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How to ... excavate pipes

Planning  Pipes are ubiquitous on Post-Medieval sites and often encountered during fieldwork or excavation projects but they are often overlooked during the planning stages of such projects. Where excavations are likely to produce pipe assemblages, then they should be considered in the project design and sufficient resources / specialist input allocated to deal with the anticipated work. A clear methodology for the collection of pipes should be established before fieldwork begins, as well as aims and objectives for the subsequent post-excavation work. There should, of course, be flexibility within the system to allow for unforeseen circumstances, such as the unexpected discovery of a kiln dump or a rubbish pit containing a significant pipe assemblage. The site director should liaise with the pipe specialist during the course of a fieldwork project should particular issues arise. Two areas in particular should be considered when initially formulating a project design and/or finds collection strategy:

Spatial Distribution  Consideration should be given to the potential of pipes in terms of site interpretation and for any future analysis when planning the recording strategy at the start of a fieldwork or excavation project. The finds recording system should ensure that appropriate distributional data is recorded for the intended post-excavation phase. Stray finds from fieldwalking or landscape surveys should be properly logged by being given a grid reference and site/parish name since they can provide invaluable data for regional studies, while the use of labelled grids for fieldwalking collections or test pits can yield useful results. Several American studies have produced ‘contour surveys’ of pipe density around settlement sites by systematically recording plough soil samples from test pits on a regular grid, while fieldwalking collections around Wareham in Dorset identified the likely site of a seventeenth-century Civil War siege encampment from the pipe distribution (Higgins 2012a, 183, Fig. 132).


Distribution plot of pipe fragments from a landscape survey at Bestwall, Dorset, showing a marked concentration of mid-seventeenth century fragments in Field B on the likely site of a Civil War encampment (after Higgins 2012, Fig. 132).

The nature of the deposits may also influence the method and precision with which finds are recorded, for example, the three dimensional plotting of finds from a sequence of trampled surfaces around a settlement may shed light on the chronology and use of these surfaces in a way that the three dimensional plotting finds from a single phase dumped fill within a discreet feature would not. On excavations all pipe fragments should be collected and labelled using the established context numbering protocol for the site but with an awareness that the greater the precision of distributional recording (site grids; individual find logging, three-dimensional plotting, etc.), the greater the potential for subsequent distributional analysis.

Finds Recovery  An appropriate method of finds recovery should be employed bearing in mind the end use and potential of the pipes and, if necessary, in consultation with a specialist. Unlike pots, the original form of a pipe cannot be extrapolated from one section; all the pieces have to be recovered to allow reassembly. Stem length was important in determining the style and value of a pipe but is little studied because of the paucity of excavated evidence. This is a key area where good site recovery is essential if the full potential of the material is to be realised in the post-excavation phase. Where discreet deposits containing material that is likely to join are encountered (e.g., pit or well groups), then sieving should be considered so at to recover all the fragments for reassembly. A sieved deposit from an early pipe kiln dump from Rainford, Merseyside, for example, not only allowed a number of complete pipes to be reassembled, but also showed the variation in stem length of products from a single mould (Higgins 1982, Fig 21).

Reassembled pipes from the kiln dump, Rainford, Merseyside (Higgins 1982, Fig 21)

All fragments of pipe bowl, stem and mouthpiece should be retained during the excavation or fieldwork phase, since their potential cannot be properly assessed until they have been cleaned and dried. Stem marks or decoration can be difficult to spot before they have been washed and yet often provide some of the best information about the dating or origin of the fragments. Even plain stems can be broadly dated and can be valuable for checking the integrity or date range of a deposit. As with all classes of finds, care must be taken that two waterproof labels recording the site and context information are placed in each bag of finds as soon as they are recovered, and that these labels accompany the pipes throughout the subsequent finds processing stages so that site information is not lost.

Most pipe fragments survive well in the ground and are relatively stable upon excavation. Some soil conditions make the pipe surface soft and powdery, so that gentle cleaning is required. Pipes from marine or estuary conditions will have absorbed salts and these need to be removed by soaking the fragments in frequent changes of fresh water for a week or two before allowing them to dry out. If this is not done, the salts will crystallise over time causing the pipe surface to spall and crumble. The same problem can occur from contaminated ground conditions or where the chemical cleaning of pipes has been attempted and the residues not fully removed from the fabric afterwards.

Late seventeenth-century pipes excavated from the Quay, Exeter. These pipes were not desalinated before being stored, resulting in damage from salt crystallisation. Photo D. A. Higgins.


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