South Leeds Archaeology — Hardcastle Crags — Charcoal Stance Project

It is believed that the woods around Gibson’s Mill at the National Trust Hardcastle Crags site contain more than forty charcoal stances – identified as part of a previous study.  A stance is a level platform on which charcoal burning takes place.

The Trust are planning to set up a modern charcoal burning facility in a new wood yard established near the mill.  The position chosen for this facility is on one of the identified stance sites and must be archaeologically investigated before this work is carried out.

South Leeds Archaeology, under the direction of Paul Boothroyd have been asked to survey the site and carry out a small archaeological dig on behalf of the National Trust.

Initial Survey

General View of the charcoal stance site. Tape survey underway Survey training with the Dumpy Level

The site is shown in the first of the three photographs. Adjacent to the hard standing in the wood yard, there is a level platform, roughly oval in shape. The first Sunday was used to carry out a tape survey across the site. Levels were then established using a Dumpy Level. Further survey work, on this stance and possibly another not far away, was planned for the following Sunday.

Second Day Looking at the Stance in the wider landscape

Laying out ranging poles and tape for photo survey One of two stances just to the south east of the mill Evidence of charcoal near stance two.
Third stance near the trackside, with a man made platform towards the back of the photograph

We were unable to continue the full survey, so a short photo survey was completed for the wood yard stance. The rest of the day was spent investigating the wider landscape to see what other evidence there was for charcoal burning. John, a volunteer from the National Trust took us to two more sites.

The first of these was a clearly defined platform with a forward revetment made from large boulders. One of the gallery photographs above shows some charcoal pieces found on the surface near the boulders.

The other stance was further up the valley past Gibson’s Mill and on the opposite side of the river to the first two stances. It was particularly interesting as the platform was cut into the valley side and the track appeared to cut through it. At the north end of the stance there was what appeared to be a substantial man-made platform, consisting of large rectangularly cut boulders.

Spot Height Survey using Dumpy Level

Surveying the spot heights

Following up from the first two sessions, a full spot height survey was carried out using the dumpy level. This data has now been loaded into Google Sketch-up and a 3D-terrain model drawn for a 16 metre x 16 metre area of the main stance.

The next stage is planned for Easter Saturday and Sunday putting a trench across the key features of the site. Hopefully, charcoal samples will be collected which can provide more information as to whether the site is in fact a charcoal stance and its likely age.

Trench Across the Site

A general view of the trench from North to South. As well as South Leeds Archaeology members, John, a National Trust volunteer, is busy in the foreground and passing walkers are visiting further down the slope. Over forty visitors were shown the site during the two days of digging. The younger ones were invited to try their hands with a trowel, closely supervised by Carole. On Sunday Thomas, aged three, took over from Paul as our new site director!
A sandy deposit roughly in the centre of the trench had a number of pieces of broken glass together with two complete bottles. One of the two bottles found was a 2oz Bovril bottle dating probably from about 1900 On Sunday, the same part of the trench started to show evidence for post holes.

Easter Saturday and Sunday found the team back at Hardcastle Crags with the objective of putting in a North-South trench across the main features. A trench 14 metres by 1 metre was opened across the centre of the East West axis of the site.

Some general views of the trench are shown in the picture gallery. On Sunday the group were joined by Martin and Anna Roe from Meerstone Archaeological Consultancy, together with their three-year old ‘site director’. Thomas soon took charge and supervised the rest of the dig!

Further work on the trench is planned and Martin has agreed to assist with further surveying using a total station.

Continuing Investigation

Getting to grips with contour mapping and the total station
Most of the second weekend of digging was spent extending the central section of the trench towards the East. The top end of the trench had two distinct levels and provided some useful charcoal samples associated with evidence of burning. After an initial width of 1 metre and a length of 2 metres, the extension was widened by a further metre in an attempt to understand the different exposed layers

During the next week Martin, together with Paul and Mike from the South Leeds Archaeology carried out a survey with Martin’s total station to confirm the tape survey and to position the site within the landscape.The following weekend was used to attempt to interpret a number of features in the trench by extending mainly the central region of the trench.

After the April Showers

Two features are shown in this picture. The small area of pink, hard surfaced soil which could be a hearth is just to the left of the ranging pole. The section at the end of the sondage shows stratification with charcoal rich soil changing to a sandy layer and then another charcoal layer near the bottom. This extension to the original trench revealed a much disturbed layer with lenses of charcoal rich soil cut into a lighter clay layer. The next picture shows a feature in the closest side (south side) of this trench. A small depression had been observed in the original stance surface running for perhaps three metres from the edge of the extension trench. The area around the small scale was of a darker material and once excavated suggested the start of a gully.
A further sondage was dug into the lower southern slope of the original trench. The first post hole was excavated and appears top right. A second post hole revealed some charred wood on the north side and when excavated this showed as a horizontal layer of charred material with a half round section. It can be seen as the object in the central pit in the picture.

Work on the site was delayed due to the weather but Paul, Carole and Mike, together with Martin from Meerstone Archaeology were back on site to continue in an attempt to better understand the trench extension, a sondage dug previously in the central area of the main trench and further investigation of the lower slope. We also cleaned up an area of hard apparently burnt soil near the sondage which could be a hearth.

Although early days in terms of interpretation it is becoming clear that the site is multi-phased. It seems likely that an earlier stance has been cut into, creating a smaller stance platform and there is also stratigraphic evidence for layers of charcoal rich soil between sandy material.

One of the challenges of this dig is the scarcity of published material referring to charcoal stances.

So far the results of the investigation seem to be in line with what little we have but the picture is quite complicated because of a lack of detailed knowledge related to earlier charcoal burning.

If anybody can offer further information we would be grateful for any comments you can add.

The Story Continues…

Carole and Paul have done some more surveying to better understand the area around the trench but further digging was suspended pending a meeting with the National Trust representatives to review progress. The meeting was held last Friday on site.

It was agreed by Mark Newman, the NT archaeologist who has commissioned the investigation, that all the initial objectives in terms of identifying the site as a charcoal stance were achieved.  However, there are still questions to be answered in terms of how charcoal burning was managed and the overall structure of the stance.  Further extensions are proposed to see if the curved edge which is becoming apparent in the trench extension does in fact complete a circle around the disturbed central area.  It is also apparent that the main trench had not reached the natural and more information should be forthcoming if the central part of the trench is taken down further.

Drew Marsh who is responsible for the woodland management agreed that further investigations would be a good idea and has postponed the erection of the new charcoal kiln until next year so that South Leeds Archaeology can have the time to continue the dig.

As always we will keep you informed via this page.

The project is also being used as an opportunity for Paul to provide some training in techniques for new members of the South Leeds group, together with volunteers from the National Trust.

Postscript:  Since this article was written, Paul tragically passed away in 2015.

South Leeds Archaeology have continued and are now meeting regularly at the Rothwell Community Hub to the south of Leeds.

If you would like to find out more use this link to visit our website

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