Test Pitting in North Warnborough

A talk given by Professor Carenza Lewis, Professor for the Public Understanding of Research, Lincoln University and Senior Research Associate, Cambridge University, on Saturday 18th February, 2023.

Andrew Hutt introduced Professor Lewis, saying he was particularly interested in this subject as BAS may need to conduct similar research in Wickham.

Professor Lewis began her talk by telling us that she had an interest in identifying and mapping medieval villages.  In the past research had concentrated on Deserted Medieval Villages (DMVs) as they had visible well-defined features, and their archaeological preservation was good.  They told us a lot about the beginning of settlements and life within.  However, only about 10% of medieval villages became permanently deserted.  So, DMVs are in a minority, tend to be atypical, smaller, in less favourable locations, and therefore tend to be unevenly distributed and poorer.  This means that to get a more representative understanding of the past, Currently Occupied Rural Settlements (CORS) need to be studied.  This includes hamlets, villages, and small towns. 

The CORS Project used test pitting to look at more than 70 settlements  mainly in East Anglia.  There were a few outliers including North Warnborough, but she didn’t explain why this small town in Hampshire, about 20 miles south of Reading, just south of Hook and the M3 and north-west of Odiham, had been chosen.

Test pits of one square metre were taken throughout the area.  These are a convenient size because they can easily be fitted into gardens and built-up areas.  Also, there is not much disruption or mess, and the excavation takes only one or two days.  The methodology is to excavate down in 10-centimetre spits, each of which is given a different context number.  The finds are then recorded and collated.  The collated results show which places were occupied, how they came into existence and how they have developed over time.  (The ‘Time Team’ did a “Big Dig” near Odiham castle and discovered that the layout of Odiham was completely different from North Warnborough.  It showed that Odiham had been planned, whereas North Warnborough had not, but rather had built up gradually since the eighteenth century, giving it a “village” feel.)

Professor Lewis spent four years excavating in North Warnborough, between 2013 and 2017, getting help from experts, local people, and school children.  About ten sites were investigated each year, giving powerful evidence of how the settlement developed, mainly from sherds of pottery.  The earliest evidence could be dated to 1550 BC, the Bronze Age, and followed through to 1900 AD.  The most unusual find within a test pit was a pit containing about 20 cattle horn cores at the Victorian level.  These were probably evidence of the making of drinking vessels, for which only the outer part of a horn was used.

There were no Iron Age finds and very few Roman.  Also, there were no Anglo-Saxon finds, which was not what was expected.  So, there was no more habitation until the Norman Conquest, when the settlement became densely populated at about 1100 AD.  In the fourteenth century there was a catastrophic decline in population and by the sixteenth it was almost deserted, with perhaps only three cottages.  Then it gradually increased again, to the late nineteenth century.

More than 70 settlements have been analysed as part of the CORS Project and patterns can be found i.e., that there was peak population in Medieval times, but a drop after the Black Death.  This drop is not only manifested in pottery sherds but also in the number of coins and animal bones found from this period.  Similar patterns have been found in other parts of Europe.

After the project finished a survey was taken from the participants.  They all agreed that it had been a very valuable experience, involving learning about the past, “togetherness”, team-working, well-being, life satisfaction, social support, imaginative thinking, becoming more “attached” to their surroundings and being involved with valuable research.

Professor Lewis concluded her talk by thanking everyone who had helped, especially the Odiham Society. 

report by Liz Jackson

Image copyright Access Archaeology Cambridge