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Sudbury Community Test Pit Excavations 2014

last modified Oct 06, 2014 04:16 PM
A year in the planning, the 3 day Sudbury 'Big Dig' took place in Suffolk's largest old wool town last weekend involving over 200 school pupils, local residents and volunteers.


Following the popularity of the community test pit excavations run and supervised by Access Cambridge Archaeology (ACA) in other settlements along the Stour Valley; including Bures, Clare, Nayland, Long Melford and Little Waldingfield, residents of Sudbury formed a steering committee to organise a similar event in their town. Last weekend's community test pit excavations were jointly organised by members of The Sudbury Society, Sudbury History Society and Sudbury Museum Trust, with especial credit to David Burnett and Mike Crome for their months of fundraising, promotion and preparation. Peter Rednall was responsible for liaising with local primary and secondary schools overseeing the organisation of excavations with pupils at the Croft. Also on the Big Dig steering committee were Anne Grimshaw, Peter Minter and John Nunn, and financial support for the venture came from the Sudbury Museum Trust, the Sudbury Society, the Sudbury History Society, the Freemen’s Trust, Lord Phillips’ charity and Sudbury Town Council.

Sudbury is first recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and a market was established in 1009 AD. In the 13th century, one of three Dominican priories in Suffolk was founded in the town, at a time when it was an important centre of the Suffolk wool trade. Sudbury is famous for being the home of Archbishop Simon of Sudbury, whose beheaded skull still resides in the church of St Gregory after the Peasants Revolt, as well as the birthplace of Thomas Gainsborough, the 18th century painter.

The focus of Sudbury's community test pit excavations was the historic core in the south of the town, extending across the River Stour into Ballingdon. Thirty-one test pits were sited in private gardens and public spaces on The Croft, Gaol Lane, North Street, Belle Vue Road, Gainsborough Street, Christopher Lane, Friars Street, School Street, Church Street, Cross Street and Ballingdon Street. The aim of the community test pit excavations was to find archaeological evidence for the historic development of the town whilst providing a rewarding, fun and educational experience for members of the public.

On Friday 3rd October 2014, 5 test pits were dug by primary school pupils on The Croft, outside the parish church of St Gregory, one of three medieval churches in the town. Nearly 125 students from Woodhall Community Primary School, Tudor Church of England VC Primary School, St Gregory CEVC Primary School and St Joseph's Roman Catholic Primary School were given the chance to take part. Each Year 6 class from the schools had their own test pit to excavate and they came out in small groups throughout the day. Many thanks to Peter Hart, Stephen Von Dadelszen, Jane Crone, Graham Brundell, Kenneth Dodd, Julie Thomson and Guy Crayford, the volunteers who manned the test pits and helped students get hands-on with the digging, sieving and finds washing. Six GCSE students and staff from Thomas Gainsborough School also joined in, with 3 of the students filming the activities as part of their Media course, and another 3 History students allocated to work on test pits and taking responsibility for the recording.

Test pit 34, to the north-west of the church, not only found several sherds of twelfth century Medieval pottery after digging through a deep layer of rubble, but also one sherd of mid-Saxon Ipswich Ware (720 - 850 AD). No pottery of this date has been found in either Long Melford or Nayland, despite having dug at least 50 test pits in each settlement to date. Two of the five test pits on Friday also found sherds of the distinctive brown and yellow striped Staffordshire Slipware, dating to the late 17th - early 18th century AD.

Lord Philips of Sudbury, who resides at the Croft, made frequent visits to the school test pits on Friday and gathered the students at the end of the day to tell them more about the history of the Croft and to thank them for their part in making new discoveries about the area (shown below). The students had a fantastic time and many of them returned with their families over the weekend to watch these excavations continue.

Other local residents and volunteers had the two days of the weekend to dig another 26 test pits in private gardens, on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th October 2014. The base during the excavations was at Friars Hall on School Street, where volunteers served refreshments and collected in finds. ACA's Director, Dr Carenza Lewis, gave a briefing at the base on Saturday morning and then test pit hosts and volunteers dispersed to their test pit sites to get started. John Newman, a Suffolk-based freelance archaeologist, attended the two days of excavation over the weekend to help identify and date pottery finds, and Stour Valley Community Archaeology lent equipment and their support in the digging.

As forecast, the weather on Saturday took a turn for the worse with a torrential downpour at lunchtime and steady drizzle throughout the afternoon. However, spirits remained high and all but one of the test pits began as planned. The hot tea and coffee served at base was a welcome comfort as people dropped off their finds to dry. On Saturday, a Tudor button was found in the upper contexts of test pit 1 on Christopher Lane, and test pit 5, behind the shop Bazaar, found a rubber elephant toy - coincidentally the emblem of the shop! As if the weather wasn't enough to contend with, test pit 21 also persevered through 10cm of solid concrete across the base of their pit and the brick rubble they found underneath.

Sunday dawned bright and clear and many of the test pits got off to an early start to make up for lost time. It wasn't long before several test pits were well rewarded with finds. On Friars Street, test pit 9 found a piece of painted Medieval window glass and test pit 10 nearby found a probable seventeenth century jeton (shown right) indicating that the area between the market and the priory was very wealthy in the Middle Ages. Test pit 14, near All Saints Church, also found a possible Medieval wall made of flint and mortar. An enormous amount of pottery was recovered from the Sudbury test pits, which will be sent away for analysis once all of the finds are handed in to ACA.

Most of the test pit hosts and volunteers returned to Friars Hall at the end of Sunday to see the finds and hear a summary of the excavations given by Carenza. Due to the weather delays and the depth of the deposits in built-up areas of the town, 8 enthusiastic test pit owners decided that they would continue their excavations after the weekend. Test pit 12, which was only started on Sunday, managed to reach 60cm with just a two man team, and test pit 4 valiantly dug through 110cm of Victorian deposits over the weekend.

In spite of the rain on Saturday, 100% of respondents rated the test pit digging as 'excellent' or 'good' in feedback after the event and 95% said they would recommend the activity to others. One resident said "it's fun, interesting and a great chance to do something with the rest of the community... I can't wait to dig elsewhere!" (JC). Another said she and her husband had "had a wonderful time - really enjoyed it. Will continue with our pit!" (SB). A couple of volunteers from Great Cornard said that they "enjoyed the whole experience as a package - would definitely do again." (PW). Members of the steering committee were delighted with the outcomes of the excavation, with Peter Rednall describing it as "a valuable community building exercise."

You can read articles about the excavations on the East Anglian Daily Times website here and the All About My Area website here.

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