as soon as I had written this, a copper alloy curtain ring turned up in I(3) at 111…
Nigel pointed out that even though the lawn at 111 has been established for at least 44 years, it’s possible that much of it was dug up during the Second World War (or at least during the early part) for vegetables. While that’s quite likely, there’s nothing I’ve seen so far in the archaeology that suggests disturbance during the twentieth century (indeed, there’s nothing I’ve seen so far that I would date to the time when the house was built). It’s very different from what we’re finding at 113, where we know that there has been twentieth-century digging.
At 113, I(3) (the deposit under (2) that originally appeared in the NE corner of the trench) has come down rapidly onto a gravelly layer. It’s not clear if it’s the remains of a surface, but there is a patch of burnt material towards the north-eastern end of the trench that suggests that it may be close to the site of a former bonfire.
Work at 111 is speeding up owing the lack of real stratigraphy and the very mixed (but pre twentieth-century) nature of the deposits. Even so, I doubt that either trench will be 0.3 m deep by the end of the day. The range of material has been extended by the discovery of a piece of flint débitage of Bronze Age character.
The gravel ‘surface’ (4) at 113 trowelled away rapidly onto more of the burnt material that had originally been visible in the north-eastern corner of the trench. It’s not the site of a bonfire but is evidently close to one. The gravel contained a couple of pieces of leather, with traces of fabric on one side, which I suspect may be the remains of a shoe.
I’ve decided to assign a new context number to what’s coming out of Trench I at 111. In part, it’s because the material has got lighter as the trench has become deeper, but it’s also because it is now producing nothing later than late medieval material.
Instead of finishing at 4 o’clock, we’re carrying on to 4.30. This is because of the lack of real progress today, which is causing Chris some anxiety as the pottery he found nearby was at twice the depth reached today (around half a metre below the surface). I’m not so concerned, as I suspect his finds were from a pit…