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Last weekend saw the culmination of a successful community project in Cambridgeshire, led by the Meldreth Local History Group. The project was inspired by the Michael Woods TV programme “The Great British Story”, and two of the local historians, Kathryn Betts and Joan Gane led the project with the help of Dr Carenza Lewis,  gaining HLF funding of just over £7000 under the ‘All our Stories’  initiative.

The who!e community got involved, coming together for the digs over three weekends during the summer, and Meldreth Village Hall was packed to the rafters with local people looking to view the various finds from 32 test pits dug throughout the village, clustered around a two-mile stretch of road just west of the River Mel, a tributary of the River Cam.

When we arrived slightly early, we were greeted by Kathryn and her colleagues, and made to feel most welcome. A short film about the project, made as a digital record of the project was on continuous loop in a side room and we took the opportunity to watch this as background info, in relative peace before the main crowds arrived.

Just some of the finds on display.

Just some of the finds on display.

In the main hall, the finds from the 32 test pits were laid out on display, each pit showing a map and photographs, with the finds divided by context (depth). The vast majority of finds were of pottery sherds or animal bone, the outstanding find being a metallic ‘badge’, initially identified by the experts (including the PAS) as a Medieval Pilgrim Badge, which within the last week has now been correctly identified as a medieval mirror casing. In fact, this was possible due to an almost identical find from Billingsgate in London, dated to the late 14th century. This was so identical in fact, that it’s highly possible that the same mould was used to create the two items.

The 'Pilgrim Badge' from Meldreth Pit 7.

The ‘Pilgrim Badge’ from Meldreth Pit 7.

The Billingsgate Mirror Casing © Museum of London

The Billingsgate Mirror Casing © Museum of London

On cue, the hall was cleared and seating arranged in time for Carenza’s talk. She gave an overview of the test pitting procedure, and explained that everyone was given the opportunity to get involved, either by digging their own pit, helping dig someone else’s pit, sieving spoil, bagging finds, or just by keeping the diggers refreshed with food and drink!

Some of the pits and finds were then highlighted, and the correct identification of the mirror case was announced, showing that even the experts get it wrong sometimes!

Next some charts and maps were shown, putting the project’s finds into a regional context. The comparatively large amount of Bronze Age pottery was deemed unusual – it’s possible there were two or more small settlements or housing groups in the area. This starkly contrasts with the complete lack of Iron Age finds, although the amount of Roman material shows that the area was settled toward the end of the IA. There was then a gap, with no early Anglo Saxon finds until the 9th Century. Moving through the middle and later medieval periods, Meldreth was obviously an important and thriving centre, with many finds, some of which from the area of the manor indicate high status, and it seems the settlement was sustained (or at least not curtailed nearly as much as other nearby population centres) throughout the period of the Black Death.

Following on from the late medieval, the finds tailed off, with very little from the pre-Victorian and Victorian periods. It was interesting to see the pattern of finds through time, indicating the ebb and flow of the village’s fortunes.

Meldreth today is a commuter village, with a population close to two and a half thousand people, with many new houses, and a thriving community. The possibility exists, now that the History Group have the materials, for further test pitting to take place in the future, though this will depend to an extent upon further funding being made available. But for a small village just south of Cambridge, there is obviously more of the story to be told, and I suspect the community spirit and will is there to push the project forward even further.

Drinks and cakes were available for those who wished to stay behind and investigate the finds further, to chat with Carenza or to watch the films, but we made our way to the door, for the journey home to London.

 Many thanks to the project organisers for putting on such a great display, to all those who took part in the dig, and to everyone on the day who made us outsiders feel welcomed.

If you have a Community Archaeology project or event upcoming, please let us know about it in the comments, and if we can, we’ll try to come along and say hello!


November 2013

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