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Excavation at St Edmund’s School, Canterbury

Canterbury Archaeological Trust has recently completed a seven week archaeological investigation within the grounds of St Edmund’s School, Canterbury. The site is located on a former playing field to the south of Giles Lane on the upper ridge of St Thomas’ Hill overlooking Canterbury and the Stour basin to the south-east. The investigation was commissioned by St Edmund’s School in advance of the proposed development of the field for a state of the art Astroturf pitch.

The geology of the area is dominated by Tertiary Eocene London Clays, overlain by later drift deposits of (Pleistocene or later) 4th River Terrace Gravels. The London Clays formed an impermeable surface just 0.40m below the present ground level. In this area in particular this appears to have led to a perched water table, with a spring and stream located to the north of the site.

An initial evaluation of the site conducted in April 2012 revealed tentative traces of settlement activity dated to the late Bronze Age to the early Iron Age (1100–700 BC). The evidence included two enclosure ditches filled with abundant charcoal, burnt flint and pottery fragments, several post-holes and a very rare example of a domestic fire pit with burnt sides and base, surrounded by up to six stake-holes.

Enclosure ditchesDomestic fire pit

The results from the evaluation suggested that there was a high probability that further features relating to a small settlement could exist within the proposed development area and further investigation was required to mitigate for the impact of the development.

Between 21st May and 1st June an area of 4901m² was machine stripped of up to 0.40m of subsoil, topsoil and turf. This revealed up to 400 individual archaeological features that were scattered across the excavation area, with a clear concentration in the south-east and east. This appeared to represent a significant settlement with at least two phases of occupation. Between 6th June and 6th July a team of archaeologists from the Trust undertook the process of excavating and recording this landscape.

30 tonne dumperArchaeological features

The earliest features at the site consisted of up to five linear field boundary ditches that formed a field system typical of land management used during the late Bronze Age (1100–700 BC). The majority of the remaining features have been dated to the Iron Age (700 BC to AD 43), although detailed analysis of the pottery has yet to be completed. Located in the south-east of the site the ditches identified in the evaluation were traced forming an L-shaped enclosure. Several clusters of post-holes and shallow pits were identified within this that may have formed small posted structures and refuse pits associated with a settlement.

 Bronze Age boundary ditchIron Age structure

It appears that the first phase of Iron Age occupation included two small structures that incorporated an outcrop of natural clay in their construction. These unusual buildings were each approximately 4m long and 2m wide composed of several timber posts that may have supported a roof; the possible remains of drip gullies were identified. Both these structures may have been used for small scale industrial activities. Some metalworking slag residues were found within one and fragments of loomweights were identified in the other.

A series of shallow sub-oval pits was identified following a ridge of natural London Clay from the north-west of the site to the south-east.  No waste material was found within these and it is likely that they were quarry pits for clay to be used for pottery, loomweights or for structural use.

The second phase of occupation in the Iron Age saw an enlargement of the settlement area with the introduction of a mammoth north-east to south-west aligned curvilinear boundary ditch with two rounded termini that formed an entrance to the north-west. Within this boundary was a very large subcircular posted structure that likely formed a round-house with a diameter of up to 15m.  This was also partially encircled by a drip gully. This round-house is typical of the style of houses for the mid/late Iron Age (400 BC to AD 43) and would likely have been home to several generations of the same family as well as their animals.

 Boundary ditchSub-circular posted structureDrip gully

Nearby to this building the intact buried base of a large pottery vessel was discovered. Excavated on site, no traces of human remains that would have been associated with a cremation were found within it and the vessel may have been placed in this position for ceremonial or spiritual reasons. The soil from within the pot will be analysed in our laboratory to identify any small fragments of bone or plant material that may be present.

Large pottery vesselSunken floored structure

The most surprising structure to be identified on site consisted of a sub-square shallow scoop approximately 4.8m long, 3.8m wide and up to 0.30m deep that formed a sunken area surrounded by over twenty stake-holes and several post-holes. Adjacent to this was a second much smaller sunken-featured structure that may have been related. It is possible that these structures were specialised storage buildings set away from the main settlement.

The majority of the post-holes identified within the excavation contained cultural material such as pottery and burnt flint. This indicates that once the posts were no longer in use they were deliberately removed and the hole backfilled with soil and domestic waste, a process indicative of a progressively developing and changing area of settlement.

Post-hole with refuse materialFlint-tempered potteryFlint-tempered pottery

Finds from the site were almost predominantly associated with domestic waste and large quantities of burnt flint-tempered pottery were recovered that appear to show a development in style and technique. The most abundant material recovered were quantities of burnt flint nodules. This material may have been crushed to provide a temper in pottery making or heated for a domestic purpose such as cooking.

Over one hundred soil samples have been taken from various features across the site in order to identify micro animal and plant and remains such as seeds, grasses, insects and charred organic matter. This material can be used in obtaining accurate dates through the process of carbon 14 dating as well as giving a clearer understanding of the surrounding environment during the period.

Soil sampling

Analysis and assessment of the finds and excavation data is underway. The discovery of such a substantial Iron Age settlement in this position was completely unexpected and the final results of this investigation will give us a far greater insight into the developing settlement of the upper ridges along the Great Stour valley in this period that culminated in the construction of Bigbury hillfort.

Our thanks are extended to Bob Smith (Bursar, St Edmund’s School) for commissioning the work and to the excavation team for their fantastic work in weather conditions that resulted in hard sun-baked clay on some days to wet, heavy and clinging clay on others.

Ross Lane
Senior Archaeologist

Video: Excavation of fire pit


St Edmund’s School visit the excavation

The excavation at St Edmund’s School presented a fantastic opportunity to give pupils a chance to see archaeology in action and a give them an extended learning experience outside of the classroom. Thanks to Fran Martin (History teacher at the senior school) and Mary Yearlsley (Lower School co-ordinator) this was made possible.

Classes from both the junior and the senior school took part (years 3 to 9) and another tour was made up of staff and sixth form pupils. Many of the pupils had visited Butser Ancient Farm, an experimental archaeological site that displays on-going constructions of buildings based on real sites from prehistory. The chance for the children to see an Iron Age excavation on their own playing field can have only helped consolidate their learning of this period.

Groups comprised approximately twenty pupils and the tour programme started with a brief introduction into our role as archaeologists. The pupils were shown trays of pottery sherds and burnt flint (abundant across the site) and were given the chance to handle the flint and consider what Iron Age people might have used it for. The flint lying in the sun, helped demonstrate that the material retains heat!

Juniior school (year 4) site tourSixth form and staff site tourSixth form and staff site tour

From observation at the edge of the excavation area, the pupils were quick to grasp how as archaeologists we look for colour and shape to identify features. The children quickly spotted the half-sectioned pits, post-holes and the criss-cross field drains. From here it was highlighted to the groups that the area showed evidence of a small Iron Age settlement. A large scale plan illustrated their location on the site. The pupils were able to access the site through pre-designated routes and within one area a model of a round-house had been placed on the ground.  Here the pupils were encouraged to discuss what building materials would have been used and what it would have been like to live in a round-house (their Butser field trip helped them relate to this). After discussing a round-house it was revealed that where they stood was potentially right in the middle of one! Pupils were then able to point out the evidence for a possible drip gully.

The route led the group on to where a find had been made that morning in a ditch terminus. The find in question was a triangular Iron Age loomweight and a laminate of an artist’s reconstruction of a loom was used to demonstrate how the weight was a component of this and how it would have been used in the weaving process.

The next stop was to look at a boundary ditch that spanned the extent of the excavation. Pupils were shown that south of the boundary contained the possible settlement whilst north of the ditch it was clear to see that less features were present.

The final part of the route on site was to visit a structure on the north-western limit of the excavation. The children were instructed to stand in a line opposite it and asked to say what they observed on the ground. They were quick to see the lines of post-holes and after some discussion the idea was formulated that a small building would have stood there. We then speculated on its use and why it was located away from the main settlement. Although we may never know its original function, it was a good exercise in stimulating their imaginations and interpretive skills, giving them an insight into the questions archaeologists ask.

Handling burnt flintFinds talk with year 9

On returning to the finds table off site the children were shown a reconstructed Iron Age vessel made from similar material to the pottery sherds shown to them earlier. Showing the children a complete object rather than fragments helped them identify its function and how a person might have used it.

Some of the children went on to do further work in the classroom based on the site visit and we were delighted to be able to judge two shortlisted pieces of coursework that had been given to us by a history teacher from the senior school. The coursework was to make an A3 display sheet that described and illustrated an Iron Age round-house and the winner received a book token.

Year 9 course work runner upYear 9 course work winner

The tours were a great success with approximately 150 people (including pupils and staff) visiting the site. The children benefitted from seeing and experiencing an archaeological site on their own school grounds and it was great to help develop their knowledge of the Iron Age period in Britain, a period often overlooked in favour of the Roman era.

Andrew Macintosh
Senior Archaeologist


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