David Howell is a lecturer in Heritage and Archaeology with the University of South Wales (Caerleon Campus). /n /nHe is happy to discuss all things to do with archaeology, heritage, intangible heritage, museums and so on at http://thewelshmantravels.weebly.com and https://twitter.com/Kasuutta

Excavating in the face of adversity

It’s been a wonderful summer so far. We are well into day four of our two-week block of excavations on a sub-medieval building, which has been nothing but rewarding during our last three seasons of excavations. Things have changed this year though. In 2013, we were officially excavating under the umbrella of the University of South Wales. That is no longer the case. In 2014, we excavate under the joint banner of the ‘South Wales Centre for Interdisciplinary and Historical Research’ and ‘Cyfarwdd’, because the History Department under which we used to operate, is in the process of being buried in the ground…or wound up, both descriptions are applicable.

For those with long memories, you’ll know that we’ve been here before. We are not far off the ten-year anniversary of the closure of the archaeology department in the former University of Wales, Newport institution. Back then, Caerleon was a real player on the archaeology circuit, with the likes of the Aldhouse-Greens, Pollard, Chadwick and Howell, all being established names forging ahead with world-leading research. The power players of the day though decided that world class research and an international profile was not what was wanted for the institution at the time, and so out if went.

In the last few weeks it has been confirmed that the History Department at Caerleon is going to be ‘consolidated’ with a department on another campus over 20 miles away. The History Department was the arm of the former history and archaeology department to survive the last round of cuts. Now, it’s time appears to be up as well. Recruitment numbers are the reason, we are told, for this decision.

One of the joys of the last three years has been the bringing back of archaeological excavations within the department. There are several of us archaeologists who survived the culling of the archaeology department back in the day, and we have fought a long fight to win over historians to the merits of our cause. We do that very well. Today we have had three history graduates working with us, Andy, Charlotte and Sarah, all of whom have taken up the trowel while engaging with a history programme. The real sad things about all this, is that students of History will not get this opportunity in the future. Indeed, there will be no future students of history or archaeology anywhere in south east Wales from 2018 on, that is surely the saddest thing of all.

day 4 004

Yet, in the face of ongoing adversity, we rumble on. Indeed for all the doom and gloom above, this excavation continues to be a real pleasure, both in terms of the excellent and highly committed team that we have onboard, and the sheer quality of the excavation material that is coming up. Over the last year and a half, we have enjoyed revealing a building in excess of 15m in length, including a complete, standing bread oven and potential secondary oven or furnace. Every time we think we have completed the story, more walls suddenly appear, significantly increasing the dimensions of the structure. Today was no different.

On day three (Thursday) we identified a new wall feature coming off at right angles from the main structure. Close to one of two significant thresholds, we figured that the openings of this building would be one of the simpler elements to figure out, then the wall emerged. Much of day four was focused on easing out additional information around this feature. However, on a personal note, most of my Day of Archaeology was spent moving spoil tips. When we started, the spoil tips were located in perfectly sensible places, well back from the trenches. However, as all of these new wall features emerge, and the building grows, most of our spoil tips now appear to be sitting directly on top of underlying archaeology. Today I had the joy of moving two spoil tips while the rest of the team got stuck into their features – I’m sure few other site directors volunteer for such tasks!

On the other side of the building, we have found yet another wall, though this time it would appear to be a retaining wall behind the main structure. I am yet to rule out other options though. One of the two thresholds identified was thoroughly cleaned today, and that has proven to be far more substantial than expected before. Is there a possibility that this retaining wall is in fact part of something more complex? It’s hard to say, but that is what week two is for I guess. We also found a very early clay pipe bowl, complete and decorated, dating to roughly the 1620s or 1630s. It was the ideal find. While a lot of our artefactual material has been jumbled, to get solid datable material like this is really beneficial. We don’t have a lot which helps us date this building (odd given the vast scale of it), but this is the sort of thing which is right in our target zone.day 4 010

So, our Day of Archaeology, day four of our nine-day window of excavation, was another triumph. Everyone enjoyed themselves; we welcomed four new members, two of whom had no prior experience, and they seemed to love it. Experienced and newcomers alike have benefitted from participating in this project. As a learning opportunity and an engaging experience, our excavation opportunities have been consistently successful. Yet, come the next Day of Archaeology, we will not be posting in relation to a university-led excavation, because the university just does not want us.

Preparing for the Future – A New Day for Archaeology in Caerleon

Things are very different one year on. This time last year, the History team at Caerleon was putting the finishing touches to a successful week long excavation, underneath the Iron Age Hillfort at Caerleon. It had been a wonderful excavation, with a perfect blend of highly experienced archaeologists, and complete first time novices – though by the end of proceedings we had established some new expert ditch diggers (though I don’t know how happy they were about it). Today, the planned excavation is a few weeks away, and the circumstances under which we are excavating are very different indeed, and for that to make sense, we need to go back in time a little.

About ten years ago, Caerleon was a hot bed for archaeological activities. Those with good memories might recall the SCARAB group which used to operate out of Caerleon. Back then we did a lot of archaeology, a lot of great archaeology. But, for a series of quite boring reasons, most of which have long been forgotten, all that disappeared, almost overnight a great archaeology department vanished. A decade on, and I am very pleased to be able to announce, on this Day of Archaeology, that we are working very hard at Caerleon to bring archaeology back. As I write this, I know that I should really be working on the new degree proposals, but there will be time for that. Not just archaeology though, we are looking at delivering on Heritage, Archaeology and Historical Studies. It’s a long road to walk, but if this programme proves a success, we will be contributing to Days of Archaeology for many years to come, and that is something that really should be celebrated.

For today though, it’s all about the comparatively more mundane process of pre-excavation prep. We’ll be spending most of the next two weeks finalising our team (and anyone reading this who might be interested, you’d be very welcome – see Excavate2013) and equipment. This year we are predominantly looking at a post medieval site, a series of farm buildings with some clear wall evidence surviving in places. In addition, there is one very tempting mound feature nearby. It’s never been touched before, and while it might end up being just a natural feature, or post med activity connected to the farm, it might, just might, be a Bronze Age feature – worth a look either way. We had a bit of a shock last week to hear that there were plans to demolish the tool shed and everything in it. A bit of a misunderstanding, which was quickly resolved, but those are the sorts of things that crop up from time to time, the least expected problems can be expected while preparing for an excavation. Rest assured, the tool shed and equipment are safe and sound, and ready to go into action in August.

I’ve just had a symbolic unpacking of the trowel as well – a small but essential, and quite emotionally laden piece of kit. As we have officially been a History department in Caerleon for many years, the opportunities to excavate have not been as frequent as I might have liked, so my trowel of about fifteen years has a now annual recess, tucked away on the bookcase, where any who dare to touch it our quickly chastised and warned away from its proximity. That trowel has now made the symbolic move from bookcase to desk top – a daily reminder that we are getting closer to breaking ground.

Ready and waiting.

But that will be about as much as gets done on this particular Day of Archaeology. For all the excitement and rewards that field archaeology provides, there is that mundane trade-off, as planning, sorting and finding of tools that have been sitting dormant for eleven months, gradually come together. But come this time next year, I’m hoping that I’ll be complaining about the sheer volume of fieldwork facing us, after all, if all goes well, we will be, in part at least, an archaeology department once more.

Making Archaeologists. Caerleon Excavations.

As ‘Day of Archaeology 2012’ sprung into life, the excavations on the Iron Age Caerleon 2012 dig came to a close. This is our final day of a brisk five day project. At the moment it’s about 8:15 in the morning, and I am looking out towards the University of Wales, Newport campus. There are clouds, lots of them, and they are not the fluffy light ones, they have a pretty foreboding look about them… The campus is roughly a twenty minute drive from our excavation site, and our team this year has been dependent on our committed core of undergraduates. I should clarify that these are history undergraduate students, rather than archaeology undergraduates. Time was, our university had a bustling and well respected archaeology department, but for a variety of reasons, we sadly lost that department, and history was left standing alone. However, there are enough of us archaeologists who survive in and near to the university, and the desire for archaeological research stands strong, even if we don’t have the name ‘archaeology’ on our department notice board anymore. A strong tenant of our excavations in the past was to train prospective field archaeologists, and that has been seen again this year, with the majority of the team being made up of first time archaeologists.

You would not know to look at them, but all five of the team members here are on their very first field excavation.


The excavations this year are just below an Iron Age hillfort (Lodge Hill), which overlooks the Roman fortress at Caerleon. We’ve been following up on a number of features, and today we are focusing on the second of our two sites, the excavation of a trackway feature. We have some great maps that suggest the length of the trackway to be pretty significant, and running in a temptingly straight line (tempting if you like Roman features that is), going straight over the top of the hillfort. Lots of questions were being asked of this feature, how was it made, how old was it, what was it used for? As the final day of our excavations proceed, hopefully we’ll be able to deal with some of those queries.

The trackway.

(…several hours later…)

Well, back home now, 6pm(ish), in the warmth of the office, feet up and in front of the computer. Those black clouds spied earlier gave as expected, and turned the majority of our ‘day of archaeology’, into a day of mini trench floods and occasional soakings. Such is the way with field archaeology. That though is not to say that our last day of excavation was in any way a negative, in fact we had quite a successful day.

First things first though, for many of the entries posted for Day of Archaeology, we have been treated to some stunning artefacts and insights. Alas, the most time consuming activity that took place on our final day, was, as is often the case for field excavation, back filling! It’s one of those questions that is often asked of us by passing visitors, ‘what are you going to do with it (the archaeology) once you’ve finished?’, the standard short answer is ‘fill it in’. So for our day in the life of an archaeologist, it was a day of hole filling, more so than it was for hole excavation (although it’s not always a dull affair as these keen excavators hopefully show)!

As some of the trenches were being filled in though, we had sunk two test pit sections through our trackway feature, which previously in the week had revealed two distinct surfaces, and in the last hour or so of the day, revealed a third. Coming down on a really compact clay surface (you can see the moment when it was revealed here), the most obvious inclusion was a wealth of charcoal material.

The discovery of this surface was one of the last acts of archaeology on site for the year. However, the questions go on. Dating from the charcoal will be next on the agenda. We only returned a few sherds of probably post medieval pottery (though it might be late, you never know) from the first two surfaces, but the charcoal may well let us take our site back much further, we’ll have to wait and see. When we do get the results though, that should go a long way to helping us tackle some of those many questions we had going into this, so it’s a great result, even if the result means that we must wait on some more results.

And so as the day of archaeology ends, so does our excavation. It’s been a blast being involved in field archaeology again after some time away, but as interesting as the excavation element has been, today, as with the rest of this week has reminded me of one thing in particular. Field excavation has a funny effect on people. There is something about going through the hours of excavation, be it in sunshine or rain, be it through the excitement of discovering a road surface untouched for however many centuries, or the frustration of sifting through yet another find free ditch (two of our team know what that is all about now), that brings people together. At the start of this week, we had probably four distinct groups of people, different backgrounds, different social groups, different interests, yet spending the week sharing the experience of field excavation, those barriers gradually whittled away. Those involved became friends, became united, and that is both a surprising but also familiarly reassuring thing about field excavation. At the end of it all, we had had a wonderful time, become good friends, and ultimately, we were united as archaeologists. Here’s hoping your day of archaeology was as good as ours!