A day in the life of an amatuer Conflict Archaeologist with a poorly cat!


So, I booked the day off work from the day job for Day of Archaeology. I bought the t-shirt, and planned things to do.  Then, Thursday, one of the myriad pet cats falls ill!  Two trips to the vet Thursday: injections, creams and special food.

Four o’clock this morning poorly cat told me it was time to get up.  She was already pre-booked for another appointment today, so plans had to change!

The original plan was to meet up with Peter, a nearby local historian. We initially made contact a couple of months back via twitter when Peter had historical evidence of WW1 military practice trenches in the area; as I have a Masters degree in Conflict Archaeology I contacted him, and we managed to trace some of the trenches. These have now been entered onto the Homefront Legacy website. Our plan today had been to look for another set of trenches nearby which have previously been identified via aerial photography with the hope of finding and surveying them and getting the existing HER record for them updated. Unfortunately the cat’s poor health required me to stay with her prior to her next vet visit; Peter helpfully agreed that cats come first, so we agreed to reschedule to another date (Peter, if you read this, thank you!).

So, with time to spend at home, it seemed a good idea to catch up on some of the archaeo tasks I have had on the ‘to-do’ list:

First up, several other sites to log on the Homefront Legacy website.

First one added was the WW1 German POW camp in Watlington: this one formed part of the basis of my Masters dissertation. I have a fantastic map I bought by chance. It’s a 1912 OS map which was annotated with notes and marks by the Camp Commandant at the camp in question. It’s a grand piece of material culture, and it enabled me to find the location of the camp when used in conjunction with records at the National Archives at Kew, so the location of the camp is now on the Homefront Legacy website.  Of the 500 or so camps in UK during WW1, very few are in the HER, so pleased to add another one and get it out in the public domain.

Also added two other sites to the website; both of them WW1 Auxilliary Hospitals run by Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachments, both of them in Berkshire.

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(the line above was helpfully added by one of the other cats walking across my laptop!)

Anyhow, sites added to website, and now its time for cat’s next vet visit. Once she gets home she has her first meal in a nearly two days!

Home again, and back to another outstanding  task.

I have a cunning plan.  Normal handheld GPS is accurate to 6 or 7 metres; a nice GPS which is accurate to less than a metre costs thousands of pounds. I want one, but don’t have the cash, so I am going to make my own! I have a GPS chip, accurate to 25cm, but has no software interface and no logging mechanism of any sort. So the plan is: GPS chip, connected to a Raspberry Pi, a battery pack and and a small monitor, all mounted onto a surveying pole. So, theoretically 25cm-accurate GPS for about £400, about 10% the cost, the only problem being creating the programming to interface with the chip, and log the results.

I hate programming (I failed my computer studies o-level back in days of yore!), so I have been delaying doing this. After some time scratching my head over a piece of  freeware programming software, I now have something that interfaces with the chip and will record coordinates coupled with notes and time and date – so quite happy with that progress, still need to connect the pieces together, but the end is in sight.

That done, and the cat is looking much improved, so I decided that it would be in order to go out for a bit.

A WW1 document I have suggests there should be (yet more) military practice trenches a few miles away. I’m keen to find them; I’m a trustee of a local heritage and archaeology charity.  I’m looking for a feature which I could use to do some sort of community archaeology event over the heritage weekend in September.

The records don’t give a very clear idea of the location, and the site is 350ha; nonetheless, walking around the area and getting a feel for the landscape is always a good starting point (and given the sunny weather, quite pleasant regardless of the outcome).

I didn’t find WW1 trenches (but I didn’t expect to on the first visit!)

I did find out contact details for a local conservation organisation who work on the piece of land, so I have contacted them to see if they are aware of anything.

Whilst I didn’t find WW1 trenches, I did find something. I’m not yet sure what yet.  I found little underground dugouts (7 of them). By general condition of the metal I would think they are post WW2, and they don’t look dissimilar to one of the diagrams in my WW2 Royal Engineers manual. So, I am interested to find out what they actually are, and they may yet prove to be a suitable project instead of the trenches.

The cat is now much better now; I’m hoping if she continues to improve at the current rate she will be well enough for me to still go away for mesolithic excavations in a week or two.

All in all, didn’t do what I intended to; but still managed to do some useful stuff. I didn’t find what I was looking for; but did still find something interesting with questions to answer.

A Day On Two Sites

Hello I’m Cornelius, one of the partners at L – P: Archaeology. I’ve been doing commercial archaeology for 25 years now, and I know that the following short story will be very familiar to a lot of you, but anyone who has never been involved in a trenching evaluation be warned- this rollercoaster ride of thrills, despair and elation is not for the faint hearted. Some images may contain brickearth.

As described in my earlier post, we are currently conducting a 5% sample evaluation below a car-park in Egham, Surrey. First thing this morning we broke the tarmac on a fresh new trench, full of possibilities. We started to machine away the modern overburden deposits below the surface, taking care to avoid the large water pipe we knew to be in the trench. As our very skilled machine driver was doing this I got a call from another site.

51 miles away to the south lies the lovely house of Brambletye in Keston. An extension is currently being built on the house, which involves digging some small but deep footings. As the house lies next to the Scheduled Ancient Monument of Keston Roman Tombs, even very small scale work needs to be watched closely, so I leave the trench in the capable hands of my colleague Mike and zoom off down the M25.

When I get to Brambletye the crew have a small 3-ton digger ready, and have soon dug the footing. There is absolutely nothing in it but natural clay, with not even a stray sherd of Roman pot in the topsoil. My disappointment is offset by a very fine cup of tea, and then back to Egham to look at the trench.

In my absence Mike has cleaned and recorded the trench beautifully. A single linear feature in the trench has been sectioned, and is clearly a wall footing of early 20th century origin- possibly the wall of the doctors surgery we were told about by the very helpful staff at Egham Museum, who were kind enough to show us their collection of old maps. There is no other archaeology visible in the trench, so I survey it using a Smartrover GPS system and we fill it back in. I lock up the site and head home to write up the days results. Which are that I have driven about 150 miles, shifted a few hundred tons of earth and found nothing of archaeological interest whatsoever.

But it was mostly sunny, and I was out in the fresh air, and I got a close look at a very cool Roman tomb complex. And the tea was very good.

Altogether a fine day.

Photos copyright L – P : Archaeology

getting ready for excavation

One of the other tasks for today, was providing Cardiff University with final coordinates for the excavation trenches layed-out yesterday. Besides archaeometallurgy I’m also involved in the provision of services, and of teaching, in archaeogeophysics. Over the last 6 years we’ve been surveying the western side of the Roman legionary fortress at Caerleon as both a major piece of research and as a teaching exercise for students from Cardiff University. For the last few years a joint Cardiff/UCL project has been excavating on sites we surveyed inside the fortress but this year the emphasis switches to our new discoveries outside the fortress.

The will be a season of excavation starting next week, involving nine trenches exploring the enormous buildings we have found between the amphitheatre and the river. The university has produced a website and an ebook all about the project and there will be an excavation blog to follow too!

It’s going to be very exciting – but unfortunately, having layed out the trenches I will be away and missing the first fortnight of the action!


Caerleon 2011 excavation trenches

Location of the 2011 excavation trenches (red) on the magnetic survey of the area SW of the legionary fortress. Image copyright GeoArch


Community Heritage at Heeley City Farm

I am the Community Heritage Officer at Heeley City Farm in Sheffield.

We are running a Community Excavation ‘Life at No.57: The Sheffield Terraced House Dig’, its part of the CBA Festival for British Archaeology. Today is Day 14 of 16 days of excavation. It is a community dig run in partnership with the University of Sheffield but with lots of volunteers of all sorts and ages. The project really wouldn’t be possible without our amazing volunteers who are doing everything from keeping the finds room under control to supervising the trenches and keeping me organised. The Dig is free and open to everyone.

My Day started with a live phone interview with BBC Radio Sheffield to promote the Dig, my phone contribution was part of a large piece which had been record on site the day before with interviews with Dr Roger Doonan from the University of Sheffield, Megan and Morgan two 10 year old volunteers on their first dig and Joseph one of our volunteer supervisors who began his career in Archaeology through the Sheffield YAC (Young Archaeologists Club) and who is now just waiting for his A-Level results, we all have our fingers crossed for him as he wants to take up his university place to study Archaeology. We talked about why we are excavating 3 Victorian terraced houses on a city farm, who lived in them what we have found and who has taken part so far.

Radio Interview

During the interview a lady living in rang the radio station, she lives in Hampshire and had been listening on-line as she used to live in Sheffield, it turns out that she lived on the very street we are excavating! The houses were all demolished in the 1970’s and she lived there as a child just before they were pulled down. The BBC producer passed on my number to her and we had a lovely chat, she is going to e-mail me her memories of the street.

When I began work on site the volunteers had already started and our 3 trenches were going very well. We have 3 large trenches, Trench A has the front wall of No.50 Richards Road, Trench B has the front cellars of No.52 and 54 Richards Road and a passage into the back yards, the biggest trench , trench C has the back yards of 4 houses and an outhouse.

This is the third year of this project and its getting better each year, this year we have been looking for evidence of light trades and home-working, trades such as button-making and handle-finishing, we have found evidence of this in previous years. Our work will be supported this year by an exhibition all about trades in Heeley 100 years ago at Kelham Island Museum.

I spent most of the Day supervising volunteers and the trenches. Today we had about 40? volunteers or visitors to the site (it might be more, not had time to add everyone up yet) all the children are getting credit for their involvement through the Children’s University so i spend some time registering people for this.

We had a visit from a local Heritage Photographer who is artist in residence at the moment in the Archaeology Department at Sheffield University he took lots of lovely photos of people at work in the trenches as well as a few of our reconstructed Iron Age Roundhouse which happens to be in the same field as the trenches.

We finished and packed up at 4, I said some sad goodbyes to volunteers digging for their last day, tidied and locked up up our finds room and came to do some paper work.

I’m working on getting ready for a lovely new storytelling project next week, a summer holiday week of activities built around a historical mystery with lots of trips out for 9 to 11 year old’s.

Community Heritage always involves doing at least 3 projects at once. its now 5.30 and I’m going to walk home for my tea.

Excavation at Appleby Magna- Getting children involved in archaeology!!

The Sir John Moore Foundation run a programme during the summer which allows children from the age of eight to get involved with an archaeological dig on site. I had the pleasure of attending and helping out on the dig for the day. It was truly fantastic to see young children getting involved in an area of study which I enjoy so much. There was in all three small trenches which were dug out in accordance to the finding of a wall in the summer past.

From local maps, we understood that there was some kind of building located in this area marked by a large dark area. In digging in the trench located next to that of the wall. I found that from about one metre below the surface there was a large amount of charcoal discovered along with a large number of nails. Bricks were also uncovered scattered from about one metre below the surface point. As I dug further down and extended out the trench I found a number of other items. From the remains of glass bottles to sherds of pottery thought to be that of the late Victorian period of the 1850’s. The children involved were completely engaged throughout the day, and it was great to see how excited and competitive they become upon excavating new items. Not only were they excavating but also learning how to mark out areas, measure the trench, clean finds, photograph finds and record finds in the correct way.

The initial finds from the excavation helped me build a picture of what I thought the dark area found on the initial maps may have been. The large amount of burnt wood discovered is certainly evidence for the possible destruction of the site itself. There were a number of sherds of pottery found with dark black smudges on which one could not remove when cleaning. Furthermore there was a large amount of glass bottles found. If, as I predict, a fire destroyed the settlement that stood in this area it is highly unlikely that the temperature of the fire would have been strong enough in order to melt the glass; as glass is only burnt at temperatures starting from as high as five hundred degrees depending on the glass type. The pressure would have caused glass and pottery to break, which would coincide with what was found in the trenches. I would argue that there was certainly some form of building in this area. Possibly with a brick/stone foundation with a wooden structure predicted from the evidence found in the excavation. It may have been that this site was then used as storage or some kind of out building or workshop. Further excavations will reveal more and hopefully reinforce the initial findings.

All in all, for me the most important element of the dig, without a shadow of a doubt, was getting young children involved in the world of archaeology. Archaeology is a career that I aspire to be in once I complete my degree and maintaining an interest in this area is essential. The programme runs every year with a number of dates. All the volunteers are dedicated to helping the children understand the history and the archaeology of the area, providing them with a range of skills which would be beneficial not just in this are but many areas of their future. I am not exaggerating when I say that the children loved the entire day. Some of the children enjoy it so much that they have attended not just the current year but years previous to this.  The unfortunate point is the area in which the dig is situated is owned by the local school and therefore once the summer is over the trenches have to be covered over until the following year.

The whole day was fantastic, more community archaeology excavations have cropped up in the recent years, and maintaining a growing interest in this area of work is essential. All be it a great way to get out doors and bring families together for a fantastic fun filled day!

Just a few of the children s finds of the day

Fantastic finds in Appleby Magna!