Excavations 1993 and 1995

Trial trenching in 1993 revealed extensive evidence for Medieval domestic settlement on a field to be developed for housing at the rear of The Fox public house, off High Street. The evidence was in the form of post-holes from timber buildings, ditches for enclosures and property boundaries, and pits for storage and rubbish. Major area excava¬tions of the site in 1995 revealed several ditched enclosures containing rectangu¬lar timber-post buildings of the Late Saxon and Saxo-Norman periods, most aligned north-south.

Of considerable interest was an east-west building with an inhumation cemetery on its south side. This contained about forty burials including males and females, children and adults. All the burials were arranged east-west with the heads at the west end of the graves, facing east. A number of graves contained more than one burial, suggesting family plots. The majority of burials were not in coffins and there were no apparent grave-goods. The cemetery was defined by the east-west building to its north and by a north-south building to its east. The west and south sides were defined by ditches with an entrance on the west side. A few metres further to the east stood a large north-south timber hall which had been re-built at least once. It is probable that the east-west building is a Late Saxon timber church with its associated grave¬yard. A priest is mentioned in Domesday Book (AD 1086), while the present masonry church is dated to the mid-twelfth century, enclosed by the Anarchy period motte and bailey castle and replacing its 11th century timber predecessor. The large north-south building further to the east might have been a thegn’s or manorial hall, while the north-south building defining the eastern side of the graveyard could have been a priest’s house.

Test Pits 2007-2011

Since 2007, the NHAS has been involved with a Cambridge University project, run by Dr Carenza Lewis, of Time Team fame, investigating the origins and development of medieval villages by digging one metre square test pits in as many places as possible throughout a present day village. Pirton is one of about 30 villages across East Anglia and beyond taking part in the project. The main purpose is to recover, usually small, broken pieces of pottery which are dated by Paul Blinkhorn, a medieval pottery specialist on Carenza’s team, and plot the distributions of pottery of different dates on maps of the village, thereby building a picture of which parts of the present day village were inhabited at different dates in the past.

By doing this we are beginning to understand when and where the village originated (in the 10th century AD, in the Recreation Field/Walnut Tree Farm area), and how it grew and contracted over the following centuries. We now know that the village rapidly spread westwards, so that by the Norman Conquest it occupied a narrow strip from Walnut Tree Farm to Burge End, north of High Street and south of West Lane. It was only after the Conquest that it expanded to reach the area of St Mary’s church, Great Bury and Great Green. Pirton was very badly hit by the Black Death of 1349, and by the subsequent plagues, and in the 15th-16th centuries the village seems to have been composed of a few isolated farms and cottages only. Recovery did not really happen before the 17 -18th centuries, followed by rapid growth and expansion in the 19th- 20th centuries, creating the village as we see it today.

In most of the villages involved with the project, the test pits are excavated and recorded on two weekdays each year by Year 10 school students under the direction of Carenza and her team. In Pirton since 2008 we have also had teams of adults, comprising village residents and volunteers from the NHAS, digging additional pits on weekends as well as weekdays. This year we have excavated 27 pits throughout the village during the months April to July. Since April 2007, a total of 83 pits has been dug in Pirton, resulting in a growing body of information about the origin and development of the village. Carenza’s project will continue in the village next year, providing even more detailed information about Pirton’s history.

Further information can be found on the project’s website.

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