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

Posts tagged “Ireland

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


Geophysical Survey 2010

Following the surprise development in the excavation last year where it was conclusively established that the enclosures on the site are likely to be early medieval in date (and probably between 7th-11th century AD), it was decided to carry out further geophysical survey over the core area of the site on the top of the knoll within the tillage field. This was clearly a focus of activity in prehistoric times because of the extensive lithic (flint) scatter found there. It also seems to have been a focus during the early medieval period as this is the area central to all of the enclosures.

Because of the lithic scatter, this area remained the best candidate area for identifying prehistoric activity. However, because of the apparent intensity of activity in the early medieval period, there is a chance that any prehistoric features that may once have existed are completely destroyed and disturbed.

With these problems in mind, a second programme of geophysical survey was carried out in August 2010 at a higher resolution than the original geophysical surveys. The hope was to identify more clearly any features that might be earlier than the early medieval enclosures. Three high resloution surveys were carried out: magnetic gradiometry (Figure 1), earth resistance (Figure 2) and magnetic susceptibility (Figure 3). See the following figures for the results of each of these.

Figure 1: Detailed magnetic gradiometry plot with topography, August 2010

The magnetic gradiometry has shown up more detail than was apparent on the original survey. For example, the second enclosure from the outside clearly deviates from its curvilinear path as we move northwards towards the terrace slope. This may be a modification of an earlier version of the enclosure as there are hints of an earlier, less definite enclosure continuing northwards. The other feature of interest is the relationship between the inner complete oval enclosure and the D-shaped enclosure beneath it. The oval enclosure looks like it cuts through the other enclosure and thus is later in date. Furthermore, there is a difference in the quality of the magnetic response between the two features suggesting that they are constructed differently. The oval enclosure is more similar in the character of its response to the other, outer, enclosures. There seems to be a contrast between the innermost D-shaped enclosure and the rest of the enclosures, possibly suggesting different construction techniques which may be due to their being constructed at different dates. Clearly, the innermost D-shaped enclosure is earlier than the oval one. The question is how much earlier. Are we looking at a possible prehistoric enclosure?

Figure 2: Detailed earth resistance plot with topography, August 2010

The contrast between the different enclosures noticed in the magnetic gradiometry is replicated to some degree in the earth resistance plot in Figure 2 so what we are seeing is likely to be real and reflect the real character of the features themselves. The innermost D-shaped enclosure is almost invisible on this plot, especially along its western side. At the southern end of this inner enclosure feature there is an area of high resistance with a sharp delineation between the high-resistance (light coloured in the plot above) inner area and the low resistance area immediately outside (dark coloured). The junction between the two areas appears to be particularly sharp and suggests a possible stone facing/revetment feature.

Figure 3: Detailed magnetic susceptibility plot with topography, August 2010

The magnetic susceptibility plot shows an area where the soils have been strongly altered by activities like burning and the disposal of organic waste. It shows a clear and distinct focus of activity which seems to be contained to the west by the third enclosure from the edge. It extends a lot further to the south than the line of this ditch and continues on outside the survey area. There is a band of low values running in a north-south direction through the middle of the zone of enhancement which may be due to the way the space was utilised in the past, or it may be due to sampling or post-depositional processes. There seems to be a slightly separate elongated area of enhancement running east-west along the northern boundary of the field which may be a secondary activity focus. It may be significant that this is focused on the southern side of the highest point of the topographic knoll.


2010 Season Report

This interim report describes the work undertaken during the 2010 excavation season at Rossnaree Co. Meath. The excavation took place over a four-week period between Monday 5th July and Friday 30th July and targeted a series of topographical and geophysical anomalies identified in previous survey work. The site was first discovered as a dense scatter of lithic (chipped stone) artefacts systematically recovered from the surface of a tilled field during a major extensive surface collection undertaken some years previously in the Brú na Bóinne area (National Museum of Ireland collection number C97.2).

magnetic gradiometry survey Rossnaree Excavation

Mark carrying out the magnetic gradiometry survey

Subsequent multi-method geophysical survey funded by the Heritage Council and undertaken by Kevin Barton of Landscape and Geophysical Services revealed the presence of a large multi-vallate enclosure on the banks of the River Boyne which is roughly D-shaped and is bounded on the north and east sited by the River Boyne at the point where the famous ‘Bend of the Boyne’ begins. The enclosure cordons off an area of approximately 3.5 hectares and measures c.250m east-west by c. 150m north-south. This enclosure was reported to the Archaeological Survey of Ireland and an RMP number was subsequently issued (ME019-080—).

Excavation funding was granted for a dig in 2010 by the Royal Irish Academy Committee for Archaeology and four trenches in total were opened and excavated during the season. Two of these trenches focused on extant low bank-and-ditch features located to the north of the tillage field close to the riverbank. A third trench (Trench 4) examined the continuation of the line of the outer enclosure in the low floodplain to the east of the core area of the site and a fourth trench (Trench 5) investigated the area around a semi-buried greywacke slab close to the field boundary in the pasture field to the east of the core area of the site.

While flint flakes and tools were frequently recovered, the major features on the site, especially the bank feature in Trench 3, was dated to the early medieval period on the basis of the recovery of a double-sided bone or antler comb fragment. A fragment of a copper-alloy strap was also recovered from the same context. A fragment of a lignite bracelet was also recovered from topsoil in Trrench 5, also indicative of activity during the early medieval period.

The interim report may be downloaded in PDF format here. Rossnaree_Report_2010(lowres)