For our last Higher Education Field Academy of the year we were at Long Melford, a lovely village in Suffolk similar to other wool-towns of the ears such as nearby Lavenham or Saffron Walden. We have dug in the picturesque village since July 2011, when weekend of community test-pit excavations were filmed for Michael Wood’s BBC series, ‘The Great British Story: A People’s History’. Since then we have built up a large database about the village which can be accessed here. This year we returned with pupils from Thomas Gainsborough School and Ormiston Sudbury Academy to excavate 5 test pits around the village.
Based at the Old School Hall, local co-ordinator Rob Simpson had again organised for sponsorship from the local East of England Co-Op in Long Melford to provide snacks for the participants. We would like to extend our very great thanks for their provisions of water bottles and snacks as they were much needed in the incredibly warm weather. We would also like to thank the kind home owners, not only for letting us excavate in their gardens but going that extra mile by providing cooling drinks and sun shades.
After receiving a briefing on Day 1 from Cat Collins, Archaeological Supervisor, about how to excavate and record the test pits, the students went out and started digging! With new tools and skills to grasp, we were impressed at the speed at which the pupils worked in the hot sun, excavating context by context and recording 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.
On day two of the excavations the sun shone even more brightly and warmly but we soldiered on and were joined by John Newman, pottery expert, who toured the test pits providing guidance on excavating and recording techniques as well as identifying finds, faunal remains and pottery sherds. Laure Bonner, Outreach and Communications Coordinator at the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology (and past ACA team member) also joined us talking to students about their work as well as their future school and career choices. As well as interest from local people, the Suffolk Free Press came by to record the event and their article should be available later this week.
The pupils were soon discovering the archaeology of Long Melford for themselves with all test pits finding plenty of easily identifiable Victorian pottery, brick and tile fragments, clay pipes including a bowl fragment with makers initials RS on spur. A few highlights included the leg of a medieval pipkin (a type of 3-legged bowl) in test pit 4 and in Test Pit 5 on the village green some late saxon/ early medieval Thetford ware. One of the most unusual finds we had were a set of dentures! Worn at the molars, there was much guessing about how they could have come to be discarded, leading to wider conversations about how objects are deposited and therefor what we can and can’t infer from the archaeological record.
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. This year we also had 6th formers from both schools keen to gain leadership experience as well as archaeological skills by supervising the younger pupils on their excavations.
Finally the students spent a day in Cambridge, attending lectures from Nick James about the wider project. From Emma Paulus, School Liaison Officer at Pembroke College about university life and finally from Jenni French about how to write their report. Students went away with skills that they can apply to all areas of their life. One student commented on these life skills that they felt they had “a stronger work ethic from digging even though there may not be anything to find”. Certainly others greatly enjoyed learning about what they did find, seeing what archaeologist actually do, how one my go about researching a question and “understanding the stories behind every little thing I found”.
It was a brilliant end to our HEFA season and we’re already planning for the next year. We’ll keep you updated with any other excavations that we are part of and hope that the pupils we have worked with this year continue to be inspired by the experiences they have had with us.