The best laid plans…

Well, following on from my previous post, my Day of Archaeology turned out to be rather different than planned. This is certainly not an unusual occurrence; working in archaeological computing in a commercial environment, all manner of things can crop up and cause the most carefully planned day to head off in another direction altogether.

Firstly, my LiDAR data didn’t arrive so that bit went out of the window. And a whole bunch of meetings were convened, so a big chunk of the day was spent planning upcoming projects and working on management topics. I did end up doing a bit of survey support, preparing some survey instruments for the following weeks work and helping one of the Wessex Archaeology fieldwork teams with a GNSS problem they were having. I also devoted some time to preparing a submission for a metric survey project which will include some Terrestrial Laser Scanning (TLS) and some Polynomial Texture Mapping (PTM), a form of Reflectance Transformance Imaging (RTI). I also looked at the final specifications for another TLS project due to start fieldwork imminently. TLS is rapidly becoming the most efficient and cost effective means of capturing 3D metric data for recording and analysis of archaeological sites, structures and landscapes and one aspect of my job is managing such projects. I also currently do much of the processing, analysis and visualisation work on the resulting point clouds (and watch out for some videos of previous projects coming soon to the Wessex Archaeology Computing Blog).

A colour orthographic image of a castle, produced directly from Terrestrial Laser Scan data

A colour orthographic image of a castle, produced directly from Terrestrial Laser Scan data

But by far the best part of the day was spent doing one of my favourite activities: Systems design and development. I am currently building an integrated GIS & database application for managing and interpreting marine geophysics data. As with any good software application, it needs to effectively support the processes applied by the users, in this case the marine geophysics team. The data structure needs to be based around a solid and robust model of the information recorded; it needs to record not only the raw and interpreted data but the necessary Quality Assurance and metadata needed for analysis and reporting. I do enjoy this kind of work as it is creative and logical at the same time and to get it right, one needs to understand the detail and nuances of the processes being developed for, a good opportunity to find out more about different areas of archaeology (I have previously developed context recording systems for archaeological fieldwork, diver recording systems for marine archaeology and a variety of recording and analysis systems to support projects such as Environmental Impact Assessments and Conservation Management Plans).

My evening was indeed spent as planned finishing off a paper for publication. Whilst my main interest is in archaeological spatial technologies, I also have research interests in the application and development of data standards, thesauri and ontologies. My paper was based on how these various strands are coming together to support and arguably change the way in which archaeological theory is formulated, giving archaeologists the tools to discover information more easily and then develop more data driven theoretical assertions.

So a little bit different to what I had planned but I do hope still of interest to some.

Medieval & Post Medieval artefacts from the River Wear, Durham City

Shakespeare’s  famous line; ‘Once more unto the breach‘ taken from Henry V, Act III, 1598 captures my #dayofarch 2011 quite nicely! For my breach is also associated with a gap in a high city wall or perhaps more accurately a 850 year gap that still to this day forms the main  thoroughfare in to the heart of a historical medieval city.

I  am actually talking about Elvet a medieval bridge built around 1160 by Bishop Hugh Du Puiset; once guarded by gate and tower protecting the historic City of Durham. Why once more? Simply because it has been a three year exploration by me of the River Wear as it flows under Elvet Bridge and around the stunning peninsular that forms the World Heritage Site. The sole purpose of the explorations many often undertaken in extremely challenging conditions using sub-aqua diving equipment is to recover medieval and post medieval artefacts  from the river bed.

My #dayofarch should have actually been much different but for a late cancellation I was due to be some 270 miles south in the study rooms of the British Museum in London researching their collection of lead cloth seals. As it happened Friday 29th July started quite early enough as I had to take my daughter Sarah to Newcastle airport to catch an 8 a.m.  flight. Then followed a 74 mile drive south for a hastily re-arranged family day out in another historic city this time York. Fortunately my detour from archaeology was not terminal as I was kindly  allocated 60 precious minutes to take in the Roman and medieval splendours of the Yorkshire Museum.

Arriving back in Durham City where I live at 6.p.m. was actually quite good timing as it meant that the bulk of the river traffic – tourists on hired rowing boats, Durham University peeps with their torpedo like super fast 8s and the dreaded Prince Bishops river cruise boat with its huge propeller should have pretty much vacated the stretch of river I am currently excavating.

Strangely for this time of year I had not actually dived for the best part of three weeks. My previous dive was done with TV cameras following my every move both above and under the water not to mention spending much of the day discussing medieval river artefact’s with the delightful historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes! And so as any diver will tell you pulling a diving drysuit on after a prolonged spell of inactivity is no easy nor pleasant task.

My usual entry point in to the river this late in to the summer was now heavily overgrown; Himalayan balsam seed pods exploded violently all around me as I picked out a path through the now giant plants down the steep bank to the water’s edge. My usual (just submerged) rock clearly visible through the clear water was still in situ, as indeed it  has been for the last three years; it’s partially flattened upper surface proving an ideal platform to sit and put my fins and dive mask on.

The last thing a diver needs at this point is to realise that their cylinder first stage valve is not open. However, complacency is a real danger and a full kit check had been carried out back at the car park – my demand valve fed me cool air. I spat in to my dive mask and gave it a rub before rinsing it in the river water and shaking it dry and in less than 18 minutes from leaving home I slipped under the water – again!

My first thoughts were wow how warm is the water and great the underwater visibility is superb! A thin deposit of silt no more than .5 cm deep lay like newly fallen snow on the river bed, its pale brown colour suggesting a peaty origin. Heavy rain fall two weeks earlier in the area of the Pennines near the source of the river was almost certainly the culprit. I remember not being too deterred by the silt deposit I had seen it many times before, a few fin strokes around the gully I had planned to continue searching would send it off downstream.

The flow of water at my dive site is unusually slow, the current held back by a series of weirs further downstream. Within 3 minutes of entering the water I  was positioned directly above the gully I was looking for. I call them gullies for an obvious reason as they are quite simply a series of narrow channels worn in the sandstone bedrock by centuries of water passing over it. Some gullies are wider, while some gullies are deeper than the others.

Conditions this evening 2 m underwater on the river bed were as good as they probably ever get. Although the visibility is really important much of the work I do  underwater recovering the artefact’s is very physical; imagine working intensely for an average of around 140 minutes in one single location. Concentration is  essential, meticulously picking through pebble after pebble looking for artefact’s that quite often can measure as little as 1 cm. You cannot simply drift off in a day dream thinking about what’s for supper when I get out or how  many goals will Sunderland put past Newcastle when they meet at the Stadium of Light in August. Forget nitrogen narcosis or the bends the one really dangerous threat to diving in the river is the possibility of being struck by the propeller of the Prince Bishops boat. However, if you maintain your concentration throughout the dive you will pick up the faint chuk chuk chuk the boats engine makes well before it gets anywhere close, giving you plenty of time to swim off to the safe shallow river edges.

So what medieval or post medieval artefact’s did I recover on #dayofarch Friday 29th July 2011 from a single gully formed in the sandstone riverbed? In short tonight’s haul was fantastic! predominately from a 16th century origin they were in the main made up of dress accessories, items linked to trade, industry and a few pieces of broken pottery. These ceramics are just as
important as they help date the artefact’s as they come out of the stratified layers.

The picture below shows tonight’s haul – yes from only one dive! I only just managed to capture enough of the setting sunlight to take the picture so apologies if it’s not the best. As you can see the haul is predominately made up of small finds. The first artefact that I picked up was nicely decorated 16th/17th century button which was quickly followed by a lovely small copper alloy coin weight with what appears to be 3 fleur-de-lys within a shield beneath a crown. Several pins quickly followed (twisted wire  head type) as is the norm for this area, then some nice decorated mounts. The mounts  are prolific and appear to be unused. Although the majority of mounts I find are copper alloy like the star shaped one pictured; several are actually lead and the two small lead mounts found this evening show a typical five pellets on  the top.

It’s my theory that the majority of the dress accessories I am finding are new or should I say have never been used. They almost certainly were items that were once offered for sale by a trader or local merchant very possibly located on Elvet Bridge itself.  A classic example of these ‘unsold’ artefacts are the many small ‘beaded’ mounts, the stems of which remain straight – had they been pushed through a leather strap for example the stems would have been bent at right angles to effectively hold them in place.

Only pausing to remove a small sliver of glass that embedded its self in my finger I continued to recover artefacts at a rate of approximately one per minute (I wonder if  anyone else in the world found more artefacts that me today?). The main focus for me on every dive is to try to find more lead cloth seals. The reason is simple as I now have a significant assemblage of medieval and post medieval cloth seals all recovered from the same stretch of the river. Two weeks ago I was at the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum researching their collection of
177 lead cloth seals mainly recovered from the water channels that run through the medieval city. Prior to this evenings dive my total number of cloth seals stood at 171 – unbelievably I found seven tonight! Who’s the daddy now! Two of tonight’s cloth seals are really interesting, one seal features a standing man possibly holding a spear and a second seal appears to be a dragon or griffin rampant to the left. Hopefully I can find some parallels in Geoff Egan’s Occasional Paper 93!

I should point out that previous to my early discoveries of cloth seals only two others had been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database as being recovered north of Yorkshire and only one of those was in County Durham. Research to date indicates that the cloth seals in my collection appear to have arrived in Durham City from as early as the 15th century continuing right through until the 18th century. Arriving attached to cloth from locations across England and Europe for example Augsburg in Germany.

The seven cloth seals that I found this evening were clustered in a stratified layer which also contained a really strange lead alloy mount. I am only calling it a mount for  the time being as it has a bent stem or pin on the reverse. The front features a face of what could easily be described as a cherub; you may be able to see it third from the bottom right hand side of the picture, (I will add another picture of it tomorrow) any suggestions of what it could be would be appreciated.

Just below this stratified layer the finds as you would guess should be older and this may well be the case with the four or five circular form buckles (see Egan 2002, P.58 (28)) that I found. Although the central iron pins are missing many others similar in style yet complete buckles  have been found very near to this gulley and they are almost certainly dated from the early 15th Century. A lead spindle whorl was also found at the same depth as the buckles, this singular find bring the total of lead spindle whorls recovered to 32 most unlike this one most are decorated with  pellets.

The only distraction to recovering tonight’s artefacts was the need to keep checking my air contents plus some crazy person throwing stones at the point of the river where my  exhaled air bubbles hit the surface. The stones make a loud plopping noise and  fall harmlessly to the river bed around me – I never surface to see who throws the stones for the fear of being hit on the head, strangely it is something that happens more often than not!

Many small pieces of waste lead were found, a few of which were window came, other finds include; tools (possibly for working with leather), a knife, twisted copper alloy loops, lead tokens – one with a nice anchor, a solid cast (bi-convex head) button Circ. 1650, a partial horse shoe, a copper alloy rivet, a circular lead alloy pan-weight, iron nails, a fragment of a jug handle and iron key. It will take me around two weeks to clean the artefacts, bag then record them.

There is a serious side to my endeavours in the river; it is not just a crazy dangerous hobby. For the last three years many artefacts have been loaned to Durham University Archaeology Department where their MA students have researched then as part of their studies. In addition and by working very  closely with my Finds Liaison Officer  Frances McIntosh to date 350  artefacts have been added to the PAS database. All being well in 2012 I am set to undertake an MA by Research in to the assemblage perhaps focusing on the considerable lead cloth seal collection.

The finds that have been recovered so far total over 2000 artefacts and will without doubt help to re-write the history books of Durham. If you are a small finds expert and would  like to help identify many of the unusual artefacts then please do get in touch  garybankhead@360.com plus you can follow news of the assemblage and indeed what
my latest discoveries are by following me at twitter.com/garybankhead

I hope you have enjoyed reading about my Day of Archaeology 2011!

River artefacts

Artefacts recovered on #dayofarch



Indiana Jones was Right.

I’m not sure how many of us would admit this, but I decided to become an archaeologist because of Indiana Jones. He had it all: action, adventure, the whip and fedora. And the theme song. Man, that theme song! When I was a kid, I used to spend my summers on the boat at Elephant Butte Lake in southern New Mexico, begging my dad to take me to Hospital Canyon so that I could see the building that were lurking just below the surface of the water. Each time we went, I would look down into the water, see the wooden buildings and tell myself that one day, I would go down there. Afterall, Indy would want me to.
Fast forward twenty years. I no longer live in southern New Mexico but in Northern Michigan. I never did get to go and check out the buildings of Hospital Canyon, but I did decide to follow in Indiana Jones’s footsteps. Kind of. I am a student of archeology, you see- nautical archaeology. Not something I would have expected from myself having grown up in the deserts of New Mexico, but there you are. I am not a diver, which some might think would hinder my ability to participate in field work. When I started studying the subject, I honestly thought the same thing. As it turns out, Lake Michigan is the place to be this summer.
I teamed up with a couple of NASII students this summer to do a project at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Empire, Michigan. We were lucky enough to have this amazing speciman wash ashore this past fall after what amounted to an inland hurricane. The structure was magnificent! We worked with an amazing archaeologist who helped guide us in our work, encouraging us in every way. I can’t speak for the rest of the team, but it was my Indiana Jones “moment” and the coolest day of my life. When the survey was over, we divided up the what needed to be done to get the monograph complete and went home.
Which brings me to today. Today, I am reminded of something that Dr. Jones told his students before he went off to find action and glory. He said that “Seventy percent of all archaeology is done in the library; research, reading.” That is what I am doing today: research and reading. It’s nothing glamorous, or sexy. And I am certainly not getting dirty digging in the dirt, or in this case knocked around by waves. But there is certainly a lot of work that goes into historical research of an unidentified vessel, the region it was found in, the circumstances under which it was found, and how it might possibly fit into the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, I spent most of my time in the library when the project plan was developed so today is dedicated to internet research: images mostly- period maps, lighthouse logs, meterological reports. This is something I can do comfortably in my pajamas at my kitchen table.
Today isn’t the most glamorous day of my archaeological career, and I’m sure it won’t be the last day like it. But I know that I can say that with each bit of research I uncover, I am that much closer to uncovering the mystery identity of this unknown shipwreck. And as I sit here at the kitchen table, coffee in hand, I know that the fictional archaeologist was right. Archaeology is a lot of research. But the day that I go back out into the field, I will most definitely be humming my own theme song.