Riseley Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2017

Tagging along right at the end of the field school season, we have our last, but certainly not least, Independent Learning Archaeology Field School of the year in Riseley, Bedfordshire on Tuesday 12th – Thursday 14th September. 29 pupils and 4 6th formers from Wootton Upper School, Biddenham School and St Thomas More Catholic Teaching School excavated 8 test pits, mostly on the high street but one on Rotten Row.

The test pits were organised by Michael Stubbert of the Riseley Historical Society, using Riseley Village Hall as our base for the two days. This is the fourth year ACA have held a ILAFS (previous called HEFA) in Riseley; previous findings and reports can be found here. Despite the rain of the previous week the students arrived keen and prepared on a beautiful September day.


Catherine Collins, Archaeological Supervisor at Access Cambridge Archaeology welcomed the mixed year 8-13 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?

The students were gathered into groups of 3 or 4, and  along with their supervisor, set out to answer these questions. Four of the test pits were being supervised by 6th form students, who were able to gain valuable leadership and management experience, helpful to their current university applications. A bit puzzled at this entirely new task at first, they still made a good start and by the end of day 2 were proficient! By the end of day 1, all had got through the first two contexts, and had revealed fragments of pottery, bones and brick. Test pit 1 came up with the oldest find- some potential Thetford ware, produced around 1000 years ago. The mix of brick and other materials suggest some disturbance in the area when the house was built in the 1970s, it’s a great find! Other groups were working in the gardens of much older houses. Test pit 6 was located by a cottage originally built in the 1700s, and extended in the 1800s. They group quickly came down onto a yard surface, working hard to record then remove it to accurately date the floor, and see if earlier remains could be found. A surprise at test pit 4 was a bell shaped well. Riseley has many well throughout the village due to it’s high water table. This well does not appear on the 1910 map of the village and the owners of the property had not idea of it’s existence so were surprised when it appeared!

It’s also exciting for the pupils to discover some unusual archaeological features in their taster of archaeology. Some of the students were incredibly enthused about the excavation process and although it’s not for everyone, the data collection, lectures and tour of the university  really opened their eyes to what university can be like. One of the year 13 students on the dig has even decided to apply to study archaeology next year!


Day 3, and the students arrived in cambridge to apply their practical experience to the wider body of archaeological knowledge. Eoin Parkinson gave the morning’s lecture on the wider aims of the ILAFS programme, and spelling out the archaeological questions the students might like to tackle in their written reports. The written reports the student complete are very valuable to the learning experience of ILAFS, as it demonstrates that link between the classroom and future careers; applying skills and knowledge in a completely new context and producing written documentation of that. Hopefully full of knowledge of how to start tackling their projects, the students were treated to lunch at Newnham and Downing Colleges. After some very tasty food, they were given a tour of the college. One student said she enjoyed “Learning about the campuses and the lecture was a good experience. Seeing something new was good!” MH Wootton Upper. Back to work and it was on 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 relate their learning to what they are seeing. From the day the students get a very well-rounded experience of university life, and study. The 6th form students who had helped out supervising younger pupils on previous days were also able to get some dedicated time to go through personal statements, applications, and other pressing questions, as well as a private tour of the department and its laboratories. The  younger pupils were also given a more general talk on university, demonstrating how they could start thinking about their own subject choices and where they would like to go later in life.

Pupils got a lot out of the day, realising what you need to do to get into university, so they are not caught out when the time comes. “I enjoyed being able to talk to people who had gone through university and knew about things I wanted to do. I have gained skills of working with other people from different schools and learning a lot more.” DM Wooton Upper. “I liked that we were able to work by ourselves and actually do it all without adults trying to take control” M M-C Wootton Upper School. One of the students even said to their teacher that this trip was the best things they had ever done. We’re so grateful when we get feedback like this because we know what we are doing makes an impact. Other staff appreciated to opportunity to introduce students to a university environment, be inspired to see where they can go if they do keep working, and start thinking independently (something that is assessed at A-level). 

ACA would like to thank the students and staff of all the schools involved, the supervisors and the residents of Riseley for making this another successful ILAFS. Special thanks go to Michael for organising the pit sites.

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