The end of the dig: what did we find?

23 Sep

And so the circus left town. The Big Top was packed up (under the guidance of Gwen), the caravans and tents trundled away and the elephant was put back in his brightly painted wagon. Actually I made that bit up, but you get the idea.

So after three and a bit weeks, what did we actually find? What do we know about Caistor that we didn’t know before? Well, we haven’t dated any of the finds yet so absolute facts will have to wait, but we can have a little speculation.

Lovely ring (3rd c) with plant/tree and stag


The lovely Wendy and her planning board

In terms of the origins of the town, we still didn’t find any clear evidence of Iron Age occupation. Although there were a handful of possibly Iron Age pot sherds and a beautiful late Iron Age coin, all of these occurred in later contexts. The pot can be seen perhaps as part of the general background noise of Iron Age Norfolk, while the coin could well have been used/saved into the Roman period (as it has bullion value rather than token value). So the Iron Age is somewhere but not where we are digging. Given the now quite considerable number of trenches we’ve now put into the walled town and the south field and the general absence of Iron Age material, we can probably say that on the balance of probability it ain’t there, although we have only reached natural in a handful of places. It may lie to the north. Or somewhere else.

Sorting the tile nightmare

Almost all major Roman towns in Britain have Iron Age or Roman military origins. If we haven’t found the Iron Age, have we got any military evidence? There is some from the site, but interestingly it seems that the church excavations of 2010 produced an animal bone assemblage that is very different from the rest of the Caistor material and reminiscent of those from military sites. It is of course mainly from churned up graveyard contexts so could mean something completely different.

Anyway, we are digging in a Roman town and so we found the Romans. One of the things we wanted to do (in Trench 5) was to get some more dating evidence for the street grid. All the evidence that we have (and also that Atkinson found) suggests a date in the early 2nd century, rather than the post-Boudican date suggested by Donald A. We have now got a (scrappy) collection of pot from under the street which Alice is going to work her magic on and tell us what date the street is. Possibly. Of course it only gives us the date of one bit of the street grid and it’s a big assumption that it was all laid out at the same time. But it’ll be another piece of the big Caistor jig-saw.

"And if you just go 1m deeper, you'll hit the golden chalice layer"

The forum was a major focus of excavations this year. It was previously dug by Atkinson but his records left something to be desired. He dug it in two halves (in 1931 and 1933) and never successfully married the two plans of the different bits together. He also never planned any of it in relation to the rest of the town. Most of it was planned in relation to a now vanished fence that he put round the excavation, which isn’t terribly helpful.

The forum sequence that we identified had some things in common with Atkinson’s but differed in some crucial areas. Firstly we found clear evidence of a phase of buildings that was earlier than the structures that Donald A identified as the first masonry forum. These early buildings were at least partly of timber and clay construction and had clearly burnt down in a fairly catastrophic fashion. In both trenches 6 and 7 (aka the long ones) extensive burnt deposits were found including a collapsed roof and a collapsed wall of a timber framed building. Above the collapsed wall was a big deposit of charred grain (which had perhaps been stored in a bag on a shelf). Was this building an early phase of forum? The (annoying) absence of finds suggests that it might have been. The roof collapse in trench 7 contained no material at all, suggesting that the roof was covering an empty (nicely swept) public space. Irritatingly this also means that we’ll have to spend loads of money on carbon dates, which are rubbish for the early Roman period (because the C14 calibration curve is so flat). But never mind.

George at the scene of a major conflagration

The early buildings were also decorated with painted wall plaster, which we found in thick deposits of clay in trench 8. The clay was used for the walls of the buildings and the plaster was put on a thick sandy render that was used to seal and face the clay walls. These levels of clay were then cut by the wall of the basilica (which was built using a distinctive clunch type stone, which is non-local so we’ll have to get the nice people at the British Geological Service to identify it for us). All the immediate post-fire phase of the forum was built in this nice stone.

The nice clunch forum was abandoned perhaps at the start of the 3rd century, though Alice hasn’t looked at the pot yet. A thick layer of silt built up (visible in both the long trenches). This was then cut by the foundations of the second masonry forum which dates to per. This is very interesting (honestly), as it shows that the public heart of Caistor apparently lay abandoned for a long time in the middle of the Roman period, which says quite a lot about local attitudes to participating in civic life. When the forum was eventually rebuilt (in the late 3rd or 4th century?) it was on a completely different plan, not reusing any of the earlier walls. This may have been at the same time that the town walls were built, suggesting a project of civic renewal in the late Roman period (rather different to the picture of decline from other late Roman towns in Britain).

We were also looking for the Anglo Saxon period down in trenches 4 and 5, where we were looking for an enclosure that seemed to post-date the street grid on the geophysics. Annoyingly we didn’t find it cutting the street grid although we did find it in trench 4, where it was the latest feature. Trench 4 was in an area which was quite “quiet” on the geophysics, an impression that we wanted to test. In the end the archaeology proved ephemeral but complex, with metalled surfaces and post-built structures, giving some idea of what the town was like away from the main areas of masonry buildings. Post-holes were also cut through the surface of the road in trench 5, while a late pit also truncated the edge of the street. The Anglo Saxons, however, were nowhere to be seen, apart from a single (probably unstratified) sherd of very nice early Saxon pot from trench 6.

Make that road disappear. Middle Saxon ditch sadly not present

So there we are. After 3 seasons of digging, we now have a Caistor that is significantly different to the one we had before. We have a town where occupation and activity ebbs and flows. Probably the initial phase of town life is quite short (perhaps 80 years from c. AD 120 to 200), before there is a major contraction of urban life. The building of the walls signalled a new phase of major occupation, perhaps accompanied by the rebuilding of the forum. This new phase of intensive activity (visible in almost all the trenches we have dug so far) seems to last until the end of the 4th/early 5th century before coming to an end. The Saxon activity is presumably outside the walled town (perhaps on the west side of the river on the Norfolk Archaeological Trust’s new land).
Of course, this may all change once we look properly at the finds but that’s what we think at the moment. Final sword sales were 36. Final cake count was approximately 3,000,000 calories so heartfelt thanks to all our dedicated bakers.

Thanks to all the volunteers (in the trenches, in the tent and on the finds) who worked so hard to get to the end and thanks also to our supervisory team who kept everyone going in a downwards direction. Thanks too, to all those who worked on the BBC family activity days. And, as ever, thanks in particular to Hazel and Dave, who worked so hard to ensure that the dig ran so smoothly.

We are also happy to acknowledge the support of the British Academy which is funding the 2010-12 excavations through a Research Development Award. The success of the project owes much to the continued support of May Gurney and A-Plant who supplied fencing, toilets, tools and containers. Finally, we are particularly grateful to the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, and its director, Peter Wade-Martins, for allowing us to excavate at Caistor and for supporting and encouraging our work.

Day 23

12 Sep

Giles finds the Mesolithic stuck to his shoe, while Dr Ed searches mournfully in his bucket for the Anglo-Saxons

Burnt timber building below forum in trench 6. That's proper archaeology that is.

Around Friday lunchtime, the Glorious Leader is distracted from some purposeful chin scratching by John P. asking the immortal question “What would you least like to find the day before the end of the dig?” There are lots of possible answers to this question, usually involving large numbers of dead bodies or alternatively a WW2 air raid shelter under a lot of levels that you have been happily digging as Roman. In this case, what had been found was a fairly complete chunk of burnt building, probably contemporary with the burnt stuff in trench 7.

The key aspect of these burnt things is that they appear to represent a phase of building that is earlier than Atkinson’s forum 1 (the first masonry forum). So perhaps a forum built with timber and clay lump walls (as represented by the clay with painted plaster in trench 8 ) that burnt down and was replaced by a masonry forum. This is an excellent find and worth the price of admission alone, but does leave some really brilliant and complex archaeology to be dealt with in the 36 hours or so before the dig is due to finish. Oh bugger, as Mortimer Wheeler might have said (while twirling his moustache in a rakish fashion).

Meanwhile down in trench 5 (in the north-west) Giles has found the Mesolithic. Again. Frankly he cannot be trusted to dig anywhere at Caistor as he always finds the Mesolithic, which is now our most consistently present period (bar the Roman). Next time Giles, if you can’t find the Iron Age, just stop. Enough of these bladelets.

Day 22

12 Sep

Director scratches his chin in directorial fashion, while Neil makes a schoolboy error with his mattock

Burnt tiles in trench 7 with a lot of people bending over

Catching up with all this now and apologies for delay. By Thursday we are in a world of burning in trench 7. While, as previously reported, the burning in trench 8 can be dismissed as minor hearths/campfires of wandering Teutons, the burning in trench 7 is evidence of a major conflagration. A huge layer of burnt tiles lies across most of the trench suggesting that a roof has collapsed during a fire. There are no complete tiles left, however, suggesting that someone has gone through the debris after the fire and salvaged all the good bits.

In trench 6, we realise that part of what we have been digging is still the remains of one of Donald Atkinson’s holes. His activities in this bit are turning into a bit of a mystery. We have been unable to find the north portico of the first phase of the forum. Although it is marked on all the plans (with varying degrees of certainty) no photos survive that can be securely identified as belonging to this bit. To add to the confusion, the photo labelled “north portico of forum 1” (depicting a wall of similar construction to the south portico) turns out to belong to an entirely different portico. The end of Donald’s trench is a sort of semi-circular hole, where he obviously lost faith in the whole enterprise and gave up. This all creates a world of stratigraphic uncertainty for John and Neil.

Day 21

7 Sep

As promised, a pic of Sue's 2011 dig cake

Interesting yet slightly annoying wall painting

All shore leave has been cancelled as we go ever downwards in search of the bottom of the trenches. But disaster strikes as the Glorious Leader attempts to remove the remainder of the big clay deposit in the lovely trench 8. Although the clay has been producing quite considerable quantities of red painted wall plaster (indicating that it probably derives from the collapsed/demolished walls of buildings made from unfired clay lump), it is all happily in small pieces which can simply be collected up. However, in the second half of the clay deposit there is a massive lump of wall plaster, probably the largest piece of Roman painted plaster ever to be found in Norfolk. There are no dancing nymphs on it, but it’s pretty smart nonetheless.

Now, while this discovery is very exciting and very lovely and all that, the plaster has the downside of being in the way and very fragile. The 2nd century decorators who slapped the paint on, rather thoughtlessly used a mixture of sand and mortar as a backing for the plaster. This backing has the consistency of old shortbread. So try to imagine the possible result of extracting a 40 cm wide piece of old shortbread from solid clay. Did I mention that it was already cracked in dozens of places?

We talk to the nice Man-Yee Liu at Norwich Castle Museum, who advises copious use of cling film. The Glorious Leader is inclined towards covering it up again and leaving it for posterity (usually a fairly reasonable course of action, although once the surrounding soil is disturbed you never quite know what is going to happen). We’ll keep you posted on what happens, although if we do lift it, there will be no cameras allowed. We don’t want to be immortalised on Youtube as the people who broke the 1800 year-old wall paintings.

Day 20

1 Sep

It’s Tuesday and we’re in the EDP. The Glorious Leader is cross because they didn’t use the picture of him, but more because they also get the dates of the excavation wrong, so we may not get any visitors after Thursday. This may impact severely on sales of Roman memorabilia. Sword sales are actually buoyant this year (only 6 left so hurry, hurry, hurry), but we’ve still got a lot of key-rings and mouse-mats left, which will have to go into store for next year. We also have a bunch of excavation T-shirts left, so there may be a fire-sale on Saturday.

Dr Ed is gloomy about his road, although the combined efforts of Becky and Toni on sieve have helped to produce a respectable assemblage of material which should help to date it. The gravel of the road has produced an interesting staining effect on the sand below, although a trench entirely composed of stains was not the Middle Saxon dream with which Dr Ed was enticed to the site. In trench 4, however, Giles is bottoming out on natural gravel, so he is in the end game (as we have to say these days). Jon C in trench 8 should also be in the end game, but has unfortunately found some interesting features at the bottom of his trench, so the Glorious Leader is demanding that he remove several more tons of clay in order to see more of these ephemeral features. These should represent pre-forum wooden buildings though, which is exciting. Really it is.

As ever I am indebted to Chrissy for pictures. Chrissy takes pictures of people rather than walls and soil, and so her pictures are much more useful. Coming soon, some pictures of Sue Harman’s ace excavation cake.

Pre-forum features in the lovely trench 8. A rare photo of some archaeology

Director picks up mattock in desperate attempt to get to pre-forum features

Day 19

1 Sep

Martin celebrates finding some pottery under the road

The Roman road in Dr Ed’s trench is finally disappearing although the rut down the middle remains like a stubborn stain, defying all attempts to remove it. We eventually hack it out, over-cutting it to avoid any finds contaminating the all important layers underneath the road. The road itself is infuriatingly devoid of finds (as was the one we dug last year) so we will be dependent upon finds from underneath to date it. The date of the road grid is one of the big questions about Caistor, as Donald Atkinson suggested that the town was laid out around AD70 (in the aftermath of the Boudican rebellion) a date which has stuck, although the original evidence was a bit on the dodgy side.

In the forum all is progressing well. We have an historic moment when we remove the foundation of one of the walls of the second phase of the forum. It proves to be built on an extraordinary raft of massive flints and chalk which makes for a lovely section. It is in stark contrast to the other wall of forum 2 which was built by 4th-century cowboy builders. Here the foundation seems to have been built in the wrong place as the superstructure is built on a completely different alignment and is now slightly falling over. Forum 2 has no associated surfaces and may well never have been finished, and with this sort of construction the portico may well have started to fall over almost immediately after it was built. Bad building is not unusual in Roman contexts, but this was clearly a bit that was done while the client was out for the day.

Day 18

1 Sep

Sunday 28th August means fun for all the family at Caistor as we embark on the second of our family days in association with the BBC’s Hands on History – Dig! events. There are many great things about Hands on History – Dig!, but the downside is that it is impossible to say or write the name in any context without sounding either inarticulate or grammatically inept. We do get a lot of free badges, however, which Dr Ed uses to repair his rapidly fraying digging wardrobe.

Lots of lovely people help us with the family fun. Alice comes and helps the kids make pottery, while Dishy Richard (as he is known to the ladies in the tent) instructs them in the finer points of animal bone studies. Hazel and Amy supervise the furiously troweling tots in the artificial excavation, while Dave Leese leads a mighty crocodile of visitors around the site in Pied Piper style.

Find of the day is undoubtedly a Paleolithic axe of extraordinary beauty which Dave Griffiths uncovers in Trench 6. Said axe is (according to those that know about this stuff) about 300,000 years old, which is really, really old. Older than the olden days. Older even than homo sapiens, which is pretty wild. We have not, however, mistakenly hacked through the Roman period and the preceding 298,000 thousand years of stratigraphy, as the axe comes from a pretty decent 4th-century layer. This could suggest that it was recognised as an object during the Roman period. This is not unheard of. There are many instances of flint tools (particularly polished Neolithic axes) being found in Roman (and medieval contexts), and it is thought that they were seen as having apotropaic properties (which is a posh word for warding off evil spirits – use it next time you want to simultaneously ward off evil and impress people with your vocabulary). Certainly from at least the medieval period flint axes were interpreted as thunderbolts and built into the roofs of buildings to ward off lightning strikes, on the premise that lightning doesn’t strike twice in the same place. The latter is not true, by the way, and should not be taken as part of official project Health and Safety policy.

The super palaeolithic axe. Nice isn't it?


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