Thundersley Independent Learning Archaeology Field School

Our ninth Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS) of the 2018 season was in the now bustling town of Thundersley in south Essex at the end of last week. We have been working closely with the AGES Archaeological and Historical Association (AGES AHA)  for the past 5 years, both in Daws Heath (2013 and 2014) and in Hadleigh (2015-2017) and the results of all those digs can be seen on our website here. AGES AHA have once again been instrumental in allowing us to work in Thundersley this year and we are continually grateful for their ongoing support and enthusiasm!

Thundersley sits on a plateau of high ground, with the 13th century church of St Peter at its centre, between Basildon and Southend-on-Sea. The settlement now is very built up as a constant ribbon of development along the A13. The original focus of Thundersley however was north of this road, but running parallel to it and likely has its origins in pre-Christianity, as the name was recorded as Thunreslea in the Domesday Book of 1086 to mean ‘sacred grove of the god Thunor or Thor‘.

The AGES AHA team had already started digging test pits earlier in the year, so unusually we started at test pit number 4. The local society also excavated 2 more pits whilst we were there, with some of them also able to supervise the students.

We had a total of 24 Year 8 and 9 students from Southend High School for Boys coming on this three day trip, not only to teach them about a new subject – archaeology, and one that is not taught in schools, but also about higher education in general, to open their eyes to the multitude of possibilities available to them.

Our base for the dig was at St Peter’s Church, where Alison Dickens, ACA’s director and also a Senior Project Manager at the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) led the students through the morning briefing on the Wednesday, not only giving some background on the ILAFS programme but encouraging the students to start thinking about the settlement they will be working in. Today it is one continuous ribbon of development which can mask what the original settlement used to look like. Even as recent as the late 19th century, Thundersley would have been a very rural settlement, but what would have been the decisions behind siting the original settlement here? These are the types of questions that we’re asking of the ILAFS students, to bring together both their historical and geography knowledge and applying to a new field of science, archaeology.

After the briefing, the students had a quick refreshment break whilst ACA’s archaeologist Cat Collins briefed the teachers and volunteers from AGES-AHA who will be supervising the test pits. The supervisors assess the students as they work, which will form part of their final grade. Reflective learning is also an important part of ILAFS, the students are required to undertake their own self assessments and record their progress over the two days.

The 24 students were split into six groups of four that would become their test pit groups for the next couple of days. The test pit sites were quite well dispersed, with a test pit on the edge of Thunderlsey Common along Lewes Way, another down Sunnymede Close and along Thundersley Grove that may have been part of the original routeway through Coombe woods. A cluster of pits were also excavated close to St Peters church, with two along Grasmere Way and AGES AHA digging a test pit in the grounds of Kingston Primary school and St Peters field, to the south of the church.

The first day was very hot indeed, but the students carried on brilliantly, one group was even lucky enough to be provided with a gazebo to keep them in the shade! All the home owners of Thundersley were extremely generous in allowing these teenagers to dig holes in their gardens, and trust them to put it all back again (which they did), for all of that we are extremely grateful.

Three of the groups actually hit natural on the first day, one group even went beyond into the natural sand, but all the students were able to keep going through the heat and hard digging and were praised by the homeowners where the students were digging as well as the local society for their commitment and excellent behaviour, so well done to all the students who took part!

Day 2 on Thursday was not quite as hot – at least to start with and with two groups backfilling first thing, Alison took one of the already finished groups into St Peters Field to start TP 12, she even got them started by de-turfing for them! It was in this field that we AGES-AHA had found likely Roman pottery with medieval and even potentially late Anglo Saxon pot. When the pottery report is in, it will be on our website here. The students were joined in this field with another test pit (13), both of which also found natural, so some students dug and completed two test pits in two days – quite an incredible feat! Those that did finish early helped the other groups and theirs friends to finish up, although not before adding a time capsule before backfilling!


TP 6g

At the same time on Thursday, there was a coffee morning in the church for local residents to see what had been found on the dig that was hosted by AGES-AHA. St Peters field was again the place where the majority of the oldest finds were recovered, which also has given the local society the opportunity in the future to excavate additional pits between the church and the field. This area sits on a plateau of high ground that would have been ideal for settlement in the past, perhaps even for the location of a Roman villa…only additional excavations would be able to prove this theory!

On the Friday, the students made the long journey up to Cambridge for a day exploring the city and university. It was the first time the majority had travelled to Cambridge so it is a really good opportunity for them to explore a new place (it’s also a nice reward for two hard days digging in the Essex clays – although some groups were lucky enough to be on much lighter sand!)

The day started with a lecture by Jess Thompson, a current PhD student at Cambridge, who talked to the students about the concept and importance of independent research, how to think critically on a topic, how to engage with multiple types of research and how to write up the results from the excavations. Each student will submit a report bringing all the data from the test pitting together, which will give each boy a chance to develop skills and gain analytical writing experience that will help them with their GCSE’s and also to prepare for A-Levels and beyond.

For lunch, all the students went to Pembroke College where they were given a tour around the various aspects of the college, which is very much your school house (or Hogwarts House if you’re a Harry Pottery fan!) in that the colleges at Cambridge are where you eat, sleep, socialise, study, join sports teams and make a host of friends who may not be on your course. A hot or cold lunch was also provided and the students made the most of their time at Pembroke, asking questions to the two student volunteer helpers (Imogen and Kieren) and taking in the surroundings of the oldest College in Cambridge!

After lunch, the students headed straight for the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) on the Downing Site for a practical session, although the idea is to still be thinking about settlement patterns, but also applying their recently gained archaeological knowledge. Jenny Williams at the MAA

The final session of the day and the ILAFS course was a talk by Kathryn Singleton, Schools Liason Officer from St Catharine’s College, who talked about admission procedures at Cambridge and expanding more about what University life is like, the types of courses you can study and how you learn when at University. It’s also a chance for the students to ask questions as they may not have previously thought about university, but coming on this course in Years 8 and 9 gives the students the best chance to really focus on their schoolwork and bring their grades if needed so they really excel and take every opportunity to make their future the best it can be.

The group had to leave Cambridge a bit early on the Friday, so they took the feedback forms with them to fill out and send back to us, so we can’t end with the usual comments and assessment from the students, but we hope that all the boys from Southend High School for Boys enjoyed the three days of the ILAFS programme and have taken some valuable skills away with them. We’re looking forward to receiving the write ups just before the summer holidays. Our thanks again to all those who helped make the dig another success!

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