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The trees are just beginning to change colour at Truckle Hill and it is the perfect setting for an excavation. This year nearly 40 volunteers have signed up to help investigate a Roman bath-house near the site of a villa discovered in the 19th century, close to the Wiltshire village of North Wraxall.
Work began here last year when English Heritage, Wiltshire County Council and Wessex Archaeology funded a community excavation to find out as much as possible about the building and to conserve it for the future.
Although we will only be here for a fortnight this time, most of last year's volunteers and many new ones have signed up to help. I visited the site at the end of the first week, on a lovely, autumn day, to find eight volunteers hard at work.
The first trench has been cut at right angles to the outside wall at the rear of the building, to locate the flue which would have fed hot air into the caldarium (hot room). After digging through quantities of sand, a small square was visible in the wall. Too small to be the flue, it looks at the moment like a putlog - a hole for securing scaffolding.
Inside the caldarium the curved wall was being exposed along with the base of an arch which once spanned that end of the room. One tessera gave a clue as to the floor surface, a suggestion borne out by finds from a trench further down the slope. Here, amongst the rubble of the fallen building were more tesserae and intriguing fragments of painted wall plaster.
Some 100m away from the bath-house, also on the side of the valley, is an area of raised ground. It wasn't clear from an earlier geophysical survey whether this was a pile of rubble or something more interesting. Excavation has uncovered what looks like a collapsed wall here, but whether it's part of a boundary, a building or perhaps a water cistern we have yet to find out.
Find out more about the Roman bath house at Truckle Hill.
Today was our last day at Down Farm as, after five successful years, this will be our final year on this site. After a week’s training our participants are now confident and competent and needed little instruction from us. The site was quiet except for the rustling of records and the scratching of trowels as we pressed on with work on this Iron Age settlement site.
Over the past five years we have dug countless postholes, several pits, an enclosure ditch and numerous sections of enigmatic quarry hollows. This has revealed a wealth of information about the prehistoric residents of this site.
We now believe that we have found a small farmstead where a small group or even just one family lived for several generations. They farmed the land, built roundhouses and square ancillary buildings, quarried chalk and buried their waste. We’ve found evidence of activities that may have been rituals – a cow burial flanking the enclosure ditch and a human femur buried in a shallow pit – the meanings of which are now lost to time. All that remains of their lives are the traces preserved beneath our feet which our teams have painstakingly excavated in order to bring to life the prehistory of Down Farm.
Wessex Archaeology would like to thank everyone who has dug with us, this year and over the previous four years, and everyone who has supported the project. We’d like to thank those that have given workshops and worked behind the scenes on post excavation and project management to make this a success. We’d also like to thank Martin Green, not only for letting us work on his land, but for the talks, tours, advice and good humour he has shown over the past five years.
The Wessex Archaeology Team.
A package arrived at site last night. We opened it expecting to find essential site kit from Wessex HQ and were delighted to find instead a gift of sweets from Keith who came on the course last week. Keith, you are a star and we thank you!
Buoyed by the sugar we spent the whole morning on site. Most people have now completed their first posthole and some are storming ahead and are working on their second, third and even fourth features. This is fantastic progress, especially since we lost nearly two hours dig time due to Tuesday's wet weather.
The information that we have gathered this year will help us to further understand the prehistory of Down Farm. By linking postholes with similar fills and dimensions we can infer which form structures with those around them. The site is complicated as it seems that Iron Age settlers built and renewed many structures on the site over hundreds of years. This has left complicated patterns of overlaid postholes dotted across the chalk and only the careful excavation conducted by our participants can unravel them.
Matt Leivers joined us in the afternoon to teach our team about prehistoric pottery. This is a popular workshop using real examples - both wonderful and nerve-racking to handle - which was captured on camera by Wessex Archaeology's top photographer Elaine Wakefield.
Despite a bruised sky and threatening clouds we managed to stay relatively dry today. The site, which we had to abandon last night due to the continuing rain, was little more than damp underfoot – ideal for excavation.
Today has been a day of visitors. Our first was a newt which had inexplicably crawled into our tea hut overnight – we think he might have been after the Jaffa Cakes. Later in the morning we were joined by Wessex Archaeology’s geophysicists Paul Baggaley and Ben Urmston. They conducted a survey of the unexcavated section of the settlement enclosure which is to the south of our site. This builds upon a smaller geophysical survey that was conducted last year and will help our understanding of the site as a whole.
At lunchtime we were joined by friend of the dig Margaret Melsom, who bought gifts of cakes (much appreciated!), and Jessica Grimm, Wessex Archaeology’s animal bone specialist. Jessica took our team through the basics of animal bone identification and for a short while our tea hut was transformed with jaw bones all over the place.
To finish the day we returned to site. A further eleven features have been excavated and recording continues on eight more. This is fantastic progress and we learn more every day about the prehistoric inhhabitants of Down Farm.
An archaeologist once said, ‘it rains six months of the year in this country and the best way of dealing with it on site, is to carry on regardless’. Unfortunately it was training dig director Chris Ellis.
We began the day in Martin Green’s Down Farm Museum viewing some of the amazing finds from his excavations across the Cranborne Chase landscape. Sheltering in the museum and listening to the water drumming on the roof we realised that the dire forecast for today’s weather was entirely accurate. Undeterred, our team enjoyed a tour of the archaeological features on the farm before proceeding onto the site.
Despite the constant deluge, which has been described as ‘verging on last Friday’s levels of atmospheric humidity’, the team continued to record and excavate features and managed to remain in good spirits.
Thankfully Matt Leivers, Wessex Archaeology’s prehistoric finds specialist joined us during lunch ready to deliver this week’s worked flint workshop - in our warm, dry tea-room!).
At the moment we are all hoping that the rain will stop and allow us to return to site this afternoon. If it continues at this level we run the risk of damaging the archaeology because the rainwater has softened the chalk geology making it vulnerable even to footprints.
After Friday’s dismal weather it was wonderful to see a blue sky and dry ground as we arrived for the start of Week Two. We need some good weather to finish excavating features in area 3B. The clock is ticking and we have a lot of work to do. There are around sixty features still to dig and only five days to do it in. Sadly this will be our final year at Down Farm so we are anxious to complete the work. However, help is at hand as half of this week’s volunteers have been on the course before and so they have a real head start.
In a slight change to our usual programme, and after an introductory talk from Chris Ellis, we headed straight to site to begin work. We used hoe and brush to clean the site so we could see the unexcavated features more clearly. The wet weather had softened the ground and by lunchtime the site was immaculate, ready for excavation to begin.
In the afternoon we started excavating. By the end of the day several people had excavated their first postholes and had begun to record them. This is fantastic progress and bodes well for the week ahead.
A sombre start to Friday with the rain penetrating even the most sophisticated of waterproofs. Only the intrepid ventured on site to finish their work with most staying back at HQ, where Mr Ellis was holding a session on the Harris Matrix technique.
By lunch time, and with the "intrepids" return, everyone was looking thoroughly brain frazzled and satisfied with their week's accomplishments. The Wessex staff were kept busy answering questions and filling in any gaps. The enthusiasm of the digging team was only quelled by the "oh no, I've got to go back to work on Monday" syndrome.
The afternoon brought with it an extensive guided tour of Cranbourne Chase by Dr Martin Green in which everyone was pleased to brave the elements and face the rain.
By end of play, we were safely back, and with rosy cheeks and red noses, final farewells were made.
I don't think it is "final" farewells...from the look of things, we will see more of them in years to come...
It was a bleak and wet start to day four of the Wessex Archaeology Practical Archaeology Course at Down Farm, but morale was still high. Despite the rain most of the diggers had finished their immaculately dug post-holes and were beginning to contemplate doing a second. Before moving on, however, there were context sheets to be finished and plans drawn.
Chris has been showing our diggers how to use a dumpy level to survey in their excavated features and today he gave a short introduction to on-site surveying techniques using the GPS. These days the GPS has become the standard technology for surveying, so Wessex Archaeology staff had to jog their memories a little before they could help our diggers to use the dumpy level.
This afternoon Matt Leivers arrived for his second talk – a workshop on prehistoric pottery, which was very useful. If only we could find some!
Unfortunately our tea-breaks were particularly ill-timed today. They coincided with the sunnier spells, and more than once we had to abandon our digging and huddle in the lee of the van as the clouds periodically burst above us. It didn’t seem to dampen spirits though, or spoil another successful day.
On the third day of the Wessex Archaeology Practical Archaeology Course at Down Farm, enthusiasm for the archaeology is matched only by the fantastic weather. Already participants are completing and writing about their post holes and their interest in how the archaeology fits into the surrounding landscape is unabated.
Today, Wessex Archaeology’s photographer Elaine Wakefield visited to take photos of on site activity. Photography is, of course, an important element of field archaeology. After lunch we were visited by Jessica Grimm, our animal bone specialist, who set us the task of differentiating between different species of jaw bone. This ‘hands on’ approach was met with much enthusiasm and will no doubt prove very useful throughout the course of the dig.
In the afternoon we returned to site to enjoy the last of the afternoon sunshine and a little more digging.
Last night it rained and arriving at site this morning we found a bruised sky and sodden ground. We began the day, as all good archaeological digs start, with a nice cup of tea. By 9.00 am the clouds had cleared and a milky sunshine bathed the site-hut and buildings. After a talk about the day's activities from site director Chris Ellis, we walked up to the site.
Today, after yesterday's cleaning, we began to dig. Each excavator took a feature and excavated half of the material within it to leave a vertical face, or section, through the centre. This shows all of the layers that have formed within that feature and tells us how the hole has filled in. At the end of the dig we will be looking not only for features that seem to form part of shapes - such as roundhouses or square structures - but also for features that have filled up in a similar way. This may indicate that they are contemporary and therefore related.
In the afternoon training-dig favourite Matt Leivers from Wessex Archaeology came to give us the first of this week's workshops. Matt spoke about worked flint and how it has been used in the past. Struck flint can be very difficult to recognise so talks like this are invaluable to our excavators.
At 3pm it was back up to the site to continue excavation. Progress today has been incredible. Most people have finished excavating their feature and begun the process of recording it. Archaeology is by its very nature a destructive process, because by removing material from features we alter them. Good records are therefore most important.