It is a truth universally acknowledged that there are only two days of the year that are actually good for doing archaeological work. Unfortunately, no one knows which two days they are, but we do know that it’s about 20 degrees, overcast with plenty of cloud, rained well the night before but not during the day, and devoid of wind.
Whilst in the UK this sounds like it should be common, surprisingly it’s not. There is lots of pesky rain, and that comes in several types: mizzle, drizzle, spitting, a bit wet, that fine stuff that soaks you through, raining, proper raining, belting down, can’t see the cabin, and thunderstorm Mach 1, 2 or 3. Of these rain types only 3 really have a chance at stopping work. Belting down calls a temporary halt, as does ‘can’t see the cabin’ and thunderstorm. To call it quits for the day, one of these three has to last more than 2 hours. And that is a rare occurrence (for trial trenching jobs ignore all of the above, rain only stops play if there’s a risk of literally drowning in the trench). And then there’s the waterproof layers: don’t bother with waterproof trousers, working builds up so much sweat inside them that you end up just as wet anyway. But we also like rain, it keeps the dust down and highlights the colour changes in the strategraphic layers. In short it allows us to see what we are doing. During long periods of dry weather, we can often be found on site with a huge water butt and spray hose soaking down features so that we can see the all-important archaeological layers.
After the rain we like to complain about the sun, yep sometimes sun happens in the UK, even hot sticky sweaty 30+degree sun when most staff simply melt into a puddle on the floor and need to be scooped away with a shovel. This happened a couple of times recently. The sun brings heat yes, but that’s not our issue, (well it is, but only because it’s so humid over here that trying to dig a hole in anything over 20 degrees feels like trying to run a marathon on a treadmill in a sauna). Heat aside though, we need photos of features without shadows. Hence the sun is something of a nuisance. This summer has been gloriously warm (too warm) but the cloudless skies have led to the phenomenon of archaeologists standing in large groups waving coats, trying to create a shadow big enough to cover a 5m square area so that we can take a clear photo of our ditch slots. The sun also bakes the ground dry, making it really hard to dig through the first few inches, bleaches all the colour so that small features like pits vanish into the surrounding natural geology, (see thee comment above on why we like the rain), then all our walking and digging creates dust. Dust which the wind picks up, on hot breezy days it’s like being in a desert storm, plus as we’ve stripped all the vegetation off the surface of the ground, the ground acts like a giant mirror reflecting the sun back at us. This means that on site we are working at a higher temperature than the day is recording, and mean’s that it’s a really bad idea to wear shorts. I’ve heard tales of sunburn in unmentionable places from working chalk sites on a sunny day (guys - always wear your underpants!). Plus, snowblindness is a real thing, it’s just baked dirt rather than snow.
What else can we complain about? Wind, well wind is just uncomfortable, a gentle breeze is nice when it’s hot, but full on wind blows all the paper records about, tearing them out of hands, folders, toolkits and scattering them around the site. It moves planning tapes, eventually stretching them, and blows drawing boards into faces, redistributes finds bags across the site, and if there’s a good current, creates some awesome dust devils.
This looks like a lot of complaining, it’s not really though. I love my job, wouldn’t change it for the world, and after 11 years in the field I’ve learned to adapt to the changing weather and read the sky. That sounds weird, but rain carries a smell before it, plus if you’re stood in a field in the middle of nowhere it can often be seen coming several miles away. Anticipating sun? utilise shade, we had a great gazebo on site this year, a place to store our water and take time out in the shade. Rain, well there’s not much that can be done about it, but decent waterproofs, light clothing that dries fast and the all-important site kettle make that workable. (although being from Manchester means I’m practically a duck as far as rain is concerned anyway). Winter is the tough one, it’s cold, wet windy, frozen snot stuck to your face, fingers that might snap off if they bend too much. Winter work is what will put a lot of would be archaeologists off the site work. It can be tough, but digging keeps us warm and we usually have a (hopefully) toasty site cabin to retreat to at break, along with the kettle, without which we don’t function at any time of the year.
So why do we do it? There’s a simple answer – we are all nutters who love our job! We don’t actually care about any of this stuff, if we did we wouldn’t be out digging holes in it, but it beats the hell out of sitting behind a desk.
I recently undertook a two day NVQ course in CAT and Genny training, this was 2 days dedicated to learning how to push a button on a CAT (Cable Avoidance Tool) and use the associated Genny (Generator) to produce a current that would allow a suspected cable to be detected. Now I’ve been using a CAT for years, it’s not rocket science, pick up the tool, hold in the button and walk slowly over the ground. If the CAT beeps you have a live cable, if it doesn’t beep then there is not a live cable on the line that you are walking. Therein lies the key, a LIVE cable, because folks the CAT only picks up a current. So, a cable that is used once a day at 5pm to power a kettle will not have a current passing through it at any other point as so will not be detected by the CAT, despite qualifying as a LIVE service. (Yes I know two days to learn this seems like overkill).
The thing is, in undertaking archaeological works we do run the risk of hitting live cables. Whether we do a trenching job or strip a whole field we are taking off enough ground surface to expose and/or encounter underground services, and not just electric ones. Buried under the ground alongside archaeological remains are electric cables, gas pipes, water pipes, both fresh and foul, sewer pipes, fibre optic cables, telephone wires, high pressure oil pipes and that is before we look at random unknown cables that may be there. Mostly the associated gas, water, or electric board can provide plans of where their underground service runs should be in a particular area. However there is one telecoms company (that shall not be named) that never seems to know where its own cables run – I went through one once and even the chap who came out to take a look at it couldn’t work out if it was the current run of new cable or an old defunct line. Sometimes you find yourself wondering how you can possibly be expected to avoid these things.
As such I can tell you all that I have, accidentally of course, cut my way through: an illegally installed gas pipe (no service plan as not registered) 10 cm below the ground surface, an old gas pipe listed as no longer in service (boy oh boy did gas come shooting out of that thing), three telecom cables (located two fields away from their planned routes), an unlisted water pipe, a high pressure irrigation pipe on a golf course (apparently turned off and no longer in use but the 2 day water spout in the photo below would tell a different story) and the finest of them all – the electricity cable providing power to a church 30 mins before a funeral. Fortunately, in this case I was simply observing a job being performed by the electricity company and they had the whole thing up and running again in no time – phew.
Now you might be wondering, am I really unlucky or am I terrible at spotting these underground services? The answer is neither – my list of gaffes is small compared to others, for instance I’ve never had the military land a helicopter on my site because I touched their oil pipe (happened to a friend of mine), nor have I electrified the tracked excavator, or cut power to a restaurant for 3 days, or cracked the main sewer to a high street. Accidents happen, but they are preventable. Modern service runs, like any intervention into the ground, leave a mark in the surrounding soil. Go outside and look at the road, I’d bet that you can see a line in the tarmac running from one metal manhole cover to another just like in the image below?
That is what we look for, usually, if the job has been done right an electric cable will be buried more and half a meter down covered in 0.10-0.30m pea shingle with a long plastic tape reading “Caution live electrics”. When that happens we can see it no problem, avoid it and everyone is happy. What we can’t see and have no chance of avoiding are those buried 10cm below the surface, or those that are not listed on plans. It’s an inevitability of working in construction, at some point you will hit a cable. Fortunately health and safety is getting much, much better at ensuring everyone is trained - hence the 2 days on how to use a CAT and I have another training day scheduled for avoiding overhead cables, which you’d think would be obvious, but strikes happen. It only takes a momentary lapse of concentration and bang, something has gone wrong. I’ve been lucky – none of my breakages have resulted in injury and/or lost time, though they’ve cost a bit of money in some cases but were still ultimately unavoidable. Others have not been so lucky. So whilst commercial archaeology may not be all escaping gun toting bad guys, rolling boulders, or manic heart-ripping-out cults, we do face our share of dangers, but as health and safety becomes more of a priority across the construction industry we hope to reduce the number of encounters with modern services thus keeping everyone safe, and your kettle running!
My day in archaeology: Dodging the bad guys, sneaking into the map room and waiting for the sun to rise whilst clutching my staff, knowing that the bad guys are digging in the wrong place. The sun rises and strikes the crystal in the staff, slowly (with the accompaniment of dramatic music) a dot of light crosses the map and tah-dah, bursts into brighter white light illuminating the correct place to dig for the buried treasure that awaits.
Not really, that’s just the scene from Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark that set me on the path to a career in archaeology. The real day job, Commercial Archaeology or Developer Led Archaeology to give it its proper name is the process of archaeological mitigation undertaken as part of planning permission criteria ahead of development, such as new housing, new roads, railways, quarrying and so on. It is also occasionally referred to as rescue archaeology, which is technically inaccurate and makes it sound more rapid and more exciting than perhaps it really is. Oh and, no bullwhips on site!
Our objective as commercial archaeologists is to preserve archaeological remains ‘by record.’ This means that we make copious notes and plans about what is there before the development truncates and redesigns the land, forever removing the archaeological remains. Remember archaeology is a destructive process itself in that once we’ve dug something out, we have irretrievably damaged it. Sure, the ditch may still exist but the stratigraphic layers within it have been removed as part of our recording process.
Just occasionally we will come across remains important enough to be preserved in-situ, which means that the development plans may have to change to ensure that the archaeology remains in the ground – see my previous blog post on Scheduled monuments for an example of how we deal with this. I have only one example of a development being changed to accommodate archaeology – I was undertaking an archaeological watching brief on a new house footprint in Burnham when we came across an intact bottle well. Not phenomenally old (late post-medieval) but interesting and we could see the metal bucket still inside. The owner of the site was really excited by this and got onto his architects straight away to see if the building wall could be moved a little and a transparent floor put in, so that the well could be a part of his conservatory. The report is published online and can be found here: http://tvas.co.uk/reports/pdf/BHB12-17ra.pdf
This however is not something that happens very often and I could tell you tales of Medieval brew houses and Roman farm buildings now lost forever below housing developments. Their only remains within the pages of my written reports and the finds that we recovered from the site.
This is what preservation by record means. The site itself no longer exists, but we can reconstruct the whole thing thanks to our extensive recording. We plan every feature on a full site plan, either digitally with a gps unit or with good old-fashioned paper and pencil at a 1:50 scale with our grid pegs tied into ordnance datum. We record every feature we dig, giving it cut and fill numbers. From the differential layering of dirt within the features we can tell if the feature was deliberately backfilled or if it silted up gradually over time – we can also tell this with a feature like a ditch by how sharp or eroded the break of slope is. A sharp slope was likely opened and closed within a short space of time however a wider slope may indicate a level of erosion suggesting a long use life. We record all of this on context sheets, detailing colour, consistency, percentage of inclusions and more on each sheet for each number. We will also draw a scaled section at 1:10 to show the build-up of layers within any feature.
We collect as many finds as we can, logging them to the features and layers that they came from and assigning them to the site archive so that they can be found again – really special finds like coins get their own small find number too.
Once we have all of this material we can assess the finds and date the site thus creating the story of the site which we can distil into a readable report detailing the interesting features and finds in chronological order and explaining how the land use changed over time. And, as our whole archive survives and is placed in storage with local museums of archive stores anyone who wants to look at our material should be able to do so, provided access can be arranged. As such if another site close to one of ours brings new material to light, our initial findings are available to be reassessed even though the archaeology itself no longer remains in the ground. In this way, we ensure that the history of the country continues to be understood, analysed and preserved whilst not preventing developmental progress.
It’s not always ideal, and yes it can be a little heart-breaking when you’re on site long enough to see the developers’ machines begin work on one end when you are still finishing off the other, (sometimes it does feel like Indy’s rolling boulder). For those of us who love history however, it allows us to preserve it for future generations, who will no doubt judge us for our primitive methods as much as we do those who came before us. Who knows perhaps one day there will be a way to both preserve archaeology in situ and still use the land for development.
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.