A day-by-day account of the activities of the Rossnaree Archaeological Project 2010-11

Archive for July, 2011

Day 19 – It is all becoming clear now…

First of all, the piece that RTE came to the site to film was aired on the 6-One News and the 9 O’Clock News on RTE1 last night. It is amazing how much time was spent on-site and how much footage was shot to make up the final piece. I think the point was well made, however and thanks to Chris in the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI)  for setting up the piece and to Philip Bromwell for his interest and patience. For those who didn’t see the piece, the link is:

http://www.rte.ie/news/av/2011/0727/media-3012820.html
Cut 8 cleared at last!

Anyway, back to business at Rossnaree. There was prolonged rain overnight which thankfully had cleared by morning. This moisture did wonders in each of the cuttings because suddenly there was, once again, some colour in the soils. Instead of a continuous hard-packed dusty pale yellow surface like concrete, we could see all shades of brown, orange, yellow and even red. At last we had some clarity and we able to distinguish between the last skims of ploughsoil and the undisturbed natural. If only this had happened a week ago it would have been much more helpful, especially in Cuttings 7 and 8 where had such difficulty. That’s the way the breaks come – all real discoveries inevitably seem to come in the final week of the dig (remember what happened last year!) or, worse in the last day or two.

Sieezing the opportunity presented by the conditions, Darren, Sophie and Ciara trowelled over the surface of Cutting 8 one last time to reveal a number of disturbed areas which are probably the remains of additional graves in the cemetery. At this late stage of the dig it is not feasible to excavate further but we at least have been able to identify and record the location accurately. All of the new detail was added to a plan of the cutting later on that afternoon.

Kieran to the rescue!
Matt planning again.

In Cutting 7 we were joined by Rossnaree veteran Kieran Campbell who was a member of the team from last season. Kieran very kindly offered to help out in the last few days of the dig – exactly the time when he is needed most. Kieran undertook to lift the skeleton in Burial 2 along with Matt. Mags recorded a number of the features that Matt had previously examined in the cutting by drawing sections and profiles of them. Matt later finished drawing the post-excavation plan of the cutting and he added the detail of the grave cuts. When this was done he drew up the southern section face of the cutting showing the depth of ploughsoil and the various levels within it. Kevin was also on hand again today and using a total station he accurately recorded the positions of the control points we had installed around Burial 2. He also surveyed in the location and shape of each of the grave cuts of Burials 1 and 2.

In Cutting 6 Eimear carried out post-excavation plans of the two completed sections and also drew up the profiles of the sides of the cuttings. Niamh continued to excavate a section through the oval enclosure ditch and this is turning out to be quite a substantial feature. It is a lot deeper and wider than we had anticipated but she has found the edges on either side as well as the base. Very good work for one day.

Tomorrow, we will finish the last of the recording and then start the backfilling. I’ll let you know how we get on.

Nearly there…

Day 18 – Circling the wagons.

‘No you can’t have my lunch!’

It was another fantastic day in the Boyne Valley – very warm and sunny but with some cloud cover in the afternoon. Cattle were moved into the field where our site cabin is located so we had to erect a new electric fence to keep them at bay! There was a lot of curiosity at lunch-time but the fence did its job well.

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Laureen and Matt at work.

Burial 2.

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We were joined again on site by Laureen who came to assess for herself the skeleton that was gradually being revealed in Cutting 7. She very kindly stayed for most of the day working on the burial and very good progress was made uncovering the extent of the remains. The bones are in fairly poor condition and Laureen is certain that they will not all remain intact when lifted so it was particularly informative for her to be on site at this stage to make her own observations as she will ultimately be writing the technical report on the remains. She was able to tell us that the burial is that of a female probably in her mid twenties. There is no sign on the bones at this stage of the cause of death. Control points were installed around the grave cut which will be later surveyed in by total station and detailed photographs of the burial were made.

Blue glass bead No.3.
Me taking a picture of Burial 2.

Elsewhere in Cutting 7 Ciara and Mags wrestled with the identification of natural versus disturbed soil, and again, despite the hot dry conditions, good progress was made. The same story was unfolding in Cutting 8 and a final working-over of the surface of the cutting with mattocks helped to identify the locations of some possible additional grave cuts. The find of the day today was Sophie’s discovery of a blue glass bead. Unfortunately it was not intact. Rain is forecast for tonight and, as I write now, there is rain falling, so this will do the site some good and help us to distinguish the soil colours.

Eimear draws another section.

In Cutting 6 Eimear continued to draw the sections there and Niamh continued to dig one additional section. This is not behaving as expected as it is a lot deeper than we thought it would be. We will finish excavating it and probably record it tomorrow evening or Friday morning before backfilling.

We had some additional visitors to the site today and they couldn’t have picked a better day. Ann Lynch and Con Manning of the National Monuments Service came to take a look at the site on their way to see the excavations at Bective. They did very well to find the site! Professor Gabriel Cooney also visited on behalf of the funding authority, the Royal Irish Academy Committee for Archaeology. The discussion of the progress on site and the findings so far was very useful. It is clear that the information being revealed by the excavation is adding significantly to our knowledge of early medieval activity in the region and the story of the Brú na Bóinne area. A good result for our efforts.


Day 17 – The sun is working overtime

The Cutting 7 team in action.

The weather was with us again today. From a calm but overcast start, the day rapidly improved with strong sunshine and high temperatures all day. A few more days like this and we would have a heatwave.

The work continued from yesterday (Monday) with Matt, Lisa, Ciara and Mags all concentrating their efforts on Cutting 7. Although we had (foolishly) thought a while ago that this Cutting was almost finished with nothing of major interest in it, as we have become more familiar with the soils it has gradually become apparent that there are, in fact, quite a number of features. The problem is that the lowest layer of soil in the cutting above the natural, undisturbed soil looks almost identical to the natural itself. The hot dry weather is not helping as it is drying everything out to a uniform pale compact yellow crust.

The second burial.

This process of additional discovery started when Matt went to lift a fragment of cranium which looked at first to be an isolated piece, possibly disturbed from a long-gone burial. When he started to excavate around the fragment, it quickly became clear that it was within a pit containing more bone, and this pit on further investigation, revealed itself to be another grave. As I outlined yesterday, human burials receive the greatest amount of meticulous care and attention when they are being excavated and recorded and thus take some time to deal with. Today, Matt continued to work exposing the ‘new’ grave and we plan to record and lift it tomorrow. Elsewhere in the cutting, a number of suspicious features were identified which might very well be additional grave cuts. We do not plan to disturb or excavate them but will record the extent of each of the cuts and note their positions.

Eimear searches for the edge.
Eimear and Sophie draw the section.

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Over in Cutting 6 Eimear continued to take down the remainder of the section Darren had been working on. Again, there was some close discussion of what actually constituted natural, and the decision was made more difficult because it seems that there was a certain amount of redeposited natural lying directly beside and within the cut of the ditch.  Eventually, after some careful trowelling, and after a flint flake was discovered in the redeposited natural, confirming that it must be redeposited and was not undisturbed, we found the actual edge of the cut of the ditch and the section was prepared for a photograph and drawing.

Fergal and Sophie in Cutting 6.

We had a visit today from Fergal Nevin, an MA student from UCD who is in the middle of writing up his MA thesis at the moment. Fergal had carried out a soil phosphate survey back in May of this year as part of his research and is comparing the results of his survey to the geophysical survey data from the site. He found it very useful to come for the day and observe the archaeology first hand in the area where he had surveyed a few months earlier. We wish him the best of luck finishing his thesis.


Day 16 – The pressure’s on.

We are now into the final week and there seems like so much still to be done. At least the weather is holding up. It was not as sunny as it was over the week end – the day started out a bit overcast with a few drops of rain as well, but very calm. As the day wore on the cloud cover thinned and although the sun didn’t come out fully it was quite a warm and pleasant day.

Mags and Ciara in Cutting 7

In Cutting 7 Lisa and Ciara continued the final clean-down of the surface to make absolutely sure that there are no further features there. Matt started work on lifting a piece of cranium we had noticed on Friday in the south west corner of the cutting, a little distance away from the grave cut. We had assumed that this was a fragment of bone disturbed from another grave but as Matt cleared more it became apparent that there were several pieces of bone in situ within the fill of yet another grave cut. This, of course, is not surprising because we already have found one grave, but it is not something we had planned, or hoped, to find. The work in this area will now slow down again considerably as the grave is carefully excavated and recorded. This is time we can’t really afford at this late stage.

Human bone fragments and another grave cut.

Matt bags up some of the bone.

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Darren working on his section.

Eimear's ditch section today.

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In Cutting 6 Eimear and Darren continued work on their respective sections and both were successful today in finding the western edges of the cut. In each case the edge was cut into quite gravelly material, very similar to that identified in the base of the ditches excavated last year. Ash, animal bone and charcoal are all frequent and at Darren’s end, there seems to be a lot of flint while at Eimear’s end there is an interesting socketed iron object, probably a tool of some sort, sticking out of one of the layers. Kevin had identified this as a location of some potential last week when he scanned the cutting surface with his metal detector. The next step is to identify the various fills visible in the vertical section face of each mini-cut and then to photograph and draw them up.

In other news, we had a visitor today from RTE television – Philip Bromwell – who is doing a piece on how the archaeological profession in Ireland is faring in the current recession. This was a suggestion made by the professional body for archaeologists in Ireland, the Institute of Archaeologists of Ireland (IAI). As well as filming the dig in progress and speaking about the stages in the research process leading up to the excavation, there was discussion of the many archaeologists who had been working in the profession who are now unemployed. There was also some talk about the severe cuts in various research funds available for archaeological research like the Heritage Council’s discontinued Heritage Research grants or the INSTAR grants. The piece will hopefully air on the 6 One News later this week. I’ll let you know…!


Day 15 – Summer’s back!

Well, who’d have thought it? Met Eireann, the Irish weather service issued an apology for the weather forecast for yesterday. They said there’d be occasional showers in the east of the country (where the Rossnaree excavation is located) but instead there was virtually continuous grey wet drizzle for much of the day. You have to take the rough with the smooth – normally when the forecast suggests that there might be showers or rain, I have found that we have a good chance of being lucky. The rain takes a little bit longer to get across the country to us in Rossnaree and we usually seem to escape the worst of it. To have the opposite happen once is, I think, acceptable because of the number of escapes we have had over the last few weeks.

Ciara cleans Cutting 7.
Excavating the human remains.

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The weather on-site was perfect – bright spells and cloud, not too hot, and no rain of any sort. Everyone was in a good mood (I think) and there was an air of quiet industry over the site for much of the day. Ciara was working single-handedly in Cutting 7 for the morning giving one last clean-back to the exposed surface there to make sure that no possible features had been missed. After lunch, Matt did a plan of the grave again, detailing the position of each of the bones and we spent the afternoon excavating, lifting and carefully packaging each bone. Each piece was numbered on the plan and photographed and wrapped and labelled for storage and later study.

Mags and Sophie clean back Cutting 8.

Mags and Sophie continued to take down the last of the disturbed layer of soil overlying natural in Cutting 8. Despite the rain the previous day, the soil was drying out very quickly making the identification of the different colours difficult. The layer closest to natural has quite a mottled appearance – it is a mix between the compact yellowish natural and ploughsoil and has frequent worm holes through it. There are still occasional flecks of charcoal and occasional fragments of bone so we are certain that the surface is definitely not natural. Hopefully we will be finished in this cutting very soon.

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The needle in situ.
Eimear displays the needle.

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In Cutting 6 Eimear continued to dig the section at the southern end of the cutting and a number of interesting finds came up. Below the upper layer of charcoal rich soil there is a thick deposit of almost pure ash and within this there is a deposit of animal bone, probably cow, including a mandible (jaw) and rib, among others. These seem to have been deliberately deposited with a number of burnt stones (one of which Eimear named ‘the raspberry stone’ because of it’s vivid colour!) and also an intact bone needle/pin. This is definitely find of the week and although it can’t be closely dated, it definitely belongs to the early medieval period. The Neolithic remains elusive.

Darren’s ditch section so far.

We set Darren up at the northern end of the cutting doing a similar section to Eimear across the ditch. We seem to have clear edges to the ditch feature with natural visible on both sides. Again, the fill is very rich in charcoal and ash and the edge of the cut of the ditch is quite steep. There was still no sign of the base of the ditch cut in the evening when we were finishing up. Flint artefacts were frequent but it is not clear whether they are indicating a date for the digging of the ditch or whether they were disturbed and incorporated into the fill of the ditch during the early medieval period. Lots to look forward to on Monday.


Day 14 – A ‘soft’ day.

Today the weather started out dry but quite grey and overcast. As soon as we got to the site, a persistent drizzle had started and with very little wind, it seemed that this would be ‘down for the day’. Unfortunately, our predictions weren’t wrong and if it wasn’t actually raining all the time, we were certainly damp. This meant that the day was a bit ‘stop-start’ as we took an early break in the morning, returning to the cabin for a change rather than having the break on-site.

The grave cut with bone in situ.

There was also a bit of procedure to be seen to following the confirmation of the finding of the burial and grave cut. Legally, the site director is obliged to inform the National Monuments Service and the National Museum of Ireland of the discovery of human remains on site. Additionally, the local gardaí (police) must be informed under the Coroner’s Act and the National Monuments Acts. This is required because of the possibility that the human remains identified might be the burial place of a recent murder victim. When human remains are found on archaeological sites it is usually perfectly clear that the remains are ancient but nonetheless, it is a requirement to inform the Gardaí. All the relevant notifications were made this morning. While a representative of the National Monuments Service will be visiting the site over the next few days the local Gardaí came to inspect the site immediately and within an hour they had come to check out the site and make sure the correct procedures are being followed. Despite the very damp conditions, they came right down to the site where we gave them a quick tour and explained why we believe the burial is ancient. It is laid out in the standard way for early medieval burials, an extended inhumation in a grave cut oriented west-east and the body is not accompanied by any grave goods. Furthermore, the cut lies stratigraphically below the very base of ploughsoil, a layer which was not disturbed any time recently as it does not contain any more modern artefats like glazed ceramics or modern iron objects. The orientation with the head to the west and feet to the east is typical of Christian burials of the period so it is definitely not prehistoric and it seems to fit well with some of the artefacts previously recovered from the site like the comb fragment and jet bracelet fragment from last year and the blue glass beads from this year. Some time later, a Garda photographer came down to the site to record the scene and we gave him a quick tour as well. This was one of the more unusual jobs he had been on recently.

Matt excavating the grave.
A slightly damp Darren.

Turning back to the work we managed to get done today between the showers, Matt continued to clean up around the grave cut in preparation for a photograph while Darren and Lisa gave parts of Cutting 7 a close trowel, establishing the edges of some of the features previously identified.

Mags and Sophie very patiently continued to trowel down the surface of Cutting 8 and and the one possible benefit of the wet conditions was that we were able to see soil colours more clearly than usual. It was much easier to identify the undisturbed natural which was clearly visible as a compact yellowish soil while the covering layers, base of ploughsoil was definitely a darker brown. There was some reeorking of part of the area as soon as this was realised but it seems that we are very close to the bottom of this cutting.

Damp Eimear and Ciara in Area 1.

The test section in Cutting 6 .

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In Cutting 6 (Area 1) Eimear, assisted by Ciara, took levels on the plan and then continued the section started by Igor yesterday. The deposit there was very interesting giving way after just a couple of cm to a very pale grey ashy material with very frequent large chunks of charcoal. Within this fill there are several large pieces of cattle bone including a mandible. There still seems to be a goodbit of work to be done in this cutting. Hopefully we will manage it before the end of next week. The weather is meant to be better which would help. Later on in the afternoon we had more excitement when some of the crew from the Bective excavation came to have a look at the site. It is a pity it wasn’t a better day as the place wasn’t looking as stunning as it usually does. Maybe next time!


Day 13 – Putting our best foot forward.

Work continued from yesterday with Eimear planning in Area 1 (Cutting 6), Matt excavating features in Area 2 (Cutting 7), Niamh extending the cutting to expose the full extent of the grave cut, and the rest of the team taking down the rest of the base of ploughsoil material in Cutting 8. Kevin, our geophysical surveyor, was also on site again to monitor progress, compare the excavated features to the anomalies identified in the initial surveys and take some additional readings.

Eimear adjusts her planning frame.
The plan in progress.

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In Area 1, Cutting 6, Eimear’s plan is nearing completion. The process is taking some time because of the size of the cutting and the complexity of the features and soils there. However, she is nearly finished and we will be taking levels on the surface tomorrow morning and assigning numbers to each of the separate fills and features. We even made a start this afternoon on one spread of material that seems to be occupation/refuse spread associated with the occupation of the oval enclosure. This appears to overlie the lower north-south ditch fill so we set Igor up to put a section across it to assess its depth. By tomorrow we will hopefully know what its exact relationship is to the other features and fills around it.

Matt examines the burnt stone.

Matt continued to deal with other features in Cutting 7 while Niamh and Sarah excavated the 1m x 0.5m extension to the cutting to fully open up the grave cut. His feature today, numbered F.705, appeared on the surface as a spread of charcoal flecked soil extending over an area c.1m in extent and disappearing beneath the northern baulk. As Matt excavated the feature revealed itself to be small furnace with a number of heat-shattered stones around and in it. The fill is mainly charcoal-rich soil, which we sampled. There was also a stone with a distinct concretion suggestive of some sort of slag, waste material from an industrial process, possibly metalworking. The base of the feature was reddened, baked soil, indicating intense heat. The proximity of this feature to the grave is interesting as it is not unusual to have such industrial features close to burials on non-ecclesiastical sites. Niamh, Sarah and Ciara gradually removed all of the ploughsoil from the extension and revealed the line of the grave cut retrieving a fragment of cranium from the ploughsoil Matt then added this detail to the previously drawn plan and proceeded to tidy up the area and continue to excavate it.

A beautifully trowelled surface!
Lisa and the post hole.

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In Cutting 8 the team there continued to remove, using trowels, the base of ploughsoil/interface layer. At the southern end of the cutting Igor had recovered a number of pieces of human bone and a tooth which indicates that there were probably other graves in that area which are now destroyed by ploughing. There is also a small gully-like feature here which appears to be relatively late in date and may be associated with later agricultural activity. Also at the southern end of the cutting, Lisa found her first feature. It looks at this stage like a very nice post-hole – an area of loose darker soil surrounded by a ring of packing stones. We will take a closer look at it in due course.

Kevin takes MS readings.
The metal detector in action.
Setting up the total station.

Kevin was on hand again to look at how work was progressing. He took additional magnetic susceptibility readings from the excavated surfaces of each of the cuttings and recorded interesting results. The values were all significantly higher than those recorded at the surface prior to excavation. There will be a very useful dataset gathered by the end of the excavation to carry out detailed comparisons between pre-excavation surface readings and post excavation readings as well as surface soil samples and ‘top of archaeology’ soil samples. Kevin also took the opportunity to scan the spoil heaps with a metal detector to ensure that we hadn’t missed anything (I don’t think we have but you never know..!) and he also scanned the unexcavated surfaces around the cuttings. In the afternoon, Kevin used a total station to survey in some of the major features identified on the site so far like the grave cut and the edges of the ditches in Area 1 Cutting 6.

In the afternoon we had a bit of diversion when the group of students currently working a the Blackfriary site in Trim paid us a visit. They are part of the Irish Archaeological Field School and on their way they visited the Bective site. I think the students enjoyed their visit and they told us that it was quite different to the other two sites.


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