City of London

Karen Stewart (MOLA): Identifying Roman writing tablets

Originally I wasn’t going to do an entry for Day of Archaeology this year as I was scheduled to be doing almost exactly the same thing I was doing last year, assessing waterlogged flots from waterfront dumps, which would have been a bit boring. However, following a visit from a project manager at 9 this morning, I am now tasked with identifying the species of wood used in a selection of Roman writing tablets before they get sent to a Roman cursive writing specialist for analysis. These tablets are just some of the over 300 recovered  from a large urban site in the centre of London, which you can read about at the Walbrook Discovery Blog.

Before I start the writing tablets I assessed a couple of flots from the same site, as they were the last two in a box and I wanted to get it finished. They were very similar flots, full to bursting with bran, straw, moss, wood, some charcoal and waterlogged seeds. With those recorded I moved on to the writing tablets.

In order to identify wood to species, you need to section it along three planes (transverse, radial and tangential), mount them on a slide and observe them with a high powered microscope. You can then look at the microscopic features that can be used to narrow down the list of possible features. As these are Roman artefacts, there’s a broader range of species that might have been used, as they tended to import a lot of stuff from the continent.

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Taking a wood sample of a Roman ruler for identification

Generally speaking, writing tablets are made of silver fir, but at this site we’ve had a bit of variety so I was looking forward to a surprise. Unfortunately, there were no surprises to be had and all 16 have indeed turned out to be silver fir. However, Michael Marshall, one of our Roman finds specialists, saw I was doing wood ID’s and ran over to get a sneaky ID on an artefact he was recording – a Roman ruler. That turned out to be beech, so I got a bit of variety in my results today after all.

Jess Bryan (MOLA): Back to the Walbrook, sewer or later!

Today is a special Day of Archaeology version of our Walbrook blog; welcome to all those new Day of Archaeology faces and old Walbrook friends!

So we have fearlessly returned to the site! Like newborn foals, our pasty feeble arms and legs are coaxed into life after a few months of checking paperwork in the office. As we walk down onto site we realised a lot has changed… mainly the access. How the hell do we get down to the area now?

We had two main things to do today: look at the section underneath the retaining wall in what was our main area of excavation, and say hello to the crew who are going to be digging the sewer heading.

We headed down to our old area first. This took a lot longer than we think, not only because of the access issue noted before, but also because we couldn’t walk 10 meters without one of the McGee’s guys saying hello and asking how it is going. It’s nice to be loved! Although not everyone loves us, I am sure their were some steely eyes watching us from the contractors office, ready to pounce and mitigate in case we uttered the words ‘can I just take a look at that?’

Hi Mike!

McGee’s love our friendly Canadian (c) MOLA 2013

So for those of you that follow our blog about the excavation, you may remember we had two large open areas and a number of trenches, and in the largest area (20 sq m) we excavated a depth of about 8 m of archaeology. This ranged from Post-Medieval through to the earliest Roman inhabitants. Well after we had finished they cleared the area to a flat level (after all archaeologists never dig flat sites) and then built a large piling mat on top to enable the piling. For those of you who have ever wondered what one of those really tall machines are (that is not a crane) sticking out the top of site with what looks like a big screw attached, that’s a piling rig. And as we never do things by half on this site, we had the biggest one in Europe! It had to driven all the way over from Germany with its own German crew – this thing can drill some big holes!

Anyway I digress… so today was the day they had finished removing the piling mat, and had dug the ground level down below the natural clay at which we stopped digging. Basically we are here to check the ground to make sure that it was only London clay that could be seen, and no earlier archaeology had appeared, or we had left any timbers in the ground (not that we don’t have enough timber anyway). So, as all archaeologists do when they walk up to a big hole that has been dug by a machine, we all held our breath whilst we went round the corner… and were greeted by a wall of London Clay. Nothing had appeared below the level we had excavated. Occasionally it is possible that very early layers of alluvial material may cover evidence of prehistoric activity, but in this case there was none.

Putting the super in supervisor

Sadie checking out the work (c) MOLA 2013


This is how deep the site is now! See the abandoned orange mains breaker box on the 2nd row of steel? I remember just before Easter standing on the ground and plugging cables into that! (c) MOLA 2013

So with the main area checked out, and more re-acquaintances made, we navigated our way across site to the sewer heading that would be our home for the next two weeks. By this time the heat has really caught up with us (I tell you we are out of shape) and the water in coolers that had been placed around site by the principle contractor are much appreciated.

So the sewer heading: you never see TV archaeologists doing this (oh wait, Sadie you are a TV star…). Mike and myself had never encountered a sewer heading before and, after asking a few old hats in the office, had worked out that it is probably one of the more restricted environments you will find yourself in, not just for space but also for scope of recording any archaeology that comes up. Sadie did point out that they are fun, and that you get to crawl around in a new tunnel underground, which piqued our interests a bit more. Although within a few minutes of meeting the guys who were excavating the sewer heading I am not sure how much access we are going to get to it… they really were not convinced we had the correct confined spaces tickets to enter. It is good of them to challenge us, as after all the hole is their responsibility, but this really isn’t the kind of thing you try to blag your way into for a bit of a laugh. When we go down there we need a harness, breathing apparatus and a rescue plan, so although the idea of crawling underground may be fun, the reality is fairly dangerous should something happen. So we have got over the introductions and they realise we are serious; they let us have a look at what they had done… not a lot! It was going to take a while to break through the basement wall.

Who doesn't like a good sewer heading?

Start of the sewer heading (c) MOLA 2013

So maybe next week they may hit soil, and then we will be in the tunnel about 4m underneath one of London’s busiest roads, looking for more of the Pompeii of the north

But for the rest of the day it looks like it’s back to the office and more paperwork.

Louise Davies (MOLA): Managing Archaeological Projects in the City of London

I have been working in archaeology for almost 10 years now, since finishing my Masters at York University, and have been working as a Project Manager at MOLA for nearly 3 years. Today for me started very well when I realised I already had my hard hat, boots and vizi vest at home and not under my desk, so could proceed directly to my first site meeting of the day instead of coming into the office first.

I visited a site in the City of London where were have just started doing a 5-trench evaluation in the basement of a bar. It’s so cool going into these old buildings, which have often been very recently vacated – you find all sorts of weird things in them. This one still had cocktail glasses on the bar and a huge box of un-pulled Christmas crackers on the floor. I met with the MOLA Senior Archaeologist who’s doing the fieldwork and delivered a (very basic) work mobile phone to her. We are always short of site mobiles and only got a spare one for this site four days into the project. The trench she has been working on has a big Roman quarry pit in it, immediately under the concrete basement slab, which is nice and just what we expected. The second trench (in the kitchen of the old bar) is proving slightly more problematic as they keep finding drains and ground beams, and also operating a 5-ton mini excavator in a basement room is quite hot and smelly!

After the evaluation site, I walked to my next site, about ten minutes away, which is a large open area excavation. It’s the biggest project, in terms of size and value, that I have worked on, and I’m very excited to be project managing it. We started work there just over two weeks ago on a 14-week programme, and should have over 20 staff on site at the peak of the fieldwork. So far we have reduced the ground level by around 3m and found a series of post-medieval basement rooms, complete with vaulted roofs, brick floors, stone-lined drains, wine bottles, and even a graffitied brick.

Brick graffiti (c) MOLA 2013

Brick graffiti (c) MOLA 2013

We’ve got a great team down there at the moment, and they’ve been helped by our standing buildings team and brick specialist to try to date the building materials and work out the complicated phasing of the buildings. The walls seem to be a complete mish-mash of yellow stock brick, chalk blocks, red bricks, ragstone rubble, Tudor brickwork, everything.

Today I was meeting with the City of London Archaeological Advisor to show her around the site, and she’ll now make weekly visits to the site throughout the duration of the programme. We’re expecting medieval and Roman deposits beneath the post-med basement slabs, so plenty to see in the next few months. We had a special treat today when we were allowed to climb up to the top of the scaffolding to look down on the site below. A bit of a knee-trembler being so high up, but it was worth it for the view!

Holding on for dear life!

5 storeys high and cool as a cucumber (c) MOLA 2013

I then had a quick meeting with the construction manager to give him an update, and went back to work to have lunch with my lovely friend Craig, do some invoicing, and commiserate with Stewie and his motorbike-falling-off induced injuries.

Amy Thorp: Roman Pottery Specialist

While I spend many of my days as a pottery specialist handling lots of pretty objects, today is a statistics day. Quantification is a vital tool for inter-site comparison so lots of time is spent trawling through our databases. At the moment I’m looking at a City site near the location of the Roman forum with an assemblage totalling a mere 24,000 sherds. I’m also returning to DUA reports (Department of Urban Archaeology for those who remember) for comparative data from a nearby site.

Amazing how quickly reports date – look at that font!