Sunday, 27 September 2015

Pleshey Castle Excavations 1959-1963 (4)

Pleshey Castle Excavations 1959-1963
Archive document ref.:  S/SEC/7/8
Transcription of papers


The 1959 season of five weeks excavation was an exploratory one, with the aim of recovering a chronological sequence of the occupations between the 12th and 16th centuries A.D., and their relationship to the present topography. The area chosen was the west end of the Bailey, which was cut by a trench 115 feet x 10 feet and up to 13 feet deep.

Slight evidence was found of Roman and earlier occupation, but the first intensive use of this part of the site was in late Norman times, probably that following the construction of the earthwork. The Norman layer consisted of occupation and building debris, and is dated by sherds to the late 12th-13th centuries A.D. Traces of two buildings of this period were found, in timber and brick construction, the bricks being among the earliest examples found in Essex. The area was made up with several feet of clay in the later 15th century, and on this new higher level were buildings of stone, tile and timber construction of the 14th-16th centuries A.D. The principal building encountered had very substantial foundations, and is clearly one of major importance; other buildings are likely to be minor ones such as gate-house and stabling. The site fell into disuse in the 16th century, and very little evidence was found of any occupation later than about 1580. Finds have been numerous, and include a useful series of pottery, painted window glass, glazed tiles, bronze and iron objects, and coins.


A total of 98 people took part in the excavation, excluding paid labour and directorial staff. They worked a total of 399 man-days over a period of 5 weeks, of which the last week was mainly occupied with filling-in. The 98 people were ell given some experience in digging under supervision, and in seeing how an excavation was organised. Over half of these (55) were however only very occasional helpers, for 2 or 3 days or half-days, usually at weekends, and useful training was limited to the remaining 43. Of these, 34 attended for periods ranging from 3 to 9 days, and in addition to being taught how to use tools in an archaeological manner, were initiated by the grid supervisors into methods of digging and recording, followed the progress of the dig, and were able to handle different kinds of pottery and finds. All attended the daily site lecture and the discussion that followed.

The remaining 9 received full training as grid supervisors. 5 attended for 3-4 weeks, 2  for 2 weeks and 2 for 1-2 weeks. These were each given control of a unit of excavation, in this case a 10-foot square grid, and were required to excavate the layers encountered, record each layer in plan and section, record the position of all finds, and finally to write a seminary of the sequence of events in each grid. Each was provided with a box containing notebook, measuring tape, pen, ink, labels, bags, etc. Paid and volunteer labour was allocated to each according to the needs of the grid at any particular stage. Direct instruction was given in the course of this work by Major Brinson and myself, and each afternoon a lecture was given on the site, which dealt with problems arising, the progress of the excavation, and various aspects of archaeology ranging from first principles to the type of medieval pottery found in the excavation. It was attended by all people digging on that day, and often by visitors, who numbered about 1,000 during the course of the dig.

The success of the training was dependent on many factors, the principal one being of course the intelligence and natural gratitude on the part of the trainee. Of the 11 given full training, only 2 may be considered as successful inasmuch as they would now be capable of doing further work on their own initiative under only limited control, 7 never fully mastered the problems arising in their own unit of excavation, but would certainly be an asset to any excavation in which they might later participate. The other 2 might be written off as untrainable. It must be pointed out that this assessment is a critical one and that the stratification and problems encountered were more complex than would be normal, even on medieval sites. On a straightforward Roman excavation, all would have been able to cope adequately with e limited area of excavation, except for a general difficulty encountered in precise but meaningful drawing, end in thinking three-dimensionally.

The main difficulty encountered in the 1959 excavation has been the lack of continuity in attendance of volunteers, resulting in much tedious repetition, but this seems to be inevitable when the excavation is being run for local people with limited time. Nor is it satisfactory to have a labour force ranging from a dozen or so on many weekdays to over 30 at weekends; but, again this seems an insurmountable difficulty if the excavation is to cater both for the serious students and for the casual helpers who form the active backbone of the organising Society.

In the 1959 season we were exceptionally fortunate in the weather, and we did not find it necessary to fall back on indoor instruction in the form of lantern lectures, for which the village hall was available. In a wet season the background of this indirect training would have been much wider.


November, 1959.

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