In 2006 we were approached at the museum by a team of Cambridge archaeologists, with a view to digging some test pits in Mersea. The team was from the Higher Education Field Academy (HEFA) under the leadership of Carenza Lewis who some people will remember from Channel 4's Time Team programme. HEFA were working with the Aim Higher group whose brief was to encourage young people, who might not otherwise do so, to aspire to a university education. Youngsters from secondary schools in Essex were brought to the Island for a two day dig in gardens volunteered by members of the public. The test pits were one metre square and dug down in sections of ten centimetres at a time to a depth of up to one and a half metres. The earth removed from each section was sieved and any finds washed and recorded. After the two days' digging, the students were taken to Cambridge to study their finds and experience a little of what life is like at university. All the finds were kept by the team at Cambridge with a view to building up a picture of settlement patterns on the Island over the centuries.
Carenza Lewis - image thanks to www.arch.cam.ac.uk
In that first year six test pits were dug and the Mersea primary school, who kindly hosted the team, also undertook several digs around the school grounds. Much interest was created among the children, and the school agreed to host the team again the following year. Since then (including the six in 2006) fifty eight pits have been dug in the gardens of the generous volunteers (you know who you are!) Much evidence of past times in Mersea has been discovered.
It is now thought that the Upland Road area was a Bronze Age settlement and that, by the time of the Iron Age, people had moved further down towards the area around the parish church. This evidence is new, although previous finds have indicated that people were living on the Island in those distant days. Needless to say, a lot of Roman finds have been made, as it has long been known about the Roman occupation of our island.
Carenza's team have a particular interest in Saxon and Medieval times, and the digs have shown some evidence of early to middle Saxon settlement but none in the late Saxon period. Population seems to revive a little after the Norman Conquest, particularly in the area around the church, but a dip in finds is recorded after the time of the Black Death, suggesting that the area was hard hit by the disease and the weather patterns and famine of around that time. Finds from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries have been almost exclusively from along the shoreline, with pottery from Holland, Spain and Germany among the finds suggesting a thriving trade with the near Continent.
Digging has been restricted mainly to the village area of West Mersea, and there is much still to be done. Unfortunately, funding has been cut for 2011 and no dig will be possible in Mersea. However, the team hope to be able to resume their excavations later, with possible plans to make a start on East Mersea.
Mersea Museum will be mounting a small exhibition of artefacts found during the five years of digging. This will be staged during the summer exhibition, and will be of particular interest not only to those kind people who allowed the youngsters to dig in their gardens, but also to anyone who wonders what might be under their own vegetable patch.
Information about the work of Access Cambridge Archaeology and HEFA can be found at:
A local copy of the comprehensive report on the excavations 2006-2010 is available MMPDFs/ACA_West_Mersea_Report_2019.pdf
Originally published as Museum Piece in Mersea Courier 18 February 2011.
Mar 2021 link updated and link to local copy of report added
The original report for the 2009 excavation is MML_001 in MBOX179 and Misc037/MML_001... but the detail is better covered in the ACA report above.