Southminster Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2017

We are now well into the season, and for our sixth dig, we have once again come to Southminster in Essex. 38 pupils from William de Ferrers, The Plume School, Ormiston Rivers and The Sandon School excavated 10 test pits. We extended our great thanks to those people who gave up their gardens to our pupils and especially David Stamp of William de Ferrers School for organising the school’s visit.

4 test pits were arranged on the edge of the King George V playing field, close to the community rooms which were our base. After instructions from Alison Dickens first thing on Wednesday morning, the students were keen to get out and start finding things. Other test its were located in the allotments, and also the local care home. It is always interesting to compare what the pupil’s expect archaeology will be like to the reality. While some expect they will be using diggers, or shoveling in clear open spaces, others imagine more delicate brushwork (similar to paleontology excavations). As Alison is able to explain to them however, they are completing a mini-version of a complete archaeological excavation. The only difference between their excavations and those of professional excavators is one of scale. Indeed, the students conducted themselves like true professionals, excavating with skill and determination despite the ground being rather hard after little rain.


After the first day, they had got through the first few contexts, and were finding mainly modern to 17th century materials. However, by working hard in a determined fashion, on the second day of excavations, several teams broke through the more recent disturbances and garden soils and started finding older materials. Indeed test pit 4 discovered undisturbed medieval layers. Just to prove how archaeology can vary in the same garden, 5 meters away test pit 5 found mainly builder’s rubble and sand. However the team were not disappointed and worked well together and were able to compare results with their close neighbours.

Pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn joined us for the whole of both days and was therefore able to give plenty of feedback to the participants about what they had found as well as talking more widely about how these small scatters of remains inform us more widely about the past. His expert eyes were able to identify some possible Iron age pottery from one on the test pits on the playing field. Previously we had found Bronze Age material so this is adding to our understanding of the development of Southminster. Recorded in the Domesday book, the archaeological evidence for the settlement are still elusive, but this year we excavated closer to the church than ever before and were rewarded with a wealth of medieval pottery at test pit 3. This test pit is also very close to the site of the old school. Possible evidence of the school was found in test pit 10, across a field from the old school site and nearby to the current primary school. There we identified the edge of a school writing slate.

TP 3l

Windswept and a little sunburnt, the students were very pleased with their efforts. Archaeology is hard work, and we recognise the effort the students put in by giving them a grade for the practical excavation. One student summed it up well saying “I did not enjoy the blisters and back pains but I believe they were worth it.” PO Plume School. By the end of the second day students left Soutminster with some early ideas about the history of the area.

Those ideas came together the next morning with a lecture from Eóin Parkinson, PhD student at the department. This coalesced the student’s primary thoughts into definable ideas of how settlements develop and grow and how their own research can inform us. Lunch today was provided by Corpus, St John’s and Trinity Hall colleges. Often students are a little confused by the word ‘college’ at Cambridge as they imagine something closer to a 6th form college. However visiting the colleges gives a great insight into how students really live, work and play. In this way hopefully ILAFS attendees can imagine themselves as students one day too. A talk from Selwyn Schools Liaison Officer, Michelle Tang, helped by giving them some more facts and figures of courses, choices and where university might lead them in the future.

All the students have a great time for the three days with us: “I feel like I have gained more independence and it has convinced me to go to university in the future.” JR, Ormiston Rivers Academy. “Touring Cambridge was the highlight of the trip. Seeing what student life was about was great.” TC William De Ferrers School. Many of the students realise what a range of new experiences and skills they have gained from this trip, from practical, to time management, determination and independence. “I have learnt new skills and more about university as well as making new friends.” JD, Plume School

Many thanks to all who attended, helpout, gave up their garden and a special thanks to John Anderson of the Southminster parish council for this organisation. I will leave the final words to one of the students who really summed up the experience well. “I really enjoyed day 3, coming to the university, as I never really thought I was capable of attending such as high university but now I have been inspired to aim higher. Michelle [the Schools Liaison Officer] was really helpful”. RC, William De Ferrers School.

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