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

Archive for July, 2010

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