leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “test pits”

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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

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.

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

Blackbird Leys Test Pits

Last weekend, 5th & 6th May, the Project had a test pit weekend at Greater Leys, where the local Women’s Institute had invited us to, which is the area in the southern part of Blackbird Leys : –

The highlighted area in the south part of Blackbird Leys where the test pits were located

Here is a close up of Greater Leys – it’s all the streets to the south of  the stream which you can see picked out by the trees running from east to west; it’s a relatively modern development; late 1980s onwards, we think.

A closer-up view of Greater Leys, with the Clock House roughly in the centre

We have had a look at older maps, back to the first Ordnance Survey, to see what was there before Greater Leys was built, and it appears to be open farmland. I can’t include any of the early maps because of usage restrictions – the maps themselves, being over 120 years old, are safely out of copyright, but the people who have scanned them and made them available for academic use won’t allow display on the web. I feel a rant coming on, so I’ll just show a 1945 aerial photo from Google Earth – it’s the same scale as the map above, so you can get an idea of what the landscape was like before it was developed.

A 1945 aerial photograph of the same area as shown in the map above.

Looking at the Victoria County History for the area – it was in Sandford Parish – it appears to have been farmed for a long time, at least back to Domesday Book; Pembroke college owned a lot of the land prior to enclosure, but unfortunately there is no enclosure award. However, it does seem fairly certain that we are dealing with farmland.

We all met up at the Clock House, which is roughly in the centre of the above two maps, for an introductory talk by Jane, and to be divided up into teams to cover the 6 test pits which were to be dug over the weekend – Gill & I lead one of these teams – and then we collected our equipment (thanks to David and Louise for bringing it along from the Ark-T shed) and off we went. It’s policy not to divulge the exact addresses of where we dug, like we don’t publish photos showing the backs of peoples houses, or the way into their gardens (for obvious reasons) so all I can say is the rough area in which we were working. We keep the precise locations, but it will only be used in GIS systems for mapping distributions of finds where the data is anonymised; this is one of the main reasons for doing test pits – what you find in an individual test pit is interesting, but the more test pits you dig, the more data you collect, and you can put together a picture which is much greater than the sum of its parts. Olaf put it rather well at the post-dig meeting – imagine taking a sheet of paper with a small, square hole (1m in scale) cut in it and placing it over the plan of a large excavation of, say, a cathedral; you wouldn’t be able to work out what on earth was going on from such a tiny snapshot, you would have to move the paper around a lot to build up a coherent view of what was there.

So off to our designated back garden with Mark and Tricia, our two volunteers, where we made a start – the usual deciding where to put the pit, and measuring and aligning it before the hard work started; deturfing!

The test pit aligned north/south and squared-up – ready to go.

After the turf had been removed we started to dig down, initially just finding the sort of rubbish that you would expect on a building site; bits of plastic, binding cords, the metal straps that they bind palettes of bricks together with. The soil was very clayey – it was impossible to sieve so the two junior members of the household, Libby and Alice, set to work checking the spoil.

Everyone (apart from the Supervisor in the background!) hard at work.

This soon changed, though, when we noticed that there appeared to be a line of stones – a “linear feature” in the non-judgemental parlance – running straight across the middle of the pit, east to west. We tidied up where we had dug down to, and then proceeded to trowel off the soil carefully until we could see what we had got.

The “linear feature”, or wall as we tended to refer to it. North is to the left of the photo.

It isn’t too evident in the photo, but the soil to the north (left in the picture) was much darker than that to the south, which as we went down was chock-a-block with limestone cobbles. There were some pieces of wood to the north (the dark patches right up against the left-hand side of the wall in the photo ), right up against the wall which were sodden – you could press your finger into them. The wall itself was pretty sturdy, while the limestone cobbles came away fairly easily so we were inclined to think that they represented the “tumble”, the remnants of the wall which had been knocked off when it collapsed, or was demolished. We were quite confused at this point – as you can see from the aerial photo above , we were in the middle of a field – what was a wall doing here? Perhaps it was a pre-enclosure wall; when the enclosure happened, the new field boundaries were pretty arbitrary and quite often ignored the previous field boundaries – might this be an older field boundary or a wall of a barn (we had found virtually nothing in the way of pottery or other evidence of human habitation)? Only digging farther would give us any chance of resolving the problem.

The modern membrane which really confused us.

Linda, one of our hosts, was digging on the south side of the wall and suddenly called for a second opinion – “What’s this?” – pointing to what looked suspiciously like modern weed-suppressing membrane. This really put the cat among pigeons – what was this doing a third of metre down? Linda set-to chasing the membrane both towards the wall and also “backwards”, towards the side of the pit – to find how far it went. Mark kept on going down on the north side – he hadn’t got as far down as Linda – to see if it carried over and went all the way under the wall, while I started to take a section out of the wall, to see how far down it actually went.

The result was as you see above – it could be clearer, but the membrane extends just to the left of the end of the red line, well under what we had assumed to be the wall! So no pre-enclosure wall, then! We carried on tidying up, and if anything, it got more confusing. Under the membrane, the soil was a yellowish, sandy clay while to the north (left in the pictures) it was much darker, in places almost black, clay; the sort of deposit you get from standing or brackish water where vegetation is slowly decomposing. When I got to bottom of the wall (which was level with the membrane) it was sitting on the same clay as to the south, but darkened almost immediately at the edge of the wall. All that was left to do was fold back a bit of the membrane and use a spade to do a small sondage (a “mini pit”) to see what was underneath.

The sondage, you can just see what appears from the other pits to be the grey clay natural in the right-hand side of the bottom.

So, what to make of it all? The one thing we can be certain of is that we can’t be certain of anything. We had very few finds – more of that later – and they were in the disturbed layer above the membrane, so would have been useless for dating anyway. It seems almost inconceivable that the wall was built on top of the membrane (why on earth build a dry-stone wall just to bury it?) – so was the membrane laid up against an existing wall which slid over after being buried when all the heavy plant involved in the building work drove over it or was it piece of existing wall which had been dug up in one piece and just lifted over and dumped here (I’m not convinced by the latter; the difference in the soil type either side of the wall seems too convincing for that explanation). This is one of the frustrating aspects of doing test pits – the tiny-snap-shot side of it; to have a chance of explaining this we would have to extend the test pit into a real trench. Time, and our hosts desire for a garden to enjoy, precluded that!

So what can we say? We had some finds – two, perhaps three, pieces of pottery, one of which could be medieval – and the best piece – a worked flint, which Olaf, whos speciality is Prehistory, reckons to be a broken pointed tool, dating from between the Bronze Age to Late Neolithic (about 3,500 to 6,000 bce). There was a fair amount of broken flint (1.9kg), we think for building purposes, which Jane said was unique among the rest of the test pits and interesting in its own right as there is no flint locally, so it must have been transported here. Oddly there was no sign of a “ploughing horizon” – we know it was all fields round here, which usually leaves a clear boundary as you dig down, so we wondered if the area had been levelled down when they built the houses so the “horizon” got lost in rubble layer ensuing.

We then backfilled the pit, unfortunately leaving a bit of a bulge in the lawn; sadly inevitable when there was so many cobbles in the backfill – it will take time and rain to settle it. Then we all went back to the Clock House were we held a post-mortem. It was fascinating to hear what had been going on in the five other test pits – no other “features” but a lot more finds! To find out more about our pit, and all the others, keep an eye on the Archeox website, were we will publish all the reports in due course.

A good weekend, then. The weather stayed clement all weekend, our hosts, Linda and Andy and their two daughters, Alice and Libby, really did us proud – many thanks to them for all their kindness (and tea and coffee!). A pity we couldn’t give them something more definite, but that’s the way it pans out sometimes. We hope to return, if the WI will have us, and also want to do some field walking this autumn (the estate backs up onto open fields) which could tell us more.

Leigh & Gill

Test Pit Planning Workshop

On Thursday we had a meeting at ArkT about test pits as the digging season approaches. There was a mixture of people covering the spectrum from those with experience of test pits to complete newcomers. Jane gave an introductory talk describing some of the work we had done last year, illustrated by a number of slides, including one of some particularly wet archaeologists in Iffley (Leigh had just sloped off to do time in the – dry – Ashmolean as part of the ‘Archaeology Week’ events when the picture was taken). She also described some of the test pits (and slightly more than test pits) that we’ve got penciled in and then divided us into (initially) four groups to look at the various explanatory documents given to people who have expressed an interest. It was very useful to have the input of the newcomers as they were able to say “What does that mean?” and “shouldn’t you start by saying …?”. Notes were taken to be typed up and then uploaded to Jane who will try and make some sense of them.

Our (somewhat depleted - I had gone to the Finds Washing group & Leigh was taking the photo) group

I spent most of my time in a separate group, created after we had had a bit of time doing the initial discussion, discussing finds washing. Jo, the new CBA bursary person (we’ve got to come up with something slightly snappier than that mouthful!), took notes and is writing them up. We definitely need a simpler document than the cut-and-paste document that Jane gave us!

Gill

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