Monthly Archives: July 2013

Les Queyriaux (France) : an exceptional discovery for INRAP

I’m Carine Muller-Pelletier. For my “first” ‘Day of Archaeology’ I would like to present to you a typical day in my life as an archaeologist, on the site of Queyriaux near Clermont-Ferrand in central France, where I have been excavating for more than a year.
5 AM, time to wake up. I have to hand out a scientific update on the site’s findings, or at least finish the chapter I have begun last night. At least, the dig is only about 15 minutes away from where I live. 7:30 AM, time to open up the site, to offload the vehicles. Early rising colleagues are here to help. We set up the office. 8 AM the day’s work begins, and I start with the ongoing troubleshooting.

Serious atmosphere in the office – working on documentation, plans and descriptions. © Julia Patouret, Inrap

Serious atmosphere in the office – working on documentation, plans and descriptions. © Julia Patouret, Inrap

A first round of the site: some 28,000 square metres, with everywhere a high density of finds. The race now begins, talking to everyone, on each excavation sector: those where mechanical tools are used to open the grounds, those where ground structures are dug with a mini-scoop, those where level excavations are carried out, using hand-held tools (wow, its great), and those were stratigraphy is being recorded. I need to keep track of what is going on, it’s so important that I have a clear overview of everything.

Base of the mechanical clearing showing the density of the structures: no respite! © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Base of the mechanical clearing showing the density of the structures: no respite! © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Base of the mechanical clearing showing the density of the structures: no respite! © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Unearthing a middle Neolithic vase from an opened ditch: the trawl takes over the mechanical tool. © Julia Patouret, Inrap

Excavation by square metres of a middle Neolithic occupation floor, with a large heated stone hearth in the foreground. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Excavation by square metres of a middle Neolithic occupation floor, with a large heated stone hearth in the foreground. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Fine-tuning is sometimes called for, in function of yesterday’s results: new question may arise, and we need to find the appropriate methods to answer them. We consult and debate, and then I need to decide quickly – this is my role.
Specialists follow each others on site to collect the data necessary for the scientific report. It is important to clearly highlight the scientific potential of the site: its state of preservation, the nature of the vestiges, their typological and chronological attribution, aspects of technological behaviour, some preliminary functional interpretations of the occupation zones and their spatial organisation – and that, for each chronological phase. And then, all of that needs to be replaced in relation to what is already known and to the answers we can expect given our outstanding questions.

Discussion and consultation. (I am on the right !)  © Julie Gerez, Inrap

Discussion and consultation. (I am on the right !) © Julie Gerez, Inrap

6 PM, time to endorse my young mother’s role …. until 9 PM, when I return to the scientific report and the day’s new information.
All in all, this has been an intense 3 months, during which I was asked to produce two scientific reports (a sum of 60 and 90 pages of work usually done as post-excavation work). But the site certainly merited such an investment!

Clearing fragments of terra cotta with imprints of the clay dome of a collapsed oven from the middle Neolithic. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Clearing fragments of terra cotta with imprints of the clay dome of a collapsed oven from the middle Neolithic. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Indeed a distinctive characteristic of the site of Queyriaux is the presence of densely structured and remarkably well preserved occupation floors, situated in dwellings dated to the middle Neolithic and the middle Bronze Age periods. The abundance, diversity and good preservation of the finds collected further enhance the value of the site. A rare opportunity thus emerged to connect the organisation of circulation on the occupation floors with the associated material culture, highlighting a broad spectrum of human activities. Together, these strands of information led towards a more faithful ‘paleo-ethnological’ reconstruction of ancient daily life. The spatial distribution of the finds shows an organised occupation of space, characterised by well delimited and complementary areas, specialised in different activities around a central zone where large scale buildings were present. The data we are gathering can therefore expand our knowledge on villages from that period, and help us address such questions as the hinterland territories of these communities, their interactions with the environment and the landscape, and their networks of exchange.
At a regional level, the site presents a first opportunity to study the middle Bronze Age.

Photo 7 : Excavating an animal deposit (carnivore) in a middle Bronze Age ditch. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Excavating an animal deposit (carnivore) in a middle Bronze Age ditch. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Sites of  “Chasséen” Neolithic are more numerous, and in most of them occupation floors have been identified. They have not always been studied, however, or exposed on too small surfaces. At Queyriaux, we felt it important to request the scheduling of the site as an exceptional discovery: this would give us at last the necessary means to excavate and study wide stretches of these occupation floors.

Parts of an occupation layer sector being manually excavated. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Parts of an occupation layer sector being manually excavated. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Dismantling and recording a heated stone hearth. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Dismantling and recording a heated stone hearth. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

We have thus worked on the site all through the seasons, always with the necessary scientific rigour and dedication.  Alongside our own site, was also fully excavated the antique necropolis found alongside the nearby Roman way.

Wet sieving sediments onsite never stops, even in rough weather! © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Wet sieving sediments onsite never stops, even in rough weather! © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

The return of nicer weather. © Marcel Brizard, Inrap

The return of nicer weather. © Marcel Brizard, Inrap

And every day, despite the stress and the weariness, I would reach the site with same emotion. We are so lucky, I was telling myself, that we can study such an exceptional site – a great and possibly unique experience in my life as an archaeologist. Results from the specialist analyses are beginning to arrive, and they confirm, to our great satisfaction, the impressions on the field.

: Holes and heaps on the last day of the dig. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap

Holes and heaps on the last day of the dig. © Carine Muller-Pelletier, Inrap


Carine Muller-Pelletier,  archaeologist at Inrap


A ‘Day of archaeology’ at Viarmes (France) – my hometown

When I was called to undertake the archaeological evaluation of the place de la Mairie (municipal square) are Viarmes, I was at first astounded – for the past 20 years this small city north of Paris has been my hometown! The idea of taking it as a focus of archaeological research had never crossed my mind, even though I have been a practicing archaeologist for the past three decades. I had begun with local archaeological associations, then moved on to AFAN (the National association for archaeological excavations) and thence to its successor INRAP (the French national institute for preventive archaeological research) where I have been working since its creation in 2002. Over these years I have undertaken archaeological research in the towns of Villiers-le-Sec, Villiers-le-Bel and Louvres: I have studied many medieval sites in the region, and I have even made the incredible discovery, in Baillet, of the Soviet statues used during the 1937 Universal exposition!

On the field in my hometown Viarmes © JL Bellurget, Inrap

On the field in my hometown Viarmes © JL Bellurget, Inrap

But let us come back to Viarmes. It all begun with an archaeological trial-trench, in January 2012. The mayor’s office is barley 4 metres away: out of his window he sees appearing a floor, paved with coloured tiles from the 13th century. My colleague and old friend Nicolas begins to expose a bicolour yellow and green floor. But the trench continues into a deeper ditch whose bottom cannot be reached. At a width of 12 meters, we hit a broad masonry wall: what we have here is a moat and a tower, that is, a fortified castle!

At the same time, Pierre, the retired maths teacher who is the living memory of the town, tells me of the ancient finding of a curious silver object in a sewer trench, not far from where we were working. This turns out to be the small matrix of a seal, representing a knight’s head with his helmet and coat of arms. There is also a small inscription, which together with my colleague Marc we decipher thus: “Charlot de la Courneuve”. This really looks like a prank: since 2009, our INRAP archaeological centre is located in the town of La Courneuve! What a coincidence!

"Charlot de la Courneuve"

“Charlot de la Courneuve”

Hidden under the esplanade of the Mayor’s offices, the medieval castle had effectively been ‘forgotten’. Some of its arches had been exposed during building works in the 1980s, but they were interpreted as a guardroom from the 16th century. Now, following our trial evaluation, a full-fledged archaeological excavation campaign has been prescribed by the regional authorities. Beginning in June 2013, this campaign is to last 50 days. My team includes Nicolas, who did the evaluation, Eddy, with whom I excavated in Marne-la-Vallée and in Serris, Marc, who shares my office in La Courneuve and participates in the programmed excavation at the Château d’Orville, and finally Hervé, whom I met in Orville in 1989. We are helped along the excavation by trainees.

View of the archaeological site © Inrap

View of the archaeological site © Inrap

Excavation begins by a clearing with a mechanical engine, with the help of the technical assistant Saïd and the engine driver Harry. This clearing enables a better exposure of the site, and makes the vestiges appear very visibly. A cement slab overlying an ancient latrine in the eastern courtyard is removed. We can thus perceive the span of the outer wall preserved over several meters high, leading to the lord’s residence. The base of two windows, now truncated by a nearby street, suggests the location of the hall. Quite obviously, a fire has raged, and a thick burned layer can be found in the nearby ditch: this part of the castle was destroyed at the end of the middle ages. Then, the angular tower already perceived during the evaluation appears now, with a glacis which lends it the look of a pyramid.

Tower of the fortified castle © Inrap

Tower of the fortified castle © Inrap

A second building contained a paved room, decorated by yellow and green squares, together with ornate tiles. The abundance of complex cuttings and ornate tiles on their edges and lower part, all indicate a sophisticated pavement. The floor above this complex was accessible through a staircase: the twenty metres long room found there was rich in decorations: Eagle, Deer, Sagittarius, Leopard, and the paschal Lamb are all represented. We also found there a shield ornate with gilded scallops (appearing, to Olivia at least, like Pac-man figures): these are the coat of arms of Pierre de Chambly, lord of Viarmes. The edifice was probably built at the end of the 13th century by “our” Pierre VI of Chambly.

Pavement  © Inrap

Pavement © Inrap

Excavations at the second room, with its lowered plaster floor, show evidence of a violent fire, earlier than that which destroyed the castle. We have now to examine the chronicles for any evidence of this drama. Could these have been incursions into the region by Charles le Mauvais (Charles the nasty – the bad guy in Hollywood movies) together with his English mercenaries? Or possibly events related to the infamous peasant uprising (Grande Jacquerie) of 1358?
Some answers may well be found in the ground, in the form of potsherds or coins which will provide us with dating, or other clues.
Fortunately, we still have three weeks to explore this site!

François Gentili, archaeologist at INRAP

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.


Potshards by the thousand

I would like to take the opportunity of this ‘Day of Archaeology’ to present to you my area of specialisation, ceramology; the study of ceramics and of pottery. To define the universe of the ceramologist, my universe, in a few succinct words, we could say that just like archaeology writ large, ceramology too is a profession that is also a passion. I do like the distinctive traits of this discipline, the wealth of information that it seeks to deal with, the ways it leads to a fine grained understanding of a site’s history, and then contributes to put some order into the chaos of knowledge. For me, ceramology means also sharing, interacting with others, reaching beyond one’s own specialism: ceramology is not an isolated discipline, but rather one that fully participates in the collective work of an archaeological team in order to give meaning to the excavated remains of the past.

Alban Horry
One of my most exciting archaeological adventures – and I use the word ‘adventure’ advisedly – occurred during the excavation of the Parc Saint-Georges in the French city of Lyon, between 2002 and 2004. My task was to study this quite exceptional collection of recent pottery recovered from the banks of the Saône River. The quarter’s residents had then the habit of throwing their domestic refuse in the river, including their ceramics. The result is the most important post-medieval assemblage found so far in Lyon, ample testimony to the wealth and diversity of clay and pottery objects from these households. The study of these objects has rejoined that of other assemblages dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries excavated within the city of Lyon over the past three decades. Overall, no less than 400,000 potshards have already offered and will continue to provide researchers with many hours of study and research perspectives.
In my workplace at INRAP – the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research – I have also to undertake the study and the expertise of medieval and modern ceramic assemblages uncovered during trial evaluation (diagnostics) prior to building works on these sites. These are short term missions where it is necessary to quickly provide the colleagues who undertake the excavations with essential chronological elements, to enable the production of synthetic rapports. I particularly enjoy this part of my work, where I can anticipate the more detailed studies that could be undertaken upon the completion of large-scale excavations.
I also like the fact that I can study ceramics ranging from the 5th to the 19th centuries, on what is a very long time span, rich in continuities and also in variations. The same diversity bears on the regions where I work, spanning from Rhônes-Alpes and Auvergne to Bourgogne, in eastern and central France. This wide geographic range allows me for example to trace phenomena of diffusion in ceramic productions.

An equally important aspect of my work concerns the communication of my research results on medieval and modern ceramics, through scientific publications and participation in conferences and colloquia.
Last but not least, I have also the opportunity and the pleasure to present my profession and to share my passion with the wider public. Indeed this seems to me to be particularly important in order to increase general awareness of archaeology. After all, the ceramologist that I am works on a selection of ordinary items which nonetheless bear their distinctive testimony on the past. With ceramics we can reach the very heart of history – not perhaps the history of great events, but that, closer to us, of our ancestors going on with their daily lives.

Alban Horry, ceramologist at INRAP

[ylwm_vimeo ]57137382[/ylwm_vimeo]

Neanderthal Funerary Practices: Too savage to mourn?

My name is Sarah, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Southampton. I would love to be able to tell you I’m scrambling around in the dirt playing with some real archaeology, but right now I’m sat at my desk reading about how other people played around in the dirt and feeling a little envious. I’m actually reading excavation reports and articles about Neanderthal remains from across the world, from the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France to Kebara in Israel.

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

My PhD project focuses on Neanderthal funerary practices – which, in short, is anything and everything that Neanderthals could have done with their dead. (This is normally the point where the entire dinner table goes quiet and I’m left trying to decipher whether the faces staring back at me are confused, intrigued, or terrified). I’m looking for evidence of any and all types of funerary practices, such as burial/inhumation; funerary caching, curation, defleshing and disarticulation. This involves me going through every record I can possibly find of every scrap of Neanderthal remains across the world and examining each individual for characteristic signs of each type of funerary practice – for example, a pit feature for a burial or cut marks for defleshing.

But why is that important? The treatment and honour of the dead through funerary practices and rituals is a key part of our society, and although a culturally sensitive issue it’s something every society does in some way. It is a key emotional display of our humanity, and the cognitive ability to understand the concept of death and being aware of one’s own mortality is quite a realisation. The ability to be able to understand that death will come to us all one day, and to understand that intervention in the lives of others can at least stave off the inevitable for a little longer is an obvious conclusion for us – but it is clear in the Neanderthal world too. For example, the ‘Old Man’ of Shanidar (Shanidar 1, Iraq) was an elderly individual with several traumatic injuries and deformities, which could have required the assistance of others to survive, shows that Neanderthals had this understanding. And understanding how this evolved in Neanderthals helps us understand how the same characteristics, emotions, and rituals evolved in modern humans.

What struck me was how easily the concept of a Neanderthal burying a relative or friend could be so easily dismissed, and how the idea that Neanderthals were a bit brutish and slow still seems to be the popular stereotype for this species. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit daft and weren’t capable of the same things as modern humans also frustrates me – just because we haven’t dug up a Neanderthal who died in middle of updating his Facebook status on his iPad, it doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, Neanderthals appear to have been routinely honouring their deceased loved ones well before Homo sapiens ever decided to join them in Europe.

Neand Facebook

A hint that things might not be looking up for Ned…


Although I’m still in the early stages of my PhD, so far the pattern emerging appears to be that the early Neanderthals began by defleshing and disarticulating individuals (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term ‘cannibalism’ because I cannot conclusively prove they were routinely consuming the remains), and from around 115,000 years BP the later Neanderthals begin burying them. And it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, old or young, everyone is treated in the same way across the Neanderthal world. What a lovely thought.

I still have a lot of work to do on my research, so hopefully by next year’s Day of Archaeology I will have more to tell you. But in the mean time I’m sure my cheery topic will continue to destroy dinner party conversations for some time to come, and maybe, I will be on my way to mastering the art of discussing taboo subjects without scaring the general population.

Sarah Schwarz

PhD Student, CAHO, University of Southampton

Follow me on Twitter: @archaeosarah

Or read more about my research on my blog:

Nimrud for Museums and Mobiles

“Just as this bug stinks, so may your breath stink before god, king and mankind!”
— one of the chilling curses invoked in the treaty between King Esarhaddon of Assyria and his vassals in 672 BC.

I’m curator of cuneiform collections in the Department of the Middle East at the British Museum. No two days are the same for me. One of the more predictable parts of my schedule is project work. Today I’ve been working on a collaborative project called Nimrud: Materialities of Assyrian Knowledge Production, funded by the AHRC and directed by Eleanor Robson at the University of Cambridge.

The Nimrud project explores how scientific and historical knowledge is made from archaeological objects. We’re tracing the biographies of inscribed artefacts from their manufacture and use to their current locations in museum collections and their virtual representations on the web. As part of the project, we’re assembling online resources related to the ancient Assyrian capital city of Nimrud (Kalhu/Calah), especially the finds from excavations by the British Institute for the Study of Iraq in 1950’s and 1960’s. We’ll also be hosting several related events throughout 2013.

Our resources are designed and licensed for re-use by museums in mobile gallery guides. The technical focus is on the development of Linked Data, to encourage meaningful connectivity between previously isolated resources, and to bridge the gap between the museum case and the online world.

Today I’ve been writing web pages about the “Vassal Treaties of Esarhaddon”. King Esarhaddon drew up a remarkable treaty to ensure that his chosen son would succeed him on the throne. His own experience showed that a smooth succession could not be taken for granted. My biography of this object will go live on the Nimrud website in August. In the meantime, you can read the text – and all the fun curses – on the SAA website (it’s no. 6).

BM 132548. The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh.

The treaty between Esarhaddon and Humbaresh, ruler of the city of Nashimarta. BM 132548. Copyright Trustees of the British Museum.

Out of the woods and onto the plains


This is me, ecstatic to be out of the woods and onto the plains.

So, I have a problem. People ask me for help and I say yes. Every time. That creates a bit of stress, but it also creates a lot of variety in my work. And it’s archaeology, so it never really feels like work, does it?!

So, for the Day of Archaeology 2013 (which for me was July 29), I was extremely excited to be on the plains, after playing in the forest for the last few weeks. No bears, no spiders, no twigs in the eye. Just mosquitos and sunshine.

Our task was to mitigate a stone feature, which in this case was a cairn. This cairn had actually been identified two years ago, and was subject to Stage 1 excavations last year. A total of five 1-x-1 m units were excavated and they found a bunch of lithics, including a scraper and a multi-directional core. It’s actually somewhat rare to find artifacts associated with stone features, so when that happens, mitigation often goes to Stage 2. That’s where we came in.


This is Rachel, digging away.

I decided to complete excavations on the cairn itself, and to investigate areas adjacent to the units that were most productive from 2012. We dug and we dug and screened and mapped and found… squat. Well, we found the odd sketchifact but really nothing to write home about. We were allowed to excavate up to 6 metres here, but I decided that the last unit would have been pointless. Sigh.


Our cairn, post-ex and somewhat reconstructed.

So we shut it down, took some final photos, and left a reminder of what used to be here. A short and sweet day. Tomorrow, we will start mitigations on a much larger site, with multiple stone circles and cairns. This photo, taken at the Torrington Gopher Museum, is a (not-so-accurate) representation of what we are trying to investigate. We are crossing our fingers for some really good finds!


“An Indian Village” from the Torrington Gopher Museum, Alberta. A must-see!

A Day in the Cells of Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin, Ireland

A lady gazing by the window

My ‘Day of Archaeology’ has been, since April, making my way slowly around the old (West) wing of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin. For at least four hours a day I have been recording the graffiti remnants that I locate as I move systematically around the dark cells. This does not include the hours of downloading often hundreds of images per day, transcribing text, annotating images with notes and providing unique filenames for each image. Since I started fieldwork exploring this fascinating heritage site, which was in use as the county gaol for Dublin from 1796-1924, every day has been consistently different and altogether fascinating beyond my wildest hopes!

The Wing of the gaol that I have been recording stretches over three corridors and three floors, with the exception of the top floor, which only has two corridors. Each floors contains around 25 accessible cells, which up to now have included a ‘bathing’ room and the remnants of a padded cell. I have been funded by the Irish Research Council through the School of Social Justice (only archaeologist on staff!) to record the graffiti. What makes this recording ‘archaeological’ is that the graffiti is not just treated as text but its dimensions are important – is it engraved or surface written? Where is it placed? How does it relate to other pieces of graffiti? How was it made? These are among some of the questions I ask in my recording of this varied, extensive and precious source. The project was undertaken in order to add to our knowledge of women’s experiences of imprisonment during civil war. We know that the prison held a large number of women during the Irish Civil War (1922-1923 were held in Kilmainham. Guestimations number these in the few hundred, this was the first period of mass-imprisonment of women as political prisoners in the state’s history. Unfortunately, no registers from this period survive so we do not even have a full list of who was held here, when and why. Fortunately, the women – and their predecessors in the cells – liked to graffiti the walls of the cells, often with their names, dates of imprisonment and even home address. A fabulous source of information that this promises to be , I have encountered much more variety of graffiti remnant and these are increasingly adding to the narratives of those last years that the jail functioned as a de facto political prison. This includes the graffiti of soldiers who were held here during WWI, remnants of earlier prisoners scratched under the layers of whitewash and remnants of ex-prisoners returning many years later to note their previous habitations.

Today was a typical day – I move systematically down each corridor left to right as likewise I move through each cell left to right as I record it. My only equipment includes a relatively unsophisticated collection of digital camera and stand, professional lighting with stand (courtesy of UCD AV department), a notebook for describing the deciphering the graffiti and graph paper where I can represent the location of my graffiti finds!

As I’m currently working on the ever-popular ‘1916 Corridor’ (the corridor that held a significant number of leaders of the Easter Rising of 1916 who were executed in the aftermath of the failed rebellion) I have to time my entry to the corridor carefully. Due to the noise and disruption my entrance of cells entails I need to coincide with a period in between guided tours of the corridor. Once desperate narratives of executed men and their bereft families have been provided by the exellent guides I shoo straggling tourists and use my key to access the cell of one of the executed – my first cell today was that of Thomas Clarke. The cell was dark, gloomy and very dusty. Sadly, the floor was scattered with debris of careless visitors who had pushed pieces of paper and tissue through the large spyholes. Who knows what they gain from such actions? I shake my head. The only such remnant I have come across that I can begin to understand its depositions was a small laminated photograph of three ladies – evidently related – with a message on the back noting that it was in memory of when they were all together. I found this by chance under a heating pipe in the cell of the most famous of all the executed leaders – Padraig Pearse. Evidently it was a memento for the depositor of happier times past, unlike the scraps of paper and wrappers that most of the other cells contain. The cells have been locked and closed to the public since the 1990s due to the tendency of visitors to drop litter and especially add to existing graffiti on the walls. These later additions are usually swiftly scrawled, aesthetically unpleasing and uninformative scratching but I have taken care to record some of them – particularly if they are of early date or the writer was from an unusual location. There have been additions from as far afield as the Basque Country and Russia. They may not be desired additions by the custodians but they do add a strand to the many narratives of the site.

The graffiti that interests me the most are the portraits that frequently appear on the walls. The majority are small, side-profile images of men with as varying degree of skill and charm, as can be imagined. They are very infrequently identifiable but add a degree of personality and individualization with their uniform, hats, hair styles, facial hair and even smoking apparatus that is often lacking from the rest of the more text-based graffiti. Those pieces written in pencil are usually the oldest examples, most walls have at least some that are identifiably from the early 1920s. The most numerous examples are names, address and dates – some even detail when the author was arrested, by whom and how long they have been in prison. The majority include at least a name (in English and / or Gaelic), home address and county. Sometimes they finish with a slogan ‘Up the Republic’ or somesuch but this will depend when they were written and by whom. Today’s walls had alot of graffiti that had been drawn or engraved in more recent times – most dated from when people started to visit the site more frequently after it reopened to visitors for the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966. But almost every wall has glimmers of pencil text and drawings peeking through the whitewash, which was probably liberally applied in 1920. Through the use of professional lighting these images can be easily decipherable, other times only a trace of a stroke, a letter or number glimpses through. I don’t record every mark – it depends on how photographable it is and how many are on that particular wall, cell, corridor – I suppose there is a degree of subjectivity in this aspect. However, a large number are photographed, described and plotted to provide evidence of the representative as well as the exceptional.

Today there was evidence of small, animal paw prints on the bottom half of the wall under the window and some scratchings consistent with bird activity. This is not uncommon, even on the middle floor. I have started recording these marks- they may not be intentional, readable, human graffiti but they reveal another tale of the site. That of abandonment in the aftermath of civil war and for decades after when noone quite knew what to do with the site, when it meant to much to some people and to little to others. The remnants of animal occupation reveal these stories more succinctly than any other trace.

As well as recording the graffiti I always take a cursory look around the cell to see if there are any large gaps in the floor boards, around the walls or the cavities around the heating pipe that travel the length of the corridor through every cell. Today was one of the lucky days when I did locate something interesting – in an unnamed cell (many of the cells in the 1916 corridor have plaques above them noting who had stayed in them prior to execution or release) a piece of paper had been pushed into the cavity around the heating pipe. On closer inspection it didn’t look to contain writing (with the exception of a possible solitary ‘J’) but it had definitely been intentional secreted into that hole – why? when was it meant to be recovered? It can join a small and select group of artefacts that I have found in such locations include a cotton handkerchief, which had suffered an almost identical fate!

Today, like most days, I recorded two cells (moving myself and my equipment between the cells in the few minutes of quiet I have between guided tours!). I try to ignore the tours as much as possible for no other reason than it detracts from my concentration in searching out graffiti. When many examples are mere traces to the naked eye this concentration is important. I can’t say I’m ignored quite so much by the visitors to the site – many are fascinated by ‘the lady in the cells’ but I let the guides deal with explanations, I prefer to be a silent presence!

Like most days, the graffiti I located today included both engraved and surface drawings, it included mainly text, some numbers and a small number of drawings. Like each day the exact ratios of these graffiti forms and the exact wording of the text was unique to that cell. Until I finish the fieldwork in the next month I won’t know for certain how I am going to interpret these scratchings, writings and drawings but I already know there is a huge number, variety and range that will add to our existing knowledge of the site. And hopefully many more of those forgotten ladies of the civil war will be located and their names added to the lists of political prisoners who transitioned through this infamous prison site.

A day of spatial semantics, digital excavation data and other things

Archaeologists tools: The laptop is now very much part of this armoury.

Archaeologists tools: The laptop is now very much part of this armoury.

Following on from my previous posts in 2011 (here and here) and 2012 (here), this year it’s a bit different. I’ve left the world of commercial archaeology to return to academia, starting a PhD in geosemantic technologies for archaeological research (GSTAR) based in the Hypermedia Research Unit at the University of South Wales with input from the Geographical Information Systems Research Unit. I also now undertake freelance digital heritage consultancy work for various clients in the public, commercial and charitable sectors through my business Archaeogeomancy.

Last Friday, the Day of Archaeology, was a fairly typical day involving some research and a bit of commercial work. I have a number of ongoing projects, a number of which required some input last Friday. And spending a bit of time with my latest daughter, three week old Florence (who has yet to show any interest in archaeology, unlike her big sister Amelia who loves ruins). One thing I rarely get to do these days is dig, my time being almost entirely filled with research, writing and other desk/computer based activities. But I still very much consider myself an archaeologist, it’s just that my tools are different. The photos I’ve used all come from my Flickr stream and are of archaeological sites, hopefully just a bit more interesting than photos of my computers…


Finds bags

Finds bags containing instances of the class Physical Object, discovered through a Finding Event

I am currently wrapping up the literature review section of my PhD and heard last Thursday that my three month review has been accepted so full steam ahead. I’ve been looking at the range of Semantic Web and Linked Data technologies out there with particular reference to archaeological and heritage applications. Within this subject area, the GSTAR project is focussing on spatial data and geosemantic techniques and builds on the preceding STAR and STELLAR projects, collaborations between the University of South Wales, English Heritage and the Archaeology Data Service.

I’ve also been working on some refinements of an ontological model, the CRM-EH, further clarifying aspects relating to the formation of archaeological features, deposits and the deposition of artefacts. Preliminary results are posted here on my blog, which I use to talk about my work in digital heritage and interesting things I come across.


In addition to my research, I am currently working on a number of exciting projects for clients. I have just deployed an archaeological information system to facilitate the interpretation of marine geophysics data based around Microsoft Access and Esri ArcGIS; this is currently in beta testing which gives me an opportunity to complete other projects including some tools, again built using Esri ArcGIS, to support data collation, synthesis and reporting/cartography for Desk Based Assessments (DBAs) including Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs).


Digging, the activity which reveals archaeological features, deposits and the stratigraphic relationships between them.

Another interesting project I was working on last Friday involves the creation of a Linked Data resource relating to the recent excavations at Silbury Hill, near Avebury, Wiltshire. This site is very dear to me, having featured in my undergraduate and masters dissertations which investigated the formation of landscapes in prehistory and the spatial patterning of archaeological remains by means of movement and perception of human scale actors. This Linked Data resource relates to the later Roman activity at the site and currently comprises c.40K assertions about contexts, stratigraphy, finds and samples all held in a triple store which will be published in due course to further add to the growing number of Linked Data resources online.

Archaeology in the Red-Zone: post earthquake management in Christchurch, Canterbury, NZ

Working as an archaeologist following a natural disaster really makes you consider priorities in life as well as heritage management. I came to work at the New Zealand Historic Places Trust (NZHPT) following the Canterbury earthquakes. I work as the Assistant Archaeologist and Researcher in a fixed term role established to support earthquake recovery work.

I hadn’t been living in Christchurch long when the earthquakes struck – a 7.1 quake on 4 September 2010 which caused widespread damage and two serious injuries and a 6.3 quake which hit at 12:51pm on 22 February 2011 causing severe damage and the loss of 185 lives – and there have been over 10 000 aftershocks since. From my personal experience I would have to argue that natural disasters really do seem to result in a flight or fight response. However, despite not being a Christchurch resident long, I now feel an even stronger connection with this place and really want to contribute to the rebuilding of the city and people’s lives.

Looking down Manchester Street, Christchurch CBD after the February 22 earthquake [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 2 March 2011]

Looking down Manchester Street, Christchurch CBD after the February 22 earthquake [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 2 March 2011]

Damage to Odean Theatre (NZHPT Register No. 3140). This theatre was constructed in 1883 and is an archaeological site as defined by the Historic Places Act. It is the oldest masonry theatre in New Zealand. [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 26 September 2012]

Damage to Odean Theatre (NZHPT Register No. 3140). This theatre was constructed in 1883 and is an archaeological site as defined by the Historic Places Act. It is the oldest masonry theatre in New Zealand. [Dave Margetts, NZHPT, 26 September 2012]

During the earthquakes widespread damage occurred to buildings and structures, with disruption to water, power and sewerage services. Many buildings are being demolished and earthworks are needed everywhere to remove building foundations, clear sites and repair infrastructure – over 300 kilometres of sewer pipes and 895 kilometres of road were damaged. The government is in the process of acquiring and clearing over 6000 residential properties in what is called the ‘Residential Red Zone’ in the worst hit areas so that residents have the option of moving on. Land in the Christchurch CBD, also one of the worst effected areas, is also being tagged for acquisition to redevelop the city centre. At the moment there are many empty parking spaces which will be rebuilt on in time.

As places of pre-1900 human activity some of these structures and properties, where damage occurred, are considered to be archaeological sites under New Zealand legislation. In New Zealand the Historic Places Act directs that an archaeological authority is required to destroy, damage or modify an archaeological site. As a Crown entity and as New Zealand’s leading historic heritage agency one of NZHPT’s jobs is to administer the archaeological authority process and carry out compliance to ensure that archaeological sites are protected or preserved via record. This has obviously proved challenging following a natural disaster where the priorities are rightly lives, safety and recovery. Funnily enough archaeology has not been the first thing on everyone’s minds. A streamlined authority process has been developed so that applicants can now expect decisions to destroy, damage or modify an archaeological site within 3 working days or 5 if the site is of Maori interest. Archaeological sites in Christchurch mostly relate to Maori (New Zealand’s indigenous population) occupation and the more recent European settlement of the area from the mid-nineteenth century. Shell middens, historic rubbish dumps, brick barrel drains and buildings, amongst other things, are all being recorded by archaeologists before they are destroyed.

A site visit to New Brighton with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) to understand the extent of excavations required for repairing sewer systems. NZHPT Regional Archaeologist and myself in yellow high vis.  [Huia Pacey, NZHPT, 9 July 2013]

A site visit to New Brighton with the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team (SCIRT) to understand the extent of excavations required for repairing sewer systems. NZHPT Regional Archaeologist and myself in yellow high vis. [Huia Pacey, NZHPT, 9 July 2013]

A large chunk of my job at the moment is to undertake desktop assessment and research of properties to ascertain whether an archaeological authority is required. Insurance companies, project managers, demolition companies and CERA (the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority who have been set up by the Government to coordinate the ongoing recovery effort following the earthquakes) all send me lists of properties to check everyday resulting in about 200 a week to check. While we have a national database of recorded archaeological sites and a good understanding of where pre-1900 occupation occurred many of these areas have not been subject to archaeological assessments or investigation before. So my research is designed to fill this gap and identify unrecorded sites. The opportunity to research properties and find out more about patterns of settlement in Christchurch is fascinating. However every now and again reality hits that for each property that comes across my desk a family has lost their home or a business has lost their premises following the earthquakes.

My workspace at the NZHPT Southern Regional Office. Our office was displaced from the CBD following the earthquakes and now operates from the outskirts of the city. [Frank van der Heijden, NZHPT, 29 July 2013]

My workspace at the NZHPT Southern Regional Office. Our office was displaced from the CBD following the earthquakes and now operates from the outskirts of the city. [Frank van der Heijden, NZHPT, 29 July 2013]

I also assist the Regional Archaeologist (also the Canterbury Archaeological Officer following the earthquakes) in processing authorities, assessing archaeological management plans, assessing archaeological reports and following up on site damage and compliance with the conditions of archaeological authorities. The volume of work post-quake means I don’t get much time outside anymore and when I do it is mostly to ensure that the conditions of our authorities are being complied with.

The things that keep me sane through all of this administration and earthquakes are opportunities to tell our stories – both past and present. I am interested in telling the stories of life in Christchurch through time and the story of managing archaeology following a disaster. One of my jobs is to catalogue and submit archaeological reports to the University of Canterbury’s CEISMIC Digital Archive called Quake Studies. My colleagues and I have also facilitated sharing of archaeological information and artefacts in public programmes such as Canterbury Museum’s Quake City exhibition and the CBD Rebuild tour. Hopefully we can learn from the settlement of our swampy city and previous building techniques to ensure that a disaster of this type doesn’t happen again. The scale of archaeological work in Christchurch is greater than it has ever been and the scale of earthworks required for redevelopment means in many areas this will be the last opportunity we have to examine the material remains of our past. It is important to keep talking about our past and remembering what was.