Northstowe Community Excavations

For a total of five weeks at the end of June and into July 2018, a community archaeological excavation was undertaken, with volunteers given the opportunity to work alongside professional field archaeologists from the Cambridge Archaeological Unit (CAU) with their ongoing work on the Phase 2 archaeology, ahead of the new town construction of Northstowe.

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Volunteer site hut and looking NW across part of Phase 2

Just under 60 people signed up to take part in the dig, from 18 year old university students to retired individuals and it was the flexibility of the dig that appealed to a lot of the volunteers, as they were able to attend as many days as they wanted. Some of the volunteers are already living in Northstowe that was part of the Phase 1 excavations, as well as the surrounding villages and people coming from further afield. The timescale of the dig unfortunately coincided with one of hottest heatwaves since the summer of 1976, but everyone persevered (just with perhaps more water and shade breaks!)

The aims of the community excavations were to investigate an unexplored area of large open area site that was ahead of the of the commercial excavations currently being undertaken by CAU site staff and to give the volunteers the chance to learn all aspects of a commercial excavation, including excavation and recording techniques. Matt Wood and Heather Turner of the CAU led the community side of the excavation, but the volunteers were very much included into the site staff team with one volunteer commenting:  “Thank you for the friendly welcome. It was very relaxed and informative. The relaxed atmosphere rubbed off onto the other volunteers – all friendly and happy to share what they had found. There was a good team spirit. And great that I was able to come, even though I was only available for one day.”

The archaeology consisted of a Late Iron Age (from the 1st century BC) and Roman (mid 1st to mid 5th century AD) farmstead that appears to be connected to a much larger Late Iron Age and Roman settlement, which has been under excavation since October 2016. The core of this excavation focused on the farmstead, with volunteers excavating various features including boundary ditches, pits, trackway systems and internal ditches, many of which yielded an extensive array of artefacts, all of a domestic nature, although no structural evidence has yet been found in this area.

The majority of the finds recovered would have had a personal use to the people who lived here; both plain and decorated pottery fragments were found, with animal bone, a multitude of metal work, including coins with also bone hair pins. There was evidence for small scale butchery having taken place on site, but again this would have likely been for personal use.

The results so far suggest that the settlement was continuously occupied from the Late Iron Age, through to the Late Roman period. These original Iron Age people remained on this site, but became ‘Romanised’ and could have been some of the original Romano-British occupants of the area.

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The current plan of the archaeology at the focus of the community dig

The excavations are of course on-going (but the end of this phase is in sight!) so the full interpretation of the site and the finds are yet to come. The other half of the settlement (the blank area in the bottom of the plan above), is yet to be excavated but will hopefully come up for study next spring – watch this space!

Volunteers were asked to complete feedback forms at the end of their time on site and 99% of the volunteers rated their experience as either ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. The most enjoyable aspects were recorded as working directly with CAU staff “Working with top class archaeologists and nice people”; “The 1 to 1 instructions with professional archaeologists and meeting other people who enjoy history/archaeology” and “Digging! Also learning from Matt and Heather who are very knowledgeable about this site and generally”. Other enjoyable aspects of the dig were recorded as finding the various artefacts as well as the independent work; “The allocation of features to dig that are individual, enabling a task to be completed through to the end, even when only the odd day on site can be managed”. Others stated they enjoyed “finding a brooch fragment, but also being part of the team”, “[I enjoyed] interpreting interesting ditches and features”, “Really everything, actual digging and learning a bit about the recording procedure” and “Being allowed to excavate alone/with people when needed and meeting like minded people”.

All the CAU staff involved in the dig would like to extend their gratitude to all the volunteers who took part in the excavations, whether it was for one day or twenty days. The contribution to the on-going archaeological investigations at Northstowe has been vital and we hope that all the volunteers both enjoyed their time on site, but also hope that they have gained more knowledge on archaeology as well.

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