HER

Just how are archaeologists made?

The world of professional archaeology is a varied and wonderful thing but sometimes it’s easy to get absorbed into the daily grind and forget what it was that got you into archaeology in the first place. Sometimes though, there are times when that spark re-ignites and you walk home with a bounce in your step, unburdened by the weight of those planning applications you have to comment on or reports that are waiting patiently to go into the Historic Environment Record. I’ve experienced one of those times recently during the supervision of a work experience placement. It came during the handling of objects notably, a flint tool of possible Palaeolithic date. When describing the manufacture of this object and the fact that we were only a handful of people to have touched it in thousands of years, made me remember why I love the subject so much. Seeing inspiration dawn and the glow of excitement re-ignites the embers of that spark and you realise just how privileged you are….

 Here at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service, we’re lucky to be able to offer work experience placements across the Service for students who are studying from A levels right up to higher education. It’s a somewhat unique experience as we combine archaeology and archives so students can get a broad knowledge of the diversity of roles. For the past three weeks, Kat Webber, an A level student, has been with us working on a variety of projects throughout the Service. Here she describes her experience during her time with us…

Sacrificing four weeks of my last ever school summer holiday perhaps seemed a little daunting three weeks ago. However, as I sit here now, in the comfortable archaeological niche in the basement of the Hive (Worcester library), it is a with disappointed frown that I realise next Monday will be the start of my last week here. Of course, I am tired; even with all the unsympathetic glares of more seasoned workers as I go on about my long 10-til-4 shift, concentrating for a whole day (especially so when the hottest day of the year was spent in an office-like greenhouse, three floors up, typing records into the HER system) is hard work.

I wouldn’t ever complain though, this opportunity has surpassed my expectations ten-fold.

Archaeology, as I found out at a young age having experienced the wonders of Indiana Jones, is not all cursed hidden treasure and precarious chases on the tops of speeding trains, (though I still have a week left, so you never know). What I didn’t realise though was its true extent, far beyond that of the movies. It’s about preserving, displaying and expanding history; it’s about public outreach, conservation and filling in the unknown, about problem solving, people and waiting an aggravating amount of time for a GIS map to load.

To me, ‘History’ holds the most elusive agenda in modern life. Yes, there are reaches of science that boggle even the brightest, space travel and time are too almost foreign to our species – and the future is one big scary unknown (being a student on the verge of leaving home I know this more than most). The past, though, is something that has actually happened and yet we know so little about. A whole different type of speculation.

That is why, while holding the remnants of a Neolithic decorated pot in my suitably dusty hands, I was almost brought to tears. The idea that 5000 years ago someone, so much like us but so far away, went out of their way to create such a beautiful, intricate (ironic) legacy. Not once would they have believed that so far in the future I would stand, awestruck by their design, with my thumb in the grooved pattern made by their own. This was a person who wouldn’t have even comprehended such a future. To think that their imagination was as powerful a force as to survive through eons, it’s both enlightening and harrowing.

My time in Finds has been extraordinary to say the least. From the 2000 year old roman pottery that, wonderfully, still holds the traces of the maker’s fingerprints, to the magnificent presence of an almost whole mammoth tusk found in my very own Worcestershire (even in the windowless and a little cramped confines of the storage rooms, I could imagine the size and power of such a beast as if it were right in front of me.) These last two days processing and bagging Iron Age pottery from a recent site, even this has been incomparable. Getting distracted by large trays of pot fragments and attempting to recreate segments like a three dimensional monotonous jigsaw where you don’t know which pieces you have or don’t.

Most of my time, however, was spent with the Historic Environment Record department upstairs. This is where archaeology meets present tense. When a company or organisation wants to build somewhere it must be checked for archaeological potential, which of course makes a lot of sense, yet many people simply don’t appreciate the work that goes into it. A lot of work – DBAs or WBs (I have learned a lot of abbreviations), the steps that go to protecting our past are prolific.

Archaeologists, I think, are a separate group of people. They see things through the eyes of archaeological knowledge, of course, but from my experience they are also more aware, individual and wistful. I may be a little biased, of course, in planning to study Archaeology and Anthropology at university. I have asked so many questions and all have been answered with a smile and a laugh. Along with the amazing experiences, that smile and laugh is something I will be taking with me when I leave.

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat

Iron Age Pot Base reconstructed by work experience student Kat


Helen Stocks-Morgan: Discussing the Significance of Beaulieu, Chelmsford

An open area excavation with archaeologists working on site

On site at Beaulieu, near Chelmsford

I spent the day writing a site report for an excavation we did at Beaulieu, Chelmsford in Essex. For all excavations and project we do we have to write a site report and compile an archive of the site records which are then deposits with the County’s Historic Environment Record (HER). This means that in the future people can go back to our excavations and know exactly what we found and help them with any future research. These are available to the general public with summaries of all previous known archaeology available on the Heritage Gateway and the individual HERs can be contacted / visited if more detailed information is required. Part of the process of compiling this archive is to write a report which is a detailed account of what we found and is the most studied part of the site archive that people and future archaeologists will look at as it contains all the information and eventually will be available online on the ADS website.

The first part for the site report gives an introduction as to what happened on site and provides a summary of the known archaeology in the area. The second part gives the results of our excavation, this is then followed by a discussion of what we found and its significance in the wider landscape and to the known archaeology of that period. The discussion was what I am writing today and writing this blog is giving me a break from trying to work out what some confusing brick linears are and how they formed part of the landscape in one of Henry VIII’s summer palaces.

Helen Stocks-Morgan is a Project Officer at Oxford Archaeology’s East office in Cambridge. For more information about Oxford Archaeology and our fieldwork services, visit our website: http://oxfordarchaeology.com/professional-services/fieldwork

Busman’s Holiday

Just a short blog this year – some of my previous ones have been quite epic!  If you want to know more about my general Historic Environment Record work then please check my previous posts.

Recently I’ve been to a few archaeology events.  It’s been good to go to a few Festival of Archaeology things to remind myself how fun archaeology can be (sometimes when you’re stuck in an office all day you start to forget!).  Since my son is now 4 1/2 we’ve had fun dragging him round things..!  Also my Father in Law is a flint knapper, and my Sister in Law assists him, so we’ve seen them as we’ve visited things.  It’s a bit of a family affair, really.  🙂

Bradgate Park Fieldschool Open Day

Flintknapping and hornblowing at Bradgate Park – photos from Fieldschool Facebook page

We went to the Bradgate Park Fieldschool Open Day at the beginning of July.  This is a student training and research excavation project being run by the University of Leicester.  They’ve been test pitting/excavating all sorts of things including a Scheduled Monument of a moated site, which has come up with some amazing results.  And of course, at Bradgate Park there’s always the Palaeolithic site to talk about.  (I posted about that previously.)

Romans at Jewry Wall

Roman lady and man at Jewry Wall Museum (his lady expression makes me laugh…)

The other big event we went to was ‘Bringing the Past to Life’ at Jewry Wall museum in Leicester.  This is a major re-enactment spectacle in the museum and Roman Bathhouse ruins.  It has to be said that my little boy was more interested in running around than paying attention to much, though we did get him interested in mosaic jigsaws and tic tac toe.  Plus his Granddad was there, and his Auntie, and he was also very interested in the Leicestershire Industrial History Society display because they had a model of Stephenson’s Comet.

Of course we also managed a summer holiday in Norfolk where we made him look at things such as windmills and castles.  But I don’t think we’ve had as much as a Busman’s Holiday as my colleague, who has been off digging with local groups.  Maybe that’s yet to come!

Flying high: work experience with Shropshire HER

This week, Victoria James has been on work experience with Shropshire Council’s Historic Environment Team. Here she tells me about what she has been getting up to…

This week I’ve been on work experience with the Historic Environment Team at Shropshire Council, and although the archaeological work going on here isn’t always necessarily hands-on, it’s still as fascinating as ever. The team maintain and compile the Historic Environment Record (HER), which covers every single aspect of the historic environment – including archaeological sites, historic buildings, structures and landscapes – over the entirety of Shropshire.  Much of the work is desk based, but this week one of my tasks has involved working with some of the aerial photographs taken by the team for the HER.

Double ditched Iron Age enclosure and field system, Patten Grange. Much Wenlock. Copyright: Shropshire Council

The team use aerial photography to gain a greater understanding of the archaeology of the county, where past uses of the landscape leave a small trace for the archaeologist to decipher. A key element of this is the formation of cropmarks, which can tell us a lot about what’s going on below the surface. Ditches and walls buried underground affect the crop yield in different ways, as ditches allow the crop to grow better and in a darker colour, whereas buried walls negatively affect crop growth and mean a lighter colour of yield. Although this can be hard to see from the ground, crop marks are clear to see from aerial photographs, which then allow the team to identify areas of archaeological interest and show this to the people working on the land above it.

For me, this was fascinating, as I had no idea that crops could tell us so much about what had happened on that site years before or how aerial photographs could be such a massive help in discovering what’s buried underneath the land. I got to look at many aerial photographs and pick some which will eventually be put to use on the Discovering Shropshire’s History website.

SGetting in the plane

Getting ready to take some aerial photographs on Wednesday. Copyright: Giles Carey

Not only did I get to see some of the previous aerial photographs which had been taken, but during my week of work experience part of the team actually went and took some more. This involved some members of the team getting the opportunity to fly over the county and view the land below, as well as taking some aerial photographs themselves.

Another thing I got to do on work experience was help out reorganising just some of the many books and files that the team has. There were lots of books and files dating back many years from all different topics – although almost all focused on archaeology, buildings or the history of Shropshire – and I had to organise some of these to make them easily accessible to anyone who might need one, which is a likely possibility at any point, given that the team has a variety of things that they have to do.

Additionally, I got to read through an updated version of Pevsner’s book on historic buildings of Shropshire and put these into a spreadsheet to view the corresponding records on the HER and to make a note of any that weren’t there. I found this really interesting because I got to read about different historic buildings in Shropshire and their features, which made me realise just how many there are! Some of the buildings I already knew of beforehand, but I’d never really considered the history of some of them until now, despite the captivating stories behind them.

Overall, this week I’ve been able to see another side of archaeology which isn’t publicised as much as the excavation side of things. The team here still get to go on site visits to different local places of historic significance to try to conserve our local history, but they also get to maintain the HER and do everything that goes along with that. I’ve been able to see what the team really does and how much hard work they have to put into it, but it has also been a really fun week and I’ve learned a lot about not just the job, but about my home county as well.

Victoria James
Work experience student

Many thanks to Victoria, there will be more to follow from the rest of the Historic Environment Team shortly…

Cheshire HEROs

Bronze Age burial mounds Illustration by Dai Owen

Bronze Age burial mounds illustration by Dai Owen. ©Cheshire Historic Environment Record.

As jobs go, being an Historic Environment Record Officer (or HERO as we like to be known) is a pretty interesting one, not least because I get to look at maps, aerial photographs and read about archaeology every day.

A large part of the job is maintaining the Cheshire Historic Environment Record (HER), adding new records and updating existing ones. We also carry out searches for archaeological consultants, academic researchers and the public. This does involve a lot of time spent in front of a computer, but occasionally I get to go and look at actual archaeological sites (outside!).

This week, thanks to information from a member of the public, I am making a visit to a possible round barrow, deep in rural Cheshire.  Cheshire has 135 round barrows, but in general they are not much to look at on the ground, being mostly ploughed out. Looks however, are deceptive. In 2012 a training excavation for the HLF funded Habitats and Hillforts project uncovered four Bronze Age cremation urns from a de-scheduled round barrow. This barrow (one of a group of seven) was believed to have been completely ploughed out.

It’s not only looking at archaeology in the field that can yield exciting results though. We receive regular updates from the Portable Antiquities Scheme database. When we incorporate the new information about individual finds into the HER we can discover some surprises. Most recently  we have added a  group of around fifty Roman coins found in close proximity and including four radiate coins, over thity nummi, five other copper alloy coins and an Islamic coin. Amongst the group are three unusual coins from the Eastern Mediterranean; a nummus from Constantinople c.AD 348-51; a decanummium of Justinian I from Constantinople AD 542-9 and an Islamic coin which probably dates from the eighth to tenth centuries AD. The coins all display corrosion consistent with exposure to the British soil conditions, suggesting that they are not souvenirs introduced to the site at a much later date. This is a notable concentration of coins from the eastern Empire and may represent a hoard which has been dispersed by ploughing.

In addition to the PAS data, a regular flow of new information into the HER comes from Grey Literature, local society journals, members of the public and research projects.

Today I received two new research and recording reports from the Cheshire Gardens Trust. We have been assisting their volunteers in their work in recording survival of undesignated historic gardens and landscapes. Their reports are full of really useful information about the development of large houses,  gardens and designed landscapes and their survival today.

They do a lot of documentary research and we recently held a training day in the HER for their members so we could show them what resources they could access by visiting the HER, in particular the digital aerial photographs and maps.

Visitors to the HER can view our full set of digitised aerial surveys of the county, taken every 10 years since the 1970’s as well as the 1940’s RAF Aerial Survey. They also have access to the printed source material behind our digital HER records and as much tea as they can drink (and occasionally cake.)

For more information about the Cheshire Historic Environment Record and to visit the online version of the HER visit www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk

Really, really, really, really old stuff!

This is the third time I’ve taken part in the ‘Day of Archaeology’, and I don’t want to repeat myself, so please do take a look at my previous blogs “Day in the life of a HERO” and “We can be heroes, just for one day”. Suffice it to say, I’m the Historic Environment Record Officer for Leicestershire County Council – for more information do look at the Leicestershire & Rutland HER page on our website!

I have started off today by thinking about the Palaeolithic. I think it’s fair to say that the Palaeolithic doesn’t come up all that often in archaeology. There are chance finds of Palaeolithic date – such as hand axes that are found in fields – but there aren’t a lot of sites, as such. To find the Palaeolithic you usually have to dig quite a big hole, since it’s usually deeply buried!

The reason I’ve been thinking about it is that on the HER we have a list of period dates, and it seems that the Palaeolithic ones are painfully inadequate. (I attended an HER meeting this week and it was brought up there). In the East Midlands Research Framework (2012), which you can download here, it gives the following periods and dates (kya means ‘thousand years ago’):

Period 1: Cromerian and Intra-Anglian (950-450 kya)

Period 2: Pre-Levallois (450-250 kya)

Period 3: Levallois (250-150 kya)

Period 4: Mousterian (60-40 kya) -> Neanderthals!

Period 5a: Early Upper Palaeolithic (40-27 kya) -> Modern Humans

Period 5b: Late Upper Palaeolithic (13,000-9,500 BC)

Now, I don’t know about you, but dates of 950,000 years ago kind of blow my mind! The gaps in the chronology, by the way, indicate glaciation periods when no-one lived here (the most recent being the Dimlington Stadial).

There are a few Palaeolithic sites that have been investigated in recent times in Leicestershire/Rutland, all from different periods, and all very different in character. The earliest is at Brooksby, then there’s one at Glaston, and also Bradgate Park.

Activity on the River Bytham, at Brooksby Quarry (Period 1)
HER Ref. No. MLE21117

Something this old really does make your brain hurt when specialists start talking about it. There are all sorts of mysterious scientific analyses that can be carried out. It’s just so ancient! These weren’t humans like us. They were making tools from stone, not flint.

Brooksby Quarry

Brooksby Quarry

The River Bytham was a huge river that flowed west from Lowestoft, along which humans may have travelled into Britain. It has left behind sand and gravel deposits that are now being quarried, giving us a brilliant opportunity to learn about this period of time.

So far hundreds of artefacts have been recovered by ULAS, many of which are very fresh and don’t seem to have travelled far. These include cores and flakes made from local quartzite pebbles. Early humans must have been living alongside the river and making tools, which is pretty exciting!

Hyena den at Glaston, Rutland (Period 5a)
HER Ref. No. MLE9061

This is another site investigated by ULAS, back in 2000. Evidence of a hyaena den was recorded, which contained bones of woolly rhinoceros, mammoth, wolverine, early horse and hyenas. This is the first open air hyena den excavated, and a flint leafpoint provides evidence of human activity in the vicinity – rare evidence for a temporary hunting camp. You can read more about the project here (which is where this rather good picture came from!).

glaston_animals

Glaston hyena den

Creswellian site at Bradgate Park (Period 5b)
HER Ref. No. MLE9435

This site was first discovered in 2001 and test pitting was carried out earlier this year, again by ULAS! Basically, thousands of flints have been recovered from an eroding footpath in the park. These flints are evidence for human activity on site – it has been suggested that the site was a hunting stand where hunters intercepted animals such as horse and deer passing through Little Matlock Gorge. The exciting thing about this site is that it is in situ – there are deposits that are associated with the flints. At the moment it’s not clear what further work will be carried out on the site, but it’s certainly a nationally important site!

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Bradgate Park test pitting

So, that’s a quick dash through some of the oldest archaeological sites on the Leicestershire & Rutland HER. You can look at these, and other records, via the Heritage Gateway. Records cover everything up to now, so we’re covering about a million years of human activity!

Obviously it’s not possible to be an expert in everything throughout those million years, so forgive me if I’ve made some terrible errors when writing this. I’m not a Palaeolithic expert. Today, on this Day of Archaeology, I just found it interesting.  🙂