Test pits – who knows what they’ll find…

One of the main strands of research in the ‘Burgh Castle Fort: Life outside the walls’ project will consist of carrying out a number of archaeological ‘test-pits’ around the village.

Test-pits are an established technique used by professional archaeologists to find information on the nature and extent of sub-soil remains on a large site. Small pits, usually one metre square, and around one metre deep, are dug methodically by hand in layers. Information gleaned from these ‘mini digs’ can help to inform decisions on where to site larger-scale excavation. Analysis and plotting of finds on site-maps can offer insights into historic activities in different parts of the site.

In recent years this technique has been embraced by community archaeology projects. I first became aware of them used in this way when I watched Michael Wood's Story of England on the BBC in 2010. During the series the local people of Kibworth got involved in researching the history of their village, including the digging of test-pits by school children. Obviously the technique had been used before in other community projects (would anyone like to offer the earliest UK example?) – but for me this was something quite new. The idea is incredibly inclusive - anyone with an instruction handbook and a bit of training can carry out a proper bite-sized archaeological excavation in their back garden (as long as it’s not a scheduled monument, of course).

In the Burgh Castle project the purpose of the test-pits is to see if we can find evidence which will help us understand the pattern of settlement around the Roman fort. How large was the Roman vicus and where were its boundaries? What was the pattern of settlement after the Roman period? Did specific activities take place in different parts of the settlement?

There is an element of ‘hit and miss’ with such small excavations. But the potential for insight is demonstrated by the on-going programme of test-pitting outside Venta Icenorum, taken forward by the Caistor Roman Project. Their work has established that Roman-period occupation extended under much of the present village of Caistor St Edmund.

The local residents of Burgh Castle have shown great enthusiasm for getting involved with the tests pits – both by offering their gardens, and by getting their hands dirty with digging. Trained volunteers will be digging their first test-pits later this month. That alluring question – ‘who knows what they’ll find?’ – is, of course, what continues to fascinate people about archaeology!

News in brief

  • St Benet's Abbey access: Please note that repairs to the track down to St Benet's Abbey are finished, and the track is now OPEN.
  • Sunday 7th August: The Friends of St Benet’s Abbey Southern Comfort Riverboat trip to the annual open air service at St Benet's Abbey led by the Bishop of Norwich. Trip starts from Horning. Tickets £10. To book and for more info contact: tfosba@gmail.com or Tel: 01692 632254.