leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

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

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