What’s Under Your Village? Some answers

Stapleford History Society 14 January 2014

Talk by Carenza Lewis

Nearly 50 people heard a fascinating talk by Dr Carenza Lewis about the results from the archaeological test-pits dug in Stapleford in April 2013.

She entertained us with some stories about her appearances on the TV archaeology series Time Team. She also explained the research project she leads at Cambridge University to understand how English villages have developed over the centuries. The problem is that our houses and other modern buildings get in the way of looking at the archaeology. She has developed the technique of digging large numbers of test-pits just one metre square in people’s gardens to build up a composite picture of how each village started, grew, shrank and shifted until finally taking on today’s shape. The Stapleford results now contribute to a data-base covering over 50 villages across the region.

One result is a graphic demonstration of the impact of the Black Death. In many villages the test-pits show how the settlement expanded over an ever-wider area through the early Middle Ages. But after 1348 there is often no sign of human activity in areas that had previously been busy: large parts of the village were simply abandoned. Many villages did not again match their early Medieval size until the eighteenth century. Also demonstrated is that Roman settlement patterns have relatively little influence on today’s villages; continuity from the Anglo-Saxon period is generally stronger.

For Stapleford, the 9 test-pits dug so far are not yet enough to support robust conclusions. Our results can be viewed on the Access Cambridge Archaeology web-site: www.access.arch.cam.ac.uk/reports/cambridgeshire/stapleford. From that small sample there is very little evidence of Roman or earlier activity, and none for the Anglo-Saxon period; settlement on any scale only shows up in the eleventh century. To know whether that’s a representative picture, we shall to build up to at least 25 test-pits. Some villages have completed over 100: there’s a challenge!

The digging was undertaken by students from Sawston Village College and other local secondary schools, as part of a project to promote interest in going to university. Carenza presented some inspiring statistics and comments from the young people showing the impact of the project on their higher education intentions.

Disappointingly, Carenza announced that there is not a secondary school lined up to dig more test-pits in Stapleford in 2014, as a result of staff moves. She hopes to come back later to add to the initial sample of 9 pits. Meanwhile, we have the possibility of undertaking more test-pitting as a community dig. The History Society committee is considering how that might be organised.

[report by John Street]