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.


Day 12 – Them bones, them bones…

Today was cold but dry. There was a wind from the north west for much of the day which meant that most people on site kept their coats on all day. A wooly hat even appeared – I’m not naming any names. Thankfully, the day remained dry and we were able to get a lot of work done again.

Planning in Cutting 6.

Eimear continued planning Cutting 6 and was assisted at different times by Lisa and Ciara who were introduced to the system of drawing archaeological plans, measured to scale. It is a big cutting and this work took the whole day. It will be finished tomorrow and we will then number all of the separate features and fills that are visible and take levels on the excavated surface.

The team trowel in Cutting 8.

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In Cutting 8, the team finished taking down the last of the ploughsoil and then began to trowel back the surface. As predicted, this was a lot easier and quicker to carry out than in either Cutting 6 or Cutting 7 because we are now so familiar with the depth to natural and the appearance of the subsoil.

Matt keeps up with the paperwork.

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In Cutting 7, Matt continued to examine the various features that were identified. Some of these are a lot less substantial than they seemed on the surface as they might only be the very deepest traces of largely destroyed features remaining below the level of the ploughsoil. Nonetheless, some are still promising.

Laureen examines the bone remains.

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The ‘mystery feature’ I mentioned yesterday has been confirmed as a grave cut with a number of human bones in it. This was identified for us today by Laureen Buckley, Ireland’s foremost osteologist (specialising in the study of human bones from archaeological sites). We were given instructions as to how to go about excavating and lifting the bones which are in poor condition and quite fragile. We will also need to extend the cutting to expose the full length of the grave and recover all of the bones.

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Laureen talks the team through the detail of the burial.

The burial was quite disturbed by previous activity on the site including ploughing and the bones had been moved from their original positions within the grave cut. This work will take some time because the bones are so fragile and every care must be taken to ensure that the job is done correctly. We were all very lucky that Laureen kindly gave a short talk to the team about recognising and dealing with human remains on an archaeological site. I think I learned as much as the volunteers.


Day 11 – A new week.

Igor tests his trowel.

We’re over the half-way mark now and beginning to think about making sure we are able to finish everything we start in the time available. We were joined by a new person this morning for a few days – Igor – who was involved in the geophysical surveys of each of the areas immediately prior to the start of the excavation. While Igor now works mainly in geophysical surveying, he has spent time on a number of the Celtic Tiger road schemes and his experience is welcome.

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Matt and the ‘mystery feature’.

The weather over the week-end had been quite mixed with a lot of showers. This was good for the site because when we arrived down and took a closer look at the cuttings, the additional moisture in the soil has made it a bit easier to see the differences in the colours and textures of the soils making up the fills of features. In Area 2 Matt continued to examine features that were identified and planned last week. He did this by half-sectioning them. This is where half of the feature is excavated using a trowel or a leaf trowel to find the exact extent and the cut and base of the feature before excavating and removing the second half. This usually means that the excavation of the second half of the feature is more accurate and ensures that any soil samples, which are only taken at this stage, are less likely to be contaminated with other soils. These soil samples can later be processed to identify macrofossil remains, i.e., fragments of vegetation etc. which, in turn, can tell us about the environment around the site at the time the feature was in use.

Most of the features that we had identified turned out to be less than exciting. Many seem to be pockets of soil that had accumulated in deeper-than-usual hollows left in the subsoil where large cobbles were disturbed by ploughing. However, there is one area where there may be a substantial feature containing a number of fragments of bone. We have labelled this Feature 714 and we will take a closer look tomorrow before coming to any conclusions. I’ll keep you posted.

Darren ‘The Machine’!
Sophie on the sieve (again!).

Darren and Sophie continued to take down the ploughsoil in Cutting 8 and this was almost completed by finishing up time after a burst of very robust mattocking by Igor. Once the cutting clear, we will work it back again to find the base of ploughsoil in the same way as we did in the other cuttings. However, this process should be a lot quicker this time because we have a very good feel for what the local subsoil looks like and at what depth we should expect to find it.

Eimear’s the boss!
Area 1: ‘you could eat your dinner off it!’

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In Area 1 the cleanback continued in preparation for photographs and planning. The whole surface of the cutting had to be troweled over lightly again because a certain amount of dust and other debris had blown in over the week-end and the rain had made the surface less clear and distinct. Eimear was in charge and by the afternoon, the photos were taken and the planning could begin.


Day 10 – A lot done, a lot more to do!

We’re now officially half way through the excavation and as the title suggests, we have achieved a lot so far and we hope that there will be much more to discover before the end. The weather forecast for today was not at all promising, with prolonged and heavy showers predicted. However, once again, we had an uninterrupted day on site although there were a few short showers in the afternoon.

Pat and the LMFM outside broadcast unit.

The big excitement of the day was the visit of the man from LMFM, Pat O’Shaughnessy with the station’s outside broadcast unit. Pat visited the site and interviewed the Director (myself!) which was broadcast live on the Daire Nelson Show. It is nice to get the support and have an opportunity to let people know a bit about what is going on on the site.

Area 1 - spot the features!

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Good progress was made on the site today as well. Eimear went over to ‘The Far Side’ from where she was in Area 2 and really began to make inroads into understanding what is going on in Area 1. With her help, Lisa, Sophie  and Mags completed the clean-back of the cutting and identified a number of possible features and, better still, were able to locate the edges of some of them. The next step is to photograph and plan the cutting before beginning to excavate.

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Lisa troweling in Area 1.

Mags reveals a feature.

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Matt excavates the stake-hole.

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In Area 2 Matt continued to plan the cutting there and Tomás, Jamie and Sophie all had a go at planning with the planning frame. It is a tricky task when you are a beginner but all three picked up the idea quickly. They were feeling the effects of the ‘crouched over’ stance at the end of each of their turns, however. Once the plan was complete, the next step was to add levels and Tomás and Darren between them took on the task. When this was over, Matt and myself took a close look at the cleaned surface to identify where exactly we think there are features. No less than ten features were identified and these were numbered separately and added to the plan. Matt then started to excavate one of them – the first ‘real’ archaeological feature to be excavated on the site. It turned out to be a stake-hole with evidence of the stake having rotted in situ. We have no idea when it dates from, unfortunately.

Sophie's first plan.

Tomás takes levels.

Darren holds the staff.

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Tomás, Darren, Jamie and Sophie worked away on the new cutting and made excellent progress. Apart from flint tools, they found a few strange finds in the sieve and some of them are shown here.

Area 1 flint core.

Area 1 burnt flint flake.

Area 1 Half a horseshoe!

Area 2 Mystery object.

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It was unfortunately the last day for Tomás and Jamie today and after we had packed up there were fond farewells before we all went our separate ways for the week-end. A big thank-you to them both for their unfailingly good-humoured work on-site. I hope they both found the experience interesting and worthwhile.


Day 9 – Time to start recording

The Area 1 team.

Today promised to be another fantastic day weatherwise and it was. However, there was a little bit of cloud and a bit of a breeze which made it a bit more bearable. The team in Area 1 continued to clear off the last layer of ploughsoil and expose the surfaces of the features underneath. They have now reached the topmost rows in the trench and the whole surface will have been cleared by tomorrow.

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Ciara with a mattock.
Jamie’s blue glass bead.

It is looking very well and, as outlined yesterday, major features are visible. It will be very interesting to record these and then begin to dig them one-by-one. Some nice finds came up again today – several pieces of flint and a fragment of another blue glass bead, probably dating to the early medieval phase of occupation. The bead was not complete like the previous one and Jamie, who found it,  did very well to spot it. The fragment is so small it wouldn’t have been picked up in the sieve either. It seems to have been more delicate and thin than the one from last week.

‘It could be a feature…’
A flint scraper from Area 2.

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In Area 2 the same questions dogged the team there – have we got base of ploughsoil or is there a spread of occupation material? It seems clear now that there is, in fact, a spread of material below the base of ploughsoil which has frequent large pieces of animal bone – a good indicator that it is undisturbed by ploughing as this would cause a relatively delicate material like bone to break down into smaller pieces. We took the decision to expose this layer as fully as possible and then record it by taking photographs the surface and then drawing a scale plan of it.

Spot the post hole!
Matt starts the plan.

While this final clean-back was being completed, a couple of possible features became apparent. These are small circular or sub-circular areas of slightly darker soil with charcoal flecking, and may be something like post holes. When the planning is finished, we will take a closer look at them. Matt set up to draw the plan using a long tape to orient himself relative to the site grid and a planning frame to help draw the detail on the surface, metre square by metre square. You don’t have to be an artist to do this – it is a technical rather than an artistic process – but, like so much in archaeology, it requires time, patience and a thorough meticulous approach.

Area 2 cleaned surface.

Cutting 8 soil sampling.

The others in the Area 2 team were now redundant – as Matt was busy planning, they couldn’t dig in that cutting or they would be in the way. Also, as the trowelers began to finish their strips in Area 1 they came across to Area 2 to join the diggers there. They started work on a third cutting which will ultimately join with Cutting 7. This is a 2m x 7m trench extending southwards and will investigate further anomalies identified in the magnetic gradiometry there. As with the previous trenches, we used long tapes set out between the site grid pegs to position the trench relative to the grid and set out a line to define the edges. This time we cleared off the loose stalks from the surface to help with the digging and sieveing process. The first step, however, before the digging could begin, was to take a series of magnetic susceptibility soil samples, to keep a consistent record. By late afternoon the first square had been almost completely dug and sieved. More of the same tomorrow; hopefully the weather will hold up, although the forecast is not good. We’ll take it as it comes.


Day 8 – What a scorcher!

Tomás troweling in Area 2.

Today the weather was fantastic – one of the best days on site so far. Sun hats and sunblock were very much in evidence all day. Mind you, if you think we were happy about this, think again. The hot weather was causing difficulties for the archaeology. As soon as an area is freshly troweled, it dries out and becomes a grey-brown mass of crumbs. Elsewhere, in the untroweled areas, the surface is becoming baked to the consistency of concrete. We’re never 100% happy with our lot – there’s always something to give out about!

The Area 1 team hard at work.

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In Area 1 the work continued taking off the last layer of ploughsoil in an attempt to reveal and recognise intact archaeological features as indicated on the magnetic gradiometry plot. Ciara came over from Area 2 to help out and was glad to get away from sieve duty there for a change. As outlined already, conditions were difficult and presented a bit of a challenge to the novice trowelers. It is a slow and sometimes frustrating task, especially when you are unsure of what exactly it is you are looking for. The dry conditions don’t help, making it even more difficult to keep your area clean. Troweling is an activity that takes some degree of concentration. The troweler needs to work very methodically, removing a thin layer of soil from your area and leaving the surface clean and ‘fresh’ so that the texture and colour is visible or at least discernible. When troweling, the excavator needs to be constantly asking questions of the soil in front of them – is this area different to that one? If so, how is it different. Is it the colour of the soil, the texture, its stoniness, the inclusions? If there is a diffrence, where is the junction? is it a clear line or a gradual transition? All of this goes towards understanding what features are present on a site and contributes towards their accurate description and recording. It is not an activity where you can just ‘switch off’. You need to be constantly thinking.

Ciara's row.

Lisa's row.

Anyway, we made good headway in Area 1 and despite the dry conditions were able to start recognising different features and some of the edges between them. An additional bonus was that these seem to match up well with the anomalies identified by the magnetic gradiometry plot. It seems that we are on the right track here.

Area 2 ‘Could this be natural?’
Area 2 ‘Maybe this is it…’

In Area 2 the story is a bit different. They continued to take down the material we are calling ‘base of ploughsoil’. Already the cutting is over 50cm deep, which is about 15cm to 20cm deeper than Area 1. Even at that level, in areas that yesterday were looking like undisturbed ‘natural’ or subsoil, there are fragments of animal bone and flecks of charcoal indicating that the soil is, in fact, disturbed. We may have a situation in this area where there are no defineable features but rather the remains of a spread of occupation material lodged in between and just above the cobbles of the intact natural.

Hopefully, the situation will be clarified tomorrow…


Day 7 – Those wascally wabbits

Rabbit hole 1.
The neighbours.

Our nocturnal visitors had been back again to the site and this time they seem to have tried to set up residence in the Area 1 spoil heap. When we arrived down to the site this morning there were several burrows dug into the heap with a series of cute little footprints all around. They seem to have given up, however, as the holes weren’t too deep and were apparently unoccupied. As long as they confine themselves to the spoil heap I don’t mind too much – on some other sites I have dug on rabbit burrows had done a lot of damage to the archaeology. For some reason they don’t seem to be interested in the Area 2 spoil heaps.

Sophie and Sarah taking soil samples in Area 1.
Troweling down in Area 1.

On the work front the last of the ploughsoil was taken down – two half squares and one full square. This was easily achieved before the morning break and there was a certain air of proud satisfaction at the final moment. 30 square metres of ploughsoil removed and sieved since the start of the dig. After the break we took a second series of magnetic susceptibility samples from the base of ploughsoil using plastic implements in order to reduce the possibility of contamination. One sample was taken from each metre square and duly brought up to the cabin at lunch time. Once this was done we were ready to start troweling the surface to remove the last skim of ploughsoil and start identifying the features. Working from east to west in column I squares 1-5, we uncovered a band of hard, compact, yellowish soil which gradually gave way to darker slightly less compact, more fill-like soil with frequent flecks and larger pieces of charcoal and animal bone, also with occasional pieces of flint. This looks like the top of the fill of the north-south ditch identified in the geophysics. We will continue tomorrow and see what emerges.

The sondage in Area 2.
Matt and Eimear in Area 2.

In Area 2 Matt, Tomás and Ciara continued to take down the last skim of ploughsoil using a combination of troweling and mattocking. As described yesterday, a number of possible features had been identified yesterday along the northern side of the cutting. However, there were no similar features visible elsewhere in the cutting that might correspond the the geophysical anomalies. Matt carried out a sondage, or test area, in the extreme southwest corner of the trench to determine exactly where subsoil was located and it emerged that there was another 10 to 15cm to be taken down. Thus, although the northern edge was relatively clear, there seems to be a shallow wedge of ploughsoil thickening towards the southern side of the cutting. There is usually an occasionally disturbed zone at the very base of the ploughsoil which is transitional between fully disturbed ploughsoil and never disturbed natural/subsoil with archaeological features. When ploughing takes place in a field, it doesnt necessarily plough to exactly the same depth as previous years with the result that there is no clear ‘line’ or interface between ploughsoil and ‘unploughed’ soil. Sometimes, depending on local soils, it is difficult to easily distinguish between regularly ploughed ploughsoil, occasionally ploughed base of ploughsoil and subsoil and it takes a bit of deliberation to establish where each ends and the next begins. Tomorrow they will remove this and trowel the surface back and hopefully we will see some more features.


Day 6 – Moving up a gear.

Magnetic gradiometry, Area 1.

We all arrived down to the site hut revitalised, reinvigorated and ready for the new week. We were close to being completely free of the monotony of mattocking, shoveling and sieving through ploughsoil, although the finds we are coming across are nice. In Area 1 at the start of the day there were still 10 square metres to be dug away and throughout the day the team there got through seven and two half squares. Tomorrow, there are only two half-squares and one full one to go. Once they are gone, we will be nearly ready to begin to search for the features identified in the geophysical surveys carried out by Kevin before the dig started up. In the plot the cutting itself is made up of columns G, H and I and extends from row 1 to row 10. This takes in two very distinct features: one, a possible ditch running from north to south (from previous geophysical surveys this seems to be the innermost enclosure defining the knoll of high ground) and the second, at a higher level and cutting the other feature curving in from the middle of the right side to the bottom of the panel (this seems to be a separate oval enclosure superimposed on the other ditch. See the original plot HERE). This cutting will investigate the exact relationship between these two separate features and hopefully will yield material for dating.

Lisa, Mags and Sarah.
Sophie on the sieve.
Darren gets to trowel.
Magnetic gradiometry, Area 2.

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In Area 2, they started the day with just two metre squares to go and these were quickly removed and sieved. Once this was completed, we took another series of soil samples for lab magnetic susceptibility measurements using the same grid as before. Thus we will be able to compare values taken from the field surface to those at the base of ploughsoil. Once this was done the cutting was ready to be troweled back. There was still a layer of ploughsoil over the cutting – we deliberately didn’t remove everything when we were mattocking off the ploughsoil partly to protect the site from being open too long and from the impact of people crossing over and back as they work. Trowelling, with the help of some light mattocking where necessary, is the next step taken to remove any remaining layer of disturbed ploughsoil and begin to identify the features underneath. We are lucky in that we have a very detailed set of geophysical plots to guide us as to what to expect. However, the picture here is less clear with a series of features that are unfortunately less identifiable than those in Area 1. The excavation here is to explore the nature of these possible features – our hunch is that they may be houses because of their location within the innermost enclosure on the highest point in the site – but we will be scratching our heads if we don’t end up finding the features indicated on the geophysical plots. The cutting itself measures 5m x 4m and is located between squares Q10-13 and U10-13 although this will probably be extended southwards at a later stage.

Eimear searches for the feature in square U13.
All hard at work in Area 2.

Day 5: One week done, three to go…

Evidence of a nocturnal visitor.
Evidence of a nocturnal visitor.

First thing each morning I check over the site to see that it is as we left it the evening before. This morning, there was evidence of a visitor for the first time since we started and it looked like they were having a go themselves. They may have been small and furry and luckily they confined themselves to one of the spoil heaps and didn’t make a mess!

A mattock in action.

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The work of the previous days continued, unfortunately at this stage it is fairly repetitive – mattocking, shovelling and sieving – and not very exciting, apart from the occasional finds of flint. Once we get all of the ploughsoil off and we can see archaeological features, things will be much more exciting. Nonetheless, everyone has their trowel at the ready, just in case.

An ‘experienced’ trowel beside a novice.

Continuing what I said in yesterday’s post about mattocks and shovels being the more used tools on archaeological sites, trowels are nonetheless regarded by the public as the quintessential archaeological tool. This is also true for archaeologists themselves and trowels become very important personal possessions over time and even indicators of the extent of the experience of the owner. The loss of a seasoned trowel often triggers a grieving process on the part of the owner, especially if the trowel has been with its owner for a long time. All of the volunteers on the site at Rossnaree bought their own trowels for the dig and will hopefully be using them again and again in the years to come. With use, trowels can become very worn with the ‘blade’ wearing down to a fraction of its original size. The more worn a trowel is, the longer the owner has been digging and the more experience they have.

Muddy boots 1.

Muddy boots 2.

Muddy boots 3.

Muddy boots 4.

Muddy boots 5.

Lunch in the luxury of the cabin.

Conditions on the site were unpleasant today with persistent misty grey drizzle occasionally developing into light rain for much of the morning. Sieving the soil became quite difficult, especially soil taken from close to the ground surface. Soil from deeper down was still relatively dry and sieved very well. Everyone got a bit muddy over the course of the day. Above is a selection of the wellies and wetgear in use on the site. Breaktimes become all the more important in these conditions and today, for the first time, we had tables and chairs in the cabin. Thanks again to Fin for the early delivery on the way to the Blackfriary site in Trim.

Again, in spite of the conditions, very good progress was made and we are aiming to have both cuttings cleared and ready to be cleaned back (with trowels!) early next week. A big thank you to all of the volunteers who worked so hard all this week. I hope the weather hasn’t put you off and that you’ll all be back again on Monday for a more interesting and exciting week. In sporting parlance, it is still all to play for!

Cutting 7 progress.
Cutting 6 progress.

Day 4 – Another day at the office

Again, there was heavy rain overnight and the forecast for the day was not promising. Nonetheless, we arrived down the lane to the cabin as usual to get organised for the day and trekked across the damp fields to the site. The cattle seem to be getting used to us now and don’t bother getting up as we pass.

A mattock.
A shovel.

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We continued taking down the ploughsoil square by square in each cutting using spades, shovels and mattocks. There is very little trowelling yet, much to the disappointment of some of the volunteers I suspect, but there will be plenty of trowelling to do fairly soon. Many people don’t realise that it is probably the mattock and not the trowel that is the quintessential archaeological tool. Certainly, the mattock does a lot more work in terms of the weight of material shifted compared to the trowel. It is not a very common tool – you tend not to see them on the shelves in your local Woodies Hardware store – but they are very useful. The shovel, probably a more widely recognised tool, is the essential companion to the mattock.

Find of the day - a blue glass bead.

We continued to collect fiends with flint flakes and flake fragments being relatively common. Animal bone was also turning up, probably indicating occupation and the consumption of meat on the site. However, the find of the day today, and probably the week, was a lovely intact blue glass bead spotted by Niamh between the roots of a plant while being sieved. This is an early medieval artefact type rather than prehistoric, but it is no surprise because of what we learned about the site during last year’s dig. There is still plenty of evidence of Neolithic activity in the flint, and hopefully before long we will also have some Neolithic features as well. The sieves where most of the artefacts are being found. They are really working well and most of the time the soil passes through nicely. However, after showers, which were frequent this morning, things get a bit more messy and working the sieves becomes a bit more difficult. This effect tends not to last too long as the rain only wets the soil surface – underneath the ground is quite dry – and the soil dries out quickly.

Progress so far – Cutting 6. 15 sq m.
Progress so far – Cutting 7. 12 sq m.

 


Day 3 – Getting the hang of it

A little taste of Egypt on the Boyne.

The gang arrived again bright and early on site for another day’s digging, not having been deterred by the torrential shower of rain the previous day nor by the pretty poor weather forecast for today. We optimistically erected a gazebo to act as our on-site shelter as the cabin is located some distance from the site itself. It certainly added a certain atmosphere to the site, especially when the sun was shining! Unfortunately, in only a relatively light breeze, the gazebo broke. I still have the receipt and will be returning it to the shop. Luckily, we had no need of shelter, in spite of the weather forecast which was less than promising. However, we have the feeling that before long we will need something to huddle under.

The contents of the sieve.

The crew on site today was slightly smaller than other days but undeterred, we continued in both trenches to dig and sieve. Good progress was made as the weather was with us and there were no delays or stoppages. In Area 1 Cutting 6 we started on squares G9 and I9 and by the end of the day a total of six square metres had been cleared completely giving a cumulative total of 9 square metres altogether. The pace is picking up as the crew find their rhythm.

The long walk home.

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In Area 2 Cutting 7 the crew continued to take down squares U12 and T12. They also went back to the squares cleared yesterday to deepen them slightly. We are working down to a level of about 25cm which, although not the base of the ploughsoil, seems to be close. Once all squares are cleared to this depth, we will first of all take samples for lab magnetic susceptibility measurements and then we will trowel over the exposed surface to remove the final skim of ploughsoil. Once this is done in both areas, we should be able to see the intact archaeological features identified in the geophysical surveys.


Day 2 – Now the digging begins

Matt cuts the first sod of the season.

Having successfully taken all of the soil samples from the ploughsoil surface for later magnetic susceptibility analysis there was nothing further to delay actually getting stuck in and doing some digging. We set out each cutting – Cutting 6 in Area 1 and Cutting 7 in Area 2. We are continuing the trench numbering system from last year to avoid any overlay or confusion in the archive. Cutting 6 measures 10m x 3m and is orientated north-south while Cutting 7 measures 5m x 4m.

An interesting find turns up in the sieve.

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The ploughsoil in each cutting is being taken down first using mattocks and shovels and the spoil is being sieved for artefacts. This is being done on a metre-by-metre basis so there is spatial control on the artefacts retrieved. Although the ploughsoil is a disturbed context and a very dynamic layer, there could be a relationship between the material ‘floating’ in the ploughsoil and the features beneath it. We are recording the spatial locations of the artefacts anyway and hopefully in the final analysis patterns and relationships will emerge.

The Area 2 sieve

Mags and Jamie using the Area 1 sieve.


Day 1: Déja vu all over again!

The day had finally come for the volunteers to arrive and start the dig in earnest. I was on site at 8am to take a delivery of tools to get going with. While waiting at the gate to meet the van when it arrived, a hare ambled slowly up the trackway, past the car and crossed the road into the opposite field, a journey he probably takes every day. He wasn’t too upset by my presence, although I was sitting in the car – this must be an auspicious omen. Fin, on her way to the Blackfriary site in Trim very kindly dropped off the absolute essentials to get the work started. We got a great collection of mattocks and shovels, a wheelbarrow and a number of ‘experienced’ buckets.

How many archaeologists does it take to change a lightbulb...?

Matt arrived bright and early on the site as well and we started to sort some of the gear. Closer to 9am the volunteers began to arrive; some travelling from Dublin, others from Dundalk, Ardee and Drogheda. Some old faces are back again for more – as well as Matt, who is supervising again, Darren has come back to the site for season 2 as has Eimear. It is nice to know that at least some people weren’t too badly put off the whole archaeology business and it will be great to have some continuity from last year. A number of new faces were present also and are very welcome. From Cultural Studies in DkIT we have Jamie, Sophie and Sarah. From the BA Humanities, Ciara and Lisa. From UCD, Mags and Niamh and from the University of Glasgow (although from Dublin), Tomás. Kevin was on hand again today to watch proceedings and lend a hand, very interested in the possibility of seeing some of the geophysical anomalies he identified in his surveys during the excavation.

After the obligatory site tour, we set to assembling a pair of children’s single-seater swings. The intention is to use these to suspend our sieves from and take a little bit of the hard work out of that particular process. As I outlined before, because we are in a tillage field the top 25-30cm of soil is disturbed ploughsoil, which is full of artefacts, particularly flint. We are going to dig each cutting metre square by metre square and sieve removed material as we go in order to ensure the maximum rate of artefact recovery. All finds will be localised to a particular metre square so we will later be able to plot the distribution of artefacts through the ploughsoil and hopefully gain additional insights into how the site was used in the past. Once the swings were finally constructed – they’re not as easy to put together as the instructions suggest, even though they’re supposed to be for children – we went back up the field to the cabin to have a break. While we there our portaloo was delivered so we now have all mod cons onsite!

The magnetic susceptibility soil sampling grid.

After tea, the next job on site was to take a series of soil samples over each area on a 1m x 1m grid. These samples will be measured in laboratory conditions to measure magnetic suscetibility. We had already carried out a mag susc survey over each area using a field loop but we decided that while we had the chance we would also carry out the much more accurate lab tests. There will be a very useful comparison of the performance of the field loop relative to the more accurate lab test. While carrying out the survey with the field loop we did get the strong impression that a significant proportion of the cobbles in the soil in the field were themselves slightly magnetic and were affecting the accuracy of the results. Thus, instead of measuring mag susc enhancement of the soil due to anthropogenic (human) activity like burning or deposition of organic waste, we were getting values based on the very mixed geology of the cobbles in the soil. The lab test will test this and provide much more accurate results. Each soil sample is processed in the lab – it is dried, sieved and then weighed so every sample measured is of equal weight. This cuts down significantly on variation in measurements and increases their overall accuracy. All of these samples had to be taken from the surface of the ploughsoil, to make sure all samples were comparable, so this job had to be done before any digging in the cuttings took place. So this became the first real archaeological task that a number of people on the site were ever given. I’m sure it is not something they thought they would be doing on their first day on site. We made very good progress and over the course of the rest of the day we took all of the samples over both areas amounting to 352 samples. All were bagged and labeled and hauled back up the hill to the cabin.

Ciara and Lisa

Jamie and Sarah

Tomorrow, we will be digging and sieving.

ps. The First Find of the Dig Award goes to Darren who found a flint flake and a sheep’s tooth on the surface as he was collecting his samples. Many thanks to Eimear who very kindly bought everyone ice cream after lunch.


Preparation for the 2011 excavation


Igor gets lost in the poppies.

The plan for the excavation this year means that we will be going into an area normally under tillage. We had avoided this last year and kept to the surrounding pasture on the slope to the north of the core of the site and also in the floodplain to the east. However, as the core of the site was firmly within the area of tillage and because of the exciting results of the second phase of geophysical survey carried out in 2010 after last year’s dig, it was clear that we should look at at least part of the core area. We spoke to the farmer of the land and explained what we wanted to do, and he very kindly allowed us permission to go in on his crop in the corner of the field.

More new kit.

Kevin at the total station.

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The first task facing us was to locate the corner points of the two target areas which had already been defined on the basis of the detailed geophysics. So, using a total station and referring to the control points that had been established on the site, this was done. The one unusual thing about this particular step was that it was carried out in a field with a chest-high crop of oil seed rape with an amazing number of poppies growing through it. Once these eight points had been established, I followed and used a strimmer to cut the crop out of the way. Once that was done, the cut crops had to be raked up and piled up outside each area.

Igor conducts the magnetic gradiometry survey.

With the two areas clear, the next step we chose to take was to carry out some very high detail geophysics in order to have as clear a picture as possible of the features below the ground before we start to excavate them. This would also allow us to position the trenches as accurately as possible relative to the subsurface archaeological features we are most interested in excavating. High detail magentic gradiometry, detailed earth resistance, magnetic susceptibility on a 1m x 1m grid, and an electrical resistance tomography (ERT) section were all carried out.

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While all of that was going on, the equipment for the excavation was being organised and the cabin which will act as excavation HQ for the next month was also delivered. Everything is beginning to fall into place at last.

The magnetic susceptibility survey.

The earth resistance survey.

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Kevin carries out the ERT survey.

The cabin is delivered. Luxury!

Kevin outlines the latest breakthroughs in ground penetrating radar technology to some interested onlookers.


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