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CBA West Midlands: News From The Past 2017

(This post first appeared on Enrichment Through Archaeology’s website on 9th March 2017, written by Ian Parker Heath)

Last weekend saw Catherine and I travel to Birmingham to take part in the Council for British Archaeology’s West Midlands branch annual conference. It was a chance to both catch up on what had been going on archaeologically and to present our work on the Peeling back the Layers project, which is in the West Midlands, but only just!

The day began with a typical motte and bailey castle. The motte is the raised mound and the bailey is the protected area below.

Mike Hodder’s re-examination of the castle next to the M6. That’s at Castle Bromwich obviously, and although I’d heard the name I knew nothing of it, but as you might expect, many place-names in Britain ‘do exactly what it says on the tin’! This one is no exception to that rule. The castle is, and was, nowhere near as grand as it’s neighbour Dudley Castle, rather it was what is known as a motte and bailey. These were typically large raised mounds with a keep on top and below was timber palisade providing protection for those inside. The site was excavated back in the 1970’s but hasn’t been properly analysed or published. It seems to have been occupied for a relatively short time, but interestingly, within the grounds the excavators found not only evidence of medieval material but also Roman period habitation and prehistoric flints.

The next presentation was from members of the Worcestershire Buildings Preservation Trust and their work on the restoration of the Weaver’s Cottages in Kidderminster. Unassuming terraced houses you might think from walking past, but inside they reveal their part in the growth of the textile industry in the town. Did you know for example that “The cottages at 20-22 Horsefair are listed as “three houses with attic workshops dating from the mid and late 18th century with later alterations”, adding that “these buildings, which combine domestic and workshop functions are rare survivals from the period associated with the domestic worsted weaving industry in Kidderminster”. The key phrase here is ‘attic workshops’ as you might think a workshop would be on the ground floor, but weaving requires a good, natural light source and the attics of these houses had large windows which are a tell-tale sign! So it seems it was a trade-off between moving raw material and finished goods up and down flights of narrow stairs, or working long days in poor light.

The Tilley Timber Project was next up, and my favourite of the day! This is another Heritage Lottery Fund project, this time from Shropshire. George Nash (@Tilleyite) told us of the project, which has been using dendrochronology to date houses in the hamlet. Almost half the houses in Tilley are listed buildings and were thought to be of medieval dates. Whilst many of the dates gathered as part of the project confirmed the dates suggested by the construction techniques etc, there were some surprises, including one house which looked like a ‘railway cottage’ but turned out to be several hundred years older! Just goes to show, looks can be deceiving!

The thing about Neolithic sites is that some of them have tremendous names. Hetty Pegler’s Tump is one that springs to mind. Paul Garwood of University of Birmingham presented us with the results of excavations at the equally splendidly named Mavesyn Ridware and Alrewas in Staffordshire. The first is thought to be named after the Norman family Malvoisin who were given the land in 1066. Alrewas is derived from the Old English word  Alor-wæsse meaning”alluvial land growing with alder trees”. There is a deal of evidence that many henges are to be found close to, or associated with water, and clearly Alrewas is another. Both sites were like a number of other Neolithic sites, some of which I have helped excavate, and were largely devoid of finds/artefacts. While this might sound disappointing, the excavation recorded the ditch construction, topography and more, which adds to our understanding of these somewhat enigmatic monuments.

As you might imagine, the Romans featured in the day, with two presentations, one on the culture clash between the indigenous Iron Age tribes of the area, and one on the distribution of brooches. So, Angie Bolton of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) took us into the world of Roman brooches. First question then – when is a Polden Hill Brooch not a Polden Hill brooch? Good question! Back to the naming of things in archaeology, many artefacts are named after the place they are found, so for example the Neolithic pottery type ‘Peterborough Ware’ was first found in, yes, Peterborough! Polden Hill was the place where a type of Roman brooch was first found. However, Polden Hill is in Somerset and as more were found the area their distribution showed that Polden Hill was in fact on the very edge of this area, and that in fact their manufacture and use seems to have been centred on the West Midlands. Not only that, but that rather than there being just a single type of brooch, there are many variations. The value of this study though lay in the establishment and maintenance of a good working relationship with metal-detectorists in the region who were responsible for many of the finds. Their work has helped shape our understanding of the everyday piece of Roman life.

As a result  of works carried out to improve heating etc, Holy Trinity church in Sutton Coldfield was the scene of our next paper. The work allowed a team from Archaeology Warwickshire to explore some of the normally hidden parts of the church, some of which date back to the 14t century. Its amazing some of the things you can find under the floor, and the team found a Swiss coin, suggesting that one parishioner had tried to pull a fast one at collection time! The church has also recently been awarded £96,000 for a heritage project  to help improve interpretation at the church.

The day closed with another presentation from the Archaeology Warwickshire team, this time on a multi-period site of Hillmorton near Rugby. Here the team discovered a range of features from the Bronze Age to the Roman period with some pretty impressive elements. Among these were Roman period kilns, a very fine Roman jar, a line of Bronze Age post holes and a similar line of post holes from the Iron Age. These are shown below and all the images are shown here courtesy of Archaeology Warwickshire and my thanks go to Stuart Palmer for helping with this.

In addition to presenting a paper on the project, throughout the day Catherine and I had a display highlighting Peeling back the Layers, and we were very busy during the various breaks with delegates from across the region keen on finding out more about our work. We’d like to say thank you again to the organisers for inviting us along, to all the people who came to talk to us, and to say that we have another Open Day on the 16th July to which you are all welcome to come along to! Is that everything?

Ian Parker Heath


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