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Hen Caerwys Dig Diary 2012

This Dig Diary charts the progress of the second season of excavations at Hen Caerwys deserted medieval village in Flintshire. The excavation is taking place between the 16th and 28th of July and is being run by Cadw and Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust with help from local volunteers.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Give me shelter!

Monday 16th July 2012

If you’ve been following our project diary, you’ll know that today marks the start of the second season of excavations at Hen Caerwys, more ambitious than the first season which lasted only five days and was first and foremost a trial run to see whether a community-based excavation on this scheduled medieval settlement lying on the Flintshire limestone plateau was viable. Well, it was judged a success by Cadw and this year we are back for two weeks.

Some things of course don’t change and this includes the weather. Last year, it rained constantly on the Sunday, not that this seemed to dampen the enthusiasm of our volunteers, and today was virtually a repeat performance. But whereas last year virtually the only cover was a tarpaulin slung between trees, this year Cadw has invested in an ex-army tent – a pity that one of the key metal components was not present. But we managed to erect the tent and it was much appreciated at lunchtime.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Opening the trenches

Our two excavations trenches from last year have now been re-opened, exposing the plastic sheeting that was laid over the excavated surfaces last year to facilitate this year’s work. We will be completing the examination on these trenches first before embarking on the excavation of a new trench across the lower end of one of the medieval houses.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Clearing the vegetation from Trench C. The outline of the house can be seen as a low bank running between the two sets of diggers.

Tuesday 17th July 2012

A better day. More than one digger has said today that when the sun is out the excavation seems to go better. Work on Trench A across the bank of the apparently empty enclosure is now almost complete. We had to leave the section through it unfinished last year and one of first tasks has been to finish this. Archaeologically it hasn’t been particularly informative, so weather permitting we should be able to finish its excavation tomorrow.

Trench B which we hope has been placed across the second and much more poorly recorded house platform excavated by the Flintshire Historical Society in the 1960s continues to puzzle us. Last year we uncovered a spread of compact limestone rubble, but today after cleaning this and extending the trench by a metre or so, it is still not clear whether this spread is a result of collapsed walling, a deliberate dump of material from early times, or backfilled material from the early 1960s.Will Davies of Cadw who’s in charge of this trench is coming round to the view that this is modern backfill, not least because there are one or two broken pieces of glass or recent origin amongst the stones, but it has produced, too, our first sherd of medieval pottery, glazed and of the 14th or 15th century.

We have also started to clear the vegetation from Trench C, mainly a matting of ivy and fern roots. This promises to be our most interesting trench this year, across one end of a long rectangular house which is self-conta9nedin its own enclosure, and extending on to what could be an adjacent building platform.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Wednesday 18th July 2012

Work on only two of the trenches today, as Will Davies had other Cadw matters to attend to, elsewhere in north-east Wales. Work on Trench A is now almost complete: a section of the bank has been removed including some really large blocks of limestone that must have provided a firm foundation for it. Beneath the bank the natural limestone rose to a higher level than to either side, suggesting either than the bank provided greater protection to the limestone surface against water percolating through the topsoil or perhaps that blocks of limestone had been levered up from the outside of the bank to create it. All that is now left to do on Trench A is a section drawing.

Most of Trench C has been cleared of its vegetation, and we are beginning to remove the topsoil, revealing in places the surface of limestone rubble – no surprise here – which is probably material that has collapsed from the walls of the house. Coming up from among the rubble are small fragments of white mortar, which we hadn’t really expected. These might indicate that the house is of a more recent date than we had anticipated. A broken whetstone fragment was the only other artefact found. We have also taken sets of level readings to construct profiles across the house (see accompanying picture).

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Graham and his sherd of Welsh Medieval Cooking Pot. (Keith somewhat bedazzled either by Graham’s excellent find – or his natty new yellow digging suit!)

Thursday 19th July 2012

In the morning the weather was persistently wet, and as ever, we were grateful for our new shelter tent. This became the venue for an impromptu discussion between the double-act of Ian and Will (BBC are you listening?!); dashing through Welsh medieval history with their respective north and south Walian viewpoints. Eventually the excavation team was released to go in search of that elusive gem – a sherd of Welsh medieval pottery.

Whilst Will and a small team continued to disentangle the rubble and general overburden within Trench B, the majority of our team focussed their attention on the excavation in Trench C. This involved the tedious removal of tangled roots and vegetation from the central area of the trench before excavation could properly proceed. However, that elusive gem was not long in coming, as one of our volunteers, Graham, discovered a blackened sherd of Welsh cooking pot within the rubble of the building. The pottery, which probably dates to between the 12th and 14th centuries, is our first solid piece of dating evidence relating to the medieval settlement of the area. Considering the muddy conditions we were working in, sharp eyes were required to find this piece in the murk. Well done Graham! (Although somewhat concerned that his “lucky” yellow suit may become compulsory wear for all!)

Despite the persistent rain, work continued after lunch. Progress was good in Trench C. With the vegetation removed, and much of the sticky topsoil cleared away, the wall structures are beginning to become much clearer. Possible preserved medieval occupation layers may hopefully soon emerge as the clearing back continues.

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Friday 20th July 2012

Two new volunteers in Trench B in the shape of Rachel and Chris have provided Will with a fresh rush of energy and a captive audience to talk at in his ongoing battle with the rubble.

After a week of carefully cleaning and lifting the upper layers of random limestone blocks to reveal yet more, on Thursday the decision was made to cut a small trench through it into what should be the interior of the house. This finally revealed a sequence, if not one we fully understand as yet. Good work by father and son team Stuart and Iwan also cleaned up a pile of stones in the middle of the trench, confirming it to be a fragment of the east wall of the house by revealing both faces. Underneath the random rubble is a spread of orange clay, into which more rubble is set, apparently tipping inwards from the line of the wall, which clearly rests on top of this layer. Our main problem is the complete lack of any sign of occupation debris – not even a single fleck of charcoal. Was this removed by the 1960s excavators and thrown back in elsewhere (we’re really not convinced by this explanation)? Or is it waiting for us beneath the clay, which looks undisturbed? Will is beginning to think that the earlier excavations may have removed some of the upper layers of rubble but not much more.

Meanwhile, up at Trench C, more pottery is beginning to emerge from the collapsed remains of the house, the walls of which are beginning to take shape. Sophie of CPAT provided the drama (these things are relative) by retrieving another fragment of the unexpected early cooking pot, dismaying Bob with his theory of a later farm, then a few seconds later pushing the date a couple of centuries into the future a fine piece of glazed post-Medieval ware. Another 17th or 18th century piece appeared later on, making the score 2-2 – just how old is this building?

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Saturday 21st July 2012

A quiet day today as most of our volunteers have found better things to involve themselves in on this sunny weekend. So we have concentrated our efforts on Trench C and also awaited visitors on this, the first of our open days.

Trench C contains an awful lot of stone. Hopefully there are lengths of wall from the building disguised in the trench but at present most of the limestone rubble looks to be tumble. Tumbled stone lies outside both the north and the south wall lines of the building and mixed in with this is a considerable amount of mortar lumps. Within the building tumble stone is less in evidence but this could simply be because we haven’t as yet cleared away enough of the overlying silt. And to the north of the building is the stone platform, the function of which isn’t any clearer. It seems to be too uneven to have been a hard standing for stock and yet there are places where the natural limestone looks to be breaking through.

No finds of any consequence, and so the date of our building remains uncertain.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Tuesday 24th July 2012

Work on Trench C continues. We are still having some difficulty in detecting the walls of the building although the faces are becoming a little clearer. The interior is filled with a spread of relatively stoneless silt though the depth of this material has yet to be established. Clearance of some of the limestone rubble that collapsed from the north wall has revealed the natural limestone on which the house was built and then an abrupt cutting from which stone has been taken. This too is silt-filled but also contains fragments of animal bone, but little of the fill has yet been removed (it is just visible as an edge behind the digger kneeling in the foreground). It may have been the ‘quarry’ that provided the stone for the house, but I am also beginning to wonder whether it might have provided stone for the adjacent platform.

Collapsed stone has also been cleaned up on the southern exterior face of the building, and it is here that we have found a few sherds of pottery, but at the moment the fragments had a wide date span from perhaps the 14th century through to the 18th.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Alex, one of the volunteers, reveals on her T-shirt, her ability to predict what she will be finding during the day.

Wednesday 25th July 2012

Most of our efforts continue to focus on Trench C, the largest of our excavations, but work also progressed on B which we hope to report on tomorrow, and we have also now wrapped up A where the section drawing through the enclosure bank has been completed.

In C, the external wall faces of the building are still frustrating us. While the inside faces appear to be readily visible from the precise alignments of limestone blocks, nothing similar can be seen on the outside and we have to assume, I think, that as the low foundation walls have collapsed outwards, they have carried away whatever facing stones there were. We are gradually taking down the deposits that have accumulated within the room of the building that lies within the trench but it is a slow job, and it may be that we shall not finish this element of the work this year. And outside the north wall of the building the ‘quarry’ cut mentioned yesterday is turning into quite a sizeable feature and continues to produce animal bone, though not in great quantities (see picture).

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Recording Trench B.

Thursday 26th July 2012

After two weeks of very cautious sifting through the rubble of Trench B, a task begun last year, it has become clear that the archaeologists of the Flintshire Historical Society have been here before us. Packed orange clay and heavy limestone rubble at the bottom of the trench is present both in and and outside of the house, looks untouched and is almost certainly natural. Immediately over this, a slightly more ordered layer of rubble formed the platform on which the walls of the house were based, everything being covered by the deep jumble of topsoil and - you guessed it - rubble, that must be have been thrown back in after the previous excavation. Conspicuously absent between this backfill and the platform is any trace of a floor or the inevitable occupation debris or dark earth of a 'domestic layer' typically found within houses. We're certain that this has not been missed, having trowelled downwards at glacial speed and nothing being visible in the trench sections - our 1960s predecessors simply appear to have cleaned the house out.

Will still can't quite believe how thoroughly they managed to do this with just two fragments of pottery in the top layer of backfill and not a even speck of charcoal to be seen anywhere else. It's almost as if they used a hoover. All very disappointing but this at least answers a few of our questions. We can confirm that this was the elusive second house referred to in 1967, we know how it was built and have this as a reference for any further excavation on this site.

After we have finished drawing and photographing, work on Trench B will stop but it will remain on show for the open day on Saturday. All of our efforts will now concentrate on the house in Trench C.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

Friday 27th July 2012

The penultimate day, and again the attention has largely been on Trench C. We have had some success in defining the walls of the building in the trench. Having thought that the external wall faces had collapsed outwards, it now looks as though on the north side of the building the wall face can be traced through some almost orthostatic uprights for at least part of its length (see accompanying photo). And on the south side a few limestone blocks, albeit rather irregularly, may mark the foundation course of the outer wall face.

Inside the building there is still no sign of a floor and it seems likely that there may have nothing but a surface of trampled earth which has been badly disturbed by root action. Interestingly the silty soil within the room continues beneath one and perhaps both walls.

The stony platform to the north of the house is now better understood. We removed a thin layer of flat slabs which until recently we thought was natural limestone ‘pavement’ and we are now certain that this was a laid ‘floor’ to provide a flat surface, though for what purpose is unclear.

Beneath the house and the platform, the ‘quarry’ (see entry for 25th July) has been largely excavated, a gradually widening cut which initially provided stone, perhaps for the platform, and then may have acted as a drainage channel.

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CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2012

A final look at Trench C. In the background is the interior of the cottage, and its north wall, visible here, has two large upright slabs, as facing. In front of the wall, the wedge-shaped hollow marks the quarry, and in the foreground are the remains of the platform.

Saturday 28th July 2012

The last day, and looking back over the fortnight we can be reasonably satisfied with what we have accomplished. The section through the enclosure bank (Trench A), started last year, has been completed and will be backfilled by machine at the beginning of next week. Trench B, too, has been finished, and we can be as certain as it is possible to be that we have now located where the Flintshire Historical Society conducted their second and much more poorly recorded platform excavation in the 1960s. This though had to be backfilled by hand today because to get a machine down the slope to the trench would have caused damage to undisturbed features. And Trench C has turned out successfully. The external wall faces of the cottage may have largely disappeared but enough survived to provide a reasonable idea of wall thickness, and while artefacts were pretty thin on the ground, enough sherds of pottery were recovered to suggest that the building could have been in use in the Tudor period and continued into the 17th and perhaps even the 18th century. Floor levels in the one room that our trench transected have proved elusive and it seems likely that they may have been of rammed earth which has suffered badly from root disturbance. Next to the house was a platform, partially paved – it presumably had some use linked to farming but what this was we’ll never know. Between the two was a quarry hollow, fairly shallow and wedge-shaped. We have covered over the interior of the building, in the hope (or anticipation?) that we shall be able to return next year to finishing excavating the deposits, even though we not optimistic about floor levels.

Today was our last open day and we were gratified by the large number of visitors who turned out to see the excavations. And we couldn’t close this dig diary without paying tribute to our volunteers – it’s through their efforts that we have been able to achieve so much!

Will Davies and Bob Silvester

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