Bodies in Trenches 2013

A good time to review some of the discoveries of the past year. Much of what we have written here is to do with work that National Trust archaeologists have carried out themselves. However, resources dictate that I usually need to a ask archaeological contractors to carry out recording work.

A typical watching brief situation. This time for a new water pipe at Ebworth, Gloucestershire dug in September this year.

A typical watching brief situation. This time for a new water pipe at Ebworth, Gloucestershire dug in September this year.

Here are some of the discoveries from repairs, developments and service trenches that needed excavating this year. At some places, a trench can be dug where there is a near certainty that archaeology will be affected…even when the location has been chosen to avoid it. At others, we do not have enough information to know what will be discovered. Geophysics can help… but often it is difficult to know what lies beneath the ground.

Montacute, Somerset built c.1600. There are lost garden features and earlier settlement evidence here. Particularly an ornate gatehouse which is supposed to lie between the pavilion buildings shown on this picture.

Montacute, Somerset built c.1600. There are lost garden features and earlier settlement evidence here. Particularly an ornate gatehouse which is supposed to lie between the pavilion buildings shown on this picture.

In January, trenching for a new drainage system and fibre-optic cable line around the house at Montacute, Somerset was watched by Mike and Peter of Terrain Archaeology but nothing much came up there despite the the archaeological potential of the place. Beyond history there is only archaeology to help us understand. A similar trench at Tyntesfield recorded by Jim of Talits (The Answer Lies In The Soil) found the footings of the original entrance lodge for the mansion complete with its fireplace and flagstone floor. Sam of Absolute Archaeology watched a cable trench for the new IT system in Kingston Lacy Park and this revealed a concentration of flint tools evidence for a Neolithic and Bronze Age occupation site here over 4000 years ago.

Bottle Knap cottage, Long  Bredy, Dorset. A new service trench came across 2 burials recorded by Peter and Mike of Terrain Archaeology.

Bottle Knap cottage, Long Bredy, Dorset. A new service trench came across 2 burials recorded by Peter and Mike of Terrain Archaeology.

In May, bodies were found. Bottleknap Cottage in Long Bredy, west Dorset is the only piece of National Trust land in the Bride Valley. Peter and Mike were asked to watch while a new drain and soakaway were dug there. At about a metre deep, the digger bucket brought up bones beneath a pile of rubble. Remains of two human skeletons had been discovered in a completely unexpected place… several hundred metres from the parish church. Probably pre-Christian but there was no previous evidence for an ancient settlement site here.. so we will have to wait for the radiocarbon date to find out how old they are.

The parish church at Long Bredy. The Bottleknap burials were found a few hundred metres from the church yard. The hollow-way to the right leads up to the chalk downland where the South Dorset Ridgeway Bronze Age round barrow cemetery can be found. Perhaps the Bottleknap bodies are pre-Christian like those beneath the burial mounds.

The parish church at Long Bredy. The Bottleknap burials were found a few hundred metres from the church yard. The hollow-way to the right leads up to the chalk downland where the South Dorset Ridgeway Bronze Age round barrow cemetery can be found. Perhaps the Bottleknap bodies are pre-Christian like those beneath the burial mounds.

In the summer… and now into their stride, Mike and Peter watched a drainage trench at Thomas Hardy’s house at Max Gate. Although late Victorian, Max Gate sits on a large Middle Neolithic enclosure.. it dates to about 3000 BC (like the earthwork around Stonehenge). Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here when his house and garden were created, so a new excavation was bound to hit something ..wherever it was located. The trench was dug carefully.. by hand but sure enough it uncovered the top of a Roman burial. The skeleton was covered and the pipe placed above it and whoever it was.. was left it in peace.

Thomas Hardy's House at Max Gate, Dorchester is built on a Middle Neolithic enclosure like the one surrounding Stonehenge, the stone in the foreground comes from the site. Thomas Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here and Peter and Mike found another this year.

Thomas Hardy’s House at Max Gate, Dorchester is built on a Middle Neolithic enclosure like the one surrounding Stonehenge, the stone in the foreground comes from the site. Thomas Hardy found Iron Age and Roman burials here and Peter and Mike found another this year.

Bob of Forum Heritage has been recording historic buildings for us.. the paper mill at Silverton, Killerton Estate in Devon and the Almshouses in Sherborne village, Gloucestershire. He is currently making a record of Hyde Farm in Dorset while it is being refurbished. The walls have subsided over the last 200 years. The reason being that they are sinking into the pits and foundation trenches of an Iron Age settlement.

Jon of AC Archaeology did some archaeological recording while the Knightshayes cricket pavilion, Devon was being built. We thought that settlement remains from the nearby Roman fort might be found but the evidence was limited to the footings for a guardhouse used by the Americans during WWII.

These are all small important fragments, pieces from jigsaws of the past. Trenches are windows. Archaeological layers can only be broken up once. An experienced eye is needed, someone to write the story of what they see.

I wonder what 2014 will bring. On Monday I go to Lacock to discuss the route of a new sewage pipe for the Abbey.The new trench will have to negotiate a lot of buried archaeology.. as we found out when the old one was repaired in 96.

A new sewage treatment plant was needed at Lacock, Wiltshire. The site of the medieval monastic infirmary lies in this area and so AC Archaeology excavated it in 1996. Further work is needed this year.

A new sewage treatment plant was needed at Lacock, Wiltshire. The site of the medieval monastic infirmary lies in this area and so AC Archaeology excavated it in 1996. Further work is needed this year.

Toothbush at the ready

As with every dig there is always a lot to do once the site has been excavated and finally back filled. It all comes under the heading of post-excavation and not just pot washing¬†ūüôā¬†One big job is to clean all the finds and maybe make more discoveries under the dirt.

Washed finds from Tyntesfield Conservatory

Washed finds from Tyntesfield Conservatory

So it was off to Tyntesfield with washing up bowls, toothbrushes, and seed trays (and chocolate biscuits) to meet some hardy volunteers willing to do pot washing out side in October!

Vic and Liz brave the chill wind

Vic and Liz brave the chill wind

Vic and Liz had worked on the  Conservatory excavation Рsee this blog Tyntesfield Conservatory day 1 Рand were interested to see the next stage and to help process what they had dug up.

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There were many small pieces of polychrome  tile that made up the mosaic  floor, when cleaned we could see that  they all had makers marks on the bottom so we were sure they were all Minton Hollins & Co, they match ones in the house.

Not all finds need washing, the metal work is usually gently dry brushed and then packed into air tight polyethylene boxes with silica gel and a humidity indicating strip as it has to be kept dry. This way we can create a micro climate for the metal work to slow down any corrosion.

A cast iron flower waiting to be repacked

A cast iron flower waiting to be repacked

Charlie using a goat hair brush to clean the soil of the lion

Charlie using a goat hair brush to clean the soil of the lion, the dg site can be seen behind him

As it was half term for the schools we had lots¬†of interested visitors and one young lad Charlie, joined us for a short time to help clean the soil off the lion ūüôā¬†he was very interested in conservation and collections , a future NT conservator or curator!

A clean lion

A clean lion

I left Vic and Liz with more boxes of finds to wash, hopefully they can find a lovely warm place to do the rest ūüôā Great job guys, I will¬†send more biscuits ūüôā

Day 5 In View of All This

A busy day finishing things off. The excavation was almost over. Polly took the last of the rubble infill out of the south west corner trench and found a dark soily layer immediately above the lime ash basement floor. This had more personal things in it such as a tobacco pipe bowl and a couple of pieces of tea cup, white with a red line pattern. Then the site was polished for photos. Levels were taken across the site and the the finds were sorted and assembled in large labelled plastic boxes.

Tyntesfield Conservatory before it was demolished after it was damaged in the snow storm of 28th March 1916.

Tyntesfield Conservatory before it was demolished after it was damaged in the snow storm of 28th March 1916.

The sun came out and the lion made an entrance by popular demand and a small crowd gathered around it. We ran out of National Trust Archaeology badges and I rushed around drawing and Anthony helped out. Doug and Michael cleaned trench E, it was photographed planned then backfilled. The other trenches will be left for the next few weeks for visitors to see.

Putting the lion back together. We added the hind legs which came from another lion but almost fitted.

Putting the lion back together. We added the hind legs which came from another lion but almost fitted.


So what did we discover from the last 5 days about a building demolished almost 100 years ago. We delved beneath a blank gravel area with a palm tree at its centre defined by low stone walls… and found that there was no surviving decorated floor. It had been well and truly smashed and imploded into the heating basement below.

The stone foundations of the conservatory had then been capped and cemented, with a decorative urn on the south-west corner to make it more of a garden feature.

The clues to the conservatory lay in its sea of rubble and although we recorded the locations of special finds and marked them on the plan, it was a jumble, and objects had been spread around and did not relate closely to their resting place.

There was far more brick and far less ironwork than we had expected and we concluded that materials had been salvaged and the metalwork may have been sent for the WWI war effort. However, the rusting flowers and leaves we found, some with traces of paint, give us a clue to the decoration. Lots of glass, lots of coloured square and triangular ceramic tiles. Some strange bright orange/pink and mauve lumps of material, a few lead cames for fitting round decorative glass, bronze strips for holding sheets of glass in place. Carved edging stones and curved mortar that perhaps held heating pipes in place. Shaped column bases, sheets of render and cement and some moulded fragments of decorative plaster and a couple of pieces of stone tracery. Long strands of wire, perhaps for training plants and of course the lion fragments and our special lion.

A thin brick or stone wall ran 0.4m within and parallel to the main walls and these contained rubble and soil and occasionally stone and brick pads presumably supports for decorative plant containers. Our trench from the centre ‘palm tree’ bed 5m out into the gravel picked up the ring wall which supported the iron columns that rose to support the dome.

The ring foundation. A stone pad to support  one of the iron columns around the dome.

The ring foundation. A stone pad to support one of the iron columns around the dome.

At the end of the day we cleared up what the low brick walls were. These short narrow walls were built up from the basement floor. They had been levelled with slate and half bricks to achieve a particular height. The two in the south west trench had shaped curving mortar surviving on top of the brick and from this we concluded that they were for carrying the heated water pipes from the boiler beneath the decorated floor to provide heat to the ‘hot house of desire’.

One of the brick basement walls that supported the heated water pipes.

One of the brick basement walls that supported the heated water pipes.

The finds are stored at the house and will be sorted by material to enable appropriate conservation.

Our archaeological home for the last five days.

Our archaeological home for the last five days.

Thanks to everyone who got involved.

Day 3 The Iron Flowers

We mostly missed the rain today which is always good news. The middle trench was completely cleaned for photographs and drawing and we saw that the brick wall had a lime ash render and that it and the basement floor had been painted with a bluey grey coating. Perhaps a bitumen treatment to counter rising damp.

Drawing the middle trench after excavation. Note the bluey grey colour painted onto the floor and the rendered brick wall behind he drawing board.

Drawing the middle trench after excavation. Note the bluey grey colour painted onto the floor and the rendered brick wall behind he drawing board.


Today we found large slabs of the old floor with the impressions of the polychrome tile shapes impressed into them. We found lots of shaped tiles which we could place on the impressions and start to reconstruct a small part of the floor (not enough time for that but possibly a good activity. A Victorian equivalent to the mosaic making we simulate at Roman sites).
Slabs of broken cement flooring with the impressions of the lost tile floor. The many coloured tile pieces fit into the impressions.

Slabs of broken cement flooring with the impressions of the lost tile floor. The many coloured tile pieces fit into the impressions.

Then we started finding the iron foliage and flowers. Paul (as usual) found the first pieces in the north trench and then Chris found an iron rose in the south trench. These were remains of the intricate decorations that once embellished the great iron frame Tyntesfield’s glass conservatory.

The iron flower (what type? The one in the south trench was a rose) and groups of leaves presumably fixed on finials or wrapped around slender columns. In tray thin bronze strip perhaps for holding the    conservatory glass in place.

The iron flower (what type? The one in the south trench was a rose) and groups of leaves presumably fixed on finials or wrapped around slender columns. In tray thin bronze strip perhaps for holding the conservatory glass in place.

The heap of debris is a giant jigsaw with most of the bits missing.

The depth of debris beneath the gravel on the Tyntesfield Conservatory site. It's full of interesting bits. The smaller fragments of tile and glass seemed to have settled on the bottom and then the main heap of debris spread over the top of it.

The depth of debris beneath the gravel on the Tyntesfield Conservatory site. It’s full of interesting bits. The smaller fragments of tile and glass seemed to have settled on the bottom and then the main heap of debris spread over the top of it.

Day 2 The Lion’s Paw

Yesterday, we realised that a marvelous polychrome ‘mosaic’ tiled floor did not survive in our long trench at the west end of the Tyntesfield conservatory. The basement construction levels were likely to be deep so today we cut our losses and reduced the trench from 14m long to three smaller trenches.

It’s a good thing we did because the rubble went down and down. Terry and Paul dug down in two of the trenches and set aside all the fragments of interesting architectural building material. Terry found the first coin, a Victorian ‘bun’ half penny dated 1888. Well spotted amongst the heap of render, brick, mortar, rubble, moulded stone, shaped plaster, slate and loads of little white, red, green and brown shaped tiles that once decorated the conservatory. Very grumpy with whoever decided to smash the floor up before burying it almost 100 years ago.

Today's trenches showing the heap of rubble we needed to dig through with selected architectural bits we set aside.

Today’s trenches showing the heap of rubble we needed to dig through with selected architectural bits we set aside.

Three of us cleaned back the wall footings against the the south wall to reveal a two brick wide inner wall, presumably to contain plant beds or support shelves for plant pots within the conservatory. Above this was a square brick structure which might have supported a decorative plant container. It was all becoming more interesting than we thought yesterday, but as one of us said. “archaeology tends to raise more questions than it answers”. We must all become experts in Victorian conservatories and how they worked.

The inner walls emerging in the SW corner of the conservatory. Perhaps supports for shelves or beds that were used for exotic hot-house plants. The square brick structure top centre may have been to carry a decorative plant container.

The inner walls emerging in the SW corner of the conservatory. Perhaps supports for shelves or beds that were used for exotic hot-house plants. The square brick structure top centre may have been to carry a decorative plant container.

Suddenly, Paul called out and brought something to show us from his trench. It looked like a strange hand (which was alarming) but on closer inspection we could see that there were claws emerging from each finger. This was thought to be part of a seated Lion holding a banner which the Gibbs family used as an emblem and can be still seen on the ridge tops of Tyntesfield House. It was made out of terra cotta or cove stone and soon Terry found the haunches of a seated Lion in his trench. Both were decorated with red paint.

The back of the paw looks like a hand

The back of the paw looks like a hand

But it has claws. This is probably part of a Gibbs family emblem, a seated lion. Examples can be seen on the ridge tops of the mansion.

But it has claws. This is probably part of a Gibbs family emblem, a seated lion. Examples cans be seen on the ridge tops of the mansion.

At the end of the day we found the basement floor of the conservatory. A cement screed on brick with a heap of glass and tile fragments above it. Built out of it was a brick support wall, like the Roman pilae built to support mosaic floors above a hypocaust. The heated floor of the conservatory was very much like that, except it was driven by a steam boiler rather than slaves stoking a fire in the flue.

The basement floor of the conservatory with brick support wall for the now destroyed conservatory tiled floor.

The basement floor of the conservatory with brick support wall for now destroyed conservatory tiled floor.

Tyntesfield Conservatory Day 1

Tyntesfield today. Waiting in the conservatory on the west side of the mansion before the start of the dig. The palm tree marks the site of the central dome of the building

Tyntesfield today. Waiting in the conservatory on the west side of the mansion before the start of the dig. The palm tree marks the site of the central dome of the building


Doug and Richard were there when I arrived and then Sue. Paul gave an introduction to the site and said the reason the conservatory was demolished was because the dome collapsed after heavy snow in March 1916.
Paul gives an introduction to the history of the conservatory.The items on the table were disturbed when scaffolding was erected to re-roof the house a few years ago.

Paul gives an introduction to the history of the conservatory.The items on the table were disturbed when scaffolding was erected to re-roof the house a few years ago.


We marked out a line to sample the west end of the conservatory and then raked off layer 1 the gravel surface. Below this was an ash and sand soil and beneath than building rubble.
The west wall found beneath the turf verge and dwarf walls against the south wall. Only bits of the colourful tile floor here though.

The west wall found beneath the turf verge and dwarf walls against the south wall. Only bits of the colourful tile floor here though.


From the chunks of mortar floor with tile impressions and the bits of polychrome floor tile it looks as throught the floor was broken up before burial back in 1917. The soil is deeper closer to the house we will see what we discover tomorrow.

The Hot-house of Desire

Tyntesfield c.1900. A fancy dress party in the conservatory

Tyntesfield c.1900. A fancy dress party in the conservatory

Or to put it another way.. The conservatory of choice.

When William Gibbs desired to alter his gothic mansion in north Somerset, he wanted it to be the very latest thing and he had plenty of money. He had made a mint by investing in South American fertilizer (guano… fossilised bird droppings)

In the 1860s, he appointed the architect John Norton to redesign Tyntesfield and part of the plan was to create a splendid conservatory (not quite a Crystal Palace but big).

There had been a conservatory when William purchased the house in 1843 and he may have altered it to suit his taste soon afterwards. However, the 1860s conservatory was much larger by comparison, measuring 80ft long an 50ft wide. It had an intricate iron framework and a dome at the centre.

A door gave direct access from the west side of the house via a corridor between the Billiard Room and Mrs Gibbs Room. It was full of exotic plants from around the world and heated by hot air created by a newly installed boiler. The details are recorded in an article contained in The Builder magazine published in 1866.

A picture dated 1867 of the conservatory from the west lawn of the house soon after its completion.

A picture dated 1867 of the conservatory from the west lawn of the house soon after its completion.

Over the next 50 years, the conservatory was visited by many people including plant collectors and botanists from Kew Gardens and there were numerous parties and social gatherings, but by 1917 it had become unfashionable and difficult to maintain and so George Abraham Gibbs decided to demolish it.

Only the footprint of the site is visible now and Paul the Head Gardener would like to know what survives beneath the gravel. So this week, National Trust archaeology will find out, and we will update this blog each day to let you know how we get on.

Catching up

IMG_2076[1]Bit chilly outside. Not so good for fieldwork. January is a good time to catch up, so I am writing up stuff from last year.

In September, the tenant of Home Farm on the Tyntesfield Estate, North Somerset, dug up a shrub from inside a circular structure next to her house. She found some white glazed tiles and Kath the Building Surveyor asked me to investigate.

I straightend up the sides of the hole and dug down through building rubble onto a flagstone floor. The white tiles were above a stone plinth. From the way it was built, it had once been a classy structure. I described the layers, took some photos and drew the trench in plan and section. My finds.. were some 20th century pottery, a cat skeleton and two decomposing batteries.

The building was beside a rockery and it seemed to be part of a designed garden on the edge of the Park. Stephen, the curator (who¬†loves the Victorians) ¬†said that there had been an ornate¬†Creamery building here, which the ladies of the big house would visit. Quite a fashionable thing to do at the time, apparently (there is¬†another example on Brownsea Island with stained glass windows and a cow sculpture…. good archaeological evidence for bovine worship?).

The thatched Tyntesfield Creamery was¬†knocked down about 60 years ago leaving only the foundation. Bit modern but interesting…..M