Carenza Lewis of Time Team fame ran an archaeological project in Pirton 2007-2011. She is the Director of both the Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) and the Currently Occupied Rural Settlement (CORS) project. HEFA provides an opportunity for young people to gain experience of working on a real archaeological project. Another aim is to encourage members of the community to host a test pit, or help in other ways, to explore the history of the place in which they live.
The CORS project is based at the University of Cambridge and is looking at the origins and development of rural settlements. Previous research focused on deserted villages, but this study is looking at those that are still inhabited. The project includes parishes in East Anglia, Derbyshire, Leicester and Kent. One highlight has been work at Kibworth, which has recently been featured in Michael Wood’s TV programme ‘A Story of England.’
Carenza Lewis’s annual reports on Pirton Digs.
Pirton is today a nucleated village clustered around the church and adjacent earthwork remains of an imposing motte and bailey castle, situated just over 5km north west of Hitchin in Hertfordshire. Extensive earthworks south and east of the motte are variously considered to represent the remains of either village or manorial settlement. Burge End Farm, containing the remains of a possible moat, lies c. 0.3km to the north of the present village, while a second, better-preserved, moat lies 500m to the south-west at Rectory Farm. Both these sites are to the north of the present village, with other farms lying on the southern fringes of the settlement.
Five test pits were dug in Pirton in 2007. With this small number of pits excavated, only the most preliminary observations can presently be made, Most notably, however, PIR07/4 in a field between the present village of Pirton and Burge End produced substantial quantities of pottery (18 sherds from 4 spits) dating to 1100-1400AD, strongly suggestive of the presence of settlement in this area in this period. This test pit also produced the only sherd of possible pre-Norman date, a single fragment of St Neots ware (900-1200AD). Further test pitting will be carried out in Pirton in 2008.
Twenty-three test pits were excavated at Pirton in 2008, a considerable advance on the five dug in 2007. Many of these were excavated by local residents and members of the North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, using the same methods and under the same University of Cambridge supervision as the HEFA test pits. Evidence for the later Anglo-Saxon period was considerably amplified compared to that recovered in 2007: eleven pits produced material of this date, including PIR/08/1, PIR/08/17 and PIR/08/23 which all produced significant quantities (more than five sherds) of pottery dating to the ninth to eleventh centuries from undisturbed levels, strongly indicating the presence of settlement of later Anglo-Saxon date in this area. The area between the present church and West Lane also produced enough ceramic material to posit the present of some sort of more intensive activity in this area. Taken with the evidence from 2007, settlement at Pirton in the later Anglo-Saxon period appears to have been quite extensive, (although not necessarily continuous) and intensive in some places, in the east of the present area of settlement. It appears to be taking the form of a nucleated settlement, although its size is difficult to establish on current evidence.
The centuries following the Norman Conquest saw a dramatic expansion in both extent and intensity of activity at Pirton as represented by pottery finds, with nearly all excavated pits producing significant quantities of ceramic material dating to between c. 1100-1400 AD. Notably, this is the first period for which any of the pits west of the castle have produced pottery and it is interesting to note settlement expansion and intensification coinciding with the construction of the castle. Equally dramatic is the contraction in activity in the fifteenth century, indicated by an almost complete dearth of pottery of this date: a total of just eight sherds have been recovered from the twenty-eight pits excavated to date. By the seventeenth century, however, a recovery seems to have taken place as the volume of pottery recovered is once again high from nearly all excavated test pits.
Twenty-eight test pits were excavated at Pirton in 2009, bringing the total to fifty-six. As in 2008, many of these were excavated by local residents and members of the North Hertfordshire Archaeological Society, once again using the same methods and under the same ACA supervision as the HEFA test pits. On the basis of this large number of excavated pits, it is now possible to make, with some confidence, a number of inferences regarding the likely development of the settlement. Two main foci of activity in the Roman period can been seen, one in the north of the present village in the area of Hammonds Farm and Burge End Farm and the other to the north of Walnut Tree Farm. This later area has also produced the only evidence of fifth to ninth century date, a single sherd of Early/Middle Saxon hand-built ware from PIR/09/05. Found in a pit which also yielded pottery of Roman date, both apparently residual in medieval contexts, this may indicate a continuation of activity from the Roman to early Anglo-Saxon periods, although it is difficult to say this with certainty. The site then appears to have been abandoned until the later part of the late Saxon period. Settlement at this time appears to be widespread across the eastern side of the present village, focussed in particular on Burge End Farm, the area south of West Lane and the area north of Walnut Farm. The absence of material from test pits in between these areas may possibly indicate that the settlement was of polyfocal form, with three separate foci of settlement separated by less intensively used areas.
Almost all the excavated pits have produced pottery dating to the mid eleventh to mid fourteenth centuries, suggesting that the village at this time had become larger, more fully nucleated and more densely settled. In particular, the western part of the present village appears to be in intensive use for the first time, probably reflecting the expansion of settlement in this area as the motte and bailey castle was constructed. In contrast to this period of growth and expansion, there is a dramatic drop-off in the volume of pottery of post-fourteenth century medieval date, apparent in nearly all the excavated test pits, suggesting considerable contraction of settlement at this time. In particular, the centre of the present village north-east and south-west of the church has produced almost no pottery of this date. On current evidence, it seems that the formerly large nucleated village was reduced to perhaps no more than five islands of occupation, farmsteads or small cottage clusters, within an otherwise largely deserted landscape. Recovery does not seem to have been established until the seventeenth or even eighteenth century, and even then the volume of pottery recovered does not match that of the high medieval period.
Pirton continued its domination of the HEFA league tables with twenty-seven test pits excavated in 2010, many by local residents, bringing the total since 2007 to eighty-three. The 2010 excavations focussed in particular on the north-west of north-east of the present village, especially around the farms on the northerly margins of the present village. Most of these yielded significant volumes of Romano-British pottery, showing the contemporary settlement along the southern side of the stream valley here to have been quite extensive and densely populated. However, none of the pits in this northerly part of the present village have produced so much as a single sherd of pottery of early or middle Anglo-Saxon date, clearly indicating that this settlement did not continue into the post-Roman period. The excavated evidence shows that this area did come back into use as settlement in the later Anglo-Saxon period, but at this date it seems to be more limited in extent and arranged as discrete small sites, perhaps farms, rather than as a large continuous village. A majority of pits in the 300m square area north of the church and along the High Street have produced significant volumes of late Anglo-Saxon pottery, and it is apparent that this part of the village came into existence at this time.
As noted before, the western part of the present village appears to be a creation of the high medieval period when the motte and bailey castle was constructed, and when the village appears to be intensively and extensively occupied as a nucleated settlement. The impression of very significant late medieval contraction in settlement size and intensity continues to be clearly evident, although the farms in the north of the village were test pitting took place in 2010 seem to have suffered less at this time than the core of the village. Post-medieval recovery is also less marked at these sites.
Twenty-one pits were excavated at Pirton in 2011, most (as in previous years) by local residents, especially motivated in 2011 by a desire to get the total number of pits excavated into three figures. The enthusiastic commitment that has been given to this project meant that no-one was surprised, although everyone was impressed, when 100th pit was duly excavated in summer 2011. However, not being a group of people inclined to rest for long on their laurels, work continued, and by the end of the year, the total number of pits excavated in the village had reached a remarkable 104.
The 2011 excavations filled in a number of gaps, including one area immediately west of the Toot Hill medieval motte, where little excavation had previously been carried out. This clearly confirmed previous observations that this part of the settlement came into existence at or shortly after the time when the castle was built. Interestingly, in a settlement which has evidence of severe later medieval contraction, this area seems to be less affected that much of the rest of the village.The results of these digs can be seen by downloading Carenza’s pot distribution PowerPoint presentation. Download