Wendens Ambo Independent Learning Archaeology Field School

Our very last Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS) of 2018 took place in the lovely village of Wendens Ambo, in West Essex on the 11th and 12th of July. The village sits on the western banks of the River Cam/Granta, 23km south of Cambridge and 15km north of Bishops Stortford. It sits between 55m and 70m OD on a bedrock of chalk with superficial deposits of both river terrace sands and gravels as well as silts and clays. The village was effectively cut in two when the Eastern Counties Railway was completed by 1845 and the construction of the M11 immediately west of the village also affected the village in more recent times. The name Wendens likely derives from the Old English of wende and denu to mean ‘winding valley’, and was recorded as Wendena in the Domesday Book of AD 1086. The word Ambo refers to the union of the two parishes called Great and Little Wenden in 1662. Known Iron Age and Romano-British settlement has been excavated nearby and the church of St Mary the Virgin dates from the 11th century that also most likely replaced an earlier wooden church on the same site.

A total of 48 Year 9 and 10 pupils from The Hertfordshire and Essex High School, Passmores Academy, The Davenant Foundation School, The Bishops Stortford High School and The Stewards Academy took part in the excavations. Our base for the two days digging was the St Mary the Virgin church and the students arrived for 9am on the Wednesday for an introduction talk by ACA’s manager Alison Dickens. With the students, 6th form supervisors and teachers occupying the pews, Alison talked through the aims of the ILAFS project, which is not only to investigate the archaeology of the settlement but also to get the participants to think about higher education and that university is perhaps more widely accessible than perhaps they realise.

After the briefing, the students were given a break, to stretch legs and have a drink, whilst ACA’s archaeologist Cat Collins talked to the 12 6th formers (from both The Bishops Stortford High School and the Herts and Essex High School), who were each going to supervise a test pit group, some of whom had actually taken part in the ILAFS when they were in Year 10 at school. Alison then called out the test pit groups, which consisted of a mix of four students, from two different schools, which develops some of the life skills essential for later on life and work which includes working with people you may not know and the ability to communicate well with others.

The ground was quite hard digging, with all the dry weather of late, de-turfing took a while for all the groups (who had turf to begin with!) but everyone did all so well to get down between three and five contexts in the first day. The test pits were sited across the village, along Royston Road, Duck Street, Mill Road as well as close to the church and just under the viaduct along the stream. TP 3 close to the church and the site of an old timber barn (pictured below) actually hit natural by 15cm in depth, with no trace at all of the building found, perhaps due to the shallow foundations of the original structure.

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Photo courtesy of Sue Watson

ACA were joined for both days on this dig by archaeologist John Newman who circulated the test pits with Alison and Cat, checking on all the test pit groups, offering advice and support as well as identifying the pottery being excavated by the students. The majority of the finds excavated on day one dated to the post medieval and later, although two pits produced fragments of burnt stone or ‘pot boilers’ that are likely to be at least three thousand years old! By the end of the second day of the dig, virtually every test pit found burnt stones, which suggests a potential of later prehistoric activity spread across the current village.

The rest of the second day continued to be another hot day. As part of ILAFS the students carry out all the processes of the excavation to include sieving all the soil to search for finds as well as washing all the artefacts on site. It is hard work, particularly as the majority of the participants are not used to this type of physical activity, but all the students worked hard to continue through the entire excavation.

Archaeology is the study of the past through the material culture left behind by our human ancestors. Not all the artefacts we discover are old….TP 8 found a piece of plastic wrapper, that on closer inspection dated from 1976 and offered a competition to win a bike (worth £55) or a pair or roller skates (worth £5), but we all missed the closing date, written as the 31st of August 1976!! The only evidence of medieval activity in the village was recorded from test pits 1 and 2, along Royston Road, although once we have the official pottery report though, it will be on our website here.

On Friday, all the students arrived in Cambridge for Day 3 of ILAFS. They were met by Cat Collins on the Downing Site, at the heart of the archaeology department and for many of the students it was their first visit to Cambridge, so there was a chance to talk to them about how the University of Cambridge differs from other universities and is based around a number of colleges, where the students live and eat, much like Hogwarts Houses, from Harry Potter!

PhD student Emma Brownlee gave the first talk of the day, a taster style lecture, to show how undergraduate students are taught at University and how it differs from school. Emma talked the students through the idea of settlement research that has been the focus of their last two days of excavation in Wendens Ambo and how to write up their test pit results in the form of a scientific style report.

For lunch, the schools were divided to go to either Christ’s College and Corpus College for lunch and a tour around, so the students could learn about how the Cambridge college system differs from other universities. The college system here is often compared to school houses, or Hogwarts Houses, where undergraduates sleep, eat and study as well as socialise with fellow students on other courses. Learning also takes place in various departments in the form of lectures, seminars, lab work and practicals. The students on Day 3 in Cambridge get a taste of university learning with the morning lecture (this week given by Emma Browlee) and the last session of the day was back in the Plant Sciences lecture theatre with a talk by Ellie Bishop, the Schools Liaison Officer from Peterhouse College. She gave the ILAFS participants a much needed introduction on applying to university and how learning differs to what the students are used to at school. One of the aims of ILAFS is to inspire the students to think more carefully about their own futures and to not discount university just because they perhaps don’t know much about it.

Straight after lunch, and after the college tours, the students were met at the front of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology by Museum Outreach Assistant Jenny Williams. Jenny began talking with the students in the local archaeology display about how different artefacts are used to show different aspects of the settlement, and then split the students into four groups, each looking at a different period or settlement. The settlements examined included the Indus Valley, The Maya’s, Roman and Medieval Cambridge, and each student was asked to draw an artefact and record how they all relate to each other, in a poster display. The finished posters were then put on the glass display cases in the museum for other visitors to see whilst the students enjoyed some free time exploring the museum, as well as looking at the other groups posters and of course going to the gift shop!

The vast majority of the students, rated the ILAFS programme as either good or excellent and they enjoyed it as much or more than they expected, particularly as archaeology is not a subject the students have encountered before. In particular, feedback submitted at the end of the three days by both the students and staff was very positive. The students said when asked what they have gained from the field school “more team work qualities, leadership skills and to be more open to new experiences” (RG Davenant Foundation School), “I have a wider idea of what university life is like” (CB Stewards Academy) and “I enjoyed seeing different aspects of Cambridge” (MF Stewards Academy). Other students have said “I feel I have gained an increased confidence and maturation from ILAFS. I have also gained a deeper interest in Archaeology” (DB, The Bishops Stortford High School), “Confidence in my ability to work independently and in a team and to attempt new things, in which I have no previous experience. I have also gained a lot of new valuable knowledge about the university experience, which will be beneficial to my academic future” (NC, The Bishops Stortford High School). Other comments about the experience included “Amazing. Not entirely what I expected but I definitely enjoyed it” (JC, Herts and Essex High School) and “it was a really enjoyable experience” (MNS, Passmores Academy).

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The staff also filled in feedback forms and each rated the ILAFS as excellent and said that their students enjoyed “the idea of taking learning out of the classroom and being part of an overall project and contributing” (CH, Stewards Academy) and when we asked what the students may have gained from this programme “an extra-cirricular opportunity that will raise aspiration and independence. Giving the students experiences they wouldn’t normally have access to” (LP, Passmores Academy), and “Its a great pity this is the last chance to attend archaeology field work. We got the students out of their comfort zone, they met and worked with other they didn’t know and the opportunity to use new skills that will benefit them in future education and life” (GC, Stewards Academy).

Our many thanks to all the students and staff who have worked with us for this dig and the key local resident, Sue Watson, who found all the test pit sites for us prior to the dig and was on hand during the test pitting for additional support and advice.

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