Tuesday, 19 July 2016

What happened to our British summer?!?!

We're currently labouring away under an absolutely clear blue sky. Not even the hint of a cloud to be sighted in any direction. And we are forecast to hit 32 degrees this afternoon... sun hats, sun cream, and plenty of water all round!

A scorcher...


First things first though, a round-up of our Open Day last Saturday. We had gorgeous weather for it, although thankfully not as hot as this, and we had a wonderful day talking to members of the public about our site and finds. More than 150 people came on site tours (and special thanks to one of our supervisors, Thomas Matthews Boehmer, for putting in an incredible shift of showing people around the trench), whilst others examined our finds displays, browsed the Oxford Archaeology book volumes we had for sale, and examined the results of the recent geophysics carried out on the Dyke Hills by William Wintle. In addition to this our "Young Archaeologists' Trench" was full all afternoon with keen young things searching for finds, and lots of people had a go at pot-washing. Anni Byard, the Oxfordshire Finds Liaison Officer, was also busy with her Portable Antiquities Scheme stall all day.

Thank you to everyone who came along - we hope you enjoyed it!


Young archaeologists became a bit of a theme for the week, as on Sunday morning we hosted a visit from 25 or so 8-16 year olds who were members of the Oxfordshire Young Archaeologists' Club. They spent about an hour and a half with us on site, learning more about the ancient past of the local landscape, seeing their very first real life dig, and getting the chance to handle and learn more about Roman pottery. Our decorated and stamped pieces of terra sigillata attracted particular interest, and we quite liked the interpretation of an image of two running horses as in fact depicting an evil flying monkey...



Around all this the archaeology has been continuing, as we race towards the end of this season!

In the western end of the trench Steve's team have continued to seek and destroy (after recording, obviously) the very early features cut into the top of the natural subsoil. This has yielded, besides the 1st century brooches earlier in the season, two coins this week which appear to be of Iron Age date. Of course these would still most likely be residual into the Roman period, but exciting nonetheless!

The large ovular pit in the centre of the trench continues to progress downwards thanks to the work of Thomas' team, and it continues to produce myriad different coloured soils, and many hundreds of iron nails. We think we are approaching the bottom however, and we are now much happier with how we've excavated its edges, which show it having almost vertical sides. We still have very little idea about its original function however! We have had a very nice fragment of whetstone out of one of the fills, as well as this gorgeous piece of stamped samian, made by the potter Cinnamus.


Part of the backwards (mould-formed) Cinnamus stamp, along with a lion, and the back end of a female ?wolf

On the road Maggie's team continue to remove the complex stratified deposits around its edges, as more and more suggestions of ephemeral structures emerge in the shape of post holes, stake holes, another possible beam slot, and slumps of mud which could have once been part of cob walling. All these layers make it slow progress, but attempting to understand the sequence of deposits is integral to properly understanding the character of this road-front area.

And finally in the northern part of the trench Sam's team is working down and around the intriguing line of rubble (including cattle skulls etc.), as we work to find out what this part of the town was used for. The later ditches which cut through these deposits have made things more difficult, but progress has been solid, with the uncovering of an interesting solid baked clay and stone surface (sadly only of very limited extent), as well as numerous rabbit holes!

In the extreme north east corner of the trench we have been working since last year to attempt to understand the relationship between our main east-west ditch and the north-south running main road. Was it really feasible that the ditches cut through the road, presumably rendering it impassable? Answering this question was slowed down by the fact that in the very corner of the trench we struggled to find the northern edge of the ditch; we have now worked out that this is because the ditch also cuts an earlier pit, which now seems to be looking rather well-like... the "W" word is never welcome on site, due to the logistical difficulties of excavation of such deep features, and the location of this one, with only one quarter of it in the trench, right up against the baulk, makes it impossible to excavate, so we have drawn it, recorded it, and put it to bed for now. It does leave us with this rather interesting situation though of a deep pit/well being dug through the road surface, followed by our main ditch entirely severing the road... all very intriguing!

The cloud cover yesterday... not very effective at reducing the temperature!

And finally, a rather special find that came out of the large post-Roman ditch along the northern edge of the trench this morning: fragments of a southern Gaulish samian ware inkwell! Someone in Roman Dorchester could write...



Wednesday, 13 July 2016

During Wind and Rain...

Apologies to all who live in the vicinity, but it appears our prayers for rain have been answered! Having struggled and striven in the heat of the last few days which turned all our soils to a handful of grey hues, extremely difficult to differentiate, following the heavy showers yesterday morning we were finally able to be confident in some of the more subtle features we've been dealing with.

After the rain...

For any who have not excavated before, this is important because perhaps the key task with which we as archaeologists concern ourselves is the identification of changes in soils. These changes allow us to understand the processes by which deposits are created, to locate the many pits and ditches which were dug by the Roman Britons, and thus to understand the stratigraphy and chronology of our site. When the well-draining soils of Dorchester get a few days of sun, these soil differences become very difficult to see, particularly with more subtle features. With some decent rain however these soil differences come to life, and so we've been dashing about planning all the post-holes and pits that have now revealed themselves much more clearly.


So, what have we been up to since the last update? The undergraduate fieldschool has now finished. The group did really well, making solid progress over their two weeks, and besides our finds, we've also discovered some excellent young archaeologists! We now have our first group of public fieldschool students with us, and they have been ploughing ahead, finishing off the jobs started last week and continuing on with the process of recording and excavating.

The students in these two weeks of the excavation come from all walks of life: we have undergraduate students from the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Oxford, participating in the fieldwork as part of their Certificates, Diplomas, and Advanced Diplomas in archaeology; we have A level students, looking for experience before applying for subjects such as Classics, History, and Archaeology at university; we have keen enthusiasts, returning to the site for the umpteenth year; we have interested locals, wanting to find out more about the history of their village and home; and we have pretty much everything else you can imagine.


We have had some really exciting features appearing for investigation this week. Perhaps most intriguing of all has been a cluster of flints, large storage jar fragments, cattle skulls, and sheep mandible fragments, seemingly arranged in a line, as if ringing the edge of a large pit... at least two cattle skulls were removed in previous weeks without their spatial relationship having been identified.


Over on the road we are now putting a slot through the intriguing parallel plank voids which we uncovered last year, and we are also about to remove the interesting "sleeping policeman" of stones running roughly perpendicular to the road. Any thoughts on their function greatly appreciated!


In the large ovular pit (best guess, watering hole?) nails continue to be found by the dozen, and the intriguing variation of soil colours, seemingly isolated to discrete dumps rather than simple levels, make recording a rather mendacious process.


We are also starting to see more and more evidence for structural remains across the site, including a series of stake or post holes appearing on the edge of the road, and the possible remains of a cob wall near the northern edge of the trench. This construction style, using packed mud to form walls instead of stone or timber, can leave very subtle traces in the archaeological record, so requires some very careful cleaning in order to identify it.

Some of the star finds from the last few days have included a complete pair of tweezers and a nail cleaner from the same deposit. These would have formed part of a Roman "toiletry kit," and Peter Forward, besides organising our copper smelting the other night, also crafted a modern replica of one of these sets. The similarity between the two pairs of tweezers is rather uncanny!


We have had several faunal visitors to the site in the last few days. Besides the usual kites soaring over the allotments, the jackdaws chasing them away, the thrushes, blackbirds, and sparrows going about their daily business, and the linnet that sits on the telegraph line nearby singing to us, we also now seem to have acquired a very friendly cat, who has been helping out in the finds tent, and Barley the golden retriever listened intently to Abi Tompkins' talk on the Early Medieval Upper Thames Valley the other day.




And finally, a big thanks to one of the dig's most committed, and youngest, supporters, Alastair. Over the last two or three years Alastair has regularly visited the site, and we have been teaching him a great deal about the pottery, animal bone, and various other finds that we get out. This has now reached the point where he can actually explain to many of our students what animal a particular bone is, or what type of pottery, at the age of six! Yesterday he brought the team some delicious Rocky Road that he had made himself. Thanks Alastair!




Friday, 8 July 2016

Heavy metal

As we come towards the end of week 2 and the time that the undergraduates have with us, some of the students have really started to impress us with the skills that they've picked up. It's great to listen to them discussing between themselves how best to tackle a new context, or watching them carry out the full recording procedures by themselves with little assistance.

And the archaeology has been going along very satisfactorily, with some really interesting features showing up. Various pits, dips, and hollows have given the students plenty of practice at half-sectioning cut features, photographing, and drawing them. We have also had structural evidence being uncovered, with a possible cob wall collapse in one part of the trench, and a very intriguing surface lying in the area of the road. The jury is still out on what it might be, so further work into next week will hopefully tell us more!



We find loads of copper alloy objects on site: the students have all got used to spotting those little green flecks in the soil which give its presence away. As promised in the last post, on Tuesday evening back at the campsite Peter Forward gave the students an incredible demonstration of copper smelting, working almost entirely from scratch, using just some clay, the "ore," (an artificial approximation of malachite), and his home-made bellows, built to designs he himself developed based on 8th and 9th century viking relief carvings, plus materials from the local environment. Mixing some straw and earth in with the clay he formed the small furnace, and dried out the clay to prevent any major cracking through gently bringing up the temperature of the fire inside. After about an hour of consistent firing it was ready for the "ore" to be added, and another 2 hours of constant bellowing followed, with some of the students getting to have a go as well!






2 hours later, Peter did the honours and opened her up, and we had our lump of pure copper!





A brilliant evening, and a lot of fun for everyone.

Now, time to finish off this week...

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Getting our teeth into it

Our walk up the Wittenham Clumps was perfectly timed, with the best weather of the dig so far and a glorious sunset to compliment the breathtaking views of southern Oxfordshire. A lovely stroll, ending as has become traditional, with a pilgrimage to the site of the sadly now deceased "Poem Tree," and a dramatic reading of the poem given by one of the undergrads.

Sunset over Round Hill

Digging has continued apace, as we explore and remove Roman deposits across the site. No great surprises yet in our comprehension of the sequence, or dramatic changes to the 'story' of Dorchester as we currently understand it, but there have been some very nice features to excavate and record, including pits stuffed with pottery and butchery waste, and we've had some fun finds cropping up.

These have included, something of a rarity on our site, several areas with fish bones, including the rather nasty looking jaw and teeth of a pretty large pike.



We have also found several more bone game counters (with the possibility for these having been lost during use, or alternatively during production, given the evidence we've found in previous seasons for the creation of these counters on the site).


Another rather fun find from a few days ago were these fragments of a pot designed for feeding an infant, really quite a rare find. 


 And perhaps most special of all, this copper alloy fibula brooch, possibly a La Tène III, which speaks of some very early activity on site from the pre-conquest period.


The students were treated to a talk and demonstration yesterday afternoon from Prof. Nick Barton, as we roved far beyond the Roman (and possibly late Iron Age) confines of the site with discussion of the production and use of flint tools, and how to distinguish worked flint from natural flakes. Prof. Barton quickly knapped a hand axe, followed by several elements of blade technology such as scrapers and bladelets. 


This afternoon's talk will be our Fieldwork Director, Paul Booth, giving the students in insight into the masses of Roman pottery we uncover on site, and this evening Peter Forward will be treating us to a demonstration of copper smelting. Pictures to come!


Sunday, 3 July 2016

Week 2 begins

Week 2 of excavation is starting off productively, and we’re all enjoying the sun (and the cows!) in the allotments today! Now that we’re fully underway, we’re back to our regular program of excavation combined with short lectures. Today was an introduction to the site grid and to planning by Cliff Sofield and Patrick Cuthbertson, followed by an introduction to Early Medieval Oxfordshire by Abi Tompkins.


Abi Tompkins introducing the students to Early Medieval Oxfordshire.

Bone gaming counter



At the end of last year’s season, we came down on several enigmatic features on the Roman road that runs N-S through the site – the most enigmatic of which were a pair of stone-lined, hollow, parallel voids running across the road. As there is no obvious outlet for drainage purposes, they don’t seem to be drains. Several other ideas have been floated: were they supports for a crane? The base of a gate running across the road? We’re open to suggestions! Last summer we ran out of time to investigate the voids – we’ve started the process of cleaning, photographing and planning them today.

The enigmatic parallel voids in the Roman road.
Roman nail cleaner (R) with modern replica of Roman toiletry kit, made by Peter Forward, one of our supervisors (L)
Another rather enigmatic feature in the middle of the site seems to be a large pit, full of mid-Roman pottery, plaster and mortar, and numerous metallic objects including an iron knife blade that we found today. Nearly everything about the pit – from its dimensions to its exact function – remains to be seen!


Numerous finds have also come out of other mid-Roman deposits under excavation – including a piece of repaired Samian ware and a beautifully polished bone gaming counter. Another deposit has furnished lots and lots of animal bone and a number of nails. All in all, we’re excited be underway, and curious about what will follow!

A terra sigillata sherd with signs of repair
Learning about bones...
This evening the students are off on a guided wander to the Dyke Hills and up the Wittenham Clumps, as we attempt to broaden their horizons beyond just the Roman period! 


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!