Sawtry Higher Education Field Academy from 8th – 10th June 2016

Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA) held its ninth Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) of the 2016 season this week in Sawtry, Cambridgeshire. The 11 test pits were excavated on 8th-10th June  by 43 Year 9 and 10 pupils from Swavesey Village College, Cromwell Community College, Stanground Academy, and the Voyager School.


Working together on test pit 4

Sawtry is a village situated just west of the Fens, halfway between Peterborough and Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. Although one large commuter village today, Sawtry was originally three separate estates and grew as a centre for salt production during the medieval period. One of the three manors was named after and owned by Judith de Lens, a niece of William the Conquerer and one of her descendants founded an abbey in Sawtry in the 12th century, the outline of which can still be seen today and are of great interest to the Sawtry History Society.

The 1 m2 x 1m2 pits were widely distributed throughout the village and were located on: Church Street, Tinkers Lane, Church Causeway, Tort Hill, Rectory Close, Hatfield Road, Fen Lane, St Judith’s Lane and Alwin Close . The test pits were organised by Philip Hill of the Sawtry History Society and our beacon school coordinator was Mr Tim Pearson from Cromwell Community College. Our base for the two days in Sawtry was the Youth and Community Centre.


Test Pit 11

This is the third year ACA have hosted a HEFA in Sawtry; last year’s reports can be accessed here.

The students worked in mixed-school teams of 4 and were supervised by teachers from the 4 participating schools, ACA volunteers and members of the Sawtry History Society. After receiving a briefing on Day 1 from Alison Dickens, Director of ACA and Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit, about how to excavate and record the test pits. The students then went out on site and excavated for 2 days.


Test Pit 1 getting deep!

Jessica Rippengal, animal bone specialist, and David Hall, post-Roman pottery expert, toured the test pits providing guidance on excavating and recording techniques as well as identifying finds and pottery sherds.

The sun shone brightly for all 3 days of the HEFA making it hot work for the students, but all worked hard and excavated a substantial way into their test pit revealing further information about Sawtry’s past. Based on the pottery report, available here, currently there is a high percentage of 17th century and later pottery found in the north of the village with two sherds of Thetford ware, which is early,  coming from the same area.  By looking at the combined pottery finds from both 2014 and 2015 on the Test Pit Pottery Distribution Map an apparent drop begins to emerge in the finds from the late 14th to early 15th century, perhaps indicative of a major decline during the immediate post-Black Death period.


Finds from across the ages at Test Pit 5

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.

The students found a wide range of materials, from Medieval Thetford ware, to more modern children’s toys. All of which form part of the rich material record of our past. After explaining how something seemingly small or insignificant like some broken pottery can build up to a wider picture of our past, one pupil commented in their feedback that they learnt how, “knowledge of how something little can mean a lot”.


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. Nick James’ lecture on medieval settlement studies and the Currently Occupied Rural Settlement (CORS) project helps highlight how HEFA participants contribute to university research, an aspect of the programme that always ranks highly in student and teacher feedback.

The students then split into groups for lunch and a tour at one of Corpus Christi, Sidney Sussex and Selwyn. These tours were given by the schools liaison office (SLO) from each of the colleges. The students, were then given a presentation about how to put all they had seen into practice  and think about their, post-16 options, A-Level choices and university applications. Many were keen to hear more about applying to Cambridge, having been impressed by what they had so far seen and heard.

day 3 (2)

One of the aims of ACA’s HEFA programme is to raise students’ aspirations of going on to higher education after school. Learning more about university in general and visiting the University of Cambridge specifically contribute to raising these aspirations and always receive good feedback from both students and staff. Many students felt they had gained new archaeological skills, but also had been introduced to report writing skills which will be of great use to them in the future, while others commented that they felt they had gained team building and investigative skills.

Day 3 concluded with Jeremy Bennet, giving a presentation on how to structure and present a written account of the excavation. Students who submit a report receive detailed feedback and a certificate from the University of Cambridge. This feedback can then be used in future university applications, CVs etc. and their reports form part of the permanent archive.

Staff also commented, that they felt students from different schools had mixed well and that it was “Wonderful to experience real research and be a part of something meaningful”.


Gaining new practical skills too!

ACA would like to thank the students and staff of the four schools involved for making the Sawtry HEFA a successful event. Special thanks to Philip Hill and the Sawtry History Society and Tim Pearson from Cromwell Community College for their help and support in organising the HEFA.


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