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Hen Caerwys Dig Diary 2015


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This Dig Diary charts the progress of the fifth and final season of excavations at Hen Caerwys deserted medieval village in Flintshire. The excavation is taking place between the 15th June and 27th July and is being run by Cadw and Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust with help from local volunteers and staff and students from the University of Chester.

Dig diaries from previous seasons of excavations at Hen Caerwys can be found here.

Monday 15th June 2015

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

The digging starts in Trench E....
CPAT's Ian Grant on the left, and Cadw's Will Davies on the right.

Another summer, another season of excavating at Hen Caerwys, the deserted medieval settlement lying on a wooded limestone plateau a short distance to the north-east of the small town of Caerwys. We first started digging here on a very small-scale in 2011 and have been back every year since, conducting a community excavation programme. 2015 will, however, undoubtedly be our last season.

We’re not examining any new elements of the site this year, but completing those that were left unfinished last year, and so if you want to check out the background, please have a look at last year’s dig diary.

Today was earmarked for establishing (or perhaps re-establishing) ourselves, getting all the equipment on site, identifying the logistics, and for this reason we felt that we would restrict community involvement. Nevertheless, we did start the digging, helped by two of our stalwarts from earlier years, Graham and Keith.

In Will’s trench (E) extending over much of a medieval house site, the cover of protective matting was left in place and the opportunity was taken before the matting was lifted to remove material lying against the rear face of the building (or what we hope may be the rear face: see picture above). It’s not clear yet whether there was a free-standing rear wall to the medieval house or whether the natural limestone had been cut back and then integrated into the house structure. Perhaps we’ll get a better idea tomorrow.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

... and in Trench F.

Caroline’s trench (F) lies across the juncture of the wall or bank of a sub-rectangular enclosure and a field bank. Two seasons have already been spent on Trench F and although we are reasonably certain that the field bank preceded the wall, we are not one hundred percent certain. This is testimony to the difficulties of determining a sequence in features entirely created from lumps of limestone. We’ve cleaned the surface of the stone exposed last year (see picture to right), recovered a few more fragments of bone, and now need to plan the contents of the trench before removing more rubble.

Of our third site (U), known colloquially as ‘the pit’, more tomorrow, perhaps.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Tuesday 16th June 2015

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

The enigmatic 'pit'

Will and Ian have continued to work on the rear face of the platform (Trench E) , known in platform jargon as the ‘fan’. Initially it appeared that large, set blocks of limestone would indicate the natural slope that had been left after cutting the platform back into the bedrock, but rather than continuing the excavation in this fashion, they then moved to the ground surface above the apron and started to work down to the natural limestone to reveal the profile of the bedrock unencumbered by soil and vegetation.

Caroline has beavered away by herself in Trench F. Aligned lumps of limestone have been cleaned up, pondered over and then dismissed as irrelevant while pockets of soil have been carefully cleaned and then adjudged to be no more than the fills of the underlying surface hollows beneath them. Are we any closer to determining the sequence in this trench? Well tomorrow, hopefully, Caroline will be writing the dig diary so perhaps she’ll be able to tell us.

And finally to the ‘pit’ (U), the large embanked depression that forms the centrepiece of our photo, just beyond Ian (left), Will (centre) and Graham (right). Last year we thought it might be a mine shaft or perhaps a lime kiln or perhaps even an ice house serving nearby Caerwys Hall. Now we are coming back to the idea that it might be a large shaft, choked with limestone rubble. We need to do some recording before we can examine it further, and so to assist access and allow our photographs to display more of the site and less intrusive vegetation Graham and I have spent some of the morning clearing away tree branches. This may not have clarified the function of the pit, but it is now more presentable.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Wednesday 17th June 2015

Today was a productive day. The site was a hive of activity. With all our volunteers consisting of the usual suspects, who just keep coming back for more rubble-based punishment, in addition to more than a handful of eager archaeology students from the University of Chester, we were cooking on gas. Trench F continues to produce animal bone and teeth from within the make-up of the enclosure as well as beneath the layers of tumble. By the end of the day it became obvious beyond all doubt that the N-S linear field bank was indeed running through, underneath the enclosure wall.

The platform house (Trench E), continues to provide Will with yet more surprises, especially with the way that it is cut into the bedrock of the hillside, creating an almost apsidal end.

The 'beast', or lime kiln/mine shaft/ice house, also continues to be an enigma. As such the trench is being extended with the help of some hired muscle (Chester students). We therefore hope that it will surely reveal its secrets over the course of the next week or so.

So, watch this space!

Caroline Pudney, University of Chester

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Thursday 18th June 2015

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

The 'pit' and its entrance

An eventful and sunny day in all three trenches. Whilst their friends are all asleep, watching daytime TV or eating the remains of last night's kebab for breakfast, Dan and Matt from Chester University are demonstrating their alternative cool by crawling around with some trowels by a big hole / kiln / ice house / mine shaft in the corner of a wood in Flintshire. The boys are making impressive progress; having moved last year's spoil tip they've cleared a large area over the projected line of the mysterious underground passage / sump / stoke hole / draw chamber leading away from the main circular feature. This will hopefully give us some idea of its form and extent. As excavating along the passage from below would be too dangerous due to the poorly supported and very heavy roof lintels, locating some sort of entrance would be particularly helpful. It's early yet but they have already found the top of another lintel, although seemingly nothing where the next one should be just yet.

Down at the house platform (Trench E) we've had a quiet day with Ed and Niall soldiering on in their extended trial pit against the western wall of the building, which they've pretty much completed. There are no signs of a rubbish tip or midden like that excavated by the Flintshire Historical Society in the 1960s, but they seem to have identified an external ground surface, which is a dense clay, probably natural, and predictably covered by yet more rubble fallen from the walls of the building. Following a day of frustration in meetings Will spent a couple of hours in the evening working on the northern, uphill wall of the building, which is now visible for a few courses in height - one big tumbled boulder to move and we should see the junction of the two walls and perhaps some evidence for roof posts by the end of Friday.

Finally, it was good to receive a visit from Andre Berry, who devised the initial clearance and survey scheme under the former Clwyd Archaeology Service in the early 1990s and is now a successful conservation consultant. He was particularly taken by the massive enclosure wall in Caroline's Trench F and as is often the case with a fresh pair of eyes, had a different take on the sequence of events we'd arrived at for the many and varied tips of limestone. This has planted a niggling seed of doubt in our heads and edged our rubble addled colleague closer to the brink of madness. We'll go into details of what Andre suggested tomorrow once Caroline has had another look at one of her old sections.

Will Davies, Cadw

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Thursday 19th June 2015

Last year we hosted an extremely successful day’s outing to Hen Caerwys for local primary school children. So successful in fact that it was inevitable that we should do the same this year. Arriving about 10.00 am, it took the school minibus two trips to bring all the children to site, some newcomers to Hen Caerwys, others who were in last year’s party. Did the latter remember the site, or the excavation staff? No, it emerged that what they recalled best was CPAT staff member, Menna, and more precisely Menna’s sheepdog Merlin. Unfortunately, Menna (and perhaps Merlin too) has other duties at present and is working elsewhere in the north-east, but my dog, Georgy, proved an adequate substitute (I hope) and on occasions received rather more attention than me.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

Will addresses the crowd at Trench E

The event started off with a talk by Caroline that included important health and safety issues. Then it was off to look at the various excavations, starting with Caroline’s own trench, then on to Will’s house site, where Will himself talked about the excavation (see photo), and finally to the ‘pit’. Next came the most important part of the day – lunch – and this was followed by a question and answer session where I was asked about my most important and valuable finds over the years, and also had to admit that this is probably my last dig before I retire. Finally, another highlight, doing some digging. We had laid out seven trial pits, about one metre square, within the enclosure where two years ago we partially excavated a post-medieval cottage, these being designed to see whether the sparse Roman pottery that we found on the site of the cottage could be located elsewhere. Groups of four were allocated a trial pit and instructed by Ian on how to trowel. At the end of an hour or so, only one group had found a sherd of pottery and this was probably 18th-century. Nevertheless everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and it was great to see the youngsters’ enthusiasm for the past.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st June 2015

Our past experience at Hen Caerwys suggests that our community diggers rarely turn out at weekends – too many domestic chores perhaps – and this year has been no exception. Graham came out yesterday morning and Irene all of today, but the weather yesterday was pretty atrocious and certainly restricted what we were able to do. With Caroline away in Cardiff for most of the weekend, work has concentrated on Will’s platform house and on the pit.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

Will in Trench E, with limestone scarp to rear

First the platform house in Trench E. Here Will has been worrying away at the end wall, attempting to make sense of what we can see, both natural and man-made. And we’re almost there. It is now very clear that the house was built at an angle to the limestone rock that formed the natural scarp against which it was set, and this may just about be evident from the accompanying photo. As a consequence the north-east corner of the house has utilised the natural rock to provide a foundation and the lower walling – deliberate or unintentional improvisation? – while further along the wall is much more obvious, diverging from the limestone face, and stony silt has filled the gap between the two. We tend to the view that this was done deliberately but can’t entirely rule out the possibility that this material may have eroded into the gap.

With the pit, it has been largely a question of recording what has been exposed. The flagstone-capped ‘channel’ that was partially cleaned out last year needs to have its exposed sections drawn after some preparatory trowelling and on the surface we have cleaned an area running off from the exposed flagstones to ensure that we have recognised the full length of the channel. Once this work has been completed we’ll be able to start clearing some of the stonework of the pit itself, but only in limited fashion because we haven’t got the resources (nor permission) to do a major job of exposing it.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Monday 22nd June 2015

Fine weather and a good turnout of local volunteers and students from the University of Chester combined to turn this into a successful day’s digging. Caroline’s team have continued to remove limestone rubble from between the wall faces and material that had collapsed behind the inner face. What was unexpected, however, was when a start was made on stripping off the remaining layer of rubble that had accumulated above the natural bedrock: several blocks in line suggested the possibility of a feature, seemingly earlier than the enclosure bank. Sadly the majority of this lies beyond the edge of the trench so it appears unlikely that we’ll be able to interpret this surprise.

Uncovering the building in Will’s trench is progressing steadily. The external face of the east wall has now been exposed, and in doing this a limited number of artefacts have come to light, presumably indicating where rubbish was discarded outside the house. Included was a fair amount of bone, a couple of metal objects and fragments of what appears to be a convex stone disk, yet not a single sherd of pottery. A comparable trench on the west side of the building has been rather less successful in tracing the wall face. And finally a start has been made in clearing the southern end of the house to ensure that we can determine the precise dimensions of the building.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

Clearing the rubble around the edge of the pit

Finally we have completed our recording of the channel partially excavated last year where it leads into the pit. Now we can start examining one or two of the places which might assist in the interpretation of this curious feature; already the removal by two of the Chester students of some of the rubble around the edge of the pit adjacent to where the channel enters the pit indicates that one of the wall stubs that effectively create the entrance to the pit does as we have suspected continue behind the rubble. It can just be seen, immediately to the right of the yellow bucket in the accompanying photo (right).

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Wednesday 24th June 2015

Having had a day off yesterday (and hence no diary entry), I got back to the site to discover that reasonable progress had been made in all our trenches, and today’s good weather has further helped us to push on.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

A well-manned Trench E

The house on its platform being excavated by Will in Trench E is taking shape. Much of the long east wall has now been exposed (on the left side of the photo) and some of the opposite west wall, though this seems to have survived rather less well. The end wall on the south is also beginning to show, though this is difficult to make out on the photo. And now as can be seen we’re beginning to clean up the interior after the twelve months’ of hibernation under the black sheeting. Finds, however, are still sparse, apart from a reasonable quantity of bone from just outside the west wall.

In Caroline’s trench (F), the several blocks of limestone in line mentioned in the entry for 22 June have convinced everyone that a building or structure is present, even though only a small part of it lies within the trench. In addition there is a spread of small limestone, rather like cobbles but more angular, and also a square-cut post-hole or perhaps even a linear gully excavated in the limestone. There are no finds from these but as a group of features they are probably the earliest in this trench, and potentially must be prehistoric.

Finally to the pit, where removal of the rubble lying against the wall that runs around its rim uncovered a second, outer, wall, quite well made with a compact fill of rubble between the two. We have also concluded that the capstoned channel does terminate but a linear spread of rubble beyond it which we had thought might be an extension is in fact an old quarry that has been filled with large chunks of limestone, one of which took three people to move. It looks then as though a quarry was dug and then soon after filled in and the only obvious explanation is that those who constructed the pit needed to stabilise the approach to the pit.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Thursday 25th June 2015

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

The fire-reddened stone in the 'pit'

With both Caroline and Ian away today, our efforts have focussed largely on Will’s house site where, apart from the distraction of BBC Wales interviewing Will for a radio programme on science in archaeology, the few community volunteers concentrated on cleaning the inside of the building. But is it actually a house? We have been assuming that this was the correct interpretation for a couple of years now, but the thin ‘activity’ layer in the interior, the absence of even occasional finds – only animal bone is being recovered – and the rough natural surface make us wonder whether we might be digging a byre rather than a house. Some digging and a great deal of recording remains to be done in the last couple of days.

In the pit, recording has been underway today, made easier by the absence of excavators. But there has been one surprise. Yesterday a small amount of the internal walling around the pit was rapidly cleared in order to confirm the conical shape of the structure. What went unnoticed was the presence of several wall stones at the base of the clearance, which appear to show heat discolouration, faintly visible on the accompanying photo, immediately to the right of the black-and-white scale. This would not be appropriate to an interpretation as an ice-house, but might favour the owner, Mike Owens’ view that this was a large kiln perhaps for drying grain. Work will continue here tomorrow.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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Friday 26th and Saturday 27th June 2015

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

The pit - 1.5m deep and counting...

The last two days have been extremely hectic, particularly in and around the pit. Less so in Will and Caroline’s trenches where almost all of the time has been spent in taking record photographs, and in planning and section-drawing, while in the cottage enclosure lying to the east of Caroline’s trench, the various test pits that were started by the school children from Caerwys primary school were completely excavated and then recorded.

And so to the pit. It was never going to be possible to empty the pit in its entirety and indeed we didn’t have permission from Cadw to do so. Instead we opted to take a segment down opposite the entrance and the ‘channel’ beneath it. Sterling efforts by two University of Chester students, Dan and Matt, with assistance from Graham from the local community exposed the conical inner wall of the pit to a depth in excess of 1.5m (see photo left). We didn’t reach the bottom of the pit – we never expected to – but did encounter a curious silty layer low down which has yet to be explained. The ‘channel’ was largely cleared, much of it by Mike the owner of the site, who had played around here as a boy; the result was several find trays filled with rubbish (pottery, tins, glass bottles etc) dumped here in the first part of the twentieth century. Below this rubbish, silty material had accumulated in the base of the ‘channel’ as it dipped downwards; this had very little in it but we were able to show that there had been a hole in the walling of the pit which linked the ‘channel’ to the pit’s interior (our photo below shows Ian at work clearing out some of this lower material, a torch beam lighting up some of the stonework beneath the capstones). The link may assist us in developing a satisfactory and full explanation for the pit in due course, but as anyone who has visited the site during our fortnight here will be able to confirm, we are still enthusiastically discussing how and why these features functioned. What we can say is that all of our visitors who have seen the pit and have been impressed by its form and construction and how much has been exposed.

CPAT photo, Hen Caerwys, 2015

Ian cleaning out the channel in the pit

We have had an extremely successful two weeks on site. As usual we have not answered all the questions that had been posed at the beginning and there can be no doubt that new questions have arisen. But as far as we can tell all who have worked on the site – local volunteers from the community, University of Chester students, and the supervisors who have overseen the work – have enjoyed themselves as have all or visitors. It is a fitting end to our project which has run over several years.

Bob Silvester, CPAT

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