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.

Medieval water management, some experimental archaeology Part II – What happened?

Well, what a day!

I am aching, my hands are full of cuts & splinters and my body has practically seized up. Wading through 100’s of metres of water that is over two feet deep does that to you at my age. I enjoyed it though. The experimental side of things was just that, experimental. Not all is lost though, the lessons learned are that I either get the fire brigade or Territorial Army in to supply me with a serious body of water, or, I wait until the rainy season in Wales (this could be at anytime of the year) and use the drain tracing dye then.

When the soil has been battered by relentless rain I have witnessed the water systems working in full flow. The water erodes any soil build over the dams drain outlet and literally pours straight down it. As you can see from the film, we had to spray the water directly onto the soil hoping that the tracing dye would not be filtered out. As it was the ground was that dry, and the system that long, that nothing came through. Of course, my theory of the dam and drain being of one system could be incorrect but future experiments will prove that either way.  Many thanks go to Neil of  WelshDrainage who not only provided the water for the experiment but also provided the drain dye free of charge. More people running business’ like that are worth their weight in gold to people like us. You can see a very short video of what we did here. That has been edited right down but we will produce a more polished effort when the time is right and we have more time to organise things.

WelshDrainage. What a service in the name of experimental archaeology!

WelshDrainage. What a service in the name of experimental archaeology!

The cleaning of the possible wharf  went well and it sprang up a few surprises. I had only seen it once or twice before and that was at a distance, but as I approached it I realised that it was a larger than I had previously thought.

As you can see, there was a lot of vegetation to clear

The Sisters at the Abbey had kindly invited me for lunch but after lunch at the abbey the only thing you really want to do is sleep. I had around one and half hours to get as much cleared as possible.

The size of the remaining structure really started to show just before lunch

After fish for lunch (well it was a Friday) I started clearing the remaining vegetation which thankfully was mainly ivy rather than brambles, thorns and stinging nettles.  After I had cleared it all away it was possible to start getting some dimensions. Its length was just over fifteen metres with a height of one point eight metres. Interestingly the walls were constructed so they curved back into the banks at either end, probably to enable  the bank to take weight and also to stop the structure being washed away. They also curved towards the bank away from the perpendicular. This feature may have been incorporated to  make berthing easier. It is the direct opposite shape of a curved  hull.

The structure curving away from the perpendicular

That was not all. Spending the amount of time that I had in this area gave me the opportunity to take a good look at the surrounding landscape. As you may have noticed in the above picture the bottom of the Dowlais Brook also contained surviving masonry. Not only that I had noticed that there were walls buried on  the opposite bank. So I cleared all of the vegetation away to get a better view.

Directly opposite the large visible structure, more clues started to appear

I think I shall leave it at that for now. Obviously I have a lot more investigation to carry out and that is on this one structure alone. The day was a success in that I now have more information to work with. What I have suggested may change in time as more and more evidence comes to light although at least I have enabled myself to tighten my research for a  comparable Cistercian structure.

2. Getting started in Archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

Getting started in archaeology: volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student

I’m going to explain how and why I came into archaeology (which will discuss volunteering and studying as a part-time mature student), and why I went into the field of early medieval archaeology. I hope this will show the positive effects of history and archaeology in schools, the role of museums in stimulating interest, and the significance of public access to archaeology. It will also hopefully provide some insight into the value of education, and the challenges of studying archaeology as a mature student.