leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

Test Pit 52

This Thursday and Friday Gill and I have been organising a test pit in the back garden of one of the volunteer’s house – a big thank-you to David and Catriona for allowing us to dig up their lawn! I had been round a few days earlier to have a chat with David about where to site the pit – we only do a 1×1 metre pit, so it’s not too disruptive – but needs a bit of thought. We have to be away from trees, for instance, and not too near the house, though in this case the house was a 30’s build, so would have been hand-built – modern houses with the footings excavated by mechanical diggers have a large radius of disturbance – think of the reach of the digger’s arm.

Then I had the joy of answering all the emails -I had agreed to do all that side of it; my admiration for all the work Jane has put in in the past goes up day-by-day! I was amazed at how quickly people responded; I closed the book about an hour after Olaf sent out the initial email. Then all that needed doing was for me to go up to the shed to get all the stuff needed – it filled up the boot quite tidily. Then I thought it might be a good idea to have the kit with us to do some finds washing if the opportunity arose, so off to the shed again. Eventually Thursday rolled around and it was time to start.

On the first day we had Christopher, Phil, Leon and Sue; it was Sue’s first day with the Project, though Phil and Christopher are veterans of the Bartlemas dig, and Leon has done a couple of test pits in the past. After the usual Health & Safety talk and signing in I gave a bit of background – as I said above, these houses were built in the 30’s (’35 I think David mentioned), before that, at least in the 1st series OS map, it was fields. Before that, in both the 1853 Enclosure map and the 1777 Christ Church map, it is shown as being part of  “Cowley Marsh”, and Gill and I are especially interested in that; could we find any evidence as to what the Marsh actually was?

A familiar scene – one guy doing all the work, while the rest of us stand around and watch!

After laying out the outline and taking the turf off, we made a start. First topsoil (about 0.10m), which had been layed over a thin layer of pea gravel and general building detritus (about 0.03m), then lots and lots of clay. Throughout the day we found charcoal, in varying sizes – which means there was human activity going on somewhere around.When we got to about 0.22m down we decided to do a “sondage”; take a small part of the trench and dig deeper there, rather than taking the whole trench deeper. When you can’t see any differentiating features across the plan view of the trench (or pit) it’s OK to do – you can always widen the sondage if anything interesting warrants it.

There was another layer of what looked like builder’s rubble, mixed in with a slate-grey coloured clay (between 0.26 & 0.35 m) down in the sondage, but most of it was a dark yellow clay with the occasional lenses of blue clay. We found some copper wire, pieces of roofing slate and what looked like lime-mortar.

The sondage. showing the layer of builder’s rubble about two-thirds of the way down.

That concluded the first day – as the forecast looked a bit iffy, we covered up the test pit with some wood slats a weighted down plastic sheeting (I’m sure I took a photo of that, but the trench camera was playing up – I took my own one the following day).

The second started off a bit greyer than the first, though we had thankfully missed the rain. Christopher, Phil and Leon carried on from the day before, with Laura coming along for the day – it was her first day with the Project, though she had some excavating experience from the Bamburgh Project (in Northumberland). We carried on excavating, but as it was a bit awkward getting more than one person digging, with two people feeling their way through the clay spoil (you try sieving clay!), we started washing finds. Phil volunteered to do the washing, with Leon splitting his time between washing and digging – when we down deeper he was the only one of us who could fit in the sondage! I had popped back to the shed to get a mini-mattock, as nothing else would make an impression on the clay. Just before we got down to the natural (the undisturbed geology) we came across our major find of the dig (we think, it was identified by Jane with me describing it over the phone, not ideal) – a piece of Roman pottery. The natural was a bluey-grey clay, with pieces of degraded limestone interspersed in irregular clumps throughout it, topped by a concentration of pieces of Gryphaea (fossilised bivalves, like large oysters).

All that was left to do was to backfill the pit, which with the number of people to hand, was no trouble at all.

Leon stamping down the soil as we backfilled the test pit.

The turfs came up a bit proud, as they tend to, but David said he would deal with that – a good couple of days – two new members welcomed – and a bit more evidence to fit into the broader picture which is slowly emerging.

Leigh

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