leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

Damerham

We had a great time earlier this week.  We went to the dig at Damerham in Hampshire county, just South-West(ish) of Salisbury – see the website at the Damerham Archaeology Project.  We stayed in a local pub, the Compasses, which was very comfortable and provided good pub grub and coped beautifully with my inability to eat milk products.

The project itself is a community project led by Helen, Chris, Martyn and Olaf; that’s the same Olaf who is the Project Officer with Archeox. Olaf had suggested that we go down with him and have a couple of days down there to see how he’s been spending his summers for that last few years. As it turned out he couldn’t make it: he wanted to leave going down until the fields had been cultivated and that date seemed rather indeterminate.

One of the main reasons behind the Project is to investigate some aerial photographs, which showed some interesting crop marks, and see how they relate to the geophysics and, ultimately, to invasive (excavation) and non-invasive (field walking) techniques. The field walking has to wait until the land has been cultivated (ploughed and harrowed), so that the ground has been churned up and stuff brought to the surface – hence Olaf’s delayed arrival.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham. NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham.
NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Four trenches had been opened when we arrived as Chris explained after we had introduced ourselves. From right to left, one trench was across the ditch of the larger circular feature to the right, though no one was actually working there at that time. Below that where there was a circular feature joined to an elongated feature, Jack (Helen’s student from Kingston U.) was supervising a small trench.

Jack's trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

Jack’s trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

The largest trench had been put going away from the road across the large feature in the middle of the picture and finally, a small trench across the strange double circular feature to the left of the ‘bite’ out of the field, completed the tour.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it. Lovely weather, too!

The last feature was especially exciting as it is unique in the British Isles, the only other example being in France, in the Pas-de-Calais.

Explanations over, we set to work with Jack, sieving the spoil which had been removed by the opening of the trench. It was interesting to be excavating – well, sieving – in a completely different geology to the one we are used to. Here we were on the chalk, and only about 30-40 cm down we were down onto solid chalk, showing clearly the grooves cut by deep ploughing – though the farmer says they no longer deep plough, so the archaeology might last a bit longer.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack's trench.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack’s trench.

We sieved away all afternoon – found some flint flakes and some pottery; Medieval and earlier (well, really grotty, anyway). The flint was different – given its age and the environment, the surface changes and goes a milky-whitish colour; nothing like the flint we are accustomed to seeing. One has to look for the bulb of percussion (the little bulbous bit where the flint was struck to split it away from the original core) and the remains of the previous flakes on the dorsal side as the surface change tends to disguise the characteristic ripples that we normally see in flints in our neck of the woods. We had a lot of help as some of the volunteers from previous years had brought along their whole families.

Lots of help with the sieving - this was a quiet  moment - while Helen inspects the trench.

Lots of help with the sieving – this was a quiet moment – while Helen inspects the trench.

At the end of the day we repaired to the pub, the Compasses in Damerham, for a serious relax. We were a bit late in on the next day as we went into Fordingbridge, the nearest town of any size, to do a spot of shopping, but arrived on site at about 10. We had a look at the main trench, where it looked like they had found a couple of post holes at the top of the trench.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench - quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench – quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

Helen reckoned after all that sieving we deserved something a bit more interesting, so introduced us to Angela who was supervising the aptly named Angela’s Anomaly (I like the naming of the trenches – no Invisible Archaeologists here). We had a bit of tidying up to do – surprise, surprise – and then Helen suggested we split the ditch into six parts, so we could excavate three, and get a good number of sections.

The ditch with string already to start excavating - not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

The ditch with string already to start excavating – not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

While doing this we became aware of another difference from previous excavations; we had to ‘small find’ all finds! At least all we had to do was find Sam, Chris’ son, and he came over with a survey-grade GPS to get the location, so we didn’t have to faff around with tapes and a Dumpy level (though I do quite like doing it the old-fashioned way). We also took some soil samples as we went down, at least after we had got through the disturbed layer caused by ploughing. Another warm day so lunch came as a welcome break.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

Angela had to leave at lunchtime, so I got promoted to (nominal) trench supervisor – I wondered what Olaf had being saying about us! We kept on going down, assisted by Anthony, a very experienced digger who was familiar with chalk environments. I certainly wouldn’t have recognised the lumps of fire-affected flint which he pounced upon; he says he finds piles of them in the the New Forest where they were used to heat water. When you wet the surface you can see the fracturing caused by the thermal shock as the heated stones are put if the cold water, but dry and out of the ground they just looked like little grey pebbles to me. Gill came across a much softer bit of surface, which turned out to be an animal burrow, which after Helen dug around a bit, seemed to have a bottom layer of much darker material, perhaps an organic-rich layer washed in?

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

We weren’t the only ones to find animal burrows – in the main trench, where it was thought there were a couple of post holes it turned out the ‘complications’ were in fact a badger’s set, so a lot more tidying-up to unpick that one.

The animal burrow, a badger's set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

The animal burrow, a badger’s set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

At this point we were being helped by a group of artists from the Isle of Wight who were gathering impressions for future work, as well as experiencing excavating. It made for a busy and entertaining trench, though I rather blew it when, getting up to answer two questions at the same time, twisted and did some serious damage to my knee. Just at the end of the day, so I didn’t miss out on too much, but felt a complete idiot as I limped off to the car. Thankfully I could still drive but was really disappointed to have to miss out on Wednesday – we just drove home so I could get my leg up with cold compresses on the knee in hope that I could recover enough for the journey to the Orkneys.

Apart from the disappointing denouement, it was  great couple of days, and a really big thank you to Chris, Helen, Jack and Martyn (in strict alphabetical order) for making us so welcome, and giving us such an insight into excavating a chalky prehistoric site – we hope to be back in the future.

Leigh & Gill

Outreach and An Alternative View

A very busy day, last Sunday.

We were up nice and early, to get to Oxford Castle where they were holding an event to tie in with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology . We had a stall there and we wanted to get there early as I was taking down an enlargement of the plan of the trench we dug around Bartlemas Chapel – it has proved to be a good starting point for conversations in the past.

When we arrived, there was, of course, no room on the table for it (it’s mounted on an A0 size sheet of card) so it got stuck on the front of the stall. We then spent the rest of the day frantically trying to stop everything blowing away; note to self – always bring industrial amounts of bluetack to all outdoor events!

Laying out all our stuff on the stall

Laying out all our stuff on the stall, Jo is mounting the plan we brought along on the right of stall.

The day went pretty well, though a lot of the passers-by were coachloads of tourists with seemingly no English, so little chance of meaningful outreach opportunities there. There were a couple of sessions of talks, the first with Peter talking about the work our Place Names group is doing, and Jo giving an overview of the project’s work this year. They were followed by David Radford, the City Archaeologist, describing burial practices in Oxford through the ages. Sounded like good stuff, but I drew the short straw and had to man the stall. A pity, but as the air-con was out, perhaps not much of a hardship!

Chatted with quite a few people, including most of the re-enactors present, it seemed, and Gill got some useful hints about where to go for more information about medieval Psalteries – they are a family of flat stringed instruments. Gill got interested when it turned out that one of the Small Finds at Minchery was a tuning peg from a psaltery, so she is doing some background research – watch this space. We stayed until just after 3 then made our way home to grab a bite to eat before the real highlight of the day.

Matrix

Part of the brief given to the project from the outset was to involve as many different people as possible, to make it inclusive and bring different viewpoints to bear on the core job of archaeology. We have had several artists on board but Lucy Steggals, Filipe Sousa and Tara Franks decided on a slightly different tack to express what they thought about the project.

They had come along to a number of events, the last time – an inking workshop – they brought along a couple of tape recorders and did a series of interviews. What had stuck in their minds (and gave the show the title) was the idea of the matrix; both the Harris matrix, where one uses a matrix to sort out the temporal sequence of contexts in a trench, and the matrix of squares you get in a drawing grid.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

They then went through the recordings, selecting their favourite 25 words each (the squares in the drawing grid) and used them as a basis for editing the recordings, which they had playing on loops on headphones in the garden.

Go on, they don't bite!

Go on, they don’t bite!

As you can see, the cubes had the selected words on their sides – there were a lot more in the barn itself.  One of our favourite words was ~ish (as in early~ish, Roman~ish).  It gets used particularly on big digs before any clear pattern emerges.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

In the barn, there was a video being projected as a loop, with a recording playing and Tara accompanying on a cello – a bit I particularly liked, a rather ECM~ish (that word again) sound.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The cubes had various images which Lucy had edited out of the photos she had been taking when they had visited us, as well as the words they had extracted from the interviews. We could wander around and get different views of the projection.

Projection

Filipe, one of the creators.

Filipe, one of the creators.

We were invited to play around with the cubes, rearranging them as we saw fit, a task which some of us took to with enthusiasm.

Deconstructing the cubes!

Deconstructing the cubes!

I can’t really do justice to what was a visual, audio and (see above) tactile experience; as they say, you had to be there. It made for a great evening, and was fascinating to get an idea of how what we are doing can inspire other people to come up with a new insight.  A nice way to round off a long day.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Thanks to William’s parents for allowing us to use his image in the blog.

Leigh and Gill

Return to ArkT

As we approach the end of the “active” phase of the project we still have a few Test Pits to dig. We have had almost three years of doing things, then a planned one year devoted to writing everything up. The last year driving home the message that it’s all very well having fun (in sub-zero ‘summers’ and driving rain) excavating, it’s all just disciplined destruction unless the whole process is written up and – even more important – communicated.

We had been invited back to the ArkT Centre, in Church Cowley, on a combined Longest Day/Grand Opening of the Playground celebration cum fund-raiser. Before the construction of the Playground took place we had been invited in to do a couple of test pits to see what was there and had mixed results. The test pit in the back garden came up with very little, and came down on a very distinctive ‘natural’ in a short distance; it looked like leopard-skin – yellowy-orange with dark spots. We came to the conclusion that the spots were caused by the roots of the scrub which had grown up before the church had been built, drawing down organic material. As we took a sondage (a smaller pit-within-a-pit) we saw that the dark spots were like Brighton Rock; they extended down from the top so they weren’t some random thing.

The second test pit, where the playground would be built was a lot more interesting; after going down a lot deeper than the first test pit, it came down on an old surface with a ditch cut into it. The pottery in the cut of the ditch was Roman. Not unexpected, given the proximity to the Roman pottery industry, but gratifying nonetheless.

Jo showing us how it should be done!

Jo showing us how it should be done!

So we were more than happy to be invited back. Jo went over the top preparing activities for the smaller ones – colouring drawings, plenty of coloured crayons, etc – while we had plenty of spare trowels for anyone who had the urge to have a go at excavating. We arrived a couple of hours early to get the “boring” stuff out of the way; marking out the pit, de-turfing, accurately locating where the pit was, laying out the tarps and starting on the first context. At four, the doors opened and we were almost immediately inundated with children (parents staying in the background), ranging from real tinies up, who headed straight past all Jo’s carefully prepared goodies – they wanted to dig! We were relegated to explaining how to use a trowel, and rescuing any finds which got missed in all the excitement.

We did not get all that much more done that day, so decided to come back on the following day and carry on as we had really not got anywhere -just redeposited topsoil (though mustn’t underestimate the value of giving people a taste of excavating). After a bit more of the same, we started to get a fair amount of limestone rubble which, with the usual eye of faith and optimism, almost looked like a linear feature – could it be a wall? Rather oddly aligned, to be sure, but enough to spur us on.

A "linear" feature - could we have a wall? What's the technical term for wild optimism?

A “linear” feature – could we have a wall? What’s the technical term for wild optimism?

We decided to halve the test pit, that is, divide it in half and continue digging in only one half. We would draw a line East-West half way across the pit and continue to excavate the southern half – if there was a wall we would see it very clearly in the section, hopefully. As is often the case, as soon as we started to do this the whole picture changed! We came down on the same natural as we had seen in the previous test pit in the back garden of the Centre; the distinctive “Leopard Skin” soil in half of the half – the side nearest the Chapel. As we reckoned that this was the natural, we halved the half again (quartered?) and carried on down in the increasingly rubble-packed side – the West side, nearest the road.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We carried on for about another 0.4 metre, but had to call it a day then. It was getting really awkward to dig in such a confined space; if we wanted to go any further we would have had to opened up the half which we had left to give ourselves enough room to work in, and time was running out – by now it was Sunday. So what was the conclusion at the end of the day?

The rubble had been interspersed with pottery, mainly Medieval with one piece of Roman (I think), what looked like a fragment of a mortarium – it has a very distinctive surface, the “gritty” surface which was used for grinding food ingredients on. As we had reached the natural on the side of the pit closest to the chapel, I think what we were seeing was the slope down to the road. This had in the past had a retaining wall, which had been demolished and rebuilt farther away from the current chapel, encroaching on the road(some thing never change!). As all the pottery was Medieval or earlier, this demolition and rebuilding was most probably done in the Medieval period.

All that was left to do was the usual back-filling, then thanking the other volunteers for a good three days work, and retire for a rest in what remained of the weekend. We are all looking forward to hearing what an expert makes of the pottery, all the above remarks about dates were made by us volunteers, so could be slightly wide of the mark! It was pleasant to be digging in some warm weather; it did rain a bit, but at least it wasn’t the cold, windy stuff we had to put up with earlier this year.

Interesting test pits

At last the long winter is over and we’re digging test pits!  Unfortunately on Thursday and Friday, when we dug in the gardens of a convent in East Oxford, it rained most of the time and was bitterly cold and windy all the time.

The convent occupies Fairacres House, which was built in the late 18th/early 19th century. We are not absolutely sure about the previous use of the land as it isn’t in Cowley parish (which we have good maps for) but just, by 100 metres or so, in Iffley (which we don’t). To judge by the adjoining land in Cowley, though, it looks like it wasn’t part of the ridge and furrow field system, but was used as pasture. When we arrived and had a walk around it was clear that the site was on a small promontory, with the land sloping down on three sides.

One of the reasons we were here is that it is near one of the sites where the Bell Collection may have come from. This is a collection of stone tools from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. The older part of the collection came from a quarry near Donnington Bridge Road, we think from a quarry which is shown on the 1st Edition OS map, but the newer part came from a quarry somewhere around the convent. Our main problem is that Bell’s original report was lent out and never returned; the only documentation we have are some notes taken at a lecture Bell gave in the early 20th Century. The collection is held at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, where Olaf has been leading groups of us in workshops to start a much closer look at the neolithic part of the collection. So we were keeping our eyes peeled for worked flints!

Opening up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard.

Starting up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard. Jane appears to be demonstrating the art of standing with one foot off the ground.

We dug three one metre square pits at different locations.  The pit nearest to the house produced 18th and 19th century pottery and then appeared to reach sandy natural soil.  Jo and her team went on down and found the sand had been laid over soil which contained 17th and 18th century pottery and clay pipes, etc.

The middle pit near the vegetable garden contained nice top soil and then a layer of debris, bits of building material, pottery, bone and clay pipe, etc.  Under this we were very excited to find a deposit of several types of Roman pottery which had obviously not moved very far as the breaks were clean and there were no signs of long-term abrasion.  There has been no previous evidence of Roman activity in this part of Oxford – it was believed that they mostly inhabited the hills around the current city.

The end of the first day of excavating.

The end of the first day of excavating. Of course, when we were about to leave, the sun came out.

The third pit was towards the bottom of the garden closest to the river.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of prehistoric activity and found a great many flints but none particularly diagnostic for a particular period.

We found lots of small round lumps of burned charcoal, some obliviously quite modern, and were puzzled until we mentioned it to one of the sisters.  She told us they use it in the censer for incense during services and put it on the bonfire as it is considered blessed and cannot just be thrown away.  Obviously at some time it was buried in the garden.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise. This gives a better feel for what the weather was like.

On the second day we got permission from the convent’s gardener, Mark, to trample over his magnificent vegetable plot, for a bit of field walking. We drew up a plan, got Olaf to reassemble the GPS to accurately plot the blocks we had marked out, then I asked for volunteers to do the actual walking – as we had come to the back-filling by then there were no shortages on that front! . They had to walk up and then back in the furrows between the banked-up spuds, taking great care not damage Mark’s valuable crop, looking for anything of interest which had been brought to the surface by rotavating. We then ended up with one bag of finds for every square – 12 squares in all – a big thanks to Alison from the Ashmolean for her help during the whole process; it’s the first time I had done this. A quick glimpse at the contents of the bags showed, rather gratifyingly, a concentration of Roman pottery near the second test pit, seemingly tailing away with distance.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo's test pit - the one nearest the original building. I'm not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo  - she could just be hidden behind someone.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo’s test pit – the one nearest the original building. I’m not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo – she could just be hidden behind someone.

At the end of the day, after all the kit had been loaded into various cars and vans for ferrying back to our shed (along with my toolbox, packed up with the rest while I was concentrating on sorting out the field-walking finds) and everyone else had departed, we had a bit of a discussion about what we had found – obviously the Roman pottery was the high point. Not just a few isolated sherds, but a definite localised concentration. Apart from the Roman we did find a small, but significant, amount of Medieval pottery, so it would appear that this little promontory has looked like prime real estate for at least two thousand years!

We had planned on doing the washing on site, but the biting wind and generally horrid weather made us think again, and postpone it until we were indoors with a supply of warm water.

The sisters were very hospitable and took a great interest in everything we did.  We were particularly grateful for the hot tea!

Gill & Leigh

Community Archaeology in England

Sorry there are no pictures in this post.  Check out the links where you will find plenty of good ones. On Wednesday 6th March we had an interesting day.  We attended a Conted course (title above) subtitled ‘Exploring Challenges in Research, Management and Participation’. Most of the participants worked professionally in archaeology or some other part of heritage and four were volunteers with the East Oxford archaeology and History Project (Archeox).

David Griffiths introduced the day by saying the theme of the morning was research strategies and outcomes.  Two things he mentioned stuck in my mind: how to make projects self-sustaining in the long-term and how to evaluate success.  He hoped the day would provide ideas towards providing answers to these problems.

The first talk was by Nathalie Cohen of the Thames Discovery Project .  It was fascinating and the project obviously deserved its CBA Best Community Archaeology Project last year.  Check out their website – they have done far more than I could describe here.  Their remit was to investigate the inter-tidal foreshore of the Thames throughout the whole of tidal  Greater London.  They have had 388 people out on the foreshore and have engaged 2000 through their excellent website.  Structures have been at the centre of their work since artefacts can only be collected by licensed ‘mudlarkers’.  Fishtraps are a good example and many new ones have been identified. It looks like they have a sold future with many groups emerging to undertake further projects.   Nathalie asked for feedback on the website so get checking!

The second talk was by one of Archeox’s own Project Officers, Olaf Bayer.  A friend of his, who worked for English Heritage, had identified some interesting crop marks in aerial photographs of an uninvestigated piece of Cranborne Chase at Damerham on the boundaries of Dorset, Hampshire and Wiltshire.  He wanted to establish a research project to see if there were remains on the ground and asked Olaf and others to help in their own time.  They decided (as they were all outsiders to the area) to involve locals.  One woman in particular, Robin, proved invaluable in getting others to help and in organising their time.  The landowners were also helpful.  The team surveyed the area of the crop marks and found clear evidence of ditches and a larger circular structure.  A long barrow was exactly where they expected and still shows clearly above the ground.  There was an anomaly showing in the barrow which they decided to dig.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of previous antiquarian investigation but actually the site proved to have been used as a chalk quarry.  The whole area in under deep ploughing so the investigation was timely.

A most perplexing response followed from some of the first participants to ask Olaf a question.  One woman asked why, when so many long barrows had already been dug, did they feel it necessary to dig another.  Was it just to give some digging experience to the volunteers?  I think I have given a clear outline of what Olaf said so I could not imagine why she asked this.  Olaf responded by repeating some points from his comments and pointed out (again) that the whole area is under heavy agricultural use and the sites were likely to disappear in the next few years.

The next presentation was extraordinary. Lesley Hardy talked about the Folkestone project.  As she told us, she is a social historian not an archaeologist and although there was much talk of  ‘the centrifugal pull of archaeology’ the actual part of the presentation covering the archaeology was skimmed over.  She seemed to have a somewhat patronising attitude towards volunteers which was reflected in the following discussion.

After some comments, Swii (another member of Archeox) spoke up.  Swii pointed out that she has two degrees in archaeology but was working as a volunteer on the project.  There was a distinct frisson when the assembled company realised VOLUNTEERS were present.  Swii went on to say that she would rather work with many of the volunteers on the project than many of the professionals she had encountered.  This rather put a damper on proceedings and we all went to lunch.

The published programme was slightly re-arranged for the afternoon.  The first speaker was Tara-Jane Sutcliffe who is the Co-ordinator of the CBA Community Archaeology Training Placement Scheme.  Tara-Jane directed us to some general information about the CBA and then went onto describe the work of previous bursary holders.  They have been involved with a variety of organisations and projects and all have gone on to permanent work often with the organisation with their bursary was placed.  It appears to be a very successful scheme in identifying and supporting young archaeologists to broaden their experience and learn on the job.

Next up was Jane Harrison of Archaeox whose brief was to discuss training in archaeological skills on community projects.  Jane said that the project started with workshops and talks before proceeding with practical digging.  The latter started with test pits to develop volunteer  skills.  From experience, Jane believes in training on the job.  You are taken through what needs to be done at your own pace and, once confident, left to get on with it under increasingly light supervision.  Jane emphasised that, in her experience, volunteers knew when to ask questions and the team all encouraged this.  ‘Core’ (ie highly trained) volunteers would be used to train newer volunteers and a mixture of both would be involved in all aspects of any part of the project.  I then said my piece on the NVQ which some of the volunteers with Jo, our CBA bursary holder, are doing.  I emphasised the advantages for community volunteers in that the NVQ is not academic but practical.  It provides a method of getting formal credit for work you are doing anyway.  When achieved, you have the right to join the Council for British Archaeology so can officially call yourself an archaeologist.

Jo Robinson, the CBA bursary holder, took up the tale with an account of her year with the Archeox project.  The amount of outreach Jo has been doing was unknown in total even to the Archeox volunteers present (though we all knew some) and we found it very impressive.  Social media outreach has been part of Jo’s brief as well and she has been very successful in getting ‘followers’ on Twitter and Facebook.  Leigh then stood up to describe how he started this blog, emphasising that archaeology is all about communication or it is pointless. (There had been some muttering from other participants on the lines of ‘what is the point?’)  I somehow doubt whether most of the audience will ever bother to read this.

The last session, after tea, was fascinating.  Richard Osgood of the Ministry of Defence Estates had been asked to set up an archaeology session for a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.  Apparently, the only thing which prevented him from committing suicide was watching back-to-back episodes of Time Team.  Richard duly set up Operation Nightingale which involved archaeology sessions with a very clear-headed project design.  The first soldiers to be involved were the Rifles who have the worst level of PTSD.  Many are very young and have little education and the social aspects of the project are crucial.  Many of the participants were sent straight home on returning from Iraq or Afghanistan and had no chance to talk through their experiences.  The project won an award for rehabilitation. Richard hopes to extend the project to other regiments as it has been so successful in providing soldiers with skills and confidence.  A very impressive end to the day.

The overall impression at the end of the day was that no two community projects are alike.  The best advice came from Richard in the last talk when he described their project design:

  • Define your community
  • Define why you are undertaking the work (for participants and site)
  • Define your objectives for results
  • Define your methodology to achieve results
  • Define your methods of assessing results
  • Examine ways of improving
  • Start process again

Gill

Minchery Priory – Preparation

At last I’m able to get around to talking about last year’s Big Dig at Minchery Paddock – we have had to take some time off owing to day-to-day life intruding. Neither of us had imagined how complicated and time consuming selling our place in London was going to be; however we are now (fingers crossed) on the last lap so can devote a bit more time to the important things in life!

After a whole lot of work on the Team’s part, they got permission from Oxford City Council to dig in Minchery Paddock; a closed-off (in the sense of preventing vehicles in) field as shown on the map.

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Here is a close up, showing where the paddock was in relation to the Kassam Stadium (to the right) and Oxford Science Park (to the left).

Close-up of the map above.

Close-up of the map above.

Both maps courtesy of Open Street Map –  © OpenStreetMap contributors.

The site is of interest because of the proximity of Minchery Priory – in the map you can see a building just next to the bottom right of the site; this is the “Priory and ?” pub, a Grade II* listed building,  which was rebuilt in the middle or second half of the 15th century, having been the eastern range of the cloister garth of the priory (Pantin, 1970). 

The car-park side of the Priory and ... ? pub. We never did work out what the ... ? was all about.

The car-park side of the Priory and … ? pub. We never did work out what the … ? was all about.

The name “Minchery” is derived from the Old English ‘mynecu’ or ‘minschen’, a nun. The priory (originally dedicated to St Nicholas) was founded by Robert de Sandford probably in the middle of the 12th century, was taken over by the Templars in approx. 1240 and managed by them until the order was suppressed in 1312. It was dissolved by Wolsey in 1525 after various scandals about the prioress and the nuns and passed to Cardinal (later Christ Church) College, though by 1549 it had passed into the hands of Powell family who held it until the 18th century. More information about the priory can found in an article in the VCH, and about the surrounding area in another article about Sandford, again in the VCH.

Pantin, mentioned above, has provided us with a plan of what he thought was the layout of the priory. He thought the cloister extended to the west from the existing pub, so in theory it could extend into the area which we might be digging in. However we have no really hard evidence for this, one of the reasons for digging here! The Council did think about developing the site so commissioned John Moore Heritage Services to do an evaluation of the site in 2006, which has provided us with some targets for working out where to place our trenches. Apart from this report, there have also been trenches dug when Greater Leys and the Oxford Science Park were developed. These have found prehistoric sherds and flints, evidence for Roman kilns (especially in Greater Leys), a Saxon village under the Oxford Science Park as well as evidence for medieval farm sites.

However the site did provide us with some new challenges – unlike last year at Bartlemas we did not have a friendly College to provide us with a pavilion to use for a start; we had to hire in loos, storage (especially important, we thought, after hearing some horror stories about vandalism from a nearby construction site) and a site office, and last but not least, somewhere for the poor volunteers to shelter if it tipped it down.

The other challenge was the site itself –

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared – Jane, Jo and David P surveying, and no, none of them are vertically challenged!

We had to get in a commercial crew with a tractor and flail to clear the undergrowth, and to chop back branches in the south end of the site where a whole load of self-set sycamores had grown up. This was one of the reasons for us being here – the roots of these young trees could be damaging any archaeology, especially as they were growing where there might be remains of the priory. Once the clearing had been done, in came the Portacabins and a whole load of fencing as well as a load of tracking to put down so the lorries could deliver all the stuff without getting bogged down. A big thanks to Olaf for this, it was a real bit of choreography to organise everyone arriving in the correct order.

The Portacbins installed - the blue one was for storage - the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator - the loos were round the back.

The Portacabins installed – the blue one was for storage – the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator – the loos were round the back.

While all this was going on, we also were marking out where to put the trenches. As I mentioned before, we had the John Moore Heritage Services report to use as a starting point, so we planned out trenches accordingly.

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Original diagram courtesy John Moore Heritage Services (JMH). A bit confusing of-site, as it shows a range of buildings to the north of the pub which are no longer there; it’s just a bit of a wasteland used as an overflow car park on match days and an area for a bit of gratuitous fly-tipping.

We decided on three trenches. Trench 1, at the north end of the site, up by the brook, was put in because JMH had found a layer of peat there – we wanted to take a continuous set of soil samples from this layer. Not only could we get environmental samples and therefore start to work out what the contemporary environment was like, but by doing some radiocarbon dating we will be able to find when the peat started to be layed down and when it stopped. Both are most probably linked to human activity changing the way water flowed in the area.

Trench 2, in the middle by the office and storage sheds, was put in next to two JMH trenches. JMH trench 3 which contained a couple of robber trenches and a possible boundary ditch and JMH trench 4, containing a well (which we planned on avoiding!), a hearth and a possible floor surface. As you can see from the plan, Trench 2 spanned the two JMH ones.

Trench 3 , in the south, spanned JMH trench 8 – they would have had trouble putting it in today as a tree had grown up in the middle of it – hence the rather odd shape of our trench. JMH found walls, aligned east-west , but we would have dug there anyway, owing to the proximity to the pub. While marking this trench out prior to the digger coming in, we came up against one of the drawbacks of using survey-grade GPS – the device does not like working near trees. It has to have line -of-sight contact with the satellites to work properly. I was finding one measurement would be OK, then it would give a ludicrous distance to the next plotted point. The marvels of modern technology!

Talking of which, the reason I haven’t mentioned geophysics is, as JMH discovered, the site had been used for doing a lot dodgy things to cars in the past, including torching them. This has resulted in a pretty even spread of bits of magnetised iron over the site, so a gradiometer just gives such a noisy result as to be virtually useless. That’s not taking into account that we discovered we had stumbled onto Mole Central – I would not have liked trying to walk in the nice and even style required by that sort of survey over a surface which seemed to have mole-hills on its mole-hills.

After we had marked out all of the trenches we let the digger loose –

The digger in trench 3 - you can see the pub in the background.

The digger in trench 3 – you can see the pub in the background.

The digger driver, Nigel, was a real asset; we had worked together before at Bartlemas and apart from having a real feel for the machine, and being a nice guy, he’s developing quite an interest in the archaeology. We rapidly came down onto (we hope) archeology in all three trenches – looking good for the start of the actual excavating!

Leigh

Test Pit 54 -part 2

Day 4 – 27th

A decent turn out today; no Gill (she had other work to do) so I took over documentation and finds work to let everyone else do the digging. Not quite true as some of the time only two people could realistically get to the area we were digging, so some of the time I had both Tricia & Leslie helping on finds.

We decided to tidy up what we had got so far before doing anything further; find out what the lumpy bit (notice the technical jargon) to the left of centre in the last photo in part one was hiding and take all of the sondage down to the same level as the top of the linear feature.

Jane turned up just as we had finished doing that and agreed with what we had thought was the best strategy; excavate the linear feature first – it looked to be the most recent activity, and then take the two sides down to whatever level the feature bottomed out at. We gave the two sides of the feature different context numbers as the soil colour was noticeably different.

I’ve put two photos together to show the different colours of the soil to either side of the feature.

The feature excavated very cleanly, and very gratifyingly had a piece of pot (which Jane later dated as Medieval) right at the bottom of what looked very like a trench which had been cut to hold the footings of a wall.

The feature, which we now believe to be the footings for a wall, excavated.

We then took out the side which we had not yet excavated, the west side of the trench, to see if the footings for the wall extended the whole width of the trench. This allowed everyone to get stuck in.

Everyone taking the “other” side of the trench down to same level as the top of the wall footings.

That about wrapped it up for the fourth day.

Day 5 – 28th

Our last day, and we were feeling a bit pressurised as we had to leave ourselves enough time to backfill the trench, but we had no idea of how far down we needed to dig in order to get to the “natural” – the natural geology which shows no evidence of human activity.

We decided to concentrate our efforts on the area underneath the wall footings; the reasoning being that anything we find in that area must have been ‘sealed’ by the wall footings, any finds would have to be older than the wall above them, while the areas to either side could have been dug out while the wall was still there. As this was such a small trench only one person could excavate it at a time, so we also decided to dig on the south side of it. We chose this side as it was darker (see the photo above), this might indicate a higher organic content. We ended up with a total depth of just under 1 metre, but don’t think we got to the natural – it just seemed to be the same, rather nice, garden soil.

The sondage under the wall footings, with the area to the south (left) which we excavated at the same time.

We tidied up, and labelled the various contexts before we took photographs.

The whole trench, labelled, just before we backfilled it, showing how the wall foundations extend the whole width of the trench.

Now the really exhausting bit started – it’s surprising how much soil comes out of a trench like this! After about an hour, though it sure felt like a lot longer, we had got the lawn back to an approximation of how it was before we started – it looks a bit messy as I put down a bit of top-soil to fill in the gaps, but after a bit of rain it should look fine.

The turf relayed, at last.

So, what does it all mean? Well, we had just about worked it out on Friday, after Steve noticed that if you looked along the line of the footings in the trench towards the wall by the road, you could see a quite obvious change in the wall, then we looked the other way, and we could just about see (there was a big magnolia in the way) a wall coming towards us. So the answer was in two parts:

1: We had a demolished boundary wall.

2: Always, always check maps and any other documentation before you even turn up on site. Totally obvious, I know, but sometimes it needs a red face to drive the message home.

A plan of the property, derived from the first series Ordnance Survey map – the red line shows the boundary wall which now no longer exists.

Leigh

Test Pit 54 – part 1

Last week, we were involved in a return visit to Mill Lane, where we dug a test pit last year as part of a test pit weekend in Iffley. A very wet weekend in Iffley. The second day was tipping it down to such an extent that we called it off at about mid-day and retreated to the Prince of Wales for well deserved pint. However, we had obviously piqued the interest of the house’s owner, as she contacted Jane again this year and invited us back to carry on and expand the trench we had put in – we were more than happy to oblige as we found some interesting archaeology (what we took to be the footings for a wall) rather than just the usual sprinkling of finds. So, at rather short notice, Olaf sent out a call for volunteers and we waited for emails – a bit close to the Minchery dig and there was another test pit going in in Ronnie Barker’s old house, but we got enough to make a go of it.

Day 1 – Monday 24th

Well, this looked very familiar! Total wash-out – and the forecast was for the downpour to continue for most of the day. Gill and I went to the site, partially to explain to the owner and partially to talk to anyone who turned up (luckily we caught everyone apart from Tricia by phone – and she had agreed to turn up early to help us set up). We then went off to ArkT to meet up with Jane and discuss a number of things and pick up some paper-work. Bumped into Jo, who was collecting the equipment for the other test pit – both Gill and I had to do a double-take; she was soaked to the skin, by the look of it, waterproofs notwithstanding. Went home to pray for better weather tomorrow.

Day 2 – Tuesday 25th

Thankfully, better weather. Got on site at 9:30 to unload the car and get things set up – Tricia had arrived early as well to us a hand. Then on to the deturfing : –

Tricia cutting the turf prior to lifting them and storing them – in order! – on the tarpaulin.

Then on to the real business – excavating. As soon as we had tidied up the exposed soil, it became apparent there was a paler, ‘mortary’ looking area – was this a change in context (a new layer) showing up? Carefully trowelling back confirmed we had a surface, sloping from down from south (higher) to north (deeper), which looked as if it had sand or mortar trodden into it. There were also two holes in it in the south eastern corner. We decided to split the trench in half, and excavate the half with the two holes through our trampled surface in. This was also the side of the trench which joined up with last years excavation, so hopefully we would catch the “wall” which we had found then.

The “trampled” surface, showing the two holes and the string dividing the trench in half. We would excavate the half nearer the camera tomorrow.

Just as we were leaving the owner told us that when she had moved in, the previous owner, a keen gardener, had laid a shrub bed between the path in front of the front-door and the rockery with a huge conifer in it. She had had the shrubs grubbed out and the bed laid to turf. This was smack-bang over our trench – was that what the holes were?

Day 3 – Wednesday 26th

Slightly slower progress today as there were only three of us – prior commitments taking their toll. We started excavating the two ‘holes’, as they would have been the most recent events, having been cut through the surface, and also carrying on the excavation below the surface in the north of the trench – this was well out of the way of the two ‘holes’. When Christopher and Tim had started to do this yesterday, they had both noted how much more compact, indeed how tough it was to excavate, compared with the layer above the surface. This is what made us think that the two holes contained a continuation of the layer above – it seemed so much more like it rather than the compact layer just below the surface.

The perils of jumping to conclusions! As we went further down in the north half of the trench the soil became more and more friable, and lost the small pieces of CBM (Ceramic Building Material – small bits of brick and tile) and sand and mortar, and came to resemble the layer above the trample surface. It was also becoming apparent that we couldn’t see any difference between the ‘holes’ and the surrounding soil. We realised that the surface was the result of trampling, we think while the Edwardian (judging by the style) extension was being built, which had compressed a thin surface layer while embedding the sort of stuff one finds on a building site into it. The ‘holes’ may well have been dug to plant shrubs in, but as they would have been immediately back-filled with the soil that came out of the hole, it is, of course, indistinguishable from the surrounding soil.

A valuable lesson learnt, and something to watch out for in the future. So we stopped digging the holes and concentrated on just levelling the whole surface off. Sheila was excavating what we thought was a layer of sand and mortar, but as she trowelled it back, it looked less and less like a layer, and more like an area where the builders had just been piling stuff up – it wasn’t a homogeneous layer, just a mixture of different types of soil.

The mixed up ‘layer’ that Sheila was excavating.

She did find what looked like electrical cable – not plastic insulation, though, which would tie in with earlier on last century. Then just as we were finishing off the day we found this:

The feature that appeared at the end of the day.

Now that looked a bit more like a feature! I took a print-out of this photo along to the evening’s talk (about last year’s dig at Bartlemas Chapel) to show to everyone – it definitely got people’s enthusiasm up for tomorrow’s dig.

I’ll finish off describing the dig tomorrow – I forgot my camera on the fourth day, so I borrowed Tricia’s one and she will be bringing a USB stick along to tonight’s talk (about the upcoming Minchery dig) and I’m also taking some of the finds, mainly pottery, so Jane can have a look and hopefully give us some dating info.

Leigh

Lots of Practical Things

A really busy week after the building survey – we had Saturday off, just wandered down to Bartlemas and had a chat with Jane and the guys who were carrying on from where we left off the previous day. Rather disturbingly they seemed to be doing a lot more drawing than we had managed the previous day!

The next day we went down to Bartlemas Chapel again, this time to help out with the Oxford Open Doors day. This is an Oxford-wide event where all sorts of places open their doors (for free). A lot of the colleges allow much wider access than normal, and museums have special events (a lot have to be booked) like tours of their conservation facilities. As I mentioned in the last blog, Christopher and Sarah, who are trustees for the Chapel, were opening it up so we went down to give them a hand. I had printed out an A1 size enlargement of the plan of Trench 1 from the dig at the Chapel – the trench around the chapel.

The Plan of Trench 1, around the Chapel – on the day we pencilled in where we thought the footprint of the earliest chapel went.

We used this as a starting point for a description of the history of the chapel, from the 12th century on, in the light of what we had discovered from the excavation. Christopher said later on that over 200 people turned up on the day, which I think must be an under-estimate; my throat was telling my that I talked to a lot more than that.

Visitors at the Bartlemas Open Doors event, crowding around the table where we had the plan.

We are having a talk about the dig next Wednesday, the 26th, for full details go to the Archeox website. Jane and Graham took the opportunity to carry on with the survey drawings.

Graham carrying on with the survey drawing from the day before – I didn’t manage to get a picture of the rather Heath Robinson method of holding the measuring staffs against the wall of the Chapel.

I had wanted to do a bit myself, but whenever I was about to have a go, more visitors turned up – ah well, there’s always another day.

The day after we went along to another Animal Bones workshop – we are trying to finish up the initial pass through the animal bones from the Bartlemas dig, so Julie can get down to the proper analysis. Whereas in the past we were doing one step at a time – i.e. either working out what the bones were, then analysing their condition and checking if anything had happened to them (burning, being chewed, etc) and last of all, pulling all the info together onto a summary sheet for that context – this time we did them all. So we started of with a bag full of bones and ended up with a bag full of a) bags containing bones & description sheets & b) one summary sheet. This was then passed onto Julie who was stuck behind her laptop, keying in the summary sheets.

Bones separated out into groups, ready for Julie to come and tell us what they actually are, as opposed to what we thought they were – though we were starting to get better at it!

We didn’t manage to finish the whole lot, but made decent inroads; Julie ran another session on Wednesday to hopefully finish it all off. Gill could not make it, but I turned up, and with a lot of hard work we managed to get it all done – fired up by Jane announcing that she has sorted out our big dig for this year – it’s going to be at Minchery Priory, next door to the Kassam Stadium, starting at the beginning of October.

The location of this autumn’s dig.

There has been some exploratory digging done here, and as the scrubby trees are getting bigger, their roots will start to damage what archaeology there is, so the council has given us permission to do some rescue archaeology – follow this space!

Then on Thursday we had a finds sorting session at ArkT (see the earlier “Finds Sorting” blog), but this time it was the finds from the various Test Pits we have done so far – at least 52 of them.

Jane and I discussing something – not giving each other a Masonic handshake!

Again, good progress was made, and Jane has said she has had good feedback from the various experts that the sorted finds go to of the method we have adopted. Having a summary of everything in that particular context alongside photos of the complete assemblage has proved to be pretty popular. You can see (just about) from the photo how we have laid out all the finds grouped together, we take one overall photo, then as many close ups as necessary. The first session of many, I suspect.

So, as I said at the beginning, a busy week – and no let up in the near future. I’m organising a follow up dig in Iffley of the Test Pit we dug in Mill Lane for the week before the dig at Minchery Priory, there is a taster session at the Ashmolean museum where some of us are going to help out with cataloguing their collection (a never ending game of catch-up from their point of view, an excellent opportunity to broaden our knowledge of different sorts of finds from ours), a talk next Wednesday about the Bartlemas dig (see the link above) and then the start of the dig at Minchery Priory.

Building Survey

On Friday and Saturday, there was a building survey at Bartlemas Chapel; Gill and I were booked in on the Friday session. This was to give us an introduction to the gentle art of doing a scaled drawing of the elevation of a building, in this case our old friend, Bartlemas Chapel. We met up with Jo a bit early at ArkT to pick up the gear we needed and then headed off to the Chapel. I was really gratified to see that there was virtually no trace of all our fevered activity just under a year ago.

A year (almost) after there was a large trench here, and now hardly a sign of all our hard work.

So, after the usual signing in, health and safety and introductions, Jo and Jane started to explain how we were going to go about doing the drawing. In a lot of ways it’s just like drawing a section of the side of a trench – only you’re looking up instead of down! Just like doing a section the first thing is to measure the length and depth (or height in our case) of the area which we’ll be drawing, and then work out what scale (1:10 or 1:20, say) we are going to use given the size of paper we have. A fair amount of head-scratching ensued, but there is nothing so irritating as drawing away merrily for hours, then dropping off the edge of the drawing board – a bit of time spent in preparation is very well spent. Then start by putting in the title (where we are and what we are drawing) the date, the scale and who was doing the drawing. Preparation of the paper done we then started on the wall itself.

This is where it diverges from doing a section – one can’t start hammering nails into a grade 1 listed building! The principal is the same, though; we need a datum, a reference from which all the measurements can be taken. So the first thing to do was set up the dumpy (no one can remember why it’s called that – everyone remembers being told, but as no-one remembers it must be a pretty boring explanation).

Setting up the dumpy

After it has been levelled, with a built in spirit level, we started putting in the datum line; normally we use a string (we had brought some road pins along to stretch the string between, but found we couldn’t push them into the ground) but this time we used a chalk line drawn on the stone work – it will wash off in the first rain. So using the dumpy we drew a line at the same height all along the wall which we would be drawing. Then the fun started.

Basically, the procedure is that we measure a set of prominent points (the corners of distinctive stones, for instance), draw them in, and then freehand the intervening detail. Sounds simple, eh?

Two of us measuring a point on the buttress.

Just by Jo’s head you can see the datum line continuing along the wall from where she is holding the tape so Andrew can measure the vertical distance to the point which we are going to plot. We used the measuring staff, which is leaning up against the buttress, to do the points which were too high for the steel tape.

So after we’ve got a few points measured, then the drawing starts.

The hard work – doing the actual drawing.

This, of course, is the whole point of the exercise. We have had a laser scan done of the building, and have obviously taken a shed-load of photos, but there is no substitute for drawing – the human eye is capable of much better discrimination than any photo. It’s not so much a matter of  “accuracy”, but the ability of a combination of really looking at a subject, then using the drawing to bring out the relevant details.

So after a lot of hard work the end result looks something like this – this is one I prepared earlier ( to coin a phrase) – it’s the end, and the start of the other side, of the buttress that Jo & Andrew are measuring in the photo above.

The end result – the second group started quite a bit later than the first one.

Another group carried on on Saturday, and when Gill & I popped in on Saturday afternoon to have a chat, Jane said we might well carry on Sunday, as quite a few of us are going to be at the Chapel as part of Oxford’s “Open Doors” event. Christopher & Sarah Franks are opening the Chapel so the Project is going to lend a hand (they got a bit overwhelmed last year by the unexpected number of visitors) and do a bit of explaining about what we found during the dig last year. Hopefully there will be a bit more of the chapel to show in a later blog.

Leigh

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