Down Farm, Cranborne Chase: Practical Archaeology Courses 2004-2008

Training Digs: Practical Archaeology Training Course at Down Farm, Sixpenny Handley (2004-2008)

Between 2004 and 2008, Wessex Archaeology ran a series of very successful five day courses at Dr Martin Green’s farm on Cranborne Chase, “one of the most carefully studied areas in western Europe”. The Down Farm landscape includes parts of the Dorset Cursus and Ackling Dyke, Bronze Age barrows and Roman and Iron Age buildings. It is a rich, multi-period site in a wonderful setting.

Dig Diaries

2004 | 2005  week 1 | 2005 week 2 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008

Archaeological Reports

2004 Report | 2005 Report | 2006 Report | 2007 report


Here are a selection of photos from the 2008 course:


The course included instruction and practice in site surveying, excavation, recording (the production of both written records and scale drawings) and finds processing.
During the week there were lectures and workshops on environmental sampling, pottery analysis, faunal remains (bones) and surveying techniques.



2005 Dig Diary Week 1

Day 1

Inside the museumInside the museum'Cleaning' the site'Cleaning' the siteThe Practical Archaeology Course for 2005 got under way on Monday 5th of September. After a warm welcome, participants were escorted around the site by Dr Martin Green, the local expert archaeologist. They were shown the sites of previous excavations and given an introduction to the archaeology of Cranborne Chase. The fascinating tour ended at the museum, where everyone had the opportunity to see the many finds from the excavations.
After lunch the real hard work got underway! Participants began the exciting task of ‘cleaning’ the area to be excavated. This meant using hoes, trowels and brooms to literally clean the chalk. As they did so they got their first glimpse of the archaeological deposits that they will soon be excavating. So far they have uncovered a large number of postholes, several of which are almost certainly from buildings.

Day 2

Excavation beginsExcavation beginsOn-site recordingOn-site recordingAfter yesterday’s hard work cleaning the site, participants got their chance to do some real excavation. For most people this meant digging their first posthole. They learnt all about the archaeological techniques of half sectioning. This entails digging out one half of an archaeological feature so that you are left with a section or slice through the middle of it, showing all the different layers of soil. Kevin was the first person to discover any artefacts - sherds of Iron Age pottery. Animal bone and worked flint have also been found.
Some people even got so far as to begin to draw and record their postholes. As if all this wasn’t enough excitement for one day, participants also had an afternoon workshop on ‘Animal bone in archaeology’ led by Stephanie Knight from Wessex Archaeology.

Day 3

Learning archaeological recordingLearning archaeological recordingdentifying microscopic plant remainsdentifying microscopic plant remainsArchaeological recording was the main task of the day. Once they had excavated their features, course participants began the task of recording what they had dug. This involved learning new skills such as technical drawing, planning, surveying and filling in context sheets. These are all methods used by archaeologists to record as much information as possible. Since any excavation is in fact a form of destruction, it is essential that one form of evidence - the soil/objects in the ground, is replaced by another - the written and illustrated record left for future generations to study.
In the afternoon Chris Stevens, an environmental archaeologist from Wessex Archaeology, led a workshop about geoarchaeological techniques. This included explanations as to how archaeologists are able to recreate entire landscapes and environments from the soil samples they take during excavation.

Day 4

On-site planningOn-site planningWhilst the on-site recording continued apace, there were other activities on offer. Several people spent the morning learning about and processing pottery and other archaeological finds. Some of the finds were those uncovered on-site this week and others were a range of finds from different archaeological sites. This activity allowed participants to see and handle a wider range of artefacts.
Pounding the ore!Pounding the ore!Participants also took part in some real experimental archaeology, courtesy of archaeo-metallurgist Jake Keene. The aim was to take several kilos of iron ore and charcoal to produce a ‘bloom’ of iron. In order to do this participants pounded up lumps of iron ore and weighed out kilos of charcoal for the furnace. Then they took it in turns to pump the bellows, in order to maintain a constant temperature of 1,500 degrees centigrade.
Jake removes the 'bloom'Jake removes the 'bloom'Experiments like this improve our understanding of the complex processes of prehistoric metal working and make it easy to understand why ancient metal workers might be seen to be performing acts of magic. For Jake this was smelt number 97 and in his words it went “quite well”. The pictures show that when the bloom had been removed from the kiln it was sawn in half to show how much iron was inside.
The finished 'bloom'The finished 'bloom'The iron shows up as a silvery colour. It was never Jake’s intention to work this piece of iron. However, if it was re-heated and beaten several times it would have produced a small bar of iron that could have been forged into an object or a tool, such as a blade.

Day 5

Using the GPS survey equipmentUsing the GPS survey equipmentWessex Archaeology’s Survey Officer, Doug Murphy, came out to the site to show how modern GPS survey is used in the field by archaeologists. Course participants were given a chance to use the equipment to survey the archaeological features that they and the others had dug. Martin Green led a second, longer tour of the surrounding landscape, allowing people to gain a greater understanding of the archaeological heritage of the area.
The afternoon pottery lecture was highly informative. Matt Lievers from Wessex Archaeology brought along a selection of prehistoric and later pottery. Everyone benefitted from the chance to see and handle a wide range of pottery while they listened to Matt.
Congratultions to all of the participants on week one of the course
Listen week one's Archaeocast to see what the participants really thought! (14 mins: mp3, 12.7Mb)

2005 Dig Diary Week 2

Day 1

Post-hole with chalk packingPost-hole with chalk packingAs excavation continues on site, our knowledge about who built it, how and when, is growing. Several of the post holes that have been excavated revealed post-pipes. These occur where, in the past, a wooden post has been removed from a post hole and the resulting void has filled up with soil. The picture on the left demonstrates this: the dark vertical band is the ‘ghost’ of the post that once stood within the posthole, the lighter soil to either side of the dark patch is the original chalk packing that would have been used to keep the wooden post in place.
Post-hole with flint packingPost-hole with flint packingChalk, however, is not the only type of prehistoric post packing to have been used on this site. This picture shows a postpit which was uncovered on site today. You can clearly see the large flint nodules which were used in the same way as the chalk, but probably to support a much larger wooden post. Hopefully further excavation will reveal more about the type of structures or buildings these posts would have formed part of.

Day 2

Iron Age potteryIron Age potteryThe most exciting discoveries of the day have been several sherds of pottery. Those shown in the picture are the first pieces of decorated pot uncovered this season. They show the two bands of decoration around what would have been a small bowl. The style of pottery is what is known as ‘All Cannings Cross’ which dates to the Early Iron Age. This confirms our belief that this site was created during the Early to Middle Iron Age (700-100 BC). Slowly but surely we are beginning to piece together the history of the site.

Day 3

Recording in the rain!Recording in the rain!Despite the rain, excavation and recording has continued. As wet weather makes the features more visible on the chalk, the numerous postholes are beginning to make sense. We have now established that there are at least three more four-post structures to add to the one found last year. These structures are commonly found on prehistoric settlement sites and are thought to have been grain stores. They would have been built as small square huts or sheds supported above ground by posts in order to keep out vermin.

Day 4

Jake explains about the kilnJake explains about the kilnRecording and excavating have continued on site, thankfully under kinder weather conditions. Jake Keene was operating his iron smelting kiln again today. While last week’s results were “quite good” this week’s were “not wonderfully successful”. As you can see from the picture, this smelt produced hardly any useable iron. Jake’s 98 experiments have shown that the consistent production of iron is very difficult. This is useful information in itself and demonstrates the skill of the Iron Age craftsmen.

Day 5

One of the four-post structuresOne of the four-post structuresThe post holes are starting to make sense as ancilliary structures. Two large post pits now appear to be the entrance to a roundhouse. This is just north of the roundhouse found last year. Further post-excavation work may well reveal more information. So thank you to all the participants for adding to our knowledge of the site.
Congratultions to all of the participants on week two of the course

Day 6

One of the final site photosOne of the final site photosAfter the course participants had left, the final stages of the excavation began. These included finishing off the recording and excavating of any archaeological features that were started during the course. Once this task is done, the archive is complete and the maximum amount of information has been extracted. As any course participant will tell you, archaeology is all about the archive since the paper record, together with any finds, is all that remains from an excavation. In fact many people have commented on the similarity between being an archaeologist and working in an office! There are countless registers, forms, records and indexes to be filled in, checked and cross-referenced. Then final photographs of the excavated site were taken.
Backfilling the archaeological featuresBackfilling the archaeological featuresLast of all, the task of backfilling, the cause of many an aching muscle. All the excavated features were refilled with soil. Those such as the ditch and quarry hollow, which may be continued next year, have been lined with a special fabric to help protect them, and to prevent any cross contamination from the soil of the back-fill.
Listen week two's Archaeocast to see what the participants really thought! (20 mins: mp3, 18.7Mb)






Entries from the Practical Archaeology Course 2008 blog are now online.