project director

A king and a cardinal

The day started early when I arrived at the office at 7.30am to my desk in the planning department. Up on the 11th floor of our aging glass and concrete building I opened my email and commented on the possible archaeological implications to a planning application. It’s all fairly standard and corporate stuff. The day then got more corporate when, at 10am, all the folk in the planning service gathered for a briefing in the central part of our office. It is all about what the service is to do in light of Government policy, how the service needs to improve the time in which planning applications are to be processed, and what may happen in light of further cuts to Government grants.

From here on in the day perked-up considerably:

As some of you may recall Leicester was the scene of some attention a six months ago when it was officially announced that the skeleton found some five months earlier, in a blast of publicity, was indeed that of Richard III. It all goes to show that you never really know what is buried beneath the surface. In the early stages of this project, some 18 months before, I recall saying to Richard Buckley, the Project Director. ‘You do realise that there is no chance of finding him. Most likely his remains will have gone long ago, but at least we may get to know something about the long lost friary.’

How wrong can you be? Not long after the trial trenching started, the bucket of the mechanical excavator encountered human remains. However, it was a few days and a lot more digging before the excavators realised that this skeleton was in roughly the location described in contemporary documents; in the west end (choir) of the chancel of the church, and returned to carefully exhume the remains in such a way as to preserve as much of the evidence as possible before it was taken to the lab.

Following the confirmation that the remains were those of the infamous (or should that be much-maligned?) King, the City Mayor acted swiftly and purchased a disused school next to the now famous car park. The school is to be transformed into a new Richard III visitor centre which is due to be opened next Spring. There is to be an entrance lobby to the visitor centre, occupying part of what was formerly the school yard. So the people who excavated the site last year returned to the site a couple of weeks ago. All that was seen of the chancel last year were a couple of 2m wide slots, this time they have investigated the majority of the chancel, giving them the chance to clear-up some of their previous misapprehensions and to recover three of the skeletons identified last year, so that they can be analysed in the lab.

The previous day the widely publicised lead coffin and the remains it contained had been removed from its resting place in a stone coffin. A host of VIPs had also visit the site on that day (the City Mayor, the Secretary of State at the DCMS and various people who decide on the City of Culture bid). I had decided to avoid this circus and take, Mike, our Head of Service to see the site. I took Mike onto the viewing platform. But the crowd was such that it was difficult to see much, so I took him round to the site itself, and got Matt, the site Director, to explain the site to him. Matt’s team were a vastly experienced group, and had done a great job exposing the remains and lifting the bodies.

The afternoon was spent on my only substantive contribution to the Festival of Archaeology. I crossed town to Leicester Abbey, where the Parks Service was hosting its own activity afternoon and where Cardinal Wolsey is believed to have been laid to rest. After spending some time chatting to some of the visitors, I gave a guided tour of the Abbey ruins. It was a lovely, sunny afternoon and the group I was guiding was a wonderfully varied group comprised of schoolchildren, young women with babies and toddlers in buggies, several adults and the usual smattering of retired people. It was a pleasure to share my enthusiasm for the site with them.


VCU 3D at George Washington’s Boyhood Home

by Bernard K. Means, project director, Virtual Curation Laboratory

VCU students Alison Curran and Ian Salata participate in the Day of Archaeology by excavating at Ferry Farm.

I chose to spend my Day of Archaeology at George Washington’s Boyhood Home, located in Fredericksburg, Virginia.  Archaeologists working here have uncovered traces of human occupation dating back thousands of years, but understandably have been focused on the period associated with George Washington’s tenancy.  George moved here at the age of 6 with his mother Mary, his father Augustine, and several family members.  A team of archaeologists is working this year–as they have in past years–seeking to broaden our understanding of George Washington’s childhood–a rather poorly documented time period.

VCU students Ashley McCuistion and Victoria Garcia look on as the “BW” spoon is being scanned.

My goal today is to use my NextEngine scanner and create digital models of archaeological objects recovered at Ferry Farm, including items recovered this year by Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) students as part of their recently completed field school, as well as objects recovered in past years from  contexts definitely associated with the Washington family occupation.  These objects are categorized as “small finds” or unique objects that might be lost in traditional archaeological mass data analyses.  For a recent article on small finds at Ferry Farm, and how they can broaden our understanding of the Washington family’s personal and social worlds, I recommend Ferry Farm archaeologist Laura Galke’s (2009) article “The Mother of the Father of Our Country: Mary Ball Washington’s Genteel Domestic Habits” Northeast Historical Archaeology 38:29-48.  I began the day by scanning a pewter spoon handle with the initials “BW”–representing George Washington’s sister, Betty.  This spoon and its significance for socializing Betty in gentry-class society is discussed by Galke (2009).

“BW” spoon as it is being scanned.

The spoon actually proved more challenging than expected because it is thin, dark, and the design is shallow.  But, a little fine powder coating and a long scan seems to have resulted in a nice digital model.

The second artifact we scanned is a lead alloy cloth seal that resembles late 16th century AD examples from France, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. We also scanned a Civil War Minie ball found by VCU student Ian Salata during this year’s field school.  An interesting artifact that we scanned was a toy hatchet made of lead dropped by a tourist visiting the place where some claim (erroneously) that George Washington chopped down the cherry tree!!!


A day in the life of the Archaeological Research Project at Dobri Dyal, Bulgaria

On Friday 29th July 2011 I was working as site surveyor on a site at Dobri Dyal, a Roman fortified hilltop camp believed to date from the early 6th century AD and located in the central region of Bulgaria approximately 200km east of the capital Sofia. The Dobri Dyal project has about 50 participants mostly students from Nottingham and Cardiff universities but also with a smattering of students from Edinburgh, UCL a couple from Oxbridge and some from other places. There are a dozen or so supervisors, mainly professional archaeologists, covering all the main field functions, finds and environmental management, surveying and digital documentation, under the direction of Professor Andrew Poulter of the University of Nottingham. The British part of the project works in co-operation with a Bulgarian team organised through the regional museum at nearby Veiko Turnovo.

The Dobri Dyal team….

Project Background*

From northern Italy to the Black Sea coast, the only identified human impact upon the landscape during the early Byzantine period is the appearance of countless hill-top fortifications; only a few have been partially excavated, and none has been subjected to systematic archaeological research, employing the full range or modern techniques. The function of these sites and the character of the countryside during the final years of Byzantine rule, central as they are for understanding the period, remain unknown.

It is generally accepted that the early Byzantine Empire was at its height during the 6th century: Justinian retook North Africa and Italy and the emperor Maurice campaigned on and beyond the Danubian frontier. The lower Danube was of fundamental importance; it represented the economic hinterland and frontier, supporting and protecting the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Literary sources for the region, describing the second half of the century, have generated opposing interpretations; on the one hand, that this period witnessed a revival in Byzantine military strength or, on the other, that this century saw the progressive collapse of the empire’s economic and military power (Whitby and Liebeschuetz in Poulter 2007a). In particular, there is no agreement as to the veracity of The Buildings written by Procopius: a key reference point for any discussion of the period. However, book 4 (which covers the eastern Balkans) is unique in that the text was never completed and, in its rough form, it can be demonstrated that the author relied upon a variety of different sources, including itineraries (Poulter 2007a, 9-11). Although this conclusion does not necessarily discredit Procopius’ narrative, it raises suspicions about the authenticity of his detailed descriptions which can only be tested by targeted archaeological research.

The project requires the total excavation of the well-preserved 6th_ century fortress of ‘Dobri Dyal’ in north central Bulgaria. The objective is to discover the economic role of the type site during the 6th century. Essential projects will include zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, small-finds and ceramic research, providing datasets which can be directly compared with the substantial results from the first two programmes (cf. 24,000 bone fragments from Nicopolis and 10,000 from the late Roman fortress). The excavations will explore the functionof the site during the 6th to 7th centuries.


* written by project director Professor Andrew Poulter and cribbed from the project handbook

5am…..I leave the farm in Nicup and walk the kilometre or so into the middle of the village We have commandeered a restaurant in the middle of the village to provide us with food, starting with coffee and a snack at 5.30 each morning, before we leave for site at 6am. The site at Dobri Dyal is about 45 mins drive south of Nicup, so today like most days we are standing at the bottom of the hill at about 6.45am. The Nottingham team opened 5 excavation areas on the top of the mound last season. Three of these areas (A, B and E) are being dug again this year and two new areas (J and K) have been opened in locations where the 2010 geophysical survey indicated areas of high resistivity. A Bulgarian team from Turnovo museum are opening a trench on the southern downslope of the hill where they think the main gatehouse and approach road to the hillfort are located.

7am….The actual change in level from the bottom to the top of the hill is only about 30 metres, but some days it seems much much higher. Especially when you are carrying tools from the caravan to the top, or in my case two tripods, a total station, a prism pole and a box of assorted grid pegs, tapes, club hammer and nails. I am the site surveyor at Dobri Dyal. Most of my recent archaeological work has been in Norway and Qatar although I have been involved in a couple of English Heritage projects back in the UK in the past 3 years. Today I am assisted by two student volunteers (Hannah and Jade) and the main task for the survey team is to locate grid pegs around trench E to enable the students to practice their planning skills.

In addition to laying out grids we are 3-D locating small finds, as and when they are discovered and plotting the defensive walls on the south side of the fort currently being uncovered by a Bulgarian archaeological team. We are using two Leica 400 total stations for the day to day survey work. These are fairly straightforward machines to use and so far all of the students I have tutored have learnt to set up the machines and carry out simple survey functions (point location, setting out grid-pegs and trench locations using the stake-out function). I of course miss the robotic Leica 1200 machine that I normally use in Norway, but for training purposes it is probably more useful for the students to get acquainted with the simpler machine……For some reason I have not been able to work out, we are burning through batteries today and by lunch time have used 4 sets…..hopefully there is just enough left in the last set to see us to the end of the day…(there was – just!!)

10am…..Lunch!! Each day we are supplied lunch by a local supermarket. Like most archaeological projects we have a mix of carnivores and veggies, a smattering of vegans and the occasional allergy sufferer as well as the downright awkward, making the supply of suitable ‘off the shelf’ sandwiches fraught with difficulty. Today’s vegetarian offering is just about inedible, but I have a large jar of pickled chilli peppers in the site hut that disguises the tastlessness of the cheese and peps up the cucumber. And an apple. And a litre and a half bottle of water. The temperature in central Bulgaria gets into the high 30s in July…which is very nice, but does require drinking plenty of water if you are out on site.

10.45am…back to work. We try to make sure that all of the students cover the basic skills needed to work as a field archaeologist (digging, recording, planning, section drawing, surveying) and in the store (finds processing, environmental processing, sieving, sampling etc etc)…..but this is a real research excavation and we try and maintain a high standard of work. Our research aims are to establish the plan and phasing of the settlement, its development and demise using all the facilities and methodologies available to us. The Bulgarian team use a more traditional method and are constantly amazed at how slowly we work. Attempts to explain our ‘single context – stratigraphic excavation’ methodology are met with blank looks by our host archaeologists. It’s about time that someone translated ‘Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ into one or more of the eastern European languages…..

1.45pm….Well that’s it for today. We pile back into the minibuses and return to Nicup for lunch. Soup and some baked cheese dish for me, some kind of sausage for the meat eaters. Our restaurant has a bar where drinks are very cheap. A 500ml beer costs 1 lev (45 pence). A double gin and tonic 1.5lev (67 pence). A quadruple gin and tonic 1.9 lev (85 pence), a 330ml glass of local wine 0.60 lev (27 pence)……the local speciality is ‘oblek’ a mixture of green mint liquor and ouzo much loved by men of a certain age (described by one non-archaeological acquaintance in the village as a cross between viagra and laxative!!) and rakia, the local plum or apricot brandy. Being sensible abstemious folk we tend to stick to a small gin and tonic and the occasional beer. Some students sit at the tables outside the bar playing cards, some return to their houses to sleep. Meanwhile….

3.45pm…..A surveyor’s work is never done!! I spend a couple of hours most days downloading the site survey data and preparing maps etc. Today a number of students are working extra hours in the finds store to make up time lost on other occasions during the week or as we like t call it ‘detention’. I slip along to Ann’s digital documentation office to print out a couple of maps. I use Leica Geofffice to download today’s site data. Normally I would use ArcGIS to process the data, create the survey database and make the maps, but as this is a ‘free’ project for me, I am using as far as possibly freely available open source software (not least so I can make the site data available to any students who request it). At present that consists of the Quantum GIS (QGIS) and the ProCAD (AutoCAD clone) packages. I am not a great fan of using AutoCAD for archaeological puposes, but find ProCAD useful for coverting GIS-based shapefiles to dwg and dxf formats for those that want them. The students in detention seem to be fairly happy with their punishment and are discussing whether universities should ‘give up’ student protesters to the Metropolitan Police…..No way!!

6pm….back to the house for a cold shower and then down to the Directors house for a pre-dinner gin and tonic. The gin on sale in the local bar is cheap, but it’s not Bombay Sapphire …. unfortunately Andrew is out of tonic so I end up with gin and lemon.. I manage to struggle through two glasses!! The project works on Saturday mornings so Friday nights are not as relaxing as a normal weekend, but we always manage to have a reasonable time. The nearest large town (Veiko Turnovo) has a culture festival on at the moment with ballet and opera performances most weekends. We have been offered cheap tickets (10lev circa £4.50) for all performances and some staff are going tomorrow to see the opera. Weather permitting, as the performance is open air….

12am……The bars are closed. Some folk drift off to houses, others to sit and chat for a while. Some of us are thinking that we have to be up again in 5 hours…

Field schools are fun, especially when the students are as nice as the bunch we currently have at Dobri Dyal….. Not so sure that many of them will end up with careers in archaeology though. Not through a lack of willingness but just the haphazard way that archaeology is organised in the UK and the failure of the profession to respond in any meaningful way to the current economic and political situation. It may be that in future years, training schools such as Dobri Dyal just won’t be available to UK students. One of the current student participants told me that next year, the archaeology department of his university plan to carry out a series of test pitting exercises in the gardens of houses close to the university campus instead of offering a field school through a project like Dobri Dyal. I think that is very sad….but if this is to be an end to a long standing archaeology tradition, we hope that the next 3 weeks at Dobri Dyal will provide long and happy memories for all those taking part…

Kevin Wooldridge, Bulgaria, August 2011

The Dobri Dyal project staff have a Facebook group called ‘Never Mind the Balkans – Summer Excavations in Bulgaria 2011’


Reconnecting people with their heritage

This summer a hardy band of volunteers and one or two paid professionals began a second season of excavation at a 50 room villa and extended Iron Age/Roman site, which stretches across and beyond the East Cliff at Folkestone, Kent, writes Dr Lesley Hardy, Project Director for A Town Unearthed: Folkestone before 1500 and Senior Lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University.

Rescue archaeology on a cliff-edge

Folkestone sits in a liminal position on a bed of greensand rock which juts out between the chalk Down-land and the clay weald. It is the closest crossing point to France and so also, depending on your perspective, marks a boundary or a route-way between Britain and the continent probably used for millennia.

The site overlooks the English Channel and is in a stunning though precarious location on the edge of the chalk cliffs there. Its direct sight line is Boulogne and on a clear day other Roman bases at Dover and Lympne can be seen, as can the North-Downs Way which ends abruptly interrupted by cataclysm at the cliff edge above Folkestone.

Erosion makes this rescue archaeology and has justified excavation which would not have been allowed on a less compromised scheduled site.

A Town Unearthed

The dig is a part of a three-year Lottery-funded community archaeology project based in Folkestone called ‘ A Town Unearthed’. It’s a title of double meaning, intended to reflect multiple meanings attached to community archaeology in general and in particular to this project’s aim.

It aims not only to deliver community archaeology in the sense of fieldwork but also to ‘dig’ in the more critical sense of understanding how the community of Folkestone sees and understands itself in relation to its past: an archaeology of itself.

If we want to understand the processes by which communities identify with certain archaeological and historical places, this is an important site.


Folkestone is a town which has come to be defined by a relatively recent history. The town was developed at a rapid pace in the 1860s and 70s as a health resort.

If you visit today you would see a somewhat modernised but largely Victorian/Edwardian resort. The decline slowly eroded the prosperity of the resort from the 1940s also continues to leave its mark.

Reconnecting townsfolk and their heritage

We hope that by re-awakening interest in the larger time-span and the rich ancient landscape that surrounds the town to contribute towards challenging this narrative of decline and to reconnect people with the significant and rich ancient heritage that surrounds them.

These include the Bayle – the site of a C7th Royal Minster; Castle Hill- a large Norman earthwork (one of Pitt-Rivers’ first excavations) and also the large amount of unpublished reports, artefactual collections and other material which trace a history dating from earliest times.