CIA Conference, Swadlincote 22nd October 2017
The penultimate conference of the CIA was held at Sharpe’s Pottery Museum at Swadlincote in Derbyshire. It was brilliantly organised for us once again by our Treasurer, Keith Foster and his wife Barbara, who as Trustees of the museum were able to open it up for us especially on a Sunday.
The museum is situated in the former Sharpe’s Pottery factory, which in the 19th century was the world’s foremost producer of what is euphemistically known as sanitary ware – in other words lavatory bowls. The centre piece is the last surviving bottle kiln, but there are still many of the ancillary buildings – storage rooms, packing rooms – which are now converted into a commodious visitor centre, with a lecture room, and also most importantly a dining room.
The meeting began with the AGM of the CIA where the Chairman, Andrew Selkirk, said that since no one had come forward to take over the running of the Society, the time was coming to close it down, and he threatened that next year would be the last year, and we should end up with a grand funeral marking the death of amateur archaeology. The meeting was cowed by the threat but not altogether convinced.
The meeting was dominated by the idea of what is known as ‘non invasive archaeology’ that is archaeology without the digging. Much of it based around the workings of the Society’s last remaining asset, that is the Society’s resistivity metre, produced for the society by Bob Randall, who gave the final lecture.
We began by hearing a report by Kevin Barton, our Irish member who nobly comes over by air for every conference to tell us about his latest progress. The big story, apart from the resistivity metre is the success of LIDAR, or the laser scanning of surface features. This is carried out by an aeroplane, flying 500-700 metres above the surface and taking laser readings. These can then by processed by a range of software. LIDAR maps have been prepared by the government for many areas of the country, mostly those affected by flooding, and these are available on the internet for free use. And there is a report published by the Historic England, called the ‘Light Fantastic’ by Simon Crutchley, which is available for download free, which explains how LIDAR works and how to use it. The main way for manipulating it is to use an open source programme called RVT (Relief Visualisation Toolbox), which can either show the data as a visual surface model or as a digital terrain model which means stripping off the vegetation, which is much more useful to archaeologists. You can of course get the same results by using a Total Station on the ground at 5 metre intervals, though in practice this would be so tedious as to be impossible. But LIDAR gives remarkable results.
Kevin said he had been using LIDAR to great effect in Ireland at Rathcroghan, in Co Roscommon, which is one of the six royal sites of ancient Ireland. However he has joined up with Gerard Latham of the Wallingford Society where we held our Annual Meeting three years ago, which is one of the two best surviving Anglo Saxon towns in England with a castle in one corner, where extensive work has been done in recent years resulting in the publication of two detailed volumes. However he shows that using LIDAR it is possible to suggest further features which have not yet been picked up on the ground.
Gerard also told us about Arcland, an EC funded project that is short for Archeo Landscapes Europe, exploring how archaeological prospection is being used by archaeologists. It is composed of 23 coordinated institutions and 45 associated partners, one of which is the CIA, and they are promoting the use of LIDAR in many countries around Europe.
After coffee break we heard from an old friend, Steve Clark from Monmouth Archaeological society. Steve began life as a printer and amateur archaeologist, but when professionalism came along with PPG 16 he thought that professionals were making such a mess of archaeology that he could it better, so he has become a sort of professional amateur doing professional digs to amateur standards.
He has recently been concerned with the Monmouth lake. Monmouth lies just inland where the river Wye breaks through the hills to reach the sea via Tintern Abbey (see Wordsworth). In the late Glacial period, the exit through the Wye Valley was blocked and a great lake was formed; and hunter gatherers, and indeed Neolithic settlers settled round the periphery of the lake. But in later prehistory, the lake dried out and the Romans built over it, and Steve thinks he has discovered a Roman vineyard.
However now modern house builders in the form of Barrett Houses are proposing to build hundreds of houses over the area of the former lake, all of which, says Steve, are in danger of flooding. Barrett Houses disagree and have taken great precautions to make them safe. Steve led the opposition to the houses scheme, but such is Steve’s charm that Barrett Houses have appointed him as their professional archaeologist to dig the site at their expense. Steve has been finding lots of evidence of Neolithic and Bronze Age material, including what may be part of a boat which was thought to be Bronze Age, but for which a radiocarbon date has come out as 3,000 BC which is Neolithic, which means that it is probably not a boat. There is a lot of wattle work coming out which Steve would like to think is part of a crannog, though Steve did not seem to be wholly convinced of this.
Steve now wonders whether the lake was reformed in the post-Roman Dark Ages, if so could it form part of Arthurian mythology? In the Mabinogion there is a tale of how Culhwich wants to marry Olwen, but her dad, the giant Ysbaddadian is not keen on the idea and sets him on the task of chasing a wild boar across South Wales, and in the latter part of his quest he encounters a great lake, known as the Llyn Liwan. Lots of scholarly ink has been spilt on the location of this great lake, but Steve would like to believe that this is his Monmouth Lake which was formed after the Roman period and had become a formidable bog. Steve apologised for indulging in this romantic mythology, which is often considered by archaeologists to be lunatic fringe; but it gives an additional reason of why houses should not be built on the Llyn Liwan, though it might possibly give the future inhabitants of these houses a nice reason to explore the origins of their modern house in Welsh mythology.
Staying in Monmouthshire, we then heard from Ann Benson who is a garden historian, who has just produced a massive work on Troy House, a country house in Monmouthshire which has suffered bad luck for the last couple of centuries, but which is being resurrected and is proposed to be redeveloped with two new wings containing 31 new flats.
It began its glory days from 1612 – 1620 when the Earl of Somerset purchased Troy House. Then between 1681 and 1684 the Duke of Beaufort, built a grandiose house with a fine walled garden and a number of other courtyards and gardens. However in 1698 the heir was killed and the family went to live in Badminton House,, and for the next two centuries the house was occupied by stewards. Eventually in 1901 it was purchased by nuns who ran a laundry from it with sufficient success to build a chapel and cloister from the profits of the laundry, though destroying some of the archaeology in the process. However the farm and walled gardens were sold off separately and the walled gardens have been well maintained. When the nuns moved out the house became a school, and when the school moved out it was neglected, and a developer now proposes to turn the house into 23 flats with 31 flats in the new wings. Ann Benson is leading efforts to revive its importance.
After lunch we had an outstanding lecture by Philip Heath, who is the Manager of the museum for the South Derbyshire District Council, and who has explored the remarkable story of Sharpe’s Pottery. In the late Middle Ages a substantial pottery industry arose at Ticknall, a dozen miles to the north east, of which we heard a splendid report when we last met at Sharpe’s Museum four years ago. However by the 18th century, the Ticknall potteries were in decline and in 1771 a prosperous farmer known as Thomas Sharpe established a pottery on his farm at Swadlincote. The pottery flourished, producing south Derbyshire grey wares known as Mocha wares, a very pleasant everyday range of pottery.
Gradually they began producing what proved to be their biggest seller: that is sanitary equipment, or to put it bluntly lavatories. Flushing toilets had been known for some time but they do not really come into general use until the introduction of piped sewerage systems, which were slowly introduced following the first Public Health Act of 1848. Sharpe’s never produced sewerage pipes which were manufactured in vast quantities by other local firms. Sharpe’s however concentrated on what was put on the end of these sewerage pipes, that is flushing toilets.
Here they made their great invention of Sharpe’s Patent Flushing Ring, which meant that instead of just flushing the side of the toilet the water went all the way round. This is one of the great inventions that made Britain the workshop of the world in the 19th century, and this particular invention, made in Swadlincote in 1855, the prosperity of Sharpe’s Works for the next century.
Swadlincote became plumbers to the world and Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Cairo are built on Swadlincote’s sewerage pipes. Sharpe’s set up an office in Warsaw and in Russia, Sharpe’s Columbia closet became a status symbol. Eventually production came to an end and it was turned into a museum with the help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and the building was opened to the public in 2003.
The broadcaster and early TV personality Rene Cutforth came from Swadlincote and described it as being so ugly it made you laugh. Clay was dug out for drainpipes and teapots and large hideous vases of a poisonous green to put aspidistras in. Today, Swadlincote agrees to differ, and the Heritage Centre made a splendid conference centre.
Tony Brookes then told us about the Littleover Boundary History Project. Littleover is today virtually a suburb of Derby, but up until quite recently it was a delightful small village, and the East Midlands Boundary project has been set up by the CBA local group to investigate the boundaries of such villages before they are swallowed up by the steady spread of modern urbanisation. They had been investigating tithe maps and enclosure maps to discover how far their evidence survives.
Dr Avril Lumley Prior then gave a talk entitled ‘Monks, Murder and Myths: an archaeological journey through Mercia from Repton to Peakirk’. Peakirk is today a small village six miles north of Peterborough, and the Peakirk Heritage Group has been set up to establish its historic past.
Peakirk was originally Pega’s Kirk named after St Pega, who was an Anglo-Saxon anchorite and saint, who died in 719. Pega was the sister of St Guthlac who after a riotous youth was became a monk and eventually took up residence at Crowland, a remote island in the middle of the fens, where he lived in a robbed-out barrow in extreme austerity. Avril argued that in reality he played an advisory role in 8th– century politics and may have been involved in the murder of Queen Osthryth of Mercia. His sister Pega came to live on a nearby island at Peakirk.
Recently in 2012, Avril organised a community dig in association with Access Cambridge Archaeology and a total of 36 test pits were dug in the village. Considerable Romano-British activity was revealed, presumably in conjunction with the Car Dyke, the Roman water-course that ran through the village and made a kink at the northern end. However although no eighth century material was discovered, there was a considerable amount of Stamford ware of the 10th or 11th century, leading on to a fairly substantial mediaeval settlement. Avril’s lecture proved to be a very interesting example of the way today a local group tackles the archaeology of its village.
Colchester Archaeological Group
David Black then gave a talk entitled ‘Cows with Everything’ in which he described the geophysical work of the Colchester Archaeological Group. They began work at Woolpits near Fordham, 5 miles north west of Colchester, where fieldwalking reported that Roman tiles had been found. A magnetometer survey was carried out which led to three seasons of digging revealing a Roman bath house of 2nd–3rd century date and possibly the end of a villa.
His wife Aline then took over to tell us about the second Leiston Abbey where a ruined chapel still survives. Leiston Abbey was originally founded in 1182, but the site became waterlogged and in 1363 it was moved to a new site. The chapel however still remains and following the dissolution of the Abbey in 1527, the abbot was allowed to take over the site of the old Abbey.
The RSPB who now own the site, asked the group to do a survey. An initial magnetometer survey revealed some decoy pits of World War II, but a resistivity survey was more successful and revealed what appeared to be the cloisters of the abbey.
Finally Bob Randall gave the last presentation telling us the latest progress of the new Mark II resistivity meter which he produces in conjunction with the CIA. The meter is now in production and over 20 have been sold. Production is still on a small scale since it has not been feasible to arrange for mass production, but meters are available on order to members of the CIA.
The meters come in two parts: there is the actual black box itself which is available for £1050, though the price excludes the tablet and the tablet holder. Then a frame kit is also needed which is available with the different lengths of probes from £375 through to £830 for the 1.5 meter four probe kit. All prices exclude VAT.
One of the big advantages of the new kit is that the controls all lie in the separate tablet which gives a read-out of the results as the survey is in progress. The actual electronics are available in an app which can be downloaded from Google Play. As Bob updates the programme, so the new improvements can be downloaded over the internet.
Bob then told us about two future developments. He is currently working on the use of a ‘square array’ which instead of using twin probes uses four probes in a square. The big advantage is that it is all self contained and it is not necessary to have a remote probe for reference purposes.
The second new development concerns pseudo sections. A resistivity meter is not just useful for providing a map of a site, it can also be used to provide a section through any feature, to show the depth of the hidden objects. Pseudo sections are already possible, but they are very tedious as it means laying out 20 probes in a row, and then doing readings on each combination of them – more than 50 different readings in a typical section. Now he is proposing to automate the whole process by amalgamating the readings, so that once the line of probes has been laid out and connected up, the machine will do all the readings and produce the results without any further human intervention. It is a complex process and will require a bigger box, but it should revolutionise the whole use of a resistivity meter.
With that, the conference came to an end. Over 30 people attended, a wonderful array of food was provided for our lunch, and there was a fascinating museum to explore, where one could discover all the delights of Victorian sanitary arrangements. Our heartfelt thanks are due to Keith and Barbara Foster for arranging the conference so successfully.