Posted by: archaccess | April 8, 2014

The Contribution of Test Pits to Archaeology

The Contribution of Test Pits to ArchaeologyDr Carenza Lewis was recently invited to talk at the Swaledale Big Dig launch about how systematic small-scale excavations in Curently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) are advancing our knowledge and understanding of medieval settlement origins and development.

The Swaledale and Arkengarthdale Archaeology Group (SWAAG) are organising community test-pit excavations in the villages of Reeth, Fremington and Grinton this summer. Funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and supported by the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, SWAAG will begin with a series of training events and introductory talks in preparation for three weekends of test-pit digging in May, June and July. Other than a reference to Reeth in Domesday in 1086, and its proximity to an Iron Age settlement to the west of the village, very little is currently known about early occupation in the area. In the last fifteen years, the technique of test-pit excavation has been increasingly used by archaeologists to reconstruct how CORS have changed overtime, and the University of Cambridge CORS project led by Dr Carenza Lewis, Director of Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA), has used the same methodology to dig and record over 1500 test-pits in over 50 different rural communities since 2005.

You can view Carenza’s talk and slide presentation to SWAAG about the contribution of test-pits to archaeology at the Swaledale Big Dig launch last month in the embedded YouTube video below, courtesy of Mike Cooke of Colliewood Films.

In this, she not only presents distribution maps of the pottery recovered from test-pit sites to show how individual settlements have changed overtime, but also how comparison between villages in the University of Cambridge CORS project is showing regional variation in the rise and fall of population levels and provides new evidence for the impact of events such as the Black Death. Although the majority of ACA’s test-pit excavations have taken place in East Anglia, the unit have also run and supervised digs in central and northern England, at Kibworth in Leicestershire in 2008 and at Castleton in Derbyshire in 2008 and 2009. Carenza discusses how these case studies are proving to be interesting contrasts to the patterns seen in the east of England, and that the excavations to be undertaken by SWAAG will also contribute towards this bigger picture. The findings from the ACA test-pit excavations are published annually in the Medieval Settlement Research Group (MSRG) journal. Scanned copies of the articles are available to view and download on the ACA website here.

Carenza was also approached to give the key note talk last month at a meeting of the Friends of Corhampton Saxon Church, Hampshire, who have been investigating the Saxons in the Meon Valley, again as part of a Heritage Lottery Funded project. During her two day visit, she was taken to the church at Corhampton (dating to c.1020AD) and shown some of the Saxon archaeological sites in the Meon Valley being highlighted by the project. She also visited Droxford Junior School (shown below) and met members of the South Downs National Park Authority to discuss incorporating archaeology in the new Key Stage 2 History curriculum, which covers Britain’s settlement by Anglo-Saxons as part of a chronological narrative of prehistoric and early medieval Britain. For more information about their project, please see their website here.

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Posted by: archaccess | April 3, 2014

Students from the Plume School Dig Deep and Aim High

plume-1One of the staff members who accompanied Year 9 students from The Plume School in Essex to the first Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) of 2014 in Writtle last month has written an account of the three days on the school’s website, which you can read here. Peter Ingram supervised students on one of the test-pits during the two days in Writtle and is shown right with the group.



Posted by: archaccess | March 28, 2014

Acle 2014 Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA)

Acle 2014 Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA)It was ACA’s fifth visit to Acle this week, bringing the total number of test-pits dug by school students in the east Norfolk village to 45.

Thirty-six Year 9 and 10 students from Aylsham High School, Taverham High School and Broadland High School dug nine test-pits, and students and staff from Sheringham Woodfields School, a school for special eductional needs, joined the HEFA for the two days in Acle to dig a tenth test-pit. The sites dug in the back gardens of local residents were recruited by our local coordinator, Brian Grint, of Acle Community Archive Group, and the aim for 2014 was to dig more pits in the north of the village, around Bridewell Lane and Old Road, where late Anglo-Saxon pottery has been found before.

This was the first HEFA for Sue Anderson of Spoilheap Archaeology, who joined ACA on the second day of digging to help identify the pottery and other finds from the test-pits. Four of the test-pits along The Street produced medieval pottery. Of these, two test-pits (2 and 3) were in the same garden and also contained late Saxon Thetford ware (850-1100 AD); these test-pits are shown in the photograph above with several of the brand new ACA yellow buckets in use. The earliest finds from the 2014 test-pits were two Neolithic flint flakes found in test pit 10, at the eastern end of Old Road. Closer to the village centre on Old Road, test-pit 8 found the wall of a 19th century cottage, shown being recorded in the photograph above, and even discovered the flint flakes which would have decorated it. A map of the test-pit sites can be viewed on the Acle 2014 webpage here, and the pottery report will be available in a couple of weeks.

On Thursday morning, an interviewer from BBC Radio Norfolk visited the HEFA to interview Carenza and some of the students about the excavations, shown right, which broadcast later that day.

The weather was a mix of sunshine and showers on Wednesday and though we had a dry Thursday morning, there was a heavy rain shower that afternoon as the groups were back-filling their pits. However, the wet conditions did not dampen their enthusiasm and all of the groups rallied fantastically to complete their excavations and restore the gardens. In feedback after the event, 100% of the students rated the HEFA overall as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’, with 67% rating it as ‘excellent’. The feedback forms included lots of exuberant comments such as “I loved it. Very good experience” (KD), “It was brilliant :-)” (CP), “I enjoyed everything” (LM), “Thank you for the opportunity, I enjoyed this a lot” (JA), “A great new experience to remember” (HC).

Following their two days in Acle, the students visited the University of Cambridge today to learn more about how the results of HEFA are changing ideas about the medieval origins and development of Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) in preparation for writing an assignment on the results of their test-pits, and to experience Higher Education at a world-renowned university. The opportunity to take part and contribute to university research was evidently appreciated by the students, with one saying “I feel I have gained some useful experience working as part of a team, contributing to important university research” (SM), and another, “I liked feeling part of the ‘bigger picture’! The experience of discovering more about university I feel was beneficial” (EF).

The host Cambridge Colleges for the group on the third day were King’s, Peterhouse and Sidney Sussex. Eleanor Thompson, the Schools Liaison Officer for King’s College, had high praise for the group that she hosted, saying “they were bubbling with enthusiasm for the Field Academy and did a great job of explaining both their methods and findings to me.” The Admissions Director at Sidney Sussex College, Kirsten Dickers, spoke to the students after their visits about A-Level and degree choices, followed by a general introduction to the University of Cambridge. Afterwards, one student said “It was a brilliant experience. I liked meeting people from the university too and being able to answer questions, and talking to experts.” (CP).

Thank you to Brian Grint and the homeowners of Acle for the test-pit sites, to Sue Anderson for lending her expertise in finds identification, the Cambridge College Schools Liaison Officers for offering lunches and tours to the HEFA students, and to the students and school staff for their perseverance and eagerness over the past three days.

The next HEFA will take place in the fen edge village of Rampton in Cambridgeshire at the end of April, after the school Easter holidays.


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Posted by: archaccess | March 21, 2014

Writtle 2014 Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA)

Writtle 2014 Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA)Writtle was under a thick blanket of snow this time last year but both the sun and the daffodils were out in the Essex village this week for the start of ACA’s tenth season of field academies.
Thirty-four Year 9 students and six Year 13 students from William de Ferrers School, Ormiston Rivers Academy, The Plume School and King Edward VI Grammar School attended the first Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) of 2014. Divided into small mixed-school groups, they dug nine archaeological test-pits over two days around the village centre of Writtle in the back gardens of residents and of local businesses including Witchcraft Jewellery, Lyndsey Hair Stylist and the Blue Bridge Bar & Restaurant. Another two test-pits were also dug on the western edge of the green by members of the local historical and archaeological society, Heritage Writtle, who recruited sites to excavate and arranged for use of the United Reformed Church as a base for the two days of digging.

Freelance archaeologist John Newman joined us on the second day to identify the small finds and date the pottery which had been found. In the garden of the Blue Bridge Bar & Restaurant, test-pit 5 found a sherd of Late Saxon pottery (shown held by a student in the photograph below) making it only the third test-pit out of 55 dug in the village since 2009 to contain pottery of this date. Test-pits 5, 6, 7, 9 and 10 all produced small quantities of High Medieval pottery, and notable amongst the small finds were a Post-Medieval bone button from test-pit 6 off Bridge Street and a 16th century Nuremburg jetton test-pit 10, one of those dug by Heritage Writtle on the village green. A map of the test-pit sites can be viewed on the Writtle 2014 webpage here, and the pottery report will be available in a couple of weeks.

On the third day of HEFA, participants visit the University of Cambridge to learn about how their test-pit findings contribute towards the research of ACA Director, Dr Carenza Lewis, on the origins and development of Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS), and for a taster of life and learning at one of the world’s top universities. In feedback after the event, one student recognised that he had gained both  “an insight into how university works and also how the data we collected influenced information on medieval settlements” (JT). Staff also complemented the way in which HEFA offers school students the “excitement of participating, contributing and advancing knowledge” (TB).

The Writtle HEFA participants visited one of Emmanuel, King’s, St Catharine’s and Sidney Sussex Colleges to meet schools liaison staff and undergraduate students for lunch and a tour. Lizzie Dobson, Schools Liaison Officer for Emmanuel College, which is linked to schools in Essex, then talked about university applications and the admissions process to the group. Following the encouragement to aim high and work hard, one student said that the HEFA had taught her “to be more optimistic and try harder to achieve my goals” (LMH).

In feedback after the event, 85% of the students rated it as ‘excellent’ or ‘good’ and many of them said that the field academy offered “not just knowledge of archaeology but life skills that will be useful in the future” (HN).

Many thanks to everyone involved in the organisation and delivery of the Writtle 2014 HEFA; next week’s field academy will be a return visit to the east Norfolk village of Acle.

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Posted by: archaccess | March 17, 2014

Geophysical Surveying with Touching the Tide at Snape

Geophysical Surveying with Touching the Tide at SnapeA training day for 12 volunteers in the theory and practice of geophysical surveying for archaeological features took place in Snape, near Aldebugh, last Saturday as part of the Touching the Tide landscape partnership on the Suffolk coast.

Following a very successful field-walking event last month (which you can read about here), Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA) were invited to return to Snape on Saturday 15th March 2014 to run another archaeological field survey day for local residents and volunteers, this time introducing the geophysical prospection techniques of magnetometry and resistivity. The training day was commissioned by the Heritage Lottery Funded landscape partnership project Touching the Tide.

Dr Marcus Brittain, of Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU), joined ACA to lead the day and lend his expertise in the use of geophysics in commercial and academic archaeological field investigations. He is the site director of CAU’s excavations at Ham Hill, Britain’s largest prehistoric hillfort located in Somerset, and a project supervisor at CAU’s excavations of the North-West Cambridge development. Further afield, he has been co-ordinating the Mursiland Heritage Project exploring the archaeology and ethno-history of pastoral groups in south-west Ethiopia.

The day began with a talk from Dr Carenza Lewis, Director of ACA, at Snape Village Hall, in which she covered the aims of the day and showed some examples of ‘geofizz’ from Time Team episodes and from Saffron Walden common, which ACA excavated last summer. Marcus followed with an outline of the principles behind collecting, processing and interpreting results from magnetometry and resistivity, including illustrations from Ham Hill and other hillforts.

The group moved to the survey site shortly before lunch for a demonstration of a single probe magnetometer and twin probe resistivity meter; the latter kindly on loan from Tim Dennis at the University of Essex. The field, near Decoy Wood east of Snape, has long been of interest to members of the Aldeburgh and District Local History Society who have metal-detected the area and found numerous Anglo-Saxon artefacts. With their direction, an area of relatively flat and even ground was identified and we laid out a 30 x 30m master grid, divided into nine smaller 10 x 10m grids.

After a brief lunch break in the sunshine, the group split into two to work with the two instruments. We were unfortunately unable to automatically log readings with the magnetometer which would only work when walking south-north transects, demonstrating the temeramental nature of the highly sensitive magnetic equipment, but three grids were successfully completed by the end of the afternoon. The volunteers were asked to manually log and call out readings from the instruments, which were written down as they went along, allowing us to follow trends in the data as readings were taken. The resistivity meter proved much more reliable and it was used to survey the remaining six grids, giving complete coverage of the target area and the opportunity to contrast the findings of the two techniques.

The day concluded with a reflection on the potential and pitfalls of employing geophysics as part of an archaeological investigation, and refreshments were served in the form of tea and home-made Victoria sponge cake, courtesy of Touching the Tide manager Bill Jenman. A number of the volunteers had also attended the Snape field-walking day in February, and Carenza presented the distribution maps of the flint and pottery collected which have returned from specialist analysis. The maps are now available to view on the Snape project page here.

Below are a selection of quotes from the volunteers who took part in the geophysics training:

“Looking forward to the results. It is really good to have helped get the data together and then to be able to see how it fits (or does not) into a pattern.” (AA)

“I am hoping to be involved in more archaeological work in the future – very glad to have better understanding of process… So much scope in our landscape for learning more.” (JH)

“Fascinating finding newly identified clues.” (DC)

Photographs from Saturday’s event are ready to view on the ACA website here, which is also where the data collected during the geophysical surveying can be accessed once it has been processed over the coming weeks.

ACA will be returning to Suffolk over the coming months to run Higher Education Field Academies (HEFAs) in Walberswick and Long Melford. ACA will also be supervising a long weekend of community test-pit excavations in Southwold in August, as part of Touching the Tide, and further information will follow on our website soon.

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Posted by: archaccess | March 14, 2014

Preparations for the 2014 HEFA season

Preparations for the 2014 HEFA seasonArrangements are under way for ACA’s 10th season of Higher Education Field Academies (HEFAs) beginning in March 2014.

HEFAs are three day courses, aimed at learners in school years 9, 10 and 12, which give them the chance to develop new learning and personal skills and build their enthusiasm and confidence for Higher Education as they run their own small-scale field project unearthing and interpreting new evidence as part of a research programme on the origins and development of Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) at the University of Cambridge.

Participants spend two days working in mixed-school teams digging an archaeological test-pit within living villages, and then visit the University of Cambridge to analyse the excavation results, prepare to produce a written report and experience university life and learning for themselves. The programme was established by Dr Carenza Lewis, Director of Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA), in 2005 and nearly 3500 students have taken part since. The programme is an opportunity for students to work and think at a higher level and across conventional subject boundaries, while becoming familiar, positive and confident with the University of Cambridge, its people and its application process.

HEFA was originally developed in collaboration with the government-funded university access scheme, Aimhigher, but after its closure in 2011, ACA successfully bid for support from the University of Cambridge Widening Participation Fund for 2012-2015 in recognition of its track record of raising educational aspirations and achievements. In order to identify high-achieving learners who will benefit from the experience and with the potential to apply to a top Russell Group university such as Cambridge, participant places are recruited for by a network of ‘Beacon Schools’ to raise the academic achivement of young people in the area and liase with neighbouring schools.

In spring and summer 2014, ACA will be running 13 field academies which will include test-pit digging in three new settlements: Rampton (Cambridgeshire) at the invitation of the Fen Edge Archaeology Group, Riseley (Bedfordshire) at the invitation of the Riseley Historical Society and Sawtry (Cambridgeshire) at the invitation of Sawtry History Society. The HEFA season will begin with ACA’s 7th visit to the Essex village of Writtle, south-west of Chelmsford next week.

Fourteen HEFAs were run in 2013, and of the 521 students who attended from 49 schools, a fantastic 97% rated HEFA as ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’. After HEFA, 77% of students felt more confident about trying something new; 82% felt more positive about staying in education after Year 11; 83% felt more positive about going to university, and 89% felt they knew more about what life at university would be like.

Here are some feedback quotes from HEFA participants in 2013:

“It was fun and enjoyable, it was also nice to meet new people and have the opportunity to come to Cambridge University, have lunch, meet students, and work with the team professionally.” CC, NWA/13

“Thank you to everyone who made this possible and gave me and the others this opportunity. It has given me such a confidence boost to know my teachers thought I was capable of such an important and high-level task so thank you! :-)” JB, DHE/13

“I am very pleased I came on this trip, and think it was a great opportunity, especially learning about Cambridge University.” BS, BIN/13

School staff also gave very high praise for the opportunity:

“It was a delight to see how well the students rose to the challenges of the digging and to see their faces light up as they had a tour of the Colleges!” KB, LME/13

“The way the project has been developed for the students allows them the freedom to try new things and meet new people. Working in groups with different schools has also given them the opportunity to experience an aspect of university learning.” KF, MAN/13

A number of new settlements were drawn into the HEFA programme in 2013: Stapleford (Cambridgeshire), Walberswick (Suffolk), Daws Heath (Essex), Great Amwell (Herts), and North Warnborough (Hampshire). In addition, HEFA excavations also took place in villages where ACA had previously carried out test pit excavations as part of other, non-HEFA, projects, Swaffham Bulbeck (Cambridgeshire) and Long Melford (Suffolk). Highlights in 2013 included the first discovery in Essex of significant quantities of Saxo-Norman Thetford ware, which was found in two pits near the church at Manuden (Essex). Essex rural settlements tend to produce no material of this date, so this is a significant discovery. It was therefore interesting to also find Thetford ware associated with a post hole in a test pit excavated in 2013 at Long Melford. This lies very close to the Essex border in Suffolk and had also previously produced no material of this date. Another particularly interesting discovery was in Walberswick, where, unusually, all the test pits produced medieval pottery and there was no sign of any later medieval decline.

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Posted by: archaccess | March 13, 2014

Free Flag Fen Open Day for Fenland Residents

Ahead of the official opening season, Flag Fen Archaeology Park is opening for free for anyone living in Fenland on Saturday 29th March between 11am-3pm.
The day aims to build upon and enhance the relationship between Flag Fen Archaeology Park and the local Fenland community. The aim is to strengthen those links in light of the recent transfer of the Must Farm log boats from Cambridgeshire County Council to Peterborough, and welcome special interest groups, community groups, schools, councillors and business owners from or associated with the Fenland District to the day.  It will enable Fenland residents to discover more about the conservation of the prehistoric Must Farm boats, discovered in nearby Whittlesey, and to explore the archaeological significance and unique nature of the Flag Fen site and Fenland area.

All families in Fenland can attend the day for free and the park will be offering plenty of fun activities; including having a go at ancient crafts, exploring trails, trying pond dipping and viewing the Must Farm boats. This event is just the start of an exciting season of educational and informative events at Flag Fen, which re-opens to the public on Saturday 5th April.

Fen Edge Archaeology Group
Thursday 13 March at 7.30pm at Cottenham Village College
Note: This meeting will be held in the Common Room.

‘The Toba supervolcanic eruption of 74,000 years ago: investigating the eruption’s impact on stone age hunter-gatherers in India’ by Sacha Jones

74,000 years ago, a large section of the Indonesian island of Sumatra exploded in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions of the past 2 million years. The global environmental impact of the ash and gas clouds from this ‘super-volcano’ – known as Toba – is considered by some scientists to be the most catastrophic event the human species has ever endured. But did we face extinction? What happened to the world’s climate? And how did Toba shape human evolution?

Dr Sacha Jones is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cambridge. She will talk about The Toba Supereruptioon project in general and her contributions to the project, including the study of stone tools.


Information about the project can be found at:

Posted by: archaccess | March 10, 2014

Donated equipment a legacy of local amateur archaeologist

Donated equipment a legacy of local amateur archaeologist.

As part of a public art project led by artists Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope, members of the public are being offered the chance to learn the ancient and sustainable technique of cob (earth) building and create a ‘model village of the future’ – a walk-through scale model of the paths, houses & shops planned for the future North West Cambridge development.

A mixed-use expansion of the University of Cambridge, the development will include residential housing, academic and research facilities, local centre and public amenities, as well as open green spaces. The public art programme aims to help create local identity, social engagement and community participation during the construction phase. A six month archaeological investigation was undertaken by Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) ahead of the development, which included an open day and opportunities for volunteer participation and school visits. Inspired by taking part in the digging themselves, the artists in residents decided to include an installation made from the underlying clay and subsoil. Karen and Nina led a cob-building workshop during the last Prehistory Day in October 2013, an outreach event as part of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, held at CAU, which you can read more about here.

They will be running a series of five day courses this summer to build the ‘Today, Tomorrow’ model. Course participants will receive a day of masterclass tuition from a cob expert followed by four days of guided hands-on cobbing practise helping to build the artwork. There will be informal talks from Nina and Karen about their work and from CAU about their discoveries whilst excavating the site. An interim report is available on the North-West Cambridge website here.

No previous experience is required to take part and both individuals (over 18s only) and groups (maximum of 12) are welcome, although note that the work will be physically demanding. Participation for the five day course costs £50 (£25 concession) and all tools and tuition, as well as teas and lunches are included. The course will be running every week from 28th April until 6th June 2014. Booking can be made on-line here. For more information, you can contact the course coordinator on 07545218251 or e-mail

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