By Judy Dewey, curator of Wallingford Museum.

TEN years ago The Wallingford Historical and Archaeological Society (TWHAS) took on a unique project to dig 100 test pits in gardens all over the town.

The idea was the suggestion of Professor Neil Christie of Leicester University who led The Wallingford Burh to Borough Project from 2008-2011.

Although village test-pitting had been done before, this would be the first ever Urban Test Pit project to seek to learn more about the origins of a town.

TWHAS was involved from the beginning, soon taking over leadership of the work with its team of volunteers led by Gerard Latham.

Herald Series:

A Wallingford Garden Test Pit is a small rectangular archaeological investigation, 1m x 1.5m and up to 1.2m deep, which usually takes three days to excavate and backfill.

As each pit is dug, the finds are recorded layer by layer, identifying past human activity on the site in the form of objects and debris, such as broken pottery, building remains, metalwork, animal bones (from people’s dinners), shells, and even the occasional coin!

All these remains can help us understand the uses of the site at different periods of history, which might vary from domestic occupation to industrial use such as blacksmithing, leather-working or brewing.

Herald Series:

Sometimes (though rarely in Wallingford) there is very little to be found because the site was scarcely occupied before the present houses were built.

Many of the Wallingford test pits in the most central parts of the town have brought up pottery identifiable to all periods, from the 20th century backwards to Saxon occupation in the 10th century.

Generally, the deeper you dig the older the items are, but before dustbin collection was available people often dug large pits to deposit unwanted items, cutting through the older layers.

Herald Series:

Rubbish pits can be full of interesting things, but can also destroy potential older evidence.

So each test pit we excavate has its own special characteristic. All the finds are carefully cleaned, assessed and recorded after excavation and the results gathered on a database.

Thanks to the amazing generosity of Wallingford residents agreeing to let us loose in their gardens, we have now dug 94 of these test pits and hope to reach 100 within the next year!

Herald Series:

We are constantly analysing the results and have already been able to identify certain areas within the town where occupation was severely reduced in the period from around 1300 – 1600.

We’ve also undertaken documentary research to add to our understanding of why this happened.

Once the excavations are complete we shall publish what we have found and assess its significance, both for the history of Wallingford and for the more general understanding of town development.

Meanwhile, as part of Wallingford Museum’s forthcoming special exhibition ‘Once upon a time … the changing face of Wallingford’ you’ll soon be able to see much more about the test pits and the finds to date.

The museum opens for the new season on March 1.