What does a Science Advisor do all day?



Much earlier this year on a visit to the submerged forest at Erith I had found what appeared to be a hurdle; woven from thin pieces of wood. My colleagues in Historic England at Fort Cumberland had identified the wood as Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) and the samples were sent for radiocarbon dating.  Today we got the results of the dating the fragments of ash wood date to the Bronze Age which is excellent news as this is consistent with other dated material from this part of the submerged forest and is exciting as the structure is likely to have been made humans rather than the trees which were overwhelmed by rising river levels.

Next I was asked for advice about a site where Vibro columns were proposed as means of ground improvement. It is very common for buildings to built using piled foundations. This method is often referred to as piling but this is misleading. Vibro columns involve a very different approach mechanically. The particles in the deposits are shaken down into place to provide a more compact and solid base for building upon. How these methods impact archaeological deposits is still poorly understood. We do know that it causes movement and settlement over a wider area and is likely to adversely affect any archaeology present. To find out more about piling and archaeology see https://historicengland.org.uk/images-books/publications/piling-and-archaeology/

I then joined colleagues from GLAAS (Greater London Archaeological Advice Service) and Development Management team for a visit to the Curtain Theatre excavations in Hackney. Here the knucklebone floor which had been much admired and re-tweeted recently was being reburied. The controlled reburial of archaeological remains to preserve them is referred to as preservation in situ this can be permanent or temporary.  The area to be reburied had been covered with a special membrane Terram and the next stage was for it to be covered with sand. The type of sand used is very important it has to be able to be packed down evenly to provide a buffer layer between the archaeology and what is to go above it and also has to have a low Iron content to avoid leaching into the archaeological deposits and potentially damaging them.

My next task was to work on our next training event. Over the last year or so we have been putting on a series of one day training sessions on Human remains in commercial archaeology, ethical legal and curatorial considerations.  These events have been very well attended and the feedback has also been very positive. The audience has included curators, consultants and contractors. This has involved lots of input from colleagues within Historic England both for technical input and logistic arrangements and also many external speakers from local authorities, universities,  the Church of England and the ministry of justice as well as and archaeology companies and freelance specialists.

So a full and varied day of archaeological science.


Death, dating and dirt

This year despite doing the same job in same location as I have done for the previous 3 Days of Archaeology the name of organisation I work for is different. This is due to the recent split of the old English Heritage into Historic England (who I work for) and the English Heritage Trust. Historic England is the public body that looks after England’s historic environment by championing historic places, helping people understand value and care for them.  English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites.

My day started with reading some new guidelines from APABE – the Advisory Panel on the archaeology of Burials in England which had been written by my Historic England colleagues Jane Sidell and Simon Mays. More and more projects are taking place on land which includes some very large burial ground so this guidance is particularly welcome.

Next I read and responded to a number of WSI (written schemes of investigation) for commercial projects in London. These are basically method statements and have to be approved before work can commence. My colleagues in GLAAS Greater London Archaeological Advisory Service provide advice to the planner in many of the London boroughs (the City of London and Southwark have their own in house archaeological advisers). The archaeology advisers will contact me on projects which include aspects of archaeological science such as Geoarchaeological borehole surveys. Random interesting fact 1 – when writing about the East and North East London wetlands the term Lea is used for the natural river valley and its deposits whilst Lee denotes the manmade channel of the Lee Navigation.

The highlight of my morning was a site visit to see the Crossrail site of Bedlam near Liverpool Street which is being excavated by archaeologists and osteologists from MOLA. All staff on site must to wear full PPE (personal protection equipment). Random interesting fact 2 – because this is a rail project the colour of that clothing is orange rather than the more familiar yellow. So for the purposes of my visit I donned the full orange.

The skeletons were being carefully recorded before being excavated. The site is covered by a large tent in order to shield the public from accidental views of human remains but is also makes the process of excavation a lot easier for the archaeologists especially on rainy days. In addition to evidence relating to the use of the graveyard, a large quantity of bone working waste had been found this week, which comprises mostly sawn through fragments of cattle metapodials (cannon bones) including a fine example of a pinners bone. These were used to hold the metal blanks during the process of filing them down to fine points. Examples of these artefacts are online.

After lunch I joined my colleagues in GLAAS for some training in Radiocarbon dating from Alex Bayliss. Establishing the chronology of a site is key to understanding and interpreting the archaeological features and finds present. Helping to arrange and provide training both inside the organisation and for the wider sector is a big part of the work of the Science Advisors.

Alex’s presentation on radiocarbon dating

Alex’s presentation on radiocarbon dating

On returning to my desk I checked my email and was pleased to discover that the results of a project looking at what we currently know about London’s burial grounds was now available online. This project was carried out by Allen Archaeology and funded by Historic England.

Sylvia Warman, Science Advisor Historic England

Day of Archaeology – Sylvia Warman English Heritage Science Advisor (London)

My first task was to check the tide tables for December to identify the best date for our annual visit to the submerged forest at Erith, on the south bank of the Thames. This is an amazing place where Prehistoric woodland became flooded due to rising sea-levels and both the trees and the peat that formed around them have been preserved beneath the modern Thames. The site is only well exposed at the lowest tides of the year. This site is continuously eroded and visiting each year helps us to record what has been lost as well as identifying new exposures. This is one of several sites across England being studied as part of the Exceptional Wetland and Waterlogged Heritage project under the National Heritage Protection Plan http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/protection/national-heritage-protection-plan/plan/activities/3a5

Next I followed up on a site I had visited earlier in the week in Southwark on Queen Elizabeth Street. The area had previously revealed field systems o f Neolithic to Early Bronze Age date; hence an archaeological evaluation was requested. The test-pit had not produced any archaeological artefacts or features but it did contain a palaeochannel (remains of a stream). This was not a surprise as this area is known to include a number of channels that once flowed into various tributaries of the Thames such as the NeckingerRiver. I then searched The British Geological Survey online borehole records http://mapapps.bgs.ac.uk/geologyofbritain/home.html?mode=boreholes and I found that several boreholes had been carried out in neighbouring streets. The information from these will help the archaeological contractors in interpreting the results of the evaluation as the field work will be followed up by laboratory work on samples and a written report.

Another aspect of the work of Science Advisors is developing free guidance on archaeological science for those working in the heritage sector. One of the older titles is the 2001 publication on Archaeometallurgy (the study of ancient metal working). http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/archaeometallurgy/ This title is being reviewed and updated by colleagues at FortCumberland (where EH has its laboratories and specialists in a range of disciplines within archaeological science). Before the new version is drafted we are re-reading the original and looking out for areas where it can be improved; new case studies to add and updating of references to other methods such as dating techniques. It is also important to ensure any references to the planning system include the most recent legislation.

My day ended with a train journey which provided some time to read another chapter of London’s Lost Rivers by Nick Barton. Following on from the Southwark site I had looked at in the morning I chose the chapter on The Rivers of the South. http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/The_lost_rivers_of_London.html?id=ZPQLAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y




Sylvia Warman: English Heritage Science Advisor (London)

My day started with a train journey, during which I read the National Planning Policy Framework or NPPF for short. The NPPF deals with government policy on planning and was published following the localism bill last year.

I arrived at work and headed over to the venue for my NPPF training session. Having only been in my current job for a month or so I spend quite a lot of time in training. The session was really useful, pointing out the similarities with and differences from the previous policy of PPS5 (Planning Policy Statement 5). We focused on references to heritage assets and archaeology.

Over lunch I did a bit of research online, as at the weekend some friends had mentioned they were planning to visit the Museum of London and I had suggested they take a look at the Floral Street brooch (warning blatant self-promotion) as I had been the finder of this artefact during my days as a field archaeologist. I was pleased to find it is still on display so I sent them a link.  After lunch I caught up on correspondence, as I had been on holiday the previous two days. My job involves being asked many questions by commercial archaeologists, I don’t always know the answers but usually one of the other eight science advisors does. The first question was about lipid analysis of pottery. This is a technique whereby food residues on the inner surface of ceramic vessels and material that has been absorbed by the ceramics can be analysed to identify the type of fat present. Having ascertained that three university departments carried out such work I was able to get back to the archaeologist with the information quickly.

My next task was some preparation and arrangements for a meeting of the PZG, the Professional Zooarchaeology Group coming up on the 14th July.

This organisation was set up in 2005 with the aim of helping zooarchaeologists (animal bone specialists) from academic and commercial spheres to meet for support and exchange of ideas, techniques etc. Whilst working in commercial archaeology both as an employee and later as a freelance specialist I found the PZG an invaluable resource. Part of the upcoming meeting is the discussion of draft guidelines for animal bone work within commercial archaeology.

The latter part of my day was spend doing admin tasks, logging my time for the previous week, and checking details for the staff conference in Warwick which starts tomorrow.

My train journey home was just long enough to read, Life and death in London’s East End: 2000 years at Spitalfields. This was an excellent read aimed at a wide audience but delivered fascinating detail on the work done. I would recommend it to both professional archaeologists and all those interested in archaeology.