Archaeology at Wallingford: a view and thanks from Leicester
By Neil Christie
(School of Archaeology & Ancient History, University of Leicester)
As Director of the recent (but still functioning!) Wallingford Burh to Borough Research Project it is a pleasure to offer a short overview of our work and its results and to comment on the collaboration that made our Project function so well.
Hopefully a good many readers will have come to visit our excavations or seen the survey work that we undertook inside and around the town across 2008-10: our Project involved normally Easter-period geophysical survey, mapping, using probes, potential archaeology buried beneath the soil in Wallingford’s many open spaces, such as the Bullcroft, Kinecroft and Castle Meadows; this work then guided summer fieldwork which involved two or three large open excavations to explore houses, castle spaces and other features. The summer digs were large scale affairs and involved University and professional archaeologists, plus novice and more experienced undergraduate students, who all thoroughly enjoyed the chance to dig in such an historic urban centre. Crucially, all our work was co-ordinated with Wallingford Museum and TWHAS (The Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Society): as well as providing contacts, storage space, tea and support, TWHAS members, ably organised by team leaders like Judy Dewey and Gerard Latham, were full members of our surveys and excavations, enabling us to cover so much more ground than if we relied purely on our own University resources. Indeed, Gerard’s geophysical team became a legend in coping with the steep slopes, banks and deep ditches of the castle! TWHAS were also core to washing pottery and bones, logging and labelling finds, and sieving soil into the wee hours! Students and TWHAS volunteers indeed formed formidable forces and as well as digging and laying our survey grids, all participated in chatting to locals and visitors, informing them of the work and finds. We made sure also that there were handouts, tours, open days, and TWHAS and Stuart Darby in particular helped organise a full morning’s outside broadcast by BBC Radio Oxford visiting all our trenches in the first year, BBC Oxford coverage, local news and more besides! We had hoped for bigger, national coverage, but despite filming in Easter 2010 for ‘Digging for Britain’ at the castle site and in St John’s School (where we did some excavations to help celebrate the school’s centenary and were more than welcomed by children and teachers alike!), we never made the show – their loss!
There’s no space to describe all the sites we investigated and the finds we made – to get a flavour, visit our website to see pictures and posters related to the trenches – but there were some special highlights to note: opening the first big trenches in the town and being visited by so many eager folk; discovering previously unknown medieval timber housing in the Kinecroft; an early-20th-century rubbish deposit featuring glass bottles (empty!), a shoe and a US lipstick holder stating ‘Kissproof’ (who knows what sort of party that was!); uncovering the enigmatic curving stone wall in Queen’s Arbour by the Thames; finding medieval glazed tiles belonging to the lost priory in the Bullcroft area; exploring the underside of the stunning Wallingford bridge and tracing remnant medieval features; doing the dig diaries for the web with student and volunteer input; seeing school kids engage and hunt for finds on the spoilheap; and, of course, finding individual, special pieces like the Viking sword-guard and the 11th- or 12th-century belt-end with its picture of three beasts!
Much was achieved and many questions were answered: we gained a fuller image of the town’s layout and evolution; we obtained a fantastic insight through geophysics, radar and excavation of the buried castle; we found good evidence regarding the town’s medieval decline; and we showed how well a collaborative, community-based project works! But we knew we could not answer everything – our excavations were many, but not substantial – and lots remain still to be discovered, especially for the late Saxon town, for the priory, and for the castle’s innards. A good excuse to come back!
Finally, it is important to stress that our work and that of TWHAS proceeds apace. The Project directors are engaged in writing up all the results and synthesising other research for a substantial monograph that will be published in late 2012 by the Society for Medieval Archaeology; en route we have busily published interim reports in various regional and national journals (such as Oxoniensia and Medieval Archaeology) and in conference proceedings (such as one centred on medieval bridges in Europe); and maintained an active and informative website, which, we hope, people have benefitted from: http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/archaeology/research/projects/wallingford And TWHAS, with input from our team, have continued the exciting ‘Garden Archaeology’ programme, of using test-pits to explore private garden spaces across the townscape, kindly offered to the Society by enthusiastic locals. Test Pit 50 was scheduled for early December – our end target is 100, so, if keen to help and participate, go sign up at the Museum soon! You never know, your garden might produce the next piece in the jigsaw of Wallingford’s exciting historical past!
Thanks again to all and see you again soon, I hope!