AOC Archaeology Group is a professional archaeological consultancy offering innovative, ethical, sustainable solutions to heritage development. I’m AOC's Public Archaeologist, based in Edinburgh. I work primarily in the design and implementation of all sorts of public archaeology projects. In the 3+ years since I joined AOC I've been involved in excavation, survey and experimental archaeology projects from Sutherland to Sussex! We've dug and/or surveyed a plethora of sites, from prehistoric brochs to post-medieval manor houses, but enabling members of the public to discover heritage is always at the heart of each project. No two days are the same and no two projects are the same.

Funny ha-ha? Excavations at Eastcote House Gardens

On the Day of Archaeology 2014, AOC Archaeology Group is working once again with London Borough of Hillingdon (LBH) and the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens (FEHG) to deliver an exciting programme of public archaeology in this lovely park. I’m Charlotte, AOC’s Public Archaeologist. AOC first worked at Eastcote House Gardens in 2012, when we ran a smaller evaluation excavation as part of the development phase of this project. You can read our Day of Archaeology 2012 post at: http://www.dayofarchaeology.com/community-excavations-at-eastcote-house-gardens-hillingdon/.

The excavations at Eastcote House Gardens form just one part of a larger project, which is being supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Lottery Fund, through their Parks for People programme. This project, led by LBH and FEHG, will see significant changes to the Park including the repair and re-use of the historic buildings, the building of ancillary facilities, with a cafe, toilets and manager’s office, and the improvement and upgrading of the Gardens for educational and community use. The archaeological programme includes public excavations, training workshops, an open day, and a schools programme involving hundreds (literally!) of young people from local schools (primary, secondary and special), uniformed groups (Guides, Cubs and Beavers) and one youth charity. FEHG has a small army of volunteers who are passionate about the park and its past, and they play a key role in the school visits, giving learners a tour of the historic dovecot and stables as well as the smaller trenches current being excavated. Most days onsite are very busy, with lots of volunteers and young people working to explore the past at Eastcote House Gardens.

The Gardens, and its historic buildings, are all that have survived from Eastcote House and its outbuildings, which were demolished in 1964.  Eastcote House was a big white stuccoed house of many different periods, part of which dated from the 16th century. However historic records suggest that there was previously an even earlier building on the site, known as Hopkyttes. During the evaluation excavations in 2012 we opened only small trenches, confirming the location of the remains of Eastcote House, establishing the condition of any archaeological features, and assessing the value of any future work. This year, we have opened a much larger area, so that we can gain a better understanding of the layout and phasing of the house. We are very excited to have found (we believe) the remains of Hopkyttes, overlain by the Tudor structure.

However, on to our activities on the Day of Archaeology! As well as our lovely, ever-cheerful project participants – some old hands and some newbies – today we welcomed to site three classes from a local primary school, and a group of young people from The Challenge, a charity aimed at building a more integrated society. The primary schools and The Challenge group concentrated today on excavating the remains of Eastcote House and washing some of the finds, and we also focussed on the site’s funniest feature – the ha-ha.

Les, who is directing excavations onsite, informs me that his Chambers dictionary defines ‘ha-ha’ as a representation of a laugh. The second definition is ‘a ditch or vertical drop…between a garden and surrounding parkland’. We have one of these features in one of our smaller trenches, which is placed to investigate the southern end of a sunken flint wall with a steep sided ditch dropping towards it.

The upper levels of soil that had collected in the ditch contained 20th century finds, as we might expect.  We have a Tizer bottle with 3p due on return, a bottle which contained a chocolate milk drink – the ingredients include shagreen (sharkskin) – a stoneware mineral bottle, and smaller, broken pieces. Some of the finds are the result of accumulation, while others are probably from people seeing a handy ditch to throw rubbish, rather than recycling or taking it to the nearest bin. Fizzy drinks seem to be a theme on this site: last week we found a bottle marked ‘Eiffel Tower Lemonade’. After a bit of online research, we’ve discovered that this was a lemonade powder – tasty!

The ha-ha

The ha-ha

 

It looks as though our ha-ha ditch was originally 2m wide and 1.5m deep, and was probably a grassy slope. Some of the local historians think that this may be less of a ha-ha and more of a drainage ditch. At the moment, we think it may be both. In our excavation is a flat slab with flint blocks on top of it. This may be a secured entry to a drain inserted into the ditch: it looks later. We do wonder whether the slab may have been placed over the burial of a favoured pet though. We will know tomorrow.

Hard at work in the ha-ha

Hard at work in the ha-ha

This is just a small taster of everything we’ve been discovering at Eastcote House Gardens. Please do head over to the project website to find out more about the excavations: www.aocarchaeology.com/eastcote

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Culver Archaeological Project: kilns and cremations

AOC Archaeology Group has been working with Culver Archaeological Project (CAP) on their excavation of a newly discovered Roman site at Bridge Farm near Barcombe, East Sussex. This post is a joint post from AOC and CAP!

team photo

Just part of the brilliant CAP 2013 team: members of CAP, Cat and Chris of AOC, and of course many wonderful volunteers (the team changes every day – sorry to those not in this photo!)

CAP began in 2005 with a simple programme of field-walking, survey and trial trenching in the hope of identifying further archaeological sites in the landscape around Barcombe Villa. Fieldwalking finds included Roman pottery and coins dating to the 1st and 5th centuries AD, and a comprehensive geophysical survey revealed impressive archaeological remains, just waiting to be investigated. CAP were successful in their application for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and with their support are conducting six weeks of excavation this year. The project is community-focussed at its very core, and volunteers are participating (for free) in every stage of the on-site work, which runs from 1st July to 10th August: excavation, wet sieving, finds processing and geophysics – and a brilliant job they are

robin excavates kiln

Volunteer Robyn came all the way from Ireland – only to be landed with the gloopiest feature imaginable!

doing too. Volunteers range from school pupils to octogenarians, and everything in between. Five local primary and secondary schools have also participated in classroom-based workshops, and then come out and visited the site before the end of term, taking part in the excavations, wet sieving, metal detecting, finds washing and so on, and we’ve also had a visit from the local YAC. There are also weekly workshops on various specialist areas of archaeology. Sounds busy, doesn’t it? It is! There is lots going on every day but everyone involved is showing boundless enthusiasm. The sunshine has helped!

Anyway,  moving on to what’s been going on in the run-up to the Day of Archaeology 2013! We are almost four weeks in to the six week programme of fieldwork, and things are getting really interesting. Our trenches were located to target specific features that had appeared through geophysical survey. This week, we have excavated an almost complete urn, which may contain cremated remains. The urn was removed intact, and will be excavated in the lab at a later date.

urn_montage

The urn is carefully excavated to reveal its true size, then wrapped in bandages for support. Note the smiles of relief as it comes out intact!

 

tile-lined feature

Tile-lined feature with opus signinum in situ

We also have an interesting tile-lined feature, which contained a large chunk of opus signinum (a type of Roman cement). The current thinking is that the cement might have been prepared to line the feature, however for some reason the job was never completed and it solidified to the tiles below. A bit of research has found a similar feature excavated in Tuscany, which the archaeologists there interpreted as a basin. Still speculation however.

Nearby is a possible kiln, which has a hard-baked clay lining. The fill of this feature was particularly sludgy, and Robyn and Clara had a very enjoyable day removing it! The look on their faces amidst the slop and squelching was something to behold! However the hard clay lining gives us more certainly that it may be a kiln, but it’s exact use is still uncertain. Postholes nearby may represent the traces of associated structures.

Today Dr. Mike Allen attended site and at tea break gave our students and volunteers a talk from the point of a geoarchaeologist, a very interesting point indeed, we now understand post depositional gleying, which explains the difficulties we are having identifying some features on site.

With two more weeks of digging to go, we are excited to learn more about the site. We couldn’t possibly explain it all in one post –  this is just a snapshot of life at CAP 2013 – so please come on over to CAP’s website to catch up on the rest.

Culver Archaeological Project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Follow the project! www.culverproject.co.uk www.facebook.com/culverarchaeology @culverproject

To find out more about AOC, go to www.aocarchaeology.com or follow us on social media @aocarchaeology www.facebook.com/aocarchaeology 

Community Excavations at Eastcote House Gardens, Hillingdon

I’m Charlotte Douglas, public archaeologist for AOC Archaeology Group. I live in Edinburgh and am usually based in our northern office, but I spent Friday 29th and Saturday 30th June in London, helping our southern team in the delivery of a community project in Eastcote.

Eastcote House Gardens were once home to Eastcote House. Records suggest that there was a building on the site from as early as the 16th century. Eastcote House itself was demolished in the 1960s after falling into disrepair. The remaining park is maintained by the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens, and they, along with London Borough of Hillingdon (LBH) council, were recently awarded funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help them progress their plans for the gardens. They aim to apply for further HLF funding in the future so that they can improve the gardens’ facilities, repair and improve the historic buildings, and excavate the site of Eastcote House. This preliminary phase of the project involved excavating four 2m x 10m trial trenches on the site of the house to confirm its location and assess the condition of the remains, as well as testing the community involvement and outreach. Paul Mason, one of AOC’s project managers, has been working closely with the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens and London Borough of Hillingdon council to ensure that the project turns out exactly as they want it. My role as public archaeologist varies from project to project but my main role at Eastcote was to deliver a programme of activities for local children when they visited the site.

A team of around 40 volunteers, mostly members of the Friends of Eastcote House Gardens, took part in the excavations which were directed by Les Capon and supervised by Chris Clarke of AOC. Saturday was the official Open Day, with the Friends offering tea and biscuits and bounteous local knowledge, and with AOC’s Fitz manning a finds-handling table under a gazebo clearly not designed to withstand a bit of a breeze! Many people visited the gardens to check out the excavations over the two days, and the end-of-day tour on Saturday saw about 60 people of all ages peering into the trenches and finding out about the weekend’s findings.

AOC’s Chris leads the end-of-day tour on Saturday

Around 65 local children participated in the excavations: Year 5 and 6 pupils fromWarrenderSchool, Ruislip, came to the gardens on Friday morning and Cubs and Beavers from the local Scout Group visited on Saturday afternoon. The children explored the gardens with Lesley from the Friends, learning about the gardens’ history and visiting the dovecote and the herb garden. Funnily enough, the part of the garden tour that seems to have stuck in their minds the most is the fact that the poo in the bottom of the dovecote would have been collected and used in the production of gunpowder! Their second favourite fact was that strong herbs were sometimes used in sauces in the past to disguise the pungent smell of off fish… Delicious!

The children also participated in an archaeology workshop, learning about archaeologists and excavation, and played a timelines game. My job is to make archaeology fun – to engage with the children in a meaningful way, so that what they learn sticks in the mind. And of course, it’s essential that they enjoy themselves! I encourage the children to ask lots of questions and to steer the conversation – if they’d rather talk about bog bodies than pottery morphologies, so be it! Activities tend to be interactive and informal, allowing the children to move around and make a bit of noise. The timelines game also involves doing a bit of maths. I was really impressed by how much the children knew about some of the historical figures and archaeological sites featured in the timelines game.

After completing the workshop and game, I took the children onto the site itself. Here they donned high vis vests (essential for any archaeologist) and gloves, and armed with trowels and sieves they carefully looked through the loose soil generated by the excavations, retrieving mostly metal, pottery and glass related to the house demolished in the 1960s. The children seemed to have a great time, and I always really enjoy having them onsite – not least because they often ask questions that make you scratch your head and think about archaeology differently! I often have a sore throat at the end of a day involving lots of school children from talking as loudly and enthusiastically as I can, but its great fun nonetheless.

In terms of the archaeological findings, the massively thick foundations (up to 4ft) of the house were revealed in each of the three trenches and the walls of the coach house in the fourth; two trenches also revealed the remains of a basement/cellar level. The discovery of a series of steps that led down to a vaulted cellar in Trench 3 promoted an easily imaginable flow of people around the building. Most of the brickwork appeared to be 18th century in date, but pieces of 16th century brick indicate that the remains of the medieval house are not too distant from our reach. The most significant finds recovered were fragments of pottery that date from the 14th to 20th centuries. These finds show the site to have been inhabited for over 700 years.

Trench 2: the major northern wall

The volume of attendance and participation in Friday and Saturday’s activities demonstrate the high level of local passion and support for the gardens and their past, and will surely bolster the Friends’ and LBH’s case in any further application for funding.

One of AOC’s archaeologists will present the results of the excavations at a public lecture sometime soon (date and venue TBC). For more information and event updates please see www.hillingdon.gov.uk

For more information on the gardens please see www.eastcoteparkestate.org.uk

 

 

Community Excavation of Thrumster Broch, Caithness

Friday 22nd of July

We are assisting the Yarrows Heritage Trust in their excavation of a broch in Caithness. AOC’s John Barber is directing excavations, and myself and Alan Duffy are also on hand this week.

Thrumster Broch lies on Thrumster Estate. It was modified to form an ‘oval garden’ in around 1810 according to estate records. Subsequently its wall was slighted on the south side and a summer house was built in the entrance area of the monument. The broch was previously believed to be solid-walled, but our excavations quickly revealed intra-mural galleries. We have also discovered a previously unknown entranceway that we believe was filled in along with some of the galleries in the north-western area of the broch, in an attempt to stabilise the building when subsidence of the ground began to cause structural problems. We now believe that the entranceway recorded in the area in which the summer house was built was a secondary entrance, replacing the recently discovered entrance.

We arrive on site to start work each day at 9 am. I give volunteers a site induction on their first day on site; after this, they can get stuck in as soon as they arrive each day. Our community projects are very relaxed – people can turn up as and when they like for as long as they like. This means that people can get involved in our projects by fitting their participation around their daily lives. What’s more, participation is completely FREE, which is always a winner.

We have 15 people digging with us today, all of whom have been on site previously. Some of our volunteers are studying archaeology or have done so in the past, but almost three quarters of the project’s participants had never dug an archaeological site before – and here they are digging a two thousand year old monument! Our volunteers range in age from four year olds to 74 year olds, and each person makes a worthwhile contribution to the project.

As we are nearing the end of the project, we are not opening any new trenches but are focussing on those already opened. We are trying not to create any more quandaries, but hope desperately to resolve those we are already investigating! For example, the broch wall has up to five or six construction stages depending on its complexity in the area examined. Where galleries exist, two or three inner wall elements and three outer have been noted. We want to know if all of these structural elements are contemporaneous (built at the same time) or whether they have been added over time, enlarging an original structure.

I help get the volunteers started for the day, making sure everyone has the right tools and knows what they are doing. Some volunteers are trowelling; others are drawing plans or sections; beginning to backfill; using the dumpy level and taking soil samples.  While digging, volunteers have a plastic tray to hand, into which they place all bulk finds (animal bone, small pieces of pottery, modern finds). Small finds (large pieces of pottery or rim sherds, worked bone, worked stone objects and so on) are bagged up straight away, their details recorded in the register and their exact locations plotted.

Local volunteer Meg with a large Iron Age rim sherd from Trench 4

I have been surveying the site using a total station, an electronic device that records the exact location in three dimensions of any given point. It is used to map and create 3D plans of a site, and to record the location of finds and so on. On a stone-built site like a broch, this means recording the location of a lot of stones! Site photographs are overlaid with the data gathered with the total station to create 3D maps.

AOC's Gemma explains how the total station works to Jonie

We stop for a tea break at about 10.30am and then everyone cracks on. I ask Jonie to help me take some levels using the dumpy level; although we have a total station, we teach the volunteers to use the dumpy level as many archaeological societies use them regularly, and we want to teach people new skills that they will use again and again.

We have decided to bury a time capsule at the end of excavations; at lunchtime, everyone shows what they have brought. Items include a CD of photographs from our excavations; the results from the weekend’s county show from the local paper; a key ring from the Caithness Broch Centre, and some coins. The volunteers sign the plastic tub and we seal it in plastic bags, taped shut. This way their contribution to the project becomes part of the time capsule itself. It will be buried on the final day.

Work continues through the afternoon, with another tea break prompting discussions of cannibalism: how hungry would you have to be before you started eating your comrades? Looking at our motley and dusty crew, I guess pretty desperate.  At about 4.30pm we pack up our tools for the day, and the volunteers sort and bag up their bulk finds. We then have a site tour, led by John. The team walks around the site in the sunshine, discussing the day’s findings and tomorrows challenges. By 5.30pm everyone heads home to rest their weary limbs for another day.

Some of the team on the penultimate day of excavations

Post script

Backfilling was completed on Saturday 23rd of July. Over 45 people were involved in the project during the three week season of excavation, volunteering over 1000 man hours in total. The project relied wholly on the enthusiasm and commitment of each and every one of these volunteers, and for this AOC and Yarrows Heritage Trust would like to express their gratitude.