Thirty-three test pits were excavated in Ashwell over just one day in 2011, a remarkable achievement by mostly local residents who were participating as part of a programme of community excavations supervised by ACA. These were part of the ‘On Landguard Point’ project, funded by the Arts Council as part of the ‘Artists Taking the Lead’ element of the Cultural Olympiad accompanying the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Rather unexpectedly, the 2011 excavations at Ashwell produced only small amounts of pottery of Roman from this site which was thought likely to produce more. Just four pits (ASH/11/21; 24; 27 and 30) produced a total of six sherds, none of which came from pits in the centre of the present village. Even more unexpected was a dearth of finds of 9th – 11th AD century date, as Domesday Book records three entries for Ashwell, the largest of which included fourteen burgesses. The presence of burgesses would indicate a settlement of some size and importance which would normally be defined as a town. The holding was assessed at 6 hides and its valuation at £22 during the reign of Edward the Confessor (before the Norman Conquest), and only slightly lower at £20 in 1086, suggests it was then a thriving, bustling settlement. However, in the excavations, the only find of Anglo-Saxon date was a single sherd of hand-made pottery of mid 5th to late 7th century AD date. Not a single sherd dating to the 9th – 11th centuries AD was found in any of the excavated pits. Further excavation is clearly needed at Ashwell to establish whether the Anglo-Saxon settlement was in fact present underneath the existing village, or if it is indeed simply not present in this area.
More certainty was encountered in the high medieval period, as seventeen of the pits produced pottery of this date. These indicated that occupation was widespread throughout the area of the present settlement. The absence of pottery of this date from several pits nearer the church may be explained by the depth of later deposits encountered, which may have prevented earlier levels being reached. It is possible, therefore, that the apparent absence of late Anglo-Saxon material may also be explained in this way: the earlier deposits were simply not reached during the excavations.
There is evidence for a considerable degree of contraction of activity in the later medieval period, as many fewer pits (just ten) produced ceramic material of this date, and these mostly produced only small numbers/weights of sherds. Overall, the percentage of pits producing 2 or more sherds drops from nearly 40% to just over 10%. This seems to bear out the evidence from the church grafitti, which refers to the severity of the impact of the plagues of the 14th century on the community. The south and west fringes of the settlement seem to be particularly affected by this contraction.