Friday, 23 August 2013

Unofficial Barby Hill update (week 3)

This week's excavations have fundamentally altered our understanding of Barby village's history as we know it. You have been warned.

To recap from the last few weeks, we have found very little of relevance; a modern sheep tooth, and a couple of bits of iron age pottery that came from an unsecured context. So this week, we extended the trenches northwards and southwards, and taken them down to an average depth of about 70cm, removing all the modern spoil. While our finds from last week could be counted on one hand, this week's iron age finds alone far exceeded our expectations! And we also have some lovely features that are contemporary with a small to medium-sized iron age village.

So, the finds. The vast majority of our finds looked like this:
(author's own)

Whil you could be forgiven for thinking that htese are just pieces of mud placed on a plastic sheet, I can assure you that a lot of these pieces (or pottery sherds, to use the correct terminology) are mid-late Iron Age in date, and are common to iron age settlements in Britain. Some of them are actually in a distinctive rim shape (see below), so it cannot be a naturally-occuring stone fragment. Their black appearance may be due to the use of plant material as a tempering agent i.e. during the process of firing these pots, plants were wrapped around the pot to give it some structure, so it wouldn't fall apart! This leads to charcoal being found in lumps inside the pot (known as inclusions-see next sentecne), but sometimes also contributes to the black colour of the pot. Some of these pots contain "inclusions" or small additions, like small pieces of stone, which can tell us the sort of geological area that these pots were made in, or what was added to the clay before firing. In this case, they are likely to be materials that came from the local area. In addition, as you can see, there is more than just black pieces of pottery, there is some more reddish-coloured pieces, giving us a more varied picture of the pots that were used during this time. Often the pots would be used for all manner of things, including cooking and storage. However, the excavation has not yielded any other Iron Age finds... yet (except for charcoal)!

 This particular example has a nice rim to it, indicating part of the shape of the pot. This will be important for later analysis to tell us what these pots were used for! (author's own)

But what has come out of the ground unexpectedly are two features, which can be related to building activity and a possible working surface! The former is known as a post-hole (see below): this feature would have contained a wooden post (hence the term post-hole), that coulde have been used as part of a fence, or a house, or a granary, and so on . We need more post holes to prove that it being used for one of these structures. The hole here contained some charcoal in a secure context, i.e. it has not been disturbed since it was sealed. This proves that a wooden object was placed within the structure at some point, either burnt during it's last days, or a small wooden object was thrown into the hole before it was sealed; we can't tell yet.
The locally made pots were almost certainly made within the household, probably by male, female and juvenile members of the family. Hence, this was a cottage industry, which was fairly common, not dissimilar to pre-industrial revolution styles of making many household goods. The question is now can we find something more exotic, to show that this site was known to outsiders of this community? We believe that a major prehistoric road ran near the settlement, on a NW-SE trajectory, so we may find evidence of say metalworking, or maybe even artefacts created using materials from the coast!

Tis post hole is about 25cm wide and 12-14cm in radius. This should help us to reconstruct what sort of iron age building was being used here!

The working suface I mentioned is very peculiar, because it is a hard layer that contains a smattering of small stones, that appear to have been cracked in half. Why would you crack your stones in half? If they were the wastage from the pottery process, then we would expect to see burn-marks on the stones. But we don't. Are these the remanats, then, of an early trackway, or a courtyard? More importantly, the pottery fragments have been coming from this layer of softer material, but also right on the boundary of the context of these suspected features (both the post-hole and the working surface)! This almost definitely shows that these features are Iron Age in date, given that thay have been undisturbed for over 2,000 years!

While not very clear, there is a harder surface containing stones in the centre of this picture, while the scale is on a softer piece of ground.

Why is this so groundbreaking? Well, all the previous focus on Barby's settlement history had been on the medieval, Viking and Saxon periods, with Barby's modern origins probably coming from the Saxon period. This has been because of a biased use of historical evidence. Most of the surviving archaeology around the village is medieval or post-medieval in date (mostly ridge and furrow, and some outlines of a house and a probable manor house, as well as the church, which is over 1,000 years old!), which gives a misleading impression of Barby's origins.

Before this excavation, no one had suspected that Iron Age people had settled here; even the project director was somewhat uncertain! But now, with this evidence of definite activity, we can trace Barby's (pre)history back into possibly the middle Iron Age, and almost certainly into the late iron age (i.e. some 2,200 years ago, or even 2,500 years ago); this would extend the village's history by almost 1,000 years from the Saxon origins of the current village! Thinking ahead now, we can ask questions like why did they settle on this flat piece of land overlooking the west midlands? How can we relate this settlement to the more modern village of today? If so, why did the village move eastwards (some 750 metres to be precise) to it's current location during the Dark Ages (i.e. the Anglo-Saxon and Viking periods)? Given that Barby's name has been researched already, do we have to reassess it i.e. does Barby's name come from Viking (Barby roughly translates to "hill-top settlement"), Anglo-Saxon (Barby roughly translates as "barley", indicating it's proable main commodity, apparently) or even from Celtic origins (no suggestions yet)? Just how large was this settlement? And if it was a significant site, what was it's influence, compared to other local sites, like Borough Hill (a defended iron age site, which could be contemporary in date) in Daventry, just a few miles to the south-east?

Unfortunately this is the end of the unofficial diary, since I will be off to Italy on the Etruria Nova- run excavations in Tuscany! I will have lots of lovely photos to put on this blog...

Any comments/opinions are very much appreciated for this post!

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Unofficial Barby Hill update (week 2) and Digging For Shakespeare highlights!

So this week I have been on two excavations (and done 3 days part time work!); Barby Hill and New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon (the Digging for Shakespeare project). More on that in a second, but first:

Barby Hill, end of week 2:

The good news? We've found archaeology! It started with a sheep tooth on wednesday morning, and then some likely Iron Age pottery sherds! In addition, a probable partial sheep jawbone was also found, all in the same context( i.e. the same layer/ time period of deposition). Could this be an Iron Age ditch, full of rubbish that, in the next few days, will reveal the lifestyles of these ancient people?   The bad news is that these were found with a Victorian floor tile. Oh dear... this means that either the pottery and sheep tooth are relatively recent, or that the context we have found is not an archaeological feature; or worse, if it is a feature, it has been heavily disturbed, and probably not by the reservior's construction. The geophysics wants us to believe that a feature is somewhere along our trench. There will be some pictures of the trench in the next update!!

Digging For Shakespeare:

This has been without doubt one of my favourite digs I have ever been on, not least because this is the 4th year that I have been here! Although I am not actually excavating this year, I am still helping out with other tasks, such as backfilling, washing finds, and generally explaining the site to tourists. in previous years volunteers have been participating in the excavation of the building.
One of the trenches this year; an 18th century wall that may have been part of Shakespeare's house! (author's own)

So why did they decide to excavate here in the first place? Well, New Place was Shakespeare's largest house in Stratford; he purchased it once he became rich enough to buy it! Shakespeare is also reputed to have written some of his later works like the Tempest, and he may also have died here (he's buried in a nearby church). However, New Place passed onto various families after his daughter's death in the 17th century, and in the 18th century it was initially rebuilt, then a Yorkshire vicar burned it down because he refused to pay full tax on a property he only lived in for half the time! He also tried to cut down the mulberry tree that Shakespeare planted in the garden behind the house. So now the house is nothing more than just a few foundation walls and a lot of burnt material.
The site of one of the older trenches from last year's dig. (author's own)

Or so we thought it was! In the 19th century the local antiquarian Halliwell Phillipps spent 2 years excavating, nearly 150 years before the most rrecent excavations (Mitchell 2010). Unfortunately he didn't concentrate on anything more than the walls themselves; a lot of perfectly good artefacts were simply thrown back into the ground! For more information on the property, including finds from the excavation from 2010-2012, click here and here.

The family archaeology tent, in the gardens. There's an old theatre buried under this garden!! (author's own)

But back to this year, and this excavation has been scheduled for only 2 weeks, rather than 6 months! Therefore, these trenches have been targeting walls that may have a particular significance, in potentially redefining the history of the house. This may sound rediculous; yes, there are historical sources, and yes, there are old plans of the house, so why are we chasing walls that have already been drawn? The problem with these older plans is that they often have an asthetic bias to them, or in layman's term, people wanted to draw for the sake of drawing, rather than for planning applications. So they might have deliberately missed a wall, just because it was obscured by another feature. Even the more recent plans from the 18th and 19th centuries are, while more objective, subject to human error. So a new plan would not go amiss for the final report (due for 2016).Furthermore, the team have found that the New Place wall does not run parallel to the house next door. What does this mean for the house? We know that the house has medieval origins, but not it's relationship to other houses i.e. which houses were built first? 

The very tree that Shakespeare planted, and nearly chopped down by an angry vicar! (author's own)

One of the surprises of the Digging for Shakespeare excavation has to be the Iron Age pits that were found last year! These were completely unexpected, and confirmed suspicions that the Romans were not the first settlers of Stratford-upon-Avon. We are unfortunately unlikely to find any more with the time we have left, but nonetheless they have extended the lifespan of New Place into prehistory. We hope that the full report of the excavations will come out in a few years time.
Nash's house, next door to New Place. Would they have been touching in the old days? We don't really know for sure... (Author's own)

What makes the dig so special is the volunteers who give up their time; people from all over Warwickshire and beyond! They have become really enthusiastic about it, and many of them, like me, have given up their tim over the space of 4 years to come and see this site evolve, and allow us to find new discoveries about Shakespeare's house, such as the Iron Age pits. I think this is also an example that other excavations can follow, if they think that using volunteers is the way forward. The York Archaeological Trust, incidentally, have been using volunteers sucessfully for over 40 years in excavations across York!!

These two sites show just how diverse the archaeology is underneath our feet, and how the general public can get involved!

P.S. on an unrelated note, read this opinion on the fracking situation in Britain!


Mitchell, W., 2010, "Dig for Shakespeare", New Place, Stratford-on-Avon, Warwickshire: Archaeological Excavation 2010,  Birmingham Archaeology for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Birmingham

link 1:
link 2:

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Unofficial update on barby hill excavation: end of week 1

A quick update on the Barby Hill excavation:

So far the going has been slow, and, alas, nothing of interest has been found. Having said that, we only managed one day out on site and we have only just reached what we believe to be the original surface of the soil from 20 years ago, since it was buried by a load of spoil from the construction of a nearby reservoir! That turned out to be a depth of approximately half a metre. Hopefully in the next few days we will get some features, and more importantly, some finds, by digging just a little further under the surface!

So why did we choose this particular area to excavate, rather than take on a more promising piece of archaeology from the survey, like a roundhouse which was picked up in the survey results? Well, as mentioned in my previous update (which can be found here) the ground in the area has been used for livestock (mainly cows). Last winter was very bad; one guy saw the cows go up to their bellies in mud because there was so much rain and snow!! Because cows hooves are very strong and each one has to share the weight of half a ton of very rare meat, this is going to damage the archaeology underneath if it can go down a certain distance. so in normal circumstances, we would dig a more important feature. But we fear that the chance has already gone, because we believe the archaeology is very close to the surfvace. Furthermore, the patch that we are excavating is right next to a reservior, that is due to be expanded next year, onto the patch of land that we are excavating on. In Britain, we call the work that we are doing "rescue archaeology" because we are in a race against time to excavate what is there before it is irreversibly destroyed!

So what do we expect to find? Well, a survey from a little while back done by Cotswold Archaeology produced a survey which has produced a possible Iron Age ditch just under our excavtion, part of a (proably contemporary) complex of ditches and roundhouses (a picture of which is available here). What the picture doesn't show you is that there is another circular feature near to the Cotswold Archaeology survey, close to where we are excavating! So we could hit evidence for Iron Age settlement very soon...

Furthermore, the BHAP have undertaken some field walking and discovered a roman coin on a slope, within this "complex". Could this be a village that existed during the roman period? I'm yet to be convinced, but the site manager is more optimistic.

On a more practical note a small tent has been erected for the use of the archaeologists, so now they have some shelter for when it rains!

Stay tuned for next week's site update, which will hopefully contain more than just conjecture...

links (that don't redirect to my blog):

Hatton, May 2012, Archaeology at Barby Hill: part 3, self-published

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Barby Hill excavation: introduction and how to get involved!

For the next few weeks, I will be helping to excavate a Late Iron Age (c. just before and after the Romans arrived) site at Barby Hill in Northamptonshire before I go out to excavate in Italy! You can also get involved  vat Barby Hill too, with details of how to get involved below.

Barby Hill is a small protruding hill that sits just to the west of Barby village, rising to some 50m high and covers a plateau of several hundred acres. It is technically part of the Northampton Uplands (which runs southwest-northeast), and overlooks the Vale of Warwick to the west, for the best part of at least 10 miles. On a clear day you can see Coventry, some 15 miles away. Rugby lies just a few miles northwest of Barby, sitting on it's own hill. The river avon flows through Rugby before going through the vale. Barby Hill is used for mixed agriculture by a few farms. The 18th-19th centuries had the biggest impact- the Grand Union canal was built (and modified), next to the hill. The Great Central railway also used to run alongside the Grand Union canal before being dismantled.

The archaeological record for Barby Hill is not great. Previous historical work by Gren Hatton (who organised the excavation) has shown that Barby hill used to have a large forest on it which was cut down in the post-medieval period, probably to make way for the profitable sheep industry, which has been the mainstay of the hill's local economy. Cotswold Archaeology surveyed and excavated part of the hill before a reservoir was put in, which hinted at some Late Iron Age works, but it wasn't very spectacular; one possible building (a roundhouse, to use the correct terminology, along with some pottery). More information about previous historical and survey work on Barby can be found here and here (thanks to Gren Hatton). 

So will this new site be spectacular? It's near to the previous excavation, so it might just give the same results. But this time, the Barby Hill Archaeology Project (BHAP) group have been busy fieldwalking and geophysically surveying the hill. This has uncovered a previously unsuspected Iron Age complex, what you and I might call a village, consisting of roundhouses and field systems on a hitherto unknown scale! Who knows what the inhabitants of this village were making, trading or sacrificing into the ground. This village existed all the way along the side of the hill and looks to have extended into Onley. The main problem now is the preservation of the site. Poor weather, combined with agricultural practices, may well be destroying the site. In addition, there are plans for the reservior on top of Barby Hill to be expanded, which will remove any trace of archaeololgy below it. But a small area between the farmland and the reservior, that is due to be built on, will be excavated this month, and a small team of local volunteers (including me!) and representatives from Northamptonshire Archaeology will be excavating a small strip of undisturbed land before it becomes a concrete reservior.

If you are interested in getting involved in some excavating or helping out in any way, please contact me asap at, or 07788605846! No previous excavating experience required. Unfortunately you must be 18 or over to get involved, but I can give you more information on other archaeology excavations if you are under 18.

So stay tuned for this site diary!

My thanks must got to Barby Hill Archaeological Project and the Community Landscape and Archaeology Survey Project for their help in funding this excavation and providing the opportunity to participate, in particular Gren Hatton for all the hard work he has put inot getting this excavation going!


Hatton, G., July 2011, Archaeology at Barby Hill: Part 1, iself published

Hatton, G., November 2011, Archaeology at Barby Hill: Part 2, self published

Hatton, G., May 2012, Archaeology at Barby Hill: Part 3, self-published