leighandgill

Archaeology in East Oxford

Archive for the tag “excavations”

Damerham

We had a great time earlier this week.  We went to the dig at Damerham in Hampshire county, just South-West(ish) of Salisbury – see the website at the Damerham Archaeology Project.  We stayed in a local pub, the Compasses, which was very comfortable and provided good pub grub and coped beautifully with my inability to eat milk products.

The project itself is a community project led by Helen, Chris, Martyn and Olaf; that’s the same Olaf who is the Project Officer with Archeox. Olaf had suggested that we go down with him and have a couple of days down there to see how he’s been spending his summers for that last few years. As it turned out he couldn’t make it: he wanted to leave going down until the fields had been cultivated and that date seemed rather indeterminate.

One of the main reasons behind the Project is to investigate some aerial photographs, which showed some interesting crop marks, and see how they relate to the geophysics and, ultimately, to invasive (excavation) and non-invasive (field walking) techniques. The field walking has to wait until the land has been cultivated (ploughed and harrowed), so that the ground has been churned up and stuff brought to the surface – hence Olaf’s delayed arrival.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham. NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Aerial photo of the site at Damerham.
NMR 21271/05 © English Heritage.NMR. Photographer: Damian Grady.

Four trenches had been opened when we arrived as Chris explained after we had introduced ourselves. From right to left, one trench was across the ditch of the larger circular feature to the right, though no one was actually working there at that time. Below that where there was a circular feature joined to an elongated feature, Jack (Helen’s student from Kingston U.) was supervising a small trench.

Jack's trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

Jack’s trench, down to the chalk, cleaned up but with a lot of sieving to do!

The largest trench had been put going away from the road across the large feature in the middle of the picture and finally, a small trench across the strange double circular feature to the left of the ‘bite’ out of the field, completed the tour.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it.

The longest trench, gently sloping down the hill. More than one ditch in it. Lovely weather, too!

The last feature was especially exciting as it is unique in the British Isles, the only other example being in France, in the Pas-de-Calais.

Explanations over, we set to work with Jack, sieving the spoil which had been removed by the opening of the trench. It was interesting to be excavating – well, sieving – in a completely different geology to the one we are used to. Here we were on the chalk, and only about 30-40 cm down we were down onto solid chalk, showing clearly the grooves cut by deep ploughing – though the farmer says they no longer deep plough, so the archaeology might last a bit longer.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack's trench.

The grooves cut by the deep ploughing can clearly be seen in Jack’s trench.

We sieved away all afternoon – found some flint flakes and some pottery; Medieval and earlier (well, really grotty, anyway). The flint was different – given its age and the environment, the surface changes and goes a milky-whitish colour; nothing like the flint we are accustomed to seeing. One has to look for the bulb of percussion (the little bulbous bit where the flint was struck to split it away from the original core) and the remains of the previous flakes on the dorsal side as the surface change tends to disguise the characteristic ripples that we normally see in flints in our neck of the woods. We had a lot of help as some of the volunteers from previous years had brought along their whole families.

Lots of help with the sieving - this was a quiet  moment - while Helen inspects the trench.

Lots of help with the sieving – this was a quiet moment – while Helen inspects the trench.

At the end of the day we repaired to the pub, the Compasses in Damerham, for a serious relax. We were a bit late in on the next day as we went into Fordingbridge, the nearest town of any size, to do a spot of shopping, but arrived on site at about 10. We had a look at the main trench, where it looked like they had found a couple of post holes at the top of the trench.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench - quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

The two post holes (?) at the top of the main trench – quite busy by the look of it, a lot of tidying up going on.

Helen reckoned after all that sieving we deserved something a bit more interesting, so introduced us to Angela who was supervising the aptly named Angela’s Anomaly (I like the naming of the trenches – no Invisible Archaeologists here). We had a bit of tidying up to do – surprise, surprise – and then Helen suggested we split the ditch into six parts, so we could excavate three, and get a good number of sections.

The ditch with string already to start excavating - not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

The ditch with string already to start excavating – not very easy to see the string, but all will become clear.

While doing this we became aware of another difference from previous excavations; we had to ‘small find’ all finds! At least all we had to do was find Sam, Chris’ son, and he came over with a survey-grade GPS to get the location, so we didn’t have to faff around with tapes and a Dumpy level (though I do quite like doing it the old-fashioned way). We also took some soil samples as we went down, at least after we had got through the disturbed layer caused by ploughing. Another warm day so lunch came as a welcome break.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

A bit more cloudy today, but still pretty warm.

Angela had to leave at lunchtime, so I got promoted to (nominal) trench supervisor – I wondered what Olaf had being saying about us! We kept on going down, assisted by Anthony, a very experienced digger who was familiar with chalk environments. I certainly wouldn’t have recognised the lumps of fire-affected flint which he pounced upon; he says he finds piles of them in the the New Forest where they were used to heat water. When you wet the surface you can see the fracturing caused by the thermal shock as the heated stones are put if the cold water, but dry and out of the ground they just looked like little grey pebbles to me. Gill came across a much softer bit of surface, which turned out to be an animal burrow, which after Helen dug around a bit, seemed to have a bottom layer of much darker material, perhaps an organic-rich layer washed in?

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

The three sections we were digging, the animal burrow is in the top right.

We weren’t the only ones to find animal burrows – in the main trench, where it was thought there were a couple of post holes it turned out the ‘complications’ were in fact a badger’s set, so a lot more tidying-up to unpick that one.

The animal burrow, a badger's set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

The animal burrow, a badger’s set by the look of the size, which the post holes morphed into.

At this point we were being helped by a group of artists from the Isle of Wight who were gathering impressions for future work, as well as experiencing excavating. It made for a busy and entertaining trench, though I rather blew it when, getting up to answer two questions at the same time, twisted and did some serious damage to my knee. Just at the end of the day, so I didn’t miss out on too much, but felt a complete idiot as I limped off to the car. Thankfully I could still drive but was really disappointed to have to miss out on Wednesday – we just drove home so I could get my leg up with cold compresses on the knee in hope that I could recover enough for the journey to the Orkneys.

Apart from the disappointing denouement, it was  great couple of days, and a really big thank you to Chris, Helen, Jack and Martyn (in strict alphabetical order) for making us so welcome, and giving us such an insight into excavating a chalky prehistoric site – we hope to be back in the future.

Leigh & Gill

Outreach and An Alternative View

A very busy day, last Sunday.

We were up nice and early, to get to Oxford Castle where they were holding an event to tie in with the Council for British Archaeology’s Festival of Archaeology . We had a stall there and we wanted to get there early as I was taking down an enlargement of the plan of the trench we dug around Bartlemas Chapel – it has proved to be a good starting point for conversations in the past.

When we arrived, there was, of course, no room on the table for it (it’s mounted on an A0 size sheet of card) so it got stuck on the front of the stall. We then spent the rest of the day frantically trying to stop everything blowing away; note to self – always bring industrial amounts of bluetack to all outdoor events!

Laying out all our stuff on the stall

Laying out all our stuff on the stall, Jo is mounting the plan we brought along on the right of stall.

The day went pretty well, though a lot of the passers-by were coachloads of tourists with seemingly no English, so little chance of meaningful outreach opportunities there. There were a couple of sessions of talks, the first with Peter talking about the work our Place Names group is doing, and Jo giving an overview of the project’s work this year. They were followed by David Radford, the City Archaeologist, describing burial practices in Oxford through the ages. Sounded like good stuff, but I drew the short straw and had to man the stall. A pity, but as the air-con was out, perhaps not much of a hardship!

Chatted with quite a few people, including most of the re-enactors present, it seemed, and Gill got some useful hints about where to go for more information about medieval Psalteries – they are a family of flat stringed instruments. Gill got interested when it turned out that one of the Small Finds at Minchery was a tuning peg from a psaltery, so she is doing some background research – watch this space. We stayed until just after 3 then made our way home to grab a bite to eat before the real highlight of the day.

Matrix

Part of the brief given to the project from the outset was to involve as many different people as possible, to make it inclusive and bring different viewpoints to bear on the core job of archaeology. We have had several artists on board but Lucy Steggals, Filipe Sousa and Tara Franks decided on a slightly different tack to express what they thought about the project.

They had come along to a number of events, the last time – an inking workshop – they brought along a couple of tape recorders and did a series of interviews. What had stuck in their minds (and gave the show the title) was the idea of the matrix; both the Harris matrix, where one uses a matrix to sort out the temporal sequence of contexts in a trench, and the matrix of squares you get in a drawing grid.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

A drawing grid, with one of the cubes.

They then went through the recordings, selecting their favourite 25 words each (the squares in the drawing grid) and used them as a basis for editing the recordings, which they had playing on loops on headphones in the garden.

Go on, they don't bite!

Go on, they don’t bite!

As you can see, the cubes had the selected words on their sides – there were a lot more in the barn itself.  One of our favourite words was ~ish (as in early~ish, Roman~ish).  It gets used particularly on big digs before any clear pattern emerges.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

The pile of cubes in the barn. Refreshments were provided.

In the barn, there was a video being projected as a loop, with a recording playing and Tara accompanying on a cello – a bit I particularly liked, a rather ECM~ish (that word again) sound.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The inside of the barn, with the video being projected.

The cubes had various images which Lucy had edited out of the photos she had been taking when they had visited us, as well as the words they had extracted from the interviews. We could wander around and get different views of the projection.

Projection

Filipe, one of the creators.

Filipe, one of the creators.

We were invited to play around with the cubes, rearranging them as we saw fit, a task which some of us took to with enthusiasm.

Deconstructing the cubes!

Deconstructing the cubes!

I can’t really do justice to what was a visual, audio and (see above) tactile experience; as they say, you had to be there. It made for a great evening, and was fascinating to get an idea of how what we are doing can inspire other people to come up with a new insight.  A nice way to round off a long day.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Some of the rearranged cubes.

Thanks to William’s parents for allowing us to use his image in the blog.

Leigh and Gill

Return to ArkT

As we approach the end of the “active” phase of the project we still have a few Test Pits to dig. We have had almost three years of doing things, then a planned one year devoted to writing everything up. The last year driving home the message that it’s all very well having fun (in sub-zero ‘summers’ and driving rain) excavating, it’s all just disciplined destruction unless the whole process is written up and – even more important – communicated.

We had been invited back to the ArkT Centre, in Church Cowley, on a combined Longest Day/Grand Opening of the Playground celebration cum fund-raiser. Before the construction of the Playground took place we had been invited in to do a couple of test pits to see what was there and had mixed results. The test pit in the back garden came up with very little, and came down on a very distinctive ‘natural’ in a short distance; it looked like leopard-skin – yellowy-orange with dark spots. We came to the conclusion that the spots were caused by the roots of the scrub which had grown up before the church had been built, drawing down organic material. As we took a sondage (a smaller pit-within-a-pit) we saw that the dark spots were like Brighton Rock; they extended down from the top so they weren’t some random thing.

The second test pit, where the playground would be built was a lot more interesting; after going down a lot deeper than the first test pit, it came down on an old surface with a ditch cut into it. The pottery in the cut of the ditch was Roman. Not unexpected, given the proximity to the Roman pottery industry, but gratifying nonetheless.

Jo showing us how it should be done!

Jo showing us how it should be done!

So we were more than happy to be invited back. Jo went over the top preparing activities for the smaller ones – colouring drawings, plenty of coloured crayons, etc – while we had plenty of spare trowels for anyone who had the urge to have a go at excavating. We arrived a couple of hours early to get the “boring” stuff out of the way; marking out the pit, de-turfing, accurately locating where the pit was, laying out the tarps and starting on the first context. At four, the doors opened and we were almost immediately inundated with children (parents staying in the background), ranging from real tinies up, who headed straight past all Jo’s carefully prepared goodies – they wanted to dig! We were relegated to explaining how to use a trowel, and rescuing any finds which got missed in all the excitement.

We did not get all that much more done that day, so decided to come back on the following day and carry on as we had really not got anywhere -just redeposited topsoil (though mustn’t underestimate the value of giving people a taste of excavating). After a bit more of the same, we started to get a fair amount of limestone rubble which, with the usual eye of faith and optimism, almost looked like a linear feature – could it be a wall? Rather oddly aligned, to be sure, but enough to spur us on.

A "linear" feature - could we have a wall? What's the technical term for wild optimism?

A “linear” feature – could we have a wall? What’s the technical term for wild optimism?

We decided to halve the test pit, that is, divide it in half and continue digging in only one half. We would draw a line East-West half way across the pit and continue to excavate the southern half – if there was a wall we would see it very clearly in the section, hopefully. As is often the case, as soon as we started to do this the whole picture changed! We came down on the same natural as we had seen in the previous test pit in the back garden of the Centre; the distinctive “Leopard Skin” soil in half of the half – the side nearest the Chapel. As we reckoned that this was the natural, we halved the half again (quartered?) and carried on down in the increasingly rubble-packed side – the West side, nearest the road.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We reached the natural (on the lower right) so only carried on down on the left-hand side.

We carried on for about another 0.4 metre, but had to call it a day then. It was getting really awkward to dig in such a confined space; if we wanted to go any further we would have had to opened up the half which we had left to give ourselves enough room to work in, and time was running out – by now it was Sunday. So what was the conclusion at the end of the day?

The rubble had been interspersed with pottery, mainly Medieval with one piece of Roman (I think), what looked like a fragment of a mortarium – it has a very distinctive surface, the “gritty” surface which was used for grinding food ingredients on. As we had reached the natural on the side of the pit closest to the chapel, I think what we were seeing was the slope down to the road. This had in the past had a retaining wall, which had been demolished and rebuilt farther away from the current chapel, encroaching on the road(some thing never change!). As all the pottery was Medieval or earlier, this demolition and rebuilding was most probably done in the Medieval period.

All that was left to do was the usual back-filling, then thanking the other volunteers for a good three days work, and retire for a rest in what remained of the weekend. We are all looking forward to hearing what an expert makes of the pottery, all the above remarks about dates were made by us volunteers, so could be slightly wide of the mark! It was pleasant to be digging in some warm weather; it did rain a bit, but at least it wasn’t the cold, windy stuff we had to put up with earlier this year.

Interesting test pits

At last the long winter is over and we’re digging test pits!  Unfortunately on Thursday and Friday, when we dug in the gardens of a convent in East Oxford, it rained most of the time and was bitterly cold and windy all the time.

The convent occupies Fairacres House, which was built in the late 18th/early 19th century. We are not absolutely sure about the previous use of the land as it isn’t in Cowley parish (which we have good maps for) but just, by 100 metres or so, in Iffley (which we don’t). To judge by the adjoining land in Cowley, though, it looks like it wasn’t part of the ridge and furrow field system, but was used as pasture. When we arrived and had a walk around it was clear that the site was on a small promontory, with the land sloping down on three sides.

One of the reasons we were here is that it is near one of the sites where the Bell Collection may have come from. This is a collection of stone tools from the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. The older part of the collection came from a quarry near Donnington Bridge Road, we think from a quarry which is shown on the 1st Edition OS map, but the newer part came from a quarry somewhere around the convent. Our main problem is that Bell’s original report was lent out and never returned; the only documentation we have are some notes taken at a lecture Bell gave in the early 20th Century. The collection is held at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, where Olaf has been leading groups of us in workshops to start a much closer look at the neolithic part of the collection. So we were keeping our eyes peeled for worked flints!

Opening up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard.

Starting up the middle test pit, on the edge of the orchard. Jane appears to be demonstrating the art of standing with one foot off the ground.

We dug three one metre square pits at different locations.  The pit nearest to the house produced 18th and 19th century pottery and then appeared to reach sandy natural soil.  Jo and her team went on down and found the sand had been laid over soil which contained 17th and 18th century pottery and clay pipes, etc.

The middle pit near the vegetable garden contained nice top soil and then a layer of debris, bits of building material, pottery, bone and clay pipe, etc.  Under this we were very excited to find a deposit of several types of Roman pottery which had obviously not moved very far as the breaks were clean and there were no signs of long-term abrasion.  There has been no previous evidence of Roman activity in this part of Oxford – it was believed that they mostly inhabited the hills around the current city.

The end of the first day of excavating.

The end of the first day of excavating. Of course, when we were about to leave, the sun came out.

The third pit was towards the bottom of the garden closest to the river.  Olaf hoped to find evidence of prehistoric activity and found a great many flints but none particularly diagnostic for a particular period.

We found lots of small round lumps of burned charcoal, some obliviously quite modern, and were puzzled until we mentioned it to one of the sisters.  She told us they use it in the censer for incense during services and put it on the bonfire as it is considered blessed and cannot just be thrown away.  Obviously at some time it was buried in the garden.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise.

Field walking among the spuds, a surprisingly productive exercise. This gives a better feel for what the weather was like.

On the second day we got permission from the convent’s gardener, Mark, to trample over his magnificent vegetable plot, for a bit of field walking. We drew up a plan, got Olaf to reassemble the GPS to accurately plot the blocks we had marked out, then I asked for volunteers to do the actual walking – as we had come to the back-filling by then there were no shortages on that front! . They had to walk up and then back in the furrows between the banked-up spuds, taking great care not damage Mark’s valuable crop, looking for anything of interest which had been brought to the surface by rotavating. We then ended up with one bag of finds for every square – 12 squares in all – a big thanks to Alison from the Ashmolean for her help during the whole process; it’s the first time I had done this. A quick glimpse at the contents of the bags showed, rather gratifyingly, a concentration of Roman pottery near the second test pit, seemingly tailing away with distance.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo's test pit - the one nearest the original building. I'm not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo  - she could just be hidden behind someone.

Jane explaining what had been found in Jo’s test pit – the one nearest the original building. I’m not sure why Jane is doing this rather than Jo – she could just be hidden behind someone.

At the end of the day, after all the kit had been loaded into various cars and vans for ferrying back to our shed (along with my toolbox, packed up with the rest while I was concentrating on sorting out the field-walking finds) and everyone else had departed, we had a bit of a discussion about what we had found – obviously the Roman pottery was the high point. Not just a few isolated sherds, but a definite localised concentration. Apart from the Roman we did find a small, but significant, amount of Medieval pottery, so it would appear that this little promontory has looked like prime real estate for at least two thousand years!

We had planned on doing the washing on site, but the biting wind and generally horrid weather made us think again, and postpone it until we were indoors with a supply of warm water.

The sisters were very hospitable and took a great interest in everything we did.  We were particularly grateful for the hot tea!

Gill & Leigh

Minchery Priory – Preparation

At last I’m able to get around to talking about last year’s Big Dig at Minchery Paddock – we have had to take some time off owing to day-to-day life intruding. Neither of us had imagined how complicated and time consuming selling our place in London was going to be; however we are now (fingers crossed) on the last lap so can devote a bit more time to the important things in life!

After a whole lot of work on the Team’s part, they got permission from Oxford City Council to dig in Minchery Paddock; a closed-off (in the sense of preventing vehicles in) field as shown on the map.

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Location of Minchery Paddock in relation to East Oxford

Here is a close up, showing where the paddock was in relation to the Kassam Stadium (to the right) and Oxford Science Park (to the left).

Close-up of the map above.

Close-up of the map above.

Both maps courtesy of Open Street Map –  © OpenStreetMap contributors.

The site is of interest because of the proximity of Minchery Priory – in the map you can see a building just next to the bottom right of the site; this is the “Priory and ?” pub, a Grade II* listed building,  which was rebuilt in the middle or second half of the 15th century, having been the eastern range of the cloister garth of the priory (Pantin, 1970). 

The car-park side of the Priory and ... ? pub. We never did work out what the ... ? was all about.

The car-park side of the Priory and … ? pub. We never did work out what the … ? was all about.

The name “Minchery” is derived from the Old English ‘mynecu’ or ‘minschen’, a nun. The priory (originally dedicated to St Nicholas) was founded by Robert de Sandford probably in the middle of the 12th century, was taken over by the Templars in approx. 1240 and managed by them until the order was suppressed in 1312. It was dissolved by Wolsey in 1525 after various scandals about the prioress and the nuns and passed to Cardinal (later Christ Church) College, though by 1549 it had passed into the hands of Powell family who held it until the 18th century. More information about the priory can found in an article in the VCH, and about the surrounding area in another article about Sandford, again in the VCH.

Pantin, mentioned above, has provided us with a plan of what he thought was the layout of the priory. He thought the cloister extended to the west from the existing pub, so in theory it could extend into the area which we might be digging in. However we have no really hard evidence for this, one of the reasons for digging here! The Council did think about developing the site so commissioned John Moore Heritage Services to do an evaluation of the site in 2006, which has provided us with some targets for working out where to place our trenches. Apart from this report, there have also been trenches dug when Greater Leys and the Oxford Science Park were developed. These have found prehistoric sherds and flints, evidence for Roman kilns (especially in Greater Leys), a Saxon village under the Oxford Science Park as well as evidence for medieval farm sites.

However the site did provide us with some new challenges – unlike last year at Bartlemas we did not have a friendly College to provide us with a pavilion to use for a start; we had to hire in loos, storage (especially important, we thought, after hearing some horror stories about vandalism from a nearby construction site) and a site office, and last but not least, somewhere for the poor volunteers to shelter if it tipped it down.

The other challenge was the site itself –

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared

This gives some idea of how overgrown the site was before we had it cleared – Jane, Jo and David P surveying, and no, none of them are vertically challenged!

We had to get in a commercial crew with a tractor and flail to clear the undergrowth, and to chop back branches in the south end of the site where a whole load of self-set sycamores had grown up. This was one of the reasons for us being here – the roots of these young trees could be damaging any archaeology, especially as they were growing where there might be remains of the priory. Once the clearing had been done, in came the Portacabins and a whole load of fencing as well as a load of tracking to put down so the lorries could deliver all the stuff without getting bogged down. A big thanks to Olaf for this, it was a real bit of choreography to organise everyone arriving in the correct order.

The Portacbins installed - the blue one was for storage - the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator - the loos were round the back.

The Portacabins installed – the blue one was for storage – the cream one had the office, the mess room, and a generator – the loos were round the back.

While all this was going on, we also were marking out where to put the trenches. As I mentioned before, we had the John Moore Heritage Services report to use as a starting point, so we planned out trenches accordingly.

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Our trenches (the hatched ones) against the John Moore ones (the lines).

Original diagram courtesy John Moore Heritage Services (JMH). A bit confusing of-site, as it shows a range of buildings to the north of the pub which are no longer there; it’s just a bit of a wasteland used as an overflow car park on match days and an area for a bit of gratuitous fly-tipping.

We decided on three trenches. Trench 1, at the north end of the site, up by the brook, was put in because JMH had found a layer of peat there – we wanted to take a continuous set of soil samples from this layer. Not only could we get environmental samples and therefore start to work out what the contemporary environment was like, but by doing some radiocarbon dating we will be able to find when the peat started to be layed down and when it stopped. Both are most probably linked to human activity changing the way water flowed in the area.

Trench 2, in the middle by the office and storage sheds, was put in next to two JMH trenches. JMH trench 3 which contained a couple of robber trenches and a possible boundary ditch and JMH trench 4, containing a well (which we planned on avoiding!), a hearth and a possible floor surface. As you can see from the plan, Trench 2 spanned the two JMH ones.

Trench 3 , in the south, spanned JMH trench 8 – they would have had trouble putting it in today as a tree had grown up in the middle of it – hence the rather odd shape of our trench. JMH found walls, aligned east-west , but we would have dug there anyway, owing to the proximity to the pub. While marking this trench out prior to the digger coming in, we came up against one of the drawbacks of using survey-grade GPS – the device does not like working near trees. It has to have line -of-sight contact with the satellites to work properly. I was finding one measurement would be OK, then it would give a ludicrous distance to the next plotted point. The marvels of modern technology!

Talking of which, the reason I haven’t mentioned geophysics is, as JMH discovered, the site had been used for doing a lot dodgy things to cars in the past, including torching them. This has resulted in a pretty even spread of bits of magnetised iron over the site, so a gradiometer just gives such a noisy result as to be virtually useless. That’s not taking into account that we discovered we had stumbled onto Mole Central – I would not have liked trying to walk in the nice and even style required by that sort of survey over a surface which seemed to have mole-hills on its mole-hills.

After we had marked out all of the trenches we let the digger loose –

The digger in trench 3 - you can see the pub in the background.

The digger in trench 3 – you can see the pub in the background.

The digger driver, Nigel, was a real asset; we had worked together before at Bartlemas and apart from having a real feel for the machine, and being a nice guy, he’s developing quite an interest in the archaeology. We rapidly came down onto (we hope) archeology in all three trenches – looking good for the start of the actual excavating!

Leigh

Test Pit 54 -part 2

Day 4 – 27th

A decent turn out today; no Gill (she had other work to do) so I took over documentation and finds work to let everyone else do the digging. Not quite true as some of the time only two people could realistically get to the area we were digging, so some of the time I had both Tricia & Leslie helping on finds.

We decided to tidy up what we had got so far before doing anything further; find out what the lumpy bit (notice the technical jargon) to the left of centre in the last photo in part one was hiding and take all of the sondage down to the same level as the top of the linear feature.

Jane turned up just as we had finished doing that and agreed with what we had thought was the best strategy; excavate the linear feature first – it looked to be the most recent activity, and then take the two sides down to whatever level the feature bottomed out at. We gave the two sides of the feature different context numbers as the soil colour was noticeably different.

I’ve put two photos together to show the different colours of the soil to either side of the feature.

The feature excavated very cleanly, and very gratifyingly had a piece of pot (which Jane later dated as Medieval) right at the bottom of what looked very like a trench which had been cut to hold the footings of a wall.

The feature, which we now believe to be the footings for a wall, excavated.

We then took out the side which we had not yet excavated, the west side of the trench, to see if the footings for the wall extended the whole width of the trench. This allowed everyone to get stuck in.

Everyone taking the “other” side of the trench down to same level as the top of the wall footings.

That about wrapped it up for the fourth day.

Day 5 – 28th

Our last day, and we were feeling a bit pressurised as we had to leave ourselves enough time to backfill the trench, but we had no idea of how far down we needed to dig in order to get to the “natural” – the natural geology which shows no evidence of human activity.

We decided to concentrate our efforts on the area underneath the wall footings; the reasoning being that anything we find in that area must have been ‘sealed’ by the wall footings, any finds would have to be older than the wall above them, while the areas to either side could have been dug out while the wall was still there. As this was such a small trench only one person could excavate it at a time, so we also decided to dig on the south side of it. We chose this side as it was darker (see the photo above), this might indicate a higher organic content. We ended up with a total depth of just under 1 metre, but don’t think we got to the natural – it just seemed to be the same, rather nice, garden soil.

The sondage under the wall footings, with the area to the south (left) which we excavated at the same time.

We tidied up, and labelled the various contexts before we took photographs.

The whole trench, labelled, just before we backfilled it, showing how the wall foundations extend the whole width of the trench.

Now the really exhausting bit started – it’s surprising how much soil comes out of a trench like this! After about an hour, though it sure felt like a lot longer, we had got the lawn back to an approximation of how it was before we started – it looks a bit messy as I put down a bit of top-soil to fill in the gaps, but after a bit of rain it should look fine.

The turf relayed, at last.

So, what does it all mean? Well, we had just about worked it out on Friday, after Steve noticed that if you looked along the line of the footings in the trench towards the wall by the road, you could see a quite obvious change in the wall, then we looked the other way, and we could just about see (there was a big magnolia in the way) a wall coming towards us. So the answer was in two parts:

1: We had a demolished boundary wall.

2: Always, always check maps and any other documentation before you even turn up on site. Totally obvious, I know, but sometimes it needs a red face to drive the message home.

A plan of the property, derived from the first series Ordnance Survey map – the red line shows the boundary wall which now no longer exists.

Leigh

Test Pit 54 – part 1

Last week, we were involved in a return visit to Mill Lane, where we dug a test pit last year as part of a test pit weekend in Iffley. A very wet weekend in Iffley. The second day was tipping it down to such an extent that we called it off at about mid-day and retreated to the Prince of Wales for well deserved pint. However, we had obviously piqued the interest of the house’s owner, as she contacted Jane again this year and invited us back to carry on and expand the trench we had put in – we were more than happy to oblige as we found some interesting archaeology (what we took to be the footings for a wall) rather than just the usual sprinkling of finds. So, at rather short notice, Olaf sent out a call for volunteers and we waited for emails – a bit close to the Minchery dig and there was another test pit going in in Ronnie Barker’s old house, but we got enough to make a go of it.

Day 1 – Monday 24th

Well, this looked very familiar! Total wash-out – and the forecast was for the downpour to continue for most of the day. Gill and I went to the site, partially to explain to the owner and partially to talk to anyone who turned up (luckily we caught everyone apart from Tricia by phone – and she had agreed to turn up early to help us set up). We then went off to ArkT to meet up with Jane and discuss a number of things and pick up some paper-work. Bumped into Jo, who was collecting the equipment for the other test pit – both Gill and I had to do a double-take; she was soaked to the skin, by the look of it, waterproofs notwithstanding. Went home to pray for better weather tomorrow.

Day 2 – Tuesday 25th

Thankfully, better weather. Got on site at 9:30 to unload the car and get things set up – Tricia had arrived early as well to us a hand. Then on to the deturfing : –

Tricia cutting the turf prior to lifting them and storing them – in order! – on the tarpaulin.

Then on to the real business – excavating. As soon as we had tidied up the exposed soil, it became apparent there was a paler, ‘mortary’ looking area – was this a change in context (a new layer) showing up? Carefully trowelling back confirmed we had a surface, sloping from down from south (higher) to north (deeper), which looked as if it had sand or mortar trodden into it. There were also two holes in it in the south eastern corner. We decided to split the trench in half, and excavate the half with the two holes through our trampled surface in. This was also the side of the trench which joined up with last years excavation, so hopefully we would catch the “wall” which we had found then.

The “trampled” surface, showing the two holes and the string dividing the trench in half. We would excavate the half nearer the camera tomorrow.

Just as we were leaving the owner told us that when she had moved in, the previous owner, a keen gardener, had laid a shrub bed between the path in front of the front-door and the rockery with a huge conifer in it. She had had the shrubs grubbed out and the bed laid to turf. This was smack-bang over our trench – was that what the holes were?

Day 3 – Wednesday 26th

Slightly slower progress today as there were only three of us – prior commitments taking their toll. We started excavating the two ‘holes’, as they would have been the most recent events, having been cut through the surface, and also carrying on the excavation below the surface in the north of the trench – this was well out of the way of the two ‘holes’. When Christopher and Tim had started to do this yesterday, they had both noted how much more compact, indeed how tough it was to excavate, compared with the layer above the surface. This is what made us think that the two holes contained a continuation of the layer above – it seemed so much more like it rather than the compact layer just below the surface.

The perils of jumping to conclusions! As we went further down in the north half of the trench the soil became more and more friable, and lost the small pieces of CBM (Ceramic Building Material – small bits of brick and tile) and sand and mortar, and came to resemble the layer above the trample surface. It was also becoming apparent that we couldn’t see any difference between the ‘holes’ and the surrounding soil. We realised that the surface was the result of trampling, we think while the Edwardian (judging by the style) extension was being built, which had compressed a thin surface layer while embedding the sort of stuff one finds on a building site into it. The ‘holes’ may well have been dug to plant shrubs in, but as they would have been immediately back-filled with the soil that came out of the hole, it is, of course, indistinguishable from the surrounding soil.

A valuable lesson learnt, and something to watch out for in the future. So we stopped digging the holes and concentrated on just levelling the whole surface off. Sheila was excavating what we thought was a layer of sand and mortar, but as she trowelled it back, it looked less and less like a layer, and more like an area where the builders had just been piling stuff up – it wasn’t a homogeneous layer, just a mixture of different types of soil.

The mixed up ‘layer’ that Sheila was excavating.

She did find what looked like electrical cable – not plastic insulation, though, which would tie in with earlier on last century. Then just as we were finishing off the day we found this:

The feature that appeared at the end of the day.

Now that looked a bit more like a feature! I took a print-out of this photo along to the evening’s talk (about last year’s dig at Bartlemas Chapel) to show to everyone – it definitely got people’s enthusiasm up for tomorrow’s dig.

I’ll finish off describing the dig tomorrow – I forgot my camera on the fourth day, so I borrowed Tricia’s one and she will be bringing a USB stick along to tonight’s talk (about the upcoming Minchery dig) and I’m also taking some of the finds, mainly pottery, so Jane can have a look and hopefully give us some dating info.

Leigh

Test Pit 52

This Thursday and Friday Gill and I have been organising a test pit in the back garden of one of the volunteer’s house – a big thank-you to David and Catriona for allowing us to dig up their lawn! I had been round a few days earlier to have a chat with David about where to site the pit – we only do a 1×1 metre pit, so it’s not too disruptive – but needs a bit of thought. We have to be away from trees, for instance, and not too near the house, though in this case the house was a 30’s build, so would have been hand-built – modern houses with the footings excavated by mechanical diggers have a large radius of disturbance – think of the reach of the digger’s arm.

Then I had the joy of answering all the emails -I had agreed to do all that side of it; my admiration for all the work Jane has put in in the past goes up day-by-day! I was amazed at how quickly people responded; I closed the book about an hour after Olaf sent out the initial email. Then all that needed doing was for me to go up to the shed to get all the stuff needed – it filled up the boot quite tidily. Then I thought it might be a good idea to have the kit with us to do some finds washing if the opportunity arose, so off to the shed again. Eventually Thursday rolled around and it was time to start.

On the first day we had Christopher, Phil, Leon and Sue; it was Sue’s first day with the Project, though Phil and Christopher are veterans of the Bartlemas dig, and Leon has done a couple of test pits in the past. After the usual Health & Safety talk and signing in I gave a bit of background – as I said above, these houses were built in the 30’s (’35 I think David mentioned), before that, at least in the 1st series OS map, it was fields. Before that, in both the 1853 Enclosure map and the 1777 Christ Church map, it is shown as being part of  “Cowley Marsh”, and Gill and I are especially interested in that; could we find any evidence as to what the Marsh actually was?

A familiar scene – one guy doing all the work, while the rest of us stand around and watch!

After laying out the outline and taking the turf off, we made a start. First topsoil (about 0.10m), which had been layed over a thin layer of pea gravel and general building detritus (about 0.03m), then lots and lots of clay. Throughout the day we found charcoal, in varying sizes – which means there was human activity going on somewhere around.When we got to about 0.22m down we decided to do a “sondage”; take a small part of the trench and dig deeper there, rather than taking the whole trench deeper. When you can’t see any differentiating features across the plan view of the trench (or pit) it’s OK to do – you can always widen the sondage if anything interesting warrants it.

There was another layer of what looked like builder’s rubble, mixed in with a slate-grey coloured clay (between 0.26 & 0.35 m) down in the sondage, but most of it was a dark yellow clay with the occasional lenses of blue clay. We found some copper wire, pieces of roofing slate and what looked like lime-mortar.

The sondage. showing the layer of builder’s rubble about two-thirds of the way down.

That concluded the first day – as the forecast looked a bit iffy, we covered up the test pit with some wood slats a weighted down plastic sheeting (I’m sure I took a photo of that, but the trench camera was playing up – I took my own one the following day).

The second started off a bit greyer than the first, though we had thankfully missed the rain. Christopher, Phil and Leon carried on from the day before, with Laura coming along for the day – it was her first day with the Project, though she had some excavating experience from the Bamburgh Project (in Northumberland). We carried on excavating, but as it was a bit awkward getting more than one person digging, with two people feeling their way through the clay spoil (you try sieving clay!), we started washing finds. Phil volunteered to do the washing, with Leon splitting his time between washing and digging – when we down deeper he was the only one of us who could fit in the sondage! I had popped back to the shed to get a mini-mattock, as nothing else would make an impression on the clay. Just before we got down to the natural (the undisturbed geology) we came across our major find of the dig (we think, it was identified by Jane with me describing it over the phone, not ideal) – a piece of Roman pottery. The natural was a bluey-grey clay, with pieces of degraded limestone interspersed in irregular clumps throughout it, topped by a concentration of pieces of Gryphaea (fossilised bivalves, like large oysters).

All that was left to do was to backfill the pit, which with the number of people to hand, was no trouble at all.

Leon stamping down the soil as we backfilled the test pit.

The turfs came up a bit proud, as they tend to, but David said he would deal with that – a good couple of days – two new members welcomed – and a bit more evidence to fit into the broader picture which is slowly emerging.

Leigh

Sorting sieved residues

Last Saturday, we were at Rewley House to sort the remains of the environmental samples from the Bartlemas dig after sieving and flotation (see previous blog).  Rebecca Nicholson,  Oxford Archaeology‘s Environmental Archaeology Manager, was there to show us how to do it.  We each had to take four bags with residues of different sizes from the different sieves.  It was very firmly impressed on us that WE MUST MAKE SURE THE SAMPLE NUMBERS AND CONTEXT NUMBERS MATCHED on  all four bags.  We were given helpful handouts and some general background info and forms to describe anything of interest in the residue.  Tweezers and magnifying glasses were also provided as well as petri dishes to put interesting stuff in.

Four bags of sieved samples, all ready to be sorted in the tray – petri dishes and finds form at hand.

Starting with the largest size (>10mm), we tipped some of the bag into a finds tray and started to sort it.  It was immediately obvious that most of my sample was small pieces of limestone rubble which was instantly discarded.  However, there were some pieces of oyster shell and some small pieces of bone duly placed in small finds bags and CAREFULLY LABELLED.  The form has a column for each size and lists , for example, different types of bone, burnt or worked flint, iron (Fe) and we had to enter the amount of each item according to a code.  I had ‘abundant’ pieces of shell which was code 3 (25-100 items).

Heads down and sorting!

We plodded our way through the sorting, getting faster as we went along and got our eye in.  Microscopes were set up and were extremely useful in showing which pieces were bone and which were belemnite (fossil). We all found shells of carniverous snails.  (It was a burial ground.)

The residue from the smallest sieve, 2mm, in a petri dish ready to be looked at under the microscope.

When we got to the smallest samples, there was a queue for the microscopes as we put a sample in a petri dish (Leigh wasn’t listening when this was mentioned and sorted the whole of his bag by hand and magnifying glass before Rebecca put him right!) and looked at it magnified.  If there was nothing interesting in the samples, we discarded it.  None of us found anything.  ‘Nothing’ is good as it means anything of interest was captured in the flotation process.  Finding seeds or charcoal means the flotation should really be done again.

Rebecca (on the right) Jo and Jane debating by the microscope table.

Rebecca had some samples from the flotation which were fascinating and very complex.  We were not let loose on sorting those! In order to make sense of what you are looking at, you need to able to identify it – a task which requires much more knowledge than any of us possesses.

We got through most of the samples during the day but there are a couple of big ones left so another day will have to be organised.

Gill

Animal Bones and Archaeology

Last Wednesday, we were lucky enough to be given a talk on the above subject by Julie Hamilton of the Research Laboratory for Archaeology; Julie is a very experienced zooarchaeologist and was at the ArkT to give us an insight into this important aspect of archaeology.

She split the evening in two – an initial talk to set the scene and then, after the tea-break, a hands-on session where we were able to down and dirty (in a Health and Safety approved style) with the objects of all the talking.

So, to set the stage, Julie started by talking about the different ways in which animals and people interact:

As Predators – though people by-and-large ceased to be prey when we got the hang of managing fire

As Prey – people seem always to have preyed on animals; the evidence of stone tools goes back before the evolution of  modern humans

Commensal – some animals, House Mice for instance, have evolved to occupy niches which are wholly created by humans

Domestic – where animals can be milked, trained to pull carts or ploughs and carry humans for example

Pets – self-explanatory, really

and    Pests – either preying on food crops or domestic animals, or cutting out the middle-man, and preying directly on humans – diseases, parasites etc (thankfully rarely large enough to leave bones!).

Then she talked about the way in which these interactions show up as finds, which largely depends on human diet – this will determine both what is left over after meals and what animals are kept close by. Strangely, human diets have changed quite radically over time; before the introduction of agriculture in Western Europe, for instance, shell middens (large dumps of seafood shells, interspersed with fish-bones, etc) were very common, yet after agriculture arrived, the eating of shellfish seems to have gone out of fashion, only being revived by the Romans. The main component of food remains, though, are mammal bones from domesticated animals – though there are other bones left from other human activities involving animals, of course – animals kept as pets, used in transport or in hunting.

This lead on to a discussion about the domestication of wild animals – about why only a handful of animals were domesticated (mainly in the near-east) out of a much larger potential pool. This seems largely to be down to the psychology of the animal in question; an animal which responds to threats by running away or by attacking, as opposed to gathering into a herd, is almost impossible to domesticate. And there are different degrees of domestication as well – geese can be kept but will not tolerate being factory farmed, for instance. Some observations were made: – cave paintings in Spain and Southern France clearly show humans hunting with dogs about 16,000 years ago so we know they were domesticated by then, but there is indirect evidence that they were tamed much earlier (the Australian Dingo is actually descended from a domesticated dog, so it is likely that the earliest settlers (approx 50,000 years ago) brought tame dogs with them) and the same paintings show people hunting Aurochs, an extinct, large bovine, but modern genetic analysis shows that modern cattle were not interbred with them.

Having dealt with the background, Julie then went on to talk about what we need to observe: –

What? Recognition of what we are looking at, i.e. both elements (which bit of an animal we are looking at) and species (which animal it comes from)

Where? The location of the find.

When? When the find was deposited. These two (Where & When) can only be determined if the context is known – yet more proof of the essential part accurate recording plays in archaeology; a cry of “You see, it isn’t just me” was heard from one member of the audience at this point!

How Much? Quantifying the finds – weighing, measuring, counting, calculating.

What happened? The point of all the previous hard work. Both in a general sense; questions about Biogeography (where species originated), distribution of sizes, population structures, as well as site specific questions as in “what happened here?” – why did these particular bones end up here? what does this tell us about the local environment? what does this tell us about the life of the people living here at the time?

After a tea break, we commenced with the fun bit – hands-on experience. The first bit was a bit daunting – Julie handed out post-its with the names of various bones on and we hand to stick them on a picture of a skeleton; luckily there were some crib-sheets around or there would have been a lot of red faces around, I fear!

The picture (well, most of it) that we had to stick the Post-Its with the bone’s names on.

Then on to re-assembly – Julie had brought along the majority of a deer skeleton (a Red Deer) which a colleague had discovered on Dartmoor, she was very arthritic (the deer, that is, not the colleague) and had been trapped in a bog; we were then tasked with putting them back together. Much discussion and head-scratching ensued until someone noticed that all the bones had been catalogued! Not with a ‘this bit is attached to that bit’ direction, but at least L & R, and the vertebra were numbered in groups, so that simplified things a bit.We got the torso about right, but had a lot of difficulty with the legs – which were the front ones as opposed to the back, and how did the lower part of the legs fit together? When Julie showed us how, it all fitted together perfectly – but isn’t it always the case; an expert makes these things look so simple!

The skull in the foreground is that of a Pig, while the one in the background is a Horse.

We then had a look at various mammal skulls, with Julie pointing out the differences and similarities; how the teeth are such a give-away, herbivores, omnivores and carnivores all having not only different teeth but also different jaws – herbivores which eat grass have a large gap between their molars and their incisors to allow their tongues room to move the grass around to chew it up, for instance. I was particularly surprised to find out what a small brain a horse has – most of its head is taken up with the huge muscles required to power its jaws.

A Deer’s skull on the left with a Sheep’s one on the right.

A great evening which could have lasted much longer, but time was passing so Julie had to call a halt. We all had our appetites truly wetted and those of us lucky enough to have got on Julie’s upcoming workshops are really looking forward to learning more.

As a bit of an aside, we were rather surprised that not as many people as usual were there – as the workshops are over-subscribed we know people are interested in the subject – so why did so few turn up? Was it because of it being on a different day (Wednesday rather than Thursday – Jane had tried to move the days around a bit as people had said “why always Thursday?”), or was there something else on? If you’ve got any ideas, please do send them to Jo, Jane or Olaf @archeox.net.

Leigh

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