As part of ongoing work with Operation Nightingale, our very own Phil Andrews discusses how the recent excavations at the deserted village of Imber revealed a poignant slice of agricultural life  

In early Summer 2023, working with Defence Infrastructure Organisation and Operation Nightingale veterans and volunteers, we had the rare opportunity to undertake archaeological investigations at the deserted village of Imber, located towards the west end of the Salisbury Plain training area.

Village evacuated for military training

The villagers were evacuated in 1943 in advance of military training for D-Day, and never returned. Hidden away in a relatively remote steep-sided valley, there is little left of this isolated settlement. Alongside a modern training complex and the shells of several buildings, only the medieval church remains intact today.

Military sign warning of unexploded debris sits in front of an abandoned church enclosed by old trees

St Giles' church dates to the 13th century and is one of the few remaining buildings in the deserted village of Imber.  ©Harvey Mills Photography

The possibility of future training taking place here led to the need to know more about what survived below ground of the post-medieval (and earlier) settlement in what is now a hay field close to the church. We had the benefit of Ordnance Survey and other maps from the 19th century, some 20th-century photographs, and Little Imber on the Down – a detailed account of the later history by Rex Sawyer.

Operation Nightingale archaeologists look over late 19th Century Ordnance Survey maps showing village of Imber

Operation Nightingale archaeologists and volunteers review the tithe map to reveal clues about the village's past. ©Harvey Mills Photography

In late May our geophysical team undertook a Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) survey over the area, which revealed extensive traces of buildings and boundaries which could be largely matched with the cartographic evidence. It was also clear that no prehistoric enclosures or Romano-British villas were present.

Targeted trenches and archaeological results

Towards the end of June, a two-week window of access allowed a series of trenches to be excavated by hand across the site, largely targeted on remains indicated by the GPR results. After an Unexploded Ordnance survey revealed nothing of concern, the removal of turf and topsoil began. It was immediately apparent that elements of the 19th-century structures lay at shallow depth and, fortunately, very little demolition material was present.

On a grassy field, archaeologists reveal historical remains just beneath the topsoil

Remains of a 19th Century structure were uncovered just beneath the topsoil. ©Wessex Archaeology

The most complex sequence was at the west end, adjacent to Church Lane, where postholes and pottery suggest the location of medieval timber structures, where they might be anticipated. Above these were the flint walls of two probably post-medieval outbuildings and the base of the chimney stack of a cottage of probable 18th-century date which survived until the mid-20th century.

Operation Nightingale volunteers excavate in a trench, mounds of spoil either side

The trench next to Church Lane revealed a complex sequence of features ©Harvey Mills Photography

In an open field with trees, volunteers focus on the newly unearthed foundations of an old wall

Excavations also revealed the north-west corner of the farmhouse at Brown's farm ©Wessex Archaeology

Further to the east, most of the excavation trenches were arranged across the substantial complex of Brown’s Farm, of possible 18th century or earlier origin. These showed the wall foundations of various buildings to survive, as well as gravel yard surfaces. An avenue of lime trees probably planted early in the 19th century linking the farmhouse to the church is all that remains today. Ploughshares, a scythe, a domestic flat iron, as well as pottery and glass, provide poignant reminders of a small community which disappeared 80 years ago.

As with most other Operation Nightingale projects, the results more than lived up to expectations, the excavation aims were achieved, and a generally relaxed fortnight was enjoyed by a range of participants in this unusual but normally inaccessible location. The lack of any phone signal also reminded a few of us of what it was like working on site 30 years or more ago … both the disadvantages … and advantages!