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Manuden 2014 Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA)

last modified Aug 14, 2014 02:53 PM
ACA's 10th season of field academies was rounded off exemplarily in the Essex village of Manuden with blazing sunshine, Saxon pottery and... a human skeleton!


One of the highlights of the 2013 HEFA season was the first discovery in Essex of significant quantities of Saxon-Norman Thetford ware, which was found in two pits near the church in Manuden. Essex rural settlements tend to produce no material of this date, so ACA's Director, Dr Carenza Lewis, felt that this was a significant discovery. In pursuit of further evidence for the pre-Norman occupation, ACA returned to Manuden in mid-July for the final Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) of 2014 with forty Year 9 and 10 students from The Bishop's Stortford High School, Davenant Foundation School, Hertfordshire & Essex High School and Forest Hall School. Another ten test pits were dug by the students over two days during heatwave conditions, adding to the 18 already excavated in the village in 2013 and 2011. Two of the this year's pits were located at properties on the east bank of the River Stort, another two were on Mallow Greens Road and the remainder were along The Street surrounding the parish church of St Mary the Virgin in the village centre. Fiona Bengsten, chairman of Manuden and Berden Local History Society, offered her barn as a base for the two days of digging and recruited the sites.

Two of the test pits were dug in the garden of a house near the church, on the opposite side from the 2013 pit which unearthed Late Saxon pottery. This year, both test pit 5 and test pit 6 found more sherds of Thetford Ware (850-1100 AD) as well as sherds of St Neots Ware (900-1200 AD), which substantiates the suggestion that there was Late Saxon activity close to the church in Manuden, potentially predating the present church buildings by up to 400 hundred years. The full pottery report produced by Paul Blinkhorn is available to view here, and John Newman, a freelance archaeologist based in Suffolk, helped to identify the pottery and other finds on site.

The Saxo-Norman pottery was however, soon eclipsed by the discovery of not one, but two skeletons in quick succession during the second afternoon. Test pit 7, also on the Street, unearthed a dog burial which probably dates to the mid 20th century. Jessica Rippengal, a faunal remains specialist, identified it as a labrador, and it still had a leather collar and metal chain attached.

It was during the last half an hour of digging - in true Time Team fashion - that the most exciting discovery of the Manuden HEFA, and possibly one of the most intriguing in ACA's 10 years, was made. One of the two test pits which had found the Late Saxon pottery earlier also came across the lower torso and pelvis of a human skeleton, laid to rest on their back and orientated east-west with the arms crossed at the pelvis (shown right). Cat Ranson, ACA's archaeological supervisor and a specialist in human osteology and burial, believes that the skeleton is male and about 6ft tall. The burial is ancient and the presence of Late Saxon and Medieval pottery in the test pit hints that it may be from some point in this time frame, but no affirmative dating evidence was found. As much of the skeleton was exposed as the limits of time and the pit dimensions allowed in order to establish this preliminary information, but was then reburied as an exhumation licence is required from the government to remove human remains.

Notable amongst the finds from the other test pits was a coin from 1739, the reign of George II, and a Post-Medieval decorated bone handle or needle case. The test pit excavations and the exciting discovery of the human skeleton was covered by the Herts & Essex Observer, which you can read here.

Following the two days of digging test pits in Manuden, the students spent a day at the University of Cambridge to analyse the excvation results and experience life and learning at a top-level university. Many thanks to Dr Sue Oosthuizen who stepped in to deliver the taster lecture on medieval rural settlements and the results session. Emmanuel, Newnham, Robinson and Selwyn Colleges hosted the school groups at lunchtime and Ellen Slack, Schools Liaison Officer for Selwyn College delivered an inspiring talk about applications to university and the admissions process. One of the students said in their feedback afterwards: "I think I have a better idea of what I would like to do in the future, and I gained valuable skills from the dig" (EC). Overall,  97% of respondents rated the Manuden HEFA as 'excellent' or 'good'. One of the students who worked on the test pit which found the human skeleton said ""thank you, this is an experience I will never forget!!!" (OH). The field academy was also very highly rated by the school staff who accompanied the students with one member praising the course for being "very well organised and great commitment from Cambridge staff" (DL).

Access Cambridge Archaeology ran 13 HEFAs attended by 529 secondary school students in the summer of 2014. A summary of the achievements of this 10th anniverary field season will be posted soon, and plans are already underway for 2015! If you would be interested in involving your school in a field academy, please contact the HEFA team administrator for further details.


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