In the last few blog posts I’ve been waxing lyrical about Rome and the adventures of my fictional characters in their second archaeological adventure, time now to head back to my adventures as a commercial archaeologist. So what have I been dealing with recently?
Dangerous things, I’ve been dealing with dangerous things!
My recent sites have included brushes with landfill refuse, hydrocarbon contamination, used needles and everyone’s favourite toxic mineral – asbestos. The asbestos is the one I’m going to elaborate on as a quick internet search and talks with my new dig team indicate that a lot of archaeologists out there have no idea what this stuff looks like, though we all know how dangerous it is.
Asbestos was used for everything from the 19th century through to 1999 in the UK. The versatile fireproof, weather proof insulator was mixed up in everything from cement, cardboard, fabric, yarn, paper and even used in Hollywood special effects – remember the snow in the Wizard of Oz, or White Christmas – 100% pure asbestos, also marketed for private home snow decorations. Of course, now we know it contains a whole heap of horrible toxic material that sits in the lungs and causes all kinds of nasties so we all have to stay well clear and cannot use it in buildings anymore, though strangely it is apparently still used in the US and China. But although currently banned in the UK, this stuff is still everywhere – check the ceiling above you right now, is it Artex? That’s a white asbestos mix, don’t go drilling in it without a respirator.
I was working on a building site recently and vaguely expecting the odd bit to show up – we’d done an evaluation on the site and turned up a cache of the stuff in one of the trenches. Sure enough there it was, and oh boy was it a lot. Actually, it was enough for me to haul my team off site immediately and stand down the project until it can be professionally removed.
What I’ve found most surprising though is how few archaeologists know what to look for. My current team are fairly fresh out of university and several of them remarked that they had no idea of what asbestos looked like – they do now as we saw plenty, but it struck a chord. Sure, we’ve all done the online asbestos awareness course but the images that we are shown tend to be of nicely rendered asbestos tiles, or cement which is in place, not broken and not decaying. Essentially not how we as archaeologists come across it.
When archaeologists find asbestos it is generally because it is buried in the ground – unless you’re doing a building survey but that’s a different issue. There are several reasons for this, most involve either a deliberate burial of the material, something that is illegal now, but still happens and frequently happened in the 70s and 80s on farmland. Other times it can be that we’ve stumbled across something like an old asbestos lined basement, water tank, drainpipe or even an old air raid shelter as some had asbestos cladding, the list goes on.
Anyhow Asbestos is fine when its stable, (your Artex ceiling is fine), the fibres are all encased and nothing is moving anywhere, but break it and those fibres are released. Yep even in the cement stuff.
But when the archaeologists find it, the stuff has usually been buried in the ground for several years, and what happens to things in the ground? They decay, same with asbestos, fire retardant it may be, but even it can’t stand up to acidic soil and earthworms. So, when I scrape back a load of subsoil with a 20 ton mechanical excavator, what do I find? Stuff that looks like tile is the most common asbestos cement, though occasionally it can look like flexible grey metal, (think of a corrugated garage roof), it was also used for pipes so if you ever spot a drain pipe that looks a bit like it’s made of cardboard avoid it because you have asbestos. Essentially as an archaeologist, if it doesn’t look like something archaeological (ceramic or brick) and looks a bit odd: its probably asbestos. If you’re close enough to see a cross section, its fibrous composition is clear.
Actions: If possible, cover it up with plastic sheeting, clear the area and call the pro’s in to clear it out. As a last resort use the machine again to bury it but mark the position and still call the pro’s out to clear it. Do not tidy it up yourself. And definitely, most certainly: don’t eat it.
As a side note, archaeological studies have discovered asbestos being used by prehistoric people to strengthen ceramic pottery in the stone age. The word Asbestos itself comes from the ancient Greek for unquenchable and Pliny the Younger is widely (if not entirely correctly) thought to have been the first to notice the mineral’s detrimental effect on humans. There are also legends through the ancient world of Persian rulers who could clean their tablecloths by throwing them into the fire. So it’s not just modern asbestos that could prove problematic to the modern archaeologist. It seems humans have been messing around with its fire proof qualities for centuries. Other ancient sources cite asbestos as a cure for skin diseases, although it is possible that they meant soapstone as these terms have often been confused in texts.
In my last blog post I discussed my adventure into the depths of the Colosseum basement at midnight, following my characters footsteps through their second adventure in Rome. This time I followed my characters to a different part of the city. In Echoes of the Eternal City my team of teenage archaeologists find themselves needing to leave the city, whilst its history hangs in the balance, and head out down the famous Appian Way. Whilst they raced down the cobbled street on Vespa’s with time shifting all around them, I had an altogether more leisurely experience, walking with my husband on a hot and sunny day.
When we were in Rome 10 years ago we rather foolishly tried to do the Appian Way on our last day, wearing our heavy travelling clothes and dragging suitcases. Needless to say it did not go well! We walked across Rome, trekked about half a mile (if that) down the road that we thought was the Appian Way and eventually just gave up, both tired, hot and very grouchy as we couldn’t work out where we were. This time we were sensible and took the bus straight to the Appian Way visitor’s centre opposite the church of Quo Vadis, where according to tradition, St. Peter had a vision of Christ who told him to return to Rome (where he was fairly swiftly executed). Here we collected a very useful map.
The Appian way is still a major road out of Rome, at least it is whilst it’s close to the old city gates, a little further along the road splits and a route that looks suspiciously like the private driveway to a church takes pedestrians up the hill towards the first of the catacombs away from the traffic. And as luck would have it, right to the spot where on their return to Rome my teenage characters find themselves in the battle for Rome’s history.
From the crest of this hill it was possible to stand and see the gates of Rome to the north and the peaks of the Alban Mountains to the south, the tallest of which, Monte Cavo, is another key location in Echoes of the Eternal City. We continued southwards past the catacombs of St. Callistus, past the church of Saint Sebastian and the second set of catacombs located below the church.
Further south the road has less traffic and in some places still retains its original Roman cobblestones. We did actually watch someone carefully manoeuvre a scooter over them, all I can say having watched someone try it for real is that my fictional team had one hell of a bumpy ride!
Whilst the amble along the Appian way was itself a pleasant enough walk we were delighted to discover a number of well-preserved Roman ruins along the route, one of which was the Imperial residence of Maxentius, emperor of the early 4th century. Whilst most of the villa is inaccessible, Maxentius’ personal Circus is in a much better state of preservation than the more famous Circus Maximus in the city. Here the Spina remained standing for several courses of brickwork, gates and towers were clearly visible, as were the stands and part of the villa to which the whole thing was attached! Now I have villa envy, should I ever sell enough books to build myself a Roman villa I will now have to ensure that I have enough space for a private circus that could hold 10,000 spectators! Within the same grounds as the circus was a mausoleum known as the tomb of Romulus, built by Maxentius to house the remains of his eldest son in 309AD. Next door to this lies the large tomb of the wife of Crassus, (Crassus was one of the triumvirs with Julius Caesar and Pompey – he’s the one who led the ill-fated invasion of Parthia and came to a rather nasty end involving molten gold and his throat), like Viserys in Game of Thrones but more violent). The tomb was later used as a 14th century fortified tower. Another villa, Torre di Capo di Bove, or part of it further to the south was open to observation, with mosaic tiles still in place on the floor.
Every few hundred yards there was something to look at, be it more modern houses (people still live on the via Appia after all) or Roman tombstones from the cemetery that used to flank the route into the city. It was forbidden to bury people inside the city walls during the Roman period and so the roads outside Rome were flanked by tombs for miles in all direction, this made it a good place for thieves and murderers to hang out after dark. In fact, one of Cicero’s early orations was in defence of a man (Milo) accused of murdering another (Clodius Pulcher) on the Appian way outside a tavern. For those who have read Echoes of the Eternal City I will confess that I was enough of a Geek that the body my characters drive past in the road, is supposed to be the murdered Clodius Pulcher.
We passed a pleasant day wandering roughly five kilometres up the Appian way before heading back and investigating the first of the catacombs. The catacombs were a vast maze and without a guide we would surely have wandered there forever. I highly recommend a trip down at least one set of the catacombs, and in fact a day walking or cycling on the Appian Way itself. For those who manage to venture further along the road than I managed there are vast villas, aqueducts and plenty of mausoleums of Roman date to be seen. Should I have the chance to return to Rome I’ll be heading there equipped to attempt a hike of the whole road, perhaps I can even follow my characters and reach Monte Cavo, although there is nothing up there but an aerial mast these days, so I’m told.
For those who follow my Facebook and Twitter feeds this latest blog post will come as no surprise. I recently took some time off work to return to my most favourite place in the world, and setting of my second novel, Rome.
Rome is a special place to me, having studied Roman history all my life, the city is something of a holy grail type place. It is where huge turning points in history occurred, so much history came from, a place that essentially began life as a small tribal village on the edge of a boggy swamp and river. In fact, I once read a text book that described the founding of Rome as “seven hills and one big sewer”. But the city is special for another reason, it happens to be where my husband proposed to me 10 years ago, and no, he didn’t queue up to do it at the Trevi Fountain like everyone else, he took me to the Colosseum.
I love the Colosseum. It is a place steeped quite literally in blood, sweat and tears. I’ve seen it before, but never like this: this time it was midnight, there were only 20 people there and we were exploring the lower levels. But a little background first.
The Colosseum stands in the very heart of Rome and was built by the Emperor Vespasian who assumed the purple (became emperor) following a short civil war after the death of the unpopular Nero. Nero, perhaps most famous for burning half of Rome and blaming it on the Christians, built a huge palace for himself in the centre of Rome complete with a boating lake where the Colosseum now stands. Needless to say Vespasian tore down Nero’s golden palace and built a public monument in its place thus making him far more popular with the people of Rome than Nero had ever been. (side note: you can tell Vespasian is one of the good emperors as he’s one of only a handful not to have been murdered!). At the time the Colosseum was referred to as the Flavian Amphitheatre, the name Colosseum actually comes from a colossal statue of Nero (later, the god Helios) which stood only meters from one of the Colosseum entrances until the medieval period when the metal was stolen and melted down for other uses.
The building’s survival is also somewhat of an accident. It has long been held that this was the site of the martyrdom and murder of thousands of Christians. Actually this is incorrect – executions usually happened at the Circus Maximus. However it was due to this belief that Christian executions occurred there that the building was initially denounced and later saved thanks to the Church believing its own propaganda. As it was Papal compassion that saved the Colosseum, those of us who love Ancient Rome have to be grateful to religion for preserving such a fantastic monument, even if their reasoning was somewhat incorrect. As a side note it is not impossible that executions were carried out at the Colosseum, however there are no surviving records whilst there are a number of records survive for the executions of Christians in the Circus Maximus.
Anyhow on to my own adventure and entering the Colosseum after hours when all the tourists have gone, just like my fictional team of teenage archaeologists. Whilst they broke in through the gladiator school, I entered via a far more legal means as a small tour group.
During the day when full of tourists the Colosseum is almost as it was, alive with the sound of people talking, laughing, selling things and going about their day. At night, it is a silent, imposing building, filled with an almost hallowed hush of expectation. An empty theatre after the show. Shadows dance across the stage in the moonlight, swords and tridents appear as shadows on the walls, the battle of the gladiators can almost be heard. Yes, from the upper tiers it is an overwhelming experience as the vast expanse of the place becomes clear. We had the benefit of a full moon, which gave some of our photos the haunting feeling that outside the walls of the Colosseum Nero’s fire was raging.
The upper levels of the Colosseum though were not our final destination, we were headed where few can currently go. Into the lower levels. We were walked down some wide stairs, around the inner encircling wall and down more stairs below the losing (read dead) gladiators exit from the arena. Down we went into the darkened tunnels below. There are electric lights there now but the slaves who worked down here and gladiators waiting to go on would have been in near darkness as lamps would have been dangerous with all those wooden beams around.
We reached the base of the stairs, as chance would have it right where the passage from the gladiator school joins the underground chambers of the Colosseum. Essentially right where my team of teenagers also entered the Colosseum (although they entered onto the stage for a more dramatic literary effect). It was quiet down there and oddly cold, there was not much open for us to wander around but we were ushered forward below to a portion of the stage that currently indicates the location of the arena floor. Here was a lift. A timber framed lift exactly as described in Echoes of the Eternal City. Here before me was the spot where my characters climbed down into the lower levels where they awoke the ghastly gladiators. There would have been over 40 of these lifts below the floor of the arena for transporting scenery, gladiators and animals – those scenes with the tigers in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator were not wrong!
The animal pens down there were tiny, imagine the poor giraffes and elephants stored down there in the dark. Romans had no real qualms about animal cruelty so tiny pens did not bother them. In all honesty the gladiators did not have much better accommodation anyway. Whilst below ground we could also see the channels created to deal with the latrines, the arena had thousands to cater to its immense audience, and its drains run deep, linking eventually with the sewer system and then to the Tiber via the massive Cloaca Maxima.
Finally, we were taken back upstairs, but there was one last thing to do. At midnight I stepped out onto the deserted arena floor and I believe I have never felt so tiny or closed in. To be a gladiator and walk out to a braying crowd must have been terrifying, to walk out below a full moon was moving and intimidating. It is an awe-inspiring building for all the blood soaked into its stones, a symbol of a long dead power with an infinite belief in its own hubris. Whilst it is of course physically impossible to touch and feel the past, standing on the Colosseum floor at midnight with an overactive imagination is the closest I have ever felt to the veil of time being lifted.
These later night tours of the Colosseum are expensive, but should you be going to Rome I wholeheartedly recommend it, the guides are both historians and archaeologists who really know their subject. The earlier part of the evening takes a tour around the ancient centre of Rome starting from Trajan’s Column, circling around past the Emmanuel Monument (the Wedding Cake) to show visitors the surviving remains of Roman tenement blocks, up past the Capitoline Museum (another location from Echoes) and back down past the Forum, via the arch of Constantine and Temple of Julius Caesar before heading up the main road towards the Colosseum. Our tour began at 9:30 and we left the Colosseum shortly after midnight.
We booked our tour with Viatour, see their website for info.
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!
S. M. Porter
Professional archaeologist and author, S. M. Porter loves history, adventure and digging in the mud. Her career is in ruins - just where she wanted it to be.