We’ve just had a really good weekend working with Meldreth Local History Group on their Heritage Lottery Fund ‘All Our Stories‘ Project exploring the hidden history of the village through test pit excavations. Access Cambridge Archaeology is being funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council through our ‘Cambridge Community Heritage‘ programme to provide professional support as needed to this and many other All Our Stories projects in 2013. This is the first of three weekends over the summer when the Meldreth group will be digging a total of 30 pits throughout the village. If the experience so far is anything to go by, it should be very enjoyable and very interesting. 10 pits were dug this weekend, with a wide range of finds turning up. All of the pits gave those who dug them a glimpse of the past beneath their feet, such as a porcelain doll’s face – surely once a much-loved child’s toy. For many this glimpse extended back hundreds of years, with pottery dating to before the Black Death turning up in several pits. In particular, one pit produced a very unusual find, provisionally identifed as a medieval pilgrim badge!! In nearly 1,500 pits that I’ve been involved in digging over the last few years, we’ve never found one of these before, so it’s a remarkable discovery.
Pilgrim badges were relatively cheap to make but highly valued by those who owned them. They were purchased by people who’d been on pilgrimage and attached to clothing or headgear to show off their achievement and piety. Some people were even buried with their pilgrim badge. We don’t know exactly why this was done (because it wasn’t the sort of behaviour the church approved of, people didn’t write about it – it’s the sort of behaviour only archaeology can reveal!). But we suspect people may have hoped it would help them or their loved ones in the afterlife – perhaps believing they would get to heaven quicker if they had with them the evidence of their fulfilment of the medieval church’s wish that everyone should go on pilgrimage at least once in their life. However, most people seem to have decided not to risk the church’s displeasure by trying to jump the queue in Purgatory, as very few pilgrim badges turn up in graves. Most are foundby metal detectorists in open countryside, presumably having been inadvertently lost when they fell off their owners’ clothing. The Meldreth example is therefore relatively rare as an example which has turned up in an excavation in a village setting. I can’t think of another which has turned up in an excavation as small as a 1m square test pit!
Meldreth’s pilgrim badge will now need to be assessed for conservation as, like nearly all of them, it’s made of pewter, an alloy of lead and tin which is quite unstable, especially after centuries in the ground. I’ll post a picture of the badge and others of the Meldreth digging as soon as the battery on our tablet (where the photos are) has recharged!
Well done to everyone for a great weekend’s digging, and especially to Kathryn Betts and Joan Gane who have put so much hard work into making this project happen. A great start!