Monday, 8 July 2013

End of Dig Wrap-up Part 2: St Serf's

Week 3 was pretty wild! As is the rule with most seasons, all the biggest news emerged in the last few days of the dig. Since our last update, Trench 04 revealed a large and incredibly unexpected revetment wall which we will return to below. But first, a wrap-up of all our trenches in and around St Serf's Parish Church, Dunning.

Trenches 05 and 06 were situated just northeast of the churchyard, just above the Dunning Burn. Both revealed surprisingly shallow deposits bottoming onto what appeared to be the former riverbank gravel, with Trench 06 (extending as far as the embankment of the river) showing how some of this area has been artificially raised and leveled in modern times. Locals inform us that the seemingly placid Dunning Burn was prone to flooding even with these improvements, although this happens less frequently now that there are numerous tree plantations upstream. Trench 05 did include two sherds of medieval pottery and a stance for a modern drystone structure, but along with the sparse features of Trench 06 indicates that the riverfront area was used only for light agricultural activity associated with the old schoolhouse before becoming the village midden in the late 19th century and the site of a Scout hut in the 20th century, which stood until recently.

Trench 04 was located along the modern boundary wall of St Serf's churchyard. After the Victorian midden layers, the modern structures, and the medieval garden soil, we reached a layer of stone settings about a meter below the ground surface. When we hit some very large sandstone slabs surrounded by gravel in the middle of the trench, we figured we were approaching bedrock. This 'bedrock' soon became a wall of large, squared blocks of sandstone, standing up to three courses, running broadly north to south. This wall had only one face; it was backed by smaller boulders and clay, as opposed to the loose gravel and sand on the outward side.
A large wall running N-S runs underneath the modern churchyard boundary wall

The gravel surrounding the wall was certainly not 'natural' either, as it had medieval pottery and slag mixed in it. Both the wall and this gravel layer rested on the natural bedrock. Bedrock also appeared behind the wall but at a considerably higher level than the one on which the wall was built. So our current theory is that this wall was a revetment or retaining wall rather than a rampart.
Trench 04 in context: Sven's ranging poles mark the wall as it appeared in the trench, with the rest of the St Serf's team marking the apparent line of the wall.

So is this the early medieval monastic boundary we had hoped for? It is certainly not the 8th-century vallum ditch encountered elsewhere in the village, but as seen in the photo above, it could still have acted as the edge of the platform on which the medieval church was built. The only dating evidence is that the wall was leveled and filled in with gravel and sand mixed with medieval pottery, indicating that this took place in the medieval period. As usual, more questions than answers here, but very exciting nonetheless!

Trench 07, along the north wall of St Serf's square tower, showing pre-12th century foundations

And while this was going on, we opened another small trench to investigate the origins of St Serf's square tower itself.

The excavations at the church tower have been very successful in uncovering evidence for an early medieval church at Dunning, possibly dating back as early as the time of St Serf himself (around AD 700). The area we excavated was very restricted (only 3 x 1 metres) due to the presence of the post-medieval graveyard, and modern service trenches for the church. The foundations of the 12th century church and a medieval burial ate into this space leaving only a tiny patch of pre-12th century deposits intact and making it very difficult to excavate. Despite these problems, this area turned out to be highly significant, as it showed the foundations of an earlier stone building that had been re-used by the medieval masons! Pre-12th century stone churches are very rare in Scotland, with only a couple of other examples known. Even better, there was an earlier burial running under this foundation, which will enable us to get a good scientific date for the building, and shows that there was an even earlier focus for burial, probably a wooden church under the present church tower.
12th-century tool marks on the ashlar masonry of the tower, long obscured by soil buildup

Another surprise was the quality of preservation of the 12th century stonework, which showed the mason's toolmarks from working the stone blocks of the church. These had been preserved by post-medieval deposits from the effects of industrial pollution (acid rain) of the 19/20th centuries, and show how much the soft sandstone of the present building has been damaged in the last few hundred years.

All in all, a very successful season at St Serf's!

Thanks for reading,
Adrian and Ewan

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