London

Some news from Public Archaeology 2015

On Saturday 12 December, Lorna Richardson and I are leading a walk called Narratives and Counter-Narratives: a line through contemporary London which will mark the beginning of the end of the Public Archaeology 2015 project. The event will be investigating the archaeology of austerity, using a walk from Canary Wharf to Westminster to visit a number of sites that are undergoing different forms of regeneration and which offer different reactions, some good, others not so good, to the austerity measures we see imposed by central government and the situations that led to the promotion of austerity in the first place. The event will be multi-disciplinary with a range speakers from different backgrounds involved over the course of the day.

I couldn’t post about this on Day of Archaeology because I was out on site, but we got the news through on Friday that the walk has been accepted as a pre-conference event for the Theoretical Archaeology Group meeting taking place in Bradford on 14-16 December. This is great news for us as it will allow us to create online content around the walk – Tweets, videos, Vines and so on – and hopefully start conversations that will carry over into the conference proper. It also means, of course, that people can come and walk with us to get fired up for TAG which, with its theme of Diversity, has a good few political sessions to get stuck into.

The walk will start at Canary Wharf DLR station at 10am and finish in a Westminster pub at 8pm with a reading of the Riot Act. Details and timings of intermediate stops will be published in advance. Follow and/or contact @pa2015infowith any questions.

riot act wording

Death, dating and dirt

This year despite doing the same job in same location as I have done for the previous 3 Days of Archaeology the name of organisation I work for is different. This is due to the recent split of the old English Heritage into Historic England (who I work for) and the English Heritage Trust. Historic England is the public body that looks after England’s historic environment by championing historic places, helping people understand value and care for them.  English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites.

My day started with reading some new guidelines from APABE – the Advisory Panel on the archaeology of Burials in England which had been written by my Historic England colleagues Jane Sidell and Simon Mays. More and more projects are taking place on land which includes some very large burial ground so this guidance is particularly welcome.

Next I read and responded to a number of WSI (written schemes of investigation) for commercial projects in London. These are basically method statements and have to be approved before work can commence. My colleagues in GLAAS Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service provide advice to the planner in many of the London boroughs (the City of London and Southwark have their own in house archaeological advisers). The archaeology advisers will contact me on projects which include aspects of archaeological science such as Geoarchaeological borehole surveys. Random interesting fact 1 – when writing about the East and North East London wetlands the term Lea is used for the natural river valley and its deposits whilst Lee denotes the manmade channel of the Lee Navigation.

The highlight of my morning was a site visit to see the Crossrail site of Bedlam near Liverpool Street which is being excavated by archaeologists and osteologists from MOLA. All staff on site must to wear full PPE (personal protection equipment). Random interesting fact 2 – because this is a rail project the colour of that clothing is orange rather than the more familiar yellow. So for the purposes of my visit I donned the full orange.

The skeletons were being carefully recorded before being excavated. The site is covered by a large tent in order to shield the public from accidental views of human remains but is also makes the process of excavation a lot easier for the archaeologists especially on rainy days. In addition to evidence relating to the use of the graveyard, a large quantity of bone working waste had been found this week, which comprises mostly sawn through fragments of cattle metapodials (cannon bones) including a fine example of a pinners bone. These were used to hold the metal blanks during the process of filing them down to fine points. Examples of these artefacts are online.

After lunch I joined my colleagues in GLAAS for some training in Radiocarbon dating from Alex Bayliss. Establishing the chronology of a site is key to understanding and interpreting the archaeological features and finds present. Helping to arrange and provide training both inside the organisation and for the wider sector is a big part of the work of the Science Advisors.

Alex’s presentation on radiocarbon dating

Alex’s presentation on radiocarbon dating

On returning to my desk I checked my email and was pleased to discover that the results of a project looking at what we currently know about London’s burial grounds was now available online. This project was carried out by Allen Archaeology and funded by Historic England.

Sylvia Warman, Science Advisor Historic England

Digging Diaries – Old Shipwreck, New Mystery – The Wreck of the London

Hello all, it’s time for a new vid!

Back in 1665 an enormous warship, named The London, exploded in the Thames Estuary. The crew had been preparing a seventeen gun salute before the vessel was due to set sail for the Second Anglo-Dutch War when a stray flame ignited 300 barrels of gunpowder.

A team have been diving this summer to rescue the archaeology and to solve the mystery of ‘The Wreck of the London’.

Subscribe to our channel and follow us on Twitter (@DiggingDiaries) to keep up to date with all  the new exciting digs and dives happening all over Britain this summer.

Core blimey! Jason Stewart and the Sediment Core Samples

The best thing about working as a geoarchaeologist at MOLA is the variety; one day I could be watching a machine ripping through the odorous remains of a 19th century gas works, the next day could find me wrestling with the implications of a newly returned set of radiocarbon dates.

Today however finds me in the lab examining sediment cores retrieved from an evaluation. The site is in Dartford within the Thames estuary and has early prehistoric peat forming on top of the cold climate landsurface with various phases of being mudflat, marshland or flooded.

The cores are carefully laid out with the top of the borehole at one end of the lab and the base at the other. As there is 16m of sequence and the cores are 1.5m long and filled with heavy sediment this can take longer than you would think.  The cores are then methodically cleaned and the colour texture, inclusions and nature of the boundaries are recorded.  This detailed cleaning and logging allows me to think about the depositional environment of the site and the nature and rate of the changes that occur.

The next task is to select the locations from which to take samples, we take samples for radiocarbon dating, this enables us to places the changes in environment in some kind of chronological framework allowing us to compare the developments onsite with other work we have done in the surrounding area.  We also sample for things which will tell us about the environment in the past (usually pollen, diatoms, ostracods and plant remains).  These are carefully sliced from the core and sealed in labelled bags to be sent off to the various specialists.  The cores are then re-wrapped and returned to their climate controlled environment, the lab surfaces cleaned and the results typed up.

Jason Stewart

Archaeological face-off: London vs Lincoln

By Natasha Powers

Last October I left the smoke to head north and work as Senior Manager at Allen Archaeology. I think it would be fair to say that I got some pretty odd looks when I said where I was going but actually they have a lot in common…They both begin with L for starters…

London and Lincoln both have a mysterious prehistoric past, we know it’s there but only little glimpses of it come through at the edges from time to time.

The archaeology is dominated by the Romans: Londinium and Lindum were joined by Ermine Street. Both cities have considerable and visible remnants of City wall, amended and added to over the years, but here Lincoln wins as it has the only Roman gate still in use for traffic (some of it less than welcome). The City wall actually runs down the back gardens of the terrace of houses I live in, which I think is pretty cool.

Roman City wall, Lincoln

Roman City Wall (and the wall of my garden)

The Saxons also made a home in both places but left the perfectly good Roman ruins in favour of the watery bits downhill.

London might have the Tower and the Crown Jewels, but Lincoln has a newly restored castle and the Magna Carta (paper-y version and pub).

London was a little careless with its medieval buildings – apparently there was some big fire or something, whereas Lincoln’s medieval past is still very much on display, there’s even a bridge with houses on it…ahem…ours didn’t ‘fall down’…and whilst no-one can doubt the architectural or iconic credentials of St Paul’s Cathedral, Lincoln Cathedral is frankly incredible and, of course, home to an imp.

Lincoln Cathedral looking up!

Lincoln Cathedral…it’s big!

All in all I reckon Lincoln can give London a run for its archaeological money…Oh, and I’m still working in an ex-industrial building with a conveniently located pub nearby and a storeroom full of skeletons.

Dealing with the dead of Villamagna, Medieval Italy

I really don’t like dead bodies. But the thing about archaeology is that you never really know what you’re going to dig up, and in my last major dig, there were lots and lots of dead bodies – in the end the team excavated nearly 500 medieval skeletons from the area around a church at Villamagna, near Anagni in central Italy. The results of that excavation (the cemetery and all the rest of the large-scale multi-year project) are now being published; interim reports can be found here. Our book includes an inventory and preliminary discussion of the skeletons, the demography of the cemetery and basic paleo-pathology, a discussion of the isotopes and discussions of the topography and chronology of the cemetery, the burials and the finds. But these dead people won’t lie down and I keep finding myself dealing with them, now well after we’re finished digging. Because ours is the largest collection of excavated skeletons from medieval Italy, I’m hoping that these bones can be further studied by bioarchaeologists who are going to be more able to design and carry out a programme of scientific research that will benefit from such a large sample size, from clearly defined and meticulously recorded stratigraphic contexts. I’m in Rome this week trying to help this project along.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

A view of the cemetery while we were excavating: lots of regular, earthen graves. Lots and lots.

The team who is going to take over the study of the bones of Villamagna include the indefatigable anthropologist who directed the initial inventory and study of the project, Francesca Candilio, and now a pair of bioarchaeologists, Sabrina Agarwal from Berkeley and Patrick Beauchesne from University of Michigan, Dearborn. Their interests lie in understanding better the general health of the population and how it might have changed over time, looking at oral health, at indications of stress on the body associated with certain kinds of work, at changes in bone density at certain moments of development and during the lifetime, and indicators of disease. Francesca has some ideas about some peculiar bone formations on some of the bones, and has identified some people who suffered fatal wounds, while others lived with their wounds for many years. Through information about nutrition levels, general health and indications of physical labour in this population we can reconstruct these particular aspects of daily life in a rural village for which we have otherwise limited data available from textual sources or other archaeological indicators. I am not a bioarchaeologist, but I remain on board because I want to think about ways in which this kind of information about health and life course can relate to the stratigraphic contexts of the cemetery and the rest of the site.

4348

HRU 4348, the male who died in the 13th century because of a projectile wound to his head, the point of which is still there!

We all met in Rome this week, Sabrina and Patrick flew in from California and I came over from London; Lisa Fentress, the project director, and Francesca are based in Rome. We visited the site, brought some specimens to Francesca’s lab, and collected some of the samples for preliminary work to be done. We went over our data collection practices from the dig and reviewed the anthropological inventories and analysis that the dig team carried out. Francesca explained the methods her lab uses for age-ing and sexing the skeletons, and her binders full of measurements and data. She pulled out some of the interesting pathologies, and weirdnesses in the population, and also showed off one of her favourite head wounds: a guy who was buried in the thirteenth century, inside the monastic cloister, with a ballista point lodged in his cranium.

I feel very pleased that these bones will be taken over by such a competent and interesting team of people. I like Sabrina and Patrick’s approach of social bioarchaeology (Sabrina recently edited a book on the topic), looking not just at health and living conditions of people, especially through the lenses of gender, age, and social status. Francesca has expertise in teeth patterns, looking at migration of populations through dental traits, and will be happy to include Villamagna teeth in her data sets.  I think there is still a lot of work left to be done figuring out this population, and devising a strategy for the archeo-anthropology and bioarchaeology which will exploit the stratigraphic data from the excavation alongside the samples of the skeletons, and I’m interested in thinking this through.

Aside from feeling pleased to shepherd the bones into the hands of another team, there are two issues which really interest me about this research. One: the majority of these skeletons (ballista-point guy not included) came dates from about 1300 to about 1400 (several of the skeletons were dated by C14), so after the monastery was suppressed and the monks expelled. For that period we have very little information about who owned the estate of Villamagna and how the church was administered, so I’m very keen to think more about who takes over a monastery and its estate lands when the institution is suppressed and there is no clear successor to administer the estate. The village and the site of the monastery which we excavated were clearly abandoned about 1300, but this major cemetery with lots and lots of skeletons are clear evidence that the church was still in use, and some priest was involved in burying the dead. The other issue that I’m very excited about at the moment is that in the middle of this phase, in 1348 and 1349, life in central Italy must have changed radically. In 1348 the Black Death arrived in southern Italy, where – by some counts – the population was reduced by half. If I look around me right now and imagine half of the people who surround me dropping dead, my job, my family, and every aspect of my life would be radically different. It may have been so for Villamagna in the fourteenth century and I would like to know whether this was the case, or whether the Black Death didn’t affect this place in particular. We have no indication of Plague Pits, no sense of epidemic-scale deaths, which in itself is might point to the site’s survival relatively unscathed. On the other hand, the site must have been profoundly affected by the three earthquakes which shook southern Italy on 9 September 1349. In Rome, part of the Colosseum collapsed from the quake whose epicentre was located down in the Apennine mountain range—much closer to Villamagna than Rome was. It seems very unlikely that the standing buildings of Villamagna were not destroyed, and thus the population forced to relocate or otherwise reorganise their subsistence. And yet we have only slim indications in the archaeological record of that kind of destruction and rebuilding. Was everything already abandoned then? Or was it restored, only to be abandoned 50 years later? I hope that having a better sense of the population buried here might help shift our thinking about these two catastrophic events and catastrophe in general in a rural village.

Nothing Interesting This Year

Annoyingly, without connecting the two dates in my mind, I accepted an appointment for a terribly boring meeting that lasted all of the morning of the Day of Archaeology.  Most people I know try to do something interesting but much of the time spent by a local authority archaeology officer consists of meetings, staring at maps and trying to work your way around the acronym soup of life in local government.

First thing was off to English Heritage to discuss proposals for reorganising Archaeological Priority Zones (APZs – keep up!) or Archaeological Priority Areas or many of the other names that these float around on maps issued by local authorities buried under a multitude of other coloured and bounded areas with their own acronyms.  View the joy that is the Southwark adopted policies map here, APZs, as they are in Southwark, can be found by ticking next to Design and Conservation.  Patrick, at English Heritage, is doing some very good work looking over a number of the boroughs and considering where we know archaeology to be, where we can expect it to be found in the future and drawing logical areas to connect this on the maps.  My contribution to the meeting was to try and get the acronyms to become Areas of Archaeological Significance, to match up with the new emphasis on ‘significance’ in many planning documents.  Think about it for a while, I feel it is more memorable.

Imagine my joy on getting back to the office and finding out that an area action plan had passed its first hurdles.  The Old Kent Road Area Action Plan is beginning to move forwards.  Archaeological, this area contains some of the more interesting and significant archaeology within the borough, not least the remains of a mesolithic tool making site that is now under a B&Q, other interesting and enigmatic areas of prehistoric archaeology and the main road into London from the Kent ports through the Roman and medieval periods.  Hopefully we will have the opportunity to do a full assessment of the archaeology of this road and look at what is happening in its hinterland.  I feel this is incredibly petty but the acronym formed from the name of the document gave me the greatest joy O KRAAP!

Digital Magic for Magical Texts

It has been a grey damp day here in London. Glad to be tucked in working from home with the cat on my lap and a fresh pot of the black stuff.  I have been beavering away on a pile of image data for Magica Levantina, a University of Cologne project on magical texts from the ancient Near East.  Although I am a Research Associate at the Cologne Center for eHumanities, I have spent a good portion of my time working in museum collections far beyond Cologne, including the Princeton, Philadelphia, Paris, Naples, and soon (all being well) Jerusalem. But for now I have been working at the British Museum, which happily is not far from home and is giving me a bit of a break from the travel.

Gypsum tablet

Part of a gypsum tablet with a magical Greek inscription from Amathus, Cyprus (1891,0418.50 + 59,  © Trustees of the British Museum).

This week I have been conducting Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) on inscribed tablets fragments in the Department of Greece and Rome. The tablet fragments are made of selenite (gypsum), and were found at  the site of Amathus and date to between 100 CE-300 CE.

The almost complete tablet above bears a curse written in alphabetic Greek. However, the technique used to make the inscription, combined with its small size and the translucence of the material, make it very challenging to read or discern other potentially significant physical features.

RTI specular enhancement detail of Greek inscribed selenite tablet from Amathus, Cyprus. (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

Detail from the upper left of the above, visualised using the RTI specular enhancement mode  (1891,0418.50 + 59, Kathryn E. Piquette, courtesy Trustees of the British Museum)

BM staff very kindly took the tablet off display* yesterday so I could image it using RTI. The  detail to the right does not really do justice to the results I processed today since it is not possible in this context to have the relighting and other functionality of the RTIViewer. Nevertheless, the text is now vastly more readable.

Thanks to the magic of modern tablets, this ancient one, or at least its visual surrogate, is currently making its way through the ether to my colleagues in Cologne.

* The tablet was put promptly back on display today I am told (Room G72/2), so do pop down to the British Museum and take a closer look.

Conservation at the British Museum, Ceramics, Glass & Metals Section

Student shows visiting tutor her work on a coin hoard

Student shows visiting tutor her work on a coin hoard

Duygu Camurcuoglu working on ceramics for the Ur Digitisation project.

Duygu Camurcuoglu working on ceramics for the Ur Digitisation project.

Filling out Standard Operational procedure forms

Filling out Standard Operational procedure forms

First day of working on antiquities in our new workshop

First day of working on antiquities in our new workshop

Bee hives on the roof of the WCEC building

Bee hives on the roof of the WCEC building

WCEC building 6 floors above ground 3 floors below

WCEC building 6 floors above ground 3 floors below

All of the British Museum Conservation and Scientific Research Department have now moved into the WCEC building on the side of the British Museum site. (Except the eastern pictorial art people who remain in their traditional studio.)

Our new workshops are at the top of the building.

Other people in the Museum used to joke that it was only the bees in the hive on top of the roof that did any work in WCEC.

However, this week we got security clearance to start having antiquities in our workshop and we are all delighted to get back to doing our real work.

We do not yet have access to our full armoury of chemical might, but we are cleared to do manual cleaning. The task of filling out the Standard Operational Procedure forms for all of the rooms and equipment has only just begun.

In the morning of The Day of Archaeology, our student intern Suzanne van Leeuwen is visted by her tutor Tonny Beentjes (University of Amsterdam). She is able to show him coins she has been working on for the Treasure process.

Our move into WCEC has created a great back log of practical work and we are 4 coin hoards behind.

Later in the morning, Duygu Camurcuoglu continues her work on the Ur Digitisation project with colleagues from the Department of the Middle East. She has been preparing ceramic items for digitisation so that they can be included in web avaible account of excavations at Ur. It is a joint project with Penn Museum and it is hoped that, in the future, the Irag Museum in Baghdad will be involved as well.

In the afternoon, one technologically inept conservator tries to give a Powerpoint presentation about coin conservation to a numismatic summer school and later tries to upload all this onto the Day of Archaeology site.