Planning fieldwork…

A couple of years ago I joined a really exciting and enjoyable MOOC – massive open on-line course, about archaeology. because it was on-line we couldn’t actually go out and do any digging, but we learned some of the techniques and skills necessary before you even start digging holes in the ground.

We were given various assignments, and one of them was about planning a survey, and what would need to be considered, where we might in an ideal like to do it etc… this is what I wrote… about our little village of Uphill, of course!

The area I would choose to plan fieldwork is near where I live in Uphill, Somerset. Uphill is so-named, not because it is up-hill (although there is a hill on the south side of the village) but because a local chieftain –or maybe just a man, called Oppa lived here probably in Saxon times, and the local creek or pill belonged to him, hence Oppa’s Pill which became Uphill.

Uphill is situated at the mouth of the River Axe which runs from the depths of Somerset, from Wookey Hole, through Cheddar Gorge along by the Mendip Hills to flow into the sea at Uphill. People have lived in the area from earliest times and there is evidence of this on the low hills overlooking the River Axe and the Pill. The Romans were very active on the Mendip Hills, mining for various metals including cadmium and lead and they may well have brought the metal by boat along the river to Uphill where there will have been larger sea-going vessels to take produce up the coast to the River Severn, where Bristol now is, down the coast to Devon, or across St George’s Channel to Wales where the Roman fort of Carleon was.

I would like to find Oppa’s Pill; I would like to see if there is any evidence that the Romans did use the Pill, to find if there is any evidence of Irish traders as there is another local legend that St Patrick was taken off the hills nearby by pirates from Ireland, and to find any evidence of Anglo-Saxons settlement along the river.

The physical environment along the banks of the Axe is managed pasture and nature reserves and the area has been sympathetically developed as part of the flood defences – this area of the coast has been prey to flooding for millennia (there was a tsunami here in 1607) The land is soft and would be easy to excavate as it was originally low swampy areas which have now been drained (initially since Roman times but latterly in medieval times) for farming and agriculture. The limestone ridge of the Mendip Hills has had some archaeology conducted on it revealing human activity, but I would be more interested in the land around the mouth of the river.

Prior to undertaking any fieldwork it would be important to research any records about the old course of the river, of previous ‘finds’ and even local folk tales can offer some clues as to what activities might have taken place in the past. A BBC programme discovered that a local man had a genetic connection to human remains found in the area dating from the Iron Age so many locals in Somerset often stayed local! I think ‘folk’ history has a part to play in archaeology as long as it is assessed and understood in context.

It might be possible to do a geo-physical survey, and it might be possible to detect a Roman site as Roman planners, engineers and builders would have used stone from the quarry in Uphill to build wharves, warehouses, and other structures. Other settlers would have used organic materials such as wood or local withies (willow) which would not show up in such a survey. However because the area is so relatively small, many of these structures may have been pillaged and robbed out of their worked stone to be used in later buildings, walls, road fill etc

The prevailing weather conditions are wet and windy; however, the temperatures are generally mild, but it would still be better to plan fieldwork for the summer months.

Potential formation processes might include

  • a change in the course of the river,
  • flooding which might change the relative positions of artefacts, or destroy structures,
  • drainage which affect  land and land-use,
  • the long history of inhabitation of the area with different generations using and reusing the habitable land which is in a comparatively small area
  • the quarrying for chalk to feed the lime kilns in the nineteenth century when there was a small lime manufacturing industry here
  • work done by individuals and local government and more recently national bodies such as the Environmental Agency on flood defences; these more recent works would have involved heavy machinery and mechanical diggers etc
  • the establishment of a marina and boatyard in the twentieth century, also using machinery

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