Southminster Higher Education Field Academy

ACA’s third Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) of the 2016 season took place last week, on the 20th -21st April , in Southminster, Essex. The 41 Year 9 pupils from William de Ferrers School, The Plume School and Ormiston Rivers Academy excavated 10 test-pits throughout the small town. The test-pits were organised by Ron Pratt, mayor of nearby Burnham-on-Crouch, and Kay Maudesley, parish councillor. The base for the two digging days was the community hall on the King George V Playing Fields.

The students and staff have an introduction talk by Alison Dickens of the CAU

The 10 x 1m2 test pits were located in the back gardens of private properties on Queen Street, Queenborough Road, North End, Crippelgate, Hall Road and Burnham Road. An additional pit was also excavated on the King George V Playing Fields, close to the community hall that was used as our base. This was our second year of digging in Southminster, the results from the 2015 HEFA in Southminster can be found on our website here.

The students getting into groups and collecting equipment

The students worked in mixed-school teams of 4 or 5 and were supervised by teachers from all three schools and Year 12 students from William de Ferrers School. After receiving a briefing on Day 1 from Alison Dickens, ACA’s new managing director, about how to excavate and record the test pits, the students made their ways out to site to begin the excavation.

We had two days of mainly sunny weather – feeling cold in the wind and watching out for sunburn were the two factors on everyone’s mind and a number of groups also were provided with both snacks and drinks to help with the digging.

TP 6h
A table for the paperwork and free drinks at TP 6

All the test pits recorded a number of both 18th and 19th century finds with only a few of the test pit yeilding finds of an earlier date. Medeival pottery was recorded at TP 2 if the far west of the town, along Queen Street as well along North End, Burnham Road and out at Southminster Hall. On the afternoon of day 2 a mud stone and tile wall, likely of medieval origin that was excavated from TP 10 at Southminster Hall, between the house and the moat. The wall was identified along the section edge so its full width and function was not able to be identified during the limited time available to us on site., but it was an exciting find for the students involved!

TP 10t


Cat Ranson, ACA archaeological supervisor, and John Newman, pottery expert, toured the test pits providing guidance on excavating and recording techniques as well as identifying finds and pottery sherds. Having experts on site is always popular with the participants and staff, one student said “I enjoyed being with different people who enjoy doing the archaeology dig.” (MC) and “I have learnt skills on how to understand what I have found in the earth, such as rolling glass and Victorian and medieval things.” (LB)

TP 7k
John Newman dating the finds from TP 7

The students recorded all of their findings context-by-context in their individual Test Pit Excavation Record Booklet. This is not only an invaluable asset in helping to produce their written assignment, but also informs academic research and becomes part of the permanent record about each test pit kept on file at the University of Cambridge.

Once the pottery report is ready it will be available on our website here. The results so far though from both years of excavations suggest that we are still yet to find the Saxon origins of the town (Souminster is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086), but the extent of the medieval settlement now recorded has expanded. The focus of the medieval village would have been around the church and Station Road, but we are now seeing medieval pottery turn up in outlying areas of the town, for example at the far western end of Queen Street, although of course this may just represent the presence of manuring the fields surrounding the settlement.

A taster lecture on medieval settlements by Debby Banham

The students spent the third day of the HEFA in Cambridge where they learned not only about university but also about how their individual test-pits fit into the wider picture. Carenza’s lecture on medieval settlement studies and the Currently Occupied Rural Settlement (CORS) project is always popular, especially as it’s the first time most of the students have experienced a university lecture. The students then split into groups for lunch and a tour at one of Selwyn, Emmanuel and Clare Colleges. These tours were given by the schools liaison officers (SLO) from each of these colleges. Rachel Ayres, SLO for Clare College, then gave a presentation to the pupils about the University of Cambridge, as well as applying to university and life as a university student. One student commented after ” I have gained more experience about college/university life” (MM).

The day concluded with Dr Jenni French, Research Fellow in Archaeology and Anthropology, giving a presentation on how to structure and present a written account of the excavation. These reports go on to form part of the archive at The University of Cambridge.

TP 8g
Group shot at TP 8

In feedback after the HEFA 98% of participants rated the field academy as ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’. The students enjoyed meeting and working with new people and working in a team as well as visiting the University of Cambridge and learning more about university and archaeology. Students commented, “I have learnt more about University and whether I want to go to University” (AF) and “I feel that I am more confident around new people and working in a team” (MG), “I gained valuable archaeological experience which could be used in further life” (FR). School staff commented, “The students have gained knowledge to look further and respect other peoples thoughs and comments” (JI) and “They have gained indenpendent learning and problem solving skills..” (JW).

ACA would like to thank the students and staff of the three schools involved for making the Southminster HEFA another successful event. Special thanks to David Stamp for being the beacon school coordinator and circulating around the test pits both days and to Ron Pratt and Kay Maudesley for organising the pits. Thanks also must go to Bernie Steel and Pat Sheehy of the Maldon Archaeological and Historical Group for providing additional supervision for the youngsters involved.

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