Final Days: Silchester ‘Town Life’ project 2014


Silchester TownLifers!

Silchester TownLifers!

This is the 18th and final season of the Silchester ‘Town Life’ project, and we thought we would share one of our final days with you! This project began in 1997 and has run seasonally every summer since. In 18 seasons we have introduced more than 5000 people to the delights of field archaeology, and have trained over 1500 University of Reading students in archaeological field techniques. Our students have spent nearly 2 million hours on this project…and their collective efforts will bring this excavation to a close on Saturday 16th August 2014. I am Amanda Clarke, Director of the Silchester Field School and Assistant Director of the Town Life project…..this is my life!

Amanda doing tour

Amanda On Tour

This season we have up to 150 people on site every day, including 40 staff members – all very necessary for keeping the show on the road. An excavation this size is a mix of people of all ages, backgrounds and abilities……an archaeological melting pot. They are all characters in their own way, and each has a story to tell. (more…)

Another busy day

Hello from Bob Clarke. Well another day of contrasts for me. The first few hours of this morning was taken up with planning the curriculum for the apprentice training school at Boscombe Down. I should say, for those who are not familiar with me, that like most archaeologists I have fingers in a number of pies. Since last year I have been promoted to Curriculum Manager – I’m responsible for the success of all students studying aeronautical engineering at the station. I am also the archaeologist on site – connected to the conservation group – an MoD sponsored post. Part of the Ministry’s requirements for Boscombe Down is that it has an archaeologist available to advise on ground works, undertake small-scale excavation and watching briefs and co-ordinate works and mitigation with outside agencies, contractors and official bodies. Sounds like fun but can be a right royal pain in the backside on occasion.
Today I have been finishing writing the watching brief sections of a 4.5km trench for essential services I followed recently. This involved not only me but Wessex Archaeology and an external contractor. The work took just over twelve weeks and turned up some interesting material. By 2 o’clock I was back home. This afternoon has been taken up with prepping for a community excavation I am planning in August. The project design was submitted to the County Archaeologist and accepted last week, so now it’s all hands to the pump. The dig is to be co-ordinated between my group (Broad Town Archaeology) and the Wiltshire Archaeology Field Group from the Wiltshire Museum, Devizes. Basically one of our local residents was removing trees from the front of her property when she discovered some walls. Luckily she had studied archaeology at night school (delivered by me as it happened at the University of Bath) some years ago, putting theory into practice she recognised what was there and called the County Archaeologist – who called me and asked if we could help – naturally I said yes. I am currently offering places on the dig, free of charge, to local residents and members of the Wiltshire Museum. So this afternoon I have been checking all the paperwork – context forms, small finds that sort of thing – ready for next month.
And after that it’s more work on the PhD thesis. I’m intending to submit by next September. Currently I’m writing the archaeological chapter before heading into the theoretical aspects of abandonment process – the key point of the work.
So today has been much the same as last year, a mixture of commercial, community and academic archaeology. Wouldn’t have it any other way. And this year’s quote from the good, late, professor is ‘just because it isn’t there now – doesn’t mean it wasn’t there then’. I’m not sure I’d get away with that as an argument in the thesis!

Molecular Archeology Puts Artifacts in Perspective

Buried inside the Earth, lay secrets. Archeologists piece together histories often lost to time as they unearth human remains and their long-lost possessions.

Where archeologists exhume secrets from the soil, molecular archeologists uncover secrets lying inside human remains. By piecing together ancient DNA, molecular archeologists can more definitively answer questions about our past.

“Some people in my field consider themselves to be molecular archaeologists as we tend to work with archaeological remains and use an archeological context to help infer the genetic patterns we see,” said Ripan Malhi, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois and affiliate of the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB).

While the day-to-day rigor of being a professor may not seem illustrious, over the course of the year, Malhi’s lab makes amazing discoveries.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer.

Ripan Malhi is a molecular archeologist at the University of Illinois. Photo by Brian Stauffer. ©

The Golden Era of ancient DNA

“We can do things now that we haven’t been able to do before,” Malhi said. “I like to say that ancient DNA is in a golden era. When I was a graduate student working on ancient DNA, it probably would’ve taken me years to sequence one complete mitochondrial genome and now we can do that in a week or so.”

Today Malhi’s lab studies complete genomes as well as DNA passed down from mothers to their offspring (called mitochondrial DNA) and from fathers to their offspring (called the y chromosome) to infer the evolutionary history of populations and species. Currently, research in the lab is split into two research areas: the evolutionary history of Native Americans and evolutionary genetics of non-human primates.

Last year, his lab found an ancestral link between ancient remains and their living descendants.

“The community members were really happy about the results because their oral histories have said that they’ve been there for a very long period of time as well,” Malhi said. “Now through scientific and DNA data we are able to show this connection in a different way. Being able to show that connection with something that they’ve known to be true was really satisfying.”

While most archeology doesn’t include DNA analyses, they can be vital to distinguish cultural processes from biological processes, Malhi said.

In the past, movement of arrowheads or pottery from one region to another indicated that a population might have moved. But in reality, Malhi said, a number of other factors could explain the distribution of artifacts.

“By combining DNA evidence with this cultural data we can distinguish whether people are moving or cultural artifacts are being traded from one community to the next,” Malhi said. “Using DNA evidence, we can show how genetic variants moved across the geographic landscape after neighboring groups intermarried.”

This work does more than solidify community backgrounds and establish migration patterns. It can also illustrate evolutionary process and show us how we may evolve with other organisms. One of Malhi’s students is studying how infectious diseases brought over after European contact affected Native Americans’ genomes.

How molecular archeology works

First, Malhi works with Native American communities to find out what questions they would like to answer. It’s a first step that scientists have often skipped in the past.

“They know their own history better than I’ll ever know it,” Malhi said. “They can look at the genetic patterns and give us ideas about what those patterns may represent.”

Malhi interacts with Native American communities and museum curators to discuss what the community members hope to learn from DNA analysis, the questions he wants to address, and how best to extract DNA from the ancestral remains.

Next Malhi visits the communities or museums to pick up the remains. Sometimes he has the chance to be onsite during the excavation as the archeologists collect the remains with gloved hands to prevent modern DNA contamination, from their skin cells and microbiome.

At Malhi’s lab, the remains undergo a surface decontamination to ensure that modern DNA is not included in the final analysis. Then they drill out a sample about the size of a cavity from the bone or tooth. The sample is ground up to a fine dust then sequenced and analyzed.

Finally Malhi is able to look for genetic patterns by combining the new results with published results from various databases and combines that information with other anthropological information, such as the community’s oral histories or cultural artifacts from the archeological site.

Today molecular anthropologists like Malhi can turn DNA fragments that are only around 200 or so base pairs in length into a complete human genome made up of about three billion base pairs.

It’s more than a job

From interacting with Native American communities to seeing his students begin successful careers, Malhi said his job is really satisfying.

“It’s always fun to go back to communities and report results and see how people take those results and incorporate that knowledge and then ask new questions,” Malhi said. “I am now at this stage in my career where I have my students presenting at meetings.  They spent years working really hard developing their research. When they put it all together and present it and the audience gets excited about it and the students are excited about it—that’s a really good feeling, too.”

Malhi also values being a part of the Summer Internship for Native Americans in Genomics (SING) workshop, which facilitate discussions about how genomic research is conducted and to create a support network for Native American students in the sciences.

Malhi earned a Master’s degree and a doctorate in anthropology at the University of California at Davis. He also took molecular biology, population genetics, and other biological courses to complement the anthropology curriculum. Today a student interested in this field can pursue graduate degrees in biological or molecular anthropology.

“I recall hearing about a genetic study where an Italian population did not get heart disease because they had a natural genetic variant, and I realized there’s lots of genetic variation out there that can be interesting and useful,” Malhi said. “Then I learned about connections with history and how you can infer human history from DNA variation, and I was hooked.”

The Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) is dedicated to interdisciplinary genomic research related to health, energy, agriculture and the environment. The Institute’s cadre of world-class scientists, collaborative laboratories, and state-of-the-art equipment create an environment that inspires discovery and stimulates bioeconomic development at the University of Illinois. For more information about the SING workshop, visit

Gloucester Blackfriars

Hi everyone I’m Heather Sebire, Property Curator for English Heritage in the west of England. My day started with the usual early morning checking of emails and then I paid a site visit to Gloucester Blackfriars which is in EH guardianship. It is one of the most complete surviving friaries of the Dominican  ‘back friars’ in the country  and we have recently undertaken work to enable more of the buildings to be used for concerts and other performing arts. It was magical as there was a rehearsal going on for the Three Choirs festival in the church itself and one almost expected to see the friars appearing at any minute in the cloister.

That was followed by a real treat. I visited Arthur’s stone neolithic burial chamber near Bredwardine in Herefordshire

and then went on to visit the excavations at Dorstone led by Professor Julian Thomas from Manchester University and County Archaeologist Dr Keith Ray. This exciting excavation has revealed large post holes from a neolithic building and a serious of cists which appear to be associated with a long mound. Among the finds were a beautiful polished stone axe, a polished flint axe and a beautiful flint knife. Here is Julian Thomas holding the flint knife.

There is an open day at the site on Sunday 28th (there is a Facebook page I understand).

Tony Fleming, recently retired Inspector of Ancient Monuments with EH was also there visiting (looking very relaxed) with his wife. Wonderful to see great archaeology in action on this special day.

Julian Thomas at Dorstone excavation 26th July 2013

Julian Thomas at Dorstone excavation 26th July 2013


Dorstone excavations 2013

Dorstone excavations 2013

Then I had to head for home and back to the emails-hope you all had a great day!

Archaeology, Animation & Visual Effects

June 27, 2012

I’m a  freshman majoring in Animation and Visual Effects in the Digital Media Program, Westphal College, at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA.  Today was my second day on a 10 week STAR Scholars Fellowship using archaeological evidence. The majority of my time will be spent modeling virtual furniture appropriate for the virtual interpretation of the 18th century Dexter House which was excavated in Independence National Historical Park. To better understand how the house may have been furnished Jason Kirk, Professor Muschio and I today visited the park to meet with Chief Curator, Karie Diethorn; Chief Historian and Park Archaeologist, Jed Levin and Deborah Miller, Park Archaeologist, to seek advice and guidance regarding appropriate furnishings.

NPS Archaeology Lab

Being new to the project, I didn’t have much to contribute to the meeting, other than take in all the information that was being communicated. The main discussion centered on where to find artifacts of the time period to use as models for Dexter house furnishings. I was impressed by the excitement and passion all expressed toward the project. The collaboration quickly came together as ideas flew back and forth, developing what would be in the house, and how it might look.  Field trips to historical sites and museums were planned to study suitable furnishings. The project still has a long way to go, but hopefully we can give people a historically accurate glimpse into the past using today’s technology and the expertise of Park archaeologists, curators and historians.

Joseph Tomasso

Freshman, Digital Media Program, STAR Scholar, Pennoni Honors College

Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

A Day at George Washington’s Ferry Farm

I spent my day today at Ferry Farm, the boyhood home of George Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  George lived in this home for most of his childhood, and it remained in his family for quite some time after he moved out.  Archaeology at Ferry Farm has been taking place for many years in an attempt to create a better understanding of the land and the life of the Washington’s during their occupation of it.  This year’s excavation is taking place behind the Washington home site (excavated in 2008), and our goal is to uncover the location of the outbuildings that supposedly stood there.  I just completed a five week field school at this site and had such an incredible experience that I elected to return as a volunteer for the rest of the summer.  Today was my first day back, and I was eager to start digging!

Upon my arrival I was immediately assigned a new unit to begin excavating with my good friend and digging partner, Victoria Garcia.  This unit is located in a particularly fascinating section of the site, as several odd soil anomalies and a myriad of strange artifacts have been discovered there.  Artifacts have included plastic toys, Civil War-era bullets, various historic ceramics and most of a porcelain teacup.  I have been very interested in all of the excitement that this particular area has stirred up over the past couple of weeks, so getting the opportunity to dig here was a real treat for me!  We began by chopping up the topsoil with our shovels and removing it in small squares, which took significantly less time than I thought it would!  Upon removing the layer of matted down grass and dirt, we came across a metal pipe that was sticking directly out of the ground.  No one was quite sure what it was, but I am eager to find out as we excavate further!  After removing the top layer, it was time to screen the matted down chunks of grass and dirt for artifacts.  We found a piece of a terracotta pot and some nicely decorated ceramics, but nothing more than that in this layer.

Our unit after removing the topsoil this morning.

While we were screening a group of children from a summer camp program came to visit the site and helped us go through our topsoil.  Ferry Farm is a public archaeology site where guests are encouraged to get their hands dirty at the screens as they learn about our work there, and I always enjoy being able to entertain and educate them.  The kids who joined us were very helpful and I appreciated their enthusiasm, despite the fact that our dirt was terribly difficult to pick through and had close to no artifacts in it!

By the time we were done screening it was time for lunch, and instead of returning to our unit after eating, Victoria and I headed to the lab with our classmates, Ian and Allison.  There, we joined our professor, Dr. Bernard Means, who was scanning Ferry Farm artifacts with his 3D scanner.  The four of us will be getting involved in his scanning project as interns this fall, so today was somewhat of a tutorial and demonstration for us.  The scanner makes 3-dimensional digital copies of artifacts, which can be studied and saved on the computer, and even replicated with a 3D printer!

The pewter spoon with the initials “BW” on it.

He first scanned a pewter spoon that is inscribed with the initials “BW”, which belonged to George’s sister, Betty Washington.  It was amazing to be able to see this piece in person, as I had only ever read about it or seen it in pictures prior to today.  Dr. Means also scanned a lead alloy cloth seal, a small metal hatchet toy, and finally, a Civil War Minie ball bullet that Ian found during our field school.

The Minie ball as it is being scanned.

The scan of the Minie ball as it appears on the monitor.

In all, it was a great day in the field and in the lab!  I love every minute of what I do here, and I feel so lucky to be a part of such a wonderful profession.  I’m glad I could share my experiences at Ferry Farm with everyone here today, and I can’t wait to read what others are up to on this Day of Archaeology!

Open letter to un-invited and unwanted site visitors

I know I am not the only professional archaeologist that deals with members of the public that are curious about archaeology. I encourage questions and interest from people that are genuinely so. Tons of non-professional archaeologists contribute to our understanding of the past through advocacy, volunteer work, fundraising, and good ol’ moral support. Avocational and amateur archaeology groups across the country work side by side with professional archaeologists and organizations. These are great relationships and interactions I enjoy.

One part of my job that I would rather not have to deal with is illegal digging and collecting. I know wishing it away won’t make it go away. I know that education and outreach is the right path to understanding and appreciation. However, there are those individuals that test my patience. We have all met them. These are what I call professional looters. They are not interested in learning about the people that lived in the past. They are not interested in preserving the archaeological record and the knowledge of it for future generations. They are not interested in sharing knowledge. These individuals are interested in “my point is older/bigger/more complete/more rare (fill in the blank) than yours” and “how much is it worth.” These individuals steal from our shared history for the benefit of themselves. I do not like this group of individuals.

I was fortunate this field season to not be inundated with these types of people at our field site. My luck ran out on the afternoon of the last day of actual fieldwork. The encounter was typical as far as talking with looters, yet also very strange. What follows is my “open letter” to the individual I met that day.


Enhancing worn inscriptions and the Day of Archaeology 2012

My name is Tom Goskar and I am one of the organisers of the Day of Archaeology, as well as being a freelance archaeologist who specialises in applying digital techniques to different aspects of the discipline. My day today has been rather mixed, but predictably involved being at the proverbial digital coalface of archaeology in two aspects.

At 8am I checked my email to catch up with the behind-the-scenes talk between the eight organisers of the Day of Archaeology, and log into this website to begin moderating the posts that were by then flowing thick and fast. By 11am I had been on a Google Hangout with Pat and Jess, and we had re-jigged the homepage to make it easier to explore, as well as temporarily excluding posts from last year to highlight the new contributions. It looked much better afterwards. I have been dipping into the website on and off all day, making sure that posts looked good, and expanding and linking the occasional acronym to help readers know what they are. The DoA moderators have been hard at work in the engine room!

In between, for a personal project I have been processing 3D data from a medieval cross close to where I live, here in Penzance, Cornwall, as well as helping to refurbish a soon-to-be-open digital arts space in the town centre.

The Penzance Market Cross, made in the 11th century, is decorated and has many inscriptions. These are very eroded and most people do not notice them. Unless you happen to see the stone in just the right glancing sunlight, the sides of the cross appear to just have some panels of dots and a few lines, not much else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Using photogrammetric techniques, I have been examining the cross to see if how well 3D capture techniques can enhance the inscriptions and decorations, with the aim of comparing my results with drawings made using traditional techniques (rubbings, chalking, torchlit photos).

In the spirit of the Day of Archaeology, below is a working illustration showing the north east elevation of the Market Cross, which I produced for this blog post. In the centre of the image is the cross as the casual visitor may see it. To the left, the colour information has been removed (which can sometimes be distracting), leaving the shape of the stone artificially coloured grey, with a virtual light source moved to show some of the decoration. To the right, a Radiance Scaling shader has been applied, which colours concavities and convexities to help reveal details on the stone.

Penzance Market Cross

Penzance Market Cross, captured in 3D with photogrammetry, and enhanced using digital filters.


As you can see from the Radiance Scaling image to the right, there is definitely more going on than first meets the eye. The figure in the second panel from the top is clearly visible, as are the letters and glyphs in the lower two panels. As I type, I am processing a mesh with a much higher level of detail, and look forward to the results which will be ready in the early hours of tomorrow morning. Comparing the results to the accepted interpretations made by Professor Charles Thomas will be interesting, whether they differ or help to confirm what we already know.

So, my Day of Archaeology has been a busy and varying one, and it’s not over yet. Time to publish this post, and return to the list of posts to publish some more from around the globe, so that we can all show to the world what archaeologists really get up to in our own words. I hope that it helps people today and in the future to understand just how exciting and relevant archaeology is to us all.

You can follow my archaeology musings over at my blog Past Thinking.

A Day of Archaeology at Mission Escambe

Today was pretty much a typical day of fieldwork at Mission San Joseph de Escambe in Molino, Florida.  We are in our fourth field season out at the mission site, which between 1741 and 1761 was home to a small community of Apalachee Indians and a Franciscan friar, along with a small Spanish infantry garrison of 4 men for a decade, and a larger 16-man Spanish cavalry garrison for just over a year. Our crew, consisting of ten students and one professor, gathered as usual at 7:30 a.m. on site to begin work.  The photo essay below will illustrate some of our normal daily activities as we gradually gather more and more information about the mission and its residents during the colonial era.

As shown below, upon arrival at the site, our first task is to unstitch our excavation units from the plastic sheeting covering them, which is carefully sealed with rows of sandbags every afternoon before we go home in order to avoid water damage in case of Florida’s common afternoon and evening thunderstorms.

At the same time, the total station is set up and resectioned for use during the day, fixing the instrument at a known point with respect to our established site grid, and allowing us to take vertical and horizontal measurements in all our active excavation units throughout the day’s work.  Sometimes this must be performed again during the day, especially after lunch when heat and simple gravity may have altered the tilt of the total station.  The photo below shows graduate supervisor Michelle Pigott working with her sister Eileen, volunteering this week at the site.

Before beginning any new work, each unit must be carefully cleaned of all loose dirt that may have fallen in from the walls or ground surface during the stitching operation, and then bags and tags must be labeled for each separate provenience to be excavated, and paperwork filled out before any new dirt can be excavated.  Tools are unpacked and field notebooks updated to record daily site conditions, crew members present, and the objectives of the ongoing work.

Once everything has been properly staged for the day, excavation can begin in each unit, sometimes using flat shovels designed to slice off thin layers of sediment across each unit and provenience, hoping to see soil stains or in situ artifacts before proceeding any deeper.  In the photo below, graduate supervisor Katie Brewer uses a flat shovel to excavate the uppermost deposits in a unit designed to track the course of a stockade wall constructed in 1760 at the site.

More careful excavation requires the use of a trowel in order to exercise greater control over depth and speed of excavation.  The Marshalltown 5-inch pointing trowel is the instrument of choice.  Below, site supervisor Danielle Dadiego excavates a portion of the stockade trench already exposed in her unit.

Below, undergraduate student Nick Simpson uses his trowel to remove loose dirt next to a profile excavated through a burned clay floor, possibly associated with the 1761 Creek Indian raid that destroyed the mission community.

Our next post will show more scenes from our day.

A Lego Colosseum and Other Stories

I am a Classical Archaeologist at the University of Sydney in Australia, and work as the Manager of Education and Public Programs at the Nicholson Museum, Australia’s largest collection of Old World archaeological material.  So my ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ is spent like most others – trying to balance between museum education and archaeological research on the project I am working: excavations of a Hellenistic-Roman period theatre site in Paphos in Cyprus.