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

Posts tagged “Rossnaree archaeological dig

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 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 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 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 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.


The plan for 2011

Based on the geophysics carried out in August 2010 immediately after last summer’s excavations, I put in an application to the Royal Irish Academy for further funding to return to the site and excavate in the core area on the top of the knoll. This appears to have been the focus of all the activity on the site. The lithic scatter is clearly centered on this feature and the later enclosures all encircle it. Standing on top of the knoll, it is not hard to see why it would have been an attractive spot for a settlement, whatever the period, dominating the land to the south and with a good view over the river while being out of the reach of the winter floods. Happily, the application to the RIA was successful and work will start again on the site on 4th July.

Two areas of potential were identified. This was a difficult process firstly because of the huge overall size of the site. The time or the resources are not available to dig everything or even a large sample of the site so positioning cuttings is like playing ‘pin the tail on the donkey’. However, the geophysics are a big help. Choosing areas to focus was also difficult because it is almost impossible to identify features in the geophysics that are more likely to be early (ideally prehistoric and preferably neolithic). You normally get very little indication of the date of features from geophysical plots unless they are very recognisable. The chance that all such early features are long gone, destroyed by over zealous and unwitting early medieval remodelling, is constantly at the back of my mind.

Figure 1: Areas 1 and 2 superimposed on the detailed magnetic gradiometry plot.

Area 1

This is located over the junction between the oval enclosure and the innermost D-shaped enclosure lying beneath it. See the last post for a discussion of these features. The innermost D-shaped enclosure  feature appears to define the top of the knoll or topographic high and appears to be quite different in character to the other ditches. The character of the feature on the magnetometry plot shows it to be narrower and less magnetic than the other enclosures. The magnetometry plot also shows that it is clearly cut by the oval enclosure suggesting a relative chronological relationship between the features. The earth resistance plot (Figure 2, last post) shows that the inner enclosure feature encloses an area of high resistance with a sharp delineation between the high-resistance inner area and the low resistance area immediately outside. The junction between the two areas appears to be particularly sharp and suggests a possible stone facing/revetment feature. This again suggests that the method used to construct the inner enclosure is different to that of the other enclosures. The area chosen lies well within the area defined by the lithic scatter. It is proposed to open a trench over the junction between the two ditches on the western side of the oval enclosure in order to examine the relationship between these features. Hopefully, it will be possible to retrieve material suitable for dating from the earlier enclosure. Given the apparent relationship between the oval enclosure and this inner enclosure, it is possible that the inner enclosure is early in date and possibly prehistoric.

Area 2

The second area of potential is also in the core area close to the highest point on the knoll. It shows up in the magnetic data as a circular cut feature of slightly positive magnetic gradient, c. 6m in diameter and possible with a centrally placed posthole and there are other possible pits or postholes immediately outside it. There is an area of lower resistance in the same location on the earth resistance plot (Figure 2, last post) and the magnetic susceptibility plot also indicates an almost discrete area of enhanced magnetic susceptibility to the north of the main area of enhancement (Figure 2, below). The feature lies at the north-eastern corner of the area defined by the lithic scatter. Given that this feature appears to be relatively well preserved and that it is potentially prehistoric in date based on its position and morphology, it is proposed to excavate a cutting over this feature to establish its date.

Figure 2: Magnetic susceptibility plot with superimposed features from magnetic gradiometry survey


Geophysical Survey 2010

Following the surprise development in the excavation last year where it was conclusively established that the enclosures on the site are likely to be early medieval in date (and probably between 7th-11th century AD), it was decided to carry out further geophysical survey over the core area of the site on the top of the knoll within the tillage field. This was clearly a focus of activity in prehistoric times because of the extensive lithic (flint) scatter found there. It also seems to have been a focus during the early medieval period as this is the area central to all of the enclosures.

Because of the lithic scatter, this area remained the best candidate area for identifying prehistoric activity. However, because of the apparent intensity of activity in the early medieval period, there is a chance that any prehistoric features that may once have existed are completely destroyed and disturbed.

With these problems in mind, a second programme of geophysical survey was carried out in August 2010 at a higher resolution than the original geophysical surveys. The hope was to identify more clearly any features that might be earlier than the early medieval enclosures. Three high resloution surveys were carried out: magnetic gradiometry (Figure 1), earth resistance (Figure 2) and magnetic susceptibility (Figure 3). See the following figures for the results of each of these.

Figure 1: Detailed magnetic gradiometry plot with topography, August 2010

The magnetic gradiometry has shown up more detail than was apparent on the original survey. For example, the second enclosure from the outside clearly deviates from its curvilinear path as we move northwards towards the terrace slope. This may be a modification of an earlier version of the enclosure as there are hints of an earlier, less definite enclosure continuing northwards. The other feature of interest is the relationship between the inner complete oval enclosure and the D-shaped enclosure beneath it. The oval enclosure looks like it cuts through the other enclosure and thus is later in date. Furthermore, there is a difference in the quality of the magnetic response between the two features suggesting that they are constructed differently. The oval enclosure is more similar in the character of its response to the other, outer, enclosures. There seems to be a contrast between the innermost D-shaped enclosure and the rest of the enclosures, possibly suggesting different construction techniques which may be due to their being constructed at different dates. Clearly, the innermost D-shaped enclosure is earlier than the oval one. The question is how much earlier. Are we looking at a possible prehistoric enclosure?

Figure 2: Detailed earth resistance plot with topography, August 2010

The contrast between the different enclosures noticed in the magnetic gradiometry is replicated to some degree in the earth resistance plot in Figure 2 so what we are seeing is likely to be real and reflect the real character of the features themselves. The innermost D-shaped enclosure is almost invisible on this plot, especially along its western side. At the southern end of this inner enclosure feature there is an area of high resistance with a sharp delineation between the high-resistance (light coloured in the plot above) inner area and the low resistance area immediately outside (dark coloured). The junction between the two areas appears to be particularly sharp and suggests a possible stone facing/revetment feature.

Figure 3: Detailed magnetic susceptibility plot with topography, August 2010

The magnetic susceptibility plot shows an area where the soils have been strongly altered by activities like burning and the disposal of organic waste. It shows a clear and distinct focus of activity which seems to be contained to the west by the third enclosure from the edge. It extends a lot further to the south than the line of this ditch and continues on outside the survey area. There is a band of low values running in a north-south direction through the middle of the zone of enhancement which may be due to the way the space was utilised in the past, or it may be due to sampling or post-depositional processes. There seems to be a slightly separate elongated area of enhancement running east-west along the northern boundary of the field which may be a secondary activity focus. It may be significant that this is focused on the southern side of the highest point of the topographic knoll.


2010 Season Report

This interim report describes the work undertaken during the 2010 excavation season at Rossnaree Co. Meath. The excavation took place over a four-week period between Monday 5th July and Friday 30th July and targeted a series of topographical and geophysical anomalies identified in previous survey work. The site was first discovered as a dense scatter of lithic (chipped stone) artefacts systematically recovered from the surface of a tilled field during a major extensive surface collection undertaken some years previously in the Brú na Bóinne area (National Museum of Ireland collection number C97.2).

magnetic gradiometry survey Rossnaree Excavation

Mark carrying out the magnetic gradiometry survey

Subsequent multi-method geophysical survey funded by the Heritage Council and undertaken by Kevin Barton of Landscape and Geophysical Services revealed the presence of a large multi-vallate enclosure on the banks of the River Boyne which is roughly D-shaped and is bounded on the north and east sited by the River Boyne at the point where the famous ‘Bend of the Boyne’ begins. The enclosure cordons off an area of approximately 3.5 hectares and measures c.250m east-west by c. 150m north-south. This enclosure was reported to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and an RMP number was subsequently issued (ME019-080—).

Excavation funding was granted for a dig in 2010 by the Royal Irish Academy Committee for Archaeology and four trenches in total were opened and excavated during the season. Two of these trenches focused on extant low bank-and-ditch features located to the north of the tillage field close to the riverbank. A third trench (Trench 4) examined the continuation of the line of the outer enclosure in the low floodplain to the east of the core area of the site and a fourth trench (Trench 5) investigated the area around a semi-buried greywacke slab close to the field boundary in the pasture field to the east of the core area of the site.

While flint flakes and tools were frequently recovered, the major features on the site, especially the bank feature in Trench 3, was dated to the early medieval period on the basis of the recovery of a double-sided bone or antler comb fragment. A fragment of a copper-alloy strap was also recovered from the same context. A fragment of a lignite bracelet was also recovered from topsoil in Trrench 5, also indicative of activity during the early medieval period.

The interim report may be downloaded in PDF format here. Rossnaree_Report_2010(lowres)


The 2011 Season is here!

It is now possible to announce that a second season of excavation will now take place at Rossnaree during the coming summer. It is probably safe to say that the dig last year was highly successful. Almost all of the objectives of the project were achieved, the most important of these being the retrieval of material suitable for dating the features at the site. Animal bone was recovered from stratigraphically perfect positions at the base of each of the ditches and in due course these will hopefully provide radiocarbon dates. However, during the excavation itself, we recovered artefacts which gave us a much quicker indication of the date of some of the ectivity carried out at the site in the past. A fragment of a double-sided bone comb indicated that the innermost bank (and probably the ditch too) was constructed sometime in the late first millennium AD. This represents an important addition to our knowledge of activity at this time in the Brú na Bóinne area.

The double-sided bone comb fragment indicating a late 1st millennium date for the enclosure

However, the main research interest of the project is prehistoric, specifically settlement activity in the area during the time when the major prehistoric monuments in the area – the passage tombs and henges – were being built and used. We also still had to explain the major lithic scatter on the surface of the field which brought us to the Rossnaree site in the first place. This was deposited as a result of significant activity during the Neolithic period and it remains a distinct possibility that some of the anomalies identified in the initial geophysical surveys are Neolithic rather than early medieval. Because of this, we decided to have another look and this year we will be excavating in two areas within the ‘core’ area of the site on the top of the little knoll within the central enclosure.

A grant has been secured from the Royal Irish Academy Committee for Archaeology to fund the work and a group of volunteer students from Dundalk Institute of Technology and elsewhere have signed up to work on the site.


Day 20: The longest day

Rossnaree excavtion Trench 3

Trench 3 fully filled...at last!

Once again, I am reduced to beginning a post by talking about the weather. Today was the last day of the dig and a lot of hard work lay in store for the small but elite group of diggers remaining on site. If desodding is regarded as an unpleasant job, backfilling is much more difficult and demoralising. To make matters worse, the weather was not kind to us today, making the job much more arduous. It started off drizzly, stopped for a while, started again, and so on until about three o’clock. Although we had completely backfilled Trench 4 already, there were still two, Trenches 1 and 3,  to backfill. These were going to be tougher than 4 because they were situated on a slope.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Trench 3 spoilheap disappears

Because of the topography immediately around these trenches, there was no option at the beginning of the excavation but to place the spoilheaps for each of them downslope of the trenches. This meant that every bucketful of spoil dug out of each of these trenches had to be shovelled into wheelbarrows and barrowed back uphill. At Trench 3, this meant that a zig-zag route was required, lengthening each journey across the slippery slope surface. In spite of the challenging conditions, we eventually reached our goal and completely filled the trench.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The Trench 1 spoilheap

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The team gets to work on Trench 1

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Then we moved on to Trench 4. A ‘closing deposit’ had been created on the top of the spoilheap by Clíodhna (age 6!), perhaps to appease the spirits of the place and atone for the disturbance that they had to endure over the previous four weeks. We worked until six, when we were fit to drop and a big thank you goes to all of the team who pitched in on this dreaded day lightening the workload with cheery conversation (and even some song!).

A big thank you goes to all who assisted with the excavation. Many people worked on the site over the few weeks, some longer than others. All time spent on the site helped and is greatly apprecated.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The Trench 1 'closing deposit'

So to Matt, Kieran, Darren, Eimear, Niamh, Deirdre, Eamonn, Andrew, Valerie, Mark, Ailbhe, Michael, Gary, Jessica, Carol, Kim and Louise a very big thank-you. Thanks to Kevin and Mark for the surveying and the support and encouragement. To Paschal, thanks for facilitating our access to the field, to Fin and Steve for lending us the equipment we needed and helping with the logistics, to Niamh for the scones, to our visitors who took the time to come and see what was going on and also give their support, both moral and practical. And finally, to Aisling, many many thanks for allowing us access to one of the most enchanted corners of this island for the month.

Because the sitework is now finished, there will be no more day-by-day posts. However, we hope to do some additional ‘tidying up’ survey work soon in order to try to identify the presence of potential prehistoric features and I will post the progress and results of that work. Also, the post-excavation work will now commence, but as much of this will require additional funding which will hopefully be provided at a later stage, and there will be occasional posts on this as the work is done. Thanks to everyone who took the time to check out the blog; many of the comments came from people who are not known to me and who seem not to be archaeologists but who, nonetheless, found the blog interesting and informative.


Day 19: Best laid plans…

Rossnaree Excavation

Baler in operation

Our excitement today was watching the straw from an entire field being baled in a matter of a few hours by one guy on his own. I had never seen this machinery in operation up close. Mind you, he hadn’t ever seen an archaeological excavation up close either. A first for all concerned.

Rossnaree Excavation Trench 3

Kevin and Matt discuss the results from Trench 3

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Kevin the geophysicist visited the site again today to take one last look at the remaining open trenches to see how well the excavated features match up with those recorded by the specialist geophysical equipment. There will be a very interesting comparison done at a later date and there may even be a few papers in geophysics journals reporting on the results of the test.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Hard day at the office for Louise

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On site today the atmosphere was a little different to previous days. Everybody, I think, was conscious of the clock ticking and time running out. Most of the work of the day was directed towards recording and sampling, and there was very little actual digging done as most of this had been finished yesterday. There was still a little bit to do cleaning out Trench 1 and the small feature to the west of the big ditch.

Rossnaree excavation

To tea through the fields

We had thought for a while that this was a pit but as more excavation was done, it was clear that it was as predicted in the geophysical survey: an irregular linear ditch-like feature running downslope at a slight angle. We are still in the dark as to when this feature was created as there is no stratigraphic link between it and the other features in Trench 1. There was some flint out of it, but as we found out yesterday, this does not guarantee a Stone Age date – many items can be residual and redeposited in later times.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Trench 1 fully excavated

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After this, the section drawings had to be completed in Trenches 1 and 3 and a plan had to be drawn in Trench 3. At the same time, we had to check that written descriptions of each of the features and layers (contexts) had been fully completed, and that samples had been taken. Lunch time came and went and despite being reminded of the time, everyone worked until each particular task was completed before walking up the hill to the cabin. Although hungry, everyone was absorbed in the work and was racing to get everything completed. When we did head up, we were able to walk through the barley field which is now stubble. We felt like the journey had been halved by our new route.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

The lower courses of the revetment in Trench 3

In Trench 1 Matt and Kieran completed their section drawing, Kieran assisted by Eimear. Matt took a closer look at the revetment feature at the east end of the trench and realised that it has some considerable depth. The stones are several courses deep (and continuing) and are set at an 80 degree angle and act as a facing to the steep bank, keeping it in place. Someone went to a lot of trouble to make this structure, and the clues we have suggest that there were many other such structures all over the slope.

I thought we would be in a position to make a start on backfilling one or other of these trenches today, but I had miscalculated the amount of work to be done. Tomorrow, we need to complete the sampling, much of which was done today, and add levels to the plan of Trench 1 before backfilling begins. Nobody is particularly looking forward to this – both spoil heaps are positioned downslope from the trenches meaning that there will be a lot of uphill barrowing to be done tomorrow. It looks like it will be a long day…


Day 18: The devil is in the detail

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Eimear backfills Trench 4

Today, a very dramatic occurrence took place – Trench 4 disappeared. Seriously, we had completed all the necessary work in that trench and yesterday, Kieran had started to backfill. Today, this job was completed in fine style by Kieran, Eimear, Niamh and Darren. We were even able to replace the sods back on the top. In a few weeks, it will be like we weren’t there at all. It is a bit sore having to fill in after so much slow painstaking work, but that is the name of the game in research archaeology.

Replacing the sods

The final result.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The team working hard in Trench 1

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Some very serious work was done in Trench 1 today by a very dedicated group of individuals. The first job was done by Louise who had yesterday discovered the pit-like feature at the south side of the trench. She drew a quick section of the feature and a plan as well. Once this was done, it was possible to start excavating again and although it had been decided not to excavate the full extent of the trench in order to save time, they went ahead and took out the remaining layers anyway. A fantastic piece of work. At this stage the final jobs to be done here are to draw the sections and take the samples. By the afternoon, Kim and Louise were setting up to start this so by tomorrow lunch time we should be ready to take samples. Things are moving very quickly!

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Kim draws the section in Trench 1

Meanwhile in Trench 1 Matt and Darren started off the morning cleaning up the lower portions of the feature they had uncovered yesterday. They were preparing for record photographs and also for planning and drawing the section. The feature itself is interesting because it seems to be at a lower level than the wall and thus is earlier in date. It seems to have functioned as a revetting feature which held the slope in place. The slope is composed of quite loose gravels and this may have caused problems for the inhabitants of the site who wanted a more stable slope. As I mentioned yesterday, there seem to be similar features peeping out from the grass in the slope further along from the trenches where we are digging. This cleaning was completed by mid-morning, after which Darren went to Trench 4 and Matt got going setting up for drawing the plan. While they were cleaning down onto this final level, a number of very interesting finds came up which throw a lot of light on the date of the activity in this area. Almost directly where the wall feature made of large cobbles had stood within the bank, they found a portion of a double-sided comb, possibly made of antler. This is little bigger than my thumbnail but is nonetheless very significant. Finds like these typically date to the eighth century AD or later (as far as I know – I’ll have to check this) and it tells us that the bank/wall (and probably the ditch beside it as well) must date to this time or a little bit later. This is clear dating evidence for the feature from excavation and means we don’t have to wait months for radiocarbon dating in order to find out what date this activity was.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

The revetment feature in Trench 3

A couple of other finds from this general period came up within hours – a small copper-alloy strap and a fragment of an iron vessel. Sometimes this is the way things work out in archaeology – you don’t get the crucial finds until almost the last minute. in spite of so much flint from these layers, it is now clear that the feature is Early Medieval. The flint was probably on site already and was incorporated into refuse material used by the Early Medieval occupants of the site and there is still no doubt that the site was intensively used in Neolithic times. We now also know that it was also used intensively in Early Medieval times as well. We have another multi-period site, a bit like how the site at Knowth across the river was used. The big questions now are are the other banks and ditches the same date and where are the structures that were used in prehistoric times.


Day 17: The wind that shakes the barley

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Kieran make a few last notes in Trench 4

Weather report: There was a 2 minute shower of rain this morning at about 10am after which the day got steadily better with prolonged sunny spells during the afternoon. This really brought out the magic of the place for everyone toiling on site and reminded us how lucky we are to be working in this idyllic location for a while.

Rossnaree excavation

A combine drive-by

I was reminded today of the short-lived series that ran some years ago as a BBC answer to Time Team where archaeology in extremely dangerous and inaccessible places was filmed for our entertainment. Harvesting of the barley in the field beside us started this afternoon and we had a grandstand view of some of the drive-bys of the combine. An impressive machine.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Kieran takes a bulk sample in Trench 4

On site work continued apace. In Trench 4 Kieran and Myself carried out a number of the sampling jobs I explained in yesterday’s post. The result of this was a trench resembling something from WWI because of the lumps we took out of the sides to fill various boxes, bags and buckets. All of the drawings of the trench had to be finished before this last step is carried out. All of this sample material will be carefully labeled and catalogued and put in storage until funding is available to carry out the post excavation analysis, which in the case of the soil samples will be carried out by trained specialists. Once this final job was completed, Kieran was able to start backfilling the trench.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

The new feature in Trench 3

In Trench 3 Matt, Darren, Jessica and Carol continued to take down the material from underneath the wall. This proved to be a bit thicker than expected because of the steepness of the slope underneath. At the eastern end of the trench, Matt took out the linear stone feature and beneath this another terrace face or revetment feature appeared. This will have to be planned and described before it is removed. Just when we were hoping that we would be close to natural and finishing up in the trench, another feature appears.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Work continues in Trench 3

In Trench 1, Eimear, Kim, Niamh and Louise worked on the section face, which is now looking very good. This will be drawn again because it shows up more detail that was not appearing inn the section drawing done a couple of weeks ago when the ditch was first opened here. Louise continued to excavate the trench to the west of this to give a continuous excavated profile all along the southern end of the trench and she also discovered a new feature. It is a pit which we had originally thought was a shallow gully.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The new feature in Trench 1

One set of geophysics suggested that this was a very shallow feature and when we dug the northern side of the trench we found that the feature was indeed shallow, barely 10cm deep. However, another set of geophysics was suggesting that there was some depth to the feature and this is exactly what Louise found just 50cm to the south. It just goes to show how much can be found (and not found) because of the positioning of the trenches in archaeological dig. A few centimetres in one direction or another can mean discovery or not of features. A lot is really down to luck.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

The cleaned ditch section in Tench 1

The race will continue tomorrow when we’ll start to draw up the final records of the site.


Day 16: The Final Countdown

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Carol tries out her new trowel

We are now into the final week of the dig and it seems as if the time has flown by. We are narrowing down our operations as much as possible now in order to be sure that we get completely finished on time. Although we have five days this week, we have to allocate at least two of these days for backfilling the trenches we opened. On a commercial site, it is rarely required that trenches be backfilled after the dig is over because the developer moves in with machinery and usually levels the site to their own specifications. We are working on agricultural land which must be reinstated.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Fiona, Matt and Darren examine the enclosure wall

The main jobs to be done are to finish excavating the remaining layers in each of the trenches. We won’t necessarily be taking every layer out completely but we need to get enough out in order to be able to understand what is going on. Coupled with this final digging, we will be taking a series of soil samples which will be retained and processed at a later date for examination by specialists. 10 litre samples will be taken from each layer which will later be processed by flotation to separate out some of the lighter constituents like plant macrofossils (i.e., visible to the naked eye) which are primarily seeds and charcoal. Sieving will help identify heavier constituents that are also of interest like insect remains.  Seeds can tell us something about the economy of the site (i.e., what they were growing and eating) and the charcoal, if it is present in sufficient quantities, can be used for radiocarbon dating. A separate set of samples will be for pollen analysis – it is possible that pollen from the various species of plants that were growing in and around the site in the past are preserved in the deposits we are digging. These can give us some insight into what the place was like in the past in terms of vegetation and climate. A third set of samples will be for molluscs (snails) which are very sensitive indicators of  specific climatic/environmental conditions. We have been encountering snail shells throughout the excavation so it is likely that these samples will be rich and will hopefully provide good information. The other major job to be completed is to ensure that plans and section drawings of the trenches are completed as a record of the exact location and thickness of each of the layers encountered on the site. This is slow work that only one person at a time can do and often has a knock-on effect on where other people can and can’t work on a site at a particular time. All the the written descriptions of each of the layers and features encountered on the site must be completed and checked and cross referenced with each other as well. There’s a lot of paperwork to be kept up during an excavation.

Rossnaree excavation

Jessica and Carol sieving material from Trench 3

We were joined by a new crop of reinforcements today, Jessica, who is no stranger to Brú na Bóinne, Kim, Louise and Carol. They will be helping in the final push to get and the samples taken and the final recording done and they are very welcome to the site. Some additional work was done in Trench 4 today establishing the line of the ditch cut below the waterline. The water is difficult to work around and although Kieran established the position of the cut in two places, we will  not be able to establish the  full depth of the ditch by the end of the dig. We did our best under the circumstances and the indications are that we are very close to the base. The bottom layers are very hard and gravelly and would be very difficult to get good soil samples from anyway.

Rossnaree excavation

Louise and Kim make progress in Trench 1

In Trench 1, Kim, Louise, Kieran and Niamh have almost completely opened up the ditch and it is an impressive sight. The depth on the ditch combined with the height of the surviving bank, which would have been higher originally, makes a formidable barrier and sends out a strong statement about the importance and status of the enclosure. Kieran and Louise are currently completing the profile along the southern side of the trench in preparation for drawing the section.

In Trench 3 Matt and Darren were joined by Jessica and Carol and they began to take out the cobbles making up the core of the bank. This feature turned out to be very well-built with smaller stones packed in firmly between the larger cobbles. They are close to or on undisturbed natural below this feature which is good – there isn’t a lot more digging to be done in this trench. The final jobs here will be the drawing of the sections – the vertical face of the slice through the layers.

In other news today, we were visited by our animal bone specialist Fiona. She was impressed with the amount of bone from the site so far and gave some indications about the best way to clean and store the material after the excavation is over. She had a quick look at a selection of the bones and was able to confirm that there were cattle, sheep and pig bones present as well as fish and bird. It looks like the residents of the Rossnaree Enclosure had quite a varied diet and ate well. A number of the bones Fiona had cut marks on them indicating butchery. Later when the full bone assemblage is handed over for specialist analysis, Fiona will be closely identifying the full range of species represented as well as the number of individual animals so we will get a picture of the food consumed on the site.


Day 15: Friday fun day

Rossnaree Excavation: Stonehenge

Stonhenge, 2008

There has been a bit of coverage of a recent discovery of a low-visibility monument very close to Stonehenge. This was discovered during an intense geophysical survey of the area by English Heritage and is part of a survey that is planned to last three years. The site is interesting and, as they said themselves, it bodes very well for the rest of their work to have found a site so quickly.

You can view some of the BBC’s reports at this link: Stonehenge.

Reports of this discovery were carried on most of the UK national TV news programmes, and although this is the silly season, I can’t help wondering whether there is a difference in the attitudes to new archaeological discoveries in Britain and Ireland. Geophysical survey work like this has been going on over the past three years here in the Brú na Bóinne WHS, albeit on a smaller scale, which has received scant attention. By contrast, there has been a considerable amount of media interest in the excavation at Rossnaree, at least at a local level. It seems that in the public (or media) consciousness here, the work of archaeologists is perceived as digging holes in the ground and finding stuff. As followers of this blog (and others) will know, there is a lot more work involved in archaeology than just excavation.

We have sites just as good as what was discovered at Stonehenge the other day. Just by way of comparison, the new Stonehenge site is about 25m in diameter. The Rossnaree site is about ten times larger, measuring about 250m east-west and 200m north south. The archaeology of Brú na Bóinne and many other parts of our country are in no way lower quality or less interesting than that of Stonehenge or elsewhere and we (archaeologists and media) should be doing more to celebrate this rich and diverse aspect of our heritage. There is definitely scope for a Stonehenge-type geophysical survey project, similarly structured and resourced,  in the Brú na Bóinne WHS. This is work that really needs to be done for us to more fully understand how this very important landscape was used by past generations and also to more properly take stock of the archaeological resource of the area to inform its effective presentation and management.

Rossnaree Excavation Trench 4

The level is going down...

Anyway, back to the business of the Rossnaree excavation. We are really trying to schedule the remaining jobs to be done around the site at the moment as we look forward to our last week on site. The same work of the last few days continued in each trench. In Trench 1 Kieran, Eimear, Darren and Deirdre continued to take down and sample the levels in the ditch fill, sieving as they went. The extra manpower in this trench payed big dividends and a lot of progress was made. Just two more fills to be removed before the bottom is reached. Next week, to finish off the trench and shut it down, we will move into the western end to see how deep the stony surface is above natural. We suspect (and hope) that it is not too deep because we really don’t have time to get bogged down.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Kevin and Deirdre speculate on the results

The ERT section suggests that there’s not too much depth in this area but we’ll just have to wait and see what turns up. We had a visit from Kevin the geophysicist again today who had a few jobs to do around the site. He is dropping back on a regular basis to see how the excavation progresses and also to see how well the excavation evidence matches up with the results of his earlier geophysical surveys. In Trenches 1 & 3 he is particularly ineterested in the match because the ERT line runs straight through the trenches we dug and should match up exactly. It is relatively rare that geophysical surveyors get to match up the results of their surveys with ‘reality’, i.e., the excavated layers themselves. These are the opportunities afforded by research excavation – the chance to experiment a bit and learn new ways of doing things.

Rossnaree Excavation ERT section

The ERT section with trench positions indicated

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Kevin takes samples from the Trench 4 section

Kevin also decided to take another series of soil samples from Trench 4 of very closely spaced intervals. Again, this is part of a research approach and may help to determine whether this technique is worth using in similar situations on other sites. I hope all the hard work pays off!

Fridays tend to be a day when we have a nicer than normal tea break. Some of the family came by to join in and we had a nice gathering in the cabin before getting back to work down by the river. We were spoilt for choice with home-made scones, which always go down well, and Deirdre also brought some extra goodies as well. They always did say that an army marches on its stomach and it is very important to keep morale up. We’ll certainly need it next week.

Rossnaree excavation

Friday tea-time


Day 14: No drama today, just another day’s work

No thunder or lightning today, just one or two light showers of rain. No sun either and the day was a bit cooler than previous but nonetheless was quite pleasant.

Rossnaree excavation

Chris reads some levels

Now with the weather report out of the way we can move on to the work done on site today. In Trench 4 (I always seem to start with this one, possibly because it is the nearest one to the site) Kieran drew a plan of the cutting showing the extent of the ditch, the slopes to the base on each side and the rest of the cutting. This view complements the section he drew yesterday – the section shows the side-view or elevation of all of the layers in the side of the trench while the plan view gives the bird’s-eye-view of the feature excavated. At the same time, I took a series of soil samples from the sides of the trench for magnetic susceptibility analysis. Samples had been taken previously at a higher level and readings have also been taken across the surface of the trench before the trench was desodded so we will end up with a very good record of how magnetic susceptibility varies with depth within the ditch. To remind readers, magnetic susceptibility measures the ability of the soil to become magnetised when a magnetic field is introduced and is a very good indicator of past burning or disposal of organic material like food waste or manure.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Chris and Kieran level the site.

Both of these are of course closely related to settlement. The soil samples will have to be processed at a later stage after the excavation is over before the analysis takes place. They will be dried, sieved to remove stones and weighed to produce equal sized samples. In this way, we will be able to get accurate and directly comparable values for magnetic suceptibility. At the end of Kieran’s planning process, the final job to be carried out is to take levels of the area to give an impression of how undulating the planned surface is and to give a feeling for the relative depths of features. This is done on site with a simple dumpy level, which is being used in the photo by Chris who was visiting the site this morning. Chris was one of the geophysics team who first discovered and mapped the enclosure back in 2008 and he was anxious to see for himself how progress was going. In the photo, Kieran is holding the staff, which is like a giant ruler. He places this on each spot in the trench that he wants measured and Chris takes the reading through the level, which is like a small telescope that has been set up on the level. We know the height of the level in space (this has been established already) so we can calculate the heights of each point measured and recorded by Kieran on the plan.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3 artefact

Intact flint blade from Trench 3

In Trench 1 the work of the past number of days went on and Darren and Matt removed more of the dark, rich organic layer overlying the cobblestones making up the core of the bank. Lots more animal bone was found, some of which seems to have been burned (this will hopefully be confirmed by our animal bone specialist who is visiting next week). Some nice pieces of flint were also found including various flake fragments, a scraper fragment and a complete blade.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Cobbles in the bank in Trench 3

Beneath this layer the cobble stones were coming up very nicely and the site in this area at least was beginning to feel more than a little like an early medieval cashel. Because these date to between 500 and 1000AD, I wasn’t too happy with this idea! I still believe the site is Neolithic (4,000 to 2,500BC). I believe the staff have a book open on the date; one bet is that it is 850AD. Traitors! Seriously, no artefacts have been found that suggest that this site is anything other than prehistoric (and probably Neolithic) although, as I said before, some pottery would be very nice and would help remove any doubt. The cobbles in the wall do seem to have collapsed a bit over time; they are most intact at the bank end and less distinct moving eastwards away from the bank. There is also a lot of soil in between them which probably filtered down from above over the years too.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Stony fill in Trench 1 ditch

In Trench 1 more progress was made removing one of the ditch fills. Gary and Niamh cleaned up and exposed the layer of stones within this layer and, although at first glance they seem to have a pattern to them and appear to be part of a structure, this is completely coincidental. The excavators are certain that this just happens to be the way the stones settled after rolling or sliding down the slope from above, finally settling at the lowest part of the ditch. We will clean them a bit more and record them in plan anyway, just to be sure.

Rossnaree excavation crew

The team admire their handiwork


Day 13: Thunder and a skull

The day started out well in line with the Met Éireann predictions. However, the forecast was for deteriorating conditions with frequent heavy showers in the afternoon. It was looking like we were going to lose some time. However, it only rained once at lunch time but it was a very heavy and prolonged shower. Once it finished, despite being surrounded by slaty grey thundery clouds, it stayed dry.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Kieran plots the section in Trench 4

In Trench 4 Kieran got stuck into recording the section. The process is to set up a baseline making sure that it is level. In the photo this is just below the edge of the trench and there is also a long measuring tape attached to it to help with the drawing. This is used to measure down to points to be recorded, e.g. the tops of layers, stones, the edges of a ditch. Each point is meticulously measured and plotted on a scale drawing so that there is a permanent accurate record of the material that has been dug through on an archaeological excavation. It is like a giant version of join-the-dots.  Kieran was recording the various fills of the outer enclosure ditched as revealed in the side of Trench 4. Even with all of the modern technology that is available now, there is still nothing to beat the trained and experienced eye of an archaeologist, especially the person who has dug the particular trench. Some of the differences between layers are so slight and subtle that they are beyond the ability of machines to detect and must be drawn by hand. Even with all of the advances in digital photography it is still best to do this job the tried and tested way, even if it does seem slow.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 1

Progress in Trench 1

In Trench 1 Niamh and Gary continued to take down ditch fill material, sampling as they go. A layer of stones has appeared and the base of one of the layers that hasn’t shown previously do the plan is to expose the stones to see if they form any pattern or whether they join with any of the other stony layers exposed in the section. Although they are likely to be material that has gradually slipped down the slope from higher up coming to rest in the upper fills of the enclosure ditch, tomorrow should reveal full their extent and allow us to decide properly why the stones are likely to be there. In the photo it is possible to see the clear difference in colour between the face of the bank and the ditch cut, both of which are stony and more grey in colour, and the fill material which is much more brown.

Rossnaree excavation

Eimear and Deirdre on the Trench 1 sieve

Very good progress was made in Trench 1 today because of the extra personnel there. Deirdre and Eimear took over sieving duties for Matt and Darren so that the digging cound take place continuously. Good finds were still being found through sieveing including the usual animal bone and flint. The animal bone assemblage is increasing in size and although we are only recovering fragments in most cases, we hope that analysis of the bone will be able to tell us about the economy of the site, i.e., what they were raising and eating.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Matt examines the cobbles in Trench 3

The picture of what is happening in Trench 1 is changing rapidly as a result. It now seems that the point where the ditch met the bank was defined by large cobbles which were mentioned already. These cobbles seem to have served as a revetment or low wall keeping the core of the bank in place and they also seem to mark the edge of a layer of cobbles within the wall. These will be further revealed over the next day or two and hopefully it will become clearer to us as to what they were for.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

Matt trowels around the skull

Towards the end of the day, however, another interesting find was made. A theme has been developing over the last few weeks that we’ve been finding cattle bones in significant places in the excavation today’s find was yet another example of this trend. Set on top of (or possibly within) the cobbles on the bank in Trench 1, what appears to be a cow’s skull began to be revealed. This may just be rubbish thrown out from higher up in the site but at the moment it appears to have been perhaps deliberately placed within the material in the bank of the inner enclosure. Is there a real theme developing in this site? Are cattle somehow important to what the site was used for? Hopefully we’ll have some answers before long.


Day 12: Here comes the sun

So much of what we do in Ireland revolves around the weather, especially for those who work outdoors. You tend to notice every little gust of wind and cloud that crosses the sky to a much greater extent than those who have to work inside each day. Day 12 was a good day weatherwise and there were no interruptions from above. We even had to break out the sunblock. A few more days like this between now and the end and we should be alright!

Rossnaree excavation Trench 4

Trench 4: ditch with muddy water

In Trench 4 Kieran, Deirdre and Eimear dug as far down as they could go. Because of the water level in the bottom of the ditch, they were unable to keep digging. The water was so muddy that it was impossible for them to know what they were digging and while it seems that the ditch does go deeper because of the slope of each of the sides, at the moment it is too wet and messy to dig. We also checked to see the relative level of the water in the trench compared to the level of water in the river. We did this using a dumpy level and believe it or not, the river level is actually about 30cm higher than the ditch water level. This is not what you would normally expect. Furthermore, we tried to bale out water from the bottom using buckets, and as we did so, fresh clear water flowed in from the direction of the river. It seems that the water level in the river rises more quickly than the local water-table. By the end of the day, we decided it was time to start drawing a section – the vertical side of the trench. This is an important part of the recording process and will help explain some of the processes

In Trench 1 Gary and Niamh continued to take out the upper ditch fills across the outer enclosure ditch. They succeeded in completely removing one of the layers, taking a bulk sample of the soil for future specialist analysis, and began to remove the next one, also sampling it and removing it. Good work was done and the level of the trench is steadily coming down. More and more ‘natural’ or undisturbed, non-archaeological soil is becoming visible.

Rossnaree excavation

Eimer and Deirdre leave Trench 4 for Trench 3

In Trench 3 Matt and Darren continued working on the ditch fills there especially the area overlying the bank at the eastern side of the trench. The geophysical survey carried out prior to the excavation suggested that this inner area to the east of the bank was lower resistance, perhaps more moist and organic. The more digging that Matt and Darren do in this area, the more the initial geophysics is proven right. The soils in this area do indeed appear to be different to the others over the ditch and may represent an area where rubbish was disposed of creating a midden or ‘compost heap’ layer of decayed organic material. Because this was so long ago, this material doesn’t look like compost but the soil is slightly darker and richer than those around it and definitely suggests that there is organic material in it. When we sample this soil and the specialists take a look, we will know for certain. Matt also did some work on the section face – the vertical side of the trench – to work out the exact sequence of layers and fills and their relationships to each other. They also uncovered a bit more of the layer of large cobbles in the edge of the ditch.

Rossnaree excavation Trench 3

The excavation surface in Trench 3 today

This may have been a deliberate design feature where the inner face of the ditch (outer face of the bank) was cladded in large stones. They may also represent a foundation layer upon which the bank was constructed. Work in this area has begun to speed up because Matt and Darren were joined by Eimear and Deirdre from Trench 4. As Kieran is drawing there, there is nothing for them to do so they were redeployed as the Trench 3 support team.

Rossnaree excavation

Another day is done...


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