east coast

A Day of Day of Archaeology (and Snails)

I become quite self-conscious when the time comes to write my own Day of Archaeology contribution. Most of what I did yesterday was to carefully read through the posts that were being submitted to this site, adding new tags or assigning them to categories where necessary, and pressing the button marked ‘publish’. If you’re reading this, the chances are you’ve been reading other posts too, and have a fair sense of what the site is about. I love doing this, I learn quite a lot about the world of archaeology in a day (and subsequent days when I catch up on posts I didn’t catch at the time), and it makes me feel very connected to a group of people worldwide who are doing really interesting jobs. As with last year, I’m full of gratitude for everyone who posted, or commented on posts.

I did squeeze in a little bit of other work. I spent part of the morning processing a very small sample I took from a site on the Somerset Levels here in England. Archaeologists will often take samples of the dirt they’re digging to be sieved through fine mesh (mine went through 0.1mm today – but 0.5 or 0.25 are more usual). This is to look for tiny artefacts, or biological evidence such as fish bones or seeds. My tiny sample accompanies a much larger sample (c. 40 litres) that will be processed later. I just wanted to get a head start to help the other archaeologists on site know what they were dealing with. (more…)

Nature Reserves & World War Two Archaeology

My job involves visiting and advising on management of archaeological sites for the UKs largest wildlife charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). We manage land across Britain from Shetland to Cornwall, Suffolk to Ceredigion and also throughout Northern Ireland. I get to see an amazing variety of sites from shell middens to hillforts to 19th century timber storage ponds – thousands of sites including 200 which are Scheduled (legally protected). Many of the best preserved archaeological sites can be found in wild places because this land has not been subject to intensive agriculture or commercial development. In particular we have hundreds of World War Two sites and I’d stick my neck out and say we must have one of the largest and best preserved collections of any land owner (with exception of the Ministry of Defence!).

The military used many wild places for training, storage,  firing/bombing ranges or  fortified them against invasion.  Heathland and coastal wetland were particularly heavily used because they were out of the way spotst where they could conduct live firing. The military flooded areas as a form of  invasion defence, leading wildlife to recolonise in the 1940s – so conservationists have alot to thank the military for in Suffolk, see:

http://www.rspb.org.uk/reserves/guide/m/minsmere/archaeology.aspx

Today I visited two wetland sites in Suffolk which have well preserved buildings – RSPB Boyton Marsh and Hollesley Marsh in Suffolk. I was hosted by wardens Dudley, Reg and Aaron – a happier crew you will not meet, and once you get to see where they work you can understand why. Nice sunny day in the countryside, quiet landscapes with grass bending in the wind and some beautiful concrete block houses and pillboxes! Boyton was an Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) firing range where tanks trained in the run up to D-Day and a group of block houses survive which would have operated pulley systems to move targets for the tanks to fire at. It is hard to imagine the noise, and the tanks trundling past today. At Hollesely we have a beautiful pillbox, which was part of the coastal crust of defences that carpeted the east coast of England – and a nice place to stop on a walk, eat your sandwiches and look at the view. We discussed how we good interpret these sites for visitors and keep them in good order – luckily,  by and large they were built to last! Returned home to see the kids for a Romans vs medieval knights battle……historical accuracy is everything to us archaeologists.

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


Fife Ness Survey

We’re maritime archaeologists – that is, we’re interested in the remains people have left behind which tell us of humankind’s long relationship with the sea. In the past we’ve worked on sunken shipwrecks – victims of the Spanish Armada lost in the gales of 1588, East Indiamen wrecked on British shores at the start of their long voyage to the Far East, and most recently a small warship sent by Oliver Cromwell to invade the island of Mull off the west coast of Scotland in 1653. But not all the remains we investigate are under water. There is a veritable treasure-trove of information lying along our coasts, and that’s what we’ve been exploring today.

We’re working at Fife Ness on the east coast of Scotland, at the end of the peninsula which divides the estuaries of the Forth and Tay. Just off the headland is a dangerous reef, the Carr Rocks, which in the past has been a major hazard for shipping. In 1813 the great lighthouse-builder Robert Stevenson began erecting a stone beacon to mark the end of the reef, a difficult task because the rock on which it was to stand only uncovers for a few minutes at low tide. So the interlocking stones had to be prepared on land, and shipped out to be assembled as rapidly as possible on the reef.

What we’ve discovered is a circular jig cut in the rock, where workmen could dress the stones to shape, practice putting them together, and then load them onto lighters for the mile and a half journey to the reef. At the water’s edge is a ruined stone-built quay. This was once linked to the jig by iron rails along which trolleys carrying the stones were pushed. No trace of the rails survives, but holes drilled in the rock for supporting stanchions show where the line ran.

We decided that the best way to record these complex features would be to take vertical aerial photographs. But a ladder or even a telescopic mast can’t go high enough, while for safety reasons a conventional light aircraft isn’t permitted to fly sufficiently low. Neither system would have enabled us to take fully vertical pictures anyway. So we’ve obtained our own ‘eye in the sky’ – a tiny HexaKopter drone (www.mikrokopter.de) which is gyroscopically stabilised and linked to the Global Positioning System (GPS) for accurate positioning and altitude control.

It carries a camera which automatically adjusts itself to a vertical position (or whatever angle we want). A video link to the ground gives real-time feedback of what the camera ‘sees’, and when the framing is right a high-resolution digital photograph is taken. The photographs are subsequently rectified (adjusted by computer) to form an accurate plan. This is the first time we’ve used the system in the field and – joy of joys – it works! We’re now developing the tool as an ideal method for speedily and accurately recording archaeological features around our coastline, and elsewhere too.

Nearby is another feature we recorded during today’s visit. It’s a tidal mill, whereby the rising tide filled a reservoir held by a stone-built dam, and when the tide receded it flowed through a narrow channel with a water-wheel which drove a millstone. Again the HexaKopter gave us the photographs we need to plot the detailed construction of the partly-collapsed dam walls and show the complicated cuts and slots in the natural rock in which the vanished water-wheel structure was bedded.

We’re all in our various ways professionals, but we started this project as a private venture because we thought it would be interesting, useful, and fun. Dr Paula Martin is an archaeologist and historian who currently edits the International Journal of Nautical Archaeology; and Dr Colin Martin is a retired Reader from St Andrews University who specialised in shipwreck archaeology and aerial photography. Paula and Colin are both honorary members of staff at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology. Edward Martin is a commercial photographer with expertise in archaeological and museum work, www.em-photo.co.uk, and he flies the HexaKopter. As you may by now have guessed, it’s very much a family enterprise!

We hope you like our video and a selection of the photographs we took during our day in the field.