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We’ve started to peel back the layers!

Those of you you who regularly follow us will know that we are involved in a community archaeology project called Peeling Back The Layers. The project focuses on the history, and now archaeology, of a small farm on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border in the upper Dove valley. Peeling Back the Layers is a hands-on educational project, run by the Tudor Farming Interpretation Group (TFIG).  TFIG are diverse group of people who are investigating the history and archaeology of a ‘farm’ known historically as Whitle, the parish of Sheen and the surrounding landscape.  They have been joined and supported by both groups and individuals including the Heritage Lottery Fund, primary and secondary schools, young archaeologists, local history enthusiasts and mental health groups in this fascinating exploration of local heritage.


Whitle Bank, or ‘Cellarfield’ as it has become known, presented a problem or two when it came to surveying it.

Over the past couple of weeks we have been busy working with the TFIG as Catherine is managing the project for the group, and I have been carrying out a survey of one of the fields. The survey I was doing, with the help of a host of volunteers was a ‘tape and offset’. This is a really ‘lo-tech’ approach to producing a scaled plan of archaeological features and involves nothing more than tape measures, paper, pencils and a knowledge of Pythagoras! Sounds straightforward enough – until you consider that the field we were to survey had a bit of a slope to it! As you can see in the image here, the slope was quite pronounced, and the idea is that the plan should be a ‘bird’s-eye’ view of the site. We overcame this by establishing a grid over the area to be surveyed which allowed us to create a number of ‘steps’ or terraces down the slope producing a level plan. The basis of the grid was our baseline, from which we could run tape measures at right angles using Pythagoras’ theorem, you know the one – a²+b²=c² – to make sure all the squares that formed the grid were indeed right-angled! Only once we had done this could we move on to survey the features.


Some of the project volunteers measuring features at the top of the slope!

This is done by measuring the distance from a point on a feature, such as the corner of a wall, to the tape. In effect, you get an easting and northing data point, much the same as when you use a map reference. These data points are then transferred to a scaled plan of the area being surveyed. In this case we were drawing the survey covered an area 65m x 85m and so we will be drawing it at a scale of 1:200. Initially this is done with pencil and a drawing film called permatrace, once this is completed to our satisfaction the n an inked copy is produced. This will be given to the TFIG and will later be archived in the county records.

Over in the next field, the folks of Trent & Peak Archaeology were carrying out geophysical surveys – first magnetometry and later resistivity. Both of these methods are non-intrusive means of assessing what may be in the ground. Taking these in turn – magnetometry measures subtle variations in the magnetic field in the area surveyed. Changes in this local magnetic field can occur as the result of human activity, such as burning. So, this is an ideal method for picking up traces of a hearth for example. Resistivity measures the resistance to an electrical current passed between a minimum of two probes. A ditch or a pit will produce low resistance and the disturbed ground is likely to hold more moisture, while a feature such as a wall will produce high resistance.

Over the course of the week we were visited by a number of groups, including Peak Young Archaeologist Club and children from St Thomas More and Buxton Community School. They were able to take part in the surveys and got the chance to see Pythagoras in action!

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So, the week saw a lot activity on the site and we capped it off with an open day. We were pleased to see a lot of visitors, including the new chief executive of the Peak District National Park, Sarah Fowler. The feedback was really positive and we all enjoyed a glass or two at the end!

This is not the end of the project however – we are now planning the excavations that will take place between 20th June-9th July. We’ll keep you posted with news as we get closer to the big event.


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