Foxearth Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2017

It’s the last of your Independent Learning Archaeology Field Schools before we break for the summer! 32 students from Thomas Gainsborough School, Samuel Ward Academy and Ormiston Sudbury Academy arrived in Foxearth on Monday ready to see first-hand how we can understand the past when no records remain to tell us. Foxearth is a small village in North Essex, just south of the River Stour that forms the border with Suffolk and is 2.8km southwest of Long Melford and 4.7km northwest of Sudbury as the crow flies. The village sits on a geology of Chalk with superficial deposits of a chalky till with sands and gravels, clays and silts. The name Foxearth literally means ‘the fox’s earth’ or ‘the fox hole’ and was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Focsearde. The parish church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul is of uncertain date, but some aspects of the structure have been dated to the mid-14th century. Brewing has also been an important part of Foxearth’s history.

Cat Collins, Archaeological Supervisor at ACA welcomed the mixed year 9, 10 and 12 students, explaining how the next three days would work practically, and also what the pupil’s could hope to achieve. The ILAFS programme is designed to inspire pupils on to higher education, by giving them the skills to take control of their own learning, giving them an experience of learning outside the classroom and boosting their confidence by seeing themselves achieve at a task completely new to them. The Day 1 talk sets them up for this, by explaining not only the practical skills of excavations, but also the key ideas to start interpreting the archaeology they discover. When a student find their first piece of pottery, or fragment of metalwork, we try to get them to think about what it could mean more widely. Where was the object made? What can it tell us about trade, status, access routes, in the past? Was this an agricultural, or manufacturing area? How has the natural landscape influenced the activities in the area?

There was plenty to find in Foxearth and find it we did! As ever, Day 1’s finds were more modern, but still plenty of 17th and 18th Century pottery coming up. Test Pit 5 and 6 in particular had a lot of material as they were on the site of the old brewery in Foxearth. They found plenty of broken bottles with the name of the brewery on them as well as building materials. Quite a lot is known about the brewery and it is great to be able to link physical artefacts to historical events. A 6th form students from Ormiston Sudbury was supervising the students on Test Pit 5 so it was also a great experience for him- leading his own excavation as he prepares to apply to university to study ancient History and archaeology. Test pit 1 also produced more modern 18th and 19th century pottery, and even though the students reached 70cm down, the context remained very consistently modern. Being very close to the church, there has been a lot of activity in this area for a very long time so it’s not surprising that the team didn’t hit natural. The same held true for test Pit 2, across the road opposite the old school house with a few pieces of medieval pottery. Test pit 3 produced a wealth of great finds- the cherry on the top being a sherd of saxo-norman pottery! The students were amazed that they themselves had discovered something about 1000 years old! The test pit was located at the crossroads, right at the heart of the village in the front garden of a house that had previously been a shop. Centuries of use in the area had left a wealth of objects to find, including a large amount of clay pipes. Test pit 4 a little way along the street in an area that is now a paddock found a different type of finds. Mainly modern pottery but also slag- evidence of metal or glass production at this site. Perhaps there was once a blacksmith in this area? Or maybe glass works for the brewery nearby. Further research by the students for their reports will hopefully put these finds into context. A little way along the road again and we had another complete change at Test Pit 7 where students came down on to an early medieval cobbled surface, beneath which late saxon Thetford Ware was found! Only modern houses occupy this end of the village, but it obviously has a much deeper history. It was also the test pit closest to our base, an 18th century tythe barn next door to a late 13th century moated hall. While the settlement of Foxearth has been around for a long time, but has changed and shifted in that time. The students archaeological excavations will continue to reveal that history to us.

The third day of ILAFS is always spent in Cambridge, pulling together the students’ knowledge and ideas in preparation for writing their reports but more importantly giving them a taste of what it is like to learn and live at university. A clear, set out talk on how to write in an academic style is very valuable as as GCSE coursework has now been dropped. This is one of the few opportunities students have to write and gain feedback on a long piece of their own research, prior to A levels. It’s also really important to finish as it demonstrated when applying to universities that the student has not just passively viewed something, but actively engaged in a topic, and seen a difficult project right through to the end. The lecture by Eoin Parkinson is also a taste of what university style learning is like.

Reinforcing the morning’s lecture was an afternoon visit to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology where pupils were given a task to examine the museum’s collections and then present to the others, what they could learn about that culture’s settlements and resources from the collections. For instance, one team were show the Roman Cambridge collection and were able to reflect both on local industries, and trade from across the Roman region. Another looked at the Indus valley in asia and discuss religious beliefs and settlement patterns there. It’s really great to be able to give pupils something to focus on in their visit, and demonstrate that they skills they learnt over the last two days can be applied to any body of data.

While we do archaeological excavations on the ILAFS programme, we want to try and encourage our students to consider any subject at Higher Education. Archaeology just happens to be a great way of bringing together many skills and also highlighting the practical side of learning. It also shows students that university is not like school- there are many, many more subjects one can study. Expounding on these ideas Claire Nellany, Schools Liaison Officer at Girton College, gave the students their final talk, answering more general questions about university. Having visited Peterhouse and Trinity colleges for lunch, they had also got to see the other side of university- the social side which can be just as important to allow students to develop and discover new ideas and interests.

The three days have obviously had a big impact on the students.  “I felt that I have gained a more in depth understanding of archaeology, university and what it offers.” TW Ormiston Sudbury Academy. I just really enjoyed all of it and I loved being able to learn the dates of what we found. I think I am now better at analysis and working in a team.” LB Thomas Gainsborough School. Teachers agreed saying “Very good experience in team-work. They learnt to use different methods/ techniquies to learn about the past.” AG Ormiston Sudbury Academy.

The aims of the ILAFS was nicely summed up by one student: “I enjoyed learning about the university life and it made me think about going to university as it opened my eyes about life after school.” NG Thomas Gainsborough School


Many thanks to Carl Talbot for organising the schools and to John Newman for identifying the pottery on site. A big thank you to the team of volunteers from the Stour Valley Community Archaeology group for their help, especially Corrine Cox. If you would like to know more about her work in Foxearth, head here.


That’s it for field schools for the summer, but we’re going to be running two more ILAFS in September when the students return to school. Over the summer we’ll be catching up on paperwork but we’ll keep you informed about any potential future projects and news.

One thought on “Foxearth Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2017

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s