Report on an archaeological investigation through test-pitting in Gamlingay – March 2016
By Gamlingay Archaeology Group (GamArch)
Report Date: June 2016
Site Name: , Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire
HER Event No: ECB4689
Date of Works: March 2016
Prepared by: Mike Collins BA (Hons)
Collaboratively edited and approved by GamArch members and the GamArch Committee
Date: June 2016
GamArch accepts no responsibility or liability for this document to any party other than the person/party by whom it was commissioned.
A 1m x 1m test-pit was excavated on 12th and 13th March 2016 by Gamlingay Archaeology Group (GamArch) at Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire. GamArch is an amateur group interested in and investigating the archaeology of the parishes of Gamlingay and the Hatleys. The excavation produced high quantities of Medieval pottery and some modern finds from a much disturbed garden topsoil. Two shallow features at the surface of the subsoil were recorded but not fully excavated because they extended beyond the sections of the test-pit. They contained no dateable finds. A very few CBM fragments came from the subsoil.
We are very grateful to the land owner, for allowing us to access and excavate his land and for his hospitality throughout. Thanks also go to the Chair of the Gamlingay History Society, Mr Peter Wright, who kindly arranged for us a short loan of the History Society’s copy of the Langdon map. As usual, the Cambridgeshire Historic Environment team have been extremely helpful throughout, many thanks to them too.
Location and scope of work
The test-pit was excavated on what had historically been open land – the test-pit is within a former field whose boundaries remained unchanged from 1602 until post-WWII housing developments began. It was hoped that excavation might inform as to previous use of the land at this location and in the area generally.
Figure 1: Location map showing the test-pit site (red dot inside a red circle)
Geology and Topography
The bedrock geology underlying the site is Woburn Sands Formation over West Walton and Ampthill clay formations. The site abuts a tributary stream along its westerly boundary where the soil is a polymict deposit (BGS map code symb) which took the form of an undifferentiated sandy silty-clay at site. The general trend of the land is a south-westerly downward slope toward the stream at the westerly boundary. Beyond the stream the slope rises gently westwards.
Archaeological and Historical Background
Prior to modern boundary changes Gamlingay was the largest village in Cambridgeshire and it remains one of the largest to this day. The Medieval village of Gamlingay is thought to have originated around a triangular green now built over and bounded by Church Street on the north, Stocks Lane on the south-east and Mill Street on the west. Before the conquest the village is thought to have been centred further east on the Station Road area as Saxon remains were discovered there in the 1990s (Murray and McDonald: 2006).
Pre-Saxon Gamlingay is less well understood. On the basis of the curation and recycling of Roman materials at the Station Road Saxon site, it has been suggested there was a Roman villa somewhere within the vicinity of the Saxon site itself. For prehistoric times, aerial survey photography and interpretation indicates potential Neolithic, Bronze Age and Iron Age sites to exist within the parish and its immediate locale. Worked flint finds dating from the Mesolithic onwards are not uncommon within the parish and a very few lithics from deeper prehistory have been found.
For the medieval period there exists much documentary evidence, particularly from 1279 onwards, most of which comes from the archives of the Merton estate. In 1260 Walter de Merton founded Merton College, Oxford and gave much of his land in Gamlingay to the College, an amount of which it retains to this day. Prior to a devastating fire in 1600 – the ‘Great Fire’ – the village was divided into three manors. These were the manors of Merton and Avenels, both centrally located, and the manor of Woodbury to the west of the village. Avenels, the main medieval manor, passed to Merton College in 1599. Shortly afterwards in 1602 Merton commissioned Thomas Langdon to survey and map its Gamlingay estate. The highly detailed maps Langdon produced in 1602 provide important evidence of the topography of the village in this period (Clarke 2004: 3).
Recorded archaeology near to the site consists of a Bronze Age arrowhead and blade (CHER 02395) found some 250m north of the site and an archaeological evaluation approximately 100m south-east of the site (CHER MCB17802). The evaluation revealed a single ditch terminus containing Saxo-Norman pottery and quern stone fragments. Undated ditches, pits and a hearth were also recorded across the site, possibly also relating to late Saxon or early Medieval occupation. A sequence of alluvial deposits sealed by post-medieval reclamation and landscaping layers were observed in the western part of the site, adjacent to a stream. This same stream serves as a boundary for the land within which the GamArch test-pit excavation took place.
The test-pit site is within a former field named Grove Close on the Langdon map. Its boundaries on cartographic sources remained unchanged from the time of Langdon’s survey and map of 1602 until 1902 when the field was divided in two near equal parts. There is no cartographic or documentary evidence of dwellings or structures within the former field until post-WWII times (Doyle & Harris 2007).
Aims and Methodology
Given that a more extensive investigation had already taken place within 100 meters of the test-pit and within a similar topographic context, it was envisaged that comparisons between the results of the test-pit with the earlier investigation would prove fruitful and further our understanding of use of the land at local and parish-scale level.
In consultation with the land owner a suitable location for the test-pit was chosen such that it would avoid power lines and be as far away from structures and trees as was possible. The test-pit location was recorded by a handheld Garmin 60CSx GPS unit. To protect the lawn, tarpaulins were laid down around the test-pit and in the area of the spoil heap.
A 1m x 1m square was pegged out and de-turfed and the turfs stacked away from the pit ready for backfilling. The pit was excavated by hand using mattocks and trowels. Any archaeological features, contexts and cuts noted during excavation were individually excavated and each given a unique context number. Spoil was screened for finds using 10mm mesh sieves. Heavier spoil such as clay was hand searched for finds. Finds were cleaned on-site and bagged and labelled according to their context. The excavation was recorded via section and plan drawings and by some digital photography. Due to time constraints the natural was not reached, excavated depth reached was 36cms. At the end of the excavation the pit was backfilled and the turf replaced, lightly watered and tamped into place. Finds were securely stored at the home of a GamArch member where they were later sorted, analysed and identified. A report of the excavation was prepared, collaboratively edited by GamArch members and then sent on to Cambridgeshire Historic Environment Record (CHER). Finds were returned to the land owner together with a copy of the report.
The test-pit was excavated to a maximum depth of 36cm below the turf. Beneath the turf was a dark orange-brown loam topsoil (101) containing some clumps and isolated lumps of a dark blue-grey clay, occasional small stones, flecks and fragments of charcoal, Medieval through to modern date pottery sherds and various other modern small finds. Lumps of an unfired worked grey clay, taken to be an unfired clay mortar, were also found. The quantity of finds from (101) diminished with depth and completely absent at its lowest level. The topsoil was above an orange-brown sandy silty-clay (106) which had a slightly bumpy surface and was without finds at its upper level. The dark blue-grey clays of (101) continued to be seen in (106).
Two shallow cut features in (106) were recorded. Cut  was in the southern corner of the pit but because it extended beyond the pit confines its limit could not be determined. The edge of  was near vertical and ran straight for 23cm. Its shallow base had a very slight gentle westward slope where it had a maximum depth of 5cm. Its fill (103) was an undifferentiated fine grey-brown silty-sand and no finds came from it. Cut  was in the eastern corner of the pit but because it extended beyond the pit confines its limit could not be determined. Its fill (105) was an undifferentiated fine grey-brown silty-sand and one find of a very small cinder came from it.  had gently angled sides reaching a depth of 9cm.
The tip of the well preserved remains of a modern c4cm by 2cm machine sawn stake was observed below the upper levels of (106) but, as it was not of any archaeological interest, it was not recorded other than by photograph. A very few CBM finds and a granite chip came from the subsoil at a depth below the two cut features. The CBM could not be firmly dated.
The total number of finds from the test-pit was 181 and their combined weight was 634gm. Most of the finds, 174 in all, came from the topsoil and they weighed 518gm. Apart from a single prehistoric struck flint, no finds date earlier than the Medieval period. 93 of the finds were pottery and 67 of these sherds could be dated to the Medieval period, a significantly high number. These sherds weighed 246gm. A number of cinders and some small pieces of coal were also recovered. Some unfired worked clay, taken to be a clay mortar, was also recovered. Other finds include a clay tobacco pipe stem, CBM, burnt oyster shell, and various modern small finds. Also found were 2 granite chips, geological ‘exotics’ for our area. Finds were appraised and dated on the basis of our own (GamArch) knowledge and experience and by reference to our own set of finds materials. The GamArch reference set consists of professionally appraised/dated pottery and CBM finds, the finds all coming from previous GamArch fieldwalking and test-pitting exercises.
Details of the finds and an explanation of abbreviations of terms used in describing them can be found in Appendix 1.
15 pottery finds were not identified. With the owner’s permission GamArch will retain these for professional appraisal before they are returned.
Discussion and Conclusions
GamArch is a social group as much as it is an archaeologically focused one. We also make every effort to interact with the wider community so as to better inform local people and the general public about our activities and the archaeology that is all around them. It was a pleasure, then, to see a slow but steady stream of visitors at the test-pit. We hope the excavation was as interesting for them as it was for us.
Regarding the archaeology, lumps and clumps of the same unworked dark blue-grey natural clay throughout the topsoil (101) and subsoil (106) show that the land at site had been much disturbed. Unfortunately, the excavation didn’t reach the natural but according to the land owner the natural at the site is not a dark blue-grey, it is a uniformly grey clay and about 1 meter below ground surface. This accords with what is known of the local geology upstream of the stream bounding the property and with the geology to the north-west of the parish at Gamlingay Cinques where a grey clay can be seen at or near surface level. Rather than disturbance at site, then, (101) and (106) represent dumps or spreads of material imported from elsewhere. We have a precedent for this on unbuilt land within 80m or so from the test-pit where a recent archaeological evaluation (CHER MCB17802) found evidence of post-medieval reclamation and landscaping layers (aka ‘made land’). These same layers sealed alluvial deposits.
The test-pit site is immediately adjacent to a tributary stream of the Mill Brook, Gamlingay’s main water course. Raising the ground level of marginal, seasonally flood prone land (witness the alluvials recorded by CHER MCB17802) at the site by porting in and adding material to it makes sense from a farming perspective and is the preferred interpretation of the test-pit soils.
The presence and abundance of Medieval pottery sherds recovered from the test-pit is noteworthy. The Medieval sherds are generally small, without clean breaks and much abraded, typical of finds coming from a plough-soil. As a general measure, in reporting on a Cambridgeshire county-wide community test-pitting exercises, Lewis suggests ‘for the Roman, late Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods, ‘the recovery of five or more sherds from any one test pit is considered likely to indicate contemporary settlement in the immediate vicinity’ (Lewis 2014).
The test-pit yielded so many Medieval sherds (at least 67) as to be off the Lewis scale altogether and – in normal circumstances – their presence would suggest a high status Medieval site to be close by. However, the test-pit site is made land and determining where the imported test-pit soils which held the pottery came from is probably an impossible task. Gamlingay Cinques area apart, the dark blue-grey clays of the imported soils are fairly common throughout the parish.
As to when the test-pit made land event(s) happened, dating evidence from the subsoil should give us an idea of when the earliest event occurred. However, the only find from the two contexts within (106), a small cinder, is not dateable. It is only possible to say that the presence of two granite chips of similar size and minerology – one found in (101) and the other in (106) below the cut features – and the clear difference in numbers of finds within the topsoil and subsoil layers suggests at least two made land events to have occurred and that the materials used in two of the events may have come from the same source.
British Geological Survey (BGS) 2001, England and Wales sheet 204. Biggleswade. (Solid & Drift Edition 1:50000 Series)
British Geological Survey (BGS) 2016, Geology of Britain Viewer. [online] Available at: http://mapapps.bgs.ac.uk/geologyofbritain/home.html [Accessed 20 Apr. 2016].
Clarke, R. 2004 Land to the Rear of the Coach House, Church Street, Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire: An Archaeological Evaluation. Archaeological Field Unit, Cambridgeshire County Council.
Doyle, K. and Harris, P.. 2007. Land off West Road, Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire: An Archaeological Desk-based Assessment and Field Evaluation. Archaeological Solutions Ltd Report No. 2120
Lewis, Carenza. 2014. The Power of Pits: Archaeology, Outreach and Research in Living Landscapes. In Living in the Landscape: Essays in Honour of Graeme Barker. Katherine Boyle, Ryan J. Rabett, and Chris O. Hunt, eds. McDonald Institute Monographs. Oxford: Oxbow Books.
Murray, J. and McDonald, T. 2006 ‘Excavations at Station Road, Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire’, Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History 13: 173-330.
Appendix 1 – Finds list
Click on image to enlarge.
Abbreviations used in this list: Asp=Asphalt/bitumen, BA=Bronze Age, BSW= Bedfordshire Sandy Ware, CBM= Ceramic Building Material (brick & tile), Med=Medieval, Meso=Mesolithic, MSW=Medieval Sandy Ware, Mod=Modern, PMR=Post Medieval Redware. A ‘?’ before any text indicates a high degree of uncertainty. A ‘?’ following any text indicates a degree of uncertainty.
Appendix 2 – Test-pit Description & Contexts
|Test pit TP1|
|Square pit located in Gamlingay, in close proximity to bordering stream. Mild weather, sunny. Disturbed/made land throughout. Significant numbers Medieval pottery finds in (101) and some modern finds, finds numbers decreasing with depth.|
|Context No.||Type||Width (m)||Depth (m)||Comment||Finds|
|102||cut||not known||c0.05||cut containing (103)|
|103||fill||not known||c0.05||undifferentiated fill||no finds|
|104||cut||not known||c0.09||cut containing (105)|
|105||fill||not known||c0.09||undifferentiated fill||1 small cinder|
|106||layer||1m||0.15||manmade||CBM, coal, granite chip|
Appendix 3 – Photographs and Sections
Figure 1: The test-pit towards the end of the excavation, looking south west. Cuts  &  can be made out in the corners of the pit at the top left and bottom left of the photograph. The tip of a modern wooden stake is just visible in the lower centre area of the pit.
Figure 2: North east facing section
Figure 3: The test-pit at the end of the excavation, looking south west.
Figure 4: South west facing section