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

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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.

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Day 12 – Them bones, them bones…

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

Planning in Cutting 6.

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

The team trowel in Cutting 8.

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

Matt keeps up with the paperwork.

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

Laureen examines the bone remains.

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

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Laureen talks the team through the detail of the burial.

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

Day 11 – A new week.

Igor tests his trowel.

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

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Matt and the ‘mystery feature’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pat and the LMFM outside broadcast unit.

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

Area 1 - spot the features!

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

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Lisa troweling in Area 1.

Mags reveals a feature.

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Matt excavates the stake-hole.

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

Sophie's first plan.

Tomás takes levels.

Darren holds the staff.

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

Area 1 flint core.

Area 1 burnt flint flake.

Area 1 Half a horseshoe!

Area 2 Mystery object.

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

Day 9 – Time to start recording

The Area 1 team.

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

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

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

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

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

Spot the post hole!
Matt starts the plan.

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

Area 2 cleaned surface.

Cutting 8 soil sampling.

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

Day 8 – What a scorcher!

Tomás troweling in Area 2.

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

The Area 1 team hard at work.

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

Ciara's row.

Lisa's row.

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

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

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

Hopefully, the situation will be clarified tomorrow…

Day 7 – Those wascally wabbits

Rabbit hole 1.
The neighbours.

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

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

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

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

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