Test Pitting is a really useful method of archaeological excavation. It can be used as ‘key hole’ archaeology, to take a small quick look underground to see what is going on. This can be useful when the space you have is small, as in a back garden, or when you want to understand a larger area, perhaps to observe changes across the landscape.
We used test pitting as a digging method on Tenants Hill in 2018. We had been alerted to the hilltop by a local dowser, who thought that he had found a prehistoric cremation (urn) cemetery. The location was near an upstanding round barrow and we thought it worth taking a look. Doing a large area excavation was not an option (an expensive, destructive, gamble). Geophysical survey would not have picked up such small features amongst the geological signals. Therefore test pitting seemed a positive way to answer our research questions that year. These questions were:]
· Could we identify evidence for Neolithic and Bronze Age funerary activity along the north-west to south-east axis of Tenants Hill?
· Was dowsing a valid method of archaeological prospection?
· Could we recover artefacts to help elucidate the character and chronology of any human activity?
· Is there any potential for further fieldwork in this landscape?
We dug eleven 1x1m test pits, and one 1x2m pit. Volunteers from the Dorset County Museum and local archaeology societies helped out.
We didn’t find any cremations but we did discover a large quantity of worked flint. Most of the flint was probably made during the Late Neolithic or Early Bronze Age, and is therefore consistent in date with the barrow but one or two pieces are indicative of earlier activity, i.e. late Mesolithic or Early Neolithic. The larger test pit was dug over an elongated mound. The topsoil here also contained significant quantities of worked flint, suggesting that it could either be a ploughed-out monument or a prehistoric field boundary.
We also concluded that there was significant potential for further fieldwork in the landscape, and which have since demonstrated to be the case- follow the blog to read more about our discoveries on Tenants Hill.
Test pitting is also really useful in currently occupied settlements i.e. within villages or towns. Often these have been places of occupations for hundreds of years with people building in the same place, with modern buildings, roads and services (underground pipes etc) on top. Test pits allow a safe and accessible way to explore these types of landscape. We have been digging test pits in villages around the Quantock Hills, as part of a National Lottery Heritage Fund project.