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

Posts tagged “Excavation

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.

Day 5: One week done, three to go…

Evidence of a nocturnal visitor.
Evidence of a nocturnal visitor.

First thing each morning I check over the site to see that it is as we left it the evening before. This morning, there was evidence of a visitor for the first time since we started and it looked like they were having a go themselves. They may have been small and furry and luckily they confined themselves to one of the spoil heaps and didn’t make a mess!

A mattock in action.







The work of the previous days continued, unfortunately at this stage it is fairly repetitive – mattocking, shovelling and sieving – and not very exciting, apart from the occasional finds of flint. Once we get all of the ploughsoil off and we can see archaeological features, things will be much more exciting. Nonetheless, everyone has their trowel at the ready, just in case.

An ‘experienced’ trowel beside a novice.

Continuing what I said in yesterday’s post about mattocks and shovels being the more used tools on archaeological sites, trowels are nonetheless regarded by the public as the quintessential archaeological tool. This is also true for archaeologists themselves and trowels become very important personal possessions over time and even indicators of the extent of the experience of the owner. The loss of a seasoned trowel often triggers a grieving process on the part of the owner, especially if the trowel has been with its owner for a long time. All of the volunteers on the site at Rossnaree bought their own trowels for the dig and will hopefully be using them again and again in the years to come. With use, trowels can become very worn with the ‘blade’ wearing down to a fraction of its original size. The more worn a trowel is, the longer the owner has been digging and the more experience they have.

Muddy boots 1.

Muddy boots 2.

Muddy boots 3.

Muddy boots 4.

Muddy boots 5.

Lunch in the luxury of the cabin.

Conditions on the site were unpleasant today with persistent misty grey drizzle occasionally developing into light rain for much of the morning. Sieving the soil became quite difficult, especially soil taken from close to the ground surface. Soil from deeper down was still relatively dry and sieved very well. Everyone got a bit muddy over the course of the day. Above is a selection of the wellies and wetgear in use on the site. Breaktimes become all the more important in these conditions and today, for the first time, we had tables and chairs in the cabin. Thanks again to Fin for the early delivery on the way to the Blackfriary site in Trim.

Again, in spite of the conditions, very good progress was made and we are aiming to have both cuttings cleared and ready to be cleaned back (with trowels!) early next week. A big thank you to all of the volunteers who worked so hard all this week. I hope the weather hasn’t put you off and that you’ll all be back again on Monday for a more interesting and exciting week. In sporting parlance, it is still all to play for!

Cutting 7 progress.
Cutting 6 progress.

Day 2 – Now the digging begins

Matt cuts the first sod of the season.

Having successfully taken all of the soil samples from the ploughsoil surface for later magnetic susceptibility analysis there was nothing further to delay actually getting stuck in and doing some digging. We set out each cutting – Cutting 6 in Area 1 and Cutting 7 in Area 2. We are continuing the trench numbering system from last year to avoid any overlay or confusion in the archive. Cutting 6 measures 10m x 3m and is orientated north-south while Cutting 7 measures 5m x 4m.

An interesting find turns up in the sieve.



The ploughsoil in each cutting is being taken down first using mattocks and shovels and the spoil is being sieved for artefacts. This is being done on a metre-by-metre basis so there is spatial control on the artefacts retrieved. Although the ploughsoil is a disturbed context and a very dynamic layer, there could be a relationship between the material ‘floating’ in the ploughsoil and the features beneath it. We are recording the spatial locations of the artefacts anyway and hopefully in the final analysis patterns and relationships will emerge.

The Area 2 sieve

Mags and Jamie using the Area 1 sieve.

The plan for 2011

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

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

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

Area 1

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

Area 2

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

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