Between a rock and a trench edge. Saturday 21st July.

The tent is still up, it hasn’t rained for a couple of days and we all arrived on site ready to continue removing soil from the robber trench in order to find the bottom. We got on with heavy digging with mattocks and worked steadily down through the soil.

Excavating the robber trench

To our suprise (and delight) we stumbled upon a stone which we hoped was one of the foundations stones left behind when Paxton’s workers were removing stone for re-use elsewhere.

A stone found in the robber trench

Further excavation work continued in the second part of the trench where Ed and his team continued digging out the fill (earth) of the robber trench. A good deal of progress was made as they worked their way down through more layers of soil.

Ed and volunteers working hard digging the fill of the robber trench

Excavated archaeology needs planning in order to survive. Friday 20th July.

As Sir Mortimer Wheeler rightly said “archaeology is destruction”; as such we have to carefully record all the archaeology that we dig up. This involves context sheets (as mentioned before) and the drawing of plans (a representation of the features in the trench) and section drawings (so we can see layers of archaeology in trench edges etc). It is a time-consuming but necessary procedure and we spent most of the morning doing it!

Jon planning the trench

The features at the bottom of the trench are planned at a scale of 1:20 and everything has to be measured accurately so that everything is in scale (this means we often get tangled up in tape measures and plumb bobs…). All of this work results in a perfect scale plan of the bottom of the trench.

A plan of the features in Trench 1

You can see the sondage that we dug out of the robber trench (mentioned before) drawn on the plan above with hashes showing the angle at which the features are sloping. The dash-dot lines drawn on the plan represent cuts (edges of holes such as the sondage) that we have made as opposed to the edges of cuts that were made by people in the past (ones which have since filled up with soil which we have then removed).

Another important part of the archaeological process is the washing of any finds that we have uncovered. Everything is washed apart from any metal objects and anything that might be damaged by washing. Generally we use toothbrushes and water to wash off any soil which is left on the objects.

Washing finds

In the afternoon we began removing the remaining soil from the robber trench hoping to find some evidence of foundation stones. By the end of the day we had removed about half of the soil and found lots of wall plaster, some glass and lots of anthracite but not much else. See below for an ‘end of the day’ photograph.

Progress by the end of the day

A bright (bright) bright sunshiny day. Thursday 19th July.

The tent was alive this morning! As we walked across the field we breathed a sigh of relief when we saw it there and the small patches of blue sky made us feel more positive about digging (no rain makes for happy archaeologists).

Today we started digging a sondage (a section through a feature) through the robber trench – we wanted to see whether there was anything at the bottom of the trench. We were hoping to find foundation stones or something which would relate to the original house. Unfortunately there were no foundation stones as they had all been removed for use elsewhere on the estate, however we did find many pieces of wall plaster which would have faced the walls, probably in the portico.

A piece of wall plaster found in the robber trench sondage

A piece of wall plaster found in the robber trench sondage

Also in this sondage we found some a few lumps of purple stone (similar to that visible at the stable block in the estate) which is thought to have been used to accentuate the exterior features of the house. Evidently any stones which were suitable to be re-used had been removed so that only small useless pieces remain.

Digging the sondage

At the bottom of the sondage we encountered subsoil, the soil deposited by geological processes which underlies everything before bedrock, which has no archaeology in it. After the sondage was completed it is necessary to record the context (each different layer of soil and each feature is a ‘context’ and each has its own identifying number called a context number) on a form called a context sheet. This is required so that the archaeology is recorded by description as well as photograph.

Recording a context

The rest of the team was working on removing the top layers of the robber trench in the east end of the trench prior to removing the majority of the soil in it.

Action shot – digging the robber trench

So, we left site with slight suntans (or were they mudtans) feeling positive about our progress. Hopefully Friday’s weather will be fine too! Keep tuned for more updates!

Ed; wheelbarrowing

And it all falls down. Wednesday 18th July.

Arrival on site greeted us with a collapsed tent which resulted in various shades of hilarity whilst the site supervisors attempted to hold up the tent by hand. It seems that this wonderful summer weather we’re getting wants us to stop digging!


Eventually though we managed to get the tent standing again (with help from the Botanical Garden’s maintenance staff) and we could get back to work!

The first thing we did was to finish removing the earth from the north 50cm extension of the trench. Under this earth we found more cobbles extending from the cobbles found last year.

Cobbles found under the extension area

Under the west extension area we found a layer of red clay which had inclusions of mortar which would have been deposited during the demolition of Middleton Hall by Paxton in the 19th Century.

Mortar rich area on red clay soil

Within the soil below the turf which was removed on Monday were various finds including a screw top paint tube (image below), some more pottery sherds and some glass including a lovely piece of chunky dark green bottle glass (also pictured below).

Paint tube – do you know anything about the development and/or seriation of paint tubes? If so, let us know!

Dark green bottle glass, about an inch and a half long

As we were removing the last part of the trench extension we discovered some eggshell blue tile, identified as wall tile (because it is so thin), which is the first evidence we have found this year of internal decoration.

Eggshell blue wall tile

Dark green glaze floor (?) tile

Trench at the end of the day – robber trench visible in furthest half of the trench

So, following a great day’s work we ended up with a clean and tidy trench. The suspected robber trench (a ditch left behind when a wall has been removed so stone can be re-used elsewhere) continues all the way through the trench and presumably beyond. A lot of work was completed and we all left site hoping that the tent would stay standing this time!

The unbearable sogginess of digging. Monday 16th July.

The morning came and greeted us with rain, and lots of it. Almost horizontal rain.

So after an hour or so the rain abated slightly and, although the trench was very soggy and muddy, we could get back to work! We continued to remove more of the 50cm extension of the trench on the west and a further 5m by 5m square of trench was de-turfed (you can see all of this in the image below.)

Extending the trench and de-turfing

A couple of finds cropped up – some china (pictured below), window glass, green bottle glass and a few iron nails.

Late 19th century china

By the end of the day everyone was covered in mud and soaked to the bone – it seems that waterproofs aren’t waterproof in the Welsh rain. But we got a lot of work done!

There’s no ceiling on effort (nor on Middleton Hall)! Sunday 15th July.

Another great digging day! As we began our second day’s digging we could see a sky of grey with a distant line of light blue in the distance. Alas! The clear blue sky did not reach us but grey skies and no rain provide fantastic digging conditions.

We were continuing to remove the spoil from last year’s excavation – a hard slog but satisfying work as we uncovered more of the teram fabric layed down at the end of last year’s dig.

Trench 1 - day 2

Trench 1 – day two

By the middle of the afternoon we were left with only a small island of spoil left in the middle of the trench. After removing this and cleaning up any soil that was remaining on the teram we could see that we had missed the edges of last year’s trench area and as such we needed to extend the trench by 50cm to the west and north.

A little island of spoil

As the sun shone briefly through the grey we managed to remove the majority of the extension on the north side of the trench (pictured below) and by the end of the day we were slightly sunburnt!

Extending trench 1

Many thanks to the dig team for their concerted effort! Good job!

Excavation; The Beginning. Saturday 14th July.

Of course, there are many things that need to be done before an excavation can begin – historical research, fund raising, tool and people coordination amongst others. After this, however, the dig can begin!

A team of local volunteers, staff from the National Botanic Garden of Wales (for information see and local archaeologists were on hand to start the dig which is directed by Professor David Austin.

To dig a trench  it is neccessary to remove the turf (de-turfing) so that we can get to the soil below. We stacked the turf up in a pile (visible in the image below behind the mound of soil) and then began removing the soil from the trench area. As trench 1 is in the same location as a trench in last year’s excavation, the soil that we were digging out was the back fill from last year. As such we could remove this soil without the danger of destroying any archaeology. Below this backfill is a sheet of teram fabric (visible in left part of trench in image below) to protect the underlying archaeology which makes digging down to the level reached last year particularly easy.

Trench 1, Day One.

The weather was kind to us on our first day too – no rain and a little sunshine; perfect digging conditions as the soil neither bakes solid nor becomes a quagmire. Due to this we managed to move a good amount of soil through a tag team of mattockers, shovelers and wheel barrow pushers. The picture above shows the progress at the end of an afternoon’s consolidated work!

The Middleton Hall Excavation

From the 14th to 29th July 2012 the National Botanic Garden of Wales embarked on a new exploration of the original Middleton Hall, the 16th century manor house of the Middleton family who were very much involved in many of the first voyages of the East India Company. This blog outlines the excavation work carried out this year with pictures and commentary on features.