We’re busy Peeling Back The Layers!

Paperwork! One of the teachers getting to grips with it!
Paperwork! One of the teachers getting to grips with it!

What a busy week we’ve had as we started work in earnest on Peeling Back The Layers at Under Whitle near the village of Sheen in northeast Staffordshire. If you are new to our site, we are part of a community archaeology project which is exploring the history and archaeology of a small farm, and the link will lead you to the project’s background.

Monday and Tuesday saw us getting volunteers and teachers together to introduce them to the archaeological process, both as how the project has developed and the stages of excavation. This involved us trying to get to grips with tricky terms such as stratigraphy, and how archaeologists make sense of what to many may look like a simple hole in the ground with a lot of dirt around the place! So, we spent the first couple of days using a mixture of presentations and hands-on practice at some of the skills we use, and were going to be passing on to the children who were visiting.

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What a trench looks like before all the turf has been removed. This one runs over an earthwork.

As this was also the beginning of the excavation phase we introduced them to one of the toughest and, for most of the participants, most demanding aspect of fieldwork – de-turfing by hand. Now many of you will have seen programmes such as Time Team, where a mechanical excavator comes along and strips off large amounts of grass, soil etc. Due to restrictions in place to protect this landscape, we have to minimise the impact of the excavation and this includes compacting the earth and restoration of the meadow when we have finished. Removing the turf by hand improves our chances of keeping the turf we take off and re-using when we have finished. So, a tough time was had by many as we used spades and muscle-power to lift the turf! By Tuesday afternoon we had Trench 1, our biggest at 10x5m, de-turfed and ready for the children to help us begin excavating.

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday saw us host the first wave of local schools who are participating in the project, among them were MonyashElton, Hartington, FitzHerbert and Biggin Primary schools. We have a programme for schools that we believe introduces the children to archaeology and meets many items on the National Primary curriculum. Our gallery here shows some of the activities the children and teachers get to have a go at! After de-turfing we’ve trowelled the surface to see what is emerging and then drawn a scale plan. Away from excavating the children have been learning about record-keeping, artefact analysis, reconstructing artefacts and how we find out about the history of Whitle.

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We came across a couple of surprises in Trenches 1 & 2. In Trench 1 there are lots of stones, not so surprising, but some of them have a cobble-like appearance suggesting use in a courtyard or similar. In Trench 2 there were rather more stones which appeared to be set deliberately than we were expecting. However, it is very early days on the excavation front and much more will be forthcoming we hope!

The feedback from all our visitors so far has been fantastic, and once again we’d like to thank all the schools who have visited and helped to make the project a success! We hope you all learned as much as we’ve enjoyed teaching you! Bring on week 2!

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