A group of volunteers trying to uncover Shaftesbury’s Saxon past has been granted permission to sink ‘test pits’ in the most historic areas of our town.
On Tuesday, Shaftesbury Town Council approved Shaftesbury Abbey’s digging proposal, which will engage dozens of local school children in its archaeology project. Alfred’s Keri Jones joined the Abbey’s team as they guided Wardour School pupils around the areas of interest.
It’s 11am on Thursday morning. Just over a dozen youngsters and their teachers are standing at the corner of Abbey Walk, waiting for traffic noise to subside. The roads are busy so the children have to wait patiently before archaeologist Julian Richards helps them to travel 1,100 years back in time.
“This road, we think, ran down the middle of Alfred’s Saxon town. It is called Bimport, but it is an odd name. It doesn’t mean a port by the seaside. It means a gate. How do you think Alfred might have stopped the Danes from getting in here if they appeared?” asked Julian. “Boiling tar?” shouted one of the kids.
This party from Wardour School is one of many Shaftesbury area schools taking part in Shaftesbury Abbey’s SAVED project this summer. SAVED stands for ‘Shaftesbury, A Voyage of Exploration and Discovery’.
“I think there are seven primary schools, Shaftesbury Upper School and St Mary’s and Port Regis. We’ve pretty well covered all of the schools in the area. There’s been a great uptake and a huge amount of enthusiasm. At the end of the project, we will have worked with just over 500 school pupils,” Julian enthused.
Each of the schools will work with the Abbey’s team on three occasions. “The first stage, at the school, is the indoor dig, which introduces them to the idea of how you dig in layers, how you have to be careful and how you interpret evidence. And then we look at artefacts,” said Julian.
Next month, the children will get their hands dirty as they help with the dig, the third stage of their involvement. I had joined the group for the second of their three engagements. “The second stage is the visit to the Abbey, which involves the walk around the town to orientate themselves and have a look at the Abbey remains. They do activities like making medieval soap, making a medieval tile and meeting a medieval nun,” said Julian.
The Wardour School pupils toured the site of the Saxon burgh, taking in Bimport, Park Walk, Castle Hill and the Abbey grounds. Then they made clay tiles, which will be displayed in the Abbey gardens at the end of the summer. This tour gave pupils, like 10-year old Thomas from Tisbury, an understanding of how the Abbey once dominated the Dorset landscape.
“I didn’t know how big the actual Abbey was. I thought it was just this park,” said Thomas, as we chatted inside the Abbey Grounds. “I thought this was the whole Abbey, but it was massive.”
Julian had done a good job in exciting the youngsters with the prospect of helping to dig the test pits. “He’s told us how he has been going into other people’s gardens and digging out holes to see if there are artefacts in the gardens,” said 9-year old Claudia, from Fovant. “I’m looking forward to finding some stuff and doing the digging,” added Thomas.
During Tuesday’s Shaftesbury Town Council meeting, Julian asked for permission to sink the test pits. There could be up to fifty in total, on Council land. He was asked about their dimensions. “Initially we dug a one-by-one metre pit, as a preliminary. We’re probably going to start by doing a two-by-two metre test pit because we’ve got a bigger area and more volunteers who are now trained up. If the pits do get quite deep, we will ‘step the sides in’, and dig a bit deeper. There are safety limits as to how far we can go with a one-metre test pit,” Julian explained.
Thursday morning’s guided walk showed the pupils where they would be concentrating their digging efforts. “There are three areas owned by the Council that we are very interested in having a look at,” said Julian. “One is in the Queen Mother’s Garden, just at the end of Castle Green. That should be within Alfred’s burgh. There is a possibility that we can look right at the edge of the slope. The thing that I’m really interested in is whether there is a trace of any palisade or fortification marking the edge.”
The SAVED team is also interested in excavating at the end of Park Walk, beyond the hospital. “There are hints that there are possible defences that go with Alfred’s burgh,” said Julian. He is quite excited by the prospect of digging in the third parcel of Council land, St James’ Park. “That is still part of the Abbey precinct. The wall down the side of Gold Hill marks the edge of the Abbey’s Grounds. Nobody has ever looked in that part of the precinct. There may well be other buildings down there, ancillary buildings that go with the Abbey. We just don’t know.”
Julian is keen to reassure locals that the play facilities won’t be affected by the Abbey’s investigation. “Obviously, we’re not going to dig up the swings or the play park,” he smiled. “There’s been some clearance work taking place to cut back some of the scrub and the overgrown areas. There’s a couple of what look like flat platforms on the slope. We’re very interested to have a look at one of those. It may turn out that Shaftesbury has spent the last 500 years throwing its rubbish over the hill and that we may have accumulations of all sorts of debris down there,” he said.
Although the discovery of an old dump might not sound very exciting, Julian says they can provide archaeologists with a rich source of material. “One of the test pits along Bimport appeared to come over a rubbish pit, which has pottery that looks potentially 9th or early 10th century. We’re actually getting back into our Alfredian times. The pottery is very crude, but that’s the giveaway.”
Julian would love to uncover traces of old buildings in St James’ Park and there is always the chance that any signs of former structures could date back to the 9th century. “It is a possibility,” he said. “If there are going to be any buildings there, they might be more to do with the developed, later Abbey. It may just have been open areas of garden, where stuff was produced for the Abbey which wouldn’t leave that much trace – orchards or garden plots,” said Julian.
The test pit digging in St James’ Park will start over ‘the next couple of weeks’. Julian says he will be clearing scrub with a strimmer, to cut back some of the re-grown vegetation. He’s planning to use technology to reveal what lies beneath the surface.
‘We’re hoping that a colleague from Bournemouth University might be able to come and do a radar survey in the area, where we’re going to dig.” He explained that the Austrian archaeologists that undertook the initial radar survey won’t be able to return to continue their research this summer.
Whilst the young helpers seem fired up for uncovering rare pottery, coins and exciting objects, Julian says the soil itself can reveal a great deal about Shaftesbury’s economy during Saxon and later periods. “We sample the soil, which will then be sieved to see if it’s got any charred seeds and plant remains in it. We’re looking for environmental data. There’s no point looking for that if you’ve just got an accumulation of soil but because this was from a sealed pit of a certain date, then it’s worth spending the time and effort to analyse it in this way. It will be our first glimpse, potentially, of the economy of this time.”
In essence, these soil samples are like time capsules. “It’s a little window into the past at a particular time,” said Julian.
Julian says the team’s ceramic expert, Dan Carter, is assessing the pieces of pottery which the volunteers have found, to see whether they can be dated back to King Alfred’s era. “At the moment, we’re still processing the material from the test pits. It’s all being washed, dried and re-bagged. We’re now sorting it, cataloguing it and getting it into order. When we’ve got all the pottery done, we’ll have a big session where the whole lot is laid out and we will do a preliminary assessment of it. Then there will be a very detailed stage of analysis that will take place next winter. There’s a lot beyond just the digging that has to happen. Our volunteers are all involved in helping with these processes,” said Julian.
Locals are invited to contact the Abbey if they would like to get involved, just like hundreds of Shaftesbury area school children.
Julian ended our chat with the reassurance that gave Town councillors the confidence to approve digging test pits in some of Shaftesbury’s most historically sensitive areas. “People have seen that we’re not too destructive and that we put things back very neatly. So they might be a bit more willing to let us do some more,” said Julian.