Archive | August, 2011

Day 16

28 Aug

Here's how our pot washers deal with rain

Today is Friday and it rained. The weather people on all stations promised that it will rain all day and so the Glorious Leader made an uncharacteristically decisive move and sent everyone home. On archaeological sites you need to stop working when it gets too wet as you start to make so much mess that there is no benefit from digging at all. Also everyone gets wet and miserable but that is a secondary consideration as people tend to dry out and can usually clean themselves, unlike sites which require a lot of help to get clean.

So everyone got sent home bar the supervisors who stayed in the tent and caught up on paperwork until they got to the point where they were starting to make things up. There is only a certain point to which you can describe archaeological features while sitting in a marquee and not looking at them, and most people reached it by about 11.30. So they went home as well. At 12.00 it stopped raining, and didn’t rain again for the rest of the day, so the Glorious Leader was left to gnash his teeth, swearing never to look at a weather forecast ever again.

All this meant that we didn’t get to say goodbye properly to the volunteers whose last day was on Friday. So we salute you one and all and see you on the packing-up days.

Day 15

26 Aug

A moment of contemplation in trench 7

Back at full strength again in the trenches. We are still removing layers of rubble and build-up in the forum trenches in the hope of getting down to the layers actually associated with the forum walls. In the ever-lovely trench 8 we now have the basilica pavement exposed. It’s a fairly grotty thin plaster surface over a gravel make-up layer, so possibly there was something nicer over it which was robbed in antiquity. For this we could perhaps blame the Teutons (see Day 13), giving their grubenhäuser a Roman-themed makeover with some natty bits and bobs from the forum – “Yes, Eadburh found them in a marvelous little architectural salvage place – he has such an eye for detail”.

Down in the less Teutonic trenches 4 and 5 we do have the enclosure ditch that we picked up on the geophysics. After it rained on Wednesday, bringing out all the colours of the soil, Giles leapt into the trench and began drawing shapes on the ground like a crazed Tony Hart, marking out ephemeral post-holes before they all disappeared again. The enclosure ditch has been a persistent feature throughout but has become more convincing of late, possibly through the sheer force of belief. Meanwhile Ian P has been knocked out by a bug, possibly caught from a bit of cake he ate after dropping it on the ground (icing side down) and so the bottomless pit has been bottomed by someone else.

In trench 6, Neil has been trying to trace a robber trench that was half-removed by Donald Atkinson but which is rapidly expanding to take up a large part of the trench. It’s possible that Neil’s judgment may have been clouded by the shock of Norwich City’s Carling Cup exit at the hands of MK Dons (a move that he argues is intended to lull Chelsea into a false sense of security prior to the Canaries’ visit to Stamford Bridge this weekend). A robber trench, by the way, is a trench left by the removal of a wall by people who are after the stones (rather than being a ditch for footpads to hide in). This one suggests that the forum walls were at least partly standing in the Middle Ages as the robbing of the masonry occurs from a very high level.

Lots of good suggestions for earwig traps have been coming in, including used tins with a bit of cooking oil in (attracts them in and drowns them) and bamboo cane (into which they all crawl) which can then be taken away and disposed of. Dr Ed takes his clothes to the launderette and releases a great shower of earwigs when he pulls his pants out of the bag. They won’t invite him again.

Day 14

26 Aug

Today we are visited by Eddie Holden (84) who remembers seeing the 1934 excavations of the South Gate. He paints a vivid picture of life at Caistor in the 1930s, recalling a farming community and a way of life that has now all but vanished, in which he and his friends walked the 3 miles or so to school to save the penny bus fare and worked on the hay wagons to make extra money for their families. He rode on (and later drove) the tractors across the field of the Roman town, which would judder to a halt, wheels spinning, as the plough hit the walls of the buildings beneath. It was a fascinating snapshot of the more recent history of the Roman town, which we recorded for the project archives. We hope to make some of Eddie’s recollections available online in the near future.

In the world of the trenches, it is the forum trenches day off today. The levels of burning in trench 7 (the south wing) need some thinking about as they appear to be cut by the walls of what is believed to be Forum 1 (the first phase identified by Atkinson). So they burnt stuff must relate to some buildings that are earlier than Forum 1 (perhaps a wooden forum). So we clearly need to get down into it and get some dating evidence out of it.

Down in the north-west corner (no longer the world of the Teutons) we are starting to get down into the road levels and the first layer of road surface is off. There’s obviously another one underneath it, and probably another one after that. Meanwhile Ian P is disappearing into a large hole in the ground which is a very late (Roman) pit, full of lovely dark organic deposits, which we’ve sampled to death, applying the sampling strategy that “it looks interesting).

Meanwhile, Dr Bescoby continues his conquest of the west bank of the Tas, with his mighty magnetometer. First find is a large building, which sits next to the road that heads down to Colchester. Perhaps it is a mansio, a hostelry for weary travelers on the outskirts of the town. Or maybe a whopping great tomb. Who knows? We probably won’t find out in the lifetime of this project, so we’ll have to leave that one for the archaeologists of the future, who will doubtless have some whizzier technology than us. Bet they won’t have as much cake though, on which note we salute Chrissy, Sue, Helen, Jill, Ian, Ed’s mum, Brian and the Harleston U3A group, with apologies to anyone I’ve left out. We have consumed and enjoyed it all.

Ed and Phil enjoy the excitement of tile quantification

Day 13

26 Aug

It’s a rainy day, although unfortunately not quite rainy enough to just give up on the digging day and do something different. The lucky people down in trenches 4 and 5 have their day off today and so can sit snugly in their warm and dry homes. The stalwart diggers of the forum trenches, however, brave the steady rain and struggle on, removing recalcitrant layers of rubble and drawing rocks. Truly the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed back, albeit in a slightly soggy way.

On the archaeology front things are continuing apace. The areas of burning in the basilica trench are expanding although not to the extent of turning into a major conflagration. We may yet reach the major conflagration tipping point, but at the moment we are looking at what we might call a minor incendiary event (which is equivalent to a big camp fire). Are we looking at some Teutons (as Donald Atkinson termed the Anglo-Saxons) hunkered down in the ruins of the mighty Roman forum, musing on the fall of Empire and the hubris of Rome, or are we looking at some people reusing a handy space for some small-scale industrial activity? We shall see. Elsewhere evidence of Teutons is thin on the ground, with our single piece of Anglo-Saxon pottery the only sign of Teutonic activity in the walled town, although the two nearby Saxon cemeteries are indicative of a presence. We shall keep you posted on the Teutons front.

Day 12

23 Aug

So it’s Monday and today is a good day for the archaeology, particularly in the wacky world of the forum excavations. As was probably explained in earlier entries, one of the things we’re trying to do here is understand the sequence of events in the forum and to see whether the sequence established by Donald Atkinson in 1931-33 really stands up to scrutiny. Atkinson basically suggested that the forum was built in the first half of the 2nd century, but was destroyed by fire at the start of the 3rd century. It then lay abandoned for the best part of 100 years, before being rebuilt at the start of the 4th century. This is a very intriguing story. If true it suggests that the town may have a very interesting history, perhaps dramatically contracting during the 3rd century, before being renewed at the start of the 4th.

The forum (as the public heart of the town) is key for understanding this story but we don’t know what evidence Atkinson had for these fires and phases of abandonment. Now, in trench 6, we have a thick(ish) level of burning and a thick level of silt between the two major phases of the forum. This silt is something we have seen elsewhere in the town and does (tentatively) suggest that there is a pause or contraction of occupation.

Dr Bescoby has once again crossed the Tas and has started geophysics on the Norfolk Archaeological Trust’s new land, which is (to use a scientific term) absolutely stuffed with archaeology, so we’re hoping for some good results from that.

Earwig news: Dr Ed’s attempt to befriend the earwigs in his tent has not met with success. Relations have broken down between the parties and Dr Ed has resorted to squashing them again. He is (before you write in) fully appraised of their maternal qualities, but their blocking of his kettle whistle was the last straw and forced a return to full-scale combat measures. They have, however, breached the outer defenses of the tents of both Dr Ed and the Glorious Leader and are clearly winning. If anyone knows a cunning earwig trap, please let us know.

Dr Ed shows why that PhD is so valuable

Day 11

23 Aug

Some small archaeologists

First news is that the owners of the mystery teddy bears have come forward. The teddies in question seem to have their own facebook page (link on comments for yesterday) so you can see what they are up to and what’s happening in the world of teddy social networking.

Anyway, today is Sunday and it’s our big family fun day in association with the BBC. The Glorious Leader is interviewed on Radio Norfolk at 7.20am, and tries to drum up some business although at that hour on a Sunday the audience is mainly composed of farmers and insomniacs. Come the hour and the hordes descend in modest numbers. The artificial excavation area (comprising spoil from the machining) is soon filled with excited tots and their parents troweling away happily to reveal George, the plastic skeleton. “That’s a metatarsal”, pipes up one precocious three-year old, whose parents turn out to be surgeons. One man also finds a coin, which is slightly embarrassing, but he eventually parts with it.

Roman pot-making is also extremely popular and some good messy fun is had by all. The tent-helpers in particular get quite adept by the end of the day, with attempts at elaborate reliefs. The students get a bit carried away with the face painting, which is limited to blue squirly pseudo-Celtic stuff. By the end of the day they are so blue that they could pass for Na’vi.

Meanwhile the archaeology continues in a downwards direction, which is as it should be. The first piece of genuine (early) Saxon pot shows up, identified by Alice, who happens to be in to help with the family jollity. This is the first piece that has been conclusively identified within the walled town and also seems to come from a layer that is underneath the strange rectangular feature in trench 6 (one of the forum trenches). So that is exciting, suggesting that there may be early Saxon occupation in the area of the forum.

Day 10

21 Aug

Another week means another health and safety briefing in which the Glorious Leader attempts to cover himself against future legal action by warning the team not to fall into holes or hit each other with spades. The project is also furnished with a super cake in the form of an excavation complete with trowel and samian ware (see below).

The trenches continue in a downwards direction. There is some anxious measuring of trench sides as they start to creep towards the dreaded 1.20m in the Atkinson trenches, which is the point we have to stop and step the trenches in and start wearing hard hats and all sorts. Obviously in Atkinson’s day, workmen could cheerfully burrow to the centre of the earth protected only by a flat cap and continuous smoking. Even though the Atkinson photos are in black and white it is clear that there is a total absence of high vis clothing.

Today’s special word was “conflagration” as we debate the signs of burning in the basilica in trench 8. They look more like little fires rather than “a major conflagration”. It’s possible that the basilica was used for small-scale occupation and industrial activity (as also occurred at Silchester) rather than being destroyed by rampaging barbarian hordes. All Atkinson’s phases of forum were destroyed by fire so he obviously liked nothing more than a major conflagration. So far, these episodes of fire seem to be a bit thin on the ground, literally and metaphorically.

Day 10 brings the oddest moment of the project so far, when two people (adults) ask if their teddies (which they are clutching to their bosoms) can be photographed in the trench. The teddies seem to be in sailor suits although whether this has any bearing on the situation is not clear. Ian rises to the task like a man who photographs soft toys in a Roman setting on a daily basis. It is possible that they are taking part in some sort of “photo your teddy in bizarre circumstances” competition. If anyone can shed any light on this, we’d be grateful.

The earwigs have breached our defenses and have been found inside the tents. Dr Ed’s kettle stops whistling. He discovers that the hole has been blocked by an earwig, now inadvertently steamed.

Graham and Wendy and the forum wall.

Ladies in Red.

Quality cake...