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 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.

Experiencing Volunteering on Community Archaeology Projects

In 2011 I gave up nearly two months of my life on three large community excavations. For free. Zilch. Nowt. Nothing. In fact it has actually cost me a lot of money to be involved. I often get asked why. Before I get the chance to answer, the interrogator normally smiles while pipeing up their own pre-conceived thought on the matter. It goes along the lines of, “Ah, you love doing that stuff don’t you?”

They are right of course, I do enjoy it, I would not do it otherwise. But there is another reason behind my apparent madness. I am a student at the University of Wales Newport Caerleon campus. I am studying for a MA in Regional History and a lot of the course is based on historical landscape interpretation. Quite simply, it is landscape archaeology in another guise. And I enjoy it, immensely. The reasons behind this are multiple. For starters the study is non-invasive, as such no archaeology is destroyed; it is cheap –  it costs me nothing to walk for hours using my eyes while taking notes and photographs; it is important to me that every available means of non invasive information is gleaned from my site of study prior to any possible excavation; lastly, and not by any means should this be last on my list, I have been blessed with tutors who have an active interest in my chosen area of study. That is probably the most important cog behind this. The advice and guidance is, quite simply, second to none.

That is why I volunteer on excavation projects! If my non invasive study is successful, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, then the next logical step is to put together an achievable excavation strategy. And it excites me.

The first community project I was involved with in 2011 was the Caerleon ‘Lost City Excavations’ which strangely enough, were in Caerleon. The excavations came about through a geophysical survey undertaken as part of their studies. Led by Dr Pete Guest of the Cardiff School of History Archaeology and Religion, based within Cardiff University. I probably gained more experience from that excavation than any other. It was invaluable.

The recently discovered port wall on the banks of the river Usk, Caerleon.

Next up was a CADW organised excavation at Tinkinswood in Glamorgan. This lasted for two weeks. Yet again, I was fortunate to glean a lot of information on how a community excavation should be run. The site held this amazing atmospheric feel that made you tingle at times. It is hard to put a reason behind this, but it did. It is an Early Neolithic structure and it is pleasing to announce that all of the questions behind the reasons for excavation were more or less answered. Seeing as the first excavations were carried out there in the early 20C, the incredible amount of finds indicates that there should be no reason to excavate further for some considerable time to come. One of the best things things about this excavation came about through the late winter sunsets that we had chance to witness.

A setting sun at Tinkinswood. It really was a magical setting.

The last community excavation I was involved in was St Lythans. Quite lterally, just down the road from Tinkinswood. Another Neolithic structure, this site had not been excavated before. Once again, I was fortunate to learn from the role of a volunteer looking in towards how the site was run. Towards the end of the excavation I was negated to open a trench away from the main investigation. It was wet, cold and uncomfortable, but Tom and I just got on with it, while listening to the squeals of delight while the other volunteers excavated finds near to the structure.

I am on the left of the picture as you look at it. Sometimes it is just better to get on with what you are asked to do…

So, what has this got to do with the Day of Archaeology 2012? Quite simply I always keep a photographic diary of my exploits, as such I was able to deliver a talk this afternoon on volunteering in the archaeological sector at Pontypool Museum. I did not beat around the bush and it went down well.


Good luck everybody, I hope you enjoyed my blog.


David Standing.

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


Contracts Department

My name is Jon Burton, I work in the contracts department of GGAT. I normally spend a fair amount of time out in the field, dealing directly with clients, carrying out watching briefs, evaluations, and on occassions full scale excavations.

Most of this week I’ve been working on post excavation reports, related to watching briefs carried out in the Glamorgan and Gwent area.  These include watching briefs carried out in the Caerleon area, related to the line of a former roman road, and another watching brief in the Port Talbot area along the line of a new road scheme which, has uncovered a number of features related to former industrial activity.

Today I had hoped to continue with the writing up of a small watching brief, carried out this week in Cowbridge.  However, another fieldwork project has come up in Merthyr which, requires cover next week, and so now I’ll have to produce a risk assessment, and gather some background information in preparation for this new work.