Events Blog


Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Eleven

Today was the start of week three which heralded the arrival of a new group of students – this time from Southampton University. Two people from the first week also came back for some more training because they had enjoyed it so much before (or else were gluttons for punishment!).

As always the day began with an informal introduction to the site of Down Farm and its surrounding landscape. This was followed by a quick summary of the background to field archaeology, and the principles of excavation and recording. Dr. Martin Green then gave everyone a pleasant break from complex methodology with a most interesting and thought-provoking tour around his farm. He gave a whistle-stop tour from the Mesolithic to the Iron Age and Roman period. The students visited a deep pit he excavated in the 1980s which contained evidence from over three millennia within its deposits and viewed the Dorset cursus from a vantage point in one of his fields. Martin brought the past to life with his talk about the longest and most monumental Neolithic monument in Britain and how its alignment relates to the winter solstice and possible processions along its banks.

After a coffee-break Martin showed us all around about his wonderful museum which is replete with all the archaeological finds (particularly flint!) from three decades of fieldwalking and excavation. Almost every artefact in Martin’s museum has a really interesting story attached to it and the students learnt a great deal about the prehistoric past of Cranborne Chase.

Since a very large number of features were exposed last week when hoeing and brushing back, there were still more than enough post-holes left to excavate this week without the new students having to clear a new area! Possibly the students were secretly relieved by this and after lunch they were glad to be able to start excavating these post-holes and quarry hollows straight away. Again some of the holes have finds in them including animal bone and struck and burnt flint, while the quarry hollows have small sherds of pottery. Hopefully excavating these posts will help us characterise the nature of these structures in this part of the site more clearly!

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Ten

The weather was against us again and the team arrived for work in steady rain which looked as if it had set in for the morning. Because of this we delayed the firing of the pots we made on Tuesday, due to take place this morning, and continued working on site. Despite the continuing rain and cold wind, the team progressed well with the excavation and recording of features, and even managed to stay cheerful - special mention must go to our motorcyclist, whose boots filled with water on the way to site… and yet still managed to put in a good morning’s work!

The weather lifted at around 11am and by noon John, our potter, was happy that firing could take place. We are pleased to report that this week’s pot firing was a complete success with 100% of our pots surviving the bonfire kilns. The team, under John’s supervision, built three kilns using smouldering coals and dry twigs, then waited for them to burn and fire the pots.

John kept a note of how long it took each kiln to reach different stages of the process (the results are shown below) and even though each kiln worked at a different rate, all produced successfully fired pottery.


Kiln one

Kiln two

Kiln three

Fires laid at




Flames appeared at




Top of fuel burnt at




All fuel burnt at




Pots removed at




As the team left site for the last time we reflected on how much has been achieved over the past two weeks. Around eighty postholes have been cleaned and half of these have been dug. Work has started on two highly amorphous (‘blobby’!) features that we now believe to be quarry pits (current thinking, supported by Martin Green, is that the chalk was quarried and made into cob that was then daubed onto the walls of structures). Work was finished last week on what was probably a refuse pit, and work has started this week on two other similar features, one of which contains a collection of animal bone, burnt flint and pottery which may have been deliberately placed there. Good progress has also been made with a hearth pit that contained half of a bowl, broken in situ. The bowl has now been lifted and will be sent back to the Wessex Archaeology Finds Department for processing and analysis, while the material within it will be sent to our Environmental Department.

Most of the site has now been surveyed and we hope to be able to put a site map on-line soon (any suggestions as to how our postholes relate to one another or form structures will then be gratefully received!) The site has progressed brilliantly and our understanding of the earliest inhabitants of Down Farm is increasing.

The week ended with an extended tour of the farm, led by Martin, which helped our team to place the site they have worked on into its surrounding context. We would like to thank everyone who has worked on the site so far for their hard work and enthusiasm, they have all been a pleasure to work with, and we will continue to report on the progress of the site.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Nine

Today dawned damp and drizzly as our trainees braved another day of excavation at Down Farm. This morning we split into two groups. Half the team stayed in the site hut with Talla Hopper from Wessex Archaeology to learn how to process finds, and half returned to site to continue excavation. Talla showed the team how to wash finds using a toothbrush and also how to mark the site code and context number on them with indelible ink. This is very important as it means we can always identify where a find has come from in the future. After a coffee break the teams swapped round so that everyone could learn the finds process and by the end of the morning all of the finds retrieved so far from this year’s training excavation had been washed.

On site, progress is being made with the excavation and recording of our postholes, pits and possible quarry hollows. Today we also used a GPS system and Ellie Brook, a training supervisor for the project, has mapped the features on site so that we can produce a digital plan of the area. This should help us to make sense of any structures formed by our features.

At lunchtime we were joined by Phil Harding from Time Team (who is also a Project Officer for Wessex Archaeology) and he gave an impromptu demonstration of flint knapping techniques. Within a short space of time he had knapped a large piece of flint and had begun to shape a handaxe. It was good for us to learn how some of the flints we have found on site had been created, though it was generally agreed that Phil made knapping look a lot easier than we think it is! Following this we returned to excavate for the last part of the day. Despite the consistent drizzle spirits were high as we left site on the penultimate day of this team’s training week.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Eight

Wednesday began for the team with an introduction to the Harris Matrix, a diagrammatic system used on site in order to demonstrate the order in which events have occurred. This helps us to understand the formation processes that have led to the creation of features found on site and will help when recording after excavation.

Today we also had a seminar on animal bones given by Jessica Grimm, a specialist from Wessex Archaeology. After telling us how she processes animal bone from a site, and the information she might expect to get from an assemblage, she gave us a large number of jawbones all found on the same archaeological site. To the surprise and delight of some of us we managed to sort them into species, work out their ages and finally come to conclusions about the use made of the different animals at that particular site – all in a one-hour workshop!

Then we settled in for nearly a full day of fieldwork on site. Several postholes were completed and the excavation of many others begun. Work also started on what we thought might be a quarry pit to the south of our excavation area. This feature proved to be quite shallow with a highly irregular base, prompting a currently unresolved on-site debate as to whether this truly is a quarry pit, whether it is formed due to natural processes, or whether it is something else entirely!

Excavation also began on two small pits to the north of the site. One of these, which we are excavating in quadrants, contained a sherd of pottery, which will hopefully give us a clearer date for this part of the area. From its dark fill and the large number of pieces of burnt flint it contains, the second pit appears to be a small hearth or burning pit. This pit also contains one of the nicest finds of the excavation so far – a fineware bowl, broken in-situ. It looks as if at least half of it remains.

The pot does not appear to be burnt and so it seems that it had been placed in the pit after it had ceased to be used for burning. Could this represent a ritual deposit commemorating the end of the use of the pit, or even the decommissioning of any surrounding associated structures? Or has this pot just been thrown away in a convenient hole after it was broken? These are the questions we will be trying to answer as we continue our excavations.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Seven

As we were packing up and leaving site last night, a large summer storm rolled over Down Farm and as we drove away the rain started to pour down. The deluge washed away a lot of chalk particles that had unavoidably settled onto the site after cleaning, and on our arrival at work this morning new features had emerged from the dust. These included several postholes and many small circular features, which appear to be stake holes. As Martin said yesterday, this is one of the most fruitful and archaeologically “busy” training excavations to date!

The morning was spent in the same way as last Tuesday, with John Winterbottom leading a seminar on prehistoric pottery and our team being shown how to make their own simple pots. The results were good and the pots have been left to dry out ready for firing on Friday. Last week we managed a successful firing, with 11 out of 13 pots surviving the bonfire kilns, and we hope to improve upon that this week.

After a short break we returned to site to inspect our newest features and continue the excavation of postholes begun yesterday. By the end of the day, two of our postholes were fully recorded and several others were nearing completion. This is very good progress and we hope to be able to keep up a similar pace in order to investigate all the features on site! Again we have postholes displaying original flint packing, as well as some that are nearing 60cm deep. This was clearly then a very important site in the Late Bronze/Early Iron Age landscape and our continuing work here will, we hope, reveal more information about the people who lived here.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Six

The second week of the 2006 training excavation at Down Farm began with the arrival of fifteen new trainee archaeologists, all from different backgrounds and with varying levels of archaeological experience. The day was structured similarly to last Monday, with introductions to the team and to the site, and a tour of the museum.

After lunch everyone made their way to the site. This week’s team will be working in part of the area opened at the end of last week, adjacent to our previous excavations. On what turned out to be a very warm September afternoon, we cleaned the area using hoes, brooms and shovels. This revealed a large number of postholes spread across our excavation area, as well as several larger features which are likely to be pits. The number of features in this part of the site exceeds anything we have seen before on training excavations at Down Farm, meaning that our team have a lot of work to do this week!

Excavation began in the afternoon and already we have found burnt and worked flint, pottery and some fragments of animal bone within the postholes. The features, and the material within them, clearly suggest that there was a lot of prehistoric activity in this area, and hopefully our excavations this week will reveal more about some of the earliest inhabitants of Down Farm.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Five

The fifth day of this year’s training excavation, and the last day for this week’s volunteers, began with the arrival of several visitors. The first was John Winterbottom, our prehistoric potter, who had come to teach us how to fire pottery in a bonfire kiln. Three fires were lit by stacking wood on hot coals, placing the pottery on top and then building a ‘wigwam’ of sticks around this. The hot coals ignited the wood and within fifteen minutes the fires had burnt themselves down to embers leaving our pottery fired in the ashes.

During this workshop, Wessex Archaeology’s photographer Elaine Wakefield arrived and began taking some professional photographs of the demonstration, and later some of the team hard at work. Surveyor Doug Murphy, also of WA, came in the morning too, in order to map the site using a GPS system and to train three volunteers in GPS survey. This will produce a computerised map of the site and should help us to see any patterns made by our postholes, and thus to understand them better. Finally Tom Goskar, from Wessex Archaeology’s IT department, came to the site to record a podcast with the team which will be accessible on this site soon.

Following the firing of the pottery our team returned to the site. Work continued on postholes begun yesterday and at the final count 20 were either fully recorded or were excavated ready for recording next week. Other team members worked on the ditch in the west of the site. Slots excavated in previous years were re-opened and excavation continued in them. One large slot in the centre of the ditch, which was fully excavated last year, was re-opened in order for us to take a column of snail samples through the north facing section. This should help us to understand the environment around the ditch when it was filled in. This slot also revealed antler-pick marks in the chalk at the base of the ditch that we are interested in fully recording.

Finally in the afternoon Martin led an extended tour of Down Farm and its archaeology which was enjoyed by most of the team. However, a few of our excavators were so taken by fieldwork that they decided to stay on site to continue excavation.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Four

Another sunny morning at Down Farm saw the team out on site continuing excavation and by the end of the day most of the postholes dug on Tuesday had been fully recorded. Some of the bigger postholes, which had previously been half-sectioned, have now been 100% excavated revealing their full form and depth. Two members of the team spent the day excavating an oval-shaped pit in the centre of our excavation area and found animal bone, burnt and worked flint, pottery fragments and charcoal.

Throughout the day Kayt Brown, a finds specialist from Wessex Archaeology, ran finds processing workshops, where our team were shown how to wash and mark finds ready for study and storage. We showed Kayt the pottery that was found within the pit and she believes it dates from the Iron Age, around 2,500 years ago! Also during the day Catriona ran survey training talks on site, teaching everyone how to use a theodolite to record the height above sea level of their features. This is the final stage of the recording process.

Also today the team begun to explore a large ditch to the west of the site, the excavation of which was begun during the 2004 and 2005 excavations. Currently this is very much a work in progress but we will report on this over the following two weeks.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Three

The weather continued to be hot and sunny as the team embarked on the third day of the excavation. The morning was spent on site continuing the work begun yesterday and by lunchtime fourteen postholes had been excavated and were in the process of being recorded. Some of the features excavated were very shallow, no deeper than 10cm, whilst others proved to be more impressive at around 40cm deep. Some had large flint stones pushed in around the edge of the cut, placed there in order to support the posts that would originally have filled the holes. Currently no structures have been identified but further work and excavation should help us understand the purpose of these postholes.

In the afternoon pottery specialist Matt Leivers from Wessex Archaeology gave a seminar on prehistoric pottery, illustrated with real examples from the archaeological record. This will help the team to recognise and gain information from any pottery found on site. After this, Martin Green gave a demonstration of flint knapping techniques. He produced two handaxes, a scraper, a borer and a leaf arrowhead all within the space of an hour!

During the afternoon the site was extended by machine, in order to give us a wider area to work in over the next two and a half weeks. We will not know for sure what archaeology has been found until the area has been cleaned and excavated, however several promising looking patches have begun to appear.

Practical Archaeology Course 2006: Day Two

Our day started with a short talk by John Winterbottom, a local potter with a particular interest in prehistoric pottery. He showed us samples of different inclusions (materials mixed with clay to avoid breakage during firing) - crushed burnt flint, local heath-stone, shell and grog (crushed pottery).

His beautiful replicas of Bronze Age and Iron Age pots inspired us to have a go and we were all keen to get started. Everyone made a pinch-pot, adding coils to increase the size. We decorated our efforts with a variety of stick and bone implements and the finished pots were put carefully to dry, ready for firing at the end of the week.

After coffee it was back to the site to investigate some of the postholes revealed by yesterday’s hard work with hoe and shovel. The holes varied considerably in depth – some quite shallow and others deeper and more structural. Flint nodules had been used as packing in some and in one, traces of a timber post could be seen as lighter coloured soil. A snapped blade or flint flake was found in one of the holes.

We are hoping more work will show some pattern in the postholes and pits and give us a clearer picture of what structures were built on this part of the site.

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