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Excavating the ditch

Every year, archaeologists from the University of Chester and Cheshire West and Chester Council organise a training dig for the University’s second year Archaeology students.  

The dig takes place in Grosvenor Park in Chester. The Park was chosen because it sits next to two significant historical monuments, the Roman amphitheatre and the medieval Church of St John the Baptist. Both of these have had an influence on the development of the Park and, more importantly, on the intriguing archaeology that lies beneath.

This year’s dig, which took place throughout May, got to the bottom of a very large ditch that destroyed the Roman road at the western end of the site. Pieces of preserved wood found in the bottom of the ditch – twigs or withies possibly from a wattle hurdle or fence -  were sent away for radiocarbon (C14) dating. The results have recently been revealed, and show a very high probability that the ditch is Late Saxon and may possibly pre-date the foundation of Chester’s Saxon burh (fortification) in 907 AD. The size of the ditch also suggests that it was defensive, and may form the boundary of settlement in the area of the Roman amphitheatre and the Church of St John the Baptist, perhaps representing part of what is referred to in the Domesday entry for Chester as ‘the Bishop’s Borough’.

Dr Amy Gray Jones, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of Chester, said: “We are delighted that this discovery has been made during the students’ dig. The excavation in Grosvenor Park is an integral part of their Archaeology degree and we started this year’s dig eager to find out more about the mysterious ditches we uncovered last year, and to see whether they could add to our knowledge of the immediate post-Roman occupation of Chester, which is much less well understood. To have this information, offering more evidence of our city during Saxon times, is really exciting. It also shows that our students, whilst learning archaeological skills, are making a very real contribution to furthering our historical knowledge of Chester. This is very much a partnership project with Cheshire West and Chester Council, and our thanks also go to CWAC’s archaeologists for all their support and enthusiasm.”

Dan Garner, of L-P Archaeology and co-director of the dig, who arranged for the items to be dated, said: “The ditch, measuring roughly five metres wide and 2.5 metres deep, has been an exciting and unexpected discovery. Excavating to the base was challenging due to ground water constantly seeping in to the excavation and it has taken two digging seasons to complete. The result of the scientific dating is a fitting reward for all the hard work done by the students in getting to the bottom of this archaeological mystery!”

Student Jack Douglass added: “Finding out that the ditch is dated to the Late Saxon era is very intriguing, and it’s great to have physical evidence for a currently under-represented period of history for the city of Chester. It’s even more exciting to have been involved with the excavations in trench four directly.”

Councillor Louise Gittins, Leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council, and Cabinet Member for Wellbeing, added: “The Grosvenor Park digs are always popular, bringing interested spectators, particularly to the open days. We know Chester is rich in archaeology, to unlock some of our Saxon past is very exciting and I’m sure future years will reveal more. I’m glad the students had such a unique opportunity to be part of this find.”

The results of the excavation also come hot on the heels of a number of successes for the Archaeology degree course at the University of Chester this year, which has seen Professor Howard Williams win a Teaching Excellence award at the Educate North awards and the results of the 2019 National Student Survey placing it amongst the top 10 courses in the UK.

The training dig is a partnership project between the archaeologists from Cheshire West and Chester Council's Cultural Service (Grosvenor Museum) and the University of Chester and is an essential part of the students’ Archaeology degree course. Further information about the excavation can be found on the students’ Dig Blog at


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