Cakes, Cottages and Manky Bones

Hello!  Gabe here.  I teach archaeology-type things at UCL, but I don’t get to dig as much as I’d like to. This year I was very excited to be able to spend the Day of Archaeology at the Museum of London’s community archaeology project at Headstone Manor in Harrow, North London, where I’ve been helping out for a few weeks.  Headstone Manor is a medieval site with a rather lovely moat full of ducks – the site was a farm for centuries, and the dig is aimed at examining the remains of farm workers’ cottages.


In the morning it rained, so to protect our precious field-school participants from getting wet we ran an impromptu indoor teaching session on human remains. The Museum of London provided a skelly – a rather nice medieval male specimen with a truly horrifying spine.  As we laid him out we saw his very worn teeth, and the severe lipping and spurring (growths of bone) on the vertebrae.  The general impression was “ouch”.

Back on the trench when the rain stopped, we got back to revealing the outline of the cottage with its flint and brick foundations and the outlines of brick outbuildings, including a mysterious circular feature (see above, on the left of the trench).


Away from the cottage, we were busy planning the rather tangled set of layers, lenses and splodges in the east end of the trench, which is both nasty and confusing.  While we were cleaning it up a local resident stopped by for a chat.  I told him what we were up to, and he told me he’d never seen middle-class people working so hard – high praise indeed … I think.

Tea break!  Both me and digger Anna had made cakes for the last day of the fieldschool, so we had a classy carby break – I made cherry and almond loaf cake (Nigella’s recipe), and Anna made a delicious chocolate banana cake.


At the end of the day we gathered around the finds processing area to look at some of the stuff that’d been found during the week, including big lumps of an iron hearth, and an assortment of mostly nineteenth century finds including clay pipe, ceramics and glassware.


Finally, a review of the weeks results on the trench by site director Ian Blair.  In the picture you can see the front wall of the cottage (partly robbed out) with part of a brick floor to the left.  All in all we had a great week of fieldschool fun with a fantastic team, some lovely finds and features, and great cakes.  Still, it’s that twisted and spiky medieval spine that sticks in my mind – ugh!

Thanks to everybody on the dig!  See (some of) you next week.

Want to see the dig? There’s a FREE open day at Headstone Manor on July 20th from 12 to 4.  Pop in for some family friendly activities. Come and see some finds from the site, go on a site tour and experience medieval re-enactments.

Headstone Manor is located at Pinner View, Harrow, HA2 6PX. The closest station is Harrow and Wealdstone.

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.

A Day On Two Sites

Hello I’m Cornelius, one of the partners at L – P: Archaeology. I’ve been doing commercial archaeology for 25 years now, and I know that the following short story will be very familiar to a lot of you, but anyone who has never been involved in a trenching evaluation be warned- this rollercoaster ride of thrills, despair and elation is not for the faint hearted. Some images may contain brickearth.

As described in my earlier post, we are currently conducting a 5% sample evaluation below a car-park in Egham, Surrey. First thing this morning we broke the tarmac on a fresh new trench, full of possibilities. We started to machine away the modern overburden deposits below the surface, taking care to avoid the large water pipe we knew to be in the trench. As our very skilled machine driver was doing this I got a call from another site.

51 miles away to the south lies the lovely house of Brambletye in Keston. An extension is currently being built on the house, which involves digging some small but deep footings. As the house lies next to the Scheduled Ancient Monument of Keston Roman Tombs, even very small scale work needs to be watched closely, so I leave the trench in the capable hands of my colleague Mike and zoom off down the M25.

When I get to Brambletye the crew have a small 3-ton digger ready, and have soon dug the footing. There is absolutely nothing in it but natural clay, with not even a stray sherd of Roman pot in the topsoil. My disappointment is offset by a very fine cup of tea, and then back to Egham to look at the trench.

In my absence Mike has cleaned and recorded the trench beautifully. A single linear feature in the trench has been sectioned, and is clearly a wall footing of early 20th century origin- possibly the wall of the doctors surgery we were told about by the very helpful staff at Egham Museum, who were kind enough to show us their collection of old maps. There is no other archaeology visible in the trench, so I survey it using a Smartrover GPS system and we fill it back in. I lock up the site and head home to write up the days results. Which are that I have driven about 150 miles, shifted a few hundred tons of earth and found nothing of archaeological interest whatsoever.

But it was mostly sunny, and I was out in the fresh air, and I got a close look at a very cool Roman tomb complex. And the tea was very good.

Altogether a fine day.

Photos copyright L – P : Archaeology

Our Day in Dirt

Get up at 5 am.  Eat breakfast

Perry T. meets Oleg to get the UAZ 94 in garage at 6:15

We meet the crew at 6:30 am:

Lyuba the recorder of levels and units for finds’ bag.

Vlad the expert archaeological worker, who returns to his full-time job at the heating plant

Oleg, the driver and field worker

Kostya, who has worked with us since he was 11.

Pasha, local high school student.

Today’s plan:

1.  Clean the mud brick platform and the living surface outside the house.  It rained last night—trowel scraping

2.  Check out Context 61 and probable Pit house, underlying mud brick melt from last year’s excavation.

3.  Clean up tandir (bread oven)

4.  Map the upper mud brick contexts

5.  Take elevations both across the 8 m x 8 m excavation block, north and south.


CELEBRATE the DAY of ARCHAEOLOGY—leave site at 12 noon.


Wash finds at 4 pm.


Is work ever done?


A Day in the Life of an Investigator for the RCAHMW – Part III

After finishing my talk for the National Eisteddfod I went back to working on the Atlanterra Project. As part of the work I need to carry out for the project I have to prepare entries for Coflein.

Coflein is the online database for the National Monuments Record of Wales (NMRW), the national collection of information about the historic environment of Wales. The name is derived from the Welsh cof (memory) and lein (line). Coflein allows access to details of many thousands of archaeological sites, monuments, buildings and maritime sites in Wales, together with an index to the drawings, manuscripts and photographs held in the NMRW archive collections.

The survey work at Maenofferen Slate Mine (see earlier blog post) involved recording all the standing buildings and structures for ‘preservation by record’. Each of the standing buildings or structures is given a number – known as an NPRN – and each of the standing buildings or structures requires a site description entry.

Some of these entries can be quite simple, and describe the general history of the site, and any other documents which might have been consulted in writing the entry. Other entries can be much more complex and describe in significant detail the building or structure and any modifications or rebuilds it may have gone through during its life.

Maenofferen Slate Mine is a very complex site and is still in operation today. Given that the site began working in the 1860s, there are several phases which need understanding and writing up. The rest of the afternoon was spent checking through entries I’d already written, and making sure I’d got an entry for each of the buildings and structures which needed them – and also ensuring that I’d checked all the Ordnance Survey maps on our GIS (Geographical Information System) for anything which might not have been recorded on the maps, plans and photographs I’d already looked at. 

On the train journey home I was looking over a series of articles written on medieval licences to crenellate – which was a grant that gave permission for a building to be fortified. I was trying to see whether any of the castles I am looking at were given licences to crenellate, and I found one – so I’ll have to get the full reference for it so I can use it in my PhD.

The last bit of work I did this evening was to write this blog entry and a final check of my e-mails. Tomorrow is the weekend, but I’ll still be working on the papers I was reading through on the train this morning. And really, that’s why I’m an archaeologist. I’m fascinated by people and how they lived their lives, and I enjoy reading about them whether its the weekend or not.


Ancient concrete? Really?

Yes, really.  I first fell in love with old buildings in Pompeii, where I spent summers working as an excavator from 2002-2008. Every day it struck me that I was in a place that still looked and felt like a real city. To my mind, this was down to the fact that the buildings are still standing. After more than 2000 years. Someone did something very, very right when making those buildings and I want to know more.

For my D.Phil research, I have landed in an opportunity to study structures in Ostia, Italy, which is also a preserved city-sized site.  The structures I’m investigating are all brick and mortar masonry, with concrete filling up the center wall core. This is what Vitruvius called opus caementicium. To be honest, I’m most interested in the people who made it: the builders who developed this wonderful, magical material that is still performing successfully more than 2000 years after it was first installed. Where did they get their materials? Why were certain materials preferred over others? How were the materials processed and mixed together? How did builders’ choices affect the concrete and its performance? Were the same mix types used for both public and private structures? Why is this stuff still standing? These are the questions driving my research, and I am looking to answer them by investigating the material itself.

To give a quick overview, the mortar and concrete I am analyzing was made of lime, volcanic sand aggregate, and water. Sounds rather simple, however, the combination of materials they were using produced complex chemical reactions, known to modern concrete scientists as pozzolanic reactions, which resulted in a sophisticated, high quality material. My sample collection was collected from a series of structures in Ostia from the 2nd century CE, by which time – at least in Rome – concrete was well-developed and had been employed in large-scale Imperial building projects. My task now is to analyze the Ostian structures to determine how well-developed their concrete industry had become by that time. The benefit of a site like Ostia is that the ancient city is left largely in tact without modern development. This means that unlike in Rome, where centuries of modern development has destroyed all but the most protected monumental structures, it will be possible to evaluate the buildings within their original cultural context.

The analytical techniques employed for my research are borrowed from geology and concrete science, which makes this a truly interdisciplinary project. My samples are essentially synthetic composites of natural materials that can be investigated with traditional petrography. I’m using light microscopy of thin sections to identify and quantify the aggregate, to describe the cementitious matrix, and to identify any  obvious degradation features or alteration products. Today I’m working on point counting one of the samples, which is pretty straight forward. I move across the sample in 1 mm steps, and at each location I record what I see in the cross hairs of the eyepiece. Besides the obvious benefit of quantifying each of the different components, I’m also getting to the know the sample really well. As I go, I’m recording information about the state of degradation or alteration, the shape and fillings of any cracks or holes, particle size and shape, and any other details that may give me a clue about what the builders were doing when they made the concrete.

I am also using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) to collect high-resolution, high-magnification backscatter images of the samples. At this scale I can get a better look at the binder-aggregate interface to see how well-bonded these components are. It is also possible to see any microscopic cements that have formed in pores, cracks, and the vesicles of aggregate clasts that would otherwise not be visible. The SEM also detects the atomic weights of everything in the sample, which show up as differences in the greyscale colour of the image. It  also can calculate the chemical composition of the different components, so using a combination of chemical data and backscatter images, I can determine what types of cements have formed (strengthening) and how much leaching has occurred across the matrix (degradation). The ratio of calcium to silica is key in both cases.

X-ray diffraction is also on the menu, assuming I can find the funding to pay for it. This technique is incredibly useful for identifying the mineral assemblage in rocks and materials. In this case, I will use it to confirm the original petrographic identification of minerals in the aggregate and to find any other alteration minerals that could not be seen in thin section. The presence of certain minerals like gypsum or ettringite usually indicate alteration of the mortar itself, but minerals such as stratlingite and calcium-aluminum-silicate-hydrates suggest the mortar was rather well-formed in the first place.

So today, I’ll be giving an account of what it’s like for me in the lab. I realize that being stuck in the lab sounds like a death sentence to some people, but for me, it’s where the magic happens.

Excavation at Appleby Magna- Getting children involved in archaeology!!

The Sir John Moore Foundation run a programme during the summer which allows children from the age of eight to get involved with an archaeological dig on site. I had the pleasure of attending and helping out on the dig for the day. It was truly fantastic to see young children getting involved in an area of study which I enjoy so much. There was in all three small trenches which were dug out in accordance to the finding of a wall in the summer past.

From local maps, we understood that there was some kind of building located in this area marked by a large dark area. In digging in the trench located next to that of the wall. I found that from about one metre below the surface there was a large amount of charcoal discovered along with a large number of nails. Bricks were also uncovered scattered from about one metre below the surface point. As I dug further down and extended out the trench I found a number of other items. From the remains of glass bottles to sherds of pottery thought to be that of the late Victorian period of the 1850’s. The children involved were completely engaged throughout the day, and it was great to see how excited and competitive they become upon excavating new items. Not only were they excavating but also learning how to mark out areas, measure the trench, clean finds, photograph finds and record finds in the correct way.

The initial finds from the excavation helped me build a picture of what I thought the dark area found on the initial maps may have been. The large amount of burnt wood discovered is certainly evidence for the possible destruction of the site itself. There were a number of sherds of pottery found with dark black smudges on which one could not remove when cleaning. Furthermore there was a large amount of glass bottles found. If, as I predict, a fire destroyed the settlement that stood in this area it is highly unlikely that the temperature of the fire would have been strong enough in order to melt the glass; as glass is only burnt at temperatures starting from as high as five hundred degrees depending on the glass type. The pressure would have caused glass and pottery to break, which would coincide with what was found in the trenches. I would argue that there was certainly some form of building in this area. Possibly with a brick/stone foundation with a wooden structure predicted from the evidence found in the excavation. It may have been that this site was then used as storage or some kind of out building or workshop. Further excavations will reveal more and hopefully reinforce the initial findings.

All in all, for me the most important element of the dig, without a shadow of a doubt, was getting young children involved in the world of archaeology. Archaeology is a career that I aspire to be in once I complete my degree and maintaining an interest in this area is essential. The programme runs every year with a number of dates. All the volunteers are dedicated to helping the children understand the history and the archaeology of the area, providing them with a range of skills which would be beneficial not just in this are but many areas of their future. I am not exaggerating when I say that the children loved the entire day. Some of the children enjoy it so much that they have attended not just the current year but years previous to this.  The unfortunate point is the area in which the dig is situated is owned by the local school and therefore once the summer is over the trenches have to be covered over until the following year.

The whole day was fantastic, more community archaeology excavations have cropped up in the recent years, and maintaining a growing interest in this area of work is essential. All be it a great way to get out doors and bring families together for a fantastic fun filled day!

Just a few of the children s finds of the day

Fantastic finds in Appleby Magna!