Excavating Cosgrove by Henrietta Quinnell

Back in 1969 there were very few archaeologists in Britain and none of the contracting organisations which today deal with most of the rescue archaeology. A lot of threatened sites didn’t get excavated. Those that did were normally dug under the aegis of the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments, then under the Ministry of Public Building and Works – the Inspectorate underwent a number of transformations and has now become English Heritage. Directors of excavations were paid a fee for each day spent on site over an agreed period; some equipment and back-up was provided, labour was hired for heavy work – or an arrangement was made for prisoners or Borstal boys. Two or three supervisors were also paid for by the day and a lump sum handed to a body such as a local archaeological society to administer for volunteers’ expenses and other things such as film and machinery. There was no real provision for writing the subsequent report. It was expected that somehow a director would find the time to do this on her own, and then get paid a £100 or so on completion. A hand-to-mouth situation which lead to enormous accumulations of what was termed ‘backlog’ – sites dug years ago still awaiting publication. The best account of rescue digging in those days is probably that contained in the late Philip Rahtz’ autobiography “Living Archaeology Tempus 2001”.

I started digging when I was fifteen, ten years before Cosgrove, and before I went to college had spent the best part of three years ‘on circuit’, volunteering and then supervising on a series of rescue excavations. Great training in actual digging that doesn’t happen so much today. My experience led me to a degree in archaeology at University of Wales, Cardiff, in 1968. By that time I had met, or was known to, most of the active archaeologists in the country, especially those in the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments. I had decided when I graduated that I wanted to be involved in rescue work and so was delighted when I was almost immediately offered a site (Iron Age in Somerset) to direct. By the time I was offered Cosgrove in autumn 1969 I had directed a wide range of sites in southern England and in Wales, had acquired my own band of supervisors and volunteers (known as ‘Henrietta’s Flying Circus’ – you remember Monty Python ?), and of course was acquiring a substantial backlog.

In those days the Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments had three Inspectors who dealt with rescue by period, prehistoric, roman and medieval. The Inspector who dealt with roman, now retired and living in Scilly and a personal friend, was Sarnia Butcher. One day in the summer I got a phone call to go and see her and the excavation was arranged. The Inspectorate made the basic arrangements about permission to dig, I filled in a long form for the use of equipment, and, a splendid detail, a long stationery list. This last mean paper, marking ink, paper bags for finds, labels, and especially finds boxes, usually about two dozen, all to be sent to the local Post Office for collection. I think my order went the Cosgrove Post Office – doest it still exist ? I got in touch with my ‘Circus’ and arranged supervisors and volunteers, came down to see the owner and the tenant of the site and agreed arrangements for the diggers to camp on site. And off we went, for a stint of six weeks. Seven days a week, though usually staff took a day off a week by arrangement.

We turned up, set up camp, found out where to go and shop. Lucky for me that back in 1965 just before I went to Cardiff I had spent most of the summer as the supervisor, the number two, on an excavation just up the road at Grafton Regis (I seem to remember it was a medieval manor house where Elizabeth Woodville might have grown up). This meant that I knew Stony Stratford as a place to shop. Don’t forget that at this date Milton Keynes was mostly building plans and didn’t figure very large in local things.

The part of the villa that had been previously excavated was protected by a corrugated iron building which we demolished. We used a JCB with the teeth removed from the bucket to strip off the soil around this, watching closely so no archaeology was removed and also that we stopped when we were beyond the limits of roman buildings. Then we used the machine to dig a number of trial trenches across the field – you could tell where other buildings had been because of bits of roman tile in among the stubble of the field. This is how we found the temple and the other outlying buildings that we excavated – expanding the trenches to cover their areas. I was one of the young guard, who used machinery extensively. A lot of the older school were very tentative about this, including Sarnia Butcher’s immediate senior in the Inspectorate. I think I may have interpreted the permission to dig a little liberally because the farmer complained to the Inspectorate about the extent of the works. I was simply concerned to make sure as much was excavated as could be done in the time, but I got a stern telegram from London saying ‘no more machine clearance’. But by then we had found most of what was there, I think.

The excavation was done with a lot of hard work, a lot of thinking things out as we went along. I know it was a site at which I consolidated a lot of the techniques I was to use in the future. After work we cooked in small groups and occasionally went to Northampton for a curry or to the pub along the canal footpath into Cosgrove. I guess most of my team seemed at the time typical 60s young people, scruffy, lively, maybe even occasionally the odd use of mild drugs. And of course a lot of hangovers. But we worked as a team and had a lot of fun. And made local helpers welcome as well.

In fact I was about to change tack in archaeology. A few weeks before the site started I had applied for the post of Extra-Mural tutor in archaeology at Exeter University. I remember an expedition to Warwick to buy a suitable suit when I was called for interview which meant a trip away from Cosgrove. I had to wait a while for the results – I was the number 2 choice and number 1 turned the job down, but I didn’t know that until after Cosgrove. And my employment at Exeter started on January 1st 1970 and lasted for 30 years. In those days adult education in archaeology was closely bound up in rescue archaeology. The very free programme of instruction that the jobs demanded tended to be very much involved in rescue work and amateur interests. And in becoming Extra-Mural tutor at Exeter I was joining such names as Peter Fowler at Bristol, Stan Stanford and Phil Barker at Birmingham, John Alexander at London, and many more. I continued with rescue work through my early years at Exeter. But the one thing the system didn’t allow was the writing of reports. It was only some sabbatical and sick leave which allowed me to eventually get the Cosgrove report finished some 20 years later. The site drawings were all done by an adult student down in Truro who went on to run her own excavations and edit the county journal Cornish Archaeology. But I have always felt I to some extent let everyone in Northamptonshire down by leaving it so long.

One foot note: I hadn’t done much lecturing before I got my Exeter post. In fact only two lectures of which one was during the Cosgrove dig to the Wolverton and District Archaeological Society. But I found when I started to speak that lecturing was something that just flowed. So when I was asked at my job interview about my lecturing experience ‘And did you, to the best of your understanding, manage the lecturing competently’ I could answer yes and be truthful. Oh the good old days of innocence.