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). 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

End of week 3, Open Day, and the beginning of Week 4

Apologies for the radio silence - lots to catch up on, following a hectic week and weekend!

It feels like a long time ago, but during the rest of last week our students continued to work very well. Some great finds have come to light, including two pairs of tweezers, a fragmented nail cleaner, and several sherds of terra nigra pottery - lovely fine black slipped wares from northern Gaul dating to the first century AD, including two with potters' stamps. The week was wrapped up with an update from our director, Paul Booth, on the progress that had been made and how our understanding of the site was developing.

Copper alloy tweezers from a 'toilet-kit' - one of two pairs found in week 3

Paul Booth wrapping up the week's developments

Yesterday, instead of being a day off for the supervisory team, was our annual Open Day, and we had a great turnout, with over 200 people coming along to see what we've been up to this year. We had displays of some of the more interesting finds, tours of the site, and the opportunity to handle Roman pottery and animal bones. For the kids we had plenty of pottery and bones to wash, as well as a big pile of dirt full of interesting finds awaiting excavation.

Caution, young diggers troweling!

For the grown ups, the biggest draw of the open day was our supervisor Peter Forward's now famous Roman food stall. We had freshly baked spelt bread with epityrum, a crushed olive and herb mix made to a recipe recorded by Cato the Elder (234-149 BC), as well as grapes, whole olives, and dulcia domestica, honeyed dates stuffed with pine nuts, made to a recipe recorded in Apicius, thought to date to the late 4th or early 5th century AD. 

Peter and his incredible food

Thomas Matthews Boehmer giving a site tour

After the weekend's activities we welcomed a fresh new bunch of recruits this morning and got stuck in to our final week of the dig. The baulks bisecting the late Roman ditch are set to fall, the road continues to go down, and the ovular feature continues to challenge us. Plenty of digging and even more section and plan drawing ahead of us! 

Monday, 13 July 2015

Week 3 underway

In stark contrast to the baking sun of the last two weeks, this week has begun rather damply. And we're not complaining! The showers and drizzle of the last two days have lowered the threat of sun burn considerably, cooled us, damped down the dust that has been blowing into our eyes, and shown up some wonderful colour changes in the soil (which under the hot sun had been changing to a uniform grey seconds after a clean trowelling).

This week's students have started well, getting to grips with the basic excavation methods and theory, and now starting to move on to the detailed recording methods. We have several University of Oxford Department of Continuing Education Diploma of Archaeology students, alongside some returning faces and some keen new ones. Some have even started to collect skills for the BAJR Skills Passport.

In the trench we are getting close to having emptied all of our slots through the northern baulk ditches, and with some having had a really good clean, it is becoming more and more apparent that despite their depth, they are not just cut into the natural soil, but deep archaeological layers. This either means we have a row of earlier pits, or a lot more work to do!

On the Roman road, we had a the rather exciting find of a copper alloy brooch, probably of a Nauheim derivative type... this means probably a 1st century date, but with those upper layers of the road most likely dating to the third of fourth centuries, it had clearly been curated for a while before being deposited.

 Our Nauheim derivative Brooch, 1st C AD

In the centre of the trench we had further confusing sequences of layers in our large ovular feature, with large scale evidence of burning, dumped pottery, butchered animal bones, and iron nails by the dozen! Plenty of further work needed to understand this thing.

Other great finds today included more stamped pottery, an iron brooch (cunningly masquerading as a nail), and the intriguing discovery of a carefully worked top portion of an amphora from southern Spain. The Dressel 20 oil amphora had clearly been carefully removed from the body, the edges filed down, and the handles broken off. We have very little idea why they did it, with ideas ranging from drain soak-away to party hat... Let us know if you have any thoughts on facebook!

Our beheaded Dressel 20 oil amphora, with pound coin for scale. Rather a large thing to bring from Baetica to Dorchester on Thames...

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Week 2 drawing to a close...

Only one day to go of the Undergraduate Fieldschool and week two has flown by. The students continue to learn about planning, sectioning, levels, photographs, and all things context recording.

At the eastern end of the trench the sequence of Roman roads keeps producing new and (frustratingly) complex stratigraphies, whilst the centre of the trench has thrown up an intriguing ovular feature with an Aurelian sestertius, extensive evidence of burning, and a number of detached cattle horns. We continue to empty the ditches towards the northern baulk, grappling with post-Medieval meddlings.

Some of the star finds include a beautifully worked bone hair pin, some clipped and stamped Samian bases, glass beads, iron tools (a punch and a chisel), and the ubiquitous iron nails, pottery, animal bones, glass ware, and metal-working evidence.
The base of a Samian Vessel, stamped with the name of a potter, possibly Cinnamus, 
who worked at the kilns of Lezoux, Central Gaul, c. 160-190 AD. 

This week we heard seminars on the topics of landscape archaeology from Dr Chris Green and Dr Anwen Cooper of the EngLaId project, environmental archaeology from Professor Mark Robinson, Roman pottery from our very own Paul Booth, archaeological photography from Ian Cartwright, and tomorrow sees us sitting down to the early medieval period in the Upper Thames Valley with Abi Tompkins.

It's not been all work and no play: yesterday evening we made the climb up the Wittenham Clumps taking in various archaeological and historical sites, including the Dyke Hills late Iron Age ramparts, the late Bronze Age hillfort of Castle Hill, the Victorian Poem Tree, a fantastic view of the North Berkshire Downs (and the Ridgeway) and the Chilterns (and Icknield Way), and a striking sunset!

The Dyke Hills

The view north westward from the top of the Wittenham Clumps