Great Gidding Independent Learning Archaeology Field School

For the last 3 days, ACA were in the village of Great Gidding, part of a cluster of villages with the name Gidding to also include Little Gidding and Steeple Gidding (see The Giddings website here) and situated on the west Cambridgeshire border in Huntindonshire, about 16km northwest of Huntingdon and along the northern banks of the Alconbury Brook (a tributary of the River Ouse), for our 10th Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS) of the season.


Great Gidding is predominately stretched as a ribbon of development, with a cluster of settlement is also noted at Chapel End. The village was recorded in the Domesday Book on AD1086 as Geddinge with the affix manga, which is Latin for great, added by the early 13th century. The name Geddinge likely means ‘the settlement of the family or followers of a man called Gydda‘. Great and Little Gidding were one parish at the time of the Domesday survey, when there was also three major landowners at that time, Eustace the Sheriff, William Engaine and the Abbots of Ramsey. During the 12th century about 700 acres of William Engaine’s land was separated and became Little Gidding. The church in Great Gidding is dedicated to St Michael and has its origins from the 13th century.

On Wednesday morning we were joined at the Great Gidding village hall by 33 Year 9 and 10 students from Ely College, Cromwell Community College and Stamford Welland Academy. The excavations could not have gone ahead without the support of the Great Gidding History Group, in particular Julie Trolove who found all the test pit sites for us and was on hand during the excavation for additional support and assistance, as was Patrick Ellis, Amanda (Min) Cameron and Kevin Redgate, with Phil Hill, who also coordinated our test pitting in Sawtry between 2014 and 2016 (the results of which can be found on our website here).


The ILAFS programme always start with a briefing session on day 1, this week led by ACA’s manager Alison Dickens, who talked the students through the process of digging the test pit and what we hope the students achieve over the three days of ILAFS. We want to encourage all the students taking part to think more about higher education and university, which given their age, many haven’t considered yet, but if university is something they think they may enjoy after the ILAFS programme, each student will have the time to pull up their grades if necessary and aim for the best university that they can get to, whether that is Cambridge or other Russel Group universities. The rest of the project aims include life, learning and future work skills as well as the archaeological side of the project, where the students are undertaking original work for the Access Cambridge Archaeology and the Department of Archaeology!


After a quick break it was out into the sunshine to start the excavations! There were 9 test pits in total, and the schools were split up so there were one or two students from each school in every test pit. These were focused along Main Street in the far north of the village to next to the church and then at Chapel End and Gains Lane. The groups were mainly supervised by the teachers accompanying the students, but one willing homeowner, Leslie Alexandar also supervised the group digging in his own garden along Main Street, for which we are very grateful.


Most of the groups started with de-turfing, which was quite hard, given the long spell of dry weather but were able to get through at least the first context before lunch! All process of excavation was undertaken, the same as on a commercial excavation, just on a smaller scale. Excavation, recording, sieving and washing the finds were all undertaken by the students and would have each taken a turn doing the different tasks.

The majority of the pits on the first day were digging through Victorian and post medieval layers, although TP 6 at Chapel End recorded a sherd of 12th century medieval pottery, which was a great find that made us hopeful for more to come the next day!


Thursday was another early start with the students arriving in Great Gidding for around 8.30am again. Once all were signed in and their supervisors were here, the groups headed straight back out to site to continue digging from yesterday, a process that every student was more confident with given the experience they gained yesterday.

Cat Collins, ACA’s archaeologist, continued to circulate the test pits as she did the previous day and was on hand to help the students with the digging or to identify what was found. Also present on the Thursday was David Hall, a local pottery expert who also visited all the test pit sites, after examining all the finds recorded on the first day that were still drying in the village hall.


The day started cool, which was a bonus to the two test pits that had managed to find natural and backfilled early, but this meant that they were able to help the other groups continue to a greater depth. Additional test pits also found medieval pottery, also again at TP 6, but also TP 7, TP 4 and TP 9, with also some possible Late Anglo Saxon pottery… although until we get the pottery report through from Paul Blinkhorn early next week, we just have to wait and see! When the pot report is ready, it will be online here.

TP 4 also recorded the presence of an animal burial in about the 4th context, some of which was able to be excavated and it was determined to be a juvenile animal, although the debate is still out as to what animal has actually been found – watch this space!


Day 3 – like the first two days, consisted of an earlier start, but this time all the students travelled to Cambridge and met Cat on the entrance of the Downing Site. It was a warm start already and the early start gave the schools time for a quick group photo and time outside to take in the surroundings of Archaeology Department!


The first session was undertaken in the large lecture theatre in Plant Sciences on the Downing Site for a real taste of university life and learning in the form of a lecture on settlement studies. The style of the lecture was very new compared to what the students are used to at school, in that the students are given the information and take additional notes to the day-3 booklet we provide for them, but are then expected to continue their own research and discover additional information so each student can produce a comprehensive written report on their test pit excavations and what the results mean for the development of Great Gidding.

For lunch the schools groups went either to Trinity College or Trinity Hall College founded in the mid-16th by Henry VIII and the mid-14th centuries respectively. Trinity Hall is the 5th oldest college in Cambridge, so it was a great chance for the students to see the older side of the city and how its history is intermingled with the university. Our thanks to both these colleges for hosting our students this week.


Steve Watts, Admissions Tutor at Homerton College gave an excellent talk after lunch on applying to university and what the colleges at Cambridge are looking for in the application process, which will hopefully inspire all the students that came on the ILAFS trip. The final session of the day this week was in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology  and run by Jenny Williams, the museums education and outreach assistant. Using the current displays in the MAA, Jenny led the students through a session looking at different settlements and how the objects in the museum tie into these settlements. The students either looked at Roman Cambridge, Medieval Cambridge, or The Indus Valley and drew objects in the display cases relating to information they had read about how the archaeological finds can represent different aspects of a settlement.


The finished posters were then put up for all visitors to the MAA in the afternoon to enjoy! When asked about what the students enjoyed about the 3 days, 95% of the students rated ILAFS as either Excellent or Good and were quoted as saying “I enjoyed being treated like an adult and with respect” (HO, Ely College), and “I enjoyed looking at the University of Cambridge and when we were digging up and finding interesting pieces of history” (JK, Stamford Welland Academy). Another student said “I have gained a new experience which I wouldn’t find anywhere else” (KM, Cromwell Community College) and another said “I really enjoyed this experience and hope to do something like this again” (DO, Stamford Welland Academy).

The staff accompanying the students were also able to offer their perspective on the programme and also any feedback they heard when ACA staff weren’t around! TP from Cromwell Community College said, “they have really enjoyed doing something completely different to their normal schooling and working together to a common goal”. JN from Stamford Welland Academy said it was “an insight into the opportunities available after school” and we hope that the students take this away from ILAFS, but in the short term, we are looking forward to reading each student write up’s for their test pit excavations when they submit just before the summer break.

Thanks again to everyone who took part and with the organisation of the excavations in Great Gidding, its been a brilliant three days!

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