Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Core Principles : A Geoarchaeological Survey in Petworth Park

To many visitors, Petworth Park can appear - at first glance - to be a ‘natural’ landscape.  This was, of course, the impression which Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and the English Landscape Garden tradition in general, wished to portray.  Brown’s changes to Petworth were on a grand scale, sweeping away the formal gardens of the early 18th century to replace them with vast expanses of lawn, gently sloping hills and serpentine bodies of water. The accounts relating to Brown’s association with the park (held in the Petworth House Archives) between 1752-1763 are littered with references to this landscaping; “lowering the land in front of the House”, “Infilling the stone pits near the Ice House”, “lowering the hill where the stone was dug”, or simply “levelling in the park”.  The 3rd Earl of Egremont continued this tradition, and in 1795-96 spent around £4000 (the equivalent of around £250,000 today ) on further levelling of the lawn in front of the House, moving over 65,000 cubic metres – the volume of 26 Olympic swimming pools.

All of this work has implications for the archaeology within the park and how we can interpret it – what did the landscape look like before; how was the landscaping undertaken; what has been removed during the levelling; where was the material moved to; and what might have been sealed beneath the moved material?  Looking at the landscape now, it is difficult to tell what is man-made and what is not.  To help us investigate some of these issues, geoarchaeologists (archaeologists who are interested in soils and sediments) from Wessex Archaeology recently came to Petworth to help us undertake geoarchaeological survey.

  Geoarchaeological Survey – ‘Window Sampling’ in progress

Window sampling 'cores'

This involved a technique known as “Window Sampling” so-called because the clear tubes containing the soil from the borehole give us a window into the soil profile.  By looking at the changes in the type of soil, the colour and texture, and any inclusions (like bits of brick, or charcoal) we can start to interpret how the landscape has been formed, and used.

The survey showed the complexity of the changes to the landscape, particularly in front of the house, and it also gave us information about how the landscaping was done - we might expect to find a rich organic layer in the soil profile, representing the buried turf underneath redeposited material, but at Petworth the turf and subsoil appear to have been removed and later replaced on top of the levelled ground to give an instant finished look.

Petworth volunteers were able to get hands-on with some hand-augering as well - a manual method of sampling the soil which can be pretty tiring! Looking at areas of potential buried archaeology, we came up trumps with evidence for parts of the old formal gardens, post-medieval settlement at Tillington and a possible ancient droveway.  We’ll be focussing on these, and a range of other features, in our forthcoming geophysical surveys over the Spring.

Petworth Archaeology Project Volunteers undertaking hand-augering

Recording the results

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