Great Yarmouth community test-pitting

A couple of weekends back, we led a team of volunteers from Great Yarmouth in a test-pitting project designed to examine the layers of archaeology within this historic town. We excavated seven test-pits at the southern and northern ends of the town, and selected locations inside and outside the town walls, so we could compare the types of finds, their depths, and the preservation of the soil profiles in those locations. It’s immediately noticeable that the ground levels outside the town walls are much lower than inside. It wasn’t until around the 18th century that human settlement really expanded beyond the walls, and we’re intrigued to find out whether the land inside the walls was a natural high point and therefore preferred for settlement in this low-lying landscape; if so, we may find deep deposits of urban stratigraphy there!

large glazed ceramic cistern
Late 19th century hopper for a storm drain lifted by a volunteer

The two test-pits (1, 2) at the northern end of the town were dug by pupils from St Nicholas Primary School and members of the Great Yarmouth Young Archaeologists Club. They dug in the courtyard gardens of Kirsty’s café, behind the Priory. We’ve still got to wash and examine all the finds but we were able to identify some of them while still on site. There was great excitement around the discovery a large glazed ceramic cistern that was located quite by chance right in the middle of the test-pit. When we excavated we found that it was stamped Doulton and Co, and a bit more research established that this was a late 19th century hopper for a storm drain – we could still see the line that the pipe took from the hopper. This was the trench that kept on giving! We also found three broken pieces of carved stone that fitted together; we hummed and hawed over what they could be from, until an eagle-eyed volunteer spotted the exact same thing – an ornate chimney cowl – on the roof of the building.

A fragment of Cologne/Frechen stoneware with an oak leaf design. Imported from Germany in the 16th century
A fragment of Cologne/Frechen stoneware with an oak leaf design. Imported from Germany in the 16th century

We dug two trenches inside and close to the medieval wall in the Denes area of the town (3, 4). It was notable that the wall appeared much shorter on the inside, a sure sign that the ground had been built up, but the question we had to answer was “when”? In each of these trenches we came down onto a dense rubbish layer under the topsoil. It’s probable that this rubbish layer was deliberately banked up against the town wall, to reinforce it against attack from the sea. We won’t be able to answer the ‘when’ question until we’ve washed and examined all the finds, but we did find a range of items that epitomized Yarmouth’s past. Favourites were a rove from ship’s planking and a number of copper ship’s nails; fragments of 16th century stoneware pottery, including this nice piece from a Cologne or Frechen jar with oak-leaf decoration; and a sherd of bi-colour Dutch pottery of a similar, 16th century, date. These imported pottery vessels would have come in via Yarmouth continental trading links and were clearly commonly found in the homes of Great Yarmouth in the 16th century.

16th-17th c glass with floral design
16th-17th century glass with floral design

But the star find from this deposit was this piece of decorated window glass, broken but with enough grozing along one edge to suggest that it had been a circular piece about 10cm across, with this Tudor rose decoration.

We thought that the two test-pits outside the medieval town (5, 6) would have much less in them and would come straight down onto beach sand, but in fact we found more rubbish in these! The pit immediately outside the wall had very clean homogenous silty sand in it that looked initially as if it was going to be disappointingly blank, but in fact a little more digging showed that the sand had probably been deliberately deposited to seal a layer of 19th and 20th century building debris, probably from the demolition of houses that are shown in early photographs as having been built against the outside of the town wall.

Debrief at the end of Day 1
Debrief at the end of Day 1
Andrew holds some 16th-17th century imported pottery
Andrew holds some 16th-17th century imported pottery

Our final trench was in St George’s Park (7) and very low lying, but even here we found 0.8m of stratified deposits. Beneath the topsoil was thick sand which sealed a darker layer containing 19th century rubbish. Local reports tell us that this area was sand dunes, so perhaps what we are seeing is the levelling of the sand dunes over 19th century waste land, in order to create the park? However, we also know that there were WWII structures in the park, so we need to do a bit more analysis before we can understand this test-pit.

This report represents our immediate thoughts – expect them to change as we examine the evidence!

Jo Caruth

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