RHFAG - Excavations


During an excavation programme, excavations normally take place over 2-3 weeks in July and August, preceded by research and geophysical survey at weekends. After excavation and backfilling, the processing of finds and further research follow over a more extended period. Test pitting can take place at any time in the year.


RHFAG has carried out the following excavations and linked activities


  • 2012 – 2017+    Noak Hill (3) post-excavation processing
  • 2004 – 2017+    Canewdon Project Test Pitting
  • 2012                  Cultural Olympiad, Clavering
  • 2005 – 2011       Noak Hill (3)
  • 2003 – 2004       Noak Hill (2)
  • 1999                  Stonebridge Training Dig
  • 1996 – 1998       Noak Hill (1)
  • 1996                  Little Havens (Site Evaluation)
  • 1994 – 1995       St. Michael’s Church
  • 1993                  Leigh Beck


Details of these are set out below.



Noak Hill (3), 2005 – 11, 2016 / Post-excavation processing, 2012-17+


Noak Hill has been our main site and is situated on a ridge of high ground in a rural area of Havering. Geophysical surveying in 2005 showed what appeared to be the buried walls of a substantial building. We excavated portions of four+ walls and a centrally positioned hearth.


The brick, mortar and bond suggested the walls were laid in the mid to late 18c. It had been a sturdily built house but with serious cracking even at the base of the foundations. It appears to have been built at roughly the same time as the other house on the present property but while the other, originally timber-framed, survived, this did not.


Close to one of the walls, we found a wide, shallow pit full of broken 19c. pots and bottles. Within living memory, such pits existed locally close to houses to provide a water supply. This is one possible use of the pit before it became a dump.


We found a lot of interesting artefacts, from the late 18c. to the 20c. Post-excavation work and analysis continue. All finds have been processed, with problematic pottery sherds having been identified by a professional expert. The stratigraphy for individual trenches has been summarised in Harris Matrices and an overall Harris Matrix for the whole site is under construction.



Canewdon Project Test Pitting, 2004 – 2017+


As part of our Canewdon Project (please see Activities section of this website) a series of 35 one-metre square test pits have been dug in the village or nearby. We approached householders and 24 were dug in gardens, 5 at the Old Vicarage, 3 at the school, 2 on Village Green (2014) and 1 in the allotments. Analysing the test pit results is helping us to date the sequences of occupation within the village and to validate boundaries. As with Noak Hill, an expert professional was consulted over the identification of problematic pottery sherds.


Writing up the second series of Canewdon test pit reports began in 2015. This will continue through 2017 when it is anticipated several more reports will be published to the owners of the gardens within which the test pits were dug. When all the test pit reports are completed, a summary report of all 35 will be produced.



Cultural Olympiad, Clavering, 2012


RHFAG took part in a mass archaeological excavation as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. Four community digs were organised by Access Cambridge Archaeology and overseen by Dr. Carenza Lewis in eastern England - in Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Bedfordshire and Clavering in Essex, the one which we joined. ACA had provided comprehensive guides about how to go about things and would be there in force on the day to help and guide people but we were asked by Clavering village if we would carry out a “demo dig”, showing villagers who had never done this sort of thing before how to get going.


The April day booked for the demo dig arrived as cold, windy, wet, sloshy and generally uncomfortable  but we were able to measure out a test pit, deturf it, remove the first context, sieve and examine finds, backfill and then returf. A big turnout of 40 villagers braved the weather to see how it was done and quite a few joined in with sieving and handling the finds. The demonstration proved to be a useful exercise, giving people the confidence that this was something they would be able to do and showing them it was quite straightforward, just following the excellent step-by-step guide booklets provided for all by ACA.


The day of the actual digs was a pleasant, dry and mainly sunny day in May. Dr Lewis led an introductory session to villagers in a packed village hall before people went back to their own gardens to do their digs. Members of RHFAG participated by going to separate test pits in the village where we joined village families whose digging experience varied widely. During the day, experts from ACA visited all the pits, identifying finds and sorting out any problems which had arisen. At the end of the day, there was a summing-up session where all the finds were laid out and Dr Lewis described what had come out of each of the 29 pits and explained their significance. The day was a very successful one, made so by the great deal of very good organisation put in by ACA and the village.



Noak Hill (2), 2003 – 2004


This was our 2nd. project at Noak Hill. We opened 4 trenches and found a range of artefacts dating from the 13c. to 20c. We also found closely packed animal bones which turned out to be an almost complete but partly disarticulated (dismantled) skeleton of a donkey. All four of its legs had been removed and placed beside the torso.


Artefacts including pottery, glass and a clay pipe fragment found in association with the skeleton suggested burial in the mid 17c. When the grave was dug, the burial would have been about 1.5 m below the surface as it was then.


This unusual and unexpected find involved the group consulting a range of animal bone specialists. We gave a talk on the discovery to the Essex Archaeological and Historical Congress in 2004 and wrote a report for the Royal Archaeological Institute as part of their 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations (for details, see in Activities section).




Stonebridge, 1999


The garden of a 17c. cottage in Stonebridge was the site of our 1999 excavation. We set this up as a training dig, giving new RHFAG Members experience of excavation and longer-established Members the opportunity to practice and extend their skills.



Noak Hill (1), 1996 – 1998


We excavated here in association with Newham Museums Service, Pre-Construct Archaeology, English Heritage and the British Museum, and consulted with specialists from London Borough of Havering and Essex County Council. There was a lot of professional interest in the site based on the large amount of tile and pottery fragments, including wasters, lying around, and the presence of boulder clay and London Clay. This raised the possibility of a tile or pottery production site on or near the property.


Geophysical investigation using magnetometer, magnetic susceptibility, resistivity and ground radar surveys resulted in the identification of a 3-metre square magnetic anomaly consistent with the remains of a kiln so we dug it and it did indeed turn out to be a tile kiln.


We excavated two corners of it and revealed ½-metre thick walls of peg tiles bonded with fired clay and with two stoke holes in the east wall. Archaeomagnetic dating produced a date of 1365 – 1405 AD for the last firing. After this, the kiln seems to have been deliberately destroyed, with the upper parts of the walls being pushed in and the roof collapsing into the chamber.


We also found over 13,000 sherds of medieval Mill Green pottery, dating from the 13c and 14c. These included jars, jugs, skillets, a cauldron, a pipkin and a culinary stamp. Many of these had been warped, blistered, cindered, had glaze overruns or had suffered breakage while being fired and showed no evidence of having ever been used. They were probably “wasters”, i.e. pots damaged during production and never sold, so the pottery kiln they had been made in was probably very close at hand. Chemical analysis showed the pottery had been made from local clay perhaps some 50 or so years before the last firing of the tile kiln though we did not find evidence that the tile kiln was used to make it.



Little Havens Site Evaluation, 1996


We carried out an archaeological assessment, including trial trenching, of the proposed site for the new Little Havens Hospice, off Daws Heath Road in 1996. Evidence of a Roman villa had been identified nearby. No evidence of former habitation was found on the site and Little Havens was built.



St. Michael’s Church, Pitsea, 1994 – 1995


St Michael’s Church was in Pitsea. It crowned the top of a clay hill 30m above the surrounding flat ground, at the head of two creeks draining through the marshland into the lower Thames estuary. By 1994, the church was derelict, overgrown and vandalised but we were very interested in finding out its history. We did a historical investigation, excavated, and carried out a field survey of the churchyard.


The historical survey involved studying Domesday records, manuscripts, estate maps, ecclesiastical records (eg abbey & diocesan), tax valuations, royal accounts, wills, Thames charts, old sketches, old newspaper articles and many other types of document. The first reference to a church on the site was from the 12c. It was rebuilt in the early 16c., when a tower was added, and then again in 1871.


Trenches inside the church revealed skeletons, spreads of bones and a really drastic Victorian rebuild. Outside, both trenches showed evidence of 16c building material, supporting the records of rebuilding at that time.


Apart from bones and building materials, the relatively few finds consisted mainly of pottery sherds, metal, glass, and a piece of 13c. or 14c. decorated floor tile. Most of the pottery sherds were medieval, though some were Saxo-Norman and Roman.


Most of St. Michael’s has now been demolished but the tower remains in the landscaped gardens at the St. Michael’s Viewpoint, opened in 2003.



Leigh Beck, Canvey Island, 1993


The Leigh Beck site was at the eastern end of Canvey island. Our excavations produced pottery, briquetage, shellfish, animal bone, metalwork, flint and three structures. (Briquetage = fired clay artefacts eg crude, broken, parts of hearth or kiln)


Our most exciting discovery was the settlement tanks, hearths and working floors of a 1st century AD Roman salt-working unit. Sea water would have been heated to evaporate the water, leaving behind the salt. A lot of burnt clay, briquetage and general “red hill” deposits were found.


We also found a Roman shell midden containing a large amount of oyster shells, animal bone and sherds of 3rd century Roman pottery. The animal bones were almost all sheep or goat. Many of the sheep were actually very young lambs perhaps suggesting ewes were being kept for their milk as part of cheese-making activity. (Sherd = pottery fragment; midden = ancient refuse heap)


The third structure was a Medieval shell midden, made up of oyster shells, animal bone and 12c – 13c pottery. As with the Roman midden, the animal bone was mainly sheep and goat with a high number of very young lambs. We also found some evidence of buildings.


Lying between the tides, this site had been subject to constant erosion and redeposition over many years. Trying to excavate whilst avoiding sinking into soft waterlogged clay, regularly retreating from the waves and seeing your work being flooded, filled in and washed away made working here very challenging.


An account ("The Vanishing Past") of the excavation of this site can be found on the Canvey Community Archive website at http://www.canveyisland.org/page/the_vanishing_past?path=0p2p229p




For information: In most years, we have an excavation period in the summer but as this is linked to the duration of specific projects, it may not be the case in every year. In the absence of an excavation, we would normally have a similar period of practical activities or post-excavation work.