Archaeology

noun

  • mike attempting the study of human history and prehistory through his excavation of sites and analysis of artefacts and occasionally a good sandwich.

Apparently I quite enjoy digging holes in the ground, almost as much as I enjoy peering into holes that other people have dug. Occasionally I find things in these holes; sometimes it just turns out to be a piece of flower pot, other times it's a medieval Abbey.

About digging.

I was digging holes in the back-gardens of numerous variably startled relatives from the age of three. My grandparents owned an eighteenth century farmhouse and I was always wandering over flowerbeds picking out the odd things that had been disturbed by the spade.

Aged six or seven, I started taking more of an interest in what I'd found rather than just enjoying finding odd things in the mud, and started asking questions about what things were. When I reached nine I joined a local archaeology society, apparently the youngest member in its history, and every club night I'd be brought along by my Dad carrying a bag load of curious things I'd found that week that I wanted information about. It means that as an adult I've inherited a vast quantity of broken teapots and rusty nails from my younger self.

I started digging on my first professional site when I was ten and found my first ever medieval coin a year later. The dig director let me climb over the spoil heaps and keep anything that the archaeologists had missed (more pottery for my future self to inherit) - that was until I found the corner of a Norman font that had been taken out by a digger.

Places I dug up

Beeleigh Abbey

2002 - 2006
Medieval Abbey Outbuildings
Medieval Buildings, Brick Clamp, etc.

This is was where I started 'proper' archaeology - my first site - and still perhaps to this day the best site that I have ever dug on. The team was a community group that grew as the years went on, many of whom were retired archaeologists, surveyors, builders, and all kinds of other professions that gave my an extra view into the medieval world. I also very quickly learnt feet and inches, which to this day gives me an odd higgledy-piggledy range of imperial and metric measurements in my head.

In the first few seasons we uncovered, initially from a single wall line, a maze of medieval foundations - largely laid with tiles in a perculiar herringbone style. We identified what appeared to be rooms with lodgings above, built hastilly over a yard that had itself been built over a pit - all of which that building was sinking merrily into. There were hearths still sat in the centre of rooms, built out of on edge tiles and, thanks to carbon dating, we measured the last time they were fired to within only a few years of the dissolution - when the buildings must have been pulled down.

Then there appeared a more exciting structure in another trench away from these buildings; a brick clamp. This had been put up during one of the abbey's many phases of constructions, and among the baked clay rubble we even found an old medieval knife that had probably been used to shape the very bricks as they were made.

The final seasons were the most tantalising though, as the abbey revealed secrets about the end of its life. In one ditch we found the hands of a statue clasped together in prayer, knocked off of their owner by one of Cromwell's iconoclastic crew. Then there emerged something even more exciting - the kitchen of the complex was being excavated, so named for the great brick fireplace at one end, and mysterious shiney black sheets began appearing across the floor. We had found a complete dump of window glass, a great pile a meter or more wide, and half a meter high - painted glass taken from the abbey church and broken up for the lead. Against one side of the kitchen we found two beautifully molded plaster panels, about a a meter high and half a meter wide - perhaps the remains of panels once mounted on a rood screen or some other structure that had rotted from around them.

It was a sad site to leave, with so many questions unanswered - but at least some amazing things had been uncovered, and a little more of the Abbey's story told.

Tollesbury

2003 - 2008
Roman Villa
Gravel, so much gravel.
Well - I say we only found gravel - we did actually find a barrow that had been long ploughed away, but its ditches were filled with first and second century romano-british cremations. As for the villa, we found no trace except for a local story about a builder putting up a garrage and, having stumbled across a Roman mosaic at the bottom of one of the foundation trenches, quickly filled it in with cement so that he was not delayed by archaeologists.

Edwin's Hall

2007, 2014 - 2016
The East Wing
The East Wing and more.
This was an exciting prospect - an unexplored double moated Tudor manorhouse still, in part, standing. The site was clearly much earlier, although that time only the tudor and later history of the house had been researched. Our first season there uncovered a few small walls and drains as we did a routine investigation before building work on a swimming pool began. It was only when we were invited back a few years later that we could explore the main lawn of the house, and uncovered a complete 16th century wing; this in turn was built over a completely unexpected wall that was supposed by experts to be no later than 1300. (And for an open day at the site it lead me to complete this small history.)

Little Baddow

2013
Bronze Age Barrow
Mysterious Earthworks
Hidden deep in the woods, this site was just a war with trees; where there was anything of interest you could be sure there was a root growing across it, and I'm sure we spent more time struggling to work around them than we did finding anything. Thought to be a Bronze Age lozenge barrow, the site was anything but common - and although finds weren't particularly forthcoming, the excitement of uncovering earthworks several thousand years old well made up for it.

Bicknacre Priory

2008-2010
The Priory Church
A Barn

All that stands today of Bicknacre Priory (a place that even in its medieval heyday was seen as poor and dilapidated) is a single arch of the crossing like some formidable grand doorway to the past. The priory itself had survived into the early 19th century still with medieval wall paintings covering the inside of what had by then become a farmhouse. In about 1808 it sadly burnt down, the ruins being robbed away to build local roads until a farmer finally stepped in to save the final remains in about 1850.

We were called in by developers who were turning the once empty grassland around it into a housing estate - most of it was a scheduled ancient monument that they couldn't touch, but one side of the site - the east end - just entered the developer's land and it needed to be looked at. The geophysiscs of the entire site were amazing, the dig was not so exciting. All we found were some scraggy layers of gravel that were probably the floor of the barn that had stood on the site a hundred years earlier. We did at least spark of a new interest in the site and there's a nice notice board there now all about it. Only took three years' work.

Ulting Church

2012
Medieval Pilgrim's Chapel
A Few Walls

Ulting is a sleepy little village with a beautiful church, that a few locals rumoured was founded by Saint Cedd. We were hunting for a pilgrim's chapel founded at the church in 1477 and geophysics in the graveyard suggested wall remains running beyond the west end. Amazingly, having somehow missed every grave wth our trenches, we did indeed find medieval walls - but dating to at least a century earlier; who knows what we found, but it wasn't the chapel we were looking for!

Burnham

2009
Roman Marching Camp
Snow
Not all digs go well - I could write up a dozen more digs that have fallen flat or ended quickly because of some problem at the time that makes a fun anecdote now. Burnham though was a tricky one - we had geophysics to suggest a significant Roman marching camp had stood there, and had been called in by a farmer confused by the amount of pottery turning up in his fields. It was a tough dig late in the year, and one day about a meter down we started finding odd flecks of white ash at the bottom of the trench, each digger seeming to hit it at about the same time. Strangely though, with the touch of the trowl it seemed to disintegrate and vanish to nothing. It was a few minutes before we realised it had started snowing. The farmer stopped the dig unexpectedly after a single season, and the next year called in some metal detectorists who found a hoard of bronze age tools not far from where we were digging.

 

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