In some corners of England….

An important thing needs to be said on this Day of Archaeology…. Archaeology means many things to many people. Its birth and life-blood lie in an area of the world currently riven by conflict. As I write there is news that monuments are being destroyed in Syria and Iraq and once again bombs are falling on Gaza. More than just damage to sites, innocent people are dying…there is no justification for this. I fervently hope that at least the international community of archaeologists, of all creeds, race and nationality can work peacefully together, recognising and celebrating our common humanity.


Bombs falling on Gaza

In previous years I have been away for the ‘Day of Archaeology’ – Bulgaria in 2012 and Norway last year. But for most of this year so far, I have been in the UK working for English Heritage….and lots of interesting things have been happening as well. So this time round I want to mention some of the archaeological avenues and alleyways I have recently travelled ….

Firstly I presented my Masters dissertation back in January. It seemed to be a long time in the planning but relatively brief in the time it took to actually write and illustrate. It will be a Christmas and New Year that I will never get back, but overall fairly painless. My theme was the use of GIS as a primary recording tool in archaeology.


The main thrust of my thesis was a discussion of the use of digital archaeological recording systems, in particular the Intrasis programme developed by the Swedish Antiquities board. The system is used widely in Scandinavia and by English Heritage in the UK. I used some examples from recent field work I have carried out, to compare and contrast digital data collection with more traditional (and largely) analogue practices. I also looked at some of the reasons given by archaeological professionals who expressed resistance to adopting digital methods. Basically my conclusions were that we should wholly embrace digital methods, but that there is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. Analogue methods are tried and tested and in some circumstances more practical in both application and efficiency. Archaeology should embrace the best of both methodologies.


Use of traditional and digital recording methods

Fortunately my examiners deemed it sufficient. (I should add that other digital recording systems are available, but none that are as well advanced and practiced as Intrasis).

The first part of my English Heritage year was spent writing a publication draft for an intended monograph on archaeological work carried out at Chiswick House, London over the past 30 years.


Chiswick House London

This was an interesting project trying to tie together a lot of different projects by a number of different archaeological contractors (not just English Heritage). The publication follows a programme of archaeological excavations in 2008 and 2009, undertaken as part of the Chiswick House and Grounds regeneration scheme, a project funded by the UK Heritage Lottery Fund. The publication project will hopefully come to a successful end in 2015…for now my work is largely completed.

The opportunity to work for English Heritage means I am nominally based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, a late 18th defensive fort guarding the mouth of the Solent and the Royal Navy dockyard at Portsmouth.


English Heritage offices at Fort Cumberland Portsmouth

The archaeology departments of English Heritage and its predecessor organisations have been based here since the 1970s. Weekends give me the chance to explore some of my earliest memories of Portsmouth (I lived here as a child) and also to follow the up and down progress of my favourite soccer team (Portsmouth FC or Pompey). Fort Cumberland is a huge site only fragments of which are in use by the English Heritage archaeology team. Occasionally bits fall off the old buildings and occasionally older parts of the site are uncovered……


A recently uncovered 19th century gun emplacement on the outer edge of Fort Cumberland

In March I had the opportunity to get out of the office and do a bit of field work with an English Heritage team at Whitby Abbey in North Yorkshire. Archaeological work has been ongoing on at Whitby for most of the last 3 decades and this small excavation led by Tony Willmott was intended to answer a few questions that earlier works had thrown up. In particular the uncovering of a stone founded structure in the middle of the Anglian cemetery, that may be the remains of an early chapel.


Stone founded structure in the middle of the Anglian cemetery, Whitby

…..Whitby is a very evocative site, especially in the fog..


Whitby Abbey in a sea fog

There has been some speculation in recent months in both the archaeological and UK national press as to whether there are enough professional archaeologists currently available to meet the challenge of imminent superstructure projects (the HS2 rail link in particular). At Whitby we bucked the trend completely in that regard, where the accumulated archaeological experience of our 10 person crew exceeded 300 years!! And I wasn’t even in the top 5 !!


Several centuries of archaeological experience in a single trench at Whitby


The famous English Heritage site teapot….if enamel could talk that teapot could tell a tale or tw

Virtually straight after Whitby I was back in the field on another EH project, this time  in West Wiltshire. This was part of the National Archaeological Identification Survey (NAIS), a project where we were undertaking archaeological evaluation on features recognised by aerial photography and map survey.


West Wilts archaeology

I won’t go into detail about this project as its results are still being analysed, (My Day of Archaeology work is looking at records from the excavations right now)…. other than to say that it gave the opportunity to look at the number of different period and type sites to the west of Salisbury Plain. It has been intensive but interesting work. It clearly got all too much for one digger who admitted that he had dreamt I was assaulting him with a wheelbarrow, something that would be highly unlikely to happen in real life….


What do archaeologists dream about? Wheelbarrows as instruments of abuse apparently….

…Being out in Wiltshire for the past 10 weeks gave me the opportunity to wear another EH hat and act as a steward for the summer Solstice celebration at Stonehenge. English Heritage allow free access to the stones over the night of the Solstice and within reason folk are able to pretty do as they wish providing of course that it doesn’t affect the monument or its setting.


Celebrating the solstice Stonehenge, June 2014

It was great fun and I recommend it to anyone (Not least as it saves you the cost of an extremely expensive entry ticket to Stonehenge)….

…who knows where next years blog will come from. I am returning to Wiltshire in a couple of weeks to assist on a university field school, but after that….?


High Angle Fire

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Panoramic view of the Mark I HAF gun carriage emplacement. Photo by Hugh Corley.

Warning – this contains a lot about big guns and concrete.

A small part of my job with English Heritage is running occasional tours of Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, the remarkable coastal fortification where our team is based. Up until 1974 it was occupied by the Royal Marines, and traces of their occupation and work remain everywhere around us. I’ve been here so long that I’ve absorbed some knowledge of the Fort, its history and development. Hence my role as a part-time guide.

We will shortly be running a tour for the Palmerston Forts Society, and in September we will be hosting Heritage Open Days, so in preparation for these events we thought we should add interest to the tours by clearing the long-abandoned High Angle Fire battery. This is a small battery located outside the main body of the Fort; the gun pits had become almost entirely engulfed by bramble growth, to the extent that nearly all of their details were hidden. This would be the first chance that we’ve ever had to see them properly exposed. The overgrown emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage

We know a lot about the battery thanks to the work of David Moore, an historian who runs the excellent Victorian Forts and Artillery website. He has uncovered the history of the battery, showing that it was built from 1890 to 1894, using older 9-inch rifled muzzle-loading guns (from the 1860s) on special high angle mountings. The theory was that shells fired from such guns could plunge onto the relatively lightly-armoured decks of attacking ships, which would have to anchor to bombard the Portsmouth Naval Dockyard effectively. A small number of trial carriages were built to test the idea, and two of these, the Mark I and Mark II, were then installed in the purpose-built concrete emplacements at Fort Cumberland. Only one of each carriage was ever made, so our emplacements are unique, and the differences in carriage designs is reflected in the differences between the two emplacements. An example of the Mark IV carriage, which was used in a small number of batteries, can be seen on the Victorian Forts and Artillery website.
Rapid advances in the design of naval ships and artillery during this period meant that the battery was obsolete by 1905, and disarmed by 1907.

Access to the battery was by means of a tunnel built under the counterscarp defences of the Fort. Built into the side of the tunnel were the magazines for powder and shells, and there was also storage space for the larger pieces of cannon maintenance and cleaning equipment. The entrance to the HAF battery from the counterscarp wall of the Fort

The eastern emplacement for the Mark 1 carriage retains one of the two derricks used to lift shells to the top of the emplacement, and rails for the trolley which was used to move the shells to the muzzle of the gun. The racer and pivot on which the gun sat had been removed as part of the construction of a later building. The top of the emplacement for the Mark I HAF gun carriage.

The western Mark II emplacement is simpler, as the shell-loading mechanism was built on to the carriage. Emplacement for the Mark II HAF gun carriage.

In the Mark II emplacement, the pivot and racer on which the gun sat survive, partially concealed by the floor and foundations of a later structure. Racer and pivot for Mark II HAF gun carriage

Common to both emplacements are recesses for storing the fuses used to fire the guns, and dial recesses, where information on direction, elevation and charge were displayed, having been transmitted by wire from a Fire Control point on the ramparts of the Fort. There was also a bunker-like telephone shelter built into the concrete wall between the emplacements, along with cartridge recesses, where small quantities of gunpowder could be safely stored close to the guns. Cartridge recess and traces of rifle rack

Behind the guns was a brick building with a reinforced concrete roof, marked on the drawings as the artillery group store. The building is derelict but survives reasonably well. Artillery Group Store

There is plenty of evidence for later activity on the site; at some point after the removal of the guns, structures have been built into both emplacements, and other buildings were added to what had become, by the 1970s, a works compound for the Property Services Agency which maintained government and military buildings in the Portsmouth area. This continued into the 1980s, after which the site of the battery was locked and abandoned, although it is now home to birds, lizards and a large family of foxes.

By clearing a very small proportion of the rampant vegetation we have shown that the remains of the battery are relatively well-preserved, and their significance is enhanced by the documentary information provided by David Moore. We were lucky to have David visit us yesterday when I was giving a tour of the battery to my colleagues based at the Fort, and he was able to answer all the difficult questions that would have stumped me.

I’ve enjoyed showing colleagues around the last day or so, and look forward to showing this battery to visitors on Heritage Open Days. We can ensure that it is included in the new condition survey that is due to be carried out later this year. In the meantime, back to the day job and the overdue book chapters that really aren’t writing themselves.

Excavating an Early 20th Century Mikveh at Strawbery Banke Museum

Strawbery Banke is a living museum consisting of restored houses, exhibits, and historic landscapes and gardens of the many generations who settled in Portsmouth, NH from the late 17th to the mid-20th century.  Strawbery Banke’s archaeologist Alix Martin held the 27th field school this summer at the museum, which consisted of myself and one other student along with an intern and a lot of quite  interesting and funny volunteers.  We were looking for an early 20th century Jewish ritual bath, otherwise known as a mikveh, in the buried foundation of a house built between 1898 and 1904.  The house was torn down in the sixties, so all that was left was a few bricks outlining where the old foundation would have been and a strawberry patch that sat right on top of where the house would have been.

We were fairly certain that the mikveh was indeed in the foundation of the house, as we had oral histories describing the use of the mikveh by Temple Israel and the Hebrew Ladies Society in Portsmouth (both organizations owned the house at one time).  We also had verbal confirmation of the bath’s location by the man who used to live in the house as a boy who still lives in Portsmouth.  He remembered the mikveh being in one corner of the foundation, yet when a geophysical survey was done on the foundation, an anomaly was found in the opposite corner.  It looked like it would be a close battle between science and memory.

We began by opening up two units, a 1 x 1 meter unit in the area which yielded the anomaly on the geophysical survey and a 2 x 3 meter unit in the opposite side of the foundation.  We then had to transplant all the strawberries from the units we opened up into new locations.  Our first layer was then, of course, strawberry compost which was wonderfully light and fluffy and easy to screen.  After we got through that relatively shallow layer, we got into the heavier, rocky fill that had been used to fill the house in when it had been demolished.  The fill had quite a few interesting artifacts, including mostly glass, ceramic, and a whole lot of brick.  We did uncover a few intact artifacts, like a 2 oz Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle from Portland, Maine, and a Fire King ovenware saucer dating to the fifties.

Christina Errico, a field school student, displays an intact Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle she recovered from the fill above the mikveh.

Christina Errico, a field school student, displays an intact Foss Liquid Fruit Flavor bottle she recovered from the fill above the mikveh.

By the third day, one of the volunteers came down on what looked like the very edge of what could have been the mikveh, revealing a row of glistening white glazed bricks. Surprisingly, it wasn’t where the former house occupant had said he thought it was.  We quickly expanded the 1 x 1 meter unit an additional 1 meter to the east and by Friday, we had uncovered another portion of the bath that included the drain.  Now we had confirmation that this was indeed the bottom of the bath and not simply a step (traditional mikvehs have seven steps leading into them).  We then opened up two more units, one to the north and south of the unit with the drain, and when we reached the mikveh  in those units we were able to measure the bottom to be about 5.5 x 4 feet.

Instead of closing out the second excavation block (the 2 x 3 meter block that didn’t yield the mikveh), we decided to continue digging down in a 1 x 1 meter unit in the northeast corner to see what else we could discover.  We knew there was a barn on the property before the house was built, and when we dug down past the house foundation we discovered an ashy layer, leading us to believe the barn burned down or was collapsed and was burned in place.  We continued past the barn to reveal an eighteenth century midden chock full of animal bone and ceramics, including a lot of pipe stems.

Finds from the 18th century midden, including ceramics and two pieces of pipe stem.

Finds from the 18th century midden, including hand painted & shell edged pearlware and two pieces of pipe stem.

The unique aspect of museum archaeology is the opportunity for interaction with the public.  Our site was in the middle of a strawberry patch smack dab in the middle of the museum grounds.  The garden tour, which runs every day, passed right in front of our site, so naturally we had a lot of foot traffic and interested museum goers.  As an undergraduate student majoring in archaeology and considering museum education as a master’s degree, interacting with the public was an extremely gratifying and valuable experience.  In general, everyone was very interested in what we were doing, although a few people thought we had planted the mikveh there as some sort of museum exhibit.  We also had a Jewish family stop by the site who were very interested in the mikveh and who were a great source of information for us as well.

As for the future of the mikveh, there are no set plans right now.  The field school is now over and we have begun cleaning all the artifacts.  There is a possibility of creating a temporary exhibit so the public can see the dig, but eventually the bath will most likely be filled back in for its own protection and a more permanent exhibit may be installed with the mikveh tiles and bricks we were able to remove from the site, and other related artifacts.  You can find out more information on the Strawbery Banke Archaeology webpage, where you can also find the archaeology blog:  https://www.strawberybanke.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=24&Itemid=80

-Christina Errico, undergraduate field school student

Objects, Advice, and a Bit of Thinking…

A day in my life as an archaeologist and finds specialist for English Heritage

As one of the small team of archaeologists within the Intervention and Analysis Division of English Heritage, based at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, and working 80% of full time due to the three young herberts who more than fill a million percent of the rest of time, my days are always full, and rarely the same. Technology, determination and flexible bosses enable me to cram a fair amount into a week.

My day starts at around 5am with a reading of emails, then the next couple of hours are given over to lunchboxes, breakfasts, hens, cats, dogs, hamsters, after a smidge of yoga before the madness starts. Throughout this time I also tend to listen to the radio or the reading or the violin practice, while catching up on my Twitter feed (@Nicola_Hembrey), which is great for archaeological news (and a little bit of gossip!). Once the school runs are done I dash to the office, and I’m usually sitting at my desk with a fennel and ginger tea by 9.15am. I have a super view out over Hayling Island, and on a clear day I can hear, Table 2, your lunch is ready, from the pub over the stretch of water! I’ve been at the Fort for thirteen years and I love working within such a diverse, committed and interesting group of colleagues, although the annual ten months of horizontal rain can be a something of a trial.

Fabulous office! Sharp eyes will note the obligatory boxes of finds and X-Rays. Sadly the shelves and stacks of books, and the lovely view, are out of shot…

Yesterday I was – unusually – able to give myself over to an almost entire day of concentrating on one thing; the middle poster above is taken from the site I project manage, the Roman settlement opposite Silbury Hill, which we evaluated in the late summer of 2010, and for which the report is almost complete, hence a day of reading all the specialist contributions, and polishing up my own! I have written the artefacts report, and together with my colleague Vicky Crosby, who led the excavations, I’m working on the overview. I’ve been doing a great deal of thinking and reading in recent weeks about any ritual aspect to the site. We hope to submit the report to the local journal, the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine,  in good time before the end of August deadline. The project team have been brilliant in getting this to publication so quickly – in archaeological terms at least! – while under considerable pressure and uncertainty from our recent round of restructuring.

Today, though, I don’t have the luxury of getting back to the Later Silbury report, as I have to finish off the list that I’ve been mentally carting around all week, to avoid next week spiralling away before I’m even out of this one. The illustrations need a final check. My mountain of library books needs renewing.  I’ve been asked to write a caption for a photograph for a colleague’s memorial event leaflet. I have to write the final section of my performance review. Timelog doesn’t complete itself. I desperately need to catch up on reading the Assessment Report for a project which I have been asked project manage following the redundancy of another colleague, a process which has been difficult for all of us, and the effects of which will be felt for a long while. I whizz down to our stash of outreach material, to find a few objects to donate to a project that wants to bury artefacts at sea for 25 years. I also reply to someone who is working on the update of the professional side of the EH website, after spending an hour writing comments on the pieces of text that he has sent me.

Current reading, mostly concerned with the theorising of artefacts. Books strapped up in the old-fashioned way make me very happy…

Last year I was able to write up the small assemblage of finds that came from our work as part of the Silbury Hill Conservation Project, and I was also lucky enough to revisit the finds from previous interventions in the area. The Monograph text is currently with our publications team. One of the most interesting objects was an unusual copper-alloy bracelet which came from the base of a Roman ditch, but was of Later Bronze Age or Earlier Iron Age date. This sent me off on a long thought process about the significance of heirloom artefacts – those old objects that are important to people because of their association with another person, or an idea, or a particular time in their life. It made me wonder whether getting to grips with this idea from a present perspective could illuminate our thinking about the importance of old objects in the past; something nigh-on impossible to get to grips with within the archaeological record. This led to the beginnings of a project that I’m hoping to get off the ground with a few colleagues; a public survey, with a large social media element, in which people can post details of their object, and from which we can analyse the data later. I made a phone call, to see if there had been any response yet to our proposal; nothing so far. Hopefully it will happen. Keep your eyes peeled for Objects Of My Affection.

Finally while in the office I had a quick look over my website. I’m secretary and web editor for the Roman Finds Group, a forum for all those with an interest in the subject (do check us out online; we’re really very good). I added the details of our forthcoming meeting at the British Museum in April 2013, in which attendees can visit the Pompeii exhibition as part of the very reasonable conference fee (sorry, ad over now!). I’m lucky that EH gives me a small amount of time in which I can sit on this committee.

I leave in time for the return school run, and spend the next couple of hours listening to stories of everyone’s day and making supper, while keeping my emails (and Twitter!) open from the iPad in the kitchen. It’s the best way to stay on top of things.

I then spend a while re-reading comments that I wrote earlier in the week, on a finds report within a site publication which we have funded through our grants programme, National Heritage Protection Commissions. The report had been a long time coming, but turned out to be really well researched, well thought out and well written. I can easily see it becoming a ‘go-to’ text for finds reports when it’s published. If I have the space within my deadlines I like to write my comments and then leave them a day or so before sending, just to make sure that I haven’t missed anything.

Working from home, commenting on a lengthy finds report. I don’t normally print out this much paper! Note the extremely hi-tech phone…

Finally, I respond to an email from the Activity Lead of the Ploughzone Activity Team, which has recently been formed as part of the National Heritage Protection Plan. He needs all team members to comment on a proposal. Almost all of our communication is by email to keep costs down, as we come from EH offices all over the country. I add it to my mental list for next week, and mark the email unread, to remind myself.

Later I’ll do some more reading, and thinking, if I don’t fall asleep first.

So, there it is, a typical day in the life of this (lucky) archaeologist. I seem to have got all the way to the end of this post without including a picture of either an object, or myself, which is probably something of an oversight (particularly the former!). Here’s a happy picture of me (at front, red shoes) with the gorgeous site team at Later Silbury, instead.


Nicola Hembrey, Archaeologist (Artefact Analysis), English Heritage  @Nicola_Hembrey

29 vi 2012

Communicating Archaeology

I was reminded by the blustery wet south-easterly tail wind on my cycle to work this morning that summer has yet to arrive to this part of the world. However, as an Archaeological Information Systems Manager for English Heritage based down in Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth, I’m mostly office based so the weather is only an issue when I venture out to get a cup of coffee.

It has finally become apparent to me that communication is one of my main focuses. I am always asked what period or location I specialise in, the truth is I don’t take this approach to archaeology. My passion is for archaeology and archaeologists, how we communicate with each other and how we communicate with the public (who’s support we depend to continue doing what we do).

So back to my day…

After arriving in my office and making a cup of coffee I turned my attention to finalising a paper I’ve been writing called ‘Can you hack (the) communication?’ I gave a presentation on this at CAA in Southampton (http://caaconference.org/) (it’s a computers and archaeology conference) back in March. This paper looks at how we as archaeologists capture digital information in the field and particular my perspective on the experience of implementing a digital recording system for archaeological excavation called Intrasis to our teams. We’ve used the system now on our last few projects.

Simple location plan with trenches to south of road and Silbury Hill to the north

This is a screenshot of a map of the excavations of the Roman Settlement across the road from Silbury Hill.

As main ringleader of social media at the fort, I started receiving my colleagues’ posts for Day of Archaeology by mid-morning. That I know of two others are participating, one from our zooarchaeologists and another from @nicola_hembrey, our finds archaeologists.

Through out the day, like most days I’m keeping an eye on my Twitter feed for good content and information @hscorley. I also am keeping an eye on the @EHArchaeology twitter account which I am primary curator. This account has been active for about 3 years now and I’m amazed how popular it has become.

Looking at Twitter today, it is of course, abuzz with Day of Archaeology content. Particular praise is due to London Archaeological Archive & Research Centre (LAARC)  for the LAARC Lottery. If only I had thought if it myself. You pick a number for a shelf, they then go and find what’s on that shelf and blog about it. I like this for several reasons, not only is it interactive and raises awareness about their archive but it also means no one has to think to hard about what to write about, it’s all there just waiting to written about.

As my day wraps up I’m going to prepare to face the elements again, the wind does not appear to have shifted and despite a bit of sunlight earlier it looks like it might rain.

Hugh Corley


Paddy O’Hara

Blogging not showcasing to the public another sad reflection on government austerity.

I work for Archaeological Projects at English Heritage based in Portsmouth and in the last 24 hours I have delivered to our Atcham store near Shrewsbury the archive of excavations undertaken by OAU on our behalf the subject of the excavation the east parterre to see its restoration www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/witley-court-and-gardens/Witley Court.

Crossed the Midlands to attend the steering group supporting the wonderful NottinghamCaves project must see (www.youtube.com/nottinghamcaves )

I am writing this blog at Newport Pagnell services before going on to another property in EH’s care WrestPark/for a meeting to discuss this autumn’s excavation part of our teams contribution in support of representing the historic gardens part of a wider Lottery funded scheme to revitalise the site for the public’s enjoyment. www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/wrest-park

Freezing on a Summer’s day

It’s a beautiful sunny morning here in Portsmouth and quite warm already. We’re in the English Heritage Archaeological Conservation laboratory. Just to cool down a bit we opened up our freeze drier to weigh some wood. It’s -30°C in the chamber! In there we’ve got barrel staves from the Stirling Castle shipwreck, a Medieval set of stocks from Barking Abbey and Roman bowl fragments from Birdoswald fort.

All the wood was found wet and has been treated with Polyethylene Glycol before it was frozen and placed inside the vacuum freeze drier. The freeze drier removes the water in the wood via sublimation (where the frozen water is transformed to the gas state without going through the liquid state). This water is collected in the small chamber as ice . We take the wood out every 2nd day and weigh it. The wood is dry when it stops losing weight. Once it’s dry it can be handled, studied or displayed.

Weighing one of the Stirling Castle barrel staves

The small condenser chamber with all ice removed from the wood.

You can find out more about conserving wet wood via:


Karla Graham and Angela Karsten

Learning New Skills

I’m learning XML (eXtensive Mark-up Language) today as part of Oxford’s Digital Humanities Summer School.  The skills I’m learning will allow me to share the data from our databases with different databases developed by different organizations.  By sharing our data with others it will be possible to do new types of research which will hopefully lead to new discoveries.

Archaeology creates an incredible amount of data.  I manage databases that allow a variety of different types of archaeologists to see this data and update it with the results of their work.

I’m the Archaeological Information Systems Manager for the Archaeological Project, Science and Archives Teams for English Heritage based at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth, UK and that was my day.