England’s a good place to be in the summer, especially when the sun’s out, Wimbledon’s on, and Andy Murray and Laura Robson have reached the 4th round.
However, the week is tinged with sadness. I lift my copy of Landscape Archaeology from the shelf, purchased during my first week of archaeological studies and read the forward by Michael Aston and Trevor Rowley. Both geographers, pioneering fieldwork techniques to unravel the history of the English countryside. Mick Aston’s legacy is his inspirational approach. Fathoming the time depth of ordinary villages and then sparking into flame the wonder of the past to enable millions to appreciate it.
So, writing about an ordinary village is fitting this week, particularly one that involves a community archaeology project.
On Wednesday, I visited Tony’s dig in Sherborne, Gloucestershire (not the more famous Dorset one). The Sherborne Estate was given to the National Trust in 1982. It consists of 1000s of acres of farmland, two parks and an ancient settlement site. The village was largely rebuilt for Lord Sherborne in the early 19th century, soon after he knocked down and rebuilt his mansion house. The parish church now stands beside this house but this is not the original church site.
In the early 16th century, when Sherborne belonged to the Abbey of Winchcombe, the original church lay within the village but the location is unknown. One of the buildings seems to have parts of the church reused in it.
There is a tradition that the church site lies in a pasture field next to Stone Farm and the farmer asked Tony to carry out a geophysical survey there. This showed features that looked like buried walls and he wrote a project design and asked whether he could put in some evaluation trenches. I issued a National Trust research licence and he excavated the site working with local people. Diana and Byron had studied the history of the place and had digitised the maps and documents of the area. The maps only show an empty field, no buildings were shown as far back as the 18th century when mapping began here but the church was long gone by then. Byron told me of the stories passed down concerning the location of the old church.
Tony dug two trenches on the geophysical anomalies and found prehistoric flint, a few sherds of probable Roman pottery as well as Norman and later medieval material but all mixed with 19th century finds.
The site had been throughly turned over a couple of hundred years ago but the pottery and flint showed that people had been living at Sherborne for 1000s of years.
The excavation did not find the church. It found a curious sunken structure lined with parallel revetment walls, blocked at one end and perhaps 300-400 years old. We speculated in the sunshine.
It looks very much like a side gate we excavated at Corfe Castle but an unhelpful comparison here. We thought of a lime kiln, a subterranean passage, a tanning tank. Clutching at straws really. One end was blocked by a wall and the other end awaited excavation. Some flagstones were disappearing under the excavation section. We will wait and see what lies beneath the soil.
I left the dig and walked down the road to the cottage with the Norman arch. It has a cross passage with a round headed arch over both front and back doors. A medieval lancet window above the back door and two quatrefoil windows at each gable end. A little cottage with lots of architectural bling. I looked again at the Norman arch. Whoever put it there was careful to assemble it just as it was, without breaking anything (unusual.. reassembled features often give clues to their reassembly). Perhaps the site is very close to the cottage… perhaps the cottage is the site… but the walls aren’t thick enough to be medieval.