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9th to 13th May – ILAFS Test Pits

This year HIAG was very pleased to host for the second year running an Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS) organised by Access Cambridge Archaeology, an outreach unit within the Division of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. The primary aim of Access Cambridge Archaeology is to enhance educational, economic and social well-being through active participation in archaeology.

On the Wednesday and Thursday 35 students from Soham, Witchford and Bottisham Village Colleges dug ten 1mx1m test pits in the central area of Histon & Impington at locations generously offered by local residents. An operational base was kindly supplied by Histon Baptist Church.

On Friday the students were hosted by the University where the morning was taken up by a lecture looking at the study of settlements and guidance on writing their excavation reports. In the afternoon they visited Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and were given an exercise relating to the points on settlement history discussed in the morning, and asked to use the museum’s collections to discover what they could learn about the settlements represented in the collections. A report on the activities over the three days of the ILAFS can be found on the ACA blog.

At the end of the field school many of the pits started by the students were judged to have further archaeological potential, so on Friday and over the weekend members of HIAG and a team of volunteers, including members of Cambridge Young Archaeologists Club continued the excavation the ILAFS students had started. Our aim was to get down as far as the undisturbed “natural” surface, and in most pits this was achieved.

Every pit produced something of interest, and nine out of the ten pits produced medieval or earlier pottery. A notable highlight and a first from our test pits was the appearance of Iron-Age pottery, which was recovered from pits in Station Road and Home Close.

Although we were already aware that there had been an Iron-Age presence in Impington based on the results of the large-scale excavations at the former Unwins site on Impington Lane (which featured at our Open Evenings in February)  it was gratifying to have this corroborated from our test pit findings.

A notable absence this time was any pottery from the Anglo-Saxon period. The lack of Anglo-Saxon finds in this area supports the growing body of evidence that this central lower lying area between Histon & Impington was not occupied between around 450 and 1100 AD. The hypothesis is that the area gradually became flooded after the end of the Roman period in 450 AD and that it was only drained and became viable for re-occupation in the middle Saxon period, about 900-1000 AD.

Our appreciation of the Victorian period as the first era of large scale material consumption was further reinforced by the large quantity of 19th Century pottery recovered. Here’s a sample from a single context in one pit on Water Lane, Histon.

David Oates has written a preliminary report on the May test pit activity.  Further analysis of the results from the 2018 test pit programme will be reported here, and further photographs will appear on our gallery pages.

12th and 19th February 2018 – HIAG Open Evenings

Open Evenings to showcase local archaeology at Histon Baptist Church attracted well over a hundred visitors. Archaeological finds and their interpretation from the Histon & Impington “Big Dig” test pit excavation programme, from field walking, and chance finds by local residents were on display. There was a selection of Iron-Age and Roman pottery, metalwork and other artefacts from the large scale excavation of the former Unwins nursery site on Impington Lane by Oxford Archaeology East.

Middle Iron-Age (400-100BC) pottery from the Unwins site excavation on Impington Lane

A poster display gave a summary of what the Group has learned through archaeology about the settlement of Histon and Impington from the Stone Age through to modern times. A range of hands-on practical activities and a display of test pit excavation equipment and methodology also featured.

HIAG founder David Oates gave short presentation consisting of an overview of the “Big Dig” results and invited the audience to consider getting involved in the continuation of the programme in 2018.

These events would not have been possible without generous help and support from other partner organisations such as Cambridgeshire County Council Historic Environment Team, Jigsaw Cambridgeshire and Cambridge Archaeology Field Group. Our thanks to them and to everyone who supported and attended this event.

To coincide with the Open Evenings HIAG launched its first publication, a booklet describing the findings of the Histon & Impington “Big Dig” programme and what they tell us about the origins and development of settlement in the villages. Copies of this are available for purchase at Histon Library and will also be available at future HIAG events.

19th – 20th August 2017 – Test Pit Weekend

For our final scheduled test pit weekend of the summer season we were blessed with a mostly dry weekend. With the generous permission of the landowners we excavated three more pits on the set aside field to the south of Gun’s Lane. Our volunteer team consisted of a good mix of complete beginners together with some old hands who readily shared their expertise with the newcomers. As previously, as well as producing some useful archaeology, it was an enjoyable social event.

After last month’s surprise at the amount of medieval pottery encountered towards the north of the village in Normanton Way we were interested to explore how far north and west it would be possible to dig and still encounter quantities of early pottery. Also we were intrigued by some long linear shallow depressions in the ground  which had appeared over recent years on the northern part of the set aside and wondered whether these might be remnants of ditches associated with a possible track which may have run along the south side of Gun’s Close enclosures on the 1806 field map. Therefore our test pit number TP23 was dug in the north west corner of the set aside transecting one of the ditches. The results were slightly disappointing in that the ditch feature was quite shallow and appeared to penetrate only as far as the third context, but there was no indication, such as a field drainage pipe, of the original purpose. The only things of note from this pit were one very small medieval pottery sherd close to the surface and, at the bottom of the ditch feature, an oyster shell! So can we now place a limit on the north westerly extent of the original settlement? More work is needed to understand the reason for those distinctive linear features.

The other two pits were more centrally placed on the field where, based on previous experience, we were more confident of at least finding pottery.

Pit TP22, with the same easting as a June pit on the set aside which had revealed a fair quantity of medieval or earlier pottery, did not disappoint yielding 20 sherds of medieval or earlier pottery.  Once again the sherds although varied were mostly fairly small and quite abraded suggesting soft fabrics and a long period at the mercy of the plough. One piece which looked more resilient that the rest we thought might be Roman.

The fourth context produced just one sherd in the upper part, and by the time we reached the bottom of the context, the nature of the surface suggested to us natural had been reached, and the pit was back filled. No features were seen in the pit.

A third pit TP24 closer to Cottenham Road which we started only on Sunday morning yielded a similar number of very diverse sherds. One pottery type from this pit which we don’t remember seeing before is this part jug handle with dark grey sandy fabric and olive coloured glaze. Our guess is possibly Grimston Ware, produced in Norfolk near King’s Lynn, and dating from AD 1200-1500.

Another interesting sherd was this nice partial rim with what looks like part of a pulled or pinched lip. It has a grey fabric core with orange surface and remnants of a dull olive green glaze.

We think this is very characteristic of Lyveden/Stanion glazed ware produced AD 1225-1400 at numerous kilns in the villages of Lyveden and Stanion in north-east Northamptonshire. The small pits in the surface are limestone oolith inclusions in the fabric which have been leached out.

By 5pm on Sunday, both time and stamina had expired and we reluctantly had to close TP24 down at the end of the third context while it was still producing pottery and before the subsoil had been reached.

Summary of Finds


Photographs of the pottery assemblages from all three pits can be found here.  We think almost all the pottery found during the weekend was medieval or earlier. Just one of the sherds from TP24 looks post medieval – a piece of glazed red earthenware. Whatever activity caused of the pottery deposition in this field appears to have ceased around 1500 AD, and the activity does not appear to have extended to the north west corner of the field.


In the three pits, very few flints were found  which looked at all convincing as potentially being worked. In our inexpert opinion all fractured flints seen could be considered either debitage or plough damage. One large smooth elongated stone of an unusual shape and of a type quite uncharacteristic of the rest of the small gravelly stones found so far on the field was recovered from TP24.


There was surprisingly little bone compared to the quantities we have typically found in the pits in the gardens of the currently occupied areas of the villages. Most of the bone recovered was in small fragments apart from one large fragment in TP24.


No metal whatsoever was recovered from the August pits. This is unusual. However it is consistent with anecdotal information we have received that the field was extensively worked by amateur metal detectorists during the late 20th century when the field was under cultivation.

Next Steps

We had not originally intended to continue our test pit programme beyond August, but there are a few potential pits which for various reasons were deferred, so we may yet arrange another weekend in September or even October, if the weather cooperates and volunteers can be mustered.

When we have back filled the last pit of this season, we will send off all the pottery for analysis and the specialist’s reports will be made available here together with maps of the distributions of pottery from the different eras. Our initial guesses about the pottery types and dates will no doubt be corrected, and some more informed conclusions from the finds may then be drawn.

Thank you again to our hosts and the many volunteers who joined us during the weekend.

15th – 16th July 2017 – Test Pit Weekend

HIAG members and volunteers set to work for another weekend of test pit excavation at sites in three gardens generously provided by local residents. An impressive total haul of 149 pot sherds of great variety were recovered from the three pits. The finds have yet to analyzed by experts, but we have made some initial guesses based on our limited experience to date.

The pit on Church Street had the largest number of sherds and of these a relatively high proportion were of 19th and 20th Century glazed wares, but in the well mixed contexts there was some medieval and possibly early Anglo-Saxon. Some thick black hand-made pottery appears to us to be a type remarkably similar to pottery we found last year in a test pit on Pages Close, which was identified by Paul Blinkhorn as early Anglo-Saxon, AD450-700. The site on Church Street is close to the site we believe was the early focus of settlement in Histon, so this is a result consistent with expectation.


The pit on Normanton Way, which is somewhat to the northern limit of where we expect to find evidence of early settlement, somewhat surprisingly produced 50+ sherds which were mostly medieval or earlier, and furthermore kept on producing down to context 7. As an example here’s part of a jug or pitcher handle in a soft orange fabric, heavily abraded by centuries in the ground, but still showing traces of the original dark green glaze. We think: possibly Hedingham Ware from the area around Sible Hedingham, Essex, late 12th – 14th Century.


We are now considering how all the pottery in this pit came to be buried in such quantity to such depth, and wondering if our pit was possibly excavated into the infill of a ditch. The results from this site were a slight surprise. Was there another focus of settlement? Or was the settlement larger, or more extended, than we imagined? As ever, more analysis, and more data are needed!

The pit on Narrow Lane, which although appears to be a relatively old thoroughfare, is well to the east of the expected core of our medieval settlement. Although it produced a smaller number of sherds, most appear to be medieval or earlier in origin. We particularly liked this sherd of pinkish-white fabric with a yellow-green glaze, which we think is very characteristic of Stamford Ware, produced at kilns in Stamford, Lincolnshire in the period AD900-1200. Stamford Ware was the earliest  appearance of glazed indigenously produced pottery after the Romans departed.

The full pottery assemblages from the July pits can be seen here. All the pottery finds from the  summer campaign will be sent for expert analysis at the end of the season, at which time our initial guesses will be confirmed or refuted. The results will further help to build our developing picture of the how the settlement evolved and land use changed over the centuries.

Many thanks to our test pit hosts and volunteer excavators!

We are looking forward to our next test pit weekend on 19th-20th August.

8th July 2017 – Northstowe Archaeological Excavations Open Day

On a sunny and warm day this event attracted hundreds of visitors, including many HIAG members. There was lots to see, including Roman era graves in the course of excavation, and displays of some of the impressive array of finds from this large site.

A group of visitors look on as an archaeologist from CAU describes features of the Roman graveyard, which is situated on the bottom left of the site plan in the foreground and just a small part of the overall excavation.

The upper half of a rotary quern (a hand mill for grinding grain) from the Roman era, probably 1st Century AD.

More details and pictures of the event are on the Access Cambridge Archaeology Blog

24th – 25th June 2017 – Test Pit Weekend

Our first test pits of the summer season were excavated on the weekend of 24/25 June. With the support of local residents to provide the locations and enthusiastic volunteers to excavate, we dug three test pits in the north west part of Histon.

We certainly found more medieval, and subject to expert confirmation, Anglo-Saxon, Romano-British and possibly even earlier pottery. This further strengthens our view of a west-based focus for the original settlement of Histon.

A used .303 calibre bullet from the pit on Park Lane is consistent with anecdotal evidence that the fields formally in this area were used as a training ground for troops prior to heading out to fight in WWI.

Finds from the June 2017 test pits organised by context

Further detailed pictures and analysis will follow shortly.

March 2017 – Archaeology Field School in Histon

Inspired by last year’s successful Big Dig project, the organiser David Oates invited Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA), an outreach unit within the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge, to hold an Independent Learning Archaeology Field School (ILAFS)  in Histon.

Attending an ILAFS gives school pupils the chance to obtain first-hand real archaeological evidence, and learn how to interpret it, as well as developing less definable skills such as lateral thinking, teamwork and perseverance – and also learn something about what it would be like to attend University.  On 22nd and 23rd March the Stable Rooms at St. Andrew’s Church Histon hosted 49 pupils from schools across the county.  With the generous cooperation of local residents, thirteen test pits were opened in local gardens, including the lawn of the Stable Rooms, and neighbouring fields.

ACA staff Cat Collins, Emily Ryley and Alison Dickens, supported by volunteers from the University, as well as teaching staff from the schools, were supervising and giving students the benefit of their archaeological knowledge and excavation skills.

Clay pipes from a single context of a pit in Church Street, Histon. Probably 19th Century.

On the first day, despite rain, the students tackled their excavations with enthusiasm. One pit immediately hit the top of an old well shaft, reminding all that water on tap is a relatively modern convenience! The students quickly unearthed a wide range of interesting material, ranging from pottery, clay pipes, and metal work.

On the second day digging continued. Some pits continued to yield Victoriana. We learned that Victorian households commonly buried a lot of their non-combustible waste in deep pits in their back gardens! Elsewhere a single pit yielded pottery from across all of the Early, Middle and Late Saxon periods, ranging in date from 400-1100AD, a notable first for the ACA team. Another pit yielded Romano-British pottery from 100-400AD.

A nummus of Constans struck at Trier in 347-8. Recovered from a pit in Cottenham Road, Histon.

At the end of the second day the practical phase of the Field School ended to allow the students to spend a day at the University. the majority of the pits were back-filled, but with the agreement of owners, a handful of promising pits were left open for further investigation. During the following day and through the weekend excavation of these pits was continued by members of HIAG and a team of volunteers from neighbouring archaeology groups and also local residents with no previous archaeological experience. Interesting finds emerged in deeper contexts, including pottery from across the Romano-British, Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods, and a Roman coin from the reign of the emperor Constans, struck at Trier in 347-8 AD. An immediate result is that there is now even stronger evidence for both Roman-British and Anglo-Saxon settlement at the north-west part of the present village of Histon. It has helped to build the evolving picture of the settlement and land use of our locality dating from long before historical records are available.

Analysis of the latest finds is continuing, but we already have archaeological evidence of human presence in the neighbourhood from the Mesolithic Stone Age through to present day.

ACA and HIAG would like to thank the students for their hard work and enthusiasm, St. Andrew’s for providing the convenient central venue, the local residents who provided the sites, and volunteer supervisors and excavators, all of whom made the exercise possible.