The St Albans Archaeological Rescue and Research Group, 1966-1972

By Michael Freeman, Aberystwyth on behalf of former members of SAARRG

In the summer of 1966, a group of those who had just completed their GCE O-levels at Francis Bacon School were invited to assist with the excavation of the remains of a Roman timber structure on Blue House Hill. More younger volunteers joined the dig at the beginning of the school holidays.

The day-to-day supervision of the site was undertaken by Vagn Christophers, the museum’s conservator and an expert on ceramics. With the rapid development of St Albans he saw a need for more rescue archaeology so, with the blessing of the Society, he organised a training excavation in Gentle’s Yard (now Christophers Place) during Autumn weekends in 1966. The finds were processed in the former Goat Public House in Sopwell Lane, resulting in an exhibition which was open to the public in January, 1967.

Rescue excavations

During the 6 years of the group’s existence, excavations and watching briefs took place on nearly 60 sites in and around St Albans with the good will of developers, the City Council, and those from whom the group begged and borrowed equipment and materials.

During Easter 1967 a Roman building and some early Christian inhumations were excavated on Blue House Hill. In the summer, a section was cut across the Roman Road near St Stephen’s church, and some 11th- to 12th-century pottery was found in the vicarage gardens. 1968 was a particularly busy year. In February and March the group excavated a trench in Sopwell Lane and in May, a 16th-century tile kiln was excavated in Cottonmill Close. In May and June, the remains of a large Roman building were excavated in Mud Lane and from Whitsun until the end of the school summer holidays a major excavation took place on the site of the Abbey Orchard. Although few remains of buildings were discovered, Belgic pottery, a hoard of 8th-century Saxon coins, much medieval pottery and the Abbey Sewer were found.

In 1969, the group excavated the site of a supposed Roman bridge at Colney Street in conjunction with the Watford Archaeology Group and more of the Abbey Sewer was examined.

In 1970 the excavation of a clay tobacco pipe kiln in Holywell Hill produced a large numbers of waste products which were the subject of a report in Hertfordshire Archaeology.

Between 1971 and 1973 the site of a large new housing estate off King Harry Lane produced a complex of Iron Age ditches and Roman burials, a corn drying kiln and votive deposits, including a statuette of Mercury. Work on this site continued almost every weekend and during school holidays for two years.

By 1972 many of the original members had left to go to University or get jobs but the need to excavate sites in advance of development was recognised by the Town Council who employed a professional archaeologist to organise excavations on a more professional basis. ‘The Centre’ Finds were initially processed in the ‘Goat’ then in an empty shop in Dagnal Street but in April 1970, a building off Victoria Street was leased to the Society. This had storage, work areas and a library upstairs while downstairs, facilities for pot washing were installed. Members of all ages met in the centre at weekends when there were no excavations, and on at least one night a week throughout the year.

Rebellion In 1969

Society membership stood at 305 including 55 juniors some of whom who felt that the conditions of junior membership were unfair, considering the effort, time and money they put into the Society’s activities. As a result, in line with other youth rebellions at the time, they presented an ultimatum to the Society and in May 1969, two young members were elected to the Society’s Council.

Publicity and Fund Raising

The group attended village fetes and the County Show dressed in replica costumes of various periods and displayed some finds including a real human skeleton. Members also took part in the St Albans Carnival and rode on a float surmounted by a JCB with the slogan ‘ Bringing History to Life’. These all helped to raise publicity and funds for the group’s activities. The group also organised social events and raised funds for charities at Christmas by singing carols in residential streets.

At least four members of the group became professional archaeologists or worked in museums, while others continued to take part in excavations. We all owe a great deal to Vagn Christophers in particular, for teaching us so much; for setting high standards and for giving us confidence and rousing enthusiasm. We are also grateful to the Society for supporting the projects, subsidising junior members to attend archaeology evening classes and for providing the Centre.