Medieval buildings & Medieval life

It seems that little has change in the last year of my life!  For Day of Archaeology 2012, I posted about my PhD research on medieval manorial accounts.  And here I am again, sitting in front of a microfilm reader in a windowless room of Queen’s University Belfast’s Library.  While some of my colleagues are away surveying buildings in the sun, I’m stuck inside trying to decipher medieval handwriting.


Despite the less glamorous nature of my research, it is just as exciting and interesting.  The manorial accounts record many aspects of the daily lives of people in the fourteenth century, letting us almost experience the medieval world.  My research is specifically looking at the buildings of the manorial courtyards and farmsteads (or curiae).  The accounts contain lots of details about the types of buildings and construction materials; with this information I can reconstruct the appearance of the buildings and the manorial complexes.  Many of the manorial buildings would have been much larger than the average peasant could ever own and were often constructed from expensive materials that had to be brought to the manor.  So far my research has shown that lords liked to spend more money on the buildings that they used (such as the hall, chamber and chapel) and to make these appear very different from the agricultural buildings that sat alongside them.  The accounts also show how luxurious some manors were.  The abbot of Bury-St-Edmunds constructed an extensive collection of buildings at Redgrave in Suffolk to let him enjoy hunting with dogs and hawks.


As well as my research, I’ve spent the week organising a conference session, thinking of a conference paper and finishing a chapter for a book.  So, even thought I am only halfway through my PhD (and doing it part-time means I’ve another 3 years), I’ve lots of work to develop my research and try to apply it to the wider field of medieval archaeology and not just have a pile of case studies in a box on my desk.  The exciting life that is academic research means that, although I’m stuck in a windowless box today looking at medieval parchment on a screen, I’ll soon get the opportunity to present my work to other archaeologists in exotic locations like Aberdeen and Leeds.  Maybe next year when I post “from the field”, I’ll actually be out surveying one of my manors.

Excavation & Skeletal Analysis

For many years I would be on my way to Egypt at this time of year, trying to figure out how to stretch the grant money to cover as much time in the field as possible. But this year I’m in my research lab at the university, working on the final stages of several projects.

As an archaeology student I discovered that I was mainly interested in the people themselves, rather than their garbage. So my specialization is in human skeletal remains (bioarchaeology). I’m particularly interested in how human skeletons reveal aspects of the interrelationships between culture, environment, and health. I have excavated ancient cemeteries in Egypt and Pakistan, and have studied human skeletal remains from ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley Civilization, and from historic cemeteries of the Fur Trade Period in western Canada.

A 2,000 year old cemetery in Egypt.

Today I’m examining 2,000 year old human bones and teeth for evidence of fractures and various forms of disease.

Tuberculosis in the spine.

Usually there are one or two interesting or important discoveries made in the field, but often the significance of your work isn’t clear until you’ve had a chance to examine all of the finds and to determine where they fit in the big picture of the site, and of the ancient culture more broadly. That process usually takes years!

I also study the historic and prehistoric ways in which people dealt with their dead. With this research I don’t excavate, but instead I examine the above-ground and archival record of historic cemeteries in western Canada in order to assess the fit between archaeological interpretive models for prehistoric cemeteries and the documented evidence for burial practices.

If you’d like to learn more about my research, please check the website on my profile.

Post Excavation

Having now completed my report on the medieval floor tile from Bicester Priory, today I am largely writing up ends of watching briefs and reading through specialist reports from other sites in the course of being written up; I’ll also be getting together some text and plans for Linzi Harvey, the osteologist who is looking at 24 Roman individuals excavated at Dorchester-on-Thames

Later on today, I hope to go out on site to a watching brief at Folly Bridge, Oxford, from where i’ll be uploading some photographs

Digging into the Social History of Archaeology at Verulamium

hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park

Hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park

The museum archaeologist’s lot can be varied and since being restructured to the role of Collections Manager my role is broader than pure archaeology. However, this has given me the scope to develop some really interesting and exciting projects and one of them is to do oral history interviews with as many archaeologists who have dug on our site at Verulamium as I can. There are several aspects to this project, a bit of hunting around and trying to track people down, then going along and interviewing them using our digital Marantz recorder and then coming back to the museum transcribing interviews.In the morning I found myself looking through the transcript of an interview in order to try to find some quotes to go with historic photographs. I’m slowly pulling together all of this research for a book which I hope to publish, we have interviews with archaeologists who worked with Mortimer Wheeler right the way through to our present day District Archaeologist. Many of today’s most respected archaeologists worked at Verulamium and these interviews are a record of their experience, life as a digging archaeologist and the town at the time.It’s fascinating work, not the least seeing some of our most interesting and exciting objects being excavated. For example, the image to the top left is from the 1930’s of the hypocaust currently in Verulamium Park
and here is one of the excavators talking about it:

“…we were all rather excited about the hypocaust… and I was one of those who had the fortunate opportunity to crawl along the channel, under the pavement, between the pilae which supported it. I struck matches to see where I was going, and found myself under the centre of the mosaic…”
Helen Carlton-Smith 1980

Another aspect of my work is to work on the museum documentation system. I am currently trying to improve the records by adding photographs and as much additional information about objects as I can. The afternoon was spent taking photographs of metal medieval and post medieval artefacts and then integrating them into the database.Of course, in between this there was the usual stream of public enquiries which are rich, varied and interesting. I tracked down a map which detailed all the WWII air raid shelters in St Albans and did a bit of research on the local dairy for someone. I was also part of the team which considered some new objects for acquisition- some historic CND banners.I often wonder what an oral history interview with me would sound like in fifty years!

Mapping Sardinian bronze age towers

I’m not an archaeologist, I am really a non-practising historian (specialized in contemporary history). So what am I contributing to an event like this where I decided last minute I may have something to say? I have a passion for archaeology, always had, so much that I took courses at the university to understand archaeology and participated in an excavation (as a student in 2004). I dived into the prehistory of Sardinia and visited archaeological sites. About two years ago I started mapping Sardinian bronze age towers called nuraghi (sing. Nuraghe) using a database and Google Maps to render these on a website available to everyone.  The Sardinian bronze age towers were built between 1800 and 900 BC and range from simple towers to complex multi-towered buildings.

Nuraghe Sorgono Ghilarza

Nuraghe Sorgono at Ghilarza

My work on this small self-defined project is confined to the weekend due to my normal day to day job (yes in the IT, and no nothing to do with my study). On saturdays I pick up the maps of Sardinia published by the Istituto Geografico Militare (IGM) scale 1:25.000 and look for the marks of the nuraghi on these maps. In the past the IGM and archaeologists collaborated to publish archaeological maps of Sardinia and since then the IGM has included them in the newest maps which are of 1989-1990.

I compare the marks to the marked nuraghi on Wikimapia. A number of passionates have started marking the nuraghi on Wikimapia which has made my work that much easier to find the exact geo coordinates. Next I locate the exact position on Google Earth and retrieve the information of the altitude (which is an approximate measurement).
This data, including the name of the municipality and the province of appurtenance, is entered in the database and then published through a Google map on the website. This way in the past two years I have built a database of over 3300 entries and am still working.

A sample of the map of nuraghi

A sample of the map of nuraghi in Google maps

In so far these bronze age towers have been subject to excavations or research I am trying to get as much as possible hold of published material to relate these to the nuraghi. One publication in particular concerns the archaeological maps of 1919-1946 by Antonio Taramelli, which provides also first hand information from the archaeologist, with a list of descriptions of archaeological structures and finds. But there are a lot of publications by many archaeologists with maps and lists of nuraghi or detailed excavation reports.

Obviously there is a concern regarding the preservation of so many prehistoric sites, and there are many more if you include nuragic (prehistoric) villages, tombs, sanctuaries. Many bronze age towers have already been dismantled, the stones used for construction of villages, roads and railroads. By keeping trace of these bronze age structures and publishing a list and a map I hope that my small project may contribute in maintaining this cultural heritage and serve as a bridge between the invaluable work of the archaeologists and the broader public.

Inside nuraghe Santu Antine Torralba

Inside nuraghe Santu Antine TorralbaNuraghe Losa Abbasanta


Nuraghe Losa at Abbasanta

Nuraghe Losa at Abbasanta





Map of Nuraghi

Boreal CRM Archaeology in Northern Canada

I work for a small consulting firm which conducts cultural resource field surveys of proposed oil and gas developments in the fields, forests, mountains and boreal muskeg of northeastern British Columbia. Each working day, we load up our big 4×4 trucks with ATV’s or skidoos and head out to play with the moose and bears in Canada’s great backyard. We are assigned specific project areas to inspect, such as pipelines and oil or gas leases, which take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to fully investigate. We are generally looking for areas which might have been favourable camping locations, such as creek banks or elevated terrain features with a bit of a view. Once we find one of these areas within our projects, we check surface exposure – if any – for cultural material (generally lithics in this neck of the woods – pre-contact ceramic technology didn’t catch on this far north and the acidic soils quickly deteriorate unburnt bone and wood) and then we conduct a little subsurface inspection through shovel testing. If we are able to find any flakes or tools, we then try to establish the boundaries of the cultural area through more shovel testing and then return with this information to our clients, oil and gas exploration firms. In the vast majority of cases, they will choose to alter their development to avoid the terrain feature upon which the site rests; if not, we will be asked to conduct an excavation to fully investigate the site area and record all associated features and remove all the cultural material. Today, July 29, 2011, was in the middle of just such an excavation for us.

Earlier this week our team of four drove two hours further north along the Alaska Highway and signed ourselves in to the remote camp north of the Sikanni Chief River which would be our base for the next two weeks. Then we drove another hour along a very rough dirt road to where we unloaded our ATV’s and then ‘quadded’ (as we say) a further 11 kilometres into the forest along steep and very challenging seismic line trails that are used by everyone up here as accesses into the bush. We arrived at the site, established a 10 m by 15 m grid (had to cut down a few spruce trees for this) over the cluster of shovel tests that contained cultural material, took some photos, drew up a plan and began to dig.

Peter and Dean excavate the site


So far this week, we’ve excavated about half of the site area and found several suspected hearth-features, about 150 flakes and half a dozen stone tools. Projectile points are the real glory finds for any pre-contact excavation but everyone – myself included – loves to hold the scrapers. It’s always a thrill to find anything that has been hidden for so long and not only are they lovely to look at but they fit so comfortably in the hand, as the tool-maker has often thoughtfully included some kind of groove for the thumb – unlike arrows and spearheads, these are objects that were meant to be held, and they convey a quiet, homely domestic atmosphere to the site.

Black chert scraper

We will continue the dig for another week or so, until we are satisfied that we have removed all the cultural material from in front of the bulldozers which will be coming in after us, and then we’ll de-camp back to our home base to finish up our reports and any cataloging. The artifacts will eventually wind up in the local museum system and we will head back out into the wild to check new locations.

Alaskan Archaeological Adventures in Digital Terrain Analysis

Sarah here. I am just getting this post in right at the last minute (so mind my grammar) but I thought I’d contribute and support this day because Jess is one of my dearest friends and I couldn’t have survived my M.Sc. in Archaeological Computing at Southampton without her! Anyway I will stop being gushy and tell you a bit about what I have been working on up here in ALASKA!

A client of ours last year asked for an “archaeological probability model” to assess the potential for discovering cultural resources within a proposed 2000 foot wide by 116 mile road through the Northern Brooks Range and North Slope of Alaska (way above the Arctic Circle). I will not go into the debates about predictive modeling in this blog but as you may know these models have definite pros and cons. This model was to accompany approximately 65 days of archaeological survey field work in the summer of 2010 (we are just now getting funding to continue this summer). This road is being proposed through a remote area where the Alaska Natives still rely heavily on caribou and seasonal fishing trips (for those of you who are familiar with Lewis Binford’s work, god rest his soul, he studied the Nunamiut or Inland Eskimo quite intensively and this project is within their traditional territory). The road is being designed to open up oil and gas fields (sigh).

So I decided to get in contact with a college of mine in Alberta, Canada who is well versed in archaeological predictive/potential modeling. He has been using available high resolution DEMs (digital terrain models) produced by Light Detecting and Ranging (LiDAR) elevation data to perform digital terrain analysis and multi-criteria analysis to construct archaeological potential (suitability) models. So I decided to give it a shot seeing as we had a LiDAR DEM!
To accomplish this task, I utilized terrain analysis (LandSerf©) to highlight two types of landforms with a higher potential for the presence of archaeological sites. These two landforms are level areas near terrain breaks (such as terrace breaks-in-slope), and ridges. I selected these landforms because they are consistent with observations concerning site location made by archaeologists in northern Alaska. I then ranked the archaeological potential of these landforms based on proximity to higher order streams (fish bearing rivers are the highest) using a multi-criteria analysis (IDRISI©).
So now I am working on a field survey plan to test the model this summer. I am not nearly done and there is a chance the helicopter is going to be ready to take us out there next week! Oh boy, I’d better get after it!

Accessing Egyptian archaeology through a British Museum exhibition

As an Egyptologist, currently working at the British Museum, I’ve been involved in a number of archaeological digs, but most of my research life has been devoted to trying to make sense of what other people have dug up and trying to share it with a wider audience. And that’s what I’ve been busy doing today.

A lot more ancient material than people might imagine has been found and then relatively ignored in pursuit of new discoveries, and it’s not always shared with as many people as it could be. Part of the work of the curators at the British Museum, whom I have been lucky to join as part of the BM’s Future Curators programme, is trying to make sense of the archaeological legacy that has been left to us. Curators have many different responsibilities, including current fieldwork, but they also persevere in contributing research on the museum’s existing collections, which is made freely available to the public in an online database, online research catalogues, and online journals. Outside researchers are also gladly welcomed to work on the collections; there’s always more that can be learnt from the objects.

Most of what I’ve been working on today relates to a BM UK touring exhibition, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, which I’ve been highly involved in, that opened recently in Newcastle before it tours the country. The exhibition explores the ideals and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt, and, as part of the BM’s Partnership UK programme, allows objects from the national collection to tour to museums outside of London.

I started today with further research into the objects that are currently part of Pharaoh. Exhibitions shed light on objects both literally and figuratively, bringing them out of storage to be shared with thousands of curious people, as well as being an excellent prompt to pursue further research into them. My hands on research, examining the details on objects up close, has sadly already passed, and now I’m chained to the computer and library books, fleshing out the context. Today I finally got round to working on one of my favourite objects from the exhibition, the massive wooden tomb guardian statue from the tomb of Ramses I. It towers at about two metres high and through the conservation work done on it, we learned that it is surprising in its construction as it is made from native Egyptian sycamore wood rather than the imported cedar wood which was usually used for large objects. Making sense of the object also involves tracing its history back to its discovery by Giovanni Battista Belzoni in 1817 and some subsequent misinterpretation in later publications!

Of course, as all archaeologists will understand, my research time didn’t last long, as administration, meetings, and other commitments took over. I worked on our slowly evolving project of making the Pharaoh website a better guide and online catalogue for the exhibition: today we added the exhibition themes to the website, which you can see here. Then we had a debriefing meeting to discuss what we learned during the installation of the exhibition at the Great North Museum: Hancock to help us better prepare for transporting and installing the objects in the subsequent venues around the UK. All sorts of things like scheduling, personnel, improved packing techniques, security, and providing contextual information and images were discussed.

Finally I also exchanged farewells with our visiting curators from Egypt and around the world, who were here for the past 6 weeks as part of the British Museum’s International Training Programme. I led a couple of sessions with the visiting Egyptian curators, as well as attending some of training sessions alongside the ITP participants, and I certainly learned as much from them as I was able to teach. On their last whole day here yesterday, they presented their ideas for future exhibitions based on some of the new approaches they’d learned from colleagues at the BM, partner museums, and each others. It was amazing to see presentations on exhibition concepts like the trade route between China & Europe or Somali wedding traditions, and given in partnerships such as Brazilian and Nigerian curators working together.

One can always learn more, whether from meeting new people or revisiting old objects, and continually asking questions is one of the most important tenets of archaeology.

Supporting students in the field

I have a strange job, and one that doesn’t exist at too many other universities. My official title is ‘Project and Fieldwork Officer’ and, along with my partner in crime Anthony in the role of Computing Officer, you could say we act as a sort of half-way-house between the students and the lecturers in the Department of Archaeology at York.

We spend a lot of our time teaching the undergraduate and postgraduate students techniques like survey, geophysics, and computing skills such as GIS, but invariably this doesn’t stop in class. As soon as a student decides to use a fieldwork technique, piece of kit, or computer in their dissertation, this means a lot of one-to-one support and coaching from us. This puts us in a nice position, as we really get to know the students well, in a more relaxed environment. It also means we are rewarded handsomely with wine and chocolate at the end of the year.

With the undergraduates away for the summer it’s quiet in the department, but there’s still plenty to do. The postgrads are still here, desperately trying to finish their dissertations and in need of GIS and other general computer help, but today I had other responsibilities.