Faxton: excavations in a deserted Northamptonshire village, 1966-1968

The film The Dig has shown that public interest can be engaged by a vintage excavation, and this book likewise recounts the results and evokes the mood of three seasons of digging, in this case in the 1960s. We cannot compare the spectacular finds at Sutton Hoo with the everyday pots and post-holes of a deserted medieval village, but both excavations attracted the attention of leading archaeologists, and both sites required difficult decisions to be made in adverse circumstances.

The Faxton excavations take us back to the age of ‘rescue’ archaeology. In the 1960s, sites were being destroyed everywhere, but a particular crisis arose in the rural Midlands because agricultural policy favoured a drastic increase in ploughed areas. The response from the under-staffed Inspectorate of Ancient Monuments was to negotiate with landowners, schedule a few sites as ‘ancient monuments’, and, when these were to be destroyed (scheduling having failed), pay for excavations from an inadequate budget.

The work at Faxton was dogged by dilemmas and disagreements. The archaeologists seeking to protect the site were Lawrence Butler and John Hurst. Butler was a lecturer at the University of Leeds. Hurst was the inspector at the Ministry of Public Building and Works with responsibility for medieval rural sites, and the leading light of the Deserted Medieval Village Research Group, which promoted research into the hundreds of village sites. Butler and Hurst had the thankless task of negotiating with the owner of Faxton, who was determined to destroy the site.

Hurst and Butler wanted to salvage evidence from the doomed site, but they disagreed about the method of excavation. Hurst advocated open areas, as pioneered at Wharram Percy, while Butler retained ‘baulks’ between excavated areas in order to observe stratification. An experienced volunteer remarked that Butler was not an enthusiastic excavator: he valued the results, but did not enjoy digging. He was frustrated by Faxton’s practical problems, and considered ending his involvement more than once.

The work at Faxton achieved a great deal. The excavated area covered 4,000 square metres, exposing 30 buildings (or parts of them), with finds of 37,000 pieces of pottery and many artefacts. Interim reports were published. Post-excavation work proceeded, but slowly. While similar sites such as Wharram Percy were published in the 1970s, the papers and finds from Faxton gathered dust. Butler died in 2014. He was aware that the report should be completed, and told a friend where to locate the various records.

Faxton was rescued twice: first by Butler’s excavation, and then by Christopher Gerrard and his many helpers, who created this book from the surviving notebooks, plans, photographs, and even a radio broadcast. A substantial amount of the published text was written by Butler, and there are specialist reports from the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the book is new, reconstructing the missing text, and offering interpretations in the light of current knowledge.

New insights emerge about the life and death of a village, because Faxton, unlike most deserted medieval villages, was abandoned in the 19th and 20th centuries. Far from being a small and poor settlement, doomed to fail, it grew from 21 households in 1086 to contain about 50 house sites in c.1300. It has been said to lack archaeological evidence earlier than the 12th century, although Domesday records it in 1086. Blinkhorn has reviewed the pottery, and shows that it includes St Neots ware of the 11th century. Earlier evidence has still not been found, though somewhere nearby there was probably a settlement occupied before the 11th century. Finally, Butler noted that many of the houses had walls of earth, a difficult material to recognise in excavation. Gerrard expands on that observation, and has provided a substantial discussion of ‘mudwall’ construction.

This book tells us much about a medieval village, and about medieval villages in general, but it also contributes to the history of archaeology in the last 60 years.

Faxton: excavations in a deserted Northamptonshire village, 1966-1968, Lawrence Butler and Christopher Gerrard, Society for Medieval Archaeology Monograph, Routledge, £34.99, ISBN 978-0367517717.
Review by Christopher Dyer.