This week I spent two days digging a hole in someone’s garden. Do not worry – the owners gave permission. It is a part of the ‘The Higher Education Field Academy’ organised by Access Cambridge Archaeology. They dig holes in dozens of gardens, every week, every summer. This week we were (back) in Sawtry, a little village north of Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire.
A group of ca. 4 teenagers is given their own 1x1m excavation. They have to plan it, they have to dig it, and they have to interpret it. Time Team style. At the end of the day all the test-pits from all the towns get added into a database which generates a large map, to trace settlement patterns in South-West England. For example, it is possible to see how settlement locations shifted between the Roman-Medieval-Modern period, and it is possible to see how most settlements reduced in size or vanished altogether when the Black Death swept through the region.
If you ask me, the purpose of this project is to show teenagers how interesting, complicated and worthwhile it is to be an archaeologist – whether they would like to become one or not. Plus, it gets them thinking about the future: what would you like to do after school? Why? Where? Or perhaps most importantly, it gets them to undertake an independent research project for the first time. I had barely written three essays by the time I finished high school, and we only really got our final cluster paper at age 18 to do some original investigating of our own.
It can be a little difficult to get anyone excited about things such as … digging a hole, mud, dirt, writing about the colour of the dirt, or finding 20th century bricks. The pupils coming from these schools are usually around Year 10, aged between 14-16. However, I got very lucky this week and my whole team stayed very optimistic about the whole thing throughout (to my face anyway!). It probably also helps that it was not pissing down.
Our stratigraphy went top soil –> dark soil with a load of rubbish, including plastic and bricks –> bit of lighter clay with rubbish –> bit of darker soil with rubbish –> lighter clay with medieval ceramics! –> natural clay and pebbles, ending at ca. 80 cm. into the (previously very lovely) garden.
So first let me tell you about the bricks. And for the record – some people genuinely collect bricks.
It is super useful when you excavate something which literally has the place it came from imprinted on it – such as ‘LBC’, the London Brick Company. Do not get too excited now, this is not an ancient company. It was founded in 1900 CE but did not seriously take off until the 1930s, and became massive in the 1970s. The bricks were made of ‘Oxford clay’ which is very porous and contains carbon which reduces fuel costs.
So these bricks we were digging up, they are recent, and they are everywhere. Anyway. We found one fragment with ‘LBC’, one with ‘… AKER […] … EDS’, one with ‘MAR…’ and one with ‘…STON’ (Marston). Despite being in Berdfordshire rather than London, Marston Vale was one of the main brick-yards for the LBC. Apparently there were over 150 brick chimney’s there, producing over 20% of England’s bricks in the 1970s. It closed in 2008 because this was all incredibly bad for the environment.
Maybe this all ended only seven years ago, but the brick-yards had a significant impact on the entire region for well over a century. I googled a little, and found an interview with Mrs Beryl Lowe. She was born in 1929 in Lower Shelton. From a family of 11 children, her father worked as brick worker.
“I lost out, like a lot of girls. We never, with the war coming, we never got to the Secondary Modern at Stewartby. We lost out on that. No petrol to run us around. Then we went to work at the brickworks… at 14! Wages was the highest at the brickworks. My mum needed money with a lot of family… so we was put there.” […] We took the place of boys in the army. They needed bricks to build more houses for after the war… […] We worked on the presses (taking un-fired bricks off the conveyor belt). […] It was hard work and cold… We got all the wind coming through and of course the bricks were cold, being clay. We tried gloves but it didn’t work. They got sticky with the clay. We used to lift them out of the press – 2, sometimes 4 when we worked on a quad – then we used to have to load the trucks, called bogeys – 500 on a truck, both sides of the press. Then the tram used to come along and take them on the drum to the chambers (the kiln). […] They’re very heavy, when they’re green, aren’t they?”
Of course our final layer was the most interesting: no more bits of plastic or breezeblock… but a few very small fragments of Late/Post-Medieval ceramics. We got a bit of brown-glazed red-ware and possibly a piece of Stamford ware. In one little test-pit maybe that is not very much, but put together in the giant map of many towns of many years, it is a dot that indicates when and where the settlement was active.
Our other finds included the back of a spoon, a small button, a nail, a pin, some bits of modern glass, a possible window latch, and a pile of stones. Pretty good all things considered: not too much to sort through at the end of the day, and not nothing – which is always a little disheartening to aspiring treasure hunters. I had a test-pit in the same village last year which was just totally empty. I like it: it means that is where the settlement ended; nothing happened there and we can draw a border on the map. But I see how others might not like that as much.
We dug for 2 days and finished with about half an hour to spare. This team really went for it: fast, straight edges, good planning. No mud-sculptures, sunbathing, or complaining. With great effort we even managed to squish all the clay back into the pit, where normally you would be left with a small mountain plus some dirt to spare. I mean, it will make an interesting story when the home-owners host barbecues over the summer, but by the fall it should look just as lovely as before.