Monday, June 25, 2007

Pause for Thought

There are two reasons I haven't been digging in the back garden recently. One is that I had to take a break because of my daughter's wedding, the other is that I have been on an archaeology course for a week. With other volunteers, on a major urban dig, I learnt about the theory and practice of professional archaeology.

I was lucky enough to be able to attend for free as the course was part of a Community Archaeology initiative. Instruction and supervision were outstanding. I have to admit that it was a surprise to find that digging was a minor part of the course with the emphasis being to learn about the methods employed on and off site to fully record what is uncovered. In hindsight I see the sense of that. Reading about archaeology had not prepared me for the rigorousness of the actual practice.

I have dual interests, one for my personal efforts and the other for initiatives within the wider area of the parish in association with a local history group. I need to mull it all over ......

I find myself mulling over the significance to me of single-context recording, the hand-drawing of contexts and the relevance of the matrix to my efforts in the back garden.

Hopefully I won't be mesmerised into inactivity .....

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

One Iron Age Sherd

The only type of pottery I can reliably identify, because of the guidance of experts, is late Iron Age "local coarse ware". It is good to have at least one point of reference.

The photo above shows the latest single piece from Test Pit 2. It was found at level 4, which is normally the case. It is a rim piece that I've scanned to show the colour and nature of the fabric with its white inclusions.

I've no doubt that the presence of this type of pottery represents late Iron Age settlement in the immediate vicinity. The presence of copious amounts of this type of pottery in a previous dig, below, alongside and above pottery from the Roman era, suggest a continuation of use of the coarse ware either side of Romanisation.

Test Pit 2 - Closed!

I haven't been keeping up with events! Test Pit 2 petered out at around 40 cm. I scraped the bottom, measured the depth and then filled it in (and sowed some grass seed on the top).

The pottery finds are laid out above. Level 4 included some older looking pieces, including the largest piece (top right) which was of a colour and fabric I haven't seen before. More about that later.

One piece missing from the photo is a single rim-piece of "local coarse ware". It is identical in colour and fabric to my other late Iron Age pieces (see following entry). So, true to form, I always find at least one piece of this type wherever I dig in the garden.

The piece I featured in my previous entry seems similar in fabric (and inclusions) to two pieces of a gritty nature that have a green glazed finish. Although these have signs of a grey core, the fact that they appear to have the same brown pebbly inclusions makes me think that they are related. I thought that the orange piece I wrote about last might be older than this.

Oh for a pottery expert I can run to with such things!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Test Pit 2

I've started on Test Pit 2! The photo above shows the location: at the bottom of the garden. Beyond the hedge is a back lane. On the other side of that were the open fields before enclosure in 1772.

I said that I expected the same range of pottery only less. One of the first pieces I uncovered was of a type I haven't seen before - see below:

The outside (convex) surface is slightly darker than the inside (concave) surface though not quite as much as this scan suggests. The fabric is the same orange colour all the way through. The inclusions are interesting:

They are of two types: very minute, dark brown, pebble-like and smooth (on the left above); again minute, quartz-like, white/translucent (on the right).

The inside has two, not quite parallel, lines about 1.5 cms apart. Evidence of a tool used for smoothing, perhaps?

This piece was at level 1 (in the first 10 cms). I normally riddle the first two levels but I decided to trowel instead this time. I am glad I did!

I am quite excited about this piece for some reason!

Friday, April 20, 2007

Bereft of Finds!

I have packaged up my finds to date and taken them to a local museum for any possible help that is available to identify pottery types and dates.

What with that and catching up on assembling photographs and documentation from previous digs I have had my head down and I have not been able to open another test pit.

But I have got a location in the garden staked out ready. As it is further down the garden it means that it is more than likely to be in an area that has been continuously cultivated for centuries. I predict that I will find the same cross section of pottery but less of it. But I could be wrong. We will see.

More and more, the idea of community test-pitting as an organised event appeals to me, if only for the chance of being able to engage the necessary archaeological expertise. Having to go out and find that expertise as an individual is not easy.

I have tentatively started to ask others in the village if they would be willing to be involved by making a part of their garden available.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007


I have been lent the Annual Report (No. 20) of the Medieval Settlement Research Group for 2005. It couldn't have come at a better time.

Low and behold, there is a paper by Carenza Lewis entitled, "Test pit excavation within occupied settlements in East Anglia in 2005" which "introduces a new project which is focussing on the archaeological investigation of medieval rural settlements that are still inhabited".

I am pleasantly surprised to see that a new (to me) acronym of CORS has been devised for "currently-occupied rural settlements". With CORS it would seem, test pits have become main stream and the verb "test pitting" has arrived.

The project described is tied in with the Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA - find out more here) thereby meeting twin archaeological and educational aims (and providing an archaeological workforce in the process).

The paper concludes, "In terms of archaeological results, it seems clear already that the HEFA model of test pit excavation within currently-occupied rural settlements can and does produce new and useful archaeological evidence".

How encouraging! Somehow I feel less confined to the periphery of archaeology. But it does make me want to catch up with the documentation of my test pitting!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


The village I live in is called a "nucleated settlement" with dwellings concentrated at one spot in the landscape and formerly surrounded by the Open Fields. The experts say that prior to this dwellings were dispersed over the landscape. So, when did nucleation begin? Also, there are signs that the village layout was replanned at some time in the past to give it a more regular appearance. When did this happen? I started to dig in the back garden in order to answer these questions ...

... and I have decided that answering these questions is more important, at the moment, than finding the end or the continuation of the Iron Age ditch. Finding pottery (or anything else) provides a chance of obtaining dating evidence for continuous habitation on this plot of land. That could help with the nucleation question if not the one of replanning.

After I've documented the current dig and packaged the finds so that I can obtain expert advice on type and date, I plan to open a test pit at the bottom end of the garden in order to explore something completely different!

Rock Bottom!

As I trowelled off the surface of layer 6 I realised that I was seeing the natural sub-soil, a light brown mixture of pieces of chalk and clay. Bad news!

For anyone who hasn't read the earlier posts I was hoping to find the continuation of a ditch feature running into the garden from the boundary. The diagram below (not to scale) shows the location of previous digs, the possible direction of the ditch feature and the test pit I have been working on in 2007.

So, I have to conclude, at least, that the ditch doesn't run in a straight line. Tantalisingly the natural surface slopes off towards the edge of the test pit (on the boundary side). Does the ditch continue but not in a straight line? Or, perhaps it isn't a ditch at all. It could be a hole dug for some practical purpose like the acquisition of clay.

Watching Time Team prepares you for such set backs! I will have to regroup, consult the "Mick Aston" within and decide how to proceed.

In the meantime, the grass needs cutting!

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Wild Speculation

I have learnt that it doesn't pay to speculate on what type and date a piece of pottery might be. But that doesn't stop me doing it!

In looking through the reference books I have to hand (I have listed them in the sidebar) this sherd seems closest to a Stamford ware crucible judging by the shape of the rim (from the A. J. Mainman book). There is a deposit on the outside of the sherd that could result from use in extreme heat. But this is wild speculation!

Although I show the sherd in cross section I do not think I have got its inclination right. It probably sloped inwards on the actual vessel.

I will not attempt to guess at this one but it does have a distinctive rim shape (like the top part of the Times Roman number "1"). I am hopeful that this, with the colour and type of fabric, will enable an expert to give it a date.

My first stop for dating will be the regional Portable Antiquities Scheme. This time instead of taking along a few pieces at a time I will take everything from the one dig and leave it for identification (if they will have it!).

Level 5: The Outcome

Just one or two observations before I feature some specific pieces in a later entry: a small number of bone fragments are on the right and beneath them is an encrusted nail-like object (which I wouldn't normally bother with but it is quite long and slender); the majority of the sherds are unglazed; of the glazed pieces there is one that is splash glazed, one fully olive-green glazed and one partially dark green glazed with grey fabric.

In the centre of the display, the largest sherd is exciting! It has signs of finger indentations at two of its tips with accompanying fingerprints. It is quite flat so I cannot make out what kind of artefact it comes from.

I think that the pieces come from a range of eras but I don't want to prejudge the expert opinion.

And there were Bones ...

When I found the pot-boilers I also found a mass of animal bones. Although I am still finding the odd bit of bone in other digs in the garden there is nothing like the same amount.

The photo shows the accumulation of bones from two previous digs that explored the Iron Age ditch feature. Along the bottom there are an array of animal teeth and bits of jaw bone. The biggest bone in the photo was found 1.1 metres down. As the pottery found at this level and lower was crisply broken and not worn it is fair to assume that all of this domestic debris was discarded close to where it was used.

By contrast, my current dig is further down the garden and although I am finding pottery and bone it would appear that it has been much disturbed by cultivation.

Stop press: I have cleared level 5 and I am starting on level 6. More about that later.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Talking of "pot-boilers" ...

The photograph shows the quantity of "pot-boilers" I found when excavating the Iron Age ditch feature in previous years. At the time it didn't seem unusual but when you carry on digging elsewhere and find none of them you get a better perspective. On Time Team they get excited when they find one!

Apart from one or two examples of whole, smooth, small stones, all the rest show signs of being pieces that have cracked away from larger, smooth stones due to thermal shock.

The quantity seems to indicate use and disposal over time. The ditch they were found in showed signs of having gradually filled up.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Access to Experts

Access to experts in the identification and dating of pottery is essential for back garden archaeology. There are books which can be studied and used as a reference (like "Pottery in Britain" by Lloyd Laing which has been invaluable) but it is easy to jump to conclusions, especially if it helps to push a date back in time.

Another expert who would be handy is a geologist. You get used to the common forms of naturally occuring rock (mostly chalk and flint here) and just toss them to oneside. But sometimes a piece stands out as unusual and just has to be kept. An example from the current dig is shown in the photograph. It is heavy for its size and it has a cubic, crystalline composition. I thought that it might be metallic but it doesn't give any reading under a metal detector. I am glad I kept it and I'd like to know more about it.

In the course of excavating the ditch feature I have found many cracked, formerly smooth, stones. They stood out as uncommon from the start i.e. you don't find many uncracked, smooth stones. As they accumulated it became clear that they were "pot boilers", stones that were heated up in a fire in order to be dropped into a liquid for cooking purposes although some experts say the main use was to roast things. Either way, the heating and cooling process caused them to crack and they must have been discarded. I could easily have ignored these stones and regretted it.

If it is unusual in any way, keep it!

Level 4: The Outcome

I've started on level 5. That in itself is of interest as in previous digs (prior to finding the ditch) level 5 was where I hit the natural subsoil. But no end is in sight yet. Still, best not to get excited.

The total outcome of level 4 in terms of pieces of pottery (plus a nail and a piece of clay pipe) is shown in the photograph. It is from a mixture of ages. Exactly what they are I will have to get an expert to say.

From previous experience the typical span seems to be Iron Age and Roman with a gap until the 11th century. I have had nothing dated as Anglo-Saxon yet.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

The fun starts ...

As I expected, pieces of late Iron Age "local coarse ware" appeared at level 4.

Consistent with other finds in previous years, they are two abraded pieces of calcite-gritted pottery with a black fabric. Both are shown in the accompanying photograph. One has a buff/orange outer surface but on the reverse it is identically coloured to the other. The "grit" can just be seen as white specks in the upper sherd.

Although this type of pottery is a hand-made variety typical of the late Iron Age period it is highly likely that it continued to be made during the centuries following Romanisation, especially in rural areas and amongst the agricultural population.

The fact that such pieces of pottery are excessively worn at level 4 suggests that they remained in the cultivated upper levels of the soil after being discarded. By comparison, pieces found at lower levels are particularly crisp having rested where they were thrown without disturbance.

Well it interests me ...

I haven't found anything valuable at all and the only metal objects to surface have been relatively recent iron nails and the like. But that doesn't mean it isn't exciting to dig. Pieces of pottery are exciting enough but every so often something really catches the imagination.

In level 3 of the latest dig I found a number of partially green-glazed sherds in close proximity. I always check if similar pieces fit together. Although the breaks didn't match I realised that one piece which looked like part of a rim could actually be part of a lid. When I put it against a piece that was definitely a rim I concluded that they came from the same vessel!

I need to get the pairing checked and also have the type of pottery identified and dated but in the meantime I'm sure that I've found my first piece of a lid. Also, I've no doubt that the rim carried a lid as it is damaged on its upper surface consistent with constantly having something knocked against it.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

The Background in a Nutshell

Digs in previous years uncovered a ditch feature with a depth of 1.5 metres running for 10 metres between the furthest apart digs conducted to date. The width of the ditch at its top is approxiamtely 3.8 metres. The ditch runs into the garden at an angle to the boundary.

The main discovery in the ditch over the three completed digs has been copious pieces of "local coarse ware" pottery which has been dated by experts to the late Iron Age. Accompanying this has been a smaller quantity of Romano-British pottery.

The photo shows the new dig for 2007, in the foreground, in relation to the projected edge of the ditch (marked by orange tape). The test pit is approximately 6.5 metres from the last trench (3 m x 1m) dug in 2005.

The aim is to show whether or not the ditch feature continues further into the garden.

As of the date of this post I am clearing level 4. I referred to this in my previous post as "where the fun starts" because it is the level at which I have previously found signs of the Iron Age.

New back garden dig for 2007

After conducting archaeological digs in the back garden in 2003, 2004 and 2005, I had to have a break in 2006 (at least I was able to fill in the trench left open from 2005). This year, 2007, I made an early start and opened a test pit (1 metre square) on Monday 26 March. I will explain its purpose in a future post.

I have written about some of the previous digs on the village's local history website.

I moved the first 2 layers of the new dig (each 10 centimetres deep) with a shovel and riddled the soil. Thereafter I started trowelling.

Layer 4 is usually where the fun starts but I found some interesting pieces of pottery in layer 3 ...