Wendens Ambo Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2017

This week we are in Wendens Ambo, a scattered village near to Saffron Walden and Audley End House. With a population of just under 400 it nestles in the valley which is gets it’s name from, Wendene, amid the soft folds of chalk which form the uplands of north-west Essex. Wendens Ambo has a long history with evidence of settlement on the site since the Bronze Age. Excavations found remains of Bronze-Age flint tools in are area of Iron-Age and later Romano-British occupation.

The present day settlement of Wenden was begun in the Saxon period to north of the stream, near where the church is today. The church of St Mary the Virgin dates from the 11th century that also most likely replaced an earlier wooden church on the same site. The settlement has since continued into the present day, facing challenges and changes such as the coming of the railway 1845 and the construction of the M11 immediately west of the village. Such changes have greatly influenced the village and it will be exciting to see if your students can show more exactly how the village has moved and changed.


Five schools came together to make the trip a success: The Bishop’s Stortford High School, Davenant School, Stewards Academy, Passmores Academy and the Hertfordshire & Essex School. 43 year 9 and 10 pupils from these schools plus 12 6th Formers joined us ready to get involved and discover something new about this village already steeped in history.

The first stop was an introductory talk from Alison Dickens, Manager of ACA, about how we go about excavating, but also very importantly, the concepts and ideas that determine why we do archaeology and influence how we interpret what we discover. With so much already clearly going on in this village, how will what the students discover about the village change our understanding? Will archaeology agree with the historical narrative, will it change what we see? The great thing about doing test pits is that we can really get inside the heart of the village to answer these questions.

Two test pits were located in the garden of the Bell pub, while others were along Duck Lane, Rookery Lane and Chinnels lane. Test pit 1 on Rookery Lane quickly came up with a wealth of finds- they had hit a victorian rubbish dump with a wealth of marmalade jars, chicory coffee bottles and other objects. It just goes to show how our deposition habits have changed. Prior to dust bin lorries taking all our rubbish away, rubbish would often be buried at the bottom of the garden. Next door Test pit 2 came up with more modern objects including a toy car. Archaeologists call the way that objects have ended up in the ground the ‘deposition process’ and its important to think about to fully understand an object. Is this evidence of a buried hoard in response to invasion, or has this object been lost or thrown away? This adds an extra layer of interpretation to the objects.  

Other test pit found earlier objects. We had high hopes for test pits 3 and 4 which were located in the area of a known Roman Villa. The did indeed come up with several sherds of Roman pottery and roof tile, as well as some medieval pottery. Great work guys! Interestingly test pit 5, very near by had only later materials. The objects were identified by the ACA team as we went round and helped by John Newman, an expert on the local pottery types. We were all very intrigued by the discovery in Test pit 8 of a 15th/16th century lead token. This had a ‘Daisy Wheel’ pattern on it, a common medieval design that was often scratched into wall, wooden beams and any other spots using a pair of compass shears.  Interpreted as a protective or ‘witch’ mark it was a really interesting object to find. Test pit 8 also had evidence of the Arts and Crafts movement relating to the previous occupants of the house. Great to see such an range of finds! This is the first year we have been in Wendens Ambo so although we are just starting out there is a whole wealth of knowledge about the village already, some of which can be found on our website.  Now the M11 cuts through the area, and along with the railway, has brought new influences into the development of Wendens Ambo.

The test pits were supervised by 6th form students from The Bishop’s Stortford High School and Hertfordshire and Essex High School. This not only gave the 6th former’s valuable leadership experience, but the younger students also enjoyed being lead by non-teachers. They also needed to interact with the public, as we had many local residents of Wendens Ambo very interested in the local dig. The students were able to show their finds off to an impressed audience. “I enjoyed meeting locals and learning more about Wendens Ambo.” JB Passmores Academy.

For Day 3, it was off to Cambridge to bring together the concepts we had introduced on Day 1 and the practical side they had already seen. Now it was time to start interpreting those results. Students views of archaeology often drastically changes after their ILAFS experience; coming to realise just how many skills are needed, not just practical digging but also diligent recording to conceptualising a dramatically different past lifescape in a village. We want students to gain from the experience academically, as well as increasing personal learning and thinking skills, by producing a written report at the end. With new questions to focus on, the lecture to begin the morning on Day 3 in Cambridge, really seeks to bring together the knowledge they have accrued and starts them on the path to their own interpretations of the  evidence for complex patterns of human behaviours. This is complimented by an hour spent in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, looking at the same ideas, in many different cultures. Hopefully then these students will be able to go out and apply these same principles in other areas and be able to look topics at with a deeper level of interpretation.

The day also included lunch at Peterhouse and Pembroke colleges for the students. Not only is time for a necessary refuel, its a time for the students to realise just what university is about- its not a continuation of school, but something much more exciting. Some pupils believe university is like boarding school, where there are restrictions on your time and maybe even on your mobile phone use! However we hope to show that through the ILAFS project and later on in Higher Education, you can take control of your own learning. Shona Watford, Schools Liaison Officer from Corpus college elaborated on this further with her talk at the end of the day. All in all it was a very positive three days which students and staff alike greatly enjoyed.

“Course Leaders were clear, helpful and enthusiastic” JP Herts & Essex High School. “I have learnt social skills and archaeological skills which was very interesting, a better insight into history of a settlement and a more indepth understanding of how to structure a report.” FP TBSHS. “I have learnt more about university and how work is completed there. I have discovered new things. JB Passmores Academy. “I think that  have a much better understanding of archaeology and university life and developed a wide range of skills that can be transferred to many things.” LB Herts and Essex.

Thank you to the local history group for their efforts organising the test pit locations. The local residents of Wendens Ambro remarked at how well behaved the students were and they certainly have been a great bunch. Many thanks to Alexander Cokewoods from TBSHS for helping organise the trip.


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