Thursday, 30 June 2016

And they're off

Apologies for the radio silence whilst we got ourselves going: it's been a busy week!

The undergraduates arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed on Sunday to a trench with a rather terrifying amount of backfill still to remove. A number of deep, narrow interventions in the trench excavated last year prevented the unwieldy digger bucket from emptying them entirely, and so it was left to mattocks, shovels, wheelbarrows, and a great deal of sweat and toil from our keen young archaeologists to get the trench ready for some real excavation to happen.

This part of the dig is often one of gloomy moods, particularly when the weather is as it has been, but the team has been working exceptionally hard to get something in excess of ten tons out of the trench and up the spoil heap in under three days. And only minimal grumbling of sore backs. We were very impressed!

Now the proper archaeology has started in earnest. Contexts are being dug, plans are being drawn, and finds are starting to come in. Perhaps the most intriguing object to come up so far has been a metal object, perhaps a knife, with a lovely carved octagonal bone handle. The photo doesn't really do it justice!

We're hoping for some slightly more clement weather now as we press on, and some exciting archaeology to come....

Friday, 24 June 2016

Rain can't stop us!

Despite some very iffy weather in the last week, we have managed to get the site all ready to start digging this weekend. Over a million kilograms of soil have been removed, the marquee has gone up, and toilets and tools have arrived. Now all we need are some students!

The first few scrapes... Our thanks to John Gibbs for cutting back the Giant Hogweed before we started!

When the Wittenham Clumps disappear, you know you're about to get soggy

It wasn't all terrible weather though. In true British fashion, we also managed to get sunburnt

Getting there...

So close!

Stay tuned for some more frequent updates once we get digging properly. And if you're in the neighbourhood, do stop by and say hello!

Friday, 17 June 2016

Not long to go now!

Digging starts in just over one week's time! We are all getting very excited as we make our final preparations, and can't wait to get our trowels into the ground.

This does mean that registrations are now closed for this season's excavations.

However, you can still come and see how we've been getting on by coming to our Open Day, on Saturday 16th July. More details can be found on our event page for the 2016 Festival of Archaeology:

And of course you can follow all our updates here on the blog, or on Facebook.

Please keep your fingers crossed for some good weather for us!

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Out on the tiles...

Whilst we wait impatiently to be able to get out into the field again, the Discovering Dorchester team hasn't been idle. Work has been continuing apace on our post-excavation jobs, with Sheila Raven and her volunteers putting our material archive in order, and Dr Wendy Morrison working on our digital records and mapping. (More on these in blog posts to come.)

Meanwhile I have been continuing my research into the building material from the site. This is a material category that often gets somewhat overlooked in Roman excavations: shapeless lumps of stone or tile seem nowhere near as exciting as shiny bits of Samian ware or copper alloy brooches.

However, there is still a lot we can learn from this material, and it is worth looking at in more detail. When we consider the past activities that building material represents, we are looking at some of the largest scale economic activities going on in the Roman world. Construction involves the purchase, movement, and use of really large quantities of stuff... just the roof for a small building, if the patron decided to opt for a smart new Roman-style tiled roof, would need many tonnes of tile.

In the modern world, with mechanical cranes, lorries, and a well-made and well-maintained road network, such a requirement is fairly easily met; in the Roman world, using ox or mule carts, human labour, and having to deal with far more unpredictable road conditions, getting several tonnes of tile to your building site would have been a significant undertaking.

Imagine trying to drag a reluctant mule, pulling a 1 tonne cart, along there!

And so when analysing the building material from Dorchester it was really interesting to see that both tiles and building stone were being brought in from considerable distances away: up to 50 km in some cases, even when locally made material was available.

We have to ask, why?!

One of my theories rests on the fact that construction represents one of the most obvious possible displays of wealth. You would only know if your neighbour in Dorchester had bought a nice shiny new set of Samian ware dishes if you were invited around for dinner... but you'd definitely notice if they put up a brand spanking new tile roof! As such this was an excellent medium through which individuals living in Roman Dorchester could express their identity and show off their wealth, If they used different coloured tiles perhaps, or a stone type very different to the normal local material, it would surely be the talk of the town.

So next time you're working on a Roman site, and find an ugly lump of tile that you don't fancy putting in your finds tray, for fear of breaking all that lovely pottery, please don't just chuck it on the spoil heap! What you're holding in your hand probably represented a highly significant, meaningful choice by a Roman-Briton, spending vast sums of money to import and build their fancy new Mediterranean-style roof!

Thursday, 28 January 2016

The Discovering Dorchester 2016 Fieldschool Registration is Open!

Registrations are now open for all of our Discovering Dorchester 2016 fieldschools!

The undergraduate fieldschool runs for two weeks from Sunday 26th June - Friday 8th July, whilst our two public fieldschools run from Sunday 10th July - Friday 15th July and Sunday 17th July - Friday 22nd July.

On both the undergraduate and public fieldschools you will be taught in small groups by experienced supervisors, learning skills in digging techniques, context recording, plan and section drawing, and geomatics. There will also be a series of lectures on various topics, given by staff from the Institute of Archaeology, including talks on animal osteology, the local pottery industry, the region through different periods, and archaeological photography.

To find out more, and to book your place, email

Friday, 11 December 2015

Time flies like a...

Terrifying fact: there are just 3 weeks until 2016. And that means we're now starting to put together the plans for next year's excavation season, and the 2016 Discovering Dorchester Field School!

The 2016 season holds many exciting things in store for us. We will be continuing in our allotments trench, exploring the character of this Roman 'small town.' We are now fairly uniformly down into the middle Roman layers of the site, and we are working to better understand the nature of the activities going on in this central spot in the town.

We will be continuing to pick apart the layers of the road, and to understand the rather unusual features we discovered last year, including a strange plank-slot running perpendicular to the course of the road across its surface, and a possible beam slot and wattle fence seen on its western edge. 

Along the northern edge of the trench we have nearly finished emptying the late Roman ditches, and we can now begin to try to unravel the complex series of intercutting features and layers through which those ditches were cut. 

And finally, we will be looking at the open area in the centre of the trench and to the west of the road, which in the past has produced several spectacular hair pins and other pieces of metal work. Being so close to the centre of the town, and directly adjacent to the main road, this space might be expected to contain significant and recognisable urban structures. Rather than shops fronting onto the street however we have found a large ovular feature, seemingly up to a metre deep, the fill of which has been found to contain evidence of burning, iron nails by the dozen, and large quantities of animal bone. Work this year will excavate more of the fill, seeking to understand what the purpose of this feature was, and what else is going on in this part of the Roman town.

The dates of this coming season's courses are:

Undergraduate Field School
Sunday 26th June - Friday 8th July

Public Field Schools
Sunday 10th July - Friday 15th July
Sunday 17th July - Friday 22nd July

We've already had lots of interest in places on the Undergraduate and Public Field Schools. Registration will open up on Monday 4th January, when I will be sending out more information to those who have already expressed an interest to me. Do contact me then to get our Information Booklet, or to book your place:

And stay tuned for another post soon to see what we've been up to in the off-season!

Saturday, 25 July 2015

And we're done!

After a marathon four weeks,  with just one day off for the supervisors, the season is done. More than 70 students have been shown the archaeological ropes, tons of soil have been moved, thousands of pottery sherds unearthed, and we only had significant delays for weather on one single day: the very last.

Week 4's students had been proceeding excellently with the various archaeological tasks, gaining skills for their skills passports, and uncovering more archaeological layers. In the north east corner of the site we have emptied a good deal of the post Medieval (possibly 17th century) cut feature, and so can now better understand the damage it has done to the Roman deposits beneath. The long east-west ditch along the northern baulk of the site clearly seems to cut the Roman road; whilst the fill is dense with Roman pottery and coins, it seems most likely that the ditch is post-Roman, given our understanding of the chronology of the layers of the road. 

Elsewhere in the trench we have had some intriguing parallel slots appear in a layer of the road, perhaps created by beams laid on their edges, with stones arrayed along them to hold them in place; interpretations suggested have included markers for the progress of work, or some form of gate structure across the road. We're not really entirely convinced by either of those suggestions however! 

Some of the star finds of the week included a fragment of roller-stamped flue tile, a material which often tends to be associated with the bathhouses of mansiones in Romano British small towns; a bone needle with its eye intact, a rare thing given their fragility; an extremely long piece of copper wire (c. 15cm), perhaps part of a hair pin; and a Domitianic dupondius, one of the earliest Roman coins to come from the site so far.  

We were all set for a good final day of finishing off the digging of contexts, filling in context records, and section and plan drawings, but unfortunately the British summer had other ideas, as we received several centimetres of rain. By about 10am the downpour had become too heavy to continue work, with the ramp out of the trench becoming slippery and the archaeology under threat. The perils of digging in Britain!

The trench is now in the process of being put to sleep again for another year. We are really thankful to all those who took part in this year's excavations, including the students, the supervisory team of Laura Jones, Peter Forward, Abigail Tompkins, Esther Fisher, Patrick Cuthbertson, Thomas Matthews Boehmer; our finds officer Anni Byard; all those who gave lectures; Cliff Sofield; and John Gibbs and Alan Davis for all their assistance with tools and logistics. 

We're all looking forward to being back next year however - watch this space for more updates and details of the 2016 season (once we've properly recovered).