HIAG Test Pits Project 2022 – September Update

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Thank you to all who have volunteered to take part in the HIAG 2022 test pits project, particularly those who came to the very successful weekends in June at Abbey Farm, and in August at The Gables and Windmill Lane.

The preliminary report previously circulated on the Abbey Farm excavations can be found here, and the new and latest preliminary report from The Gables and Windmill Lane is here.

There is still time to join us to continue to make new discoveries in the history of Histon and Impington. It is proving to be an exciting summer, so book your sessions now.

The September excavations, rearranged to avoid the extreme heat in July, are at Strictly Daylilies, 2 Prime’s Corner, Histon from Friday to Sunday 2-4 September. We will be investigating the mysterious cropmarks shown on the aerial photograph below. They are about 3-4 metres wide and do not appear to relate to anything previously recorded on the site.

One possibility is that they are the boundary ditches of a Romano-British field system. This would be a remarkable discovery. We have previously found Romano-British pottery in a test pit located at the small red square on the map, so we are hopeful.

There is something for everyone – digging, sieving, finds-washing, listing and photography – all within a friendly and enthusiastic group. No experience is necessary – we provide full instructions and equipment. Whether your interest is just trying a day with us for the experience or if you are an older hand, please use the link here to book or update the sessions which you would like to attend. Note: If you have not already registered for the project you will first be asked to do so. You may modify your bookings at any time using the same link and we will go by your latest version.  Please reply as soon as possible so that we can plan the number of test pits.

We look forward to seeing you for the September weekend!

David Oates
Project Manager
16th August 2022

Report on the joint HIAG and FEAG guided walk to view Devil’s Dyke

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Members of HIAG and FEAG (Fen Edge Archaeology Group) joined together on a warm summer’s evening to enjoy a guided walk to view Devil’s Dyke, led by Stephen Macaulay, Deputy Regional Manager with responsibility for education and outreach at Oxford Archaeology East.

Around 12 km long, the Dyke stretches from the fen edge at Reach across the open chalk landscape to the more wooded landscape at Woodditton. In its current form, Devil’s Dyke dates from the sixth century, although it follows the line of an earlier boundary along the same route.  Its most impressive section at Gallows Hill (a name acquired from its use as a place of execution by the Bishops of Ely) still stands to a height of over 10m from the top of the bank to the base of the ditch. Originally gleaming bare chalk, it would have made a clear statement of status and power in the politically uncertain times between Britain ceasing to be part of the Roman Empire and the establishment of stable Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, as well as forming a defensive barrier and controlling transit through the landscape, cutting across the prehistoric and Roman routes crossing the landscape. Even now it is a prominent feature in the landscape.

Along the route, we were able to appreciate its impressive scale as well as the rich archaeological landscape in which it sits. The Dyke is surrounded by evidence of human activity pre-dating its current form, from Bronze Age barrows to a now invisible Roman villa with a trackway linking it to a mausoleum (later used at a pagan Saxon cemetery) and also providing access to the Roman port at Reach.  Much later, it was cut though by a short-lived speculative railway in the early 19th century as well as the modern roads. There is also a 1940s ammunition store dug into it at Reach, the precise location of which is now unknown!

How the Dyke functioned when it was in use is much debated, and it remains a fascinating and enigmatic monument.  Its name ‘Devil’s Dyke’ testifies that it has exercised the imagination of past generations too. – legend tells it came about when the devil was turned away from a wedding feast and in anger burnt the groove of the Dyke into the landscape with his tail.

Our thanks to Stephen Macaulay for a fascinating visit.

Penny English

Invitation to a guided visit to Devil’s Dyke for HIAG and FEAG members

Photo credit: Wikipedia

Stephen Macaulay, Deputy Regional Manager responsible for education and outreach at Oxford Archaeology East will be leading a joint guided walk to Devil’s Dyke for HIAG and FEAG members. The largest Anglo-Saxon Dyke/Ditch in Britain, built around the 6th-7th centuries AD, it forms an impressive feature across the East Anglian landscape. It also lies within a landscape of much more archaeology, from the Bronze Age onwards.

Starting at 6.30 p.m. on Wednesday 3rd August and lasting around 1.5 – 2 hours, the walk will take us up to Galley Hill then along the dyke, ending at Reach at approximately 8 – 8.30 pm.

As numbers on the walk are strictly limited, this is open to HIAG and FEAG members only. Booking is essential: use this link to the Contact Us page of our website to book a place. If all the places are already taken, names will be added to the waiting list in case a space becomes available.

HIAG Test Pits Project 2022 – August Update

In the interests of safety, due to the exceptional heat forecast for the 16th/17th July excavation weekend, we rescheduled this event for September. Apologies to all those who volunteered and were looking forward to this weekend. We share your disappointment.

There is still time to consider volunteering for the remaining weekends. Here are details of the planned August sites.

There is something for everyone – digging, sieving, finds washing, listing and photography – all within a friendly and enthusiastic group. No experience is necessary – we provide full instructions and equipment. Whether your interest is just trying a day with us for the experience or if you are an older hand, please fill in the on-line form at the link below and we will keep you informed. We are now offering Fridays as well as Saturday and Sunday.

Please use the link here to book, update or confirm the sessions you would like to come. If you have not already registered for the project you will first be asked to do so. You may modify your bookings at any time using the same link and we will go by your latest version.  Note that we are now also offering Fridays, so you may wish to add these.  Please reply as soon as possible so that we can plan the number of test pits – and convert “possibly” answers to “yes” if you can.

The preliminary report from the Abbey Farm weekend in June with photographs may be seen here.

The final excavation weekend will be on Friday-Sunday 2nd-4th September at Strictly Daylilies, 2 Prime’s Corner, Histon and Histon Manor.

David Oates
Project Manager
14th July 2022.

Field walking season 2021-2022 update

This years field walking season involved nine Sunday mornings between November 2021 and March 2022. We would like to thank Caroline Chivers and Alister Farr for their support in allowing us to walk at Manor Farm and Bedlam Farm, Impington.

After a very long break our fieldwalking campaign at Manor Farm, Impington resumed on the 21st November 2021. A group of eleven volunteers walked the last section of a field  that we had first started walking two years ago. We were pleased to welcome five enthusiastic beginners who had come from far afield and we paired them with more experienced volunteers. The day was bright and sunny and started with a gentle breeze. Hopes were high for some good finds. Unfortunately, in the week since we had last inspected the field, the exceptionally mild weather had caused the winter wheat crop to race away and in parts of the field this made seeing any surface artefacts really quite difficult.

Sadly this time the pickings were meagre with only one piece of immediately identifiable medieval pottery, although Sasha also found a lovely piece of post-medieval Staffordshire slip ware (AD1640-1750) with its very characteristic combed decoration.

During the following two weeks we completed a new field to the north west. Despite snow falling in other areas of the county our field this time was in good condition for walking, well weathered and with only a small amount of crop visible. For these two weeks we mainly had experienced walkers (oh dear – what happened to the beginners?). Here we found considerably more medieval pottery sherds and some that might turn out on closer inspection to be Romano-British.

When we resumed after the Christmas break we walked another large new field closer to Butt Lane. On this field the older finds were very limited but again there was a considerable quantity of modern artefacts including a mobile phone and a toy tractor. The challenge on this field was that a lack of both crop drill lines and horizon features, meant walking in a straight line while always still scanning the ground for artefacts was quite difficult. This was eventually overcome by placing large equally spaced white signs at the far side of the field that could be seen from the transect line start, such that walkers had a reference point that they could use to keep checking on their line.

The last weeks of this year’s field walking season saw HIAG return to a field that we had transect walked in a previous season and found a reasonable number of sherds of Roman pottery.

Roman pottery from transect walking at Manor Farm in the 2019-2020 season

We were keen to revisit the site to have a more intensive look by grid walking rather than sampling by transect walking. Luckily this field had been ploughed prior to plant trials so was in lovely condition to grid walk, but we were also under some time pressure to finish before the field was taken over for the plant trials.

10m by 10m grid squares were marked out using canes and each square was walked by a volunteer who spent about 15 minutes gathering every artefact they could find in the square and depositing them into one bag which they left in the centre of the square for later collection.

Grid walking at Manor Farm, Impington

Thanks to the enthusiasm of HIAG volunteers and the much appreciated help from CAFG members we had lots of volunteers to help.

Briefing the volunteers at Manor Farm

Out in the field at Manor Farm

We managed to complete grid walking of a total of 252 10x10m squares over 3 weeks and this produced an unexpectedly large number of finds.

Finds from just two of the 252 grid squares at Manor Farm

Although there was a lot of 19th/20th century stoneware and glass in the assemblages there were some really interesting finds of pottery which appear to be from predominantly the Romano-British period but also some from the Anglo-Saxon period.

Early Anglo-Saxon pottery sherd with stamped decoration

Our task over the rest of the summer is to process all the finds by first washing, then sorting and the recording number and weight of each finds type, before sending them to appropriate finds specialists to be analysed and reliably identified. We have used our club nights at St Audrey’s Community Centre to start this process but we still have lots more to do before the finds can be sent off.

Finds sorting and recording at Club Night

We hope to complete the work over the summer and have at least some pottery analysis results back during the autumn and before the start of the next fieldwalking season.

 

HIAG Test Pits Project 2022 – Details of Sites, Dates and How to Volunteer

Exciting news! Thanks to the generosity of the site owners we can now invite you to join our summer test pits project to investigate a really excellent selection of the most historic locations in the villages. Sign up now!

The project weekends are 25/26 June (Abbey Farm, Histon), 16/17 July (Strictly Daylilies, Primes Corner, Cottenham Road, Histon), 6/7 August (The Gables, High Street, Histon and Windmill Lane, Histon) and 3/4 September (Impington Mill, Cambridge Road, Impington – provisional).  We will also include sites at Histon Manor and some outlying locations.

Whether your interest is just trying a day with us for the experience or you are an older hand, please fill in the on-line form at the link below and we will keep you informed.

There is something for everyone – digging, sieving, finds washing and listing, and photography – all within a friendly and enthusiastic group. No experience is necessary – we provide full instructions.

Please click here to let us know the dates you will be available. If you have not already registered  for the project you will first be asked to do so.

Please reply by Monday 13th June, if possible.

David Oates
Project Manager

HIAG Test Pits Project 2022

HIAG is planning another test pit campaign this summer. We hope to fill in some of the gaps in our sampling of the archaeology in the medieval core of the villages. The objective is to improve further on our steadily evolving understanding of the timeline and spatial distribution of settlement in the villages. This year’s project will be led by David Oates who masterminded the original “Big Dig” in Histon and Impington in 2016.

We intend to have four test pitting weekends, but dates and locations have not yet been set, as these will depend on response to this initial call for volunteers. If you are interested then please see the project outline on our website here. If you are already familiar with our test pit programme and just wish to volunteer this season you can jump straight to the online registration of interest form.

There’s no commitment at this stage – just a registration of interest.

We look forward to hearing from you, whether you are new to test pitting or an old hand, whether or not you are interested in digging, or some other aspect of the project. More interesting discoveries await!

Jane Dean
HIAG Secretary

Abbey Farm Test Pits Update

At the end of our autumn 2021 test pit campaign at Abbey Farm Histon, we thought that one of our four pits contained a feature that would deserve careful investigation. TP2 was situated very close to the boundary of the former churchyard of the demolished church of St. Etheldreda. During the dig it had produced evidence such as stones with mortar still attached, and fragments of leaded window lights, which we though probably related to the demolition (circa 1600) of the church.

Some of the fragments of coloured window glass and a section of lead window came from TP2. The glass is opaque due to weathering.

Aside from the demolition debris, a specific feature of interest which appeared at a depth of about 90cm was a clay or silty surface which had embedded lumps of chalk and other possible building rubble visible and evidence of burning in the form of patches of yellow to orange fired earth and embedded spots and streaks of charcoal.  At first, we thought that this layer might be evidence of an occupation layer, possibly a building floor or wall foundation, and the burning might represent a represent proximity to a hearth. A section across the feature quickly dismissed this idea as it proved quite shallow and rather than a continuous solid surface, it appeared to consist of discrete lumps of partly fired earthy material, partially fused together which gave the appearance of a solid surface when scraped with a trowel, and it contained lumps of chalk, limestone, and some pottery sherds. We concluded it was dumped demolition material, possibly including burnt wattle and daub.

Feature at the top of context 10 (90cm below ground surface) in TP2

Despite this disappointment, we thought the pit justified some further investigation, so at the end of the autumn campaign, with the support of the landowners, we did not backfill TP2. Instead, we covered and fenced it, with a plan to return when the weather, Covid and resources allowed.  However, it was not until January before we were able to return to the unfinished business of TP2.

In the meantime, in December we received the report from our pottery specialist Paul Blinkhorn, which gave us dating evidence for the pits. There was a very wide date range of pottery in the test pits from Bronze Age through to modern. The modern pottery all came from TP1 – the test pit in the former vegetable garden near the present 19th century farmhouse. In the other three test pits the pottery timeline ceased around the late medieval period or early post-medieval which is consistent with the notion that after the demolition of St. Etheldreda church the area around the church was incorporated into Abbey Farm and became parkland.

The pottery report also revealed that two of the pits TP1 and TP4 appeared to be quite well stratified in time, but TP2 and TP3 were less so with more of mix of pottery from different periods throughout the pits. Although TP2 contained pottery dating from the Bronze Age to the late medieval, it is the most recent sherds that date the context, the earlier sherds being residual.

One particularly diagnostic piece of pottery from the upper contexts of TP2 is this tiny sherd of Cistercian Ware.

Cistercian Ware from context 2 of TP2.

Although Cistercian Ware production has a broad date range of 1475-1770, the style of decoration with white clay slip (appearing yellow under the glaze) applied in the form of strips, modelled details or, as in our example, pellets, appears to have been used only for a short period just before and after the dissolution of the monasteries, which gives this sherd a mid-16th Century date. Our sherd is abraded and the glaze quite scratched, so obviously it is not a primary deposit and has probably been tossed around in the plough soil for decades before finally coming to rest in the soil of our test pit. Nevertheless, a useful terminus post quem for our test pit context.

So to summarise, dating of pottery sherds in the contexts of TP2 above the rubble layer indicated a late medieval or early post-medieval period date.

On resumption of the excavation in January, one piece of pottery found directly in the rubble layer appeared to us to be Roman in origin, though it was obviously very abraded at the time of deposition, so almost certainly residual and not reliable dating evidence for the layer. Once below this feature we encountered a continuation of what appeared to be the fill of a pit or ditch. Among the finds in the fill were the usual fragments of bone, iron nails and pottery. The pottery from the January dig, shown in the photo below, has yet to be seen by a specialist, but we believe it to be dateable to medieval and or Roman periods.

Medieval and Roman period pottery sherds from context 10 (90-100cm below ground surface) of TP2.

One intriguing feature of TP2 which continued into this layer were many curious small fragments of copper alloy slag. We think this is suggestive that metal working may have occurred in the vicinity.

Copper alloy slag fragments from contexts 8 to 10 of TP2.

This colourful lump of glassy and metallic slag was also recovered which also suggests the metalworking hypothesis.

Glassy slag from context 10 of TP2 which may be evidence of metalworking

There were also many broken fragments of limestone, some of which had flat surfaces with tool marks clearly visible.

Some of the broken limestone fragments from context 10, a few of the flat surfaces have tool marks.

This limestone is not native to the local geology and has been tentatively identified as Barnack Ragstone, an oolitic limestone from quarries near Peterborough. Quarrying of Barnack Ragstone began in Roman times and continued until the medieval period, but the quarries were largely exhausted by the 16th century. Many of East Anglia’s medieval cathedrals and parish churches are built from it, as were the great medieval abbeys, which themselves became stone quarries after the Dissolution. These fragments of stone could represent more evidence of the demolition of St. Etheldreda circa 1600 – or perhaps some other structure.

Another interesting find was a fragment of a lava quern stone, a type of corn grinding millstone made of volcanic lava and originating from quarries near Mayen in the Eifel region of what is now Germany, first imported into Britain by the Romans and subsequently used well into the medieval period.

Fragment of a lava quern stone recovered from context 10 (90-100cm below the surface) of TP2.

Continuing our excavation of a sondage of half the test pit area down to 1.3m there was no sign of the natural geology appearing, or even a significant change of soil colour, as it remained a uniform mid-brown loamy soil, in which we continued to find small pottery sherds, bone fragments, iron nails, mussel shells, lumps of chalk and mortar fragments. However, at 1.3m into the sondage we had to call a halt to the digging. As a final flourish, thanks to Michael Watson, we did use a post hole borer into the base of the sondage and eventually found that the expected natural sand and gravel river terrace material, which emerged quite suddenly at 1.7m below ground surface.

The natural geology below TP2 – sand and gravel of the 4th River Terrace of the Cam Valley Formation .

We now think that TP2 was situated in the middle of either an old quarry pit, originally dug to exploit the natural sand and gravel resources of the site, or a deep ditch surrounding the churchyard.  Based on the pottery dating evidence, the backfill of this feature is most likely to be late medieval or early post-medieval and quite possibly coinciding with time of the demolition of St. Etheldreda. However, we will await the expert report on the pottery recovered from the lowest contexts before finally drawing a conclusion.

Although we did not find any direct evidence of a settlement horizon in the four Abbey Farm test pits, the finds assemblage provides reasonable if not conclusive evidence of settlement, and possibly some industrial activity in the form of metalworking, in the vicinity. We hope to conduct further fieldwork to determine its nature, timeline, location and extent.

HIAG is grateful for the support of the landowners, Michael and Sue Watson, for providing both the opportunity to excavate at Abbey Farm and for their hospitality, and also the team of enthusiastic and hardy volunteers who turned out on two cold January days to help conclude this excavation.

 

HIAG AGM

The Annual General Meeting of the group will take place on Monday 25th April 2022 at 7:30pm via Zoom.

Members will receive the Chair’s and Treasurer’s reports for the year and appoint a committee to steer the activities of the group through the coming year.

All members are encouraged to attend and will receive the agenda and other papers for the AGM, and the Zoom link, by email.