We had an interesting conversation on site the other day. One of those profound talks that only comes from everyone on site being on the same page and having just watched Avengers Endgame. Essentially, we were indulging in that age old archaeological practice of wondering what the hell future archaeologists will think of us.
So, all of us having watched Endgame (don’t worry I’m spoiler free) were theorising the prospect of the likes of Iron Man, Spider-Man and Hulk being regarded as some kind of Gods, as part of a massive pantheon. Think about it. Really think.
As archaeologists, we take the fragments of previous lives and cultures that we find in the ground and assign meaning to them based on what we either know, research or think. For example, prehistoric Venus statues; typically, these are stone carved and represent a female of large proportions. We interpret them variously as cult figurines, a fertility symbol (technically could be the same thing), art, toys (a less popular interpretation but valid), etc. Most often it is the cult figurine or fertility symbol that is cited with the dreaded phrase “ritual significance”, but typically it is interpreted as an artefact of certain cultural significance.
If we take Spider-man (he’s my favourite), we can theorise something similar in the future. So, here we are 1000 years in the future when the whole world is a desert or snowball depending on your preferred doomsday scenario, our archaeological team is digging around and in the ruins of a house, lying in a darker patch of soil that looks like decayed wood they find a red and blue plastic figure (those things will be here forever). In another area of this house they find another red and blue plastic figure along with a miraculously preserved text (contained in clear sealed plastic wrap), detailing the phenomenal struggle of the blue and red figure with a demonic thing of some sort. (yes we know it’s just Doc Oc, but the future might not, especially if the internet breaks). What conclusion can they as archaeologists draw?
They take the discovered figures and miracle text and compare them to other sites, where the red and blue figure has been found. Turns out this figure has been found on almost every domestic (house) site in the last century, there are loads of them. Sometimes found alongside other plastic figures. What are they? Here is where the archaeological mind kicks in, and let us assume that the future people have heard of Marvel, but don’t know it like we do. This figure is everywhere, in a lot of sites it appears to have been reverently placed along with other figures of similar strange stature. There is clearly some form of lore associated with it (our mysterious text) and it belongs somehow to the Marvel, whatever the Marvel is.
Back to our thoughts, could this spider-person be a cult figure (technically this is actually true) or could he be a child’s toy? What if he was a totem to ward off spiders? (random guess but not implausible, think of St. Christopher medals to ward off bad luck). Okay, so we have some form of cult figure that we may have identified, now to look at his text. This appears to be a symbolic figure who fights bad guys and preaches values like “with great power comes great responsibility”. Do you see where I’m going with this? To archaeologists of the future this is a cult statue of the red and blue Spider God, one of The Marvel pantheon worshipped by the peoples of the 2000 – 2100’s. He defeats evil and teaches people about good values, and ways to live.
There also appears to be a another related pantheon, this one with darker themes and symbology – perhaps the gods of the underworld… The bat-guy certainly looks like some sort of demon.
There you have it an insight into the minds of archaeologists, we do know what we’re doing … honest.
Away from the day job and the writing I have another project – The Roman Army School, which is a meeting of academics and enthusiast Romanists every year in Durham (check it out here www.ad43.org.uk). Since it began a solo life after the Hadrianic Society disbanded last year, I have been captain of the merry ship RAS and the end of March was our first meeting. And boy, oh boy did it go well! I won’t bore you with all the details here – a full round up will shortly be available on the RAS website. This year’s theme was Roman Artillery, so for the excursion we had a live artillery display, not only that but on Saturday, Roman artillery pieces turned up in the bar!
Beer, and bolt throwers, what could be better?
Sunday afternoon was the highlight. We took a bus out to Binchester Fort and after a quick tour around (thanks to David Mason for opening the fort especially for us) we headed to the field for the show.
The Roman Military Research Society (http://www.romanarmy.net/) had an array of Roman catapults for us to look at. The biggest, based on Vegetius’ description of the machine was constructed before our eyes in a matter of minutes. Oh yeah, these things are portable.
Once it was all ready to go the machine was loaded – for health and safety reasons modern Romans, no matter how enthusiastic they are, cannot go hurling stones across fields. So instead we shot several grapefruit 50 meters across the field at some attacking cardboard Celts. Kersplat!
I hope my new friend Kristian doesn’t mind that I pinched his photo, he was in a better position than me to get this shot of the launched grapefruit.
After the grapefruit came the bolt throwers, lethal catapults throwing deadly pointed metal tipped bolts at our marauding cardboad Celts. There were two winching styles in action see pic and both could be accurately aimed at a target 50m away. And yep these were portable too – although not like a crossbow, the pieces are far too heavy, but they could have been moved around a battlefield with relative ease. It was wonderful during these demonstrations to have the creator of the pieces Len Morgan and Alan Wilkins, the leading expert whose research enables the machines to be built, on site with us to explain each machine and what research it was based on. (Alan’s new book can be purchased here http://romancatapults.co.uk/product/new-book-roman-imperial-artillery-by-alan-wilkins and is well worth a read). I had no idea that an almost complete front piece of one of these machines had been discovered at Xanten!
A full round up of the event will shortly be published on the Roman Army School webpage, (when yours truly gets around to writing it). However, I highly recommend seeing the Roman Military Research Society in action for a taste of how powerful these ancient Roman weapons were.
Scheduled monuments have been in the news recently with Cadbury ultimately having to pull one of their advertising campaigns due to encouraging illegal activity – metal detecting or digging on a scheduled monument. It was an unfortunate mistake for Cadbury, as their chief intention had been to get people interested in history, which is a great idea! However, to request kids get a shovel and start digging in the vicinity of several scheduled monuments did not go down well with Archaeologists, Historians, or the Curators of the Monuments in question and so the campaign was pulled. On another more personal note, just recently I have been actively involved in the protection of a Scheduled Monument. But what is a Scheduled Monument? Why is it Scheduled and how can anyone find out if land is considered to be part of a Scheduled Monument or not?
So, to start at the beginning, a Scheduled Monument is defined as an Historic Building or Site considered to be of significant National or International Historical or Archaeological importance. The current Schedule of Monuments is held by Historic England and contains upwards of 19,000 entries including Roman villas, castles, deserted medieval villages, cemetery sites, burial mounds, industrial sites, bridges and earthworks. Some of these are upstanding features in the landscape and are clearly visible; stone circles for example. Others are not standing but equally visible (the Uffington White horse chalk hill figure) and others have been discovered and recorded via aerial photography or geophysical surveys and lie below the ground, invisible, but protected. As such all scheduled monument records include a map detailing the location and extent of the historical asset.
A complete list of Scheduled Monuments in this country is held both online (on the National Heritage for England Archive – currently undergoing updates) and in a physical archive at the Historic England Archive in Swindon. Any monuments considered as having World Heritage status (Stone Henge and Hadrian’s Wall to name but two) can also be found on this list and are recorded by UNESCO alongside other global sites of similar significant importance, of which the UK has a considerable number – Hence our potential withdrawal from UNESCO as part of Brexit and various other current debates, is somewhat concerning. However, World Heritage Sites have other regulations and it would be too much of a digression to discuss them all here. (UNESCO’s list and more about it can be found here: https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/?)
It is illegal to metal detect, or excavate on a Scheduled Monument without explicit permissions (a Scheduled Monument Licence) obtained from Historic England and the Secretary of State. That’s not to say that excavations cannot be conducted on a scheduled monument. A site I worked on recently was the known location of a Scheduled Monument – In this case a prehistoric settlement. The area was subject to two archaeological evaluations which unfortunately found no trace of the monument and so development was able to proceed with an archaeological watching brief enforced (see my previous blog entry for more on watching briefs). During the watching brief an area was uncovered where archaeological remains, those of the Scheduled Monument were uncovered. The development was subjected to a temporary halt in this area – although able to continue outside of the scheduled area whilst the archaeologists were able to take the opportunity to learn more about the monument and obtain dating evidence via archaeological excavation.
Archaeological excavation is itself a destructive process, with the intention, certainly on the commercial site, to preserve the site by record. On a scheduled monument like this we only excavate as much as deemed necessary to add to our knowledge and produce a detailed plan of the remains in order to update the scheduled monument record, leaving most of the archaeology untouched, preserving the monument in-situ. This means that the development can technically still go ahead, but plans may need to be adjusted somewhat in order to ensure that the area of the monument is not disturbed by deep foundations or ground reduction.
To protect the monument, having exposed it, we lay down a thick white sheet (terram) and backfill all the slots that we had excavated into the monument. This ensures a layer of breathable material above the archaeology and forms a clear barrier/ sign to anyone undertaking works on the area in the future. Once the whole area of the monument was sheeted and backfilled, half a meter of type 1 gravel (clean dry softer stone) was laid over it, both to protect the monument and build up the ground to allow the development to continue above the monument. A 0.3m clearance is required for any excavation into the gravel layer hence the 0.5m build up which allows the development to go ahead with no threat to the preservation of the underlying archaeology. All of this is recorded in the Scheduled Monument record and will be consulted again should any further development take place on this site.
This is by no means a comprehensive account of what why and how Scheduled Monuments work, more of an overview. The Scheduled list is being updated all the time as new sites are discovered and added, or previously scheduled monuments are proven not to really exist, or are reconsidered in light of further information and declassified. And there are other factors at play alongside Scheduled Monuments the UK also has listed buildings, a sort of scheduling for structures that works on a ranking system based on various criteria, there are areas considered to be of archaeological, natural or historical value, which are recognised as significant but not as important as those that are scheduled monuments. There are also different rules for different counties, Districts and Towns in terms of planning and infrastructure. In short, the UK does a lot to protect its heritage and natural rural environment, yet makes allowance for compromise where possible to allow development to proceed.
You can find out more about Heritage Protection here: https://historicengland.org.uk/advice/hpg/hpr-definitions/#cat_N_word_Definition:%20National%20Heritage%20List%20for%20England
And about Scheduled Monuments here:
I’ve had an exciting week!
Away from the day job you may have noticed that I write a little bit of archaeological fiction (if not please check some of the other pages on my website). Anyhow as part of promoting my fictional work I was invited to Bracknell Library to give an informal talk about myself, my books and of course my first love, archaeology.
Now I hate talking in front of people, I mean really hate. I am a very introverted person, to the point that sometimes it takes a beer or two for me to talk to friends. But apparently once I get going I’m pretty good (you may have seen some of my short videos – admittedly some come across better than others, such is the nature of live shows).
So, I went along, all nervous with some books and a few archaeological bits and pieces that I managed to scrape together, and I had a great time!
Sure, it was only a small crowd, but for me that was perfect for my first time. I introduced myself, almost spilling water everywhere in the process, my hands were shaking so much, then I went with what I’m good at. Explaining archaeology and what I do. Once I get going I can talk for hours about archaeology, sometimes it’s hard to stop me, which meant that I did have to remind myself that I was technically there to talk about books. I spoke for about 15 mins on my background, first dig, inspiration for my Archaeological Adventures series, a little about the books and then back to the archaeology and the day job again before throwing the floor open to questions and a more informal discussion.
This was fantastic, the shakes totally gone now I was able to field questions about how we know where to dig, and where archaeology lies in the development process. I could talk about my books and their modern setting with teenage characters, and Indiana Jones style adventures with fantasy elements. We chatted about how much more difficult it was to write a sequel than a first book as other people now know your characters and whilst they have to be recognisably the same in the second book, they also have to have been affected or changed slightly by the events of the first book.
The inevitable question about my favourite site I always receive with good humour because I genuinely do have a favourite site and it’s not what people might expect so I love seeing people’s reaction. It genuinely demonstrates how strange archaeologists really are. My favourite site was a medieval toilet that I dug in Salisbury. Yep you read that right a toilet. It was wonderful, we uncovered a backyard plot with a burgage wall (boundary between properties) and a number of cess pits. At one end of the site was a chalk structure which made two small chambers, both of which were filled with a greenish brown, somewhat smelly deposit (oh yeah cess pits smell – not badly, not like gross human waste smell, just like heavy organic compost). And cess pits are great, why? Because let’s face it the medieval indoor loo was somewhat like one of those blue tardis portaloo’s you get on sites and at festivals, but ultimately less pleasant. So, if you drop your money, brooch, shoe, hairpin, down there, you ain’t going looking for it, which means cess pits are where we find stuff. If we sample the material itself, pass it through a sieve and really look at it we can see what people were eating too, but what we found in that cess pit was great, bits of preserved leather, coins and a really nice, (very precious in the medieval times) pilgrim badge from the shrine of Thomas Becket.
When we analysed the other smaller cess pits on the site too, what we discovered is that for a long while people used to just dig a hole in their yard, do their business and backfill it again on a regular basis (yuck, unhygienic), then they constructed the chalk outhouse and used that, for about a century, give or take, then as indoor toilets were considered unhygienic, people went right back to digging holes in the garden. It wasn’t until flushing toilets were invented that people gradually went back to having indoor toilets. (Extra fact for you Queen Elizabeth I had one of the first flushing toilets).
Anyway, back to the library, I had a few archaeological bits and bobs to pass around including three pieces of the famous red Roman Samian Ware, two coins of the third century Gallic Emperor Tetricus, a medieval beehive thimble, replica barbed and tanged arrowhead and several clay pipes, or as archaeologists call them, post-medieval cigarette butts. These were received with interest and passed around the group, but the find that generated the most interest was an odd rock. I found it in Palaeolithic layers on a site somewhere around Sonning, excavating a pool for someone, and it appears to be a fossilised slug. So not of any archaeological interest, hence I was able to keep it. It was passed around the group who all took a turn to examine it and unanimously agreed that rock or not it has all the attributes of a slug, except for the slime, check the picture below - it doesn’t photograph well but I assure you it looks like a slug.
So, to sum up I had a wonderful time at the library, and I even met two more local authors David Barker and Anjana Chowdhury. Along with Bracknell Library we are looking at doing a local literary festival later in the year and I’m very excited about the idea of doing more things like this so watch this space!
Over the last few weeks I’ve managed to escape from the office and get back to the best part of the job, the site work. I love being outside, it’s the reason that I choose to do this job, unfortunately it’s also the reason that I’ll probably never climb any higher up the career ladder, as the higher you get, the less contact with the dirt you have. My position at the moment is perfect – the best of both worlds – I get to run the sites on the ground, dig the archaeology, organise my dig team and control the excavation on site. I work in the same conditions as those working for me and it’s great. But I also get to do some of the office work. In general I write up my own site, sure someone else looks at the finds, but I get to take their analysis and use it to inform my report on what we found. From the moment the machine bucket takes off that first strip of topsoil to the time that my report is sent out (and occasionally until the site is archived) I’m involved. The story of the site is mine to tell.
The two sites I’ve worked on this month have very different stories. Now I’m employed by a commercial archaeology unit, which means that until sites are published I actually can’t tell you anything about where I’ve been working and I can’t give too much detail about the site in case it can be tracked down, but I can talk about what I’ve been up to.
My first site was what we call a “Watching Brief” job. These are the kind of jobs that I (and most other archaeologists) have a bit of a love/hate relationship with. They can be very awkward. A watching brief is a program of archaeological observation that forms the final part of our interest in a site. Before we get to the watching brief there have usually been a few other phases of work (with some exceptions). The first thing is generally a Desk-Based Assessment, or background research into the history of the area. Following this, if there appears to be a potential for archaeological features to exist the County Council will usually request an archaeological evaluation – Trenches. We sample the field in a series of 30 meter slots and see if there is anything there. If we have a good amount of archaeology then somewhere down the line we can expect an open excavation. If there is not much archaeology, or it is considered to be of limited significance (Medieval ridge and furrow agriculture for instance, or a Victorian pond) then we do the watching brief.
This essentially means that we go along to the site and watch the developers as they undertake, ground reduction, limited stripping, excavation of drainage channels and/or foundations. We have a ‘window’ to look in whilst the development is happening. If we find anything we photograph and record it as best we can and the development carries on. The one that I have just done was a little different as we were stripping a largish area in preparation for a site compound, and we knew that a parish boundary crossed the site as it was picked up in an earlier evaluation (point to note, it is not always the same archaeological company that takes on a site from site background research to publication). We found several prehistoric ditches (or ditches containing prehistoric pottery – the ditches themselves could be of a different date, pottery moves in the ground, but that’s another post for another day). This indicates a use of the landscape by peoples in the past and ditches are essentially two things, boundary markers for territories, or field demarcations. What does that mean? A territory boundary would function like a parish boundary but leave a clearer mark on the landscape, a visual ‘This is mine and that is yours’ line. A field enclosure tells us that agriculture was happening, so we are looking at the period following domestication of crops and animals and human settlement. It’s pretty exciting.
The second site I worked on also followed an evaluation as a final phase of work, but rather than being a watching brief this was a controlled excavation. The difference being that I, rather than the developer, had control over how we undertook the work. The previously excavated trench found a pit containing something like 50 sherds of Roman pottery associated with glass working, so my job was to open a larger area around the pit and find out if there was anything else associated with glass production and Roman occupation. There were two of us on site to deal with this one as we were expecting some activity. But, we found nothing… so much nothing (well a modern sewer pipe, but that’s not exciting). We did find the outline of the old trench, but weirdly couldn’t find the remains of the pit that kick started the whole excavation. Sometimes I feel the archaeology is laughing at me.