What was under our gardens?
Sudbury Big Dig 3-5 October 2014
The Sudbury Community Big Dig, organised by the Sudbury Society, the Sudbury History Society and the Sudbury Museum Trust began on Friday 3 October with five test pits on The Croft dug by over 100 Sudbury schoolchildren working in relays. Said, one teacher of her primary school class, “I’ve never known them be so quiet and so focused for so long! I could hardly tear them away!” Some children returned over the weekend with their parents to continue to dig.
Those pits were continued over the weekend, along with 30+ pits in private gardens dug by some 70 volunteers under the supervision of Dr Carenza Lewis of Cambridge University’s Access to Archaeology (ACA).
I was one of the volunteers and allocated to the pit at the Old Vicarage, All Saints, the home of Suzie and Ian Liddell. We had listened to Carenza’s briefing on the Saturday morning before starting on the pit: measuring out a one-metre square, removing the turf the carefully digging in 10cm contexts (layers) following standard archaeological procedures. Great excitement when we found the first piece of red roof tile. By the time we had dug up the 596th piece we were less thrilled…
Then there were the bones… a long thin bone (yes, definitely a bone), then another one parallel to it and another parallel to that! Rib cage – had to be, didn’t it? Well, er, no. The first was a bone, the second a rib-shaped tree root, and the third the edge of a white brick… oh well…
It was fun washing the finds (well, most of them – I did get a bit bored with scrubbing oyster shells after a while but cleaning and fitting together a broken clay pipe bowl was fun. It was strange to be cleaning a row of teeth still embedded in the jawbone. I didn’t need to be an anatomist to know this wasn’t human but most likely pig.
After being washed the finds were carefully recorded and put into labelled bags. The ACA’s record book was completed. Finally, we took the finds were taken to HQ at Friars Hall and placed with the finds from the other pits. It was also a chance to grab a very welcome cup of tea. (Many thanks to Roy and Pat Laithwaite for the catering – much appreciated.)
Carenza had visited all the pits to offer advice and identify items found. In our pit she identified in one corner what might have been a tiled medieval floor laid on flint and mortar but now minus the tiles. We didn’t have time to dig it further but it made a convenient step for getting in and out of the pit.
Carenza gave a summing up on Sunday afternoon. She was at pains to stress that it was not individual finds that were the object of the exercise but the big picture made up of all the finds. Pottery is the key as it can be dated quite accurately – well, within a century or two. Pottery expert John Newman said that the most boring-looking grey lump can be crucial. However, the presence or absence of various pottery types can indicate the movement of population within an area. For instance, nothing Roman was found, nor was there much from the late medieval period. If I remember rightly, the earliest was some Ipswich ware of the Middle Saxon period c. AD 650-850.
Carenza asked for a quick report from each pit. Val Herbert’s garden in Christopher Lane produced what might be the ‘star find’ – a Tudor button. Another pit yielded an 1854 French coin of Napoleon III. A curiously coincidental find was a plastic toy elephant (c.1970) found in the pit behind Bazaar on Gainsborough Street – the emblem of the shop is – an elephant! (Quite bizarre…) Another pit produced medieval glass that was most unusual in a domestic setting of that period. Lorna Hoey’s pit in Cross Street involved digging through concrete and clay and was more reminiscent of tunnelling out of Colditz than Time Team.
Carenza will return to Sudbury early next year to report the results of ACA analysis.
Thanks go to the Steering Group of organisers, especially David Burnett of the Sudbury Society and the Sudbury Museum Trust and Mike Crome of the Sudbury History Society, who said, “It was a mammoth undertaking but, especially in the rain on Saturday, everyone showed the Dunkirk spirit!”