Site Director

This rains got us bored to death, hope it doesn’t get in my tent, boy I wish that I’d brought proper boots! (What else is there to do on rain day then change the lyrics to Mulan!)

Here at Oakington dig everyone has a different role to play in order to make sure the research is completed on time; and Friday was like any other day on site, well with a bit more rain and more post-work drinks!

Trench three and the effects of the rain!

Trench three and the effects of the rain!

The weather in the morning had taken a turn for the worse, which meant that our students were huddled in the marquee focusing on finds washing and completing any outstanding paperwork, not the most fun job in the world by any means, but not one that is solely for students. Our site director Duncan also took the opportunity to get up to date with his marking, feedback and number crunching.

Tommy hard at work on his context sheets

Tommy hard at work on his context sheets

Site Director Duncan doing some admin!

Site Director Duncan doing some admin!

The rain couldn’t keep us down for long though and by the afternoon we were back on site making the most of softer soils and clearer color divisions of our features; something which not only makes planning easier but also lifts spirits. Below you can see Tommy taking advantage of this by taking measurements for the master plan of trench three, and our students enjoying some unexpected sunshine and working hard.

Tommy taking measurements for the master plan of trench 3!

Tommy taking measurements for the master plan of trench 3!


The sun has got his hat on!

The sun has got his hat on!

The 11th was also the final Friday of the project, as this year sees UCLAN, MMU and OAE’s five year collaboratory research project come to an end. The local village put on a farewell party for staff and students, which offered the people of the village and nearby areas come and celebrate the projects successes and ask any questions they may want to. Much drinking, dancing, and partying was had by all who came and it was certainly a lovely way to begin drawing the excavation season to a close, and say a fond goodbye to a village that has shown us such kindness, support and enthusiasm.


-Bones without Barriers






Rathnadrinna Research Excavation, Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland

This year marks the first season of excavation on Rathnadrinna Fort, funded by the Royal Irish Academy of Ireland. Rathnadrinna Fort is a trivallate, circular hilltop enclosure situated in Lalor’s-Lot townland, 3.33km south-southeast of the Rock of Cashel, Co. Tipperary, Ireland.  The hilltop affords the fort extensive views across the adjacent low lying land and is inter-visible with a number of high-status forts surrounding the Rock of Cashel, to the north. Rathnadrinna Fort is the largest and best preserved of Cashel’s forts, and research here presents an ideal opportunity to learn more about the evolution and function of such sites in a royal landscape.

After three weeks digging we have uncovered a stone-lined corn-drying kiln outside the fort, the excavation of the fort ditches is underway and these are proving to be substantial in nature. We have revealed the old ground surface beneath portions of the fort banks and the excavation of the fort interior is revealing many interesting features. Finds to date include worked flints, an unidentified ferrous object from the fill of the kiln, and an interesting assemblage of late post medieval finds from a dumping episode outside the fort bank.

Our international team of volunteers includes diggers from Brazil, USA, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, Austria, England and Ireland. We have facilitated local primary school visits where the children were able be archaeologists for a day, meet the diggers and see our discoveries. For the Day of Archaeology Rowan Lacey gave a display of flint knapping, James Bonsall did a Magnetometer Survey over our kiln, Liudas Juodzbalys showed us a DVD of his experimental iron working, we had a game of hurling, the site director bought everyone a bag of the finest Morelli’s chips and Mickaela from San Paulo made a cheese fondue! Follow us on

Heeley City Farm Community Dig, Sheffield, South Yorkshire

My day started at 7am, but I drove to the dig site shortly after 9am. I was absolutely exhausted and barely functioning on a basic level, but once onsite I’d be okay to a degree.

Gill as Finds Officer

Gill as Finds Officer

Why was I so exhausted? I have medical conditions which make my life challenging on a daily basis. Some people tell me I’m NOT disabled, but as my abilities have been severely restricted since I developed these conditions five years ago (including costing me my job at the time), I beg to differ. A nasty head cold triggered a balance disorder and associated symptoms including chronic fatigue syndrome, tinnitus, hyperacusis (sensitivity to certain tones and pitches of sound), anxiety and depression. Fortunately here in Sheffield we have an incredible Audiovestibular Department at one of the hospitals, staffed by very attentive and compassionate people. Not everyone suffering from a balance disorder is that fortunate. There is no “cure”, but a programme of specialised exercises set and monitored by a physiotherapist to retrain the brain into interpreting the signals for your balance correctly. Essentially, you’re being re-taught how to stand and walk and sometimes it can take years as pushing yourself too hard does more harm than good.
The hardest element of my condition is that I look normal and people judge me accordingly. I visibly lose my balance occasionally, but what people don’t see is me concentrating as hard as I possibly can to remain upright and avoid walking into people and objects. Due to the balance system no longer being automatic, my brain has to therefore think about walking and standing, so every task (physical and mental) uses up those limited energy resources very quickly. The problem doesn’t end there either – you may feel okay after a good night’s sleep. People with chronic fatigue syndrome don’t. After five years I now know that if I exert myself mentally or physically one day, I need to rest completely for a week in order to recover properly. That means doing absolutely nothing; no housework, no visiting friends or family, no going food shopping, no attending medical appointments, no studying. I don’t have a social life per se, as it’s too tiring. I visit friends and family at their homes. Chronic fatigue is cumulative, and those energy levels return VERY slowly.

Anyway, bored you enough with the background, so back to the Day of Archaeology:
I’m 41 years old and study the BA in Archaeological Studies part-time at the University of Sheffield as a mature student. I have just completed year 3 of 6, and for the second year running I volunteered my services to Sally Rodgers, Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm, for the community dig during the Festival of British Archaeology.

Last year I assisted in the Finds Room with cataloguing finds. That was my very first time on a dig, and due to my disabilities I’d requested to be used where I could best contribute. This year I accepted the role of Finds Officer, partly for the opportunity to become more involved and to learn more, but also as being on a summer dig is a requirement for a module I’m taking next academic year.

The dig started on Saturday 16th July and had been taking place every day. What were we excavating? Victorian terraced houses. Boring, you might think. The local community would disagree with you there! The site of the farm was once residential housing built during the latter part of the 19th Century and we want to know about the structures and the people who once lived there during the houses’ entire history.
The Finds Room already had approximately 20 finds trays awaiting sorting and recording, but let’s start at the beginning:

Gill as Finds Officer

Gill as Finds Officer

Three trenches were opened onsite and the Trench Supervisors; Ken Dash, Jane Woodcock and Joe Page, would come to me and request a context number and recording sheet. Archaeology is a precise discipline. When recording finds and structures the context in a three dimensional space is essential in mapping the distribution of those finds. Without the context the finds are meaningless and have to be recorded as un-stratified. Every time a Trench Supervisor discovered a new layer of different material (different soil layers, rubble layers etc) or if they extended their trench I would assign them a new context number made up of the site code, trench code and a unique reference number. This layer in the trench would be labelled and all finds discovered in that context would be labelled accordingly. I also provided the Trench Supervisors with additional finds trays with relevant context tags where required (which was happening more and more frequently in Trench C!). Heaven help anyone who touched my recording sheets – including the Site Director – as I’d threaten to bite them!

The trays would come into the Finds Room where I would sort through them in turn, separating them into materials such as metal, wood, bone, plastic, glass, ceramic etc. Each pile would then be placed into a finds bag labelled with the context reference (as detailed above) but additionally a unique three digit finds number would also be allocated and recorded on the Finds Register. The Finds Register records the finds number, site and trench codes, context number, number of items in the bag, weight, and a brief description of the contents such as clear glass, or bone fragments etc. The bags were then set aside for later processing.

Pretty simple you’d think, but my responsibilities also included greeting members of the public who wished to be on the dig. My duties involved ensuring they were properly attired (suitable footwear and clothing), that adults were aware of the age restrictions for children, ensuring all participants had completed the relevant documentation including photography permission forms, and introducing them to Sally, Dr Roger Doonan (the Site Director and one of my lecturers) as well as Jane, Ken or Joe out at the trenches.
Engaging with visitors is essential on a community dig, and in the Finds Room Sally had created display boards of information, maps and photographs of the farm site throughout history. This encouraged visitors to ask questions and make observations, particularly the older generations who recalled living in the properties before they were demolished for a doomed relief road during the 1970’s. I would ensure these people were introduced to Sally so she had the opportunity to record their stories for future use and interpretation of the site.

Due to the number of interesting finds, I created a special tray and once those finds had been suitably recorded I placed them there for visitors to look at. This included two Police Community Support Officers and a Police Officer! Of particular interest was the button stamped GR for George Rex, made by a company called Firmin & Sons Limited (which was stamped on the reverse). They started manufacturing buttons for the military and then the Police in 1677 and are still in business today! As part of a research project in conjunction with Heeley Historical Society and the Hawley Collection at Kelham Island Museum, we had information from the Trade Directories and Census Returns for the addresses we were excavating, and we knew a Policeman resided in one of the properties as a lodger at one stage. Did HE lose the button? It was very exciting!

The day was much of a sameness with trays coming in, trays being processed, context numbers being issued, participants and visitors being greeted. The huge excitement was all of us standing around Roger’s vehicle during the morning whilst we listened to Rony Robinson on BBC Radio Sheffield. He’d been out at the site previously to interview Roger and participants regarding the dig and interesting finds. Sally was talking to Rony live by phone and we found some of the comments really funny, such as the “Knicker Hoard of Heeley”. A collection of lady’s underwear had been discovered earlier on in the dig, and this had produced much hilarity amongst the volunteer staff. You don’t have to be mad to work here – but it helps!

As the personal belongings of all participants and staff were kept in the Finds Room, I was also responsible for ensuring the security of the room. Unless another member of staff was present I would secure it if needing to go elsewhere on the farm site such as the cafe (which is excellent!) or the toilets.
The dig day ended at 4pm, but certain tasks needed to be completed before we could leave. I would ensure the large table where I worked was tidy, that all finds trays were processed in the order they came in, and that all paperwork was in the correct folder. All staff would close the shutters, ensure all tools and display boards had been brought inside and we’d signed out before the room was secured and the shutters brought down. My day ended at 4:25pm before I headed home to collapse with my cats.
Usually Rachel Walker-Higgins, a friend of mine, had been assisting me in the Finds Room, but she was poorly that day, and I would like to thank her particularly as without her help I would never have coped with the demands of the role. I would also like to thank Roger for his patience and confidence in my abilities to be Finds Officer despite my limitations; Sally for the incredible opportunity she gave me and her undying confidence that I could achieve what was required; Giovanna Fregni for her support and advice which proved exceptionally valuable; Rach, Jane and Ken for repeatedly badgering me into taking breaks to rest and eat properly; but most of all I want to thank all of them for making me take days off when my exhaustion was severe despite my sense of duty, and their compassion and understanding regarding my disabilities. They helped me feel like I have a value, that my disabilities haven’t made me worthless, and that I still have something to contribute to society and the world around me. An exceptional experience and one which will look amazing on my archaeology resume. I’m still recovering now!

Hamhill 2011

On this day, the 29th of July Cardiff University and the University of Cambridge are currently one week in to an excavation field season at Ham Hill hillfort.  This is in advance of quarrying by the Ham Hill Stone Company but is also an important training dig for the Cardiff Students.  It is a typical training dig in that we are all staying on site and living and working together for the 8 weeks of this year’s season of project. 

Around 7.30am students and staff alike begin to emerge from caravans and tents, making their way across the long dewy grass to the toilet block and large mess tent.  Breakfast is a generally quiet affair with everybody helping themselves.  The kettle is always on.

Boots, suncream and hats are then donned for work on site at 9.00am.  We are extremely lucky here in that our trip to site is only a two minute stroll! Camping on site has its disadvantages but also advantages!

Today we are digging test pits.  Overlying the archaeology is a soil deposit that we are trying to understand better by digging the test pits.  We are looking to see if there are any artefacts in it, which will hopefully tell us when it formed.  Everything is sieved.   Once this is complete we will remove the rest of this layer with a machine and will then be able to see and plan the archaeology (this will take more than a day though!).  Adam the site director is usually wandering around, sometimes talking to himself, planning the next stage of digging, but more often is joining in and helping to teach the students.  Andy, the Cardiff Supervisor, is watching our big yellow machine during the removal of the top soil.  This is one of the most important jobs on a site, if you take off too much soil you will remove the archaeology, if you don’t take off enough you won’t see the archaeology!  It can be quite stressful but he does get to see the archaeology first as it emerges from the ground. 

Lunch is a simple affair with bread, ham and cheese.   There are many different people on site; we have students and staff of different levels from Cardiff University.  A real mixture of backgrounds is making for interesting conversations!   Members of Cambridge Archaeological Unit are teaching the students, we have a machine and a truck driver and many members of the public that keep wandering over to see what we are up to.  The quarry manager has popped over to see how things are progressing and I’m sure we’ll get many other visitors. 

We are also processing our finds on site (well, close to site in a shed that the quarry have lent us).  This is also where the environmental processing will occur.  Selina is our finds manager for the site and has things running smoothly.  We have a finds bucket on site, where once bagged and labelled, finds are put.  She then collects these and with a couple of students spends the morning, tooth brush in hand, cleaning and then letting them dry before identifying them.  This can then be instantly fed back into our understanding of the site as we are excavating.  Our find of the day is the tip of a flint arrowhead/dagger.  It has yet to be identified properly.

Selina is also our site ‘mother’.  The group on duty for cooking dinner provide her with a list of ingredients so that they are ready prepared to cook for 25.  Looking forward to tonight’s tuna pasta J.

This project, although we are only a few days in is revealing some important things.   Archaeologically it is very exciting, digging on the top of a hillfort is cool, there’s no doubt about that.  We have already found some interesting artefacts and features but I think the most important things to have come out have been summarised by Joe, one of the students. 

‘I’d be a liar if I said the thought of excavation didn’t worry me. As someone who has never been on a dig- let alone camped before I had horrific expectations and ridiculous hopes.’

It was no secret that I looked forward to learning practical skills  the most, camping was definitely my biggest worry but the first thing I learnt was just get on with things – go with the flow.  I came to excavating a few days ago with no practical knowledge and already I’ve learnt about dumpy levels, sieving, and the importance of paperwork (yeah, you even escape it in a field…) I also learnt that the people you don’t talk to in class or never heard speak before will become the best people in the world when you live together for weeks.  But practical skills weren’t the only thing on my excavation wish list.  I wanted to (hopefully) find something- and here lies an important lesson: don’t get your hopes up and be patient instead.  You can work and work for hours on a test pit whilst it seems like the world and his dog are finding things but you’ll find the camaraderie makes the rewarding feeling a shared experience.  You are, after all, a team.  As of yet I’ve not found any of the interesting or significant things I wanted to find but there is still time and plenty of it, so I have to be patient. 

And the other thing I have learnt so far this week?  Getting messy is rewarding!’