Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Spring Update

It's been a little while since we last posted anything, so some updates!

Registrations for the coming season have been going along well, and we have now filled up all the spaces for the Undergraduate Fieldschool. There are still a handful of spots left for each week of the Public Fieldschools, so if you want to join us, do get in contact soon to bag your spot!

The dates for the Public Fieldschools are Sunday 9th July - Friday 14th July, and Sunday 16th July - Friday 21st July; to get more information, contact edward.peveler@arch.ox.ac.uk


This coming summer the project will be going through a bit of a change, as Ed will be stepping aside somewhat (to finish his PhD thesis...hooray), and so the project has gained a new Assistant Director, a familiar face to many: Thomas Matthews Boehmer. He's written a little bit about himself below, for those that don't know him yet.

Hello! – I'm Thomas, and will become co-assistant director at the Dorchester on Thames dig this year (taking over as sole assistant director for the 2018 season). I’m extremely excited to be taking on this role, and to help the project develop in its last two years.

I have been digging in and around Oxford since the age of thirteen, and have been involved as a supervisor at Dorchester for the previous two seasons, having first dug there (with Ed as my supervisor) in 2012.    

I'm currently studying at Cambridge for an MPhil in Archaeology, having studied for my undergraduate degree in Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at Warwick. My particular interests lie in the transitions from the British Late Iron Age to the Roman period, and so the potential results of these coming two seasons at Dorchester are really intriguing. This is a site that can really help build our understanding of these critical phases in the history of the British Isles.

Much of the set-up of the dig will be carrying on as usual with undergraduates working on the dig in the first two weeks, followed by local volunteers and mature students in the final fortnight. However, I am developing a couple of new dimensions this year:

- Firstly, I want to ensure we have a far more reflective record of the work on the site, beyond the formulaic recording of the context sheets, finds records etc. We are going to be giving workbooks to each team in the trench, so that individual excavators can record their own ideas and thoughts, reflections and speculations about what is going on in the area in which they are working. Whether that's comments on the weather, doodles of artefacts, or just general musings on the progress of the day, this kind of information is actually going to be really important for understanding how the archaeological process took place on our site.

- Secondly, a bit more fun. We will be starting an Instagram account, because who doesn't love filters and hashtags... so watch this space!


There will be another update coming soon, this time from Sheila Raven, our Post-Ex supervisor, to let us in on what her and her team have been getting up to squirreled away in the basement of the Institute of Archaeology, playing with our lovely finds....

Thursday, 5 January 2017

2017 Applications Open

A Happy and Healthy New Year everyone!

As a part of making it happy, why not join us for our 2017 season of excavations in Dorchester?

Applications are now open to participate in either our undergraduate fieldschool (Sunday 25th June - Friday 7th July), or in one (or both!) of our public fieldschools (Sunday 9th July - Friday 14th July, and Sunday 16th July - Friday 21st July). There will be practical teaching, seminars, and most importantly of all, lots of excavating to further unpick the puzzle that is the Roman town of Dorchester on Thames.

To learn more, and for the application forms, please contact edward.peveler@arch.ox.ac.uk. 

Tuesday, 11 October 2016

A 360 view of the trench

Ian Cartwright, the School of Archaeology's photographer, has created this wonderful 360 degree panorama of the site which you can play with. Check it out below! (Put it into fullscreen mode for the best view.) You can also click on his Profile to have a look through some of the other amazing 360s he has taken, around the world, for projects at the School of Archaeology. You'll even come across some showing previous seasons at Dorchester; see if you can spot the differences!


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

All troweled out

We made it. Despite the 30 pus degree temperatures, we've managed to push on to the end of the week, and indeed the end of the season. It's been another good one, and I think we've had plenty of students go away wanting more.

So what happened in the last part of the week? With a dig such as ours, with a long off-season and just four weeks excavating, one of the key tasks at the end of each season is making sure that we leave the site, and the records, in a state which means we can pick up again next year where we left off, and so that we don't lose any accumulated knowledge between years. This has meant our supervisors and students have been busy making sure all the context sheets, drawings, and photographs have been finished, and we have been focusing our digging efforts on removing ay upstanding baulks of soil, which, once fully recorded, only hinder the backfill removal process next year! Despite this though the finds have kept coming, and just a few minutes before the end of play on Friday a final brooch appeared (so we've not yet had time to identify it!... something Nauheim derivativey...).

In addition to the digging and recording we have also continued to process the bulk finds, with just a couple of crates leftover for the local community pot washers to work through over the winter. On top of this, under the supervision of Sheila Raven and Anne Spencer, our students have also been learning how we catalogue our many thousands of Roman nails (a task many would find daunting!).

Sheila Raven giving the students a talk about her post-excavation work for the project

It seems fitting to sum up some of the main achievements of the year. Across the site we've been heading downwards at a good pace, as we attempt to uncover and record the full sequence of archaeology throughout the site.

In most of the western part of the trench we have reached the natural subsoil. The features and deposits in these earliest layers are datable to the very early Roman period, with a few tantalising hints of earlier activity in the vicinity from coins and early brooches. In this part of the trench we haven't been able to identify evidence of the postulated early Roman fort, a suggestion of earlier academics researching the town, and portions of which should be evident in the trench if Prof. Frere's conclusions are correct. However, we'll be holding off on a categorical verdict on this subject until we've excavated the whole trench!

In the northern part of the site we have been picking up some very interesting features, as we finally start to get to grips with the apparently broadly open area which lies in between the road and the building enclosure to the west. And it certainly appears that this area would not have been as open as first thought, with the line of a roughly east-west aligned post-built structure appearing, as well as possible cob-walling evidence. These features would probably date to the late 2nd or 3rd centuries.

As we start to come down onto the earlier features of this part of the trench, we're getting a bit nervous, as the signs seems to point towards one or more very large pits, which could be slightly problematic to excavate... we perhaps went slightly into the top fill of this on the last day when excavating a small pit, finding a seemingly endless supply of cattle scapulae... A big job for next year!

Talking of large pits, we already have one. In the southern part of the trench we have our sub-circular feature which at the start of the season we thought might bottom out soon, at just under a metre deep... it's still going down though after four more weeks of work! The fill continues to produce vast quantities of material, including many hundreds of iron nails plus loads of cattle horn cores and scapulae, but also some nice hairpins, a couple of whetstone fragments, and some other bits of metalwork. The edges appear to be near vertical, and in fact undercut themselves where the pit has been dug down through the loess subsoil into the looser alluvial gravels beneath. Certainly a lot more work to be done in here, and hopefully next year we might finally have an answer as to what this thing was for!

Finally, in the eastern part of the trench, we have found more and more suggestions that there might perhaps have been a cob wall along the edge of the road. Again we are starting to identify some really subtle signs of this type of construction, and we are excited to return next year to follow this, and all our other questions, up.

Our site director Paul Booth giving the last wrap-up site tour of the season

So, to sum Dorchester 2016 up in numbers:

  • Over 2500 points measured with the total station.
  • Over 1600 small finds (mostly nails...)
  • Nearly 400 pub meals eaten (we won't count the pints of beer)
  • Hundreds of new contexts identified and recorded
  • Over 100 cattle scapulae
  • Over 80 students trained
  • 5 brooches
  • 4 pairs of Roman tweezers
  • 2 Republican silver denarii
  • 1 Roman inkwell

And now over 1000 cubic metres of soil is being returned to the trench!

Thank you to all who participated in the Discovering Dorchester 2016 Fieldschools. You all worked fantastically hard, and were a pleasure to have on site.

Thank you also to our fieldwork team, made up of Paul Booth, Edward Peveler, Thomas Matthews Boehmer, Maggie Burr, Sam Johansen, Steve Crabb, Peter Forward, Rachael Daniel, and Jess Dunham. Patrick Cuthbertson managed our geomatics, and Anni Byard our finds. John Gibbs and Alan Davis were essential for keeping the logistical wheels of the site turning.

Additional thank yous need to be made to all our speakers for the lecture series, and to the staff at Oxford Archaeology, the Fleur de Lys pub, Ian and Angela Reid, the Dorchester Parish Council, and finally to the local residents of Dorchester, who are always so welcoming and interested.

We'll see you next year!

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...