Great Amwell Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) 2015

Twelve archaeological test pits were dug in Great Amwell by Hertforshire school students in last week’s Higher Education Field Academy. The field academy, held 17th – 19th June, involved 47 Year 9s from Presdales School, John Warner School, Samuel Ryder Academy and Sheredes School. This is the third year ACA have held a HEFA in Great Amwell; previous findings and reports can be found here.

Test Pit 4
Test Pit 4 start the day with de-turfing

The test pit sites were organised by David Hardy and William Brown of the Amwell Society and the beacon school coordinator was Esther Willett from Presdales School. Our base in the village for the two digging days was St John the Baptist Church on St John’s Lane. The students worked in mixed-school groups of 3 or 4 and were supervised by teachers and sixth form students. The test pits this year were spread throughout the village and were located on Walnut Tree Walk, Church Path, Madgeways Close, Lower Road, Cautherly Lane and Hillside Lane.

The HEFA team: Cat, Laure, Paul & Carenza with local coordinator David
The HEFA team: Cat, Laure, Paul & Carenza with local coordinator, David

The aim of every HEFA is for the students to find out more about higher education by working alongside experts to contribute to ongoing university research; to develop and deploy skills for life, learning and employment such as data analysis, communication skills and team working; as well as completing an archaeological test-pit excavation to tell us more about the development of a Currently Occupied Rural Settlement. The HEFA participants have two days to complete their excavation and then analyse their findings on a third day’s visit to the University of Cambridge.

Recording and completing paperwork at TP 11 (with beanbags!)
Recording and completing paperwork at TP 11 (with beanbags!)

So, after receiving a briefing on Day 1 from Dr Carenza Lewis, Director of ACA, about how to excavate and record the test pits, the students went out and started digging! The students recorded all of their findings context-by-context in their individual Test Pit Excavation Record Booklet. We stress that the recording process is just as important, if not more so, than the physical digging aspect. This record booklet and their recordings and findings form part of the permanent archive kept at the University of Cambridge. It is also crucial in helping the participants produce a written report about their individual test pit.

Paul visits TP 8 and identifies their pottery
Paul visits TP 8 and identifies their pottery

Cat Ranson, ACA archaeological supervisor, Paul Blinkhorn, pottery expert and Jessica Rippengal, zooarchaeologist, toured the test pits providing guidance on excavating and recording techniques as well as identifying finds, faunal remains and pottery sherds. We were also joined by Allison Whitlock, a PhD student from New York University, who is researching medieval settlements.

Jessica Rippengal demonstrates how to use a spade.
Jessica Rippengal demonstrates how to use a spade.

The real-time, expert knowledge provided by professional archaeologists always ranks highly on the feedback from participants: “I enjoyed learning where all the pieces originated from and their uses.” (MJ) and “I enjoyed discovering and learning about the past and a variety of time periods.” (CC) The finalised pottery report from 2015 can be read here.

Prehistoric burnt stone from TP3
Prehistoric burnt stone from TP3

The 2015 test pits found further evidence of Iron Age activity, although this year the activity is coming from further west at test pit 4 on Madgeways Close. Based on a few of the flint finds, it appears as though there might have been a prehistoric settlement on the higher ground in the village overlooking the River Lee. The Roman occupation of Great Amwell also appears to carry on in the similar area to the prehistoric with Roman pottery sherds found in two new areas for 2015 – Test Pits 2 & 5.

The evidence of the Late Saxon village is still limited as throughout three HEFAs (a total of 35 test pits) only one sherd of this type of pottery has been found. However, the test pitting has shown that the village was certainly well established into the medieval period although it is still likely to have remained a small village with expansion into the post-medieval.
The third day of the HEFA was held in Cambridge. Students attend a lecture presented by Carenza which is all about medieval settlement studies and the Currently Occupied Rural Settlement (CORS) project. Each HEFA test pit provides vital information used in this research – a small piece of a very big puzzle.

Pembroke College
Pembroke College

The students then split into groups for lunch and a tour at one of Trinity, Sidney Sussex, Pembroke and Emmanuel Colleges. After lunch, Emma Paulus, Schools Liaison Officer for Pembroke College, gave a presentation about life at university, The University of Cambridge and future changes. One participant commented, “I really enjoyed that we got to see actual university timetables and that presentation really helped me learn more about university life.” (AC) This was followed by a presentation on how to structure and present a written account of the excavation by Dr Trish Biers, one of our report markers.

TP1 measure out their 1m square
TP1 measure out their 1m square

In feedback after the HEFA 96% of participants rated the experience as “Excellent” or “Good”. Students commented, “I loved finding our own discoveries and knowing that we did it independently and that our work was valuable.” (LR) “I really enjoyed being at the university and even if I don’t do archaeology in the future, I want to go to Cambridge.” (SL) and “I have gained knowledge that could help me successfully apply for A-levels and uni.” (MB) Staff comments included, “Being involved in valuable research made us feel proud to be part of it, very rewarding.” (NT) and “Exceptional experience! Extremely organised and professional. No-nonsense approach and high expectations – at the same time caring and flexible.” (PB)

Hard work at TP12
Hard work at TP12

ACA would like to thank the students and staff of the four schools involved. Special thanks to David and William for organising the pits, Esther Willett for organising the schools and all the volunteers who helped make this another successful field academy.

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