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

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