The clay levels in the lovely trench 8 demonstrate their capacity for holding water, but Jon C and his courageous team dig on, removing large and rather impressive pieces of painted wall plaster, which we are assuming came from the buildings before the forum, or an earlier phase of forum. The traces of these pre-forum buildings seem to be present in various forms throughout the forum trenches which is a good discovery, although the world’s media remain unmoved.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.