our engagement framework

Pinning our ideas on the wall

We’ve been thinking about our audiences – those who already know and use the museums service and those who don’t. Our Audience Development Consultant, Jo Ward, has been talking to lots of different people to find out what they think, and staff have been looking at what the new museum will have to offer. We used a wall in Letchworth Museum to organise our thoughts. All of this will feed into our plans for the new museum and its displays, and the events and activities we will offer in the future.



In the bleak midwinter

In the bleak midwinter (actually an English spring day)

Difficult as it is to believe that we are now in spring owing to the continued presence of snow on the ground and the threat of more to come, today saw topsoil stripping for our Easter weekend small-scale project. It’s more in the nature of an evaluation exercise than a full-blown excavation: we have stripped a linear trench across the line predicted for the henge outer ditch on the basis of the 1996 magnetometer survey. In previous years, the location of the ditch has been masked by the presence of an unknown depth of colluvium; in 2012, an area of colluvium was removed by machine down to the chalk bedrock, at which point (to the east-north-east of the centre of the henge), it was more than half a metre deep. This was a cause for concern, as the depth meant that we would never get into the ditch fills using the 100% recovery and three-dimensional recording of all finds that we had been practising up to that point.

In addition to this worry, I was concerned that the scale of the ditch suggested by magnetometry (between 3.5 and 5.0 m wide at the top) might indicate a commensurate depth. I had visions of Alexander Keiller’s excavation of the outer ditch at Avebury, where the V-shaped ditch was more than 11 m deep, with a width of 21 m at the top: a similar feature at Stapleton’s field might be almost two metres in depth. Then I was puzzled by the results of the 2011/12 resitivity survey, where the spread of colluvium was visible but the ditch was not. On the one hand, I thought that maybe the colluvium was so deep (perhaps a metre or so) that the outer ditch could not be detected at the resolution achieved (at a depth of a metre, using the survey technique employed, most features would be invisible); on the other, I was heartened by the likelihood that a ditch two metres deep would show up regardless of the depth of colluvium sealing it. Either way, I was beginning to suspect that the ditch was of a more manageable size.

I arrived on site slightly late (about 8.40) to find Tony, Nigel and Jim chatting to the digger driver. Under the snow, it was possible to make out the outline of last summer’s trench, which made it reasonably easy for me to locate the rough centre of the henge. I had already decided that we would open our exploratory slot down hill from the centre of the monument, where the colluvium was likely to be thinner (we knew from last year’s project that it did not extend as far to the south-east as the Roman enclosure ditch). The machine could then cut a trench up to 20 m long from the outside to the inside of the henge. This way, we could minimise the potential damage to deposits within the outer ditch.

The first glimpse of the outer lip of the ditch

The first glimpse of the outer lip of the ditch

There was barely any colluvium at the south-eastern (downhill) end of the trench, although it began to show up within a metre or so of the end of the trench. In the conditions on site (it was -2° C and icy), it was difficult to see artefacts within the colluvium, although Tony managed to identify a piece of Roman tegula, with part of the flange visible. After cutting back for over five metres, with the colluvium becoming increasingly thick (it has reached a depth of perhaps 0.25 m at this point), the chalk bedrock suddenly dived down. This was the outer edge of the ditch, exactly where the magnetometer survey had predicted it to be. It was clear straight away that the side of the ditch was not steep, perhaps around 45°, which raised my hopes that it would prove to be reasonably shallow.

The machine was used to empty the ditch of its contents. Although it is too early to be certain, it appeared to contain only one fill, which was sterile (or, at least, contained too few artefacts and ecofacts to be visible during soil stripping). If true, this is intriguing. It suggests that the ditch filled in a single episode; in other words, it was deliberately backfilled. If this proves to be the case, it explains how the ditch was so full that a colluvium formed over it north-west of the henge from the Late Neolithic onwards (the infamous context (35) that we spent so long excavating in 2011 in the mistaken belief that it was indeed the upper ditch fill). If it is a deliberate backfill, it raises some intriguing issues: why would the outer ditch have been filled and how much effort would have been required for the undertaking? This might be yet another indication that the early ‘formative’ henge was converted to the classic type some time before the middle of the third millennium BC.

The ditch proved to be at the upper limit of size suggested by magnetometry, around 5 m at the surface of the chalk. However, its sides sloped quite gently. Although we stopped the digger at a depth of 1.2 m from the ground surface for health and safety reasons, the angle of slope of the ditch suggests that there is less than half a metre of deposit left in the bottom. We will therefore be able to excavate a slot through the base, where there ought to be some indication of primary silts (and, I hope, something that can be dated). This means that the ditch is no more than 1.7 m deep (and cut under 1.5 m into the bedrock). This is very encouraging for the summer as it means that it will be possible to excavate a complete section through it by hand whilst maintaining our three-dimensional finds recording system.

At last, the outer ditch is visible

At last, the outer ditch is visible

After locating the inner edge of the ditch, another 1.5 m of topsoil and colluvium was stripped. At this point, over the berm between outer ditch and bank, the colluvium appears to be at least 0.4 m deep, confirming the observation to the north-east of the henge last year. After tidying up the soil scattered by the machine around the top of the trench, we left it until Friday (there is little point in cleaning up inside the trench, as more soil will have fallen in by then). I left around 10.15, while Tony, Nigel and Jim began putting up the hazard fence around the trench as, although it’s in the middle of a field, we need to ensure that people don’t stumble into it in the dark.

The forecast for the weekend isn’t good: there is supposed to be a high risk of more snow on Thursday or Friday and temperatures are not due to get above around 5° all week. This is hardly what one expects for an early spring project, but it’s necessary for understanding the monument. I will be back to blogging on Friday, when we return to clean and record what has been exposed. I also hope that it will be possible to excavate the soil in the base of the ditch. If we are lucky, there may be a primary silt with organic remains in it.

We’re part of the Hertfordshire Association of Museums and yesterday, several members met up in London for a study trip to the Museum of London. Our former regional conservator, Libby Finney invited the group to her new workplace to come and have a look behind the scenes.

We met at Mortimer Wheeler House, which is where the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre (LAARC) and the Social History stores are based. Here we were shown around the stores by Jim Gledhill, Curator of Social and Working History. Some of the objects spotted in the store included this typesetting machine and other items relating to the ‘hot metal’ process of newspaper printing in London, this Ford Cortina Mark 1 and a boxed Star Wars Millennium Falcon.

Next we caught the bus to Moorgate and made our way to the main Museum of London building on London Wall. After a spot of lunch, we met in the entrance, and were taken into the depths of the museum by Libby to the Costume Store. Here we were met by Beatrice Behlen, Senior Curator of Fashion and Decorative Arts. Beatrice showed us around the costume store, and explained the variety of ways the museum has improved the storage of its costume collections over the years. There are images of the shoe collection storage here.

After all our behind the scenes tours, and the chance to ask questions and pick up ideas for our own museums, there was the opportunity to have a look around the museum itself, and for me this was a chance to have a look at different sorts of displays, and also watch visitors and their reactions to the displays.

There was an interesting exhibition that had been put together by the Museum’s Youth panel, and reinterprets what the Romans left behind. There were cases of objects set apart but next to the Roman displays, but there were also elements that were integrated with the existing displays.

samian bowl and iphone

comparative display

Modern objects were placed next to Roman objects to compare similarities or differences. So a Samian bowl and the iPhone were used to look at ‘Must-have imports’ in Roman times and now.





glass bottle and image of The Shard

The Roman glass maker’s workshop

In the main Roman displays, modern objects had been placed in the middle of the Roman objects, and small green labels asked questions to make you think about how some things change through time, and how some things are similar.

I saw lots of other good ideas in the displays:

shoe display

Shoes displayed in a case in the floor


walls covered in reproductions of adverts and bills from the period.

Flints that could be handled, placed in front of a video of someone demonstrating flint knapping

Flints that could be handled, placed in front of a video of someone demonstrating flint knapping

evacuee cases

evacuees cases piled up to make display cases

A telephone kiosk used as a display case

A telephone kiosk used as a display case

A timeline of significant events along a wall and along the rail below

A timeline of significant events along a wall and along the rail below

17th century room set

17th century Room Set

What do you think of these ideas? Perhaps you have been to other museums and saw something you particularly liked. As we think about our new museum, we want to gather as many good ideas as we can!