In his new bi-monthly column, Mick Aston guides us through the trials and triumphs of local archaeology. He starts by recalling the genesis of his current research project at Winscombe, Somerset.
When I moved to Winscombe parish in 1984 there were no thoughts in my mind of conducting a project there: indeed, I had taken a conscious decision not to get involved in any local activities. My brief at Bristol University was to cover the provision of archaeological extra-mural courses in the counties of Dorset, Somerset, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire. As I was responsible for developing and running a large programme of lectures, courses, and day schools at Bristol, I did not think I would have time for any local archaeological research. The Time Team television programmes for Channel 4 and the big project on village development at Shapwick (CA 272) in central Somerset both lay some way in the future.
It was only in the mid 1990s that I began to walk around Winscombe and notice that its landscape appeared to have a rather different history and development to that of Shapwick. I was still not inclined to get involved locally, though I did join the Winscombe and Sandford Local History and Archaeological Society, founded in 1990 by John Gower, Maria Forbes, and others. I even said at one of the meetings that I could not see how the Medieval field system had operated in Winscombe: there were no obvious common strip fields or evidence of ridge-and-furrow cultivation. The settlement pattern was also clearly different to Shapwick.
In 1994 a small field in the middle of my home village of Sandford was to be developed for housing and so I went and had a look. In the field were two pillars of what I assumed was a concrete — possibly Second World War — structure. But when I got close I could see they were carved stone: two sides of a fireplace, with the lintel missing. I contacted Vince Russett, the county archaeologist for North Somerset, and we put together a team of local people and students from Bristol. Alongside Paula Gardiner, a research student and subsequently a lecturer at Bristol, we spent our Sundays from January to May 1995 conducting the complete excavation of a small post-Medieval cottage with a reused Tudor fireplace. We gave several lectures in Sandford village hall, and hundreds of local villagers visited the site during an open day. There was clearly an appetite for local archaeology!
The cottage housing the Tudor fireplace
The landscape archaeology draws Mick in
Chris Gerrard and I wrote the Society for Medieval Archaeology volume on Shapwick after I retired from Bristol in 2004, following my brain haemorrhage in 2003. When it was published in 2007, Teresa Hall [Mick’s partner] and I began to wonder whether we should investigate Winscombe as a local comparison. She had completed an MPhil under Harold Fox in the department of English Local History at Leicester University — where William Hoskins’ influence was so strong. We knew from Maria Forbes, who had done a huge amount of local research, that there was a good series of documents for the parish and an early map.
We settled on an approach that combined landscape history and archaeology. Comparable to the Shapwick methodology, this would investigate settlements, field systems, and buildings to tease out how and when the landscape of the parish evolved to its present appearance. It would cover a long period of time, probably the last 2,000 years or more. But how would we set about it? Maria Forbes mentioned that there were lots of compotus or account rolls and court rolls in the County Record Office at Taunton and in the Diocesan Record Office at Wells. Martin Ecclestone, a former MA Local History student from Bristol, now retired, readily agreed to transcribe and translate a selection of these. Running from the 1270s through to the mid 16th century, we had them digitally photographed and sent on to Martin. Week after week in 2009 and 2010, transcriptions arrived by post from Martin, providing fascinating reading about the Medieval peasants and their activities in the 14th and 15th centuries. These documents amounted to a hugely important guide for the fieldwork.
Perhaps the most important consideration before starting is the ultimate outcome of a project. To my mind this should always be publication (and not just on the internet!). Along the way, the dissemination of new knowledge to the local community is both the privilege and obligation of working in a neighbourhood. I regularly lecture on our findings and the project has a stall at annual community fairs. We are about to become involved in working with the children in the two local primary schools, and are providing information boards for the villages: our first has just gone up in the strategic location of the bar of the Railway Inn in Sandford. The board was put together by one of our testpitters, Nick Bristow, who is a professional graphic artist.
Test-pitting at the Michaelmas Fair last September attracted a lot of interest.
The next question was how we could recruit help from the local community for the test pitting and other field work. For a split nanosecond we had the idea of advertising the project around the village and inviting anyone from the parish’s population of 4,000 to join us. But because of my high media profile, we worried that we might be inundated and unable to organise vast numbers of enthusiastic people with little or no experience. Instead, we decided to start with a small number of locals and graft on extra people as they expressed an interest. In this way, we were able to build a core group initially, and then take on additional volunteers.
This Winscombe project is not then, strictly speaking, a community archaeology project. It was not generated by the community, and is not organised by the parish, though it has very close relations with the parish council and local society. It is a research project looking into the origin and development of the local landscape of Winscombe parish, set within the context of the wider Somerset landscape and linked in to national research themes, including the origins of villages, field systems, and the organisation of early estates. This is local research put into a national context. It is run under my direction, and the participants are local people (with a few outliers from Bristol, Chippenham, and Weston-super-Mare) with a great enthusiasm for learning more about the parish and the methods used to undertake such a study.
So, in the coming months we are off on an adventure to learn about Winscombe over thousands of years; it won’t all be plain sailing, there may well be problems, but stick with us and we hope that you too might be inspired to look at your own parish or village.
This article was published in Current Archaeology issue 274.
Click here to read our exclusive interview with Mick Aston – published in CA 271