The 2014 conference of the CIA was a great success. It took place in Wallingford on 6th September 2014 at the kind invitation of the Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Society, and our great thanks are due to Gerard Latham, of the Wallingford Society, and Judy Dewey, the Curator of the Wallingford museum for organising it.
For the archaeologist, Wallingford is an exceedingly interesting town. It lies on the banks of the River Thames in a good defendable position on the west bank, on the far side of the Thames to an attacker coming from the east, and thus King Alfred chose it as being one of his burhs (boroughs), defensive strong points against the Danes. Indeed it was the second largest of these burhs after Winchester. William the Conqueror, after his victory at Hastings, having failed to conquer London went on to capture Wallingford and a major royal castle was established in the corner of the Saxon town which remained a major castle throughout the early Middle Ages. However in the 13th century its growth faltered: Oxford ten miles to the north suddenly grew in importance and Wallingford fell back. Wallingford is in a better defensive position than Oxford, but Oxford lies in the bend of the Thames, in a far better economic position and as Oxford grew, Wallingford declined. Thus much of the Saxon town is today open fields and parkland, and it vies with Wareham for having the best preserved Saxon defences in the country. The devastation was completed in the Civil War when Wallingford held out too long on the Royalist side and Cromwell destroyed what remained of the medieval castle, so today it is merely an archaeological remnant and Wallingford is best known as having been the home of Agatha Christie.
The Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Society was founded in 1974 under the auspices of the newly founded Oxford Archaeological Unit led by Tom Hassall. It is an historical as much as an archaeological society and has specialised in investigating the very rich historical records for the town. The soon realised the need for a museum, and in 1980 the town council offered them Flint House, a fine historical house to be their headquarters and museum, and today the museum is still run by the society as a purely volunteer effort with no outside finance – the building is rented from the town council.
The archaeology was much advanced when in 2003 Neil Christie of Leicester University launched ‘From Burh to Borough’, a major campaign of excavations in the town with students from Leicester and Exeter University, and he also undertook to publish the earlier digs by Robert Carr who in the 1970s had excavated cob buildings in the castle precincts still standing over a metre high. Recently a much praised new book Transforming Townscapes summarising the history and archaeology of the town has been published by the Society for Medieval Archaeology. All this was summarised by Judy Dewey, the volunteer curator of the museum in a splendid introductory talk.
Later in the conference we heard about the more recent work of the Society when she read a paper by Dr K.S.B. Keats-Rohan (who unfortunately could not be present) which summarised a project masterminded by Gerard Latham, who having spent his career flying jumbo jets across the Atlantic, is now exploring the archaeology of Wallingford.
The Saxon town walls are very extensive, but how much of it was actually occupied, and when did it decline? This was an obvious target for a test pitting project: digging a number of small test pits across the town and analysing their contents. The target was to dig 100 test pits in people’s back gardens wherever permission could be obtained. So far 70 have been dug. Test pitting has mostly been carried out on rural sites or in villages, and this is the first time that a project has been carried out within a town. Test pits are normally 1 metre by 1 metre but it was decided to make them slightly larger than usual – 1m by 1.5m and to go down to a depth of 1 metre (the maximum allowed by health and safety).
The pits are dug with surgical precision. They have a large tarpaulin with a hole 1 by 1.5 metres in the centre which enables them to keep the surrounding area clean. It is like preparing for surgery and the pits are dug in 20 cm spits and the spoil is put in builders’ bags so it can be replaced in the right order.
So far from the 68 pits analysed, 102,545 objects have been recorded on the computer, of which 24,096 are potsherds and there are 1,070 fragments of clay pipes. The results are proving interesting. The earliest pottery found was a few fragments of St Neots ware, typical of the middle Saxon period. In the early medieval period there was a substantial suburban settlement to the south of the town, but by the post medieval period settlement was contracted into the centre of the town. A silver coin of King Cnut was the most remarkable find, together with a tanged iron arrowhead of the late Saxon period . It was interesting that the main slag distribution was around the medieval priory suggesting that the monastery was the centre for metal working. A number of glazed tiles came from the West Priory.
In all this has proved to be an extremely useful exercise and when complete it will throw new light on the rise and fall of the town. But test pitting in this way is one of the most useful archaeological projects that a local society can undertake.
The major theme to be tackled by the conference was the problem of grey literature. Grey literature are the reports generated by professional archaeologists which are not of sufficient importance to appear in a formal publication, but which only exist on file in planning offices and museums. How can local societies make use of this grey literature in writing up the archaeology of their area?
In asking this question we invited two professional archaeologists to give us their views and this provided a very lively session between the coffee break and lunch with many questions and suggestions being raised in the discussion session.
The session was opened by Barney Sloane, who rejoices in the title of being Head of Strategic Planning and Management at English Heritage, where he has been able to see the growth of the problem and is leading the attempts to finding a solution. He is very keen to see that the work done by commercial archaeology is properly disseminated. He pointed out that the problem of grey literature is not confined to archaeology, indeed archaeology has a very small problem compared to the enormous problems that arise in medicine, and there is apparently a specialist journal devoted to the problems of grey literature. The basic information is to be found in local government planning departments, and particularly with the HERs – the Historical Environment Record, and some of them have some of their records online – he mentioned the Worcestershire HER as being a very good example. The museums where the finds from commercial excavations are eventually deposited, usually also have the full documentation. An early attempt to bring grey literature online was made by Bournemouth University with its AIP – Archaeological Investigation Project, which contain twenty-one years of commercial archaeology and 90 – 95% of records produced in this time. This was followed by OASIS, the Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological investigationS, which has gone off at half-cock (far too complex and off-putting), and this was followed by the Heritage Gateway, which appears to duplicate Oasis but is slightly more comprehensible but less concerned with archaeology. .
He was followed by Neil Holbrook, Chief Executive of Cotswold Archaeology and co-author of the Roman Grey Literature Project, which is a major project to put Roman grey literature online and to interpret it. He said that the results of recent work is transforming our picture of the Romano-British countryside. Hitherto the picture has been very much villa-based, but he pointed out that whilst there are some 2,000 Roman villas known, over 100,000 settlements are known so that villas only form 2% of the total number of settlements.
The vast majority of the population of Roman Britain must have lived in these settlements, where judging by the archaeological results, they spent most of their time digging ditches to confuse the archaeologists. Some 500 reports a year were pouring in, mostly written to a strict formula. They are, he said, grey literature – grey they certainly are, literature they certainly are not.
The Roman Grey Literature Project is extending far beyond the production of a report about Roman Britain. A digital report was also being prepared with a link to the Heritage Gateway. This would go online in April 2015 and would provide a summary of all the reports, including plans which could be downloaded either in csv or Kml format.
He ended by taking a look Bishops Cleeve, the small village where he lived which is rapidly becoming a dormitory town. The problem was, he said, that as a commercial archaeologist his view was dominated by ‘the site’, and there are a number of ‘sites’ that is sites excavated by commercial archaeologists, scattered higgledy-piggledy around the village, most of the development having been taken place since 1990. What is needed is an overriding synthesis and this was where a local society, or a local worker was needed to provide this synthesis. Data, he said, was being democratised: local societies need to take up the challenge.
After lunch the conference got down to what in many ways is the heart of CIA conferences: that is hearing about the work done by local societies. An outstanding report came from Lilian Ladle from Wareham in Dorset who has discovered a whole new villa at Druce Farm, which lies four miles north-east of Dorchester. The site was entirely unknown until a local metal detectorist reported to her that he had found a site which had a lot of Roman rubble lying on the surface including tesserae and suggested that she take a look. She went and had a look and a resistivity survey revealed an extensive set of enclosures, trial trenches revealed the remains of walls and mosaic pavements. And this summer she has revealed the outline of what can only be called a typical Roman villa with traces of no less than six mosaic pavements.
The main part of the villa has a Roman mosaic pavement with a geometric pattern, being well preserved at one end. After the villa was deserted, rubbish accumulated on the floor and then the roof fell in and the falling of the roof provided a valuable protection for the mosaic underneath. This proved to be one end of the main block: the mosaic floors in the central rooms and at the far end, were less well preserved. The villa was only on one side of a courtyard, on the eastern side there was an aisled building of very similar dimensions where the stone base of one of the wooden posts that held up the roof still survived and the position of the other piers could also be located. On the other side of the courtyard was another smaller building.
Work still continues. She had intended to finish this year, though she now realises that she may have to go back for a short season next year. But it was a most remarkable achievement for essentially an individual working in conjunction with the East Dorset Archaeological Society to uncover a villa like this with no outside support; and with only money raised locally, and help from the local communities, notably the landowner who not only gave permission to dig, but also contributed £3,000 towards the cost of the dig.
We also heard from the Ticknell Archaeological Research Group in the form of Janet Spavold and Sue Brown. Ticknell in Derbyshire was a major pottery producing centre in the late medieval and post medieval periods, supplying pottery throughout the Midlands until it was overwhelmed by the Industrial revolution that took place in Staffordshire.
Sue and Janet are essentially local historians who have been tracing the Ticknell industry from the documents. They have now been branching out and carrying out small scaled investigations on behalf of the National Trust and also erecting information boards to tell visitors of the importance of this now largely forgotten early industrial centre.
We also had a fascinating report from Ireland where John Flynn told us of the work carried out by a local group the Sliabh Coillte Heritage Group. This operates in the south of Ireland, in County Wexford at the mouth of the River Barran where an area of what is now dry land was probably an island in the medieval period. But was this island the site of a Celtic monastery as are so many other islands in Ireland? An early antiquarian Thomas Westropp had put forward this suggestion, but now with the help of a Lidar scan from the air it is possible to confirm these suggestions. And though the work in progress had not yet discovered an early Christian site, they hope that this may be possible in the near future.
The conference ended with one of the highlights of the CIA – that is a report from Bob Randall on his work in producing a new resistivity meter. He demonstrated to us the progress so far. The inside has been completely revolutionised: instead of a circuit board covered with different chips, the workings have all been amalgamated into a single chip. Furthermore this chip is programmable, so if any changes need to be made, they can be made in software and downloaded over the net. The other innovation is to incorporate a seven inch tablet: a Nexus tablet produced by Google as the main control board for the meter, with one half of the tablet giving the input details while the other half shows the results.
He is now going out to tender for the individual parts in order to assemble a complete meter. Ironically the probe is giving the most problem: this is the simplest mechanical part of the whole kit, but the one that is most difficult to get right, for the new probe will be much longer than the old one to enable multiple readings to be obtained from a single pass – and this means it must be stronger. It was all extremely exciting and we are all keeping our fingers crossed that Bob will be able to get through the commercial side of his work without too many hidden problems emerging.
Discussions went on till late and eventually we had to be turned out of the building at 6.00pm – an hour after we were scheduled to bring the meeting to an end. We are very grateful to Keith Foster and his wife Barbara for organising the conference with help from Kevan Fadden and his wife Jean: everything went immaculately. We are also very grateful to the Wallingford Society for organising the conference which was held in the Wallingford Methodist Church Centre. At the heart of early modern Wallingford is a long narrow strip, with the Anglian church at one end and the Methodist church at the other. And parallel to the Methodist church was a hall of the Free Library and Literary Institute, one of those organisations which were the glory of Victorian England. The church and the hall are now united. The lectures were held in the church, tea, coffee and a buffet lunch were available in the old Institute. It was a very happy arrangement and we were very grateful that we were able to make use of it.
2nd April 2015