Archaeologist. Overly fond of archaeological finds, especially all things prehistoric and/or made of flint. Community Project Officer and Finds Archaeologist for Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service.

Travelling in time

A day off. I’m heading down to the south coast of England for a wedding.

On the move: for us it’s a task, mandated by the need to get away, to see friends, or to work. For the people I’m taking a break from studying, it was a way of life.

I’m working on a project looking at human society, landscape and environment during the last Ice Age in Worcestershire, a part of the West Midlands long thought to have little to offer on the subject. But that’s changing: we’re starting to realise that the areas around the Severn and Avon valleys contain a rich record of the ebbs and flows of Ice Age life over the past half a million years.

At times, the area was under hundreds of metres of ice that probably topped even the mighty Malvern Hills. At others, temperate grasslands were grazed by hippos, their watering holes stalked by lion and hyaena. And for much of the period, a chilly, treeless, but fertile steppe supported huge herds of migrating mammals. The iconic Woolly Mammoth, Woolly Rhinoceros, and reindeer were accompanied by wild horses, giant deer, and my personal favourite: the mighty Steppe Bison (Bison priscus), an extinct giant whose bones abound in the gravel terraces of Midlands rivers.

Steppe Bison

Steppe Bison (Bison priscus)

The people who followed these herds ranged far and wide across a Britain still connected to the continent by the vast expanse of Doggerland. Now buried deep below the North Sea and the English Channel, inundated by post-Ice Age sea-level rise, the fate of Doggerland is a reminder of how precarious our treasured landscapes can be.

We arrive in Hampshire in the damp afternoon, to stay with family. I take the dog into the woods, a landscape of conifers similar to the young forests home to small groups of hunter-gatherers as Northern Europe emerged from the dusty chill of the Younger Dryas about 11,700 years ago, marking the transition from the Palaeolithic to the Mesolithic.

conifer plantation

These Mesolithic travellers faced very different challenges to their Ice Age predecessors, but in the forests of Northern Europe there were, at least, plenty of options for shelter. We often find Mesolithic flintknapping waste within the shallow irregular pits left by toppling trees. Why? Well, the tangled mess of root and earth swung skywards when a tree falls provides the perfect windbreak and the beginnings of a very cosy shelter.

As I walk up through stands of larch and pine, I come across a small clearing created by a domino toppling of a small group of trees. They came down a few winters back, and I’ve watched their progress ever since, imagining how they might have been used 10,000 years ago. For a while after they fall, ‘tree-throw’ pits are often filled with dirt and stagnant water – hardly an attractive prospect. But this cluster, undisturbed by foresters, has grassed over nicely. The sticky clay and tangled root have weathered to a perfect facsimile of a wattle-and-daub wall, and the light pours into the clearing from the hole in the canopy. It has all the appearance of a village of comfortable dwellings, and that – I imagine – is just how similar scenes would have appeared to my predecessors, travelling through on their own journeys all those thousands of years ago.

A village of fallen conifers

As I call the dog and turn to trudge up the slope, one final detail catches my eye, and breaks the spell. Poking out of one wall of clay and root is a car tyre, entwined decades ago into the root system of the growing tree, and now exposed once more. Tomorrow I continue my journey on tyres of rubber, and leave my stone age dreams behind.

Car tyre within tree throw

Rob Hedge

https://incurablearchaeologist.wordpress.com/

A history of the pot in 5000 years

I’m Rob Hedge, and I work for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service in The Hive, Worcester. I’m a Community Project Officer, and I spend some of my time doing outreach and education work for the service, and some of it locked away in the basement working on archaeological finds. Today, I’m in the Finds Room.

I began the day by preparing to get rid of several boxes of artefacts. This goes against many people’s expectations of an archaeologist’s role. Shouldn’t we peculiar basement-dwellers be hoarding everything, clinging onto dusty consignments of mysterious treasures for all eternity? Well, maybe, but the unfortunate truth is that British archaeology faces a storage crisis. Besides, there’s a limit to how often museum curators can feign interest in the contents of a Victorian dump.

But one person’s junk is another’s treasure, and I confess to being fond of the detritus of late-19th century throwaway consumerism. In this case, the finds in question were uncovered in Evesham, having spent the last 120 years in a pit. The museum didn’t want them for their archaeological collections, but thankfully a sympathetic social history curator was only too keen to snap them up for their educational handling collections. So, my lovely assortment of ‘Virol’ bone marrow containers, beer bottles and the ubiquitous ‘Camp Coffee’ jars were handed over to their new home, and will once more sit proudly on a shelf.

One item that wasn’t complete enough to be taken was this plate, depicting the bell tower of once-mighty Evesham Abbey. I love it because it highlights a very human desire to mark significance and local identity, and its discovery just a few hundred metres from the landmark it depicts amuses me. It’s as if the tower, still standing defiant and isolated, is stubbornly outliving our attempts to immortalise it in commemorative crockery.

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, c.1900

Plate depicting the Bell Tower, Evesham Abbey, discarded around 1900

From one pot to another: having set up some of our volunteers and our work experience student with their tasks, I turn my attention to a site that couldn’t be further from the familiar world of late Victorian dumps. Project Officer Richard Bradley and I are working on the report for an excavation he led at Shifnal, Shropshire. It’s a fascinating but elusive site: occupied in the Neolithic period around 5000 years ago, then seemingly abandoned before once again being a focus of activity in the Iron Age, about 2500 years ago. There are few finds (a common feature of prehistoric sites in this region), plenty of pits and ditches, and a tangled web of radiocarbon dates. It’s a real challenge to unpick which features belong to which periods. One issue is resolved when we identify some grotty fired clay as ‘briquetage’: coarse Iron Age salt containers used to pack salt for transportation from the brine wells at Droitwich.

What the Neolithic finds lack in quantity, they make up in quality. Tell-tale parallel worn grooves and a smoothed, ground surface reveal a block of stone to be a rare ‘polissoir’, for polishing Neolithic stone axes. And a large chunk of a Mortlake style Peterborough ware bowl, around 5000 years old, displays the unmistakable imprint of the potter’s fingernail in the elaborate chevron decoration. A pattern which, like the bell tower, serves as a mark of identity. Pots like this were produced across Britain, in a huge variety of designs but with strong regional trends in ‘fabric’ (the material incorporated into the clay during manufacture) that seem to defy purely functional explanations. Mass produced or hand-made, ancient or modern, a pot is never just a pot – it’s a window on a world-view, and in this case a direct connection to the delicate, precise actions of a craftsperson across around 250 generations.

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Neolithic Peterborough Ware (Mortlake) pottery, c.3000 B.C., found in Shropshire

Archaeologists are a merciless bunch. “Where’s the rest of it?” they tease Richard. Elsewhere, work experience student Kat is tasked with counting, weighing and piecing together an impressive assemblage of Iron Age pottery. You can see how she got on in her own day of archaeology post. I welcome a group of school and 6th form students, who get to work on processing some finds from an HLF-funded community archaeology investigation into intriguing early ironworking sites in the Forest of Dean. Later, as staff and volunteers trickle home, I set up some photographs, bringing together two pots separated by 5000 years, but crossing paths on my day of archaeology.

On my way out, I pause to check on a very exciting discovery, recovered by our archaeologists from a Worcestershire quarry a few months ago. It returned from its trip to the conservator yesterday, and soon it’ll be going on display for the summer at Worcester Museum, to delight children and adults alike… can you guess what it is?

Mystery find - watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!

Mystery find – watch out for it at Worcester Museum this summer!


Bones, the Bard, and plenty of pots

I opened my office door this morning to see a roomful of skeletons.

My name’s Rob Hedge, I’m a Community Project Officer for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Part of my time is spent helping people find out more about their local heritage and why it matters, from building mock-dig sandpits to standing in the High Street trying to get passers-by enthused about Worcester’s medieval pots. I also work in the Finds team, where I’m responsible for overseeing the processing of artefacts once they come in from site, and for analysing some of the small assemblages of finds.

So, the skeletons… we’ve been excavating an area of the churchyard attached to Holy Trinity, Stratford – famous as the Church where Shakespeare is buried (though they keep him safe from the likes of us in a tomb within the church). And yes, before you ask, the “Alas, poor Yorrick” joke has been done to death, by virtually every visitor to the site. An extension to the church is planned, and so we’re carefully recording and excavating almost 200 burials spanning at least 600 years which will be disturbed by building work. After analysis, they’ll be re-buried on site. It’s a densely-packed cemetery and time is tight, so I’ve been down recently to help with the site work. Personally, I don’t particularly enjoy excavating cemeteries, but it’s a necessary evil – if we didn’t excavate them, they’d be destroyed by construction work. We work hard to keep disturbance to a minimum, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

And the inevitable consequence is bags of bones, each individual careful and separately labelled up. Soon, they’ll be taken down to our friends at Ossafreelance, who’ll carry out the analysis. But for now, they need somewhere cool and dry. I make a note of what’s come in, separate out the finds and samples, load the skeletons onto a trolley and wheel them into our store, trying to avoid mental puns about skeletons and closets…

Assessments next: first, a small assemblage of finds from an infilled Lime Kiln. A nice selection of late 19th/early 20th century domestic items: stone china, stoneware bottles, pot of ‘Cherry Tooth Paste’ (I’m almost tempted to test the dark red residue clinging to the lid of the pot…) and a near-complete tea-cup made by T & R Boote in Burslem, Staffs around the turn of the 20th century, with this gorgeous stamp showing a steamship, flags fluttering and furnaces firing:

Semi-porcelain cup

Semi-porcelain cup, T & R Boote, Burslem

The finds tell us that this Lime Kiln probably fell out of use by the late 19th century, and was probably backfilled shortly afterwards. Our palynologist Dr Suzi Richer walks in, and looks bewildered to find me weighing a brick. It was a very nice brick, honest…

Next, to talk through progress and answer correspondence for a project we’re doing for Historic England; we’re trying to assess the amount and potential value of archaeology and local history research produced by societies, community groups and associations. We know there’s a lot of it, and we suspect the full potential of this work to enhance local Historic Environment Records and Research Frameworks isn’t being realised. If you’re involved in voluntary-sector research, please take a look at the project and take our survey. It’s been fascinating to see the responses coming in, and to hear about so many interesting projects, challenges, successes and frustrations. There are some interesting trends emerging… keep an eye out for the report later this year.

IMG_3607

Microscope? Check. Scales? Check. Finds? Check. Tea? Check. Doughnuts? Well, it is Friday…

Back to the finds, and onto artefacts from a watching brief on a scheduled ancient monument, a medieval moated manor in north Worcestershire. High-quality post-medieval domestic pottery from a well-to-do household, including early English porcelain, and the base of a lovely medieval jug with splashes of yellow glaze. But my eye is drawn to a chunk of coarse tile, orange surfaces, grey core, with a neat square tapering hole pierced through: a medieval roof tile. Hooked over the roof lath with a simple peg, these tiles were produced in the area from the 13th century onwards; though not much to look at, they had one big advantage over thatch: they didn’t burn! There’s more on Worcester’s medieval fire-proofing measures over on our Dig Lich Street blog.

Medieval Roof Tile

Medieval Roof Tile, showing peg-hole and sandy, grey core

Finally, as the Field Staff roll back in, drop off the day’s finds, moan about the weather and steal my doughnuts, I make final preparations for tomorrow’s exhibition of finds from Worcester Cathedral Roundabout. If you’re in Worcester, drop in and see us at Tudor House Museum. I’ll be there 10 til 4, trying my best to bring the finds to life!

Friday Finds

My name’s Rob Hedge, and I work for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Some of the time I’m a Community Archaeologist, helping the public find out about, and get involved in, the archaeology of their area. The rest of the time I’m a Finds Archaeologist – responsible for processing the finds that come in from our fieldwork, analysing them and writing assessments, and preparing them for archiving.

finds processing, archaeology

The finds processing room, shelves nicely filled with finds drying, awaiting marking and assessment

Today was one of my Finds days. I started off checking and logging the finds incoming from the field teams, and sorting out my correspondence, before moving on to reviewing and editing some recent assessments. A quarry site in Warwickshire has produced a pretty diverse range of finds, from beautiful Neolithic flint to medieval horseshoes, and a wide range of 17th/18th century pottery. Our senior project manager Derek Hurst suggested some edits to my report. With finds work, it’s important to be able to consult with others and discuss ideas/interpretations, and I’m fortunate to be surrounded by a hugely experienced and knowledgeable finds team, to whom I’m frequently turning for help!

Neolithic, knife, flint, Warwickshire

Neolithic flint knife from a Warwickshire quarry

post-medieval, slipware,

Less glamorous, but still important: 18th century plate with a trailed-slip decoration and ‘pie-crust’ edges, from Worcestershire

Some of our Finds Volunteers were in today, doing a great job assisting me in processing, marking and sorting finds; they’re vital to a lot of the important public aspects of our work. For example, last week a member of the public brought in a whole box of beautiful medieval floor tiles, which were probably taken from a local Abbey post-dissolution. With no core funds available for projects like this, the time and efforts of our volunteers will hopefully enable us to preserve the assemblage and display it for all to see.

One of our large community excavations last year took place at St Mary’s Church, Kidderminster. I spent some time this morning packing a selection of the finds up for an exhibition on the results of the dig at Kidderminster Museum of Carpet tomorrow, including some interesting pottery production waste hinting at a short-lived and little-known Kidderminster industry.

The exciting discovery of prehistoric wood in a Staffordshire quarry was next on the list. It’s rare that wood survives so long, but in waterlogged conditions it can remain beautifully preserved for thousands of years. These samples came from a pit, pre-dating a ‘Burnt Mound’ feature, so they’re likely to be Bronze Age or earlier. Careful hand-removal of the encasing silt revealed cut marks and worked edges. With wood, it’s important to keep it wet until analysis has been carried out, so the samples are placed in perforated bags, submerged in water and kept cool and dark.

wood, prehistoric, burnt mound

Prehistoric wood from a pit underlying a burnt mound in a quarry in Staffordshire, with toolmarks visible at top left

Once the wood was safely packaged, I headed across town for a physiotherapy appointment. About six weeks ago I fractured my elbow in a cycling accident, and the healing process is long and frustratingly slow. I’m lucky to have a sympathetic employer, and plenty of non-site work to keep me busy in my current role, but debilitating injuries like this can be a big problem for archaeologists. A few years ago, as a site-based field archaeologist on short-term contracts, reliant on physical fitness and the ability to drive, I took out personal injury insurance to give me a bit of breathing space in the event of injury/illness. It costs, but I’d encourage any field archaeologist to do the same.

After physio, back to the office to sort out equipment for a Worcestershire Young Archaeologists’ Club event. We’ll be at Croome on Sunday for the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology, excavating some small trenches to locate the course of a trackway that once ran through the ‘Home Shrubbery’ to the splendid Rotunda, so Learning & Outreach Manager Paul Hudson and I spent some time gathering and checking the necessary equipment.

Lastly, I put a short piece up on our Twitter and Facebook pages – I try to post ‘Friday Finds’ each week, focusing on something I’ve been working on during the week. This week, I’ve been spoilt for choice, but decided on the prehistoric timbers; it’s not every day you come across wood so perfectly preserved, and there’s something special about being able to see ancient toolmarks. It’s a tiny but evocative echo of an everyday task carried out hundreds of generations ago.

From Community Cheer to Painful Pathologies

Hello. I’m Rob Hedge, and I’m a CBA Community Archaeology Bursary holder at the Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service. The service is based at The Hive, Worcester – a new (and very shiny!) facility that also houses the integrated city and University of Worcester libraries. Being in such a prominent building has meant a big increase in visitors to our public office, where people can drop in and find out about the information we hold on the archaeology of their area in our Historic Environment Record (HER).

The Hive, Worcester

The Hive, Worcester

 

Besides the staff who maintain and update the HER and carry out ‘searches’ for the public, the Service includes archaeologists who advise developers and local authorities on issues such as planning and countryside management. Our Field Section, Worcestershire Archaeology, are a commercial unit who carry out developer-funded archaeological work. All of this means that we are one of the largest local authority archaeology organisations in the UK, and that my role in helping to plan and run outreach projects is busy and varied!

Today, I’ve been sorting through the records and photographs from our #DigBromsgrove community excavation. The dig was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund as part of a scheme to regenerate Bromsgrove town centre by unlocking the hidden heritage of the town. Throughout the course of the dig we had around 40 volunteers involved in the site work, doing everything from setting out the site grid and drawing scale plans to finds processing, filling out the context records and putting together the site ‘matrix’. We believe that it’s really important that participants in community archaeology projects don’t just ‘dig’, and that they learn about all the other skills that are crucial to being able to carry out an excavation. Many of our volunteers are members of local societies, and the skills they learn with us with benefit those groups when they undertake their own fieldwork.

Teaching Volunteers, DigBromsgrove

Teaching Volunteers, DigBromsgrove

 

In addition to the volunteers, we had around 500 schoolchildren coming to visit the site, for whom we constructed an archaeological sand-box complete with features and genuine archaeological artefacts for them to uncover.

Constructing an archaeological sandpit

Constructing an archaeological sandpit

 

We backfilled the trench and dismantled the sand-box on Monday, and are now beginning the post-excavation process. All the finds from the site are currently being cleaned, catalogued and labelled, and will then be analysed by our specialists.

The DigBromsgrove finds, awaiting processing

The DigBromsgrove finds, awaiting processing

 

I’ve also spent part of the day planning for an event taking place next week at the brilliant Infirmary Museum in Worcester. During a watching brief on building works as the old Worcester Royal Infirmary became the University of Worcester’s new City Campus, archaeologists from our service came across a peculiar deposit: a jumbled assortment of over 1800 fragments of human bone, with various grisly features from saw marks to embedded iron pegs, as well as a whole range of painful-looking pathologies! Were these the victims of some maniacal serial killer?

Femur showing lytic lesion caused by cyst, and saw 'kerf'

Femur showing lytic lesion caused by cyst, and saw ‘kerf’

 

In fact, Ossafreelance‘s brilliant analysis revealed a much more intriguing source – the bones turned out to be medical waste from 18th and 19th century, including items from amputations, dissections and teaching collections – some still with traces of the fixings that would have held the skeletons together! This gory assemblage is the largest discovered within a post-medieval provincial infirmary, and is a fascinating insight into historic surgical practices.

So, I’ve spent a lot of time today looking through some pretty grisly pictures, and feeling rather lucky to live in the 21st century.

If you’re around in Worcester on Wednesday 31st, come along to Infirmary Unearthed and find out more!

If you’d like to find out more about what I’m up to, I’m on Twitter: @robhedge. You can also follow community archaeology projects supported by our service via @worcsdigs, and updates on events run by us through @explorethepast.