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Chapel House Wood 2013

This year at Chapel House Wood Roger Martlew is excavating in a new area.  It is a bowl shaped depression at the top of the slope, right next to the area that has been the focus of attention for annual excavations for the past several years.  So we have all sat there in the past, taking advantage of the higher points to perch comfortably whilst having our coffee breaks and lunch breaks and wondering what lay beneath our feet. This year we find out.

As usual Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group members are providing the personnel for the Finds Team. First on were Chris Bonsall and me (Vera Brearey). There have been between four and seven diggers each day, plus Chris and I, led of course by Roger.  It is a training dig so most participants have no or very little experience of excavation.  People had come from all over the country, including Jamie and Achilles from Canterbury University, where they are first year undergraduates.


                                            Where are the jackets, fleeces and over trousers? (photo © Lynne Primmer)


Roger spent a lot of time in the first days talking about previous years' excavations at the wider site and explaining to everyone how to go about the various jobs that needed doing in the trench. The trench itself had been opened up the previous week, so the first jobs involved cleaning it of soil, so we could see the first layer of stones, and then extending the trench a little as it became clear that some interesting features continued into the pasture outside the trench.
What are we finding? Well, it's a puzzle so far.  Roger used words such as "puzzling" "mysterious" and "enigmatic". There are some large stones indicating wall bases, and some bits that might be paving, but mainly it's a jumble of very small stones, which look too small to be tumble from collapsed walling. Early days yet though.
It was a quiet first few days for the Finds Team.  On days 1 and 2 Chris and I mainly helped dig/extend the trench.  The usual quantities of animal bone and teeth were appearing from the topsoil layer, but Roger wanted them logged as bulk finds (just recording a general area of finds location rather than a precise spot) so there wasn't much recording to be done.

On day 3 we spent part of the time showing the diggers how to use the Total Station (a sort of theodolite) to record finds and the rest of the day completing the exercise Roger had set up for them to practice on, which was recording the position of the larger stones using the Total Station, to help when we start to draw detailed plans.  When not learning how the Total Station works the diggers were busy cleaning up over the whole trench ready for the first official photograph.
Strangely for these parts it was ferociously hot on the hillside on all three days.  Plenty of water breaks needed!

Vera Brearey


                                                                     ? Health & Safety (photo © Lynne Primmer)

We had three excellent days during the first week of the excavation, mostly in beautiful sunshine. Each day started with the usual challenge of setting up the sensitive Total Station (known  affectionally as Bob and sometimes less affectionately as "that !!!**!!! thing). The careful removal of layer upon layer of stones revealed ever-changing structures and consequently ever-changing theories. It is a fascinating site, in a beautiful spot high up on a ledge above Wharfedale, with the occasional buzzard floating over us (something to do with the bones we kept finding?).

Lynne Primmer


I had been reliably informed that it had been stifling hot on-site and so I took up several bottles of iced water and iced tea on Friday. The weather was extremely muggy and humid. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and it was hot! Not good for digging. Still, our little band worked hard – Achillies was at last able to enjoy the weather while the rest of us sweated and struggled in the heat.

Don supervised some topographical surveying ; Pete finished off his planning ; James started and finished a new plan ; Pat and Phil gave me an update on the Finds Management side of things, and we plotted in a few bulk finds of animal bones here and there. The extra rest breaks were welcome and essential, so we could take shelter under the shade of the tent and down some cold drinks.

At the end of Friday we stood back and Roger gave us a debriefing on the excavation so far. It would be presumptuous of me to give details of his current interpretations of the site at this stage. No doubt the ideas about the site will change again over the next week or so! It’s still a very enigmatic site, not helped by the lack of artefacts or dateable evidence, apart from a few tiny little pieces. Basically we have two, perhaps three, fairly distinct areas within the trench, some possible post holes, a little bit of paving, and a few remnants of low walls – and not much else. But Roger remains upbeat as usual, and obviously has several ideas swirling around inside his head.

It was then time for several of the volunteers to leave, saying their goodbyes before they went home. We were expecting a new batch of volunteers on Sunday.  

Saturday was much more pleasant weather-wise. And very quiet! Just three of us were on-site with Roger today – Debbie, Alan and myself. All four of us dug throughout the day, by the end of which Roger declared it had been a very productive day, with some of the stone features beginning to be much clearer.

Sunday saw the return of Don, Achilles and James from their day’s rest, and the return of Lynne for a day. Ruth also joined us, as well as one of last year’s diggers – another Peter. I handed over the Finds Management to Ruth and Alan, and spent the day photo-cleaning a large arrangement of stones. Debbie learned how to plan, and the boys dug a large trench in an effort to clarify the structure of a feature at the south end of the site. The weather was changeable and not too bad for the diggers. It went from hot and muggy to cool and breezy.

Jane Lunnon


Monday saw the return of Maggie to the proceedings. The sondage (a trench within a trench) dug by James and Achillies was taken down further and proved to be an area devoid of stones but of course had the inevitable scatter of animal bone. The only item of significance was a tiny piece of ferrous metal found by the eagle eyed James. Soil samples were taken from either end and the central area for further analysis. Don's survey team continued their work in the area just to the west of the current excavation while Roger actually permitted himself the pleasure of excavating a small rectangular area running from the centre of the western edge of the trench. Both Helen McKinley and Ann Thake visited the proceedings with Ann assisting the survey team for a while

As Tuesday threatened torrential rain Roge adopted Plan B. This entailed moving the troops to Bull Pasture near Grassington where he would soon be running an introductory day for a group of special needs students. So the selected area was prepared by cutting the turves and relaying in readiness. During this operation Ruth and Don spent their time fending off a group of inquisitive cows, trying to stop them trampling the area and from eating the tapes and the diggers rucksacks.

Roger then rewarded the efforts by giving a conducted tour of High Close, during which the threatened deluge appeared. A hasty withdrawal was made with the ladies going to a tea room and the men to the pub! .Suitably refreshed the team then returned to Chapel House for the remainder of the day to discover that the large rock at the west end of the sondage trench, presumably a victim of the heavy rain.

Ruth Spencer & Alan Williams


                                                                       Heavy lifting! (photo © Jane Lunnon)


Our final 3 days at Chapel House Wood were still hot, sticky and muggy. Digging and planning continued. Some entertainment was provided on Thursday morning as Roger had to figure out a way of lifting a very large limestone boulder out of the sondage into which it had fallen, up and back into its original position on top of a stone structure above the sondage. Luckily we had enough muscle on-site – Achilles, our Cypriot ex-swimmer, proved particularly useful here! Incredibly they managed it with just a couple of ropes and two poles. Wonder if this is how prehistoric peoples moved large stones? So this is what is meant by experimental archaeology!

Otherwise it was all fairly uneventful apart from visits by Jamie’s parents, and from Miles Johnson of the National Park on Friday.
Planning continued into Friday – Roger kept well away from the planners, who became increasingly grumpy as they came under the pressure of knowing that time was running out. The southern half of the trench was quickly backfilled, and part of the northern half was backfilled in the afternoon, leaving poor Debbie, the last planner left standing, desperately trying to finish her 4 metre square plan as the rest of the diggers waited for her to finish. Buckets and wheelbarrows were filled with earth, sitting at one edge of the trench, waiting to be emptied; and turf walls had been moved down from the spoil heap, to line another edge, ready to go on top of the backfill. A large polythene sheet was carefully cut to size and laid out before Debbie. The pressure and the tension grew. Debbie focused – she measured - she drew – she muttered. The diggers, realising that you can’t hurry a planner after all, eventually relaxed and sat down for a break, and a bit of chit-chat.

At last about 2pm Debbie had finished, Helen and I plotted in the co-ordinates and a cross-section profile, and then the diggers swooped down with earth and turves to backfill. The last of the equipment was loaded into Roger’s Landrover (which had already made two trips taking stuff back into storage). And then all the goodbyes and thank-yous were made.

So what are the conclusions from this year’s dig? Well, to quote Roger-speak – “what we have here are a set of ephemeral features in a coherent pattern”.

Over time the site has obviously undergone use and re-use, being adapted to suit new functions. The lack of artefacts was disappointing but of course, may be significant in itself.

Of course, Roger is still musing over his interpretation, and it’s far too early to publicise any of his initial thoughts. But he seemed pleased with the results so far, and is obviously looking forward to returning to do more work on Trench DG next year.

Jane Lunnon

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