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Michael Marshall: Assessing Small Finds from Roman London

Like any job in archaeology, working with small finds can be a bit of a mixed bag. For every box opened to reveal shiny ‘treasure’ there are countless others containing more prosaic yet interesting finds which are indicative of everyday life and activities in the past. These are really the ‘best bit’ of any assemblage but more numerous still on many urban sites are boxes full of highly fragmentary and corroded ‘dross’. Some of this is completely unidentifiable, fairly undiagnostic (such as fragments of iron sheet or wire) or else tantalisingly close to being a recognisable object leading to some speculative flicking through likely find’s books or trips around the office to bother colleagues.

Today I am working on a post-excavation assessment report for an interesting Roman site in Southwark and it is no exception. This morning I’ll be dealing with some more of the most corroded horrible bulk nails it’s ever been my misfortune to handle (don’t expect any terribly enlightening updates about these) but this afternoon I have some more nice Roman glass to round off the week so stick with me. There are lovely glass vessels in this assemblage and some evidence for glass working – probably the first evidence of this sort from south of the river.

In the meantime I’m off to grab some gloves and some more boxes of nails. At least it’s a bit cooler today. I grew up in Scotland and so anything above about 24°C is a bit on the warm side for me and it was horrible yesterday when it topped 31 degrees in the office. I was wearing gloves and a dust mask and had to close the windows and turn off the fan in my section of the office to stop all the dust, rust and muck from the nails choking the osteologists and finds specialists I share a room with. For the present here’s a photo of my rather generic desk in that room to contrast with all the lovely site photos that I’m seeing appearing on the website already. This is ‘where the magic happens’… or something like that. The sharp-eyed will notice the awesome (free and pretty accurate) BBC prehistory timeline above my computer.

Treasure ahoy!

Where the magic happens


An archaeobureaucrat writes…

A day or so in my life as an archaeologist working for English Heritage.

Started off by working at home at Haslemere in Surrey, eating toast with tea while dealing with e-mails with Radio 4 providing the background noise.  As usual, was mildly distracted by Frankly the cat who views my attempts to sit down and work at a laptop as his cue to demand food with menaces and then attention, generally in that order. 

A demanding cat. Frankly.

 

E-mails give me a few things to deal with before I do anything else. There are corrections to check on a chapter I helped to write for the forthcoming book on the Elizabethan Garden reconstruction at Kenilworth Castle. I was involved in organising the programme of archaeological and architectural research that contributed to the project, and I’ve co-written the archaeological chapter with Joe Prentice of Northamptonshire Archaeology, who directed the excavations, and Brian Dix, garden archaeologist extraordinaire, who advised throughout. Not much left to do – just checking that the photographs are in the right order, have the right numbers and captions, and are available in the right format for reproduction.

That done, I moved on to deal with some work on our forthcoming organisational restructuring. It’s no secret that English Heritage took a huge hit in last year’s government Comprehensive Spending Review. The organisation is having to deal with the impact of a net 35% cut in our grant from government. I can’t say a great deal about what is currently going on, but it will come as no surprise to learn that many jobs are being lost, and that I and many of my colleagues will be put formally ‘at risk’ in the autumn, and will have to apply for a smaller number of jobs in the restructured National Heritage Protection group.  We’ve been through such reorganisations before, and I know the stress that this puts my colleagues through, but the scale and scope of these changes is greater than anything we’ve seen so far. A lot of colleagues are having to consider other career options and paths; an unsettling time for us all.

After a couple of hours, time to trek to the station to catch the 11am to Waterloo. I’ve been taking a few pictures to illustrate this blog, and drew pitying looks from fellow travellers as I took a photograph of the train as it came into Haslemere station.  I’m a blogger, not a trainspotter….

 

My train arriving at Haslemere station

 

The train was fairly full, but got a seat and used the time to write up the blog of the day so far. Also did a little more on the draft publication strategy and synopsis for the Windsor Castle updated project design.  I worked at Windsor from 1989 to 1995. We started off in the Round Tower, the shell keep that stands on top of the 11th-century motte, excavating and recording the structures as part of a major engineering project.

Round Tower team, 1989, with the blogger looking much younger.

 

We’d just finished that project and evacuated our site office in November 1992 when fire broke out in the Upper Ward. That was the start of a huge programme of salvage and architectural analysis, with some excavation involved too.

Archaeological salvage of fire debris starting in the Grand Reception Room, Windsor Castle, 1993

The assessment of these large project archives was largely complete by the end of 1998, but work has been on hold then for a number of reasons.  I’ve been in deep discussion with my colleague and good friend Dr Steven Brindle over the last few months, and the next stage is to get in touch with all the project specialists to let them know that the analysis may finally be about to happen. Hence the publication strategy, so they can see what we’re asking them to do.  By Guildford my seat was surrounded by loud and excitable children, and I was bitterly regretting having left my i-pod in my bag, which was overhead and thus inaccessible.

 

English Heritage offices at Waterhouse Square, Holborn

By bus to our Waterhouse Square offices in Holborn, where I find a seat among friends in London Region. Here I dealt with a variety of business by e-mail, including mundane admin tasks such as approving invoices and expenses.  Fortunately we have quite good electronic systems for dealing with such things, so they were finished very quickly. The online press summary included a link to a Telegraph opinion piece on the listing of London tube stations. I tweeted the link with my own comments, and was later gratified to learn that my comment “Entertainingly daft Torygraph rant” appeared on the relevant page of the Telegraph website.  A small but pleasing result. At this point I lost the use of the camera; my chum Dr Jane Sidell was off to give a walking tour of Roman London, and borrowed the camera to record the event.

Trying to persuade Dr Jane Sidell, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for London, to point the camera somewhere else.

I also had to draft a response to a member of the public who had written to say that she was disappointed to learn that we aren’t running the Fort Cumberland Festival of British Archaeology event this year. I explained that this was as disappointing to us as it was to her; our free FOBA weekend event has been very popular, usually attracting c. 2000 people over a weekend to enjoy a range of archaeological and related activities. We enjoy it as much as the visitors do. We had to take the difficult decision not to hold the event this year in late 2010; by then it was already clear that we would be in the middle of a major reorganisation, and in that context it seemed unfair to ask colleagues to commit their time and energies to planning the event at a time when they were likely to be severely distracted by other events. We hope to be able to reinstate the event next year, resources permitting…

At 2pm, I took part in a Portico project team  meeting. Portico is a project that aims to provide up-to-date research content on the English Heritage website for our historic properties. Enhanced content is already online for all of the free sites, and the first sets of pages for 12 of the pay sites are now available. An introduction to the project with links to the available content is available at (insert link).  We were updated on progress, which remains good; the first batch of site information is now online, and all of it has been or is being updated with links to online resources. Another batch of sites is nearly ready to go online, including Susan Greaney’s excellent Stonehenge pages.  The next stage of the project is currently being planned; I may have volunteered to write up one or two sites myself.  A day conference is being planned for London next April to promote the project. The introductory page on the EH site shows the content that’s available so far – http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/archives-and-collections/portico/about/

Following the meeting I had a very useful discussion with Christopher Catling about the National Planning Policy Framework, which is currently out for consultation.  I think we agreed that it’s a huge improvement on the earlier practioners’ draft, preserving more of PPS5, but there are still some concerns, including the assumption in favour of development that permeates the document.

After that, there was time to check e-mails and deal with a few more bits of business before catching the train home. This included correspondence relating to one of last year’s fieldwork projects, on the Romano-British settlement around Silbury Hill, and the forthcoming excavation at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, where we’ll be digging up parts of the French Parterre to assist in its restoration.

That was Thursday 28th July – I decided to write it up for Day of Archaeology as I was taking today off.  In the event, I took a trip to Corfe Castle, which I haven’t been to for far too long.  Despite the long queues of holiday traffic, it was a useful and hugely enjoyable visit. I always particularly enjoy the path up to the keep, which passes through the tumbled remains of the demolished sections of the keep. It’s very evocative of the sheer scale of destruction on this site.

The degree of destruction caused by slighting varies from site to site; this would appear to be off the vindictive end of the scale. The site is looking very good, but I was very disappointed by the new interpretation panels, full of rubbishy unhistorical cliches. The panel about ‘oubliettes’ was the worst example. It went on about the agonies of the poor prisoners abandoned in deep pit prisons. The work of Peter Brears has, of course, demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that such structures are strong-rooms, for the safe storage of documents, money and other valuables. The reason that they often have well-lit chambers with fireplaces above them is not to provide accommodation for the better-off prisoners, but to provide a room for the clerk or steward to work in. Worst of all, having conjured up imaginary sufferings  in imaginary oubliettes, the panel finished by admitting that no such chamber survived at Corfe. So the point of this rubbish was…..?  Rant over.

The effects of undermining - the tower has slid down the slope, and the curtain wall has fallen over.

I took some time looking at the evidence for the destruction of the site, which is a particular interest of mine. This was the subject of the thesis of a friend of mine, Dr Lila Rakoczy, and since reading her work I’ve become more interested in looking at the evidence for how buildings were demolished. The walls at Corfe have certainly been undermined, but there’s no clear evidence for the use of gunpowder, despite the claims on a number of panels that the site was ‘blown up’. The surviving unused sap at the base of the keep’s latrine tower is a simple horizontal rectangular slot, which I think argues for the use of the ‘burnt timber prop’ method of undermining – i.e. using timbers to prop up the wall as the sap is excavated, and then burning them out to bring down the mass of masonry above. Drawings of near-contemporary saps used for explosive undermining, e.g. in Vauban’s work, show that these saps tend to be hollowed out behind a small opening in the outer face of the wall, to contain the blast and thus maximise the effect of the explosion on the masonry.  A bit anorakish, but it keeps me happy.

Possible sap at the base of the Keep's latrine tower, The masonry at the right hand corner is, I think, relatively-modern underpinning.

After that, I enjoyed a much faster and prettier drive home by avoiding the main roads. So there you have it – two days for the price of one, and I got to see some archaeology on one of them.

Brian Kerr, Head of Archaeological Projects, English Heritage

@jamesbriankerr

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.