What did we do before GIS? Archaeological survey on a Norwegian summer’s day…

 My contribution to the Day of Archaeology in 2011 was as part of a University of Nottingham field school in Bulgaria. Although still working for a university, this summer I am on a site in the west of Norway. This time  the ‘day job’ rather than the interesting summer holiday project.


The Norwegian archaeology system bears many similarities to the UK, in that most developments are subject to evaluation, with planning consent often dependent on fulfilling an archaeological access condition. Unlike the UK however, only a limited number of organisations (mainly university museums) are legally allowed to undertake archaeological excavation in Norway. The country is divided up into areas based on the Norwegian county (fylke) system where a single museum has control of excavation. The University Museum, Bergen excavates in an area stretching along the Atlantic and North Sea coast from Ålesund down to just north of Haugesund and a couple of hundred kilometres inland into the mountainous and glacier area that lies between Oslo and Bergen, an administrative area roughly twice the size of Wales.

8am…. Our project involves the excavation of a site ahead of a housing development …a type of project which many UK based archaeologists will be familiar with – well if anyone is still building houses in the UK that is!!. We have been here since the end of April and will remain here until the end of August. This is the second season on the site – we came here for a brief ‘look-see’ last autumn, mainly to confirm the findings of the site evaluation originally carried out in 2006. We have opened an area measuring about 10,000m2 in 3 separate trenches.


For the most part the features on site are associated with agricultural occupation and use of the site – houses, cooking pits, cultivation and industrial activities but there are also a number of structures on the highest part of the site that we are tentatively interpreting as burial mounds, one of which has so far produced more than 30 stone loom weights.


The first discussion of the day, with the excavation field leader, is whether the two of us spend the day finishing excavation of one of the ‘graves’ or concentrate our activities on the lower site. The field leader is off on holiday next week, so we agree that she should spend part of the day finishing excavation of features in the lower field and maybe making a dent in the rapidly expanding record backlog…

Today our project has 4 staff working, myself, the field leader and two assistants – 2 others are on leave. Our background is definitely international. I am British, my 5 colleagues are Norwegian and we have a Danish project manager. Last year’s field assistant was Swedish, we had another Brit working on the earliest phase of this year’s fieldwork and recently lost our Irish-American back to the call of the wilds of the northeast US. As in the UK demand for work as an archaeologist exceeds the number of jobs available and there is much discussion both locally and nationally about the treatment of staff on short term contracts…


My job is to try and make some sense of the site survey and recording systems. We use the Intrasis GIS system (developed by the Swedish Antiquities Board) as our main recording medium, but there is also a large ArcGIS component in the day to day survey work. I am currently using a Leica 1205 robotic total station and the accompanying Leica Geo-office software. It’s nice kit and up to everything we ask of it, although I do have a sneaking preference for the Trimble equivalent. There is something about the synthesized voice on the Trimble thanking you for every ‘observation stored’ that endears even the most skeptical surveyor to the yellow goddess. All site photography these days is by digital camera and we download survey and photographic record to two lap-top computers with an external hard drive as back-up. The project is very keen to integrate the site records into the Intrasis database as soon as possible so we have an A3 format scanner on site for record sheets and drawn plans. There is also a comprehensive feature and topographic survey created through the total station.


10am… Our museum has another project of similar size and duration to ours running at a site about 150km to the south of us that is also using the full-on Intrasis package. I am in contact with the site surveyor most days exchanging Intrasis and survey equipment battle experiences and sometimes just because it’s good to talk!! A useful way of ironing out bugs in the system and sometimes occasionally sharing good ideas. So around tea-break today the first message of the day – a short discussion on whether anything is happening in Bergen this coming weekend… an update on local weather conditions… and of course being archaeologists, any recent gossip!! All quiet on the gossip front.

I am a big fan of GIS in archaeology; it seems to me the natural destination for the single context stratigraphic recording system. And at present here in Norway the colour of the GIS money is Intrasis. I do wish sometimes that more of my Norwegian colleagues would pay heed to the principles that underpin stratigraphic excavation and recording, as I see so much time wasted trying to integrate a modern GIS with excavation techniques that metaphorically and literally came out of the archaeological stone-age. But I am allowed I think (due to my great age) some leeway to moan about archaeological methodology.


One aspect often overlooked regarding the use of GIS directly on site is the need to define/redfine site responsibilities. The use of GIS shifts the balance of the work split between excavation and post-excavation and creates an interesting frisson between the site surveyor/GIS supervisor and the excavation field leader. Greater resources are required at the section face to collect and collate data, but this is more than repaid by savings in the time it no longer takes in ‘routine’ post-excavation tasks e.g compiling indexes and lists, digitizing the drawn record, cross referencing data, establishing inter-relationships between the site data. Physically creating a Harris matrix for example becomes redundant when every context relationship is already logged in the site database. Any questions which used to be asked of the site matrix can now be answered by simple Boolean querying of the integrated database. In fact GIS allows a greater degree of detail in context relationships than was ever possible using the traditional Harris matrix, to the extent that Intrasis allows realtionships to be entered (and retrieved) based upon spatial and/or contextual and/or stratigraphic definition.


Sure things aren’t always perfect, but they could be a lot worse… which brings me to the weather. I need to mention something about the weather. Bergen and the west coast of Norway in general is famed for its wet weather. It is claimed it rains 250 days a year in Bergen and there is a local joke that there is no such thing as bad weather only bad wet weather gear!! But the last week we have had temperatures of 30o during the working day.

12pm… lunchtime and visitors. As it is Friday (and 30o) we decide that we and the visitors need ice-cream, so drive into the nearest town. Our usual car-park s crowded with Swedish coaches and I wonder aloud why Swedish tourists are so keen on holidaying in Norway. I’m told that one of the fascinations is actually seeing a sea with tides, but am not sure whether my Norwegian colleagues are making it up. Last night the Norwegian women’s football team got through to the final of the European championship where they will play Germany. The ice-cream shop is displaying the headline in todays VG newspaper… ‘Achtung!!’. The UK is clearly not the only country to have ‘imaginative’ gutter-press headline writers….


3.30pm… another day/week is over. My colleagues are all away for the weekend, leaving me alone in our rental house. Plan an evening of G&T, fish and chips, laundry, the Archers and a late night movie, but Friday evening turned into a ‘Thor’s Hammer’ of a thunderstorm, losing TV and internet contact. I now know what the end of the world will be like!! So I will write my Day of Archaeology blog instead…


Brian Wilkinson (RCAHMS) – North Ayrshire

North Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

North Ayrshire ‘Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right 2011’

I am Brian Wilkinson and I work at RCAHMS as the Activity Officer for the Britain from Above project. This is a Heritage Lottery Funded partnership project run jointly with English Heritage and RCAHMW, and I am responsible for engaging audiences with the Aerofilms collection, some of the earliest commercial aerial photographs of the British Isles. The image I have chosen is from North Ayrshire and Arran, and is an Aerofilms photograph taken in 1947. It shows Holy Island laying across the mouth of Lamlash Bay with the Isle of Arran in the background. My wife’s family has strong connections to Arran and it’s a spectacular island that I’ve visited often.

Holy Island, general view, showing Inner Lighthouse and Mullach Mor. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1268773)

Holy Island, general view, showing Inner Lighthouse and Mullach Mor. Oblique aerial photograph taken facing north. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1268773)



Holy Island affords Lamlash Bay protection from the worst of the elements. The sheltered bay is a natural harbour  and has been used as an anchorage throughout history; during the two World Wars it accommodated the Royal Navy Home Fleet and mthe Atlantic Fleet. It was also the testing area for the ‘Lily’ floating airfield towards the end of  WW2.  Its strategic qualities were recognised even further back in time. It played a role in the last Norse invasion of Scotland in 1263, which culminated in the Battle of Largs on the North Ayrshire coast. The  Norwegian king was the overlord of the Hebrides and Islands in the Clyde, these having been settled by the Norse from the 9th century onwards.

Battle of Largs Monument. View from W. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1111416)

Battle of Largs Monument. View from W. Copyright RCAHMS (SC1111416)


During the 13th century the Scottish kings started to flex their muscles and sought to extend their domain over the Isles. This led to the Norwegian King Hakon leading an invasion to forcibly protect his claim.  The Saga of King Hakon Hakonsson records the Norse fleet sheltering in Lamlash Bay while negotiations between the two sides took place. These broke down and the Norsemen went marauding along the Clyde, even sailing up Loch Long and portaging their ships across the isthmus at Arrochar to go raiding in Loch Lomond. Events came to a head when several of the Norse’ ships were blown ashore at Largs during a storm, leading to a skirmish between the two sides. This minor conflict is remembered as the  Battle of Largs, and although the Norse may have won the day they lost the war, as Hakon died on his return voyage to Norway and control of the Hebrides was ceded to the Scots just three years after the battle. A monument to this Scottish victory in the form of a tower (known locally as “The Pencil”) was erected in Largs in 1912.

St Molaise's Cave, Holy Island, Arran. View of cave and interior. Copyright RCAHMS (SC408038)

St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran. View of cave and interior. Copyright RCAHMS (SC408038)

There is some surviving evidence of Norse visitors, and perhaps even these events, still recorded within the landscape around Lamlash Bay. St Molaise’s Cave on Holy Island is traditionally the hermitage of a sixth century saint and may have been a place of pilgrimage. The roof and sides of the cave are covered in many inscribed crosses and runic inscriptions dating from the 11th to 12th century. One of these reads “Vigleikr the marshal carved”, and the saga records a certain Vigleik Priestson as one of the captains of the Norse fleet.

Scanned image of drawing showing detail of runic inscription VIII in St Molaise's Cave, Holy Island, Arran Page 64, figure A of 'Gazetteer of Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Higlands and Islands'. Copyright RCAHMS (SC580820)

Scanned image of drawing showing detail of runic inscription VIII in St Molaise’s Cave, Holy Island, Arran Page 64, figure A of ‘Gazetteer of Early Medieval Sculpture in the West Highlands and Islands’. Copyright RCAHMS (SC580820)

 These were not the first of the Norse to have visited these parts either. At Kingscross Point, jutting out at the left of the photograph, are the remains of a viking burial, which contained a coin dating from the ninth century as well as burnt human bone and boat rivets, perhaps indicating a Viking Period cremation. So it’s a very interesting region where both the start of the Viking Period in Scotland and the end of Norse overlordship of the Isles can be evidenced, both through archaeology and the historic record.  This Norse heritage is still celebrated by communities on the Clyde, from the Arran Viking Longship Society, the Largs Viking Festival, and the Hidden Heritage Project.


This is what I’ve chosen for Day of Archaeology, but why not tell us your favourite archaeological sites in Scotland on Twitter using #MyArchaeology.


Roadtrips and Research – The Undergraduate’s Tale

I’m Rena Maguire. I’m almost an archaeologist, as I’m a third year undergraduate in QUB Belfast. My day of archaeology started at 6am. Not usual for an undergraduate, but I like to get a head-start on things by getting out for a few miles cycle on the bike to clear the cobwebs away and keep fit. That’s after coffee and giving morning kissies to my nutty hamsters Mo, Flo and Tim. They’re my surrogate dogs, and I daren’t ignore them! Today I’ve got a meeting with my supervisor, Dr Dirk Brandherm, with regards to research for my dissertation. He’s the metal expert par excellence. This is the start of my third year in QUB Belfast, doing my Archaeology degree, and this summer is all about research and breaking some new ground on my chosen topic.

Archaeology isn’t all research – it can be pretty strenuous on excavations, and I’m off on excavation in July, to Flag Fen, Cambridgeshire. It’ll be my first Bronze Age site, which I’m incredibly excited by. I clocked up a fair few excavations last year – Dunluce was my field school in June 2011, then I was off to an island off the coast of Norway, excavating a Hanseatic kontor, or trading post. This was followed by an Early Christian rath at Ballyaghagan. It seems that whatever digs I’ve been on there’s been television cameras there, so even if you haven’t seen my face, my backside has been on most UK TV stations! I love the constant challenges each landscape throws up, so am very thrilled at getting wetland experience at Flag Fen. It’s also one of the eras I’m interested in specialising in. Win/ win situation!

I came into academia from working in the entertainments industry, as a mature student, and I love the work. I really couldn’t imagine doing anything else now. Last week I was in Armagh, handling 2200 year old horse harness and drawing it as part of my dissertation. This week I was down in the beautiful National Museum of Ireland, in Dublin, cross-referencing data going back as far as the 1830s. The archives are heaven, the staff incredibly helpful in every way – I love the old fashioned courtesy and grace which exists in this profession.

If you’re a book lover, you’d also love the poring through glorious sepia coloured envelopes, smelling sweetly as only old paper in archives can, with fabulously drawn and recorded artefacts. There is an elegance to this kind of research – I get lost in thought among them very easily. To date I’ve found a lot of information which hasn’t been in the public domain, which hopefully will read well after its added to my thesis!

I walk over to university in the rain, and get soaked, but I’m pretty happy. I miss Queens when I’m not there regularly, miss the fun, the people and the stimulus. If you aren’t familiar with Queens University Belfast, let me tell you what a really terrific place it is to study archaeology. It was always my first choice as a university, not just because I live here but because it has produced so many great archaeologists. It may be a centre of excellence, but it’s got a great sense of belonging and community.

I’ve been compiling a listing of the horse harness pieces of the Irish Iron Age which I’m doing my dissertation on, and having to devise a methodology for its presentation. This has been a most difficult things for me, as I’m very much the kind of person who goes into a situation and makes up a methodology depending on the circumstances of that moment. My supervisor keeps me on my toes and won’t let me away with being as sloppy as my past employment would accept. Order and quantifiable scientific analysis make for good archaeology – things I need to learn!

The thing I love about archaeology is that no two days are ever the same. Today, I’m presenting the results of the past two weeks of intense research work. In a couple of weeks time, I’ll be in workboots and vizi-vest, on a fenland in East Anglia. I’ll alternate between computer skills, artwork, hauling spoil buckets about, calculating carbon 14 rates of decay, sorting artefacts out – or like today, learning from Dirk how metal repairs were carried out in the Iron Age depending on the substance the actual artefact is made of. I’m going to see if I can purloin the loan of a piece of harness to get it X-rayed, and analyse how the pieces were actually made. You work hard as a QUB Undergrad ( well, you do if you want to do this thing right). I wont tell lies and say it’s an easy course to do, but the lecturers work ten times harder to pull everything good out of you, and make you into a consummate professional.

I would like to go into the academic side of archaeology, but I also love the digging – you have no idea what’s waiting in the soil. It’s like Christmas – with added mud! At Dunluce last year, on the very last day of the dig, I found a rapier, which had been buried under a ruined building from the 1641 Rebellion . God knows what its story is, but that element of humanity and pathos is just one reason why I’m in love with all the processes of this job.

So, after I finished exasperating my supervisor about my lack of forethought on categorising artefacts ( filing is not my strong point!), and I resolve to do better next time, I head to a chip shop to grab some lunch. They’re playing a song that somehow always seems to pop up every time there’s some good archaeology about to go down – Nicki Minaj’s Superbass. The song makes me think of all last summers early starts, dressing by the first light of dawn to arrive at excavations; it makes me think of plane rides, and coach rides, and smiling to myself as the sun rises on ancient landscapes, not knowing what the day is going to bring. ‘My heart goes boom-da-boom da boom like super bass’…. yes, actually,it does, when I think of the honour of working with the history of humanity, and learning how to recreate it all again in the present day This work makes me a very happy girl indeed. I’m still only learning, but I know I want to take this to PhD and excel at what I’m interested in .We get to do the best job on the planet, in my opinion, so I’m more than happy to make every day a day of archaeology!

A day in the life of the Archaeological Research Project at Dobri Dyal, Bulgaria

On Friday 29th July 2011 I was working as site surveyor on a site at Dobri Dyal, a Roman fortified hilltop camp believed to date from the early 6th century AD and located in the central region of Bulgaria approximately 200km east of the capital Sofia. The Dobri Dyal project has about 50 participants mostly students from Nottingham and Cardiff universities but also with a smattering of students from Edinburgh, UCL a couple from Oxbridge and some from other places. There are a dozen or so supervisors, mainly professional archaeologists, covering all the main field functions, finds and environmental management, surveying and digital documentation, under the direction of Professor Andrew Poulter of the University of Nottingham. The British part of the project works in co-operation with a Bulgarian team organised through the regional museum at nearby Veiko Turnovo.

The Dobri Dyal team….

Project Background*

From northern Italy to the Black Sea coast, the only identified human impact upon the landscape during the early Byzantine period is the appearance of countless hill-top fortifications; only a few have been partially excavated, and none has been subjected to systematic archaeological research, employing the full range or modern techniques. The function of these sites and the character of the countryside during the final years of Byzantine rule, central as they are for understanding the period, remain unknown.

It is generally accepted that the early Byzantine Empire was at its height during the 6th century: Justinian retook North Africa and Italy and the emperor Maurice campaigned on and beyond the Danubian frontier. The lower Danube was of fundamental importance; it represented the economic hinterland and frontier, supporting and protecting the Byzantine capital of Constantinople. Literary sources for the region, describing the second half of the century, have generated opposing interpretations; on the one hand, that this period witnessed a revival in Byzantine military strength or, on the other, that this century saw the progressive collapse of the empire’s economic and military power (Whitby and Liebeschuetz in Poulter 2007a). In particular, there is no agreement as to the veracity of The Buildings written by Procopius: a key reference point for any discussion of the period. However, book 4 (which covers the eastern Balkans) is unique in that the text was never completed and, in its rough form, it can be demonstrated that the author relied upon a variety of different sources, including itineraries (Poulter 2007a, 9-11). Although this conclusion does not necessarily discredit Procopius’ narrative, it raises suspicions about the authenticity of his detailed descriptions which can only be tested by targeted archaeological research.

The project requires the total excavation of the well-preserved 6th_ century fortress of ‘Dobri Dyal’ in north central Bulgaria. The objective is to discover the economic role of the type site during the 6th century. Essential projects will include zooarchaeological, archaeobotanical, small-finds and ceramic research, providing datasets which can be directly compared with the substantial results from the first two programmes (cf. 24,000 bone fragments from Nicopolis and 10,000 from the late Roman fortress). The excavations will explore the functionof the site during the 6th to 7th centuries.


* written by project director Professor Andrew Poulter and cribbed from the project handbook

5am…..I leave the farm in Nicup and walk the kilometre or so into the middle of the village We have commandeered a restaurant in the middle of the village to provide us with food, starting with coffee and a snack at 5.30 each morning, before we leave for site at 6am. The site at Dobri Dyal is about 45 mins drive south of Nicup, so today like most days we are standing at the bottom of the hill at about 6.45am. The Nottingham team opened 5 excavation areas on the top of the mound last season. Three of these areas (A, B and E) are being dug again this year and two new areas (J and K) have been opened in locations where the 2010 geophysical survey indicated areas of high resistivity. A Bulgarian team from Turnovo museum are opening a trench on the southern downslope of the hill where they think the main gatehouse and approach road to the hillfort are located.

7am….The actual change in level from the bottom to the top of the hill is only about 30 metres, but some days it seems much much higher. Especially when you are carrying tools from the caravan to the top, or in my case two tripods, a total station, a prism pole and a box of assorted grid pegs, tapes, club hammer and nails. I am the site surveyor at Dobri Dyal. Most of my recent archaeological work has been in Norway and Qatar although I have been involved in a couple of English Heritage projects back in the UK in the past 3 years. Today I am assisted by two student volunteers (Hannah and Jade) and the main task for the survey team is to locate grid pegs around trench E to enable the students to practice their planning skills.

In addition to laying out grids we are 3-D locating small finds, as and when they are discovered and plotting the defensive walls on the south side of the fort currently being uncovered by a Bulgarian archaeological team. We are using two Leica 400 total stations for the day to day survey work. These are fairly straightforward machines to use and so far all of the students I have tutored have learnt to set up the machines and carry out simple survey functions (point location, setting out grid-pegs and trench locations using the stake-out function). I of course miss the robotic Leica 1200 machine that I normally use in Norway, but for training purposes it is probably more useful for the students to get acquainted with the simpler machine……For some reason I have not been able to work out, we are burning through batteries today and by lunch time have used 4 sets…..hopefully there is just enough left in the last set to see us to the end of the day…(there was – just!!)

10am…..Lunch!! Each day we are supplied lunch by a local supermarket. Like most archaeological projects we have a mix of carnivores and veggies, a smattering of vegans and the occasional allergy sufferer as well as the downright awkward, making the supply of suitable ‘off the shelf’ sandwiches fraught with difficulty. Today’s vegetarian offering is just about inedible, but I have a large jar of pickled chilli peppers in the site hut that disguises the tastlessness of the cheese and peps up the cucumber. And an apple. And a litre and a half bottle of water. The temperature in central Bulgaria gets into the high 30s in July…which is very nice, but does require drinking plenty of water if you are out on site.

10.45am…back to work. We try to make sure that all of the students cover the basic skills needed to work as a field archaeologist (digging, recording, planning, section drawing, surveying) and in the store (finds processing, environmental processing, sieving, sampling etc etc)…..but this is a real research excavation and we try and maintain a high standard of work. Our research aims are to establish the plan and phasing of the settlement, its development and demise using all the facilities and methodologies available to us. The Bulgarian team use a more traditional method and are constantly amazed at how slowly we work. Attempts to explain our ‘single context – stratigraphic excavation’ methodology are met with blank looks by our host archaeologists. It’s about time that someone translated ‘Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ into one or more of the eastern European languages…..

1.45pm….Well that’s it for today. We pile back into the minibuses and return to Nicup for lunch. Soup and some baked cheese dish for me, some kind of sausage for the meat eaters. Our restaurant has a bar where drinks are very cheap. A 500ml beer costs 1 lev (45 pence). A double gin and tonic 1.5lev (67 pence). A quadruple gin and tonic 1.9 lev (85 pence), a 330ml glass of local wine 0.60 lev (27 pence)……the local speciality is ‘oblek’ a mixture of green mint liquor and ouzo much loved by men of a certain age (described by one non-archaeological acquaintance in the village as a cross between viagra and laxative!!) and rakia, the local plum or apricot brandy. Being sensible abstemious folk we tend to stick to a small gin and tonic and the occasional beer. Some students sit at the tables outside the bar playing cards, some return to their houses to sleep. Meanwhile….

3.45pm…..A surveyor’s work is never done!! I spend a couple of hours most days downloading the site survey data and preparing maps etc. Today a number of students are working extra hours in the finds store to make up time lost on other occasions during the week or as we like t call it ‘detention’. I slip along to Ann’s digital documentation office to print out a couple of maps. I use Leica Geofffice to download today’s site data. Normally I would use ArcGIS to process the data, create the survey database and make the maps, but as this is a ‘free’ project for me, I am using as far as possibly freely available open source software (not least so I can make the site data available to any students who request it). At present that consists of the Quantum GIS (QGIS) and the ProCAD (AutoCAD clone) packages. I am not a great fan of using AutoCAD for archaeological puposes, but find ProCAD useful for coverting GIS-based shapefiles to dwg and dxf formats for those that want them. The students in detention seem to be fairly happy with their punishment and are discussing whether universities should ‘give up’ student protesters to the Metropolitan Police…..No way!!

6pm….back to the house for a cold shower and then down to the Directors house for a pre-dinner gin and tonic. The gin on sale in the local bar is cheap, but it’s not Bombay Sapphire …. unfortunately Andrew is out of tonic so I end up with gin and lemon.. I manage to struggle through two glasses!! The project works on Saturday mornings so Friday nights are not as relaxing as a normal weekend, but we always manage to have a reasonable time. The nearest large town (Veiko Turnovo) has a culture festival on at the moment with ballet and opera performances most weekends. We have been offered cheap tickets (10lev circa £4.50) for all performances and some staff are going tomorrow to see the opera. Weather permitting, as the performance is open air….

12am……The bars are closed. Some folk drift off to houses, others to sit and chat for a while. Some of us are thinking that we have to be up again in 5 hours…

Field schools are fun, especially when the students are as nice as the bunch we currently have at Dobri Dyal….. Not so sure that many of them will end up with careers in archaeology though. Not through a lack of willingness but just the haphazard way that archaeology is organised in the UK and the failure of the profession to respond in any meaningful way to the current economic and political situation. It may be that in future years, training schools such as Dobri Dyal just won’t be available to UK students. One of the current student participants told me that next year, the archaeology department of his university plan to carry out a series of test pitting exercises in the gardens of houses close to the university campus instead of offering a field school through a project like Dobri Dyal. I think that is very sad….but if this is to be an end to a long standing archaeology tradition, we hope that the next 3 weeks at Dobri Dyal will provide long and happy memories for all those taking part…

Kevin Wooldridge, Bulgaria, August 2011

The Dobri Dyal project staff have a Facebook group called ‘Never Mind the Balkans – Summer Excavations in Bulgaria 2011’


A day in ceramics, glass and metals. Conservation at the British Museum

8.55 am. Misting a waterlogged leather purse inside a pot with deionised water.

The purse contained a hoard of silver Civil War coins currently going through the Treasure process. If the leather dries out, it will distort. Treatment is delayed while questions of ownership and ultimate destination for the hoard are resolved but we have pressed for a speedy decision!

9.05 am. Excavating fragments of an Iron Age cauldron from a soil block.

This is just one of a group of bronze cauldrons, some with iron rims and handles, found at Chiseldon.

9:15 am: Identifying old restoration on a bronze portrait head of Augustus under ultra violet light.

The results of the investigation will be published and the head may go on display. You can find out more about the head of Augustus on the British Museum website.

9.22 am Revealing silver inlay in an iron Merovingian axe wanted for The World of Sutton Hoo exhibition that will open in September 2011.

Further details on the handaxe can be found in collections online.

9:30 am: Two 18 month contract posts have just started to clean coins from the Frome hoard, the largest hoard of Roman coins in a single pot found in Britain. They have calculated that they will have to clean about 40 coins each a day to fulfil their contracts.

An extensive blog has been posted by the Portable Antiquities Scheme on the discovery of the Frome Hoard and it will form part of a video conferencing workshop for children.

9:32am: Piecing together fragments from the old Naukratis excavation.

You can read more about the Naukratis research projecton the British Museum research pages.

9:37 am: Reconstructing the bowl that was placed over the mouth of the pot that contained the Frome hoard.

9:54 am: Removing a tiny wisp of cotton wool caught in the gold cloisons of part of the Ostrogothic Domagnano Treasure.

You can learn more about this object on Collections online.

12:32 pm: Reconstructing the pot that contained the Frome Hoard.

12:40 pm: More joins found in the Naukratis material.

12:43 pm: Editing a conservation record on the British Museum computer system. Recently it was announced that the 2 millionth record had been generated and most of these are open to the public via the BM Collections On Line website.

1:58 pm: Consolidating lead items that have formed part of a comparative study of galvanostatic and potentiostatic methods of reduction.

2:23 pm: Still gluing the Naukratis fragments.

2:26 pm: Still building up fragments of the Frome pot. (Note picture on the wall of the pot still in the ground.)

2:59pm: Investigating the Lilleburge assemblage, a collection of Viking objects that includes items still in the small blocks of soil in which they were excavated in 1886 from a long barrow in Norway.

For more details on the Lilleberge assemblage, visit these pages.

3:01 pm: Filling gaps in the Frome bowl.

4:58 pm: Examining an X-ray of a cheek piece from the East Leicestershire helmet made from iron overlaid with silver gilt. The helmet, which dates from just before the Roman invasion of Britain, was part of what was originally called the Hallaton hoard and was buried full of Iron Age silver coins

The Hallaton hoard has been acquired by Leicestershire Museums Service and Helen Sharp blogs about the treasure elsewhere on this site.

5:23 pm: Removing tarnish from an Anglo-Saxon silver gilt buckle for The World of Sutton Hoo exhibition that will open in September 2011.

You can find more information on the buckle on the BM site.

Tattooing in Hawaii

Two tattooing comb blanks and three bird bone pick combs from Nu'alolo kai. The last pick is still blackened at the tip with pigment.

Aloha! Greetings from the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, Hawaii! I am the Archaeology Collections Manager at the museum, which means that I get to take care of artifacts that museum archaeologists have excavated over the years as well as all the photographs and manuscripts that are associated with them.

Today I spent much of the day writing about bird bone picks in the museum’s collection, specifically those from the Nu’alolo kai site on Kauai. The European Association of Archaeologists is meeting in Olso, Norway this September and I am giving a paper about these picks as part of a session on Tattooing in Antiquity. A lot more is known about prehistoric tattooing practices in the Pacific Islands than many other places. We have shell and bone tattooing combs that have been excavated from a number of places. Tattooing is still a very active part of the cultural heritage of Pacific Islanders, with elaborate designs still being tapped into the skin with traditional methods in a number of places, such as Samoa.

The Hawaiian comb and brace system. These were excavated from the Big Island of Hawaii.

But there are many parts of the tattooing toolkit that are still unknown, and quite a variety of needles and raw materials are known to exist. Hawaii has a unique comb and brace system, where multiple combs are attached together with a brace, and then this multi-comb is attached to a handle. Some excavations have also identified simpler combs, sometimes fashioned from a bird bone pick and sometimes being from a single piece of thinned mammal bone.

Investigating these picks and tattooing implements is fascinating. While excavations can turn up new objects to analyze, the museum is also a great place to do research with existing collections!

Colouring the Past

It’s a gray and rainy day in Reykjavík and I’m thinking of colour. Arrayed before me in the National Museum’s collections storage center are an array of jasper fragments from an excavation at Reykholt, an important regional center in western Iceland. Founded in the late 10th century, Reykholt became the center of a polity forged by Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s wealthiest and most powerful chieftain of the early 13th century. I was involved in the first years of the Reykholt Project in the late 1980s and was there briefly in its last days, in 2007. Excavations that I undertook at a small, non-elite farm about 10 kilometers away and at the site of one of Snorri’s rivals, a bit farther out, led me through a circuitous route to think about jasper, an iron-rich form of SiO2 that, like flint, chert and obsidian can be easily flaked into stone tools or used with steel to strike sparks for lighting fires. It’s this latter use that attracted the Vikings and their Norse descendants to collect, use and discard jasper at most sites. A quotidian and visually boring class of material culture, jasper fire-starters were, nonetheless, the matches in the pockets of Norse men and women and their distribution, use wear and trace element chemistry can be used to monitor the movement of people over both short and long distances (we’ve used neutron activation analysis to trace Icelandic jasper to the site of L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, for example).

But arrayed before me today is a puzzle. Due to its high iron content, jasper is most commonly red or ochre-yellow. Far less common are black, blue, or green colours. And yet here, from the ruins of a medieval church built at the site around 1150 and demolished around 1550 is a sea of green and greenish-blue jasper. More to the point, the wear patterns on it indicate that hardly any of these green and blue-green fragments were used for striking fires, although the few red jasper fragments in the assemblage- and all of the obsidian pieces-were used to make sparks. The question is, why were these green pieces brought to the site and why were they treated this way? Or, better, what did it mean to be “thinking green” in medieval Iceland? So far, the answer is looking far more complex, and far more interesting, than I’d expected.

Of these green stones, roughly 10% form a coherent assemblage of desilicified, soft pieces, light blue-green in color, that have been scraped and faceted with files, knives, or abrading stones. The actions taken on them are deliberate but their forms are each different, random and seemingly accidental. Their most likely explanation is that the objects in my hand are end-products of actions taken to obtain blue-green powder, and that was most likely intended for the production of blue-green or green ink, as Reykholt was a center of literary production through the Middle Ages. These humble pieces may, therefore, be our best material evidence for the action of clerics and secular writers at Reykholt, whose products include those of Snorri Sturluson himself, among them Heimskringla (the earliest history of the kings of Norway), the Poetic Edda (a manual of skaldic poetry and one of the main sources on Nordic pagan cosmography), and Egills saga (an important foundation of the Icelandic Family Sagas). Finding illuminated manuscripts in a collection of colored stones was the last thing I expected.

However, the majority of the other stones found in the fill and under the floors of this church are united simply by being green. Many are achingly beautiful jasper, like Song dynasty porcelain in color and texture, but were simply smashed into fragments to reveal the green interior and then discarded without any other traces of use. Another large group consists of small green pebbles, some of jasper and others of white chalcedony with a green surface rind formed from contact with iron-rich basalt in a reducing environment. From their surface contours, it is clear that some of these were collected from river or stream beds, others were obtained from eroded landscapes where they were faceted and worn by Iceland’s strong winds, still others were plucked directly from the roots of ancient volcanoes with basalt still adhering to their outer surfaces. An extensive survey of the region around Reykholt has shown that jasper of any kind is extremely rare there and nearly impossible to find in riverine, terrestrial or bedrock contexts. At Hestfjall, the nearest well-known jasper source, 30 km from Reykholt, red jasper is abundant. Although blue, green, and blue-green are present, obtaining it may require long searches, scrambles up vertical cliffs, or dangerous transects across steep and loose scree slopes. Bringing these simple objects to Reykholt, then, represents a considerable number of separate actions, undertaken in different places and variable settings, over a prolonged period of time, and potentially through a series of dangerous or at least difficult actions. Why? What was important about being green?

The answer may lie in the symbolic meanings of green and of jasper itself within medieval thought. Jasper was one of the twelve stones on the breastplate of Aaron, described in the Old Testament, and was among the foundation stones of the Celestial Jerusalem described in John of Patmos’ Revelation, and formed that metaphysical city’s walls. Numerous sources, from the Venerable Bede in 8th century England to Richard of St. Victor and Bruno of Segni, writing in 12th century France and Italy, make it clear that the term “jasper” itself was used to describe an opaque green or blue-green stone, not the more common red color that we associate with jasper today. Jasper was the symbol of faith and belief during this life, that, like green plants, grows and returns to life after hardship, never truly dying despite the troubles of earthly existence. Jasper was used, at times, as a symbol of Christ and, more frequently, as one of the symbols of Saint Peter…and the church at Reykholt was dedicated to Saint Peter.

An hypothesis starts to form. Are these green and blue-green pieces of jasper, gathered with difficulty from a potentially wide-spread landscape and deposited here in greater numbers than known anywhere else in Iceland, accumulated symbols of personal devotion? Are they materialized prayers to St. Peter, tokens of belief…or perhaps supports for belief under strain and supplication for his believed ability to turn away fever, to cure foot problems, to provide longevity, to aid harvests and harvesters, to provide support for fishermen, or to guide the souls of the deceased into heaven?

Two classes of stone objects, one used for pigment production and the other unused except for its acquisition, intentional destruction and sequestration within a church, are both joined primarily by color. Together, they suggest new approaches for understanding the pragmatics of religious practice in medieval Iceland, on the one hand, and the practice of illumination, on the other, in ways that could not have been expected from such humble remains.

Well, back to it! The rest of the assemblage awaits and with it opportunities to refute this emerging hypothesis or to find additional examples that may support it. Some days archaeology takes place in the field, others in the lab. This is one of those days. This weekend may have me scouring the landscape in search of new jasper sources…

A week in the life of an FLO

A week in the life of a Finds Liaison Officer

By Wendy Scott, FLO forLeicester, Leicestershire andRutland.

Saturday 16th July

My first ‘National Archaeology Fortnight’ event. I am doing an identification session at Melton Mowbray museum today.  During the week I assisted the local detecting and fieldwork groups mount an exhibition for NAF in the Community Showcase. So I have a wonderful backdrop of Roman, Medieval and post medieval metalwork and pottery! I have met two new finders and recorded some good material.

Sunday 17th July

Festival of History!  Today was a very long but very enjoyable day. We always have a stand in the English Heritage marquee and we usually manage to speak to hundreds of people about our work, especially when it rains and they run for cover!  Watching re-enactors of all periods mixing together is quite weird, I’m sure it must confuse the kids! The afternoon dogfight between a Messerschmitt and a Spitfire was cool (obviously the spitfire won!)

Monday 18th July.

Today I am having a well earned rest! I am just in the office to return equipment used over the weekend and to collect a couple of small treasure items which I am passing on to our manager, Roger Bland tomorrow. He will then take them down to the BritishMuseum for the curators to identify and prepare a Treasure report for the Coroner.

Tuesday 19th July

Regional meeting,  BirminghamMuseum. This is when we catch up with each other, discuss issues, organise events etc. Today we had a special treat. We visited the Conservation lab to have a look at Staffordshire hoard objects being cleaned before going on display. They get more amazing the more we see them!  We also said goodbye to Duncan Slarke, Ex West Mids. FLO (the person the Staffordshire hoard was reported to).  Hes off to a new life in Oslo. Lykke til Duncan!

Wednesday 20th July

Today I dealt with Treasure paperwork, passed on purchased Treasure to the Museums staff and took delivery of a medieval gold ring which needs to go through the Treasure system. I spent the rest of the day editing photos (taken at a MD club meeting) ready to add to our website.

This evening I am going to the  launch of   ‘Visions of Ancient Leicester’ A book showing reconstructions based on the last 10 years of extensive excavation in the city.  A large Roman coin hoard,  a treasure case I worked on, recently purchased by Leicester City Musuems.

Thursday 21st July

Today I am trying to get some records on the website. I have a collection of objects including a group of early Medieval metalwork, which has confirmed the location of a long suspected Anglo-SaxonCemetery in the Melton Mowbray area. So as well as adding these to the website I have alerted local Archaeologists who have been wondering where the cemetery might be!  This morning I also processed some Museum Identifications which may or may not end up on the web too.

Friday 22nd July

More data entry today (it never ends!).  I have written a Treasure report for the ring I collected on Wednesday and sent that to the British Museum for checking. I also had the joy of submitting my quarterly financial claim, which always involves fighting the County Council Finance system for a few hours!  Last job of the day was packing my car with Roman material and kids activities for Saturday’s event.

Saturday 23rd July

Meet the experts’ at Harborough Museum. My last NAF event, today we are concentrating on the Iron age and Roman periods to compliment our wonderful Hallaton Hoard display (over 5,000 Iron age coins excavated from a ‘temple’ site). I have been showing people Roman coins and artefacts and getting children to design their own coins. My Colleague Helen Sharp has been teaching people about life in the Iron age and letting people make their own replica coins, always immensely popular!

I’m now off on a camping trip with my extended family, so enjoy ‘Day of Archaeology!