We've worked on our fair share of stately homes and palaces - including a certain large London house belonging to Her Majesty, but some of Time Team's finest moments have come from back garden digs or larger community projects like the Big Dig.
So it was with a warm glow that the team assembled at the beautiful Shropshire village of Bitterley. We had been invited by June Buckard and Jane Bishop whose thriving community group the Bitterly Archaeological Team (BATs) had already begun a project investigating the medieval origins of the village. With few resources the group had organised some geophysics, investigated documentary evidence and even dug their own trench. But there were still questions unanswered - that's where Mick Aston and the rest of the team could help.
Bitterly is what's known as a 'Deserted medieval village' - a site where earthworks and the village layout suggest it used to be much bigger and perhaps, even in a different location to the settlement that now exists. Indeed, the grand manor house, siting of the church and a number of intriguing archaeological remnants all added up to a much larger Bitterley in the past - but where had it gone?
The team were challenged to help determine the extent of the medieval village and to try to explain why it had all but vanished. This sort of project suits Mick - he works on a community project in his local area with similar aims. So it was with much enthusiasm that the team enlisted the help of the local school and villagers for what would turn out to be an eventful three days.
First things first: strategy. It was hoped that a combination of trenches over the earthworks and test pits in the gardens of the existing village should provide the team with pottery allowing them to plot the movement of settlement over time. As ever John got on with a survey over the earthworks. Simple? As we all know, it's never that simple on Time Team. Trenches and test pits produced plenty of pottery - much of it medieval as we'd expected... But over the earthworks it was a different matter. Phil was struggling. Despite the discovery of a wall line, the evidence for buildings was scant - could this feature be a field boundary or even the remnants of a formal garden associated with the manor house... Only one way to find out - keep digging.
As the dig in the fields between the current village and the manor house developed brows were furrowed, theories discussed and more trenches opened. The result? Field boundaries, rubble and er... more field boundaries. Mick remained ever hopeful, insisting that we had discovered possible structures, we just needed to excavate more of them. Meanwhile, Alex had been looking at the earthworks in some detail and suggested yet another trench over an intriguing feature - could we have our first medieval house...? Over to Matt to lead the excavation.
Back at the Bitterley itself 19 test pits were opened all over the village. Plotting the distribution and dates of the pottery discovered began to produce a picture of village development. Our pottery expert Debbie Klemperer carefully examined all the finds gradually pushing back the date for settlement in the village to the 13th century. Meanwhile, in the 'deserted village' things weren't adding up - we had plenty of pottery, but no bone or other waste. Pottery suggested occupation but we had no evidence of structures. Time for a rethink - where was the village? Then, Matt's trench delivered 13th century pottery to match that found in Bitterley itself.
The last day saw a push to provide the people of Bitterley with a picture of its development and change over time. At the end of an exhausting three days the team were finally able to draw some clear conclusions and provide the village with some answers. Bitterley had been a single large settlement going back at least to Domesday. The changing of routeways through the area sometime in the early Norman period resulted in part of the village being essentially cut off. Settlement here was abandoned and the existing village of Bitterley took shape.
Working alongside the people of Bitterley the team had accomplished much in the three days, but before we left Professor Aston had a final message for the villagers - there is still much to discover at Bitterley and in many villages like it all over the UK, so keep digging!