AOC Archaeology Group

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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Hidden Archaeology in York

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Located in one of the United Kingdom’s most beautiful and archaeologically vibrant centres, our York office sits just beyond the medieval walls near Walmgate Bar, one of the four main and most complete medieval gateways into the heart of the city. Today the sun is shining and our team members are busy analysing data collected from recent excavations and geophysics projects, and preparing for the exciting projects which are starting in the next couple of weeks.

Mitchell Pollington (Operations Manager)

I spent a great morning having a look around (and under!) York’s medieval Guildhall and the adjacent ‘Hutments’ site, where we are going to be undertaking an extensive community excavation this August.

Everyone will have the opportunity to be involved with the project, and it’s all for free!

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Interior of Guildhall – originally built in the 15th Century and restored after damage from raids in WW2, the stained glass window illustrates the history of York and the historical importance of the city.

 

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Front of the Guildhall – as viewed from the rear of Mansion House

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Common Lane – a hidden street beneath York’s Guildhall!

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The ‘Hutments’ Site – the location of our excavations in August will be focused here. The existing building is situated on the site of a medieval monastery where Richard III stayed when in York!

Paul Clarke (Project Officer – Excavation)

Today I am in the office preparing for the upcoming York Guildhall community excavation in August, which promises to be one of the most exciting excavations in York for years! I’ve only just started working for  AOC but I have already worked on excavating a Romano-British ladder settlement in Brough over the past 3 weeks, which has turned up some really complex and fascinating archaeology – it’s a very wet site so it’s one for the palaeobotanists.

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Some of our team busy in the office

 

Alice James (Project Officer – Geophysics)

This morning I finished writing a report on a gradiometer survey at St Andrews College and Moat near Acaster Selby. St  Andrew’s College was founded in 1470 by the Bishop of Bath and Wells and in an act of Parliament in the late 15th Century recorded as holding an estate of 40 acres in Nether Acaster. It is documented as being made up of the main College buildings and chapel which lie on top of a large square platform.  Although there are no standing remains of the college and its associated structures, the site contains earthwork remains including a moated enclosure and ridge and furrow. By using a gradiometer survey we have been able to accrue more information regarding the form and extent of these known features as well as identifying previously unrecorded features such as a series of enclosures.

This afternoon is going to be filled with the organisation and project management of the geophysics projects we will be conducting in the next couple of weeks. July and August will be busy, especially in the south of England. In mid-August we are going to carry out a GPR survey as part of our Guildhall project in collaboration with the University of York, which I am very excited about!

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St Andrew’s College and Moat – earthworks of the moat, which are still present in the modern landscape

 

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Balancing a Bartington gradiometer before data collection

 

AOC Archaeology Group provides a UK-wide service, from three main offices, in Edinburgh, London and York. For more information about our professional services or any of the projects we working on please go to:

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Sticks and stones: a day in the life of a finds specialist

My name is Dawn McLaren and I am a finds specialist here at AOC Archaeology Group, based in Loanhead, Scotland.  On a day-to-day basis I’m involved in analysing artefacts recovered as the result of archaeological excavations undertaken by AOC’s fieldwork team.  Most of the objects that I have the privilege of working on come from archaeological sites in Scotland but as we have offices in York and London I’m also involved in identifying finds from digs across England.  My job is to identify any artefacts uncovered and this means figuring out what material the objects are made from, what date they could be and what they might have been used for.  In order to get as much information from the finds as possible, I work closely with AOC’s fieldwork team to understand as much as I can about the context of the finds on site and their possible significance, as well as working with AOC’s conservators to ensure that the objects are cared for properly once they come out of the ground.

Examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

Dawn examining the grinding face of a rotary quernstone

To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last few weeks I’ve been looking at a some Neolithic pottery from a site in northeast Scotland, some ironworking waste from a Roman site in southeast Scotland and a post-medieval assemblage of iron and worked bone from an urban site in Edinburgh. As I said in my 2012 Day of Archaeology blog, each artefact I meet presents its own challenges and it definitely keeps me on my toes!  They all have their own story to tell, so let’s see what’s in store today….

Today I’m examining a small group of worked stone objects from a Roman site in southeast Scotland. My first step is always to examine the individual objects in detail to allow me to observe any surface markings that might be tool marks left from manufacture of the object, wear from use or damage sustained to the object before it was deposited.  Some types of stone tools are more recognisable than others, such as this wonderful fragment of a rotary quernstone (see images), but this detailed approach allows me to categorise the wear and helps me to create, where possible, a biography of the artefact- from its manufacture to its deposition after its use had ceased.

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

Analysing a Roman quernstone fragment

The next stage is to catalogue the objects and this means describing each artefact in detail and taking measurements of each item.  Assisting me in this task is Marissa, an overseas student who I’m supervising here at AOC Archaeology this month on an Arcadia Internship.  The internship aims to provide training and experience in post-excavation work and is an important part of AOC’s commitment to making archaeology accessible to a wider audience and to provide valuable experience to promising students.

Taking measurements of central socket

Taking measurements of central socket

Having now looked at all stone objects within this particular assemblage, the star find for me is definitely this wonderful quernstone fragment!

Roman quernstone fragment

Roman quernstone fragment

These rotary quernstones would have been used as a pair – an upper and lower stone – to grind grain into flour. The lower stone would remain stationary and the upper stone would be turned by hand as the grain was fed down a central hole in the upper stone.  This particular stone represents approximately one half of a lower grinding stone and has a clear series of vertical grooves decorating the edges of the stone and a convex grinding face which has been deliberately dressed to make a rough surface for the grain to be ground against.  What is really interesting about this example is that the style of the quern mimics imported Roman lava quernstones but is almost certainly made from local sandstone.

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:http://www.aocarchaeology.com/services/post-excavation

 

 

Waterlogged Day, Waterlogged Wood….

My name is Anne Crone and I am a post-excavation project manager at AOC Archaeology Group, working in their Loanhead office in Scotland. I am currently managing a number of large post-excavation projects, the most important of which is the Cults Landscape Project – important to me because I also carried out the fieldwork in partnership with my colleague, Graeme Cavers, and because it has enabled me to ‘indulge’ many of my research interests, in crannogs, waterlogged wood and dendrochronology.

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The Cults Loch crannog under excavation

 

The fieldwork project has involved the excavation of a number of sites in and around Cults Loch, a small kettlehole loch at Castle Kennedy, near Stranraer in south-west Scotland. The project arose out of the initiative of the Scottish Wetland Archaeology Programme, the aim of which was to more fully integrate wetland archaeology into more mainstream ‘dryland’ archaeology. So we selected a landscape in which the archaeological sites appear to cluster around the loch and within which there were two crannogs – these are man-made islands found only in Scotland and Ireland and which are repositories of all sorts of waterlogged organic goodies!  We have excavated one of the crannogs which sits on a little man-made promontory jutting out into the loch, the promontory fort that lies on the other side of the loch, overlooking the crannog, and one of the palisaded enclosures that lies on the grassland around the loch.

And now we are halfway through the post-excavation programme.  We know that this is a later prehistoric landscape because we have 1st millennium BC radiocarbon dates from the promontory fort and crannog. But more exciting – I have been able to dendro-date some of the oak timbers from the crannog and we now know that most of the building activity took place in the 2nd and 3rd decades of the 5th century BC, and that there was refurbishment of the causeway in 193 BC – for me these more specific dates bring the occupants more clearly into focus…

Today – well, it started off with a 3 mile walk to work – usually a great start when I can think through my schedule for the day – but today the heavens opened and I was soaked by the time I arrived at the office! After drying out I settled down at my desk to read the report on the soil micromorphology from the crannog which my colleague Lynne Roy has just finished. As project manager I need to edit and check each report before it is sent out to the client, in this case Historic Scotland, but as the archaeologist I also want to read it for the insights it will give me into the taphonomy of the deposits on the crannog. And it is really fascinating! We found large patches of laminated plant litter, interspersed with gravel and sand layers which we interpreted as floor coverings that had been repeatedly renewed. Lynne’s analysis has revealed that the occupants probably cleaned away as much as possible of the dirty floor coverings before scattering over a sand and gravel subfloor and then laying down fresh plant litter. She can tell which surfaces were exposed for a length of time while others were covered almost immediately. And her work on the hearth debris indicates that peat turves were probably the main form of fuel on the site.

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Recording timbers in the warehouse

 

Like many archaeologists the majority of my time is spent at my desk, writing reports, editing reports, filling in/updating spreadsheets, and dealing with emails. So it is a pleasure to be able to don my lab coat and spend some time in our warehouse handling waterlogged wood. I am currently writing the report on the structural timbers from the crannog. The majority of the timbers were undressed logs or roundwood stakes, mostly of alder and oak, so most of the recording and sampling was done on the crannog. Samples for dendro and species identification were brought back to the lab but we only brought back complete timbers which displayed interesting carpentry details and were worthy of conservation. I have been completing the recording of these timbers and deciding which ones should be illustrated for the final report. There are some interesting timbers in the assemblage –large horizontal timbers with square mortises, presumably to take vertical posts, but what is the function of the horizontal timbers which have very narrow notches cut diagonally across them? Next week I will be off to the library to look for comparanda and to find explanations for some of the more unusual aspects of the assemblage

Read more about Cults Loch here

 

Osteology at AOC Archaeology Group

I’m very lucky to have a job that I absolutely love doing. My role is to excavate and analyse the human remains that we find across our archaeological sites. It can be a diverse role – last week I looked at an Early Bronze Age adult cremation burial, next week I’ll be looking at some medieval burials found underneath a chapel floor. But today I’m studying one of my favourite groups – post-medieval burials fromLondon! The bone surface preservation is usually really good in post-medieval burials, which means we can see a great range of things on the skeleton, whether it’s a slight developmental anomaly or a more severe pathological change.

The skeletons I’m looking at are from a former burial ground dating from 1840 to 1855 from Bethnal Green. The ground was privately owned by a pawnbroker – he clearly saw an opportunity to make some money from the high mortality rates in the parish and surrounding area! We excavated the burial ground over six extremely muddy months last year, prior to the building of a new nursery school on the site. As you can see in the site photo, we’ll uncover and clean the coffins before recording and photographing them. We recovered just over 1000 burials; some of the graveshafts contained up to 54 burials and were up to 7.5m deep.

When back in the office, having cleaned the skeletons, I’ll start by laying out all of the remains and then producing an inventory of which bones are present or missing. Post-medieval burials w

Excavating and recording post-medieval burials from Bethnal Green, London. Copyright AOC Archaeology Group.

ere often placed in vertical stacks in graveshafts, which sometimes collapse over time. So I’ll look for any possible mixing between the bones (if I have three skulls for one burial there’s a problem!) and I’ll check the site records, which will indicate if a coffin was damaged or had collapsed. I’ll then assess the bone preservation and estimate the age and sex of the individual as well as taking a host of measurements – for this site I’m particularly interested in seeing how well the juveniles were growing compared to other groups or compared to modern studies.

The best bit of the job, for me, is to determine how healthy individuals were in the past. I’m a true geek and I’m fascinated by how the skeleton can respond to disease processes and how, by recognising and recording those changes, we can help to reconstruct a bit more about what life was like in the past. I admire fieldwork archaeologists – how they can look at a hole in the ground and work out what activity had taken place on the site – but I love that my work has a more personal aspect by looking at the evidence from the people themselves. It’s a very emotive subject, but hopefully by trying to ascertain as much as about them as possible, as carefully as possible, we are gauging a respectful and fascinating insight into their past lives.

Right – ready for the first skeleton of the day. I’ll complete a paper-based record for each skeleton, which forms part of the site records that are archived with the relevant museum when the project is finished, in this case the London Archaeological Archive and Research Centre, so if anyone needs any further information they can directly access the records. We also have a specific osteology database for generating our report data, which can get big depending on how many pathologies there are on a skeleton or how long-winded I’m being. I’ll update the blog later on to show you what I’ve found. I can already see traces of a nice cranial infection on this individual!

Iron Age Slag – No Puns Please!

I’m Dawn McLaren and I’m a finds specialist at AOC Archaeology Group based at Loanhead, Scotland. On a day-to-day basis I’m principally involved in the post-excavation analysis of artefacts recovered as the result of developer-led excavations ranging from early prehistoric through to post-medieval in date. To give you an idea of the range of finds that I deal with, in the last couple of weeks I’ve been looking at coarse stone tools and querns from an Iron Age settlement, some pottery from a Bronze Age burial and post-medieval metal finds from an urban site in Edinburgh. It definitely keeps me on my toes!  

Today I’ve been examining some later prehistoric ironworking waste from a multi-phase site at Beechwood, Inverness and I’m really excited about what it is telling us about metalworking on the site.  The site, which was excavated by my colleague Rob Engl and others, revealed several Bronze Age/Iron Age timber roundhouses, palisades and enclosures together with evidence of Neolithic settlement.

Dawn identifying slag from Beechwood

Starting from the beginning, what is ironworking waste?  Basically, it is the non-iron component of ore that is separated out from the iron during smelting and smithing but there is inevitably other associated debris such as bits of ceramic hearth lining and vitrified stone which don’t necessarily need to be connected to metalworking. I’m terribly over simplifying, of course, but I hope this gives you an idea. Visually, this material doesn’t look like much, I admit! It often looks like rusty or glassy shapeless ugly lumps. But I’ve been trying for years to convince people that it’s really interesting and can tell us a lot about metalworking technology.

My first step is always to visually examine (macro and microscopically) the individual pieces looking at the colour, texture, shape and how melted and fused the material is. Another important part of the initial identification is to determine whether the material is magnetic. All of this information helps me to split the assemblage into broad categories: what is ironworking waste and what has been formed as the result of another pyrotechnic process, what is diagnostic of iron smelting and what might be bloom- or blacksmithing debris. Once I’ve identified the individual pieces, I record all the details (e.g. weight, quantity of pieces and measurements) into a spreadsheet so that I can feed in the contextual data later.

Small smithing hearth bottom from Beechwood

I’m pleased to say that the assemblage from Beechwood has a bit of everything!  It’s not a large assemblage but so far I’ve identified several smithing hearth bottoms and fragments of smelting waste so that I can say that both processes were taking place on or around the site.

Smelting slag from Beechwood

Now that my catalogue of the slag is complete I’ve started to look at where the pieces were recovered from. The excavations at Beechwood covered a very large area and I can see from my initial examination that the ironworking debris is focused in two quite disparate parts of the site. One area, which we’ll call A, includes a possible metalworking hearth or furnace associated with smelting slags and the other area, B, which is quite a distance away and must represent a separate focus of activity, has small residual amounts of both smelting and smithing debris. We’ve already had some of the pits and postholes from these areas radiocarbon dated and those associated with the ironworking waste have provided wonderful Iron Age dates.

Looks like my task for tomorrow is to see how the Beechwood evidence fits in to other Iron Age metalworking sites in the area!

For more information on our post-excavation services please check out our website:http://www.aocarchaeology.com/services/post-excavation

Friday in the Office. Jake Streatfeild-James, Field Archaeologist, AOC Archaeology Group – North

I was in to work early this morning.  The sun was out as I headed around the bypass to the office. As soon as the key is in the door it starts to tip down outside, so I’m glad that, whereas I’m usually in the field, today I am helping out the conservation department process a large assemblage of Roman ceramics.  The finds come from Roman fort in central Scotland, near the Antonine Wall. During the last four days I’ve been labelling pot, some of which I remember from last summer’s excavation.

I will have worked for AOC in their Edinburgh office for a year this July, first as a site assistant and now as a field archaeologist.  In my first year I’ve learnt a lot: what it means to do a ‘watching brief,’ what to look for during an evaluation and the art of report writing, even picking up some experience of community archaeology along the way.

Carrying on from where I left off yesterday afternoon, I’m continuing to excavate the material left inside a Roman bowl.  The bowl was lifted from ground in one piece, and was discovered in the backfill of a pit which contained other Roman material. On Roman sites, pots like this often contain human or animal remains- burials or ritual deposits, but in this case there is only the backfill of the pit, suggesting that the bowl had outlived its use and was discarded.

Next there is a collection of Samian, high status pottery from Roman Gaul.  This group of sherds was discovered in a concentrated area of the site, and might make an entire vessel: time to break out the adhesive! This is a first for me and my only comparable experience is gluing a mug back together.  This is a tad more complicated.

It nearly goes back together, and I don’t have any bits left over. The conservators agree it’s a success. Would they lie to protect my feelings?

Finally there’s some preparation to do for a watching brief on Monday morning. My site box, spade, and personal protective equipment all need gathering together and checked before I leave for the weekend.

 

Hope it doesn’t rain on Monday.