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

neolithic

Day 20 – The last day

First of all apologies for the delay in putting up this post. Friday was a hectic day but we got  there in the end and since then I have been taking a bit of down time and catch up on some of my other responsibilities.

Oil seed rape being harvested.

As I said, the last day of the dig was hectic with recording finishing in each trench as well as backfilling. The minute one of the cuttings was finished there was a crew waiting with shovels and barrows to move the spoil heaps and fill in the trenches. The pressure was on to get everything done in one day and not have to return too the site over the holiday week-end to finish off, like we had to do last year. Spurring us on to some degree was the harvest which was started in Rossnaree today. To be fair, the farmer said he would do the other fields first and he expected to be into our field on Saturday. Even if he did get to the field we were in, he said he would work around us and the cuttings. Nonetheless, we worked flat-out to be able to clear the site and give him a straight run at it.

Cutting 7 from the west.

Matt and Sophie in the site office.

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Matt finished looking at the possible feature in the south east corner of Cutting 7 and he drew it up and filled out the context sheets. Darren and Kevin took points over the excavated surface especially in the area of the graves using the total station. Hopefully, this will help with the final presentation of the excavation results. Watch this space over the coming months for the result! We also made sure that the length of each of the cutting sides was drawn to get some kind of an understanding of the ploughing processes and the degree to which ploughing may have truncated the archaeological features we encountered.

The last break-time on site.

The last cake! Check the stratigraphy.

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In Cutting 8 the final jobs to be done were to add some detail to the plan that had been started a few days previously, to take levels – thanks to Darren, Kevin and the total station for this – and then to draw the sections. This was achieved quite quickly and both Cuttings 7 and 8 were ready to be backfilled almost simultaneously.

Ciara metal detecting.

An unusual feature of our programme of backfilling at Rossnaree was the metal detecting of the spoil. Kevin, while on a previous visit, had scanned the spoil heaps to see if any metal finds had been overlooked in the sieving process. A few modern bits and pieces had been picked up. Kevin took the opportunity to repeat the process as the spoil was being moved because the detector was unable to scan the complete volume of soil while it was piled up. Thus, as each barrow was dumped in the cuttings, he scanned over the material. Surprisingly, in spite of the very methodical sieving, we got quite a good haul. The items recovered were indistinguishable in the majority of cases from small stones or small lumps of earth and without the detector, it would have been difficult to identify them. While many of these items are probably relatively modern, given the age of the site and that there was settlement activity, it is likely that some at least are quite ancient. The post excavation process will be interesting! As you can see from the photo, some of the other volunteers had a go as well.

Cutting 6. The pressure was intense...

So much paperwork...

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In Cutting 6 again the initial job was recording with the section across the oval enclosure being completed and drawn, a job duly carried out by Eimear and Kieran. Kevin and Darren took points with the total station and we also numbered and filled out context sheets for each of the layers visible in each of the three sections. We also took soil samples of each of these contexts as well for magnetic susceptibility and plant macrofossil analysis. While we were doing this we recovered an artefact that had been sticking out of one of the sections – an iron socketed implement that Matt immediately was able to identify as a weaving tensioner. I will hopefully get more detail on these items at a later stage but at the moment I understand that they were used in cloth making and that they broadly date to between the seventh and the tenth centuries.

Cutting 6 backfilled.

Eimear carefully removes the tensioner.

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It was after 7pm when we finally finished the backfilling – a huge thank-you to everyone for gritting through long after normal finishing time. Thanks also for the ‘dig-out’ from Fin & Co. who arrived shortly after 6pm and gave us the boost we needed to finish.

Some of the team.

The next phase of the work will now be off-site and involves the writing up of the preliminary report on the season of excavation for the National Monuments Service  who granted the license to excavate and the Royal Irish Academy who granted the funding. All of the finds bags will be checked and catalogued, and similarly all of the various soil samples will also be checked against the register. The site drawings will be digitised and prepared for the report so there’s a lot to do even before the post-excavation work properly gets underway. I will be adding posts to the blog intermittently as new work is carried out or other jobs are completed so don’t forget to check back occasionally to see what is happening with the project.

Thanks to all of those who worked on the site, giving their time so generously, to the landowner for granting us access, the farmers affected, the Royal Irish Academy for providing the funding and also to all of you who visited the blog. I am encouraged by the number of visitors and hope that you all drew something from your experience. I certainly did!

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Day 19 – It is all becoming clear now…

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

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

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

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

Kieran to the rescue!
Matt planning again.

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

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

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

Nearly there…

Day 18 – Circling the wagons.

‘No you can’t have my lunch!’

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

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Laureen and Matt at work.

Burial 2.

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

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

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

Eimear draws another section.

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

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


Day 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 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.