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

Archive for July, 2011

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.

.

.

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.

.

.

.

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.

.

.

.

.

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.

.

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.

Advertisements

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.

.

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!’

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

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!

.

.

.

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.

.

Lisa troweling in Area 1.

Mags reveals a feature.

.

Matt excavates the stake-hole.

.

.

.

.

.

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.

.

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.

.

.

.

.

.

.

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


Day 9 – Time to start recording

The Area 1 team.

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

.

.

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

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

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

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

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

Spot the post hole!
Matt starts the plan.

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

Area 2 cleaned surface.

Cutting 8 soil sampling.

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


Day 8 – What a scorcher!

Tomás troweling in Area 2.

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

The Area 1 team hard at work.

.

.

.

.

.

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

Ciara's row.

Lisa's row.

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

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

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

Hopefully, the situation will be clarified tomorrow…


Day 7 – Those wascally wabbits

Rabbit hole 1.
The neighbours.

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

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

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

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

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


Day 6 – Moving up a gear.

Magnetic gradiometry, Area 1.

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

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

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

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.