The Big Dig 2005

The background

This story began several months ago when Gerry contacted Carenza Lewis (who is one of the presenters of the archaeological programme “Time Team” on Channel 4) to ask if she could come to Houghton to talk to the Local History Society,

Nothing came of this approach but in May Carenza ‘phoned to see if the Society was interested in taking part in a scheme which has its origins in a government initiative to raise the awareness and interest of young people in the opportunities open to them in higher education.

As part of the scheme the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge has formed the Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) to bring together school pupils from year ten (fourteen to fifteen years of age) and groups such as local history societies to carry out archaeological and documentary investigations into the historical development of villages and hamlets across the country

Additionally, the HEFA investigations will form part of a national programme of academic research in to the development of settlement in Britain since the Roman period.

The work by the school pupils begins with them digging a number of test-pits in the village under investigation.

A test pit is normally one metre square in area and up to one metre deep. After the turf (or any surface) that covers the earth has been removed, the soil is taken out in ten centimetre deep layers. Each layer is sieved and anything “archaeological” that appears is removed. The finds from each layer are washed and then put into plastic bags that are carefully labelled. The finds are assessed, usually at the dig site so as to get an idea of what archaeology the site holds and later studied further to confirm the first diagnosis. When all the ten layers have been dug out and examined the hole is backfilled and the turf replaced. A full account of the work is written which will include an evaluation of the finds by an archaeologist.

By completing these tasks the students will have experienced carrying out activities such as team working, problem solving, investigating thoroughly, recording carefully, labelling correctly and producing a full, well-written and accurate report. These are all activities that will be required on many courses at university level.

Local history societies will be able to contribute their own knowledge to suggest suitable sites where test pits can be dug and to obtain the agreement of the owners of the land and arrange for access. The societies will benefit, when the finds from the pits have been evaluated, by finding out more about the history of their village or parish.

Archaeologists dig test pits to find evidence of settlement. Different styles of artefact, techniques of manufacture and the materials used were common at different times and can be used to show that the site was inhabited in Roman, Anglo-Saxon or later times or, perhaps, at all three. However, what can be found depends partly on what will have been preserved e.g. while pottery and stone last well, leather and timber usually do not.


The Houghton & Wyton Local History Society Committee decided that the Society should take part in the scheme, and the members were asked if they would like to offer their gardens as sites. A few other property owners were also contacted to make up the thirteen locations that Carenza had asked us to find.

On the 20th of September Carenza came to the village to assess the sites that we had chosen and after she had selected the most suitable to make the ten she required we visited each so that she could meet the owners and discuss exactly where the school pupils would be able to dig. She also visited the Headteacher of Houghton School to ask if the pupils would be able to take part in the dig by excavating in the school grounds. The Headteacher was enthusiastic.

On the day before the dig began Gerry visited each site to make a final check with the owners that they were still happy with what was about to happen in their gardens and had not had a last minute change of mind about strangers invading their property and digging a large hole! He also placed a marker stick at the centre of each test-pit site.

The dig begins

By 08.30 on Thursday 29 September everything was ready for the arrival of the students, who were from in schools in Huntingdon, St Neots and Cambridge, and their teachers. Shortly afterwards we could see groups snaking across the playing-field from the car park towards the sports pavilion on the village playing field, which was being used as the “base” for the two days and had been set out as a classroom. The students were divided into teams of four, two students from one school with two students from another with a teacher in charge, and each team was allocated to a site.

Because one school had had to pull out from the scheme the number of pits that could be dug by the older students was reduced to seven though the two to be dug by the children of Houghton School made the final total in the village nine.

Two more archaeologists had also arrived. Sarah Poppy was from the Archaeological Department of Cambridgeshire County Council where she has the job of maintaining a record of all the archaeological sites and finds in the county (this used to be called the Sites and Monuments Record, now known as the Historic Environment Record), while Paul Blinkhorn is an expert on identifying pottery. It was amazing how Paul, who arrived on a very powerful-looking and stylish motor-cycle, could examine a tiny piece of pottery and tell whether it was Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Medieval or more Modern – a timespan of some two-thousand years – and where it was likely to be made, but also then produce a book of examples and show us the type of storage jar, cooking utensil or some other artefact from which the piece probably came. Sarah Leadbitter, a Project Support Officer from the Peterborough office of Aim Higher also came to join us.

The teams were given a detailed briefing by Carenza about the background to the scheme, what was expected of them during the next two days and, inevitably, Health and Safety e.g. try to avoid falling into the hole you have just dug as you might spoil the archaeology, and do not lift the mattock above waist level! (A mattock is one of the digging tools and rather like a pick with a small spade like blade in place of one of the pick “spikes” – and rather lethal looking)

While the students were being briefed we took the teachers round all the sites so they could meet as many of the owners who were at home, see exactly where the teams were to dig and be shown the best access to the sites so as to cause the least bother to the owners.

By the time we returned to the pavilion the teams were ready to collect spades, shovels, sieves, mattocks and plastic bags to contain the hoped-for finds.

The seven teams headed for their test-pit sites – and we went home to have coffee and watch the team that was allocated to our garden begin to work just outside our sitting-room window.

Our coffee drunk, we went on a tour of the test-pit sites and found that each team had marked out a one-metre square, had removed the turf and was beginning to excavate the first ten-centimetre layer of soil.

Work proceeded steadily through the day with the students digging, sieving out and washing the finds and the archaeologists giving encouragement and opinions on what had been found.

A problem occurred when one team dug down onto a modern sewage pipe (without causing any damage to it!). After seeking advice from the archaeological team, they simply filled in the pit and moved to another site in the same garden.

One piece of pot was found by chance where none of the students were digging! During the first afternoon of the dig Anglia Water Board workmen dug a hole, about the same size as the standard one metre square test-pit, in the road in Chapel Lane to repair a faulty water pipe. As Carenza was walking back from the primary school, having nipped in to see how they were getting on, she heard one of the children who had been digging a test pit in their playground remark ‘That man’s digging a hole too!’ It seemed too good a chance to miss, so she asked him if he’d mind an archaeologist having a look in his hole. Luckily he was a Time Team fan, and more than happy. David Crawford-White, attending for HEFA from the County Archaeological Field Unit, which, in contrast to the Shire Hall administrators is the organisation that does archaeology “on (and in) the ground”, went down to have a look and draw the section – and, right at the bottom, found a large piece of pot. He dug it out and when it was cleaned Paul identified it as from the time of the late Saxons i.e. about 850-1050AD. By late afternoon the hole had been filled and tarred over.
A garden owner (on the left) with Carenza Lewis and Paul BlinkhornDay two

We were all concerned that the weather forecast for the next day was for cloud and rain. Fortunately the worst of the rain passed through overnight and the cloud next day produced just a couple of very brief showers. The only problem from the rain was that one pit flooded. The team was advised to abandon it and start a new one.

During day two Quinton Carroll came from the Shire Hall County Archaeology Office in place of Sarah and Sandy Yatteau, a Project Manager from Aim Higher, came to join Sarah Leadbitter.

The pupils and their teachers arrived and, after a few words from Carenza, went out to continue work at their sites. Digging went on until early afternoon by which time just a couple of teams had managed to excavate and sieve all ten of the ten centimetre layers of their pits though most managed to reach 70 or 80 centimetres. At about half-past one digging stopped so the teams could make careful drawings of the vertical sides of their pits recording the colours of the different layers through which they had dug and their characteristics e.g. top-soil, loam, clay or gravel as appropriate. Then there was the last task – of returning all the soil to the pits and making the site look, as far as possible, “as it was before we started”.

Everybody now returned to the pavilion. Paul went round each team to assess their finds and a member of each team made a brief statement of where they had been digging and what they had found.

Carenza summed up the two days and explained the follow up reports that the teams were expected to prepare and that, in turn, they would receive Paul’s report on the pottery that had been found.

There were Competitions with prizes for the teams having the oldest find, the most finds and in several other categories. We were interested in who won the prize for the muddiest digger as we had watched the team in our garden becoming muddier and muddier on the second day as the site was on a weed-infested patch that had been well-wetted by the overnight rain. One of the members of the team did win though the others would have qualified for second, third and fourth prizes if they had been on offer. We think the students enjoyed the opportunity to get legitimately muddy!

Carenza thanked the students for volunteering to participate in the scheme, the teachers and visiting archaeologists for their assistance and the village History Society for helping to set up the test-pit sites and for their hospitality

Everybody involved agreed that they had spent two days on a meaningful project. The Aim Higher and HEFA administrators were satisfied that the students had received an insight into one aspect of higher education – as Carenza said to the teams, “You have being doing work that is done by students in the first year of a university archaeology course”. The village has gained further knowledge about its history and, most importantly, the students thought that they had spent their time not just “out of school” but engaged in something worthwhile.

The pupils and teachers departed and the archaeologists and their village helpers began to pack away all the implements and the many other items that had been used over the two days. Paul and David carefully checked each plastic bag of finds, removing the non-archaeological pieces, such as flints that looked as though they could have been crafted by man to make into a tool but had not, before Paul collected all the bags together and packed them into a pannier of his motorbike to take back to his office in Northampton where he will study them closely and prepare a written report.

A surprisingly cheerful looking cleaner arrived and began to hoover up the deposits left by muddy footwear and wipe the streaks of soil from the tables. We were glad that she was still smiling when she had finished.

There was just one task left to do. Carenza and Gerry went to each site to thank the owner and ensure that the site had been left in a satisfactory state.

The future

Carenza has told us that she would like to come back to Houghton and Wyton to make a further test-pit investigation so the settlement history of Houghton and Wyton can be better understood. It is considered that about 30 to 40 test pits are needed to adequately assess a village of this size.

Two photographers were with us, one on each day. Photographs and short write-ups appeared in three local newspapers, Cambridge Evening News (Huntingdonshire edition) on 4 October, The Hunts Post on 12 October and the Huntingdon Town Crier on the 13 October 2005.

We plan to report about what was found during the Dig and its significance in illuminating the history of Houghton and Wyton on this web-site.

Further information about the Cambridge University Department of Archaeology’s Higher Education Field Academy can be found here.


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