22 March 2012

West Bromwich Manor House - Schools

We are now just over half-way through an exhausting but very rewarding week with some local schools. Each day is slightly different, but all of the pupils get to try their hand at excavation, finds processing and landscape archaeology, with a bit of historic building analysis and artefact studies thrown in as well.

We have developed a structured learning programme which includes elements of the archaeological recording process as well as simply 'digging holes'. Here the pupils are filling in context sheets.

Although digging seems to have been the most popular activity, most of the children have also enjoyed washing the pottery and sticking bits together - as well as producing some excellent drawings.

These are just a few of photos from the last few days - a full report will be added when we have got to the end of the week!

Many thanks to our volunteers - Sohail, Helen and Linda - who have provided excellent training support during this extremely busy week.

19 March 2012

West Bromwich Manor House - Volunteer Training (II)

Day 2 of the volunteer training carried on where we left off - but if anything with even more enthusiasm and dedication from the volunteers. Yesterday's wet weather had brought forward the planned indoor sessions, so we were able to dedicate the day completely to excavation and recording.

The Trench 2 loyalists returned to continue the excavation of what they considered to be the most exciting trench - and yes it was full of interesting finds and features. The photo above shows Lynne and Nicola in the early stages of seeing what lay below their brick walls. Meanwhile in Trench 1 we began to tackle the slag-filled pit...

...which turned out to be substantially larger than it first appeared. In fact this contains a large quantity of smithing hearth debris. It is clearly not in situ, but it seems unlikely to have moved far - is it possible that some forging was taking place on the Manor House site? Bricks found among the debris suggest an early nineteenth century date.

Meanwhile Geoff in Trench 4 was continuing his dogged pursuit of eighteenth century garden features, and a pit which seems to have been the result of wall 'robbing' at around the same time.

This photo shows the end result of the Trench 3 team's exploration of their floor surface.

At the end of the day, after a review of all the work, everyone was issued with certificates - but they are all so keen that many are coming back during the schools week, and some have also volunteered to put in some extra time next weekend! Despite being completely exhausted, we are all looking forward to next week's series of school visits.

17 March 2012

West Bromwich Manor House - Volunteer Training (I)

Today we began our archaeology training weekend at the Manor House in West Bromwich. A plucky group of twelve volunteers were first treated to a morning briefing session. This began with my overview of the site's history and some of the aims of the project; then Kate led us on a 'landscape tour' around the grounds; finally Geoff provided an introduction to the theory and method of archaeological stratigraphy and recording. We then split into three teams to excavate Trenches 1 (me), 3 (Kate) and 4 (Geoff).

Kate's trench (above) initially seemed the most daunting, as it largely consisted of various rubble deposits. However it wasn't long before her team had begun to discover a fascinating range of artefacts, including a wide range of post-medieval pottery and some very nice nineteenth century clay pipe bowls.

Meanwhile, Geoff's team (below) were busy half-sectioning various features and learning the art of stratigraphic recording.

In Trench 1, my team were cutting sections across various features. Some were quite straightforward. The photo below shows the excavation of part of a garden feature - provisionally dated (by a single sherd) to the eighteenth century and therefore likely to have been part of the garden improvements undertaken by Samuel Clark.

The apparent 'ditch' in this trench was more difficult to resolve, and may actually turn out to be an embankment - such is the nature of archaeology, which inevitably requires some serious mattocking.

A heavy rain shower in mid-afternoon caused a temporary halt to proceedings. This enabled me to talk about medieval and post-medieval artefacts, and also meant that we brought forward the 'introduction to archaeological drawing' which had been planned for the next day. Geoff and I set up a datum in the thirteenth century Great Hall... but since this is Sandwell's only Grade I listed building it was necessary to improvise to avoid damage to the fabric. Here we see the 'artefacts' table re-used by the building recording group.

Finally we were able to return briefly to the trenches at the end of the day, and make plans for tomorrow's excavations. Here we all are at the end of the day in Trench 3.

All in all an excellent - although exhausting - day. Many thanks to everyone for their hard work today... hopefully tomorrow we will be able to shed a bit more light on the post-medieval history of the Manor House.

16 March 2012

West Bromwich Manor House - Evaluation (II)

We have now finished our first week at the Manor House, and with it the first phase of our excavation project. Already the results have been quite exciting - although most of what we have found so far has related to the later (post-medieval) history of the site.

In Trench 2, for example, Kate has discovered the remains of a series of small nineteenth century outbuildings which were constructed up against the seventeenth century garden wall (above). From here we have recovered a large quantity of pottery, glass and metal artefacts. Meanwhile, in Trench 4, Geoff has encountered the foundation of a significant boundary wall - possibly part of a ha-ha. This is on the alignment of a field boundary shown on nineteenth century maps.

I have finally finished the cleaning and recording of Trench 1, and in the process this morning discovered a very solid cobbled road surface or trackway running alongside a very substantial wall.

This is also shown on early mapping, and is aligned with the surviving complex of buildings.

Tomorrow we begin our two-day training programme with local volunteers, who will get to grips not only with the site itself but also with a wide range of archaeological techniques.

12 March 2012

West Bromwich Manor House - Evaluation (I)

Today saw the beginning of our community archaeology project in West Bromwich. The background to this was explained in an earlier post; we have now begun the evaluation phase by excavating four trenches in the grounds of this thirteenth century manorial complex.

The photo above shows the first trench being excavated. Here we have found what seems to be a pit full of ironworking residues. Although this is probably dumped from elsewhere, it is possible that they are the result of smithing (or even, perhaps, early bloomery smelting?) on site. We have also found a mysterious wall that appears to be neither the wall of the moat nor a later garden feature.

Nearer to the house we excavated two further trenches exploring the present moat, and the relationship of the outlying 'cottage' building to the rest of the complex. One of these trenches contains a number of brick walls and floor surfaces that appear to relate to the post-medieval tenement phase. The other - shown below - is so far confirming the suspicion that the present 'moat' is largely a late twentieth century fabrication.

Our fourth trench, at the western side of the site (shown below), investigated earthwork features which may themselves be part of the original moat. We also found another wall here (well, a possible wall - at the moment just a spread of mortar), as well as another ditch. Since none of these features are shown on historic mapping, it is quite likely that they relate to earlier periods of the site's history.

There is still lots more to investigate - but hopefully our understanding of the site will become clearer towards the end of this first week. At the weekend we have our first batch of volunteers coming to help out, and then next week a series of local schools are joining in to try and resolve the mysteries of the West Bromwich Manor House!

Thanks to Peter of K. B. Handley Plant Hire for his excellent efficient work with a JCB today, and course Rachel of the Sandwell Museums team who has worked extremely hard and has been very supportive. Tomorrow we are hoping for a visit from the Express and Star, and further updates will appear here shortly!

6 March 2012

Stirchley Slag Works (III)

Another action-packed day on the slag works project - today recording and analysing the features we revealed yesterday, and, with Kate, undertaking landscape survey on the surrounding area.

After an informal historical briefing and discussion, by mid-morning we had split into three teams. One team - led by Kate, and consisting of Nigel, Chris, Brian and Jo - turned their attention to the broader landscape surrounding the slag works. During the course of the day they discovered and mapped a number of features which were associated with both the slag works and earlier activity.

Meanwhile on site, two teams dealt with producing a drawn and written record of the excavated features. After one or two initial concerns (not least the use of metric or non-metric measurements) this seemed to work fairly well - again the quality of the clearing, cleaning and recording work done by the volunteers has been extremely impressive.

As in previous projects, the dedication of the volunteers has been exceptional. Here we all are, after lunch, before resuming work in our various teams.

Recording the site and environs in the afternoon included an excursion by Malcolm and Chris to inspect some of the left-over products of the concrete-making operation, which are liberally scattered through the woodland. Many of the concrete blocks are stamped with the trademark 'Viniculum' brand, a name which seems also to have been used locally to refer to the area of the slag works whilst it was in operation.

This block is stamped 'TARMAC CO. - VINICULUM - CONCRETE'.

It has been a wonderful couple of days and hopefully we can sustain the momentum into the summer. I am currently working on a plan to develop the project further, including some archive research as well as more fieldwork. Many thanks once again to the Wrekin Historical Group and the Friends of Telford Town Park for their work this week.

5 March 2012

Stirchley Slag Works (II)

Today was the first day of archaeological work at the Stirchley Slag Works (for background see here). When we arrived on site, the whole complex was covered with vegetation - including the remains of a recently-felled tree which had been left in situ scattered across the very archaeological features which we needed to record! Naturally my heart sank, but I had of course under-estimated the resourcefulness of our intrepid team of volunteers.

This was the view at 10.00am...

...and this was the scene at 4.00pm.

In five hours the volunteer team had cleared three large fallen trees, 15 small saplings, half a tonne of fallen wood and a tonne of ivy; they had also removed over half a tonne of topsoil with very little equipment! The full extent of the slag works was also clearer - thanks to various excursions by Nigel, Caroline and others which revealed further extensive concrete structures in the woods.

It was great to see the reunification of 'old hands' who had worked on our previous excavations, but it was also wonderful to welcome new members to the team. Eileen and Maria worked particularly hard on revealing various enigmatic structures - including a timber-dampened engine base (?).

Eileen and Maria are 'Friends of Telford Town Park' (FOTTP), and I was also extremely pleased that Chris - the current chairman of the FOTTP - was able to put in a great deal of hard work in removing various roots, rubble and debris today!

Finally, it is worth mentioning some of today's finds. Those which we can defintiely attribute to the period of the slag works' operation included some teapot and teacup fragments, and a stoneware flagon originating from Wellington. We also found the remains of a sauce (?) bottle marked 'Hazlewood and Co' - if anyone can help identify the maufacturer or supplier then please do get in touch!

Tomorrow most of the team will return to embark on what the project design calls 'a structured programme of archaeological training' involving theory, method and application of recording techniques. I suspect that the team's enthusiasm for chasing interesting features (an enthusiasm shared by myself, the 'professional') may well subvert those good intentions.


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