Practical Archaeology Courses

Between 2004 and 2008, Wessex Archaeology ran a series of very successful five day courses at Down Farm, Sixpenny Handley 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.


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.


Practical Archaeology Courses 2004

From 13th to 17th and again from 20th to 24th September 2004 Wessex Archaeology will be running two Practical Archaeology Training Courses on Cranborne Chase. We will be keeping a Dig Diary on the web-site, so every day there will be a chance for you to have an update on how the excavation is progressing. Some days there will be video clips too, so you will be able to watch the investigations as they unfold.

The site is likely to be very interesting – probably iron age. Log on to see what features and finds have been uncovered by the students. Each day there will be a talk or workshop – get a taste of what’s been happening. Most important, this is a training dig, so we hope you will be able to find out how the students are getting on – what they’ve found, how they feel (apart form backache!) and what the experience means to them.

Day 1 - 13th September 

Despite appalling weather overnight, the course started under clear skies and after introductions and an initial briefing session, Martin Green led the group on a tour of his excellent museum, the excavation site and the area around it.

This landscape is rich in prehistoric features – the Dorset cursus crosses the farm, a long barrow and several round barrows are visible on the slopes while the Roman Ackling Dyke passes through it on its way from Badbury Rings to Old Sarum. But it is not these visible features alone that make this landscape so intriguing. Crop marks and past excavations have revealed shafts (the earliest fills of which date to the Mesolithic), and ditches and enclosures dating from the Bronze Age (2400-700 BC).

All this was more than enough to whet the appetite, and after lunch students were eager to begin fieldwork.

The area they are investigating appears to contain Iron Age (700BC – AD43) features. Trench One contains a number of postholes, some of which have already produced finds – including loom weights and pottery sherds. A second trench, was also opened up this afternoon, and contains a length of ditch, which terminates within the trench. There are several more post holes to be examined here too.

During the afternoon, students hand-cleaned 75% of Trench One and re-excavated 2 post-pits of a putative roundhouse. Another group of postholes was uncovered in the NE corner of the trench, with a further small group in the SW corner. Burnt flint and some flint flakes were recovered during the cleaning process.

Tomorrow the group will finish cleaning Trench One and start the same process in Trench Two.

Day 2 - 14th September

Once again we have been very lucky with the weather, and although it was grey and windy this morning, work has proceeded without interruption.

Trench One

The last section of trench One was cleaned early this morning, and excavation of postholes, which are possibly associated with an Iron Age round house structure, has now begun

Trench Two

By the end of the day nearly all of the second trench had been cleaned and is ready to excavate. The ditch in the trench is now clearly visible: the chalk on one side appears to be compacted, which might suggest that it is associated with an internal bank of the ditch.

During the afternoon Stephanie Knight, Animal Bone Specialist at Wessex Archaeology, ran a fascinating workshop. The aim of the workshop was to enable participants on the course to identify animal bones of various species, especially those animals that are most likely to be encountered on an Iron Age site like the one they are currently investigating at Down Farm.

A number of flint flakes were found yesterday, and students were interested to know more about them, so we were extremely grateful to Martin Green for giving a very helpful illustrated talk on how to recognise worked flint.

Day 3 -15th September

Trench One

The postholes in Trench One were excavated today. They contained large nodules of flint and worked flint cores put in as packing, and are thought to date from the Iron Age, though no positive dating evidence was found. The postholes are in 3 discrete areas, and were probably part of an enclosure or buildings, but the pattern of their distribution does not allow a more definitive interpretation at this stage.

Tree throws in Trench One are also being investigated today, but have so far yielded little evidence.

Trench Two

Trench Two was the scene of much activity. Once the surveying grid had been set up, work began in the north-east corner of the trench in a quarry hollow. Quarried chalk would have been used for marling the land to render it less acidic, whitewashing buildings or as an ingredient for cob walling. The finds from the quarry hollow suggest that it was excavated during the Iron Age.

Work has begun on the ditch which showed up so clearly after the trench had been trowelled/cleaned yesterday. Burnt flint, worked flint, animal bone and sherds of pottery were found. The pottery will be examined by the Finds Department at Wessex Archaeology to try to establish a date, but it certainly looks as if this is possibly an Early Iron Age ditch

Interestingly, there were large numbers of shells from land snails in some parts of the ditch, and these will help tell us more about the contemporary environment and landscape. This discovery was absolutely on-cue since today’s workshop was about paleo-environmental sampling!

Environmental Workshop

Dr Mike Allen took students to Trench Three – dug into the colluvial (hill-wash) deposits down the slope from the main excavation site. Here he showed them how the snail shells are retrieved from soil samples by sieving. Snails are an extremely useful indicator of the landscape and its use because they occupy a restricted environmental niche: certain snail types are suited to specific environments, and unable to survive in others. From the types of snail found in a sample, it is possible to say whether the land was suitable for rich grazing, rough grassland, dense woodland or open woodland.

Dr Charley French, from Cambridge University, was an unexpected and very welcome visitor today. He is a geo-archaeologist, an expert on soils and the processes of soil formation. He has been conducting a large-scale project on the soils of this area. Students were interested to hear that the topsoil, now very thin, was once over 1m deep and has been eroded over 6 millennia of ploughing.

Day 4 - 16th September

Excavation in trenches one and two continued apace today, whilst next door to the finds processing room, Jake Keen fired up his iron smelting furnace to demonstrate the difficult process of producing iron from iron ore.

This was an amazing experience – the sheer magic of making shiny metal from an unpromising piece of rock impressed us all – almost as much as it must have astonished our ancestors in the Iron Age.

Jake started work early in the morning, crushing huge chunks of orange coloured rock, brought from Hengistbury Head, on his ironstone anvil. The iron ore was loaded into the furnace at the rate of 10 kilos of ore to 20 kilos of charcoal, and topped up at about 20-minute intervals.

It was hard work: Students took turns to load the furnace, and to pump the bellows, which needed constant attention throughout the day to keep the fire up to temperature.

Jake kept an eagle eye on the flame burning at the top of the furnace, the colour giving a ready check to the temperature inside.

By 15:00 hours the base was ready to open and the slag could be removed. Over half a kilo of iron was pulled out in two irregular lumps. Jake cut them open with a disc cutter and there was the shiny metal inside, the culmination of an informative and impressive demonstration. Everyone agreed that the ironworkers of the Iron Age would have been highly respected and even possibly feared for their skill.

Day 5 - 17th September

The week seems to have gone very quickly and we have come to the end of this first Practical Archaeology Course. There was much to do today, recording the excavations in the two trenches and processing the finds before the course dispersed. Most of the finds appear to be Iron Age, with some apparently Middle Iron Age pottery found in the quarry hollow, but further analysis is needed to confirm the date. The weather didn’t help us a great deal today, and some of the work was done in less than ideal conditions.

Throughout the day Doug Murphy, Survey Officer for Wessex Archaeology, took small groups aside to give them experience of surveying and tying the site to the Ordnance Survey grid. He demonstrated the use of a RTK GPS Unit (Real Time Kinomatic Global Positioning System). This hi-tech equipment uses satellites to pinpoint the position of the equipment to within 20mm accuracy. From this the siting of trenches and features within them can be recorded with astonishing precision.

Meanwhile, students continued to use the dumpy level to survey which, though with less impressive accuracy, is easier to understand and use.

During the afternoon Martin Green took a group on an extended tour of the monuments in the wider landscape. This was a great opportunity to go further afield than had been possible on Monday, and to see other sites in the area that Martin has excavated in the past.

And so, reluctantly, the course dispersed to go home - tired, slightly damp and ready for a hot shower but with a better knowledge of the archaeological process, and with a well-earned sense of achievement.

Day 6 - 20th September

Today we welcomed the second group of participants to a week’s Practical Archaeology Course. After brief introductions to Martin Green and to the team, Martin took them on a fascinating – and windblown - tour of the farm and it’s prehistoric landscape.

Then it was time for a briefing by Senior Project Officer Chris Ellis on the basic skills of archaeology and the techniques they could expect to practise during the week ahead.

This week’s group have the great advantage of following on the hard work of last week’s workers! Both trenches are cleared now so more time can be spent on excavating the features exposed within them.

In Trench Two the ditch is now the priority for investigation. Sections along its length were pegged out and trowelling began. As the week goes on we hope that finds from the fill of the ditch will give us a firm date for this impressive feature.

Day 7 - 21st September

Undeterred by strong winds and a chill in the air, everyone arrived eager to get back to the fieldwork they had started yesterday afternoon.

Most of the work took place in Trench 1, continuing the excavation of the numerous postholes visible there. The packing material used for the posts was made up of poorly worked flint cores which suggest the holes date to the late Iron Age.

In the afternoon, Stephanie Knight, Project Officer at Wessex Archaeology, led a workshop on animal bone – a taste of a complicated subject whetted the appetite to find a burial of some sort!

Day 8 - 22nd September

The ditch in Trench Two was the major focus of attention today and sections were laid out across it, including the terminal at the north end. At this end a small extension was dug to allow the investigation of some articulated bone, visible near the surface, the animal bone we had hoped for after yesterday’s workshop! It appears to be either a small cow or a pig. There was much discussion as to which is most likely, but more will need to be revealed to make identification certain.

Today’s workshop was on palaeo-environmental investigation, and was led by Chris Stevens, Senior Project Officer at Wessex Archaeology. Using a soil sample from the fill of the ditch, Chris demonstrated how the snail shells extracted from the sample revealed important evidence about the landscape at the time.

Day 9 - 23rd September

The small extension to the north of Trench Two is looking very interesting now. The small collection of bones is clearly part of an articulated skeleton, laid on its right side, with the skull missing. The bones have been heavily disturbed by ploughing, but there is quite enough remaining for students to examine and put to good use the knowledge gained in the Animal Bones Workshop yesterday. The skeleton is that of a cow, with the long bones fused at the epiphyses (the ends of these bones) which shows that it had finished growing and was an adult of a species the size of Dexter cattle

During the day Jake Keen once more fired the smelting furnace. This time it reached the required temperature more quickly, and once more shiny metal appeared where before there had seemed to be only unpromising small lumps of stone. We were grateful to Martin Green for taking members of the group who could tear themselves away from the excavation on an extended tour of the wider area around the site.

Day 10 - 24th September

Most of the trowelling in the ditch in Trench Two is now down to the primary fill (material from the erosion of the natural chalk sides of ditch). The ditch has noticeably steep sides and is deeper than we expected, at around 1.2m. Pottery found in the ditch dates from the early Iron Age, which seems the most likely date for the feature. However, there have also been 2 small sherds of Bronze Age beaker pottery, from the same period as the Amesbury Archer, found in the secondary fills (the soil falling into the ditch while it was in use.)

Meanwhile the quarry hollow continues to produce small pieces of bone and pottery sherds that have now been dated to the middle Iron Age.

Throughout the day Doug Murphy, Survey Officer for Wessex Archaeology, took small groups aside to give them experience of surveying and tying the site to the Ordnance Survey grid. (see entry for last Friday)

And so the final week of this year’s Practical Archaeology Course has come to an end. We wish all the course participants well and would like to say how very grateful we are to Martin Green for providing us with an incomparable venue for the course.

Dig diary 2004 postscript 

Although the course had finished, there was still some work to be completed. Over the weekend Martin Green continued the investigations, helped by his own team of researchers. They dug the primary chalk rubble from the ditch in Trench Two and finished excavating the remaining three quadrants of the quarry hollow. In the ditch they found a large beaker sherd (early Bronze Age) and an ox cranium. In the quarry hollow several more finds came to light: a second cow mandible, a small piece of clay daub and more fragments of burnt and worked flint.

On Monday Martin and the team were helped by Trevor and Brian, two course participants from the first week. They recorded the ditch sections and the quarry hollow in Trench Two. In Trench One the postholes, sectioned during the course, were fully excavated in the hope of finding dating evidence. Unfortunately none was found.

Environmental samples were taken on Tuesday. A bulk sample was collected from the primary silts (material from the erosion of the natural chalk sides of ditch) to look for information about the landscape, land management and farming practices at the time when the ditch was newly dug. A monolith sample (a vertical tube of soil) was also extracted to analyse soils and pollen in detail and so give a picture of the development of the site over time. This will add to the information Martin already has from samples taken elsewhere on the site, and give a clearer picture of the contemporary Iron Age landscape.

Meanwhile the lower sections of the ditch were excavated. Although no significant finds were uncovered, the bottom of the ditch was of considerable interest. There, in line with the direction of the ditch, were tool marks 80mm -100mm long which had been gouged into the chalk bedrock. Their rounded shape suggests they were made by antler picks. The sides of the ditch showed no such marks, possibly because they had been eroded away. It is also possible that it is because Iron Age ditch-diggers had made use of the natural cleavage planes, visible in the sides of the ditch, inserting their picks where the chalk was weakest, making it easier to dislodge.

Wednesday was our last day on site. All the features that have been investigated over the last two weeks were back-filled by hand. First a geo-textile membrane (Terram) was placed in the bottom of all the deeper features so that any future excavators will be able to see where our investigations finished. So with recording done, and grid pegs in place to mark the extent of the excavation, the fieldwork on this year’s Practical Archaeology Course has drawn to its close. There remains the report to write, and when this is completed, and with Martin’s permission, it will be put on this web site to complete the story – from fieldwork to report.

Gradiometer Survey

During the 2008 course a Gradiometer survey was also undertaken at Down Farm. Following on from previous work, we surveyed an area south of the excavation to help place it in a wider context. This is the result of our day's work (the area was about 180m wide by 120m, and 1.3ha or just over 3 acres in size; click for a larger image):

The site is thought to be an Iron Age farmstead, and excavation has shown that a large ditch surrounds the settlement. Unfortunately, this doesn't appear in the geophysical survey! A modern trench for an electricity cable can be seen running from bottom-left to top-right, and some other anomalies are clear, showing as small dark blobs. The straight lines in the lower half of the results show where ploughing has disturbed the natural soil under the site, and the stronger line near the bottom may mark the limit of historic ploughing.

Until all of the information from the excavation has been entered into our computers, we can't be sure why the ditch doesn't show in the geophysical survey. It's possible that the ditch lies entirely in the area we couldn't reach because of the excavation, shown as the blue area at the top of the image. We'll keep you posted!


To find out more about these Practical Archaeology Training Courses read the reports below.