Day Off Archaeology

Today should’ve been spent in Shrewsbury excavating traces of industrial and domestic medieval activity – instead I had to tend to the most important tool any archaeologist owns: my car. Having nursed my ailing old Citroen through months of university it finally gave up the ghost, within mere hours of my being offered the Shrewsbury job. So a day of test drives it was, including nearly putting a Xsara Picasso into Offa’s Dyke. Trying an emergency stop the ABS failed and a good old fashioned 1980s skid ensued; tires screamed and the back end of the car began coming round. For a distinctly sticky moment it seemed the Picasso and I were going to plough into the adjacent dyke, causing irreparable damage to one of the nation’s major heritage assets – not to mention an elderly French car and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

No luck today; back to the search tomorrow, possibly with a slightly less gung-ho approach to emergency brake tests. And then on Monday – back to medieval Shrewsbury.

Castles, community, and John Clare


Today has been divided between multiple tasks on two different projects. I’ve already talked about my viking food culture project here, but my other job relates to a community archaeology project I’ve been involved in with my colleague (and wife) Aleks McClain.

For the last few years, we have been assisting the local community of the village of Helpston in west Cambridgeshire as they investigate the history and archaeology of their area. Helpston is most famous as the birthplace of John Clare, a 19th-century agricultural labourer, who went in to become arguably England’s greatest rural poet. However, on the edge of Helpston village lies Torpel Manor Field: an enigmatic series of earthworks that has been little explored. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, and as the remains of an Anglo-Norman ringwork, represents one of the first fortifications constructed in the area following the Norman Conquest. However, it is clear that the site is a more complicated, multi-phase phenomenon than this.

The site is stewarded by the Langdyke Countryside Trust, who have successfully won Heritage Lottery Funding to care for the site as both a heritage monument and  a wildlife preserve. We have been working the the Trust, leading to the foundation of the Helpston History and Archaeological Group, assisting them in topographic and geophysical survey across the site, and in providing information for display in their newly constructed on-site Interpretation Centre. The group have also undertaken fieldwalking and testpitting at a number of sites across the village, as well as engaging in extensive documentary and archive research.

13 torpel bw small Torpel survey

Earthwork and magnetometry survey at Torpel Manor Field.  Note the mound in the south of the earthwork survey, the complex of perimeter ditches and banks, and a number of outlying structures and building platforms to the north. Geophysics has demonstrated that many of these earthworks conceal the remains of walls and robbing trenches, as well as identifying a number of previously unsuspected features. 

As a result of all this work, a number of gaps in the village’s history are starting to be filled in, so that Helpston is no longer thought of solely as the home of John Clare, and a narrative can now be written that extends from later prehistory, via the Norman Conquest, through to the present day.  There will be numerous academic outputs from this work, but right now we are working on the production of a popular-interest book that explores the biography of Torpel’s landscape.  We hope to self-publish this within the year, and this afternoon was a busy and productive editorial meeting involving myself and Aleks.

IMG_0695Hard at work on the Torpel Story….

I’m not going to give away our findings here, but keep your eye out for further updates later in the year.

Check out our project here (we have a new website in development, to be linked from the same site).


Heritage and Identity: Setting up a new Public Archaeology project…

Despite a broken ankle, life goes on. Today I am working on the set-up of a new project I have just started at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, in London, UK, with colleagues Prof. Richard Hingley and Dr. Tom Yarrow from the Archaeology and Anthropology Departments at Durham University.

c (1)

Broken but scooter-aided researcher (me) goes to work.

This is a really exciting new adventure, especially in these times of heated debate over what it means to be English, British, European or (as I regard myself) simply (?) a world citizen with roots in all those great and diverse places where you are lucky enough to have family, friends and colleagues.

The project is called ‘Iron Age and Roman Heritages: Exploring ancient identities in modern Britain‘, and is funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council for a period of three years. Through this research we are hoping to understand how Iron Age, Roman and Early Medieval pasts live in present-day Britain. How are they researched, variously used, performed and interpreted by different individuals and groups, and why? What are the implications?

The project is divided in two parts which will run in parallel until 2019. One is based at UCL, where I will be focussing on the analysis of digital heritages (Dan Pett, from the British Museum, Andy Bevan and Mark Altaweel, from UCL, are also helping!); the second part, led by Richard and Tom in Durham, is centred on offline ethnography.


Boadicea at Westmister Bridge, London, England.

During the project, we will also invite whoever might be interested in participating in our research to do so online, through the MicroPasts crowdsourcing website, which is indeed still up, running … and busy! In October, I will visit Daniel Lombrana-Gonzales and his team, in Madrid, and, together, we will create a new crowdsourcing application to aid the analysis of web data. People will be able to login and identify (via tagging) the aspects of Iron Age and Roman pasts that appear in a range of texts that are published online like newspaper or magazine articles, for example.

So, stay on the look, we’d love you to join the team!




A day managing the Scottish Archaeological Research Framework

The day in the ScARF office begins with tea and the newest member of the team reading our old Day of Archaeology posts from 2012 and 2015 (if you haven’t read them, they can be found at and and finally . Since the last #dayofarch, the ScARF team has doubled in size and so now we are two people, making just over 1 full time post. This means that we can split ourselves easily between archaeology and museums work, as part of the plan for the future is to better integrate existing museum collections with trying to answer existing research recommendations, which so far have tended to be born out of pure archaeological thinking.

There won’t actually be much time for me to read #dayofarch posts today though, that will likely be a task for the bus home. Being part time means you have to use every office minute to its advantage and you often feel like reading blog posts and similar isn’t ‘real work’, even if they do have value! One I can read legitimately, though, is the post for today from Anna our Museums Officer at  Instead, today will mainly be about three things:

  1. Future Thinking on Scotlands Carved Stones – a major new panel report for ScARF
  2. The ScARF student network
  3. Admin tasks
Future Thinking on Scotlands' Carved Stones - a screenshot of the yet to be released resource

Future Thinking on Scotlands’ Carved Stones – a screenshot of the yet to be released resource

Firstly, getting the newest addition to the ScARF panel report family up online. Future Thinking on Scotlands Carved Stones ( ) is due for release at the end of next month and will mark the culmination of work by a group of over fifty people led by Dr Sally Foster, Dr Katherine Forsyth, Stuart Jeffrey and Susan Buckham. I didn’t contribute to the writing of the report, but my job was to advise on structure and to put the text and images online and link everything together, as well as to link to other existing ScARF sections where appropriate. This means some HTML work, as simply copying and pasting leaves a horrible proprietary mess in the code, and then some design work to fit the images into the text nicely. Very similar, in fact, to what I appear to have been doing for the 2012 #dayofarch post.  I’ve blocked off most of the day to work on Carved Stones because it needs focus and concentration so I can’t let myself get distracted by other ScARF bits at the same time.

Exciting as the work on the new stones panel is, I don’t have time to spend all today on it. It’s already made up the bulk of my work over the past three weeks. So, after a no-break-desk-lunch, I plan on quietly putting the stones to one side and begin the never-ending task of project admin. Mostly replying to emails, you do know archaeological project management is pure glamour, right? Some emails will be routine and won’t need much time spent on them, some I can see from the subject line are to do with new archaeological research so they will get marked to explore properly later, and recently it seems quite a lot are related to some of our upcoming panel meetings so I will be sure to answer them straight away.

Trowelblazer Lottie had planned on helping out for the day but instead despairs at the increasing amount of post it notes

Trowelblazer Lottie had planned on helping out for the day but instead despairs at the increasing amount of post it notes

After that block of admin, it will be time for some Friday Fun and telling the world about some of the work we have supported recently. Over the past few months, ScARF has provided student bursaries to attend archaeological conferences. In return, each student had to submit a short report to us about their time there as well as a promise that ScARF can use their research, if appropriate, to help update the framework questions and recommendations. The reports received so far can all be found at and cover a diverse range of topics including prehistoric beekeeping, iron age object deposition, re-evaluation of insular metalwork from Pagan-Norse graves, Medieval cetacean consumption and Iron Age equestrianism, so something for everyone! I have a few new reports to put up this afternoon from the 14C and Archaeology conference ( that recently took place in Edinburgh, so if science and archaeology is your thing then take a look at the reports section later today. After that, I need to write to all the bursary recipients and see if they want to take up the offer of Society Fellowship (you can find out more about that at ).

I plan on spending some time towards the end of the day working on my papers for the European Association of Archaeologists conference, which is at the end of next month. If you are interested, then ScARF and the Society have papers about digital publication and archiving in session TH3-11 , and open access in session TH3-03.   In a previous life, writing papers usually took place in the evenings and weekends. However, now I’m in my thirties and have responsibilities other than work, so paper writing has to take place during the working day. This is a good example of how, four years on from my first #dayofarch post, how I can/have to spend my day at work has changed even if some of the actual work is the same.

An aside: Writing this post has also made me realise how my views on working in archaeology have changed over the past four years since the first post. In those four years, I have had three different jobs (not all archaeological, and none until now more than a 12 month contract) and become a parent. Archaeology (and therefore work) used to be the all consuming thing in life, and I was quite happy to give all my hours/life to it (Hello Silchester!) but life happens and things change. Some of the best posts from previous years are those that truly reflect on what a job/career archaeology is about and how it is rarely a smooth ride (I particularly like,, and recently I think #dayofarch is a great way for people to reflect on archaeology as a career (whether they are already working in archaeology or not) and provides an invaluable and real insight to a world that, despite what some would have you believe, isn’t all Lego, Minecraft, or easy digging in the sunshine. </endrant>

The very last hour or so of the day of archaeology will be about planning the next few months. We are working in our plans for Orkney and Aberdeenshire museums visits as well as updating panel reports and working with commercial units to keep on top of the current archaeological picture in Scotland. This is the first time writing for #dayofarch that I’ve known I’ll still be working on ScARF for the next one, so I love the opportunity to really get stuck into the work and planning is a big part of that. It’ll be out with the diary, fix some dates and then head home – to read lots more #dayofarch posts en route!

Cooking with Vikings

maude fire  At the Hearth with Helga (Maude Hirst)

I’m a Viking-Age archaeologist, interested in the everyday lives of people in early-medieval England, Scotland, and Scandinavia, which I try to understand through looking at their artefacts. I am most well-known for my work on what might seem an odd choice of artefact: Viking hair combs (I’ve already written elsewhere about why these are important, so I won’t bore you with that again here). I’m also interested in metalwork, particularly what we can say from the evidence recovered by metal detectorists (this builds on my previous life as a Finds Liaison Officer with the Portable Antiquities Scheme; if you don’t know about the PAS, do check it out). But most recently, I have started up a project that uses scientific analysis of pottery to learn about how people stored, prepared, cooked, and ate food in different parts of Viking-Age England.


Bones, the Bard, and plenty of pots

I opened my office door this morning to see a roomful of skeletons.

My name’s Rob Hedge, I’m a Community Project Officer for Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Part of my time is spent helping people find out more about their local heritage and why it matters, from building mock-dig sandpits to standing in the High Street trying to get passers-by enthused about Worcester’s medieval pots. I also work in the Finds team, where I’m responsible for overseeing the processing of artefacts once they come in from site, and for analysing some of the small assemblages of finds.

So, the skeletons… we’ve been excavating an area of the churchyard attached to Holy Trinity, Stratford – famous as the Church where Shakespeare is buried (though they keep him safe from the likes of us in a tomb within the church). And yes, before you ask, the “Alas, poor Yorrick” joke has been done to death, by virtually every visitor to the site. An extension to the church is planned, and so we’re carefully recording and excavating almost 200 burials spanning at least 600 years which will be disturbed by building work. After analysis, they’ll be re-buried on site. It’s a densely-packed cemetery and time is tight, so I’ve been down recently to help with the site work. Personally, I don’t particularly enjoy excavating cemeteries, but it’s a necessary evil – if we didn’t excavate them, they’d be destroyed by construction work. We work hard to keep disturbance to a minimum, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.

And the inevitable consequence is bags of bones, each individual careful and separately labelled up. Soon, they’ll be taken down to our friends at Ossafreelance, who’ll carry out the analysis. But for now, they need somewhere cool and dry. I make a note of what’s come in, separate out the finds and samples, load the skeletons onto a trolley and wheel them into our store, trying to avoid mental puns about skeletons and closets…

Assessments next: first, a small assemblage of finds from an infilled Lime Kiln. A nice selection of late 19th/early 20th century domestic items: stone china, stoneware bottles, pot of ‘Cherry Tooth Paste’ (I’m almost tempted to test the dark red residue clinging to the lid of the pot…) and a near-complete tea-cup made by T & R Boote in Burslem, Staffs around the turn of the 20th century, with this gorgeous stamp showing a steamship, flags fluttering and furnaces firing:

Semi-porcelain cup

Semi-porcelain cup, T & R Boote, Burslem

The finds tell us that this Lime Kiln probably fell out of use by the late 19th century, and was probably backfilled shortly afterwards. Our palynologist Dr Suzi Richer walks in, and looks bewildered to find me weighing a brick. It was a very nice brick, honest…

Next, to talk through progress and answer correspondence for a project we’re doing for Historic England; we’re trying to assess the amount and potential value of archaeology and local history research produced by societies, community groups and associations. We know there’s a lot of it, and we suspect the full potential of this work to enhance local Historic Environment Records and Research Frameworks isn’t being realised. If you’re involved in voluntary-sector research, please take a look at the project and take our survey. It’s been fascinating to see the responses coming in, and to hear about so many interesting projects, challenges, successes and frustrations. There are some interesting trends emerging… keep an eye out for the report later this year.


Microscope? Check. Scales? Check. Finds? Check. Tea? Check. Doughnuts? Well, it is Friday…

Back to the finds, and onto artefacts from a watching brief on a scheduled ancient monument, a medieval moated manor in north Worcestershire. High-quality post-medieval domestic pottery from a well-to-do household, including early English porcelain, and the base of a lovely medieval jug with splashes of yellow glaze. But my eye is drawn to a chunk of coarse tile, orange surfaces, grey core, with a neat square tapering hole pierced through: a medieval roof tile. Hooked over the roof lath with a simple peg, these tiles were produced in the area from the 13th century onwards; though not much to look at, they had one big advantage over thatch: they didn’t burn! There’s more on Worcester’s medieval fire-proofing measures over on our Dig Lich Street blog.

Medieval Roof Tile

Medieval Roof Tile, showing peg-hole and sandy, grey core

Finally, as the Field Staff roll back in, drop off the day’s finds, moan about the weather and steal my doughnuts, I make final preparations for tomorrow’s exhibition of finds from Worcester Cathedral Roundabout. If you’re in Worcester, drop in and see us at Tudor House Museum. I’ll be there 10 til 4, trying my best to bring the finds to life!

Day of Archaeology in Pizzo Monaco

The Day of Archaeology in the MEMOLA study area of Monti di Trapani (Sicily-Italy)
The University of Granada, The University of Sheffield and Arqueoandalusí Arquelogía y Patrimonio S.L  are currently working in the excavation of Pizzo Monaco (Custonaci, Trapani).  The University of Palermo is involved with soil sampling for  pedological analysis, while the Escuela Española de Historia y Arqueología en Roma-CSIC is working with the flotation of stratigraphic soils taken at various occupation levels defined during the excavation.  A number of international students, coming mostly from Spain and Italy are participating in the excavation.
The first excavation of the MEMOLA project at the site of Pizzo Monaco took place in October and November of 2014 and was authorized by the Soprintendenza ai Beni Culturali e Ambientali di Trapani. During this activity we excavated four cells and the main entrance of a fortified structure, identified as a possible collective granary from Islamic times (10th?-11th centuries). After the results of archaeological excavation and archaeobotanical and environmental analysis, the site was interpreted as a possible collective fortified granary (aghadir) dated in the Islamic period (10th?-11th century).

The University of Granada, The University of Sheffield and Arqueoandalusí Arquelogía y Patrimonio S.L are currently working in the excavation.

The University of Granada, The University of Sheffield and Arqueoandalusí Arquelogía y Patrimonio S.L are currently working in the excavation.

The flotation of stratigraphic soils taken at various occupation levels defined during the excavation

The flotation of stratigraphic soils taken at various occupation levels defined during the excavation

 A number of international students, coming mostly from Spain and Italy are participating in the excavation.

A number of international students, coming mostly from Spain and Italy are participating in the excavation.

Crafting Stories of the Past: Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project 2015

Two weeks today the Strathearn Environs and Royal Forteviot (SERF) project was packing up and leaving Perthshire, Scotland.  Trenches in various locations around the small village of Dunning had been excavated, recorded and were ready to be back-filled by machine.  SERF is both a multi-period research project and an archaeological field school run by the University of Glasgow since 2007.  This year we had over 50 participants helping out with fieldwork which revealed evidence from the Early Neolithic, Iron Age, Medieval and Modern periods.

Today the SERF team is sorting through the variety of materials that have come back from the field, piecing them together to create stories about the past.  Dr Dene Wright, director of the excavations of the Early Neolithic pit complex at Wellhill, has been making sense of the records (drawings, context sheets, notes and photographs), and completing his data structure report.  During this process a final check is done to ensure that all the records correspond to one other, when they don’t amendments are made and further notes are taken.  Dene can then draw links between features, compare the results from this site to others, and then put into words an initial interpretation for the site, situating it into wider narrative.

But, of course, there is still work to be done which will impact on how the site is interpreted.   Post-excavation processing is just beginning.  Gert Petersen (Laboratory Technician), pictured here with student Ilia Barbukov, has just started to sort through the residue materials from the flotation of soil samples.  The residues are carefully examined for carbonised wood and grains, bone, and any other artefacts.  These will then be sent to specialists, such as palaeobotanists, for further identification and analysis.

Now is also the time to sort through our finds and get them ready for specialists. This year we retrieved a record number of pottery sherds (relative to other SERF years).  Wellhill produced just under 200 pottery sherds, many of which came from a pit that also yielded our first fragment of a polished stone axe.  A variety of pottery sherds also came from our hillfort excavation at Dun Knock.  Although all the pottery was first thought to be of Iron Age date,  sherds from one of the ditches were unusual for this time period and may be much earlier.  This is where our specialist, Dr Ann MacSween, will come in and examine the whole assemblage.  Today all the sherds have been cleaned and were laid out in the lab ready for inspection.

For me (Dr Tessa Poller) today was also about interpretation and pulling together the evidence from the hillfort excavations at Dun Knock.  Like Dene I have a data structure report to write and much of my time has been collating the records from the site director Cathy MacIver.  The SERF hillfort programme, which has investigated ten forts over the past nine years, has also been piloting a digital visualisation project.  In collaboration with Dr Alice Watterson and Kieran Baxter this project is about exploring how archaeologists formulate and communicate interpretations, utilising digital media and visualisations as tools in this process.   Today I had a meeting with Alice to discuss progress, look over footage recorded in the field, suggest further work and to pull together a structure for a paper we will be presenting at the EAA conference in Glasgow.  Exciting ideas flow as this is all new to me and there are lots of creative potential.

Although we may not be in the field for long, there is always work to be done on the SERF project and more fantastic findings to be made.

Aerial view of the Neolithic pits at Wellhill 2015.

Aerial view of the Neolithic pits at Wellhill 2015.

Dr Dene Wright collating records for Wellhill.

Dr Dene Wright collating records for Wellhill.

Gert Petersen and Ilia Barbukov sorting through soil residues.

Gert Petersen and Ilia Barbukov sorting through soil residues.

Prehistoric pottery from SERF excavations.

Prehistoric pottery from SERF excavations.

Dr Alice Watterson collaborating on a digital visulisation project.

Dr Alice Watterson collaborating on a digital visulisation project.

serf logo


Medieval Priories, Medieval Stones, Historic Photos, and Deep Dreaming

This week has been a busy week. Last Sunday I volunteered for the Tywardreath Priory open day as part of the Festival of British Archaeology. I am one of the archaeologists on the team in the early planning stages of a community archaeology project. It aims to search for, research, and excavate the site of Tywardreath Priory, a Benedictine priory established in the second half of the 11th century. We know the rough area where the priory ought to be, but very little is known for certain.

The open day was very successful, with over 100 visitors to the farm in the village. My role was to explain something of the history and wider landscape context of the site, and to demonstrate LiDAR data to show how the estuary had silted up, cutting off the Priory’s access to the sea.

Tom Goskar demonstrating LiDAR and landscape archaeology at the Tywardreath Priory open day. Photo by Josh Taylor.

Tom Goskar demonstrating LiDAR and landscape archaeology at the Tywardreath Priory open day. Photo by Josh Taylor.

I also showed some 3D captures of decorated medieval stonework taken from the Priory and now situated in the nearby churchyard, and how we can enhance the data to show the decorations more clearly.

For the first half of the week I have switched gear to working with historic photos. I looked at the wonderful glass lantern slides of an excavation at Magor Farm near Redruth in Cornwall during the 1930s held at the Morrab Library in Penzance. They have a fantastic archaeology collection which they hope to digitise later this year if a funding application is successful, which I will be helping with if all goes well.

Being a self-employed archaeologist it pays to widen your horizons to gain work. I’ve been honing my web technology skills and am building a website to host a collection of over 25,000 historic photos, films and audio recordings from around Cornwall. It’s going to be a great resource, complete with ways to get data out of the site in interesting ways. Lots of archaeologists are going to find it useful for desk-based research, not to mention local historians and societies.

And today, the Day of Archaeology itself, has seen me mainly writing and researching. I have an article deadline coming up for my work on 3D capture and enhancement of early medieval sculpture at Gulval near Penzance which I am co-writing with Prof. Michelle Brown an expert in early medieval manuscripts.

Earlier in the day I had a phone call from Prof. Charles Thomas to discuss some work we have done recently on the early medieval ‘Ignioc Stone’ at St Clement near Truro. We’re using 3D techniques to try to see if the accepted transcription of the inscription is correct and to see if the data can help us understand better how this tall stone was reshaped and repurposed.

As a distraction amidst writing and planning a trip to London next week to visit the Society of Antiquaries library, I have been playing with Google’s Deep Dream neural network visualisation (or perhaps, hallucination) engine. It shares some code used by Google Photos to identify the content of photographs (in itself interesting for curators of historic photographs) and produces very strange results as it recursively tries to identify then display what it ‘sees’. A riot of colourful psychedelic nonsense, or an exercise in the study of perception applicable to shamanism, hallucinogenic states and rock art? You choose. For fun, here’s one of the trilithons at Stonehenge like you’ve never seen before.

Stonehenge trilithon visualised with the Google Deep Dream neural art network.

Stonehenge trilithon visualised with the Google Deep Dream neural art network.

Urban Gardening in Medieval Cities. In a Modern Library.

This year, Day of Archaeology finds me in London in the British Library, sifting through the latest phases of late Roman townhouses. As I wrote in 2013, I am working on the phenomenon of urban gardening in the cities of early medieval Italy, and this summer I’m trying to finish finishing the manuscript of a small book on the subject. The majority of the evidence for where people got their vegetables in Rome, Naples, Brescia and Verona and other cities comes from property documents, which identify houses with gardens in them. This week I have been looking again at how Italian townhouses went from very dense buildings, perhaps with a central courtyard planted with ornamental trees and flowers, to individual houses that had food producing gardens inside or adjacent to the property, such as this one described in a letter from Pope Gregory the Great:

Reg Ep. II, 46 (Sept. 591-Aug 592). To Sub-deacon Sabinus.

We are compelled by our duty of piety to make a decision for the monasteries, with prudent consideration, so that those who are known to have allotted themselves to the service of God, may not endure any need. And for that reason we order you Experience with this authority to hand over quickly and without uncertainty the garden of the dead priest Felicianus. It lies in the first region before the steps of Saint Sabina. Leaving aside any excuse, give it to the convent of Euprepia, in which a community of nuns are known to live, for them to possess with a proprietary right, so that aided by the benefit of our generosity, they may persevere in serving God, with his support also, with secure minds. [Trans J. Martyn]

Pope Gregory here writes as a bishop with concern for the spiritual lives and economic concerns of the professional religious people under his care. He was no longer the Urban Prefect, with oversight of the urban fabric of Rome, an administrative office he held in 573 before he became a monk. What he learned about dealing with abandoned houses in Rome nonetheless surely informed his decision on behalf of the religious women. He endowed a new community of professional religious women with a house and garden in order to help them in their devotion to God, providing for them in a city that was increasingly unreliable. We don’t know exactly when urban markets ceased to function in Rome, but it must have been at some point in the sixth or seventh centuries, as the annona ceased to bring grain and wine to the citizens, and as the monetized economy of the city dwindled to barter and credit systems, rather than coins. The provision of a garden for these women, and for three other religious communities in Rome who received houses with gardens from Gregory, seems to be an effort to provide self-sufficiency for the community.


Domus of the Piazza dei Cinquecento, Rome, after Roberto Meneghini and Riccardo Santangeli Valenzani, ‘Fasi tarde dell’ isolato,’ Rita Paris, ed. Antiche Stanze (Milan, 1996), fig. 5 p. 176. The areas marked in brown were filled with earth, leaving the rooms in red as a smaller-scale house. The small house comprised former service rooms and part of the private bath, as well as the latrine.

It has long been recognised that the complex political, social and economic changes of the later fourth and fifth centuries meant that fewer people lived in Italian cities, and had fewer resources (monetary and material) to spend upon their city and the upkeep of their townhouses. Things changed, so people reused, or made good with what they had. When houses were abandoned, they were sometimes reallocated to new people, as Gregory arranged in the letter above. Sometimes it appears that houses in ruined states were converted to ‘horti’ – gardens, when they were irredeemable and unclaimed by owners. Legal precepts, in place from the third century, made this possible with the permission of local magistrates. (See the Codex Iustianiani VIII, 10, 3 eg)

As I am sorting through publications of urban archaeology looking for examples of this process, I am confronted by a very consistent pattern of partial abandonment in the fifth century and the deliberate backfilling of parts of houses, or entire houses, with earth in the later fifth and sixth centuries. I have seen examples of this documented at Brescia, at Naples, and at Rome. At Rome, the house I’m looking at today, a domus from the Piazza dei Cinquecento, excavated in 1940s to build Stazione Termini, was partially filled with earth in the late fifth century, reducing a large townhouse into a small suit of rooms surrounded by earth. No archeobotanical studies were carried out in the 1940s excavation, so it is impossible to know whether the earth surrounding the house was used for intensive cultivation, either of ornamental species or of food-producing species, but this kind of complex may very well be what Gregory was providing the nuns with in the same years that this house was abandoned.

I am charting this phenomenon in the second chapter of this book. In subsequent chapters I survey the charter evidence for who grew vegetables where in Italian cities and then review the analysis of Dark Earth as open fields for intensive agriculture within the city. There were fields for onions, cabbages and greens, fruit trees and vineyards in early medieval cities and major households – and institutions – controlled supplies of fresh food for urban residents.