Why The Rain Didn’t Drown My Summer

It’s almost a month since we finished the Studmarsh dig. I can honestly say that it was one of the best Summers of my life.  Coming back down to earth has been incredibly hard, hence a bad dose of Blogger’s Block.

We are meeting tomorrow at Whitbourne, near Bromyard, to discuss the findings of the dig and the next phase of the Past in Mind project.  This has really made me realise that I can’t put off writing any longer. I want to capture the Studmarsh Summer before it becomes obscured by Autumn mist. 

Weather-wise we faced many endurance tests throughout August.  Twice we had to abandon the site altogether because of thunderstorms and torrential rain.  It was the kind of penetrating rain that seems to make your insides wet.  But at least it showed me that “Blog from the Bog” is an apt name.  The Studmarsh site is literally a bog – and its watery underside is one reason why it was favoured by our ancestors.  We did have some days where the sun shone for us so that we could dry out before the next downpour.  These days were golden nuggets.

As time went on the daily trek to reach the site became more enjoyable.  I can’t say that for the trek back at the end of the day.  The track was uphill on the way back, and we all felt it.  But I think everyone became very attached to the field which saw most trowel activity.  It was flanked by a herd of benign cows and a seriously macho bull.  They watched us go past twice a day and even escorted us to the gate on one occasion.  (Being seen off the premises by a herd of cows is where I draw the line regarding new challenges).

In the Studmarsh field there is a huge oak tree which became our lunchtime focal point and often served as an impromptu shelter.  The oak tree (informally known as Doug) must have seen so much.  When we had a site visit from the Herefordshire Parklands project manager, Lewis Goldwater, it became clear just how ancient the oak tree is.  It has never been recorded until now, and is thought to be around 450 years old.   http://www.ancient-tree-hunt.org.uk/recording/tree?tree=WRbknGHzCkKsr7L%2bjicHpw 

One of the aspects of the dig which I enjoyed most was the time spent with archaeologists and fellow volunteers.  I loved the mix of banter and informative conversation.  Right from the start there was so much to learn.  Sieving and trowelling were just the start… The site archaeologists, Chris and Dai, are both talented teachers although they might not realise it.  I never thought that I’d be asked to taste and smell mud and soil to identify them – yet by using taste and smell you really can identify some of their properties.  Sometimes I found it difficult to tell the difference between silted rock and earthenware, and at first I was having many pseudo “Eureka” moments.  But I was taught how to feel the difference between them and this helped me to home in on a couple of finds.

This hands-on approach quadrupled my self-esteem.  I thought my lack of sight would be an impediment in archaeology, but we found a way round everything except how to code the colour of soil on the Munsell chart.  Even this obstacle could be overcome with the help of technology – a University Lecturer who visited the site, is on the case!

The trench that most of the volunteers worked in revealed part of a Medieval building which probably belonged to a local official.  The size of the stone, as well as the dimensions of the “rooms”, indicate considerable wealth.

At the time of the dig the theory was that the Studmarsh site had been abandoned in the 14th century.  The Black Death, political unrest and local famine would all have played their part.  As we slowly uncovered the huge stones until we reached bed rock, I felt a real sense of sadness for the people who had first placed those stones and lived in the Studmarsh field.  No matter how many centuries have gone by, when you’re removing layers of someone’s home it still feels intrusive.  That’s why I was so pleased to take part in the backfilling work at the end of the dig.  It felt like a mark of respect to place the stones back in the earth where we had found them.

Entwined in the long grass of Studmarsh there is undoubtedly personal tragedy.  This had a very profound effect on me at the time and it has not left me completely.  Having said that, this huge boggy field with the Pedunculate oak tree is one of the most peaceful places I have visited.

Many volunteers who participated in the dig are recovering from mental health troubles.  It was so refreshing to take part in a challenging physical activity with no hint of Day Care about it.  Although every part of me ached,  I felt proud of my exhaustion at the end of each day because I had earned it.  Being outdoors with a very eclectic group was so beneficial, and I relished the fact that community spirit brought everyone together no matter what their background.    It was invigorating having such a specific focus – i.e. discovering the secrets of Studmarsh.  At the point of slicing your trowel into the earth and loosening a piece of pottery there is little room for mental distress.  That has got to be worth savouring.

The Studmarsh dig has given me an archaeological bug which is not likely to diminish.  Now I know how much clout depends on the size of an archaeologist’s trowel I hope I’ll get the chance to volunteer at least once a year. 

Thank you to archaeologists Ian Bapty, Dai Williams and Chris Atkinson for giving us volunteers a Summer which the rain didn’t drown.

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The Notice Board: General Information

Past in Mind Archaeological Excavation Project (Monday August 13th to Sunday August 26th, Public visit days August 27th/28th, Backfilling August 29th– 30th)

 

General Briefing Information

Introducing the Past in Mind Project

Past in Mind is a Heritage Lottery ‘Your Heritage’ funded project run by the mental health charity Herefordshire Mind, and is an innovative heritage, community learning and mental health support project. It is running from June 2012 to June 2013, and is undertaking an exciting new historical and archaeological investigation of the lost settlement at the Studmarsh/Grove (located on the National Trust’s Brockhampton Estate, Herefordshire).

The project is being undertaken by volunteers including people recovering from mental health problems. With professional support and training, volunteer opportunities will include historical research, archaeological survey and ‘digging’, finds and results analysis and the development of displays and other information resources.

The Grove archaeological investigation

The Studmarsh/Grove site today consists of enigmatic patterns of ‘humps and bumps’ spread across a grazed field. Although the site – first recognised on aerial photographs in the 1970s – would generally be described as a ‘DesertedMedievalVillage’ (or ‘DMV’ for short) the truth is we don’t know what is really represented by these remains.  Questions such as what the settlement looked like, when and how it began, how big it is, what life was like there, how it changed through the centuries, why it declined, and how it relates to the origins of local life today, all remain to be answered.

These questions are particularly interesting because the Studmarsh/Grove is just one of hundreds of similar sites across Herefordshire and the West Midlands. This vast lost story of rural life stretching back over hundreds of years has been little investigated, and the Studmarsh/Grove investigation will also shed important new light on the archaeological potential and importance of many similar sites.

The archaeological excavation (August 13th to August 26th)

The aim of the excavation is dig into some of the platforms, ditches, banks and other features which make up the site (which we previously mapped during the survey work in July), and to try and find out what lies beneath these features. Although archaeology often produces the unexpected, we are fairly confident we will find building remains, and finds such as old pottery. We hope this information will link with the ongoing historical research to reveal something both of the lost story of Studmarsh/The Grove through time, and allow a direct glimpse of the lives of the people who once lived there.  However, excavation does not produce instant answers, and the real objective of the two week digging project is to produce a detailed record of everything we find supported by plans, drawings and photographs. At the next ‘post excavation’ stage all this information will then be subject to further analysis to being to understand what we have really found.

What is involved

We will be begin by digging a series of small square test pits across the site to establish the nature of the archaeological remains in different places, and the potential for further excavation. We will then expand two of those text pit excavations into larger trenches to more fully explore the remains in those areas. These larger excavations will involve careful investigation of the buried layers and features such as stone walls, pits, postholes etc which we may find.

Although there will be a degree of physical work in all of this – removing turf, using tools such as mattocks, spades, wheelbarrows and trowels to gradually uncover buried features – there is much more to excavation than that. Producing section drawings and plans at each stage of the process, keeping written records, cleaning and recording finds, and taking photographs are all essential parts of the process, so there will be plenty to get involved with, and you don’t need to be an Olympic endurance athlete to take part!

Dai Williams and Chris Atkinson from Herefordshire Archaeology will be on hand to give all the necessary support and training, and no prior experience is required.

Public Visit Days Monday August 27th and Tuesday August 28th

Working with the National Trust, we are very keen that the results of the work are made publicly available. The excavation will therefore be open for public visits over the August Bank Holiday Monday (August 27th)  and Tuesday August 26th. The visit process is being coordinated with the help of the National Trust, and will include the option for visitors to join morning and afternoon guided tours or to drop into the site as and when during those days.

We very much hope that at least some of the volunteer team who have been involved in the excavation project will be available on those days to help explain the discoveries we have made to the visitors, and this is another opportunity to get involved in the project.

Backfilling and ground restoration August 29th and August 30th

The final stage of the excavation is to restore the holes we have dug. This is important because we have only been given permission to dig via the National Trust and the farmer on strict condition that we properly reinstate the excavated areas. Moreover,  it is crucial for the long term future of the remaining archaeological deposits that the ground is maintained in good condition.

Essentially backfilling will involve replacing the soil we have removed back into the excavation trenches, ensuring that the ground profile of the ‘humps and bumps’ we have dug into is restored during this process, and then that the turf is carefully replaced so that the grass will rapidly re-grow and recover. The aim is to make sure the site will soon look as if we had never been there.

Obviously, the ground restoration will involve physical work and might not sound terribly glamorous. However, it is an important part of the project, and we would very much welcome volunteer help with this final stage of the excavation.

(Prepared by Ian Bapty)

Making Our Mark

On Thursday (July 19th) we convened  at the Museum and Resource centre in Friars Street, Hereford.  Our task was to draw up the archaeological plan of the Lower Brockhampton site survey.  Everyone involved with the site survey was still talking about the rain, which the sky had tipped out almost every day for ten days.

Before we set to work we were given a lightning tour of the museum stores.  The entire building is temperature-controlled to preserve the artefacts, but the store-room itself is engineering genius.  The containers were massive and stacked on runners which ran the length of the floor.  There was every conceivable artefact including bones, manuscripts, ceramics and tools.  I was drawn to a huge iron key which belonged to the old Hereford gaol, and some medieval dice that bear no resemblance to the little plastic cubes used in today’s board games.   

 I didn’t take Trudy down the corridoor that housed all the bone archives, just in case her snout got the better of her.  Having never ventured into the bowels of a museum archives store-room before, I was engrossed.    Not for the first time, many people in the group were stirred by the incredible sense of history around us.    

Once back in our study room it was time to do some work.  Chris, one of the archaeologists, displayed limitless patience throughout the day as he proceeded to teach everyone the techniques of drawing an archaeological map.  I sat back and enjoyed taking in the industrious atmosphere.  Collective concentration hovered over the room like a powerful orb.  Trudy lay beside me eyeing up the chocolate Digestives which had found their way onto the table.

The reason why we need to draw an archaeological map is partly for our own benefit.  When we start the excavation in August, this map will show the physical layout of the site and it will help to determine where to dig the trenches.  But it is also greatly important for posterity.  We have to produce a Master copy which will be the official document for this particular excavation, and will be permanently preserved in local records.

That sense of “making history” caused great excitement and a general feeling of pride.  Even those who had found drawing the practise maps a little daunting came to life when Chris displayed the Master copy and told us that everyone was going to make a contribution to this.  One of our long-standing project volunteers, Mark, was first to add to the Master copy map.  By this point everyone was in really good spirits and there was a great deal of support for each other.  

Having ruled myself out of all map-related matters I was very moved when the group encouraged me to make my own mark on the Master copy   I was terrified at the thought of making a mistake and ruining it!  I wonder if this is how novice monks felt when they were presented with their first manuscript to copy?  I’m pleased to say that under Chris’ direction my North arrow on the map (completed by fellow volunteer Margaret), did not ruin the document.  (No thanks to Trudy, who  chose that exact moment to get up and have a long, Labrador stretch.   Her lead was wrapped round my wrist!) 

Everyone in the group “made their mark” yesterday.  The Master copy of the archaeological map for the Lower Brockhampton site will be a true team effort when it is completed.  I know my self-esteem quadrupled and I could sense other people feeling very upbeat as they left for home at the end of the workshop.       

Our next public event is on Saturday July 28th at the Falcon Hotel in Bromyard (Please refer to the Dates and Events page for further details).  The theme is “What do we know so far?”   Please bring your friends and family along as it promises to be a really great day.  Anybody requiring transport or further information please contact Jenny McMillan by July 25th: Jenny.McMillan@herefordshire-mind.org.uk

 

 

 

The Beginning

English: Bromyard from Bromyard Downs: Looking...

English: Bromyard from Bromyard Downs: Looking westwards from Bromyard Downs provides a view of the whole town. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you were asked to depict a historian, what would you say? If you were asked to depict an archaeologist, what springs to mind? If you were asked to depict a person with bipolar disorder, would you have an image in your head?

Humans are very good at stereotyping. We like people to fit into neat boxes and categories. When someone doesn’t quite fit into any box or category, it often causes discomfort – even annoyance.

A Past in Mind is a community project which has an inclusive approach. Accepting that some volunteers may be experiencing mental health problems has meant that everyone is tolerant of others in the group. There is no “them and us” theme. We’re a group of people interested in history and archaeology.

We had our volunteer Taster Day two weeks ago. The sun was shining and this made the general mood even more exuberant. I must confess that I did not know what to expect. I knew that we were going to be given a general introduction to studying historical records, but that was it.

We virtually hijacked the archives research room in the Bromyard Records Office. It’s a room that is not accustomed to general chatter, and at first the creaky floorboards seemed disgruntled at our noisy intrusion. After a while though, I felt the building relax enough to give us its blessing. After all, the disruption was academically inclined.

At the beginning of this post I mentioned stereotypes. I quickly realised that no one in the group could be summed up or categorised. This was brilliant! One volunteer possessed incredible knowledge about eider ducks (hence the header picture – as the eider duck was integral to our brainstorming session). Others volunteered historical facts and dates, general knowledge and local history expertise. It was clear that each person in the room had something to contribute, and the mix of skills and knowledge created such a fusion of brain-sparks that I literally felt my head buzzing. Speaking more generally, it is important not to have preconceived boxes ready to house this project’s discoveries. An open mind is key to our success.

By the end of the two hours the group was united in its passion for discovery. Our starting point had been one man, a Yeoman who owned land in the area and had made a Will in 1674. From this single Will, we could glean information about what type of person he was, what he may have been through during his lifetime and how it may relate to the events occurring in Britain at the time.

In effect, history became real and touchingly human. I felt that I’d become intrinsically connected with the local area and the people who once tilled its soil. Our Yeoman was no longer just an entry in local records, he was alive in our discussions to the extent that he was almost tangible. I cannot wait to explore further. Not only that, we gelled as a group and this helped us to work together creatively. The feel-good factor was second-to-none. I knew that I would get absolutely no sleep that night – my brain was electric.

This Taster Day was a great beginning for the Past in Mind project. The most gratifying thing was that everyone present was eager to find out more and to continue with the project.

We meet again on Thursday May 31st at the Volunteer Inn, Harold Street, Hereford (4.30/4.45pm). We’ll be visiting the nearby Hereford Records Office to study relevant documents that might help us to understand more about the Brockhampton site. Anyone who is interested in participating in the project is welcome to contact our Project Manager, Jenny McMillan: Jenny.McMillan@herefordshire-mind.org.uk