The first three days of our dig have been blessed with the perfect weather conditions for an archaeological excavation. Dry, but overcast, with patches of dappled sunshine passing through the Fingle tree canopy. Not too hot, not too cold, it’s been smiles all-round for the Fingle Mill team.
So why have I called this introductory blog ‘the dipping of the trowels’? Well, from the moment we dipped our trowels into the topsoil, the finds started spilling out! This was a very pleasant surprise. Our expectation was that the main working area of the fallen mill, where our first trench is located, would have been cleared out in 1894, at the time of the fire; or if not then, certainly in the following years. We had previously seen some pieces of metal poking through the soil and therefore hoped to maybe find a fixture or two and perhaps a flagstone or cobbled floor under the leaf mould and soil. Instead, we started finding large quantities of glass – bottles and window glass distorted by the heat of the fire. A short while later in the north of the room, we started to come down on corroded but still recognisable parts of the mill machinery: bars and supports; cogs; collars; and door locks were all still there among ash, fragments of charred wood and oxidised soil. An especially valuable find close to the newly exposed cog pit (north of the room, below the wheel shaft entry points) was a plaque bearing the name J. Wills, a millwright who refitted the mill in the 1800’s. More about the significance of this plaque in the next blog.
This was only the first of a number of exciting finds, which kept the finds processing team very busy throughout the day. The next was one of the original millstones, possibly fallen from the second floor, in the west of the room. This was a composite millstone made from several pieces of granite, held together by an iron band, the groves cut in the surface are still visible. On day two, after digging down further in the cog pit, a piece of a second mill stone was found in situ where it had been repurposed as a foot or prop, presumably to support some of the gearing. Perhaps the most intriguing of all the finds however was waiting for us in the centre and south of the room. Mixed with the soils is a large amount of carbonised grain, once analysed we should know what the grist mill was preparing and producing! In addition to all the finds, we are already starting to gather new data on structural changes to the building which should help us enrich our existing histories.
On Tuesday we were joined by pupils from Moretonhampstead School who helped us work three new test pits to the north of the site between the mill and the river. The eastern most pit is close to the location of a vanished building that once straddled the leat. It yielded vast quantities of slag iron, the impurities discarded during the smelting process. This seems to be arranged in a wide spread around the area. So far, the majority are small broken pieces of slag, as opposed to the large lumps you might expect to find in an area used for smelting. The likelihood is that this a secondary deposit, brought in from elsewhere, but this is still very much an unknown and we cannot rule out production on or very near the site – hopefully this is a mystery we can solve as the dig unfolds! The western-most test pit represented the edge of the spread, with only a few fragments of slag. But it contained fragments of ceramic including: a piece of German Stoneware, probably a mug or flagon, from the mid 1500’s; china from the 1700’s and 1800’s; and one of the most endearing finds, an eighteenth century figurine of a gentleman in a wig and ornate cravat, his hand raised to his head, possibly in salute. Was this a child’s toy, an ornament or part of a decorated vessel? It is probable that this area was part of the mills garden and that these ceramic finds were spread in to the soil from compost heaps as way of aiding drainage.
That’s all for now. All that’s left is for me to thank everyone who has made this dig possible. Without our hard working, enthusiastic, and knowledgeable volunteers; encouraging and expert archaeologists; and all the readers and visitors who have taken an interest, we would still be looking at an overgrown ruin, no closer to any answers. Instead, we are part of this fascinating site’s history, we have new stories to tell and it’s only the beginning of our two week adventure!
By Steve Guy-Gibbens, photos by Eleanor Lewis and Paul Moody.