Setting up for the Third Basing House Field Season

Today I’m working at Hampshire Cultural Trust with Dave Allen. I’m lucky because my visit times with the regular weekly volunteer day at the Archaeology Stores, managed by the Curator of Archaeology, David Allen.

To find out more about the work of David and the team, visit their excellent blog, which has a new post every Monday.

Hampshire Archaeology blog: https://hampshirearchaeology.wordpress.com/

Nicole Beale

I’ve driven down to the University of Southampton to help pack the van full of equipment. This is because we’re off to run the Basing House excavation field season on Monday. Very excited! Its chucking in down with rain so we’ve been trying to get all of the kit packed up quickly so that we can dry off.  The dig is run by the University of Southampton, the University of York and Hampshire Cultural Trust.

You can read more about this year’s field season on our blog: http://basinghouseproject.org/

Dom, Chris and the Green Shed

Nicole Beale

Plans, Lists, Context Sheets, Levels, Sections, Photos, and Back to the Plans: Archival clean up at Bristol Dig Berkeley

My name is Emily Glass and together with my co-supervisor at Bristol Dig Berkeley, Sian Thomas, we have been wading through piles of drawings, lists and context sheets that were created over four weeks of digging at Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. This project has been an annual fixture of the University of Bristol’s Archaeology and Anthropology department for ten years under the direction of Professor Mark Horton and Dr Stuart Prior. The excavation provides valuable practical experience for students during their three year degree and for any willing post-graduates! During the 2014 season the team worked in Nelme’s Paddock (a field to the front of the Castle) on Trenches 8 and 14 – for which the paperwork now needs looking over for any glaring errors.

Emily and Sian PX-ing the Berkeley Castle excavation

Emily and Sian PX-ing the Berkeley Castle excavation

Often seen as the ‘boring’ side of archaeology – the less hands-on, indoor work of checking and cross-referencing any excavation archive is a crucial part of the process. Using the archaeological features and finds to phase the sequence of events is the basis for interpreting your site. The mantra that most archaeologists have been brought up on is that ‘the archaeology does not lie’ – so no matter how much you try to cram that theory of yours into what the evidence is telling you, if it won’t fit then it’s just plain wrong! All that needs doing next is to fit this into the wider scheme of what was going on at that particular time in that particular area and you have your story! Simple, right??

One thing about checking an archive is that no matter how long you THINK it’s going to take – it will always take longer and often drive you mad in the process of going back and forward between lists, sheets, numbers, drawings, images and notebooks until you feel like you’re drowning in paperwork! However, on occasion the Post-ex process can throw up something completely unexpected – such as our 2014 Finds Team discovering a box containing ceramic vessels from Ur! Then, when all calms down and you finally feel you’re coming out of the tunnel – you realise that your final Harris Matrix doesn’t work and the cycle of despair continues!

"Tell Us Your Secrets Trench 8...."

“Tell Us Your Secrets Trench 8….”

Trench 8 has been open now since 2009 so we have many, many drawings and records that Sian has kept on top of year on year. She even has an A1 sized trench matrix which looks amazing, but of course needs a bit of jiggling! On this Day of Archaeology we sorted out finished drawings to be scanned, filed sheets into folders and updated the context check-list.  Some context sheets were checked off, whereas others are ongoing and will be completed at the Berkeley Summer School in August. So far we can track a broadly continuous sequence of use through buildings, roads, ditches and pits from the Roman period through to Saxon, then Norman, onto Medieval, Tudor and Elizabethan times. The latest phase represented is the Georgian use of the Paddock as a kitchen garden. So it’s not surprising that the sequence keeps shifting!

General niggles in the records were of the usual variety: confusion about compass orientations, forgetting to transfer levels back onto paperwork (or even work them out!), back-to-front matrices and terrible handwriting! All joking aside, completing the record checking of an archaeological archive to a high standard is not only the right thing to do ethically and morally (all archaeology being destruction / to dismantle is to understand and all that), but it is also very satisfying, especially when the job is ticked off as DONE!

Happy Day of Archaeology 2014!

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Back filled: when days of archaeology come to an end


I couldn’t blog on Friday as we were packing up at the end of month of excavation in Jersey, but I was pretty sure what I was going to write about. I was in the midst of making sure we ended well and anticipating what I knew was about to come, that moment when everyone starts to grab their lifts, planes, ferrys and leave the dig.  You’d think, after 25 or so years in the field I’d be used to it, but it doesn’t work like that, maybe age has made me realize how precious these times in the field are or maybe you get less used to transitioning as you get older but the days after a project has ended are a little weird and I think we should think about why that is.

Archaeologists, like other field scientists and researchers, get to experience one of the most fulfilling of human experiences,  working with others as a team sharing everything together from the time you wake up to the time you sleep (often with little in between).  Depending on the length of time in the field, and the degree to which a project has been around enough to have it’s own culture, this experience exists in a totally immersive and idiosyncratic world of it’s own. Dig cultures vary from the Utopian to the dysfunctional, they develop languages, traditions, myths and protocols which mean nothing outside the world of that dig. Members of a dig society co-op into rules, systems and responses which out of context might seem strange, draconian or institutionalized, and yet when it works amazing things can be achieved.  While I’ve worked on digs which vary from the dull to those which are some kind of re-run of the Standford Prison experiment, most have been wonderful, positive experiences in which I’ve grown through meeting life-long colleagues, dear friends  and partners.  For any archaeologist the dig will be the arena for so much growth and shaping as a person that getting the culture right is important.

I personally find the intensity of a 24/7 endevour and its contrast with the professional/social separation of the 9 to 5 ‘real’ world a genuine peak experience. Being in the position now of helping to make digs work, guiding and structuring these short-lived, single-minded societies, the experience seems even more intense.

These days I see getting the end of the dig right as being pretty imprtant.  We’ve learned some practical tips like 1. never have your End Of Dig Party actually right at the end of the dig and 2. make sure you know exactly when everyone is leaving so you don’t end up cleaning the toilets alone, but actually getting the end right depends on how people feel at that point of departure, when every hole is filled and every tent packed.  You only really know you’ve got it right when leaving seems like the most unnatural thing to do.

This year our Ice Age Island project did finish well and our wonderful team of staff and students recorded and back-filled without desperate haste or  despondency. The base was cleaned and goodbyes were heartfelt. Dismantling and packing away your dig societies seems hard sometimes. They are precious because they can’t last more than the season, the next year will always be different and you can never be sure it will keep getting better.

But because the right ingredients of discipline, play, nuture and tough-love can result in great archaeology and great science spending a bit of that back-filling time thinking about how to do it better next time is never wasted.

Excavation at Appleby Magna- Getting children involved in archaeology!!

The Sir John Moore Foundation run a programme during the summer which allows children from the age of eight to get involved with an archaeological dig on site. I had the pleasure of attending and helping out on the dig for the day. It was truly fantastic to see young children getting involved in an area of study which I enjoy so much. There was in all three small trenches which were dug out in accordance to the finding of a wall in the summer past.

From local maps, we understood that there was some kind of building located in this area marked by a large dark area. In digging in the trench located next to that of the wall. I found that from about one metre below the surface there was a large amount of charcoal discovered along with a large number of nails. Bricks were also uncovered scattered from about one metre below the surface point. As I dug further down and extended out the trench I found a number of other items. From the remains of glass bottles to sherds of pottery thought to be that of the late Victorian period of the 1850’s. The children involved were completely engaged throughout the day, and it was great to see how excited and competitive they become upon excavating new items. Not only were they excavating but also learning how to mark out areas, measure the trench, clean finds, photograph finds and record finds in the correct way.

The initial finds from the excavation helped me build a picture of what I thought the dark area found on the initial maps may have been. The large amount of burnt wood discovered is certainly evidence for the possible destruction of the site itself. There were a number of sherds of pottery found with dark black smudges on which one could not remove when cleaning. Furthermore there was a large amount of glass bottles found. If, as I predict, a fire destroyed the settlement that stood in this area it is highly unlikely that the temperature of the fire would have been strong enough in order to melt the glass; as glass is only burnt at temperatures starting from as high as five hundred degrees depending on the glass type. The pressure would have caused glass and pottery to break, which would coincide with what was found in the trenches. I would argue that there was certainly some form of building in this area. Possibly with a brick/stone foundation with a wooden structure predicted from the evidence found in the excavation. It may have been that this site was then used as storage or some kind of out building or workshop. Further excavations will reveal more and hopefully reinforce the initial findings.

All in all, for me the most important element of the dig, without a shadow of a doubt, was getting young children involved in the world of archaeology. Archaeology is a career that I aspire to be in once I complete my degree and maintaining an interest in this area is essential. The programme runs every year with a number of dates. All the volunteers are dedicated to helping the children understand the history and the archaeology of the area, providing them with a range of skills which would be beneficial not just in this are but many areas of their future. I am not exaggerating when I say that the children loved the entire day. Some of the children enjoy it so much that they have attended not just the current year but years previous to this.  The unfortunate point is the area in which the dig is situated is owned by the local school and therefore once the summer is over the trenches have to be covered over until the following year.

The whole day was fantastic, more community archaeology excavations have cropped up in the recent years, and maintaining a growing interest in this area of work is essential. All be it a great way to get out doors and bring families together for a fantastic fun filled day!

Just a few of the children s finds of the day

Fantastic finds in Appleby Magna!