University of Southampton

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:

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:

Dom, Chris and the Green Shed

Nicole Beale

Where art meets archaeology: Finding artefacts for an art exhibition of excavations at Calleva Atrebatum

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:

Nicole Beale

Sarah is a volunteer at Hampshire Cultural Trust and has been working with Lesley (who is not in today so we couldn’t get a snap of her!) to prepare a display on some of the material from 1970s and 1980s excavations at Calleva Atrebatum (Silchester).

Sarah – A Trust volunteer

The pieces will be on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke, another Trust managed museum, from the 15th to the 29th August and will accompany a special exhibition ‘Silchester: Life on the Dig’ which is made up of works by Silchester’s Artist in Residence for 2014, Jenny Halstead.

The exhibition will be on display in numerous other locations in the south, but the Silchester objects that Sarah has been selecting will be exclusive to the Willis Museum.

Sarah and Lesley need to choose a representative sample of objects, but also to identify objects that are appropriate for display, because they have an interesting feature, are not too fragile, and in the case of some of the tiny coins, large enough to see!

They picked out a selection of coins, there is also a glass bead that will be included in the display.

Coins! Lots of coins!

I don’t know what I love more, the coins, or the envelopes that the coins are stored in

Lovely coins

The glass bead

Sarah is holding a whetstone that is a fragment of sandstone, originally used as a roof tile, and then reused as a whetstone to sharpen chisels.

Sarah is holding the whetstone

The whetstone

The Samian bowl is very attractive and caught the eye of both of them when they were selecting items. It has all sorts of animals, including a deer, a goat, a hare, a boar, a bird, a dolphin, around the outside of it, and Sarah and Lesley thought that it would be fun to find out a bit more about the decoration. The bowl was made in Lezoux in the 2nd century AD.

The Samian bowl

A boar and a hunting dog?

A hare

The pair also found some nice details on some of the tiles in the stores, including one that has a clear dog print on it.

Some of the tiles and brickwork from Silchester

Naughty dog

Finally, just before re-packaging the items to be sent over to the Willis Museum, Sarah needs to type and print labels that will go on display alongside the objects. This task can be quite time consuming as it is nice to be able to provide a little contextual information for each object, and so some research must be done for some of the less common artefacts.

The objects will be on display at the Willis Museum in Basingstoke:

Nicole Beale

A view from above: aerial photography at Portus

This year’s Day of Archaeology coincides with the final day of the 2014 Portus Project field school excavations. This is the second year that the University of Southampton ( and the British School at Rome have run this training course for students from throughout the world. What brings us together is our interest in the maritime trade of Rome in the Mediterranean, the hub of which was the Imperial port of Rome, now a few kilometres inland from the coastline next to Rome’s international airport at Fiumicino.

The final day of excavation for the students was all about recording and checking excavation documentation, as there always seems to be 1 or 2 outstanding context sheets, however hard you try! My role within the project is to support the excavation through surveying, for which we use a range of techniques.

One recording technique that has become fundamental to the excavation, due to its size and complexity, is low level aerial photography. This Friday we were using a cherry picker in order to take oblique photographs of the excavation as well as vertical photographs, both of which are fundamental for standard recording as well as photogrammetry.

Portus Project Cherry Picker photography

Simon Keay (Portus Project Director) and Renato Sebastiani (Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Roma) viewing the 2014 excavations from a cherry picker

We’ve been using a range of photographic techniques on site this season (see James Milespost. As the project was running an online MOOC at the same time as the excavation, we’ve tried to help participants by providing located 360 panoramic photographs (using a Motrr).

Aerial Photograph using a Motrr

Panoramic aerial photograph of 2014 Portus Project Excavations (taken using a Motrr)

One area that we are exploring is regular low level site photography using a drone. We’re now using a DJI Innovations S800 Spreading Wings for our photography, mounted with a Sony DS-HSX300.

Portus Project DJI Innovations drone

The DJI Innovations Spreading Wings S800 being used to record the Opus Spicatum floor of the Palazzo Imperiale

We’ll be do more recording this forthcoming week, using the drone to photograph the new findings in the shipyard and the Imperial Palace.

Playing with time #buildyourownportus

A Lego model

Inside the Grandi Magazzini di Settimio Severo, Portus

I’ve just finished the excellent Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) Archaeology of Portus, run by the University of Southampton’s archaeology department. The six week course was an introduction both to the Portus Project in Italy, and to the skills and techniques of modern archaeology. It was a great success, with a real sense of community among the students on the comments forum, and an amazing amount in interaction from the the course creators (which included both University faculty and post and undergraduate students). The last week was live, with videos filmed on site responding to questions the MOOC students raised.

If, having read this brief summary, you feel you’ve missed out on something special, fear not! The course was such a success that the University and FutureLearn have agreed to run the course again in the new year. Sign up for it here!

One of the challenges students raised was that there wasn’t enough time allowed to do everything. The course designers had allowed two hours of study a week, but their optional activities were so compelling that people could spend twenty hours exploring everything, and that was without being inspired to explore Portus in ways neither the core materials nor the optional activities suggested. More than one of us, inspired by the computed models that showed how the buildings might have looked, wanted to have a go at modelling ourselves.

More than one of us indeed took a similar route to our own visualisations: Lego system bricks. I started by raiding my son’s Lego stash. Which I had thought was pretty extensive. I realised pretty soon that it wasn’t big enough to build even the one building I’d chosen in real, plastic Lego, so I turned to Lego Digital Designer (LDD), a free program that allows you to experiment with infinite availability of bricks of all types. Even so, at the minifigure scale I was attempting, I only managed to recreate a corner of the building.

Other MOOC students quickly whipped up Lego models of their own, and smaller scales. So I had another attempt. This time using an arbitrary one stud =~one meter scale, and working in real Lego to experiment with building from the inside out. Having built one singe warehouse “storage unit”, I returned to LDD to replicate that the forty-odd times that the archaeological evidence suggests the central range of the buildings consisted of. That’s only a third of the the building done. But I was pretty pleased with the results so far.


In a moment of madness, I wondered whether I should order the relevant bricks and have a go building it for real. I stopped thinking when I got to a particular 1×6 arch brick that is no longer available, and already the price of the bricks I’d ordered so far was about £470. Playtime was over.

But then I went to work. I work for the National Trust in my day-job, and had to make a visit to the Vyne a week or two ago, and they currently have on display a large Lego model, based on all the archaeological evidence of what that place looked like in its Tudor prime.


Looking at this model. It dawned on me that there’s something very important archaeologically about using Lego (or any other construction toy, I’m not a Lego shill!) to visualise the past. Every model a archaeologist produces is an experiment, a theory. It follows that every model an archaeologist produces is wrong.  Of course the idea is that the more evidence an archaeologist applies to their model, the less wrong it is. But there is always missing evidence, always an element of conjecture.

But models can be very seductive, especially when they are presented by institutions like museums, the National Trust, or media like the BBC and National Geographic. Then they become authoritative, they are imbued with an illusion of rightness, of “that’s exactly how it was”, that would embarrass the archaeologist who produced it. Archaeologists would prefer to show a model in constant flux, shifting through all the “might have beens”, all the theories and conjecture that hasn’t yet been discounted.

Computer modelling is a double-edged blade (modelling knife?) in this regard. On the one hand, computer models allow archaeologists to efficiently try different versions of the model, but on the other hand, with ever more sophisticated textures and lighting effects, computer models can appear even more real.

But Lego comes with an inbuilt sense of “unrealness.” Inherent in a Lego model is the idea that you can break it to bits and rebuild it as your ideas change. There’s also a sense that everyone can do this. You don’t need to have a high-powered computer with multiple GPUs and expensive CAD software. You don’t even need the Lego. All you need is your imagination.

So on this Day of Archaeology, bring your own imagination to the table. Play around with ideas. If you can’t get to a dig, or help out with finds recording you can still contribute to our ever growing understanding of the past. Share your “might have beens” with each other, because the more might-have-beens we share, the closer we get “that’s how it was.”

Neanderthal Funerary Practices: Too savage to mourn?

My name is Sarah, and I’m a PhD student at the University of Southampton. I would love to be able to tell you I’m scrambling around in the dirt playing with some real archaeology, but right now I’m sat at my desk reading about how other people played around in the dirt and feeling a little envious. I’m actually reading excavation reports and articles about Neanderthal remains from across the world, from the famous La Chapelle-aux-Saints in France to Kebara in Israel.

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

Cast of a Neanderthal skull on display Sterkfontein Caves, South Africa. Taken by Sarah Schwarz (@archaeosarah)

My PhD project focuses on Neanderthal funerary practices – which, in short, is anything and everything that Neanderthals could have done with their dead. (This is normally the point where the entire dinner table goes quiet and I’m left trying to decipher whether the faces staring back at me are confused, intrigued, or terrified). I’m looking for evidence of any and all types of funerary practices, such as burial/inhumation; funerary caching, curation, defleshing and disarticulation. This involves me going through every record I can possibly find of every scrap of Neanderthal remains across the world and examining each individual for characteristic signs of each type of funerary practice – for example, a pit feature for a burial or cut marks for defleshing.

But why is that important? The treatment and honour of the dead through funerary practices and rituals is a key part of our society, and although a culturally sensitive issue it’s something every society does in some way. It is a key emotional display of our humanity, and the cognitive ability to understand the concept of death and being aware of one’s own mortality is quite a realisation. The ability to be able to understand that death will come to us all one day, and to understand that intervention in the lives of others can at least stave off the inevitable for a little longer is an obvious conclusion for us – but it is clear in the Neanderthal world too. For example, the ‘Old Man’ of Shanidar (Shanidar 1, Iraq) was an elderly individual with several traumatic injuries and deformities, which could have required the assistance of others to survive, shows that Neanderthals had this understanding. And understanding how this evolved in Neanderthals helps us understand how the same characteristics, emotions, and rituals evolved in modern humans.

What struck me was how easily the concept of a Neanderthal burying a relative or friend could be so easily dismissed, and how the idea that Neanderthals were a bit brutish and slow still seems to be the popular stereotype for this species. The idea that Neanderthals were a bit daft and weren’t capable of the same things as modern humans also frustrates me – just because we haven’t dug up a Neanderthal who died in middle of updating his Facebook status on his iPad, it doesn’t mean they were stupid. On the contrary, Neanderthals appear to have been routinely honouring their deceased loved ones well before Homo sapiens ever decided to join them in Europe.

Neand Facebook

A hint that things might not be looking up for Ned…


Although I’m still in the early stages of my PhD, so far the pattern emerging appears to be that the early Neanderthals began by defleshing and disarticulating individuals (I am deliberately avoiding the use of the term ‘cannibalism’ because I cannot conclusively prove they were routinely consuming the remains), and from around 115,000 years BP the later Neanderthals begin burying them. And it doesn’t matter if they’re male or female, old or young, everyone is treated in the same way across the Neanderthal world. What a lovely thought.

I still have a lot of work to do on my research, so hopefully by next year’s Day of Archaeology I will have more to tell you. But in the mean time I’m sure my cheery topic will continue to destroy dinner party conversations for some time to come, and maybe, I will be on my way to mastering the art of discussing taboo subjects without scaring the general population.

Sarah Schwarz

PhD Student, CAHO, University of Southampton

Follow me on Twitter: @archaeosarah

Or read more about my research on my blog:

Itchy trowel syndrome

Jude Jones and Dr Yvonne Marshall in the finds hut

Jude Jones and Dr Yvonne Marshall in the finds hut

I went along yesterday to our Basing House excavation (currently underway in partnership with students and staff from the University of Southampton).  Officially I had my Conservator hat on, but once the duties of handing over a dry box and some silica gel were performed, and having found the finds hut running like clockwork I confess to whipping the trowel out and jumping in the nearest pit 🙂

Claire Woodhead, Conservator

For  more detailed progress reports, follow the dig on

RocDam Basing Jam

It’s that time of year when our historic sites (those looked after by Hampshire County Council) shake off their Spring sleeping dust and shout out for Summer holiday participation.  This weekend sees a combination of an Archaeology Activity Day at Rockbourne Roman Villa, a Young Archaeologists Club Visit to Basing House, with the latter site also hosting a special ‘conservation workshop’ (restoring the brickwork is a more or less constant concern there) and a training excavation for students from the University of Southampton.  As the ‘person in the middle’, rather than muddle, I hope,  it’s my job to find good resource material and provide exciting opportunities.

Rockbourne is ‘RocDam’ at the moment as it’s linking with the archaeological work at Damerham – a neighbouring community project focused on long and round barrows.  These are obviously an archaeological world away from a Roman Villa, but there are some good points of comparison.  The project has already seen a school drama production, telling the story of the discovery of the sites and this weekend’s event will feature a new ‘excavation pit’ full of sherds, stones and bones and many other activities.  I’m currently sorting out some human bone for an osteology workshop and pepping up the site tour.

At Basing, the discovery of an in situ stone fireplace, hidden for centuries in the ruins, will be a good focus for the conservation day talks, and the dig – re-examining a few trenches not backfilled in the 1960s, will speak for itself.  The Young Archaeologists should be able to have a dig and I’m busy looking in the Museum stores to find some of the material dug up 50 years ago, just in case they draw a  blank.KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The digpit at Rockbourne - ready and waiting

The digpit at Rockbourne – ready and waiting


Archaeological training at Basing.


Its 30min past Day of Archaeology here in Estonia, so not too late to post my thoughts from the day.

I was sitting in my office in Tallinn, working with the dataset from Hungary for the University of Southampton and thinking about the TED’s talk I went to see day before (over live link from Edinburgh) about the globalisation and openness. Pankaj Ghemawat told us that when looking the data, there is actually no globalisation, or at least not at the level we’d like to think about it. He encouraged us to look for our own answers based on the data.

And here I am, working with the database gathered over half a dozen years or more. Main question I struggle with is how my work (merging and preparing  datasets for analyses) might change the end results… and how the people who are going to analyse the data trust someone like me to play with it and to make it “eatable” for them?

I do not agree with Pankaj about the globalisation, but i do think we need to know the data we draw our conclusions from much better, or even if we help someone else do it.

Hengistbury Head Survey Project 2012

The Hengistbury Head Survey Project will begin it’s second season on Monday (2-20 July 2012) by members of the Department of Archaeology at the University of Southampton. The projects main aim is to assess the impact of cliff erosion on the multi-period archaeology of the headland through a detail topographic survey. Feel free to follow us  and check out our research aims below.