A town through time: Recent excavations in Calne town centre

on Tuesday, 07 December 2021. Posted in Archaeology

We have recently had an exciting opportunity to understand more about the origins and development of the historic North Wiltshire market town of Calne. Throughout October and November, Worcestershire Archaeology (WA) have been undertaking a full excavation of plot of land to the east of the High Street in Calne. The work was commissioned by Churchill Retirement Living for development into a Residential Home for which they had planning consent. The excavation follows an earlier phase of evaluation by WA in 2016 where a sequence of buried features and deposits from Saxon to post-medieval had been revealed.

The site lies in a part of the town is thought to have been an early medieval addition to the Saxon settlement of Calne which largely lay to the south of the river around the parish church. This ‘laid out’ settlement comprised the High Street and market places from which long narrow ‘burgage plots’ were established to provide each property fronting the High Street to have sufficient space to the rear to be able to grow food, keep animals and carry out small scale industry. Historic maps depict the site divided into four or five of these burgage plots stretching between the High Street and The Pippins (formerly Back Lane). In recent decades, the site has been terraced and divided by garden walls and partially used as a car park.

The following is a summary of the findings from WA:

Excavation
The excavation extended across the footprint of the proposed building, beginning with the removal of upper layers of the considerable depth of topsoil within the site.

Stone walls
Initially the walls identified within the evaluation were revealed and their full extent recorded, dividing the boundaries of the plots on an east-west orientation and, in places, the end of the plots from north to south. The walls were surprisingly substantial, built of large limestone blocks some of which had been shaped to produce a squared face. They were set in the topsoil and in places Victorian garden features were built up to them. The fact that they were cut into topsoil rather than the natural substrate would imply that they are not the original burgage divisions, though they seem to follow the lines of the medieval boundaries.

Stone building
Further excavation in the central part of the site revealed the foundations and surface of a stone building, again made from substantial walls partially faced stone walls. It was divided into two rooms and survived well apart from the northern wall of the eastern room. The western room had a beaten limestone surface while the eastern had a sunken storeroom or cellar and a hearth to the east. This building is visible on an 1828 map of Calne and was still standing when aerial photographs of the town were taken in 1930. It is likely to have been a small workshop of some purpose, originally built to house a hand loom.

Four archaeologists in high-vis jackets and a digger truck are excavating a rectangular stone-walled building
Photo credit: Worcestershire Archaeology

Cisterns
To the west of the building are two small stone structures comprising stone lined pits or perhaps cisterns cut into the natural substrate. The northern of these is circular and appears to have been fed from a small stone lined gully to the north east. It has not yet been fully excavated. The southern structure is square and was cut into the edge of a medieval ditch. Although fully excavated it is curious that the slope of the ditch was preserved within it, limiting the amount of water that might be stored within it. These may have been built to provide water for the activity that was taking place within the workshop.

Section of cistern cut into ground with ranging poles along width and height
Section of cistern. Image credit: Worcestershire Archaeology

Lime kiln
To the south and east of the building a lime kiln is currently under excavation. This is a semi-circular stone structure partially surrounding a circular sunken area. On the opposite side of to the wall is a ‘stoke hole’ for regulating the input of oxygen.

In the vicinity there are a number of vary large pits in this area cut into the natural substrate which are thought to been excavated to quarry stone for lime production. One of these extended beneath the building showing that this activity predated its construction.
Given its location that it is likely the kiln was used to create lime mortar for building rather than agriculture. A kiln to the east of the town is depicted on a map of the town held at Bowood house and dated 1771. The lime making activity appears to have taken place within the eastern half of the site, which is shown on the 1828 map to have been a single amalgamated parcel. Interestingly at a later date, the area was once again divided into plots similar to the original burgages.

Lime kiln. Photo credit: Worcestershire Archaeology

Medieval features
The earliest features on the site are a series of ditches, pits and postholes cut into the natural substrate largely in the central and western part of the site.

A series of shallow postholes at the western end of the site appear to form three sides of a rough rectangle which may represent a building or shelter of some description. Others are more randomly placed although other patterns may emerge when the survey is examined in more detail.

Scattered across this area are a number of pits, often intercutting. While some of these were relatively shallow others were up to a metre deep and included a ‘classic’ medieval rubbish pit assemblage of pottery, animal bone, oyster shell and charcoal. These are likely to have been excavated for the disposal of sewage and rubbish. Pottery from a cluster of pits in the centre of the site has been dated to the 12th Century

A deep V shaped ditch runs north-south down the slope in the central west of the site but then turns 90 degrees to the east before it is cut by a quarry pit. Pottery from this ditch is 12th Century in date. At the southern edge of the site, it cuts another similar ditch which runs north-west to south-east. Although this ditch is undated, it is clearly earlier and is likely to be the same as that recorded in the evaluation stage which was thought to be Saxon in date. This ditch is likely to be the earliest feature on the site. An enigmatic carved stone, possibly an architectural detail was recovered from its fill.

These medieval features are thought to be represent activity from around the establishment of the burgage plots in this area. However the orientation of the earliest ditch and the ditch cutting it, running across the burgage plots may imply some activity in this area which predates their establishment. No securely Saxon material has been recognised but examination of the pottery and environmental samples retrieved will cast more light on this.

Working shot from the west. Photo credit: Worcestershire Archaeology

We have the benefit of some very nice drone photography and some 3-D models of the structures taken by WA. A lot more detail to help our understanding of the sequence will come out in the post-excavation assessment and analysis of environmental samples and artefacts, and well as further research on the archives and historic mapping. After this stage, probably in a few months, we intend to have an exhibition about the excavation in the Calne Heritage Centre and to invite Worchestershire Archaeology to come and present their findings to a public audience locally.

Many thanks to Tom Rogers from Worchestershire Archaeology for providing the photographs and a summary of the results.

Melanie Pomeroy-Kellinger
County Archaeologist

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