Althorne Independent Learning Archaeology Field School 2018

Playing in the sun before the work begins

Aaaaaand we’re back! After a break in our calendar and the Easter Holidays Access Cambridge Archaeology is back for our next run of ILAFS, starting with a new site- Althorne! In previous years we have been in Southminster. It will be interesting to compare the two villages now we are moving slightly west in this area of Essex, shaped by the river and seas that surround it. Althorne is a small village, 22km southeast of Chelmsford and 4.5km northwest of Burnham-on-Crouch overlooking the River Crouch to the south. It is on a peninsula of land in southeast Essex known as the Dengie Hundred. Althorne was not recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, although some of the parish was potentially included in the record for Southminster. The name Althorne derives from Old English and was recorded as Aledhorn to mean ‘(place at) the burnt thorn-tree’ and in 1198.

Joining us on this trip was William De Ferrers School and the Plume School. A bit thank you to David Stamp and Jean Ingram for organising the pupil’s involvement, and to David Ingram for finding the sites for them to excavate. At this time when schools and budgets are facing increasing pressure, we really appreciate the local contacts that make these kinds of opportunities possible. 26 pupils arrive on a sunny day in Althorne, ready to start and explore this new opportunity. We aim to give pupils the skills, inspiration and experience that will lead them on to higher education, as well as producing valuable research. It’s a lot to achieve, but all taken in manageable steps. The first is to set out the steps for excavation, and understand what the process is. Luckily, the spring has finally arrived so after a talk from Cat Collins giving instructions of what they will be doing for the next two days, the    students stepped out into the sunshine and scudding clouds ready to become archaeologists.

As this is our first year in Althorne, we really weren’t sure what we would find but had test pits scattered in the village in the playing field, Lower Chase and Fambridge Road. It’s an interesting location to excavate as the area is a high ridge surrounded by water ways and therefor perfect as a place to live, defend and trade. The heavy clay soils might have proved less appealing to ancient farmers but the sunny hillsides are now home to vineyards. Early finds were modern as you might expect, but as the students dug deeper, they noticed a change. Some test pits had very clay soils to start, then a distinctive band with flecks of chalk in the clay before returning to pure clay again. This might be where chalk had been ploughed into the fields to modify the soil ph. Above were mostly modern finds, but within and below this chalk-flecked layer were some interesting finds! Almost all the test pits found medieval pottery, and two even found Roman! It’s really exciting as we don’t know about the Roman settlement of Althorne, so the pupils really have discovered new knowledge to add to the history of this area.


John Newman our pottery expert had been helping with the identification of the finds which also included many burnt flints. These are lumps of flint that have been heated in a fire by stone age people. As they are heated the surface acquires a distinctive crackled look. The heated stones would have been used to heat pots of food and show that Neolithic people were already living in this landscape.

Windswept and a little tired, 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. While they didn’t enjoy the heavy clay soil, working through it shows great determination and reflects well on them. One student highlighted inthir feedback how they felt they had learnt “skills that I wouldn’t learn from other things” (JH Plume School) and teacher on the trip said “The whole experience gives them valuable life skills and teaches them to work with the community.” JI Plume academy.

The year 9 pupils from both schools showed an amazing level of commitment and detail throughout the dig and continued to do so on Day 3 of the trip to Cambridge. Jess Thompson PhD student at the archaeology department at Cambridge gave the morning’s lecture giving details on how to write a report in an academic fashion, synthesising archaeological and historical information to come to clear conclusions. Writing the report will prepare students for those bigs steps they will have to take in the level of work they need to do in later years. By becoming comfortable as with the work now, they are at a great advantage.

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. The pupils visited either Christ’s or Pembroke College which allowed them to explore both sides of the university- the academic, and the living communities that colleges provide. A talk from Girton Schools Liaison Officer, helped by giving them some more facts and figures of courses, choices and where university might lead them in the future.

Many students said how the trip had boosted their confidence and self-esteem as well as giving them wider experiences. “I loved working together as a team and also the lecture about university life. I realised there are a lot of opportunities open to you.” AH William de Ferrers. “I feel I have gained a sense of self-confidence” LC Plume school. “I have a wider understanding of life of a uni student.” MB William de Ferrers.


Thank you again to all our schools and local community contacts. The dig was also featured in the local paper, where you can see some more pictures of the students hard at work here. It has been great to continue this work with you and look out for next week’s dig in Hilgay, Norfolk!


Boris the archaeology tortoise at Test Pit 6. A slow digger but valued team member.



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