David Hillelson, who leads the Heritage Network team, writes of the background to the current important archaeological work in Pirton May 1995
It is not often that an opportunity arises to carry out an archaeological dig in the centre of an historic village such as Pirton – a village that can trace its origins to before the famous Domesday survey carried out for William I in 1086-7.
Over the centuries much information and knowledge about the past has been lost. Settlements have grown up and declined, villages have expanded and contracted – and as people got on with the business of leading their lives, little attention was given to what may have gone before. And yet much evidence survives beneath the ground to be found by chance as a result of ploughing, erosion or some other form of ground disturbance.
Over the last thirty years the scientific investigation of this evidence has flourished, giving the archaeologist a whole new arsenal of skills and techniques. At the same time, the general public have become increasingly aware and concerned about their environment. In 1990, new guidelines were approved which gave Planning Authorities the power to control the destruction of archaeological remains through the statutory planning process. It is under these guidelines that the archaeological work at The Fox is taking place.
There is known to have been settlement in the vicinity of the village since at least Neolithic times (4500-2300 BC), with documentary evidence of the village itself from the Anglo-Saxon period. The village is recorded under the name of Peritone in the Domesday Book, which suggests a local population of 200-300 supporting its own priest, and at some point during the 11th or 12th centuries, it acquired its motte and bailey castle now known as Toot Hill.
At the same time, or shortly after the construction of the castle, a planned settlement was built around its margins and carefully aligned with it. This planned Medieval village has recently been described by English Heritage as ‘one of the most important historic sites in Hertfordshire with its well preserved village and castle earthworks.’
Under the provisions of the outline planning permission for the land behind the Fox which was granted in June 1992, trial trenching was carried out which showed evidence of occupation between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries with the suggestion of a contraction taking place at some point after that date. The present open area excavation has offered the opportunity to clarify a number of questions concerning the development of the village in the transitional Saxo-Norman period including the relationship between the Domesday village and the planned settlement that grew up around the later castle, and the apparent decline of the village after the fourteenth century.
The excavation, which is scheduled to last two to three months, depending on the weather, will concentrate on the relationship between features on the street frontage, which appears to have survived the fourteenth century decline, and the rear of the site which does not. Most importantly, the project will aim to produce an overall plan of the layout of this part of the settlement and collect evidence for the phasing of occupation and for the function of structures and working areas. This combined with economic and technological evidence and documentary study, will enable a much clearer picture of a crucial period in the development of the English village to be drawn.
July 1995 David Hillelson, Leader of the Heritage Network Team, gives an update on
THE ARCHAEOLOGICAL DIG AT THE FOX
In the May edition of the Magazine, we set out the background to the excavations at The Fox. Now, as we approach the end of the field work stage of the project, it is possible to make a few brief comments about what has been found and its significance.
Three separate areas have been excavated, on the street frontage, and on the northern and western sides of the site. All three areas have revealed the remains of timber buildings and property boundaries which may date back as far as the eleventh century. Accurate dating is difficult at this stage as much work on processing and analysis is yet to be done.
On the street frontage, clear evidence for the earlier line of the High Street was uncovered. Up until approximately the seventeenth century, the roadway was much wider than it is today, and much deeper, forming a hollow way which may have extended right up to the present house frontages. A chalk floor and early foundations on the edge of the hollow way iindicate that the area of the present pub car park was formerly occupied by houses.
In the northern area, it was possible to discern a variety of patterns among the many post-holes which were uncovered. These represent the remains of timber buildings and the presence of a hearth in the middle of one of these, may suggest that at least one of them was used as living accommodation. Within an apparent courtyard, evidence suggesting the presence of an early cemetery was uncovered, which may provide some interesting new theories on the early development of Pirton. The western area is crossed by a variety of ditches and gullies which suggest property boundaries. A number of pits, possibly for the disposal of rubbish or nightsoil, are being investigated, as well as a number of further post-holes structures.
Work on site is intended to be completed by the end of June, after which time the processing and analysis of the evidence will begin. This will be related to documentary records, many of which have already been researched by the Pirton History Group, to provide a more accurately dated and complete picture of the medieval origins of the village.