cremation

Lauren McIntyre: Investigating the dead – a day at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South

My name is Lauren McIntyre and I’m Project Officer at Heritage Burial Services, Oxford Archaeology South. Following our post on the Day of Archaeology blog last year, we thought it would be great to provide another snapshot showing the kind of work that our team undertake here. I will also be live tweeting my day in the office from the Oxford Archaeology Twitter account – you can follow us at @oatweet to see exactly what we’re up to!

Today is my first day back in the office after working out on site for quite a number of weeks. My first job of the day was to take some bone samples for radiocarbon dating (after catching up with the rest of the team on project updates and answering lots of emails!). Stratigraphic information and dates from spot finds were only able to provide a broad “Roman” date for one of the cremation burials in question. The second burial (an inhumation) was completely undated. Radiocarbon dating will therefore allow us to establish more accurate dates which will help us to contextualise the burials in question. We take approximately 2g of bone for the sample, being sure to identify and weigh the fragment. This information is then recorded on a proxy note, which is put back with the remainder of the skeleton. This is very important, so that it is clear to any future researchers accessing the skeleton (usually after the skeleton has been deposited in a museum) that a sample has been taken, and they can easily see what has been sampled and why.

Cremated bone sample for C14 dating, and proxy note

The rest of my day is spent discussing a variety of upcoming projects, including strategies for excavating an inverted cremation urn recently excavated on one of our sites, as well as starting analysis of the small assemblage from which the C14 samples were taken. The assemblage comprises both cremated bone and unburnt inhumation burials. I start analysis of the cremated material by sorting the bone into identifiable and unidentifiable fragments. Cremated bone deposits can contain large identifiable fragments, although a large proportion are often unidentifiable. Once fragments are sorted, they are weighed and examined for evidence of age, sex and pathology. This helps us to determine how many people are represented, and potentially gives us demographic and health information. We also record the level and pattern of fragmentation, as well as the colour of the bone, and degree of shrinkage: this information can tell us a lot about the cremation process, which is known to vary between different time periods.

Sorting cremated bone into identifiable skeletal elements

Helen, the second member of our team, is spending today writing up one of our larger assemblages, a post-medieval hospital assemblage from Oxfordshire. The skeletons in this assemblage have substantial quantities of pathological lesions, and have produced some very interesting case studies!

Helen, PO at HBS

Adolescent male skeleton with peri-mortem fractures of the cranium and left ribs

Transfemoral leg amputation with peri-mortem tibial fracture

So far today Helen has been looking at the fracture patterns from a single skeleton, trying to establish whether these injuries may have been caused by a single traumatic event, or whether they were accumulated over time. The skeleton potentially has ribs that have been dislocated where they meet the vertebrae, as well as ante mortem fractures to the sternum, ribs, scapula, arm and wrist. As well as this she has been looking at fracture patterns across groups of skeletons – one group contains several male skeletons which all exhibit fractures to the wrist, first metacarpal (base of the thumb) and nasal bones. One possibility is that these people were all partaking in activities such as boxing or bare knuckle fighting, a fairly popular activity in late 18th century towns.

Louise, Head of the Heritage Burial Services team, is busy today scoping out a desk based assessment of a disused post-medieval burial ground. She is exploring the number, date range and extent of burials present at the site in question. A desk based assessment of a known burial site would primarily involve a headstone survey and visits to the church and local records office to examine burial registers and plans. The results of the research would then assist with plans for future development of the site.

Louise Loe, Head of HBS, working hard as always!

Yet again, you can see that the work we are undertaking here is very diverse. Whether we are sorting and quantifying cremated bone fragments or analysing data to look for patterns of health and activity, everything we do helps to build a picture of how people lived and died in the past.

All photographs within this post are copyright of Oxford Archaeology.

Lauren McIntyre is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s South office in Oxford, in our Heritage Burial Services. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our specialist burial services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/specialist-services/7-top-level-pages/14-burials-archaeology

Culver Archaeological Project: kilns and cremations

AOC Archaeology Group has been working with Culver Archaeological Project (CAP) on their excavation of a newly discovered Roman site at Bridge Farm near Barcombe, East Sussex. This post is a joint post from AOC and CAP!

team photo

Just part of the brilliant CAP 2013 team: members of CAP, Cat and Chris of AOC, and of course many wonderful volunteers (the team changes every day – sorry to those not in this photo!)

CAP began in 2005 with a simple programme of field-walking, survey and trial trenching in the hope of identifying further archaeological sites in the landscape around Barcombe Villa. Fieldwalking finds included Roman pottery and coins dating to the 1st and 5th centuries AD, and a comprehensive geophysical survey revealed impressive archaeological remains, just waiting to be investigated. CAP were successful in their application for a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and with their support are conducting six weeks of excavation this year. The project is community-focussed at its very core, and volunteers are participating (for free) in every stage of the on-site work, which runs from 1st July to 10th August: excavation, wet sieving, finds processing and geophysics – and a brilliant job they are

robin excavates kiln

Volunteer Robyn came all the way from Ireland – only to be landed with the gloopiest feature imaginable!

doing too. Volunteers range from school pupils to octogenarians, and everything in between. Five local primary and secondary schools have also participated in classroom-based workshops, and then come out and visited the site before the end of term, taking part in the excavations, wet sieving, metal detecting, finds washing and so on, and we’ve also had a visit from the local YAC. There are also weekly workshops on various specialist areas of archaeology. Sounds busy, doesn’t it? It is! There is lots going on every day but everyone involved is showing boundless enthusiasm. The sunshine has helped!

Anyway,  moving on to what’s been going on in the run-up to the Day of Archaeology 2013! We are almost four weeks in to the six week programme of fieldwork, and things are getting really interesting. Our trenches were located to target specific features that had appeared through geophysical survey. This week, we have excavated an almost complete urn, which may contain cremated remains. The urn was removed intact, and will be excavated in the lab at a later date.

urn_montage

The urn is carefully excavated to reveal its true size, then wrapped in bandages for support. Note the smiles of relief as it comes out intact!

 

tile-lined feature

Tile-lined feature with opus signinum in situ

We also have an interesting tile-lined feature, which contained a large chunk of opus signinum (a type of Roman cement). The current thinking is that the cement might have been prepared to line the feature, however for some reason the job was never completed and it solidified to the tiles below. A bit of research has found a similar feature excavated in Tuscany, which the archaeologists there interpreted as a basin. Still speculation however.

Nearby is a possible kiln, which has a hard-baked clay lining. The fill of this feature was particularly sludgy, and Robyn and Clara had a very enjoyable day removing it! The look on their faces amidst the slop and squelching was something to behold! However the hard clay lining gives us more certainly that it may be a kiln, but it’s exact use is still uncertain. Postholes nearby may represent the traces of associated structures.

Today Dr. Mike Allen attended site and at tea break gave our students and volunteers a talk from the point of a geoarchaeologist, a very interesting point indeed, we now understand post depositional gleying, which explains the difficulties we are having identifying some features on site.

With two more weeks of digging to go, we are excited to learn more about the site. We couldn’t possibly explain it all in one post –  this is just a snapshot of life at CAP 2013 – so please come on over to CAP’s website to catch up on the rest.

Culver Archaeological Project is supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Follow the project! www.culverproject.co.uk www.facebook.com/culverarchaeology @culverproject

To find out more about AOC, go to www.aocarchaeology.com or follow us on social media @aocarchaeology www.facebook.com/aocarchaeology