Coastal archaeology

An adventurous visit on a forbidden peninsula

Alas, on this very last Day of Archaeology I was on leave (yes, indeed, there are some of us who really can afford such luxury as having several days off from work!). Yet, despite vacation and weekend, I went off to explore a site on Saturday – and it had almost all in it that made me decide for this job: adventure, hidden places, and the great feeling of finding something someone has left behind several years or maybe even decades, centuries, millenia ago.

On my last post I still had been a post-doc in the UP-NORTH project at UCL and writing about another exciting trip – back then the team went to Jersey. Well, summertime is a very likely time to find archaeologists out in the field! Since last year I’ve been back working in Germany as a post-doc in a collaborative research centre, the CRC 1266 “Scales of transformation – Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies” at Kiel University (https://www.sfb1266.uni-kiel.de/en?set_language=en). The project I’m working in is about the “Pioneers of the North: Transitions and Transformations in Northern Europe evidenced by high-resolution data sets” and actually hosted at the Centre of Baltic and Scandinavian Archaeology at Schloss Gottorf in Schleswig (http://zbsa.eu/research/projects/projekte-mensch-und-umwelt/pioniere-des-nordens?set_language=en) where I used to work before.

After a presentation about the project at a conference in spring this year, a colleague came up to me stating that he had been informed about a potential Late Upper Palaeolithic site in north-eastern Germany. Thus far, he had only seen photos of artefacts that appeared confincing to him but his time had not allowed him to take up this lead, Now he heard the presentation, he thought he could show us the photos, make a connection to the collector for our team, and maybe something comes out of it. Yay, great! Why not?

To explain why this suggestion was of particular interest for my new team, I have to introduce some details about this bit of archaeology: The first people (pioneers) to enter northern Germany after the last glaciation (c. 26,000-19,500 years ago) are archaeologically associated with the so-called Hamburgian – no, no burgers but reindeer hunters who left a whole lot of wastes near Hamburg that were found and in the 1920s firstly categorised by Hamburg university scholar Gustav Schwantes and termed Hamburgian by him. The Hamburgian is similar to the British Creswellian a Late Upper Palaeolithic entity that clearly arose from a Magdalenian (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdalenian) substratum and also dates to the beginning of the Lateglacial Interstadial (appr. 14,700 – 12,700 years ago – the beginning comprises c. the first 700 years). In that period temperatures rose rapidly, precipitation increased, and vegetation and fauna reoccupied the northern regions that were more or less recently freed from the large inland glaciers. Traditionally two variants of the Hamburgian are distinguished based on their projectile typology: The classic Hamburgian with shouldered points that is considered slightly older and the Havelte Group with large but slender tanged points. Most sites of this archaeological group are found in the northern Netherlands, north-western Germany, Denmark (though only the Havelte variant), and Poland (here only the classic variant). Surprisingly, there seems to be no site in eastern Germany. Therefore, the idea that there might be a potential site in north-eastern Germany made us quite excited – what might there be between the classic Hamburgian areas in Poland, the Havelte Group material in Denmark and the diverse material in NW-Germany?

Yet, entering the site wasn’t as easy and straight forward as one might expect: The findspot is located on a private peninsula that also is in parts a natural conservation area. So the owner and the environmental protection agency had to agree on our coming. The latter is something we also know very well from sites in our part of northern Germany where somehow the relevant archaeological sites are also frequently located in natural protection zones with different degrees of excluding archaeological field works – but that’s an entirely different story that partially explains the scarcity of modern excavations of this period in the State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Back to the NE-German peninsula. Finally, this Saturday everything was arranged by our colleague and we had the permission to enter the peninsula. The trip began at 7.30am in Schleswig to arrive at the appointed time 10.45am at the gates to the private property. Well, at least that was the plan – not considering motorway closures due to accidents… the arrival time was finally at 11.30am but – thanks to modern communication media – the colleague was contacted early enough about the late arrival. So after a 4hrs ride, everybody already waited at the gates that were closed behind my car again displaying a large sign about danger of unadjusted ammunition… I learned then that prior to German unity and the decampment of the Russian troops in 1990, the area had been a military base since the 1930s with still some material of the Nazi tank shooting training remaining in the grounds. Eh, nice!? I was asked to leave my car with all that is dear to me and not waterproof at the gates and join the others in the car of the ranger. Luckily, the first swarm of mosquitos attacked me there already so that quickly I sprayed the parts without clothes – so hands and face (in the end it’s northern Germany – we had about 15°C all day) but also all my clothes with anti-mosquito spray because these nasty creatures were already trying to get through my trousers… Our ride then took us past the former airfield and the barracks village that were left to nature since 1990 but also past the former estate of those who owned the peninsula for some 650 years before the Nazis overtook it. To see nature at work on those buildings was also quite an amazing modern lesson in archaeology!

When the cars came to a stop at the coast, I found out why I had to leave everything behind – the next part of the way was taken by boat (kayak) to the other side of a little bight filled with reeds. At this point even the smartphones that were brought along – just in case and to have at least a chance to take some photos were left behind (alas – no photos to the text!). Well, it was still stormy but we gave it a try to reach the shore close to the site but having passed half the way and the main deep, our guide decided that it was too dangerous to go on and we landed on a sandy ground from where we could also reach the site by foot. Alas, through the reeds that were growing about half a meter taller than me and that were the home of the mosquitos… and the waves of the Baltic Sea splashing into the kayak had made me not just wet to the bones but had also washed away all mosquito protection… I have to admit it gave me a bit of a jungle feeling trying to keep pace with my guides through this thick and high reed forest attacked by nasty clouds of blood thirsty creatures – I guess if I had been a bit more claustrophobic and / or akarophobic that would have been a moment of pure panic! Finally, after several minutes we reached a little oak forest and after some metres that was cut by the coast exposing only a little beach and giving space to a cool wind from the sea that blew away the mosquitos.

And there we were: Several hundred metres of land cut by the coast revealing archaeological finds of several thousands of years. Once I started looking, the beach and the littoral water was filled with flint artefacts – mostly flakes but also some nice scrapers. You could see how the coast worked on the land and even see artefacts in the exposed sections of different thicknesses. In these, you could also see how the land had developed on top of the glacial moraines and tills from the last Ice Age to a fairly enriched peaty soil over millennia. Well, but the material we found that day did not resembled the potential Hamburgian artefacts that had brought us here. Yet, we were only granted a small time window to visit the site and have a look around – certainly not enough time to start a proper survey. The finds that we had made were packed up and given to the collector who will report them to the State authorities. So after a good look around, we had to return through the reed and to the boat that took us only over the main depth this time and dropped us off in another reed jungle but not as tall as the first one with some grass islands in between and not that many mosquitos. We followed a way cut into these reeds by the large wild boar population on the island until we came back to the car.

On our way back to the gates, we still made a little detour to climb up the former airfield tower to enjoy a grand view over the peninsula – and find out that after only 27 years and admittedly little knowledge about Russian army architecture, we could no longer tell what several of the rooms in the basement were used for… making us think what we do with remains that are several thousand years old and processed far more intensively by natural forces…

Finally, we arrived back at the gates and were released to our own cars and back to modern day civilisation and at this point it really felt like we had just been on a trip through time.

Though this sounds like a good end to an adventure story, a good archaeological excursion does not end at the gates. We looked for a nice café where we could sit together and talk about what we’ve seen, how we interpret what we’ve seen and how to proceed further. We remained undecided whether we come back here – we first plan to examine the original artefacts that brought us here in more detail. However, if we do come back we will hopefully have more time and then we will certainly have a more systematic survey plan. Only after another two hours there discussing and warming up with soup, coffee, tea, and cake we finally started our several hours long trips back home.

Though not as long a day as in last year’s report, I still collapsed into bed after the 13 hours day that was physically far more demanding than last year’s trip with a terrible headache, really itchy mosquito bites, still a bit wet, and dirty but still happy that my job allows me to have such adventurous, almost Indiana Jones like days.

 

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I still cannot believe it’s the last Day of Archaeology… this is too sad.

However, as many others did before me, I want to thank the volunteering team so much for giving us all the opportunity to describe our very diverse daily lives as archaeologists. It’s been a real pleasure taking part in it and reading all the many interesting insights into other colleague’s worklife and reminding me how blessed I am with such job offering this magnitude of possibilities. Thank you, Day of Archaeology!

Coastal (Geo)Archaeology on my Mind

Human occupation and coastlines have a long, but not very well-understood history. Global sea level has fallen and subsequently risen by over 120m during the last glacial cycle (~132,000 years), driven by fluctuations of the masses of ice sheets. These changing coastal landscapes have produced, or take away, opportunities for humans to exploit the resources they offer. In early prehistory, the use of coastal resources has been argued to have facilitated the dispersal of hominins out of Africa and across the globe and/or aided the development of fully modern human brains and behaviours, as well as providing resources to support specialised, marine-focussed ways of life in later prehistory. Coastal archaeology is therefore at the forefront of some of archaeology’s ‘Big Questions’. Yet it’s not just about understanding the past – studies of past sea level change, and the location and survey of ‘benchmarks’ left by these sea levels, helps us to better predict how, in a world of rising seas, the hundreds of millions of people who live along coastlines will be impacted in the coming decades.

The Greek Islands. Someone has to work there… Photo: R. Inglis.

My month has been decidedly more coastal than usual in theme, and not just because I’m pining after my recent holiday in Western Australia. Working backwards from today, this week I have been analysing sediments from excavations at a Neanderthal cave site on one of the Ionian Islands, Greece. During periods of low sea level, the area around the island would have been very different, with lagoons and wetlands and all the marine resources they would have contained in the area now covered by sea. Investigations on land and underwater are being carried out in order to understand more about how the landscape changed over time, and how this affected the humans and Neanderthals who left archaeology within it.

After a week making thin sections of some of the sediments (#TBT my 2016 DoA post on how and why to make thin sections), I’ve been running particle size analysis on the sediments from the cave in order to learn more about how these sediments got to where they did, and how these site formation processes impacted the archaeology within them. Of course, things are never straightforward, and getting the stony clay samples sieved and prepared for analysis was about as pleasant as excavating through them had been, involving wet sieving, muck, and ovens – I may even have to change tack and restart the whole thing. So to be honest, I’m not in the mood to talk more about them just yet…thank goodness it’s Friday!

Sediments on their way to becoming the worst brownies ever baked – in the oven overnight at 110ºC. Photo: R. Inglis.

The Mastersizer in motion! The particle size distribution curve, showing the number of particles in each size class can be see on the graph on the screen. Photo: R. Inglis.

Also in the batch were more straightforward sandy samples (though obviously not THAT straightforward, this is applied science…) from southwest Saudi Arabia, the study area for my current project, SURFACE. With these sediments, taken from a fossil beach and dune complex that formed during a period of higher sea level (Dhahaban Quarry – learn more here), I was using Particle Size Analysis (PSA) to distinguish between shallow marine sediments and the windblown dune sediments – the transition from one to the other would mark the highest point of past sea level, thus providing a sea level ‘benchmark’. It worked after a fashion – the aeolian sediments appear to be ‘well-sorted’ e.g. all one size class, what you’d expect from a dune, and the muddy lagoonal sediments were, well, a muddy mix of all particle sizes. Still more work to be done, but it’s encouraging!

Shallow marine sediments at Dhahaban Quarry, now approximately 5m above sea level. The holes are for samples taken for optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating. Photo: R. Inglis.

Away from the lab, and the muck, and the clay (which actually maybe predominantly fine silt – who knew!), coasts still dominate my to-do list. I’m wrestling with reviewer revisions on a book chapter presenting the field survey of the coral and marine terraces that are along the coastline of the volcanic Harrat Al Birk, SW Saudi Arabia, including the Dhahaban Quarry site, which we undertook in December 2014. Through this detailed survey of the marine terraces, and future dating of the corals that are found within them, we will learn more about the position of the past coastline that created them. This has geological implications for understanding the opening of the Red Sea Rift, (which is pushing its western and eastern coastlines up and out), helps us to place the archaeology we find on land in its relationship to the sea and potential use of coastal resources, and is another data point to underpin future sea level predictions.

The final piece of coastal news this week is the publication, after a looong process, of a paper by the MEDFLOOD community, which takes a long-term view of sea level change and human occupation and use of coastal regions in the Mediterranean (the last 132,000 years). It’s chock-full of methodological data on measuring sea level, evidence for the use of coastal resources by Neanderthals and humans up to the historic period, and areas in which new research, both underwater and on land, needs to be undertaken. A superb effort to bring together this diverse group of researchers with different approaches.

MEDFLOOD meetings are always held in challenging locations, such as the Northern Adriatic, close to Venice. Photo: R. Inglis.

So there you have it. From very challenging lab work to writing to that sweet feeling of seeing a paper finally published, almost the full cycle of coastal research. I’ll wind up this post by wishing you a happy Day of Archaeology 2017, and leave you with this thought from Coastal Archaeologist extraordinaire Prof. Geoff Bailey (tweeted to the world by MEDFLOOD’s Dr Alessio Rovere):

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Model CITiZAN: archaeology outreach in miniature

Lara Band, CITiZAN Archaeologist for Training, takes a quick break from model building, while the MDF sealant dries and taking this opportunity to write a little bit about what she’s been up to on this Day of Archaeology….

I’m an archaeologist for CITiZAN, the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeological Network, one of the two archaeologists for the South East region which stretches from King’s Lynn to Pagham Harbour. CITiZAN is an Heritage Lottery Funded community archaeology project with the remit to record and monitor at risk archaeology along England’s coastline and estuaries. We run training days for people to develop recording and monitoring skills and encourage people to add to and update our interactive map of coastal and intertidal archaeology via our website and app.

So what’s the model for? Well, as well our site based training days we can be found at various events around the region, talking to people and encouraging them to join us. We have a dig box and a planning frame for people to try and this model is to add a bit more hands on fun: if we can’t take people to the foreshore then we’ll bring the foreshore to the people. In miniature.

The base of the CITiZAN archaeological model with the sealant drying in the sun

The base of the CITiZAN archaeological model with the sealant drying in the sun.

The model is going to be a 6’ long rendition of a somewhat idealised section of coastline and estuary; people will be able to make their own archaeological feature in plasticine then record it with our app. So far today I’ve built the base, the frame and, at least in part, the banks behind the foreshore. I love small versions of big things as well as any chance to be creative, and I hope it’ll be a good way of introducing people to our app, and the types of archaeology they might find in the intertidal zone.

Lara starts to build up the landscape of her coastal archaeology model for CITiZAN

Lara starts to build up the landscape of her coastal archaeology model for CITiZAN.

We’re trialing it at Broadstairs Folk Week on 9th-10th August where thanks to Thanet District Council’s Coastal Communities Fund we’ll be sharing a space with the Trust for Thanet Archaeology and the Isle of Thanet Archaeological Society. We’ll be in Balmoral Garden all day both days so come and say hello. On the 1st September we’ll be taking it to the National Maritime Museum for our part in their late night event Treasures of the Thames. I’m really excited about that!

Well, the sealant will be dry, so it’s time to start putting the landscape in the frame, to  think about paints and finishes and to carry on wondering whether bits of the slightly manky looking sheepskin coat that’s been flytipped at the end of my road might make good saltmarsh, if painted green. Onwards!

A Day in the life of CITiZAN Community Archaeologists

CITiZAN is the Coastal and Intertidal Zone Archaeology Network. We’re Megan and Andy, the team’s Northern office. Between us we cover the English coast, running between the Scottish border and the Dee on the west coast and the border to the Wash on the east.1

Discussing coastal erosion with the Historic England’s inspector for the World Heritage site of Hadrians Wall on the coast of the Solway Firth

Over the last few days we have been travelling down the north-western coast of England from Cumbria to Lancashire; staying in Maryport and Morecambe. Along the way we’ve been stopping off to explore exciting intertidal and coastal archaeology. Our preparation for the Day of Archaeology started on Thursday with Andy whizzing off to the record office. Meanwhile, Megan went off to site for a reccy ahead of a guided walk around the 7th-century chapel.

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The 7th-century St. Patrick’s Chapel on the dramatic coast of Morcambe Bay

Andy spent most of the day searching out historic records; seeking 19th century and early plans of the area for a community training session in map regression. Among the things he found was a list of fruit trees planted by the rector of St Peters (the successor of the early medieval chapel) recorded in the list of Birth, Burials and Marriages for 1773.

Meanwhile Megan was out at the site planning her tour. The guided walk started at Rectory Gardens Wood, looking at the terraces where the rector had planted his apple, plum, pear and cherry orchard. She then moved on to look at Mesolithic settlement sites and Second World War practice trenches on Heysham Head before heading to the early medieval St Patrick’s Chapel, a National Trust owned site with unique, enigmatic rock cut graves. She finished at the 10th century St Peters Church, where several medieval cross bases and a hogback stone nestle amongst Post-medieval gravestones.

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Megan discusses the Mesolithic settlement of Heysham Head on her guided walk

The Day of Archaeology itself started with a big fry-up before heading to St. Patrick’s Chapel, to kick off a two-day building recording event. The 7th-century chapel overlooks the stunning Morecambe Bay and although it stands on a sandstone promontory, a good 10 metres above mean sea level, is at serious risk of erosion and destruction with several metres of the headland having disappeared since the turn of the 20th century.

The morning was spent teaching interested member of the public the theory of archaeology recording; off-set planning, buildings recording, taking levels and photographs. It was a lot of information for our novices to take in but everybody enjoyed themselves.

In the afternoon we put the classroom sessions into practice. There was a chance to plan the rock-cut graves; some with head sockets and others with indications of slab coverings. The graves proved a little bit challenging but our volunteers ploughed on. Next they moved on to drawing an elevation of the chapel, much of it ruinous, with the west wall completely gone. But a fantastic Anglo-Saxon doorway in the south wall remained. Intrigued by the arched door, with three similar doors reconstructed in St Peters Church, they discussed it with Paul Gwilliam, our building’s expert.  Debating whether the doorway was in its original position or whether it was moved during the early 20th century reconstruction of the chapel.

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Our volunteers record the enigmatic rock-cut graves

All these processes are how a buildings archaeologist would go about recording a site such as St. Patrick’s Chapel. Our volunteers now have the skills to record their medieval church and monitor the erosion caused by Morecambe Bay.  The three CITiZAN offices, based in York, Portsmouth and London will be teaching archaeological skills on beaches, cliff tops and intertidal zones around England in the next three years.  Hopefully every training session will be as fun as today!

CITiZAN explores wrecks in the rain

CITIZAN South East has been having a wet and soggy day in Maldon at the start of a three day event for the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology.

The Small Unmanned Aircraft survey of the ‘barge graveyard’ was sadly curtailed by the rain, but an interesting conversation was held with a passing coastal geomorphologist. In the afternoon the Thames Barge Sailing Trust kindly gave us a tour of the barge Pudge, not just a barge but also a Dunkerque little ship. This was followed by a talk on the history of these fascinating vessels, “the heavy goods vehicles of the Victorian age”.

The tour and talk was especially interesting as we’ll be recording the remains of barges over Saturday and Sunday at the ‘barge graveyard‘and again later in September (dates and volunteer opportunities to be announced). Despite the rain it was a most successful  day!

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Moving a dune, eroding archaeology on Scotland’s north east coast.

The sand dunes at Brora, Sutherland, on Scotland’s north east coast, are over four metres high. Buried within them are the remains of the late 16th / early 17th century saltpans. Over the centuries, the wind had blown sand over the site, completely covering it until it became forgotten about.

Sand dune at Brora

Sand dune at Brora

In recent years, coastal erosion had exposed part of the front wall of one of the buildings, and on the Day of Archaeology, we finished machining and started cleaning up the site.

We knew that masonry remained buried in the dunes as we had uncovered half of a building in 201. Although we had seen the front wall of the buried portion, we did not know how much would survive.

In order to uncover the site, we had to remove hundreds of tons of sand and had spent the previous two days landscaping the dune. Removing the sand would allow us to work safely , but we had to make sure that the wind would not blow away the reshaped dune, so were replacing the turf on the remodelled dune as quickly as possible.

Machine stripping of dune

Machine stripping of dune

We were finished with the machine by 9:00am (the machine driver had another job to go to so started early, one of the benefits of long summer days up in the north!). The machine had taken out the bulk of the sand while we dug close to the walls to ensure that the machine bucket didn’t damage the masonry.

Cleaning site by hand

Cleaning site by hand

When the machine had gone, the walls plotted with the EDM, and loose of unsafe masonry was drawn, photographed and then removed.

Using an EDM for survey

Using an EDM for survey

There was also much collapsed masonry within the building, and once the machine had left, this had to be removed by hand.

Heavy work, moving stones

Heavy work, moving stones

We also spent time videoing Calum, a young volunteer who helped us out last year also, and had been inspired to use the Brora dig for a school project.

By the end of the day, we had cleared enough sand to reveal a small room, roughly 4 m x 4.5m, with a doorway facing the sea and a fireplace in one wall. While machining we had seen the lintel of the fireplace and it seemed to have initials carved into it. As we removed more sand from around it, we could see that there were further initials on one of the jambs; the other had nicks etched into its edge, perhaps where people had sharpened their knives.

Fireplace

Fireplace

The project had been initiated due to Jacqueline Aitken’s passion for, and concerns about, the archaeology of Brora. Jacquie remembers playing on eroding masonry (now long gone) when she was a child and was worried that Brora’s industrial heritage was being washed away by the sea. A member of the Clyne Heritage Society, she contacted SCAPE (Scottish Coastal Archaeology and the Problem of Erosion) and a joint project, (also involving the University of St Andrews where Jo and I are based), was established. Thanks to funding from Historic Scotland, a small bit of Brora’s past is being recorded before it is lost forever.

Clyne Heritage group members

Clyne Heritage group members