I did an Archaeology BA at Leicester University finishing in 2000, followed by a Professional Archaeological Practice MA a couple of years later. In 2004 I started working at Leicestershire County Council, working with the planning archaeologist, and now I'm the Senior Historic Environment Record Officer. I look after the database that contains all of Leicestershire and Rutland's known archaeological remains and historic buildings. It's a very interesting job!

Aerial photographs (or those magnificent men in their flying machines!)

For the past 5 years I’ve blogged about being a Historic Environment Record Officer for Leicestershire County Council, a job I’ve been doing for 13 years.  I maintain the database containing information about all known archaeological remains in Leicestershire and Rutland.  In my blogs I’ve talked about various things, some of which explain my job more than others!  But this year, since it’s the last one, I thought I’d just post a bunch of lovely piccies.  🙂

One of the big projects we’ve been doing over the couple of years is adding metadata to slides we’ve had digitised and linking them to the HER database.  We have many years of this to do, at the current rate of progress, but it should make the images easier to access.  Some of them are the only evidence for cropmark sites, or show earthwork sites that have since been ploughed away, so being able to easily provide that evidence when questioned is really helpful!

Most of our slide images were taken in the 1970s and 80s, though there are a few from c.1990.

1970s cropmark MLE5262

This is a photograph of Iron Age enclosure cropmarks west of Hawkeswell Spinney, Exton and Horn parish, Rutland (MLE5262).  It’s an example of how little metadata we have for some of the slides, since the only information given was its old site reference and a grid reference – there is no date.  We can assume it was taken in the 1970s.  Some slides have even less information than this, which means detective work is required.

1986 photo MLE2485

This slide, helpfully date stamped, is a 1986 snowy photograph of Great Stretton deserted medieval village (HER Ref No. MLE2485).  Some of the snow covered pictures are very good at showing up earthworks.  They also look rather beautiful!

1981 photo MLE330

This is a photograph of an Iron Age enclosure north-west of Newhall, Thurlaston (HER Ref. No. MLE330).  In the late 1970s the enclosure’s ditch survived to a depth of about a metre, though ploughing quickly eroded the feature – it appears to survive largely as a cropmark by the time of this 1981 photo.  (You can also see cropmarks of medieval ridge and furrow earthworks around it.)

1975 photo MLE440

We have a lot of photographs of this site – this is a 1975 photo of Hamilton deserted medieval village, Barkby Thorpe (just outside Leicester city) (HER Ref. No. MLE440).  You can clearly see well preserved village earthworks across the site, as well as medieval ridge and furrow earthworks in the fields outside the village.  Leicestershire has numerous deserted medieval villages, and quite a lot of ridge and furrow (though it’s gradually being eroded by modern farming).

1981 photo MLE16325

Another snowy picture, this one taken in 1981.  It shows the edge of Houghton on the Hill village (HER Ref. No. MLE16325), though the main interest in the picture is the ridge and furrow.  You can see how the earthworks bend in their characteristic ‘reverse-S’ shape, apparently caused by the ploughman turning his oxen at the end of each strip.

1970s photo MLE3183

Here’s a rather good shot of a Bronze Age barrow cemetery south-east of Elms Farm, Sheepy (HER Ref. No. MLE3183).  In all, at least 12 barrows have been recorded here from various aerial photographs, as well as other linears and pit alignments.  Crops have to be at a particular stage in their growth to show cropmarks well, and it also depends on the weather (dry years are better!).

1976 photo MLE3012

And here’s a cropmark from a particularly dry year – the legendary 1976.  It may not be the most exciting of sites, but you can see how the conditions have come together to produce a fine image of an Iron Age ditch and enclosure, at Peckleton (HER Ref. No. MLE3011 & MLE3012).  Some of our sites are only known from images taken in one year, however much we might search the abundance of aerial photography available today to find them again.  I have no doubt there are numerous sites awaiting discovery on the photos you can view via Google!

1980 photo MLE10129

As well as conditions needing to be right for cropmark sites, I should point out that conditions also need to be right for earthworks.  This is another picture of  Houghton on the Hill village (HER Ref. No. MLE16325), though it also includes some other earthworks including pond earthworks south of the church (HER Ref. No. MLE21529).  It was taken on 16th December 1980.  You can see that low winter light is the best for earthworks, with everything casting long shadows.

I hope that’s been at least vaguely interesting!  As we link photographs to our HER records the thumbnails are visible on the Heritage Gateway (click on the links below the photos above to check out the other images available).  Thanks are due to the photographers who took these photos, particularly RF Hartley (formerly of the Leicestershire Museums Service).  I should also mention Jim Pickering for his work in Leicestershire, since he has provided us with an excellent collection of images.

Busman’s Holiday

Just a short blog this year – some of my previous ones have been quite epic!  If you want to know more about my general Historic Environment Record work then please check my previous posts.

Recently I’ve been to a few archaeology events.  It’s been good to go to a few Festival of Archaeology things to remind myself how fun archaeology can be (sometimes when you’re stuck in an office all day you start to forget!).  Since my son is now 4 1/2 we’ve had fun dragging him round things..!  Also my Father in Law is a flint knapper, and my Sister in Law assists him, so we’ve seen them as we’ve visited things.  It’s a bit of a family affair, really.  🙂

Bradgate Park Fieldschool Open Day

Flintknapping and hornblowing at Bradgate Park – photos from Fieldschool Facebook page

We went to the Bradgate Park Fieldschool Open Day at the beginning of July.  This is a student training and research excavation project being run by the University of Leicester.  They’ve been test pitting/excavating all sorts of things including a Scheduled Monument of a moated site, which has come up with some amazing results.  And of course, at Bradgate Park there’s always the Palaeolithic site to talk about.  (I posted about that previously.)

Romans at Jewry Wall

Roman lady and man at Jewry Wall Museum (his lady expression makes me laugh…)

The other big event we went to was ‘Bringing the Past to Life’ at Jewry Wall museum in Leicester.  This is a major re-enactment spectacle in the museum and Roman Bathhouse ruins.  It has to be said that my little boy was more interested in running around than paying attention to much, though we did get him interested in mosaic jigsaws and tic tac toe.  Plus his Granddad was there, and his Auntie, and he was also very interested in the Leicestershire Industrial History Society display because they had a model of Stephenson’s Comet.

Of course we also managed a summer holiday in Norfolk where we made him look at things such as windmills and castles.  But I don’t think we’ve had as much as a Busman’s Holiday as my colleague, who has been off digging with local groups.  Maybe that’s yet to come!

Light at the end of the (Glenfield Railway) tunnel

I’m Helen Wells, I’ve been the Historic Environment Record Officer at Leicestershire County Council for over 10 years.  My job is basically curating what we know about buried and built archaeological remains in Leicestershire and Rutland.  I don’t usually get to leave the office, but I’m going to tell you about a rare trip away from my desk – into the Glenfield Railway Tunnel.  The tunnel is recorded on the Leicestershire and Rutland Historic Environment Record and I’d always wanted to go inside.

So, as part of the Festival of Archaeology, I recently accompanied a group of others into the dark, damp, chilly, disused railway tunnel.  Not publicly accessible, the only access to the tunnel is via special trips.  A footpath runs past the portal.  Since us archaeologists are in a team with ecologists at the County Council I should also say that the tunnel is a hibernation roost for bats, and it’s illegal to disturb them…

Expedition into the tunnel!

Expedition into the tunnel!

The tunnel was one of the earliest railway tunnels in the world, designed by George Stephenson; its construction was supervised by his son Robert.  It opened in July 1832. Due to the pioneering nature of the engineering works, there were various unexpected hitches.  One of these was that the trial borings had suggested clay and stone, but running sand meant the tunnel had to be completely lined in bricks.  It cost £17,326 to built instead of the budgeted £10,000 – well over a million pounds in today’s money.

Glenfield Tunnel in 1969

Glenfield Tunnel in 1969

It closed in 1966 and was bought by Leicester City Council in 1969 for £5.  The east end of the tunnel was filled in by a housing company, so though you can walk through a door in the mainly blocked up tunnel portal at the west end, the east end is only accessible via a manhole and a steel ladder.

(The following two pictures were taken by a colleague in 2007.  The 1969 aerial photograph higher up the page shows the railway line before it was filled in.)

Blocked eastern end of the tunnel

Blocked eastern end of the tunnel

Metal ladder at east end of the tunnel

Metal ladder at east end of the tunnel

The tunnel is not far below the ground, and whereas it originally ran through fields, today it is covered in houses.  This has led to problems!  In 2007-8 strengthening works were carried out, with reinforced concrete arches inserted into the weakest areas of the tunnel.  This work cost £500,000, which makes the original £1,000,000 spent to build the tunnel look rather more of a bargain!  (And the £5 it cost to buy the tunnel in 1969 less of a good deal…)  The reinforcements were a striking feature of the tunnel during my recent trip.

Concrete reinforcements inside the tunnel

Concrete reinforcements inside the tunnel

Though a fascinating place to visit, it is very difficult to know what can be done to re-use the tunnel.  The eastern end being buried does mean it’s tricky to re-use as a cycle path, for example.  Though it has turned into a maintenance headache, if it hadn’t been bought in 1969 who knows what would have happened to it.  It’s a brilliant bit of early railway history.  If you get the chance to visit I’d definitely recommend it!

Want to find out a bit more?

This article at Forgotten Relics has some great pictures, one of which demonstrates the tight clearances this tunnel had.

The Leicestershire Industrial History Society have some great resources on the tunnel.  Keep an eye on their events for further tunnel expeditions!

Finally, a quick mention for Story of Leicester, who provided many of the facts I used here.

Really, really, really, really old stuff!

This is the third time I’ve taken part in the ‘Day of Archaeology’, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so please do take a look at my previous blogs “Day in the life of a HERO” and “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Suffice it to say, I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer for Leicestershire County Council – for more information do look at the Leicestershire & Rutland HER page on our website!

I have started off today by thinking about the Palaeolithic. I think it’s fair to say that the Palaeolithic doesn’t come up all that often in archaeology. There are chance finds of Palaeolithic date – such as hand axes that are found in fields – but there aren’t a lot of sites, as such. To find the Palaeolithic you usually have to dig quite a big hole, since it’s usually deeply buried!

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that on the HER we have a list of period dates, and it seems that the Palaeolithic ones are painfully inadequate. (I attended an HER meeting this week and it was brought up there). In the East Midlands Research Framework (2012), which you can download here, it gives the following periods and dates (kya means ‘thousand years ago’):

Period 1: Cromerian and Intra-Anglian (950-450 kya)

Period 2: Pre-Levallois (450-250 kya)

Period 3: Levallois (250-150 kya)

Period 4: Mousterian (60-40 kya) -> Neanderthals!

Period 5a: Early Upper Palaeolithic (40-27 kya) -> Modern Humans

Period 5b: Late Upper Palaeolithic (13,000-9,500 BC)

Now, I don’t know about you, but dates of 950,000 years ago kind of blow my mind! The gaps in the chronology, by the way, indicate glaciation periods when no-one lived here (the most recent being the Dimlington Stadial).

There are a few Palaeolithic sites that have been investigated in recent times in Leicestershire/Rutland, all from different periods, and all very different in character. The earliest is at Brooksby, then there’s one at Glaston, and also Bradgate Park.

Activity on the River Bytham, at Brooksby Quarry (Period 1)
HER Ref. No. MLE21117

Something this old really does make your brain hurt when specialists start talking about it. There are all sorts of mysterious scientific analyses that can be carried out. It’s just so ancient! These weren’t humans like us. They were making tools from stone, not flint.

Brooksby Quarry

Brooksby Quarry

The River Bytham was a huge river that flowed west from Lowestoft, along which humans may have travelled into Britain. It has left behind sand and gravel deposits that are now being quarried, giving us a brilliant opportunity to learn about this period of time.

So far hundreds of artefacts have been recovered by ULAS, many of which are very fresh and don’t seem to have travelled far. These include cores and flakes made from local quartzite pebbles. Early humans must have been living alongside the river and making tools, which is pretty exciting!

Hyena den at Glaston, Rutland (Period 5a)
HER Ref. No. MLE9061

This is another site investigated by ULAS, back in 2000. Evidence of a hyaena den was recorded, which contained bones of woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, wolverine, early horse and hyenas. This is the first open air hyena den excavated, and a flint leafpoint provides evidence of human activity in the vicinity – rare evidence for a temporary hunting camp. You can read more about the project here (which is where this rather good picture came from!).


Glaston hyena den

Creswellian site at Bradgate Park (Period 5b)
HER Ref. No. MLE9435

This site was first discovered in 2001 and test pitting was carried out earlier this year, again by ULAS! Basically, thousands of flints have been recovered from an eroding footpath in the park. These flints are evidence for human activity on site – it has been suggested that the site was a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer passing through Little Matlock Gorge. The exciting thing about this site is that it is in situ – there are deposits that are associated with the flints. At the moment it’s not clear what further work will be carried out on the site, but it’s certainly a nationally important site!


Bradgate Park test pitting

So, that’s a quick dash through some of the oldest archaeological sites on the Leicestershire & Rutland HER. You can look at these, and other records, via the Heritage Gateway. Records cover everything up to now, so we’re covering about a million years of human activity!

Obviously it’s not possible to be an expert in everything throughout those million years, so forgive me if I’ve made some terrible errors when writing this. I’m not a Palaeolithic expert. Today, on this Day of Archaeology, I just found it interesting.  🙂


We can be heroes, just for one day

Hello!  If you’re reading this perhaps you want to know what it’s like to be a HERO (Historic Environment Record Officer), just for this one day.  (I know it’s a bit tenuous but I wanted a quote for my title and I love David Bowie, so…!)

I last blogged as part of the Day of Archaeology in 2011.  If you want to read my blog from back then please read a day in the life of a HERO.  There’s a fair bit there that I don’t really want to cover again, like how I became a HERO.  I think today I’ll just blog about what I’m up to.

View from my office, County Hall, Leicestershire

View from my office, County Hall, Leicestershire

I work for Leicestershire County Council in the Historic & Natural Environment Team (part of Planning, Historic & Natural Environment, so we sit with various planning officers). The other people in my team consist of a war memorials project officer, conservation officer, 2 planning archaeologists and our team leader – we’re also in the same team as several ecologists. There used to be more of us but due to the ubiquitous cuts that’s the team at the moment.  The conservation officer and our team leader don’t work full time, also because of the cuts.  So they’re not here today.

I’m in charge of the Historic Environment Record for Leicestershire & Rutland, which is basically a database that attempts to record all known archaeological remains and historic buildings in the county.

The first job of the day is to check the Heritage Gateway upload that I set running last night. About 70% of our HER records are available on-line through the Gateway (our Heritage Gateway update page details what’s on-line at the moment). Yesterday I added some new records (and edited some old ones), so I thought I’d better upload them!  The new records include a rather interesting medieval cruck-framed house, 5-7, Market Place, Whitwick (MLE20894) that is due to be demolished as part of a scheme to build a new Co-op.  (It’s not listed.) Our planning archaeologists have been commenting on the scheme, hence the reports that have provided me with new sites.

Then it’s time to do some fun map regression!  I love the part of my job that’s basically detective work, though sometimes it’s infuriating not to get definitive answers to questions…  Yesterday the Principal Planning Archaeologist brought several things in Ashby-de-la-Zouch to my attention.  First is an early ‘tramway’ that ran from the Ashby Canal to Ticknall.  This was on the HER already, but the mapping wasn’t quite right.  Then there are a whole bunch of industrial sites dating from the C18th-C20th.


Historic maps (1735, 1837, 1888) and HER extract for Ashby-de-la-Zouch

The sites are (the links will work when I’ve done the next Gateway upload!):

The next job is something that brings in money – a commercial data search.  Searches are requested by land agents and solicitors as well as commercial archaeology units, to help inform land purchases, planning decisions and as part of fieldwork.  For a fee, I send various digital files (maps, GIS files, gazetteers etc) out containing all the archaeological sites and historic buildings on the HER.  (Non-commercial enquiries are free.)  Interesting sites in Appleby Magna, where this search was for, include Moat House (MLE10939), a C16th house that sits within a moat.  The moated site, along with formal gardens, fishponds and village earthworks, is a Scheduled Monument (National Heritage List Entry No. 1011458).

As a fun Friday afternoon activity I think I’ll go through a book I’ve just bought (another HER officer recommended it to me).  It’s called ‘Actions Stations: Military airfields of Lincolnshire and the East Midlands’, by Bruce Barrymore Halpenny.  We’ve been trying to put World War I sites onto the HER in advance of the First World War Centenary next year and I’m hoping it can add a bit more information.

Short 184 Seaplane

First World War Short 184 seaplane built at the Brush Works, Loughborough

Reaching the end of the day, the book doesn’t contain much First World War information (I’m up to ‘L’ in the gazetteer), but it does have some information about the Brush Works at Loughborough (MLE8697), which built aircraft in both the First and Second World Wars, and Loughborough Meadows (MLE15968), where they test flew their planes. The updated information will be on the Heritage Gateway after my next upload.

As you can see, for an ‘archaeology database’ the HER contains quite a few records that are pretty modern, as well as things like castles and medieval houses.  It certainly makes for an interesting job, learning about all sorts of different things on a daily basis!  You never quite know what the day will hold…

Day in the life of a HERO

My name is Helen Wells and I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer (HERO) at Leicestershire County Council.  There are archaeologists here in both the Museums and Planning sections – I’m based in the latter.  I do work with the Museums archaeologists though, including Wendy Scott (the Portable Antiquities Scheme officer).  My job is basically to look after a database of all the county’s known archaeological remains and historic buildings.  It’s a fascinating job – I’ve been here since 2004 and I’m still enjoying it!

Before I start describing my day, I thought I’d give a bit of background about how I became a county council archaeologist.  (more…)